March 10, 2022

1. Mearsheimer on Ukraine

Before the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, John Mearsheimer warned that the invasion wouldn’t go well, and he went to great lengths to dissuade the Bush Administration from invading. If we had heeded his warning, we could have saved vast amounts of blood and treasure. True, Saddam or his sons might still be in power in Iraq, but it’s now apparent that Saddam wasn’t all bad — he was able to suppress sectarian strife (Sunni-Shiite strife), and he was a check on Iran.

Our travails in Iraq (and Afghanistan) made us deeply averse to the use of force. Russia became the only country willing to commit troops. Perhaps it’s easier for Russia to commit troops since it doesn’t trouble itself with nation-building. By committing troops, Putin scored a series of foreign-policy victories — Georgia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Crimea, Syria, Armenia-Azerbaijan, etc.

Putin was riding high, and probably became over-confident, like Lee at Gettysburg. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine may be his Pickett’s Charge. In basketball, if a player makes several shots in a row, then takes an ill-advised shot and misses it, this is called a “heat check.” Ukraine is Putin’s heat check.

Putin is using the same brutal tactics in Ukraine that he used in Chechnya, Syria, etc. He bombs civilians, hoping to make the Ukrainians so eager for peace that they’ll make major concessions. But this strategy has backfired, provoking so much outrage that Russia has become a pariah nation, and its economy has been seriously wounded.

Brutality has long been Putin’s hallmark. One might compare him to Saddam or Stalin or Kim Jong-un. To reach power and maintain power, in an authoritarian society, brutality may be a prerequisite. Five years ago, I discussed how Putin killed hundreds of his own people in order to reach power. Putin has killed several critics/defectors with poison, even using radioactive poison. It’s likely that Putin is behind the microwave attacks against American officials, attacks that began in Havana, and more recently have occurred inside the U.S. And it’s likely that Putin is behind the explosions at Czech ammunition depots, and similar acts of sabotage.

The doping program, in which many Russian athletes participated, probably had Putin’s blessing. He’s not a gentleman, he pursues his goals by fair means or foul. What matters is that you win the race; if you win by cheating, no matter.

In Ukraine, Putin is intentionally trapping civilians, shelling civilians, and starving civilians; this is a key component of his strategy. Putin is saying to Ukrainians, “You have 200,000 Russian soldiers in your country, creating mayhem and killing indiscriminately. If you want them to leave, you need to agree to the following conditions...” If Ukraine won’t acknowledge Russia’s territorial gains, but can’t dislodge Russian troops from these territories, then the war might end with a ceasefire, but not a peace treaty (this is the situation on the Korean peninsula).

Ukraine is now united in opposition to Putin’s invasion. But schisms could arise later, over the question of how much to concede to the Russians. After the Irish War of Independence (around 1920), the Irish became bitterly divided over the negotiations with Britain. During such negotiations, there’s usually a War Party and a Peace Party.

George Kennan, who died in 2005 at the age of 101, had an older relative (a second cousin) who was also named George Kennan. This older relative wrote a book called Siberia and the Exile System (1891). This book argues (if I’m not mistaken) that Russians don’t have the regard for human life that people in the West have. This is what we see in the current war: Russian disregard for the lives of civilians, for the lives of its own soldiers, etc.

Are the Russians committing war crimes in Ukraine? The phrase “war crime” suggests something out of the ordinary, but the Russians have made war crimes a matter of policy, they’re trying to commit as many war crimes as possible. So if you prosecuted all the Russians who have committed war crimes, you’d need to prosecute the whole army. This is another example of how Russia rejects the rules-based international order. Like China, Russia benefits from this order, but won’t follow the rules.

I saw a Ukrainian woman interviewed from her hospital bed. She tried to flee the fighting with her family, in the family car. The car was stopped at a Russian checkpoint, then waved on. But then other Russian soldiers sprayed the car with gunfire. The woman got out, and said there were children in the car. A Russian soldier, standing just a few feet from her, sprayed her legs with around twelve bullets.

Tweet from Ukrainian journalist

What’s disturbing is not only the bestial conduct of the Russians, but also the many nations who support the Russians. India is offering to buy oil from Russia, China will buy anything from Russia, Saudi Arabia is helping Russia by restricting the supply of oil, etc.

Since Putin came to power around twenty years ago, he has acted in the same way — slaughtering civilians, etc. But the world didn’t try to hold him accountable, it treated Russia as just another nation in the community of nations, and hoped that this gentle approach would soften Putin. Russia grew rich by selling energy to the West, especially to Germany. Germany didn’t want to build nuclear power plants, so it bought gas and oil from Putin, then Putin used the money to make nuclear weapons.

Most Putin-observers believe that Putin is willing to use nuclear weapons, at least tactical nuclear weapons. And even if Putin doesn’t use nuclear weapons, someone else may. The world has numerous brutal rulers, and numerous nuclear-armed nations, so the likelihood that such weapons will be used in the next 100 years seems fairly high.

I read several essays about the current war in Ukraine. The best by far is Mearsheimer’s essay, published in 2014. Mearsheimer agrees with George Kennan that NATO expansion was unwise; he quotes Kennan with approval. As Mearsheimer predicted trouble in Iraq, so he predicted trouble in Ukraine. If we had heeded Mearsheimer’s advice, could the current war have been averted?

Mearsheimer is considered a foreign-policy “realist.” He emphasizes power, self-interest, survival. Discussing Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea, Mearsheimer wrote,

Elites in the United States and Europe have been blindsided by events only because they subscribe to a flawed view of international politics. They tend to believe that the logic of realism holds little relevance in the twenty-first century and that Europe can be kept whole and free on the basis of such liberal principles as the rule of law, economic inter-dependence, and democracy.

Mearsheimer’s opponents seem to believe in reason, whereas he emphasizes historical factors, non-rational motives. I’ve often argued that scholars are too fond of reason, so I find Mearsheimer’s approach congenial.

Mearsheimer says that a NATO presence on the border of Russia is unacceptable to Russians, just as a Russian base in Cuba would be unacceptable to Americans. The Russians have an unwritten Monroe Doctrine, and it’s a mistake for us to challenge their Monroe Doctrine. Putin’s attempt to prevent NATO expansion may have the opposite effect, may prompt a round of NATO expansion; Sweden and Finland are now more eager to join NATO.1C

Putin’s recent invasion of Ukraine seems to vindicate everything Mearsheimer wrote. However, if Putin is defeated and ousted from power, that might vindicate Mearsheimer’s critics, they might say, “See, economic inter-dependence matters, democracies can triumph with moral outrage, law ultimately defeats force.”

The full title of Mearsheimer’s essay is “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault: The Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin.” Since Mearsheimer seems to blame the West and exonerate Putin, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently tweeted their approval of Mearsheimer’s essay. This has enabled Mearsheimer critics to say that his views are in alignment with the Kremlin’s, so his views must be wrong. A few days ago, “students at the University of Chicago [where Mearsheimer teaches] launched a menacing open letter demanding to know whether Mearsheimer was on the Russian payroll.” Adam Tooze spoke of, “the rage against Mearsheimer,” and suggested that Mearsheimer lured Putin to invade Ukraine!1

In my view, we should try to understand the causes of the war, and try to avoid future wars. If our views align with Putin’s on certain points, so be it. If we expose ourselves to rage or ridicule, so be it.

It might actually be good if our views align with the Kremlin’s on certain points. Eventually we’ll probably need to make a deal with the Russians, we’ll need to find a modus vivendi with them. A better relationship with Russia will strengthen our hand when we deal with China.

Several people argue that the current war overthrows Mearsheimer’s argument. They say that Mearsheimer didn’t anticipate Zelensky, didn’t anticipate the wave of Ukrainian patriotism, didn’t anticipate the widespread outrage toward Russia. But Mearsheimer’s essay doesn’t try to predict the course of the war; rather, it predicts the outbreak of the war. Mearsheimer’s essay anticipates disaster, and tells us how to avert disaster.

So I think Mearsheimer’s argument is sound, regardless of how the war turns out. The proof of Mearsheimer’s argument is that his prediction came true, as his prediction regarding Iraq came true. True, Putin had many motives for invading, NATO-expansion wasn’t his only motive, but it was an important motive.

Events have countless causes. In an earlier issue, I quoted Arnaldo Momigliano: “Historians [were] not created by God to search for causes. Any search for causes in history, if it is persistent ...becomes comic — such is the abundance of causes discovered.” Some people say that Putin’s real fear wasn’t NATO on his doorstep, his real fear was a thriving democracy on his doorstep, a democracy that his own people might want to emulate. Other people say that Putin invaded because he wanted to control the pipeline that carries oil through Ukraine. Still others say that Putin invaded because he wanted to control the canal that brings water to Crimea. The current war has many causes.1D

Will anything positive come out of the current war? Perhaps Putin will be ousted, or at least weakened. Perhaps the war in Ukraine’s southeast (the Donbas region) will be ended, as part of a comprehensive agreement. And perhaps people will be more aware of Ukraine, and will want to help Ukraine succeed as an independent nation.

The current war is part of what Huntington called the “clash of civilizations.” Putin sees himself as a champion of “Great Russia,” Russian culture, Russian language, the Russian Orthodox Church.1B Though Ukrainians, like Russians, are Slavs, they have their own language, and their own brand of Orthodox Church; they seem intent on distancing themselves from Russian civilization, they seem intent on de-Russifying.

In some respects, Ukraine is part of Russian civilization; in other respects, they’re outside Russian civilization. When Huntington drew a “civilization map,” he drew a line through Ukraine, suggesting that it had one foot in Russian civilization, one foot in the West.

Putin views the current war as a proxy war; his real enemy is The West, especially the U.S., and Ukrainians are just proxies for The West. Even in Syria, Russia says it’s fighting Western proxies. So the current war in Ukraine can be viewed as a clash of civilizations.

Bruno Macaes, a Portuguese writer and diplomat, argues that Russia, China, and India are “civilization-states,” not nation-states. As Russia regards Ukraine as part of Russian civilization, so China regards Taiwan as part of Chinese civilization. As Russia has little regard for Western principles — democracy, human rights, the rule of law, etc. — so China and India have little regard for Western principles. Civilization-states don’t believe in universal principles, they believe in their own civilizations. Macaes writes, “Were Turkey or China or Russia to import the whole set of Western values and rules, their societies would soon become replicas of the West and lose their cultural independence.”

Russia, China, and India all have ancient and admirable civilizations; there’s much beauty and truth in their civilizations. The same is true of other civilizations — Islamic, Jewish, etc. But do they have a future? Are they looking ahead, or looking in the rear-view mirror?

When Einstein saw Orthodox Jews at the Wailing Wall, he said, “These people have a past but no future.” Civilizations need to evolve and change, not cling to the past. We should move toward a cosmopolitan civilization, taking the best of existing civilizations, developing a worldview that will meet today’s intellectual and spiritual situation. Perhaps such a worldview would have world-wide appeal.

If we make a list of civilizations, should we put Western civilization on that list? Is the West a civilization like Russia and China? Macaes writes,

Western societies have sacrificed their specific cultures for the sake of a universal project. One can no longer find the old tapestry of traditions and customs or a vision of the good life in these societies. Their values tell us what we can do but are silent on what we should do.

I’m reminded of Strauss’ view that John Locke and other philosophers of Western liberalism didn’t build a concept of the good life, they only built a framework in which people could do their own thing.2

Putin is obsessed with history, with resurrecting Russia’s past glories. Osama bin Laden was also obsessed with history, with following the ancient texts, and restoring the ancient “caliphate.” Both Putin and bin Laden are stuck in the past, they view civilization as static rather than evolving.

Meanwhile, Marx, Lenin, and Mao went in the opposite direction: they thought the past was all a mistake, we should destroy the past and make a fresh start; one might call them “future radicals,” and one might call Putin and bin Laden “history radicals.” Perhaps we should pursue a moderate course that respects both history and the future; we should respect civilization, but acknowledge that it must evolve, it can’t be static.

Perhaps Russian civilization has evolved since the fall of the Soviet Union, perhaps the younger generation of Russians is more Westernized than Putin’s generation. Some of these younger Russians are now leaving Russia, horrified by Putin’s brutal war. When Putin invaded Ukraine, there were more people protesting in Russia’s streets than celebrating.

China is different. If China invaded Taiwan, I don’t think Chinese would try to emigrate, or try to protest the war. Nationalism seems more widespread in China, more visceral. Research indicates that Chinese trust their government, Russians don’t.

Perhaps Putin chose 2022 to invade Ukraine because he felt that Biden was old, tired, weak. Putin anticipated that Biden would quail before his nuclear threats. Biden openly expresses fear of “escalation.” This has prompted the Chinese to bolster their nuclear arsenal; the Chinese think that nuclear threats may deter the U.S. from fighting for Taiwan, as nuclear threats have deterred the U.S. from fighting for Ukraine.

* * * * *

Putin seems to think he can win wars by sheer brutality. While other strategists try to defeat the opposing army, Putin focuses on killing civilians. Every day, the same pattern is repeated: the Russians kill civilians, then deny it.

The war has laid bare the spiritual bankruptcy of Putinism. Politics and power become all-important when there’s no spiritual life. For Putin, religion and culture are only cosmetics, like a fragrance that one sprays in a room.

The Russians bombed an important church in Sviatohirsk. When religion becomes an appendage of nationalism, no sect is respected except one’s own, not even a sect as close to Russian Orthodoxy as Ukrainian Orthodoxy.

Putin isn’t just an enemy of Ukraine, he’s an enemy of civilization, an enemy of the human race. He’s giving us a foretaste of the end of civilization, and the regression of mankind to a state in which human life is “nasty, brutish, and short.” When civilization dies, it may well be because a ruthless bully like Putin engages in indiscriminate violence, and launches nuclear weapons. And there are multiple Putins in the world. If Putin is ousted, the next Russian government could be just as bad.

Many Russian officers want an intensified war effort, and some criticize Putin for being half-hearted in his approach to the war. “The military now demands all-out war, including mobilization.” So if Putin is ousted, that might not mean peace; on the contrary, it might mean total war.

Putin says that Russia’s biggest problem is demography — Russia is short of people, and has a low birth-rate. Let’s assume that half the Donbas population wants to be part of Ukraine, and the other half wants to be part of Russia. Putin probably wants to kill half of the “disloyals” and transport the other half to the interior of Russia. But he can’t replace these disloyals with loyal Russians, he doesn’t have enough people.

Tweet from Ukrainian journalist

So why would Putin want the Donbas — a destroyed, de-populated Donbas? Doesn’t he realize that there would be an insurgency?

Insurgencies were successful in Iraq and Afghanistan because the insurgents carried out suicide attacks, and because the U.S. didn’t pursue a reprisal policy. (The Nazis used a reprisal policy against insurgents — they killed ten civilians if one of their soldiers was killed.) It’s doubtful whether Ukrainians would engage in suicide attacks, and it’s likely that Putin would pursue a reprisal policy, so an insurgency might not work in the Donbas.2B [Update June 7, 2022: Ukrainians are stepping-up guerrilla attacks in Russian-occupied territories. In response, Russia is stepping-up abductions. Such abductions are a kind of reprisal policy.]

Can the children of disloyals be turned into loyal Russians? There have been reports of Ukrainian children being separated from their parents, and transported into Russia. Perhaps Putin thinks that Ukrainian children can help him with his demography problem.

Tweet from Yale professor

The number is rising

As Putin wrestles with his demography problem, he’s trying to create a demography problem in Ukraine by killing large numbers of Ukrainians. He’s destroying Ukraine’s infrastructure, smashing the Ukrainian economy, and generally making life in Ukraine impossible. He wants Ukraine to be a desert, rather than a thriving, prosperous, democratic society.

* * * * *

Like Putin, the Ukrainians are aware of their demography problem. An aide to Zelensky said that many Ukrainians have left Ukraine, and have started to put down roots in other countries. “This root-growing causes me internal, spiritual pain. You start feeling like you’ve been fooled.... These people have chosen a different life. It really undermines you because then you don’t know why you’re doing all this.... Some left because they were looking for an excuse to leave.” So the Ukrainian government isn’t only eager to get the Russians out, it’s also eager to get their own people back in.

The Ukrainians say that the U.S. has an obligation to help them because the U.S. gave Ukraine security assurances in 1994, in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons. The Ukrainians say that the U.S. should be doing more to help them. The U.S. has given the Ukrainians anti-tank weapons, but where are the anti-ship weapons? The anti-aircraft weapons? The fighter jets?

The Zelensky aide, Serhiy Leshchenko, dismisses Putin’s nuclear threats: “The threat of using nuclear weapons is just the appearance of a threat. He’ll never fire it. Because this decision isn’t made by one person. You can’t just press a button and a rocket starts flying toward America.”

But we don’t know if Putin alone can make the decision to launch nuclear weapons; perhaps he can make that decision. We do know that Putin has considerable power, and the people around him are unlikely to cross him; it’s possible that the people around him will urge him to use nuclear weapons. We do know that Putin is determined to win, at any cost. We do know that Putin boasted to Trump about Russia’s hypersonic missiles, missiles that can carry a nuclear warhead.

Putin doesn’t hesitate to kill thousands of his own people. Would he hesitate to kill millions of Americans? Do we want to make an experiment, and find out?

It’s natural that the U.S. is cautious. I agree with Leshchenko that the U.S. is too cautious, that the U.S. should do more, that the U.S. has an obligation to help Ukraine. On the other hand, we don’t want to test Putin or provoke him.

The British have taken an especially firm stand against Russia. Boris Johnson hasn’t quailed before Putin’s threats. The Russians regard Britain as a particularly determined foe. The British are always finding fault with their Prime Minister, but Johnson strikes me as intelligent, articulate, and gutsy.

Leshchenko and other Ukrainians say that the U.S. doesn’t really care about Ukraine, the U.S. is trying to weaken Russia. This isn’t a fair criticism. How can you separate helping Ukraine and weakening Russia? Who would benefit more from weakening Russia than the Ukrainians? And how do the Ukrainians know what our motives are? Motivation is always complicated; people rarely know their own motives, much less other people’s motives.

When you have a leading role in the world, as the U.S. does, everyone blames you, even the people you’re helping. Previously the British Empire had this leading role, and everyone blamed the British; I’m sure many Brits were glad to pass this role to the Americans.

Leshchenko doesn’t admit that Ukraine could have done a better job of handling its giant neighbor to the east. In retrospect, it may have been unwise for Ukraine to disfavor the Russian language and the Russian church.

The military historian Edward Luttwak recently tweeted, “Peace leads to war — in peacetime nations and rulers forget the need to preserve deterrence with enough force, and to avoid provoking the more powerful. War leads to peace by mutual exhaustion or one-sided conquest or capitulation. But with nuclear weapons, even the defeated can defeat.”

It’s now April 15, 2022. Putin is using nuclear threats to deter the U.S. from arming Ukraine, and to deter Sweden and Finland from joining NATO. His nuclear threats already deterred the West from providing fighter jets to Ukraine. He seems to be making nuclear threats on a daily basis, and his threats are having some effect.

Putin’s threats demonstrate to the world that nuclear weapons modify your adversary’s behavior; nuclear threats are easier than conventional warfare. This may prompt more nations to try to acquire nuclear weapons, or to upgrade their existing nuclear arsenal. This is yet another way in which Putin’s war is a war on mankind.

If every nation says, “Give me what I want or I’ll nuke you,” mankind will be in a tight spot. If every nation draws “red lines,” there will be continual conflict. In order to have peace and stability, every nation must swallow some offenses, must give up some land that they think should be theirs.

* * * * *

Kennan and Mearsheimer said that if NATO expanded eastward, there would be war, and they were right. But does that logic apply in the future? Perhaps the rising generation of Russians feels differently about NATO expansion, feels less threatened than their fathers did. The analysis of Kennan and Mearsheimer may be valid yesterday and today but not tomorrow.

Should we blame the war on NATO expansion? Should we absolve Putin of responsibility? Events have multiple causes, and multiple people are responsible. George W. Bush was responsible for the invasion of Iraq, but Saddam was also responsible (if Saddam hadn’t invaded Kuwait, the U.S. wouldn’t have become involved in Iraq).

Fate plays a role in history, hence events can often be predicted in advance. Man is both fated and free, reality is contradictory. Logic says, “X can’t be both equal to Y and not equal to Y,” but reality doesn’t follow the rules of logic, reality is contradictory, as all the great thinkers have tried to tell us. Einstein said that light is both a particle and a wave, Einstein accepted contradiction. Niels Bohr said there are two kinds of truths: “there are the superficial truths, the opposite of which are obviously wrong. But there are also the profound truths, whose opposites are equally right.”

Putin is fully responsible for the decision to invade Ukraine, and for the brutal manner in which Russia has carried on the war, yet Kennan foresaw the war before Putin came to power.

Many people are surprised at the incompetence and brutality shown by Russia in Ukraine. Russia’s toughest critic, Joseph Conrad, wouldn’t be surprised, this is the Russia that he knew and loathed. In 1905, Conrad described Russia as “a bottomless abyss that has swallowed up every hope of mercy, every aspiration towards personal dignity, towards freedom.... a true desert harboring no spirit either of the East or of the West.”

Conrad foresaw that Russia wouldn’t develop in a democratic direction: “It is safe to say that tyranny, assuming a thousand protean shapes, will remain.... From the very first ghastly dawn of her existence as a state, she had to breathe the atmosphere of despotism.” Conrad lived during the Russo-Japanese War and World War I, and he saw the Russian army stumble in those wars. He wrote, “Even the half-armed were always too much for the might of Russia.... It was victorious only as against the practically disarmed.... In its attacks upon its specially selected victim, this giant always struck as if with a withered right hand.”2C

Putin has done lasting injury to Russia’s reputation. Surely the great Russian writers would be ashamed of Russia’s conduct in Ukraine. In fact, Solzhenitsyn’s long poem Prussian Nights decries this sort of conduct; Prussian Nights deals with the “pillages, rapes and murders committed by Soviet troops,” as they went through East Prussia at the end of World War II (Solzhenitsyn was in the Soviet army at that time).

Russia’s recent conduct in Ukraine is much the same as Russia’s conduct in World War II. Mick Ryan, an Australian General, recently tweeted, “Russian military culture remains similar to that which killed and raped its way to Berlin in WW2. Top to bottom it is a system that incentivizes destruction, atrocious treatment of civilians, the murder of POWs, and the brutalization of its own soldiers.”

The literary critic Jeffrey Meyers wrote an excellent essay comparing the Ukraine war to the Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939. “The same tragic elements have appeared in both wars,” Meyers writes, “faulty Russian intelligence, misguided expectations of a rapid victory with few casualties, brutal invasion of a weaker country, bombardment of cities, assaults on civilians, poor training, inadequate supplies, low morale, reluctance to fight, humiliating defeats, universal condemnation, lack of allied intervention, and exposure of military weakness.”

One could also compare the Ukraine war to the American Revolution. Like the Russians in 2022, the English in 1775 thought their forces were far superior, but they struggled to defeat an enemy that was fighting on “home ground,” an enemy that ambushed their large columns. Like the Russians, the English hired mercenaries since they didn’t have enough troops to control a large land, and a hostile population. Like the Russians, the English were trying to defeat a society that they thought should be part of their country, a society that was trying to break away and be an independent democracy. Like the Ukrainians in 2022, the Americans in 1775 received important help from foreign countries, countries that were old foes of the country they were fighting.

It remains to be seen whether Russia will be utterly defeated, as the English were, or whether they’ll acquire large chunks of Ukraine, as the Soviets acquired large chunks of Finland.

In 2004, I mentioned the AmericanIndian belief that those who started a war would ultimately lose. Clearly the Russians started this war, and they seem to be on track to lose it.

Note:
I modified this essay after March 10, to reflect the current situation in the war.

Essays on Ukraine War
Cohen, Eliot The Atlantic
Ferguson, Niall Bloomberg
Freedman, Lawrence Substack
Fukuyama, Francis Foreign Affairs
Kagan, Fred Conversations With Bill Kristol
Kagan, Robert Foreign Affairs
Kaplan, Robert D. Bloomberg
Karaganov, Sergey
Kremlin adviser
interviewed by Bruno Macaes
The New Statesman
Kupchan, Charles New York Times
Mead, Walter Russell Wall Street Journal
Moss, Walter G.
“Vladimir Putin: History Man?”
History News Network
O’Brien, Robert Wall Street Journal
Snyder, TimothyTwitter
Stephens, Bret New York Times
Yudin, Greg
Russian academic & journalist
akweb.de

2. “The Pavilion on the Links”

“The Pavilion on the Links” is a novella by Robert Louis Stevenson. It was written in 1880, about one year before Treasure Island, and it might be called a short version of Treasure Island. Like Treasure Island, “The Pavilion on the Links” is an adventure story that could be enjoyed by a 12-year-old. One reason I read “Pavilion” is that Arthur Conan Doyle had high praise for it (Doyle also had high praise for Stevenson’s “Jekyll and Hyde”).

Fiction is often based on a kernel of fact. Treasure Island seems to be an exception, it seems to be purely imaginary. “Pavilion,” on the other hand, is based on a real event, a “defaulting banker picked up by a yacht upon the coast of Wales.”3

The “bad guys” in “Pavilion” are Italian carbonari. The carbonari were revolutionaries who wanted a more liberal, more democratic Italy. They were often irredentists who wanted cities like Venice to be redeemed for Italy, reclaimed from the Austrians. (The word “irredentist” was originally an Italian word meaning “unredeemed.” The phrase Italia irredenta occurs in “Pavilion.” Irredentism is at the root of today’s disputes over Ukraine and Taiwan.) In “Pavilion,” the carbonari deposited money with a banker named Huddlestone, who lost the money in the stock market. Now Huddlestone is on the run, the Italians are in pursuit and are determined to kill him.

Huddlestone and his supporters barricade themselves in a house (a “pavilion”) on the links. The word “links” has its original meaning — a sandy, grassy, rolling terrain. Stevenson writes, “links being a Scottish name for sand which has ceased drifting and become more or less solidly covered with turf.” We use the word “links” to mean “golf course” since golf was originally played in Scotland on this sort of terrain.

Some similarities between “Pavilion” and Treasure Island:

What a contrast between “Pavilion” and a HenryJames story! James often deals with visual art and literature — not much here to entertain a 12-year-old. Stevenson writes “blood and thunder” tales that seem best suited for youngsters. In my view, Stevenson writes better prose than James, but Stevenson’s stories don’t stay as close to his own experience, they seem more artificial than James’ stories.

I found one critical essay on “Pavilion.” It says that the hot-tempered Northmour is “probably the most interesting character that Stevenson created before Long John Silver.” Northmour is

an enigma — so much so that we never even learn his first name, only the initial R.... His “dark satanic” being glowers over the events, like the Byronic hero whom he resembles. The reader is fascinated by his violent temper, his almost obsessive concern for honor, and his wry, devilish remarks.... It is Northmour’s duality — almost schizophrenia — that makes [the narrator] constantly unsure of how to treat him, or how far to trust him.

Northmour resembles Long John Silver. As I wrote elsewhere, “One of the themes of Stevenson’s work is moral ambiguity, ‘the co-presence of good and evil qualities in the same person.’ Long John Silver [is] initially good, then evil, then good again.”

I don’t regret reading “Pavilion” — the prose is excellent, and the story holds your interest. On the other hand, I wouldn’t recommend it enthusiastically — it’s obviously a tall tale written to entertain, and it’s difficult for the reader to “suspend his disbelief,” to view these characters as real people. Are we making a mistake by thinking of Stevenson as a fiction writer? Perhaps his best works are his essays and travel books.

© L. James Hammond 2022
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Footnotes
1. Tooze admits that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was “a shock [to] the vast majority of analysts.” But it wasn’t a shock to Mearsheimer, he expected it, and this shows that he has a better grasp of reality than “the vast majority of analysts.” back
1B. Putin and Solzhenitsyn admired each other. They were both Russo-philes, they both admired the writer Ivan Ilyin, and they both viewed the West as decadent. Putin visited Solzhenitsyn at his home. back
1C. Dmitri Alperovitch predicted Putin’s invasion two months in advance. One of the reasons for the invasion, Alperovitch said, was

“Real concerns about NATO expansion. We can debate all we want about whether NATO truly presents a threat to Russia, but what’s important is that the Kremlin elites believe that it does. Over the last three hundred years, there have been numerous devastating invasions of Russia (Hitler, Napoleon, Swedes, Poles, etc.) which have been launched either through or from what is now Belarus or Ukraine.

“The prospect of either country joining NATO (an implicit anti-Russia military alliance) has been and would be unacceptable to any Russian leader — Putin, Yeltsin, Gorbachev, or even someone like Navalny, and is viewed as an existential threat. Even without Ukraine joining NATO, Putin has become convinced that a pro-Western Ukraine poses a serious threat, given the deployment of NATO weapons and advisors there.” back

1D. The economic argument was made by several people, including Bryan Parker. Parker wrote, “For Russia, fossil fuel revenue [is] the most important national interest. [This revenue] is the blood of their patronage-secured kleptocracy. [This revenue is] also the key Russian national security interest.... It is a strategic interest, and so the Russian military will be involved.”

Parker says that Russia has troops in Syria in order to prevent the construction of pipelines through Syria — pipelines that would carry fuel from Qatar and Iran to Europe, and compete with Russia’s fuel exports to Europe. Parker says Russia doesn’t want a hostile Ukrainian government controlling Russia’s pipelines through Ukraine. And Ukraine has substantial gas reserves of its own; Russia doesn’t want these reserves competing with Russian gas. Parker also speaks of, “potential fossil fuel reserves in the Black Sea Shelf.” And Ukraine has substantial coal reserves, largely in the Donbas region. And Ukraine has substantial reserves of uranium, iron-ore, manganese, titanium, and graphite. back

2. Before I heard of Strauss, I made an argument similar to his. About twenty years ago, I wrote,

Strauss opposes not only Nietzsche and Machiavelli, he opposes the whole modern tradition of political philosophy, including the liberal democratic tradition. “A liberal state must recognize and protect a private sphere, but to do this it must permit and thus in fact foster whatever evils are of a ‘private’ kind.” In the first edition of my book Conversations With Great Thinkers, I made a similar argument, I argued that “democratic theorists like Locke don’t make democracy part of a comprehensive philosophy, don’t build their political thought on an ethical foundation.” The only ethical foundation, in Strauss’s view, is the Greek foundation; Strauss seems to have been unacquainted with Eastern philosophy. back
2B. A retired Russian officer, Mikhail Khodorenok, anticipated Russian difficulties in the war. About three weeks before Putin invaded, Khodorenok said that Ukraine’s forces were strong, they would fight hard, they would receive lots of supplies from the West, and if Russia does seize territory, “the guerrilla resistance will be fierce.”

Some experts say, “The damage a Russian tactical nuke would do to Kyiv is basically the same as their terror attacks are doing now. NATO would not have to respond with nuclear weapons to retaliate proportionally.”

On the other hand, an article in the New York Times says that the power of a tactical nuclear weapon can be dialed up or down. “Russia embarked on a modernization of its nuclear forces.... As in the West, some of the warheads were given variable explosive yields that could be dialed up or down depending on the military situation.” The article speaks of Russian bombs one-third as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb, and American bombs that could be dialed down to only 2% of the Hiroshima bomb.

Putin probably thinks that, if he uses any nuclear weapon, there will likely be a response — a significant, proportional response from NATO. Putin would probably prefer to fight only Ukraine, and keep NATO on the sidelines. This may explain why he hasn’t escalated — why he hasn’t used chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons. back

2C. Few people expected that Ukraine would be successful against mighty Russia. On April 16, 2022, a Ukrainian tweeted, “I’ve heard this: the Ukrainian military is so good because we (the West) have trained them and supplied them. That’s true. But it’s also true that the West trained and supplied the Afghan army. The support was more substantive. The army opponent — weaker. Explain the difference.”

Perhaps the Ukrainians could see the possibility of a successful, democratic, Westernized country, if only they could drive out the Russians. On the other hand, the Afghans, when they looked at the future, could see only a divided society, a dysfunctional government, etc., even if the Taliban were defeated. The Ukrainians are accustomed to governing themselves and fighting for themselves, whereas the Afghans were being propped up by the U.S., so when the U.S. decided to pull out, there was nothing to hold Afghanistan together.

Perhaps fighting the Taliban is an especially difficult task, because the Taliban is at home in Afghanistan, they’re willing to carry out suicide bombings, they mingle with the population and often don’t wear uniforms, they’re completely committed to their cause, and they’ll fight for decades to reach their goal. Perhaps the Taliban were a more formidable foe than the de-moralized, slow-moving Russians, whose fondest hope is to go home to Russia. back

3. “Robert Louis Stevenson’s Art of Revision: ‘The Pavilion on the Links’ as Rehearsal for ‘Treasure Island,’” by William H. Hardesty and David D. Mann, The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, September 1988, Vol. 82, No. 3, pp. 271-286, jstor.org/stable/24303898 back