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A Conversation with Michael Totten

1:35 PM, Dec 6, 2012 • By LEE SMITH
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MICHAEL TOTTEN: What struck me about some of the hard post-Soviet places is how lasting the damage is. You’d have no idea if your only experience of post-communism is in Budapest or Prague. Try going to the blasted up shoreline of the Sea of Azov or to remote places you’ve never heard of in Ukraine. They look like they were hit by an apocalypse. Want to know what happens to roads and other infrastructure after sixty years of no maintenance? You’ll find out. It’s a counterintuitive lesson. Places that suffered for far too long under way too much government have now been abandoned to weeds and decay.

Much of Eastern Europe is pleasant now because it re-integrated with the West through the European Union and NATO. But some of the more distant parts of the post-Soviet space are in ghastly condition. They never recovered. The Soviet Union fell apart half my lifetime ago, and I sort of blithely assumed that its victims stopped being victims around the same time, but that’s not what happened. Even Romanians I spoke to—and Romania is a Western country that’s now in the European Union and NATO—explained to me how they still suffer severe psychological damaged inflicted on them by Nicolae Ceauşescu’s totalitarian state.

LEE SMITH:  As you show in that first chapter about making what amounted to a day-trip to Iraq by crossing the length of Turkey (first along the coast and then through the mountains), the post-Ottoman Middle East is also psychologically, and often physically, scarred by its history of authoritarian regimes. Some of those, like Iraq, were aligned with Moscow and others, like Syria, still are. In a sense there seems to be a shared, often unpleasant, sensibility. So what does your primary region of interest, the Middle East, have in common with the post-Soviet landscape?

MICHAEL TOTTEN: Whole swaths of the post-Soviet space have a great deal in common with the post-Ottoman space for the simple reason that both straddled the Muslim world and the eastern portion of Europe.

Each is jam-packed with squabbling ethno-sectarian factions. The post-Ottoman region consists of Arabs, Jews, Turks, Kurds, Greeks, Albanians, Serbs, Bosnians, Croats, Sunnis, Shias, etc. The post-Soviet space is even more complicated, including Russians, Ukrainians, Georgians, Azeris, Armenians, Chechens, Tatars, Abkhaz, and so on. Some of these people are Christians and some of them are Muslims. Horrible wars broke out after the imperial powers collapsed, from the crackup of Yugoslavia and the Lebanese civil war, to the now “frozen” conflicts in the Caucasus and the Black Sea region that fewer people have heard of. Russia’s invasion of Georgia a few years ago was about resolving two of those conflicts—in Russia’s favor, of course.

If you develop a firm understanding of how one of these regions works, it doesn’t take long to open up the hood and figure another one out. The various issues and conflicts are all completely different, and yet somehow almost the same.

Distant parts of the former Ottoman and Soviet empires are all but irrelevant to people in the Western world, but the westernmost fringes are part of the Western world. The European Union includes parts of both. They’re not beyond our backyard. They’re part of our yard. And sometimes, when things get out of hand, we go to war there.

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