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Feature Story February 27, 2008
 
New Cold War Kitsch: We Were So Young, So Naive, So Idiotic!
By Alexander Zaitchik and Mark Ames Browse author
 
Page 2 of 7
 

Poor Lucas and MacKinnon missed the market by a few months. What's even more agonizing is that the two authors are aware of their problem. Just two pages into Edward Lucas's The New Cold War, he confesses: "This book was conceived and written over one summer, requiring exceptional efforts from my literary agents…who grasped the urgency of the idea and found publishers willing to bring it out at breakneck speed." He goes on to thank those publishers directly for "effortlessly cramming work that normally takes a year into barely three months."

In other words, the book was a big-time rush job.

MacKinnon's New Cold War is an even sloppier high-speed paste job. The first chapter, a scare-intro about terrifying life under Putin, is rife with factual errors. Just a couple of examples: he wrongly calls Yevgeny Primakov "the longest serving of [Yeltsin's] prime ministers," wrongly dates Putin's move to Moscow to 1997, and absurdly claims that Putin "exported" his managed democracy to Kazakhstan—which has been ruled by one family for over 20 years—and Azerbaijan, a pro-American family dynasty since 1993. MacKinnon may have hoped that his prose is so bad no one would notice the errors. Try reading this sentence aloud: "Russia, under Yeltsin, was a snarly but seemingly powerless bear when dealing with the other former Soviet republics." Snarly the Powerless Bear—didn't our angry divorced babysitter read us that, with the title character talking in her ex-boyfriend's voice? This is the kind of spittle-laced rant that gets typed out ten minutes after deadline.

In fact, MacKinnon's introductory rant contradicts his other chapters, which demonstrate that Putin was right in calling the NGOs and "independent media" tools of American geopolitical/oil interests. Those chapters are solid and tightly written, but ultimately not as bankable as the New Cold War angle was thought to be, back in the summer of 2007.

In publishing, rush jobs usually mean sensationalism, exploitation, and hackery. Quickies are timed to hit a media event at its peak—to catch a wave and ride it to the Amazon shore. They tend to be glossy, heavily illustrated, and carry titles like Diana: The People's Princess. The danger of the rush-job is that it can look ridiculous not long after being squeezed out. Anyone have a copy of Time magazine's triumphant 21 Days to Baghdad lying around?

As we noted back in a November preview of Lucas' book, there is more than a whiff of sensationalism around his recent Russia writing. And you can't really blame him. You just can't interest the Western mass audience in foreign news without resorting to bombast. A Middle England housewife just isn't going to care about pipeline politics in Central Asia unless KGB oligarchs are in those pipes, on their way to Nottingham to rape and enslave her children.

The funny thing is, even after rushing to finish his manuscript, MacKinnon and his publishers missed their wave. The New Cold War (NCW) hysteria peaked around the Duma elections and the imprisonment of Gary Kasparov in late November 2007. By the time the book came out, fashion trends had changed. First Putin nominated the mild-mannered and liberal-ish Dmitry Medvedev to succeed him as President; and then a couple of weeks later, Time magazine, of all places, published a sober reconsideration of Putin in its "Person of the Year" issue. Just as quickly and easily as that, the NCW hysteria seemed so last year.

Lucas's The New Cold War is the sloppier rush job of the two, riddled with typos and missing punctuation. The index is worse than an Indian train wreck, misdirecting readers and even suggesting they see page 318 in a 261-page book. There is even a different subtitle on the title page—The Future of Russia and the Threat to the West—perhaps reflecting a last-minute decision to somehow make the book less Putin-specific. Too bad nobody had time to tell the printers that they'd switched their advertising slogan.


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