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Book Review November 27, 2002
Mikey McFaul and the Three Bears
By John Dolan Browse author Email
Page 2 of 5
Being more cynical than the average academic, I am inclined to suspect that McFaul failed to deal with opposing views simply because he is intellectually incapable of doing so and temperamentally unsuited, by virtue of his utterly shameless pursuit of political power, to spend too much time on the unrewarding arcana of his vocation.

Perhaps the starkest illustration of that shamelessness is that this man, who has spent the last year groveling to the most rightwing administration in a century, can allude with a straight face to "my comrades in the African National Congress (ANC)." It would be interesting to survey the ANC ruling circles to see if anyone there remembers a "comrade" named McFaul. One might refresh their memories with some updated details: "You know, McFaul -- Fellow of the Hoover Institution, advocate of 'regime change' in Iraq, admirer of George W., ..." It might be a tad difficult, these days, to find anyone in the ANC willing to admit remembering Comrade McFaul.

But for McFaul, there is no shame and no contradiction in simultaneously groveling to Bush's imperialists and the ANC. After reading McFaul's book, I was overcome by something like morbid curiosity about what sort of grotesque consciousness could sustain such incompatible patrons. To put it more bluntly: how can such a vile, double-speaking courtier live with himself?

Rereading the book, I realized that for McFaul, groveling to power is not merely a natural, but in a bizarre sense, a moral act. A sincere conviction underlies such behavior and also provides the major premise of McFaul's book: the belief that any political structure that can triumph and sustain itself is thereby legitimized.

This premise is historicized in McFaul's account of recent Russian history via a crude, fairy-tale structure: the ancient Indo-European story-form of the heroic quest involving three attempts, the first two of which fail, while the third succeeds (eg "Goldilocks and the Three Bears," "The Three Little Pigs"). The first stage, which McFaul calls "The Gorbachev Era," begins with Gorbachev's accession to power and ends with the failed 1991 coup. The second begins with Yeltsin coming to power in 1991 and ends with the attack on the White House. To this alleged epoch McFaul has given the grand title "The First Russian Republic." The third stage is the next three years of Yeltsin's disastrous reign, a period which McFaul terms "The Emergence of the Second Russian Republic, 1993-1996."

McFaul is not shy in introducing his three-part narrative, admitting that it is an artificial "periodization" of a "single historical phenomenon." In fact, in a two-page subsection called "Methodological Considerations" (pp. 26-27) he admits that "...this periodization is manufactured, artificially dividing what is a single case of regime transformation into three observations of institutional change..." Then, without engaging this rather basic intellectual flaw in any way whatsoever, he says that despite such "research design limitations," "[his] analysis forges ahead..."

This is surely one of the grandest non sequiturs in contemporary academic prose. Like much of McFaul's work, it cannot be understood in logical terms. It must be seen as a rhetorical ploy resulting from the author's divided intention and audience. Look closely at the language of the non sequitur. The very title of the subsection in which it occurs, "Methodological Considerations," suggests that this two-page section is a brief aside to more rigorous academic readers. McFaul trots out academic language here, conceding his "research design limitations." But then he turns to the language of the politician in boasting that "the analysis forges ahead" -- as if resuming his true role, the orator, and abandoning his academic pretensions in all possible haste. The author's priorities could hardly be clearer: professional respectability is well enough, but "forg[ing] ahead" to the big grants is what really matters.

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