Comey: Dunno much about the Russian I took
Over at Bloomberg, the estimable Leonid Bershidsky, a former Russian newspaper editor, outlines one little-noted element in Monday's congressional hearings with FBI director James Comey in his pieced titled "Why the Comey Hearing Is Scary To A Russian."
You definitely want to read it, but the short answer is that Comey told Congress he didn't know what Gazprom is. Gazprom is a company so vast and so omnipresent in understanding Russian affairs that it's the equivalent of the FSB chief saying at a Russian hearing that he had never heard of ExxonMobil, Bershidsky notes.
Now, it's possible that Comey meant he didn't know much about it in detail, or that the thought of discussing it with an ignorant Democrat boob, which is who his questioner was, gave him a headache just to think about, but it might just mean he doesn't really know.
It calls to mind that understanding anything about Russia – particularly its history in the 1990s involving its hideous transition from communism – is a task that takes time and effort. How would anyone understand Gazprom? It takes knowing your oligarchs, knowing how privatization and reform as the country exited communism were botched, and understanding how massive opportunities were wasted because of the failure of the U.S. during the Clinton administration to give the country competent advice (they gave bad, exceptionally bad, advice, and let the International Monetary Fund give even more bad advice). It take knowing how these oligarchs rose to power. It takes understanding how the Chechen Wars evolved from gang activity in Moscow, how those gangs integrated with the rise of the oligarchs, such as Boris Berezovsky and others. It takes understanding how these gangs infiltrated Russia's security organs, rendering some indistinguishable from gangs but also out of the control of the central government. This is why Putin cannot be blamed for every weird hit job that emerges out of Russia.
Most of all, studying Russia and its recent past is what enables an understanding of the rise of Vladimir Putin. Three excellent sources for mastering this, and it will take time and intellectual firepower, are The Last Tsar, by Steven Lee Myers of the New York Times; Putin's Kleptocracy, by Russian scholar Karen Dawisha; and The Godfather of the Kremlin, by since murdered Forbes journalist Paul Klebnikov.
If you don't spend time on these topics, Russia looks like a muddled mess, a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, as Churchill put it. Read this stuff, and it's not so mysterious. One wants to hope that Comey has read this stuff or material even more informative, but his answer on Gazprom is a bit worrisome and serves only to whip up an atmosphere of hostility to Russia – even when it is not warranted, Bershidsky argues, which cannot be a useful thing.
Meanwhile, as I argued a couple weeks ago here, the state of Russian area studies is pretty weakened, indeed, creating a vast void of ignorance for American policymakers:
How many Russians do most Americans know, anyway? How many kids in school study the Russian language? On the other side of the equation, how many Americans do most Russians know? The connections are negligible. Other than from a small wave of immigrants from the 1980s and 1990s, the Russians are largely unknown to us. Since the Cold War's end in 1991, Russian language and Russian area studies at universities have dwindled precipitously, to just 371 bachelor's degrees, 12 master's degrees, and one – count 'em, one – doctoral degree. Those figures are from 2014, and the Department of Education hasn't gotten around to updating them in the past three years, but the trend line from the charts is clear: it's a 66% decline since 1969, and it's the only strategic language and studies area that has seen any such decline. Chinese, Arabic, and Korean have all seen soaring gains. Russian is the only one that has fallen. Neither we nor the intelligence community has the knowledge base needed to make informed decisions about the country.
Bershidsky is right. I really hope Comey wasn't telling all when he told the Democrat he'd never heard of Gazprom.