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Boxing Day Wrap
And a meditation on the Soviet Union's end, which also wrapped on this day
Actually, today is not Boxing Day after all. Per Wikipedia, source of all knowledge:
Boxing Day is the 27th if the 26th is Christmas Sunday. The attached bank holiday or public holiday may take place either on that day or one or two days later (if necessary to ensure it falls on a weekday). Boxing Day is also concurrent with the Christian holiday Saint Stephen's Day.
So I suppose this post should have been titled Saint Stephen’s Day Wrap. Who was Saint Stephen though?
Stephen (Greek: Στέφανος Stéphanos, meaning "wreath, crown" and by extension "reward, honor, renown, fame", often given as a title rather than as a name; Hebrew: סטפנוס הקדוש, Stephanos HaQadosh; c. 5 – c. 34 AD) traditionally venerated as the protomartyr or first martyr of Christianity, was, according to the Acts of the Apostles, a deacon in the early Church at Jerusalem who angered members of various synagogues by his teachings. Accused of blasphemy at his trial, he made a speech denouncing the Jewish authorities who were sitting in judgment on him and was then stoned to death. His martyrdom was witnessed and participated by Saul of Tarsus, also known as Paul, a Pharisee and Roman citizen who would later become a Christian apostle.
So Saint Stephens was a Jewish heretic who, according to Christian scripture, was sentenced and killed for that crime by a Jewish court, and came to be venerated as a martyr by those who adhered to that same heresy, which ultimately became a new religion, Christianity.
What about Boxing Day, though? What’s the boxing all about?
The Oxford English Dictionary gives the earliest attestations from Britain in the 1830s, defining it as "the first weekday after Christmas day, observed as a holiday on which postmen, errand boys, and servants of various kinds expect to receive a Christmas box."
The term "Christmas box" dates back to the 17th century, and among other things meant:
A present or gratuity given at Christmas: in Great Britain, usually confined to gratuities given to those who are supposed to have a vague claim upon the donor for services rendered to him as one of the general public by whom they are employed and paid, or as a customer of their legal employer; the undefined theory being that as they have done offices for this person, for which he has not directly paid them, some direct acknowledgement is becoming at Christmas.
So over time the Feast of Saint Stephen evolved, in Britain and its empire, from a religious festival into an opportunity for the upper classes to demonstrate noblesse oblige. How, though, do Her Majesty’s subjects celebrate Boxing Day today?
In the UK, Canada, Australia, Trinidad and Tobago, and New Zealand, Boxing Day is primarily known as a shopping holiday. Boxing Day sales are common and shops often allow dramatic price reductions. For many merchants, Boxing Day has become the day of the year with the greatest revenue.
Sounds about right.
The End of the Soviet Empire
There’s another event worth celebrating today, and whether venerating a saint, boxing gifts for servants, or going shopping feels more apropos might say something about how one views the significance of the event in question. Today marks the thirtieth anniversary of the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union as a country, the most significant historical event to occur in my lifetime.
The vote in the upper chamber of the Supreme Soviet to dissolve the country, which is what actually happened on this date thirty years ago, was not a surprise. It was, rather, the very end of a process. The previous day, Gorbachev had already resigned his office, the Soviet flag had been lowered and the Russian flag raised in replacement, and the United States had recognized the eleven remaining Soviet Republics as independent states. If the end of the Soviet Union is easy to mark, though, the beginning of its dissolution is necessarily a matter of debate, a debate bound up with the sense of inevitability with which it came to be shrouded in the years since.
The most common and popular understanding of that inevitability comes from the view that it was the oppressive nature of the Soviet regime that ultimately doomed it. The captive nations of the eastern bloc wanted freedom from Soviet control, and the Russian people themselves wanted to be liberated from the commissars chains, whether to read and say what they wanted or just to buy American blue jeans. Westerners like to think that we played a decisive role in kindling the flames of liberty in the Soviet bloc, and conservatives in particular frequently point to the elections of Margaret Thatcher in the U.K., Ronald Reagan in the U.S.A., and Pope John Paul II as head of the Catholic Church, as the key events that began to turn the tide. Others, more generously inclined to credit local actors, will point to the formation of Solidarity in Poland as the first sign of weakness in a link of the chain. But what these views have in common is the conviction that the fall of the Soviet Union was not only a triumph for the human spirit, but a triumph of the human spirit—that freedom not only won, but achieved the victory.
There are other, less idealistic ways to look at those events. Those more inclined to materialist explanations of history, for example, will likely look to Saudi Arabia’s decision to flood the market with cheap oil in the mid-1980s, to punish other OPEC members for cheating on their quotas (and, as well, to weaken its key regional rival, Iran), as the most important factor that drove the Soviet empire to bankruptcy. The Soviet Union was massively dependent on oil revenue, and the collapse in prices made its military establishment comprehensively unaffordable, and forced it to make a series of unpalatable choices between reform and retrenchment that ultimately ended by unraveling the entire system. Under the hood, though, this materialist explanation for the Soviet collapse winds up being another version of the inevitable triumph of freedom. It was the inefficiency of the Soviet command-and-control economic system, after all, that left them dependent on extractive industries, and unable to adapt when the energy market turned. The details of how it worked out might have been historically contingent, but the Soviet Union ultimately collapsed due to its own “contradictions,” as the Marxists like to say.
I do think all these arguments have some merit. As a longstanding skeptic of “great man” theories of history, I’m more inclined to credit the combination of bottom-up social movements and economic realities than a particular election as having been decisive, but I’m not going to say that it made literally no difference who was president or pope. And I recognize the ways in which those bottom-up social movements and those economic realities were shaped by the repressive and dysfunctional nature of the Soviet system. The case for freedom is a good one.
But if we’re going to pick a “great man” (or woman) to credit with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, it shouldn’t be Reagan or Thatcher, Karol Józef Wojtyła or Lech Wałęsa, nor even Boris Yeltsin. If there was one person on whom history really did hinge at that moment, that person was Mikhail Gorbachev. And he deserves the credit not for what he did, but for what he didn’t do.
Even very late in the day, as the Baltic states pressed for their independence, Gorbachev had the repressive tools at his disposal to crush the incipient revolt with utter ruthlessness. That’s what Khrushchev did in Hungary, and what Brezhnev did in Czechoslovakia and threatened to do in Poland until Jaruzelski did it for him by imposing martial law. It’s also what Deng Xiaoping, the great reformer who set China on its course to become an economic superpower, did in 1989, sending tanks against the student movement in Tiananmen Square the same year that Gorbachev declined to do anything significant to crush the popular uprisings across the Warsaw Pact countries that culminated in the fall of the Berlin Wall. Instead, by allowing history to take its course in the satellite states, he opened the floodgates and let in a tide that washed away the entire system he headed.
A month before the wall was breached and overwhelmed by joyful citizens, Gorbachev was pleading with the East German leadership to accept reform. If, instead, he had urged them to be firm, and promised them tanks, we don’t know how history would have been different. Possibly the Soviet Union would still have collapsed; its economic troubles were real, and its ability to wield power globally was waning in consequence. For all we know, if Gorbachev had tried to hold the Soviet empire together by force, it would have collapsed even more catastrophically and violently some years later. That, though, would still be a very different history from the one that actually unfolded, and still suggests just how crucial Gorbachev actually was.
But we should not discount the possibility that, with the “right” leader in charge, the Soviet Union could have survived. Yuri Andropov in particular, Brezhnev’s immediate successor, saw the sclerosis afflicting the Soviet Union at the time, and promoted reformers like Gorbachev precisely for that reason. But as the architect of so much of the Brezhnev-era repression, and as the former head of the KGB, Andropov is a hard man to imagine allowing his country and its empire to come apart virtually without firing a shot, as Gorbachev allowed it to do. There’s a reason Vladimir Putin considers Andropov to have been his mentor and exemplar. I’m not saying he could have been a Soviet Deng—I don’t think anyone could have been—but had he lived another decade, do wonder what a combination of ruthless repression and selective reform might have achieved.
I am enormously grateful that we didn’t find out. But some of our own hubris might be mitigated by contemplating how the happy way things turned out thirty years ago for the cause of human freedom was due to pure contingency rather than some kind of historical law.
The Empire Strikes Back
The above segues nicely into the most important subject I wrote about this week, the impending war between Russia and Ukraine. The piece is not primarily about the current situation but about whether there was any way to have avoided it, by taking a different tack as the Soviet Union collapsed:
The mid-1990s, then, was the moment of opportunity, if one ever existed. The West was at the height of its prestige, and Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s luster had not yet entirely worn off within his country. The collapse of Yugoslavia had revealed the dangerous potentialities in these apparently-frozen conflicts. Rather than assume that Russia would “outgrow” nationalism, the United States and its NATO allies could have mediated a generous settlement that restored to Russia some of what it had lost territorially (Crimea, in particular), in exchange for ending Russian involvement in separatist movements beyond their borders (which might well have required repatriation of some Russian populations). The West could also have drawn a line between the former Soviet Union and the former Warsaw Pact (with the Baltic states treated as an exceptional case), and tacitly recognized special Russian interests in the former by renouncing any effort to incorporate them into any security-oriented treaty body that did not also include Russia. We could, in other words, have behaved as though Russia were still a Great Power, albeit a diminished one, and as though we had no interest in seeing it diminished further, as indeed we rationally did not. And we could have hoped, thereby, to earn Russia’s acceptance of America as a relatively honest broker between powers rather than its resentment of America as a contemptuous former adversary always determined to press its advantage.
I don’t know if that would have worked, honestly. It’s possible that Putin would still have risen as Yeltsin’s successor, and would have repudiated any agreements that Yeltsin might have made. It’s quite likely that states like Ukraine would have truculently refused to make any deal of that kind; indeed, they would rightfully have viewed such moves as selling out their independence and abandoning them to their former colonial overlords. As I said earlier, there are good prudential reasons not to try to solve problems before they become acute; sometimes you wind up only making the problem worse. But even if the opportunity really was there, it’s hard to imagine America being sufficiently far-sighted to recognize it, as indeed we did not. It’s easy to blame President Bill Clinton for the callowness of American foreign policy at the time, but the fact is that many of his administration’s opponents, who came to power in the George W. Bush administration, wanted America to be even more unilateralist and less considerate of our rivals’ interests in setting the terms of the new world order. Geopolitics was a game, and we had all the strongest pieces on the board.
And so, here we are.
The one thing I didn’t talk about in the piece, though, is the prospect of real and sustained resistance to a Russian occupation. There is a piece in The New York Times today about how Ukraine is preparing to mount precisely that kind of resistance, encouraging civilians to train to fight an irregular, guerrilla war against Russian troops for, potentially, years to come. I certainly don’t know enough to say whether they can realistically muster the kind of force it would take to harry the Russian army into decamping. But I can easily identify a couple of factors that will matter a great deal to whether it’s even plausible.
The first and most important question is what kind of tacit support they would get from the local population. Twenty years ago, I would have said that much of eastern Ukraine really thought of itself as Russian, and that while the Ukrainian government wouldn’t want to surrender lost territory, the local population might not care so much which corrupt government ruled them. Since the 2014 Donbass war, though, public opinion in Ukraine has shifted sharply against Russia, including in the eastern part of the country. Meanwhile, it’s still not clear what Putin’s actual war aims might be, assuming he is planning on launching an attack. If he tries to occupy the whole country and install a puppet regime in Kyiv, I would imagine the scale of potential resistance goes way up. On the other hand, if he just takes another slice of the salami, the remainder of Ukraine will become even more anti-Russian and more determined to reverse those losses militarily, so any resistance movement that does arise in eastern Ukraine will have a ready patron and supplier in Kyiv.
The other question is just how brutal Russia is willing and able to be. Their successive wars in Chechnya pretty much set the standard in recent Russian history, but I’m not sure Russia could as easily weather the diplomatic consequences of fighting that way in Ukraine. It would be much easier for the U.S. and its European allies to mostly whistle past another war in Ukraine if things settled down quickly to low-level conflict against an insurgency. It would be quite another matter if Russia started leveling whole towns and cities as they did in the Caucasus. I doubt it will come to that, but invasions that don’t go well initially can get more brutal more easily than they can be abandoned.
In any event, all I wanted to do here was correct what might have been a misapprehension from my previous piece, to whit, that the Ukrainians themselves don’t have a key role in determining the future of their country. They most certainly do, and quite possibly might wind up playing it on the battlefield for years to come. That prospect, and the romance of resistance, shouldn’t make us feel any better about the choices we made that helped bring things to this ominous pass.
The Best and the Brightest?
By contrast to those momentous historical events of the past and, potentially, the near future, my column at The Week this week was about something far less important than most observers seem to think, namely: Harvard’s admissions standards.
Harvard University's decision not to require standardized test scores for admission for at least the next four years is rightly seen as a harbinger of broader institutional change in higher education. Supporters of that change argue it will make admissions fairer to students who perform poorly on such tests but excel in other ways. Critics contend it will only give admissions offices more latitude to build the kind of student body that maximizes the school's future donations — or that its real aim is to keep a lid on the number of Asian-American enrollees.
But supporters and critics alike should ask themselves a more fundamental question: Why is Harvard selective at all?
I’m not going to quote too extensively from the piece because I want you to read the whole thing. If you want to read all of my suggestions for how Harvard could actually become less-elitist, rather than embracing a phony version thereof, please do that. But making meritocracy fairer isn’t ultimately a way to build a more equal society, no matter how equality is defined.
[F]or anyone interested in making America less elitist—in spreading wealth and power more widely as well as making mobility more fluid—how Harvard selects its students should be vastly less important than how much power accrues to the kinds of institutions, from Goldman Sachs to the Supreme Court, that disproportionately hire from Harvard and universities like it. That's where the real battles for equality are being fought, not within ivy-covered walls.
In fact, I would go even further. It’s worth remembering that the “best and the brightest”—the people who came out of elite schools after the push for greater meritocracy—have been responsible for their share of debacles in American public life, from the Vietnam War to the financial crisis. That doesn’t mean that people chosen at random out of the phone book would have done better—if you don’t like meritocracy, just wait until you see how bad kakistocracy can get. (If we have a second Trump administration, we may yet find out.) But it does suggest that meritocracy, like any other system that declares some people better, may inculcate delusions into just how much better they are, and just what they are better at.
Anyway, as I say, do read the whole thing.
The Week That Was
Apart from the Ukraine piece, the two other posts On Here this week were:
Does It Matter Whether Manchin Was Right? Spoiler: I think the answer is yes. But I am also inclined to agree with Kevin Drum that the odds of getting a bill done have actually gone up now that we’re done with the nonsense of the House bill, and that such a bill, if it comes to be, would still be historic. Matt Yglesias has a lot more detail about just how much better it could be built back while still meeting Manchin’s requirements. I’m less inclined than ever to listen to the histrionics.
Finally, A Christmas Movie Recommendation which is actually about two movies: Single All the Way, which is truly a straight-up traditional Christmas movie and which I watched more to learn what the beast really is, and Smoke, my actual recommendation, which I haven’t actually seen on any “best Christmas movie lists” and I can’t figure out why. In addition, I saw two other Christmas movies this season that do make those kinds of lists: Tangerine and Tokyo Godfathers. I enjoyed them both—but Smoke is my top pick.
So if you’re holed up after testing positive for COVID, and looking for a film to while away a Boxing Day quarantine, you’re welcome.