Russia’s ‘Black August Syndrome’ Is a Geopolitical Friday the 13th
There’s a story making the rounds that August is the month to watch Russia … because August is the month when bad things happen in Russia.
It’s especially important in 2015, so the story goes, because the Kremlin is on the precipice of collapse and — like a cornered animal — may lash out at anyone. Just look at the evidence.
In August 1991, communist hardliners attempted to depose Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev. The coup failed and the Soviet Union broke apart. One year later, Abkhazian separatists went to war for independence from Georgia. In August 2008, Russia and Georgia fought a war.
In August 1998, Russia’s banking system went belly up. The ruble collapsed and Moscow defaulted on its loans. Two years after that a terrorist attack in Moscow killed 13 people … in August.
Three days later, the nuclear submarine K-141 Kursk sank to the bottom of the Barents Sea with all hands lost. The list goes on. Wars start, terrorists attack and financial crises grip the Kremlin in the year’s muggiest month.
Some say the Russian people have come to expect this turmoil and call it Black August Syndrome. Sergey Naryshkin — the head of the State Duma, which is kind of like the Kremlin’s House of Representatives — recently wrote an editorial in which he called August the month of provocation.
Sergey alluded to Western influence behind Russia’s turmoils in August, stitching together a string of unpleasant incidents from history. He cited everything from early nuclear weapons testing to the Sino-Russian war.
Stratfor — a geopolitical think tank — jumped on Naryshkin’s article and gave it some context.
Russia seems to be anticipating larger U.S. involvement in Ukraine and could be planning to bolster its defenses to weather the next blow. Moscow is sensitive — if not paranoid — after failing to anticipate the uprising in Ukraine that led to the toppling of the pro-Russia government and ushered in a pro-West government last year.
Breitbart reblogged Stratfor’s article and gave it a punchier headline — “Russia’s ‘Black August Syndrome’ Is a Gobal Threat.”
But bad things happen all year in every country, and crises don’t wait until August. Superstitions rely on a selective reading of the evidence — and the bad events that happen in other months get discarded.
This is akin to the particularly American superstition surrounding April, the month in which the Branch Davidian compound burned in Waco, Timothy McVeigh blew up a truck bomb outside of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered their classmates at Columbine High School.
“There is something of an almost-superstition about August,” Mark Galeotti — a Russia security expert and professor at New York University — told War Is Boring. “Everyone who can, retreats to their [country house] or otherwise heads off on holiday, and … unpleasant things tend to happen.”
“But most of these things are actually initiated by the Kremlin,” Galeotti continued. “Not [the sinking of Kursk], obviously, but Georgia, etc.”
He’s right. Many — but certainly not all — of the events associated with Black August are the consequences of poor financial and political decisions by the Kremlin.
“I don’t really sense any particular concerns,” Galeotti explained. “It’s a little like a Friday the 13th — people talk about it, and when bad things happen, they say, ‘Oh, well, a Friday 13th, what can you expect,’ but very few people truly put much stock in it.”
Naryshkin’s editorial is largely about the West’s perceived provocation of Russia, and he used a well known superstition to reinforce Moscow’s message.
To wit — the Russian economy is fine, but the West is a wild animal so watch out. It played to his base, and it fit into a popular cultural narrative. But it isn’t evidence of impending global doom.
“Naryshkin’s piece of black propaganda is, after all, much less about August [and] much more about fueling that notion of Russia beleaguered,” Galeotti said.