poemless. a slap in the face of public taste.

June 19, 2014

The Russian Bug, or, An exercise in gratuitously mixed metaphors.

Plus: Odds & Ends, and US-Russia relations as Gogol-esque pathos.

Once upon a time, zhili-byli, this was a proper Russia blog. Back when a pack of cigarettes cost six bucks and the only people who read Russia blogs were those battling PTSD (Post-Transition Sentimentality Disorder.) Now my bad habit puts me back double, every casual nightly news viewer is an armchair Kremlinologist and political blogs have been replaced by celebrity Instragrams. Returning to one’s defunct blog is the internet version of returning to one’s grandmother’s home in middle age. Smaller, emptier and humbler than memory serves. Could use a fresh coat of paint. And it smells weird … like pickles? But its continued existence provides an anchor to the past, and practical reasons for giving up this place – so much work, and no one ever visits anymore – are no match for the insufferable romantic disposition of the writer.

There is no grandmother here to make me soup, but let’s be honest, it’s the indulgence that makes one feel better. And what is more indulgent than one’s own blog? Here I’ve convalesced through feverish delirium brought on by The Russian Bug. “How was Russia?” “It was a living nightmare, poverty, desperation, nihilism, I knew a guy who was killed…” “I’m sorry you had to experience that.” “No, it was soul-achingly beautiful, and the people, the people… and there was just a more sane idea about personal priorities in general, you know? Best thing that ever happened to me probably.” “Oh God. You caught it.” “Caught what?” “The Russian Bug.” Thusly I was diagnosed by the head of a Slavic Department.

People have been known to recover from it, or at least go for long symptomless periods. But there is no cure, only dormancy. Triggers are infinite: melancholia, despair, too many shots of the clear stuff, winter Olympics, Cossacks fighting Nazis in goddamned 2014 and anything that reinforces a belief that nothing makes sense and everything is poetry. Like any addiction, by the time you realize you need help you are already in deep, up at 3am unearthing pre-perestroika Soviet rock from the bowels of the interwebs, re-watching Zvyagintsev’s films for the nth time, reading yet another dry analysis of the collapse of the USSR and practicing personal hygiene worthy of an Intro to Russian Lit protagonist. And as the alcoholic turns to drink to shake the delirium of his torment, the Russophile turns to writing about Russia. Just enough to clear the head and straighten the spine, not so much that one does something they’ll later regret, like start a novel. I can stop writing a Russia blog whenever I want. Lo, look at the sad history of this place – it’s absolutely true. But if I am honest with myself, sometimes all it takes is one bad day, and I’m back to obsessing about souls and international relations and hot Russian men. The first thing addiction steals from a person is shame.

So can I talk about the war?

Is it not a war? A president was forcibly ousted, land was annexed and people are killing each other without even truly being able to explain why. Seems like a war to me. It really pisses me off, war. So I have this thing I am overly earnest about. Everyone has something – usually their children or their art, usually vomit-inducing. For me, it is the load of axes the United States of America and Russia carry around, forever in need of a proper grinding (so they will be ready when the time arrives, and the grinding itself signals to the other that this time has arrived, and it is like the two Ivans, but if they had tanks and nukes.) Especially when those axes are carelessly dropped all over grandmothers and the houses their grandchildren won’t be able to visit again now, and all over the grandchildren too. Ukraine is no innocent victim, but the people who have and will suffer from the policies, military or economic, in play there, or worse, absent there, disproportionately are. These policies have been shaped in no small way by the military and economic axe-grinding of the United States and Russia. No, this is not simply or even primarily a proxy war between Russia and the US or the “West.” The people of Ukraine have their own dysfunctions, grievances, historical luggage, responsibilities, needs, desires, etc. But once you start funneling money, inciting nationalist hatred and outright annexing territory, you are implicated in the instability that follows and must abdicate your “innocent bystander” status. At best, neither the US nor Russia are doing anything to scale back their perceived and/or real involvement in escalating the tensions and violence now witnessed throughout Ukraine and its separatist territories. And the rhetoric from both sides makes me wretch, however legitimate or sincere concerns of the West and Russia may be – and they are. You want to support the development of democracy, be my guest: stop supporting coups, stoking the fires of extremism, ignoring discrimination and giving corrupt oligarchs a pass. You want the world to respect you and treat you as an equal, so do I: start by not engaging in behavior and propaganda that confirms the very worst stereotypes of your nation, that you are lawless barbarians who cannot be trusted.

I’m a peacenik. But I’m not a hippie. My opposition to going around killing our neighbors is a very practical one. When the war is over, after all the death, destruction and trauma, people still have to figure out how the hell to live with each other, and if national borders ensured that, my fair city of Chicago, USA would have neither its notorious murder rate, nor its remarkably peaceful coexistence of Jews, Russians, Poles, Indians, Pakistanis etc. If you need a fence to behave like a decent human being, realize the lack of a fence is not the underlying problem, and that fences can easily be torn down and rebuilt elsewhere. Humans don’t kill other humans because the fences are in the wrong places. They do it because they are angry, afraid and because there is a boatload of money in the military industrial sphere. No arms dealer ever got rich off of our better angels, regardless how often our better angles are invoked in the name of war.

And if I had a dime for every iteration of the “Great Game” explanation I’d be able to pay my rent next month. Sure, there is a great game. But it can’t be played without pawns, and that’s where people like you and I come in. World leaders, oligarchs and their shady intermediaries don’t fuck everything up in a vacuum; they fuck everything up in the petri dish of our anxieties, anger, cynicism and deficit of critical thinking abilities. They need us to be too tired and overworked to care, too impassioned to reason or too helpless to bother either way. Ignorance, apathy and anger are free artillery, charitable donations to the war effort. War is people telling you so sorry but they cannot possibly solve their personal disputes without accidentally killing someone’s mother.
If you think I’m a pedantic idealist when writing on the topic of war, it would blow your mind to hear what I have to say on the topic of US-Russian cooperation.

We are already as ignorant as we need to be, about ourselves and each other. Why go out of our way to cultivate ignorance? Why not … try to understand each other, try to live with each other, accept our differences and celebrate our shared humanity? I recently learned that the name of the original large landmass on Earth, before it broke apart into continents, is “Rodinia.” Alas, the planet is our Motherland, and when we kneel to the ground and kiss the earth in Dostoyesvskian humility, we belong to the same nation. Oh sure a few people would not profit from such an intrinsically spiritual yet astonishingly practical venture – but neither you nor I are among them. (Shout out to the NSA, thanks for reading, I mean you are among them, but you know what I mean.) Invoking the Great Game narrative only gives us a false sense of not being implicated in it. We are.

Look, I am not a beads-wearing, incense-lighting, Kumbaya-chanting happily oblivious stoned wacko. (Though if a pack of cigarettes goes up another dollar, I may begin looking for a dealer.) I don’t generally adore humanity. I’m depressed or angry 90% of the time. I have traumas that freak the fuck out of my acquaintances. I am an American. I am involved in American politics. The fact that you are no saint – this is my point – really is no excuse. The fact that you are a realist is no excuse. The fact that you are angry is no excuse. The problem is not that happy saintly idealists will not make an effort to hear each other out. It’s the bitter, broken, proud, jaded people of the world who need to figure out how to fucking coexist.

They also write the best poetry, you know…

Ok enough about my bilateral frustrations.

I’m only inconsolable because I love you all so much.

When I become inconsolable I behave badly. Sometimes I just lie in bed until noon contemplating the particular shade of blue sky on the other side of the window and wallowing in the lamentations of provincial gulls (Oh, Chekhov…,) sometimes I resolve to end it all and don’t, sometimes I drink cheap wine and watch Scandinavian murder mysteries all night. At this point I am just typically depressed. A dull depression, a stasis, a kind of interminable waiting room of the soul. Nothing is too terribly real. Nothing is too terribly beautiful. It’s canned soup existence, tasting of nothing, better than hunger. Sometimes, however, like an autoimmune disorder activated by a weakened immune system, the Russian Bug bites again. I’m not entirely comfortable classifying it as an illness. For all I know, it is the cure. Certainly it is the cure to canned soup existence. “The mania phase of classic bi-polar disorder,” you suggest, clinically-minded. Mozhet byt‘. No doctor has diagnosed me as such, but it seems as plausible as “the Russian soul, it’s like a vampire and once you are bitten you are doomed to live like a crazy person for all eternity” explanation. Are not both the Gothic monster novel and modern psychiatric classification but crude metaphors for our anxieties and desires?

Hark! Arisen from the crypt of the Poemless blog, cursed, undead, roaming the internet like feral animal and come in through the window to steal your precious innocence:

Odds & Ends: “You’ve read this far – I’ll make it quick” Editon.

Ukraine, Putin, and the West: Putin walks into a bar . . .
By the editors of n+1, a must-read, as in, if you only read one thing, but you are here reading this so if you only read two things about Ukraine, read this. You will be less ignorant for it and people will respect you more. And I’m not even charging you for that advice.

My Mind-Melting Week on the Battlefields of Ukraine Death and disappearance in the foggiest of wars.
By Julia Ioffe. I’m not her biggest fan, but this is a very good, unbiased, on-the-ground attempt to make sense of why people are killing one another in Eastern Ukraine. Spoiler alert: no one is completely sure, but they all have good reason to be afraid.

Who is the bully?
By Jack F. Matlock Jr. Well, you won’t get out of here without being subjected to my usual propaganda about how the US treats Russia like a gaslit mistress and is it any wonder then she acts so unhinged? But this time, it’s written by the former US Ambassador to the Soviet Union. Don’t take my commie word for it. I’m now reading his “Autopsy on and Empire: The American Ambassador’s Account of the Collapse of the Soviet Union.” 900 pages of sheer glorious foreign policy talk. I told you I was sick.

Why Washington must try harder to understand the Kremlin: The chill in US-Russia relations is not just down to conflicting interests on Ukraine – it stems from a deeper lack of expertise of the Kremlin’s logic and actions.
By Alexander Gabuyev. It’s all well and fine to spend ten years of your life online bemoaning the awful state of US Russia policy. Far better to understand why it is just so incredibly awful. This doesn’t explain everything (like why anyone with an average IQ understands Kremlin psychology better than White House advisors) – but it is an exquisite examination of the global cause and effect of Americans not studying Russian like they used to. Oh it is a dreary world, gentlemen! Send your kids to get Russian degrees for the love of all that is holy. The fate of the world is in their hands. Probably not a great idea to place the fate of the world in the hands of those who would rather read very long murder novels than get a decent paying job. I don’t make the rules.

FYI, I stumbled upon this piece via The Guardian’s New East Network: “inside the post-soviet world”, if you’re into kitsch. It’s all Lenin statues and cabbage over there. Go get yer Ostalgie on.

As I said earlier, I was up all night with nostalgia-induced insomnia and probably watched every Akvarium video on YouTube. Admitting you have a problem is the first step. A bit later this binge dove-tailed with an exchange I had with an acquaintance in Moscow about trains and the soul of the Rodina and whatnot, and I recalled a recent situation in which Boris Grebenshchikov (leader of Akvarium, kind of a genius) got rather pissed off that his song “Etot Poezd v Ogne (This train is on fire)” had been used for pro-war propaganda purposes. Unlike me, he really is a pot-smoking, beads-wearing anti-war hippie, and I’m far more surprised that the people who chose to co-opt the song were unfamiliar with his almost cringe-worthy peacnikery than that they were using this song to bang the drums of war. I am yet more surprised that The New York Times ran an article about it. An article which, quite beside the point, describes the existence as a Soviet artist as such:

“It was a shadow society,” Mr. Grebenshikov said. “But in Russia it had a peculiar form, in that you could live for months without really encountering that other world. The only places you needed to go were the wine shop and the book shop.”

Wait. THE ONLY PLACES YOU NEEDED TO GO WERE THE WINE SHOP AND THE BOOK SHOP? Well they sure as hell kept that bit of info from us American Cold War kids. Look, I am not calling for a full return to Soviet society, cough, but forgive me for not taking more pity on your persecuted soul, BG. Anyway, here’s the song: Аквариум – Поезд в огне.

“You said something about hot Russian men, poemless.”

There were some at the Social Security Administration office on Lawrence the other day, and I would like to personally thank them for making that trip worthwhile (and who even knew you still need the actual card?) But for the rest of you, how about a beautiful Russian song? Ok, and a sexy beast of peacenik!

The magical thing about visiting a grandmother is that she will feed you delicious candies while she lectures you, trying to pass on her hard-earned insights while you are distracted with gluttony. I’m no one’s grandmother, but I am so happy you stopped by.

As always, thank you for reading. Namaste, druzya.

June 9, 2013

It’s Pretty Fucking Good, Actually.

Behold! In which write a post appealling to my lefty activist, bibliophile and Russophile readers all at once! I don’t even know who the rest of you are or what you want from me.

A while back, before May came trampling through my life like Renfield on meth, Keith Gessen of n+1 (“Uh. Is this Masha’s brother?” I asked friends) contacted me to promote a book he had recently published. Or edited. Or translated. Or something. He wanted to send me a copy of Kirill Medvedev’s It’s No Good. I said OK. For future reference, you don’t need to ask. Just put your brilliant books in the mail addressed to me, ok people? (I’m talking to you Dalkey Archive.) Shit folks do without even asking first, and you want to politely inquire if I would mind a free copy of your Russian activist’s poetry book? What the hell is wrong with people…?

I read it, devoured it, as if it were the sweat off a lover’s neck in the throes of passion. I did not actually eat it. Although I am hungry… (Please contribute to my fundraising page! Before I am forced to eat my own books!) But at some point I realized I’d underlined, starred or scribbled, “Yes!!!” on each of the last five pages. So, mutilated forever if not devoured.

I suppose you’ll want me to tell you something about it, even though I know you can use Google. Author: Russian, male, about my age, about my political sensibilities, intelligent, poet, activist, I think he’s in a rock band. I’d date him. Book: Poems, manifestos, essays of the current state of the Russian intelligentsia and reflections upon ethical and aesthetic responsibility in this crazy world. I’d recommend it.

As a race, but specifically as Americans, and especially as Gen-Xers who went to poetry readings in coffee shops in our Midwestern college towns, we have collectively been exposed to criminal amounts of BAD POETRY. We need support groups. Fortunately, the Russian literary tradition has higher standards for the art form than Cafe Ennui. Comparing the two is like comparing the Mariinsky’s Swan Lake with your niece’s dance recital. The latter is supporting the arts, the former having your life changed by art. Kirill’s poems aren’t the kind you’ll read out of obligation to convince yourselves you are still capable of doing that kind of thing. You won’t think, “Oh my god, TMI. I am not your therapist,” or, “You like the mountains, we get it.” Nothing about these poems will make you think they were written in a workshop in upstate anywhere. I promise. Example:

“BIG RUBBER COCK”

I saw it every day on the way to school.
I know that’s not the best way
to start a poem,
but there’s nothing I can do about my memories,
I can’t take the rubber cock out of my mind and replace it
with, say, a New Year’s tree.
I saw big rubber cocks every day on the way to school—
you could do anything back then—
it was 1991—
and sometimes best friends
buddy-buddy, as the Americans say,
even gave them to each other
as presents
simultaneously
by coincidence,
and it wasn’t even a joke
it was natural
a downpayment on eternity
a symbol of one’s success and prowess
eternal prowess,
the authorities
couldn’t get a grip
on the situation,
they didn’t know what to do
about the rubber cocks,
the fairly large rubber cocks,
they hadn’t learned to concentrate them in one place,
these cocks were everywhere,
they weren’t even manufactured here,
they were imported from America,
which didn’t know their true value,
no one knew their value,
in fact no one knew the value of anything,
we all lived like poets—and a poetic fate smelling of resin
(the Russian resina means rubber, that is, synthetic resin,
but there is also in English rOsin, hard resin, kanifol in Russian,
but in English like a rose
it’s a coincidence—rubber rose amber resin rosin)
so this smelly sticky mixture
connected us through the centuries
everything spoken seen and lived
and you can hear the buzz of every murdered nerve ending
every glass of wine from eight years ago
could end up making you vomit
for a very long time—
the imagination is active,
as if a play is on the stage,
and the wine is poured,
your mind is working,
your cigarettes are burning,
your mind is relaxing,
your eyes are narrowing,
the tension is rising
the authorities are rats
but how many more times
will we say about our homeland
our innocent and gentle
if sometimes cruel but in the end beloved homeland:

THIS FUCKING COUNTRY.

I’m not a fan of shock value poems, which mostly seem admissions of having run out of interesting ideas or being only 14 years old. But this works because it’s the author and his whole country, not the reader, on the receiving end. Most of you kids are smart enough to get the 1991 double-entendre here, no? If not, go read Naomi Klein. After you finish this.

Another poem I quite liked for no important reason is about why children don’t fear death:

they think
they’re going to die
as absolutely different people;
I think they think
that by the time they’re old enough
to die
everything about them will have changed,
and so it’s as it this won’t be
them dying

And this, which sounds whiny until the last line that punches a small breath out of you:

here’s what I wanted to say:
sometimes the lack of human interaction can make a person
physically ill
but sometimes human interaction is even worse than that
and since all is not lost yet
since some people still believe in us
and because some still consider us the voice of our generation
(and because we are, in the end, still standing)
I would like once more to emphasize that:
we are lonely
very few people believe in us
we are reluctant to show our poems
to our parents, to our close friends, to our acquaintances
no one believes in us
after a good day at work
no one will go have a beer with us
no one will teach us loneliness

My one quibble with his poems is that many remind one more than a little bit of Ginsberg and Whitman, with his “voice of our generation” and “pleasant evening cities,” and his

COME COME TO ME
BEFORE AN UNSPEAKABLE FORCE
TEARS US FROM OUR WORLDS
AND REFUSES TO PUT US BACK AGAIN
BEFORE WE’VE BEEN PUSHED INTO THE GUTTERS
OF PATHS NO ONE USES

with his combination of brash, raw intensity, playful pornography and angelic posture. But Kirill Medvedev is an astute observer of his fellow humans and a skilled writer, so I won’t protest if he’s claiming his place in this tradition. After all, Ginsberg wrote in homage to Whitman, and no one’s complaining. Still, one wonders if there is anything new under the sun. I don’t know enough about poetry to say K.M. is not innovative, but I have read enough to say it feels familiar. Familiar, yes, but very engaging. There is streak of madness to his method. These are not lyrical verse intended to provoke quiet individual reflection, but often calls to arms, implicit or explicit, to put aside our books and reverie for a minute and go live out there in the messy, insane, unnecessarily horrible world which you and I and he are a part of whether we like it or not. He can protest in front of theaters all he wants (he did that, writes about it… and yes, all writing about activism is ultimately embarrassing) but there are “actions” in his poems, in their will to live.

Which is aesthetically and ideologically consistent with the second part of It’s No Good, a collection of essays on contemporary intellectual life and political responsibility and activism, permeated with palpable frustration, warning against complacency and intellectual traditions that have outlived their usefulness. We’ve all been there, amirite?

His essays read like journal entries, are terribly accessible and the book contains a glossary of names which was helpful even to me. Some of the essays get a bit niche, though should be of interest to those of us who think the inner-workings of the Russian intelligentsia make those of the FSB seem as transparent as cellophane, or who are still obsessed with Eddie Limonov. I will always be obsessed with Limonov. I suspect Eddie Limonov gave me a psychological STD or something. And that you will get it from reading this blog, and that is how insanity perpetuates its existence.

What was I saying? Oh. Psychological STDs aside, Kirill Medvedev’s writings on the contemporary political environment in Russia come complete with a diagnosis of what is killing the liberal reformers, progressives, lefties, etc., how they got sick, and what needs to be done to cure them and restore health to Russia’s avant-garde. And he does so in a really History 101 way that I think even those with little or no familiarity with Russian intellectual history will find comprehensible. Largely because the Cliff’s Notes version of his politics is, “Communism? Socialism? Dissidents? Liberasl? Look, it’s the 21st Century and things have changed and we have to live our own lives in a way that mean something and make sense RIGHT NOW.” There is even a risk that much of it may not be profound news to anyone who has been paying attention to Russia for the past 20+ years. But it will certainly be savoured with great hedonistic gratification by anyone who is bloody fucking sick of writing blog posts on those infuriating, incompetent Russian liberals.

On which he muses:

Please don’t talk to me about your “historical experience” of Soviet oppression: it’s not your experience, it’s the experience of Mayakovsky (a Bolshevik), of Shalamov (a Trotskyist), of Mandelstam (a Socialist Revolutionary), of others.

Aka, not you mewing contemporary neoliberals trying to co-opt the plights of dead leftists. He also argues that the success of far-right intellectuals such as Dugin come from the fact that their ideas feel radical and “alive”,

“… in sharp visceral contrast to the liberal paradigm, where anything dangerous or incomprehensible or even interesting either could not exist at all or could exist only formally, not as itself but rather as an example of the liberalism and tolerance of the liberals.”

Can I get an Amen? It’s No Good is a breath of fresh air for those of us who have been blogging about Russian politics and culture in response to the too oft neoconish newsmedia in America and Britain whose Cold War framing of events prompt us to wonder if they would not in fact be happier if gulags were brought back, as their world does not seem to make sense without them. WaPo or BBC experts routinely take generic, meaningless topics like “clash of civilizations” or “liberal opposition” and speak of them as if only through their specialized analysis may we ever hope to glean what It All Means, turning vague ideas into a niche specialization for which they may be handsomely rewarded. Kirill Medvedev dumps all that nonsense on its head, does the opposite, taking niche interests, the Russian intellectual infighting or something, and with a bit of common fucking sense (this, from a poet!), shows them to be symptomatic of the global system affecting us all.

Are we not all living under neoliberal economic systems? Are we not all struggling to square our own ethics and need for meaning with the system we rely on for food and shelter and basic security? Are we not all looking at our elections thinking, this is no longer working, at our commercials thinking, what on earth is this shit?

Why aren’t more people writing like this?

And I think this is precisely why I think my American leftist friends can appreciate this book as much (perhaps more than, I suspect) as those kids out in Bolotnaya Square. There is, in I suppose the true left tradition, a universal/international perspective to his writing, focusing on individuals and systems rather than nationalities.

“… it seems to me that no matter how the world looked in 1989 or 1991 – and I know it looked different from how it looks today – we can all now admit that the notion of post-industrial capitalism as the best of all possible worlds is hardly the most progressive notion available.

… Should we stop writing poems? Go crazy from guilt? No. No. We just need to transform our picture of the world a little, and we can begin by ceasing to talk nonsense about the clash of civilizations.

Because otherwise you become an appendage of a system that allows you to take up whatever you want, develop whatever styles, discourses, and poetics you want, on the condition that you do not interfere with politics, with real life. And your “grown-up” credo (and, clearly, a reasonable and obedient member of the contemporary neoliberal system is first and foremost a GROWN-UP, as opposed to all those idealists, pseudo-rebels, and dreamers, who aren’t) will go like this: I am a humble man, my business is putting together words. As for everyone else, I think they should do what they want. And my ability to think this way is based in part on a gigantic military, and low electricity prices, and plenty of oil.

And this does not strike me as an idea befitting the glory of liberalism, which was once a progressive and salvational force in human history; and it does not strike me as an argument for individuation. This is society as an armed camp, as colonizer, as exploiter. It is an indication that liberal concepts have entered a period of exhaustion, when their proponents often find themselves trampling their own norms in the most cynical and vicious ways possible.

Because there are no private people, and there are no two (or three, or four) clashing civilizations. There is a united space in which people exist. And between those people, as between poetics, are the most varied connections, be they hidden or obvious.”

Or,

“You cannot criticize the Putin regime without assessing your own place in it, whether as critic or artist. You cannot criticize an authoritarian Russian democracy without also assessing the role of the United States and its allies, without mentioning the worldwide division of labor, without recognizing the extent to which the situation here is a continuation of a worldwide process. It’s necessary to understand the extent to which your own consciousness determines your social existence, forces you to accept as obvious one or another set of perspectives. “There is no freedom from politics”: this is the banal truth that one must now grasp anew. Political passivity also participates in history; it too is responsible.”

It seems rare that we should have the opportunity to read such words from a Russian, in English, outside collections of pre-Stalin communist manifestos. How refreshing. I don’t even see enough Americans writing like this, let alone people in horrible Putinist Russia where there is no freedom of speech, ahem. Our choices, regardless what shitty regime we’re managing to survive under, are too often limited to mind-numbing apathy or hysterical fear-mongering. For all K.M.’S antics, his views are impressively thoughtful and constructive.

So, well, that’s the book.

I’m not done. Remember this? Lost in Translation. I have devoted no small amount of my already negligible energy to bitching about the lack of contemporary Russian literature in translation published in America. And in the meantime Writings From an Unbound Europe has shut its doors. So a round of applause for n+1 and Ugly Duckling Press for even making books like this available to the public. Now it is on us to show that an audience exists for such endeavors. And if there isn’t one, I’m mad enough to believe that it’s on me to create one. Nobody ever got any stupider for reading Russian poetry. Let me re-post this:


“Because there are no private people, and there are no two (or three, or four) clashing civilizations. There is a united space in which people exist. And between those people, as between poetics, are the most varied connections, be they hidden or obvious.”

There are 7 billion people on this planet having valuable experiences and insights, and many are writing about them, and many of those people are not writing in English, and you don’t know *all* the languages. It is not simply geography, religion, socio-economic position that inform our experience, and create barriers between us, but language. Translation may be less than ideal solution to crossing that barrier and opening communication; it’s a precarious bridge, but a bridge nonetheless. Rarely do we cross such a bridge when our lives don’t become richer with nuance and possibility.

Do you not want a life richer with nuance and possibility? Are you already dead? Ok, then. Support you local publisher of books in translation!

Kirill Medvedev: It’s No Good: poems / essays / actions
Translator: Keith Gessen
Translator: Mark Krotov
Translator: Cory Merrill
Translator: Bela Shayevich
Co-published with Ugly Duckling Presse
Eastern European Poets Series #30
ISBN 978-1-933254-94-4

December 28, 2011

PoemlesskayaPropaganda, or, No! Not the Sexy Chechen, Vova!

Filed under: Politics: Russia — poemless @ 5:43 PM
Tags: , , ,

A Drama in Four Acts. With commentary by Vladislav Surkov.

“Hey, poemless. Can you believe he had the balls to fire me like that?!!”
“Well, I mean, we are talking about Vladimir Putin …”
“You mentioned you had a position open. Talk to me. This modernisation gig is going to bore the living fuck out of me.”
“Yes, the position of love slave remains unfilled. Actually, there are many positions, but we can discuss them in detail later.”

Hey wasn’t this supposed to be a blog about Russia?!

Eh, well I got depressed and then dated this psychotic Russian cab driver and then got depressed again. Then someone got on my facebook and was all like, “Please post more interesting stuff re: the evolving dynamic in Russia.” And then my therapist was handwringing and probing about my not writing, which stresses me out even more, which is pretty fucking convenient for him, right? And then Putin went and fired the sexy Chechen.

And that, my dear friends, is where my writer’s block, or rather, writer’s too depressed to give a shit, draws the line!

What follows is neither propaganda (unless I get a check from Slava, which I could totally use, and I’m willing to change my blog name to “SurkovskayaPropaganda” for one) nor much insight re: the evolving dynamic in Russia. You know, those protests and such. No, I have no idea what it all means. But that won’t stop me from pontificating! And I hope to be marginally more effective than Surkov. Oh, it’s too tragic…

N.B. If you’re some hipster who has recently joined my audience and are wondering what the hell I am talking about: Vladislav Surkov. (Former as of yesterday) Presidential Advisor and so-called chief ideologue/propagandist/ Grey Cardinal of the Kremlin. Also the ruling party’s campaign guy. Also a goth band lyricist, Tupac fan, novelist, drama school dropout and sexiest man alive – except his hands are kinda like Mr. Burns’. Someone recently accused a Russian TV station of being “surkovskaya propaganda,” and it became an Internet meme. Whatever that is. Ask the kids. Anyway. Brilliant flipping hipster politico who just got a mad demotion is what the hell I am talking about.

If you’re some hipster who has recently joined my audience, here is the Cliff’s Notes your dog will understand version of what’s going down. If you are one of those pissy Russia watcher types, well Christ, thanks for sticking around my blog! Seriously!!! I’m like the prodigal freaking son around here…

The Stage is Set

Russia held some legislative elections. Because it’s a democratic country like that. Russia has sep., direct elections for President, unlike the US (electoral college) or some European countries where the majority party in the parliament gets the Executive branch de facto. The elections were as free as can be expected in any Western democracy. Which is to say, if you could gather enough support you could get on the ballot, and if you could get off your ass you could vote, except in those annoying instances when you couldn’t. Fair? There have been countless reports of mischief: ballot stuffing, votes disappearing, people voting numerous times, and pressure to cast one’s vote for a certain party (which is rather subjective and ultimately not the same as election rigging. Democracy requires balls, folks.) Observations of vote-rigging were concentrated in Moscow, where the liberal (free-market) opposition is strongest, and the Caucasus, where, at least in Chechnya, they’ve basically made a Faustian deal with Moscow in which they can have their own little kingdom in exchange for giving the Russian government no problems. That includes turning out the vote. GOTV! Any of this sound familiar to all y’all in Chicago? Yeah, so like that. How much fraud? Depends whom you ask. I’m in the, “Oh, I have no idea, so like 7%ish” camp.

ACT I.

I don’t know why, but the Russian people actually voted with some expectation that the election would be fair. That their vote would count. Specifically, their vote against the ruling party. From my woefully under informed but magnificently intelligent perspective, I’d say that this issue of expectations does in fact mark a true paradigm shift in Russian politics. (<–Pay attention, that is important.) This shift has occurred particularly among the younger, urban generation, who experienced firsthand neither the farce of elections under Soviet Rule, nor the chaos and suffering brought by the social upheavals of the 1990’s, nor the political malaise and cynicism brought on by the ideological pissing match that defined late 20th century geopolitics. They’ve known “stability” most of their lives, and now they want more. Idealism is back. And the kids think it’s cool. Celebrate. Or read Russian history. Your choice.

Slava Surkov provides commentary on the elections:

(You’re going to have to wait for Act II.)

ACT II.

After the ballots are counted, even when we presume the results are rigged, United Russia, the ruling party (which Putin himself won’t even be a card-carrying member of) does incredibly poorly! Their showing is still better than everyone else’s, overall, but quite short of their own modest goals. In previous elections, conventional wisdom has held that while machinations (i.e. “managed democracy”) were used to ensure an overwhelming majority, had elections been perfectly fair (a concept I’ve yet to see defined, btw), the ruling party would still have won a safe majority. Here we have a situation where the party has not only failed to win a fair fight, but has failed to win by cheating. They are guilty of both unpopularity and incompetence. (N.B. Conventional wisdom also dictates that support for the party is not synonymous with support for Putin, whose popularity remains marginally stronger than that of the party of Crooks and Thieves, as United Russia has been dubbed, and a characterization which Putin has in the past not exactly argued with.) Meanwhile the Commies and Just Russia (who are either social democrats or Kremlin stooges, depending on your preferred conspiracy theory, though it is theoretically possible to be both) did nicely. So did the wackadoodle nationalists. Free-market ideologues didn’t make the cut. I haven’t seen anything to suggest that had the elections been squeaky clean that pro-business liberals would have garnered enough votes to have any impact on policy making. In sum, the election results, whether you look at the official tally or the exit polls, do not, in fact, suggest a widespread desire for radical change, or a Russian Spring, if you will. Just for more checks and balances and accountability. As one protest slogan goes, “I didn’t vote for those bastards. I voted for the other bastards.”

Slava Surkov provides commentary on the elections:

”The system is working,” Mr. Surkov told Sergei Minayev.

“United Russia has maintained its dominance with much more modest popularity figures,” he noted. “Attempts to shake up the situation and interpret it in a negative and provocative key are doomed,” he said. “Everything is under control.”

United Russia’s commanding majority in the last parliament – which will be replaced by just over half the seats in the new one – was “abnormal,” Mr. Surkov said. United Russia got 49.7% of the vote Sunday, down from 65% in the last elections in 2007.

“For a party that turned out to be in power during a deep global economic crisis, this is a good result,” he said. “Add to that the painful but necessary reforms of the (Interior Ministry) and army, plus the forced increase in taxes on business needed to preserve social benefits, then one can say this is a very good result.”

“And if we don’t forget about how much (President Dmitry) Medvedev and United Russia did to develop democracy and political competition….opportunities for manipulation were decisively cut off – I repeat, this is an outstanding result,” he said.

Monday, Western election observers condemned the election as not fair or free and rife with manipulations. Mr. Surkov dismissed allegations as “disrespectful” of the voters. “Violations happen but they don’t have any impact on the results because there simply aren’t many of them.”

Mr. Surkov said two things are still missing in the Russian political system.

First, “a mass liberal party, or more precisely, a party for the annoyed urban communities.” He said those voters are already incorporated into the system, though they may not want to admit it – “through opposition media that belong, strange as it may seem, to the state or structures affiliated with it, the staffs or audiences of which they are a part.”

“That’s of course not enough…they should be given parliamentary representation,” he said.

Second, he said, “Among Russian politicians, there aren’t enough people who respect the second law of thermodynamics….In vulgar terms, it says that in closed systems, disorder grows,” he said.

“The (power) vertical responds to breakdowns even more vertically, simply, more primitively. That’s a mistaken method. It leads to a more closed system and thus to more chaos.”

“As a result, for the system to preserve itself and develop, it needs to be opened up. New players need to be allowed in,” he said.

“We can’t allow ourselves to wind up in the situation of ‘solus rex’ – the lonely king,” he said.

“The period of cleaning up and nursing the damaged political system of the 90s is over,” he said. “So the modernization of the political system started in recent years by Medvedev and Putin should be continued.”

From: WSJ: “Kremlin’s Ideologist Weighs In on Elections, Thermodynamics” by Gregory L. White.

ACT III.

Thousands of Russians take to the streets in mass protests. A most peculiar development, if one compares the level of dissatisfaction with the results with the fact that the ruling party arguably has lost their monopoly on the system. Why are people protesting so?

Well, for one, it’s fun. Unlike the coups in the Middle East or the riots in Europe, these are impressively peaceful and free demonstrations. Hipsters, overpriveledged types, scary fringe nationalists, youths – a good cross section of society. Have you ever gone to a demonstration? Good times. Rightly or not, they give one a feeling of empowerment and ignite a little flame in one’s gut, feeding a belief that dialogue between leaders and proles is truly possible. You get on tv and the authorities get scared. It’s a real egotrip! And how cathartic to go into a public square and just fucking vent. If you did it alone, people would call you a lunatic. But when you do it with hundreds and thousands of others, suddenly the media wants to know what you have to say. Suddenly you matter. Suddenly they can’t ignore you anymore. I quite like a good protest. It’s the most enjoyable part of democracy. It also requires the least amount of effort, sacrifice and responsibility, after voting. And when else can hipsters revel in the validation of thousands of others agreeing with them without losing their cred? I’ve never understood why more people don’t do it, frankly.

On a more serious note, Russians who are protesting are protesting an electoral process which they have deemed to be unfair. There are numerous accusations and observations of fraud and various demands of the protesters, ranging from the sensible (like investigations) to the barking mad (like eliminating the ballot threshold.) Some Americans have asked if the protests in Russia are similar to the OWS protests. Yes and no. Yes, in that people feel that those in power have rigged the system for their personal gain, and in that it’s incredibly adhoc and disorganized as a “movement.” So in the most basic way, yes. No, in that many, many of the protesters are pro-privatization and free-market liberals, and in that it’s more about the political system than the economic system. In the most significant way, no. Some have asked if they are like the Arab Spring. I don’t think so. I also don’t underestimate mob mentality, that it would benefit some unsavory but powerful types, or have any indication that this is what the protesters desire. Time stamped 2:13 pm, December 28, 2012.

Slava Surkov provides commentary on the protests:

The system has already changed. This is a fait accompli. Look at the results of the elections to the Duma, the protest on Bolotnaya, the discussion on the internet, Putin’s public forum on the 15th, the president’s address.. all that remains is to formalize these changes judicially (implementing a law on the direct elections of governors and about simplifying the registration of parties) and technically (supplying polling stations with web cameras, electronic voting machines, etc.)

I think that with a few of these decisions some influential people will try to slow the process, but they won’t stop it altogether. The fundamental structures of society have shifted, the social fabric has acquired a new character. We’re already in the future. And this future is restless. But one shouldn’t be scared. The turbulence, although strong, nonetheless is not catastrophic but a form of stability. Everything will be fine.

[...]

There are those who want to concert the protest into a colored revolution – this is correct. They are acting literally according to Sharpe’s books* and the newest revolutionary methods. So literally, in fact, that it’s already boring. I’d like to advise these people that they should deviate just a little from these instructions, to dream a little bit.
But these swindlers** don’t have anything to do with it. The fact is that the protests are completely real and natural. The best part of our society, or, rather, the most productive part demands respect.

People are saying that we exist, we have meaning, we are the people. One cannot arrogantly dismiss their opinions. And it is correct that these opinions are taken into account, that the authorities have had a benevolent reaction. It proposed that direct elections of governors will resume, and that party registration will be practically untrammeled…to yield to the reasonable remands of the active part of society – this is not a reluctant maneuver on the part of the authorities, it is their obligation and constitutional duty.

Of course it is possible to say that those who have gone out on the streets are only a minority. If this is the case, what a minority! And if you examine the ruling majority – in reality this is also a minority, only a somewhat larger. Our current democracy in the conditions of a complicated and fragmented society – this is in general a democracy of minorities. If you think strategically, listening to the minorities you will find among them tomorrows leaders.

And, of course, a crowd can advance unreasonable demands and can sometimes be lead by provocateurs. But as concerns the provocateurs – there is the law, there is the obligation of the state to defend the bases of the constitutional order.

And there then arises a question: what are we defending? Who wants to wants to preserve corruption and injustice? Who wants to defend a system that has become deaf, dumb, and blind? No one! Even those, who appear part of this system don’t want to. Because they don’t feel justified.

The moral standing, which the state possessed until recently, must be, even if only partially, returned. And all those plans, proposed by the president, in this vein are correct. Political institutions that are modern, open, honest, intelligible to people, that will fight for them, preserve them, and defend them.

The most important thing now is to realize all of these intentions. And it may be that at the next meeting there will be fewer people, that the chatter over the internet will cool down, and that it will seem to someone that nothing needs to be done, that everyone got worked up over nothing. That, once again, everything magically disappeared. And once again they will drag out, slow down, and set aside reforms until a better time, as has already happened, or simply dilute them. But we’ll hope for the best – God willing, the streets will calm down and the reforms will take place.

* Gene Sharp is the author of, among other books, “From Dictatorship to Democracy”

** Surkov here (deliberately) uses the exact same word that Navalny used in describing United Russia

From: Izvestia via Forbes: Vladislav Surkov on the Post-Election Protests: “The System has Already Changed” (Translation by Mark Adomanis.)

“As a professional political operative who just took a blow at his own ‘managed’ polls, and as someone who started out with Khodorkovsky and became the Kremlin’s right hand man, it’s neither surprising nor entirely stupid that he’s showing more flexibility here.” (<–What I said right before he was axed.)

ACT IV.

Putin axed Surkov, widely seen to be the “architect” of his political system. Or reassigned him. Normally this type of rearranging the furniture is looked upon with boredom and, except by the most eggheaded Kremlinologists, as a real bone toss. But this is no “I think that chair would look better by the window” rearranging. Putin put the fucking oven in the spare bathroom. Only history will tell if it was a genius or insane move. My immediate reactions:

~ Oh, Merry fucking Christmas to Michael McFaul.

~ Many articles have described Surkov’s move from Presidential Advisor to deputy Prime Minister overseeing Modernization (wtf?) as “leaving politics and entering government.” Leaving politics to enter government. In what universe is Russia actually located anyway? That doesn’t even make sense. I mean, not in the universe I inhabit. Is this a quantum physics thing? Though, if anyone could manage, ahem, that kind of maneuvering, Surkov could. Hell, it sounds like just the kind of thing he’d say, doesn’t it. Snake. Hot snake.

~ Look, I am really only shocked it did not happen sooner. I expected that shoe to drop the day after the elections. Not because of the protests. No. Putin’s not scared of the hipsters. Because the ruling party flopped and the current system is being vocally questioned. As its “architect,” Surkov has to answer for that. Putin’s never made sentimental decisions, and Surkov knows damn well politics is business. That said, Putin also values loyalty, and the move to Vice Deputy PM of Modernization or whatever the fuck he’ll being doing leaves a door open for recognizing Surkov’s loyalty should he prove it and should it not be political suicide for Putin to do so. (<– Saying shit like that earned me the blogger cred I squandered this year.)

~ Surkov never should have made that "Solus Rex" remark. You don't want to get on your boss's bad side. Especially if your boss is Vladimir Putin. And you just lost some elections.

~ Vova's done a lot of fearless stunts, but this is his most impressive to date. You don't want to get on the devil's bad side. Especially if he's your strategy man. And thousands are protesting outside your office.

~ Wait, I am soooo confused. Medvedev is still President for the moment, technically, and Putin is still technically PM, and Slava's been moved to Putin's sphere, oh, I give up…

~ I guess this frees him up to be my love slave.

Slava Surkov provides commentary on his demotion:

Asked by a journalist from Interfax on Tuesday why he was leaving, Mr. Surkov first answered, “Stabilization devours its own children.”

Then he laughed, and said he had overstayed the job and had requested a reassignment. Asked whether he would take a role in settling down the protests, Mr. Surkov said no.

“I am too odious for this brave new world,” he said. He then summed up his achievements at the reporter’s request.

“I was among the people who helped President Yeltsin realize a peaceful transfer of power,” he said. “I was among those who helped President Putin stabilize the political system. I was among those who helped President Medvedev liberalize it.” He added, “I hope I did not undermine my employers and my colleagues.”

From: NYT: “Architect of Russia’s Political System Under Putin Is Reassigned” by Ellen Barry.

Many are calling this an end of the Power Vertical (unfortunately I believe they are referring to the Kremlin’s strategy and not the wretched website.) It saddens me. One day people will wake up and realize they are all bastards, and if one must have bastards, bastards with intelligence, actual knowledge of and interest in political science and a healthy dose of sass and courage are the kinds of bastards you want. The truth is all democracies are managed. The hipsters just want their turn at managing it. Fair enough. Seriously, just do not even pick up that Russian history book! Pretend it doesn’t exist! … No, to be honest, it’s one thing I do truly love and admire about Russia. It is a politically fearless and resilient country. And there is no stopping today’s sons from becoming tomorrow’s fathers.

CODA.

Whoa! If you think that was heavy handed, I present to you Guy Faulconbridge’s write up, in full, just because I like the guy so much!

Reuters: “Putin ejects Kremlin ‘puppet master’ after protests” by Guy Faulconbridge.

MOSCOW Dec 27 (Reuters) – The architect of Vladimir Putin’s tightly controlled political system became one of its most senior victims on Tuesday when he was shunted out of the Kremlin in the wake of the biggest opposition protests of Putin’s 12-year rule.

The sacrifice of Vladislav Surkov, branded the Kremlin’s ‘puppet master’ by enemies and friends alike, is also a rare admission of failure for Russia’s ‘alpha dog’ leader: Surkov’s system was Putin’s system.

With irony worthy of Surkov’s cynical novels, the Kremlin’s 47-year-old political mastermind was shown grinning on state television when told by President Dmitry Medvedev that he would oversee modernisation as a deputy prime minister.

When asked why he was leaving the Kremlin, Surkov deliberately misquoted a slogan from the French Revolution, saying: “Stabilisation is eating up its children.”

Almost in passing, Surkov told Interfax news agency he would not be running domestic politics after nearly 13 years doing exactly that from the corridors of the Kremlin.

Why? “I am too notorious for the brave new world.”

His post will be taken by Putin’s chief of staff and Surkov’s arch enemy, Vyacheslav Volodin, a wealthy former lawyer who hails from Putin’s ruling United Russia party. Anton Vaino, a 39-year-old former diplomat, becomes Putin’s chief of staff.

By ejecting Surkov from the Kremlin just two months before the presidential election, Putin is betting that he can neutralise some of the anger against his rule by projecting the impression of a brave new world of political reform.

“What happened today is nothing more than shuffling people from one office into another,” Mikhail Prokhorov, Russia’s third richest man who demanded Surkov be sacked in September, said through a spokesman. “Little will change from these shifts.”

Though Surkov’s exit may not usher in a vast political change, it is the end of an era for one of Putin’s most powerful aides. And at Putin’s court, personalities count for everything.

PUTIN’S ARTIST

Described as Russia’s answer to France’s Cardinal Richelieu or a modern-day Machiavelli, Surkov was one of the creators of the system Putin crafted since he rose to power in 1999.

To admirers, “Slava” Surkov is the most flamboyant mind in Putin’s court: a writer of fiction who recited poets such as Allen Ginsberg but also strong enough to hold his own against the KGB spies and oligarchs in the infighting of the Kremlin.

To enemies, Surkov is a dangerous artist who used his brains to expand Putin’s power and whose intellectual snobbery made Russian citizens beads in a grand political experiment called “Vladimir Putin.”

Fond of black ties and sometimes unshaven, Surkov survived many turf wars but he could not survive the biggest protests of Putin’s rule or Putin’s need to find someone to blame for them.

As the manager of United Russia, the Kremlin’s point man on elections and ultimately the day-to-day manager of Putin’s political system, Surkov bore direct responsibility for the protests which have pitted Russia’s urban youth against Putin.

He did not answer requests for comment.

Brought into the Kremlin under Boris Yeltsin in 1999 to serve as an aide to then chief of staff Alexander Voloshin, Surkov helped ease the handover of power to Putin.

He then worked with Putin and then President Medvedev to consolidate power, repeatedly using the spectre of the chaotic 1990s to warn against swift change.

PUTIN’S SYSTEM

In practise, Surkov’s rule meant centralising power in Putin’s hands: Surkov moved regional decision-making to the Kremlin, struck down any attempt at autonomy and directed party politics.

Such was his power that Russia’s top party officials, journalists and cultural leaders would visit him in the Kremlin for ‘direction’ on how to present events to the public.

“He is considered one of the architects of the system,” Putin’s former finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, told Kommersant FM radio.

“Now this system is being revised. New organisers are needed with different views on the political system,” said Kudrin, who has offered to lead dialogue between the opposition and the authorities.

Signs of trouble for Surkov appeared in May when Volodin -the man who eventually took his job – helped Putin create a new movement, or popular front, that would compete with the United Russia party for Putin’s patronage.

Volodin, a dollar millionaire fond of ducking reporters questions with irony or personal needling, presented the popular front to Putin as a way to revive the ruling party.

Volodin’s stock rose after securing 65 percent of the vote for Putin’s party in Saratov, a region where he was born.

Then in September, the main scriptwriter of Russian politics became the focus of an intriguing unscripted conflict with Prokhorov – the whizz kid of Russian finance – over the fate of a minor opposition party which was crippled by the Kremlin.

“There is a puppet master in this country who long ago privatised the political system and has for a long time misinformed the leadership of the country,” Prokhorov, whose fortune Forbes put at $18 billion, said at the time.

“His name is Vladislav Yuryevich Surkov,” said Prokhorov, who demanded Putin sack Surkov. Putin had to personally calm down the two sides in the row, two sources said.

But after mass protests in major Russian cities against the parliamentary election and against Putin himself, Surkov’s analysis differed to that of his boss.

Putin has dismissed the protesters as chattering monkeys or a motley crew of leaderless opponents bent on sowing chaos, but Surkov gave a more refined view: he said they were among the best people in Russian society.

“You cannot simply swipe away their opinions in an arrogant way,” said Surkov, who will now have to move his portrait of Argentine-born revolutionary Che Guevara from his Kremlin office.

All you lousy journalists can write your silly Surkov hagiographies. I was doing that years ago, before it was even cool!

Maybe I should join that hipster revolution.

October 6, 2011

Odds & Ends: “Tomorrow we may die, so let’s get drunk and make love” Edition

I began to write an essay, an anti-hipster creed in defense of N. Clark Street, about how we are all part of the human comedy and can’t we just stop with the judgement and hatred already? Honestly, does everyone have to be as miserable and cultured as you all of the time?

I began to write another essay, a judgemental and hateful screed against the double standards against which society judges women who under eat v. those who over eat. Honestly, you know lying on the couch with a bag of Oreos isn’t any less criminal than skipping meals, right?

I began to write yet another essay, an admission that I genuinely don’t like how negative I’ve become in the past week or two, or three, or four, or more. Negativity is contagious, insidious. Honestly, we all have our annoyances, peeves and impossibly high standards, but let me tell you mister, it’s a real bore when that’s your primary mode of conversation. I would like to think that if every last lame ass person, place or thing in the world were to vanish tomorrow leaving me with nothing against which to exist, my identity and self-worth would remain largely in tact.

Well that didn’t make me feel better either. Also, that last one mysteriously disappeared into the ether after a failed attempt at multitasking. Karma.

So here are some things that I do like! Shallow enough to charm, indulgent enough to gratify, interesting enough to distract, a few odds and ends that I unapologetically adore at the moment.

I. Marlene Dietrich’s Temperamental Screen Test for The Blue Angel (1929)

I have always thought Marlene Dietrich absolutely divine, and I just can’t get enough of this. Her little transformation is particularly appealing to me.

From Open Culture (which you should all have bookmarked):

In 1929, Josef von Sternberg began assembling the cast for the first major German sound film – Der blaue Engel, otherwise known as The Blue Angel. (Watch the English version online here.) A classic of Weimar cinema, the film featured Marlene Dietrich playing Lola-Lola, a seductive singer in the local cabaret. Lola-Lola was, it has been said, a “liberated woman of the world who chose her men, earned her own living and viewed sex as a challenge.” The persona captivated audiences, and it made Dietrich an international star.

Dietrich’s screentest for “The Blue Angel.”

II. Catalogue of the Musee du Montparnasse exhibtion “Les Artistes Russes hors Frontière.”

One of the delights my work gives me in lieu of a proper salary is perusing through art catalogues. The vast majority are modern art, which … well, there’s that negativity again… Anyway, this one recently appeared on my desk and transported me to heaven.

From ArtInfo: “Russian Artists in Paris in the Roaring Twenties”:

PARIS— In connection with the designation of 2010 as “France-Russia Year,” the Montparnasse Museum is hosting a important exhibition of Russian artists who once converged on this storied Parisian neighborhood. Over 70 artists are represented, covering the period from 1915 to the early 1960s, with special focus on the 1920s. At that time, many Russian painters and sculptors left their country in order to freely express their artistic ambitions and to seek out new trends in art.

The museum itself is part of this history: in its building, the painter Marie Vassilieff had her famous studio — a gathering place for Matisse, Satie, and other seminal cultural figures — and her equally-famous canteen, which provided dirt-cheap meals during World War I to those who were literally starving artists.

Beginning during the political upheavals of the early 20th century, many Russian artists decide to move abroad, and many chose to settle in France. While some artists had supported Lenin and taken part in the revolution’s early stages, most became disillusioned when Stalin took power, preferring to leave rather than to accept ethical and artistic servitude. At the time, Social Realism greatly limited the range of painterly subjects. Still, important artists did remain in Russia, such as Rotchenko, who followed Constructivist principles by applying artistic creation to daily life and mass production. But many other influential talents chose refuge in Paris, the world’s artistic capital at the time.[...]

Drawing on their interest in figurative representation, the Russians developed a freely sensual style of painting. The show includes Serebriakova’s series of languid female nudes, where the artist uses a warm palette to bathe her models in a natural erotic glow. In similar fashion, Marie Vassilieff celebrates the female body with Cubist renderings that maintain bodily proportions and extreme colors that bring Italian Futurism to mind. In general, Russian artists depicted physical beauty without stylizing it. This emphasis on the body also found playful expression in Montparnasse nightlife. During the Union des Artistes Russes’s charity balls, guests freely stripped off their clothes or dressed in drag.

The Russian artists who chose to live in France stayed there, whether by preference or necessity. Erased from Soviet art history, many were forgotten until the end of their lives. It took years before significant pieces of this exiled cultural heritage were rediscovered — many of them in flea-markets. The works shown here all come from the same collection: Georges Khatsenkov gathered 300 paintings over 30 years of tireless pursuit. Since Perestroika, the Russians have rediscovered their legacy, and today these artists are featured in Moscow’s Russian Museum.

From the exhibition: Georges Annenkov’s “Nu Allongé”

Swoon…

III. Ken Burns’ “Prohibition.”
Booze! Chicago! Roaring 20’s! I’d been eagerly anticipating the airing of this PBS documentary all summer, and let’s say I wasn’t drawn to it for its educational appeal. The fact that I learned anything new from it was icing on the cake, or a garnish on the glass, as it were. Did you know that there used to be no federal income tax, that women not only led the fight for but also against Prohibition, that men discovered the clitoris in the 1920’s or that elephants can do the Charleston? Neither did I. Did you evah hear of Lois Long? Neither had I. Now that I have, I am in love.

From “Prohibition”:

Twenty-three-year-old, Vassar-educated daughter of a Congregational minister, Lois Long was assigned to cover the city’s nightlife for the New Yorker. She wrote about the speakeasy lifestyle with a liberated woman’s perspective under the pen name Lipstick. Long was the epitome of a flapper and chronicles of her nightly escapades of drinking and dancing in her column enchanted her readers.

“Lois Long’s columns were laced with a wicked sort of sexual sense of humor. She openly flouted sexual and social conventions. She was a favorite of Harold Ross who was the original editor of The New Yorker and who couldn’t have been more different from Long if he had tried. He was a staid and proper Midwesterner, and she was absolutely a wild woman. She would come into the office at four in the morning, usually inebriated, still in an evening dress and she would, having forgotten the key to her cubicle, she would normally prop herself up on a chair and try to, you know, in stocking feet, jump over the cubicle usually in a dress that was too immodest for Harold Ross’ liking. She was in every sense of the word, both in public and private, the embodiment of the 1920s flapper. And her readers really loved her. “

From Wikipedia:

Lois Long (also known under the pseudonym Lipstick) was a popular writer for The New Yorker during the 1920s and the epitome of a flapper.

She was born to a Congregationalist minister in Stamford, Connecticut and graduated from Vassar. Long had worked at Vogue and Vanity Fair before finding fame at The New Yorker. Harold Ross hired her to write a column on New York nightlife. Under the name of Lipstick, Lois Long chronicled her nightly escapades of drinking, dining, and dancing. She wrote of decadence of the decade with an air of aplomb, wit and satire, becoming quite a celebrity. Because her readers did not know who she was, Long often jested in her columns about being a “short squat maiden of forty” or a “kindly, old, bearded gentleman.” However, in her marriage announcement to The New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno, she revealed her true identity.

To summarize her lifestyle in her own words: “Tomorrow we may die, so let’s get drunk and make love.”

She remained with The New Yorker as a columnist until 1968. She died in 1974 [1]

I don’t really believe in reincarnation or any of that nonsense. But it’s a little eerie, don’t you think? ;) A toast to Lois Long!

IV. Salon: Why American novelists don’t deserve the Nobel Prize.

This article ignited the absolutely most tedious discussion on my facebook page, but I still like it, and after you read it, I will happily explain why.

An American hasn’t won in 20 years. The Academy finds our writers insular and self-involved — and they’re right
America wants a Nobel Prize in literature. America demands it! America doesn’t understand why those superannuated Swedes haven’t given one to an American since Toni Morrison in 1993. America wonders what they’re waiting for with Philip Roth and Thomas Pynchon. America wonders how you say “clueless” in Swedish.

OK, enough. But the literature Nobel will be announced this Thursday and if an American doesn’t win yet again, there will be the usual entitled whining — the sound of which has been especially piercing since 2008, when Nobel Academy permanent secretary Horace Engdahl deemed American fiction “too isolated, too insular” and declared Europe “the centre of the literary world.”[...]

Four years after Morrison won the Nobel, David Foster Wallace predicted the current rut in which our literature finds itself in a New York Observer evisceration of John Updike’s “Toward the End of Time.” Though he took particular issue with Updike’s autumnal output, Wallace parceled blame to all of the Great Male Narcissists, with their hermetic concerns and insular little fictions. The following is Wallace’s estimation of Updike, but it could just as easily be said about anyone else in the postwar American pantheon: “The very world around them, as beautifully as they see and describe it, seems to exist for them only insofar as it evokes impressions and associations and emotions inside the self.”

Our great writers choose this self-enforced isolation. Worse yet, they have inculcated younger generations of American novelists with the write-what-you-know mantra through their direct and indirect influence on creative programs. Go small, writing students are urged, and stay interior. Avoid inhabiting the lives of those unlike you — never dream of doing what William Styron did in “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” putting himself inside the impregnable skin of a Southern slave. Avoid, too, making the kinds of vatic pronouncements about Truth and Beauty that enticed all those 19th-century blowhards.

As Bret Anthony Johnson, the director of the creative writing program at Harvard, noted in a recent Atlantic essay, our focus on the self will be our literary downfall, depriving literature of the oxygen on which it thrives: “Fiction brings with it an obligation to rise past the base level, to transcend the limitations of fact and history, and proceed skyward.” This sentiment is a sibling to Wallace’s anger — and both have a predecessor in T.S. Eliot’s 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” where he called art “a continual extinction of personality.”

The rising generation of writers behind Oates, Roth and DeLillo are dominated by Great Male Narcissists — even the writers who aren’t male (or white). Jhumpa Lahiri is a Great Male Narcissist whose characters tend to be upper-middle-class Indian-Americans living in the comfortable precincts of Boston or New York. Swap the identity to Chinese-American, move the story a couple of generations back on the immigrant’s well-trod saga, and you have Amy Tan. Colson Whitehead started promisingly with “The Intuitionist” and “John Henry Days” but his last novel, “Sag Harbor,” was little more than the bourgeoisie life made gently problematic by the issue of race. Jonathan Safran Foer is a narcissist disguised as a humanist. To his credit, Jonathan Franzen doesn’t even pretend.

That makes for a small literature, indeed. The following are words from citations for recent winners and runners-up of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, inarguably our most prominent commendation for a novelist: tender, warmth, heartbreaking, celebration, polished and sensuous. It’s all small-bore stuff, lack of imagination disguised as artistic humility.

Just look back to 2008, when the slight “Olive Kitteridge” won the Pulitzer, but the Irish-Turkish writer Joseph O’Neill told the story of America in “Netherland” with far more eloquence, insight and humor than an American writer had in more than a decade.

That’s not to say our literature is barren. Dave Eggers has written a novel about the Lost Boys of Sudan, “What Is the What,” and a fine “nonfiction novel” about Hurricane Katrina, “Zeitoun.” Best of all, his 826 reading centers have been a wholly selfless bid to get poor children reading and writing in eight cities. Then there is Aleksandar Hemon, son of Chicago and Sarajevo, who writes the kind of fiction that still seeks to span worlds. Johnston quotes him in the Atlantic: “I reserve the right to get engaged with any aspect of human experience, and so that means that I can — indeed I must — go beyond my experience to engage. That’s non-negotiable.”

Maybe it’s the same story as in politics and industry: America, once great, has been laid low. The difference is that great art needs no tariffs, no financial stimuli, no elections or military campaigns. It only requires courage — though a courage of a special kind — to see beyond oneself, to speak across both space and time via what Ralph Ellison once called “the lower frequencies.”

Indeed, compare the Pulitzer-winning descriptions with these words pulled from the citations of recent Nobel Prize-winners: Revolt, visionary, clash, oppression, subjugating, outsider, barbaric, suppressed. And lastly, the one word that seems most elusive to our writers today, so much so that I fear we’ve become afraid of it: universal.

Alexander Nazaryan, a member of the editorial board of the N.Y. Daily News, has written about culture for the New York Times, the New Republic and the Village Voice, among other publications.

Alexander Nazaryan is a writer and teacher living in Brooklyn. He is writing a novel about Russian immigrants in New York.

Are you done giggling at the irony of that last little bit? I could not possibly care who wins what award for what. Anecdotal evidence and recent experience hints that such attention is often reward for a successful combination of kissing ass, having the “right” worldview, exemplifying cultural trends and, we pray, talent. Everyone who leaves home is talented in this postmodern world so I suppose all those other matters are the only way to weed out the worthy from those who must continue to suffer for their art.

Moreover, while I do think that there is a navel-gazing movement in American writing, my grief with the state of contemporary American lit is that it often strikes me as nihilism wrapped in a big bow of preciousness. I would even go so far as to extend this description to most of contemporary culture. However, none of the above would necessarily prevent one from writing well or exploring the human condition in one’s writing.

I appreciated the article because I do find American literature to be shamefully insular, and because I could once more recommend “Against Eternal Provincialism: An Interview with Aleksandar Hemon.”

V. Some music I like. Deal.

Several friends have advised that I, during such times of sadness and heartache as these, seek comfort in music.

I’m a bit burnt on music, having spent the past several months being told I know nothing about it. I’m no expert, it’s true, but my god I have spent the last 37 years listening to the stuff. What a perfectly ridiculous claim! Fortunately whatever breakup-induced illness had befallen me making me never ever want to listen to another song ever again was short lived, and the other night I found myself dancing around my apartment like a hysterical chorus girl to this:

Katherine Whalen singing “After you’ve gone.”

I’ll close with Ella singing Cole Porter. I may not know anything about music, but those two sure as hell did.

“Just one of those things.”

Should it be that these odds and ends do nothing much for you, it’s no deal-breaker. I’ll not interpret it as rejection and look for a corner in which to mope. I’ll celebrate your uniqueness and thank you, as always, for stopping by.

…and then I’ll begin another essay about how YOU ARE ALL WRONG!

:)

LQD: “Why the pessimism over Putin’s return?”

Fear not – I’m still paying attention to our Vova. While I’ve been making a pathetic effort to compose a response to the recent 2012 Russian election developments, those smart kids Katrina and Stephen have gone and written pretty much what I’ve been thinking, saving me much time and effort. As always, if anyone has a problem with my publishing this in total, they can get in touch. I’m erring on the side of widest distribution. Go buy a Wa Po after you read this or something.

Washington Post: “Why the pessimism over Putin’s return?” By Katrina vanden Heuvel and Stephen F. Cohen

We make no brief for Vladimir Putin as a democrat, but much of the U.S. commentary following the announcement that he will return to the Kremlin as president in 2012 is simplistic morality posing as political analysis.

A Sept. 28 New York Times editorial, for example, insisted that Putin, who “has made clear his disdain for democratic rights,” is casting out the “more liberal and Western-oriented” Dmitry Medvedev. According to a Sept. 26 Post editorial, “Vladimir Putin decided that he would like to be president again, and so he will be.”

But the complexities of Russian politics cannot be reduced to the whims of one man — however powerful he may be. As was clear from polemics in Russian newspapers before the Sept. 24 announcement, Putin’s return to the Kremlin is prompted in part by the preferences of Russia’s ruling class — top officials and the financial elite known as the oligarchy. As the leading pro-Medvedev advocate, Igor Yurgens, acknowledged, “influence groups” favoring Putin “turned out to be ­stronger.” In their eyes, and probably in Putin’s, the ever-tweeting Medvedev was never able to shed his image as an ineffectual political figure. In effect, Medvedev failed his four-year audition for a second term.

The Russian elite, including the Putin and Medvedev camps, seems to understand that the country’s economy urgently requires diversification away from its heavy dependence on oil and gas exports. The state must find other sources of revenue for its growing budget. As Putin warned recently, such reforms will require “bitter medicine,” including higher taxes on the business class, which has prospered grandly under a 13 percent flat tax while many Russians have fallen into poverty. The governing class, eyeing its own interests, wants the tougher and popular Putin to preside over these changes.

It may turn out, as some U.S. commentators have asserted, that Putin’s return is “bad news for the Russian people.” But opinion polls show that, after more than a decade of Putin’s leadership, a majority of Russians still do not associate him with the country’s “bad news.” The reason is clear to anyone who has followed Russia since the end of the Soviet Union: It was Putin who restored pensions, lifted wages and elevated living standards after the traumatic 1990s, when Boris Yeltsin’s policies impoverished the country.

And what about President Obama’s highly touted “reset”? The Russian expert at the Center for American Progress asserts that “Putin’s return next year will reverse all of these positive trends” and “is no good for the United States.” This may be so in the limited sense that the Obama administration unwisely based its reset primarily on Medvedev — while directing gratuitous insults at Putin, such as when Vice President Biden told groups of Russians during his visit to Moscow this year that Putin should not return to the presidency. But the larger assumption that Putin’s return will mean a further diminishing of Russia’s democratic prospects is based on the false premise that Yeltsin, like Medvedev today, was a liberal democrat.

But it was the U.S.-backed Yeltsin who used tanks in 1993 to destroy an elected parliament, thereby reversing the democratization of Russia that began under Mikhail Gorbachev, a reversal accelerated under Putin. And while Medvedev has spoken often in the idioms of Western-style liberalism, it was Medvedev who took personal credit for using military force against Georgia in 2008 and then increasing military spending so sharply that his widely admired finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, resigned last month. Moreover, if Putin is determined to pursue retrograde policies, why would he promise to appoint the “more liberal” Medvedev as prime minister — an office Putin empowered during the past four years?

Indeed, given the real alternatives, and not those that Americans might prefer, why the assumption that Putin’s return to the Kremlin will be bad for Western interests? For example, the New York Times reported Sept. 28 that Western bankers and corporations welcomed the announcement as “a net positive for foreign investors.” It’s also noteworthy that from 2000 to 2008, when Putin was president, he made more important concessions to Washington than Medvedev has during the past four years — giving the Bush administration critical support in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks; bowing to a new round of NATO expansion; swallowing the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; and agreeing to an expansion of Russian supply routes for U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Those days of a yielding Putin, however, may be behind us. He said as early as 2002 that “the era of Russian geopolitical concessions [is] coming to an end.” What’s clear is that Putin’s future cooperation with Washington will depend on his understanding of Russia’s national interests and equally on Washington’s cooperation with Moscow, which, despite Obama’s heralded “reset,” has not yet involved any tangible American concessions.

Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor and publisher of the Nation and writes a weekly online column for The Post. Stephen F. Cohen is a professor of Russian studies at New York University and the author, most recently, of “Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives.”

What they said.

August 15, 2011

The Soviet Arts Experience in Chicago.

Filed under: Chicago,Culture: Russia — poemless @ 1:30 PM

If you have the misfortune to be following me on neither Twitter (because you know a time-suck when you see one) nor Facebook (because I’ve unfriended you), you will have missed my recent proclamation:

I am not Russian.

I’ll give you a moment to digest the news and gather yourselves.

Ready? OK.

As some of you may know, our fine city of Chicago is currently playing host to a 16-month long festival of Soviet arts. I was born in neither Russia nor Chicago, but harbor a deep appreciation for both places and devote much of this blog to their various charms and neuroses, some charms and neuroses which have over time become my own. So I would be remiss if I were not to acknowledge a Soviet arts festival being held in Chicago. Being held at my place of employment even. I had planned to actually, you know, see some of the current or upcoming exhibits before writing about them, because anyone can google and you’re all here seeking my infinite wisdom. Unfortunately my wisdom is rather finite in the realm of time-management; I am a chronic procrastinator and may very well not even make it to an Art Institute show until its last day. Or at all. Not much help writing a review of anything after the fact is there? Well, one can’t exactly have an informed opinion about something one’s not even seen (and that goes for having an informed opinion about Midnight in Paris if you walked out after the first few minutes, ahem…) So no wisdom, no reviews. Just some good ol’ пиар.

THE SOVIET ARTS EXPERIENCE

“An unprecedented collaboration showcasing works by artists of the Soviet Union
In one of the largest collaborative artistic efforts across Chicago, twenty-six of the city’s prominent arts institutions will join together in 2010, 2011 and 2012 to present The Soviet Arts Experience, a 16-month-long showcase of works by artists who created under (and in response to) the Politburo of the Soviet Union.

From the poignant string quartets and symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich to stunning, hand-painted WWII propaganda posters, and from the grand orchestral and ballet music of Sergei Prokofiev to the political satire of Evgeny Shvarts, The Soviet Arts Experience will take patrons behind the Iron Curtain to explore its essence through the creative work of its visual artists, choreographers, composers, and dramatists.

The Soviet Arts Experience is spearheaded by the University of Chicago Presents (UCP), the University’s professional presenting organization. The Soviet Arts Experience sponsors include The University of Chicago, The University of Chicago Arts Council, National Endowment for the Arts, Illinois Arts Council, and The Women’s Board of the University of Chicago.”

Yes, druz’ia, the institution that gave the world Milton Friedman is now celebrating Soviet propaganda. In case you were on the look out for that fourth horseman. Anyway, here’s a short list of some of the current goings on:

I. UofC SCRC: “Adventures in the Soviet Imaginary: Children’s books and graphic art.”


Image from Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

“Two of the most striking manifestations of Soviet image culture were the children’s book and the poster. Both of these media testify to the alliance between experimental aesthetics and radical socialist ideology that held tenuously from the 1917 revolutions to the mid-1930s and defined the look of Soviet civilization. The children’s books and posters featured in “Adventures in the Soviet Imaginary” allow us to relate this new image culture to the formation of new social and cultural identities under the watchful eye of a powerful and oppressive state. They cover a crucial period, from the beginning of Stalin’s Great Breakthrough in 1928 to the re-construction and re-grouping that followed the Great Patriotic War, as the Soviets called World War II. As these works show vividly, there was no ideologically neutral space in the rich and vibrant world of the Soviet imagination. By the same token, though, there was no zone of Soviet life free of the image.

“Adventures in the Soviet Imaginary” is drawn entirely from the collections of the University of Chicago Library. The Special Collections Research Center (SCRC) at the University of Chicago houses a large collection of over 400 Soviet children’s books published between 1927 and 1948, with the majority dated 1930-1935. This collection, the provenance of which is not known, is supplemented by a small but fascinating group of Soviet children’s books from 1930-1931 acquired by the Library as part of the R. R. Donnelley & Sons Company Training Department Library, where they were used in the company’s distinguished apprentice program for printers.”

That’s right. Bit of a matter that, not knowing the provenance… Never mind, it is a collection which, if not exactly rare in subject, is certainly so in volume and context. Do take a bit of time to click through the web exhibit. It’s terribly informative and downright overwhelming in its sheer number of visual materials scanned for your perusal. Some have asked, and no, I did not have a direct role in organizing this exhibit. Most of the pieces were acquired well before my arrival. And to be honest, it is not a particularly engaging topic for me. I did not even enjoy American children’s books as an American child. Not to mention that repetition is an asset when it comes to brainwashing little children, but not so much when it comes to what you have to look at for 8 hours a day. I do get a kick of the outright propagandist and defiantly optimistic style of early Soviet aesthetics, as well as the historical creepiness factor. But as a Russian professor of mine once noted, when it comes to theory based art, the theory is usually more interesting than the art. Last night as I sat looking through a friend’s collection of old Melodiia children’s records from the 1970’s I was, though enamoured both of their artifactual value and of this person’s existence in my life, not moved to listen to them or anything. … But I did learn of Russian Pinnochio, Buratino.

If you are in the area, you can check out the exhibit of Soviet Children’s books in our super snazzy new exhibition space! from August 22 – December 30, 2011 at the Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

If you are on campus to check out the Soviet children’s books exhibit, the Smart Museum of Art will also be presenting several exhibits as part of the Soviet Arts Experience showcase:

II. Smart Museum: “Process and Artistry in the Soviet Vanguard.”

“This intimate exhibition offers a rare glimpse at the experimental creative processes that generated iconic Soviet propaganda in the 1920s and 1930s. Featuring works by Gustav Klucis and Valentina Kulagina, it traces classic compositions from preparatory drawings and collage studies to approved designs to posters and other mass-produced print material.”

III. Smart Mueum: “Vision and Communism.”


Viktor Koretsky. Ne Boltai Collection. Image from Smart Museum of Art.

“In captivating images of survival and suffering, the postwar artist and designer Viktor Koretsky (1909–1998) articulated a Communist vision of the world utterly unlike that of conventional propaganda.

Designed to create an emotional connection between Soviet citizens and others around the globe, Koretsky’s posters heralded the multiculturalism of Benetton and MTV, while offering a dynamic alternative to the West’s sleek consumerism. Vision and Communism offers a striking new interpretation of visual communication in the U.S.S.R. and beyond.”

You know me, I am all about offering a dynamic alternative to the West’s sleek consumerism… I do recommend these shows simply because they are at a small, free, intimate, unpretentious little museum that doubles as a nice place for coffee or lunch while on campus. I believe “accessible” is the word.

The shows run respectively from August 30, 2011 – January 22, 2012 and September 29, 2011 – January 22, 2012 at the Smart Museum of Art.

Smart Museum of Art.

Perhaps the most anticipated exhibition of the Soviet Arts Experience is now taking place at the Art Institute of Chicago. On the one hand, you’ll not have to hike all the way down to Hyde freaking Park to see it. On the other hand, you will have to pay to do so (with a few exceptions but I’m so not going into the convoluted admissions policies and passes of the Art Institute here.) On the other, it’s probably worth it. And you should have that third hand looked at…

IV. Art Institute: “Windows on the War: Soviet TASS Posters at Home and Abroad, 1941–1945.”


A. Rachevskii. Ne boltai! Collection. Image from Art Institute of Chicago.

“Seventy years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, a group of artists and writers in Moscow joined forces under the auspices of the TASS News Agency to help reassure and rouse the Soviet citizenry by producing large-scale posters—TASS Windows. Despite the brutal regime of Joseph Stalin, creativity flourished among these diverse artists and writers as they attempted to find purpose while working in and for a totalitarian state. Producing a poster design for nearly every day of the war with a labor-intensive technical virtuosity previously unheard of in poster production, these artists committed themselves to the defense of the motherland. In collaboration with the Ne boltai! Collection of 20th-century propaganda, Windows on the War marks the first time these enormous handmade posters have been displayed in the United States since World War II, bringing to the fore many Soviet artists little known in this country.”

Oh, it gets better:

“In 1997, 26 tightly wrapped brown paper parcels were discovered deep in a storage area for the Department of Prints and Drawings. Their presence was a mystery, their contents a puzzle. [Whew - SCRC wasn't alone...] As conservators and curators carefully worked to open the envelopes, they were surprised and intrigued to find that they contained 50-year-old monumental posters created by TASS, the Soviet Union’s news agency. The idea for a major exhibition began to take shape.

Impressively large—between five and ten feet tall—and striking in the vibrancy and texture of the stencil medium—some demanded 60 to 70 different stencils and color divisions—these posters were originally sent abroad, including to the Art Institute, to serve as international cultural “ambassadors” and to rally allied and neutral nations to the endeavors of the Soviet Union, a partner of the United States and Great Britain in the fight against Nazi Germany. In Windows on the War, the posters will be presented both as unique historical objects and as works of art that demonstrate how the preeminent artists of the day used unconventional technical and aesthetic means to contribute to the fight against the Nazis, marking a major chapter in the history of design and propaganda.

For most of the 20th century, relations between the United States and the Soviet Union hovered between uneasy alliance and outright hostility. The period addressed by this exhibition—the years 1941–45—represents a fleeting moment when the nations were joined in a purposeful bond, a coalition attested to repeatedly in the posters of the TASS studio. This spirit of cooperation was short-lived, however; as early as 1945, an “iron curtain” began to descend between East and West, the seeds of which had been stealthily germinating throughout the war years. By the end of 1946, it was clear that the wartime alliance against Fascism would be supplanted by old allegiances and enemies in a budding “cold” war. Likewise, images of camaraderie from the World War II era were quickly buried, and iconographies of fear and suspicion, with their roots in the prewar decades, reemerged.

While the focus of Windows on the War is primarily on the 157 posters on display, viewers will also find their rich historical and cultural context revealed through photographs and documentary material illuminating the visual culture of US–USSR relations before and during the war.”

Some examples:


Artist Unknown. Private collection. Image from Art Institute of Chicago.


Vladimir Ivanovich Ladiagin, Osip Iakovlevich Kolychev. Gift of the USSR Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries. Image from Art Institute of Chicago.


After the Kukryniksy. Ne boltai! Collection. Image from Art Institute of Chicago.

In fact, of the many themes featured in this exhibit, the most immediately compelling for me, who is not so very into war paraphernalia, are the illustrated reminders, as simplistic and hyperbolic as Cold War or current propaganda, of the common goal of the US and Russia during World War II. Never one threatened by romanticism or naivete, the cynical, complicated and pragmatic relationship between our countries for that brief period was at least an admission of interdependence. Our two “evil empires” have indeed shown the ability to support one another despite our mutual tendencies to be arrogant, stubborn and prisoners of our own ideology. I know my crusade to make these two nations understand and appreciate one another makes some people positively nauseous. That it takes something like Nazis to force us to try makes me positively nauseous…

Windows on the War: Themes.
Windows on the War: Artists.
Windows on the War: Writers.

The exhibition of Soviet TASS Posters runs from July 31–October 23, 2011 at the Art Institute of Chicago.

The Art Institute of Chicago.

If you are in or near Chicago and enjoy reading this blog, I do recommend checking out at least one of these events. And do not not go out of spite because you felt you were deliberately mislead into believing I am Russian and therefore you bought me drinks or said something nice to me but it turns out I am just Irish and French and Cherokee and god knows what else (just between us, I think there may be some Chukchi in there) so fuck you, poemless. Don’t be like that. Go see some bad art and great propaganda and get a history lesson and support our local cultural institutions and give a shit about something before you die.

If you are in Russia, you must think I am just thoroughly incomprehensible and obsessive. Can’t imagine why anyone would mistake me for, you know…

Peace out, friends.

Let’s not wait for Nazis next time, ok?


Artist Unknown. Cellini Collection. Image from Art Institute of Chicago.

May 28, 2011

Odds & Ends: Diary of a High-Functioning Madman Edition

I fired, well, broke up with, well, kindly cancelled all future appointments with my therapist because she wanted to keep returning to the past, while I wanted to concentrate on the here and now, on my own maladaptive behavior, which I can change, not that of my parents, which I can’t. I don’t need to pay a shrink to know the mother and the father are to blame. The Oompa Loompas taught me that. I just need someone to say, “You’re lovely and bright and insightful and I just adore you but you need to practice doing x, y and z. Let me show you how.” I don’t know what’s so hard about that. What’s so hard about that? Why are professionals morosely obsessed with my failed, deceased mother? Heal thy fucking self indeed, sickos.

So shock horror that when I finally get around to writing a new Odds & Ends I immediately start thinking about past topics. OMG psychotherapy has wrecked my brain forever! Well, at least I’m digging up shit I actually like from my past, not my damned childhood. And I do it only in the interest of keeping readers, since these recurring themes are, uh, what my blog is about. People do not come here for optimism or football. Sure, some of the material I cover is disturbing, but frankly it’s therapeutic in its own way to talk about alienized children in Stalinist UFOs or literary criticism. No one ever talks about those things. Maybe they should. Because apparently talking about things solves all our problems. However, I am writing, not talking, and you are not charging $150/hr to read it. Which I’m sure violates a fundamental law of the therapeutic process rendering it DOA. So I’ll wallow, but with lowered expectations.

HIGH-FUNCTIONING

I. If you liked Lost in Translation, then you might enjoy:

Guardian: Translations lost in Booker International prize judging.

Yeah, there’s gotta be a foreigner who writes better than Philip Roth. If only because I’ll be forced to shoot myself in the brains if there isn’t. And I don’t want to make a mess. One day I’ll tell you how Philip Roth traumatized me.

Well, it’s over, and Philip Roth has won the Man Booker International prize for 2011. I was delighted about that. The judges have read with great zest and pleasure – surveying, in Dr. Johnson’s phrase, “from China to Peru” – a vast amount of fiction by contemporary writers. It would have been great to find, and to reward, a writer in translation, preferably one little known to Anglophone readers. But we have an “International” Prize here, which surely means that it is open to anyone – who either writes in English or is available in English translation.

[...]

“…one never knows what other people are fucking talking about… We were supposed to speak the same language but did we fuck…I forgot if I was talking, who I was talking to. I came in and out of perception like I was on dope.”

This piece of applied Wittgenstein suggests that shared perception is the problem. Is there any? Or are all languages private ones? Thus we encounter constantly, every day, the problem of translation. Not just from one language to another, but within the same tongue: from adult to child, man to woman, white to black, English to American, historical to contemporary. “Oh man, you don’t know where I’m coming from,” people used to say. All tongues are foreign tongues?

Not quite – if you ask the way to The Hermitage it helps to understand Russian. It helps even more if you wish to get the most out of Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. But the great majority of us – and this is my second point – have grown up reading these authors, and dozens of others in translation, with enormous profit and respect. I prefer reading Dostoyevsky to reading George Eliot, any day. I may miss the nuances of the language, not to mention its funniness, but I still get the extraordinary emotional power, the memorable characters, the play of ideas, the thump of the narrative. I remember Crime and Punishment pretty accurately, though I have not read it for 30 years, but can hardly recall anything of The Mill on the Floss.

Unless you have the original language you cannot say with any precision how well an author writes. Yes, sometimes you can guess. I am told that Juan Goytisolo is very well translated, and Wang Anyi often is not. We encountered a number of writers who we rather suspected were of top quality, but whose work was dreadfully translated, often by local cooperatives, university presses or cack-handed professors (often American). I remember one translation of a Chinese novelist in which the father and mother of a family were called “Mom” and “Dad.” In another, a dreadfully sadistic guard at a prison is described as “really mean.”
What’s one to do?

He’s on to something; “Chto Delat’?” has far more punch, right?

Or was that not rhetorical? Uhm, hire judges who read a language besides English? Just a suggestion…

II. If you liked Daniel Kalder, then you might enjoy:

Transmissionsfromalonestar: Parallel Lives: Russian Literature At Home And Abroad.

The dude who wrote about the Vissarionites and BFE central Asia is now living in Texas? Why does that make perfect sense? Anyway, this was on his blog. And it just segued so elegantly…

For most of the 20th century for instance, there were two parallel Russian literatures. Since the USSR practiced censorship, most people in the West believed that only Solzhenitsyn and other anti-soviet authors could be worth reading, and even relatively obscure dissidents could secure book deals. Authors of the soviet establishment however, who enjoyed print runs in the millions at home, were barely read outside the Eastern bloc, even though the Moscow-based Progress publishing house tirelessly churned out translations for the Western market.

Some authors managed to straddle this East/West divide: Mikhail Sholokhov for instance. But he achieved fame when there were still large numbers of intellectuals favorably inclined to the USSR in the West. After Stalin’s depredations became undeniable, it wasn’t so easy for a soviet author to secure a wide readership in America or Europe. Indeed one of the most famous of all soviet novels, Ilf and Petrov’s The Twelve Chairs, is practically unknown in the West. It doesn’t help that The Twelve Chairs is a comedy either: Westerners like their Russian authors bearded and serious.

Since 1991, the situation has changed again. Dissident writers once banned in Russia are now widely read at home and forgotten in the West. Vasily Aksyonov, for years a professor at Georgetown University, couldn’t even find an American publisher for his last few novels. Eduard Limonov, the notorious leader of the National Bolshevik party now deemed illegal in Russia, hasn’t been published in English since 1990.

However it’s not just contemporary writers who suffer from this distorting effect. Even the classics are subject to it.

All educated readers in Britain and America know the names of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, even if they haven’t read them. Chekhov is almost regarded as an English writer, at least in terms of the influence he has had on the short story.

Step back a little farther in time, however, and things become murkier. It’s easy to get your hands on Gogol’s Dead Souls and Petersburg Tales but as for Taras Bulba, Dikanka or even some of his plays, well, not so much. And of course, most obscure of all is Alexander Pushkin. People might know the name, but hardly anyone has read him.

By pure coincidence Scowspi and Doom are on my facebook page at this very moment lamenting the former’s failure to read Taras Bulba. I myself have not, and, like Kalder’s unwashed masses, I am also not a huge Pushkin fan. Ok the one about the demons and the storm in the carriage, that was great stuff. But enough to base a national identity on? When you have Dostoevsky? Really? REALLY?

III. If you liked Russian Film 101, then you might enjoy:

MosFilm archives! On YouTube! Bezplatno!

IV. If you liked Top Thinkers, then you might enjoy:

Sincerity and Authenticity by Lionel Trilling.

It’s a book. I found it in the free books room at the library (yes). I really know nothing about Lionel Trilling, but from the moment I began to read it I felt guilt and shame for the pure exhilaration of it. I don’t often use the term, “intellectually masturbatory,” but I can think of no other purpose for this book to exist. I love it!

One reviewer called it “Self-help for the literary/philosophical set.” Do you know I am viscerally sickened by self-help books? I’m one of the few Chicagoans who believes the end of the Oprah Winfrey show is actually a step forward for civilization. I expect no help from this book, just mad validation of my disturbing lifestyle. Which, to think of it, is the same thing Oprah provided her audience, so I guess the reviewer isn’t so far off.

It’s full of great quotes. Actually, if there is some textual connective tissue for these quotes, I’m missing it. But they’re great quotes!

“Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!” ~Hawthorne.

“Of all ridiculous characters the one which the world pardons least is the one who is ridiculous because he is virtuous.”~Rousseau

“But then of course it came to be understood that the bias of psychoanalysis, so far from being Dionysian, is wholly in the service of the Apollonian principle, seeking to strengthen the “honest soul” in the selfhood which is characterized by purposiveness and a clear-eyed recognition of limits. The adverse judgment increasingly passed upon psychoanalysis [...] not only expresses an antagonism to its normative assumptions and to the social conformity which is believed to inhere in its doctrine, but is also an affirmation of the unconditioned nature of the self, of its claim to an autonomy so complete that all systematic predications about it are either offensively reductive, or gratuitously prescriptive, or irrelevant.” ~Trilling.

PREACH IT, BROTHER!

MADNESS

I. If you liked PTSD, then you might enjoy:

ABC: Big Changes for the Psychiatrist’s ‘Bible’.

It’s bad enough they’re practicing psychiatry, but they have a Bible too? Sin, pathology, tomayto, tomahto. Anyway, it’s nice to see them realize something I have been shouting in their faces for decades. Probably the shouting didn’t help. BTW, did you know the Catholics have decided suicide is not a sin? And the APA has decided it’s not limited to the clinically depressed.

APA leaders also emphasized the two new suicide risk assessment scales planned for DSM-V, one for adolescents and one for adults.

Dr. David Shaffer, of Columbia University, told reporters on the press call that suicide nearly always occurs in the context of some psychiatric disorder, but not always depression.

The new risk assessment tools focus on risk factors such as impulsive behavior, heavy drinking, and chronic severe pain and illness.

In DSM-IV, suicidal ideation is treated as a symptom of major depression and certain other disorders.

Every diagnosis until this year has gone like this: suicide attempt -> professional Dx of “Depression” -> someone asking me why I wanted to kill myself. In that order. Always. Then they go on to be confused as to why I have low self esteem. Because if you slit your wrists, you are depressed, and if you are depressed, you have low self-esteem, and this is the bizarre logic practiced by people who have devoted their lives to studying the human MIND. “Actually I don’t have a sense of low self-worth. I’m just sick of suffering. I just don’t want to live in a cruel world.” “It’s common for victims of abuse to have low self-esteem.” “If I had low self-esteem, would I be here trying to correct your assumptions about me?” “You are so smart. Why would you want to kill yourself? You must be sick.”

II. If you liked Stalin’s space monkeys, then you might enjoy:

Gawker: Roswell ‘UFO’ Was Nothing More than Stalin’s Nazi Space Ship Full of Monsters

Sin, pathology, tomayto, tomahto, monsters, children… The thing is, I totally believe it. Except for the Nazi part. For a country so gung ho on giving itself credit for saving the planet during WWII, we seem to have absolutely no concept of how the Soviet Union, er, did not like the Nazis. Which is not to say someone like Stalin would not be capable of ordering human experimentation to turn children into aliens with the aim of scaring the pants off Americans. Just that the Nazi bit seems a creative flourish to drive home the fact that turning children into aliens is, like, really evil. Which frankly implies that Stalin was evil sure but not Nazi evil. Just sayin.

As one of America’s foremost news sources for crazy internet people, we feel it is important to keep you informed on the very latest news regarding the real story behind mysterious government alien autopsy site “Area 51,” the Nevada military base where they keep that UFO that crashed in Roswell in 1947. And now, the most recent theory on the crash, from respected (really!) journalist Annie Jacobsen’s new book:

Joseph Stalin recruited Nazi scientist Josef Mengele to conduct human experiments to produce “grotesque, child-size aviators” and put them on a Russian spacecraft that was sent flying over the U.S. to “spark public hysteria,” and then the U.S. government covered it all up.

This has been a completely accurate transcription of The Latest Theory on Area 51. If you have more up-to-date theories, put them in the comments at once.

This is a such a great story that, like Santa, even if it is not true, we should still accept it out of honor for the capacity of human imagination. This story was on Nightline. Which I am addicted to because it’s lurid shock news without the politics. And they show it right before bed. Anyway. Their main concern was that the book also reports that Americans were doing human experimentation at Area 51. Why is this so difficult to accept? We have the money, the science, the ambition and the arrogance, and more of it than the even the Soviet Union. We created the bomb. Does anyone look at Washington and find the great voice of conscience that would prevent us from creating an abomination to retain our superpower status and, well, just because we can? Right? What I love most about this story is that it illustrates perfectly what I have been saying on this blog for ages: Americans and Russians are far more similar than anyone is still willing to admit.

Vova agrees.

III. If you liked, well, anything I’ve written about Putin, then you might enjoy:

Outdoor Life: One-on-One With Vladimir Putin.

Because I will never have enough excuses to post this:

OL: Do you think the Russian people are more open-minded about sports such as hunting and fishing, or have Americans just become hypersensitive?

VP: I think this question should rather be addressed to a professional psychoanalyst. I am not ready to assess transformations in Americans’ sensitivity and, more than that, I do not think it would be right to ascribe certain characteristics to representatives of one or another ethnic group.

The area where a person lives, the prevailing social and economic conditions and cultural traditions surely leave an imprint on his or her personality but, still, I have met quite a few Americans who could easily be taken for Russians if they did not speak English. In general, we have a rather similar mentality. In any case, we are not snobs. My “popularity,” as you call it, with American outdoors enthusiasts is just another proof of that similarity of our views and perceptions.

You say that you cannot imagine the U.S. President even allowing himself to be photographed while hunting, or with his shirt off. But I can because I remember pictures of Theodore Roosevelt taken not just with a hunting rifle or a fishing rod in his hands, but with a lion he killed. And indeed, as recently as last summer, President Barack Obama was bathing in the Pacific Ocean in front of TV and photo cameras, and he was not wearing a tie, to put it mildly. Does this look like politically incorrect behavior? Not to me, and my ethnic origin has nothing to do with that.

It is certainly very important, particularly for the Head of State, to carry oneself in such a way as not to offend or humiliate people’s feelings, in word or deed; however, the society is so rich in various—sometimes mutually exclusive—customs, hobbies and forms of self-expression that it is merely impossible to measure one’s actions against each of them every now and then.

We cannot reduce everything to absurdity, but we should not show off in this context, displaying ostentatious commitment to the so-called “standards of decency.” We need to identify and maintain essential, basic things.

I would like to say a few words on political correctness on the whole, and on tolerance, representing the crucial values of modern civilization; on the topics that have no direct bearing either to hunting or fishing, but belong to basic moral and ethical foundations of our existence.

I have observed more than once that in some countries, including the United States, people who call themselves Christians feel shy, resentful or afraid of showing their commitment to Christian traditions and rituals in public. In fact, they do nothing that could offend other confessions—provided, of course, that they treat those confessions with genuine respect and consider them to be of equal value with the Christian faith; all the more so since ethical values that lie at the basis of all religions of the world are essentially the same.

Here the feeling of superiority is unacceptable, even destructive, and we all see it very well. I rank strict observance of political correctness principles in religious matters among those very essential foundations of human behavior.

And you should listen to what Putin says about religion because when he’s not playing nature boy or running countries or singing for charity, he’s an angel. Oh don’t take my word for it!

Via Novaya Gazeta:

billboards around Piter:

AGT doesn’t see the resemblance, but as someone who has spent countless hours staring at pictures of the Russian PM, I think I am perhaps more qualified to judge. Mark your calendars, kids! For the first and perhaps only time, I am squarely with Novaya Gazeta on this one.

Speaking of madness, I mean religion:

Because so many of you have inquired, I cannot end this edition without addressing the question on all of your minds.

No. I did not start the female cult who worship Putin as saint and savior. But don”t let that stop you from joining.

Thanks for reading, and have a lovely weekend!

March 24, 2011

In which I am interviewed by InoForum!

Filed under: Culture: Russia,Culture: U.S.,Interviews,Politics: U.S. — poemless @ 2:26 PM
Tags: ,

Posted below is the English version of my Q & A with the folks at InoForum, “Интервью автора блога Poemless с читателями Инофорума.” (more…)

March 21, 2011

and Peace.

Filed under: Lazy Quote Diary — poemless @ 3:32 PM

The following is from an e-mail I received from a college friend (one who as it happens studied Russian with me…) I am posting it here, with her permission, because there is too much negativity and suffering and ugliness in the world, and I feel partly responsible for propagating it. So I’d like to put something positive out there into the world to counter that. She is much better at being positive than I…

Dear loved ones,

Happy Holi!

Happy Equinox!

Feeling the connections between all of us, and the powerful planetary
pulls which direct our consciousness-

The largest full moon of the year, and the closest to the earth that
it has been since 1993, the orb of spring hangs balanced directly
between sun and earth in chaste Virgo Sun sitting in Pisces at the
point of the vernal equinox where day and night are elegantly poised
in tandem, gazing at one another in calm mutual adoration through the
eyes of sun and moon.

A rare alignment of the Sun with the planet Uranus at the Equinox
point (0 Aries) under which we dance and laugh and overstep the
boundaries of decorum to smear colors on one another.

“On this day,” says my elderly house-owner, as he and his wife and two
daughters waylay me on the staircase with handfuls of orange powder
and huge grins, “you cannot refuse anyone….”

Suddenly, kirtan, clapping…tambourine! Erupt from outside the window..”Ganapati om, Ganapati om!”

“Govinda Hare, Gopala Hare….”

On the porch next door, the family, with pink, purple and green faces,
sit reverently for puja.

A band of purple/pink striped mauraders carrying bags of color (some
respectable members of society I suspect) go door to door clanging
cymbals and demanding entry, the charged atmosphere is punctuated by the squeals of ecstatic children, I catch the sheepish grins of a few
grown men with squirt guns on rooftops and inside the confines of
their gated compounds given over completely to the mood, sporting
Jackson Pollak-designed tee-shirts in pink and green.

Here in my little rooftop room, Krishna is wearing a new fragrant
garland and there are rice-flour decorations on the floor.

Krishna, the Lord of sport, Lord of the lila, out of infinite
compassion for us in our delusion, delicately peels open the petals of
the lotus in the heart and releases the fragrance of divine love, he
is the lotus, the bee, the intoxicating nectar, and lest we become too
lost in the heady beauty of his mesmerizing attraction, he shakes the
earth with the shattering magnitude of his force, striking awe into
our very core at the enormous power of the divine being-

“with many hands, bellies, mouths and eyes, possessing infinite forms
on every side…blinding with the effulgence of the blazing fire and
sun, and immeasurable…with no beginning, middle or end, of infinite
prowess, with infinite arms, with the sun and moon for your eyes and
the blazing fire in your mouths, scorching this universe with your
radiance…hosts of gods are entering into you, some being frightened
are praising you with joined palms, while the bands of great sages and
perfected souls, uttering the word ‘peace’ are praising you with
numerous hymns.

O infinite being, o ruler of the gods, o abode of the world, you are
imperishable, the manifest and the unmanifest, and that which is
beyond both. You are the primeval god, the ancient being. You are
the supreme repository of this universe. You are the knower and the
knowable, the highest abode. O you of infinite form, by you is the
universe pervaded.

Salutations, a thousandfold salutation to you; salutations again and
again to you. Salutations”

Om Namo Narayana.

I’m not a religious person. I don’t even know if I am a spiritual person. But it’s rather beautiful, isn’t it? Poetic, even. Salutations, dear readers!

War

Filed under: Politics: Russia,Politics: U.S. — poemless @ 3:24 PM
Tags: , ,

I am extremely angry about the war with Libya. Perhaps I am a peacenik and am simply opposed to all war, but I am also worried about the state of my own country and wondering how on earth we can afford this when we, ostensibly, cannot afford to pay for the education, healthcare, retirement and enlightenment of our own citizens. I can be a selfish person too. The bombing breaks my heart, makes me so sick that after turning on, and immediately off, the CREEPTASTIC American news this morning, I did yoga. I usually never am able to do yoga in the morning, but I needed some type of psychic shower after about 5 minutes of CBS. I felt that rage bubbling up inside me, the same rage I felt about the Iraq war, same helplessness and frustration and moral disgust. It is true, I am morally disgusted by just about everything these days. I don’t know how much more I can handle, so I am making an effort not to pay close attention to what is going on, which would normally be impossible for a news fiend like myself, but depression-induced apathy appears to be an asset at the moment.

However, I have found a few articles of note. Articles my regular readers have probably already seen a dozen times, so no breaking news here. Just gobs of interestingness.

Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy has been hammering out one gem after another:

I. How Obama turned on a dime toward war.

Or, why the FUCK is President Obama acting on the advice of his notoriously bone-headed Russia advisor and not that of Congress or the Department of Defense when choosing whether or not to bomb Libya?

“This is the greatest opportunity to realign our interests and our values,” a senior administration official said at the meeting, telling the experts this sentence came from Obama himself. The president was referring to the broader change going on in the Middle East and the need to rebalance U.S. foreign policy toward a greater focus on democracy and human rights.

But Obama’s stance in Libya differs significantly from his strategy regarding the other Arab revolutions. In Egypt and Tunisia, Obama chose to rebalance the American stance gradually backing away from support for President Hosni Mubarak and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and allowing the popular movements to run their course. In Yemen and Bahrain, where the uprisings have turned violent, Obama has not even uttered a word in support of armed intervention – instead pressing those regimes to embrace reform on their own. But in deciding to attack Libya, Obama has charted an entirely new strategy, relying on U.S. hard power and the use of force to influence the outcome of Arab events.

“In the case of Libya, they just threw out their playbook,” said Steve Clemons, the foreign policy chief at the New America Foundation. “The fact that Obama pivoted on a dime shows that the White House is flying without a strategy and that we have a reactive presidency right now and not a strategic one.”

Inside the administration, senior officials were lined up on both sides. Pushing for military intervention was a group of NSC staffers including Samantha Power, NSC senior director for multilateral engagement; Gayle Smith, NSC senior director for global development; and Mike McFaul, NSC senior director for Russia.

I am beginning to wonder if every bad foreign policy decision made by Obama might be traced back to Mike. Or is it just coincidence?

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon also said on Thursday that the justification for the use of force was based on humanitarian grounds, and referred to the principle known as Responsibility to Protect (R2P), “a new international security and human rights norm to address the international community’s failure to prevent and stop genocides, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”

“Resolution 1973 affirms, clearly and unequivocally, the international community’s determination to fulfill its responsibility to protect civilians from violence perpetrated upon them by their own government,” he said.

Inside the NSC, Power, Smith, and McFaul have been trying to figure out how the administration could implement R2P and what doing so would require of the White House going forward. Donilon and McDonough are charged with keeping America’s core national interests more in mind. Obama ultimately sided with Clinton and those pushing R2P — over the objections of Donilon and Gates.

II. Inside the White House-Congress meeting on Libya (also by Rogin)

President Barack Obama hosted 18 senior lawmakers at the White House on Friday afternoon to “consult” with them about the new plan to intervene in Libya, exactly 90 minutes before Obama announced that plan to the world and one day after his administration successfully pushed for authorization of military force at the United Nations.

Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) complained on Thursday that the administration had not properly consulted Congress before deciding to support military intervention in Libya, and called for a formal declaration of war by Congress before military action is taken. Inside the White House meeting, several lawmakers had questions about the mission but only Lugar outwardly expressed clear opposition to the intervention, one lawmaker inside the meeting told The Cable. [...]

Rogers, the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, also told The Cable in an exclusive interview on Friday that the White House clearly emphasized the U.S. role would be limited.

“We are going to play a very supportive role. France and Great Britain and others are going to lead the way along with our Arab League allies; there may be four or five Arab countries participating,” he said.

Rogers said that the administration had been in contact with lawmakers and had kept him up to date, but the communications had been mostly one way.

“I wouldn’t call it consultation as much as laying it out,” he said.

Oh look, there is a Dick Lugar being sensible again. At this point if he ran for President I might even vote Republican. Not that I can see any discernible difference between the Democrats’ and Republicans’ foreign policy strategy. Or any strategy at all, to be honest.

This last article from the Moscow Times is in response to a question recently posed to me by an Inforum reader wanting to know why I liked that Prime Minister Putin fellow so damned much:

III. West in ‘Medieval Crusade’ in Libya, Putin Says

VOTKINSK, Udmurtia Republic – Prime Minister Vladimir Putin likened the call for armed intervention in Libya to the medieval crusades on Monday in the first major remarks from Russia since a Western coalition began airstrikes.

In some of his harshest criticism of the United States since President Barack Obama began a campaign to improve ties, Putin also compared the intervention to the George W. Bush-era invasion of Iraq and said it showed Russia is right to boost its military.

Putin, whose country opted not to block the UN resolution last week leading to the strikes, said that Moammar Gadhafi’s government was undemocratic but emphasized that did not justify military intervention.

“The resolution is defective and flawed. It allows everything,” Putin told workers at a ballistic missile factory in the city of Votkinsk. “It resembles medieval calls for crusades.”

Russia, a veto-wielding permanent UN Security Council member, abstained from the vote on Thursday in which the council authorized a no-fly zone over Libya and “all necessary measures” to protect civilians against Gadhafi’s forces.

“What troubles me is not the fact of military intervention itself — I am concerned by the ease with which decisions to use force are taken in international affairs,” Putin said. “This is becoming a persistent tendency in U.S. policy.

“During the Clinton era they bombed Belgrade, Bush sent forces into Afghanistan, then under an invented, false pretext they sent forces into Iraq, liquidated the entire Iraqi leadership — even children in Saddam Hussein’s family died.

“Now it is Libya’s turn, under the pretext of protecting the peaceful population,” Putin said. “But in bomb strikes it is precisely the civilian population that gets killed. Where is the logic and the conscience?” [...]

“The Libyan regime does not meet any of the criteria of a democratic state but that does not mean that someone is allowed to interfere in internal political conflicts to defend one of the sides,” Putin said.

U.S.-Russian relations have improved in the past two years under Obama’s “reset,” capped by the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty that took effect last month.

During that period, Putin toned down the anti-Western rhetoric he often employed as president.

Apparently Dima and Vova are in quite a little row about this now… You might say he’s simply covering his ass in reference to Chechnya. You might be right. But in this case acting in his self interest and being bloody right as hell in his assessment of the situation do not appear to be mutually exclusive possibilities. Medvedev may be trying to be a team player with the West, but the world will always need people unafraid to call it like they see it, even if it means losing friends, or rather, realizing that foreign policy has nothing to do with being friends. This isn’t middle school, people.

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