poemless. a slap in the face of public taste.

November 25, 2009

A Veritable Cornucopia of Links.

For your holiday reading pleasure.

Articles:

Inside Higher Ed: Palintology. ~speculates on Sarah Palin’s favorite work of postmodern theory (Jean Baudrillard?) and employs the phrase “performative maverickiness.”

Jeffrey Feldman: “…Why People Like to Stuff People Like You into Ovens” ~explains how to deal with people spouting violent ideology. Starting with: Don’t be afraid.

Chicago Reader: A Kink in the Campaign. ~profiles the S&M master challenging a Chicago Machine candidate for office.

Natalia Antonova: Russia is a “criminal state”? Er… ~calls out Bill Browder for political posturing.

Laws:

Why has the United States not signed on to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child?

… or the Land Mine Ban Treaty?

Russia, meanwhile introduced a permanent ban on capital punishment, offered to reduce Co2 emissions between 20 percent and 25 percent below 1990s levels by 2010, (which appears to be more than the US is committing to), and has agreed not to fine Ukraine for the next few months, scrapping the tought talk for, ahem, cordial humour. Apparently Putin’s also planning Georgian reunification, too?

Random:

RIAN: Putin’s lost female tiger found. ~even Vova’s cats sometimes run off…

Der Spiegel: Girls for Gadhafi: Libyan Leader Hands out Korans to Hundreds of Italian Beauties. ~in which Brother Leader informs, “you believe that Jesus was crucified, but that didn’t happen. God took him to the heavens. They crucified some guy who looked like him.”

Lit:

Philip Roth is nominated for the “Bad sex in fiction” Award. ~need I say more?

OpenSpace.ru: Сурков признал авторство «Околоноля» ~Viktor Erofeev says Surkov confessed to authoring that gangsta-fiction book.

Recommends:

Tool: translate.google.com. You knew it could translate for you, but did you know it could do a translated search for you?

Blog: Izo.com. Fully of art, kitsch, gossip and NSFW brilliance.

Books: Platforme, by Houellebecq, and We, by Zamyatin. Nice uplifting holiday fare…

And on that note, have a happy Thanksgiving. In honor of which I present a Turkey Day Classic:

Eat up!

Giving thanks for chocolate potatoes, khachapuri and BG.

Filed under: Culture: Russia,Too Much Information — poemless @ 1:24 PM
Tags: , , ,

In a cryptic response to the previous post recounting my quest for the Biophar lavender honey, someone left the address of the Three Sisters Delicatessen on my facebook wall. So last weekend, my cabinets worrisomely low on honey and the weather perfectly warm and sunny, I decided to make a trip to Little Russia on Devon Ave. Mind you, the perfectly warm and sunny weather did not lure me out of the house as much as it motivated me to find extreme distraction. I don’t even like perfectly warm and sunny weather in June, but in November it is positively unbearable. Between the pressure to “get out and take advantage of it” and the thought of starving, drowning polar bears with no icecaps on which to rest … no I really cannot stand a perfectly warm and sunny November day. Thus I set out to take my mind off the fact.

Naturally, they didn’t carry the honey, but that’s really neither here nor there…

The Neighborhood.

It’s not really called “Little Russia.” I just made that up. It’s called West Rogers Park, and more specifically, Devon Avenue, which I wrote about here. That was a long time ago, spurred on by the by the Israel/Lebanon war. But it could just as easily have been about the August ’08 war. For whatever reason, along this stretch of asphalt on Chicago’s far north side, Jews and Arabs, Indians and Pakistanis, Russians and Georgians are all living side by side, with no nukes or tanks to be found. Left to their own devices they all seem to get along as well as anyone, actually. Intellectually we all know this is possible. But the teevees and interwebs try their damnedest to assure us that these civilizations are just incompatible, because at their roots those terrifying Islamic or Russian or vagelymiddleeasternlookingdarkskinnedpeople are products of cultures based on ethnic or religious chauvinism. They hate our way of life and everything we stand for. Well, I’m here to tell you the fine people of Devon Avenue are living proof that talk radio hosts and the French are wrong.

Three Sisters Delicatessen.

The magical deliciousness that is шоколадные картофель:

photo c/o Chicago Reader.

You may be wondering why I have never been to this Russian establishment located just minutes from my apartment. So am I. I’ve settled upon a few explanations. First, in Chicago-ese “Devon” is synonymous for “Indian food that will assure such digestive agony you’ll be begging someone to gut you like a catfish before the night is through.” So I normally decline offers to go to Devon. Secondly, while it’s actually possible that 3 sisters do run the joint, I hate the name. Not because it is cliche, but because I hate the play. Well, “hate” is a strong word. I don’t like it. I’m really not a huge fan of Chekhov. Thirdly, I think I never thought to go to the Russian deli because I never thought about what they might have. When I lived in Russia, there weren’t very many such establishments, and those I came upon were usually -oh, really, it’s too stereotypical- rather empty. If you wanted to buy stuff, you could get almost anything on the street, though it was mostly from the West. The Russian “stores” were basically the same, but under a roof, warehouse-like. Most food was something you made at home from whatever you brought back from the dacha or could obtain through various connections. Or maybe my family were just purists or something…

What does a Russian deli carry? In this case the entire Russian diet crammed into a space about half the size of the old Meyer’s. Tea, kvas, mineral water, jam, honey, bread, cookies, boxed chocolates, anything you could conceivably pickle and put into a jar, kasha, meat, fish, caviar, cheese, those crazy zillion-layer cream cakes, boiled potatoes, blini… the only Russian food groups missing were alcohol and cigarettes. The clientele was just as quintessential: a babyshka with a walker, munching toothlessly on salami and buying pickled mushrooms, an older fellow getting some fish, and separately, 3 young women, each of whom bought chocolates. Behind the meat counter were 3 -yes, 3- middle-aged or older women. Like the ladies behind the meat counter at Meyer, they were stout and clad those white lady-like old world deli uniforms. Unlike the ladies behind the meat counter at Meyer, their Russian counterparts were sporting garish turquoise eyeliner and crazy dye-jobs, and were incredibly friendly. I bought a loaf of locally baked black bread and some jam from Nizhny-Novgorod, and ordered “chocolate potatoes.” And that’s how I ordered them. “Chocolate potatoes.” The older woman behind the counter screwed up her face at me. I panicked. “Shokoladny kartofel. Dva. Pozhalsta. Spasiba,” I managed to eek out, bewildered since, though I read Russian on a regular basis, I only ever speak it, oh, well, pretty much never. The lady smiled with a twinkle in her eye, looked me up and down for a moment, and shouted to someone to get this devushka 2 chocolate potatoes, ASAP. They all began looking at me mischeivoulsy like they knew something I didn’t and weren’t going to tell me. Maybe they just found my terrible broken Russian charming, but I secretly wondered if they weren’t conspiring to take me home and turn me into tomorrow’s lunch special, Baba Yaga-like…

Chocolate potatoes? DIVINE. AT first I regretted that I’ve lived 30-something years without them. Though that may not be entirely true. My mother used to make Christmas cookies called “Russian tea cakes.” They looked like “Mexican wedding cakes” but had a very different texture and taste. They were very dense and moist with a nutty, liqueur-like flavor … just like these “chocolate potatoes.” The only difference is that the potatoes are dusted in chocolate rather than powdered sugar, and are about 5 times larger.

Argo Georgian Bakery.

Hello, my little hachypury. I am going to eat you!

My next stop was the Georgian bakery one block down. Argo Bakery made Three Sisters look like a bustling cornucopia in contrast to its spare interior. A few very small tables. A few awkwardly placed refrigerated display cases. A giant stone slab/oven thing in the middle of it all where the little khachapuri lived their short lives between creation and consumption. I ordered some of the patient khachapuri and a hazelnut churchkhela. Like the ladies at the Russian deli, the proprietor of the Georgian bakery was very friendly. Unlike them, he spoke English. The menus were in Russian, so it should not have felt presumptuous to speak to him Russian, but I’ve watched too much CNN and decided the most politically correct choice would be English. He reminded me of my Sicilian step-father, with a combination of relaxed gregariousness and theatrical humility. I asked it he knew where to buy wine, Georgian wine, and he told me he could only get it either by the barrel, or in 4-liter bottles. Because he was in the “restaurant business.” I looked around the room. Restaurant… I invented a story in my head about a man who opens a storefront hachypurry joint as a ruse so he can import Georgian wine by the barrel. Back in reality, this man asked if I’d like a 4-liter bottle? I declined. He laughed and dismissed my concern: “Four liter! For us Georgian, iz nothing, you know? Iz, just getting started!” Yes – I know. I’ve been to a few Georgian feasts and know how much wine they have to consume to keep up with all of the toasts they make. Considering you have to drink to every toast, yes, it’s probably best to buy wine by the barrel.

The khachapuri were alright. The dough was pretty tasty, but the cheese was a rubbery feta type cheese, not the gooey melty cheese I remember. I have no idea what cheese they were using in Russia, but it was spectacular. The churchkhela, however, were quite a treat. I was afraid they’d be too sweet or leathery, but the grape entrails-looking stuff had the subtlety of a Turkish delight. In fact, that’s pretty much what it is: Turkish delight only with grapes instead of rosewater, on a string, made up to look like intestines. Grape Turkish delight sausages. Too bad there is no way to describe them that does justice. I HIGHLY recommend getting your hands on some of this stuff. Oh, but keep in mind there is a string running through the center. Remember not to eat it.

Русский книжный магазин.

You will never be this cool. Sorry.

The last stop on my shopping trip was the Russian bookstore. Well, no it wasn’t. But it is the last one I will recount here. I have previously been to this place on several occasions, back in college. While I bought books there, it was less a bookstore than some kind of miniature Izmailovsky market crammed into a storefront, with piles of Soviet kitsch and Russian souvenirs everywhere you looked. The layout was more like an attic than a store, and the interior dimly lit, which made it rather disorienting. These days it is “under new management” and the kitsch is all but gone and it is bright and spacious. Perusing the books on display, I saw a few about Medvedev, but nothing Putin. Which only surprised me because the ratio of Putin:Medvedev books I see at work are about 30:1. Anyway, I was not there for books.

Almost all of my Akvarium/BG (and, er, there’s a lot) is on cassette tape and second or third generation at that. I don’t know why. It’s not like I couldn’t find or afford cd’s in Russia. They were hawked on every street corner for spare change. But I preferred to do my own bootlegging, thank you very much. Maybe it was out of some vestigial tradition of samizdat (or magnitizdat, whatever), or more likely it was simply that the cold winter days lent themselves to staying home and eating blini while making tapes. Well, this is how I and my girlfriends spent the time. Those tapes felt like gold at the time, but their value has since been reduced to that of cultural artifacts.

When I walked in, I was met with a “Zdra’stvuetye” from a woman and a “Nuzhna pomosch?” from a little moon-faced man who slipped out from a room in the back. More terrible broken Russian escaped from my mouth as I asked if they had any Akvarium or BG. Ok, buying a cd is not rocket science, but I have to admit I was surprised to find myself conversing in Russian, you know, without having to think about it. Maybe someone who has tried to learn a new language as an adult can appreciate this. I felt weightless. The little moon-faced man was incredibly genial and excitable as he went around picking out cd’s for me (confirming that, no, they were not displayed in any order; it wasn’t just me). Maybe I was the first customer he’d seen all day. Or maybe I reminded him of some daughter who moved to Seattle and whom he hasn’t seen in years. Who knows? He was terribly sweet. He had puppy dog eyes. I was sad to have to go. I left with a couple of cd’s and the intention of returning just to see him again. It was only when I got home, jumping around to “Nikita Riazanskii,” that I fully appreciated how empty my life had been without Navigator and the Russian Album. Or rather, with them on cassette tape wasting away in a cardboard box in a closet.

Coda.

Since it is Thanksgiving and I am inclined to be reflective and thankful, I can’t do the tactful thing and say, “And thus ended my little shopping trip. Thanks for reading.” Except for the thanking you for reading part, of course. No, I need to make some profound observation about it all. So it’s helpful I have one to make. And that is this: I was impressed with Gene’s Sausage Shop. It looks fabulous, from the grand staircase to the aisles of attractively individually wrapped sweets to the infinite selections of meat. An embarrassment of riches. But I was disappointed when they did not have my honey, put off by the service, and generally ho-hum about the whole affair. The Three Sisters Deli, in contrast, was superficially unimpressive. Small, homely, old-school. No row after row of sparkly packaging, no carnivorous gluttony. Likewise, the Georgian bakery was not going for aesthetic appeal but no-frills homemade pastries. And the bookstore, again, not a scene, just a place to go to get what you want. Everyone was helpful and kind. The yuppie consumer/bitter wage slave dynamic was replaced with plain old human interaction. And while I didn’t find what I set out for, what I can home with was of such quality and nourishing to the soul, I totally forgot about the damned honey! I was out of honey and blissed out. Maybe it’s a commentary on the lack of authenticity in our society. Maybe it’s an illustration to all of you who don’t “get” why anyone would “like” Russia. Maybe it’s confirmation bias. I don’t know. I’ll probably go back to Gene’s, because it is right down the street. But I’ll certainly go back to Devon, because it rocks my world.

November 16, 2009

Extreme Makeover, European Deli Edition.

Filed under: Too Much Information — poemless @ 6:34 PM
Tags: , , , ,

In which I resist change.

Before: Meyer Delicatessen.

After: Gene’s Sausage Shop.

Years ago, when I first moved to the Ravenswood/Lincoln Square area, I felt it was the only saving grace of living in America. Precisely because it was rather unlike living in America. For a few blocks, you could be transported to, well, a generic European place. Pastry shops, cafes, a European apothecary, a fine wine broker, weird German figurine peddlers. I guess it was originally settled by Germans, but it had taken a swing to the east by the time I got there. Austrians and Czechs. Then Bosnians and Serbians, or something. At some point they’d all been from Yugoslavia, right? Or from the East Bloc. Or from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I don’t know. The newest arrivals were a bit fearsome. They ran the kinds of places that you didn’t even go into if you weren’t Bosnian or Serbian or Yugoslavian or East Bloc or Austro-Hungarian, because everything was in Serbo-Croatian or something, and moreover, there were always some sketchy types in tracksuits, smoking cigarettes outside this cafe or that PAL-Secam-NTSC video store. It’s too bad, because I was curious. But secretly I suspected some of these men to be in the import/export business, not of videos in need of conversion, but of heroin or young girls. Belonging to the latter category, I chose to remain ignorant of their business operations.

But the less intimidating European types were still there, with their bars and sausage shops and homeopathic remedies. And weird figurines. Lamenting the fact that I had to live in America, I made weekly pilgrimages to Mertz Apothecary and Meyer Deli. It was like a 45 minute European vacation. Along with Cafe Selmarie, which is the closest thing I know to a slice of Paris in Chicago, I could not imagine life without them. When Meyer closed several years ago, I was clearly facing an existential crisis. American creep. It was during the Bush years, and I’d come to expect that the world was becoming more hellish by the day. Meyer was just an unwitting pawn in some metaphysical struggle of evil over good. This is also how I explained the sudden presence of a Coldstone Creamery on that block.

But now that Obama is in office and good is sometimes maybe trying to put up a better fight and of course we should be patient because it’s out of practice and doesn’t have its mojo back, it should come as no surprise that Meyer has re-opened. Bigger and ostensibly better, it now goes by the name of “Gene’s sausage shop.” From the moment I caught word of this re-birth, I dreamt each night of the possibility of joy that would return to my life. And by joy, I specifically mean THIS. There were many other lovely things I could once obtain from Meyer, like marzipan piglets on little cutting boards with little butcher’s knives, Mozart chocolates, Orangina, Laughing Cow cheese, black liquorish kitties, and gingersnaps. Which, to be honest, comprised the better part of my diet in my 20’s. But it was the honey I lusted after in maturity.

I eat a lot of honey. Daily, in fact. I don’t buy sugar. Just honey. And I’m very picky about it. I have to have unpasteurized, local honey for allergies, which rather sucks as allergy season kicks in a good few months before honey season. I want to see bee bits in it, in the local, unpasteurized stuff. Hell, I should just get some bees and eat them… But for general consumption, I’ve never found anything that beats Biophar’s lavender honey, for the price. And price is important, considering the level of general consumption we’re talking about. I don’t even care if it is mass-produced, or Provence honey from, erm, Germany. The texture is perfect, creamy. And it is neither too sugary nor too mild. It is perfect, divine, even. And a staple. I only ever found it at Meyer and was left with a gaping hole in my palate when they closed shop.

So off I went, Saturday, full of hope and anticipation. Soon the coveted Honig aus der Provence would be mine once more!

Naturally, they weren’t carrying Biophar Honig aus der Südfrankreich. Or any decent honey at all, from what I could surmise. And I stood there surmising for quite a long while before inquiring as to what the hell had happened to Meyer’s outstanding honey selection.

I asked a salesperson about it, not in those words, and she snapped back, “No we don’t have that but we’ve got honey made by Gene’s wife,” and looked at me like God would kill a kitten if I didn’t buy that instead. What I really wanted to say was, “Oh? And is Gene’s wife making honey from bees who feed upon the lavender fields in the South of France and somehow end up in Germany?” But I just smiled and politely thanked her, and headed immediately for the rack of eclairs. What the hell? I mean, why have they hired Americans? Surly, overworked little old Germany ladies in paper hats are charming. No matter how terribly they treat you, you can’t hate them. They are from the old country. They have had difficult lives. They probably lost half their family in the war. And they were probably Nazis at one point. (Ok, maybe not, but some of these German immigrants are. I knew a barber who shaved the faces of the SS. So what? He was one of the kindest neighbors ever.) So you do whatever they say. They are built like bulldogs. If they tell you to buy Gene’s wife’s honey, you do it, and you don’t complain about it. You call it a cultural experience and move on.

Anyway, Americans who are bitter about having to work, and in the humiliating job of sales no less, were cramping the euro-style down at Gene’s bigtime. And I was feeling disoriented after the whole honey debacle. Other Meyer staples absent from its newest incarnation: Mozart chocolates, HobNobs. I was also hoping in vain to find some of that weird Norwegian fudge cheese. I’d seen the adorable Andreas Viestad going on about it, and he seems to have good taste. I did manage to find a few gems, however. Or items of curiosity anyway. Baltika. But no #6! And clearly packaged for export. Honestly, who is running this joint? And Saku. I don’t even like beer, but the nostalgia factor was impossible to resist. Marzipan fruits, that emergency eclair, which was indeed heaven, some good french mustard, a strange Russian tea of the Tsars, whatever that means. I hope they don’t mean it in the literal sense. I can’t take much more Russian cannibalism. A nice Edam. I couldn’t bring myself to wait in the Disney World-esque lines for the meat counter. Perhaps I’ll return on a weeknight. They have a little bit of produce and odds of general grocery items. Which makes you think, “Oh, I could do ALL my shopping here!” Then, you realize you can’t. Because you need more variety than the 5 or so plant vegetables they have on offer, and you don’t use Fa deodorant. I think they should nix the apples and deodorant and concentrate on the meat, cheese, sweets and booze, which is why people actually come there. And if you decide to carry Baltika, for the love of god, carry 6.

So, I give the new joint a … 6 of 10. So far. I haven’t actually managed to gain access to the sausage part of Gene’s sausage shop yet. I’m still missing the things I missed before, so it can’t be said to be a new Meyer. Neither can it be said to be a German joint. Though it does carry a wide variety of European products. I think they’re going for quantity over quality. In fact, it reminds me of those early Russian Western-style supermarkets that carried French shampoo and British potato chips and Laughing Cow cheese and ramen noodles. But that eclair was a damn fine eclair. And the delirious sensation of walking into a store and not recognizing the products, not the language, not the contents of the jar, remains. As well as that familiar sensation of being crushed & trapped against a large, precariously constructed display of German Christmas cookies while suburbanites elbow for a spot in front of the headcheese. Well, they got that part right. And it isn’t even Christmas yet.

Another thing about Meyer: even though 50 people might have tried to fill a store with a 12 body fire code capacity, you felt safe because it was so astonishingly tiny in size, that if you should be trampled to the brink of death, your body would be found immediately. There was no place to hide. The atmosphere at Gene’s suggests the same potential for overcrowding and fanatical rushes on Christmas stollen, but in this new vast, labyrinthine establishment, your trampled body might not be found until after the new year. Is it worth such a risk?

It would be if they had my honey.

For now I have to put this on my Christmas list:

Hopefully someone out there knows where I can obtain some, or can obtain some for me. Hopefully without getting trampled to death by rabid germanophiles.

November 13, 2009

Odds & Ends: Gangsta Ushanka Edition.

Filed under: Odds & Ends — poemless @ 6:17 PM

You may wonder, what is some American girl trying to get away with, writing about Russia? Nothing. In fact, I don’t really write about Russia. I write about people who write about Russia, and when I am not doing that, I write about the world, which I can only see through my unique perspective, which has been irreparably corrupted by Russia.

This is why I seem to be the only person in the universe who knows or cares that RT is airing on not one, not two, but three different channels each morning. For someone who gets about 30 channels, that’s 10% of my morning viewing options. In Chicago. I don’t understand why others aren’t outraged by this. Maybe I am the last person alive who does not have cable or satellite TV. Maybe the Kremlin knows it too and figures that anyone without cable is a subversive type who could possibly be a pawn in some waste of taxpayers’ money dressed up like a Clancy-esque international intrigue. However, the Kremlin has no say in American television programming. So what exec dreamed this up? I thought it was madness enough that even one station had begun pumping Russian propaganda into my home on a daily basis. But 3? As I prepare coffee and feed the cat in the lurid glow of the slime-green RT logo, all I can think is, “I for one welcome our new overlords.”

This is why I happened to awake to Dima’s little State of the Union address the other day. Because 3 stations were carrying it. I generally find such speeches tiresome BS. And all things considered, I have no strong feelings one way or another about the Russian president. But I was entranced by that speech! Wow! He wasted no time going on about democracy, and had already taken a few digs at the PM sitting in the front row, to whom I desperately wanted to say, “Didn’t your mother tell you to sit up and pay attention?”, by the time I had to shower. No one seems to know or care anything about this speech that left me stunned. Well, it’s easy enough to be stunned first thing in the morning. But still. What the hell was that all about? I mean, I am impressed that this little teddy bear of a man was so firmly critical of everything Putin’s administration had failed to accomplish, right in front of the man himself. OTOH, Putin must have seen a copy of the speech beforehand. I don’t know. Which is why I don’t write about Russia. I don’t have a bloody clue. All I know is that I did not read the news that day to find headlines like, “Kremlin calls for more democracy, warns of getting stuck in the past.” Even though that’s what saw with my own eyes on TV that morning.

And this is why I’m also wondering what’s the deal with ushanki being the new gang banger chic? A few years ago it was Burberry. But today in Washington Park, a significant number of hooligans had stopped aspiring to the British upper-class and had adopted a more realistic aesthetic, that of the freezing proles, sporting the Soviet icon of headgear. And it’s not even cold out. But there they were, conducting illicit business under the el tracks in true Russian style. They were probably already drunk, too. Next I’ll be getting sexually harassed by them in Russian. Just like in the good old days…

And the way I see it, getting existentially abused by indecent men wearing fat fur hats qualifies me to make some smart-ass commentary on some of my favorite subjects:

ENERGY:

~ NYT: Power for U.S. From Russia’s Old Nuclear Weapons.

NYT drops a bombshell about America’s energy resources. Thanks, I’ll be here all week.

MOSCOW — What’s powering your home appliances? For about 10 percent of electricity in the United States, it’s fuel from dismantled nuclear bombs, including Russian ones. [...]
Salvaged bomb material now generates about 10 percent of electricity in the United States — by comparison, hydropower generates about 6 percent and solar, biomass, wind and geothermal together account for 3 percent.

Utilities have been loath to publicize the Russian bomb supply line for fear of spooking consumers: the fuel from missiles that may have once been aimed at your home may now be lighting it.

But at times, recycled Soviet bomb cores have made up the majority of the American market for low-enriched uranium fuel. Today, former bomb material from Russia accounts for 45 percent of the fuel in American nuclear reactors, while another 5 percent comes from American bombs, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry trade association in Washington.

If I understand this correctly, nuclear disarmament not only decreases the chances of mutually assured destruction, it powers our flat-screen TVs. I don’t have a flat-screen TV, but I assume they plug in. Though to what I’m not clear about. Anyway. Energy blackmailers? If it weren’t for the Russkies you’d be rationing your electricity consumption! And how un-American would that be? Wait. I guess we’re already doing that, what with the financial crisis and all. What with the financial crisis and all, you’re probably lucky if you still have a home to plug your TVs into.

I bet the Hungarians didn’t think of this before asking the USSR to remove their nukes. They gave Russia back free energy. Suckahs.

~ Scotsman: Putin tells EU: You may have to pay to keep gas flowing.

Unlike Morrissey, I don’t hate it when my friends become successful. In fact, I secretly take pride in my keen ability to attract such impressive people. But of course it is not just any type of success I admire in a friend. Being a soap opera star or professional athlete is almost embarrassing. If a friend of mine became one of those I might hate them indeed. OTOH, if you become some kind of world-renown expert on Russia-Ukraine energy issues, whe-heh-hell! I will drop your name like a bad habit. Actually, bad habits are hard to drop. Who invented that saying? Anyway, let’s take my friend Jerome, for example. He is successful, a world-renown expert on Russia-Ukraine energy issues. And I don’t hate him. (But I think this guy does.)

Mr Putin has also entered the fray by accusing the Ukrainian president, a long-time opponent to Moscow, of risking disruption by allegedly interfering in Ukraine’s central bank.

Energy experts point to conflicts between powerful groups in both Ukraine and Russia as another source of friction that threatens supply. “The heart of the matter is a dispute between oligarchs that are trying to capture a very lucrative market,” Jerome Guillet, an energy expert concentrating on Eastern Europe, told The Scotsman.

“It is very hard to know what is going on, and the fact that you have a highly unstable situation in Ukraine, with maybe three clans fighting it out, and in Russia you have at least two clans in the Kremlin, makes for a very unstable situation.”

Here’s a handy list of his posts on the issue over the years. Handy because if you bookmark this, you’ll never have to write another exhaustive, exhausted e-mail to your acquaintances who mention in passing Russia’s use of energy blackmail like they know what they are talking about They don’t. Jerome does. Your life just got easier.

EuroTrib: Ukraine-Russia gas crisis by Jerome a Paris.

DEAR LEADERISM:

~ Telegraph: Vladimir Putin inspires book of children’s poems.

And old woman in Saratov has written nursery rhymes for the children of the Putin era, whom she calls the “Putinyata.” Pretty creep stuff. Here’s a taste:

Our Homeland of Russia Uncle Putin steered.
Be a country great and strong’
One day did he dream.
Only, how without the little ones?
Among us they are very few!
Then he read a lot of books
And gave an order to the country:
‘Just one babe for every mum?!
‘That’s not much! It must be two!’
And now in our native land children suddenly appeared.
They are many they are beautiful.
Just like flowers, here and there.
Young children in Russia now
Have the name of PUTINYATA!

Like it’s not damaging enough to be told you were born on government orders, as some kind of reproductive 5 year plan. Also, I don’t know how good a translation it is, but this makes it sounds as if dyadya Putin might actually be papa Putin, what with “children suddenly appearing” on his orders…

~ TOL: Praying to Putin.

This is and example not of the cult of personality surrounding Dyadya Vova, but of the cult of his cult of personality. That is, when people are so obsessed with the phenomenon, they attribute everything to that, even when it’s not terribly accurate.

Sending petitions to President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is a popular pastime in Russia. As a journalist, I see many such petitions – on subjects ranging from the construction of a waste-burning facility to freeing a prisoner of conscience, to protecting a city park to renaming a street – on a weekly basis. A few days ago, I even received a special file containing a bunch of petitions from a Moscow-based NGO, with the revealing subtitle “Writing Letters, Hoping For the Better.”

At every Russian school, history teachers tell pupils about the naivety of the old-time peasants who would send petitions to the czar – whom they would address with worship and reverence as “the Lord’s Anointed” – and expect him to solve all imaginable problems and come to the rescue as justice personified. Such a petition was called a chelobitnaya, and when delivered, was accompanied with the deepest bow, so that the forehead would touch the ground. What the teachers do not say is how little has changed.

People writing petitions to their leaders?! Why! That’s Stalinism, plain and simple! We Americans would never do that! Well, only because of the whole letters being tainted with anthrax thing. (o.t. Churkin got one of those things the other day. I love Vitaly. I hope it was a joke and no one is trying to kill him!) Now we have to call or send e-mails or texts. If pensioners are sending letters, it’s probably only because that new-fangled technology confuses them. Anyway, what’s wrong with writing your President about a political issue? (The article is about the Khodorkovsky case.) First we bitch when Russians don’t want to have a say in their government, then we bitch when they do. Granted it is not the most effective mechanism of democracy. Letter-writing. But until the rest of us stop signing health care petitions and children stop writing Obama about their hopes and dreams, I think we can take a break from the bitching.

~ RIAN: Putin’s pencil’ up for sale on eBay

Unless the eraser has been chewed off, I’m not impressed. For a thousand bucks, I expect some spittle and teeth marks.

MOSCOW, November 12 (RIA Novosti) – A pencil that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin supposedly used at a recent news conference has gone on sale on the Internet auction site eBay, the newsru.com website said on Thursday.
Bids for the pencil – advertised under the heading “Vladimir Putin’s pencil, anyone?” – have so far reached $1,025.

The pencil went on sale five days ago, and was put up for auction by a seller who claims to be a journalist from the Russian city of Tula, some 200 kms south of Moscow.

“Recently Vladimir Putin visited city Tula and I attended his press conference,” the lot info began. “When it was over, I went to the table where he sat and picked up the pencil he used to make notes. The pencil looks like new, just might need a little sharpening.”

Bidding for the pencil ends on November 14.

Ha! This is EXACTLY what Dima was talking about in his State of the Union Speech: encouraging entrepreneurship and diversifying the economy. That’s the Capitalist spirit! Steal stuff and sell it on eBay! Wait… “claims to be a journalist?” Great, they are not just exaggerating the cult of personality, they are outright contributing to it. There is a joke in here about the real reason people are killing journalists, but I am too nice to make it.

CATS:

~ AP: Russia launches program to save tigers worldwide.

“No soul” my ass, Hillary.

MOSCOW — Vladimir Putin has made headlines by championing the endangered Siberian tiger — posing with a cuddly cub and placing a tracking collar on a full-grown female in the wilds of his country’s Far East. Now Russia is helping plan an ambitious program it hopes can double the global tiger population by 2022.
Russia hopes to hold a “tiger summit” in the Far East city of Vladivostok in September to coordinate multinational efforts to protect the Amur tiger, its habitats and increasingly scarce food sources, representatives of Russia’s Natural Resources Ministry, the World Bank and the World Wildlife Fund said Wednesday.

“We decided that this time we should do something serious in order to preserve tigers on our planet,” said Igor Chestin, director of the Russian branch of the World Wildlife Fund. “The situation is catastrophic.”

The meeting would be hosted by Putin, Russia’s powerful prime minister, and include leaders of countries such as India and China, according to Chestin and Deputy Natural Resources Minister Igor Maidanov.

The goal of the program, which could involve as many as 13 countries, would be to double the number of tigers worldwide to some 6,500 by 2022. Chestin said this would require a total $1 billion (euro0.67 billion) from all participating countries — a target he said could be met with both government funds and private sponsorship.

Putin’s support, which Maidanov said was expected, would likely give the effort a major boost.

Last year, Putin was given an Amur cub on his birthday and showed it off to journalists inside his home before putting it in other hands. Months earlier, Russian television networks showed him patting a grown female on the cheek after shooting it with a tranquilizer gun as part of a program to track the rare cats on a Russian wildlife preserve.

His Web site contains a section dedicated to the protection of the Amur tiger — also known as the Siberian or Ussuri tiger — and one page tracks his tiger’s movements as it prowls around the Far East.

It does. I checked.

BEAR CAVALRY:

~ BBC: Bear kills militants in Kashmir.

So my friend Mig used to regularly post these “Bear Cavalry” pictures. Some kind of Interwebs tradition I presume. And then one day I was looking at a picture book of old Revolutionary special forces or Cheka or something, and there were pictures of them posing with these huge bears. And wolves. It was like Ken Burns meets … actually I can’t think of any other scenario in which animals are enlisted as military weapons. Anyway, my point is, Bear Cavalry is not an Interwebs legend. It is a reality.

A bear killed two militants after discovering them in its den in Indian-administered Kashmir, police say.
Two other militants escaped, one of them badly wounded, after the attack in Kulgam district, south of Srinagar.

The militants had assault rifles but were taken by surprise – police found the remains of pudding they had made to eat when the bear attacked.

It is thought to be the first such incident since Muslim separatists took up arms against Indian rule in 1989.

The militants had made their hideout in a cave which was actually the bear’s den, said police officer Farooq Ahmed.

The dead have been identified as Mohammad Amin alias Qaiser, and Bashir Ahmed alias Saifullah.

News of the attack emerged when their injured comrade went to a nearby village for treatment.

“Word spread in the village that Qaiser had been killed by the bear,” another police officer said.

A joint party of the police and army personnel went into the forest and collected the bodies of the two militants.

Police say they also recovered two Kalashnikov assault rifles and some ammunition from the hideout.

Bears, with Kalashnikovs no less. Rock and Roll!

RIGHTWING NUTCASES:

~ Mother Jones: Igor Panarin’s Doomsday Tea Party.

Nothing really expresses your love for America, which is greater than anyone else’s love for America, your pride in this country, and especially your support for the men and women who gave their lives for it, not to mention your undying belief in the Free Market and Democracy quite as much as … a KGB guy giddily predicting the destruction of the United States. Am I right?

For more than a decade Dr. Igor Panarin, a Russian academic, has been predicting that sometime around 2010 the United States will collapse, splintering into separate states, some of them controlled by foreign powers. Outside of Russia, no one’s put much stock in his crackpot and stereotype-based theories—until now, that is. Who are the newest members of the Igor Panarin fan club? Tea partiers who’ve rallied against the Obama administration’s policies and blasted the president for pushing a “socialist” agenda. And he’s especially big among tea party activists in Texas, who have hosted Panarin and promoted his work.
In Russia, Panarin, who hosts a weekly radio show, is considered a mainstream expert on the United States. Like Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Panarin used to work for the KGB. He clearly has the support of the Kremlin, for he teaches at* the school that trains Russia’s diplomats. And since the election of Barack Obama last November, Panarin has found a new audience in America among far right activists, many of whom believe Obama is destroying the country.

I don’t wanna hear the right-wingers mewing about Putin being “KGB” ever again. EVER. Or I’ll sick the bear cavalry on them! Rawr!

CANNIBALS:

~ Telegraph: Russian cannibal who ate mother has sentence reduced ‘because he was hungry’.

Another of my little fascinations. People, people who eat people…

Sergei Gavrilov admitted he had used parts of his murdered mother’s legs to make soup and pasta for weeks on end. But he argued he was driven to the desperate act because he had ran out of money and was starving.
“I did not like the flesh,” he told investigators. “It was too fatty.”

A court in southern Russia accepted his explanation and ruled that the unemployed 27 year-old had therefore not wantonly defiled his mother’s own corpse. It did find him guilty of murder, however, and sentenced him to fourteen years and three months in prison, according to Russian news agency Interfax.

That is nine months less than the standard 15-year sentence for such a crime. Mr Gavrilov got off more lightly because of his confession and because the judge believed he had turned to cannibalism out of hunger rather than preference.

I don’t know. Looks like he preferred it to, oh, unemployment compensation, begging or a nice barbecued stray dog. Or suicide. Don’t misunderstand – people starve to death regularly on this planet. People starve to death regularly on this planet because people don’t eat people. If they did – we could solve the problems of hunger and overpopulation in one fell swoop. … Hmm…

Not to mention that when explaining why he did not like being a cannibal, he complained about the quality of the meat, not, oh, that he had to eat HIS MOTHER! Gah! Gah!!

OMG! There’s MORE:

PERM, November 13, (RIA Novosti) – A 25-year old man was killed, dismembered, eaten and parts of his body sold to a nearby fast-food stand in the Perm region of the Russian Urals, criminal investigators have reported.

Which parts? Are we talking about kotlety or shashlik here?

PROPAGANDA:

~ MT: Using Twitter to Take Spin to the Next Level

“Effective mechanisms of promoting the interests of the federal bodies of the executive branch of power on specialized social networking sites.” You mean, like, oh, say… THIS BLOG? Oh, wait. I misunderstood. I thought they said, “promoting interest in the nice body of the executive branch of power.” Nevermind…

The ministry said it was offering up to 5 million rubles (almost $166,000) to the company that could provide “effective mechanisms of promoting the interests of the federal bodies of the executive branch of power on specialized social networking sites.”
The winning bidder will also need to research the Russian-language Internet for specialized social networking sites, “draft a concept” to promote state interests through the web sites, and propose “methods of monitoring” the sites in order to “boost the effectiveness” of the activities of state bodies on the sites, the documents for the tender said.

The ministry said in the e-mailed statement that it was also considering tracking discussions at social networking sites operating in languages other than Russian. [...]

But officials risk failing in any attempts to initiate public discussion on social networking sites because their thinking is bureaucratic rather than creative, said Alexei Makarkin, an analyst with the Center for Political Technologies. “Bloggers like independent people with outstanding opinions,” he said.

As for the stated goal of using social networking sites to study public opinion, perhaps the officials just want to please Medvedev by reporting to him that they are introducing high technology into their work, Makarkin said.

Or, Dima just wants an official excuse to hang out on the Internet all day… Wait, what’s this about “tracking discussions at social networking sites operating in languages other than Russian?” Gulp.

SWISS BASHING:

The fun never ends. Well, except in Switzerland.

~ They’re trying to ban the new Rammstein album, because it is positively lurid. Nice to see them embracing the cultural broad-mindedness of WalMart.

~ Reuters: Delaware beats Switzerland as most secretive financial center.

Wow. Not even the best at being the worst anymore.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) — Move over Switzerland. The tiny state of Delaware beats the Alpine country in a contest for the most secretive financial jurisdiction, a tax justice rights group said on Saturday. [...]

“While the U.S. has been jumping up and down and saying ‘Aha, bad, wicked Swiss banks,’ the U.S. is doing exactly the same things as far as non-resident bank account holders,” said Sarah Lewis, executive director of the group, based in the U.K.

Switzerland has been the poster child for financial secrecy over the past year. The United State sued Swiss global banking giant UBS AG, which paid a $780 million fine to settle a lawsuit against it by the government. As part of the deal, UBS admitted it actively helped Americans evade U.S. taxes.

Delaware. A state that lists Miss Delaware’s Outstanding Teen 2008 and Judge Reinhold among its most prominent residents. And they beat you, Switzerland.

p.s. Thanks for the new backpack. I promise not to ask why a neutral country needs and Army or why that Army makes backpacks.

Ok, that’s all, kids.

Have a lovely weekend and thanks for reading.

November 9, 2009

Another brick in the wall of Berlin Wall diaries.

End of History it was not. Or, when we are not doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past, we’re sent running into its arms by the mistakes of the present. Or, how everything would be better if a charming socialist who loves democracy and values US-Russian relations were the ruler of the universe instead of out peddling shi shi luggage. Oof!

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics.

1. Global poll: BBC: Free market flawed, says survey.

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a new BBC poll has found widespread dissatisfaction with free-market capitalism.
In the global poll for the BBC World Service, only 11% of those questioned across 27 countries said that it was working well.

Most thought regulation and reform of the capitalist system were necessary.

There were also sharp divisions around the world on whether the end of the Soviet Union was a good thing.

[Update] Here’s a link to the complete findings of the BBC poll.

2. Former Eastern Bloc poll: Pew: End of Communism Cheered but Now with More Reservations.

The Pulse of Europe 2009: 20 Years After the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Nearly two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, publics of former Iron Curtain countries generally look back approvingly at the collapse of communism. Majorities of people in most former Soviet republics and Eastern European countries endorse the emergence of multiparty systems and a free market economy.

However, the initial widespread enthusiasm about these changes has dimmed in most of the countries surveyed; in some, support for democracy and capitalism has diminished markedly. In many nations, majorities or pluralities say that most people were better off under communism, and there is a widespread view that the business class and political leadership have benefited from the changes more than ordinary people. Nonetheless, self reported life satisfaction has risen significantly in these societies compared with nearly two decades ago when the Times Mirror Center1 first studied public opinion in the former Eastern bloc.

Among the many interesting findings: While support for democracy and capitalism have generally decreased in most former Soviet republics and Eastern European countries, it seems to have decreased only moderately in Russia (-8%, -4%) (on par with East Germany) compared to Bulgaria, Lithuania, Hungary, &Ukraine, whose support for the change to these systems has decreased anywhere from -18% to -42%.

There are more fascinating graphs on their website, including support for democratic values (freedom of speech, democratic elections, etc.):

A general conclusion that can be drawn from the poll’s results suggests that Russians express the least enthusiasm for democratic values, while the most acceptance is expressed by those in the former East Germany, closely followed by the Poles and Czechs.

and the belief that forces beyond personal control decide one’s fate:

Americans remain far more individualistic than Europeans. Fewer than a third (29%) of Americans surveyed believe success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside their control. Majorities in 10 of the 13 European countries surveyed think they have little control over their fate.

3. United States poll: Rasmussen: Just 53% Say Capitalism Better Than Socialism.

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey found that 20% disagree and say socialism is better. Twenty-seven percent (27%) are not sure which is better.
Adults under 30 are essentially evenly divided: 37% prefer capitalism, 33% socialism, and 30% are undecided. Thirty-somethings are a bit more supportive of the free-enterprise approach with 49% for capitalism and 26% for socialism. Adults over 40 strongly favor capitalism, and just 13% of those older Americans believe socialism is better.

Investors by a 5-to-1 margin choose capitalism. As for those who do not invest, 40% say capitalism is better while 25% prefer socialism.

There is a partisan gap as well. Republicans – by an 11-to-1 margin – favor capitalism. Democrats are much more closely divided: Just 39% say capitalism is better while 30% prefer socialism. As for those not affiliated with either major political party, 48% say capitalism is best, and 21% opt for socialism.

Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev In His Own Words.

You know, the man who actually earned the Nobel Peace Prize…

1. NYT: Now Clear Away the Rubble of the Wall.

On avoiding a New Cold War:

I was shocked by a letter that politicians from Central and Eastern Europe sent to President Barack Obama in June. It was, in effect, a call to abandon his policy of engagement with Russia. Is it not shameful that European politicians gave no thought to the disastrous consequences of a new confrontation they would provoke?
At the same time, Europe is being drawn into a debate over responsibility for unleashing World War II. Attempts are being made to equate Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Those attempts are wrong, historically flawed and morally unacceptable.

Those who hope to build a new wall of mutual suspicion and animosity in Europe do a disservice to their own countries and to Europe as a whole.

And:

The current model of E.U. relations with other European countries is based on absorbing as many of them as quickly as possible while leaving the relationship with Russia a “pending matter.” That is simply unsustainable.

Some in Europe are reluctant to accept this. Is this reluctance a sign of unwillingness to accept, and take part in, Russia’s resurgence? What kind of Russia do you want to see: a strong, confident nation in its own right or just a supplier of natural resources that “knows its place?”

Too many European politicians do not want a level playing field with Russia. They want one side to be a teacher or prosecutor and the other, Russia, to be a student or defendant. Russia will not accept this model. It wants to be understood; simply put, it wants to be treated as an equal partner.

2. Guardian: The Berlin wall had to fall, but today’s world is no fairer.

Gorby on “ultra-liberal capitalism.”

The crisis of ideologies that is threatening to turn into a crisis of ideals, values and morals marks yet another loss of social reference points, and strengthens the atmosphere of political pessimism and nihilism. The real achievement we can celebrate is the fact that the 20th century marked the end of totalitarian ideologies, in particular those that were based on utopian beliefs.
Yet new ideologies are quickly replacing the old ones, both in the east and the west. Many now forget that the fall of the Berlin wall was not the cause of global changes but to a great extent the consequence of deep, popular reform movements that started in the east, and the Soviet Union in particular. After decades of the Bolshevik experiment and the realisation that this had led Soviet society down a historical blind alley, a strong impulse for democratic reform evolved in the form of Soviet perestroika, which was also available to the countries of eastern Europe.

But it was soon very clear that western capitalism, too, deprived of its old adversary and imagining itself the undisputed victor and incarnation of global progress, is at risk of leading western society and the rest of the world down another historical blind alley.

Today’s global economic crisis was needed to reveal the organic defects of the present model of western development that was imposed on the rest of the world as the only one possible; it also revealed that not only bureaucratic socialism but also ultra-liberal capitalism are in need of profound democratic reform – their own kind of perestroika.

Today, as we sit among the ruins of the old order, we can think of ourselves as active participants in the process of creating a new world. Many truths and postulates once considered indisputable, in both the east and the west, have ceased to be so, including the blind faith in the all-powerful market and, above all, its democratic nature. There was an ingrained belief that the western model of democracy could be spread mechanically to other societies with different historical experience and cultural traditions. In the present situation, even a concept like social progress, which seems to be shared by everyone, needs to be defined, and examined, more precisely.

3. The Nation: Gorbachev on 1989.

Katrina and Stephen interview Gorby. Some choice morsels.

A dinosaur and a Bolshevik:

MG: Let historians think what they want. But without what I have described, nothing would have resulted. Let me tell you something. George Shultz, Reagan’s secretary of state, came to see me two or three years ago. We reminisced for a long time–like old soldiers recalling past battles. I have great respect for Shultz, and I asked him: “Tell me, George, if Reagan had not been president, who could have played his role?” Shultz thought for a while, then said: “At that time there was no one else. Reagan’s strength was that he had devoted his whole first term to building up America, to getting rid of all the vacillation that had been sown like seeds. America’s spirits had revived. But in order to take these steps toward normalizing relations with the Soviet Union and toward reducing nuclear armaments–there was no one else who could have done that then.”
By the way, in 1987, after my first visit to the United States, Vice President Bush accompanied me to the airport, and told me: “Reagan is a conservative. An extreme conservative. All the blockheads and dummies are for him, and when he says that something is necessary, they trust him. But if some Democrat had proposed what Reagan did, with you, they might not have trusted him.”

By telling you this, I simply want to give Reagan the credit he deserves. I found dealing with him very difficult. The first time we met, in 1985, after we had talked, my people asked me what I thought of him. “A real dinosaur,” I replied. And about me Reagan said, “Gorbachev is a diehard Bolshevik!”

KVH/SFC: A dinosaur and a Bolshevik?

MG: And yet these two people came to historic agreements, because some things must be above ideological convictions. No matter how hard it was for us and no matter how much Reagan and I argued in Geneva in 1985, nevertheless in our appeal to the peoples of the world we wrote: “Nuclear war is inadmissible, and in it there can be no victors.” And in 1986, in Reykjavik, we even agreed that nuclear weapons should be abolished. This conception speaks to the maturity of the leaders on both sides, not only Reagan but people in the West generally, who reached the correct conclusion that we had to put an end to the cold war.

Muddled American thinking:

KVH/SFC: What was most important–the circumstances at that time or the leaders?

MG: The times work through people in history. I’ll tell you something else that is very important about what subsequently happened in your country. When people came to the conclusion that they had won the cold war, they concluded that they didn’t need to change. Let others change. That point of view is mistaken, and it undermined what we had envisaged for Europe–mutual collective security for everyone and a new world order. All of that was lost because of this muddled thinking in your country, and which has now made it so difficult to work together. World leadership is now understood to mean that America gives the orders.

KVH/SFC: Is that why today, twenty years after you say the cold war ended, the relationship between our two countries is so bad that President Obama says it has to be “reset”? What went wrong?

MG: Even before the end of the cold war, Reagan, Bush and I argued, but we began to eliminate two entire categories of nuclear weapons. We had gone very far, almost to the point when a return to the past was no longer possible. But everything went wrong because perestroika was undermined and there was a change of Russian leadership and a change from our concept of gradual reform to the idea of a sudden leap. For Russian President Boris Yeltsin, ready-made Western recipes were falling into his hands, schemes that supposedly would lead to instant success. He was an adventurist. The fall of the Soviet Union was the key moment that explains everything that happened afterward, including what we have today. As I said, people in your country became dizzy with imagined success: they saw everything as their victory.

In Yeltsin, Washington ended up with a vassal who thought that because of his anticommunism he would be carried in their arms. Delegations came to Russia one after the other, including President Bill Clinton, but then they stopped coming. It turned out no one needed Yeltsin. But by then half of Russia’s industries were in ruins, even 60 percent. It was a country with a noncompetitive economy wide open to the world market, and it became slavishly dependent on imports.

How many things were affected! All our plans for a new Europe and a new architecture of mutual security. It all disappeared. Instead, it was proposed that NATO’s jurisdiction be extended to the whole world. But then Russia began to revive. The rain of dollars from higher world oil prices opened up new possibilities. Industrial and social problems began to be solved. And Russia began to speak with a firm voice, but Western leaders got angry about that. They had grown accustomed to having Russia just lie there. They thought they could pull the legs right out from under her whenever they wanted.

The moral of the story–and in the West morals are everything–is this: under my leadership, a country began reforms that opened up the possibility of sustained democracy, of escaping from the threat of nuclear war, and more. That country needed aid and support, but it didn’t get any. Instead, when things went bad for us, the United States applauded. Once again, this was a calculated attempt to hold Russia back. I am speaking heatedly, but I am telling you what happened.

Parable of the goose:

KVH/SFC: Finally, a question about your intellectual-political biography. One author called you “the man who changed the world.” Who or what most changed your own thinking?

MG: Gorbachev never had a guru. I’ve been involved in politics since 1955, after I finished university, when there was still hunger in my country as a result of World War II. I was formed by those times and by my participation in politics. In addition, I am an intellectually curious person by nature and I understood that many changes were necessary, and that it was necessary to think about them, even if it caused me discomfort. I began to carry out my own inner, spiritual perestroika–a perestroika in my personal views. Along the way, Russian literature and, in fact, all literature, European and American too, had a big influence on me. I was drawn especially to philosophy. And my wife, Raisa, who had read more philosophy than I had, was always there alongside me. I didn’t just learn historical facts but tried to put them in a philosophical or conceptual framework.

I began to understand that society needed a new vision–that we must view the world with our eyes open, not just through our personal or private interests. That’s how our new thinking of the 1980s began, when we understood that our old viewpoints were not working out. During the nuclear arms race, I was given a gift by an American, a little figure of a goose in flight. I still have it at my dacha. It is a goose that lives in the north of Russia in the summer and in the winter migrates to America. It does that every year regardless of what’s happening, on the ground, between you and us. That was the point of this gift and that’s why I’m telling you about it.

KVH/SFC: Listening to you, it seems that you became a political heretic in your country.

MG: I think that is true. I want to add that I know America well now, having given speeches to large audiences there regularly. Three years ago I was speaking in the Midwest, and an American asked me this question: “The situation in the United States is developing in a way that alarms us greatly. What would you advise us to do?” I said, “Giving advice, especially to Americans, is not for me.” But I did say one general thing: that it seems to me that America needs its own American perestroika. Not ours. We needed ours, but you need yours. The entire audience stood and clapped for five minutes.

4. Gorbachev interview on RT:

[The Place Where I'm Posting Random Berlin Wall-related Items of Note]

1. Review: “THE YEAR THAT CHANGED THE WORLD :The Untold Story Behind The Fall of the Berlin Wall,” By Michael Meyer.

Superfly fun and interesting read by a journalist who was on the ground in the Eastern Bloc as Communism fell.

Friedrich Nietzsche once described an argument about history. “I have done that,” claims memory. “I cannot have done that,” pride retorts. Or, to put it differently: The past is what happened, history what we decide to remember. We mine the past for myths to buttress our present.
The good historian is a myth buster. Michael Meyer is a very good historian. As Newsweek’s bureau chief for Eastern Europe in 1989, he watched the world turn on a dime. The myth he busts in this book concerns the contribution the United States made to the collapse of communist regimes that year. Some Americans want to believe that those regimes crumbled because of White House manipulation — clever diplomacy backed by raw power. In fact, American meddling was rather benign and, during that fateful year, conspicuously ill conceived.

The preferred myth begins with Ronald Reagan speaking at the Brandenburg Gate on June 12, 1987. “We hear from Moscow about a new openness,” he sneered, demanding proof. “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” According to the myth, the wall came tumbling down because Reagan, like some benevolent wizard, shouted “Open Sesame!” The moral drawn is that evil, dictatorial regimes crumble when confronted by righteous indignation. Cue Saddam Hussein. George W. Bush, who idolized Reagan, tried to emulate his hero. His distortion of the past inspired tragedy in the present.

The real story, minus the comic book hero, is more complicated — and interesting. Reagan still plays a role, but as diplomat, not Rambo. His contribution came in accommodation; his willingness to talk to Gorbachev gave the Soviet leader the confidence to break molds. Gorbachev, furthermore, did not tear down the wall; he merely suggested that change would be tolerated.

2. RT interview of Putin on the fall of the Berlin Wall.

For some reason this totally cracks me up.

Tonight we’re gonna to party like it’s 1989.

Filed under: Politics: Europe,Too Much Information — poemless @ 11:15 AM
Tags: ,

I’ve probably spent the better part of my life having something passionate to say about the Berlin Wall. Yet now that I have an incredible excuse to say it, meh. Everyone and their mother has something passionate to say about the Berlin Wall on this occasion. Some profound insight, some vivid memory to share, some sober reflection on the victories and failures of foreign and economic policy over the past 20 years… The fall of the Berlin Wall is one of those events that turns everybody into a poet. But no one actually reads poetry now, do they?

And yet… That’s it, isn’t it? With 20 years of hindsight, many people see clearly now that November 9, 1989 was neither the end of Soviet Union, Communism nor History itself. Many historians assert that November 9, 1989 was the result not simply of a bottom-up grassroots political movement of angry East Germans nor of the right and might of American ideological persuasiveness. And yet it is not the anniversary of the Pan-European Picnic nor the Belovezhskaya Pushcha Pact that we commemorate around the world with rock concerts and special editions of current events programs. Because these events didn’t turn everyone into a poet.

Most likely, the fall of the Berlin Wall is not so remarkable for the actual political changes which both precipitated and followed the event as it is for its allegorical power. Of course it dramatically impacted the lives of East Germans, but this doesn’t explain its enduring symbolism outside of Germany. For me, even as an American, it is comparable only to something like 9-11, or Obama’s election. You know where you where when you found out about it. You can close your eyes and see the images projected inside your lids as though you were watching a movie. Like 9-11, it came so unexpectedly and seemed to practically violate the laws of nature. For someone born in the 70’s, there had been no “before the wall,” so how could there be an “after the wall?” Like the 2008 U.S. Presidential election, the event seemed to confirm everything we want to believe about the implicit goodness and remarkable agency of average people, and reinforced the tenuous beliefs that hold our questionable worldview together: that democracy works, that people can be free when they decide to be and that, like a Hollywood movie, just when things can get no worse, the good guys will band together, defeat the villains, and save the world.

Just because that may not be how it really happened does not make the subjective experience of it any less compelling.

My interest in politics and US-Russia relations date back to elementary school. In the sixth grade I had the same faith in Mikhail Gorbachev that American sixth-graders now have in Barack Obama. I positively adored him. For my whole life the Cold War had raged, and in my childlike, idealistic dreamer’s mind, I knew it was wrong. I thought it was too dangerous and too petty and, above all, perfectly avoidable if people could just act like adults. (Hell, my adolescent peers were being held to a higher standard of behavior than world leaders.) And here was the head of the Soviet freaking Union and sharing my opinion! Not only was he engaging in some “new thinking,” that childlike glimmer in his eyes inspired in me a confidence that, yes, I should hold on tight to my idealism, because if the leader of the scariest country on earth can be a bit of a dreamer, damn it, I can too. That just might be what it takes.

It was never that I wanted the USSR to become like America. In fact, I was pretty disturbed by the reports that jeans and Pepsi were at the top of Russians’ wish lists, while I was bitter about having been born into a country where people don’t care about poetry or ballet. I was raised by a subversive hippie-type and from a long line of system-bucking progressives. As my brilliant sixth grade teacher said, “Don’t be proud to be American, just be thankful to be one.” Back in 1986 we could be thankful, too. The end of the Cold War is not the only thing to have changed in the past few decades… But even then, neither the American “way of life” nor our President inspired much admiration on my part. Precisely because the thought was implied to be taboo, I suspected we could learn as much from Russia as they could learn from us. If only we would put down our arms, sit down and listen. I simply believed the whole world had the capacity to get along if they would just try, and when there are differences, the solution should never be the erecting of walls or the threat of nuclear war.

And I still do.

So as I sat on the hardwood floor in my grandmother’s rarely used formal living room, watching cable TV as Berliners celebrated, waving their flags in the night, teenagers partying along the wall, I felt a vindication and optimism I would not feel again for another 19 years. It was probably the first time in my life I felt cognisant of the fact that I was witnessing history. If I recall correctly, the Challenger disaster may have been my only previous experience of being witness to a spontaneous, shocking event simultaneously with millions of people around the globe. No one had even heard of the Internet back then, at least in the universe of people I knew. Watching events unfold live on TV along with people all over the world was still a novel experience, in the same way encountering an old friend on facebook is today. There was a wow factor inspired not only by the message but the medium as well. I remember explicitly thinking it was a good thing we had gotten grandma cable TV.

The fall of the Berlin Wall instilled in me a curious understanding of historical and political evolution, and one that reflected acutely that I was only 15 years old. The invisible hand of progress, I will call it. Good things happen because good is more persuasive than bad. People want good things. Those who stand in the way of progress are just uninformed; there is nothing that can’t be tackled with a few PSA’s on MTV and a benefit rock concert. We’d put an end to hot wars, and now to cold wars. Sure, there were mysterious scuffles around the world, but those were last gasps of the old way. People stuck in the past. Hold outs. The more evolved cultures (ahem – I was 15) were embracing peace. Apartheid was ending. We’d taken on racism, sexism, and now even gays were being afforded protection under the law. AIDS had made it ok to talk about sex. Diversity, multiculturalism, tolerance, democracy and human rights were the catchwords of the era. The early 90’s were a good time to have an impressionable young mind.

The next 20 years passed. A lot happened. Most of it shattering my belief in the invisible hand of progress. Or the possibility of any progress. Ever. Or the implicit good and agency in people. Or almost anything which might be remotely worth believing in. Life in 1990’s Moscow and 21st century America. The death of my mother from cancer. 9-11. Katrina. Abu Graib. Oh it is all too much. Which is not to say it’s been all bad. It has just not been the world I was led to believe I had been born into. And let’s not fool ourselves, it’s been pretty bad. And even the bad things might have been more tolerable if I could maintain the conviction that we were generally moving forward, toward a better, more peaceful, more equitable society. That we’d learned lessons of the past. That these setbacks were only hurdles along the road of progress.

The fall of the Berlin Wall has been one of those moments I’ve held onto when I am looking for hope against hope. Proof. It is within our capacity to make things better. People are not doomed to live forever in oppression. We can choose peaceful revolution over conflict, cooperation over isolation. Ok, fine, Gorbachev turned out to be rather ineffective at home and his leadership (or was it lack thereof?) resulted in some serious strife, both existentially and physically. Fine, democracy can give you a leader like George W. Bush. Fine, actually a significant percentage of East Germans like the old way better. Not the wall, especially. But let’s face it, there are a lot of people out there wondering what happened to Capitalism’s willingness to make good on that promise to improve our quality of life. Not to mention all of the crap we sold Eastern Europe when we basically forced them to abandon democratic socialism, a “third way” for a liberal free-market if they wanted our aid. America, the original predatory lender! But why complain? You have your damn jeans and Pepsi now. And fine, many people fled East Germany less for the promise of political freedom than for that of material gratification. And fine, so it’s not like the fall of Wall was the culmination of years of some underground East German democratic resistance that finally outmaneuvered the Party bosses. And fine, the Cold War has in recent years managed to rear its nasty undead corpse from the graveyard of history, leaving me to make the same goddamned impassioned speeches today that I was making in 1985. When I was 10. Ten! For crying out loud! Fine! Fine, fine, fine!

Wait. What exactly are we celebrating today?

The tearing down of a wall is the tearing down of a wall, no matter how you slice it. That’s worth something. Walls are never the solution. Because the problem is never migration. Migration is a symptom. Humans are remarkably resilient and adaptable. If droves of your citizens are so miserable that they feel it preferable to leave your country – knowing fully well it may result in imprisonment or death, for themselves or their families – maybe YOU are the problem, not the people who want to leave. And yes, overall, the quality of life on what was the other side of the Iron Curtain has mostly improved since the fall of the Berlin Wall, even if these improvements have been accompanied by some undesirable trade-offs. And perhaps we should just celebrate the celebration. Regardless what came before or what came after, that was one wildly magical night. And who doesn’t love an 80’s themed party?! I know I do! Could it be precisely the parenthetical nature of the event that makes it so precious, so worth celebrating? Perhaps, like a myth, acknowledging that the story may contain some fantasy should not undermine its basic message: freedom, peace, progress. And sometimes metaphors are necessary to motivate us in the face of discouraging facts. They are what keep us from resigning en masse to cynicism and stagnation. They are the stuff that makes us all poets.

Yes! Yes, yes, yes! So get your Ostalgie on, baby. Bust out your 80’s gear (which any fashionista in good standing has handily available this season anyway.) Celebrate the end of the old Cold War. Dance on its grave. Relive your youth; remember who you were before George W. Bush damaged your soul. And this time around, let’s try to learn the right lessons and give credit where it is due and avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

Thanks for reading!

Appendix I.

From Odds & Ends: 99 Luftballons Edition, written about the 08-08 war:

“Oh, I know that the first Cold War was more a struggle of world powers than beautiful ideas. But ideas were the currency used. And even though the ideas were armed with nukes, they still had a seat at the table. There was always the possibility that reason could prevail. Religion, blind faith, armed with nukes, however, offers no such peace of mind. Of course, it’s no guarantee that we will all perish in one magnificent mushroom cloud of glory. Leaving a loaded gun the hall closet is no guarantee that your small child will blow his brains out. Who the hell wants to gamble it? People who are sure they are going to heaven, I guess…

I don’t have the answers. I don’t understand what is going on. That’s fine. But I don’t think the people running my country really understand what is going on either. Or they don’t care because there are no consequences. For them, anyway.

I feel like a kid whose parents are on the verge of a divorce. These are the two countries who have shaped who I am today. Why can’t they just fucking get along? Jesus! I just want to run into my room, slam my door shut and blast “99 Red Balloons” on my tape player. Except. I’m not a kid anymore. I don’t even have a functioning cassette tape-player. I am a citizen. What am I supposed to do? What can I do? Any ideas? Let me know if you come up with something. In the meantime, I’ll be in my room listening to 80s Europop and dreaming about the good old days of the first Cold War, when everything was less complicated because I was 10, because everyone thought it would be over soon, because walls were coming down instead of being built up. Because back then I had faith in people and the things we could accomplish when we worked together.”

Appendix II.

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