poemless. a slap in the face of public taste.

January 29, 2010

The Month in U.S.-Russia Relations and Russia(Male)Watching.

All kinds of things going on in the world of U.S.-Russia relations: meetings, agreements, meetings without agreements, agreements to meet again, Lavrov and Clinton making out in a London elevator… Ok I just made that last part up. But not this:

1) The Son of START may or may not be in the final stages of negotiation, almost 2 months after our decades long arms reduction treaty was allowed to expire un-renewed.

2) NATO and Russia are officially on speaking terms (which makes me feel like I’m writing about middle school students) for the first time since their falling out over Georgia.

3) Re-set Button brainchild, the Russian-US council on civil society, which up until now I assumed was mythological, is apparently holding its first official meeting in D.C. this week.

What does it all mean? It means, “We intend to make an effort to create a situation sometime in the future where we can try to work together, but we reserve the right to not get along if you insist on being so stubborn; we both know I’m better than you anyway.” Which is considered enough of a diplomatic coup in the Obama administration to earn mention in the State of the Union address. The President’s definition of accomplishment seems to be “we kinda sorta maybe (not really) tried to make something better and it hasn’t happened yet but it will eventually, so long as everyone just ignores our actions and only listens to our words or otherwise the magical spell we’re counting on to make this all work will be cursed and fail and it will be all YOUR fault. Yeah, I’m talkin’ to you!” [<--Shorter SOTU.]

Anyway, I picked the wrong week not to visit friends in D.C.

I. Mr. Surkov Goes to Washington.

He’s making a list and checking it twice; He’s gonna find out who’s naughty and nice.
Vladislav is coming to town… Vladislav is coming to town…

I can be naughty, or nice, whatever you prefer. I’m flexible…

(OMG: I image googled “Surkov McFaul” and a picture of my dead cat came up. It’s a haunting!)

Here is RT’s transcript of an Izvestia interview with the fine Mr. Surkov (what? no video, RT? you know looking at him is half the fun!): V.Surkov: “We do not intend to lecture one another.”

(No wonder there has been such stunning silence from the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission Civil Society working group. Aside from the fact that just saying “the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission Civil Society working group” is enough to make your mouth want to take a two week vacation and hardly lends itself to acronymn. The U.S. has illustrated that it only knows how to communicate with other countries through lecture or military force. These meetings must be epic awkward silences. Still, agreeing not to lecture one another is a remarkable step in right direction. Now let’s agree not bomb each other. Or save the children. Or something. Anything. Please.)

A Russian-US council on civil society that was created due to the initiative of the presidents of both countries will meet in the United States on January 27.

It will tackle issues left over from the Cold War, such as corruption, children’s rights, and stereotypes about Russia on the other side of the Atlantic.

The council will be co-chaired by Russian Deputy Presidential Chief of Staff Vladislav Surkov, who was interviewed by the Izvestia daily, ahead of his trip.

Q. Lately, the Russian-US presidential commission council, which you are co-chairing, is being talked about quite a lot. Could you outline the plans of the working group for the nearest future?

Vladislav Surkov: The working group will meet for the first time in Washington, DC, on January 27. A substantial amount of preparation has been done ahead of it, with both sides coordinating the objectives and directives of our sphere of action.

The United States proposed to include only state officials into the council. We did not object to the idea. On top of that, we proposed the inclusion of Russia’s Human Rights Commissioner Vladimir Lukin; chair of the Civil Society Institution and Human Rights Council of the Russian Federation Ella Pamfilova; Presidential Ombudsman for Children’s Rights Pavel Astakhov; and several other persons who are not quite state officials. But since no equivalent posts exist in the US government, they were included in the delegation.

Q.Did you agree on the council’s agenda?

VS: The Russian side initiated the following topics: fighting corruption, migration – the issue of illegal immigration first of all – prisoners’ rights, and a crackdown on crimes against children.

The US side has offered to discuss negative myths and stereotypes, which still exist in relations between our countries. We tried to avoid, where possible, issues which we will most likely not be able to reach an agreement on. We will approach them gradually, as our mutual understanding deepens.

Q. And all of these five issues will be discussed during the visit to the United States?

VS: In Washington we will cover the issues fighting corruption, crimes against children and negative stereotypes only.

Q.What motivated the Russian side to choose its priorities for the discussion?

VS: All the issues approved are supported by explicit statistics, assessment criterions and, most importantly, all are significant for both Russia and the US We have plenty to talk about.

The problem of corruption, for example. Of course, in our respective countries, the problem has different roots. Nevertheless, major corruption scandals happen both in Russia and in the United States.

Another issue is immigration. Russia and the US are world leaders when it comes to the numbers of immigrants, both legal and illegal. Thus, the issue of migration is vital to both countries. The same could be said about the third matter of concern – the issue of prisoner conditions. Again, our countries continue to head the grim list of the countries with the largest number of the incarcerated.

Finally – a highly important problem – crimes against children. During the past several years the number of crimes committed against underage children in Russia has increased tenfold. The United States has extensive experience in combating this evil. That experience will be highly valuable for us, since Russia has a lot to accomplish in that respect.

Q: Will the Russian side pose any questions regarding the deaths of Russian children adopted by American parents?

VS: I would like to emphasize that we will not lecture each other on the issues covered during the meeting. This is not the point of the working group. We know that the United States is concerned over that issue and is working on solving the problem. As far as problems with adopted children are concerned – we, ourselves, have plenty of those in Russia.

Q: Some Russian human rights activists and several US congressmen have subjected you to criticism. Do you have anything to say on that matter?

VS: We hit some bumps during the preparations for the council. We are trading information with our American colleagues on those issues. Overall the process is flowing smoothly, and we have reached certain success already.

As far as my being scrutinized by some Russian human rights groups, as well as American congressmen, I believe everyone is entitled to their own opinion. I think it is a small part of a larger mass of misconceptions, and those very negative stereotypes we will be discussing. I hope we will be able to dispel them during the course of our cooperation.

Q: Will there be a need to refine the activity of the council in the future?

VS: We would really like it if meetings of the working group took place not only in Russian and US capitals, but in other places, as well. We are going to hold meetings in various states and Russian regions. We must not turn into a commission which sits in their cabinets in Moscow and Washington discussing something in abstract terms.

Q: Various mass media report that the US will pose a question on equal cooperation of Russian and US civil organizations. Is there some sort of inequality between these organizations right now, any limitations in their cooperation?

VS: We do not see any inequality between Russian and American organizations, and we think there are no hurdles for a dialogue between them at the moment. Especially considering the fact that many Russian non-commercial organizations subside on grants they receive from the American government.

As far as your question goes, I will strictly stick to the agenda we agreed on, since I’m entitled to holding talks only within its framework. I would like to emphasize once again – these issues will be discussed only within the context of institutions of civil society.

The American side has demonstrated a very civil and good-natured approach to our cooperation. On our part, we will do everything in our power to make the working group a success.

I rather they be working together to tackle the issue of child trafficking than the issue of Lilia Shevtsova’s persecution complex. Hmm. Do you think it is a coincidence that she wrote that FP article on eve of this meeting? Pretty sneaky, sis. BTW, why does Misha have an op ed in the NYT this week? (For non-Russia watcher types who read this blog: Misha is Mikhail Khodorkovsky who is in prison in Siberia on charges of … tax evasion I think. A long time ago he was a Komsomol, then after the fall of Communism, he snatched up a bunch of stuff and became a powerful wealthy oligarch. Then Putin stole his assets and threw him in jail. The peasants rejoiced. The human rights camp flipped out. Surkov worked for Misha before getting a gig in the Kremlin and throwing his former boss in the gulag. Drama! Ok, let’s continue.) His article isn’t terribly interesting. But it is an excuse to post a gratuitous photo of our caged bird who sings for the New York Times.

Hi, Misha!

It seems our leaders are not as enamoured of dear Slava as they are of jailed Russian businessmen. Why doesn’t Surkov have an op-ed piece in the NYT? Get with the program! Seriously, someone in that Moscow fortress should hire me…

This is from Peter Lavelle who got it from JRL who printed it from Nezavisimaya Gazeta. It must be true.

From the JRL today

(Surkov is facing somekind of boycott in the US since being appointed
Russia’s civil soceity point man with the US) [<--I don't know if this is commentary from Peter, JRL or Nezavisimaya Gazeta...]

Nezavisimaya Gazeta
January 19, 2010
BETWEEN THE LINES
Russian and American delegations will meet to discuss matters of civil
society next week
Author: Alisa Vedenskaya

…..”Surkov and McFaul first met on October 12 when Secretary of
State Hillary Clinton was visiting Russia. McFaul told Surkov that
the reaction in the United States to his promotion to Civil Society
coordinator was somewhat equivocal. Surkov parred it by saying that
McFaul’s promotion had gone entirely unnoticed in
Russia because nobody knew him in this country.”

Oh, snap! I’m sure their meeting today went swimmingly… And it is not just Peter Lavelle and JRL and Nezavisimaya Gazeta spreading word of Surkov’s PR problem in D.C.

II. Party of No Hides Obama’s Re-Set Button.

From Moscow News Weekly: “Obama critics slam Kremlin aide.”

Whatever happened to “The enemy of my enemy is my friend?” Do the math, kids. And can someone explain to me how meeting with your foreign counterpart constitutes an endorsement of that person or their country? What is this, diplomacy for 3rd graders? Do they write these letters when we meet with the Chinese? Russia might have issues, but it’s hardly on par with Pakistan or North Korea or Sudan.

A key Russian-US working group co-led by Kremlin official Vladislav Surkov is under fire over human rights, as US Republicans call for President Barack Obama’s administration to boycott its first meeting in Washington this week.

Though the group aims to focus on issues like fighting corruption and child trafficking, 71 Republican members of Congress signed a letter to Obama expressing concern over Russia’s human rights record and urging that the US government “not participate in any such Working Group unless and until the Russian government has taken concrete, verifiable steps to address… shortcomings in its treatment of political and media freedoms.”

The letter, dated Dec. 11, also called for Surkov, President Dmitry Medvedev’s deputy chief of staff, to be replaced with “someone who has not been involved in establishing oppressive and undemocratic policies”, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Moscow News.

The group, created by Obama and Medvedev last July, is one of 16 tackling issues from trade to nuclear non-proliferation, but it is drawing additional attention because it is headed by Surkov. Dubbed the “grey cardinal” during Vladimir Putin’s administration, Surkov was largely responsible for formulating the “sovereign democracy” concept.

Russian human rights groups have criticised the appointment of Surkov to co-chair the commission, and now US Republicans are using that criticism as a way of attacking Obama.

Interruption: I don’t think Obama’s team chose Surkov to represent Russia. Idiots.

Surkov dismissed the Republicans’ criticisms in an interview with Izvestia, published on Jan. 22. “We do not plan to lecture each other,” Surkov said of the group’s members. “As for criticism against me from some human rights organisations and [members of the US Congress], everyone has a right to [their] opinion. This is a small part of a whole complex of prejudices and negative stereotypes.”
The letter came amid mounting Republican criticism of Obama, while last week the Democratic Party lost its 60-member filibuster-proof Senate majority after Massachusetts elected a Republican senator for the first time since 1972.

Republicans are using the letter simply as a way of putting domestic political pressure on Obama and don’t really have a worked-out Russia policy, said Nikolai Zlobin, an analyst at the Washington-based World Security Institute.

Zlobin said the letter would serve to rally members of Congress against Obama, adding that they were trying to use human rights ill as a bludgeon to get their way on issues such as nuclear non-proliferation and trade. “Whatever is said about Russia is not about their policy towards Russia per se, but towards their internal political interests,” Zlobin said.

Stop. Re-read that last part about trying to use human rights as a bludgeon to get their way on their own internal political interests.

Other NGO representatives invited to take part in the group said the Republicans’ call for a boycott was counterproductive.

Kirill Kabanov, head of the National Anti-Corruption Committee, said it played into a “hysterical” policy towards Russia, and this “hysteria” was convenient for hawkish elements in Russia’s security services.

“To close opportunities for [dialogue] may benefit those parts of the Russian bureaucracy that don’t want any contact at all …because that would expose those who use international mechanisms of money laundering,” said Kabanov, a former Federal Security Service official.

“Corruption is an international problem because money is laundered abroad, and this [affects] American banks.”

Kabanov added: “We have things to say, and if they don’t give us this opportunity then we will find ourselves marginalised again.”

This is why I don’t entirely understand it when Russian intellectuals boycott meetings they are invited to by the Kremlin. Creeps me out.

But wait! There’s more! The Party of No wont stop there!

From the Moscow Times: “Reset in Danger of Being Set Back.”

Because ruining any chance for a healthcare reform bill were not enough to be proud of. (OMG how weird is it that the rhetoric surrounding healthcare reform now includes the phrase, “Bolshevik plot?” What century is this? What universe is this? Does this make the GOP Mensheviks?)

A year ago, when the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama initiated its “reset” of U.S.-Russian relations, two things were clear: First, the U.S. Congress, particularly the Senate, would have an outsized role to play in the process; and, second, the Democrats would likely have a fillibuster-proof 60 votes in the Senate, making the advancement of Obama’s major Russia policy overtures a bit easier than might otherwise be the case. A year later, the first proposition remains true, but Republican Scott Brown’s recent upset victory in the Massachusetts Senate race complicates the second since Democrats no longer have 60 seats in the Senate— the threshold that allows a party to pass legislation on a “fast track” by depriving the opposing party of its ability to filibuster. All of this means that there could be some turbulence in U.S.-Russian relations in 2010. [...]

Congress is a major factor on other Russia policy issues as well. Russian accession to the World Trade Organization is a case in point. Congressional action would be required to upgrade Russia, the largest economy not yet represented in the WTO, from the Cold War-era lows of the Jackson-Vanik amendment to establish normal trade relations, which are required to secure U.S. agreement to Russia’s accession to the WTO. Russian WTO accession seems to be on the Obama administration’s congressional to-do list in 2010, but in the current cold trade climate — Russia just banned U.S. poultry imports, valued at $800 million a year — the issue is going to be as contentious as ever. That may be why Russian officials have sent mixed signals as to whether Russia itself will pursue WTO accession aggressively.

Congressional approval would also be required for the United States to enter into a “123” agreement with Russia on civil nuclear cooperation. This important area that had progressed nicely during George W. Bush’s last year in office was put on ice after the eruption of the Russia-Georgia war.

As far as U.S.-Russian relations are concerned, 2010 is truly the “Year of Congress.” It appears less likely, however, that it is going to be the “Year of Results.”

If Scott Brown ends up responsible for obliterating any hope of improving our relationship with Russia, I better at least get a consolation prize of a Surkov Cosmo centerfold out of the deal.

III. Putin: Party Crasher, Porn Basher.

Speaking of buff. And porn.

Jesse a.k.a The Russia Monitor has posted this little gem of a news story: “The Putin One-Liner Strikes Again.”

I wasn’t even going to mention this but couldn’t resist. Last week, PM Putin showed up to the the Annual Meeting of the State Council to give a speech. Now, by “showed up,” I mean he literally showed up out of nowhere to make an unexpected appearance and an unscheduled speech. The guys over at Power Vertical dissected this move yesterday. Putin made his minutes in front of the mic count, however, by dropping another one of his hilarious, debate-ending one-liners (“Putinisms”). Putin’s grammatical knockout came in a response to rumors on the internets that the recent regional Duma elections were rigged. The PM, visibly angry, hunched his shoulders in disgust and said, “Well half of what’s on the internet is porno! Why quote the internet? If you have evidence take it to court.”

One possible explanation of Putin’s indiscriminate targeting of porno? In the past, online interest in Putin has been found to be negatively correlated with online interest in pornography.

Poor Vova, walking into meeting he wasn’t invited to to complain about more people watching porn than paying attention to him on the internet. Hey, what am I? Chopped liver? I would think you’d want an intelligent poltical activist type ally – like ME -paying attention to you instead of child molesters and depressed husbands. But if he’s really miffed about it, I know of a pretty easy solution to the problem of people who watch porn not watching Vova. Hello! Althletic body? Check. Ham in front of a camera? Check. Bendy girlfriend? Check. FSB who lkes to make sex tapes? Check. BFF Oscar-winning filmmaker? Check. Seems like a no-brainer to me.

He could totally pull it off:

And lastly, I present to you the prize for Best Headline for this week’s coveage of U.S.-Russia relations:

“How Many Polish Patriots Does It Take to Screw Up US – Russia Relations?”

Stay classy, Discovery Institute!

Ok, thanks for reading and have a lovely weekend!

January 21, 2010

Lilia Shevtsova

Lilia, Lilia, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions… It’s also paved with selfishness, arrogance, ignorance and Washington Post columns. (Personally, I don’t believe in Hell, but on the off chance I am wrong, I won’t be writing any WaPo columns. And I am not going to try to save Lilia’s soul by telling her to shut up. I’m more interested in saving our collective sanity by illustrating why we should just quietly ignore her. )

Appeasement, in slacks.

I. Lilia’s Article.

On January 5th, Lilia Shevtsova wrote an article in Foreign Policy Magazine entitled, “The Kremlin Kowtow: Why have Western leaders and intellectuals gone soft on Russia’s autocracy?” I did not read this article when it came out, but it turns out I didn’t really need to, since I had read a Washington Post article she and several other Russian intellectuals had authored on the eve of Obama’s trip to Moscow last year. Which pretty much said the same thing. From the Washington Post article, “False Choices For Russia”:

We object, for example, to the basic proposition of calling for a return to realpolitik because some believe that the worsening of Russian-American relations was mainly caused by Washington’s insistence on “tying policies to values.” The result, some American “realists” argue, is that the United States needs to build a new relationship with Russia based on “common interests and common threats.”

The humanity! Mr. Obama, you can’t just go around the world building relationships based on “common interests and common threats,” relationships that call into account matters such cause and effect or human behavior. Think of the children! I mean the liberals! Anyway, you get the picture. She doesn’t want want the U.S. to play ball with Russia without a “values” clause that has some gleaming white American teeth.

Now she is upset with European leaders’ willingness to play ball with Russia, despite its allegedly brutal autocratic regime. Before we get to the finer points of this batty argument, I will remind you what it looks like when the whole civilized world refuses to play ball with a country based on its perceived lack of democracy: North Korea. How’s that working out for human rights in North Korea, Lilia? Now on to her article in FP:

II. My Response.

Or, excerpts from Lilia’s FP article, interspersed with my responses. She begins:

At a conference last month in Berlin, I witnessed another example of this divide. When I started to raise the question of democratic standards in Western-Russian relations, I was interrupted by another Western attendee. “You irritate us,” he said. “International relations are not about values; they are about power!” If he is right, Russian liberals will have to reconsider their expectations about the Western opinion-leaders they have long counted on for moral support and understanding.

She seems to suffer Applebaumian paranoia. When people say, “You irritate us,” they are not trying to dismiss your cause. They mean, “You irritate us.”

And moral support? Understanding? Western opinion-leaders? Either you own a bank I don’t know about or it’s time we had “the talk.” Western opinion-leaders didn’t get to be Western opinion-leaders by caring about democracy and human rights and you. During the Cold War people like you made the news. Perhaps you thought the leaders in the West really cared about democracy and human rights, that those like you were more than ideological pawns in a global game. But then in 1991 something crazy happened, and now you refuse to part with your dissident rockstar status. Profoundly ironic. You don’t want a return to the Soviet Union, just to the leverage it gave you. So forgive me if it seems interesting that you should go around fear-mongering about a return to the Soviet Union. Anyway, it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee, Lilia. The whole rest of the world’s leaders are just as selfish as Russian ones.

I’m sorry – this still baffles me: “Russian liberals will have to reconsider their expectations about the Western opinion-leaders they have long counted on for moral support and understanding.” You really have no idea what team you are playing on, do you? Or you do and are lying to us.

This would be funny if it weren’t so tragic:

The results could be catastrophic — not merely for the activists who are working to make Russia a free country, but for the moral authority of those in the West who preach liberty but practice something quite different.

Sweetheart, that veiled threat would only work if we had not already squandered our moral authority. Maybe since you hear that in the Russian media, you assume it is propaganda, but I can assure you there is nothing you and Kasparov can do to our moral authority that hasn’t already been done better by Iraq, black CIA prisons, Guantanamo, etc.

True, when some Western leaders come to Moscow they make a point of meeting human rights activists or the moderate opposition. “They ask us how they can help us. We explain that they should raise the question of human rights and democracy when talking to Russian leaders,” says Arseny Roginski of the human rights group Memorial. “But after that, usually nothing happens.”

Y’all should consider yourself lucky. When America meddles in the domestic politics of other countries, horrible, horrible things tend to happen. And if it is any consolation, liberals in America experience the same thing when our leaders talk to us about civil liberties an democracy. “Promises, promises, you knew you’d never keep…” Obama can’t even deliver for his own people; what makes you think he can deliver for you?

Just when I am about to ask the perennial question, what exactly do Lilia and her comrades mean when they use words like “democracy” or “liberal,”

One influential European leader, Robert Cooper, the E.U. director-general for external and politico-military affairs, does not shy from discussing democracy with the Russian political elite. In an interview with the pro-Kremlin Russian Institute he concluded, “Sometimes I think that the word ‘democracy’ becomes problematic. I would prefer to talk about responsible, open government that defends the rights of nations … but has enough legitimacy to use tough administrative measures when there is a need for them.” Such an understanding of democracy is exactly what the current Russian government is looking for.

She fails to explain what precisely is wrong with this understanding of democracy, other than the E.U. and the Kremlin like it, and she’s clearly not happy with them. Which strikes me as sophomoric logic. “Responsible, open government,” sounds like a reasonable aim to me, and legitimacy and authority are surely necessities for any effective government. If this is really what the current Russian government is looking for (I think she’s being too generous), they should be commended.

The following paragraph makes no sense, either in the context of the article or in itself. It’s like when you get into an argument with your lover and have a valid point but then your emotions take over and you end up sounding like a crazy person. Which makes me secretly love it.

Russia’s reform-minded forces have long since stopped calling on the West to help advance democracy in Russia. They understand that transforming Russia is a job for Russian society itself. But reform-minded Russians expect the West at least to avoid holding back change by supporting the authoritarian forces that would suppress it. Prominent Russian human rights activists and liberals like Sergei Kovalev, Garry Kasparov, and Grigory Yavlinsky, long considered pro-Western voices, have recently become critics of the West’s increasingly accommodating policies toward Russia. One might say that these voices are just a small minority of Russian society. But if the West loses this pro-Western minority, it will lose Russia altogether.

We don’t expect you to help. Why aren’t you helping?! This is a job for Russia. The West needs to do its part! We are a minority. We are Russia altogether! Why isn’t anyone listening to me?! Why are you cuffing me to the bed?!

She concludes with the following:

This begs the question: How can Western civilization resolve its own internal problems with democracy if it abandons its mission of promoting liberty?

Let’s ignore that this is really the least of the questions her article begs.
Let’s ignore the fascinating arrogance this question implies, that the fate of Western civilization rests on Lilia’s political interests.
Let’s ignore the horrible horrible things that happen when Western leaders trot the globe promoting liberty.
Let’s not be hysterical. Let’s be rational.

Isn’t she putting the horse before the cart? Don’t America and Europe need to get their own houses in order before they are able to do her housecleaning for her? Didn’t Voltaire, high priest of civil liberties have something to say about that? Something about a garden?

Sloth. That’s the other thing they use to pave roads to Hell. I don’t know Lilia, but she strikes as a busy, hard-working woman. Yet I suppose my biggest grief with her and Russian liberals is their aversion to doing the grunt work that most functioning democracies require. I say this as someone who, in a non-functioning democracy, along with thousands of everyday citizens, actually goes out and organizes support, raises money, knocks on doors, holds public forums, annoys total strangers by surveying their needs, interests, issues and annoys them again by making damn well sure they vote, and vote for my candidate, who loses. Over and over and over, American Democrats and liberals and champions of human rights and social justice LOSE. And when I lose, I do not go running to the leaders and opinion-makers asking, “What have you done for me lately?” I ask, “What more could I have done? How have we failed to communicate our message? Why are our citizens so fucking stupid?” Because in a democracy, you can’t blame everyone else when you lose. Even when the votes are rigged and stolen. And what if your magical pony scenario wherein the West stops engaging Russia and poof! Russian liberals are suddenly a force to be reckoned with, even perhaps in power, were to materialize? How is that a democratic process? And what organization and popular support will you have in place to maintain your power? I ask because the people you are up against have a very fucking good organization and some genuine popular support. It seems to me that instead of making empty threats to so-called Western leaders and writing articles in English-language newspapers, you would have a far better chance of success if you focused on building an organization and support at home. So, Lilia, darling, you can hardly fault those who read your articles for wondering if Russia really is ready for democracy. Or rather, if you are.

III. Someone Else’s Response.

Much classier than mine.

Gordon M. Hahn has written an artcle, “Bashing Russia, Kowtowing to Beijing, and Avoiding Responsibility – One Russian Liberal’s Formula for Failure. Response to Lilia Shevtsova’s “The Kremlin Kowtow – Why have Western leaders and intellectuals gone soft on Russia’s autocracy?” www.foreignpolicy.com, January 5, 2010.” on the website, Russia: Other Points of View.

Timothy Post, living up to his name, posted this on facebook. He thinks it’s one of the best articles he’ll read all year. There are parts of it I am not completely on board with (investment in Russia – gives me the willies) but this is a far more mature response to Lilia’s article than mine, and focusses on why it is imperative that the United States and Russia maintain a working relationship. Which is a topic near and dear to my heart. I recommend you go read the whole thing (it’s not so long), but have chosen some of my favorite excerpts to repost here. They generally do not require commentary. A sign of a good writer, I think.

The U.S. simply cannot uphold Russian liberals today as it once did Soviet dissidents, and we should not conceptualize Russian state-society relations as a modified version of Soviet state-society relations. Russia has come along way from the Soviet totalitarian model. The Soviet system’s omnipresent repression and cruelty created state-society relations that Anna Akhmatova once described accurately in the early 1950s as two Russias confronting each other: one, the imprisoned – the other, their wardens. Thus, Western leaders had reason to suspect during the Cold war that hatred of the communist regime inside the USSR was such that, there was a thirst for democracy and freedom – and sooner or later, it would have to be quenched. If and when the Soviet system opened up, movement to democracy and the market could be expected

The situation today is much different. Although the Russian state remains today overbearing and on occasion repressive, there is a modicum of democracy and markets providing considerable room for the opposition to live, speak, and organize openly. The opposition is simply not given the opportunity to win elections. State administrative electoral manipulation of various sorts and state media domination are largely at fault, but so too are the liberals’ unpopularity with Russia’s electorate, their poor governing record in the 1990s, and their internal divisions and petty squabbling for which Russians rejected them as a viable option for leadership. The absence of an effective or responsible democratic opposition renders any aggressive Western backing of democracy forces against the Kremlin a losing proposition.

And a dangerous one too, IMO.

Also, because of NATO expansion and other U.S. policy mistakes (failure to provide timely economic assistance for Russia’s great depression in the early 1990s, preservation of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, unilateral withdrawal from the ABM treaty and attempting to deploy ABM systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, etc.), we no longer have the Russians’ trust – either at the level of the elite or among the general public.

And we’re losing Lilia’s! (Sorry – I could not resist.)

Dr. Shevtsova charges that putting arms control negotiations at the top of the relationship’s agenda now is misplaced and that Moscow and Washington are using “a Cold-War era mechanism to try to imitate cooperation.” The fact is if we used her proposed “values-based” approach, arms control would be the only cooperation possible.

Valuable cooperation would be lost in a host of other areas – Afghanistan and the overall war against jihadism, space, and anti-piracy – just to name a few.

But please let’s not underestimate the necessity for arms control.

To support her call for Russia’s isolation, Shevtsova notes that Sergei Kovalev, Garry Kasparov, and Grigory Yavlinsky have long supported such an approach. However, last month’s congress of Yavlinskii’s Yabloko party decided to advance cooperation with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Kovalev was a State Duma deputy until 2003 and has attended meetings with President Medvedev, so he is not averse to cooperating in limited fashion with the regime that Shevtsova recommends the West should shun. The only true recalcitrant in her group of admirable dissidents, Gary Kasparov, has allied with the neo-fascist pornographer, National Bolshevik Party leader Eduard Limonov.

Hey, that would be “neo-fascist pornographer, National Bolshevik Party leader, brilliant writer, and probably the only sincere opposition in the lot who isn’t hiding some agenda designed to make him wealthy or a hit with the DC crowd, Eduard Limonov.” Pretty sure that is his official title.

There are projects that would be worthy for the U.S.-Russia Civil Society Working Group to cooperate on. One is former U.S. Army Colonel Charles Heberle’s democracy education program, which the Russian Ministry of Education is preparing to institute in all of Russia’s schools and has been functioning for years in schools in Petrozavodsk, Karelia. Dr Shevtsova is especially off base when she asserts there are few in the U.S. who believe Russians are ready for democracy.

Fascinating – I had no idea. Granted, I don’t trust a “democracy education program” in the hands of McFaul, or the Ministry of Education in the hands of Surkov. But together, that could be one crazy lovechild, if those two ever decide to get into bed with each other. Also, isn’t Gorby working on something similar?

Today’s Kremlin and today’s Russia are not yesterday’s Kremlin and the USSR, and Russia’s liberals should use the system to change the system. Their dependence on the West discredits them internally, could make them subservient to forces that are not as devoted to Russia’s development as they, and foist on them ideas that may not be suitable for, or politically marketable in Russia in the near future.

If anyone got the impression from my take-down of Lilia that it is the Russian liberals whom I oppose, a clarification is in order. It’s the “forces that are not as devoted to Russia’s development as they, and foist on them ideas that may not be suitable for, or politically marketable in Russia in the near future,” whom I oppose.

The best way for the West to assist them is to support Russia’s efforts when possible, engage the Kremlin in democratization projects, and improve the relationship so that the distrust built up through much of the post-Cold War period begins to evaporate. Remember that when U.S. President Ronald Reagan seriously engaged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987-88, the latter’s position was strengthened such that he could push his perestroika reforms in earnest.

While many understandably have a far different take on those salad days of Russian democracy (and the chaos that followed) than anyone inclined to idolize Reagan, this is a clear refutation of Lilia’s fuzzy logic.

Timothy recommends we read Hahn’s article and send it to our representatives. Why not? Hey, I sent a Stephen Cohen piece to mine, soon after Obama came out and pretended to scrap the missile shield fiasco! Sometimes this whole democracy thing actually pretends to work…

January 12, 2010

Odds & Ends: Yes, I’m still writing about Russia Edition.

Filed under: Odds & Ends — poemless @ 2:46 PM

“Hey Vova, come look. Odds & Ends is back!”

You should not have to rely on crappy immitations.

Contents: 2009′s Russia hatin’ hack=2010′s Russia lovin’ weatherman; 2009′s enemy of Putin=2010′s enemy of Oligarchs; 2009′s vodka=2010′s street cleaner; 2009′s Tylenol=2010′s vodka; 2009′s cosmetics=2010′s penicillin; 2009′s man’s best friend=2010′s toxic avenger; 2009′s Pradva=2010′s MosNews and much much more!

It is a New Year. It is a Recession. I present to you, New Uses for Old Stuff:

The Month In Journamalism:

~ Ed Lucas: Cold? Try Siberian winters like I did!

Stop the presses! Tovarishch Lucas has written something I not only agree with, but actually enjoyed reading! (Note to RosKosmos: That asteroid might be closer than you think.)

Timidly shivering in their badly insulated houses, or tottering along unswept pavements in unsuitable footwear and inadequate clothes, the British present a pathetic sight in winter.

Not just incompetent in the face of the challenge of a cold snap – but too often joyless to boot.

What a contrast to Russia and other East European countries where I have spent most of my adult life.

Supposedly these countries are the continent’s poor relations. But when it comes to dealing with General Winter – the deadly foe of all invaders from the West – they are streets ahead.[...]

Unlike us, our fellow Europeans in the east know how to dress properly too. My most treasured possession is an Estonian ‘lunt’, a supple lambskin cap.

With the flaps turned down, it keeps me warm even in temperatures of -50c (my record, encountered in the eastern Siberian mining town of Kemerovo).

I once hosted a glamorous English couple in the depths of an Eastern winter. As the wind howled and their ears turned blue, both refused even to fasten their coats, let alone accept the hats, gloves and scarves I tried to lend them, during a brief walk.

‘I would look silly in a hat,’ said my friend. ‘Nobody in my family has ever worn anything like that,’ said his haughty wife.[...]

Best of all was the sauna culture – a world away from the feeble version of British spas and health clubs filled with thin-lipped women desperate to sweat out a few pounds. The real thing is a hut, preferably self-built and fuelled by logs you have chopped yourself.[...]

I cannot recreate those beloved Russian winters in Britain. But I have installed (against the strenuous objections of my wife) what must be one of the very few outdoor saunas in Chelsea.

She looks in dismay at the kit: The wooden bucket and ladle, the strange mushroom-like hats, the linen loin-cloths, the small bottles of birchbark oil, dark brown and pungent (for scenting the steam), the canister of salty sauna honey (for rubbing on the skin) and the birch-branch whisks (imported from Estonia and stored in the freezer).

Today, though, I’ll scarcely hear her objections: I’ll be too busy looking for snow to roll in.

Ok, first of all, Eddie’s going to have me shot for quoting so liberally from his article. And to frame Vova. So this might be a good time to put in writing my request for cremation. No stuffy funerals with little pink chairs. Have a big drunken orgy and scatter my ashes in some dank Moscow alley.

I just can’t agree enough with Eddie, though. Anyone complaining about the cold and the snow, acting like you are some kind of gladiator just because you had the balls to go to the store, anyone who cancels classes or work or public transportation because of … winter, y’all are wimps. Also, I’m sick of snow and cold being referred to as “bad” weather. Not only is it obnoxious to refer to a whole ecosystem as “bad,” like mother nature’s sole responsibility is to make your life easy, penguins and reindeer be damned, but it professes an ignorance of the joys that come with such weather. Playing in the snow, hot chocolate, down comforters, saunas, sledding, the beautiful twinkle of snow beneath a streetlight and the way it makes everything a little quiter, big comfy sweaters, not having to see men’s feet in flip flops… Anyway, it gives me hope that Russophobe or Putinista, moron or genuis, we Russia-watchers can all find common ground when it comes to judging the rest of you pansies freaking out about the white stuff.

~ Hindu: Reliance installations attacked in Andhra Pradesh.

Every blogger dreams of the day when his words will inspire class warfare and widespread rioting. For Mark Ames, that day has come.

Several installations of the Reliance group across Andhra Pradesh were attacked late on Thursday night after a Telugu television channel aired a report alleging a high-level conspiracy behind Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy’s death in a helicopter crash on September 2.
It was based on a report on a Russian website, The Exiled, which alleged that YSR was the victim of a plot centring around offshore gas reserves in the Krishna-Godavari basin. Reliance Industries Limited owned by Mukesh Ambani is operating these gasfields off the Kakinada coast.

No political party, barring some Congress leaders, gave credence to the report of the website, which could not be accessed. But mobs took to the streets and indulged in vandalism in at least ten districts and Hyderabad city.[...]

YSR’s supporters went on the rampage in Guntur, Anantapur and Kurnool districts and Hyderabad city, where they attacked retail outlets and malls, cellphone towers and petrol stations operated by the two Reliance groups.

They burnt effigies of Mukesh and Anil Ambani. Local Congress leaders called for a bandh in Kadapa and Anantapur districts and several towns in other districts.

Guntur witnessed the maximum attack on the Reliance groups’ outlets, with the mobs attacking fuel stations, cellphone towers and other retail outlets. Tension prevailed in the district as senior Congress leaders led the attack on the outlets till late in the night.

In Kurnool district, activists set ablaze two buses at the Nandyal bus stand and attacked over a dozen others.

Mark responds here.

BTW. “… a Russian website?” I thought he was supposed to be “banned” in Russia. Though I see that tagline is no longer up. That’s too bad, if only because of a missed opportunity to sew more confused outrage among our Indian friends.

The Month In Switzerland:

~ RT: Swiss politicians ponder ban on assisted suicide.

Apparently suicide tourism is booming in my favourite country, where, for a price, they’ll euthanize you even if you don’t have a fatal disease. Switzerland: where people go to kill themselves!

The number of people coming to Switzerland to seek help in ending their life has been steadily rising. Plans to revise the law on assisted suicide stem from the government’s fears that Switzerland may become a “suicide Mecca.” In the meantime, campaigners are worried that changes to the law could deprive people of their last chance to die with dignity.

Dignitas – a Swiss group that helps people die assisted by doctors and nurses – maintains that everyone has the right to choose when to die. Although the group rarely speaks to journalists, the doors of the organization have been open the terminally ill for more than 10 years.

However, critics say what Dignitas is carrying out is “a murky business.”

“EXIT (a group similar to Dignitas) and Dignitas are very commercial,” says Ruedi Aeschbacher of the Evangelical People’s Party of Switzerland. “They say they are non-profit, but they make money. And nobody can control them. Nobody can check their books.”

The story goes on to say that while they’ll end your life even if you don’t have a chronic illness, they won’t put down depressed folks. Which, to me, is a bit like offering hospice care to anyone but cancer patients.

The Month In Vova’s Sporty Holidays:

~ Guardian: Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev meet on the slopes for a cup of tea.

In this month’s installation of: “We don’t resent each other. Honestly. What?”

After the shots of him manfully – and shirtlessly – tugging fish from a Siberian river and sitting proudly astride a magnificent chestnut steed, the latest pictures of Vladimir Putin are something of a letdown. Not only is the Russian prime minister riding a snowmobile rather than an awed polar bear, he is also wearing a ski jacket with what looks to be a rather snug red fleece. His image as a solitary outdoorsman at home in the most inhospitable of environments is further undermined by a photo in which he and the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, enjoy an après-ski cup of tea.[...]

Their body language suggests the closeness between the two most powerful figures in Russia. But shirt or no shirt, it’s plain which one is the alpha male. Despite Medvedev’s claims that he lifts weights, Putin’s physique, black belt in judo and record in office make him all but unassailable.

Letdown? I know, right! Listen, Vovka darling, it’s all nice and lovely if you want to go romp in the snow and have tea, but next time you could save some money to put toward the starving orphan problem and keep the press pool (and Dima) at home. Unless you are romping shirtless. Or having tea shirtless. Or riding a polar bear. Shirtless. Wait. Why has he not thought of this before?! Gives a whole new angle to the “bear cavalry” myth… If I were Putin’s PR person, I’d be scheduling a polar bear photo-op ASAP. Or not. Maybe closer to 2012. Mark my words: you’ll see VVP in a polarbear-riding beefcake shot before the next presidential election.

Fortunately my attractive leader actually vacations where it is warm:

Unfortunately my attractive leader isn’t a very good leader…

~ Reuters: Putin on the Ritz.

This is cute.

“Blog Guy, you know those dudes that run Russia? President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin?”
I’ve heard of them, yes.

“Boy, I bet those are great jobs to have. They probably live the high life all the time and do whatever they want, eh, eh?”

Not really. Times are hard. They carpool to work together in Medvedev’s Pobeda, and as you can see here, it’s not even light yet when they head to the office.

“Gosh, I would have expected big limos or something. Well, what about when they have those huge snows? Do they still drive that car, or do they just get a snow day?”

Snow day? Hah! When it snows, they go in together on a snowmobile. Have a look.

“Wow, this is all pretty low rent, isn’t it? Still, probably lavish meals with the best food and drink?”

Ya think? Here they are having the luncheon special at the Kremlin Coffee Shop.

Why are they wearing parkas and hats at lunch? Isn’t the heat turned up high enough?

Why *are* they wearing parkas and hats at lunch? This looks like something from a J.C. Penney’s catalogue. I thought they were all, “Forward, Russia!” If the future looks like a J.C. Penney’s catalogue, I can see why people are ambivalent…

The Month In Vodka:

~ AFP: Russia imposes minimum vodka price.

In an effort to curb alcoholism (or at least people dying instantly from alcohol … baby steps) and black market production (which causes most of the “instant deaths from alcohol”) Dimochka’s being a party-pooper and raising the price of the little water:

MOSCOW — Russia on Friday imposed a new minimum legal price for vodka in a bid to hinder the sale of cut-price black market moonshine blamed for the deaths of thousands of Russians every year.
From the first day of the New Year, a new law came into force stipulating that the minimum price of a half-litre bottle of vodka is 89 rubles (2.9 dollars), official Russian news agencies reported.

The measure is aimed at preventing the sale of black market vodka which is often made from dubious ingredients but sold at rock-bottom low prices.

I know it’s more difficult to part with $3 in Russia than in America, where “$3″ means, “Hell, why not just give it away for free, asshole?” in Capitalismese. But I’m thinking $3 for a bottle of vodka is not the solution. You know what discourages me from buying vodka? It’s $20 bottle. If it were $3, I would be dead now, too.

~ UPI: Vodka byproduct used as road de-icer.

And they say drink and driving don’t mix!

Vodka may be considered “antifreeze” for humans but a byproduct is also good for melting snow and ice on roads and sidewalks, makers say.
A byproduct of the vodka distilling process being marketed as “Magic Salt” is proving useful for keeping driveways and walkways clear of ice, WANE-TV, Fort Wayne, Ind., reported Wednesday.

The broadcaster quoted a local distributor who said Indiana hospitals and the city of New Haven is using the stuff as an effective de-icer.

“It’s basically the leftovers as they are doing the distilling … and they used to just basically dispose of it in retention ponds,” said Fort Wayne “Magic Salt” distributor Eric Hitzfield.

Hitzfield told WANE it works at minus 35 degrees, about 50 degrees colder than the average rock salt.

And if it doesn’t work, you can always just get drunk and not care.

Bit of trivia: Chicago uses something made from beets.

~ Luxist: Sam’s Club Launches Vodka Brand, Rue 33.

OMG. Econo-size bargain basement-priced vodka. While Russia, desperate to maintain a live population, is busy pricing proles out of their vodka, America is making affordable access to alcoholism a right of all citizens. Once the riff-raff have all died of liver failure, then the Congress will pass that universal healthcare bill. Democracy in action!

Sam’s Club has long been a place to get liquor at a lower price. Now it has introduce its own vodka, a a private label Member’s Mark ultra premium French distilled vodka under the label Rue 33. It is the first spirit to be launched under the Member’s Mark brand and joins several several control label wines.

Rue 33 is a wheat vodka from the Cognac region of France and is six times distilled and three times filtered. Sam’s Club will sell 1.75 liters of Rue 33 premium vodka for about $28 and club membership is not required to purchase alcohol on location. Of more than 600 Sam’s Clubs only around 240 are licensed to sell beer, wine and spirits.

Ok, I am freaking out, kids. First America invades Afghanistan, then we have an economic collapse, then all the hooligans start wearing furry shapkas and now vodka is the drink of choice for the underclass. I don’t mean to scare you, but I think someone is fucking with the space-time continuum! I hope this means David Tennant is about to magically appear in my life…

p.s. I don’t recognize the right of anything made in France to call itself vodka.

The Month In Self Care:

~ USA Today: Study: High heels better than running shoes.

Yes. I know.

Walking in high heels is easier on your knees and ankles than jogging in running shoes, report researchers Monday in the journal PM&R, and bare feet might be best.
The injury, function and rehabilitation study led by D. Casey Kerrigan of JKM Technologies LLC in Charlottesville, VA, a team handed 68 young adult runners, 37 of them women, running shoes and observed their running motions in treadmill and video studies. All of the runners regularly ran at least 15 miles a week.[...]

“Remarkably, the effect of running shoes on knee joint torques (twisting) during running that the authors observed here is even greater than the effect that was reported earlier of high-heeled shoes during walking,” Kerrigan says in a statement.

All of this talk of shoes has me thinking about a problem I face this time of year: Winter Boots. And the inability to find the perfect pair. Here are some of my current options along with their pros and cons:

Snow Boots. Pros: warm, waterproof, keep me from slipping and falling on my ass. Cons: ugly, too short to protect my calves from grey slush.
Ugg Boots. Pros: warm, tall, fashionably acceptable. Cons: not waterproof, don’t keep me from slipping and falling on my ass.
Rain Boots. Pros: waterproof, tall, keep me from slipping and falling on my ass, super cute. Cons: not warm.
Motorcycle Boots. Pros: warm, somewhat waterproof, keep me from slipping and falling on my ass, fashionable. Cons: not waterproof enough, too short to protect my calves from grey slush.
Pirate Boots. I only wear these inside as they are not waterproof or warm and don’t keep me from slipping and falling on my ass but look spectacular.

Can anyone recommend a pair of winter boots that could conceivably protect me if I were accidentally stranded in Antarctica yet I could also wear with a skirt to a hip restaurant? Thanks!

~ BBC: Cleopatra’s eye make-up ‘had health benefits’.

“You wear too much eye makeup. My sister wears too much. People think she’s a whore.”
“It’s for health reasons, asshole. And you should stop beating your wife.”

The heavy eye make-up favoured by ancient Egyptians such as Cleopatra may have had medical as well as aesthetic benefits, French research suggests.

The study, published in the journal Analytical Chemistry, suggests it helped to protect against eye disease.

The key appears to be lead salts contained in the make-up.

At very low levels, salts produce nitric oxide, which boosts the immune system to fight off bacteria which can cause eye infection.

The make-up used by the ancient Egyptians to darken and enhance the eyes sometimes took up to a month to concoct.

In theory, because it contained lead it might actually have posed a risk to health.

But an analysis by scientists from the Louvre Museum and the CNRS research institute found that in very low doses lead could actually have a positive effect.

And a positive effect on the French beauty industry too… Quelle coïncidence!

~ Chicago Tribune: Is acetaminophen a social-pain reliever? Perhaps, study suggests.

For when drowning your misery in vodka won’t kill your liver quick enough.

Over-the-counter painkillers that alleviate physical aches also can ease mental anguish, according to a study in the journal Psychological Science. Researchers found that acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol, may have an off-label benefit.

The experiment involved 62 healthy volunteers who took a daily dose of acetaminophen or a placebo. Hurt feelings decreased over time in those taking acetaminophen, researchers found, but not in those given the placebo.

In another test, researchers gave 25 volunteers a double dosage of acetaminophen or a placebo, but this time they participated in a computer game rigged to create feelings of social rejection. Acetaminophen reduced neural responses to mental anxiety, while the placebo did not.

“People trivialize the pain of rejection,” said University of Kentucky psychologist C. Nathan DeWall, who led the study. “This research has the potential to change how people think about physical and social pain. We hope our findings can pave the way for interventions designed to reduce the pain of social rejection and ostracism.”

Tylenol won’t alleviate a bloody headache! It’s supposed to reduce the pain of finding out your longtime partner has been fucking a girl at the office, that you’re facing another round of layoffs, that no one called you on your birthday? What kind of “hurt feelings” are we talking about here? No one saved a cupcake for you? Christ, this is why exploiting broke college students as guinea pigs for science experiments is a bad idea, world.

The Month In Zoology:

~ RIA Novosti: Green dogs run wild in Russia’s Urals.

I will not pet them on the head,
I will not pet them in a bed.
I will not pet radioactive beasts,
I will not pet them, Sam I Am!

A pack of some 20 stray dogs has turned green after scavenging for food at an illegal dump on the outskirts of Russia’s Urals city of Yekaterinburg, police said on Friday.

“Either local residents or a factory have been dumping some kind of chemical waste there,” a police spokesman told RIA Novosti, adding that police had asked the local council to take steps to clear up the site.

Or… They’re showing their support for the Iranian protesters. Homeless doggies don’t have access to facebook groups, ya know.

~ Pravda: Mutilated Farm Animals Most Likely Victims of UFO Experiments.

This is one of the greatest masterpieces of reportage I have read in ages. I don’t know why people say that journalism in Russia is dead. Jesus, I hope VVP and his goons don’t off the author for exposing this horrifying story!!!

Now diseased UFO investigator German Kolchin wrote that in Russia, mutilated animals missing internal organs were found in Primorsky Krai and the Volgograd Region. In 1987, a mutilated carcass of a cow was found at a collective farm near the Ural Mountains, and at the same time UFOs were observed in the same area.
On May 22, 2002 the Krasnodar city newspaper “Kuban News” published a letter describing strange events. The author’s grandmother heard her dogs barking at night and stepped outside to see what was going on. All her dogs were looking at the rabbit barn in the yard. She found three strangled baby rabbits with their ears cut off. On the way to her house, the woman saw a light ball flying out from under the rabbit cage.

In 1996, Vladimir Chechurin, a hunter residing in Amga village, Yakutia, lost his horse. A few days later the horse was found dead. The horse’s bones were intact, but his internal organs were a mess and his heart and lungs were missing. The hunter remembered that he saw several UFOs in the area a few days before the incident.

The good news is that aliens are not hunting humans after practicing on animals.

Yet!

The Month In Writing:

~ The Eagle & The Bear: A “verbal chain” culminating in God: Mikhail Shishkin on Russian literature.

I don’t know who Shishkin is, but according to Wikipedia, he wrote a book titled, “Russian Switzerland,” so I assume he writes horror.

At the end of October, I heard a lecture at UW-Madison by acclaimed Russian author Mikhail Shishkin that I have only just had time to revisit [...]

Russian writers never depended on the interest of readers, writing only for themselves or the Party, but were nonetheless accorded respect (see the old adage, “A poet in Russia is more than just a poet.”) After the fall, “Literature was left for those who cannot live without writing. Then the dollar came.” Shishkin, who wrote his first novel in teh 1980s, said that the new dependence on print run in the ‘90s was no better than previous dependence on the Soviet regime’s approval.

Shishkin accurately describes the current situation in which literature, its decline marked by the ascension of pop authors like Oksana Robski, is so marginal and meaningless as a product for profit, it can paradoxically exist freely in Russia for the first time. But he sounds a tad curmudgeonly and simplistic in his rote condemnation of the downsides of the market economy.

For his third theme, Shishkin totters out onto a metaphysical limb and gets all mystical: The Russian author—Shishkin suddenly adopts the guise of a parenting help guru—loves his hero unconditionally, as Gogol does Akaki Akakievich. In this he touches the sacred, since in the beginning there was only a “clump of love, or, rather, the need for it,” which prompted God to create “his own child in order to love him.”

What follows is a bit of metaphorical logic stretched to the breaking point: “If the author loves Akaki Akakievich, who does not deserve to be loved, then the reader knows that God exists and loves him.” Thus, the author’s task is to combine words into “verbal chain” that culminates in God. The additional duty of the Russian author, it would seem, is to fight the totalitarian consciousness intrinsic to the Russian nation and the humiliation reflex intrinsic to the Russian language.

Shishkin claims it is impossible to offer a universal prescription as to how to achieve this, then proceeds to do exactly that, speaking from his own experience: To create his own “Russian arc,” the Russian writer must become hermit, i.e. leave, physically or metaphorically, bringing only his own experience and “ten centuries of the Cyrillic language.”

Although by the end I was worried Shishkin was trying to surreptitiously convert the audience to Scientology, I will admit the lecture was the most inimitable and far-reaching analysis of Russian literature that I have yet heard.

I personally worry ALL writers are trying to surreptitiously convert me to some new age cult. It’s PTSD incurred from dating an English major/self-help addict. In fairness, he only became a self-help addict after we began dating. That industry should pay me royalties, I swear.

~ FP Passport: Lee Harvey Oswald’s request for Soviet citizenship.

FP highlights the National Security Archives letter, part of a girft from Boris Yeltsin to Bill Clinton. I wonder if he busted these out before or after the naked midnight pizza run…

“I Lee Harvey Oswald, request that I be granted citizenship in the Soviet Union, my visa began on Oct. 15, and will expire on Oct. 21, I must be granted asylum before this date. [Unreadable] I wait for the citizenship decision.
At present I am a citizen of the United States of America.

I want citizenship because; I am a communist and a worker, I have lived in a decadent capitalist society where the workers are slaves.

I am twenty years old, I have completed three years in the United States Marine Corps, I served with the occupation forces in Japan, I have seen American military imperialism in all its forms,

I do not want to return to any country outside of the Soviet Union.

I am writing to give up my American citizenship and assume the responsibilities of a Soviet citizen.

I had saved my money which I earned as a private in the American military for two years, in order to come to Russia for the express purpose of seeking citizenship here. I do not have enough money left to live indefintly [sic] here, or to return to any other country. I have no desire to return to any other country. I ask that my request be given quick consideration.

Sincerly[sic],

Lee H. Oswald”

“Sic” is right, bitches!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

As always, thanks for reading!

January 7, 2010

In Defense of Fellini.

Filed under: Film Review — poemless @ 6:26 PM
Tags: , ,

Over the holidays I went to see the film Nine, which I had been waiting for in lustful anticipation for months. Rob Marshall, the director of Chicago, in an homage to Federico Fellini? To my sensibilities, this concept should make those like “heaven” or “nirvana” resemble a day at the dmv by comparison!

Creds:

I went to some fancy film school, or rather a fancy school where I majored in film. My original intention was to make films. Films like 8 1/2. Then I got distracted by the role of cinema in the creation of national identity and then I got distracted by Russian lit. During the autumn of 1993, however, my impressionable young mind was enrolled in a class on Italian cinema. At some point 8 1/2 became something more than a movie, a symbol of everything cool & genius. Fellini was a god, and 8 1/2 a bible. My friends and I knew we could never attain the cool & genius of Fellini, but accepted our moral obligation to try. Our prophet died that autumn as we sat in class discussing his work. At the risk of taking this analogy far too far, I had one of those religious experience things people talk about when I learned that he had died, one I think I will keep to myself. It was All Saints’ Day. I was at the beach. There is something about walking along an empty shore on a cold grey day… I still have a flower I picked that day.

Nine:

According to Wikipedia:

Nine is a 2009 musical-romantic film directed and produced by Rob Marshall. The screenplay, by Michael Tolkin and Anthony Minghella,[2] is based on Arthur Kopit’s book for the 1982 Tony Award-winning musical of the same name, which was derived from an Italian play by Mario Fratti inspired by Federico Fellini’s autobiographical film 8½.

Got that? It’s a movie based on a musical based on a book based on a play based on a film based on Fellini. I want to make sure we’re all on the same page and no one is lost back at recursive exit 3, wondering what the hell is going on. For discussion’s sake, we’ll say that it is a movie based on a musical based on an autobiographical film by Fellini. But the movie (the new one) is about the original film. Except, it’s not really “about” it. But I’ll come back to that.

8 1/2:

8 1/2 is the best film ever made about filmmaking.” ~Roger Ebert.

8 1/2 is the best film ever made.” ~poemless.

Released in 1963, it is about a man trying to make a film but can’t due to a creative block. Also, he is surrounded by a bunch of eccentric people. In the end there is a circus.

8 1/2 is autobiographical, yes, but more accurately, self-referential. I think this fact completely justifies a movie like Nine. I mean, if you can make a movie about a man making that movie, wouldn’t an appropriate homage to the director be a movie about the man making the movie about man making the m… oh, I’ve lost track now. What I want to say is that it is both appropriate and consistent for the movie Nine to be made. In theory, it should work brilliantly. In theory, it should be delicious.

Fellini said, “It is not memory that dominates my films. To say that my films are autobiographical is an overly facile liquidation, a hasty classification. It seems to me that I have invented almost everything: childhood, character, nostalgias, dreams, memories, for the pleasure of being able to recount them.” When we think of autobiographical film, we think of a chronicle of events which have taken place in the past and, upon reflection, form a cohesive narrative that provides some kind of lesson. 8 1/2 is not that kind of a film. It is only autobiographical in that it is about a real man making a real movie. And frankly, that’s the least interesting aspect of the film, in my opinion. The film is really about the psychology of the filmmaker, not as it is revealed through his actions, but as it can only be expressed through a film. And yet Nine takes the route of the traditional autobiographical movie, omnisciently observing the protagonist, judging his actions, tying the making of 8 1/2 into a neat, plot-driven story using every trick in the book from hero with a fatal flaw to moment of revelation that you watched the whole film lead up to for so long you no longer care you are there when you arrive. Blah. Not brilliant. Not delicious. Not an appropriate homage.

Structure & Plot:

Nine is a montage of scenes plagiarized, by which I mean copied literally, from 8 1/2 and staged musical numbers, presumably copied from the Broadway musical. Which leaves me to wonder what exactly Marshall contributed to the movie. The first type of scene is problematic because if I want to see 8 1/2, I will just see 8 1/2. Right? I kept waiting for the writer or director’s vision to reveal itself in these scenes. But mostly it came across like a book report by a 9 year old: evidence he had actually read the book (or seen the movie in this case), without any hint as to what he thinks about it. It was a reenactment of another movie! What is this supposed to accomplish, exactly? I’ll tell you: giving a bunch of modern movie stars the chance to realize their fantasy of being in a Fellini movie. I can’t say I blame them. I do blame Marshal for not being a bit more inventive about it. Hard time believing he has the exact same dreams as Fellini…

The musical numbers I am less perturbed by. Ok, Daniel Day Lewis looks like a dork when he sings (when I think of Marcello Mastroianni, I don’t think “dork”) and the lyrics are lame and unmemorable. I can repeat by heart right now the entire soundtrack to Chicago. Ask me what was said in any of the songs in Nine … all I remember is the word “Italiano.” But the performances by the women ROCKED. They were dripping with fantasy and costume and erotica and glamour and unrepentant womanhood. Now we’re within sight of capturing something Fellini-esque. And I like that they took place on a stage on an unfinished movie set as Guido watched from the studio floor. Artifice. I get it. Not reality. I get it. This is what is going on in his imagination; these are the creative juices flowing. I get it. It worked. It was fun. I’m not sure these numbers redeem the rest of the movie. But I can appreciate how the Broadway show would be really entertaining. Marshall seemed to translate Chicago from stage to screen with ease, why not Nine? Perhaps the problem is that it had already been translated from screen to stage before he got hold of it. Leftovers can be yummy, but you begin to resent the dish after the 3rd re-heating.

But I don’t think that’s the only explanation for why this movie irked me so. Chicago is about murderous chicks doin’ jail time and racy dances, and he made a movie about how fabulous they were. The thrill of the movie was its subversive decadence and glamour. I think this can be said of Fellini too. He lets the Church do the judging and allows his fantasy free reign. Is this not what we mean by the term, Felliniesque? So why is Nine so heavy-handed with reality and morality?

The Women Problem:

Nine is a movie about how Fellini (or Guido, however you like it) is a philandering egomaniac who escapes into the arms of women and breaks their hearts in attempts to avoid confronting his creative block, who makes 8 1/2 in order to win the respect of his estranged wife. This is not the back-drop against which fabulous things happen; this IS what happens. Personally I have no idea what Federico’s personal life was like except that he and his wife were profoundly close at the end of the their lives. Moreover, it occurs to me that you could make this movie about almost any film director. Why is Fellini/Guido so remarkable a womanizer? And why should we accept the premise of Nine, which is that he is? And if we do accept that he is, why does Nine not ask … why?

Because I could have answered that for them.

Fellini was a follower of the psychologist Carl Jung. In addition to utilizing Jungian theory to decipher and develop his dream-life, the film-maker was influenced by Jung’s classification of archetypes, in particular the theory of “anima” and “animus.”

From Wikipedia:

The anima and animus are described by Jung as elements of his theory of the collective unconscious, a domain of the unconscious that transcends the personal psyche. In the unconscious of the male, it finds expression as a feminine inner personality: anima; equivalently, in the unconscious of the female, it is expressed as a masculine inner personality: animus.

It can be identified as the totality of the unconscious feminine psychological qualities that a male possesses; or the masculine ones possessed by the female. The anima is an archetype of the collective unconscious and not an aggregate of a man’s mother, sisters, aunts, and teachers though these aspects of the personal unconscious can ‘contaminate’ the archetypes.

The anima is one of the most significant autonomous complexes of all. It manifests itself by appearing as figures in dreams as well as by influencing a man’s interactions with women and his attitudes toward them, and vice versa for females and the animus. Jung said that confronting one’s shadow self is an “apprentice-piece”, while confronting one’s anima is the masterpiece. Jung viewed the anima process as being one of the sources of creative ability.

Fellini/Guido does not simply “objectify” women in the contemporary jargon used to denote the belief that women exist only for the satisfaction of himself. Nor is his complex remarkably Oedipal/Freudian (which Nine suggests…) In Fellini’s films women represent the “anima,” that “female” aspect of the psyche which is expressed through freedom, wildness, tenderness, love, etc. Guido is a tormented, intellectual control-freak who feels trapped in a society in which he expected to produce work, make money, be successful, cow to the public’s demands of him. He doesn’t just run to women because he is a child who needs a mother or an adult unable to control his libido. He runs to them because the world they inhabit is better, or at least more interesting. It is the locus of the anima. Until they cease representing an untapped subconscious and begin making demands on him, of course.

Anyway, if you don’t believe me, have a look at this clip from Fellini’s 8 1/2.:

Asa Nisi Masa

All that said, I do think that if Nine gets anything right, it is the women. If 8/12 is about a man in pursuit of his anima, Nine is about women who have found their animus.

The casting (apart from Nicole Kidman, which is almost criminal, really) is perfect. The depictions … I don’t know how they pulled it off. How do you turn the worlds’ most glamorous, beautiful women into characters who look like … real women (apart from Nicole Kidman)? These girls weren’t airbrushed (apart from Nicole Kidman). This was a celebration of women who have curves, circles under their eyes, raw sexuality, makeup that looks like it has been worn all day, bad lighting, who try too hard or who don’t try hard enough but who all need to try, but who are all without question beautiful, regardless of age or size. I mean, this movie features Dame Judi Dench, a woman in her 70′s, hosting the Folies Bergere! I love it!!!

Cast:

~ Daniel Day-Lewis replaces Marcello Mastroianni as Guido, Fellini’s alter ego. My step-father (Italian) thought he was horribly miscast. He also said Daniel was playing Marcello Mastroianni (as opposed to Fellini), so I didn’t listen to him. But now I agree. Absolutely nothing about this performance evokes Guido or Marcello or Federico. His broodiness comes across and whineyness, he lacks the suavity to pass as an Italian auteur and little about his character suggests he is about to make what, despite all outward appearances, is a decidedly cerebral film. I don’t even think he was trying, so it might be misleading to say he failed.

~ Marion Cotillard replaces Anouk Aimée as Luisa, his wife. I am not convinced that Cotillard can give a bad performance of anything. But I dare say her portrayal of Louisa out-Louisa’d Anouk Aimée’s. And I say that as someone who positively idolizes Anouk Aimée. So it’s nothing against the original performance. Just a credit to Marion’s. Bravo.

~ Penélope Cruz replaces Sandra Milo as Carla, his lover. Ditto! I’m not a huge fan of Penelope Cruz, but not only does she give and unforgettable musical … er, performance, she is so real and vulnerable and her acting is superb. This could easily have be a caricature, but she went the more challenging rte. Her performance, there is something Italian neo-realist about it.

~ Nicole Kidman replaces Claudia Cardinale as Claudia, his muse. She’s no Claudia Cardinale… Claudia is supposed to represent the ideal woman, but the way this movie handles that fact that she isn’t is trite and gimmicky. BTW, I think this is also based on Anita Ekberg’s Trevi Fountain scene from La Dolce Vita. Maybe my memory is failing me. Anyway, Kidman confuses frostiness for enigma and chastity for femininity and doesn’t pull off the role. IMO.

~ Fergie replaces Eddra Gale as La Saraghina. Damn! You’d think there could only be one Saraghina. You’d be wrong. Fergie didn’t hold back – she went there. I’m impressed! That’s one of the most classic scenes in all filmdom & she didn’t look like she was re-enacting it. She looked like she was the actual person who had inspired Fellini’s scene.

~ Judi Dench as Lilli La Fleur. Again, I must be getting Alzheimer’s because I don’t remember who this was in the original. But the Dame can do no wrong. Brilliant as always. Wise without being smug, classy without being stuffy, irreverent without being shallow. And I want to see more older women like her in these kinds of parts.

~ Sophia Loren as Guido’s mother. What can I say about Sophia? Perfection.

~ Kate Hudson as the American publicist. Meh. Not brilliant, not terrible. In any other film this might have been a memorable performance, but Kate has too much competition for that in Nine. Also, she looked too much like her mother on “Laugh In,” dancing in lamé go-go boots – which were more evocative of late 60′s LA than early 60′s Rome. Unfortunately I’m blaming her for what is actually a larger problem with the film: Style. And lack thereof.

Aesthetics:

There is an entire musical number devoted to the style of “Cinema Italiano” so I think we need to address it. As I stated at the beginning, 8 1/2 is the epitome of cool. You might not get the Jungian psychobabble or the care about some celebrity film director’s creative block, but you will be struck by the layer upon layer of existential cool. Last year was the first time in 17 years I did not buy a pair of Marcello Mastroianni sunglasses. How I adore those streamlined rectangular shades. Minimalist, intellectual, deliberate, chic. And I’m pretty sure Barbara Steele’s character in 8 1/2 is largely responsible for my own fashion sense, with her dark bob, dramatic eyes and monochromatic black ensembles… Fellini’s film is shot in black and white, yet one has the impression that had it been shot in color, all the costumes and set design would still be mostly black and white. Hats and sunglasses and spas all denote cool in and of themselves, but with the help of Fellini’s imagination and Italian design create Caligari-esqe compositions. Combined with dream-like pacing and spare dialogue, the film becomes more than a story; it becomes a work of art. Whimsical enough to avoid intimidating the audience, intimidating enough to keep them invested. The endless struggle between imagination and intellect, fantasy and reality. It’s what the whole film is about.

The art direction and cinematography are the true shame about Nine. Lack of reference to Carl Jung and a less than hipster Guido should not kill the movie. Bad writing … well, this movie was waging an uphill battle to start with. But you just can’t make a movie about Fellini in homage to Fellini and use … standard Hollywood production values! Yes, some scenes do take a departure into real cinematic artistry, but they end up being the exceptions that prove the rule. Nine is content to be a story, a movie; it never becomes an undeniable work of art. It is the “apprentice-piece”, not the masterpiece. Please understand: I don’t dismiss all movies that fail to be masterpieces. All movies aren’t trying to be 8 1/2.

In Conclusion:

Nine disappoints, but there is no tragedy here. We’ll always have Fellini. And fortunately so will Mr. Marshall.

Ciao bello.

January 5, 2010

Holiday Reflections: The good, the bad and the prickly.

Filed under: Culture: U.S.,Too Much Information — poemless @ 5:50 PM
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Each year I become more disillusioned and more disoriented. Maybe I was a well-adjusted optimist in my first years and my life is some kind of cruel experiment to test human tolerance for having everything valuable and civilized slowly removed from one’s existence, piece by little piece. As if god were some Nazi archaeologist of the soul.

However, I don’t believe in god. And I spent the first years of my existence in and out of hospital beds with recurring bouts of bronchial pneumonia, so I could not have been so well-adjusted. Beds is too kind a word; they were like cages. They were probably just cribs, but I remember bars, and that I could not get out. Unless my parents were visiting for Christmas. I remember being allowed out for that. One year they brought me a little rocking horse. Of course, it might all have been a dream. My parents and grandparents are gone and the rocking horse disappeared many years ago, so there is nothing left to vouch for these memories. But I don’t think it is. Anyway, while it’s all likely far less personal than I imagine it to be, the effect is the same.

I was named for Christmas. (Normal parents would have decided that Natalia or even Natasha was a perfectly acceptable name and not gone about bastardizing it beyond all recognition.) I wasn’t born on Christmas but I was scheduled to make my premiere in this world around August 25. My mother called me “Christmas child” when I was growing up. Christmas was by far my favorite holiday, despite having spent my first few ones in the hospital. All of my life I have genuinely mourned the fact that Christmas is relegated to a few days out of the year. I observed that during Christmas, people were more generous, empathetic and selfless than normal. Suddenly intent to provide comfort and assistance to the less fortunate. Yesterday those we called “welfare queens” and “too lazy to get a job” were, during the holidays, unquestionably deserving of our handouts. Magical… People seemed more forgiving of petty incursions in a dogged determination to maintain a positive Christmas spirit, tolerating long lines and bad weather with a humble, “we’re all in the same boat…” attitude of perseverance and camaraderie. There was something Communist in the air. During Christmas, Americans spoke of “peace” like it were a noble ideal to which we should aspire, and not a liberal plot to undermine our nation’s freedom. Plus you could cut down a whole tree and bring it indoors, string lights all over everything, sing sentimental songs, eat cookies everyday, dress up like elves (we did! each year my mother dressed us children as elves and sent us out to hand-deliver her local Christmas cards.), make a list of all your worldly desires and mail it to someone whose sole job it was to provide you with these things because, and for NO other reason (!!!), you were a good person. And there was snow. Heaven.

Yes, the world would be infinitely better if it were always Christmas…

…Things look a little different when you are all grown up, orphaned and on a budget. And have a Republican step-family. Who think, “Hundreds of dollars in Old Navy gift certificates!” when they wonder, “What to get T- for Christmas?” Jesus, I said I needed pajamas. I didn’t say I needed 15 pair of pajamas! Just one! To wear when I visit them! Because I can’t possibly romp around my parents’ home in the same thing I romp around my own home in! Not only would it be inappropriate, but I’d perish of hypothermia! These people refuse to turn the thermostat above 70F, and will only give in and kick it up to the high 60′s after I turn visibly blue (convincing me the thermostat is already rigged a good 10F below the registered temp.) And then they have the nerve to judge Putin for freezing the Ukrainians! Insanity! (Erm, It’s well possible that this is an exaggeration and I want to reassure the world they would never knowingly do anything to harm me or anyone else.)

But it is still my favorite time of year. Which is really saying a lot. I mean, you have no idea…

Despite their politics, I quite like my family. It’s a pretty brilliant situation, having a step-family inherited from a dead mother; if we did not like each other we could bail. Theoretically. Fortunately, in addition to being likable, they are decent, responsible types who probably wouldn’t bail even if they could. So this year, like every year, except for the year when Bush was re-elected and the thought of dinner with those responsible for the fact was too much to bear, I went home for Christmas. This year, like every year, except that year, I put a great deal of thought and preparation into gifts, packed too much stuff, took the business-class Amtrak home, and spent the next week feeling disillusioned and disoriented.

How is it possible to spend the first 18 years of your life in an area and still feel like an alien there? While I might be crushed under the weight of my own existential awareness in Chicago, I generally feel fiercely self-confident, independent, self-sufficient and courageous. Like Mary Tyler Moore in the opening credits of that old tv show. At home (if it can be called that) I don’t even know how to operate a coffeemaker! And I can’t do anything without my coffee! Why don’t people have french presses or espresso-makers? Why do they buy these plastic electric contraptions that don’t even make good coffee??? Probably I do know how to operate a coffeemaker, and it’s just meant to taste like drain water. I could go out and buy coffee from a proper coffee shop, but I don’t drive. And you can’t go anywhere without driving. Even if there were a place within walking distance, which there is not, there are no sidewalks. Only vagrants walk around. I’m like a helpless baby, a helpless vagrant baby, completely dependent upon others. With no car, all I can do is sit at home and watch tv and eat leftovers. No. I can’t even do that. Quantum physics make more sense to me than the tv/dvd/dvr/stereo sytem/hd/Netflix/universal remote contraption. Which …. actually requires another remote to use. And I don’t trust microwaves.

So my visits back home for the holidays turn into cycle of trips: outside to smoke cigarettes to stave off panic attacks, and inside to put on a smile and ask how I can help with the preparations of x, y or z. When inside, I feel the urge to escape, to preserve my sanity and to privately feel sorry for myself because my mother is dead. When outside, I feel the need to go back inside, to be with my family, to show them I am appreciative. I’m like a dog. Life has turned me into a dog.

Like a dog, the only other thing I do when home is eat. I’d like to be able to say that I have long, meaningful discussions about life with my family. I used to. But my step-mother, living up to her title, has instituted a new rule that no politics or religion is to be discussed at family gatherings. Being a family member, whose life is largely devoted to various political endeavors, and being in town for … Christmas, I had nothing much to say, other than , “Uhm, how do you work this thing?” as I stood before various appliances like a deer in headlights. I was later to find that this “no interesting conversation” rule only applied to me, as I watched with horror while my step-mother’s very conservative family interrogated her Pakistani Muslim son-in-law. At Christmas Eve dinner. My horror may have been intensified by the dessert everyone was eating which contained, among other things, processed cheese, marshmallows and bananas, and possibly mayonnaise. Otherwise, the week had been a sequence of delicious, long, quiet meals. Tuesday we went to an over-priced local wine-bar full of over-served local university professors. Wednesday I ordered the crack cocaine of pizza: Imo’s. Saturday we dined at a Middle Eastern joint after going to see Nine at the Tivoli.

Look, I am not going apologize for being an elitist snob. Being an elitist snob is one of the few aspects of life I find dependably rewarding. I’m not an elitist snob in order to impress others or as a pretense to anything I am not or because I think I am better than anyone. I am an elitist snob because … oh it’s too complicated to explain here. It involves astrology and philosophy and possibly religion. It’s my own personal choice. Deal with it. I have to deal with everyone else’s ridiculous beliefs.

Fortunately, my step-father’s family are also elitist snobs. And immense fun. And they don’t censor other people. They are actually some of the neatest people I’ve ever met & I just adore them. Christmas Day was spent with them, doing more eating, and a lot more talking. Over the past few years, my family has established no less than 3 formal obligatory meals, all of which take place within the space of 24 hours. In addition to the Christmas Eve dinner with my step-mother’s family, there is the annual champagne and eggs Christmas breakfast with my step-father’s gigantic Sicilian family, and Christmas dinner with our immediate family.

The champagne and eggs breakfast takes place each year in the spacious Victorian home of the late Sicilian family patriarch, and it is just as sumptuous and elegant as it sounds. I look forward to this event every year. Most of those who attend are family, eggs are cooked to order, everyone is kind, whether you are a complete stranger or raving liberal and everyone is welcome. And well fed. From an e-mail I received last week:

“Christmas breakfast this year was one for the record books. At the end of the day we had gone thru 80 eggs, 7 lbs of ham, 11 tins of biscuits, 18 lbs of Italian sausage, 12-13 lbs of potatoes, 3 and one half coffee pots (30 cups per pot), 4 gallons of orange juice and 17 bottles of champagne. We had the surprise of a snow fall that started about 8am and continued thru most of the day, yet despite the weather we estimate that there were over 70 people who attended (Thank you!) this year.”

The weather was in fact dangerous. The roads were littered with cars and trucks that had lost their grip and flown in all directions, and generally not in those intended. People say they don’t know how I live without a car. I don’t know how they live without mass transportation. We’ll have to pry their automobiles from their cold dead hands, it appears. Literally.

Despite the fact that by the evening of the 25th we have consumed more food and alcohol than some people might see in their entire lives, we still set aside an evening for all of the siblings (and their significant others, and their children, and their parents) to spend some quality time together. My step-sister has taken it upon herself to host our family Christmas dinner each year. In addition to being a pastry chef, it turns out she is also an incredibly amazing cook. And my step-brother is in the wine business, so we have a pairing for each course. And yes, we eat in courses. Like civilized people. This year it was pared back: roasted vegetable terrine, asparagus soup, beef bourguignon with buttery herbed rice, a walnut & watercress salad, a cheese course and a torte of layered chocolate ganache and peppermint meringue. I think last year she out-did herself with the menu:

Christmas Caipiranhas
Chile-Roasted Almonds
Piquillo Pepper Cheese Crostini
Roasted Butternut Squash & Apple Salad
Standing Rib Roast, Spinach-Porcini Stuffing, Irish Whisky Gravy, & Horseradish Cream
Potato-Mushroom Gratin with Truffles
Cheddar & Chive Yorkshire Puddings
Sherry Vinegar- & Molasses-Glazed Carrots
Broccolini with Pecan Brown Butter
Chocolate-Coffee Gingerbread with Hazelnut Poached Pears

Maybe you have some image of some bourgeois family in Middle America mindlessly going through motions, discussing a feature in the New Yorker, annoying the shit out of you. We eat well. Obscenely well. It’s undeniable. But we’re not a bunch of boring waspy types. These people are Catholics with a wicked sense of humour and a joie de vivre that we could conceivably harness as an alternative energy resource if things get as bad as the peak-oilers say it will, whose classiness is organic, not an act they have to maintain, and who therefore have no qualms about being positively naughty and subversive.

Inevitably the meal devolves into a rather tipsy scene in which we manage to crack ourselves up until we’re crying with laughter and truly, genuinely happy together. For example, this year my step-father spontaneously burst into a rendition of, “People are strange,” during the course of conversation concerning someone who is in fact strange, and the whole table chimed in, with some doing back-up, and it went on like that for several songs. Several .Doors songs. “Ok, we’re the only family in America sitting around the table on Christmas singing Doors songs.” “It’s a Very Doors Christmas Special!” The songs continued, but with a Christmas theme (think: Riders on the sleigh…) “Next year we need a “Whiskey a Ho Ho” sign over the door!” It was the first time during the visit I thought, “My mother would really enjoy this.” She would. I was not raised like normal children with their “Goodnight Moon” and “I’m a little Teapot” and marshmallow cheese salad and no politics at the dinner table. I was raised with the Transcendentalists and the Doors and the Hair soundtrack and whiskey for desert, even for the dog. Some children in my town were not allowed to play at our house. Oh, and there was politics. When my Irish liberal hippy free-spirit feminista mother married my too cool for school neocon Sicilian step-father, politics at the dinner table evolved into a genuine spectator sport for the rest of us. Their passion for their political beliefs was only outweighed by their impressive theatrical skills. I miss those days…

I guess the holiday ended on a good note. (If you can call returning home with a raving sinus infection, “good.”) After our “Very Doors Christmas” with my cool step-siblings and the romantic breakfast gathering the kind of which you only see in movies, all of the other crap was probably worth it. It’s very difficult, celebrating the holidays when your mother is dead. Other people’s families are always awkward. Other people’s homes and beds and water pressure and coffee makers and feeble urban development and fascist rules and weird deserts, those are difficult enough to deal with. But to have to deal with them without the one person in the universe who has to love you no matter how big a fit you throw about them. It’s difficult. And to be expected to celebrate with those you love when the one you love most of all is not now and never will be again there with you. It’s difficult. Jesus it sucks, to perfectly honest.

When I was little, there was a large pine tree in our backyard. It was full of sap and needles and we weren’t supposed to climb it, but we’d clamber our way up into it anyway. We ruined our clothes and scraped our legs bloody. Sometimes we’d have pine-cone wars. Sometimes I just went up there for the view. Once you were up there you didn’t want to come down, because that meant jumping into a pile of dead needles. Rootless now (and tree-less urbanite to boot), I’ve climbed into someone else’s family tree. I get bruised and caught in line of their fire, but suppose I appreciate the perspective. And it beats the dead needles I’ll land on if I bail.

What – you think that is a shamelessly lame-ass metaphor? Well, it is. But I can top it! Check this out: the ‘rents were not even planning to put up a Christmas tree. They were too busy doing other things. I always thought “putting up a Christmas tree” was one of the things that kept people too busy to do other things at Christmas. Anyway, you can’t invite me to your home for Christmas and not have a G**D***Christmastree, people. This is not the first time this has happened to me, and I did exactly what I did on previous occasions when faced with this atrocity: I put one up by myself. Oh yes, in another person’s home. Earlier I said I like Christmas because it was like Communism, referring to the painless redistribution of wealth and comradeship experienced by otherwise ruggedly individual greedy Americans. But it also reminds me of Communism because it brings out the dictator in me! Anyway, I went to someone else’s family and put up their Christmas tree for them and, lo, it was … fake.

Right now, if you were writing a paper, you would cite that in support of your thesis statement. But you aren’t writing a paper and I am not living in a novel. So it only means that they, like many Americans, have a fake tree, and that it’s all likely far less personal than I imagine it to be.

But the effect is the same.

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