Contents: Kurkov, Kremlin comics and Applebaum’s antics, Democracy and Capitalism and Swiss minarets. Overweight hedgehogs and Barack bitching, These are a few of my favorite things…
“Now get a good night’s sleep, children. For tomorrow we must hike across the Alps to Switzerland, where we will be safe from the Nazis … I mean … the Muslims.”
1. You may stop holding your breath now. Of course I cannot allow the Swiss vote banning minarets to pass unmentioned here, a site borne of Swiss oppression. Everyone and their mother was blogging about it. (“Today, we are all Swiss jihadists!”) But I don’t like to contribute to the noise level or take part in op-ed epidemics. It only perpetuates the phenomenon of knee-jerk reaction + moral authority + Internet connection that has come to replace the profession once known as journalism. It discourages reflection and sobriety. That said, there was some memorable commentary in the days following the referendum. My favorite was from Crooked Timber:
One can only suppose that, having waited until 1971 to give women the vote in Federal elections, and in some parts of the country until 1990 in Cantonal elections, the Swiss are now making up for lost time making good on their commitment to feminism.
And now that my wait is over, I am not here to simply indulge in Schadenfreude for the fallen Swiss. Or to give a lecture on why the banning of minarets is perverse. Or to present another exhibit in my case against this fair (no, really) nation. Or to even wonder aloud with a hint of nefarious intent, “What kind of country, do you imagine, would remain neutral during the Holocaust, but take a firm stand against Islamic symbolism?” No. Rather than lavishing the Swiss or the Muslims with attention, I suggest this story has a much more profound implication that transcends issues of nationality or religion or Europe’s race problem.
The implication is that DEMOCRACY can be totalitarian. Sure, we can blame a majority of Swiss for being xenophobic. Baaad xenophobic Swiss. Whatever. Sometime the majority are assholes. Or in the case of my country, dangerously undereducated. The result is George W. Bush and Swiss minaret bans. Maybe democracy is still the best of all of our terrible ideas, but shouldn’t we be asking, “Why?” Is it because our personal opinions or “values” based on fear, ignorance, greed or any of our most base instincts are more precious than the equal application of rights to all people, regardless of race, religion, gender, etc.? Is Joe Blow down the street a better steward of our rights than those whose job it actually is to protect them? Do we champion this institution because it recognizes and empowers The People, or because it it recognizes and empowers … ourselves?
Do people even think about these things when they’re mewing about democracy and authoritarianism?
2. Wait, I’m not done with Switzerland! Remember Anne Applebaum and her indignation at the Swiss authorities who had the sick nerve to jail a man who drugged and sodomized a young girl and then fled the police? Taking together all the words in that previous sentence, you would be left to assume that darling Anne must harbor some kind of irrational hatred of the Swiss. (Or an irrational affinity for rapists…) But no! (Must be the latter….) Who should come to the defense of the Swiss minaret ban but the woman who came to the defense fo Roman Polanski?! I see a pattern here. Mark Ames’ new opus, “Anne Applebaum is a dingbat,” tries to explain the WaPo column in which she states:
This decision has been interpreted across Europe, and particularly in the United States, as evidence of Swiss bigotry and rising religious intolerance. But it was not — or at least not entirely. More important, it was evidence of fear, though not fear of “foreigners” or “outsiders” as such. [...]
There is, therefore, nothing especially Swiss, or especially isolationist, about the recent referendum result. A similar question, put in a similar way, might well have led to a similar result anywhere in Europe. The growth of the “far right” parties in the recent past is almost always connected to fear of Islamist extremism.
Ames comes back with:
First of all, why’d she leave out the word “racist” or “bigoted”? The criticism wasn’t that the Swiss are Swiss, or that they’re isolationist–it’s that they’re Nazi fucks whose gilded streets are paved with Jews’ gold teeth and African blood diamonds.
Applebaum argues that the Swiss aren’t really Swiss, they’re just regular Europeans. Because all the other European countries would do the exact same thing–so long as we’re talking about a highly qualified conditional reality in which a similar (though not the same) question, put in a similar (though not the same, so now it’s twice-removed from sameness) way– run it through the modal verb tense “might well have led to” … and voila! All Swiss are Socrates!
If that makes no fucking sense whatsoever, then ask yourself the real question here: why the fuck is Anne Applebaum trying to cover for far-right European racists?
Answer: because her husband, Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski, is one of ‘em.
In fact, Sikorski is the perfect Archie Bunker to Anne Applebaum’s dingbat. Just consider this knee-slapper Sikorski told last November shortly after the election of President Obama:
“Have you heard that Obama may have a Polish connection? His grandfather ate a Polish missionary.”
You get it? Because Obama is black. And blacks, according to Polish bigots, are cannibals. Seriously, it’s funnier in the original Polish, you had to be there–it kills ‘em in Krakow every time–bowls ‘em over in Gdansk.
Wow, the Swiss and Applebaum all in one package. Santa came early! In fact, Swiss Applebaum sounds like the kind of delicious holiday treat I might find at a local European bakery. But lo, what do I find in the stocking hung by the chimney with care?
True story: Anne’s car blew up and she got secret service protection because maybe the Kremlin was trying to off her or something but really her car just malfunctioned and she kept slamming on the accelerator and blew it up!
3. Wait, I’m not done with Democracy! Or rather, Russia’s non-Democracy. Or rather, its general eeeevilness. First, I feel I should weigh in on the death of Mr. Magnitsky, the Russian lawyer who perished in prison awaiting trial for tax evasion. Acc’d. the Wall Street Journal’s “Murder by Natural Causes”:
This week Vladimir Putin’s regime proved an even colder and darker place than what a Russian winter alone can offer.
Ethicists may debate when not preventing a death becomes murder. But one doesn’t need a Ph.D. to conclude that the death of Sergei Magnitsky was just that—a state sanctioned murder. [...]
Hermitage chief William Browder describes his late attorney as “a healthy 37-year-old professional” when he entered the jail. But being completely cut off from his family, and the physical pressures he endured while in custody, proved too much. Magnitsky made numerous official complaints of his treatment, including a 40-page report to the general prosecutor describing squalid conditions, treatment bordering on torture, and the onset of gallbladder stones, pancreatitis, and a severe digestive ailment. [...]
With this new milestone, Moscow consummates the marriage of brutality and revisionism. Contemporary Russia is almost comically weak when viewed from the West, which once feared Moscow would destroy the world. But that doesn’t mitigate the merger of Stalinism with Putinism, nor the tragedy that means for the Russian people.
While denying ANYONE medical care is deplorable, I wonder why it is “murder” when Russia does it and, er, the free market at work when America does it. What’s up with that shit? And if the WSJ is correct … America is a Stalinist country. Just sayin’. And BTW, Dima axed a slew of prison officials in response to the Magnitsky death. Why can’t Barack axe a slew of insurance providers who take the same decision to deny medical treatment to those who need it? Oh yeah, democracy…
It seems I’m not the only one who quibbles with the equation of Stalinism to Putinism. Human rights activists in modern Russia are quick to differentiate between the Communist era and the current regime, citing that the latter is … more dangerous:
Former Soviet dissidents criticized the condition of human rights in Russia under Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, saying their work is more dangerous than in the final decades of the communist regime. [...]
While Russians today enjoy many more freedoms, there were “much fewer” killings of dissidents during the communist era, said Lyudmila Alexeyeva, 82, who was forced to emigrate to the U.S. in the 1970s because of her anti-Soviet views.
Kovalyov, Alexeyeva and Oleg Orlov, head of the Memorial human rights group, will receive the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought later this week in Strasbourg. Estemirova was a member of Memorial, which documents Soviet-era repression and human rights violations.
Get yer irony on.
While “comically weak” was not among the list of explanations University of California Berkeley undergraduates provided for their negative associations about Russia, the WSJ’s colorful language is certainly illustrative of the PR crisis facing the country these days. Clearly they just need to re-brand themselves. “Multicultural Russia.” ”Eco Russia.” “Resilient Russia.” I’ve earnestly been making this point for a while (no one listens to me!), though I was thinking about it mostly in terms of policy initiatives and less in terms of … branding. When Americans wrap crap in a pretty package, it is branding. When Russians do it it is called a “Potemkin Village.” Apparently some lies are better than others. Hell, even when Russia does make an effort to do something genuinely democratic all anyone talks about it how obnoxiously stage-managed it all is. As if the entire Western political system is not rapidly becoming nothing more than a high-budget made for TV production. Though perhaps it would help if Putin’s set design team were a bit less inspired by the dystopian aesthetic of Zamiatin’s We, “… shining all sky-blue crystal regularity through the glass …”
Unless that’s what he’s going for, of course.
1. If you are not new to this blog, you are well aware of my low threshold of intolerance for irresponsible journalism. I’m also forever fascinated with the phenomenon in which Western cultural institutions become some kind of absurd parable of the Emperor’s New Clothes when they get into the hands of our Russian friends. I mean, it’s just genius how that happens. Anyway, the following story caught my attention the way Reeses Dark candy bars have: two of my favorite things, combined to serve absolutely no benefit to society:
From AFP: British tabloids inspire Russia’s school for scandal:
As students scribble in notebooks, a lecturer draws on a flipchart in what might look like any regular night class — except these are budding reporters picking up tips from the editor of Russia’s most muck-raking tabloid.
The editor of the weekly Zhizn, Aram Gabrelyanov, has opened a tabloid journalism school at the newspaper’s Moscow office, offering classes taught by staff reporters and jobs for the best students.[...]
“Unfortunately no one likes tabloid journalism in Russia. It’s customary to say it’s ugly and unethical,” he said. “I completely disagree. There are two types of journalism: interesting and not interesting.”[...]
How quickly they learn and mimic our bad behavior, like impressionable young children…
“I’d really love to work here,” said one student, Maria Tokmakova, who studies advertising by day. “I think it’s yellow press, but it’s what people need.”
Another student, Ali Shartuni, agreed. “It’s the most progressive (paper) here. It’s like a Western country’s way of working,” he said.
Nevertheless, the criticism most frequently levelled at Zhizn is that it fawns to the Kremlin.
Gabrelyanov makes no secret of the fact that any negative coverage of the country’s rulers is banned.
“My direct order to my journalists, I don’t hide this, is that we don’t write anything about President (Dmitry) Medvedev and (Prime Minister Vladimir) Putin,” Gabrelyanov, referring to Russia’s ruling tandem.
“We don’t write and we won’t dig. First because there’s no point and secondly because it’s not needed for the foundations of the state.”
Impressive. Combining the absence of social value encouraged by the Capitalist School with the absence of independence encouraged by the Communist School. What monster has this coupling managed to spawn, I wonder? On the other hand, I’d probably do worse to get a meeting with Surkov.
Gabrelyanov said he consults regularly with a man seen as the Kremlin’s gray cardinal, deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov, whom he described as “the cleverest man I know,” as well as Kremlin media advisor Alexei Gromov.
But he denied acting on Kremlin orders. “Of course (Surkov) doesn’t phone me. Why would he phone me to say publish this or that? That’s small stuff,” Gabrelyanov said.
Alexei Simonov, the president of the Glasnost Defence Foundation, a media freedom group, said Gabrelyanov’s school would teach journalists to impose limits on their reporting.
“I think that Zhizn is one of those newspapers that shouldn’t teach journalists,” Simonov said. “There’s nothing good about this.”
No. There isn’t. And that’s why people like it.
2. Possibly the only people in America who care about poetry anymore are uptight feminists and cowboys.
What? I say that as an uptight feminist.
You know, after that “Who are Russia’s Top Thinkers” nonsense, I’ve begun reading a lot of Pelevin, who came highly recommended in the comments. I’m really enjoying it very much! (“Yellow Arrow” and “Buddha’s Little Finger” so far.) However, I always keep my eyes peeled for more Kurkov. Someone at SRB linked to this little piece in which Andrey waxes poetic on Ukrainian fads, including an explanation of the popularity fo Radio Chanson:
Whenever I get in a taxi, I immediately seem to fall into a world of romanticised crime. In virtually every car the radio is tuned to ‘Radio Chanson’. Its playlists are extensive but homogenous: almost all the songs – most in Russian – concern the tragic and romantic lives of their criminal ‘heroes’, macho Russian types who drink port and vodka – men who value the faithfulness of the women waiting for their release from prison and their ‘real’ male friendships above all.
Why on earth is this music popular? When the Soviet Union collapsed the ensuing democratisation legalised a huge stratum of criminal and ‘gutter’ culture. The songs of the street used to be direct attacks on oYcial patriotic music. That official music is now long buried. In the void, these songs caught on, floated to the surface of social taste and became a lucrative engine of showbusiness. Much of this genre’s repertoire became hits with the middle-aged and older generations in the post-Soviet era.
Listeners’ fondness for these songs is easy to account for. In a country where millions of people have spent time in jails and camps, people identify more easily with prisoners than with, say, security guards or policemen. The persistent distrust of authority has eroded any faith in the criminal justice system. Almost everyone can consider himself hard done by, and this sense of unfairness is the real subject of most of these songs. Hence the rise of a new Russian macho type who, unlike his Western equivalents, is not clean-shaven and wears no perfume but instead smells of sweat. He has a keen sense of justice and is not afraid to defend his honour with his fists. The criminal ballad is a male cult of justice that can express itself in the coarsest tones.
I only mention it because a while back a commenter here mentioned that Radio Chanson was on in every cab he got into too. I respect Kurkov’s cultural insight, but wonder if there isn’t a more obvious explanation. One that involves financial incentive. … Hey, that branding thing just might work if the Kremlin can buy off the cabbies of New York City! Brilliant. Those kids should hire me.
3. Oh the Dom Khudozhnikov…. Or House of Artists for you anglophiles. There are not words to describe the tender place in my heart reserved for this institution. I’m all sentimental about it. There was a kind of bar in the basement where you could get real Turkish coffee, with a casual art galleries above. Gorky Park across the street, Parisian-style art fair along the river embankment, the Graveyard of Dead Monuments around the back. Steps from both home and a Shokoladnitsa. A gem. A true gem.
On the other hand, the building itself is not much to look at. So I’m a bit conflicted about this:
From the NYT: Moscow Cultural Landmark Is Seen as Threatened:
Artists and preservationists are in uproar because Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin has signed a decree that critics say would allow developers to demolish a Soviet-era cultural landmark, the Central House of Artists.
The property houses. among other things, the 20th-century works of the Tretyakov Gallery, including paintings by Malevich and Kandinsky as well as Soviet Socialist Realists. Covering 23 valuable hectares, or about 57 acres, along the Moscow River and opposite Gorky Park, it has long been in the sights of Yelena Baturina, a billionaire real estate developer and the wife of Mayor Yuri M. Luzhkov.
Last year, Ms. Baturina unveiled a design commissioned from Norman Foster. It resembles a disco ball sliced into sections like an orange and is known by that name, apelsin, in Russian.[...]
Ms. Baturina presented her apelsin project as a multipurpose complex that would include a hotel, retail space, restaurants and space for a museum.
Officials of the Tretyakov Gallery and the Confederation of Artists’ Unions, which owns the other 40 percent of the building, and leases the land under it from the Moscow City authorities, expressed shock at her announcement. Several months later, after meetings with government officials, they voiced support, saying they would get much-needed state-of-the art spaces, to be built next to the existing structure, which would then be demolished.
Supporters of the Central House have signed petitions, held protests, and packed hearings advertised by Moscow city officials as a forum to take public opinion into account.
Mr. Bychkov, the director of the Central House of Artists, also owns a company called Expo-Park that rents space in the building for popular events. He said in an e-mail message that he would fight on, using a new tactic.
Experience “has shown that it’s senseless to organize campaigns within Russia,” he wrote. “We would like to involve the international art community. This won’t be a political discussion, but an ethical, professional and artistic one.”
The architectural premise sounds cool. I mean, it is an ugly building in its current form. I specifically remember being perplexed that the place set aside as the “Home of the Artists” was so very unremarkable. Someone informed me that “Communism made everything ugly.” But a hotel and shops? And Ms. Baturina? Gah! I’m not a member of the international art community, but would like to know where I can sign up for this cause.
Speaking of exhibits, this month in Moscow will be held an exhibition of reprints of famous drawings of nudes, scribbled upon by Joseph Stalin.
From English Russia (look, it’s been reported in a lot of other places too – it’s real): “Gay” notes of Stalin on the celebs reproductions:
The leader “completed” 19 pictures of such artists as Repin, Ivanov, Surikov, Rubinstein, Serov and others with some notes and drawings made in a red, blue and grey pencil. Thus, on one of them, the generalissimo crossed out the genitals of a nude personage with a red pencil that he usually used to write the names of those who should have been shot. On another one, with a female nude, he wrote something obscene in the Georgian language. On the third – the male nude was “dressed” by Stalin in underpants. On the fourth – next to a nude ancient hero he inscribed: “One thoughtful idiot is worse than 10 enemies. I. Stalin”… On the fifth – in a blue pencil – he wrote: “Is he afraid of the sun? Coward!!! I. Stalin” and the nude itself was crossed out in bold. There is also a picture where Stalin drew underpants on each nude person and inscribed: “Do not sit on the stones with your bare ass! Enter Komsomol and the workers’ faculty! Give out trunks to the fellow! I. Stalin.”
Yes, this is the man who saved civilization from the Nazis. Some have suggested his scribbling doth protest too much and signifies a latent homosexuality. Who cares at this point? The man clearly had major psychological issues, and I don’t think being trapped in the closet was chief among them.
Click here for pictures!
3. Staying on topic, it seems Russia is looking to get rid of its pride. Gay Pride that is.
From Russia Blog: Moscow Outsourcing Gays to Berlin (Kyiv Might Be Better Option):
In a strange twist of history, Moscow has asked Berlin to host Moscow Pride in order to avoid Neo-Nazis (and grandmas) that might want to harm defenseless Satanists. The Commissioner for Human Rights in Moscow, Alexander Muzykantsk, outlined his proposal:
“In recent years, Berlin became de facto the world capital of sexual minorities. Because there are friendly relations between the mayors of Moscow and Berlin, why not an agreement in which the representatives of sexual minorities in Moscow will hold their parade in Berlin with the support of the city?”
Russia Blog cites a Soviet Realist monument featuring a rainbow and handsome, buff male comrades holding hands as reason to relocate the parade to Kiev. Because Kiev is sooo welcoming to sexual minorities, right…
You must by now be pondering the prevalence of latent homoerotica in Soviet aesthetics. Maybe you are thinking, “Aha! So all of this posturing about Russia being a culturally Christian, heterosexual country, about homosexuality being an evil imported by the West along with jeans and Pepsi, it is a sham! Homosexuality was alive and well (ok, not well…) even during the time of Stalin!” Pardon my eloquence, but, “Duh.” In fact, Tolya has translated an article which dates it back to the 16th Century. I suspect even that is embarrassingly naive…
~ The Saddam Channel, airing “mostly a montage of flattering, still images of Saddam” Hussein, has begun broadcasting throughout the Arab world.
~ “Russian scientist who trains seals to carry out military missions has complained that Russia is losing the race against the United States to arm sea mammals.”
Psst. Use octopuses.
~ Watch a fat hedgehog swim around a bathtub.
You know you want to.
~ Obama complains that he “gives nicer stuff” than he gets, pointing to an obnoxiously fine piece of jewelry the First Lady has some nerve wearing on TV in this economy.
Actually, this gives me hope. First of all, I can totally relate. Which is not something I’ve ever been able to say about a President. Secondly, it means he has the capacity for bitchiness & honesty (to which I can also relate). I just wish he’d aim these skillz at the health insurance industry, and not his wife.
~ Deep Thoughts, by Dmitry Rogozin.
He’s filling in for Jack Handy now:
“Internet is a funny thing. Man becomes girl, young guy becomes veteran, liberal becomes Nazi. At the same time everyone is rude to everyone.”
“Their touching care about HR in Russia causes me to feel like when you talk to someone who hasn’t washed their socks for quite a while.”
“Today in Antwerp fine-art gallery saw picture by A.Kabanel “Cleopatra testing poison on prisoners”. It’s genius!”
Good to know where he stands on testing poison on prisoners.
~ Totally stood up by M. Sarkozy, Vova breaks out his trademark sarcasm, remarking, “I wish you could have friends who don’t turn their back on you when you take a more modest job.” Poor Vova…
But wait, are congratulations in order? I can’t say, but if they are, I’d like to see Liudmila go all Elin Nordegren on his ass.
Ok, that’s all for now.
Thanks for reading, and have a lovely holiday season!