poemless. a slap in the face of public taste.

December 10, 2009

On Sovokery.

Filed under: From The Archives — poemless @ 5:23 PM
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When I began this little experiment (blog) I said I wanted to keep it low maintenance. But no one ever listens to me. Now I have over a hundred comments on one post, spammers, people who may or may not be spammers but annoy me anyhow and requests for interviews. I haven’t even finished my Christmas shopping yet. What on earth makes you think I have time for all of this? (I did accept the interview, however.) Anyway, I fear I have created a monster and must now keep it fed lest it escape into society, searching for prey. Alas, no time to prepare a meal! So I give you some gruel from the archives. God willing, it will keep you savage beasts sated for the time being…

Originally posted April 2008 at European Tribune.

What’s in a name? That which we call a dustpan by any other name would smell as bad.

“You really must write that sovok diary. It’s so true. And all the signposts are there, complete with the Brezhnevian corruption and mediocrity…”


This comment was a response to my remark that I had been planning to write a diary entitled, “America: We Are All Sovoks Now.”  But then I didn’t write it.  And while I was busy not writing it, Matt Taibbi did.   At first I was shivering with ire at the great injustice which had been committed.  How dare he steal my own personal thoughts right out of my head (probably while I was asleep, like a cat steals your breath, because, you’d think I’d notice him if he attempted such a violation while I was awake…) and publish them as though they were his own!  The nerve!  Then I realized that such an explanation relies too much on a phenomenon for which there is no empirical evidence.  So I decided to instead commend him on his awesome powers of telepathy or esp.  But that’s just the obvious explanation and everyone knows that when you are talking about Russia, you must avoid the obvious at all costs.  If it looks like duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, chances are, it is a horse.  You’re just not looking at it right.  You want to see a duck, is what’s going on, and the Putins and Surkovs and Churkins are all like, “Why are you Americans so difficult?  Why can’t you just accept it is a horse and leave us alone?  Why do you think all horses have to look like the horses in America?  Maybe you need to spend more time fixing your own horse problems instead of telling us how to fix ours…”  Then they take some ducks, fix ’em up and sell them to Europeans as horses.  And the Western Press gets all het up about Russia trying to start a Cold War with their Russian duck-horses.  And a handful of us brilliant minds in Russia-Expert-o-Sphere write 10 point articles explaining that Russia has the right to call a duck a horse, and how, actually, Russian horses are a little different than ours, and how the West is really just using this issue to badmouth Russia because we resent how they’ve made all this money off us, and oh did I mention Putin’s 70% approval rating?  Then everyone gets infuriated and someone accuses someone else of supporting the genocide in Chechnya and someone else puts their fingers in their ears and says, “lalalalala. I can’t hear you. lalalalala…” and nothing changes.  

And that is really how it happened.  Two brilliant minds in Russia-Expert-o-Sphere made the same observation at around the same time.  Check it out.  Within weeks there will be an eXile feature story on it, a power point presentation by Dmitry Orlov, and 2 books, both with the same title, both hailed as masterpieces by The Economist, on the topic.  Everyday NPR will air a story on it.  Kremlinologists will rise from their graves and drunken stupors to weigh in on the topic.  “Yes, all Americans are Sovoks.  That’s a given.”  “No, this whole Americans are Sovoks story is overblown.  If the people writing these stories bothered to remember what a Russian sovok is like, they’d realize the current situation in America is hardly comparable.  Yes, Obama has a cult of personality, and that is cause for some concern.  But that doesn’t mean  all Americans are sovoks.”  And a year from now, when there is no news, Moscow bureau chiefs will say things like, “well, we can always do a piece on American sovokery…”

-Poemless!  Shut up!  Just tell us, what is this “sovok” of which you speak?  Is this a Russian horse?  Or duck?  I don’t understand.  I am so confused.  And I don’t even care that you had the same thoughts as Taibbi.  Do you think that makes you some kind of genius or something?  Hmph.

-Look, I am an American girl.  I am really not the person to be asking about these things.  I don’t even understand my own culture.  You think I understand Russian culture?  That’s madness.  Not to mention the fact that the little time I have actually spent in Russia I was getting drunk with intellectuals, and artists!, fer christsakes.  I’m talking about honest to god Intelligentsia.  There is a strict manual of protocol for these people and I am pretty sure they aren’t even allowed to sit next to a sovok on the subway or they lose their Union of Artists card.  I once had the following conversation about a mutual friend who was a Russian dissident writer, a protegee of Allen Ginsburg and Joseph Brodsky, he even had the mandatory bushy Russian Intellectual beard.
A: “What do you think of K-?”  
Me: “He’s brilliant.”  
A: “He’s very cultivated isn’t he?”  
Me: “He’s hot.”  
A: “Exactly.  He spends and hour in front of the mirror each morning, cultivating himself.”  

If you looked up K- in the Who’s Who of Snooty Russian Intellectuals, the entry would read “Has written many love poems, but has certainly never been within 15 km of a sovok.”  There are probably more than 6 degrees of separation between me and any Russian sovok.  However, I did grow up here:

Rite of Passage in Brighton, Illinois

As far as he could tell nearly a week had passed, basing his assumption solely on his neck scruff, bodily odor, and the amount of beer he noted to be left in the refridgerator last night as he half-heartedly searched for a miraculously un-raided morsel of something edible.  Today, he thought, was as good a day as any to bathe and begin experimenting with his newly discovered attitude.  He felt the hard floor beneath his feet as sat up in bed, lazily allowing his feet to fall to the sole clear patch on the floor, a floor otherwise covered in a hodge-podge assortment of abondoned books, papers, and clothing that even he couldn’t remember when had been actually worn.  The weight of his body seemed more than he was accustomed to, partly due to the amount of pot left in his blood and partly due to the fact that he hadn’t been completely prostrate for an unknown number of hours.  Sleep, while a welcomed change in his recent life, did have its way of exacting a toll, after all, he thought.

The languid trip to the shower took him on a guided tour of the house, the self-same house that he was having a harder time feeling at home in.  An eclectic assortment of ill-gotten yard ornaments mingled throughout with empty sacks and packages of snack foods.  An un-noticing cat sat square in the middle of the galley-style kitchen, lazily licking its ass as though it was a pre-requisite to living another day.  The smell seemed different in the house this morning (little did he know it was, in actuality, approaching two o’clock), something he attributed to some form of late-night cleaning binge that had been embarked upon by one of the other residents of the house, most likely out of the desire to present the semblence of responsibility for the special audience of a newly found, and completely un-initiated, girl from one of the nameless nieghboring rural towns that seemed to orbit Brighton in the same way a moth spirals fatally into a flame.  Dishes were done, trash had been, for the most part, placed into the open garbage bag that hung on the pantry door handle.  But despite the noble attempt at bringing order into the house on Edwin Street, the familiar chaos still resided front and center.

He cautiously crept down the basement stairs, using only the diffuse daylight that filtered throught the sheets used as curtains to navigate the empty beer cans and ash trays, ever careful not to wake any potential hangover that could very well be sleeping on the pile of dirty clothes at the landing of the open staircase.  Such had his friends become to him, he thought;  Angry obstacles on his way to bathe.  He couldn’t risk the possibility of having to talk to the likes of anyone that would be found in the house now.  The survival of the new outlook he was trying to foster depended on sheer avoidance at this point.  He knew, as was always the case, that any attempt at bringing about any kind of personal change would be aggressively sniffed out by the residents of this house through even the most subtle of clues.  Bathing without having to actually go anywhere in particular.  Removing used and spent party paraphernalia from one’s room without expecting a new girl’s visit.  Watching news on the television.  Listening to music that was not on the approved list of drinking music.  Requesting silence throughout the house to attempt to sleep a good night’s sleep.  All were signs of some form of inner existence that could foster an end to how things had become.  

What saddened him most about this reality was not the fact that the other residents resisted change, rather it was the fact that he knew his resolve to change could not survive conversation with any of them.

So I guess I’ll try.  Also, that was written by a friend of my brother.  Isn’t he a brilliant writer?  Yes, he is.    

 Urban Dictionary Definition of “Sovok”:

A person who assembles a packed lunch of hard boiled eggs, tomatoes, salted herring, and tea in a thermos, all of which are to be unwrapped in a public place atop a copy of PRAVDA and devoured noisily, preferably while in ones yellowing undergarments, to a combination of anti-semitic palaver, garbled recordings of Igor Sklyar emanating from a rusted red Lada parked by the artificial river, and the putrid smoke of Prima and Belomor-Krai.


  1. A profound and tangled philosophy concerning the soviet hoi polloi and its industrialized, tractor-crushed soul.
  2. One of the faceless masses residing in the USSR or CIS:
  • The vendor in the local meat or bread store with her excessive make up, flamboyant shoes, and a heart full of pure hatred.
  • The burly old men in hats and arms behind their backs pausing to argue about anti-semitic conspiracy politics and the football match, in angered tones.
  • The woman who cuts into a 3-mile long line for imported Czechoslovakian boots, knowing that she will incite a loud, violent riot, while claiming her actions were still somehow fair.
  1. A state of being wherein an objective reality based on complete absurdity and idiocy triumphs.
  2. Soviet trash
  3. The modern Soviet expatriate residing in Brooklyn, New York.
  4. whimit  “Is it man…beast…or sovok?”

Another, from SovokoftheWeek.com:

A 1992 article in one of Russia’s newspapers, Nezavisimaya gazeta, described a sovok as a person with “a crazed thirst for equality, a deep hatred for the success of others, and a flourishing laziness.” As true sovoks, the founders of this site could not have said it better themselves — so we simply lifted the definition without permission and pasted it here…

…here is a short list of the essential Sovok qualities:Sovok: cheap,always mourning for the good old times, most certainly coming from the former/present communist countries (but not necessarily since Sovok is a state of mind rather than a nationality), loud, obnoxious, fond of dispensing advice, pretentious, in love with causes (either Communist, Saving the Whales, Organic Foods Only, etc.), loves to engage in questionable enterprises with a predictable outcome, etc.One does not have to have ALL these qualities at once to be a Sovok.

Take a quiz!

A Modern Day Example.

How “Sovok” looks written in Cyrillic graffiti:

Some ravings of a madman lamenting his lost sovokhood.  … no, really.  Was nuts.

So, hopefully you are getting a picture here.  You’re probably comparing them to some strata of your own society.  Maybe, “East Enders,” or something.  You are probably focussing on the class aspect (or, rather, distinct lack thereof, on numerous levels) or the perverse dedication to Soviet life.  But if you are – you are totally missing my point!  Start over!  

Americans don’t eat herring or belong to collectives or bemoan the demise of the Soviet Union.  Nor are they lazy or possessors of tractor-crushed souls.  (Crushed, yes, but not by tractors…)  Look under the hood of nationality, ideology, social class, … fashion.  And what do we find?  The same fucking engine.  Regardless of the nationality, they are unflinchingly patriotic, not because of national accomplishments, but because, well, why would you not want to be?  Wouldn’t that be bad for the economy, for moral?  Regardless of the ideology, they’ve never seriously entertained anything but the one they were fed as children.  Maybe they haven’t even seriously entertained that.  Or anything.  Regardless of social strata, they are all working class heroes.  Sure “loud, obnoxious, fond of dispensing advice, pretentious, in love with causes, loves to engage in questionable enterprises with a predictable outcome, etc.” is a valid description of most Americans (myself included), but this “sovokdom,” it’s something more nefarious.  It is some weird combination of blind belief in the goodness of and – yet – mortal terror of the powers of your government and fellow citizens.  It is the bliss/shame of ignorance that doesn’t consider knowledge a tool for formulating ideas and opinions but for use solely to establish ones position among ones peers at any given moment.  That can mean not letting others know how much you know or have even thought about something.  It’s caring far too fucking much what your neighbors think.  It is the illusory freedom of submission and acceptance.  It is the idea that if you are a victim of the system, it’s you who needs to change, not the system.  It’s inappropriate humility.  It’s righteous indignation over petty injustices and obliviousness to serious ones.  It’s why the Ivans quarrelled.  It’s Oprah Winfrey.  It’s everyone who makes between $300,000 and $15,000/yr believing they are “middle class.”  It’s Zinov’ev’s “silent acquiescence.”

It’s a community standing around a horse and speaking of it as a duck and no one, no one, saying, erm, guys, that’s a horse, because you don’t want to appear to not be in on the joke – and that’s exactly what they are counting on.

It’s the fear that nothing good can come of trying to change things, based on the fact that you’ve never actually seen any evidence that it can.

These are not the ideals the United States of America was founded upon.  … Neither was the Soviet Union.  America and the Soviet Union were the results of megalomaniacal, (overly)optimistic experiments based on the idea that together we can change the world – make it prosperous and fair!  They sure as hell weren’t the work of people resigned to their own mediocrity and suffering.  And yet, and yet…  Here we are, in the same psychological place where people are resigned to their own mediocrity and suffering in the name of their country.  Why?  Maybe it’s just what is bound to happen when you place too much faith in an ideology and instead of the ideology being the foundation on which you build practical infrastructure, faith replaces the foundation, and practical infrastructure stops getting built.  Invisible hands and dialectical materialism are fun to believe in but they don’t get shit done.  And while Democracy or Communism were supposed to save us (well, no one said it wouldn’t hurt a little), we’re rather broke and hungry and clinging to what shred of dignity we might have left.  What we believe and what is real come driving headlong right into each other and the cognitive dissonance the ensuing derailment creates gives rise to some brilliant absurdist literature and biting satire.  (omg SovLit.com is my new favorite website ever!)  And sovoks.  Lots of sovoks.  

If this were being published by the CATO Institute, I’d add, “The sociological generalization I have stated is intuitively compelling; something like it must be true.”  But really, I have no idea if there is a grain of truth in anything I’ve written or not.  In fact, I have no idea what I am talking about.

Here’s what Matt Taibbi recently wrote:  I don’t know if it is true either.  But it is intuitively compelling.

So instead of talking about the fact that Barack Obama once introduced a bill to give a tax break to a Japanese company whose lawyers donated fifty grand to his Senate campaign, we’re freaking out for five minutes about the fact that Obama’s pastor thinks America spread AIDS on purpose in Zambia. And instead of talking about the fact that Hillary Clinton took $110,000 from a New York food company she later helped by introducing a bill to remove import duties on tomatoes, we’re ranting and raving about Gerry Ferraro’s paranoid ramblings about Obama’s blackness. We can’t keep our eyes on the ball and really think about the serious endemic problems of our system of government because we’re too busy freaking out like a bunch of cartoon characters over silly, meaningless bullshit. And then forgetting about that same bullshit ten minutes later, so that we can freak out all over again about something else later on.

That’s just the way we are, and maybe it’s time to wonder why that is. In Russia they have a word, sovok, which described the craven, chickenshit mindset that over the course of decades became hard-wired into the increasingly silly brains of Soviet subjects. It’s a hard word to define, but once you get it — and all Russians get it — it’s like riding a bicycle, you’ve got it. Sovok is the word that described a society where for decades silence and a thoughtful demeanor might be construed as evidence of a dangerous dissidence lurking underneath; the sovok therefore protected himself from suspicion by babbling meaningless nonsense at all times, so that no one would accuse him of harboring smart ideas. A sovok talked tough, and cheered Khruschev for banging a shoe at America, but at the same time a sovok would have sold his own children for a pair of American jeans. The sovok talked like a romantic and lavished women with compliments, but preferred long fishing trips and nights spent in the garage tinkering with his shitty car to actual sex. It’s hard to explain, but over there, they know what the word means. More than anything, sovok described a society that spent seventy years in mortal terror of new ideas, and tended to drape itself in a paper-thin patriotism whenever it felt threatened, and worshipped mediocrities as a matter of course, elevating to positions of responsibility only those who showed an utter absence not only of objectionable qualities, but any qualities at all.

We’re getting to be the same kind of people. We can’t focus for more than ten seconds on anything at all and we’re constantly exercised about stupid media-generated non-scandals, guilt-by-association raps, accidental dumb utterances of various campaign aides and other nonsense — while at the same time we have no energy at all left to wonder about the mass burgling of the national budget for phony military contracts, the war, the billion dollars or so in campaign contributions to be spent this year that will be buying a small mountain of favors for the next four years. And we… shit, I don’t even know what I’m saying anymore. I’m just tired of this tone that’s always out there when these scandals break, like we can’t fucking stand the existence of this Wright fellow for even a minute longer, not a minute longer! — when we all know that come Monday, or Tuesday at the latest, Jeremiah Wright will be forgotten and we’ll be jumping en masse in a panic away from the next media-offered shadow to fall across our bow. What a bunch of turds we all are, seriously. God help us if we ever had to deal with a real problem.

  1.  Bookmark that page, because over here at ET we’ve been mewing about not knowing where to find Taibbi.  That’s his blog at Smirking Chimp, and it seems to be consistently updated with his writing from RS, etc.
  2.  Er, what he said.
  3.  Taibbi seems to be a bit of a Sovok scholar.  Back in 2001 he wrote, Operation Enduring Sovok.  
  4.  Bookmark that page, because over here at ET we’ve been mewing about not knowing where to find old eXile articles.
  5.  He repeatedly makes the observation that sovoks 1) cannot talk about matters which require much thought but 2) can’t be silent because that might imply they are thinking, so 3) they blab about nothing all the time.  That sounds very American to me.  57 (hundred) channels and nothing on…  Just a lot of people on talk shows and reality shows and op-ed shows giving advice and spewing opinion as if it were gospel.  

-Poemless!  Shut up!  I get it already.  But why should I care if Americans are the new sovoks?  You guys elected Bush … twice.  The fact that you’re a country of dolts is not exactly news, ya know.

-Look – those elections were stolen!  

But here is why you should care.  History is repeating itself.  Yes, there have always been sovokish people here.  But they’re becoming the mainstream, and we are well on our way to this.  Fine, you don’t care.  Well you should.  We have nukes and give no second thought to attacking countries just cuz we feel like it.  Also, when history repeats itself, it’s because we didn’t bother to learn something the first time around.  The lesson we took home from the fall of the Soviet Union was this:

Russia was wrong.  We were right.  Communism can’t work.  Capitalism is the one true path.  You lost, we won, what do we get?

We see names of countries and ideologies and assume correlation equals causation.  But if Capitalist America is sliding on its ass down the same path of conformism, mediocrity, corruption and collapse that Communist Russia was plowing along last century, and which was certainly carved out by numerous empires before them, maybe the who and the what have less to do with our fate than the WHY.  Sovokism isn’t a characteristic of a nationality or ideology, but of a humanity which has forgotten what “dignity” means and why the concept is instrumental in keeping societies operating effectively.

Human Dignity. According to Wikipedia:

At the philosophical level, following Kant, the expression human dignity is used to indicate that persons should always be treated as ends in themselves and never merely as means. Kant presents “dignity” as exactly the opposite of “price”: while “price” is the kind of value for which there can be an equivalent, “dignity” makes a person irreplaceable. Therefore, dignity can be explained as a requirement of non-instrumentalization of persons. According to this anti-utilitarian approach, there is nothing, neither pleasure nor common interest of society or science, nor other good consequences, for which it is morally acceptable to treat persons merely as a means.

A prize to the first person who can tell us what the ideologies of both Communism and Capitalism have in common which might result in the mass production of cultural sovokery.

Comments Policy.

November 9, 2009

Another brick in the wall of Berlin Wall diaries.

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

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev In His Own Words.

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

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

On avoiding a New Cold War:

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

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


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

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

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

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

Gorby on “ultra-liberal capitalism.”

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

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

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

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

3. The Nation: Gorbachev on 1989.

Katrina and Stephen interview Gorby. Some choice morsels.

A dinosaur and a Bolshevik:

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

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

KVH/SFC: A dinosaur and a Bolshevik?

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

Muddled American thinking:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parable of the goose:

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

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

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

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

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

4. Gorbachev interview on RT:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For some reason this totally cracks me up.

September 16, 2009


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What can I getchya, honey? Apple, or blueberry? Applebaum, or Ayn Rand?

I thought I was being a bit hyperbolic in my last post about leaves falling to the ground. Anything for a metaphor. It’s only mid-September, and summer just managed to arrive in Chicago last week. But, lo. On the way to work this morning I observed by the Museum of Science & Industry trees which had not only burst into reds and oranges, but had indeed already shed their leaves! What does this have to do with pie? I love autumn, and one of the very many things I love about it is a childhood memory of driving up the Great River Road to look at the leaves turning color along the bluffs, go apple picking and top off the day at some dank catfish shack accessible only by ferry. We would pick so many apples we’d run out of things to do with them. We’d try to give them away, but our neighbors were in a similar predicament. Everyone knew to turn off the lights and hide behind the curtains if a neighbor bearing gifts of apples was spotted walking toward your house. By November the very aroma of apples made me nauseous… Well, we ate lots of pies. (more…)

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