Fanfare for the Common Man – 2.0

Editor’s Note” This is a repeat of a post from 12 months ago.  (see below for a clip of the music)

New foreword from Simone:

A year ago in November I wrote about the roots of anti intellectualism in America. I was prompted to do this by the rise of the Tea Party with its anti-scientific bent and by the appearance of Donald Trump on the political scene, complete with incoherent, rambling thoughts and undisguised hatred.
I should therefore have been prepared for Donald Trump’s rise to power and yet I would never have believed that this marginal , populist movement would enter the mainstream and eventually triumph.

I was therefore totally unprepared for Trump’s election and have not yet come to terms with it. In fact I would like to hide in a cave and reemerge when this is over.


“Anti-Intellectualism in American Life” is the title of a book by Richard Hofstadter which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. It was written shortly after Adlai Stevenson had lost the Presidential election to Dwight Eisenhower partly because Stevenson was said to be the “egghead” who read books but did not know much about real life.

Hofstadter argues that this kind of anti-intellectualism is deeply ingrained in American culture. He sees it as the fusion of evangelical religion and the business ethos which suggests that practical training should take precedence over book learning. Intellectuals form an elite and Americans are deeply suspicious of elites because they see them as a threat to democratic aspirations. You have to be average to be liked, thus the lowering of culture to the lowest common denominator. Publications like Readers’ Digest and the trivialization of Walt Disney adaptations come to mind.

Our founders did not subscribe to this anti-intellectualism. In fact they were suspicious of the masses. They were the heirs of the Enlightenment and very well educated. They loved books and were keenly interested in scientific discovery. But their values were threatened by the Puritan strain exemplified by John Cotton who wrote in 1642:”The more learned and witty you be the more fit to act for Satan you be”. Andrew Jackson was the first president who styled himself as “a man of the people.” I guess they did not use the term “folks” at that time.

Two other books that treat this same theme are Susan Jacoby’s “The Age of American Unreason” and Isaac Asimov’s “The Cult of Ignorance.” Both report an unfortunate belief shared by many people who don’t have any respect for knowledge and who then say “Democracy means that my ignorance is as good as your knowledge.” Thus the dumbing down of America. We call intellectuals eggheads, nerds, geeks and dorks. About half of Americans between 18 and 24 do not think it necessary to know the location of other countries. More than one third consider it “not important” to speak a foreign language. Many think that one’s education needs to lead primarily to immediate financial benefits. One can see this anti-intellectualism still alive in the Republican party and in the utterances of the Tea Party. When they don’t like what science has discovered, they deny it. Rick Santorum called Barack Obama a snob for wanting everybody in America to go to college.

In pre-revolutionary Russia the intelligentsia was the educated, professionally active population. It consisted of spiritual leaders, artists, writers and scientists. The tsars repeatedly tried to clip their wings because they challenged their absolute power. The Russians are very proud of this cultural heritage. The worst insult you can hurl at a Russian is to call him/her “nekulturny” (Not cultured).
Russians cherish their rich history of art, literature, music and ballet. They revere the Bolshoi and Marinsky theaters and the vast collections of history and art in the Hermitage Museum. They are also deeply in love with poetry. Their national hero is Aleksander Pushkin who wrote Eugene Onegin, a novel entirely in verse. I suspect that even Vladimir Putin is proud of this heritage as long as it does not threaten his power.

According to Hofstadter, intellectualism consists not so much in accumulating knowledge and feeling superior about it but rather as a habit of mind. It is being sensitive to nuances and seeing things in degrees rather than in absolutes. It is essentially relativist and skeptical but also circumspect and humane. It also means constantly exploring and widening one’s horizon.



Russia’s Autocrats – Part 4 of 4 Autocracy’s New Clothes

Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin

Coiled Viper

Coiled Viper

Vladimir Putin 1952-

Vladimir Putin was a KGB Officer when Boris Yeltsin plucked him out of obscurity and gave him the reins of power. He had no government or administrative experience. Did Yeltsin realize that he had picked up a cold and coiled viper that could strike at any time? Putin believed that the fall of the Soviet Union was the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century. He started his reign in the new millennium intent on restoring its past glories. High oil prices helped him by helping the economy grow.

But plain unadorned autocracy was no longer in fashion and had to be camouflaged as democracy. The State Duma became the Legislative body which Putin quickly tamed. A judiciary system entirely under his control was put in place and opposition parties were quickly declawed. A government as false as a beautiful Potemkin village was created. The trompe l’oeil was perfect.

After serving 2 terms Putin was ineligible for reelection in 2008. He then selected Dmitri Medvedev to keep his seat warm for 4 years and himself became Prime Minister. From this position, he extended the Presidential term which allowed him to magically reappear having manipulated the system until it fell in line with his ambitions.

Vladimir Putin started by dismantling the power of the new oligarchs. Any attempt at meddling in politics was nipped in the bud. Mikhail Khodorkovsky was then the richest man in Russia, head of Yukos, an oil company formed during the privatization of the 1990s. As soon as Khodorkovsky showed any interest in politics he was charged with fraud and tax evasion and promptly exiled. Viktor Gusinsky, a media tycoon was arrested for misappropriation of funds and imprisoned. Sergei Magnitsky was an auditor at a Moscow law firm and uncovered a massive fraud by tax officials and police officers. He was arrested for reporting this to the authorities and died in custody at the age of 37. These are only a few examples of the clampdown on any opposition.

Next came the press and the intelligentsia. Liberal parties like Parnas and Yabloko slowly died. Election results were manipulated so that political opponents like Alexei Navalny were prevented from winning elections because results were manipulated. Navalny himself spent five years in a corrective labor colony. Those in the press who had described Putin’s party, United Russia, as a party of thieves and crooks simply disappeared. There is now only one television channel which broadcasts the news and it is entirely controlled by the state.

Political murder is also employed with increasing frequency. Journalists have become prone to mysterious fatal accidents. Alexander Litvinenko who defected to Britain died of radiation poisoning by polonium. His slow death was shown on television for many days. Boris Nemtsov, a Putin opponent, was gunned down on the streets of Moscow. Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist from Novaya Gazeta and a human rights activist was found dead on the stairs outside her home. At least 21 other journalists have died under suspicious circumstances. Judges have been murdered for not following instructions.

Putin’s Russia is suffering from the sanctions imposed after his incursion in Ukraine and from the collapse of the ruble because of low oil prices. Corruption is rampant, everything is for sale. Putin is left in the difficult position of denying any wrongdoing such as the downing of a civilian aircraft over Ukraine’s territory and the state controlled doping of athletes. The latest blow has been the deliberate targeting of civilians during the massive bombing of Aleppo. The United Nations is now labeling this as a war crime. All this seems to have caused an increased belligerence on Putin’s part. It also seems to have had the effect of increasing his popularity at home.

It seems that many Russians don’t mind living in an autocracy.

Russia’s Autocrats Part 3 of 4





Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev 1931 –

He was the last of the Soviet Union’s leaders and served as Head of State from 1985 to 1991. He was younger than his predecessors and had traveled abroad and was therefore more open-minded. First he removed the Communist Party’s role in governing the State. In his attempts at being a reformer he introduced the concepts of “glasnost” (openness) which could also be translated as transparency and “perestroika,” a restructuring of the country’s political system. His aim was not to abolish the Soviet Union but to modernize it and stop its stagnation.

He was also eager to improve relations with the West. But events cascaded too rapidly past him. Caught in the increasing momentum, he was unable to apply the brakes and the unintended result was the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

His decision of not intervening in the affairs of the satellite Eastern Bloc countries (the Warsaw Pact Nations) resulted in widespread popular upheaval. These countries saw their chance to regain sovereignty. Ultimately, East Germany also rebelled and the Berlin Wall fell. The dissolution of the Soviet Union was underway.

A coup by hard-line Communists was attempted against Gorbachev in 1991. At this point a relative unknown named Boris Yeltsin stepped into battle. Atop a tank he harangued the crowd, condemned the coup, and attempted to save the situation. But Gorbachev, realizing he had lost control of events, ultimately resigned, and Yeltsin became the new national hero.

Boris Yeltsin 1931-

In June of 1991, Boris Yeltsin was elected by popular vote to the newly created position of President of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. Yeltsin was the first (and only) freely elected leader of Russia in its thousand years of existence. Hand-picked by Gorbachev to shake up the corrupt party system, he was an eager reformer. But he had the impossible task of moving the country from a centralized bureaucracy to a market economy. The change was too brutal. It was called “shock without therapy.”

There was massive inflation. The people lost their security and sense of stability. Chaos ensued. Yeltsin was also instrumental in letting the soviet republics leave the union and establish their separate autonomous nationhood. A civil war almost erupted.

Yeltsin was also a flawed, erratic and unpredictable agent of change. When a solid rock was needed, he was a vacillating and unstable vessel. The financial crisis and his bad health (attributed to alcoholism) forced him to resign. He was thus also the first leader to relinquish power voluntarily.

He left the country to an obscure bureaucrat named Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

Russia’s Autocrats (part 2 of 4)

Lenin/Stalin Art

Lenin/Stalin Art

Lenin Stalin photo

Lenin Stalin photo

Alexander II (The Liberator) 1818 -1881 emancipated the serfs. He also abolished corporal punishment and reformed the educational and judicial system. He was assassinated for his pains and repression ensued.

In 1918, czarist Russia collapsed under its own flaws and inability to reform. Since the industrial revolution, the peasants and workers had become increasingly unhappy with the country’s backwardness. Western ideas were infiltrating Russia. This decay finally produced a socialist revolution as workers got politicized. The Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were factions of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party. In 1917 Lenin returned from exile in Germany and took charge of the Bolshevik faction. Although a minority, they gradually gained ground. The October Revolution had begun. Under Trotsky, they staged a coup and captured the Government.

What happened then was a Civil War between the Reds and the Whites which lasted until 1922. The Reds were fighting for the Bolsheviks against the Whites, a loose coalition of opponents of the Revolution. The Reds proclaimed the Soviets (Workers’ Councils) as the new government of the country. A Provisional Government which had formed with Kerensky (affiliated with the Mensheviks) at its head was dissolved. Kerensky had to flee. He ended up in California at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University where he stayed for many years. The Bolsheviks were Communists. They transferred power to the All Russian Congress of Soviets. Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (alias Lenin ) took over and gradually proscribed all competing political parties. The new autocrat had arrived. The “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” swapped one form of autocracy for another.

From the beginning, the Soviet Union was ruled as a one party state by the Communist Party (erstwhile Bolsheviks)

Lenin died in 1924 and Joseph Vissarionovich Djugashvili (alias Stalin) came to power. He belonged to the militant wing of the Bolsheviks and had outmaneuvered his rivals to win the political struggle for control of the Party. Stalin forcefully transformed Russia into an industrial superpower. He engineered a brutal system of farm collectivization which led to widespread famines which killed millions. Stalin created a cult of personality around himself. Cities were renamed in his honor. Because of his World War II victory over Hitler, he is still idolized and revered today despite the unspeakable horrors of purges and executions, and the 20 million people who died during his brutal rule. His body was at first, embalmed and preserved in Lenin’s Mausoleum. The word “autocrat” seems inadequate to describe this man.

Enter a new “reformer”. Nikita Khrushchev (1894 1971) was “Premier” (First Secretary) from 1958 to 1964.He had emerged victorious from the power struggle triggered by Stalin’s death. On February 25 1956 he delivered his “secret speech” denouncing Stalin’s purges and ushered in a less repressive era. He believed Russia could match and overtake the United States and relaxed the strict rules on traveling abroad. After Khrushchev fall from power his protégé Leonid Brezhnev (1906 1982) emerged dominant. The country entered an era of rigidity and bureaucracy and typical “Cold War” posturing.

RUSSIA’S AUTOCRATS (part 1 of 4)

Catherine II of Russia

Catherine The Great

Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin

Editor’s note: We’re proud to present Simone’s history and comments about autocracy in Russian history.
This will come in four parts over the coming month. Simone will build the story for us in her
unique fashion. Here, it begins.

The Absolutist Czars

Russia’s natural equilibrium rests on a solid autocratic base, embedded in the title of the Czar: Absolute Emperor of all the Russias. Throughout its history whenever schisms seemed to undermine this base, Russia employed a self-correcting mechanism to return to the status quo ante. Regimes and names change, but the pendulum always swings back to autocracy. No Czar or any other ruler ever shared power. It was his alone. The Czar was affectionately known as “batiushka” (little father). His “children” understood that he had to be severe.

Here is a condensed history:

Ivan the Terrible 1530-1584

Prince of Moscow, he conquered surrounding provinces and was the first czar and autocrat. His name became synonymous with torture and cruelty .He changed Russia from a medieval state to an emerging regional power and he set out to destroy any who dared oppose him. The massacre of Novgorod, which lasted five weeks and killed uncounted thousands, is regarded as a demonstration of his mental instability and brutality. He was Terrible. Other Czars were “Great.”

Peter the Great 1672-1725

He inherited a backward state and instituted gigantic reforms. Singlehandedly he propelled Russia to the rank of a major power. He is known as a Westernizer. St. Petersburg began as an island at the mouth of the Neva River and was a “blank sheet” on which he could build a new city from scratch and construct a microcosm of the New Russia. Because he was an autocrat he could use slave labor, work people to death, and not worry about the peasants’ welfare. But he did create a “window on the West.”

Catherine the Great 1729-1796

Born a German Princess, she transformed Russia into a powerful, modern wealthy country. During her reign Crimea and part of Poland were acquired. Her empire extended from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Catherine was a patron of the arts and founded many institutions of learning such as the Hermitage Museum of Art. Both Peter and Catherine were absolute monarchs.

Alexander the Third 1881-1894

He witnessed the murder of his father Alexander II, killed in St. Petersburg by an anarchist. He promoted the Trans-Siberian Railroad which made the port of Vladivostok more accessible, thus integrating East and West.

Nicolas II 1868-1918 (the last Czar)

During his reign Russia suffered a major defeat following the Russo-Japanese War. He authorized the violent repression of “Bloody Sunday,” a peaceful march of protest during which men, women and children were shot and killed indiscriminately.
He also suppressed the 1905 Revolution. In addition his reign was marred by the interference of the “mad monk” Rasputin in court decisions. Finally there was the rout of the Russian army during World War I. It was the last blow. Nicolas was forced to resign. His cousin George V of Britain, who looks remarkably like him, was unable or unwilling to offer him sanctuary. Finally, after several years of exile, he and his whole family were cold-bloodedly shot. They died never understanding why they had to die.

Next time:Part 2: The Czar is dead. Is autocracy dead?