Monthly Archives: September 2016

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?

Opera, Convention, Realism and Racism

Staging of Aida

Staging of Aida

Otello without blackface

Otello without blackface

The Metropolitan Opera’s recent production of Madama Butterfly featured a Butterfly who was not made up to look Japanese although some minor characters were. The Met also broke tradition earlier by staging Otello without blackface. This in no way affected the verisimilitude of these productions. I think that the performers probably welcomed the fact that they did not need to apply thick make-up.

As for the recent concerns about the need to choose real Japanese or black people for these roles, that is all very well if it can be accomplished but, I think, not really essential. That is because when it comes to the stage we are used to suspending disbelief. We have willingly entered into a contract with the producers, actors, dancers and singers. They have extended to us an invitation to enter their world of make-believe. Once we are in, we participate and share in the fantasy. The opera Turandot is supposed to take place in China. It has a huge cast . Should they all be Chinese or can we just “pretend?” So what if the tenor is fat or the soprano not so young or if Macbeth is black or Mary Stuart sings in Italian. We forgive them. It is all part of the magic.

Once in a while the match is perfect. Who could be better than Leontyne Price in the role of the enslaved Ethiopian princess in Verdi’s Aida? (and you can see it at the end of this post)

The Italian film director Franco Zeffirrelli attempted to make opera look more realistic by setting La Traviata (and other favorites) in the “real world” rather than a restricted stage. La Traviata takes place partly outdoors; it features
a real country house and garden and allows the characters more freedom of action. It was a success because the two principals, Theresa Stratas and Placido Domingo, both looked the part and sang gloriously.

What about Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado which was recently cancelled in New York because it was deemed racist? This is difficult for me to evaluate. I have seen it many times and was never offended by it because I took it to be a witty satire of the British and in no way a caricature of Japan. It is an old ploy to transpose a critical work to another location to escape censorship or avoid the wrath of officialdom. Perhaps it is better to choose an imaginary location like Lilliput and avoid misunderstandings altogether. Perhaps if I were Japanese I would feel differently, but I am willing to forgive Gilbert and Sullivan because they have seldom failed to entertain me and make me laugh.

Strength In Symmetry – Part 2


Editors note: This is the second part of a blog we posted in July. There is a link at the bottom if you want to go back to it.

Galileo said “the universe is written in the language of math.” There is symmetry in the structure of molecules. Understanding the symmetry groups associated with particles helps physicists see how our universe works.

Our assessment of beauty is often based on symmetry. A perfectly oval face with evenly distributed features is considered beautiful. But then a slightly broken symmetrical design might seem more pleasing because it confers more character to a face. A cat with perfectly matched markings but with funny blotches on one side of the face might be more endearing.

Too much symmetry can be soothing, comforting and boring. A room where everything is perfectly matched in spacing and coloring is totally devoid of character. In jewelry too asymmetry can be pleasing to the eye.

Music is constructed symmetrically. The most obvious example is the use of echo. But this symmetry is not static. A phrasing is repeated but never exactly… it could be in a different key, another tempo or reversed. This builds a certain expectation because you can anticipate more or less where it is going. But a clever composer usually plays with melodies in unexpected ways, heightening the surprise effect. This creates excitement but when it goes too far it can be disconcerting. Maybe that is why I cannot fully appreciate some contemporary music. The notes seem to fly off somewhere but you wait in vain for them to return and close the loop.

Symmetry seems to be a pervasive concept in our world. We humans have a perverse love for breaking it Maybe that is because we like random shapes. Clouds have random shapes.

The Adventures of Bibi in Africa

Bibi Netanyahu

Bibi Netanyahu

Flag of Uganda

Flag of Uganda

Flag of Kenya


Flag of Rwanda

Flag of Rwanda

Flag of Ethiopia

Flag of Ethiopia

Benjamin Netanyahu (known as Bibi to his friends) recently completed a four-nation visit to Sub-Saharan Africa, the first such visit by an Israeli Prime Minister in 29 years. The trip included Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia. Netanyahu was accompanied by a delegation of some 70 business executives.

Israel was already active in Africa, sharing its know-how in irrigation, technology, clean water, crop production, solar panels, lighting and refrigeration. Nowadays its expertise in security is also in demand as terrorism is rising everywhere.

For most of its history, Israel has been a Western country living in an Eastern environment. This balancing act is now in peril. Relations with Europe have been steadily unraveling since the 1967 war. And anti-Israeli and anti- semitic rhetoric keeps growing. In the Middle East Israel is surrounded by countries overtly dedicated to its eradication. In America too, support is eroding. Everywhere guilt about the Holocaust is fading and the slogan Zionism = Racism has become pervasive. Israel is now the new South Africa, and more and more European countries are boycotting Israeli products. In Africa too relations were terminated and ties cut after the Arab oil embargo which followed the 1973 Middle East wars.

Current global danger is making African countries reassess their position. Africa has 54 countries, Many of them are exposed to Jihadist groups such as Boko Haram and Al Shabaab which uses child soldiers to conduct attacks in Kenya, Somalia and other East African countries.

Netanyahu was well greeted in all four countries he visited. When he arrived at Uganda’s Entebbe airport Netanyahu recalled Israel’s raid to end the hostage crisis of 40 years earlier. The Entebbe rescue of hostages who had been captured by Palestinian terrorists on a flight from Tel Aviv was a daring operation. It was one of Israel’s greatest successes . The only victim was Netanyahu’s older brother Yonatan, head of the commando team. This, said Netanyahu, changed the course of his whole life.

In Kenya Israel showed interest in increasing bilateral economic cooperation, boosting exports and technology sharing. The President, Uhuru Kenyatta, will also back Israel’s bid to regain observer status in the African Union.

Rwanda, in addition to needing help in farming, is also exploring tourism opportunities and military cooperation. In Rwanda, Netanyahu visited the Genocide Memorial commemorating the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

Later, he was welcomed to the National Palace of Ethiopia by Prime Minister Haitemarian Desalegn. In the Palace Garden he was also greeted by a life size stuffed Lion. In his speech Netanyahu alluded to King Solomon’s visit to the Queen of Sheba many thousand years ago He promised to reinstate the law-of-return program. This concerns Ethiopian Jews who, if they are able to prove Jewish identity, are accepted as Israeli citizens. This program was halted in 2013 and resulted in separated families.

In all four countries visited, the problem of how to stem illegal immigration was raised. All in all this could be called a successful endeavor by Israel to establish a foothold on the African continent.