Category Archives: Politics

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?

The Tale of Two Tyrants

Erdogan

Erdogan

blackheart

Putin

Putin

Birds of a feather, Recep Erdogan and Vladimir Putin, at some time flocked together. Both rule over authoritarian regimes with a one-party system. Both dominate their respective countries’ politics. Both are opportunists, and responsible for rampant human rights violations. Putin leans heavily on the Russian Orthodox Church and Erdogan is becoming increasingly more Islamist. Both have strong anti-western tendencies. In addition, both their countries have “great power” dreams. Turkey yearns for the days of the Ottoman Empire and Russia cannot forget the glories of the Soviet Union.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Moscow and Ankara developed good trade relations. Russia was Turkey’s energy provider, and Russian tourists visited Turkey in great masses. Putin’s supporters see him as a challenge to the U.S. hegemony and influence in the world. Erdogan is perceived as a strong Muslim Sunni leader and the only one who can put an end to Iran’s Shia ambitions in the Middle East.

This mutually advantageous alliance held for a while. Then came an abrupt halt when, in November 2015 a Turkish combat aircraft shot down a Russian Su-24 close to the Turkish Syrian border. After the shooting Russian foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said it would seriously reevaluate its relationship with Turkey and matters deteriorated rapidly. Erdogan’s trip to Russia was cancelled. Ankara claimed that Russia had repeatedly violated its airspace. At the height of the crisis Putin said: “Allah decided to punish the ruling clique in Turkey by depriving them of reason and common sense. They will regret again and again what they have done.”
Trade relations broke down and Russian guided tours to Turkey were cancelled. Russia banned import of Turkish fruit, vegetables and poultry. Each side accused the other of backing terrorism.

The two leaders were snarling at each other and behaved like two angry football fans arguing about whose team was better. Erdogan blinked. In June he apologized for the downing of the Russian warplane and offered compensation to the dead pilot’s family.

Why the sudden reversal? This spat was not advantageous to either side. Turkey was losing the struggle against Russia which is gaining more ground in Syria. Turkey felt increasingly isolated and needed to build bridges; its economy is weakening. Turkey is also suffering from the flow of migrants into its territory and from increasing terrorist attacks.

The Turks realize they need to get over their obsession with the Kurdish minority and their brooding over the reluctance of the European Union to accept Turkey into the European family. Russia, meanwhile, is hoping to use Turkey again as its conduit for gas into Europe.

Interestingly at the same time, Russia and Turkey are now repairing their relations with Israel and Egypt because they both feel vulnerable and both have ambitions in the Middle East. The increase of Jihadist attacks also requires more cooperation by everyone concerned.

Thinking About How People Govern Themselves…

United States Senate

United States Senate

French National Assembly

French National Assembly

British House of Commons

British House of Commons

Senex means elder in Latin and so the Roman Senate was an assembly of elders. Perhaps they were thought to be wiser. They were not elected but appointed by the Consul and they did not actually legislate but deliberated on law proposals from the Consul. Their numbers varied from 100 to several hundred. Despite their seeming lack of power, they had great moral authority.

Many subsequent democracies inherited the name if not the functions of the Senate. In the United States the Congress consists of the House of Representatives and the Senate, which is the higher and more prestigious body.
The French too have an Assemblee Nationale (the lower chamber) and a Senat (the higher chamber)of Parliament.

In Great Britain the Houses of Parliament comprise the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

In Britain the Queen (not being a commoner) is not allowed to enter the House of Commons. That is because in 1642 King Charles I and his armed men came to the House of Commons to arrest five of its members for treason. They had already fled. But since that day no monarch has entered the House of Commons chamber. The State Opening of Parliament takes place in the chamber of the House of Lords. The Throne is not a part of the House of Lords but is the third part of Parliament.

Canada, not surprisingly has an amalgam of the British, French and American systems. They too have a House of Commons and a Senate modeled after the House of Lords.

In Germany the Bundestag was established in 1949 to succeed the Reichstag. With the Bundesrat it constitutes the German legislative body and elects the Chancellor.

The two legislative bodies of Japan (Kokai) are called the Diet in English. This has nothing to do with their eating habits but comes from The Latin “dies” which means “day,” (tag in German) and is also present in Reichstag and Bundestag.

Israel has the Knesset, a unicameral legislative body. The name means Assembly. Curiously Beit ha Knesset is the Hebrew word for synagogue and it means Assembly House.

Ukraine also has a unicameral body called Verkhovna Rada (Supreme Council). It is known for some spectacular brawls and tumultuous physical fights.

Russia, an autocratic state, has nevertheless surrounded itself with all the trappings of a democracy. It has a president, a legislative body and a judicial system. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian Federation revived the name “State Duma” for the lower house of the Russian Parliament. The name comes from the verb “dumat” which means to think. The irony is that it really does not have to indulge in any thinking at all. All it needs to do is rubber stamp the proposals of Czar Vladimir I who is called their President.

This is of necessity an abbreviated and very incomplete picture of legislative bodies but may perhaps give us some perspective on how some modern nations govern themselves.

Je Suis Tired of Posturing

charlierwbcharliegirlsjesuisrip

After the killing of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, a spontaneous expression of popular solidarity erupted in Paris and other cities. The new slogan “Je suis Charlie” was born, perhaps echoing President’s Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” during the Berlin blockade. There was defiance in these expressions. What they were saying was: You cannot stop us. We will continue to target intolerance, evil and stupidity wherever we see it.

What started as a genuine outburst of indignation soon degenerated into a mandatory automatic response. Even John Kerry followed suit. No doubt he was moved and moving when he proclaimed: Je suis un Bruxellois after the massive killings there. He reminded us that after 9/11, a French reporter said “tonight we are all Americans.” Unfortunately this has now become a knee jerk reaction. “Je suis” sayings proliferate like mushrooms after rain. It is also, alas a very selective reaction. Paris and Brussels got their fair share but unless my memory fails me, I recall no such condemnation of the Madrid attack. And no one said: Je suis Tunis or Je suis Ankara. Nor was the Eiffel Tower illuminated for them.

Another sentiment often expressed by European leaders after terrorist acts goes something like this: We will not be afraid. We will live like we did before all this. We will continue to sit at cafe terraces, go to the theater and lead a carefree life. But what is really happening everywhere is:greatly increased security and surveillance, a rise of Right Wing anti-immigration and anti-Muslim sentiment and the spread of fear mongering. Civil rights are being attacked and privacy is in jeopardy. We need only look at the Apple encryption brouhaha after the San Bernardino killings to see this. This is not unusual. It happens every time a people is “at war” and feels vulnerable. It sees spies everywhere. Perhaps some of this is justified but it creates a tense and unhealthy atmosphere. In the meantime the refugee tsunami continues to swell and exacerbates an already shaky equilibrium.

ISIS and Soup

bowlofsoup

Our problem in tackling ISIS is that it is not just a piece of land inhabited by enemies of the Western World but an ideology willing to die for its belief that the West must be annihilated.

Recently Avigdor Lieberman, (former Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs) called for a full scale rooting out of ISIS…by NATO. Well, Turkey might not be so keen to help.

And as our military experts remind us, taking territory is so much easier than holding it. As Americans well know, it is very hard to know when it is “mission accomplished.” Is it ever? Lieberman’s Trumpian proposal has very real problems.

But how do we deal with a large scale ideological conflict? Didn’t we do that already when we defeated the Communist World? True it took a very long time to achieve and exacted a high price. In addition, although Communism started as an ideal it was quickly transformed into a “pretend” ideology. Its leaders stopped believing in it and used it principally to consolidate their power.

But Communism, though it stirred many people, did not generate the fervor that ISIS has achieved. Did anyone hear of any young communists blowing themselves up shouting “Marx is Great?”

ISIS, in contrast, is attracting and brainwashing young, ignorant, disaffected recruits with promises of a better life in Paradise where they will be greeted and wooed by 72 beautiful virgins. (Young women who become martyrs are not offered an equivalent benefit.)

It seems that we are dealing with a mutation to a new species of humanoids devoid of many of the traits of empathy, generosity and tolerance that mankind has slowly developed.

And so it is difficult not to be pessimistic about our ability to deal with this scourge. What can we offer in response? The imperfections of democratic rule? The greed of capitalism? Nobody has yet invented an anti-jihadist vaccine, and some of these addicts are too far gone for us to reach.

We can only start at the bottom with the very young. See to it that we give them the proper environment to thrive, a good basic education, role models to emulate, opportunities for jobs and social integration. We must make sure that they do not inhabit a parallel world, and live in enclaves where they nurse grievances that evolve into hatred.

We also need to keep stirring the melting pot of the world. It makes a pretty good soup.

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