Category Archives: Russia

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.

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.

Editor’s Note: Simone thrives on your comments. We encourage you to contribute your thoughts.

One Gets Away with it. Others may not.

moneyintopocketputinpanamacameronpanama

The Panamanian law firm of Mossack Fonseca, with 600 employees in 42 countries, is devoted to helping its wealthy clients hide their income. They have facilitated money-laundering, the defeat of protective regulations and ultimately, the evasion of taxes. Until recently, this has all taken place away from the prying eyes of the curious.

Then, just ten days ago, a group of 4oo journalists, after a year of work in secret, made public over 9 million Mossack Fonseca documents, lifting the lid on these nefarious and unsavory transactions. Now the game is on to see who has been caught in the trap. The resulting scandal is called the Panama Papers. Some world leaders are suddenly appearing in the nude. They include Chinese, Arab, Ukrainians and a long list of others. Some have already resigned including the Prime Minister of Iceland.

This huge net has also reeled in the name of Vladimir Putin. Rumors about his vast hidden fortune have been circulating for years, but his financial dealings are well disguised. His name is not on any paper. Many of his associates are named but no spotlight shines on him. Officially the Kremlin is waging a war against corruption and money laundering.

A few days ago Vladimir Vladimirovich staged his mammoth annual Press Conference. Enthroned in his comfortable swiveling chair, a beatific smile on his face, he chatted amiably with the press surrounding him. He had no notes. He does not need them. This event has been well prepared, rehearsed and staged. Putin answers pre-screened and vetted questions. What he has to say about the Mossack Fonseca “revelations” is that they are a vast smear campaign led and orchestrated by non-other than the United States, which wants to discredit him, alienate him from his people and undermine the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Many Russian people swallow this fairy tale. Many others cynically believe that even if Putin has stashed a fortune somewhere, well, every leader does it, so it is fine with them.

Heads may be rolling around him, but Putin may yet emerge from this with a halo.

Things are different in England where the Panama Papers revealed that the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, inherited from his father some interests in Mossack Fonseca. Cameron now admits that he did indeed own shares, but that he and his wife liquidated them when he came to power. He also promises to disclose documents showing that they payed taxes on the dividends. Even if nothing illegal took place, there is an aura of sleaziness and Cameron is facing serious challenges to his leadership.

What explains the discrepancy in the reactions in Britain and in Russia? We are tempted to say that the British have a long history of honorable political conduct and
an ethical political code to fall back on. Even more true is the they have a rival political party, the “loyal opposition,” which will exploit any apparent weakness on the other side.

This news is in rapid motion and it is only 10 days old. How many other shoes will be dropping? We await with interest.

editor’s note: You are strongly encouraged to enter a comment below. Simone greatly appreciates your responses.

Me and J.P. (Sartre)

J.P. Sartre when he refused the Nobel Prize

J.P. Sartre when he refused
the Nobel Prize

In 1946, when we were still living in France, I came upon a publication called “Existentialism is a Humanism” by Jean Paul Sartre. It captivated me. Sartre wrote of choice, personal responsibility and discipline. He advocated a philosophy of free will, of man being the architect of his own destiny, with no help from religion or other diktats. Sartre rejected other-directed moral imperatives and received values. I liked the idea of man being defined by his actions and their consequences, without a prescribed way of life. To Sartre, life was a succession of free choices. Jean Paul Sartre was a philosopher, a political activist and a novelist. I read No Exit, Nausea, The Flies and others and enjoyed them all.

But Sartre’s views led him to strange engagements. Like many other intellectuals of the day he had become a Communist during World War II. To him communism was an antidote to fascism. Wasn’t Stalin fighting and defeating the Nazis? After the war, Sartre traveled to Russia and wrote a favorable report, unable to see forced collectivization, and the mass executions of political “enemies” that did not fit his preconceived views.

Sartre met Simone de Beauvoir when they were both studying philosophy. De Beauvoir was a novelist and a feminist. She wrote: The Second Sex and Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter which I read and found to be a little heavy. She had no sense of humor.

De Beauvoir and Sartre had the same philosophy of life and thus a very strange relationship. They were a couple but led totally independent lives. Sartre loved women and both he and de Beauvoir had many affairs. She even introduced him to other women. They both affected to despise conventions and to reject bourgeois morality. Though she was a feminist, de Beauvoir was totally subjugated by Sartre.

In May 1968 they both joined the student revolt in Paris and marched with placards glorifying Mao Zedong. They had chosen a path that I could not follow and I lost my respect for them. It was incomprehensible to me how such intelligent people could so willfully blind themselves to what was happening around them.

Many of their peers had also fallen prey to this bizarre fascination for Mao and his little red book. How they could overlook the 36 million or more dead in the artificial famine of the “Great Leap Forward” and the tortures, massacres, and imprisonments of anyone not in favor with the ruling powers was incomprehensible to me. Why did they ally themselves with the executioners rather than the victims? I saw a yawning trench between their ideals and the path they had chosen to follow.

French intellectuals in those days also worshiped Stalin and Castro and exhibited a virulent anti-Americanism. It was their way of “epater le bourgeois,” (to shock the middle class). They seemed to enjoy this role. They had followers in the United States including Leonard Bernstein who affected this form of “radical chic” also.

Protected from reprisals because they lived in a democracy, they became “revolutionaries” from the safety of their armchairs. To me, it was blatant hypocrisy. The French author Jean Francois Revel called Sartre an impostor with his Marxist acrobatics. He wrote that Sartre was a philosopher of liberty who hated liberty and wondered why this intelligent thinker chose the intellectual night of Communism.

Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964, but turned it down stating that writers should not affiliate themselves with institutions.