Category Archives: Russia
The Aristrocrat and the Bad Little Girl
When I was a little girl, I loved reading a series of books written by a woman who was born in 1799 to a noble Russian family and was said to be descended from Genghis Khan. Her name is Rostopchine Comtesse de Segur.
She received an aristocratic education and spoke five languages including French. (Russian nobles found it fashionable to have French governesses for their children.) Exiled from Russia during the Napoleonic Wars, she married into the French family of the Count Eugene de Segur.
The Countess had eight children and many grandchildren to whom she frequently told morality-based stories that she made up on the spot. At age 58, encouraged by her family, the Countess began to put her beloved storytelling into storybooks for the wider world.
She started by writing about simplistic characters representing good and evil. (“prince disguised as pauper” type of tales.) But her characters escaped from those restrictions and acquired a life of their own. I loved her stories about a donkey named Cadichon who was ill- treated by his family, rebelled and grew wise in the process. Other stories were about General Dourakine (Dourak means “imbecile” in Russian).
Then her fans requested stories about “model little girls” to serve as role models for aristocratic girls. So she created “Les petites filles modeles,” Camille and Madeleine. She also invented their foil in what became her most famous work, “Les Malheurs de Sophie.” Sophie was to be the negative role model who fell into one scrape after another.
But the readers had little interest in Camille and Madeleine, and perversely the misbehaving Sophie became a great literary favorite.
Didn’t the Countess know that misadventures are always more fun than exemplary lives? I doubt that any of the children who read her became little “Goody Two Shoes.”
Oh boy, how I loved that rebellious little girl.
Are the Three Bearded Men Still on Their Pedestals?
Three men dominated the intellectual world of the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries. They were not scientists. Not one of them spent any time in a research lab or conducted any scientific experiments; yet each in his own way altered the existing cultural landscape.
I also think that each one of them was noticeably wrong about some of the things he believed.
Karl Marx (1818-1883) believed in the existence of a class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat and thought this struggle was intrinsic to the capitalist industrial world. One group controlled the means of economic production and profit, the other provided the labor. The conflict between them was that of oppressor against oppressed and revolution was the only means by which this situation could be reversed.
This was to be a communist revolution on the model of the French Commune uprising of 1871 in which the Paris commune rose against the French Government after the French defeat by the Germans in the Franco Prussian War.
The Revolution did occur, but it happened not in the capitalist industrial world but in an agrarian Russia in 1917. It quickly lost its focus and created a new set of oppressors. The labor theory of value has since been discredited. The idea of an inevitable overthrow of the dominant class turned out to be too rigid and somewhat naïve.
Sigmund Freud (1856-1039) was the inventor of psychoanalysis and the interpretation of dreams and delved into the unconscious for an explanation of human behavior. Freud said: “Human beings can keep no secrets. They reveal their innermost selves with their unconscious mannerisms. Whatever we do we are expressing things about ourselves to people who have ears and eyes to see.”
Freud coined the concepts of the id, ego and superego and explained their working within the human being. His concepts are still hotly discussed though they have fallen out of favor in the scientific community. But popular culture appropriated many of his insights. “Freudian slips”, “the subconscious”, “cathartic release”, and “defense mechanisms” are now part of our vocabulary.
Freud, like Marx, stimulated others to think about new topics even though both men were often not entirely correct in how they viewed these topics.
Charles Darwin (1809-1882).
In “On the Origin of Species” in 1851 Darwin outlined his theory of natural selection, which states that all species of organisms arise and develop through the natural selection of small variations that increase their ability to compete, survive and reproduce. He believed that species changed and mutated over time and gave rise to new species that shared a common ancestor. Each mutation created a more complex and efficient organism.
Here are some of the arguments that critics advance to question some of his thinking:
Darwin does not explain how life originated in the first place.
There is a lack of fossil evidence to support the ideas of a “tree of life”
Natural selection is too slow to spread traits.
Some also question whether evolution is directional and has a specific aim or is blind and random.
Earth is much older than Darwin states.
Some new traits do not increase survival chances.
These interesting criticisms do not delve into religion and “creationism” which is a separate controversy.
It is interesting how some thinkers can be so wrong in important ways and yet stimulate so much change, influence so many thinkers, and propel us towards new ideas.
Classical Arts Showcase
If, like me, you have reached a stage in life when you are not as mobile as you used to be and are no longer able to go to concerts, operas or other performances regularly, there is no reason to mourn. You can still enjoy these shows at home. There is a channel on your television called Classical Arts Showcase. It is the brainchild of the Lloyd E. Rigler and Lawrence E. Deutsch Foundation and can give you up to three hours a day of high-quality, commercial-free entertainment.
There is no announced program, so you are just as likely to see a clip of the Red Army Chorus belting out “Moscow Nights” or “Ochy Chernye” as a puppet show of Peter and the Wolf complete with duck, cat and grumpy grandfather marching to the zoo with a captured wolf.
Everything comes as a surprise. Perhaps it will be Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times struggling with boxes on a conveyor belt or a parade of dominoes strutting to the music of George Bizet. Or it is just as likely to be a musical conversation with a singing Kathleen Battle resplendent in a gorgeous red dress and Wynton Marsalis and his glorious trumpet.
Sometimes you will watch interviews with obscure German actresses you have never heard of or discover a rest home for retired Italian opera singers.
Symphony orchestras and their various conductors offer many insights. Some conductors like Bruno Walter or Herbert von Karajan are very formal; others like Zubin Mehta or Leonard Bernstein dance and sway exuberantly. All conduct with their whole bodies and facial expressions.
It is also fascinating to watch soloists’ fingers running on the piano or flute, or harp, or to observe violin bows rising and falling in unison. Because some of the performances go way back in time, you can note in passing that many orchestras like the Berlin and Vienna Philarmonics did not include women until recently.
You can also admire the dexterity and improvisation of the Modern Jazz Quarter or enjoy a rendition of “Bess, you is my woman now,” from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.
This is not to say that every clip will always please you. You could happen on a boring “Pas de Deux” where the male dancer does nothing but twirl the ballerina or hold up her leg and want to tell him: “Let her hold up her own leg and start running, pirouetting and doing entrechats.”
I also get tired of Russian classical ballet with stiff tutus and of Pavlova and the dying swan.
And I turn off or mute Richard Wagner or Richard Strauss’ Ariadne. Everyone has favorite tiresome performances
But where else are you likely to see artists who are no longer with us like Pavarotti or a close up of Renee Flemming’s face singing Ave Maria or Vladimir Horowitz being given a standing ovation in Moscow?
All you need is a television with a sharp image and good sound and a comfortable chair to savor and enjoy.
RUSSIA’S AUTOCRATS (part 1 of 4)
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
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
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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One Gets Away with it. Others may not.
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.
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Me and J.P. (Sartre)
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.
Terror Stalks Paris, Beirut, Bamako
There were three terrorist attacks in in the world in one week carried out by ISIS and Boko Haram: They were in Beirut (Lebanon), Paris and Bamako (Mali). The magnitude, character and location of the Paris attacks captured all the media attention and managed to suck the air out of anything else that happened that same week.
In Paris, the planning by at least four groups had been meticulous. Much of the preparation originated in Brussels, Belgium. Many of the terrorists have now either died, been captured or killed but some are still not accounted for as of this writing. Saleh Abdelsalam, thought to be the brains of the operation is still at large. As a result, for much of last week, Brussels was a “dead” city. Everything was shut down, streets were deserted as people were encouraged to stay home because large gatherings were likely to be targeted. Life did not “go on.”
President Hollande of France whose job performance ratings had been very low, rose to the occasion and took a De Gaullesque stance. He announced: We are in a state of war and ISIS must be destroyed. Well, Monsieur Hollande, we have been in a state of war for some time already. The attackers were not “strangers.” Many of them are disenchanted locals, second and third generation immigrants who reached the citizen stage without ever going through the “melting pot” stage. They did not grow roots or learn how to fashion their own destiny. As a result, they fell prey to the jihadists’ siren songs. These West-haters are only too happy to do the thinking for them. They lure them with promises, give them a sense of belonging and a group identity not to mention a salary. The French have been lax in detecting the signs of this mounting discontent. They have closed their eyes to these youth’s increasing restiveness and have not been able to gain their allegiance.
Another contributing factor to this new vulnerability is that Europe does not have a common defense system. There is no coordination in information sharing and precautionary measures. So now the violence is no longer peripheral to Europe. Contamination has set in. We know now that this sort of attack does not happen only in destabilized societies. Europe is not used to living in a context of violence, suspicion and paranoia. It is also helpful to remember that France is one of the countries that has been selling arms to Qatar which finances revolutionary mosques in which much terrorist recruiting occurs.
In Beirut, forty people were killed and 200 injured at the American University of Beirut. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack. Beirut once known as the Paris of the Orient has had many upheavals and a bloody civil war. It now has an absent government and many Syrian refugees. In spite of this, life had been relatively “normal” recently. However, because the country is associated with upheavals and conflict, hardly anyone took notice of this terrorist attack even though the killings were as random and deadly as the ones in Paris. They happened in crowded areas and affected young and old, Christian and Muslim alike. But in the aftermath, no monuments were illuminated, no flags flown. No outpouring of sympathy and grief were visible. There were no signs of support, solidarity or compassion and no one called it “an attack against humanity.” Was Beirut’s grief less important?
The third attack took place in Bamako, Mali at the Radisson Blu Hotel where many Westerners congregated mainly for business. They were all having breakfast when the assailants burst in and started shooting indiscriminately, randomly and repetitively. Most of the dead were Westerners including six Russians.
Mali had not quite yet recovered from an attempt a few years ago by Tuareg rebels to split the country in two. Fighting raged for months and was only stopped by an infusion of French forces which succeeded in reestablishing a fragile order. It was during this war that the shrines of Sufi Saints, those historic monuments that had stood in Timbuktu for centuries, were blown up.
Motivated probably by the terrorist attack on a Russian airliner which killed 224 people and the Bamako attack, the Russians have decided to join, at some level, the Western anti-terrorist coalition. Suddenly Vladimir Putin is a persona grata and not a pariah . He says he is quite eager to help. But so long as Russia supports Syria’s President Assad, the Syrian Sunnis will not take up arms to expel Isis. We don’t know what Russia will do and can only watch and wait.