Aug 152008

This ceasefire deal that Bush and Rice pushed on Saakashvili is beginning to stink. If in the Bush administration’s mind, it got missiles and soldiers in Poland, sort of in exchange for allowing Russian troops to patrol on Georgian soil even outside of South Ossetia, that’s a bad exchange. That sounds like a Putinesque betrayal.

Having U.S. missiles in Poland cannot be a good thing long term. Whether Putin is a good guy or a bad guy (and there is no question in my mind as to which he is), no matter which direction those missiles are pointed, the Russians cannot be expected to like them any more than we liked Soviet missiles in Cuba. It might be worth it if it was the only way to protect the Baltics, Poland, the Ukraine, and Georgia from an aggressive reconquest by Russia. But if it was done as part of a deal by which Georgia has been sold down the river, then we’ve gotten the worst of both worlds out of the deal.

Here’s hoping I am wrong about this.

Aug 142008

There is a point about the Russia-Georgia conflict that is huge, but which hasn’t gotten much coverage in our media. It’s the fact that leaders of Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia all went to Georgia to show solidarity with that country and its president. It seems the U.S. media are too preoccupied about with what’s happening in terms of the Bush administration and our own electoral politics in order to pay much attention to how this is going over among those countries.

I understand that Russia can’t be very happy with U.S. influence in the region. We need to be very careful and respectful of any such concerns. And I think we need to try to understand what Russian people like Alexander Sedov from Ekaterinburg are telling us. (He gives lots of helpful comments in my Kino Reticulator blog, and commented here on my previous post.) Kosovo changed things, and there is a feeling of solidarity with the people of South Ossetia.

But, unfortunately, Russia no longer has much of an independent press, which means we have to make allowances for their own information sources. (Not that our media are as independent-thinking as they should be. Witness the complaint with which I started this article.)

But the leaders of these other countries do not seem to think that the main issue is what Georgia has done to South Ossetia. They include slavic peoples, and they do not seem to think Kosovo and slavic solidarity trumps whatever else is happening there. They obviously view it as a plain threat to their own countries.

Like I say, what they have done is huge and should figure large in our understanding and response to the conflict.

Aug 102008

Vladimir Vladimirovich once said, “the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” That’s what I think of when I see the buildup to events like those now taking place between Georgia and Russia. James Poulos at The Postmodern Conservative instead thinks about Putin statements about wanting a stable international system of sovereign states. When I watch the news and other programs on RTR Planeta I don’t get that at all, but then I don’t understand very much Russian, so I’m using a lot of non-verbal cues.

Here are some blog posts where I’ve stuck in my oar on this topic, listed here so I can remember where I’ve been talking:

—Late addition—

Here’s a new one:

And here’s an old one I had forgotten:

Jul 122008

I’m moving my posts about Russian movies to a separate blog at . It’s something I had thought about doing anyway, but when Alexander Sedov brought up some interesting comments and questions about them, I decided it was time. Most of my comments about non-Russian movies and language-learning in general will be there, too. But since the movies I watch are mostly Russian ones, that will be the dominant topic.

Jul 042008

This is amusing. I don’t have a copy of Anne Applebaum’s “Gulag” with me, so was googling about it for stuff I remembered reading. The amusing part is in this review by a William J. Dobosh, Jr., which complains that all the good historical information in the book risks being tarnished by her apparent political conservatism. It’s so bad, he points out, that some conservative commentators like her book and defend it.

Poor baby. I’m afraid those of us who tend toward conservative liberalism don’t have much sympathy. If we restricted ourselves only to histories written by those who leave out their statist and/or leftist biases, we wouldn’t have much to read. We’ve learned from years of experience how to discount the leftish prejudices of most academic authors and extract the information that gets revealed anyway, whether it’s put there by accident or by honesty.

Dobosh also complains that Applebaum didn’t encourage readers to use her history to analyze the practices of our own government. But he seems to be lacking a few clues himself as to how the lessons can be applied. He writes:

[Stalin] apparently never understood–possibly due to either misinformation from subordinates or his own willful ignorance and denial–that the capacity to work tends to decline when people are cold, starving, poorly housed, and neglected.

That’s an amazing statement. It leaves one wondering if Dobosh thinks the capacity to work is unimpaired when slaves are warm, well-fed, well-housed, and attentively looked after.

Dobosh concludes with this complaint:

Gulag does allow readers to learn historical facts and glimpse the human tragedy of prisoner camp life, but it does not inspire them to use this knowledge for important modern applications. Readers of Gulag, especially those serving as judge advocates, must undertake this analysis on their own.

He’s 100 percent wrong about her book not inspiring readers to apply the knowledge to modern applications. In fact, it was one such application that I was working on when I got sidetracked by this review. I don’t think Dobosh will like getting what he asked for, though.

May 192008

I don’t often listen to audio books when I’m on a bike ride on roads where I’ve never been before, but yesterday on the way home from a two-day outing I was slogging into a stiff wind, and besides, some of the roads were already familiar to me. So I listened to more of Liza Knapp’s lecture on Giants of Russian Literature. It’s something I got on MP3 through my library’s Netlibrary subscription.

My hopes were not high when I learned that a book of hers had been selected by Oprah for her book club. But I have to say that I am quite impressed by this lecture. (And my wife now tells me that some of Oprah’s books are good, anyway. She told me that one of them was “Cry, the Beloved Country,” a book that she knew I liked.)

I had “read” only one of the books she had been talking about. Last year I “read” Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I put the word in quotes, because I listened to it on audio. Well, I had once listened to Notes from the Underground, too.

I don’t read much fiction, anyway, no matter how great. But now I am being inspired to go out and read more of Dostoevsky, AND more of what Knapp has written about them. And maybe to keep learning Russian so I can slog through some of these books in the original.

May 142008

Yesterday I started reading the 1990 edition of Robert Conquest’s, “The Great Terror.” I had long known about Conquest’s work, but had never read any before.

In a way I’m glad I waited until after I watched a lot of Russian movies. Not that Russian movies give an accurate portrayal of life in the Soviet Union any more than American movies give an accurate portrayal of life in our country. But they give me a picture of how the authorities wanted the Revolution to be seen, and (more importantly) of what sort of portrayal the population needed to see in order to be part of it. And now more than ever before, I see all the players as real people.

One thing that’s surprising to me is how much dissent there was in high places in the Communist Party in the late 20s and early 30s. I had known about Mensheviks, and I had known about people like Trotsky, but not about this. Chapter 1, which follows a long chapter of Introduction, tells us, referring to one of the opposition groups that were led by people who had been Stalin’s followers:

They seem to have circulated a memoir criticizing the regime for economic adventurism, stifling the initiative of the workers, and bullying treatment of the people by the Party. Lominadze had referred to the “lordly feudal attitude to the needs of the peasants.”

There is a lot more like that.

In the Introduction there is a good section summarizing the crackdown on the people. It points out that the starvation of perhaps 10 million people, mostly in the Ukraine, was not an accidental byproduct of Moscow-centered economic policies, but a deliberate attempt to show the people who was boss.

There seems little doubt that the main issue was simply crushing the peasantry, and the Ukranians, at any cost. On ehigh official told a Ukrainian who later defected that the 1933 harvest “was a test of our strength and their endurance. It took a famine to show them who is master here. It has cost millions of lives, but the collective farm system is here to stay. We have won the war.”

It was an important learning experience not only for the peasantry, but for the police and Party officials. It prepared them for what was to follow.

Apr 232008

I certainly know who Robert Conquest is, but I must confess I’ve not read any of his work.  It’s time to do something about that, I think.  He tells about a new “re-published” version of his work here, and also mentions some other things I maybe should read.

Coincidentally, today I got another e-mail from the Russian Cycle Touring Club, reminding me that there is still room on one of their August tours.   And I see they’ve added a new type of tour to their repertoire, a “self-contained” tour in which there is no support vehicle.  What they provide is a bicycling guide or two.  The riders carry all their camping gear and take turns cooking.   I think I’d like any of the means of accommodation they offer, from self-contained to staying in decent hotels, so long as I could see a lot of the rural countryside.   But it probably won’t happen, unfortunately.

Mar 212008

I was home sick today, and in the times when I wasn’t sleeping I finished Anne Applebaum’s book, “Gulag”. Back in 1979 or 1980 I read Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago” while sick in bed, so it seemed appropriate to read this one when sick, too.

It was interesting that in her final paragraph, she wrote: “This book was not written ‘so that it will not happen again,’ as the
cliche would have it. This book was written because it almost certainly will happen again. Totalitarian philosophies have had, and
will continue to have, a profound appeal to many millions of people.”

Leading up to this statement is her account of how this whole episode in Russian history has gone down a memory hole in present-day Russia. In her travels in Russia she encountered some people who were glad she was helping to bring these episodes to memory, but she encountered a lot more who were antogonistic or indifferent. Applebaum discusses the following categories of reasons for the silence on the topic.

  • Russians are too busy dealing with the present.
  • They already discussed it all in the early 1990s.
  • Discussion of the gulag is associated with the democratic reforms that went bad.
  • There are so many tragedies, such as the war dead and famines. Why pick on this one?
  • The fall of the old system is a blow to Russians’ personal pride in their country as a world power.
  • They might not like what they find — relatives and friends who were collaborators and informers.
  • Many of the former leaders of the old system are still in positions of influence and power. They have an interest in concealing the past.

Applebaum then goes on to discuss some of the bad effects of this silence and concealment on Russian society:

  • “…if scoundrels of the old regime go unpunished, good will in no way have been seen to triumph over evil.” The sight of villains who got away with it leads to cynicism.
  • The elite have not come to value the lives and rights of all of Russia’s citizens
  • It has deprived Russians of heroes (compared to Germany, where those who participated in anti-Hitler plots are now heroes)
  • It has lead to an insensitivity to continued censorship and intrusions into private life by the FSB.
  • There has been no judicial or prison reform

After reading the book, I found the following web site that contains a number of Applebaum’s articles and columns:

I think I’ll be reading a lot of them for more insights.

Mar 182008

I’m still reading Anne Applebaum’s book. One thing that is new to me is how the gulag hospitals were in some places very nice — a completely different world from the prison camp for those prisoners unfortunate enough to be fortunate enough to be sent to them.

“Paradise” is what Evgeniya Ginzburg called the hospital where she worked in Kolyma. “We felt like kings,” wrote Thomas Sgovio of the “recovery barracks” in the Srednikan lagpunkt, where he received a “fresh, sweet roll in the morning.” Others write with remembered awe of the clean sheets, of the kindness of nurses, of the lengths to which doctors went to save their patients.

Of course, they weren’t all like this. Some were filthy, overcrowded death-traps. But it’s interesting that some were.

The problem was that there was usually some sort of quota system that allowed only a certain number of patients to be admitted to them each day. In the meantime, other prisoners were dying from disease, overwork, abuse, and malnutrition outside the hospital. And doctors sometimes had to reserve a few hospital slots for the criminal prisoners who terrorized the camps, which meant even less were available for the prisoners who really needed them.