Archive for the ‘Russia’ Category

The Stench of Corruption

December 13, 2016

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I think it’s possible to make too big of a deal about the revelation that Putin tried to meddle in the presidential contest. I think it should be clear that Russian interference was not the decisive factor in the election, rather the fact that Clinton didn’t run a very good campaign. A better candidate would have beaten Trump regardless of any Russian interference. However, I disagree with some of my leftist friends that this is no big deal. Trump has just appointed the CEO of Exxon, who has no political experience and who has business ties to Russia. I don’t think this is a coincidence. There is more than a whiff of corruption about this. The Trump administration is already set to become the most corrupt administration since Harding’s. And it looks as though Russia is going to play a big role in this.

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Bolshoi Babylon

November 30, 2015

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Bolshoi Babylon, a documentary by Nick Read and Mark Franchetti, is about Russia’s famed ballet compay. In 2013, someone threw acid in the face of the company’s director, Sergei Filin. This left Filin blind in one eye. This incident rocked the Russian nation. The Bolshoi is regarded as a symbol of national pride and a cultural treasure. Eventually, one of the dancers is arrested and charged with the crime. At his trial, the dancer, Pavel Dmitrichenko, says he discussed with his neighbor the possibility of his beating up Filin, but he insists that he never told the man to throw acid in Filin’s face. At the trial, Pavel accuses Filin of favoritism and of corruption.

The documentary follows the events after Filin’s return to the company. At first, Filin is greeted warmly. But then we learn that the dancers have complaints about Filin. They don’t like his casting decisions, and they accuse him of corruption. (We’re never told what exactly this alleged corruption consists of.) Filin’s problems are deepened by the fact that company’s new manager, Vladimir Urin, has a personal grudge against Filin, dating from the time when they were both working for the Stanislavsky Theatre. Urin at first seems an incongruous character to be running a ballet company: he looks and sounds as though he should be running a lumber yard. Yet it becomes clear that he deeply cares about the company and about its dancers.

Despite its gimmicky title, Bolshoi Babylon is actually quite a good film. There are extensive interviews with the dancers. We learn about the stress and disappointments they undergo in this demanding, and highly competitive, art form. One dancer refers to her daily rehearsals as “torture”. One complains of not getting enough work, then later complains of having too much work and not being able to spend time with her son. We also get a sense of the feeling of accomplishment that these dancers also get. This film introduces us to people we feel better for knowing.

More Thoughts on Reading ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’: The Enigma of Stalin

February 16, 2015

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In her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt notes numerous similarities between Nazi Germany, on the one hand, and the Soviet Union under Stalin on the other. In particular, the use of terror – that is, the violent persecution of whole sections of the population – which Arendt sees as the defining characteristic of totalitarianism. (According to Arendt, the Soviet Union became totalitarian in 1930, whereas Nazi Germany didn’t become fully totalitarian until the Second World War.) According to Arendt, the aim of this terror is “total domination”, which will eventually lead to some ultimate goal: in the case of Nazi Germany, “world conquest”; in the case of Stalinist Russia, “world revolution”. I think Arendt was right about the first, but wrong about the second. It seems to me that Stalin pretty much gave up on world revolution after Hitler came to power in Germany (and maybe before then). Whet, then, was Stalin’s aim? Some have suggested that it was rapid industrialization, but Arendt argues that Stalin’s purges actually hampered industrial development. Scientists, engineers, and managers were swept up in the purges, depriving Soviet industry of needed expertise. Others have argued that Stalin was paranoid, although this fails to explain the deep trust that Stalin showed towards Hitler. (Stalin refused to believe his agents when they told him that Germany was preparing to invade the Soviet Union. According to Krushchev, Stalin suffered a nervous breakdown when he was informed of the attack.)

So, what was Stalin’s aim? It seems he enjoyed wielding power as an end in itself. He persecuted people because he could. At the time of his death, he was planning another massive purge, one that would begin by targeting Jews. It’s hard to see what this could possibly have accomplished. After Stalin’s death, the purge plans were dropped, and the Gulag was emptied out. According to Arendt, the Soviet Union ceased to be totalitarian at this point, reverting to a one-party dictatorship.

One is struck by how much Stalin’s personality drove events in the Soviet Union. As someone who has always been critical of the “Great Man” view of history, I find this troubling. As a Marxist, I have always tried to take as strictly materialist approach to historical events, but there seems to be times when this approach becomes inadequate.

Leviathan

January 21, 2015

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Leviathan, directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev, is a powerful film about corruption and decay in contemporary Russia.

Kolia (Alexei Serebriakov) lives in a run-down town on Russia’s Arctic coast with his wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova), and his son, Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev). The property his house stands on is coveted by the town’s corrupt mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov), who connives to have it taken away from him. Kolia gets an old army fried of his, Dimitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), who is now a lawyer, to help him fight the mayor.

Zvyagintsev shows frequent shots of abandoned and decaying buildings. Leviathan was filmed in the town of Kirovsk, located near Murmansk. This town has been steadily losing population since the break-up of the Soviet Union. Indeed, one possible interpretation of the film’s title is that the characters are living in the decaying carcass of the Soviet Union. In one scene, some of the characters go target shooting. They use for their targets pictures of Soviet leaders.

It’s perhaps an indication of Maxim’s venality that instead of fixing up one of the abandoned buildings, he desires a property that is occupied. Maxim expresses open contempt for Kolia as well as for the other residents of the town. His closest confident is the local high priest. When at one point, Maxim considers giving in to Kolia, the priest tells him, “All power comes from God. As long as it suits Him, fear not.” This moment sets off the series of events that ultimately destroy Kolia.

In the final scene, we see the rich people of the town listening to the high priest give a sermon. Maxim leans over and whispers to his son, “God is watching you.” This is the intertwining of religion and corruption.

Leviathan is a great film.

Kurmanjan Datka, Queen of the Mountains

December 1, 2014

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Kurmanjan Datka, also known as Queen of the Mountains is a Kyrgyz film by Sadyk Sher-Niyaz. It tells the story of the woman who was the leader of the Kyrgyz during the latter part of the nineteenth century.

The young Kurmanjan is forced to marry a man she doesn’t like. After she runs away, she eventually comes to the attention of the feudal lord, Alimbek, who marries her. When Alimbek is killed by a political rival, Kurmanjan becomes the leader of the Krygyz. When the Russian empire begins to intrude upon the Kyrgyz, Kurmanjan realizes that they simply aren’t powerful enough to defeat the Russians. She pursues a policy of accommodation, which is opposed by some of her countrymen, including members of her own family.

Kurmanjan is credited with enabling the Kyrgyz to maintain their identity and culture in the face of Russian imperialism. I imagine some will argue that this was due to her willingness to make concessions to the Russians. However, it seems to me that the Kyrgyz were lucky. The Russians apparently weren’t interested in colonizing their mountainous land. Others were not so lucky. For example, the Russians drove the Circassians off their land and sent them into exile. Last year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi were held on land that once belonged to the Circassians.

Kurmanjan Datka is hard to follow at times. I can only assume that Sher-Niyaz intended this film for Kyrgyz audiences who would already know about the events depicted. The early scenes, which show a young Kurmanjan struggling against the patriarchal strictures of Kyrgyz society, have feminist overtones to them. The battle scenes are well done, and there are beautiful shots of the magnificent Kyrgyz countryside. Aside from that, though, I can’t really recommend this film. Perhaps some day someone will make a film that does justice to this remarkable woman.

The Origins of Putinophilia

May 19, 2014

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There is a growing divide in the U.S. Left, between those who simply oppose U.S. intervention in Ukraine, and those who defend, or even praise, Russia’s strongman, Vladimir Putin. Things haven’t always been like this. If I remember correctly, during the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, only the Workers World Party and its front groups defended Saddam Hussein. The rest of the left had no illusions about the dictator. I think a change began in the Left after the anti-war movement failed to prevent the invasion. There began to be talk about a “red-brown” strategy, that is, forming alliances with right-wing, or even fascist, groups that claim to be opposed to U.S. imperialism. The thinking was that the Left by itself was not strong enough, or maybe not committed enough, to successfully struggle against imperialism. And if it is permissible to work with groups with terrible politics, then it is permissible to support governments with terrible politics. Thus, it became possible to see any dictator who ran afoul of the US as an ally against imperialism. Gadaffi and Assad were now on our side, according to this view.

Putin has acquired a special place in these people’s eyes. During Russia’s 2008 border war with Georgia, Bush was unable to do anything. Many on the Left saw this as a humiliation for the hated Bush. (Although I suspect that Bush really didn’t care.) So now Putin can do no wrong in their eyes. He can imprison his critics and persecute gays and ethnic minorities, and they will simply explain it away or ignore it. And as Putin has grown a halo, Obama has become the embodiment of pure evil in these people’s eyes. John Pilger, for example, has claimed, on the basis of no evidence, that Obama was plotting to seize Russia’s naval base in Crimea and start a war. How can anyone take this seriously?

If the Left is to avoid becoming completely irrelevant, it needs to return to the principled anti-imperialism of the past.

Chicken Little Comes to CounterPunch

May 15, 2014

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John Pilger

The May 14th edition of CounterPunch has an article by John Pilger with the ominous title of A World War is Beckoning. Pilger begins by asking a couple of rhetorical questions:

    Why do we ­tolerate the threat of ­another world war in our name? Why do we allow lies that justify this risk?

Uh, maybe because there is no threat of another world war in our name? I suspect that isn’t the answer that Pilger wants to hear. Later on, he writes:

    For the first time since the Reagan years, the US is ­threatening to take the world to war. With eastern Europe and the Balkans now military outposts of Nato, the last “buffer state” bordering Russia is being torn apart. We in the west are backing neo-Nazis in a country where Ukrainian Nazis backed Hitler.

Pilger needs to get a grip. Placing mild economic sanctions on Russia is not “threatening to take the world to war”.

    Having masterminded the coup in February against the democratically elected government in Kiev, Washington’s planned seizure of Russia’s ­historic, legitimate warm-water naval base in Crimea failed.

There is evidence that the US has meddled in Ukraine’s internal affairs, but it doesn’t necessarily follow from this that the US “masterminded the coup in February”. And he offers no evidence for his amazing claim that US planned to seize Russia’s naval base in Crimea. This would have been an act of war, not to mention an incredibly stupid thing to do.

This is an example of the Chicken Little argument that has become popular among the Left in recent years. For the past three years some on the Left have been screaming that Obama wants to go to war with Syria, yet said war has failed to materialize. We need to try to understand what the people in power are actually trying to do, rather than just assume that they have the most evil intentions imaginable.

There is a good deal that the Obama administration can be criticized for in this situation. And too many people in the media have given Obama a pass on this. (Even worse, some of them have urged the president to “get tough” with Putin.) There needs to be a congressional investigation of the role that the State Department and the CIA have played in the recent events in Ukraine. I’m afraid, however, that this will probably never happen. (Because, you know, Benghazi is far more important.)

Funny Business in Ukraine

April 19, 2014

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Victoria Nuland and Geoffrey Pyatt in Kiev in December.

I strongly urge people to read the transcript of the telephone conversation between Assistant Secretary of State, Victoria Nuland and US ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt. It is quite revealing of how the leading members of our government view the rest of the world. They casually talk about who should or should not be in the new Ukrainian government, as if they have a right to make such a decision. The question of what the Ukrainian people want is apparently not important to them. And they show a contempt for Europe in general. (“Fuck the EU”. Can you imagine what the reaction here would be if a European diplomat said that about the US?) This is not a minor matter, since Ukraine is now on the verge of civil war, at least partly as a result of the actions of these people.

The US protested about Russia’s tapping of a diplomatic conversation. This is hypocrisy, since the US has tapped the phones of European leaders such as Angela Merkel. However, we should acknowledge that Russia’s behavior in Ukraine has been no better than that of the US. We on the left should not side with imperial powers, but with ordinary people on both sides who are opposed to war and ethnic violence.

I normally don’t dabble in conspiracy theories, but I can’t help but wonder if the recent “Jews must register” hoax in Donetsk was done as a way of getting back at Russia for the embarrassment of the release of the Nuland phone transcript.

Okay, I’ll put away my tinfoil hat now.

Sense and Nonsense about Crimea

March 2, 2014

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The ongoing crisis in Ukraine has predictably created confusion in the West. The New York Times reports:

    Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, said he consulted on Saturday with Secretary of State John Kerry and Senator Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who heads the committee, about targeted sanctions against individuals in the Putin government and possibly Russian institutions. The proposal could be taken up as early as this week.

    Mr. Corker was one of the few Republicans in September to support a Senate resolution authorizing airstrikes in Syria, and he said the failure of Washington to follow through on those strikes had emboldened Mr. Putin.

    “Ever since the administration threw themselves in his arms in Syria to keep from carrying out what they said they would carry out, I think he’s seen weakness,” Mr. Corker said Saturday. “These are the consequences.”

This is a stupid argument. Putin knows perfectly well that the U.S. is not going to attack Russia, for the obvious reason that Russia has nuclear weapons. The idea that Putin would be shitting in his pants if the U.S. had dropped some bombs on Damascus is simply childish. Putin decided to seize an opportunity that the chaos in Ukraine created for him. It’s that simple.

The Guardian isn’t much more helpful. An editorial states:

    What is hard to see, having been so effectively outmanoeuvred over the last two days, is how the US and EU should respond beyond futile expressions of concern and outrage. Equally, it is clear that when western political institutions have attempted to penetrate Russia’s neighbours – the suggestion of Nato expansion in Georgia, and closer EU integration for Ukraine – Moscow has pushed back hard on both occasions.

So, what should we do? They tell us:

    One thing is certain: the current crisis presents the biggest threat to security in Europe since the Balkan wars, and western leaders, including Obama and David Cameron (who has spoken to Putin on the phone), have hardly been impressive in their response, demonstrating a weak grasp on the events unfolding. For now, Putin is ahead of the game. It is time for the international community to catch up.

Well, that’s clear, isn’t it? The international community needs to catch up with Russia – whatever the hell that means.

A few things are clear. Crimea is of no strategic importance to the U.S. Although there are concerns about Crimea’s Tatars, there are no signs of a humanitarian crisis at this point. President Obama can only object to Russia’s seizure of Crimea on the narrow grounds that it violates international law. The problem is that the U.S. regularly violates international law with its drone attacks. And the invasion of Iraq was a violation on a far greater scale than what is currently happening in Crimea. International law is a useful tool that we have thoughtlessly thrown away.

Obama’s Speech on Syria

September 11, 2013

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The speech that President Obama just gave on Syria was a depressing example of the empty rhetoric and hypocritical moral posturing that make up the political discourse in this country. He begins by saying:

    Over the past two years, what began as a series of peaceful protests against the repressive regime of Bashar al-Assad has turned into a brutal civil war. Over 100,000 people have been killed. Millions have fled the country. In that time, America has worked with allies to provide humanitarian support, to help the moderate opposition, and to shape a political settlement. But I have resisted calls for military action, because we cannot resolve someone else’s civil war through force, particularly after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
    The situation profoundly changed, though, on August 21st, when Assad’s government gassed to death over a thousand people, including hundreds of children. The images from this massacre are sickening: Men, women, children lying in rows, killed by poison gas. Others foaming at the mouth, gasping for breath. A father clutching his dead children, imploring them to get up and walk. On that terrible night, the world saw in gruesome detail the terrible nature of chemical weapons, and why the overwhelming majority of humanity has declared them off-limits — a crime against humanity, and a violation of the laws of war.

Images of people killed by conventional bombs are every bit as sickening as the images described here. So what is it that makes chemical warfare a “crime against humanity”? It’s not until the middle of the next paragraph that Obama tries to give an answer to that question:

    Because these weapons can kill on a mass scale, with no distinction between soldier and infant…

Conventional weapons can also kill on a mass scale, and they also do not distinguish between soldier and infant. The idea that chemical weapons are more inhumane than other weapons has no basis in fact. If there is anything peculiarly destructive about chemical weapons, it is the fact that some chemicals, such as Agent Orange, can linger in the environment and do long-term damage. (Although I’m guessing that Obama doesn’t consider Agent Orange to be a chemical weapon.)

Obama cites two examples from history of the use of chemical weapons:

    In World War I, American GIs were among the many thousands killed by deadly gas in the trenches of Europe. In World War II, the Nazis used gas to inflict the horror of the Holocaust.

Obama conveniently neglects to mention that Saddam Hussein used poison gas against the Kurds and Iranians, back when he was still a U.S. ally. The president at that time was Ronald Reagan, a man for whom Obama has expressed great admiration. (I think it worth noting here that during World War I, more people were killed by artillery and machine guns than by deadly gas.)

The President goes on to say:

    When dictators commit atrocities, they depend upon the world to look the other way until those horrifying pictures fade from memory. [Uh, you mean like Saddam Hussein?] But these things happened. The facts cannot be denied. The question now is what the United States of America, and the international community, is prepared to do about it. Because what happened to those people — to those children — is not only a violation of international law, it’s also a danger to our security.

    Let me explain why. If we fail to act, the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons. As the ban against these weapons erodes, other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas, and using them. Over time, our troops would again face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield. And it could be easier for terrorist organizations to obtain these weapons, and to use them to attack civilians.

This is a sophisticated reformulation of the “if we don’t fight them over there, we’ll have to fight them over here” argument that was wildly popular back when G.W. Bush was in the White House. First of all, our troops already face the prospect of chemical warfare, which is why they are trained in the use of gas masks. I think it a fair guess that many governments – dictatorships or otherwise – possess chemical weapons of one kind or another, regardless of any treaties. As for terrorists getting a hold of chemical weapons, that is a real possibility, I’m afraid, but it would be naïve to think that bombing Syria is going to prevent any possibility of that happening.

    If fighting spills beyond Syria’s borders, these weapons could threaten allies like Turkey, Jordan, and Israel. And a failure to stand against the use of chemical weapons would weaken prohibitions against other weapons of mass destruction, and embolden Assad’s ally, Iran — which must decide whether to ignore international law by building a nuclear weapon [which is not against international law], or to take a more peaceful path.

So, this is really about Iran? Obama thinks that if he kills a bunch of Syrians, this will convince the Iranians that they shouldn’t build any nuclear weapons? Might not the Iranians draw the exact opposite conclusion? They might decide they need nuclear weapons so the U.S. won’t attack them the way it did Syria.

The President’s speech ends on an optimistic note. He tells us he has decided to postpone asking Congress to authorize the use of force, so he can pursue a proposal by Russia to have Syria turn over its chemical weapons so they can be destroyed. It appears that Putin has saved Obama from the humiliation of Congress voting down the authorization. Bullshit can only get you so far in this world. Obama has once again benefited from dumb luck.