Archive for the ‘Russia / ex-USSR’ Category

putin rides bear

Here’s the latest in my occasional series of links to interesting articles on the ex-Soviet Union (the last one in April), this prompted by David Remnick’s report in the August 11th issue of The New Yorker, “Watching the eclipse,” on the political evolution of Russia—and eclipse of democracy there—since Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency. The lede: Russia’s President sees himself as the leader of a new anti-Western, conservative axis, and his actions in Ukraine have made him a hero at home… Remnick’s narrative is framed by the experience of his friend Michael McFaul, political scientist and Russia specialist at Stanford, who was US ambassador to Moscow from January 2012 until resigning this past February. At some 11,500 words the piece is long but well worth the read.

While I’m at it, one good article I’ve saved, that dates from April 18th but is not time sensitive, is a special report by Reuters journalists David Rohde and Arshad Mohammed on “How the U.S. made its Putin problem worse.”

Here’s a 52-minute documentary that first aired on French public television in December 2013, “Russie, au cœur du goulag moderne.”

And in May M6 had a 1 hour 18 minute “enquête exclusive” entitled “Moscou au cœur de tous les extrêmes,” which may be viewed here.

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The Putin System


[update below]

LCP (French C-SPAN) broadcast a very good two-part, 1¾-hour documentary by this title (“Le Système Poutine”) the other night on Vladimir Putin’s rise to power and exercise thereof during his first two terms as president. The documentary, which was made for France 2, dates from 2007 but remains entirely relevant today—which is no doubt why LCP decided to rerun it. It’s absolutely worth watching. Part 1 may be viewed here and Part 2 here. As it happens, CBC broadcast a slightly shorter version in English, which may be seen via YouTube here.

It is beyond me how anyone who is not a Russian nationalist could have even minimally favorable sentiments toward that KGB bully boy, though he does have his fans in the West, mainly on the far right: e.g. the French Front National, Hungarian Jobbik, Greek Golden Dawn, and other charming formations out that way on the political spectrum (e.g. see here, here, here, and here). And a certain number of American conservatives—e.g. Patrick Buchanan, Sarah Palin—also have a soft spot for the bear-wrestling, oil-drilling tough guy Putin—American right-wingers have a fetish about being “tough”—, with his defense of Christianity, family values, and all (e.g. here, here, here, and here). Somehow I’m not surprised.

UPDATE: TNR’s Julia Ioffe says that “Putin’s American toady gets even toadyer” (May 1st). That toady is, of course, Stephen Cohen.

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This may seem out-of-the-ordinary but I’ve seen two films from Kazakhstan in the past week. Kazakh cinema is not uninteresting, having produced some noteworthy pics over the years, e.g. Schizo (2004)—which, entre autres, offered a searing portrait of a country and society ravaged by seven decades of Soviet communism—, Tulpan (2008)—I loved this movie, which made my Top 20 best-of list of the last decade—, and Songs from the Southern Seas (2009), to which one may add the 2007 grand spectacle Mongol, which was multinationally produced and acted, and perhaps also the wonderful 2008 Tengri: Blue Heavens, which was directed by a Frenchwoman and mainly set in Kyrgyzstan but whose main character was Kazakh.

The first of the films seen last week was ‘Student’ (en France: L’Etudiant), which showed at Cannes two years ago. Variety’s (positive) review sums it up

A roughly faithful adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” despite its setting in contempo Almaty, Kazakh filmmaker Darezhan Omirbayev’s “Student” unspools a stark, Bressonian tale of a young man who commits an almost random act of murder. With its deadpan perfs, retro visual style and crime-story plot, the pic almost feels like an Aki Kaurismaki movie but without the jokes or rockabilly music, just the despair.

Contempo Almaty. Looks like a dreary place, with gleaming but soulless office towers, fancy cars, and the accompanying sans foi ni loi nouveau riche guided by the ethos of capitalisme sauvage—Kazakhstan has lots of oil and natural gas, the profits from which accrue to a happy few—, and drab quartiers populaires with crumbling apartment blocks à la sovietique, where the non-nouveau riche live. The film does indeed conjure up Kaurismäki, though I can’t speak about Bresson (whose œuvre, I am embarrassed to admit, I am insufficiently familiar with). The film is, shall we say, languid and with the nameless student protag uttering all of three or four sentences total. Slant magazine’s (not so positive) review, remarking on “the film’s static shots and somnambulistic pacing,” thus concluded

Granted, the obvious precursor here is Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket. But whereas Bresson broke the world and humankind down into shards of perceived experience, only to recast them in what Paul Schrader termed “transcendental style,” Omirbaev adopts rigorous montage as nothing more than a fashion, and narrative ambiguity becomes a ploy just to leave shit unexplained.

A lot of “shit” is indeed unexplained, leaving in the dark those who have not read Dostoyevsky’s classic (and I have not, I am not embarrassed to admit). In respect to the novel, THR’s reviewer wasn’t overly impressed with what the director did with it

Of course, Omirbaev has full artistic license to rework his literary source material however he sees fit. His dream sequences are certainly striking, especially one involving a donkey pulling a Range Rover, which pays neat homage to both Dostoevsky and Bresson. Unfortunately, his more conventional dramatic scenes mostly feel flat and banal. By showing us the ill-judged actions of a depressed slacker rather than the tormented confessions of a dangerous mind, Student succeeds only in sucking all the life out of a classic plot.

Dostoyevsky fans may want to check out the pic and decide for themselves, but others should probably hesitate before putting it in the Netflix queue. French reviews, not surprisingly, are mostly very good. Trailer is here.

The other Kazakh film seen last week was ‘Harmony Lessons’ (en France: Leçons d’harmonie), which premiered at the Berlinale last year. This one is good, though makes for tough watching. I’ll let Variety’s Leslie Felperin—also the reviewer of ‘Student’—describe it

Writer-helmer-editor Emir Baigazin demonstrates near-perfect pitch with his first professional feature, “Harmony Lessons,” an immaculately executed study of bullying and revenge in a small town on the steppes of Kazakhstan. Coaxing intense perfs from a young non-pro cast and demonstrating a painterly eye with austere, digitally shot compositions, Baigazin has crafted a disturbing study in crime and punishment that evokes, among others, Kieslowski and Bresson, but still speaks in its own unique voice.

Kieślowski and Bresson. Kazakh directors are definitely inspired by the greats. And they’re into crime and punishment. The protag in this one, Aslan, is, like his counterpart in ‘Student’, catatonic—he hardly utters a word—and is a student, albeit in high school (not university). The school here may be out in the steppes somewhere but it’s elite-looking, with the students in uniform and being prepared for higher education. The underlying theme of the film, or so I interpreted it, is the hierarchically organized violence that permeates Kazakh society at all levels. Even Aslan, who is victimized by the bullies at his school, tortures insects as part of his science experiments. It’s a bleak film but is powerful and well-done. So I recommend it. Other Hollywood critics who saw the pic at film fests gave it the thumbs up (here, here, and here). French reviews are tops. Trailer is here.


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Pro-Putin demonstration, Moscow, March 10 2014  (Photo: Dmitry Serebryakov/AFP/Getty Images)

Pro-Putin demonstration, Moscow, March 10 2014
(Photo: Dmitry Serebryakov/AFP/Getty Images)

National chauvinism edition.

Angus Roxburgh, former BBC Moscow correspondent, has a disquieting “Letter from Moscow” in the New Statesman (April 1st), in which he describes how the mood there is turning increasingly nasty. The lede: In the wake of the Ukraine crisis a rampant chauvinism has been unleashed, while sanctions on Russia have created the kind of atmosphere dictators love.

Le Monde Moscow correspondent Marie Jégo has an equally disquieting dispatch on “Vladimir Putin’s propaganda machine” (issue dated April 2nd), which is fanning the flames of national chauvinism in that country. N.B. the last two paragraphs

Parce qu’elle est intervenue dans la foulée des Jeux de Sotchi, l’opération spéciale des forces russes en Crimée a été accueillie par les Russes comme la victoire de leur équipe de football favorite, aux cris de « La Crimée est à nous » et « Jamais nous ne lâcherons les nôtres ».

Expédiée en dix-neuf jours – les troupes russes sont intervenues le 28 février, la Crimée est devenue « sujet » de la Fédération le 18 mars – l’annexion de la presqu’île a déchaîné l’enthousiasme du public. Selon le Centre d’étude de l’opinion publique (VTsIOM), 90 % des Russes l’approuvent. Dans la foulée, la popularité de Vladimir Poutine s’élève à plus de 80 % d’opinions favorables, contre 60 % en janvier.

Le petit écran alterne l’alarmisme et l’euphorie. Toutes les chaînes publiques – Rossia 1, Rossia 2, Rossia 24 – ou privées – NTV, propriété de Gazprom, Ren-TV et la 5e chaîne, du milliardaire et ami de Vladimir Poutine Iouri Kovaltchouk – font la part belle à la pensée unique. La victoire de l’armée russe en Crimée est encensée tandis que l’Ukraine est dépeinte comme un « territoire » à la dérive, rançonnée par des bandes criminelles, la faute (more…)

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I just read (several days late) a full-page op-ed by Belarussian-Ukrainian investigative journalist and writer Svetlana Alexievich in Le Monde dated March 16th-17th, “Poutine et les bas instincts,” in which she describes, almost to her horror, the Kremlin propaganda induced nationalist hysteria that is currently sweeping the Russian population. Russia sounds very much like Serbia in 1990-91, and with Russian attitudes towards Ukraine akin to Serbia back then vis-à-vis Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo. Worrisome, to say the least. Alexievich‘s tribune is translated from Russian. If it exists in English—or if I can find it in Russian—I’ll post it as an update.

UPDATE: This looks to be the original Russian—or maybe Belarussian—version.

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Anti-Putin demonstration, Moscow, March 15 2014 (Photo: AP/TOPIX)

Anti-Putin demonstration, Moscow, March 15 2014 (Photo: AP/TOPIX)

Jack F. Matlock Jr., US ambassador to Moscow from 1987 to 1991, had an op-ed well worth reading in WaPo last Friday, “The U.S. has treated Russia like a loser since the end of the Cold War.” Entre autres, he reminds the reader that the breakup of the Soviet Union was not an inexorable consequence of the end of the Cold War and that the Bush 41 administration did not favor this.

In today’s WaPo is an op-ed by Molly K. McKew and Gregory A. Maniatis, who were advisers to the former Georgian president, on how “Putin’s global ambitions could destabilize Europe.” The authors assert that Vladimir Putin seeks to create a Russo-Orthodox union that would extend beyond the former Soviet Union and into Europe. On verra bien.

On the new geopolitical map, as it were, that will take shape with Russia’s action in Crimea, Le Monde editorial director Sylvie Kauffmann had a most interesting column in the issue dated March 18th, “Après la Crimée, un monde nouveau,” in which she made a number of observations and points, one being that the Russia-Ukraine crisis will signal the “return” of the US to Europe; after the “pivot” to Asia, we will now see the re-pivot to Europe. She also noted the deafening silence of Russia’s putative ex-Soviet allies to the coup de force in Crimea, notably Kazakhstan president Nazarbayev. One also learns that the OECD has suspended Russia’s candidacy to join that organization. Ouf! Russia is utterly unfit for membership in the OECD and it would be more than a scandal if it were allowed to smooth talk its way in.

In TNR the invariably excellent Timothy Snyder says that “Far-right forces are influencing Russia’s actions in Crimea” (March 17th). For the Russians go to on about “fascists” in Kiev is, as they say, like the pot calling the kettle black. Ou, comme on dit en français, c’est l’hôpital qui se moque de la charité…

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John Mearsheimer—who I am not necessarily a fan of—has an op-ed in today’s NYT, “Getting Ukraine wrong,” that largely gets it right, particularly on this point

Mr. Obama should adopt a new policy toward Russia and Ukraine — one that seeks to prevent war by recognizing Russia’s security interests and upholding Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

To achieve those goals, the United States should emphasize that Georgia and Ukraine will not become NATO members. It should make clear that America will not interfere in future Ukrainian elections or be sympathetic to a virulently anti-Russian government in Kiev. And it should demand that future Ukrainian governments respect minority rights, especially regarding the status of Russian as an official language. In short, Ukraine should remain neutral between East and West.

This recalls Zbigniew Brzezinski’s February 23rd FT op-ed, “Russia needs a ‘Finland option’ for Ukraine.” Money quote

The US could and should convey clearly to Mr Putin that it is prepared to use its influence to make certain a truly independent and territorially undivided Ukraine will pursue policies towards Russia similar to those so effectively practised by Finland: mutually respectful neighbours with wide-ranging economic relations with Russia and the EU; no participation in any military alliance viewed by Moscow as directed at itself but expanding its European connectivity.

In brief, the Finnish model is ideal for Ukraine, the EU and Russia in any larger east-west strategic accommodation.

But to be credible to the Kremlin, the US needs also to spell out privately that attempts to destabilise the emerging democracy in Kiev or detach parts of Ukraine – not to mention even overt or covert Russian participation in its neighbour’s domestic conflicts – would compel Washington to use its influence internationally to prompt steps that would be economically costly to Moscow.

Options to that effect can range from unilateral individual and state-to-state financial sanctions to a review of Russia’s status in the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank and the Group of Eight leading industrial nations.

FIFA—which is only somewhat less corrupt than Russia and Ukraine—could also reconsider the attribution of the 2018 World Cup to Russia (after it strips Qatar of the 2022 games…).

James Meek—The Guardian’s Kiev correspondent in the 1990s—has a lengthy lead article in the latest LRB on “Putin’s counter-revolution.”

And Christian Caryl has a piece in the upcoming issue of the NYRB on “Putin: During and after Sochi.”


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Anti-Russian demonstration, Simferopol, March 2 2014  (Photo: Sergei L. Loiko/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

Anti-Russian demonstration, Simferopol, March 2 2014
(Photo: Sergei L. Loiko/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

I was away from my computer for three days so wasn’t able to keep up with all the good analyses on Russia/Ukraine of late. Here are two notable ones I’ve read in the past 12 or so hours:

Timothy Snyder, “Crimea: Putin vs. Reality,” in the NYR Blog (March 7th).

Leçons ukrainiennes“: editorial in Le Monde (issue dated March 7th) by editor-in-chief Natalie Nougayrède, who reported from Russia for many years.

To these one may add:

A NYT op-ed (March 7th) by Ben Judah, “London’s laundry business,” on how “Britain is ready to betray Ukraine to protect its cut of Russia’s dirty money.”

Another NYT op-ed: Chrystia Freeland, “Russia has already lost the war” (March 9th). Freeland—a well-known Canadian journalist, politician, and Russia hand—explains that “[t]he biggest danger for Vladimir V. Putin is that Ukraine’s revolution will eventually spread toward Russia.”

In a “Letter from Moscow” in Politico Magazine (March 4th), “Ukraine, Putin TV and the Big Lie,” journalist Leonid Ragozin says “[y]ou won’t believe what the Russian media is saying about America right now.”

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ARTE aired a fascinating one-hour documentary last night on Nikita Khrushchev’s visit to the United States—the first ever by a Soviet leader—in September 1959, “Khrouchtchev à la conquête de l’Amérique.” He spent thirteen days in the US—Washington, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, rural Iowa, and Pittsburgh. I of course knew about the visit but hadn’t seen the film footage. The documentary may be watched on ARTE’s website here. It’s absolutely worth it.

What is particularly striking is the hundreds of thousands of people—regular Americans—who turned out to see Khrushchev, lining the streets everywhere he went (and in the towns his train passed through between L.A. and San Francisco). One can hardly imagine that nowadays, of huge crowds spontaneously gathering to greet a visiting foreign leader—in the US, France, or just about anywhere. But that’s the way it was back then. For the anecdote, when Chou En-lai came to Somalia on a state visit in 1964 (I was living there at time), a significant portion of Mogadishu’s population—probably most—turned out to greet him (my memory of this is hazy, as I was a mere lad, but it’s there). Likewise with Nicolae Ceaușescu’s visit to Somalia in 1967. The following year, when Charles De Gaulle came to Ankara, Turkey (where I was now living), tens of thousands of people lined Atatürk boulevard to see him (standing up in the limousine). Ditto when the Apollo 11 astronauts (Armstrong, Collins, and Aldrin) came a year later (we got off school for that one). I wonder how many Turks turned out to greet François Hollande on his state visit there in January? Or Americans when he went to the US last month? Poser la question c’est y répondre…

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Viktor Yanukovich and Vladimir Putin, December 17 2013  (Photo: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin)

Viktor Yanukovich and Vladimir Putin, December 17 2013
(Photo: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin)

Voilà more links to worthy articles read over the past 48 hours.

‘We Are Speaking Very Loudly. We Are Carrying a Small Stick’: Dmitri K. Simes on why Russia isn’t taking the U.S. seriously,” in The New Republic (March 3rd). Dmitri Simes (interviewed by John Judis) gives the most sophisticated explanation of Russian perceptions—and a critique of US policy—I’ve seen so far.

Also in TNR (March 3rd): James Mann, “Enough With the Clichés Already: The Obama administration’s rhetoric on Russia is accomplishing nothing.” A biting critique of the Obama administration’s rhetoric on the current crisis by a foreign policy analyst who knows his subject.

In TNR (March 2nd): Julia Ioffe, “Kremlin TV Loves Anti-War Protests—Unless Russia Is the One Waging War: Studies in ‘whataboutism’.” “Whataboutism”: great neologism.

And in TNR (March 2nd): Isaac Chotiner, “Meet Vladimir Putin’s American Apologist.” One doesn’t even need to read the article to guess that the apologist in question is Stephen F. Cohen.

Stephen Kinzer (formerly of the NYT) in a Boston Globe op-ed (March 3rd): “US a full partner in Ukraine debacle.” Kinzer, who appears to share the same general view as Stephen F. Cohen, says that “Any solution short of partition will have to take Russia’s interests into account. Thus far the United States has shown no interest in doing that.” My question to Kinzer: But what precisely are Russia’s interests here and how has the US not respected them?

Anatol Lieven (of King’s College London), “Why Obama Shouldn’t Fall for Putin’s Ukrainian Folly,” in Zócalo Public Square (March 2nd). The lede: Russia and the West have conspired to tear the country apart. Both sides must stand down now or face the consequences.

Mark Galeotti (NYU historian), in his In Moscow’s Shadows blog: “Putin’s Pyrrhic Crimea Campaign” (March 2nd).

Ben Judah (ECFR policy analyst), “Why Russia No Longer Fears the West,” Politico Magazine (March 2nd).

Peter Ackerman, Maciej Bartkowski, and Jack Duvall (specialists of non-violent protest), “Ukraine explained: a nonviolent victory,” OpenDemocracy (March 3rd).

Alain Besançon (major French historian) in a Le Monde op-ed (March 2nd): “«L’aide fraternelle» de la Russie.”

Kathryn Stoner (Stanford U. political scientist), “Putin’s Search for Greatness: Will Ukraine Bring Russia the Superpower Status It Seeks?” Foreign Affairs (March 2nd).

Also in Foreign Affairs (March 3rd): Ivan Krastev (director of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia), “Russian Revisionism: Putin’s Plan For Overturning the European Order.”

(Andréa Fradin, Slate.fr)

(credit: Andréa Fradin, Slate.fr)

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Russia-Ukraine links

Pro-Russian protesters, Donetsk, March 1 2014. (AFP Photo/Alexander Khudoteply)

Pro-Russian protesters, Donetsk, March 1 2014. (AFP Photo/Alexander Khudoteply)

I’ve been following events in the Ukraine and Russia like everyone—and, like many, don’t quite know how to think about them, except that what’s happening is scary. As for what the US and EU should do, that one’s easy: do all they can to stop violence, try to calm the Russians down, and broker some kind of agreement—if possible—that respects Russia’s vital interests, on the one hand, and the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Ukraine on the other. But I am not going to engage in an extended commentary on the issue, as I am not a specialist of the countries in question, would only be repeating the analyses of real specialists, and with anything I could say bordering on the café de commerce. So in lieu of my pontifications, here are links to worthwhile articles I’ve read on the subject over the past 48 hours or so.

Timothy Snyder, “Ukraine: The Haze of Propaganda,” on the NYR Blog (March 1st). This piece is particularly good.

Julia Ioffe, “Putin’s War in Crimea Could Soon Spread to Eastern Ukraine. And nobody—not the U.S., not NATO—can stop him,” on The New Republic website (March 1st).

Marie Mendras (one of France’s top Russia specialists), “L’Ukraine est déterminée à occuper sa place,” op-ed in Libération (February 28th).

Charles King (Georgetown U. international affairs and government prof), “Crimea, the Tinderbox,” to appear in print in the March 3rd International New York Times.

Two articles by Alexander J. Motyl (Rutgers U. poli sci prof) dated March 1st: In Foreign Policy, “How Far Will Putin Go?” The lede: Russia’s leader is acting impulsively — and full-scale war may be next; in Foreign Affairs, “Putin’s Play: What Happens After Russia Intervenes in Ukraine.”

Kimberly Marten (Barnard College political scientist), “4 reasons why Crimea is not Abkhazia,” on the WaPo Monkey Cage blog (March 1st).

Writing in the February 28th Libération, Jean Quatremer and Lorraine Millot, “Ukraine: comment l’Union européenne s’est pris les pieds dans le tapis russe.”

David Remnick of The New Yorker, “Putin goes to war” (March 1st).

Mary Mycio, “Crimea and Punishment,” in Slate (March 1st). The lede: Vladimir Putin is miscalculating how easy it will be to control a Crimean mini-state.

Also in Slate (March 1st): Fred Kaplan, “Putin’s War.” The lede: Obama had no good options to stop the invasion. In fact, the only mistake the president made was ever suggesting there would be “consequences.”

If anyone has read or sees a good piece, do pass it along.

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Continuing from my previous post, I’ve seen two films in the past couple of months on lands of the ex-Soviet Union. One was ‘In Bloom’ (titre en France: Eka et Natia, Chronique d’une jeunesse georgienne), from Georgia, which is a coming-of-age film about two teenage girls—who are best friends—in Tbilissi after the end of Soviet Union (it is set in precisely 1992 and with the Abkhaz refugee crisis a backdrop, as it is in every Georgian film I’ve ever seen), of their trials and tribulations, and how, entre autres, they confront archaic practices of Georgia’s patriarchal culture, and particularly bride kidnapping. It’s an engaging, well-done film, and with first-rate performances from its young actresses. Is definitely worth seeing. The reviews in Variety and the NYT get it about right. French reviews were good to very good. Trailer is here.

The other was a French film, ‘Les Interdits’ (English title: Friends from France), directed by Anne Weil and Philippe Kotlarski, and which is set in Odessa in 1979, in the latter Brezhnev era. Here’s a description of the plot by critic Carole Di Tosti, who saw the pic at the New York Jewish Film Festival last month

The film focuses on the relationship of nineteen-year-old idealist, Carole ([French singer and actress] Soko in a powerful performance) and Jérôme (Jérémie Lippmann) who are cousins on a mission that in their naiveté they don’t quite understand. As aides to an Israeli organization in France, they go undercover traveling to Soviet Russia to connect with Jewish refuseniks.

Posing as a couple on tour celebrating their recent engagement, they enter the country sneaking in banned books and other items at great peril to themselves. Carole is the political one who has been to Israel and she especially is working with others in Israel and France in the hope of eventually securing visas for refuseniks who are secretly in touch with an Israeli organization via “tourists” who visit from France. Jérôme is with her because he is attracted to Carol and this adventure; he enjoys being with her more than upholding the cause. The code words they use to connect with the refuseniks who are being closely surveilled are, “We are your friends from France.”

Jérôme and Carole must suppress their words and actions because there are “bugs” everywhere and the KGB is on hand to question and take away anyone who appears to be suspicious. The atmosphere the filmmakers create is truly frightening, especially when the young couple nearly get caught and when those they are helping are taken in and forcefully interrogated. During their time in Odessa, they learn the dark underbelly of the subterranean  oppressed culture. They experience the harsh, seedy realities of totalitarianism, the potential exploitation of their youth by the Jewish organization, and the need for escapism through sex and drugs in the stultifying environment. And they befriend the refuseniks, especially Viktor (an excellent Vladimir Fridman) who entrusts Jérôme with a journal of his incredible survival story in the Gulag.

The journal is a subversive document. If it is found by the KGB it will result in imprisonment and torture of the one who possesses it and its author. To complicate matters Jérôme has fallen hopelessly in love with Carole and is devastated when she goes off with one of the “friends” from France. His jealously puts him in an emotional flux. The directors use his emotional state to heighten the suspense and further our anticipation that he is capable of taking unnecessary risks because of it.

Is Carole seeking love elsewhere to escape her love and desire for her cousin, Jérôme? In keeping his promise to Viktor, will Jérôme safely get the journal through customs? Or will he be caught, imperiling himself and jeopardizing the consummation of his love with Carole? The filmmakers are skillful in creating thrilling intrigue. The adventure culminates in an ironic surprise ending. Weill and Kotlarski successfully reinforce the themes which show the extent that love brings the cousins and friends together through sacrifice. It is a journey where only the finest can experience and fully understand the cost of political and personal freedom.

I was initially not going to see the film but decided to do so on the recommendation of a well-known political scientist, whom I hold in high esteem, who promoted it on Facebook and linked to this positive review in the monthly magazine L’Histoire, which highlighted the precision with which the film reconstitutes the ambiance of the Soviet Union of the period, of the appearances, psychology, even the interiors of the apartments of the refuzniks and intellectuals who were under KGB surveillance (the film was shot in eastern Germany). On this level, the film worked. But it worked less well in the specific story of the two cousins and their relationship. And Jérémie Lippmann’s acting wasn’t too good. So the verdict is mixed, though if one is interested in the subject matter it may be seen. French reviews were good. Trailer is here.

les interdits

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The Putin games

Putin riding a meteorite via Global Voices

I haven’t been watching the Sochi games at all—TV news reports excepted—, though have been reading about them plenty, more the politics than the sports. I’ve particularly liked the dispatches of TNR’s Julia Ioffe, who’s a bicultural Russian-American and thus knows the country well. But despite her Russian roots she’s no Russophile, loin s’en faut, as she makes clear in this piece from four days ago, in which she nails some of the psychological issues afflicting the collective Russian psyche (and which has similarities with the Algerian psyche, with which I am more familiar). I note that her attitude toward the country of her birth seems to differ from that of Russian-American blogger and former student of mine, Anna, whom I mentioned in an earlier post (Anna and Julia look to be the same age, BTW).

One inveterate Russophile, but who’s fully American, is Stephen F. Cohen, NYU and Princeton professor emeritus, well-known Soviet Union/Russia specialist—I liked his biography of Nikolai Bukharin, which I read way back when—, and who has taken to apologizing for the Soviet Union/Russia over the years, most recently in a piece in The Nation last week, “Distorting Russia,” in which he railed on about “[h]ow the American media misrepresent Putin, Sochi and Ukraine.” Oh please. Cohen’s rant recalls The Daily World from the ’70s and ’80s, in which the American media and anyone who criticized the Soviet Union was accused of “anti-Sovietism” (I read this stuff in spades back then, so know of what I speak). Okay, Cohen’s piece was not that crude, but still… Among those he inveighed against were Julia Ioffe, Russia specialist Amy Knight, and Yale University historian Timothy Snyder, the latter two of whom, I regret to inform Professor Cohen, have greater cred in my book than he when it comes to analyzing the lands of the ex-Soviet Union (e.g. here is Snyder’s latest, must-read piece, “Fascism, Russia, and Ukraine,” that was posted on the NYRB website two days ago and will appear in the March 20 2014 issue). What Cohen loses sight of is that to report objectively on Russia—as on the Soviet Union in its day—is to necessarily sound negative. Some incontrovertible facts:

  • Russia is an authoritarian regime and where the rule of law is non-existent. The country has known nothing but tyranny for almost its entire history. It’s hard to get around this reality when analyzing the country’s politics.
  • Vladimir Putin is a KGB thug and with a KGB world-view. Period. He may have been legitimately elected and enjoy majority support among Russians in the heartland there but so what? That doesn’t make him any less of a thug (the parallel with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan comes to mind). And if the cult he has built around his male virility is not utterly fascistic, then I don’t know what fascistic means.
  • Russia, despite its fabulous natural resource wealth and human capital, is an economic basket case. It is a rentier state which has nothing to offer the world—or even its own economy—but hydrocarbons and weapons. In the latter Cold War years the Soviet Union was nicknamed by its own citizens “Upper Volta with rockets.” Part of the Russian population today lives not too badly—thanks to rentier-generated income—but a significant part of it is still in “Upper Volta.” Russia is, as they say where I live, un pays clochardisé.
  • Related to the above, the Russian business oligarchy exports its capital. And sets up residence abroad—in Europe—and has its children educated outside the country. Imagine American (or French etc) capitalists acting likewise.
  • Russian civil society is weak and efforts by citizens to engender a measure of civisme are met with repression. Independent or discordant voices meet with little tolerance.
  • Russia is a brutal, violent society—which few Russians would deny—and with little social solidarity beyond the immediate family unit. And the political culture is thoroughly reactionary.
  • The level of xenophobic nationalism and racism in Russia has no equivalent in the Western world. Better not to be a black, dark-skinned, or Central Asian-looking person there. Or gay, of course. Racism and xenophobia exist everywhere, which goes without saying. One of the problems with it in Russia, though, is that a lot of it is stoked up by the authorities.
  • Russian society is ravaged by alcoholism and with societal decay such that overall life expectancy there is at a Third World level (below that of Bangladesh), indicating, among other things, a calamitous public health system.
  • Russia could have been a great nation but was wrecked—utterly ruined—by seven decades of communism. The Bolshevik Revolution was one of the 20th century’s greatest catastrophes (just behind Nazi Germany and along with the creation of Saudi Arabia). Some lefties may have a hard time accepting this but it is absolutely the case. The bilan of seven decades of Soviet communism is entirely negative. If Lenin’s train had derailed before reaching the Finland Station, Russia would no doubt be a better place today. And the world too.
  • Among the countless catastrophic consequences of communism was the destruction of the environment and of anything resembling a decent cuisine. Soviet cooking: anyone own a cookbook of this?
  • And there’s Russia’s predatory, imperialist relationship with its neighbors, who—with the exception of its Orthodox cousins (some of them)—fear and despise it. Go to any city in Poland and ask a hundred people at random how they feel about Russia…
  • Et j’en passe…

In his screed, Stephen Cohen took aim at the American press and American commentators on Russia, including those who are bona fide specialists of the country, not editorializing hacks. But he could have said the same thing about the French press and French specialists, whose analyses of Russia hardly differ from those of their counterparts outre-Atlantique. E.g. see the editorial in Le Monde dated February 9-10, “Vladimir Poutine ne mérite pas de podium,” which was no doubt written by Le Monde’s editor-in-chief, Natalie Nougayrède, who was the paper’s correspondent in Moscow and other cities in the former Soviet Union for a dozen years in the ’90s and ’00s. Le Monde’s Marie Jégo, who’s been reporting from Russia for many years, is no different in her assessments of the country. And then there’s Marie Mendras, France’s top academic specialist of contemporary Russia, whose articles on the subject—e.g. this recent one, on how the Putin regime is going after the opposition intelligentsia—hardly differ in tone from those of American specialists decried by Stephen Cohen. To all this one may add the enquête in the muckracking webzine Mediapart by Agathe Duparc, who reported from Moscow for eight years for various French publications, on the fortune Vladimir Putin has amassed during his years in power, which may be as high as $40 billion…

For the French press, Moscow has long been a plum post and with a number of France’s top journalists having been posted there and learned the language. What’s interesting and noteworthy is that the majority of them come away with a severe assessment of the country: not its people—one naturally forges friendships with many excellent individuals and appreciates aspects of the culture, not to mention the courage of political dissidents there—but its institutions, political culture, economic dysfunction, and everything else noted above. Contrast this with the US, Washington and New York also being prestigious posts for French foreign correspondents. Like their Moscow correspondent colleagues they also acquire specialized knowledge after time spent there, but do not become biting critics of America. Au contraire, they may invariably be counted upon to counter or refute a lot of the misconceptions and nonsense recounted about America and Americans by their French compatriots. Their analyses of America—of its politics, culture, whatever—are usually on target. And it is naturally likewise with the sizable community of French academic specialists of the US, whose knowledge of their subject often puts mine to shame. French specialists of other countries are second to none, so I take their analyses and views seriously, on Russia as on everywhere else.

I’ve actually never been to Russia but have long wanted to visit the country. If anyone wants to invite me there on all-expenses paid trip—or just accommodate me in Moscow (I can cover the rest)—I’m game. And if anything I’ve said above is misconceived—or so one deems it—, I’m open to having it challenged.

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Russia and Islam

Moscow, Eid al-Fitr, August 30 2011 (Photo: Ilya Varlamov/RT)

Moscow, Eid al-Fitr, August 30 2011 (Photo: Ilya Varlamov/RT)

Stanford University historian Robert Crews has a most interesting article in the March-April 2014 issue of Foreign Affairs, entitled “Moscow and the Mosque.” The lede: “Co-opting Muslims in Putin’s Russia.” It is the most informative piece I’ve read on the subject in a long while. If one does not have full access to the Foreign Affairs website, the article may be read in its entirety here.

Kazan, Tatarstan, Russia

Kazan, Tatarstan, Russia

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Voilà more links on Sochi.

On the outrageous cost of the games, MJ has charts on what are absolutely “The most ridiculously expensive games ever.” Totally obscene (though the Sochi price tag will be peanuts compared to the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar…).

In my previous post I linked to a piece by Christian Caryl, in which he explained that Putin’s bid to hold the games in Sochi was intimately linked to the wars in the Caucuses and the determination to assert Russia’s will in the region. À propos, Joshua Keating has a piece in Slate rhetorically asking “Did the Age of Genocide begin in Sochi?” The genocide—or maybe it was just massacres on a mass scale; the question is not settled—was of the Circassians, a generic term for the Muslim peoples of the northwestern Caucuses who were killed en masse and expelled—to the Ottoman Empire—in their near entirety during the Russian conquest of the region in the 1850s and ’60s—a conquest that made what the Americans did to the American Indians a tea party by comparison. The cruelty of the Russians in Caucuses was on another level altogether. And as we know, historical narratives are passed down through the generations, so the memory of this is still very much alive.

There are some 20,000 Muslims in Sochi today, BTW, but the city does not have a single mosque, as one learns here.

Tons has been written on the nearby Chechens—who have historically gotten it almost as bad from the Russians as did the Circassians—but if one is interested in a single book, here’s a review of historian Moshe Gammer‘s The Lone Wolf and the Bear: Three Centuries of Chechen Defiance of Russian Rule, by U.Mass-Dartmouth Islamic history prof Brian Glyn Williams (published in Slavonica 13/2, 2007).

For Francophones, the blog Penser la Russie had a dossier last week on the Sochi games. The lede

À l’approche des Jeux Olympiques, Penser la Russie publie un dossier consacré à l’événement le plus chaud de cet hiver. Le dossier s’ouvre par sur un reportage d’Éléna Ratcheva du journal Novaya Gazéta. Publié il y a un mois il contient des détails précieux sur le déroulement du chantier olympique: ouvriers impayés, chasse aux immigrés, les travaux contraints des «bénévoles» et… manque de main d’œuvre.

Nous publions également une interview de Vladimir Poutine qui témoigne de l’image contraire à la réalité du déroulement des travaux préparatifs . Le président russe souligne que dans le succès des préparations des JO de Sotchi réside la réussite du pays dans son entier. Ceux qui osent en douter, comme le démontre un échange sur Twitter, sont de suite condamnés : selon un fonctionnaire « patriote », «l’Empire » ne serait qu’ « un son creux » pour ces personnages…

And then there’s The Sochi Project, by Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen. The description

Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen have been working together since 2007 to tell the story of Sochi, Russia, site of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. They have returned repeatedly to this region as committed practitioners of “slow journalism,” establishing a solid foundation of research on and engagement with this small yet incredibly complicated region before it finds itself in the glare of international media attention. As van Bruggen writes,
Never before have the Olympic Games been held in a region that contrasts more strongly with the glamour of the Games than Sochi. Just twenty kilometers away is the conflict zone Abkhazia. To the east, the Caucasus Mountains stretch into obscure and impoverished breakaway republics such as North Ossetia and Chechnya. On the coast, old Soviet-era sanatoria stand shoulder to shoulder with the most expensive hotels and clubs of the Russian Riviera. By 2014 the area around Sochi will have been changed beyond recognition.

Hornstra’s photographic approach combines the best of documentary storytelling with contemporary portraiture, found photographs, and other visual elements collected over the course of their travels. Van Bruggen contributes a series of engaging stories about the people, the land, and its turbulent history. Together, the images and texts unpack the complex, multivalent story of this contested region, shining a harsh light on Vladimir Putin’s claim that, “The Olympic family is going to feel at home in Sochi.” Designed by long-standing collaborators Kummer & Herrman, The Sochi Project book, website and exhibition: An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus is the culmination of this five year project, a contemporary masterpiece of photography and journalism in the collaborative tradition of James Agee and Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor.

On a lighter note, here’s the Russian Police Choir singing ‘Get Lucky’ at the Olympics opening ceremony. Not bad…


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The Sochi games


I haven’t watched them at all so far—not even the opening ceremony (wasn’t home)—and likely won’t, except maybe the figure skating. Have never been into winter sports (I never learned how to ice skate and have never put on skis in my life—which is too bad for me, as I know skiing is a blast, countless friends and others having thus informed me over the decades, my daughter included). And then there are the politics surrounding the Sochi games, the obscene $50 billion price tag—bigger than the GDP of over a hundred countries—, and just the mere fact that they’re happening there. I’ve read numerous articles and reports on the Sochi Olympics over the past several months, all of which, without exception, have been negative—and with the negativity being 100% confirmed by a current Russian student in one of my courses, who is active in a Paris-based pro-democracy/anti-Putin association. But then, a Russian student of mine from ten years ago, Anna—a delightful young woman and smart as a whip—, who presently works for Russia Today (RT) television in Moscow, is fed up with all the negativity and dumping on Russia by the international media, as she wrote yesterday in a post on her fine blog (check it out: lots of cool photo essays of Moscow). Along with her other compatriots she watched the opening ceremony on Friday with patriotic pride. Ça se comprend.

But, pace Anna, as I’m not Russian and have my political convictions, I have no choice but to add to the negativity. I have tons of articles on Sochi that I can link to but will select just a few (and particularly as a certain number have been making the rounds—not to mention the funny tweets from journalists these past few days recounting their Sochi hotel experiences).

One piece I just read is a post on the NYRB blog, dated February 5th, by former Moscow correspondent Christian Caryl, on why Vladimir Putin wanted the Olympics in Sochi. The short answer: because this would symbolize his triumph in the war with the Chechens.

In the February issue of Vanity Fair journalist Brett Forrest, who’s lived in Russia, has a report on “Putin’s run for gold.” The lede: “At $50 billion and counting, the 2014 Winter Olympics, in Sochi, will be the most expensive Olympic Games ever. Intended to showcase the power of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, they may instead highlight its problems: organized crime, state corruption, and the terrorist threat within its borders.”

For those who are not NYRB subscribers, or who are but missed it, Amy Knight had a review essay (behind the paywall) in the September 26 2013 issue on “Putin’s downhill race,” in which she discussed a 41-page report released in Moscow last May by Putin opponents Boris Nemstov and Leonid Martynyuk, entitled “Winter Olympics in the Subtropics: An Independent Expert Report.” Here’s the key passage from Knight’s review

When the Russian city of Sochi, on the Black Sea, was chosen as the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics in 2007, Vladimir Putin had every reason to be pleased. Russia was given a chance to show the world the accomplishments of his regime. Now that he is again Russia’s president, after a four-year hiatus as prime minister from 2008 to 2012, Putin himself will be at the center of the events. But the Olympics might not turn out as he and his Kremlin colleagues have envisioned.

According to two of Putin’s critics from the democratic opposition, Boris Nemtsov and Leonid Martynyuk, the Olympics, to be held in February 2014, are a disaster waiting to happen. Nemtsov and Martynyuk have published a booklet, Winter Olympics in the Subtropics: An Independent Expert Report, describing the folly of the choice of Sochi, the unprecedented amount of government money being spent to prepare for the games, and the vast corruption that is part of the process. The Sochi Olympics, for these writers, are a microcosmic example of what is wrong with Russia today. And far from presenting Putin’s Russia in a favorable light, the Olympics could be devastating to the country’s image, as well as Putin’s. The authors begin:

Russia is a winterly country. On the map, it is hard to find a spot where snow would never fall, and where winter sports would not be popular. Yet Putin has found such a spot and decided to hold the winter Olympics there: in the city of Sochi.

Sochi, which Nemtsov knows well—he is a native of the city who ran unsuccessfully for mayor there in 2009—is indeed an unfortunate choice. According to Nemtsov and Martynyuk, the temperature at Krasnaya Polyana, the mountain cluster outside of Sochi where many of the winter sports will take place, reached 55 degrees Fahrenheit this year on February 7, the date when the games will open next year. Four days later the temperature reached close to 60 degrees.

The Rotenberg brothers, Arkady and Boris, friends of Putin since their childhood in St. Petersburg, are a case in point. They were judo partners of Putin at the Yavara- Neva Judo Club in St. Petersburg, and continue, along with him, to be benefactors of the club. In 2008 the brothers, now billionaires, began buying up subsidiaries of Russia’s national energy company, Gazprom; their construction company, SGM Group, is now a major supplier of pipelines to Gazprom. They also have large investments in Mostotrest, a road construction company that won the concession to build the controversial toll road from Moscow to St. Petersburg and is now the contractor for several road projects in connection with the Olympics.

In total, the Rotenbergs have received twenty-one Olympic construction contracts, worth around $7 billion, more than the entire cost of the Olympics in Vancouver in 2010. According to Nemtsov and Martynyuk, the Rotenbergs have reaped enormous profits from the projects because the contracts were awarded without competition.

Another old Putin friend, Vladimir Yakunin, a former neighbor of his at the exclusive Ozero dacha compound outside St. Petersburg, is also a major beneficiary of the Sochi Olympics. Yakunin is the head of Russian Railways (RZD), which was designated to oversee the building of a combined highway and railway from the city of Sochi to the area for downhill skiing at Krasnaya Polyana. As Nemtsov and Martynyuk note:

The most expensive facility of the Sochi Olympics…is not the central stadium, the ski-jumping center, or the bobsled track. Those facilities were peanuts compared to a 48-kilometer stretch of highway….

As in the case of the Rotenbergs, the builders of the road and railway, which have caused unprecedented environmental damage, received their contracts through Russian Railways without competitive bidding.

Yakunin has recently been in the spotlight because of revelations by anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny about his questionably acquired luxurious dacha outside Moscow. Navalny’s Fund to Fight Corruption also uncovered a network of offshore companies that Yakunin and his family use to fund real estate ventures abroad. In June it was widely reported that Yakunin had lost his job. But the Kremlin quickly dismissed the reports as unfounded.

Yet another Putin crony, Gennady Timchenko, is a large stakeholder in SK Most, one of the companies contracted by Yakunin to build the road and train to Krasnaya Polyana. He also happens to be a sponsor of the Yavara-Neva Judo Club and reportedly plays ice hockey with Putin and Arkady Rotenberg and some other close friends of the president. Timchenko runs Gunvor, the third-largest oil-trading company in the world. Gunvor rose from a little-known business to become a major force in the oil industry after the takeover by state-run Rosneft of the oil giant Yukos—and the arrest of its owner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky—in 2003. Rosneft now sells a significant amount of its oil through Gunvor.

According to Nemtsov and Martynyuk’s report, the cost of the highway to Krasnaya Polyana would have been radically reduced if the project had not included railway lines. But this would have meant leaving RZD management out of the vast profits, along with the affiliated companies with which it makes contracts.

In addition to the unfavorable climate, Nemtsov and Martynyuk go on to point out other risks of having the Olympics in Sochi. A major problem is the enormously large amount of energy that will be required. Sochi, a city of only a half-million people, is woefully inadequate for this task. In 2012, more than a thousand power outages—an average of three a day in various parts of the city—occurred there because of the poor condition of the electricity network.

The construction of facilities for the Olympics is being carried out by more than 16,000 migrant workers from the former Soviet republics. According to the report’s authors, in 2012 alone forty construction accidents and twenty-five deaths occurred in the preparations for the games:

The poor quality of construction and violations of technological rules and regulations are related to the use of cheap and unskilled labor. A paradoxical situation arose: despite the astronomical budget,…the building workers often did not receive their hard-earned pay. The money ended up in the pockets of the main clients, general contractors, subcontractors, and subsubcontractors…. We can only speculate what the quality of the facilities built will be.

The authors observe that many of the contractors have not met the deadlines for completion: “This means that the last stage of preparation for the Olympics is being carried out in an emergency mode, and no one cares about the quality and technology used.”

Moreover, the authors predict, visitors to the Olympics in Sochi, which is known for its road congestion, will encounter traffic jams that could make Moscow streets seem tranquil in comparison:

Due to the influx of high-ranking officials of Putin’s government and official delegations, who are used to having the traffic halted to allow them to speed by, the situation on the roads of Sochi will become a real nightmare.

Adding to the concerns about the Kremlin’s planning for the Olympics is the controversy over the draconian anti-gay legislation, including a ban on “homosexual propaganda,” signed by Putin in June. The Interior Ministry, which controls the police, has said that this law will be enforced during the Olympics. Gay activists are calling for a boycott by participants in the games.

Nemtsov and Martynyuk make only passing reference to the possibility of terrorism at the Olympics, noting that Sochi is part of the notoriously volatile North Caucasus. In fact, Sochi is located just 250 miles from the republics of Chechnya and Dagestan, where Islamist rebels have their base. In early July, Doku Umarov, the leader of the rebel movement, who is believed to be hiding in the mountains between Dagestan and Chechnya, threatened in a video that his followers would use “maximum force” to ensure that the games do not take place. Umarov has claimed responsibility for several terrorist attacks in Russia, including that on the Moscow metro in 2010, which killed forty people, and the 2011 bombing at Domodedovo airport, which resulted in thirty-seven deaths.

The full report was translated into English on Boris Nemtsov’s website (here, scroll down).

For those who know French, Envoyé Spécial had a half-hour reportage last September 12th on “Sotchi: les jeux à tout prix,” that is well worth watching.

À suivre.

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In the Fog

В тумане

Four days ago I had a post on a recently seen film from Georgia, which I wrote while watching the France-Georgia World Cup qualification match (not a good game for Les Bleus; ended in a scoreless tie). Now I am watching, as I write, the France-Belarus qualification match, live from Gomel (Belarus’s second city, whose existence I was unaware of until this past week). As it happens, I saw a Belarussian film last spring, ‘In the Fog‘ (en France: ‘Dans la brume’), set in 1942 in the western Soviet Union during the Nazi occupation. Here’s a description from one review

Moral dilemmas don’t come any bleaker than in Sergei Loznitsa’s adaptation of Vasil Bykov’s novel, “In the Fog.” Set in a Nazi-occupied region of the Soviet Union, this existential parable explores three possible responses to an impossible situation and concludes that, in the end, none makes any difference. As remorseless in style as it is in message, “In the Fog” offers little hope and few pleasures, but earns admiration for its elegant exploration of the lowest depths of the human condition.

In the first of many long, uncut sequences, the film opens with a tracking shot following three prisoners accused of sabotage as they are marched through an occupied village to their deaths. The screen fades to black, and cuts to Burov (Vlad Abashin) and Voitik (Sergei Kolesov), two partisans sent to liquidate Sushenya (Vladimir Svirsky), who is believed to have turned in the three executed men in order to save his own life. Burov, a childhood friend of Sushenya, agrees to the condemned man’s request to be shot and buried in a pine grove, some distance from his home, to spare his wife and child. This slight kindness backfires when the pro-German local police discover them, and a firefight ensues.

Three flashbacks interrupt this central narrative, each from the point of view of one of the main characters. In the first, Burov, months earlier commits an impulsive, petty act of vengeance against the police, forcing him to flee and take refuge with the partisans. In the next, Sushenya, held in custody with the three saboteurs, refuses the German commander’s offer to let him go if he collaborates. But he is released anyway to lure in the partisans who will be sent to kill him. And in the third flashback, Voitik, who, unlike the others, is motivated neither by justice nor compassion, confronts a situation in which he, too, must make a moral decision.

As T.S. Eliot wrote, “Neither fear nor courage saves us,” and so it is with these three. Each ends up in the fog, the nebulous, amoral void that remains when total war revokes all values. Loznitsa’s film operates in a fog of its own, its characters sleepwalking to their inevitable fate, without appeal or hope of vindication.

Reviews of the film have been good in both France and the US (where it opened in June), with the NYT’s Manohla Dargis giving it the thumbs way up. And TNR devoted a whole article to it. It’s certainly well-done and well-acted but is more a film for critics than audiences IMHO, as I found it just a little too slow paced and austere. The subject matter may have been grave but it left me indifferent at the end. À chacun son appréciation.

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Keep Smiling


I am presently watching on TV, as I write, the France vs. Georgia World Cup qualification match, live from Tbilisi. As it happens, I saw this film from Georgia just last week. Voilà the intro from The Hollywood Reporter’s review

A pitch worthy of an R-rated knee-slapper is taken to much darker, and slightly overwrought, ends in Keep Smiling (Gaigimet), an energetic and often despondent Georgian dramedy… The debut feature from writer-director Rusudan Chkonia follows ten highly desperate housewives who enter a beauty contest in the hopes of nabbing a coveted apartment and $25,000 prize, but find themselves subjected to the whims of media hounds, chauvinist pigs and their own domestic nightmares…

It’s a pretty good film. Gives a good insight into contemporary Georgia and its mœurs, shaped as they’ve been by the catastrophic Soviet legacy. The terrible situation of Abkhazia refugees figures in the pic. Variety’s review is here. French reviews are good. Trailer is here. Recommended.

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The Evil Kingdom

Colombo, Sri Lanka, 8 July 2011 (Photo: Eranga Jayawardena/AP)

Colombo, Sri Lanka, 8 July 2011 (Photo: Eranga Jayawardena/AP)

[update below]

That’s how a friend—who travels frequently to the Middle East for work—referred to Saudi Arabia to me in an email the other day, after reading about the judicial murder there of Rizana Nafeek, the young Sri Lankan woman who worked as a domestic slave servant in that benighted country. I responded with something I’ve been saying since early in the last decade, which is that the creation of Saudi Arabia in the 1920s—of the conquest of the Hijaz (civilized) by the Wahhabi tribes of the Najd (uncivilized)—was one of the great tragedies of the 20th century. Now I’m not one to essentialize countries but there are two in this world that I consider to be particularly depraved and malevolent, and in almost every respect—politically, geopolitically, culturally, morally, you name it—, one being Russia, the other Saudi Arabia. And insofar as both countries are able to project power and influence beyond their borders, they are also dangerous, particularly in their respective regions. It is hardly a surprise that most of the peoples and nations that border Russia fear and loathe that country. Just to go to Warsaw and ask around (for the anecdote, some eight years ago a Russian student of mine—from a Vladimir Putin-supporting family and who was not particularly politicized herself—told me that Russia’s neighbors had good reason to fear her country). As for Saudi Arabia, just ask a few dozen people at random in Cairo, Damascus, Beirut, Tunis, Casablanca, or anywhere else in the Arab world what they think of Saudis (not just the royal family but also as people). Answer: a significant majority will tell you that they’re barbarians (as the Muslim Sri Lankans in the photos here manifestly deem them to be). It may not be nice to essentialize a whole people in such terms—and it is certainly not reputable intellectually—but that’s the reality of how Saudis are viewed by those—mostly other Arabs and Muslims—who’ve had to deal with them.

I’m thinking about this at the present moment, having just read Indian-Kashmiri journalist Basharat Peer’s commentary in The New Yorker on Rizana Nafeek’s beheading. Read it and fume. And if you want to fume some more, see the links in my post of 18 months ago on this same subject. Wouldn’t it be marvelous if Saudi Arabia could be broken into three parts?: an independent Hijaz restored to the Hashemites (and with Jordan becoming a Palestinian state—including the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, of course); the oil-rich, Shi’ite-majority Gulf coast area a United Nations protectorate (and with the oil revenues used to fund the UN and its specialized agencies, the World Bank, and IMF); and the Saudis in the Najd left to fend for themselves, bereft of oil and the holy places. Just dreaming…

UPDATE: The web site Migrant Rights has an informative post on “Who failed Rizana Nafeek?,” which is severely critical of the Sri Lankan government’s handling of the affair.

(Photo: AFP)

(Photo: AFP)

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[N.B. This post has been revised since its initial publication]

The English edition of Pravda published an op-ed last week entitled “Obama’s Soviet Mistake,” by one Xavier Lerma (who is identified only with a link to his blog, which is where Pravda got it—high journalistic standards they have there in Russia—, but which contains no biographical information). The op-ed is a doozy, which has to be read to be believed. I posted it on FB, which led to an exchange on Russia with a couple of FB friends and with me declaring that

I have no hesitation in saying that I find Russia a dangerous and frightening country. Any country where neo-Nazi gangs can roam the streets in the heart of the capital city and murder dark-skinned people with impunity, with the tacit approval of the citizenry and the police looking the other way, has serious mental problems. And then there’s Vladimir Putin, so hugely popular until only recently.

I have written as much in recent months on AWAV (go to the Russia/ex-USSR category and see the ‘Elena’ and ‘Russia: Mafia state’ posts). This reminded me of an op-ed in Haaretz from earlier this month, on Russians in Israel and racism, which I kept. Here it is. Notable passages are highlighted in bold. The author is a historian at Hebrew University. Given his name, one would assume he has intimate, personal knowledge of the phenomenon, i.e. that he knows of what he speaks.

Is it racist to call Russians racist?

Since Barack Obama was elected president, one of the most popular jokes in Putin’s Russia is: “Obama’s election as president – the black humor of Americans.” Would it be racist to argue that a cultural group which embraces such a joke is a group characterized by clear racist tendencies?

By Dmitry Shumsky | Nov.05, 2012

Since Barack Obama was elected president of the United States in 2008, one of the most popular jokes in Putin’s Russia – and its cultural diaspora around the world, including in Israel – is: “Obama’s election as president – the black humor of Americans.” The question is: Would it be racist to argue that a cultural group which embraces such a joke is a group characterized by clear racist tendencies or would such an argument in fact be anti-racist, since it diagnoses a worrying trend of racism among a population with a shared past of sorts?

Such a question could also be asked of Meretz chairwoman Zahava Gal-On’s comparison between Yisrael Beiteinu’s leader, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and Russia’s leader, President Vladimir Putin. Would it be racist to postulate that there is some common denominator between two politicians who come from a single country that no longer exists, who rose to greatness thanks in no small part to the former citizens of that country, and who have both demonstrated loyalty to that country’s tradition of suppressing civil rights? Or perhaps the opposite is the case; maybe such a theory demonstrates the post-Soviet phenomenon of racism in a broad context.

The Soviet state carried out an unprecedented human experiment. On the one hand, the concepts of enlightenment and equality, morality, human dignity and human freedom flooded the public space ad nauseam. On the other hand, in the absence of an open society and without any possibility of public oversight, the most despicable of human drives were awakened and ran wild.

All you need to do is see the tormentors in the somewhat subversive Soviet movies from the end of the Soviet era to get an impression of the extent of the social Darwinism, the deification of belligerence in relations between groups and individuals, and the contempt for the different and the weak – categories that included many Soviet citizens in the 1970s and ’80s. Those who did not live in the Soviet Union of that era, or have not researched it thoroughly, will find it difficult to imagine the low point to which the ethics governing civil and political life plummeted as the result of that experimentation.

The inconceivable gap between the rhetoric of civil and national equality and the reality of social Darwinism gone crazy and institutional discrimination on the basis of ethnic origin caused many Soviet citizens to see the concepts of enlightenment, humanism and equality as the culprits. They thought the ideas themselves, rather than those who corrupted them, were inherently false and hypocritical.

And so the average native Israeli is wrong to say, as Ari Shavit did in his opinion piece last week, that “the immigrants from Russia sought to escape a tyrannical political culture and not replicate it.” Most Lieberman voters, like most Putin voters in Russia, want to live in a country that will not make use of the corrupted version of equality and humanism and that will not, even for the sake of appearances, futilely fight discrimination among various groups, since they see such discrimination as the legitimate expression of human nature.

Putin voters in today’s Russia have, in large part, succeeded in fulfilling this political and social vision. Lieberman voters in Israel are likely to do so in the near future. As such, a comparison between Putin and Lieberman is not racist. On the contrary, it is an expression of the protest against a wave of post-Soviet racism, on the part of those who do not want a joke like “Obama’s election as president – the black humor of Americans” to take root in Israel as well.

On the subject of Russia, there is a lengthy review by Amy Knight in the Nov. 22nd New York Review of Books on John B. Dunlop’s The Moscow Bombings of September 1999: Examinations of Russian Terrorist Attacks at the Onset of Vladimir Putin’s Rule. It begins

In 2000 Sergei Kovalev, then the widely respected head of the Russian organization Memorial, observed in these pages that the apartment bombings in Russia in September 1999, which killed three hundred people and wounded hundreds of others, “were a crucial moment in the unfolding of our current history. After the first shock passed, it turned out that we were living in an entirely different country….”

The bombings, it will be recalled, were blamed on Chechen rebels and used as a pretext for Boris Yeltsin’s Kremlin to launch a bloody second war against Chechnya, a republic in the Russian Federation. They also were crucial events in promoting Vladimir Putin’s takeover of the Russian presidency as Yeltsin’s anointed successor in 2000 and in ensuring his dominance over the Russian political scene ever since.

As John Dunlop points out in The Moscow Bombings of September 1999, the attacks were the equivalent for Russians of September 11, 2001, for Americans. They aroused a fear of terrorism—along with a desire for revenge against the Chechens—that Russians had not known since Stalin used the supposed terrorist threat as a pretext to launch his bloody purges of the 1930s. Yet unlike in the American case, Russian authorities have stonewalled all efforts to investigate who was behind these acts of terror and why they happened. In the words of Russian journalist Yuliya Kalinina: “The Americans several months after 11 September 2001 already knew everything—who the terrorists were and where they come from…. We in general know nothing.”

Dunlop, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, seeks in his book to provide the “spade work” for an official Russian inquiry, if it ever were to be initiated (a highly doubtful proposition as long as Putin remains in power). He draws on investigative reporting by Russian journalists, accounts of Russian officials in law enforcement agencies, eyewitness testimony, and the analyses of Western journalists and academics. The evidence he provides makes an overwhelming case that Russian authorities were complicit in these horrific attacks.

Knight’s review, which is entitled “Finally, We Know About the Moscow Bombings,” is a must read for those wishing to understand the workings of power in Russia, of the us et coutumes of the men who run that country—and always have—, not to mention their level of morality and consideration for human life. One consequence of the 1999 bombings that Knight does not get into, as it is outside the scope of her essay, was the upsurge in violent racist attacks against Chechens—and against Caucasians and Central Asians more generally—across Russia. Not that virulent racism against the large migrant communities from the ex-Soviet periphery hadn’t existed before, but it became that much more so. Apart from a few isolated incidents there was no such reaction to Arabs in the US after 9/11. Knight’s essay is behind the NYRB’s paywall but may be read in full here.

ADDENDUM: On the Chenchen conflict, see the review essay in the 24 September 1998 NYRB (the only one of the numerous NYRB articles on the subject not behind the paywall), “Chechnya: How Russia Lost,” by then Moscow correspondent Robert Cottrell.

Slide mouse over the photo for explanation. It is taken from a 2006 piece, “Russia: Racism ‘Out Of Control,’ Says Amnesty.”

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