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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

putin_2_width_600x

[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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student_darezhanomirbayev1

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.

harmony-lessons

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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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08

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.”

nato-expansion

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