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Archive for the ‘Russia / ex-USSR’ Category

[update below] [2nd update below]

Subtitle: “The Untold Story of Donald Trump and the Russian Mafia.” This is the latest book by journalist and writer Craig Unger, whose previous ones include the 2004 House of Bush, House of Saud: The Secret Relationship Between the World’s Two Most Powerful Dynasties. I’ve been following the Trump-Putin/Russia link like everyone, though haven’t been as riveted to the story as have others. Reading the recent enquêtes by Jonathan Chait, Julia Ioffe, and Blake Hounshell was more than enough to convince me that Trump’s engagement with the Russians is deep and long-standing, and that Vladimir Putin does indeed have the goods on him.

Unger seems to push the story to a whole new level, though. Now I have admittedly not yet seen the book, though did read the article (August 28th) in The Times of Israel, by founding editor David Horovitz, and which is followed by an interview with Unger, “Bestselling US author: ‘Russian asset’ Trump doesn’t truly care for Israel, Jews.” The lede: “Craig Unger, author of ‘House of Trump, House of Putin,’ urges Israel to be wary of dangerous, unprincipled US president, and even more so of Russian leader who helped install him.” It’s an amazing piece, an absolute must-read. Unger details the deep relationship of Trump with the Russian Mafia, whose oligarchs have laundered billions of dollars in Trump’s real estate empire—the American real estate industry being “virtually unregulated,” in Unger’s words. There is, in addition, an important Israel link. Quoting Horovitz:

Unger’s revelations directly impact Israel as well. About half of those 59 named “Russia Connections” are Jewish, and about a dozen of the 59 are Israeli citizens and/or have deep connections to Israel. (Several of those he names, such as Lev Leviev, Alexander Mashkevich and Mikhail Chernoy, are very wealthy and prominent businessmen with direct access to the highest levels of Israel’s elected leadership.)

Those numbers necessarily raise questions about whether Israel too is being compromised by Putin’s Russia — about whether unsavory characters are exploiting Israel’s Law of Return to gain Israeli citizenship and by extension access to the West; about whether Israel, with its own lax financial regulations and inadequate law enforcement, is serving as a conduit for money laundering by Moscow-linked individuals and companies; and about whether Moscow is building strategic relationships with Israeli politicians — as Unger charges it has done to such phenomenal effect with the president of the United States — in order to influence and if necessary subvert Israeli policies in its interest.

Israel is not the focus of the book and Unger says he doesn’t have all the answers, but it’s pretty clear that Bibi Netanyahu is knee-deep—if not higher—in the muck and that Israel is a pretty corrupt place. As is the United States—except that in the US, corruption, a.k.a. K Street, is mainly legal. Also, Vladimir Putin is indeed a danger, and particularly to Europe. Just read the piece, right now.

UPDATE: Specifically on the “House of Trump,” lots of people have been (rhetorically) asking over the past three years if the S.O.B. is a fascist. The real thing. The most recent are journalists Talia Lavin—presently a researcher of far-right extremism and the alt-right at Media Matters—and Andrew Stuttaford—a contributing editor at the National Review—who debated the question, “Is it right to call Trump a fascist?,” in the September issue of Prospect magazine, with Lavin saying ‘yes’, the branleur is indeed one (small f), and Stuttaford ‘no’, that El Caudillo del Mar-a-Lago may be a lot of things but he’s not that. I agree wholeheartedly with Lavin, ça va de soi, as would, I am sure, my favorite “neocon” intellectual Robert Kagan, whose column from May 2016, “This is how fascism comes to America,” may be reread with profit.

2nd UPDATE: NYT contributor Thomas B. Edsall has a must-read column (Sep. 6th), “Trump and the Koch brothers are working in concert.” The lede: “They disagree about trade, tariffs and immigration, but don’t be fooled. Neither side can get what it really wants without help from the other.”

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I normally wouldn’t have posted anything on it, hardly being a specialist on Russia or having anything original to say about what happens there, but came across this fine article in TWS, dated March 13th, by Garry Kasparov, whose analyses are always sophisticated and political viewpoints I invariably find congenial, “The truth about Putin: The March 18 elections are nothing but a sham—the Russian dictator will serve just as long as he pleases.” If you read just one thing on the Russian election, let it be this.

If you have time, also take a look at former NYT Moscow bureau chief Steven Lee Myers’s news analysis, “The poison Putin spreads,” in today’s NYT Sunday Review.

 

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The Bolshevik Revolution

[update below]

Today is the 100th anniversary, if one didn’t know. The Bolshevik Revolution was a reference for me in my 1970s gauchiste youth. All self-respecting gauchistes back then studied the Revolution closely and positioned themselves vis-à-vis what happened in Russia in that year and after, specifically as to when the Revolution started to go wrong. For the slavish pro-Soviet members or fellow travelers of the CPUSA, it never did. For Maoists, it went wrong in 1956, after Khrushchev’s secret speech (Maoists upholding Stalin’s legacy). Trotskyists asserted that the Revolution went off the rails in 1925-27, when Stalin consolidated power and sent their hero into exile. Those of us who read Gramsci tended to see the crushing of the 1921 Kronstadt rebellion as a turning point.

It should be clear to any sentient person nowadays that, in point of fact, it all went wrong in October 1917 (November new style), that the good revolution was in February of that year. Period.

To mark the anniversary, I am linking to one piece and one only, which is a review essay by Martin Amis of books on “Lenin’s deadly revolution,” in The New York Times three weeks ago. It’s good.

BTW, on the slavishly pro-Soviet CPUSA of Gus Hall and Angela Davis fame, I happen to know its current chairman. We went to the same college, are the same age, lived across the hall in the dorm one quarter, took a couple of classes together, talked/debated politics. C’est drôle, non?

UPDATE: Anne Applebaum has an essay in The Washington Post (November 6th) that is well worth reading: “100 years later, Bolshevism is back. And we should be worried.”

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I was reading the other day a lengthy enquête on Turkey in Le Monde dated Feb. 27th, on the resistance by Turkish civil society to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s implacable determination to consolidate his dictatorship and crush all opposition to his rule. The piece, by journalist Marc Semo, begins with an account of the ethnologist Ahmet Kerim Gültekin, who was abruptly dismissed from his professorship at Manzur University in Tunceli after last July’s attempted coup d’état—which he had nothing whatever to do with—and thereby from the civil service, and with his passport revoked, thus preventing him from seeking employment abroad. But it’s not as if there are other options available to him in Turkey, even as a waiter in a restaurant, as any employer will see, upon registering his social security number, that he had been fired from his job in the post-coup purge, and will thus not want to touch him with a ten foot pole. So he is unemployable, a “dead man walking.” But he resists, vaille que vaille. There are tens of thousands like him in Turkey.

As it happens, I saw a film on this precise theme last week—the day before reading the above article—the final one by Poland’s great director Andrzej Wajda, who died last October: Afterimage (in France: Les Fleurs bleues), which recounts the story of the persecution by Poland’s Communist regime of the country’s renowned avant-garde painter Władysław Strzemiński, from 1948—when he was fired from his position at the State Higher School of the Visual Arts in Łódź, of which he was one of the founders—to his death in destitution in 1952 (at age 59). Strzemiński—who had an arm and a leg blown off during WWI—was fired from his institute for his uncompromising rejection of the official doctrine of socialist realism as imposed by the Soviet Union. Not only was the blacklisted painter—who was Poland’s greatest of his era—unable to obtain steady employment but was deprived of ration cards to buy food or even oil paints and brushes, the sale of which was controlled by the state. But Strzemiński refused to capitulate to the commissars. And he died broken and destitute.

As for the film, it’s typical Andrzej Wajda: well-done, with a not so subtle political message (see my post on his previous one, Wałęsa: Man of Hope), and, in this case, tragic (as was his 2007 Katyń). It is as powerful an indictment of the Communist regime in Poland—indeed of every ‘really existing socialist’ regime of the sort—as one will find. For a discussion of Strzemiński’s life and œuvre—though which mentions his political persecution only in passing—go here. And to see some of his art, go here. The trailer of the film is here.

Back to Turkey, I read a sad essay this weekend—which makes one almost want to cry—dated last October 5th, on the Big Roundtable blog (h/t Claire B.) by writer Selin Thomas, “My shattered Istanbul: Turkey is slipping away from my family, collapsing into the arms of a tyrant. We thought she was ours. Maybe we were wrong.” 😥

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Trump and Putin

Created by: Greg Palmer

Created by: Greg Palmer

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below]

And the pipelines to nowhere. That’s the title of an article I just read today, in Medium, dated December 15th (h/t Jamie Meyerfeld), that offers the most convincing explanation IMO as to why Trump and Putin are hooking up, as it were. In short, it’s all about oil and the politics of climate change, i.e. raw economic interest, i.e. money. The author of the article, previously unknown to me—I admittedly do not know who is who in this field—is Alex Steffen, who is a “planetary futurist” and author of three books. He clearly knows what he’s talking about.

On this general subject, also see the must-read two-part article in the December 8th and 22th New York Review of Books, by David Kaiser and Lee Wasserman—who are, respectively, president and director of the Rockefeller Family Fund—”The Rockefeller Family Fund vs. Exxon,” and “The Rockefeller Family Fund Takes on ExxonMobil.” The name Rex Tillerson comes up more than once. After reading these articles you will—unless you’re already an authority on the subject—have a better understanding of what’s going on than you did before reading them.

UPDATE: Putin-apologizing Americans of both left and right have been furiously pushing back at the well-founded accusations of Russian implication in the DNC email hack, one being Glenn Greenwald—who is often right about things but often not, and is always a dickhead regardless—who has gone so far as to make common cause with Fox News talking heads on the matter. À propos, lefty journalist Bill Weinberg has a great post (Dec. 31st) on his Facebook page, “Yes, the Russians. Wake up and smell the vodka.” And Democratic Party activist David Atkins has a good post (Dec. 31st) on the Washington Monthly’s Political Animal Blog, “Even Glenn Greenwald and his fans should fear the Trump-Putin alliance.”

2nd UPDATE: Journalist Peter Savodnik has a must-read piece (Dec. 12th) in Vanity Fair, “Why angry white America fell for Putin.”

3rd UPDATE: Masha Gessen, who is hardly a Putinophile, clarifies matters in a post (Jan. 9th 2017) in NYR Daily, “Russia, Trump & flawed intelligence.”

4th UPDATE: Rachel Maddow has an absolutely must-watch 20 minute investigative report (Jan. 11th) on her MSNBC show, “Exxon needs US policy change to cash in on big bet on Russia.” The lede: “Rachel Maddow shows ExxonMobil’s heavy investment in Russia, which it has yet to be able to exploit because of U.S. sanctions on Russia over the annexation of Crimea, and how a change in that policy could means hundreds of millions of dollars for ExxonMobil.” The name Rex Tillerson naturally comes up in the report.

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Photo: WITT/SIPA

Photo: WITT/SIPA

Continuing from Wednesday’s post. François Fillon and Alain Juppé had their debate yesterday: a little short of two hours, with two highly articulate, supremely self-confident men in command of their arguments on the issues, that they expounded upon in a gaffe-free, wonkish detail inconceivable in political debate outre-Atlantique not including Hillary Clinton. As Arthur Goldhammer remarked in real time on Facebook

Watching the Fillon-Juppé debate. I think we should send our politicians to France for debate prep…. I think these guys could out-debate our guys in English, let alone French. And not just Trump.

As for the substance of what was said, the first half was given over to the economy, and specifically to reform of the state—i.e. the number of posts in the fonction publique that will be eliminated, though precisely which ones not specified—revamping—i.e. shredding—the Code du travail, raising the legal retirement age, and the rest of the litany that one has heard countless times on the right and for almost as long as one can remember. Not that the issues aren’t legitimate subjects of debate—they absolutely are—or that reforms are not called for, but politicians—here, Fillon—make it sound like embarking on “radical,” “difficult” reforms (Fillon’s words) is a mere matter of political will on the part of the president of the republic, that upending the labor and tax codes, slashing unemployment insurance, overhauling pension regimes, to name just a few pledges, can be carried out swiftly, in the first three months of a presidential term—i.e. during the summer, when people are on vacation—via ordonnance—i.e. by fiat, without debate—and that will be that. The modern history of France suggests that it will not happen quite that way.

Fillon and Juppé are more in agreement on these issues than they’re not, though there is a question of degree, with the former a few notches to the right of the latter and more Bonapartist in posture. There will be occasion to examine the programs in detail once the real campaign is underway—in the late winter and early spring—but what strikes one about Fillon’s neo-Thatcherite rhetoric is how has-been it is. It’s from another era. Fillon gave the impression that he was addressing an electoral clientele—PME patrons and provincial bourgeois retirees—not the broader electorate. In point of fact, it’s hard to see his neo-Thatcherite project catching fire during the general election campaign. Au contraire. Not only has it not been demonstrated that outsourcing public services to the private sector and making it easier for employers to fire personnel fosters economic growth, lowers unemployment, or saves the precious taxpayer’s money—and no partisan of these measures has dared argue that they will reduce inequality—but voters in their majority are not asking for this. In France, people want more public services—for the state to be more present—not less. And they don’t want job security, such as it exists, to be undermined (and pedagogy about insiders and outsiders in the labor market are not going to convince a single citizen to flip his or her vote in the direction of neoliberalism). People want a stronger social safety net, not less of one. On this, N.B., e.g., the huge unpopularity of the El Khomri law in public opinion polls, with not only the left opposing it but sizable numbers on the right as well—and which is one reason, among many others, why François Hollande’s reelection chances, should he suicidally decide to run, are close to nil.

The bottom line: Fillon, assuming he wins on Sunday (a safe bet) and then next May 7th (and he’ll be the favorite come next Monday), will be the most conservative president the Fifth Republic has seen to date. Arch réac Patrick Buisson said as much on Europe 1 yesterday, calling Fillon’s victory a “historic moment” for the French right. So much for Fillon’s erstwhile séguiniste social Gaullism (insofar as this was ever his real conviction). What makes Fillon so effective—and redoubtable—a politician is his mild manner combined with solidity of character. As I said last time, he presents himself very well and is very well-spoken. He is, in reality, no less right-wing than Sarkozy—including on the ‘4 Is’, with perhaps a nuance here and there—but, because of his style, has given the impression of greater moderation. As Libé’s Laurent Joffrin put it, whereas Sarkozy will blurt out to a citizencasse-toi pauv’ con” (beat it, asshole), Fillon will politely say “passez votre chemin, mon brave” (please move along, my good man). In public speaking, as I never cease to say, form is as important as substance, when not more so.

Fillon also knows to downplay his conservative positions on societal issues and resist the temptation to demagogue. E.g. he is personally opposed to abortion but, when the question was put to him in the debate, he insisted that he will never touch the Loi Veil or seek to abrogate the Loi Taubira on same-sex marriage (it was striking to watch him and Juppé both solemnly affirm their support for a woman’s right to chose, and with Fillon saying that “as a man, [abortion] is a not a decision for me to make;” hell will freeze over before such words are ever heard in a US Republican Party debate). As for his ties to conservative Catholic anti-gay marriage groups like Sens Commun, it is most unlikely that, given the ambient anti-religiosity in French society—France being one of the most atheistic countries in the world—that this will translate into any retrograde policy initiatives. Lefties and laïcards are shrieking over Fillon’s liaisons dangereuses with reactionary Cathos but he’s just playing symbolic politics. It’s not a BFD.

What is a BFD, however—and a big one indeed—is foreign policy, and specifically Fillon’s ties to Vladimir Putin. Russophilia—Putinophilia, en réalité—has become pronounced on the French right over the past decade and with Fillon one of Putin’s best friends in Paris. The bienveillance of Donald Trump and Michael Flynn toward Putin does not compare. Fillon and Putin know one another well—a relationship forged during Fillon’s five years as Sarkozy’s PM—have met some fifteen times, and are on the same page on numerous questions, among them Syria, with Fillon outright supporting the regime of Bashar al-Assad. On this, see Daniel Vernet in Slate.fr and Pierre Haski in L’Obs and The Guardian, plus his à chaud reaction on Facebook the night of the 1st round, in which he said

D’ailleurs, si Fillon l’emporte à droite et se retrouve au deuxième tour avec Marine Le Pen, ce seront deux amis de Moscou qui s’affronteront, assurant à Vladimir Poutine une victoire assurée. Son “investissement” a payé.

Now France does need to have a correct relationship with Russia but there are limits, as Juppé, who differs considerably with Fillon on the issue, asserted in the debate, notably on Ukraine and Syria. For Juppé, there can be no compromising or dealing with Bashar al-Assad. Fillon took care to assure that France under his presidency will not change alliances (go here and scroll to 1:56:30), that she and America are allies, and that France shares “fundamental values” with America that she does not with Russia. Très bien. But then, how to explain this tweet that Fillon sent out last March?

“American imperialism”? And during the Obama administration? And that “threatens” Europe? Now what is that supposed to mean? This is the first time I’ve seen the expression “American imperialism”—exclusively far left in pedigree—in a long time. And I have no memory of having ever heard it uttered by a high-level politico in a French party of government, and by one who may be elected president of the republic no less.

Strange. This requires explanation, though less so to the crazy new administration in Washington that awaits us than to Angela Merkel and the other principal actors in the European Union (a subject that was not mentioned once in last night’s debate, BTW). If a President Fillon makes nice with Vladimir Putin over and above France’s relationship with Germany, that will mark a sea change of major proportions on the continent—and in geopolitics more generally.

France Inter’s great geopolitics commentator Bernard Guetta has had some very good commentaries this week on Fillon, Putin, France, and Russia, here and here.

On the matter of Russia, we have learned over the past week that Alain Juppé has been subjected to an odious, viral campaign on the fachosphère—France’s nebula of Alt-Right websites—accusing him of being an “ally” of the “Muslim Brotherhood” and generally being in cahoots with “Islam,” on account, entre autres, of his cordial relationship, in his capacity as mayor of Bordeaux, with Bordeaux’s imam Tareq Oubrou—the epitome of moderation, whose liberal interpretation of the Islamic faith is music to French ears, but whom the fachosphère, along with extreme right-wing Jewish websites, have libelously slandered as a fundamentalist and antisemite, and sullying Juppé’s name in the process, nicknamed “Ali Juppé” by the fachos (for details, see the article by Claude Askolovitch in Slate.fr, “L’alliance de la fachosphère et des ultras du sarkozysme pour éliminer Juppé,” and the enquête in Libé, “Qui veut la peau d’«Ali Juppé»?”).

So what’s the link with Russia? Russian trolls, so L’Obs reports, who lent a helping hand to the fachosphère—which is entirely pro-Putin—to undermine Juppé and help Fillon. As there is now no doubt that the Russians undermined Hillary Clinton via cyberattacks and fake news to favor Trump, the circumstantial evidence that they likewise employed their underhanded methods in the French primary campaign may be regarded as prima facie.

There was a small brouhaha over something Fillon said Wednesday on Europe 1 that sounded borderline antisemitic

I think that sectarianism is increasing today within the Muslim community and that the sectarianists are taking that community hostage. We need to combat this sectarianism and we need to do it as we have in the past. We fought against a form of Catholic sectarianism or like we fought the desire of Jews to live in a community that does not respect the laws of the French Republic.

There was a time in history when Jews as a “community” didn’t respect the laws of the republic? WTF? Claude Askolovitch took Fillon apart on this in a great piece on Slate.fr, “Des juifs, de Fillon, et de l’inculture historique de nos politiques.” Who knows what Fillon was thinking when he said this. I rather doubt he’s a closet Judeophobe, as there has been no indication of this in his long life as a public person. If he were, ça se saurait. He clarified the matter almost immediately on his Facebook page. L’incident est clos.

My prediction au pif for Sunday’s vote, FWIW: Fillon 58%, Juppé 42%.

Novo-Ogaryovo, Russia, March 2013 (Photo: Reuters/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novost)

Novo-Ogaryovo, Russia, March 2013 (Photo: Reuters/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novost)

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fair play

I’m sort of following the Olympics, watching a bit on TV, keeping up with the medals table. I’ve read about the Russian doping scandal over the past couple of weeks. Am not surprised the Russkies got off with a slap on the wrist. The affair recalled a good Czech film I saw last year, Fair Play (in France: Sur la ligne), about state-organized doping of athletes in Czechoslovakia during the communist era (and that was likewise in the other eastern bloc countries). Here’s a plot summary culled from IMDB

The 1980s in Czechoslovakia. The young talented sprinter Anna (Judit Bárdos) is selected for the national team and starts training to qualify for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles (before the Soviet decision to boycott). As part of the preparation she is placed in a secret “medical program” where she’s getting doped with anabolic steroids. Her performance is getting better, but after she collapses in training, she learns the truth about the drugs. Anna decides to continue her training without the steroids even though her mother (Anna Geislerova) is worried that she won’t be able to keep up with other athletes and might not qualify for the Olympics, which she sees as the only chance for her daughter to escape from behind the Iron Curtain (her parents having been dissidents and her father living in exile in Vienna). After Anna finishes last in the indoor race, her mother informs the coach (Roman Luknar) that Anna had stopped using steroids. They decide to apply the steroids to Anna secretly, pretending it’s nothing but doses of harmless vitamins.

The film offers what is certainly the most accurate cinematic treatment one will find of state-organized doping in communist countries: of the collaboration of doctors, oversight of the secret police and the party, and the pressure that was brought to bear on the athletes to comply—e.g. access to higher education and other resources, post-sporting career employment—and particularly if the athlete’s family was already politically suspect, as was Anna’s in the film. In short, it lays bare the overall insidiousness of the really existing socialism of the Soviet bloc countries. The pic did well at the box office in the Czech Republic (it has yet to open in the US or UK). The reviews in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter are good. Trailer is here.

Not all was dodgy or somber in the Soviet bloc sports scene, it should be said. Last year I saw the terrific documentary, Red Army, by American filmmaker Gabe Polsky, about the saga of the HC CSKA Moscow ice hockey team, nicknamed “Red Army”—that formed the core of the national team the Soviet Union fielded in international competition—mainly from the 1970s to the early ’90s. The Red Army/USSR ice hockey team may well have been the best ever in any sport—and, under the yoke of the legendary slave-driver coach, Viktor Tikhonov, no doubt the most militarily regimented. The national team regularly blew away the competition in international sporting events (though was shocked by Team USA—then comprised of college-level amateurs—at the 1980 winter Olympics in Lake Placid, in what was one of the biggest upsets in the history of sports). They were amazing. One does not need to know a thing about ice hockey or have the slightest interest in it to find the documentary riveting and all-around excellent—critics in France and the US/UK alike gave it the thumbs way up—as it’s about politics, the Cold War, and the Soviet Union in its waning years as much as it is about sports (see the trailer here). Among those interviewed throughout the documentary are two of the USSR national team’s great players, Vladislav Tretiak and Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov—the latter, along with others on the team, going to the US and Canada in 1989 and after to play in the NHL—and the journalist Vladimir Posner, who was a fixture on American television in the 1980s, as a slick, English-speaking spokesman for the Soviet Union.

Did the Soviet hockey players take anabolic steroids and other performance enhancing drugs? Probably, though in that they would not have differed from their counterparts in North America.

redarmy-poster-de-fr-it-640

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Vladimir-Putin-Islamic-State-troops-609757

This piece by George Soros in Project Syndicate (February 10th) merits a blog post, not a mere tweet. It begins

The leaders of the United States and the European Union are making a grievous error in thinking that President Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a potential ally in the fight against the Islamic State. The evidence contradicts them. Putin’s current aim is to foster the EU’s disintegration, and the best way to do so is to flood the EU with Syrian refugees.

Soros gets it right, IMHO. Putin, via Russia’s action in Syria, is out to destroy the European Union as a supranational political entity and assert Russian primacy in Europe. Europeans need to understand this and, if they have the interest and will, to resist it.

On Syria and US policy, Aaron David Miller has a spot on tribune in The Wall Street Journal (February 12th), “The flawed logic in blaming the U.S. for Syria’s humanitarian crisis.” ADM concludes

As horrible as the destruction in Syria has become, the U.S. doesn’t bear primary responsibility. A more accurate assessment starts with Bashar Assad, ISIS, Iran (and Hezbollah), and Russia.

In case one missed it, Vox’s Max Fisher has a must-read post dated February 10th on the “14 hard truths on Syria no one wants to admit.”

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idi_i_smotri-1985

Continuing from my last post, on WWII films, this one merits special mention. It’s a Soviet film from 1985 (titre en France: Requiem pour un massacre) and that won the top prize at the Moscow film festival that year, but that I knew nothing about—nor of the director, Elem Klimov—until last fall, when I received an email about it from my friend Adam Shatz, who wrote that “[i]t’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen about the horror of war.” The film was released in 1987 in France and the US, but if it came to Chicago, which is where I was that year, I completely, totally missed it. But as it’s available via Netflix, I managed to see it on my last US trip.

Adam was right. I won’t summarize the story; for that, one may read the 2010 review by Roger Ebert, who, putting ‘Come and See’ in his “Great Movies” category, called it “one of the most devastating films ever about anything.” In short, the film is set in Byelorussia in 1943 or ’44, when the Germans were retreating under the Red Army onslaught but fighting furiously. In something I read recently—or maybe it was a documentary—a historian said that the June 10th 1944 massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane, which was the worst German atrocity of the war in France—committed by the Waffen-SS Das Reich Panzer Division—happened every two days in the villages of Byelorussia and the Ukraine in 1943 and ’44. And in ‘Come and See’, such a massacre is reenacted precisely as it must have occurred and down to the last detail: in short, of all the men rounded up and shot, with the women and children herded into the village church, which, the doors sealed shut, was then set on fire. And with the German soldiers laughing and cheering as the crying and screaming hundreds inside burned to death. This is what happened at Oradour and was the almost daily reality of the German occupation of the Soviet Union, which was, as Timothy Snyder put it, “the bloodiest occupation in the history of the world.” To repeat what Adam and Roger Ebert said, if you want to see a movie about the horrors of war—and, in particular, of the eastern front in World War II and the evil of the Nazi Germans—this is it. Trailer is here.

come and see

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Putin’s Way

vladimir putin

[update below]

The PBS public affairs program Frontline aired a 52-minute report on January 13th by this title and that I just watched (thankfully US networks don’t remove reportages and documentaries from their websites after one week, as do their French counterparts). It’s a must. I jotted down one passage in particular, by Karen Dawisha—author of Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?—that is worth quoting

The bottom line, just to put it with two numbers. Two numbers is all we need [to grasp the essence of Russia under Putin]. The median, or the mid-point wealth for the average Russian is $871, according to Crédit Suisse. Very neutral report. $871 means that half the population has more than that in wealth and half the population has less. Median wealth in India is over $1000. So the average Russian is poorer than the average Indian. So that’s one number: 871. The other number is 110. 110 individuals own 35% of the wealth of Russia. [Russia is] the most unequal country by far in the world.

The Frontline report may be seen here.

If one has time for more watching, the webzine Mediapart has a most interesting 55-minute interview/debate (dated February 8th), “Vladimir Poutine, «âme slave et idée russe»,” with Michel Eltchaninoff—an editor at Philosophie Magazine and author of Dans la tête de Vladimir Poutine—and Juliette Cadiot, historian at the EHESS and author of Laboratoire impérial, Russie-URSS 1860-1940. The question framing the discussion: What is Vladimir Putin’s long-term political project?

UPDATE: If one wishes to watch yet another lengthy reportage, ARTE aired an 82-minute one on Chechnya three days ago (on March 3rd), “Tchétchénie, une guerre sans trace,” which may be seen on its website, for the time being at least. The description

Vingt ans après la première guerre de Tchétchénie, Manon Loizeau explore un pays terrorisé, dont le président Kadyrov et ses milices veulent éradiquer jusqu’à la mémoire. Un témoignage exceptionnel, porté par de fragiles voix dissidentes.

The ubuesque dictatorship of Ramzan Kadyrov, installed in power eight years ago by Vladimir Putin. Chechnya: talk about a martyred nation…

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Photo credit: Sergei Ilnitsky/EPA

Photo credit: Sergei Ilnitsky/EPA

[update below] [2nd update below]

Geopolitics analyst Bernard Guetta had a most interesting commentary this morning on the meaning of the Boris Nemtsov assassination, which may be read or listened to here. In short, he argues that Nemtsov did, in fact, pose a real threat to Vladimir Putin and that this no doubt explains why he was killed.

Guetta does not come out and say that Putin ordered the assassination. No serious analyst can do that in the absence of any proof. On the question of who was possibly responsible for the hit, NYU global affairs prof Mark Galeotti, writing on his In Moscow’s Shadows blog, examines the “known knowns and the Nemtsov murder,” in which he asserts that we simply don’t know. His conclusion

Let me re-iterate: Putin could still have ordered Nemtsov killed or hinted that he would like to see this happen and let others take the initiative. But so far we don’t know. The one particular issue that I do think stands out is quite how the killers targeted him. Once they knew he was dining at the Bosco on Red Square, given that he is known to live over the river, then waiting to catch him on the bridge, a natural choke point, makes sense. But how did they know where he was? Had they been following him beforehand (in which case there may be traces on other cameras, and perhaps cellphone traffic mirroring his, which could be a useful clue)? Or was his location monitored through his phone, which again could mean direct government responsibility, or the involvement of some security officer acting on his own authority, or just criminal/informal connections. Either way, answering that question might get us a little closer to knowing for sure what happened.

Amy Knight, the NYRB’s main Russian politics analyst, has a post on the NYR Blog, “Russia: Another dead democrat.”

Journalist Ola Cichowlas, who writes on Russia and Eastern Europe, has a piece in Politico Magazine on “The fascist in the Kremlin.” The lede: How Putin is eliminating enemies at home while creating new allies abroad.

On the Foreign Policy website, Elias Groll and Reid Standish—both of FP—have a doozy of a piece entitled “Laser bears and occupants: These are the masterpieces of delusional Russian propaganda.” The Russian propaganda videos they link to have to be seen to be believed. Russia today is a wild and crazy place. Also worrisome. And dangerous.

UPDATE: Bill Browder—whom I linked to in my previous Nemtsov post—has a piece in Politico Magazine saying that “It’s up to the United States to solve Boris Nemtsov’s murder.” The lede: I’ve dealt with the Russian justice system. Putin’s “investigation” will go nowhere.

2nd UPDATE: Amy Knight has another post on the NYR Blog (March 15th) on the Nemtsov murder, “A Kremlin conspiracy gone wrong?,” in which she follows the Chechen trail.

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Moscow, March 1 2015 (Photo: Alexander Utkin/AFP/Getty Images)

Moscow, March 1 2015 (Photo: Alexander Utkin/AFP/Getty Images)

[update below]

That was a nice march in Moscow yesterday expressing outrage over his murder. As Julia Ioffe points out, though, only 50,000 out of 12 million Muscovites participated, compared to 1.6 million in Paris—same metro area population—on January 11th. For Russia today that’s probably not too bad. After learning of Nemtsov’s murder I remembered a report of his, co-authored with Leonid Martynyuk, that I posted on this blog a year ago, on the scandal of the Sochi games.

So who ordered Nemtsov’s assassination? As Masha Gessen says in an NYT op-ed

In all likelihood no one in the Kremlin…and this is part of the reason Mr. Nemtsov’s murder marks the beginning of yet another new and frightening period in Russian history. The Kremlin has recently created a loose army of avengers who believe they are acting in the country’s best interests, without receiving any explicit instructions. Despite his lack of political clout, Mr. Nemtsov was a logical first target for this menacing force.

And why would any number of persons in the Russian Federation and its near abroad want to kill Nemtsov? For a possible response, watch the must-watch seven-minute video, “5 facts that prove Putin’s behind the conflict in Ukraine,” produced last year by Nemtsov and Martynyuk. The video’s title in Russian: The Warmonger.

A few commentaries I’ve come across on Nemtsov’s murder:

Julia Ioffe, writing in the NYT Magazine—where she’s now a staff writer—”After Boris Nemtsov’s Assassination, ‘There Are No Longer Any Limits’.”

For perspective, Ioffe recommends reading this piece on “Hearing Out Russia’s Patriotic Bloggers on Nemtsov’s Murder.”

Journalist Leonid Bershidsky—who threw in the towel last year and quit Russia—writes in Bloomberg View on “The Russia That Died With Boris Nemtsov.”

BuzzFeed News Foreign Editor Miriam Elder, who reported from Moscow for a decade, says that “Murder, even in Russia, is always a shock.”

And here is Bill Browder’s “Statement on the Murder of Boris Nemtsov.” For those who don’t recall Bill Browder, he is, as Anne Applebaum describes in her recent must-read NYRB essay

[The] grandson of Earl Browder, leader of the American Communist Party[,] who set up a Russian investment fund that invested heavily in Gazprom. After he turned out to be an annoyingly activist shareholder—he kept asking why the company’s accounts were so untransparent—Browder was barred from the country in 2005. His companies in Russia were subsequently destroyed by a particularly Putinist form of corporate raiding: tax officials and police attacked their offices, reregistered them, declared them bankrupt, stole their money, and arrested and harassed their employees. Browder’s lawyer, Sergey Magnitsky, was eventually beaten to death by guards in a Russian prison.

À suivre.

UPDATE: Karen Dawisha, author of Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?—reviewed by Anne Applebaum in the NYRB essay linked to above—offered her instant reaction, on the CNN website, to the Nemtsov killing. And The Economist magazine’s Edward Lucas, author of The New Cold War: Putin’s Russia and the Threat to the West, writes in The Daily Mail of “My friend’s murder and chilling echoes of Stalin: How Boris Nemtsov’s assassination may herald a return to the terrifying past or a descent into a still more alarming future.”

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leviathan_poster

As I’m reading and thinking about Russia at the moment—the contemporary politics and international conduct of which is the current subject in one of my graduate level classes—, I want to mention two films from or about that country that I’ve seen this fall. The objectively superior one is Andrey Zvyagintsev’s ‘Leviathan’, which premiered at Cannes in May. As the French reviews were dithyrambic and Zvyagintsev’s last film, Elena, first rate, I had high expectations for this one. And I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a powerful film, one of the best of the year. It is, moreover, the most devastating portrait of the political order in contemporary Russia—of the us et coutumes of those who run the Russian state—that one will see on the big screen (though, as it happens, the film was made with the support of the Russian ministry of culture). I’ll let Variety’s Peter Debruge describe it

In “Leviathan,” which director Andrey Zvyagintsev has described as a loose retelling of the Book of Job, an ordinary man must wrestle with his faith not in God but in the Russian state — an epic struggle against a monster with many faces possessed of the capacity to bend the law to suit its own appetites. Resistance is futile, as they say, and yet this stunning satire’s embattled patriarch valiantly perseveres for the sake of his family, even as it crumbles around him. Debuting in competition at Cannes, this engrossing, arthouse-bound opus spans a meaty 142 minutes and unfolds with the heft of a 1,000-page novel.

Lest you think Zvyagintsev’s latest a work of science fiction, the leviathan in question is strictly metaphorical — a concept borrowed from Thomas Hobbes’ 1651 treatise of the same name. That may come as a disappointment to those who’ve likened the 50-year-old slow-cinema auteur to a latter-day Andrei Tarkovsky, hoping this might be the abstract metaphysical feature they’d been waiting for. And yet, there’s ample cause for celebration: This is the director’s most accessible and naturalistic film, using everyday characters to test how well modern-day Russia is maintaining the social contract with its citizens.

The setting is a small town on the Kola Peninsula in northwest Russia, a has-been fishing community littered with the carcasses of ships and whales alike, far from Moscow and yet close enough to “civilization” that the locals can practically see Finland from their backyards. Come for the scenery, stay for all that’s rotten beneath the surface in what amounts to an expose touching on the many challenges that face the country today: religion, politics, guns and alcohol.

No doubt, when his ancestors settled the riverside homestead on which Kolya (Alexey Serebryakov) and his family — son Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev) and sexy second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) — still live, they never imagined a crooked mayor (Roman Madyanov) would one day seize the land to do with as he pleased. But Kolya is no pushover, enlisting his longtime lawyer friend Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovitchenkov) all the way from Moscow to contest the mayor’s claim of eminent domain. (…)

To continue reading Debruge’s review, go here. Reviews by other Anglo-American critics who saw it at Cannes are equally stellar. The pic is scheduled to open in the US before the end of the year. So if you have any interest in Russia or simply like seeing great movies, don’t miss this one. Trailer is here.

The other film—which I saw three nights ago—is Michel Hazanavicius’s ‘The Search’. Pour mémoire, Hazanavicius directed The Artist—which won five Oscars, including best film and director—plus the two OSS 117 comedies (I saw the first, which was okay; my students tell me I must absolutely see the second, so I will). This one, which is far more sober and serious than the director’s previous pics, is about the Second Chechen War (set in 1999-2000 in Chechnya and Ingushetia, shot on location in Georgia). I was looking forward to it in view of the subject matter and having seen the trailer, and with Bérénice Bejo and Annette Bening at the tête d’affiche an added draw. But then I took note of Le Monde’s thumbs down review (placing it in the “to be avoided” category) and read that the film had received a chilly reception at its screening in Cannes (though the boos mainly came from Russian journalists in the audience, so it was said). And the reviews have been mixed—or divided between the very positive and sharply negative—, both in France and by US critics who saw it at Cannes (one consequence of the negative reception at Cannes was Hazanavicius cutting some 20 minutes from the film, thus reducing its commercial running length to 2¼ hours). The film is not flawless, that’s for sure. There are problems with some of the characters—who are, as Variety’s Justin Chang put it, “reduc[ed]…to either tragic victims or moral mouthpieces”—and with the Russian soldier protag lifted straight out of ‘Full Metal Jacket’ (which was kind of flagrant and that just about every critic mentioned). And the depiction of the Chechen war is manichean. Hazanavicius has it out for the Russians, to put it mildly. They’re the bad guys, period.

This all being said, though, I was thoroughly absorbed in the film and, when it was over, pronounced it to be not bad (and, as it happens, the audience reaction—in later screenings at Cannes and on Allociné—has been more positive than that of the critics). One may acknowledge the film’s shortcomings and heavy-handed didacticism but still find it worthy. Now if I were Russian I would possibly wince at the way the Russian Ground Forces—soldiers being about the only Russians one sees in the film—are depicted, an army commanded by sadistic psychopaths with not an ounce of humanity and whose foot soldiers are hazed into becoming such. As Hazanavicius is French—and may or may not know the Russian language—, one may want to express skepticism at his portrayal. On this, I look forward to the verdict of those who know the Russian army from the inside or can speak about it authoritatively. But until then, I will go with Hazanavicius’s portrait, which conforms to everything I’ve read, understood, and simply know about the Russian army and its Red Army predecessor: about the violence involved in the hazing of soldiers and their behavior toward civilians identified with the enemy side. The fact of the matter is, the Russian army did commit massacres and wantonly bomb and kill civilians in Chechnya—as it did in Afghanistan and every previous war it waged. The opening scene in ‘The Search’ did happen during the Chechen wars and its occurrence was not exceptional. Such has been thoroughly documented and there is no disputing it. Now the Chechen fighters were not exactly enfants de chœur themselves—they committed their share of exactions and war crimes, as insurgents invariably do in such conflicts—but this must not detract from the principal culprit, which was the army prosecuting the counterinsurgency.

Hazanavicius said in an interview that, in his mind, ‘The Search’ is his best film to date. He has clearly been indignant about the Russian campaign in the Chechen wars and used his post-Oscar notoriety to make a film about it, which cost some €22 million. Technically the pic is excellent and with the Georgia locales where it was shot looking authentically Chechen. The film is mainly in Russian and Chechen—with actors and extras recruited among Chechen refugees in Georgia—, with some English and French (by Bejo and Bening, who respectively play the Ingushetia-based EU human rights commission official and war-weary ICRC rep). Hazanavicius’s enterprise here is similar to that of Angelina Jolie’s 2011 ‘In the Land of Blood and Honey’—which I posted on last year—, a manichean indictment of the Serbs in the Bosnian war, shot on location in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and in Serbo-Croatian. I entirely shared Mme Jolie’s views of that conflict and entirely agree with Hazanavicius’s perspective of the one he treats. Others may view it differently. See the film and decide for yourself.

UPDATE: Historian Michael Wood, who writes on film for the London Review of Books, has an essay on ‘Leviathan’ in the LRB’s January 8th 2015 issue.

The Search poster

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putin

Back in March ’12 I had a post on a terrific review essay by Stephen Holmes in the LRB, on Luke Harding’s book Mafia State: How One Reporter Became an Enemy of the Brutal New Russia. In the latest issue of the NYRB, Anne Applebaum has an equally terrific, must-read review essay, “How he and his cronies stole Russia,” on a new book on much the same subject as Harding’s, this Karen Dawisha’s Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? Dawisha, a well-known political scientist and Russia/ex-USSR specialist at Miami University in Ohio, looks to have researched her subject more extensively than anyone else so far—and so much so that Cambridge University Press, with whom Dawisha initially had a contract, backed out of publishing it due to fear of libel lawsuits from Russians named in the book. Money quote

Whatever their conclusion, almost all of these analysts [of the failure of the 1990s reforms] seek an explanation in the reform process itself, asking whether it was effective, or whether it was flawed, or whether it could have been designed differently. But what if it never mattered at all? What if it made no difference which mistakes were made, which privatization plans were sidetracked, which piece of advice was not followed? What if “reform” was never the most important story of the past twenty years in Russia at all? (…)

… the most important story of the past twenty years might not, in fact, have been the failure of democracy, but the rise of a new form of Russian authoritarianism. Instead of attempting to explain the failures of the reformers and intellectuals who tried to carry out radical change, we ought instead to focus on the remarkable story of one group of unrepentant, single-minded, revanchist KGB officers who were horrified by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the prospect of their own loss of influence. In league with Russian organized crime, starting at the end of the 1980s, they successfully plotted a return to power. Assisted by the unscrupulous international offshore banking industry, they stole money that belonged to the Russian state, took it abroad for safety, reinvested it in Russia, and then, piece by piece, took over the state themselves. Once in charge, they brought back Soviet methods of political control—the only ones they knew—updated for the modern era.

Again, this is a must-read essay. So read it. Now. The whole thing.

While I’m at it, I just read, on The American Interest website, an interesting, if debatable, analysis of Putin’s geostrategic vision, “The Geopolitical Nihilist,” by Jakub Grygiel, who teaches IR at Johns Hopkins-SAIS. Grygiel begins

Russia’s bold moves into Crimea and Eastern Ukraine give one the impression that a calculating strategist sits in the Kremlin. Putin’s own public pronouncements tell us that his apparent aim is to restore Muscovite power and influence over territories deemed by him to be historically Russian. Putin is thus feared to be a shrewd competitor willing to use all forms of Russian power—from nuclear innuendo to a superiority in conventional forces to relentless information warfare—in order to build methodically a new regional order. In other words, he may be a geopolitical master.

But there is another possibility. It’s plausible that he has no such well thought out vision of geopolitical reconstruction, and little or no planning for how to establish and maintain whatever new rules Moscow might impose. Even if Putin did have a new regional order in mind, he may be incapable of translating it into reality. By choice and by necessity, Putin may simply be eager to wreck the status quo with nary a thought given to what comes after. In other words, he may be a geopolitical nihilist.

Also while I’m at it, Bruno Tertrais, the excellent French analyst of geopolitics, published an op-ed in the November 22nd Le Monde, rhetorically asking “Did the West really ‘humiliate’ Russia?” The lede (my translation): “Vladimir Putin’s bellicosity is often interpreted as the consequence of the supposedly hostile policy of the West toward Russia since the fall of the USSR. Nothing could be less true.” Tertrais’s op-ed looks to have vanished from Le Monde’s website but fortunately a blog—previously unknown to me—saw fit to cut-and-paste it, so here it is.

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Wałęsa_Człowiek z nadziei

This film, which premiered at the 2013 Venice Biennale and opened in France the week before last (under the title L’Homme du peuple), was not one I was going to miss, in view of its subject matter and the director—Poland’s great Andrzej Wajda—even though it’s a biopic, which are normally merely good at best and rarely chefs-d’œuvre. But having seen it two evenings ago, I can report that it’s a solid, entertaining, well-done film on one of the most important revolutionary leaders of our times, Lech Wałęsa, and, more generally, on one of the most momentous revolutionary movements of the twentieth century, period: the working class uprising against the Communist dictatorship in Poland—a Soviet protectorate for 45 years following the end of WWII—and that set in motion the chain of events that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of Soviet rule in eastern Europe, and the end of the Cold War. As Variety’s fine critic Jay Weissberg puts it in the introduction of his thumbs up review

There’s something fitting about Andrzej Wajda bringing Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa to life, just as it’s proper that he subtitles the film “Man of Hope.” For “Walesa. Man of Hope” is a natural companion piece to the great director’s landmark “Man of Marble” and “Man of Iron,” his influential duo on resistance to communist oppression. With a bit of understandable triumphalism devoid of hagiography, Wajda tracks Walesa’s career from shipyard worker to Nobel Prize winner, crafting an old-fashioned (in the best sense), at times stirring biopic that masterfully integrates an exceptional range of contempo footage…

To continue reading Weissberg’s review, go here. As for ‘Man of Marble’ and ‘Man of Iron’, which I saw in 1978 and 1981 respectively, these were remarkable films for their time but, technically and otherwise, ‘Man of Hope’ is superior (at least insofar as I remember the two early films, as I only saw them once). Wajda does a good job in depicting the wretchedness of Communist rule—particularly in the early scenes of the 1970 protests in Gdansk and Gdynia—and the economic clochardisation it brought about, but also the doubts that apparatchiks of the system had by the 1980s of their own legitimacy. And while Wałęsa is portrayed as a charismatic leader and a hero—which he was—Wajda does not, as Weissberg accurately asserts, portray him as a saint. He is a leader with undeniable qualities but is also cocky and full of himself—are there any charismatic leaders who are not?—and who could have descended into megalomania were it not for the stabilizing presence of his loving but strong-willed wife, Danuta (that’s how Wajda depicts it at least).

À propos, I was discussing the film earlier today with a colleague, who said that he was hesitant to see it after having read a mixed review in Libération, whose critic, according to my colleague, criticized the film for being a hagiography (I have not yet bothered to look for Libé’s review). My response to this was that many on the Western European and North American left—including those who were not at all “Stalinists” or enamored of the Soviet model—were—and remain—uncomfortable with Wałęsa (and even with Solidarność itself). They intellectually understood the situation and sympathized with the workers in Gdansk but had a hard time wrapping their heads around the spectacle of a genuinely working class movement and independent trade union contesting a self-proclaimed socialist order, and with the movement’s leaders and members being, to a man and woman, devout Catholics and who worshiped the Pope (the adulation of Wałęsa and all those around him—and including lower-level regime agents themselves—for Jean Paul II is well depicted in the film). This was tough for many Western gauchistes to swallow—as was Wałęsa et al’s embrace of American support (e.g. one sees at the end of the film the hero’s welcome Wałęsa received in the US Congress in 1989, and with Dan Quayle seated in back of him while he gave his speech). Having frequented a gauchiste milieu in those years and knowing its discourse and world-view comme ma poche, I know of what I speak.

So if one has the chance to see the pic (which has yet to open in the US), do so, as I give it the green light. The review in The Guardian is here and article in the NYT is here (the film was a big hit in Poland). My anecdote of shaking hands with Wałęsa and hearing him speak is here. Trailer is here.

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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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