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Archive for the ‘Russia / ex-USSR’ Category

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 his 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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