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.

Greece and austerity

Continuing from my Greece post of last Friday, Stathis Kalyvas, my main man in Athens—well, New Haven CT, actually—has a short commentary on the Foreign Affairs website (registration required) entitled, “Syriza’s about-face: Is austerity here to stay?

And the Project Syndicate website has a piece, equally short, by Harvard University economics prof—and former Venezuelan minister of planning (1992-93)—Ricardo Hausmann, “Austerity is not Greece’s problem,” in which he makes observations on the Greek economy that I’ve been making since the crisis began six years ago.


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.”

Stuart Carlson United Press Syndicate

So says James C. Roumell—founder and president of Roumell Asset Management LLC—in a post on the Huff Post politics blog. Best thing I’ve read today. Roumell, a self-described “committed private-sector loving guy who invests capital for a living,” likes the public sector and has no patience with the GOP’s nonsense about “small government.” Money quote

Government haters remind me of adolescents pumping their chests to proclaim that they don’t need mom and dad. And then Katrina, Sandy or Ebola hit and the most ardent detractors, and often their Republican Governors, come crawling to Uncle Sam asking for help. Or a malady strikes a family member and the erstwhile detractor supports a big government-funded research effort in that disease. Representative [Paul] Ryan wants to reduce government social spending but when his father unexpectedly died when he was 16, it was Uncle Sam showing up in the form of a social security survivor’s check that helped him pay for college. Was he one of Romney’s “takers” during this period?

And his conclusion

[T]he current Republican Party, hijacked by government haters, has boxed itself off from its more balanced history. Imagine a Republican Party animated by its 1958 Platform which said, “We are proud of and shall continue our far-reaching and sound advances in matters of basic human needs–expansion of social security, broadened coverage in unemployment insurance, improved housing and better health protection for all our people.” Socialism? Government is a collective insurance policy from which we all draw wherein taxes are the annual premium. Yesterday’s Republicans didn’t argue that very simple point and yesterday’s Democrats didn’t shy away from defending that truth.

Great piece. Read the whole thing here.

ADDENDUM: Robert Kuttner has a fine essay in The American Prospect on “The libertarian delusion.” The lede: “The free-market fantasy stands discredited by events. The challenge now: redeeming effective and democratic government.” Kuttner’s article is part of a special report, “What the free market can’t do,” in TAP’s Winter 2015 issue.

What Greece needs


[update below]

My last post on Greece was a month ago, the day after the Syriza victory. This in no way means that I have not been following that country since. In fact, I read about Greece every day—newspaper articles, op-eds, sundry commentaries—and tweet stuff I find interesting (see Twitter feeds on the right). I have said more than once that my main clearinghouse specialist on all matters Greek is Yale prof Stathis Kalyvas. If Stathis recommends something to read on Greece—as on other subjects, d’ailleurs—I will read it. And, as it happens, Stathis has posted on social media this NYT op-ed by Aristos Doxiadis—identified as an economist and venture capitalist—saying that “if you must read one piece about Greece this is it.” So voilà. Doxiadis’s op-ed explains why Greece has done worse than everyone else in the Eurozone. The lede: “Bigger businesses, more innovation and foreign investment are the key. But Syriza seems to be against all that.”

FWIW, here’s a piece from four days ago by the libertarian jurist and scholar, Richard A. Epstein, “Greece on the brink,” published on the Hoover Institution website.

And as long as I have it in mind, here is Paul Krugman’s column today, “What Greece won.” The lede: “Why all the negative analysis about the debt deal that has actually done the rest of Europe a favor?”

UPDATE: In the comments thread below see the text of a commentary published in an Athens daily by Konstantinos Meghir, the Douglas A. Warner III Professor of Economics at Yale University, entitled “Supporting Growth and Surviving in the Eurozone.”

Bernie & Joe


Too bad Richard Linklater’s ‘Boyhood’ didn’t win the Best Picture Oscar. It was the best American film of 2014 hands down and definitely more meritorious than ‘Birdman’. As for Alejandro G. Iñárritu winning Best Director over Linklater, this was a closer call, though Linklater still should have gotten it. As I wrote last summer, ‘Boyhood’ was the first Linklater film I had ever seen, so I spent a few evenings of my US vacation catching up on some of his œuvre. One that I saw (via Netflix) was his 2012 black comedy ‘Bernie’. I loved this movie. If one doesn’t know it, it’s based an actual fait divers in the mid 1990s, in the east Texas town of Carthage (pop. 6,700)—Linklater learning about it from this Texas Monthly article—of funeral home director and well-liked newcomer in the community, Bernhardt “Bernie” Tiede II (actor Jack Black), who befriends rich 80-year-old widow Marjorie “Marge” Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), whom everyone in the town hates, as she’s a mean, nasty old woman. Bernie, in his late 30s, and Marge are inseparable until, one day, he kills her. Comme ça. With a shotgun. He readily confesses and is indicted for murder by local DA Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey), but with the latter finding it impossible to constitute an impartial jury in Carthage, as so many of the locals think Bernie was right to have killed Marge (the trial was moved to another town and Bernie was convicted). The story really happened. The film is a riot. It was shot in Carthage and with all the extras local citizens who knew Bernie and Marge, and speak about what happened. E.g. as one put it: “They don’t care that he did it, they think he should have done it.” And another, describing the general situation: “I’m walking into a story that’s part slapstick comedy, part small town gossip, part Shakespeare tragedy.” I am no fan of Texas—politics, culture, mentality, you name it—but these Texas folks are hilarious! Watch the trailer here and see for yourself. Reviews were good on the whole. The film has yet to open in France.

Pour l’info, Carthage is in Texas’s 1st Congressional District, which is represented by Louie Gohmert, a Republican bien évidemment, who is wacky and extreme even by Tea Party standards. Voilà some of his more notable public pronouncements (paraphrased by this website): “Jesus hates taxes! Gun control will lead to bestiality! The American Jobs Act is an attack on marriage! Obama talking to BP about the 2010 oil spill is just like Hitler! Foreign aid to China will lead them to sell us food with cats and dogs in it! Oil pipelines are good for wildlife! Hate crimes legislation leads to necrophilia!…” He’s also one of those who thinks Obama may be a “secret Muslim” trying to Islamize America. Liberal/progressive websites and commentators like to call Gohmert an “idiot” and “moron”—which he may well be—but I think he’s a cut-up, along with the residents of Carthage TX he represents. Texas folklore.

As it happens, I saw a film last spring (this one at the cinoche), ‘Joe’, directed by David Gordon Green—previously unknown to me—that was also set in the Texas 1st CD or not far from it. The people in this one are not cut-ups. At all. In short: Joe Ransom (Nicolas Cage)—an ex-con with a lot of problems but not a fundamentally bad person—is the foreman of a tree-clearing crew out in the woods and hires a self-reliant 15-year-old boy, Gary (Tye Sheridan), who wants to make money out of sight of his abusive, alcoholic white trash father, Wade (Gary Poulter). Joe takes Gary under his wing and gets caught up in the latter’s family shit, and with all sorts of shit happening. It’s a well-done, well-acted film whose subject is poor people in one of the most backward corners of America (the pic reminds one of Jeff Nichols’s Mud, which also starred Tye Sheridan). If one doesn’t mind a certain level of violence, it may definitely be seen. Reviews were good in both the US and France. Trailer is here.


Back to Richard Linklater, last summer I also saw, on DVD, his 1993 ‘Dazed and Confused’, a coming-of-age film about teenagers on the last day of high school in Austin—it could be nowhere else in Texas—in precisely 1976. It’s pretty clearly autobiographical on Linklater’s part. I watched it with several people—middle-aged and older—and we all enjoyed it, though my mother (age 83) was disturbed by the hazing scenes, which I opined had to be a local Texas tradition (and that has no doubt died out since the era in which the movie was set). The ensemble cast (including Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, and Milla Jovovich) is great. I was thinking of ‘American Graffiti’ throughout, which, not to detract from this one, is a superior film. Roger Ebert’s review is here, trailer is here.


2015 Oscars


I’ve seen all but three of the films in the top categories (unlike last year, when I managed to see all). The list of nominees is here. Some of them I have blog posts on (or will imminently): American Sniper (reprehensible film), Boyhood (excellent), Gone Girl (way overrated), Selma (meritorious but not a masterpiece), The Grand Budapest Hotel (good), Two Days, One Night (excellent). As for those I haven’t posted on, here’s my brief take on each, starting with the Best Picture nominees:

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance): I’ll see anything by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, who is always interesting even if his films are not without issues (‘Amores Perros’ is his best IMO). I had high expectations for this one, in view of the top reviews and strong word-of-mouth on social media. I will readily acknowledge the film’s merits, notably Iñárritu’s direction—which is impressive—and the acting. And it certainly held my attention, which is saying something for a two-hour film that takes place almost entirely inside a theater. But while it is, in an objective sense, a good movie, I found the characters so unpleasant, indeed antipathetic, that I just couldn’t gush about it afterward. And Michael Keaton is a tête à claques (an admittedly subjective opinion). C’est tout c’que j’ai à dire.

The Imitation Game: Good quality Hollywood entertainment and a biopic that works to boot, as I knew nothing about the personality—Alan Turing—beforehand, so didn’t know what was going to happen or how the pic would end. And it’s always good to see a well-made WWII movie. The message—admittedly not original—was salutary too: of how prejudice (here, against gays) not only shatters lives but also undermines the interests of nations and states. Benedict Cumberbatch is solid in his role and Keira Knightley is too (and I am normally not a fan of hers). So thumbs up to this.

The Theory of Everything: This biopic works less well than the one above. Eddie Redmayne is exceptional as a quadriplegic Stephen Hawking but Felicity Jones, who plays Jane Hawking, hardly merits an Oscar nomination for her performance. The pic left me unsatisfied, as its main focus is the relationship between the two, with Hawking’s science getting short shrift. And one does not come away with a clear sense of how he has managed, with his debilitating handicap, to keep so productive, make new scientific breakthroughs, write books, and all. In other words, how did he do it? So my reaction to this one is neither thumbs up or down but just bof

Whiplash: I was originally not going to bother with this one, as I am not a great fan of jazz—except for jazz piano (Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, etc)—and do not understand why anyone out to learn a musical instrument would choose drums (sorry if I offended any drummers out there; I respect you all the same; and if it makes you feel better, I just came across this piece on social media informing us that “drummers are smarter than…everybody else”). But as the pic received top reviews—and particularly in France—and was playing at my neighborhood theater during Xmas week, I decided WTH. In short, I was absorbed in the story from the outset, at the midway point started think that it was a very good film indeed, and decreed toward the end that it would make my Top 10 list of the year. It’s an excellent movie. And J.K. Simmons is redoubtable as the sadistic psychopathic fascist jazz maestro. Voilà!

And then there are these:

Foxcatcher: I knew nothing about the story going in except that it was about wrestling, and have no memory of the 1996 fait divers that concludes it (which apparently didn’t receive much media attention in France). It’s an absorbing, well-paced, well-acted movie that held my attention throughout, which is saying something in view of its 2+ hour length and the fact that I don’t find wrestling particularly interesting. Steve Carell and Mark Ruffalo deserve their Oscar nominations (though I don’t know if they deserve to win). The film also has a politically progressive message—if one wants to see it that way—which is the parasitical character of the scions (a certain number of them) of wealthy families—the kind of people who were born on third base and think they hit a triple—and who are destined to occupy an increasing portion of America’s ruling class in the coming decades (for an elaboration on this theme, see the review in Le Monde, which calls the film a “chef d’œuvre” and “intellectuellement passionnant”). If one wants an ironclad argument for a steep estate tax on wealth in the eight or nine figures, this movie is it. So: recommended.

Wild: Woman in her late 20s, whose life is a mess, sets out to walk the thousand mile Pacific Crest Trail—despite having no hiking or camping experience—so she can work through her personal problems (pic is based on a true story). Why did I go see this? I was on vacation (in the US) and had seen all the other interesting-looking movies playing at the local multiplex. It’s okay, memorable mainly for the impressive nature scenes. Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern put in perfectly fine performances but do not merit their Oscar nominations. The movie may be seen, but may also not be seen.

Voilà my ballot:

A no-brainer.

DIRECTING: Richard Linklater (Boyhood).
Alejandro G. Iñárritu is a credible winner for this, as is Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel), but Linklater deserves it for his tour de force.

ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE: Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything).
This is by default, as the real winner of this should be Jake Gyllenhaal for his role in Nightcrawler, but for which he was incomprehensibly not nominated. Michael Keaton, who is likely to win it, is worthy, I suppose (even though he’s a tête à claques).

ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE: Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night).
This one is also by default, as it is an almost forgone conclusion that Julianne Moore will win for her role in ‘Still Alice’, but which I have not seen, as the film hasn’t opened in France yet (and hadn’t nationally when I was in the US last month). Now I love Marion Cotillard and who was excellent in her film, but as it’s not American I don’t know what she’s doing in this category. But as the remaining nominees absolutely do not deserve it, I have to go with her. [UPDATE: Having now seen ‘Still Alice’ (March 19th), I will confirm that Julianne Moore absolutely deserved to win the best actress award; her performance in the film is exceptional.]

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE: J.K. Simmons (Whiplash).
Obviously. I’m sure Robert Duvall is great in ‘The Judge’ but I missed it.

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE: Patricia Arquette (Boyhood).
A natural choice. I didn’t see ‘In the Woods’ (and have no intention of), so can’t speak to Meryl Streep’s performance, but hasn’t she won enough already?

This is the nº1 of the five available options, with Timbuktu a close second. Ida is a haunting, impressively shot film but it didn’t blow me away the way it did to everyone else. ‘Wild Tales’ is fun but doesn’t merit the top prize in any awards ceremony outside Argentina. I haven’t seen ‘Tangerines’.


2015 academy awards nominations


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