Monthly Archives: December 2008

From Russia, with nuttiness

Anti-American nuttiness in Russia, a subject I have previously plumbed, is the gift that keeps on giving.

Now there’s this:

For a decade, Russian academic Igor Panarin has been predicting the U.S. will fall apart in 2010. For most of that time, he admits, few took his argument — that an economic and moral collapse will trigger a civil war and the eventual breakup of the U.S. — very seriously. Now he’s found an eager audience: Russian state media.

….

Prof. Panarin, 50 years old, is not a fringe figure. A former KGB analyst, he is dean of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s academy for future diplomats. He is invited to Kremlin receptions, lectures students, publishes books, and appears in the media as an expert on U.S.-Russia relations.
Mr. Panarin posits, in brief, that mass immigration, economic decline, and moral degradation will trigger a civil war next fall and the collapse of the dollar. Around the end of June 2010, or early July, he says, the U.S. will break into six pieces — with Alaska reverting to Russian control.
In addition to increasing coverage in state media, which are tightly controlled by the Kremlin, Mr. Panarin’s ideas are now being widely discussed among local experts. He presented his theory at a recent roundtable discussion at the Foreign Ministry. The country’s top international relations school has hosted him as a keynote speaker. During an appearance on the state TV channel Rossiya, the station cut between his comments and TV footage of lines at soup kitchens and crowds of homeless people in the U.S. The professor has also been featured on the Kremlin’s English-language propaganda channel, Russia Today.

That’s from the December 29 Wall Street Journal. Meanwhile, on the same day, the website of the pro-government Izvestia, which originally publicized Panarin’s … shall we say, fanciful claims on November 24, ran a short piece titled “Now, America also knows it’s due for a collapse.” While the title is somewhat sarcastic, the piece, apparently, is not. It claims that Panarin’s interview sparked “a stormy discussion and many articles both in Russia and around the world,” and notes that “even White House spokeswoman Dana Perino had to fend off questions about the disintegration of the USA.” (According to the WSJ: “The article prompted a question about the White House’s reaction to Prof. Panarin’s forecast at a December news conference. ‘I’ll have to decline to comment,’ spokeswoman Dana Perino said amid much laughter.”)

Izvestia goes on to say:

A heated discussion also raged on the WSJ website, in which, however, the most common arguments were along the lines of, “Those stupid Russians!” Incidentally, a similar “convenient” stance was adopted by our own “pro-Western” electronic media, which hastened to declare that “not one serious publication has given the professor’s amazing forecast any attention.” The WSJ, too, prefers to view everything through the lens of Russia. And doesn’t bother to explain why this interview elicited a huge response in the USA, rather than here.
Panarin’s view “reflects a very pronounced degree of anti-Americanism in Russia today,” the WSJ quotes TV host Vladimir Pozner as saying. “It’s much stronger than it was in the Soviet Union.” It would also be really good to understand where this anti-Americanism came from. Could it be due to the American position on missile defense or South Ossetia? But alas, the WSJ is not interested in digging that deep.

I’m sure it would be news to most Americans, even those who keep up with the Zeitgeist, that Panarin’s ravings “elicited a huge response” in the US. (The “response” consisted of a Drudge Report headline and a flurry of blogposts, mostly in the “news of the weird” department.) And is it just me, or is Izvestia admitting, in a roundabout way, that the Russian media are trumpeting this apocalyptic nonsense as “payback” for disagreements over Georgia and missile defense systems in Eastern Europe?

In reality, the promotion of Panarin may be a kind of Freudian projection of much more plausible concerns about the disintegration of Russia (which, unlike the US, does have problems with separatism, including an ever-growing body count in the regions of the Caucasus — Ingushetia, Dagestan, Northern Ossetia). In a recent survey by the Ekho Moskvy radio station, nearly 70% of those voting online and nearly 80% of call-in voters agreed that “Russia could suffer the same fate as the USSR.” While this was not a scientific poll, it does suggest that a significant portion of the Russian public thinks the disintegration of Russia is possible.

And more from the annals of nutty Russian anti-Americanism, circa 2007: a persistent claim that former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has expressed the opinion that it’s unfair that Russia should have exclusive ownership of a region as rich with natural resources as Siberia. Based on a fake quote, and a 2006 interview with a retired major general of the FSB (former KGB) who claims that Russian intelligence was able to do a psychic reading of Albright’s mind in 1999 (seriously) and detected a “pathological hatred of Slavs” as well as intense resentment at the fact that “Russia held the world’s largest reserves of natural resources.” This interview was not published in the Russian equivalent of Weekly World News but in Rossiskaya Gazeta, the official publication of the Russian government.

(To quote the Russian comedian Mikhail Zhvanetsky: Слов нет — одни выражения. Which translates loosely into English as: “Words fail. Printable ones, at least.”)

The “Albright” line about the injustice of Russia’s sole ownership of Siberia has also been attributed to Condoleezza Rice. Take this December 14, 2005 report on the political analysis website Kremlin.org, about public hearings on “New federal initiatives for the modernization of Siberia”:

The absence of such a [modernization] strategy at present does not allow Siberian regions to develop in a stable way and leads to stagnation, and in the long term, to the possible loss of Siberia.

This was discussed by the vice president of the Novosibirsk Chamber of Commerce, Yuri Voronov. In his words, “there is powerful pressure to take Siberia away from Russia. Even Condoleezza Rice has declared that Siberia is too big to belong to a single state.”

Pretty soon, Hillary Clinton will have said it, too.

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Justice, mercy, and goodwill to all men in Putinland

Svetlana Bakhmina, the jailed former Yukos lawyer who has been denied early release for which she was legally eligible, and who recently gave birth to her third child (conceived during a conjugal visit), did not get the Christmas present her supporters were hoping for. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ignored pleas for a presidential pardon for Bakhmina (from dozens of prominent public figures including actors, writers, artists, TV personalities, and even ex-Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev — as well as, by now, over 91,000 ordinary men and women who have signed an online petition). The case was referred back to the Supreme Court of Mordovia, the region where Bakhmina is serving her sentence. On December 24, the court postponed its decision until January 21 because it has not had enough time to familiarize itself with her her case. (Seriously.) Fortunately, Bakhmina is at least awaiting the resolution of her case in a clinic in a Moscow suburb, rather than in the penal colony. The Yukos oil company is, of course, a longtime target of a political vendetta by the Kremlin.

Meanwhile, Yuri Budanov, the Russian officer who strangled a teenage Chechen girl to death, will be getting out on parole after about 8 years in prison. The victim’s family plans to appeal this decision to the Strasbourg-based European Court on Human Rights. (Over a quarter of the court’s backlog now consists of Russian cases; of the 192 complaints heard in 2007, 140 were judged valid.)

And another interesting parallel. Another YUKOS defendant, Vasily Alexanian, has been repeatedly and illegally denied bail despite suffering from AIDS and cancer, despite objections from the European Court on Human Rights. When bail was finally set, it was at the prohibitive sum of 50 million rubles, or nearly $2 million. For now, Alexanian, who is reportedly nearly blind, remains in prison — despite the fact that, legally, the embezzlement charges against him should have been dismissed by now because the statute of limitations has expired.

Meanwhile, Eduard Ulman, a Russian officer who commanded a unit in Chechnya which opened fire on a civilian vehicle and then slaughtered all the survivors including a pregnant woman back in 2002, was released on bail along with his three codefendants. (Of course, for such cases to even come to trial in Russia is rare.) While the four men were convicted and given fairly long prison sentences in June 2007, Ulman and two others skipped bail and remain at large.

… What’s that we hear about the unfairness of demonizing Putvedev’s Russia?

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Islam, Europe, women, sex and modernity

A fascinating article in The Washington Post about a controversy in France over the annulment of a young Muslim couple’s marriage, obtained by the husband on the grounds that the wife was not a virgin. After news got out that the French courts approved the annulment, political activists and commentators were incensed.

From the left and right came a barrage of criticism, suggesting that the decision had given French legal sanction to a Muslim’s demand that his bride be a virgin. Elizabeth Badinter, a longtime women’s rights campaigner, said she felt “shame” that such a court ruling could be handed down in France.
“This ends up simply pushing many young Muslim girls into hospitals to have their hymen reconstituted,” she said.
Laurence Rossignel of the Socialist Party’s secretariat for women’s rights qualified the decision as “amazing.”
“It violates the constitutional principles of equality between men and women and of nondiscrimination, because it cannot be rendered except against a woman,” she added. “It makes a mockery of the rights of women over their own bodies and to live their sexuality freely, the way men do.”

Under pressure, the Justice Ministry — headed by Rachida Dati, the daughter of Algerian immigrants (and an unmarried mother-to-be) — reversed the annulment, effectively remarrying the couple. They will now have to seek a divorce (complicated by the fact that the husband has remarried).

The groom’s lawyer thinks the “politically correct” journalists and protesters have invaded the couple’s private life to the detriment of both the man and the woman (the wife also wanted the annulment). There may be some truth to the charge that those who made the case public were more concerned with abstract women’s rights and liberal values than with the welfare of this particular woman; on the other hand, there is a solid argument to be made that European law should not be enshrining the idea that a man can repudiate his wife for not being a virgin at marriage.

What I find interesting, though, is something else. This is not a conflict between Islamic and Christian culture so much as it is a conflict between traditional and modern culture. Not that long ago, virginity was as much of a requirement in a bride in European societies. There are, indeed, many people in the West (and perhaps especially in the United States) today who are nostalgic for those old-fashioned values, at least in moderate forms. I can think of quite a few American conservatives who would vehemently disagree with the notion that women have a right to “live their sexuality freely, the way men do.”

Should everyone who lives in modern societies be required to assimilate to modern values? No, of course not. They should, however, be required to understand that the virtues they cherish cannot be imposed by law or by force. Though, in this case, the annulment may have been unobjectionable since the wife agreed to it.

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Christmas meditations

A New York Times essay offering a different take on the perennial classic It’s a Wonderful Life sparks a lively discussion in the comments.

The essay argues that the small-town life Capra’s hero embraces at the end is, in fact, terrifyingly and asphyxiatingly oppressive, and that the movie is all about resigning oneself to the loss of dreams, to being trapped in a life of compromise, small-mindedness and conformity. He even asserts that the “Pottersville” of the alternate reality in which Jimmy Stewart’s George was never born — filled with booze and vice — is a lot more fun than boring New Bedford, where The Bells of St. Mary’s is all that passes for entertainment.

Some commenters agree, and also point to the movie’s disturbing gender ideology: without George in her life, his wife Mary (Donna Reed) has become — the horror! — a single, childless librarian. One poster mentions (approvingly) that Ayn Rand hated this movie because of its emphasis on self-sacrifice and the compromises of adult life. Others defend close-knit communities as well as the idea that adulthood is about accepting compromises and limits, and that life’s true satisfaction comes not from chasing adolescent dreams but from family, friends, and community.

This is where I’m always reminded of a famous Niels Bohr quote:

“The opposite of a small truth is a falsehood; the opposite of a great truth is another truth.”

There is a great truth in the Randian/libertarian celebration of the free individual, of the stubborn pursuit of one’s dreams and visions, of the struggle against limits. There is also a great truth in the conservative/communitarian vision that emphasizes relationships and acceptance of reasonable compromises and limits. Both of these starkly different approaches to life have value — are, in fact, necessary to a healthy culture, which needs both roots and wings. (I believe the origin of this metaphor is this quote by American motivational speaker Dennis Waitley.) So do the vast majority of individuals, even if some can be perfectly happy pursuing their individualist dreams with no human ties and some can be perfectly happy living completely for others.

Of course, each vision also has a seamy side. A lot of “autonomous individuals” who pride themselves on never compromising and never “settling” are not Randian Howard Roarks but obnoxious, egotistical jerks with a very exaggerated notion of their own talent. A lot of lives that revolve around family, community and self-sacrifice are poisoned by undercurrents of bitterness, resentments, and suppressed conflicts. And so on.

But in the spirit of the holiday, let’s focus on the positives. Here’s to roots and wings. And to the fact that American culture is big enough to accommodate Frank Capra and Ayn Rand.

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Happy holidays to all

This is the 300th post on this blog. (About time, too.)

And it’s a fluffy, content-free, positive (even multiculturally positive) one.

A good sign? a bad sign? Not, one hopes, a sign of things to come.

Enjoy the season, everyone.

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More Russia news: the good and the bad

According to Moscow Times:

In a rare example of grassroots political power, angry protests by drivers prompted lawmakers in the far eastern Primorye region on Monday to ask the country’s two leaders to delay raising import duties on foreign cars. The Primorye regional legislature, led by United Russia deputies, voted unanimously Monday to ask President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to postpone the tariffs, which take effect on Jan. 11, according to a decree signed by Putin. Thousands of drivers took to the streets in several far eastern cities and towns Sunday to protest the tariffs, blocking traffic, clashing with police, openly insulting Putin and Medvedev and even calling on Putin to resign. Putin’s decree would increase the prices for imported cars by between 10 and 20 percent, a move the government has defended as a way of protecting domestic auto makers during the growing financial crisis.

According to the Russian daily Kommersant, similar though less massive protests took place in Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk. In Novosibirsk, an officially sanctioned picket of 100 people on the main city square was joined by 200 cars whose drivers argued with the police and tried to block traffic. In Krasnoyarsk, a column of 300 cars sporting black ribbons drove very slowly through city streets, then parked across from the regional government headquarters and honked their horns for fives minutes. Many people who drove by also honked in support.

Slogans at the rallies — carried by protesters on foot or displayed on the rear windows of cars — included: “Putin, trade your Mercedes for a Volga!”, “Mr. Putin, help the tycoons out of your own pocket!”, and “Raise the tariffs on the actions of the Russian government.”

In Vladivostok, when Mayor Alexei Pushkarev begged the protesters to disperse, saying that they had already made their point, some people in the crowd shouted, “We need Channel One so that the whole country would know about our demands: no higher tariffs and cheaper gasoline!” Indeed, none of the state-controlled TV channels have given the protests any coverage at all. The average Russian will know nothing about them, neutralizing the potentially empowering and mobilizing effect of these events.

All this happens at a time when Putin’s aura as the savior of the nation may be finally wearing off. According to a new poll by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion, reported in Izvestia, not only did Putin’s televised Q & A with the people have a smaller audience than in previous years (17%), but only 48% of those who watched said they were satisfied with Putin’s answers.

Meanwhile, there are more signs that the Kremlin is preparing to tighten its grip on dissent, or at least to give itself a weapon to squash dissent when they want to. A new law submitted to the parliament by the government would broaden the definition of treason. Existing Russian law defines treason as “hostile actions intended to damage the security of the Russian Federation against foreign threats.” In the amended version, the definition of treason would include “rendering financial, material, consultative, or other assistance to a foreign state, a foreign or international organization, or representatives thereof in activities directed against the security of the Russian Federation, including its constitutional system, its sovereignty, its territorial integrity and statehood.” Many human rights activists are concerned that this signifies a de facto return to Stalinist law which made “anti-Soviet activity” a crime. Perhaps this is hyperbole, but is it too much of a stretch to think that this law could be directed against an opposition newspaper or website, or a human rights group critical of the government, which has received assistance from the USAID, the National Endowment for Democracy, or the Soros Foundation?

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Anti-American film bombs in Russia

What if they made a rabidly anti-American movie in Russia that was supposed to capitalize on anti-American sentiment stirred up by the war in Georgia … and nobody came? My article on the movie Chuzhiye (Strangers) in The New Republic online.

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