Monthly Archives: May 2009

Neither a borrower nor a lender be

Is it just me, or does the new credit card consumer protection legislation protect less responsible cardholders (those who accumulate a lot of debt or exceed spending limits) at the expense of more responsible ones who usually pay off their bills on time, and who are likely to get hit with new fees or have rewards canceled as banks try to make up for lost revenue?  Transparency is generally good, and requiring credit card companies to notify cardholders in advance of an interest rate hike seems unobjectionable — but what if the bank has to respond quickly to changing market conditions or lose money?   Is there really anyone who doesn’t know that credit card companies generally have fines for spending over the credit limit or paying by phone?  And is it really such a good idea to impose extra hurdles on young men and women between 18 and 21 — old enough to marry, vote, drive,  join the Army — before they can apply for a credit card?  (One of the options is to have a parent or guardian as a guarantor; apparently, parental control is oppressive when it comes to sex or contraception, but  not money.)  

Meanwhile, on HuffPo, Arianna rails against the evil of usury, invoking the Bible, the Koran, and St. Thomas Aquinas (inter alia).  Apparently, invoking religious texts as justification from social policy is also fine when the policy in question is a politically liberal one.  It seems that some scripturally condemned activities between consenting adults are not okay after all.


Filed under economy, freedom, liberalism

Elena Bonner speaks on Israel (and Russia)

Cathy Young and Elena Bonner in August 2007 

Cathy Young and Elena Bonner in August 2007


Elena Bonner, the widow of great scientist and dissident Andrei Sakharov and an outstanding human rights activist in her own right, is truly one of the heroes of the modern age.   (It was my privilege to interview Bonner nearly two years ago for this article.)  Yesterday, the 86-year-old grande dame of the Russian human rights movement spoke at the Oslo Freedom Forum.  Her speech, of which Ms. Bonner sent me an English translation, is worth reproducing in full.  Ms. Bonner is a woman of strong and outspoken opinions; agree or disagree, she is always worth hearing.

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Filed under Israel, Russia, terrorism

Last WWII-related post for now: “In Defiance of Fate”

Since I’ve been on a bit of a World War II streak, particularly with regard to WWII and Russia, I thought I’d mention that last year I worked on translating a wartime memoir that contains some fascinating material, and which is now published in English.  The book is In Defiance of Fate by Vladimir Rott, a Russian-Jewish emigre now living in Canada, born in 1935 of Hungarian parents who moved to the Soviet Union in 1933.   Rott’s father was arrested as a “Hungarian spy” and sent to the Gulag when he was three years old; his mother, who barely spoke Russian and had no job skills, was left alone with two small children.   The family’s hardships were compounded when the war began and they found themselves under German occupation; miraculously (I won’t explain how) the Nazis did not find out that Regina Rott and her two children were Jewish. 

Rott is not a professional writer; he started to write this book (of which I am now working on the second volume) for his own grandchildren.  However, it is a story told (pardon the cliché) from the heart — a very authentic, vivid, dramatic tale of incredible hardship and survival.  The wartime chapters are particularly gripping, and make you marvel (and shudder) at the things so many people lived through as children in that terrible age.  Since I am specifically focusing on the World War II parts, I should mention that Chapter 1 deals with the fate of Rott’s relatives in Hungary during the war (and it’s pretty grim reading).   For those interested in Soviet history, the book also features a chapter consisting of Rott’s father’s letters from the Gulag camps, as well as a firsthand account of the final years of Stalin’s rule (including the anti-Semitic campaign that followed the “Doctors’ Plot”) and the Khrushchev “thaw.”

The author’s site is here.  The book can be ordered online here.  And no, I am not getting kickbacks.

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Filed under books, World War II

These two things are not alike (another WWII thought)

In my last column on World War II, I mentioned some through-the-looking-glass similarities between Russian and American attitudes toward the war — such as the fact that both often act as if they single-handedly defeated Hitler.  

While working on the column, I thought of another parallel.  Russians “patriots” frequently wax indignant at the ungrateful people of Eastern Europe and the Baltics who fail to appreciate Russia’s role in liberating them from the Nazi yoke.  Many Americans, particularly conservatives, have the same attitude toward Europeans who fail to appreciate America’s role in saving them from Hitler.

But is there any kind of moral equivalence there?  

I would say no.

It’s not that I don’t find the “how dare they — we saved their butts during World War II!” attitude annoying.  I do, except in response to shrill , vicious anti-Americanism (rather than reasoned criticism of U.S. policies).  I think demanding gratitude for one’s good deeds is always somewhat unseemly, and takes away much of the value of the good deed.  

Still, there’s a difference.   Allow me to illustrate (with apologies for the gender-stereotypical script).

Scenario A: A man saves a woman from a homicidal maniac.   They start dating and end up getting married.  He can be a bit domineering at times and sometimes, when she questions something he does, self-righteously reminds her of the gratitude she owes him for saving her life.

Not very nice, right? But now consider …

Scenarior B:  A man saves a woman from a homicidal maniac.  He then proceeds to forcibly take her to his house and repeatedly rape her.  When she finally escapes and goes to the police, he proceeds to loudly complain about her ingratitude — after all, if it weren’t for him, she’d be dead now!

Any questions?


Filed under Europe, Russia, US foreign policy, World War II

What Russia’s battle against “WWII revisionism” is really about

In my article, I talk about efforts by the Russian government (and its servile media) to combat “revisionism” about World War II and alleged attempts to either tarnish or hijack Soviet Russia’s victory over Nazi Germany.  The Duma is now considering a bill that, while harmless and even worthy on its face — it’s titled “On combating the exoneration of Nazis, Nazi war criminals and their accomplices in independent states which were formerly republics of the USSR”  — may, some fear, be used to silence “patriotically incorrect” discussions of the Soviet Union’s conduct and role in World War II and its aftermath.  (Some of the issues include the USSR’s brutal treatment of its own soldiers as well as the postwar enslavement of Eastern Europe and the Baltics.)  

Are those fears unfounded and paranoid?  Well, last night I stumbled on an item in a major Russian daily, Komsomolskaya Pravda, that gives a good insight into what kind of things some people in the Russia — not crazies but people well within the mainstream — regard as unacceptable “revisionism” about the war.   (Hint: it includes the recognition of Holocaust victims.) Continue reading


Filed under anti-Semitism, Russia, Stalinism, World War II

Thinking about World War II

I have two new articles out, both dealing with the legacy of World War II (the occasion being Victory in Europe Day on May 8, and Russia’s Victory Day May 9).

My debut on, Victory Day Festivities In Moscow, examines that legacy in Russia, where the very real pride and grief the  people feel over their country’s victory and sacrifice in the war against Nazi Germany are exploited for its own ends by the authoritarian regime in power.  Meanwhile, my latest column, Lessons From World War II, looks at the mythology of  the “Good War” that prevails in both Russia and the United States, with startling similarities in some cases, and at the enduring influence of that mythology in our own time — as well as the difficult and relevant questions WWII poses about war and morality.

My conclusion:

Despite its darkest moments, World War II remains “the Good War” – not because we were impeccably good, but because we fought an enemy that was as close as one can be to pure evil. It also belies the popular notion that if we cross certain moral lines to achieve our war aims, we will become just as bad as the enemy: the staggering casualties in the firebombing of Dresden notwithstanding, Churchill did not “sink to the level” of the leaders of the Third Reich.

World War II reminds us about the limits of idealism. Looking back, many people wonder if we would have won the war with the level of media openness and respect for human rights that we have today. That’s a legitimate question – but its seamy side is a dangerous nostalgia for a “simpler” time when soldiers could do their job without having to think of sissy stuff like rights and legalities.

Perhaps the real lesson of World War II is that a free, civilized society at war will always seek to strike some balance between self-defense and principle. Sometimes, it will err badly. To defend these errors as fully justified is to betray our own values and start on a road that leads to the kind of authoritarian mindset so rampant in Putin’s Russia. To condemn them with no understanding of their context is a self-righteous utopian posture that, in the end, does liberal values a disservice.


But please, do read the whole thing.

Much to my surprise, I got semi-positive feedback on this column from my frequent nemesis Daniel Larison of The American Conservative.  (Someone check the temperature in Hell!)  However, Mr. Larison takes issue with this passage:

The “Good War,” like the Good Book, can be put in the service of any agenda. Conservatives invoke it to justify military action: “What about Hitler?” is a devastating, if cliché, rebuttal to the pacifist insistence that there is never a good reason to start a war. It is, to some extent, an unfair argument that much too easily confers the status of Hitler on our enemy of the day. But it also makes a valid and important point: evil does exist (if usually on a smaller scale than Nazism), and to refuse to fight it is to ensure its triumph.


Specifically, he points out that it was Hitler who started the war, and that the need to fight Hitler does not disprove the wrongness of starting a war.   I stand corrected, and plead guilty to careless use of language: what I should have said was “go to war,” not “start a war.”  Or maybe it was a Freudian slip that reveals my inner militarist.



Filed under Russia, US foreign policy, War

The Medvedev anniversary

Today marks Dmitry Medvedev’s first year in office.  But is he  President Medvedev or “President” Medvedev?  Is there a harmonious “tandem” or a Putin/Medvedev rift?


Which way?

Which way?



I have a column on his tenure so far at  My conclusion:

So far, the difference between Medvedev and Putin is mainly a matter of style and tone. Will style become substance? Could Medvedev be a genuine reformer who must tread carefully because he is still hobbled by the presence of Putin and his faction? Is he an ambitious man who wants to free himself from his mentor’s shadow, and prepare the ground for a second term, by using a mostly cosmetic liberalism to build a power base? Will the rumored discord in the Putin/Medvedev “tandem” become a full-scale war of Kremlin “clans”? Or is Medvedev playing “good cop” to Putin’s “bad cop,” primarily for Western consumption?

“Only time will tell” may be the tritest of conclusions. But in this case, it is the only one that seems fitting.


An interesting article on Medvedev’s liberal moves appeared in the “Russia Now” online supplement to The Daily Telegraph (UK), produced by Rossiyskaya Gazeta — the official publication of the Russian government.  In other words, this is what the Kremlin’s mouthpiece wants to tell an English-speaking audience.

Medvedev’s interview to Novaya Gazeta, in a rather stilted but readable translation, can be found on the newspaper’s English-language site.  And here is Medvedev’s LiveJournal (seriously).

For those who read in Russian, some good expert opinions on Medvedev’s first year and the “tandemocracy” are offered here.  For those who don’t read in Russian, here’s a translation of the most  interesting quote.

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Filed under Dmitry Medvedev, Russia, Vladimir Putin