Thu Nov 29th, 2007 at 08:34:54 AM EST
Contents: OMG, longest Odds & Ends, ever. What, you want an index or something? Just read it. You won't regret it. Or just enjoy the hot guys and recommend it. Whatever.
Tis the Season, my friends! And nothing says Peace on Earth and Joy to the World quite like the power struggle between flawed, greedy, insecure, self-righteous human beings with persecution complexes who, made to exist in one dysfunctional social unit and conform to its oppressive rules, vie in futility for power over each other.
You think I am going to write about Garry Kasparov and Vladimir Putin and Managed Democracy? But maybe I am, maybe I'm not. We cringe at the idea of rigged elections, the cult of personality, they cynical political strategy, the curbing of freedom of speech. Where's the fucking democracy you promised us, Mr. Putin? Why does the Kremlin get to make all the decisions? Why can't anyone else get a piece of the pie? You do this every time, Mr. (Leader of Russia.) It's always about you, isn't it? You are not happy unless you are the center of attention, and everyone else is toiling away in the kitchen and people only come out to ask if you want another helping, or a third term, as it were. It's. Not. Fair. I'm never going to let you sucker me into this again! This country is so effed up!!! ...Sometimes I don't even know why I bother... </ sniff>
Surkov said, "Do not speak to us of Democracy while thinking about our Hydrocarbons!"
(Pause to appreciate beautiful visage...)
I say, "Do not speak to us of Russian Authoritarianism while thinking about your own freaking Family Issues!!"
Hear me out.
Promoted by Colman
~Bemoan the curbing of freedom of speech in some country a bazillion miles away that you've never even been to. Makes you feel righteous, doesn't it? Now, go tell your sister-in-law that she needs to lose 40 pounds and that her Velveeta clam dip tastes like dog food.
~Blush at the sycophantism of zaputina.ru and Nashi. All that fake cooing over Putin is just gross. Oh, yeah, remember to tell your cousin the honest truth, that her new baby is not actually all that cute. You've seen hundreds of more precious babies. And, it smells particularly bad too, this one.
~Point a finger at the corruption that pervades the Kremlin (who even cares who's there anymore: Commies, Oligarchs, KGB... they are all greedy crooks.) Then inform your family that Christmas will not be held at your racist investment banker brother's house, which is huge and has a mini bar and a big screen TV, but at your inner-city walk-up. You're a better Christian than he, and you should be rewarded for the fact.
~Curse Authoritarianism. And when your father asks you if you need some money, you know, because you chose to be an artist and all, tell your father you don't need his stinking money and he has no right to tell you how to live your life!, adding something about the suspicious way he earned his money or that his first wife was a go-go dancer who ran off with a Sicilian. Anyway, he wasn't fairly elected to position of father, was he? Nobody asked you if you wanted to be born, did they? That, in itself, is unconscionable, really. Exclaim smartly, "What century is this, anyway!?"
...Ok. I have spent the day trying to get everyone in my family to agree on a time and place for his year's Christmas gathering. No proposition is agreeable to everyone. In-laws, vacation time, space, and incessant bitching about why doesn't MY part of the family ever get priority? Everyone wants to uphold tradition, but ours is a family burdened by innumerable deaths, divorces, remarriages and every other conceivable kind of upheaval and tragedy, each with its own traditions. It's a familial identity crisis! So. I've taken on the role of benevolent dictator, presenting the options I find personally palatable as the only viable ones. They majority are rallying behind me, and I'm ignoring the others. Let the pundits meditate on Putin's mysterious allure. I'll tell you straight off, the right combination of charm, leadership, efficiency and cold hearted ambition/bullying can achieve miracles. Is it fair? No. Do I trust others enough to leave the planning to them? Good god, no freaking way! That's how we got into this mess in the first place!
Hm... I used to have a poster that declared, "If you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb." I need one for, "If you can organize a family gathering, you can run a country."
Now I just need to get myself a really sexy evil genius assistant. ...putting that on my Christmas list: laptop, immersion blender, that propagandist Vladislav Surkov...
Oh, yes. I was going to share the following news items with you. Beware. I'm back in "All Russian Love Fest All The Time" mode. Something to do with the weather this time of year...
1. Like a Chicago bus: They are so late, they are early...
NYT: The U.S.S.R. Is Back (on Clothing Racks)
MOSCOW, Nov. 26 -- Empowered by an oil boom that pushed the country's trade surplus past $94 billion this year, Russia has been flexing its muscles abroad. At home, meanwhile, young and trendy Muscovites are in the throes of nostalgia for the staples of Soviet childhoods, relics of a time when the U.S.S.R. was at the height of superpower status.
That may explain why one of the most popular fashion designers this fall is Denis Simachev, who is selling overcoats fastened with hammer-and-sickle buttons, gold jewelry minted to look like Soviet kopecks and shirts festooned with the Soviet coat of arms, complete with embroidered ears of wheat.
"People in their 30s see these kinds of symbols as reminders of happy memories, like going to pioneer camp where they lived together, ate breakfast together and played sports," said Mr. Simachev, 33, who wears his hair in a Samurai-style ponytail. He insists he is no Communist -- for one thing, his overcoats sell for about $2,100 and his T-shirts for about $600. His boutique is sandwiched between Hermès and Burberry stores on a pedestrian lane, Stoleshnikov, that is one of the capital's most expensive shopping streets.
Mr. Simachev first attracted notice with a collection of retro Olympic tracksuits emblazoned with C.C.C.P., the Cyrillic initials for the U.S.S.R., and T-shirts printed with the likeness of President Vladimir V. Putin, which served as a wink at the cult of personality forming around the leader.
Man, I must have been a real fashion trailblazer back in middle school. Unfortunately I've lost my Pièce de résistance, a "Surf Russia" T-shirt with Lenin and palm trees. I still have a great hammer & sickle watch, though. Seriously, all the cool kids wore Soviet kitsch. Just now it's catching on in Moscow? So give 'em another 20 years & they might decide democracy is so so ochen' klassno too... Who knows?
I am not going to delve into the philosophical implications of a $600 "CCCP" T-shirt. I still haven't recovered from Gorby hawking Louis Vuitton. And I don't want to talk about the kinda creepy feeling I get that these folks were not aware that Soviet kitsch has been hip before, in the West, during the Cold War (first one). That's how things get scary. I once had to inform a Russian teacher that the Soviet Union did not in fact give the U.S. the Statue of Liberty. I honestly don't know who was more freaked out. I really don't...
2. I knew there was a reason I liked this guy, and not just in a mad jealous kinda way.
Huff Po: Remnick On NBC News: We Ignore Russia At Our Peril
You can watch the video clip here.
What's very important to understand, is: Not only does Russia have going for it an oil price nearing $100 a barrel and the high price of natural gas, it also has going for it the horrible decline of U.S. moral authority, that the price of this presidency, for all its errors, moral and otherwise, has been that the United States does not have the moral authority in a kind of worldwide discussion. So it is extremely easy and effective for Vladimir Putin to say, "Look, United States, don't lecture me on democracy -- look at Abu Ghraib, look at Guantanamo, look at many other things" -- and he can say that, by the way, with great effectiveness.
One of Putin's great tools as a leader -- and he's extremely effective at what he's doing -- is a sense of mystery. We're now in late November. and we still don't know anything about the shape of the ballot for December parliamentary elections, and we have no idea if anybody will be on the ballot against a either Putin or a Putin-handpicked candidate come March. Just have no idea. Imagine that. I mean, we've been talking about the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary for half of our adult lives. They have no idea. These aren't elections and they don't bear close inspection -- whether there are monitors or no monitors -- they don't bear close inspection as democratic elections. But again: As Americans, as part of what's seen as Bush's America, we are not going to be very effective advocates, certainly not in Russia, in an era of declining American moral authority, which is one of the most unfortunate consequences of the Bush presidency.
We should pay attention to what's going on in Russia for any number of reasons. First of all it's a gigantic country, with a gigantic land mass, with nuclear weapons, with enormous economic resources, its importance in geopolitical terms is fantastic -- it borders on Iran and Central Asia, it borders Europe -- it couldn't be more important. But our eye has been off the ball essentially for quite a long time (a) because the Cold War ended and (b) because we've been so obsessed, for obvious reasons, on South Asia and the Middle East.
It would be foolish to predict the future - I couldn't tell you and nobody could tell if he's going to remain president somehow, by constitutional means or extraconstitutional means, or whether he'll be Prime minister or whether he'll be a kind of puppeteer of Russian politics. What is certain is he will remain an extremely important figure, maybe even a singulary powerful figure, it just remains what are the means of doing that. And whether he's figured that out or not, he hasn't quite announced.
I realize this is seriously old news to most of our readers, which makes the dishy sneaky tone of the Huff Po article totally bizarre. I'm going to coin a new phrase for people who blog old news like they broke it: Cave Blogging. Catchy, huh?
Anyway, the reason I've included this is that it's frankly refreshing and encouraging to find a bona fide mainstream "Russia Expert" on an American TV network discussing Russia who isn't demonizing, divining or and giddily wallowing in Then New Cold War, but who assesses the situation in a realistic, sincere, and gah! thought-provoking way. Thoughts about gah! the repercussions of our own actions! Gah! Well, no wonder they did not include that clip in the actual broadcast... Wait. I thought Russia was the one doing the censoring? Gah! So confused!
(Ok, LEP. You're right, it's also the cute NY Jew thing. I can't help it, ok?)
3. Quote of the Day.
"If we conduct peaceful policies and avoid prying into the affairs of others, this [Russia's defense potential] will be enough; but at the same time, our military should be able to stop others from poking their snotty noses into our affairs," Putin reiterated on Monday.
Once a hooligan, always a hooligan, eh, Vovka? Maybe if the whole Tsar for Life gig doesn't work out, he could go into comedy writing. I hear they are looking for a few good rats in Hollywood...
4. Just so you can't accuse me of bias...
Sigh... I really love Katrina vanden Heuvel. And while I seriously doubt the fate of Russia hinges on that of Novaya Gazeta, the paper for which the slain Anna Politkovskaya wrote, and which has most vociferously opposed Putin, I agree that one can't just go around shutting down papers... Interesting note: Gorbachev helped found Novaya Gazeta and continues to own a significant portion of it. And Gorbachev has been both critical and supportive of Putin.
5. Well, apparently they haven't yet been stripped of the freedom to be completely mad.
Moscow Times: Putin Made a Name for Himself in This Village
In the Altai region, sandwiched between the Kazakh steppe and the mountains from which it takes its name, locals nickname such forlorn settlements Bear Corner or Cockroach's Darkness.
Titov, however, has taken advantage of a Kremlin initiative to restore Russia's farm sector to former glories. Agriculture is one of four priority development areas, giving farmers access to tax breaks and cheap loans from state-controlled banks.
The government contributed 68 billion rubles ($2.8 billion) from the federal budget to the agricultural sector in 2007. This will rise to 76 billion rubles in 2008.
Titov took out one of these loans, a five-year credit for 4 million to 5 million rubles, last year.
"Without this money, we would simply have gone bankrupt. So I decided to thank Putin for his support of this village."
In the 1980s, the farm -- then called 50 Years of the USSR -- raised the best sheep in the Altai region. After the Soviet Union collapsed, it fell into disrepair. Suddenly unemployed, farmers either left to find work elsewhere or turned to drink.
Titov had already set up a company called Golden Field to farm the fertile soil before turning to the national project.
"When I went to the tax inspectors with my idea, they looked at me as though I were mad. But I told them: 'I'm not opening a business. I'm preparing to support my home village.'"
He received the documents registering his farm as Joint Stock Company Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin Ltd. on Oct. 5, 2006.
"My only regret is it wasn't his birthday," Titov said. Putin turned 54 two days later.
The Putin farm employs 25 technicians earning a monthly wage of 4,000 to 5,000 rubles ($164-$205), about a third of the national average of 13,800 rubles.
Residents were amazed at the name change.
"When my husband told me he now works 'in Putin,' I laughed and thought he was pulling my leg," Svetlana Chuyeva said.
Now, seeing Putin on television gets him talking about work, she said. "And sometimes he dreams, 'When the president comes, I'll show him how well I can handle a combine harvester.'"
Yikes. Is it just me or is the news getting more retro by the second around here? USSR shirts, David "I'm cute but I haven't actually written a book about Russia in 10 years" Remnick, ... collective farms? Managed Democracy might be the least of our concerns, folks. I think they are screwing with the space-time continuum over there. Just using election intrigues to divert our attention from the fact. I'm sure of it.
6. Sympathy for the Devil...
Russia Blog: One Cold War Was Enough: Russia Needs Our Help, Not Our Condemnation
Can we learn to deal with Russia as it is...not as it was, and not what we wish it were?
Trying to understand Russia through the prism of the British and American news media these days can be a real headache. On one hand, if you've read the business pages of The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times lately, you would learn that Russia is now one of the world's leading emerging markets, and the Russian economy has grown at an average annual rate of 7% since 2000. On the other hand, if you turn to the headlines or the editorial pages, you will read that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been busy crushing democracy and reviving the Soviet Union.
While Americans are constantly having their eyes opened to the possibilities for growth and economic freedom in the People's Republic of China, a far more free and open society in Russia is judged more harshly in the Western news media. Why is this? Is it because the shelves at Wal-Marts across America are not stocked with goods from Russia? Or is I simply because, as some cynical Russians imply, there is one American and European expectation for people who "look like us", and another for others (Asians, Africans, and Arabs) who don't? Or could it be that American perceptions of Russia are still formed by a combination of stereotypes left over from the Cold War and more recent images of Russia in the Nineties as the Wild East -- an exotic backwater whose main exports were supposedly mail order brides and ruthless mafias?
None of this is to say that Russia does not have real, severe problems that threaten its immature democracy and recent economic gains. In 2008 the Russian Federation is projected to lose 700,000 people, a population equivalent to that of Austin, Texas. This means that while Russia enjoys a very high literacy rate, Russian companies often struggle to find enough talented managers to sustain their growth. And while Russia's major cities are growing, the countryside is losing people, due to high mortality rates and bleak prospects in rural areas. Russia imports some 40% of its meat and dairy products, and this has left ordinary Russians vulnerable to the recent run of inflation for basic consumer staples. Russia continues to suffer more abortions than live births every year, and the Russian army draft deprives many small towns and villages of their best young men.
What should America do to help address these real problems? The first point is to stop accepting the folly that a weakened Russia would somehow be in America's best interests. This is particularly important due to the rise of China next to Russia's unpopulated regions and the painful history of Islamic extremism and ethnic separatism in the Caucuses. Some American statesmen, like retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, recognize that a strong Russia can be good for America's long term interests in Eurasia. After all, Russia stopped Napoleon in the 19th century and halted two German attempts to dominate the world in the 20th century. With the glaring exception of Cold War, our two vast countries have historically been friends, not rivals.
The second point is to stop obsessing about the Kremlin and start concentrating on promoting more trade, entrepreneurship, and genuine philanthropy between our two countries at the grassroots and corporate levels. If we can do this with China, a country that does not respect religious freedom and which actively censors the Internet, why can't we do it with Russia, whose government does not do either of these things?
As with so many other ventures, when it comes to Russia, the private sector in America remains miles ahead of the media and the political class when it comes to introducing real change. If some American politicians and pundits can find reasons for optimism even about war-torn Iraq, surely they can spare some for Russia?
I'm a total sucker for these entreaties over at Russia Blog, even though they've aligned themselves with the, er, Discovery Institute, which ... actually ... might explain why Putin doesn't seem very nasty to them, considering they're basically working for the Devil himself. I disagree with about 1/2 of this rant, and now that you know about my hammer and sickle pocket watch, you should be able to figure out which half that is. Still, one has to admire their persistence. I'm waiting for the day these guys do their own version of the Britney Spears video, "Just leave Putin alone, Ok? Leave him alone!!! Waaaaa!!!!!" Actually, I'd watch any YouTube video featuring Yuri Mamchur... Cute fellow.
Lastly, I would like to recommend, if you are interested in these things and neither Jerome nor I are meeting your needs, that you check out Sean's Russian Blog for some pretty good coverage of the political climate & upcoming elections in Russia. Includes absolute gems like this one. Don't just sit there... Go read it!
Ok, I know that was a ton of homework to pile on you right before the holidays. Sorry. I wouldn't demand it of you if I didn't think you could handle it. :)
Don't worry, Misha. There will be other elections.
Or maybe Putin will become Tsar. Who knows?
Ok, the rest of you, have a lovely week!