sitting on the edge of the sandbox, biting my tongue

October 26, 2015

Incubating National Bolsheviks

Filed under: immigration, politics, Russia — Tags: , , — edge of the sandbox @ 5:37 pm

National Bolsheviks were not on the radar of most Americans until, in the fallout of Ukraine’s Euromaidan, the Kremlin warmed up to the fascist Eurasianist Aleksandr Dugin.  Dugin was one of the founders of the political party, although by then he left his comrades and, in any event, the party was banned in 2007 (regrouping as The Other Russia).  Recently they were allowed, flaunting Russian law, to set up booths to recruit combat volunteers for Eastern Ukraine off the streets of Moscow.  Those volunteers fight the central government the United States supports militarily and financially.

Still many NazBols can legitimately claim prosecution, and they most certainly were vocal in opposing Putin in 2010.  It’s no surprise that at least two of them found themselves seeking refuge on American shores.

Among them Mikhail Gangan:

He became a member of the banned National Bolshevists [sic] Party when he turned 15. Later, he led its branch in Samara (the sixth largest city in Russia). In 2004 he took part in a local anti-government movement called “A Peaceful Takeover of the Reception Office of the Presidential Administration.” About 40 activists walked into the office of Putin’s representative in Samara and presented a list of 12 complaints. Among the accusations were elimination of political freedoms, destruction of independent media in Russia, the lack of autonomous judiciary system, and punitive actions against the opposition.

All protesters were arrested and accused of taking a deliberate action to take control of the government. If these charges were pressed, they would spend up to 20 years in prison. The charge was later changed to a lesser allegation of mass rioting. While under investigation, Gangan spent a year in Butyrka, a prison known for its poor living conditions that became known internationally after the death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in 2009. Finally the Court sentenced Gangan to 3 years probation and he was released.

Forcing themselves into government buildings is a popular tactic of National Bolsheviks.  In 2006, 50 of them were arrested at State Duma following one such direct action designed to test the boundary between the legal and the illegal.

In 2007 Gangan led another anti-government action called “March of Protesters” during the Russia-EU Summit and he was accused of violating his probation. Before he was arrested, Gangan fled to the Ukraine. It was the only country that he could enter while on probation.

Later, he was captured and was about to be deported to Russia. Ukrainian and Russian human rights activists asked Ukrainian authorities not to give up Gangan but to grant him the status of a political refugee. In the summer of 2008, he got asylum in the Ukraine. The UN Refugee Agency offered Gangan political asylum in America, where he moved in 2009. A year later he was given the official status of political refugee in the U.S.

“I had no problems with assimilation in Ukraine. There is no language barrier, same mentality; Ukrainian life just slightly differs from Russian. Here [in the U.S.] everything is different and adaption has been quite difficult for me. I still can’t figure out what is what here. But it’s obvious that if you really want to make it here, it’s possible. All refugees get good benefits. The U.S. government provides us with an apartment for the first 6 months and even covers the cost of college education. For now, I got a job as a cook,” said Gangan.

Mikhail Gangan in customary National Bolshevik red and black garb

Good thing he got the benefits because, as one of his comrades explained:

Misha lived a life of a professional revolutionary, ridiculing the common busywork of work and study.  Often times he didn’t have the change to take public transport, but when money wondrously appeared, he, like a true hussar, blew it with friends in some kind of cafe.

Congratulations to the American taxpayer on adding a National Bolshevik variety to his collection of dependents!

Another NazBol fleeing for the US via Ukraine is Anna Ploskonosova.  Ploskonosova’s comrade and fiancée died after a beating administered, according to his friends and family, by Moscow militsia.  When in 2007 Ploskonosova left Russia, she was facing charges of vandalism and, rather unbelievably, assaulting a cop.

Anna Ploskonosova. National Bolshevik flags in the foreground

Settling in Ukraine, the young woman quickly found an outlet: she was arrested and fined 204 hrivnias for insulting then-president Yushenko.  What constitutes the insult?  Evidently, she participated in a May Day demonstration during which she chanted “Yushenko out!”   With Yushenko was voted out in short time and the now-deposed Yanukovich taking the oath of office, Ploskonosova though it was prudent to ask for asylum in the United States.

I have no idea what she and Gangan are up to these days, or even if they are still in the country –Gangan said he wasn’t interested in staying.  National Bolshevik founder Eduard Limonov once lived in the US; he hated it with a passion. So maybe the next generation of NazBols didn’t take to us either.

Gangan and Ploskonosova were still very young at the time they arrived to the US, so it’s possible that they matured and outgrew their specific Russian delinquencies.  Maybe they are now upstanding individuals.  But maybe they found Occupy, and maybe they found white nationalists. I have no doubt that their fear of prosecution was real, but I just don’t see why my country needs to take a chance on individuals of questionable moral character.

Having said that, letting NazBols settle here is nothing compared to giving refugee status to the Tsarnaevs.  It’s not obvious what either group has to add to our culture apart from diversity, but back in Russia they can one day ferment a revolution. Our immigration policy should not be designed to release the internal pressure on Putin.

October 21, 2015

The Last Crusader

Filed under: politics, Russia — Tags: , — edge of the sandbox @ 9:01 am

Last October, as the West piled layer after layer of “targeted sanctions” on Russia, Senator John McCain thought it’s prime time for insults:

Look, Russia is a gas station masquerading as a country,” McCain said. “It’s kleptocracy. It’s corruption. It’s a nation that’s really only dependent upon oil and gas for their economy, and so economic sanctions are important.

The bit about kleptocracy and corruption is just as true about our newest ally Ukraine (or most other blotches of solid color outlined on a political map) as it is about Russia.  Still, Russian exports are dominated by the energy sector and the largest employer in the country is the state energy magnate Gazprom.  Yet the former US presidential candidate and Amnesty proponent might want to entertain a thought that there is something more that goes into being a country than an solid economy.

Thus after we bailed out of Mesopotamia, Russia moved in, propping up their SOB Assad and building an alliance that includes both Iran and Iraq.  And if the Kremlin reasserted its power in that region, it’s because they got Ukraine exactly where they want it to be — in frozen war.

Its economy is very much second world, demographically Russia looks doomed, and yet its performance on world stage today defies expectations.  Perhaps “[not] a country” is a silly thing to say about a country in the midst of imperial revival.  Russians today are not shy to admire Stalin who expended their sphere of influence across Europe and made the USSR feared worldwide.  Putin’s challenge is to live up to the expectations of resurgence.  That the youth of the Russian Federation, the least ethnically Russian age-group, are his biggest fans should give us something to think about.

How’s Russia managing it?  With confidence and resolve.  Russians seem awfully sure of who they are and what’s good about their country.  Look at the Sochi Olympics, for instance.  Staged in the explosive Caucuses, it ended without a terrorist incident, defying critics and demonstrating Russian will.

At the Olympic ceremonies Russians paraded their contributions to civilization, sometimes inflating them (but, hey, at least they value civilization enough to inflate their contributions) — they showed us their cannon — ballerinas, space flight and famous writers.  Our answer to ballerinas, space flight and famous writers is open borders.  We have no cannon.  Our children are taught that diversity is our strength; recycling replaced civics.  Political power is derived through passive-aggressive mind games.

Last year, amidst sanctions, pundits laughed that economic weapon is our best weapon — because what else do we have the nerve for? What they forgot is that Russians, who are not averse to suffering to begin with, had lived through much harder times in the 90’s.  They are not the kind of people whose vice presidents tell them to go shopping in the aftermath of a major terrorist attack.

In terms of affecting Putin’s behavior, sanctions achieved results the opposite of intended.  Russians, 40% of whom have relatives in Ukraine, saw their worst suspicions confirmed when the West supported the overthrow of Yanukovich. They rallied around Putin, and the popular opinion of the United States reached the all-time low.  Anti-Americanism in Russia today is like nothing I remember.

Having failed with sanctions and realizing that Russian quagmire in Syria is unlikely, our best bet is that Saudi Arabia will flood the market with oil hurting Russian energy exports.  Only it’s doubtful that the Saudis, themselves besieged by economic troubles, will go on very long, especially considering that the Saudi pet project ISIS is poised to be obliterated.  Once it is, what is the rational for the use the oil weapon?  Anyhow, it’s a sad state of affairs when our leverage in the Middle East is all but gone and we are reduced to hoping that Al Qaida will destroy Russia there.

Meantime, a participant in a recent state TV talk show opined (to some laughs) that Syria is Russian land because Orthodox Christianity traces its roots to Syria:

Now, that takes guts.  I wonder who is the intended audience for that crusading outburst.  Was it for domestic consumption because or to show the world just how far is “Putin’s” Russia from Merkel’s Germany or Obama’s America?  If, under Putin, Stalin or Nicolas, the Russian idea is self-sacrifice for the state, the West no longer broadcasts rule of law, freedom and prosperity.  Our ideas are dwindling economies and vanishing national identities.

Amazing to watch pundits, all in agreement that Putin is the personification of evil, scramble as to how to appropriately save face vis-a-vis the Kremlin.  The first step, it seams to me, should be to acknowledge that with each passing day we are looking less and less like a country and more like a collection of uncertain loyalties.

We’ve grown wobbly over the last quarter century.  When our so-called hawks went to Iraq for the second time, they thought it was necessary to first ask the UN for permission.  Putin also went to the UN, but only after his coalition-building work was already done behind the scenes, and to admonish us.  His is a common sense approach, and the results are predictable.  Over 70% of Britons support his Syria campaign.  When I look at number like that I wonder if, in a purely hypothetical scenario of NATO bombing ISIS, 70% of Britons would support it — or would they flood the streets of London in protest and somehow deduce that it’s all Israel’s fault.


There is a shade of McCaine’s “gas station” comment in Kissinger’s assessment that the West’s involvement in Ukraine was an attempt to break up Russia.  Ordinary Americans balk at this type of geo-political pronouncements, but Russians and Ukrainians readily discuss which one of their countries is going down first and how it will be carved out.  Having lived through the break up of the USSR a mere quarter century ago, they don’t shy away from geopolitical macabre.

“Country 404”: “Country is not found”. Because Russian-leaning Donbas produced a good chunk of Ukraine’s GDP, the meme above became popular in the wake of Donbas’s vote for independence in 2014. Number 404 superimposed against the Ukrainian flag, resembles the country’s insignia, the trident

What is it about Western self-hate?  It seems to me, the answer to resurgent Russia starts not in Syria, but in Arizona, Texas and New Mexico.  We need to rethink our immigration policy, rediscover our founding principles, fall back in love with American culture because only then will we be in a position to revamp our posture in the world.  If not –I remember Soviet Union going 404, quickly and unexpectedly.  Russia might just have the last laugh.

September 19, 2015

A Fall Reading List: Russian Lit 101

Filed under: parenting, politics, Russia, Ukraine — Tags: , , , , , — edge of the sandbox @ 1:19 pm

If you are like me, you can’t find a free minute during summers.  But in fall, as soon as the kids head off to school, it’s time to relax, read up… blog.  So, fellow fall readers, I have a few suggestions with a Russo-Ukrainian twist, but please note, having read it in the original Russian I don’t vouch for the quality of translation:

  1. Mikhail Bulgakov Heart of A Dog.  This is possibly the best reactionary novella of all times.  Its setting is post-revolutionary Russia and its hero, Dr. Preobrajensky, is a stubborn carrier of tradition of the old order, a scientific genius and a brilliant conversationalist who fills the book with zingers, among them:

[i]f I, instead of performing surgeries every evening, will take up singing with a choir in my apartment, I will have devastation.  If I, walking into a washroom, start, pardon me, peeing beyond the toilet and Zina and Daria Petrovna will follow the suit, there will be devastation in the washroom.  Therefore, devastation is not in the closets, it’s in the heads.


Dr. Preobrajensky performs a revolutionary surgery turning a lovely stray dog named Sharik into a man, but as a man Sharik turns out to be a brute who got chummy with the commissars.  Not surprisingly, the commissars banned the book.  Written in 1925, it was officially released in the Soviet Union only in 1987.

Bulgakov remains controversial.  Last year Ukraine banned the film based on his novel The White Guard because of the Kiev-born author’s politically incorrect opinions on the civil war that followed the Bolshevik revolution.  Heart of A Dog gets nailed, deservingly, for eugenics, but we love it anyway for its biting satire of the communist regime.

2. Nikolai Gogol Taras Bulba.  This is what all Russians and Ukrainians know about Ukraine, but Americans, as a rule, don’t begin to suspect.  Nikolai Gogol, a great, if seriously mad, 19th century Russian writer, was a descendant of the Cossacks born in what is now Poltava region of Ukraine.  That being early 19th century, the name most commonly applied to the area was Malorossia or Little Russia, a reference to Ukraine’s status as a cradle of Russian civilization.

Gogol’s early work was fused with what we would now call Ukrainian themes, and Bulba is the last and most developed in this line.  Taras Bulba is set at the birth of  the Ukrainian nation, a Cossack revolt against Poles, in which Orthodox Christianity, as Gogol illustrates, was a rallying cry of the future Ukrainians.  Poles are Catholic, and to this day the border of Western civilization cuts through Ukraine, separating its Catholic and Orthodox regions.

Bulba is Romanticism for men — we women cringe at the carnage and prefer Gogol’s later, very different works.  This arguably the single most important literary work to understand Ukraine has in it a satirical description of a pogrom.  For our 8th grade matriculation exam in Russian literature we were made to memorize a page-long passage about Taras being burnt at the stake by the Poles.  Before meeting his violent death, Taras kills his son Andriy for falling in love with a Polish girl and betraying the Cossack cause.  It is Taras’s pronouncement “I gave you life, I will take it”, not the pogrom, that had our Jewish mothers railing against the book.

XVII century Bohdan Khmelnitsky’s uprising against the Poles ended with the Cossack asking Moscow for protection.  The death of Andriy did not put an end to Polish-Ukrainian, and more generally western-Ukrainian alliances, and yet Ukraine always ends up back with Russia — as it will this time around.

3. Yuri Trifonov House on The Embankment. This is an appropriately subtle book about Earth-shattering historic events. One student who was in the seminar I took ten years ago thought that Americans may read the book and enjoy it, but miss the subject matter completely.  I decided to test out this theory on my then boyfriend and now husband who got the message after the first appearance of the relevant euphemism.

4. Natalia Baranskaya A Week Like Any Other.  This is an affirmative action pick, selected primarily to illustrate a political point.  A Week Like Any Other is a story about a Soviet woman having it all.  Not.

Protagonist Olga works second shift at home, and, we are told, likes her work very much.  She harbors resentment against her husband rather than her government.  Her husband, to be sure, is of little help, but at least he’s around, and he’s sober.

For the little ones (they need to entertain themselves while parents are reading, no?):

  1. Ivan Turgenev Mumu. One of the most moving anti-slavery narratives ever written.  The toughest hooligans cry when this short story is read aloud in class.  Older kids may ask questions like “What does it mean that Gerasim was deaf and dumb?” and “You mean there was slavery outside of the US?”
  2. Alexander Afanasiev Russian Fairy Tales.  In this case I suggest the edition lavishly illustrated by the hugely influential early 20th century Russian Art Nouveau artist Ivan Bilibin.  If this edition is not available any other will do, I suppose, as long as the tales are really by Afanasiev and not rewritten by some shmuck with a political agenda.

Afanasiev was Russia’s Grimm, except that he worked several decades later and with better material.  Russian folk tales contain specific Russian motifs, but the synopsis is the same as in German or French or any other Indo-European folk narrative.  However, it is presumed that the tales first emerged in Asia and then traveled west across the Eurasian continent, and as the narratives travel, they lost some of their detail.  Russian tales, being more Asian are more complete.

As is often the case with folklore, Afanasiev gets really dark really quick, I recall being scared silly of the tales read in my pre-school

July 9, 2015

It’s Not That Jews Are Fleeing Russia

Filed under: politics, Russia, Ukraine — Tags: , — edge of the sandbox @ 11:00 am

But the Russian intelligentsia is.  Radio Free Europe reports:

Just a year ago, Russian journalist Vladimir Yakovlev [Note the typical Russian surname, — EOTS] was one of Moscow’s most influential media figures.

Today, he lives a quiet life in Tel Aviv and has swapped his Russian passport for an Israeli one.


“The big problem with Russia, and the main reason why I left, is the fact that our value system was destroyed,” he says. “Life in Russia has turned into Russian roulette. Every morning you turn the roulette wheel, you never know what is going to happen to you.” [The game is known as American roulette in Russia, – EOTS.]


Spooked by Russia’s actions in Ukraine and by the increasingly stringent punishments for anyone deemed critical of the Kremlin, Russians of Jewish descent have been fleeing in droves over the past 18 months.


The nongovernmental Jewish Agency for Israel has released figures showing a 40-percent surge in immigration to the country between January and March of this year, compared to the same period in 2014.

The study suggests that while the majority of immigrants still come from Western Europe, Russians and Ukrainians are responsible for this increase. The number of Jews migrating from Western Europe has remained largely the same.


[Zeyev Khanin, an official at Israel’s Immigrant Absorption Ministry] says newcomers from Russia are significantly younger, more educated, and, as a rule, hail from Moscow or St. Petersburg.

“The average education level is on the rise and the number of people with degrees in humanities has increased massively,” he tells RFE/RL. “Today’s repatriates are mostly the creative intelligentsia.”

Mikhail Kaluzhsky [Note the typical Russian surname, — EOTS]  was among the 4,685 Russians who moved to Israel last year.

A journalist and playwright from Moscow, he is typical of the new wave of Russian immigrants described by Khanin.

Kaluzhsky says his decision to leave Russia is “directly linked to politics.”

The overwhelming majority of Soviet Jews left Russia, Ukraine and other “republics” in the late 80’s-early 90’s.  There was an ebb in emigration starting in the late 90’s after the countries emptied out of Jews.  Those remaining were often involved in creative professions — actors, journalists and so on — who would almost certainly not find professional employment abroad.  With the intermarriage rate was up to 75%, this demographic didn’t so much think of themselves as Jews as members of the Russian intelligentsia.  The topic of non-ethnic Russians being on the forefront of Russian cultural life is a rich one.  Suffice it to say that the creator of the first Russian language dictionary Vladimir Ivanovich Dahl was a child of a Dutch father and a French-German mother born in what is now the Lugansk region of Eastern Ukraine. and Alexander Pushkin, long considered Russian national poet, is part black.  After the Bolshevik revolution, when the old intelligentsia left, Jews came out of the Pale and merged into the Russian cultural life.

In the 90’s many Russian nationals, often of mixed ethnic origin, hoped to make Russia into something like a Western capitalist democracy, and they held on to that hope as Putin was consolidating power.  A few years ago they saw the writing on the wall and started packing, a trend noted by this blog in 2011.  The big picture here is that the Russian intelligentsia, some of whom have Jewish roots, is in despair.  I’m glad that the Jews are packing their suitcases because a Russian (or Ukrainian, for that matter) nationalist does not care if a public figure has three Slavic grandparents.  And if he’s married to somebody with a Jewish grandpa — hey! that explains everything, and it will serve as a sufficient explanation for centuries to come.

Well educated Russian-speaking Jews, their descendants and spouses make a wonderful addition to Israeli society.  They are patriotic and industrious; I know quite a few of them.  And may I suggest that the United States, too, make it easier for “Russians” to come to this country.  And may I mention that this cohort tends to vote R?

That being said, I had a conversation about this essay with the Mad Jewess on tweeter in which she insisted that [the media] loves using Jews to make talking points.  What does Radio Liberty know or care about Jews?  A few months ago the outlet featured the cartoon below in their Russian language article:

Meet the Kharkov mayor Gennady Kernes formerly of the pro-Russian Party of Regions

I have to say that while I like the US taxpayer funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty most of the time, their hiring of Ukrainian nationalist editors is suspect.

A feature about the disillusioned Russian intelligentsia addressed to the English-speaking audience sounds like a snoozer, so lets try to get the Jews involved.  But why?  The article does not claim that Russian Jews are fleeing because of rise in anti-Semitism.  I kind of doubt that the agencies in charge of aliyah have anything of value to learn from it.  And may I point out that Jewish agencies are staunchly neutral on the issue of Jews leaving Russia and Ukraine (note that the article briefly notes that aliyah from Ukraine is also up).  Their mandate is to help Jews everywhere, not to take sides in an intra-Slavic dispute.  It’s also worth noting that sometimes Ukrainian Jews fleet to… Russia.

I can tell you anecdotally that anti-Semitism in the east Ukraine is up.  I suspect this is also the case in the historically more bigoted west as well as in Russia. No surprise there — when things go south you know who gets the blame, and there is plenty of anger and uncertainty in both countries.  Perhaps it’s time to leave both countries.

UPDATE 07/14/15: For comparison’s sake: Israel gives us the total of both Russian and Ukrainian Jews coming to this middle east nation (translation mine):

It’s being reported that , что с января по июнь нынешнего года репатриацию совершили 2435 Citizens of Russian Federation and 2938 Ukrainian citizens repatriated between January and June this year.  Note that the number of Russians repatriating grew by 51% compare to the same period last year, at the time that aliyah from Ukraine grew 82%.

No word on Belorussian repatriants who might just be a good control group.

May 8, 2015

Will The Great Victory Fade Away?

Filed under: politics, Russia — Tags: , , — edge of the sandbox @ 11:28 am

UPDATE: Many thanks to Professor Jacobson of Legal Insurrection for linking.  Ditto Citizen Tom.

Over the past half a century the three major American holidays, 4th of July, Thanksgiving and Christmas, have been continuously marginalized; emerging in their place is non-committal nonsense like Halloween, which I enjoy, and various festivities celebrating drunken minorities.  One such holiday has, thankfully, just passed.  And yet right next to it, hiding in the shadows, is a half-forgotten occasion which, I think, is not only worth remembering, but can bring us together as a country.  It is, ladies and gentlemen, VE Day.

If we need to refer to an ethnic minority to confer authenticity on the occasion, refer to Russia.  Yes, Russia.  I know, Putin is the blue-eyed devil these days (never mind that Gaza treats gays far worse than the Russians) but if there is one thing they do right, it’s that they still remember WW2, or, as they call it, the Great Patriotic War. Victory Day, celebrated on May 9, is a major holiday, commemorated with marches, parades and a general flurry of WW2-related activity.

Now, the holiday is so ubiquitous, it causes a fair share of teenage eye-rolls, which is only a minor problem.  A major problem these days is the ongoing deification of Joseph Stalin, the dictator who presided over the victory.  This is a recent development: when I was growing up in the 70’s and the 80’s, Stalin’s name was all but dissociated from the war, May 9 was celebrated, but He was an unmentionable.

General Secretary must be rolling in his grave as this Russian lady carries his portrait with a halo. Marrying communism to Orthodox Christianity is the it thing these days

Moreover, any questioning of the manner in which the Soviet Union conducted the war is near-verbotten.  Technically it’s not prohibited, but dissenting voices are marginalized and maligned, the treatment of TV Rain for their discussion of the siege of Leningrad is a case in point.  Official insecurity has a reason: Russians should be asking questions pertaining to the heavy toll (24 million) Generalissimus extracted on them at wartime.

German soldiers in Stalingrad.  Powerful.  Yet many more Russian military men gave their lives in that war, and that’s not even going into civilian deaths

That said, the defeat of Nazi Germany is something to be celebrated and something to be remembered.  Even if it was achieved under a tyrannical dictator (who happened to be the free world’s wartime ally).  Almost every family west of Moscow was touched by the war, nearly every region has its war stories.  And while individual soldiers might not have been perfect, the manly valor of those who gave so much to defeat Nazism is to be recognized.

The Immortal Regiment march in St. Petersburg. Participants carry the portraits of their family members, now deceased, who fought in Great Patriotic War

I wish VE Day was a bigger deal stateside.  It’s not just that the greatest generation has earned their major national holiday, but in the general atmosphere of moral relativism it’s more important than ever to be able to talk about good and evil, and Nazism personifies ultimate evil.

Equally important in the age of Obama, as we watch our country being torn apart by race-bating, is to remember the time when our nation was united.  Was the United States a perfect nation in the 1940’s? No. Jim Crow was still the law of the land in the South, for instance. And yet, as late Samuel Huntington noted, WW2 was the point when people from different ethnic backgrounds, many first and second generation Americans, came together and defeated the enemy.  As we are so desperately searching for meaning, why not find it in a place where we can be brought together as a nation?

So please, enough with commemoration of minor victories of a foreign people.  We have our own victory over evil to remember.  Grab a bottle of vodka if you must.

March 19, 2015

Trials And Tribulations of Mr. Russian Frank Sinatra

Filed under: politics, Russia, Soviet Union, Ukraine — Tags: , , , — edge of the sandbox @ 5:58 am

The West vowed sanctions for the Russian annexation of Crimea, but because we like to think of ourselves as nice people, ordinary Russians had to be spared.  Instead sanctions targeted a limited number of individuals deemed to be able to influence the Kremlin’s policy making.  Or maybe we just wanted the measures to be full of loopholes for our own insiders because if the goal was to punish those who support Putin’s policy, that would be two fifths of the population of the Russian Federation.

Since then Russian economy suffered from declining fossil fuel prices which many Russians attributed to the wicked ways of uncle Sam and stood by Putin as predicted.  If anything, the economic downturn accompanied by the sharp decline in relations with the West gave meaning to their suffering.  The way Russians see it, NATO wants them on their knees, and they are more than ready to tighten their belts for the glory of the Motherland.

From time to time the West finds it necessary to further expand punitive measures.  For instance, the US and Canada banned Alexander Zaldostanov, the leader of the Night Wolves biker gang who took part in operation Crimea.  Said individual, a Putin buddy and some kind of Russian Orthodox (hopefully he attends church more than once a year), welcomed the news:

I would very much like to thank [U.S. President Barack] Obama for recognizing my modest services to the motherland. And I promise that I will do all I can so that his concern for me only grows.

The crooner Iosif Kobzon, a native of Donetsk recently banned from entering EU for entertaining the pro-Russian forces in breakaway Donetsk and Lugansk, would very much like to travel to Europe. So much so that he suggested that Russia, in the old Soviet manner, should refuse exit to the continent to celebrities on the other end of political spectrum.  The cancer-stricken 77-year-old is banned in the US, too, but for a different reason.

Kobzon during the cringe-inducing performance of Donetsk People’s Republic’s anthem with DNR “Prime Minister” Alexander Zakharchenko. A few months later Zakharchenko’s statement that Ukraine is run by “miserable Jews” made headlines in the West

Kobzon is often billed as the Russian answer to Frank Sinatra, a rather odd comparison.  He is without a doubt an accomplished vocalist, and his style has a mid-century vibe to it, but he couldn’t make it swing if his life depended on it.  The classic Kobzon fare bellow called Журавли (Cranes), recorded in 1970 at a Militiaman Day celebration, is a quazi-religious memorialization of the fallen soldiers [of the Great Patriotic War or WW2]:

1970 Is a bit late for this kind of aesthetic, but Russia is typically slow to catch up; their riot grrrls made a splash in 2012, for instance.  Outdatedness was Kobzon’s blessing.  The singer was born a few years prior to WW2, but his chief admirers were people who lived their adult lives through it, his parents’ generation.  In the late Soviet days the younger audiences were craving the forbidden rock-n-roll.  Kobzon’s performances, void of any hint of a cutting edge aesthetic and in concert with the party line, were featured on state television so often, they came to represent the creative slump of the Brezhnev era.  Looking back at it, I can appreciate the subject matter of at least some of his songs, and I can see what moved my grandparents, but I feel no nostalgia.  I prefer the real Sinatra.

Where Kobzon is most like the icon of American cool is mafia connections, which is what got him banned from the US.  The crooner himself vehemently denies involvement in any illegal activity.  He admits h’d been friendly with the crime boss Vyacheslav Ivankov who was gunned down in 2009, but, as Kobzon explains:

“I have many gay friends. But does that mean that I am gay? I know many artists who know the same group of people,”

Speaking of which, Kobzon’s second wife, also a native of eastern Ukraine, was a Soviet diva Lyudmila Gurchenko (above) who, in the post-Soviet days, turned up as a darling of Russian gays

If the mafia myth makes Kobzon interesting, he has other things working for him in that department.  He is, without a doubt a brave man.  The singer toured frequently, making many stops in Soviet and Russian war zones.  He was the first Soviet celebrity to entertain soldiers performing nuclear clean up in Chernobyl.  He made a reputation for himself for standing up to anti-Semitism:

One of the most prominent Jews to succeed in the Soviet Union, he refused to join a state-sponsored Anti-Zionist Committee in the early 1980’s. When a rabid Russian nationalist, Gen. Albert Makashov, stood in Parliament and denounced ”the Zhids,” a derogatory term for Jews, Mr. Kobzon walked out.

Iosif Kobzon (middle) at the Wailing Wall

In Soviet times he played godfather to Moscow bohemians.  In the country where blat (or connections) were more important than money, with a few calls to friends in high places he took care of fellow actors.  In most cases it involved procuring apartments — not an easy task in the Soviet Union — but he took care of other needs as well, for instance, he helped to organize the funeral of underground singer songwriter Vladimir Vysotsky.

Kobzon was a Communist and is a Duma member and a friend of Putin’s.  AND he’s a known smooth operator who never turns down a call to resolve a crisis.  When in 2002 Chechen terrorists seized a Moscow theater, he, together with another politician, was able to negotiate release of a woman and three children.

Ready for something surreal?

(The unkempt figure in the audience that appears at about 5:20 marks looks oddly familiar.  I can’t quite place him, but I want to say he’s St. Petersburg rock scene fixture.)

Yes, that’s “My Way” translated into Russian as “My Journey”, not “My Choice”, sung before the sprawling map of the Russian Federation and by the man who launched his carrier by winning a Joseph Stalin competition.  Yes, he is accompanied by a Russian Army choir (in the old days Kobzon was frequently accompanied by the Soviet Army Choir).  This is not the Russian answer to Frank Sinatra; this is Russian answer to Sid Vicious.  The latter might sing “My Way” all he wants, but the only adequate response to his squealing is to schedule an intervention.

It’s not that Kobzon didn’t do it his way.  He didn’t have to stick up for Israel or his artist friends or the doomed soldiers, and if he parroted the party line, it’s probably because he believed it.  But here lies the difference between a citizen and a subject. If citizen is free to make his decisions and build his destiny, a subject gets his way by cozying up to the regime.  Kobzon owns his accomplishments to being friendly with the regime more than to his talents and hard work.  His admirers know his history, and when he performs the song, they think “What an admirable gentleman!”  Sinatra is different.  In Bono’s famous description:

You know his story ’cause it’s your story
Frank walks like America — cock-sure

For comparison’s sake, Kobzon was interviewed in 2002 by the NYT which observed:

Yet the 64-year-old crooner with the obvious dark wig and heavily tinted eyebrows knows nothing if not his place. Circumspection is second nature to anyone who survived the Soviet system, let alone thrived […]

Cock-sure.  Circumspection.  Case closed.

Russians took the Kobzon ban personally, starting an Je Suis Kobzon twitter campaign.  They too are circumspect, trying to carve out lives within the space made available by the power.  They also know that although Kobzon is a member of Putin’s inner circle, he, just like them, doesn’t make any key policy decisions.  He’d been banned from the US for nearly two decades, and he’s gone public with his dissatisfaction with Russian officials who, in his opinion, could do more for him.  Did anything change?  No.

Sanctions didn’t change anything either — other than to get a whole bunch of people angry.  The Russian opinion of the United States stands at the all-time low and popular anti-Americanism is nothing like I remember from the 1980’s.  As the Russian economy is slowly righting itself from unrelated damage, we are talking more about “targeted sanctions”.  Is there a there there in American foreign policy?

P.S. Curiously enough internationally renown soprano Anna Netrebko who donated money to Donetsk opera posing with the Novorossian flag and a separatist leader last December, managed to evade sanctions.  Makes me suspect that Kobzon’s real sins are aesthetic.

March 16, 2015

Crime Mysteries of Eastern Europe

Filed under: politics, Russia, Ukraine — Tags: , , , , — edge of the sandbox @ 2:23 pm

It’s not just who killed Nemtsov, which, as we all know, has to be Putin, but nobody can prove it.

1.  Where or where was the chief suspect?  Was he recuperating from the common cold?  Or bonding with his newborn son?  Such a sentimental sovereign…

Both death and palace coup scenarios were thrown around.  I heard some Ukrainian nationalists were already having second thoughts about wishing death of their nemesis — because who’s going to come in his place?

Another possibility is that the strongman wanted the world to note his absence:

He might be not quite Ivan the Terrible, but he is a master manipulator.  My guess is that he wanted the world to pay attention to the saber-rattling which he put on upon his reemergence.

2. Putin is believed to be annihilating his critics at the rate of about one man a year.  A reptilian in charge of a country with major baggage, Vlad knows he’s being watched; plus he doesn’t quite have the will to go full-on gullag.  Even before Stalin assumed the duties of General Secretary in 1922, he already had a great many massacres under his belt.  Putin has now been in charge for a full 15 years, and while he successfully thwarted whatever moves towards democracy Russia had made in previous decade, his reign pales in comparison to that of his Bolshevik predecessor’s.

But what about Ukraine?  Their SBU (Slavic acronym for Служба безопастноти Украины) is former KGB, and their oligarchs perfected the art of the hostile takeover.  In the last month and a half a suicide epidemic swept the former Party of Regions functionaries.  Three days ago BBC reported:

Oleksandr Peklushenko, former head of Zaporizhzhya, suffered a gunshot wound to the neck and authorities said initial inquiries pointed to suicide.

A member of Ukraine’s Party of the Regions, he was being investigated over the dispersal of protesters last year.

Five other officials also died in mysterious circumstances this year.

All of them supposedly took their own lives in the past six weeks

  • Stanislav Melnyk, 53, an ex-MP was found shot dead in his bathroom on 9 March
  • Mykhaylo Chechetov, former party deputy chairman, died after apparently jumping from a window in his 17th-floor flat on 28 February; he had been accused of abuse of office and fraud
  • Serhiy Valter, a mayor in the south-eastern city of Melitopol, was found hanged on 25 February; he too had been accused of abuse of office
  • Oleksandr Bordyuh, a former police deputy chief in Melitopol linked to Mr Valter, was found dead at his home on 26 February
  • Oleksiy Kolesnyk, ex-head of Kharkiv’s regional government was found hanged on 29 January

An interior ministry source told Interfax Ukraine news agency Mr Peklushenko, 60, had committed suicide in the village of Sonyachne, near Zaporizhzhya city.

However officials said other theories were being investigated including murder.

Since then an opposition party prosecutor in the Southern port city of Odessa jumped out of the window.  I suppose at some point the panic will set in and a great exodus of PoR officials to Russian Federation will commence.

Although this wave of suicides is a new phenomenon, in March last year, Sashko Bily, aka Alexander Muzychko, an Ukrainian militant with a Neo-Nazi background and experience fighting for Chechnya against Russia in the 1990’s, died under mysterious circumstances in the Western Ukrainian city of Rivne. Bily was an ardent Maidan activist who generated a great deal of unwanted attention immediately after his comrades’ victory in Kiev when videos of him threatening local Rivne officials were posted on youtube.  According to the official version, this veteran Ukrainian fighter shot himself.  Two or three times.  Ukrainian interior ministry closed the case, but Pravy Sektor demanded further investigation.

Then there is the case of Kharkov mayor Gennady Kernes who survived assassination attempt in May 2014.  Although, like much of the rest of Ukrainian political elite, Kernes shifted his loyalties multiple times throughout his carrier, he was a lifelong member of Yanukovish’s Party of Regions.  During the winter riots of 2013-2014 he is widely believed to had organized anti-Maidan activities and anti-Maidan street thugs.  After the overthrow he appeared to be sincerely outraged and believed that Russia will take eastern Ukraine under its wing.  After the assassination attempt he started signing a different tune.

Gennady Kernes (middle) speaking at a meeting shortly after the overthrow of Yanukovich.  Quite a few Ukrainians despise Putin for not sending in the tanks

I’m sure Ukrainian investigators have their hands full even without this suicide epidemic.  My parents recently wanted to send some money to friends in Kharkov, which seemed like a good deal with hryvnya, the Ukrainian currency going through the floor.  Turns out, this is not an easy task because money wired to Ukraine is known to not reach its destination.

3. Crimea referendum.  Putin recently admitted that the decision to annex Crimea was made in the Kremlin, not on the streets of Yalta or Simpheropol.  If the poll was conducted in a totally bogus manner, the results probably reflect the genuine sentiment of Crimeans.  A Gallup survey of Ukrainians conducted in April last year showed the population of the peninsula looking forward to being Russian.  British journalist Shaun Walker recently visited the region.  He  reports:

[A]ll memory of the region’s Ukrainian past is being erased, and a harsh crackdown on voices of dissent is under way.

But at the same time, Russia’s police, judicial and civil servant corpus on the peninsula is almost entirely made up of those who used to serve Ukraine.


“Perhaps a few dozen top leaders have come in, but everywhere else, the structures which were Ukrainian before simply became Russian,” said Ilmi Umerov, who was the head of Bakhchisarai region before resigning in September because he did not want to work with the Russian authorities.

“In my region about 80% of the Ukrainian soldiers joined the Russian army, about 90% of the prosecutors’ office have gone over, and 100% of the SBU [security services] and police. I don’t know a single case of anyone from the SBU not going over to the FSB.”

Walker concludes that the ease with which Russia assumed control of the peninsula points to a lack of resistance and is perhaps indicative of loyalties of the Crimean population.

Crackdown on dissent in Ukraine is not going so smoothly.  Looks like the revolutionaries will have to break some eggs.

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