sitting on the edge of the sandbox, biting my tongue

April 20, 2015

A Few of My Favorite Things

Filed under: parenting, politics, Soviet Union, the Holocaust — Tags: , — edge of the sandbox @ 2:01 pm

We recently watched The Sound of Music with our kids, and, dear readers, I’d like to share our observations:

1. The songs, once they got into our head, seem to have permanently settled there, but mostly in a good way.  Even if Do Re Me gets a little annoying, I’m always able to chase it away with A Few of My Favorite Things;

2. Loved the film, but it’s strange, is it not, to march to the altar to a song that declares the bride “a problem”?

3. Loved the film, especially because it featured a lot of kids and the central story was that of a man and a woman meeting, falling in love and getting married, and their lives are better for that.  So quaint.  Contemporary Disney can’t get around princesses who are not ready, get entangled in relationships with trust fund babies or, worse yet, so obviously represent the frigid dead end of feminism.

4. Watching the movie I found it necessary to explain to my children, 7 and 5, about the Nazis.  I don’t think there was ever a time in my life when I had to be explained such a thing.  I just knew.  VE Day, or, in Russian parlance,  Victory Day, was a major national holiday, every family was touched by the War and the media was saturated with War-related materials.

My husband, born and raised in San Fernando Valley, doesn’t remember being explained about Nazis either.  He does remember playing WW2 with his brother, though.  I’m quite certain I played the War a few times as well, even though I was a girly girl — because it was happening on the playground.  I’ve never seen American kids today playing anything violent with a reference to historical fact.

When we talked about Nazis being “the bad guys” my 7-year-old daughter promptly found an analogy: “Or, like they litter”.  Years ago I posted about a Soviet science fiction story where villains litter.  We can find faults with the Soviet story, but it’s my children who are living the life so overprotected, that they are unable to even begin to articulate the nature of evil.  (We shelter them from good, for a good measure, too, see number 3).

I recall, years ago, reading an article in local Jewish paper about teaching kids about the Holocaust.  It recommended waiting until they were 8 to explain that something horrible happened to Jews in Europe.  Perhaps I’ve forgotten some of the detail.  Maybe the conversation didn’t have to be postponed until 8, maybe the experts thought that parents need to wait until 5, but somehow I suspect a generation ago the issue was handled differently.

Granted, I didn’t know about the Holocaust until I was a teenager when my parents taught me about it.  I thought Nazis invaded our country and burnt villages, and my family, having no problem with this narrative, simply added on to it later.  Soviets weren’t big on Jewish issues, albeit there is the frequently played song about Buchenwald performed by Muslim Magomaev, but its subtext was by no means obvious:

My daughter shared her excitement about The Sound of Music with a girlfriend her age.  She told her not to worry, the movie is not that scary, although it has Nazis in it.  “So you get to learn abut the nuns?” inquired her half-Israeli friend.  Each year, Israel commemorated Holocaust remembrance day.

5. DH further researched 60’s musicals and found the following review of My Fair Lady:

No one younger than 50 will remember My Fair Lady. When it came out on stage and in movies it was wonderful. But now it just seemed dated. Radical lesbians will hate the thing.

But we are only interested in what gay men have to say about it!

6. Were The Sound of Music a Soviet film, Captain Von Trapp would be joining the Austrian partisans. Or at least the Italian ones.  And it would be no family fare.  Soviet and Russian WW2 films do not require redemption, are quite excellent, but very very difficult to watch.

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.

January 30, 2015

Where Putin Doesn’t Go (And More About WW2 Ukraine)

When the Cold War was coming to a close, it became customary for both the West and the Eastern block to note how similar we are — we wear blue jeans, fall in love with attractive people, our youths are charmingly decadent — and so on.  Too bad we no longer feel this kinship because similarities still abound.  For instance, the Presidents of our two countries didn’t show up for both the Paris Unity March following Charlie Hebdo terror attack and the ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Unlike our own Leader of the Free World, Putin, who had been run out of Europe, now avoids uncomfortable situations like that G20 summit in Brisbane.  So he sent foreign minister Sergei Lavrov to the Paris Unity March, and Lavrov was put in a back row, while jovial Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko marched in the front.  I guess Poroshenko is now an indispensable in our war against Islamism.

At some point, probably around the time of Pussy Riot affair, Russians decided that a state’s proper functions extend to the protection of subjects’ religious feelings, no matter how shallow they run.  According to a recently released poll, while only a small minority of Russians justifies the terrorists, a majority blame either the cartoonists themselves for provoking the attack or the government for allowing freedom of expression.  So when he ditched the March, Putin didn’t exactly let his countrymen down.

I don’t think he let them down when he skipped the Auschwitz ceremony either.  The Soviet Army liberated the camp seventy years ago, but Putin, who was not personally invited by the Poles, the nation entrusted with preserving the memory of the Holocaust for reasons of geography.  The Russian strongman opted for a Holocaust Remembrance Day in Moscow.  As a descendant of people who worked and fought for the World War Two victory on the Soviet side, I’d rather see him swallow his pride and go to Poland, but I have a feeling that most Russians support their leadership in their decision to stay put, and had those who died liberating the camp been alive, they’d get Putin’s position too.

In the week before the observance Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna produced another triumph of Western diplomacy:

In a radio interview Wednesday, Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna was challenged over what the journalist called the “pettiness” of not inviting Putin, given that he is the inheritor of the Soviet Union and that the Red Army freed Auschwitz.

Schetyna replied that “maybe it’s better to say … that the First Ukrainian Front and Ukrainians liberated (Auschwitz), because Ukrainian soldiers were there, on that January day, and they opened the gates of the camp and they liberated the camp.”

Which gave Mr. Lavrov an opening to lecture the world about Soviet internationalism:

“It’s common knowledge that Auschwitz was liberated by the Red Army, in which all nationalities heroically served,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “We believe that the mockery of history needs to be stopped.”

The group of forces involved in the liberation of Auschwitz was called the First Ukrainian Front after it pushed the Nazis back across the territory of then-Soviet Ukraine before moving into Poland.

It should be noted, that the war was more or less a stalemate until Soviets pushed back into Ukraine and began conscripting men from the newly liberated lands.  This, however, is Soviet Ukrainian history, the one that New Ukraine turned its back on last year.  In fact Ukraine now celebrates Defender of Fatherland Day once known as Soviet Army Day, on the anniversary of establishment by the Nazi Organization of Ukrainian Nationalist of Ukrainian Insurgent Army.  As I’ve said before, Ukraine has some soul-searching to do, and they have to come up with something better than unfolding of the Ukrainian flag at Auschwitz. Was it in honor of the victims or the guards, by the way?

The man who opened the gates of the concentration camp is said to be major Anatoliy Shapiro.  Goosebumps.  He was a Jew born in a town near Poltava in the Russian Empire’s Pale of Settlement, now Ukraine.  Shapiro, who died in 2005 in Long Island, New York, didn’t learn about the Holocaust until he immigrated to the United States in 1992.  Shortly before his death Shapiro recalled Auschwitz liberation in an interview to Jerusalem Post:

“When I saw the people, it was skin and bones. They had no shoes, and it was freezing. They couldn’t even turn their heads, they stood like dead people.

“I told them, ‘The Russian army liberates you!’ They couldn’t understand. A few who could touched our arms and said, ‘Is it true? Is it real?'”

As a commanding officer, his task was to direct his men. Half his battalion, originally 900 men, had died in battle. But nothing they had endured had prepared them for what they found inside Auschwitz.

His men pleaded with him to let them leave.

“The general told me, ‘Have the soldiers go from barrack to barrack. Let them see what happened to the people,'” he says.

Although this is not how he tells the story, I would expect him to have said “the Soviet Army liberates you”. Anyhow, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseni Yatsenyuk out-clowned himself proclaiming that Ukrainian soldiers from western cities of Lvov and Zhitomir liberated Auschwitz.  Looking on the positive side, Russians and Ukrainians actually talk about the Holocaust in the post-Soviet days.

Everyone is wrong about everything.  The monument on the grave of Anatoliy Shapiro's lists his multiple honors, including the title of Hero of Ukraine.  On top is the title of his book, Sinister marathon, written in Russian

Everyone is wrong about everything. The monument on the grave of Anatoliy Shapiro’s lists his multiple honors, including Hero of Ukraine. On top is the Russian title of his book, Sinister marathon

The kind of gal I am, I’d rather have the West remember the Holocaust as the ultimate evil and stand strong against Islamic expansion.  Russia is an autocracy, no question about it, and yet it’s also our natural ally against Islamism.  Unified pro-Western democratic Ukraine is a pipe dream, but if Russia crumbles, which appears to be our goal as far as I can decipher, Islamists are certain to make gains in Central Asia, the Caucuses and arguably Crimea.

Incidentally, the First Ukrainian Front, composed primarily of ethnic Russians, was marched to Prague after the fall of Berlin.  My high school math teacher, a Jew, was a part of that operation, but that’s a whole other story.

Update: many thanks to Mad Jewess for linking.  Read her timely update on escalation of the conflict between NATO and Russia.

January 27, 2015

Ukrainian History Revision Circa 2014

Filed under: politics, Soviet Union, Ukraine — Tags: , , — edge of the sandbox @ 10:44 am

One of the key functions of Ukrainian Prime Minister is to travel the world asking for money.  And so on January 8 Arseniy Yatsenyuk found himself in Germany, giving an interview to the German channel ARD in which he said:

We all remember the USSR invasion of Germany and Ukraine. We must not allow this [again]. And no one has the right to rewrite the results of the Second World War, and that is what Russian president trying to do.

That must explain Babi Yar.  RT columnist Bryan McDonald thinks Yatsenyuk’s comments reflect his West Ukrainian heritage:

I’ve heard similar remarks before and the location was Western Ukraine, where the PM is from. Yatsenyuk hails from Chernivsti, widely regarded as the region’s second cultural capital, after Lvov, which is viewed by many as the nationalist stronghold.

[…]

West Ukrainians believe that they lost the war. Their side was defeated. Put simply, Yatsenyuk is merely a product of his environment. However, this time he expressed publicly a view that was probably previously restricted to private discourse. It’s possible that he felt a German audience might have been sympathetic to his position. If so, that was a huge misread of the German people.

Maybe, although my guess is that Yatsen’s comment reflects the view of the world from inside the Kiev radical bubble (incidentally, the bubble is set to burst within a month or two).  You see, Yatsenyuk, who came to power in march last year and looks like a hare is mad as a hatter.  I don’t think Ukrie Prime Minister knows where he stands on anything; instead he channels various opinions heard around the capital.  Prior to the revolution, this member of the more western-oriented “orange” parties made deals with the pro-Russian Party of Regions and a recently surfaced video shows a slightly younger Yatsen speaking admirably about Putin:

“Putin saved Russia,” reasoned Yatsenyuk. “I don’t know what I would do in his place […] when you have a great ungovernable country.”  He then discussed his countrymen’s love for a strong hand.  What, you never heard that thesis?

This wild card was hand-picked by State Department’s Victoria Nuland, who, in her defense, didn’t have much to work with — Ukrainian politics being a sad sad scene.

That Yatsenyuk, who claimed that he misspoke never apologized is not surprising because Russians and Ukrainians are not big on apologies.  But even if he misspoke, if he really meant to say that after the Nazi occupation Ukraine was under Soviet occupation, he’s still dealing in revisionism.

Yatsenyuk’s statement is two-fold: he claimed that Russia was the aggressor and Ukraine an innocent victim of Soviet occupation.  Lets start with the second part.  USSR annexed eastern Galicia, the westernmost Ukrainian region, in 1939 following the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.  In that region, the followers of Ukrainian Nazi Stepan Bandera fought a bitter guerrilla war against the Soviets long after the war was over.  But this is just Galicia.

Early Soviet history in Ukraine was, to put it mildly, checkered: first they promoted Ukrainian culture through korenization, next they starved 3 million peasants.  And yet, less than 10 years after Holodomor, 4.5 million ethnic Ukrainians fought in the Soviet Army.  So when we talk of WW2 subplots, such as the German women “Russians” following the fall of Berlin, keep in mind that some of the rapists surely were Ukrainian.

This iconic WW2 photograph shows a Soviet officer leading his men into battle. The offecer is believed to be an ethnic Ukrainian Alexei Yeryomenko

After the conclusion of WW2, when in Russophone cities Holodomor was at most a faint memory, Ukrainians enjoyed a kind of honorary Russian status.  Ukraine was a recipient of Kremlin’s territorial “gifts”, most notably Crimea and Galicia. The Soviet Union was heavily economically invested in Ukraine, particularly the eastern part.  Year after year newsreels hailed a record Ukrainian harvest and record Ukrainian industrial production and historical programs on TV glorified the miners of Donbass.  (In the years of independence Donbass became a run-down region of a failed state, which goes a long way to explain the mess it’s in now).

The percentage of Ukrainian Communists was relatively high and Politburo members were drafted from the “republic”because, as Conservapedia explains:

Other reasons explained the relatively high percentage of party membership among the Belorussians and Ukrainians. These two East Slavic nationalities are culturally close to the Russians. In addition, the central party apparatus has sought to demonstrate that political opportunities for Belorussians and Ukrainians equal those for Russians.

Despite the fact that it was not an independent nation, Ukraine was awarded its own seat in United Nations General Assembly.  Marriages between a Russian and a Ukrainian were not considered intermarriages, and when the ambitious Russo-Ukrainian offspring talked about which “nationality” to chose for their Soviet passports, it was often said that the Ukrainian one is preferable because with Soviet affirmative action Ukrainians had easier time being admitted to Moscow Institute of International Relations.  I don’t know why that would matter at all — one would need serious connections to get into that school anyway.

My point is not that it was such a privilege to live in the Soviet Union, but that Ukrainians were a Soviet people.  In fact, it took two decades to slowly turn parts of Ukraine away from communism and Russia.

In 2009 “Orange” politician Yulia Tymoshenko laid a bouquet of red roses wrapped in St. George’s ribbon on the tomb of the unknown soldier to commemorate 65 years of victory in WW2. Until a year ago, general consensus among Ukrainians was that the Nazi menace was worth fighting.

Prior to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine had brief periods of independence during first, the Khmelnitsky uprising and then the civil war that followed the Bolshevik revolution.  They were set free in 1991 and are yet to complete their 40 years in the wilderness because… the first part of Yatsen’s comment.

After the victory of “Euro”maidan, on the recommendation of revisionist historian Volodimyr Viatrovych, the head of Ukraine’s Institute of national Memory, the country abandoned the annual May 9th festivities commemorating victory in what was previously known as Great Patriotic War.  It opted for May 8 observation, as customary in the West, but, unlike in the West, under the slogan “Never again” and the symbol of red poppy.

The red poppy, as in Memorial Day, supplanted Soviet and Russian St. George’s ribbon that stands for the masculine valor of WW2 victors. In early 2014 the ribbon became associated with anti-Maidan, and Ukrainian nationalist had no problem ceding the symbol. They began to refer to the pro-Russian side, with their orange and black striped badges, as “colorado bugs”

Last year ordinary Ukrainians no longer felt comfortable wearing St. George’s ribbons and only those with hard core communist and separatist tendencies joined VE Day parades.  During one such festivity in the southern city of Kherson, the Kiev-appointed governor opined that Hitler liberated Ukraine.  A local newspaper reported the event under the headline “Communist Wrestled Microphone from [governor] Odarchenko And Broke It”.

Screenshot of Khersonskie Vesti with above-referenced headline. Ukrainian publications previously disappeared their articles after I linked to them.  Free discourse, ya know

Ukrainian nationalist say that since Soviet history was fictitious, their rewriting holds the truth. Does it?  A family friend of ours regularly posts nationalist entries on his social media.  One of them was about Jews allegedly serving in the UPA, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army in WW2 comprised of Stepan Bandera followers, which proves that those were not anti-Semites or Nazis but a national-liberation movement.  So I looked up the little Putinist mouthpiece called Defending History, and surprise: UPA was running concentration camps for Jewish professionals.  Again, the man who posted the fable about the UPA Jews is a friend of the family who stayed with us in California.  He harbors no prejudice against Jews; he’s simply misinformed and confused.

Or take the following freshly pressed tweet:

 

A resident of Galician town of Ivano-Frankivsk, using some sort of amalgam of Russian and Ukrainian, denied Ukrainian responsibility for the 1941 pogrom in Lviv: “In 41 there was Soviet Union, then the fascists, that’s basically the same”.  The pogrom was the work of Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists who were eager to demonstrate to their anti-Semitism to German masters.  Ukrainian internet is swarming with examples like this one.

It’s true that Ukraine is not the only European country with a neo-Nazi problem and that Russia itself has a serious Nazi issue.  But Russia is not trying to join the EU, and if Ukraine is to enter the organization, it would enter it not despite the problem but thanks to it.

On second thought, Ukraine will not enter the EU, and it has nothing to do with Nazis.  Germany is unable to absorb the Ukrainian economy, and that’s all there is to it.  It would be nice if somewhere along the way Merkel could lecture them on Holocaust revisionism.

May 30, 2014

Sauce on The Tablecloth

Filed under: feminism, Soviet Union — Tags: , , — edge of the sandbox @ 4:50 pm

A lady who once wrote that “it has taken me 32 years to understand how to take care of myself” penned an essay calling for a national conversation on 3rd-wave-feminism-compliance of feminine hygiene products.  She proposed the thesis that the use of tampons alienates women from the natural power bestowed on them by menstruation.  (Question: why do menses stand for female power but childbearing is scoffed at?)  The revelation was all inspired by a rap video, titled “Tampons and Tylenol” (what else?) because to really understand where we are as a society, look no further than popular culture, especially black popular culture as it’s more authentic.  (Actually I kind of agree about pop culture being a mirror of society, but, gosh, it’s such a feminist cliche!)

The onset of menses is a huge event for girls, who talk about it quite a bit among themselves –so I’m not surprised that in our let-it-all-hang-out culture the topic finds its way into a song here or there or a sitcom features a joke about it.  More interesting is that the contemporary Western grown ups are so uninhibited about the whole monthly trouble thing.

In my early teens in the Soviet Union, which happened to be in the 1980’s, I had to deal with pretty heavy logistics.  Our only option was a special rubber “belt”, panties really, and inside of the “belt” we laid a runner of cotton which had to be removed and replaced once soaked.  On a heavy day, we’d carry around a spool of cotton.  Once the “monthly” was over, we cleaned and stored the device.  The “belt” was purchased at pharmacies, where, once there was no men around, we whispered the name into the ear of a woman behind the counter who then discreetly slid it into the shopper’s purse.

My “belt’s” edge rubbed against my hip, and by the time I left USSR at the age of 16, I developed a scar that did not heal until a few years later.  I suppose as far as the scars of socialism go, that one was rather superficial.

Once we crossed the border, I could choose from a variety of products, all more convenient and humane than the ones I had before.  But what if some peeping Tom was watching me shop?  To my astonishment, Western women dragged colorful plastic bags of tampons to the check out counters of supermarkets where they were often rang up by men, and the men seemed to pay little or no attention to what went down the conveyer belt.  Heck, no-one at the supermarket expressed any interest in what was rolled in the shopping cards in the plain view of the customers.  What, no sex maniacs of capitalism?

And Western women, have they no shame?  Or maybe that’s what civilization is like because, to quote Chekhov: “A good upbringing means not that you won’t spill sauce on the tablecloth, but that you won’t notice it when someone else does.”

Somewhere on the way to motherhood periods ceased providing endless fodder for girl talk.  Then childbirth and nursing became preferred subjects of powder room conversations.  Mostly I’m happy that consumer society makes it easy for a woman to go on with her life, even when bleeding and in pain.  I don’t believe a feminist needs to take any position on feminine hygiene products other than to promote economic system that eases inconvenience and perhaps celebrate the society that does not make a big deal out of it.  Then again, I don’t believe that personal is political.

October 17, 2013

In the Future, Everybody Will Be a Dissident for 15 Minutes

Filed under: politics, Soviet Union — Tags: , , , — edge of the sandbox @ 5:13 pm

UPDATE: Many thanks to professor Jacobson for linking.

Buried behind the headlines about the peons opting out of Obamacare and the Capitol Hill Republicans caving in re government slim-down, there is this: Bill Ayers is releasing a new autobiography subtitled Confessions of an American Dissident (via Insty).

I might be a bit old-fashioned, but when I was growing up, the word “dissident” had a very different meaning.  Dissidents were moral giants, they were our heroes; non-violent people — writers, scientists, thinkers — who stood up to the Soviet regime, for human rights and freedom, did so knowing that there was going to be hell to pay, and bravely endured the subsequent prosecution.  They wrote banned books and essays, and maybe talked to the Western media; what they didn’t do was fly planes into skyscrapers — or kill people in any other manner.  For speaking truth to power our dissidents were punished by the regime.  Andrei Sakharov, once a leading Soviet physicist and the father of the Soviet H-bomb, was banished to the provincial town of Gorky (the so-called “internal exile”), Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Vladimir Voinovich and many others were stripped of citizenship, Joseph Brodsky was exiled as well — after being torture in mental hospital, and Natan Sharansky endured 13 years of forced labor camp and torture.

Americans are expected to be opinionated.  Everyone is a “dissident” when his guy doesn’t win the White House, which is about every 4-12 years (to construct a more convincing “dissident” persona, left-leaning Americans are advised to register as more exotic Greens or Socialist, in which case their guy never wins).  I’m frightened by Obamacare, does it make me a dissident?  Of course not.  I’m with the majority of Americans who don’t worry about expressing their negative opinion about the healthcare overhaul to various pollsters.  When everyone is a “dissident”, no one is a dissident, even those who hate the country and everything it stands for.  They are simply Americans exercising their First Amendment rights.

I don’t know when and how it happened, but some Americans caught the dissident fever.  I met my first American “dissident” in Berkeley.  He was a grad student substitute teaching an introductory US history class at the time Second Gulf War began.  He was a painfully uncharismatic man (“painfully” because the contrast between him and the professor Litwack, a skillful propagandist he was filling in for, was stark) with a predictable worldview, thanks to which he already had a tenure track job lined up in another California four-year college.  On the occasion of the war, he took the entire class hour to explain to 800 or so students his opposition.  The little lecture of his was straight our of NYT editorial page, except that in conclusion, he said that in the Soviet Union, you know, they had their Perestroika, so now he wants one here.  He probably didn’t know that Reagan and Thatcher inspired us, and he probably chose not to know that the real dissidents (Yelena Bonner, Nathan Sharansky, Vasily Aksenov, Vaclav Havel) were in agreement with W.  From what I understand, the grad student’s position was not affected by the actual substance of the dissident’s ideas as much as the aesthetics of revolutionary change.  A Velvet Revolution-type of revolution, in his case.

At the time, the American media developed a habit of calling Bin Laden a “Saudi dissident” because in his view the Saudi royal family was insufficiently repressive.  Well, originally the word “dissident” was applied to those involved in religious disputes, so at least there is some sort of rationale there.  But still, in the light of recent history, maybe journalists could hit Webster’s to find a different was to describe the terrorist.

American “dissidents” got their “velvet revolution” in the persona of our First Black President, TM.  Only it was kind of a boring type of change, no universal struggle of good and evil that we in Easter Europe lived through.  American Progressives voted for a black dude with a radical chic name.  Next thing you know the black dude moves to curb our liberties and expand federal bureaucracies, all the while embarrassing our country abroad.  Meantime Lech Walesa endorsed Mitt Romney for President.

Now Obamster’s mentor is hurrying up to cash in on the Presidential connection while the former is still in office.  He thinks he’s a “dissident”.  The brat hates America, all right, and he had a brush up with the law, for, among other things, blowing up his GF.  Morally and politically Billy Ayers occupies the space somewhere between Sakharov and Bin Laden, but firmly on Bin Laden’s side.

September 24, 2013

Russian Claims to “Exceptionalism” in Brief

Filed under: politics, Russia, Soviet Union — Tags: , , — edge of the sandbox @ 9:44 pm

Having recently caught the largest pike in the world, Russia’s “President” Vladimir Putin felt emboldened to write an New York Times op-ed.  Either that or he ate Barack Obama for breakfast.
In that op-ed of his, Vlad the Shirtless insisted that American exceptionalism as “dangerous”.  I’m sure the main reason Putin focused on American exceptionalism is because he was addressing America’s own wishy-washy elites.  Still, lets not forget taht Russia has it’s own wanna-be exceptionalism issues. Check out this from The Primary Chronicles, the manuscript, compiled in 1113 in Kiev, widely recognized as the first attempt at Russian history:

Invitation to the Rus’

860-862 (6368-6370) [The four tribes who had been forced to pay tribute to the Varangians–Chuds, Slavs, Merians, and Krivichians] drove the Varangians back beyond the sea, refused to pay them further tribute, and set out to govern themselves. But there was no law among them, and tribe rose against tribe. Discord thus ensued among them, and they began to war one against the other. They said to themselves, “Let us seek a prince who may rule over us, and judge us according to custom [po nravu]”. Thus they went overseas to the Varangians, to the Rus. These particular Varangians were known as Rus’, just as some are called Swedes, and others Normans and Angles, and still others Gotlanders, for they were thus named. The Chuds, the Slavs, the Krivichians and the Ves then said to the Rus, “Our land is great and rich, but there is no order in it. Come reign as princes, rule over us”. Three brothers, with their kinfolk, were selected. They brought with them all the Rus’ and migrated. The oldest, Rurik, located himself in Novgorod; the second, Sineus, in Beloozero; and the third, Truvor, in Izborsk. From these Varangians, the Russian land received its name [prozvalas’ Russkaia zemlia]. Thus those who live in Novgorod are descended from the Varangian tribe, but earlier they were Slavs. Within two years, Sineus and his brother Truvor died. Rurik gathered sole authority into his own hands, parceling out cities to his own men, Polotsk to one, Rostov to another, and to another Beloozero. The Varangians in these cities are colonists, but the first settlers in Novgorod were Slavs; in Polotsk, Krivichians; in Beloozero, Ves; in Rostov, Merians; and in Murom, Muromians. Rurik had dominion over all these folk. Two of Rurik’s men [Askold and Dir] who were not of his tribe but were warriors [boyare] sought permission to go to Tsar’grad [Constantinople] with their tribe. They thus sailed down the Dnepr, and in the course of their journey they saw a small city on a hill. They asked, “Whose town is this? ” The inhabitants answered, “There were three brothers, Kii, Shchek and Khoriv, who built this burg, but they have since died. We who are their descendants dwell here and pay tribute to the Khazars [ID]“. Askold and Dir remained in this city, and after gathering together many Varangians, they established their dominion over the country of the Polianians. Rurik ruled in Novgorod. [Bold is mine, –ed.]

“Don’t thread on me” this isn’t.

I don’t think there is anything exceptional about this kind of history, and, to be fair, a republican government existed in Novgorod in the middle ages.  Novgorod was eventually swallowed by Moscow, whose then Prince Ivan the Terrible went on to call himself a tzar, the name derived from Latin Cesar.  After the fall of Constantinople into the hands of the Ottomans, Russians took to thinking of themselves as the third Rome.  C. 1520 Russian monk Philotheus wrote: “Two Romes have fallen, but the third stands, and a fourth there will not be.” Not exactly a match for American exceptionalism, but, clearly, Russian rulers thought of themselves as very special people.

Having conquered the Republic of Novgorod in 1478, Moscovy went on to expend its empire which become the world’s largest a few centuries later, occupying half of Europe and stretching all the way to the Pacific.  Russiana wasn’t exactly bringing civilization to Lithuanians or freedom to the cossacks of Zaporozhian Sich.  The 19th century Russian populist socialist Alexander Herzen called his native land “prison of the peoples”.

The Bolsheviks toppled Romanovs and undermined Orthodox Christianity, but the dream of empire remained.  Moscow became the sight of the Third International, a communist organization dedicated to fight:

by all available means, including armed force, for the overthrow of the international bourgeoisie and for the creation of an international Soviet republic as a transition stage to the complete abolition of the State.

The 1943 Soviet national anthem proclaimed that “Great Russia had assembled the unshakable union of the free republics” (a reference to the 15 “republics” of the Soviet Union), while the Soviet coat of arms superimposed hammer and cycle over the globe.  In a 1941 musical comedy “The Swineheard and the Shepard”, a young woman from Ukraine meets a young man from Georgia at an agricultural expo in Moscow.  They fall in love and coyly serenade each other: “I will never forget a friend if I met him in Moscow”.

“Proletariat of all countries, unite!” is written in languages of every republic, with the Russian version, naturally, at the center

In 1939 Stalin and Hitler divided Central Europe, and after the end of World War II, Stalin created a “buffer zone” well into Germany.  In 1979 The Politburo marched its troupes into Afghanistan, and a few years later Ronald Reagan referred to Russia as an “evil empire”. I remember my 90’s travel guide warning against attempting to communicate with Czechs in German.  Well, just try Russian.

Anyhow, I can see how annoying it is, from Russia’s perspective, to watch the US, a reluctant Third Rome.  I can see how frustrating, too, to observe Barack Obama, a bumbling fool fed on the ideology crafted somewhere in Lubyanka, and to think “We lost the Cold War — to THEM?”  Putin wants to restore Russia to its former glory, which is quite a task.  The US might be in decline, but so is Russia, and so is every other geo-political entity on this planet.  In any event, we are in his way.

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