sitting on the edge of the sandbox, biting my tongue

March 6, 2017

The Day of March The 8th

After seizing power in 1917, the Bolsheviks quickly embarked on a program of societal transformation. An integral part of their cathartic agenda was a replacement of traditional pagan and Christian holidays like Christmas or Maslenitsa with newly created socialist rites.  Arguably the most successful of the newly introduced “red calendar days”, the one that the country celebrated in earnest, was International Women’s Day, colloquially known by its temporal marking as the Day of March the 8th.  Not so coincidentally, March 8 was the most subversive of all socialist holidays, and by “subversive” I don’t mean “commie pinko”.

The origins of International Women’s Day are shrouded in mystery.  It first popped up in New York City in 1909 when women workers may or may not have held a strike on that date. In the coming years lady socialists around the Western world led their own strikes on or around March 8th.  One such demonstration in St. Petersburg in 1917 quickly escalated into the overthrow of the tsarist regime.  It is no surprise then that shortly after the October revolution the Soviets canonized the women’s solidarity day. It wasn’t until 1965, however, that the USSR made it into a major holiday giving workers the day off.

The early driving force behind the establishment of the Soviet holiday was a comrade of Vladimir Lenin named Alexandra Kolontai. Here is Ms. Kolontai explaining the meaning of the new socialist observance in a 1920 speech:

Women’s Day or Working Women’s Day is a day of international solidarity, and a day for reviewing the strength and organization of proletarian women. […]

Only the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of soviet power will save them from the world of suffering, humiliations and inequality that makes the life of the working woman in the capitalist countries so hard. The “Working Woman’s Day” turns from a day of struggle for the franchise into an international day of struggle for the full and absolute liberation of women, which means a struggle for the victory of the soviets and for communism!

One can celebrate many things — harvest, liberation from slavery, birthdays of people, countries and extraordinary historical and religious figures, but how does one mark the occasion of “struggle […] for the victory of communism” on behalf of the fair sex?

In 1965, when the Soviet subjects were allowed a day off to mark the occasion of female solidarity, Soviet women were obliged to work government jobs collecting government wages.  With professional opportunities being bleak and stay-at-home motherhood not an option, women were torn between not particularly satisfying jobs and not always appreciating families.  Without the free market working its magic to meet the needs of working families, this was a particularly difficult undertaking. American women justly complain about the double shift, but try working a double shift when you can’t drive up to a supermarket at 10:54 on Sunday night and buy everything you need to feed your family for a week.

There was also a problem with Russian men (and by “Russian” I mean the culturally Russian).  It’s not just that they generally believed women to be all around inferior, which they did and still do, but with the male/female ratio notoriously askew, there wasn’t (and there isn’t) enough of them.  And it’s not that there were so few of them, but that the ones who manages to survive wars and purges are often plagued by problems like sloth and alcoholism.  Women had to step up and do the men’s jobs, be strong when their men were weak.  Ladies were frequently seen on Soviet streets lifting and towing heavy objects, which was understood to be a problem, not a giant leap for womankind.  Those were not perky coeds who thought it would be cool to compete with men or be on equal terms with them, because they weren’t like their men at all.

Add to it the tragic but not frequently discussed at the time issue of abortion as birth control.  The exact number of abortions performed in the USSR is difficult to estimate because many of were done underground, but it’s not a stretch to say that all culturally Russian sexually active women capable of conception had more than one and often more than ten. This all took place against the background of high rate of alcohol consumption and other untreated mental illnesses.

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I’m not sure who took this picture and when, but it appears to be from my birth city of Kharkov , and it is exactly how I remember the Kharkov’s dreary side.  It has the quintessential Russian feel — sure, the girl is hot, but look at the surroundings

 

In the 70’s and 80’s, when I was growing up, Kolontai’s talk of the overthrow of capitalism was absolutely alien to Soviet reality.  But oh, did we hear about the inevitable victory of socialist labor and other related topics!  Communist ideology was inescapable: pinned to the outer walls of highrises, spewed at politinformation meetings at work and schools, saturated on airwaves — virtually anywhere and everywhere, except for our apartments and especially our kitchens.  What Russian society craved at the time was an escape from the officialdom into a private world, interpersonal relationships, inner feelings.  Personal, not political, because personal was interesting and tangible, and political was gibberish.

I when I set out to write this post, I tried to look up the quote I picked up in one of my seminars that went along the lines that the anti-Soviet was Soviet too.  I couldn’t trace it, unfortunately.  It could be attributed to a well-known dissident for all I know, it could be late Soviet folklore.  The idea here is that everything political is deeply flawed, that the Soviet system wrapped its subjects in the blanket of politics and that politics became inescapable, and that even to resist Soviet reality with a different kind of politics, like the dissidents, was to give into the Soviet system.  Living a private life unbothered by the powers that be was, from that perspective, a true act of radicalism.

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Soviet kitsch: postcard cuties bring early spring flowers to their love interests

And those, on this day Russian men give their women flowers, perfume and chocolates and children surprise their mothers with handmade crafts.  Wives and mothers spend the A.M. hours in the kitchen toiling on the labor-intensive mayo-based salads for the holiday feast to be spent with family and close friends.

The irony of the situation was quickly noted: on the supposed women’s day off it was women who busted their butts while, in best case scenarios, men relaxed in front of the television sets. (Worst case scenario? They were drinking someplace.). To offer help with housework this one day a year was considered an act of a true chivalry, but I’m not sure it ever happened, or, if help was offered, it was accepted (because who can trust dad to boil the carrots, right?) or if the offer extended beyond the manlier tasks like vacuuming the rug.

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More Soviet kitsch: Serenading mom on March 8. Note the apron on the dad

The men watched tv, first national channel mostly — the other two channels unwatchable–skipping the Supreme Soviets session honoring some proletarian femmes, perhaps noting a program that bemoaned the way women are treated in everyday life and always enjoying the operetta.  Lots of it was aired that day, with the aria of Boni from Imre Kalman’s Silva deemed particularly good fit for the occasion:

“One cannot live without women in this world, oh no,” croons  Boni. “As the poet said, they are our happiness.”  Organizers of #DayWithoutWomen please take note.

When the Soviet empire came crumbling down, some socialist holidays were disposed of, but there was broad consensus that the New Year’s Eve, which still remains the most important holiday throughout the Russian cultural space, and Women’s Day are worth keeping.  It remains a deeply ingrained part of post-Soviet tradition.  Ukraine’s controversial Institute for Historical Memory proposed abolishing this vestige of Communism a month ago this year, but that fell of deaf ears; March 8 is genuinely popular in this set in its ways country.

In Russia and its former holdings the holiday  continues to functions as a combination of Valentine’s Day and Mothers Day, but with a Russian twist.  It’s perfectly normal for a Russian publication to make a list of hottest female politicians in the country, just to celebrate the womankind.  A more western-oriented feminists in That part of the world, both of them, look at March 8 traditions with suspicion these days, but they are marginal creatures.  There might be a different way to authentically commemorate a women’s day, but, not unlike the real communism, it hasn’t been tried yet.

America doesn’t need International Women’s Day because our consumer-oriented, individualist society developed different, better ways of showing appreciation of women. When Valentine’s Day and Mothers Day are true people’s holidays, March 8 was an occasion celected by the state that Soviet society made its own.  And yet there is something that we, feminists especially, can learn from this Soviet holiday, namely the idea that private life is worth living for its own sake, that at the end personal happiness is all that matters and that it shouldn’t be sacrificed on the altar of second wave feminism.

I want to leave you with a song by Alla Pugacheva, a spirited redhead with clear, powerful voice, who, in the 70’s and 80’s became the embodiment of personal, not political turn in the Soviet psyche.  She sang of feelings and relationships, love and artists, childhood and motherhood, and it resonated.  I didn’t appreciate Soviet pop at the time, but now, looking back, I get the phenomenon.  So here is One Million Scarlet Roses, her mid-80’s megahit we expected to hear on the first national channel at prime time on International Women’s Day.

December 1, 2016

1930’s Revival Ideas — in case Steve Bannon Needs Help Strategizing

Filed under: politics, Soviet Union, the Holocaust, Ukraine — Tags: , , — edge of the sandbox @ 11:01 am

Last month (this blog moves veeery slowly) the President-elect’s “Chief Strategist” — or whatever — Steve Bannon rejected the term “white nationalist” opting instead for “economic nationalist” — or whatever:

“Like [Andrew] Jackson’s populism, we’re going to build an entirely new political movement,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s everything related to jobs. The conservatives are going to go crazy. I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. [Andrew Breitbart is spinning in his grave– ed.] With negative interest rates throughout the world, it’s the greatest opportunity to rebuild everything. Shipyards, iron works [I hear Trump used to host cocaine parties, — ed.], get them all jacked up. We’re just going to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks. It will be as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution – conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement.”

Thanks, in part, to the rather unfortunate 1930’s experience, I am very much an economic internationalist, globalist even.  My biases are no secret.  And as a very biased person I find the claim that the 30’s were “exciting” rather odd. Can we replicate this 80-year-old success story in the 21st century?

1. Ask an average American what comes to his mind when we talk about the “exciting” 30’s, he’ll inevitably mention bread lines.  Being familiar with scarcity economy of the Soviet Union, I can assure you that yes, food lines are a fascinating part of social life.  You never know when a fist-fight will break out, for instance, or who the sales lady is going to berate and why.  I have no idea what it was like in the 1930’s US, however.  Judging by the vintage photos Americans might just be a tad more civilized.

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The length of this 1932 bread line is not unimpressive

How likely are we to witness the emergence of Depression-era bread lines? The federal government had been in the business of subsidizing agriculture since the Great Depression; the size of the hand-outs to America’s farmers is now in the tens of billions. We produce more food than we can consume and historically we’ve been feeding our enemies, like the Soviet Union. We are not going to run out of food, it’s just a matter of passing it on to the plebes. Thanks to Barack Obama we have EBT so that the handouts to individuals can be distributed through privately owned groceries and a with pretense of dignity.

It looks like we are poised for Trumpulus and that the increased federal spending which crippled the US economy over the previous decade is here to stay.  However, the incoming president is unlikely to get rid of federal  programs that masks poverty. So, no, breadlines are not coming back.

2. Most inspirational rallies. Uh, who can forget Nuremberg! Immortalized by Leni Riefenstahl, one of the most celebrated filmmaker of her age, Nuremberg showed adoring, orderly crowds cheering Der Furher at a 1934 mass gathering. Can we see a revival of this type of mass events in the Western world?

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A 1942 close-up of some of the individuals in this picture can be found at the bottom of this post

The Nuremberg rally was attended by 700,000 Nazis and supporters.  By comparison, the biggest rally in the United States is said to be the 2008 Obama event in St Louis that drew 100,000 attendees.   Although the outgoing president once spoke to 200,000 people in Berlin, I have little doubt that the crowd was far less lockstepish than thier great-grandparents.  I highly suspect most of them came to see whatever band was headlining that show, anyway.

Contemporary rallies lack the organization on display in Leni Riefenstahl’s film. Donald Trump rallies, for instance, were frequently marked by violence.  Even when the neoNazis get together, a soccer-inspired street brawl is more probable outcome than an orderly march. Verdict: in contemporary Western world, at least, a replication of Triumph of The Will is unlikely.

3. Impressive parades. While Hollywood adored Leni, it completely ignored her equally talented and arguably just as morally warped Soviet counterparts. Much groundbreaking propaganda photography was produced in the 1930’s USSR.

Every state holiday (and there were many) Joseph Stalin observed parades from the Masoleum tribune. Army units came at the head of the procession, followed by marching athletes, workers, folk dancers children, children athletes– and what have you– from every corner of the vast homeland.

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No, this is not a still from a horror flick. This is a male athlete unit at an 1937 Red Square parade.  It should be a still from a horror flick, though

My town has 4th of July parades.  It’s mostly happy people in vintage cars and Trader Joe’s handing out candy to tots.  Cute.

4. Kristallnacht. Aryan blood was brooding with excitement on November 9, 1938.  On that day, countless Jewish homes and public buildings were ransacked, 1000 synagogues burned and 7000 businesses destroyed by Nazi paramilitary forces and German civilians.  The pogrom left hundreds, if not thousands, of German Jews dead and 30,000 were shipped off to concentration camps.  Kristallnacht marked the beginning of the Holocaust.

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Fire makes for a captivating scene

Unfortunately, race riots happen in the United States with predictable regularity.  However, they are highly unlikely to result in anything like the Final Solution.  Instead, we have young black men with vague feeling of dissatisfaction and wounded pride burning and looting their own neighborhoods.  The rioters might be egged on by powerful individuals who use the rioters’ desperate circumstances for their own political gain, but we don’t have a state apparatus dedicated to annihilating a minority.  Our institutions are too strong and Americans are too good of a people.

5. Holodomor.  Literally translated as starvationdeath from both Ukrainian and Russian, Holodomor was a man-made famine, a function of the Soviet collectivization of agriculture.  In 1932, Stalin stepped up grain confiscation from peasants in the most fertile regions of Ukraine, Don basin, northern Caucasus and Kazakhstan.  The idea was to force farmers into feudal-like collective farms, prop up the cities (USSR sold some of the grain and directed the funds towards industrialization) and to punish the areas that resisted the Bolshevik takeover a decade earlier.  During that year, Ukraine had lost 4 million souls and the population of Kazakhstan had shrunk by 38%, with ethnic Russians soon overtaking the Kazakhs as the largest ethnic group in the “republic”.

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1933. Starved peasants lining up the streets of Kharkov, my native city and then capital of Ukraine

Over the last quarter century, Ukraine made Holodomor raison d’etre of its independence.  Good for them.

No country willing to accept economic aid from the United States will experience a famine today.  Then again, Holodomor was man made, and there’s North Korea.

5. Awe-inspiring labor camps and purges. GULAG is Russian abbreviation for Main Administration of the Camps; it was set up shortly after Bolshevik revolution but the party didn’t really start until the 30’s.  That’s when the Great Purge haunted, in no particular order, Soviet intelligentsia, government and party officials, peasants, military officers, persons with non-Russian sounding names, hapless jokesters and those in a wrong place at a wrong time. Although the exact number of victims is hard to calculate, historians estimate that up to 1.2 million Soviet subjects perished in the 1937-38 Terror and about 14 million went to GULAGS in the period between 1929 and 1953, Both criminals and “enemies of the people”.  Over a million died in the GULAGS.

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This is the mugshot of one of my favorite poets, Osip Mandelshtam.  After witnessing Holodomor in southern Ukraine, Mandelshtam wrote a poem sharply critical of Stalin. He was imprisoned in 1938 and charged with counterrevolutionary activities. Mandelshtam died in a transit camp the same year

GULAGS today? Do we still have an embargo on Cuba?

6. Nothing highlights the geopolitical excitement of the 1930’s like the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact which split Europe between German and Russian spheres of influence.  Presented as a “non-aggression pact”, it led to the Nazi-Soviet division of Poland, Soviet occupation of the Baltics, parts of Finland and Romania and German occupation of Czechia.  The arrangement failed to thwart the war between Germany and USSR.

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“To your health!” Said Stalin.  “To Poland!” Exclaimed Ribbentrop

Germany today is contained within NATO and Eastern Europe is now under our nuclear umbrella.  Under this arrangement, a direct Russian attack unlikely. Yet Donald Trump’s surrogate Newt Gingrich opined in July that “Estonia is in the suburbs of St. Petersburg” adding that the Baltic nations need to worry about our commitment to some of the NATO members’ defense.  On the other hand, Trump’s pick for Secretary of Defense general James Mattis Appears to be a fan of the Baltic country, so the future of NATO and Central Europe does not seem to be in jeopardy.

7. If you got an impression that Europeans had all the fun in 30’s, consider the Rape of Nanjing.  Imperial Japanese Army executed up to 300,000 of Chinese civilians and disarmed soldiers, tortured, raped and looted.  Riveting!

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A disarmed Chinese POW about to be beheaded by a Japanese soldier

Given how Japanese birth rates are through the floor, they are not likely to invade and slaughter anyone.  In other parts of the world such things continue to happen: think Aleppo.

Exciting time, as you can see. Some of the excitement ended in 1942 on the shores of Volga.

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Who doesn’t want to crash after a whole decade of excitement?

Historical change can be hard to spot.  In December 2014 my friends in Ukraine could not believe what was happening to their country.  Looking back, of course, it all seems obvious: Ukraine was, and still is, a failed state.  The self-proclaimed Leninist Bannon is wrong, however.  We are not going to party like it’s 1938 any time soon.  We are, in all likelihood, going to have a corrupt, wasteful presidency.  Conservatism might just eviscerate.  Divisions along the racial lines will only get worse.  National debt will soar.  International order will be checked by Trump’s real estate ambitions.  Autocratic regimes will flourish. And so on.  We are not about to experience a totalitarian nightmare on the global scale like that of the 1930’s and 40’s.

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.

#Ferguson.

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

September 8, 2015

Degrees of Unwantedness

Filed under: Europe, politics, Ukraine — Tags: , , — edge of the sandbox @ 1:27 pm

Twenty five years ago I was a stateless person crossing the Austrian border in a sealed train.  Demographically speaking my kind was negligible, but still no country in Europe wanted us.

We had it better than our immediate predecessors. In the 70’s and the early 80’s we, the former Soviet Jews, subjects to Arab terror attacks, were sequestered at an run-down high-rise in outer Vienna — read this beautiful essay by the late Svetlana Boym.  Thirty years later Boym was still reeling from the experience, but not complaining.

I can vaguely remember men with large guns patrolling the platform when our train full of Jews arrived to Vienna. I didn’t find them odd because uniformed soldiers were a normal site on a Soviet street.  Although my parents swear they were IDF, I doubt a sovereign country that Austria was at the time would let a foreign army operate on its soil.  In any event, were were housed in a rooming home in central Vienna, next to an operetta theater.  I walked the streets of the city with three other teenagers whose families shared apartment with us.  We were in awe.

Three weeks later, after declaring our intention to move to the US instead of Israel, we were shipped off to Italy where we stayed on a semi-legal basis thanks to an agreement between the United States government and that of Italy.  My parents were nervous about the trip in a sealed train, but I, in my teenage brain, was looking forward to seeing Rome.  I felt secure in the knowledge that tens of thousands of those who came before me had safely arrived at the destination.  In my head I was already composing letters to my girlfriends in Ukraine, telling the jewels of Western civilization resting behind the iron curtain.  Also, our train went south, not east.  Two cheers for the teenage brain.

I can relate, but I’m not moved by the 3rd world migrants forcing their way to the land of milk and honey.  Syrians among them left a war-torn country, but apparently they don’t feel that the land on which their families lived for centuries was worth a fight.  These military age man opted for reaching Germany; and once they get situated there, they’ll send for their clans.

These men are paying a premium to human traffickers, suggesting that some of the migrants come from wealthy families, and might have unreasonable expectations from their future place of residence.  One can live quite comfortably on German welfare, but this is hardly the kind of luxurious existence one leads in the Gulf States.  When the migrants, who already showed themselves to be quite hostile to Europeans figure that out, what happens?

I suspect European humanitarians have a soft spot for brown children.  They are crying bitter tears for a child that fell a victim to smugglers but doing their best to look the other way when there is a real life war raging on their continent.  Two years ago at Independence Square in Kiev Ukrainians listened to speakers promising them visa-free travel to Europe.  I daresay this, and not any kind of national idea, was the chief appeal of the Euromaidan movement to those Ukrainians who found it appealing.  The way things stand in their country, they travel to Lviv, a city flush with Western architecture, to get a whiff of the West.  Needless to say, it’s not up to Ukrainians to decide what kind of people the European Union will let in within its borders (apparently it’s up to Arabs), so as the war in the East heated up, EU further restricted travel from Ukraine.

Did she dream of Paris? This picture young mother and child killed, allegedly, by Ukrainian bombardment made the rounds on the Russian Internet last year.

The Kremlin, on the other hand, relaxed entry, enabling, according to the official data, two and a half million Ukrainian nationals to move to the Russian Federation.  Not all of them are strictly speaking refugees, many are laborers and a large number are on the run from conscription.  We have to commend Russia on choosing its refugees carefully.  Those Ukrainians are basically Russian people; they share the host country’s language and mentality and quite a few are done with Ukraine.  Russia is a natural choice for them the way Gulf States would be a natural choice for the Syrians.  And yet, had the Ukrainian nationals, for economic or whatever other reasons, fled West, unlike the Arab migrants they’d be indistinguishable within a generation or two.

9/9/15 UPDATE: Wasn’t there a near-riot situation in Ladispoli circa 1987 that got sorted out by social workers by the time the polizia arrived?

9/13/15 ANOTHER VIGNETTE: The Velvet Revolution happened as train passed by Prague on the way out of USSR.  That was cool yet worrisome because during our stay in Vienna we hoped one night to get standing room only tickets the Opera house.  Seeing a sizable number of Czechs pop up on the streets of the Austrian capital, we feared the standing room competition.  We got to the theater early and spent some time waiting in line in the cold.  We did get in, with the Czech, and the two totally amazing creatures that a few years down the road I learned to identify as art school hipsterati.

“What do we want?” “Tickets to Madama Butterfly!” “When do we want them?” “NOW!”

Speaking of which, that being 1989, I found that all young people in suites in Vienna’s downtown business district spotted Mohawks.  Or it seemed that way to me, being fresh out of USSR.  Sweet innocence.

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.

July 6, 2015

Gay Marriage As Foreign Policy Weapon

Filed under: politics, Ukraine — Tags: , , , — edge of the sandbox @ 6:10 pm

When in November 2013 I first started following the events in Ukraine, I noticed that Maidan supporters were reassuring their reluctant countrymen that no, Eurointegration doesn’t equal gayification.  “Look at Georgia,” they said. “They broke off with Moscow, but when local homosexuals tried to stage a Pride Parade in Tbilisi, it was attacked by vigilante patriots”.  They were referring to the failed Pride attempt in Georgia’s capitol earlier that year.

A few months later President Yanukovich fled to Russia and a new government was established.  That government, lauded in English-language media as “pro-Western”, is ostensibly eager to establish Ukraine’s European credentials.  What better way to do it than to show tolerance towards sexual minorities?

Unfortunately for the new Ukrainian leadership, they are ruling a country where attitudes towards gays are not very different from Russia’s.  My readers recall that a few years ago the latter caught a lot of grief, deservingly, for it’s anti-gay anti-free speech laws.  Putin became quite a bogeyman for both the Left and the Right, and in 2014 The Advocate even made him villain of the year.  Not sure why, because, as heinous as the new Russian laws are, they are no match for sharia-sanctioned homophobia.

Can we please go easy on Hitler comparisons?

So, naturally, when the Kiev protests made headlines, the Right sided with the protesters because of Putin’s authoritarian expansion, and the Left sided with the protesters because of Russia’s homophobic sentiment.  Lets set aside the small issue of Ukraine’s own history of totalitarianism and look at homophobia.

In June 2013 the country’s first LGBT “Equality March” ended without an incident, but last year’s Pride was canceled out of security considerations. When in October 2014 promoters attempted to show a gay-themed film in Ukrainian capital, the theater, oldest in the city, was set on fire.  Perpetrators were never found, but homophobes are naturally suspect.

This year Kiev decided to hold the LGBT parade, albeit to make things interesting Ukrainian military command announced that draft papers will be served to participants during the march. (See my previous post on draft dodging in Ukraine). Dmitry Yarosh, the leader of “far right” Right Sektor, the group instrumental in bringing down Yanukovich little more than a year ago, threatened to call up troupes from Azov Battalion stationed in east Ukraine to prevent Pride Parade from happening. If one has any questions about the nature of that military organization, take a look at one of their pictures below. The flag in the middle reads Azov in Cyrillic. Can’t say I like them holding that NATO flag.

Which Azov Battalion? Why, this one!

The LGBT march did take place June 6 in a Kiev suburb, a location held in secret until the very start, and it lasted about a half an hour.  300 modestly dressed participants marched 500 meters before being stopped by police when dozens of the Right Sektor men hurled petards.  Skirmishes between the Right Sector and residents of the neighborhood also took place.  Several policemen were wounded (out of hundreds deployed) and tens of people were arrested.  It should be noted that the Kiev police chief is also a Nazi.

Since Ukraine did get the pictures of rainbow flags in Western media outlets, the march can be considered a success.

This brings us to gay flags being flown by US embassies and John Kerry making LGBTBBQ issues a US foreign policy priority.  Ukraine today is a moribund state kept together by IMF loans co-signed by the United States, but all they could produce for our viewing pleasure is 30 minutes of a gay pride.  Can’t say I’m impressed.

I am very much in favor of gay marriage for ISIS; in fact, I think we should force them to adopt it.  Unfortunately, the only places where we have leverage with this issue are the ones who depend on us, and ISIS doesn’t.  As for the basketcase called Ukraine, it should really have other priorities.

March 27, 2015

The Remnant of Ukrainian Jewry

Filed under: politics, Ukraine — Tags: — edge of the sandbox @ 9:15 am

When last September “far right” Ukrainian groups swarmed Kharkov, Ukraine’s second largest city, and toppled the ginormous Lenin statue on central city square, Chabad reported that local Jews “watch and wait”.  Wait for what, an airlift?

In the 1880s the largest Jewish community in the world was in the Russian Empire’s Pale of Settlement with what is now Western Ukraine being the region with the highest density of Jewish population — up to 20%.  After more than a century of (and your Ukrainian nationalist friends will be able to fill you in on some of the detail) pogroms, segregation, breakdown of Jewish communal life and abolition of the Pale that followed the 1917 revolution, the Holocaust, official and unofficial Soviet anti-Semitism and the chaos that followed the USSR breakdown, Jewish communities in Ukraine are all but gone.  According to JDC 300,000-350,000 Jews were left in all of Ukraine as of February 2014, albeit the number is up for dispute because of the sky-high intermarriage rate.  The map of Ukrianian Jewish population looks very much like an ethno-linguistic map of the country.  Jews continued living in urban areas, primarily in the South-East, the capital of Kiev and, to much lesser extent, the city of Lviv.

The South-East is claimed for Novorossiya, so all Jewish communities there are potentially in the line of fire.  At the moment the hostilities between the Russian-led separatists and Ukrainian forces are down.  Yet both sides are said to be rearming and regrouping, so expect the next round of fighting to commence in… April?  The fighting might be a bit complicated this time around due to a feud between President Petro Poroshenko and the former Dnepropetrovsk governor Igor Kolomoisky — the latter “does not rule out” an anti-Kiev insurgency in his city.

Kiev, home to the largest Jewish community in Ukraine, is, like many other Ukrainian urban centers, going through reshuffling of police forces.  When on October 31, 2014 interior minister Arsen Avakov appointed Vadim Troyan the chief of regional police in the capital:

[t]he Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KHPG) has objected to Troyan’s appointment, describing him as a leading member of the Patriot of Ukraine organization, which some have described as neo-Nazi. Patriot of Ukraine is linked with the Social-National Assembly of Ukraine and has displayed symbols reminiscent of those used by the Nazis on its banners and other materials.

Troyan, who ran for parliament on the ticket of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front, is described on that party’s website as a member of the organization.

KHPG says Patriot of Ukraine espouses “xenophobic and neo-Nazi ideas” and engages in violence. It based its opposition to Troyan’s appointment on allegations by anti-Semitism researcher Viacheslav Likhachev, who is connected to the local Jewish community.

Both KHPG and Likhachev have admitted that there is no specific evidence pointing to anti-Semitic views on the part of Troyan, but both believe his links to the group make his holding such a sensitive position worrisome.

For some reason the last sentence is not very reassuring.

Tiny Jewish communities remain scattered through western Ukraine, the most numerous one is in Lviv.  Throughout the 1930’s Jews comprised over 30% of the city’s population, and after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the area was flooded with Polish Jews, many of whom were immediately deported by the Bolsheviks.  When the Soviet Army hastily retreated in 1941, about 10,000 managed to escape with them*, the rest were attacked in the pogroms, known as Petlura Days, that immediately followed the invasion, and perished in the Holocaust.  After the war some Soviet Jews returned to the city; a year ago 11,000 resided at this once important Jewish cultural center.

In happier times of Ukrainian neutrality unpleasant things were said about the city in mainstream media in the West.  For instance:

The Simon Wiesenthal Center condemned a statement by the mayor of Lviv, Ukraine, in which he said that in his city “there has never been anti-Semitism and there will never be.”

Efraim Zuroff, Israel director for the Wiesenthal Center, told JTA on Monday that Mayor Andriy Sadovyi’s statement was “a hopeless attempt to cover up very strong manifestations of anti-Semitism.” Sadovyi made the statement Sunday at a news conference.

Zuroff noted a restaurant in Lviv that encourages patrons to dress up like haredi Orthodox Jews and haggle over prices. Another restaurant celebrates the legacy of the Ukrainian Nazi collaborators led by Stefan Bandera who participated in the murder of thousands of Jews in 1941.

The Lviv municipality on June 30 is set to award a prize named for Bandera to individuals who “helped develop Ukrainian statehood.” Many Ukrainians view Bandera and his troops as anti-Soviet freedom fighters.

Nowadays Lviv mayor Andriy Sadovyi scolds the French on anti-Semitism.  You see, France has a “larger” problem than Ukraine.  Not exactly a high bar, and not true to begin with.

The monument to Stepan Bandera in Lviv was erected on the anniversary of creation of Ukrainian Insurgent Army in 2007.  Appropriately brown in color, the sculpture is made in best traditions of socialist realism.  Tourists and residents of this eastern Galicia town can flock downtown to admire the romanticized Nazi of Stalinist proportions — the arches of the architectural ensemble reach 100 feet in the air.  As you can see, western Ukrainians know what to build in place of their Lenins.

Surely on Novorossiya “to topple” list: Stepan Bandera monument in Lviv city center

Ukrainian nationalists like to point out that so far there had been no verified anti-Jewish pogroms in their country, and that Jews serve in the current government.  Just who Ukrainian nationalists are is no secret.  For a source of anti-Semitic sentiment during the Miadan riots one can look at this entry at Gates of Vienna.  Maidan alumnus (he was the coordinator of “self-defense” units) and co-funder of what was once called Socialist-Nationalist Party of Ukraine Andrey Parubiy has an impressive “far right” resume that includes translating of Goebbels into Ukrainian.  He is now a Rada member on Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front ticket.  Either Parubiy is going “mainstream” or “mainstream” is going Parubiy.

On the subject of Jews in Ukrainian governments, it’s worth remembering what happened during the pogroms in the 1918-1922 Civil War.  Back then Jews served in the very Ukrainian governments that were perpetrating and/or ignoring the pogroms and were more than ready to vouch for their comrades.

Some Eurointegrationist Jewish intelligentsia made an alliance with nationalists calculating that as long as the promise of the entry into EU is dangled as a carrot in front of Ukrainian people, everyone can get along.  But the European dream will remain a dream simply because a country as large, as desolate and as corrupt (and as Soviet mentality-wise) cannot be admitted into EU.  Then what?

The most prominent Ukrainian Jew who, until a few days ago was on the side of this current government, is the above-mentioned Igor Kolomoisky.  Ask the European Council of Jewish Communities what kind of Jew he is.  When in 2010 the oligarch decided to make himself the head of the organization, three members resigned calling his ascension “hostile takeover” eastern European style.

Kolomoisky is a populist demagogue, a proud self-proclaimed “Jidobandera”, who owns a of a large share of Ukraine’s mass media.  He is said to be one of the financiers of the Kiev riots and sugar daddy of Ukrainian National Guard as well as paramilitary units that until recently were patrolling the streets of Odessa.  He is widely believed to be behind Odessa massacre a year ago.  This former governor of one of Ukraine’s richest regions and helped keep the south-east in line since Maidan victory.  He is a chief benefactor of the IMF (umm, US taxpayer) Ukraine bailout, but was fired in a feud with Poroshenko over the ownership of a utility company.

A still from Kolomoisky’s “Turn in A Separatist [for A Bounty]” advert that went viral April last year. I first thought the video was an anti-Semitic fake, but no, it’s “Benya’s” sense of humor

With majority of Jews being Russian speakers who live in Party of Regions strongholds, one can find more than a fair share of prominent Party of Regions Jews.  For instance, in the last decade Kharkov was run by the Jewish governor and mayor Gennady Kernes and Mikhail Dobkin.  Last year Maidan-minded Kharkovites were circulating a video about Kernes’s criminality and corruption that was also oddly fixated on his ethnic origin.  On the issue of corruption the video didn’t exactly reflect the opinion of ordinary Kharkovites who agree that while Kernes is, like all other Ukrainian leaders, a thief, still, “he did so much for the city”.

A short survey of prominent Ukrainian Jews leaves an impression that perhaps Ukraine is left with the Jews it deserved. Or maybe it got the leadership it deserved, and as it always happens, upwardly mobile Jews are terribly conspicuous.  When the situation will become impossible they will walk into their private helicopters and head for Cyprus.  It is the ordinary Jews living in Vinnitsa and Odessa who are in danger of being turned into scapegoats for their country’s failings.

Right now the pro-Russian and nationalist sides in Ukraine are most concerned with fighting each other.  However, this will not last forever, and Slavic brothers will kiss and make up, like they always have.  In the meantime, the country is in a multi-party civil war vortex, just like 1918, and anti-Semitism is on the rise across the board.

If I were a Jew in Russia, I’d leave too.  Putin likes to sell himself as a protector of minorities, but I wouldn’t count too much on his protection.  Yes, he grew up among Leningrad intelligentsia, many of them Jewish, and is not an anti-Semite.  But he stays in power by pandering to anti-Semitets, most notably to those in the Russian Orthodox Church.  Russia will see some tough times in coming years, so things are not looking good.

—-

*My last entry was about the Soviet Jewish crooner Iosif Kobzon.  Kobzon’s biographers like to explain his loyalties by the fact that he was born in Russian-speaking Donetsk region of Ukraine.  Equally important, I think, is his lesser known his Lviv connection.  Kobzon’s parents moved to Lviv shortly before the war and managed to escape as soon as it started.  The singer narrowly cheated death at the hands of Wermacht and their Ukrainian henchmen.

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