sitting on the edge of the sandbox, biting my tongue

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 9, 2015

CNN And LifeNews: Kindred Spirits?

Filed under: politics, Russia, Ukraine — Tags: , , , , — edge of the sandbox @ 9:53 am

Russia kind of sort of won its war on terror.  During the two Chechen wars they bombed out the capital of Grozny, and the total number of killed ran up to 150K, most of them ethnic Russians.  At the end the Kremlin bought off the Chechen Kadyrov clan, rebuilt Grozny and payed a tribute of $30 bil over 10 years.  Loyal Kadyrovites went on to fight in Ukraine (their Chechens opponents are fighting on Ukies’ side) and recently repelled an ISIS attack in Chechnya.  And note, there were no terror attacks during the Olympics last year.  If this doesn’t seem like much of a victory, ask yourself how much money we sunk into Iraq.

Chechens celebrate Putin’s birthday October last year. According to Kadyrov, 100K assembled at a square in Grozny

This history is worth keeping in mind in re Russian reaction to Charlie Hebdo terror attack, which, for the most part, runs from “the West had it coming” to “what about the Donbass children?”  Some are more conspiratorial.  For instance, Shamsail Saraliev, a Duma deputee from Putin’s United Russia party, opined that the terror attack is an American conspiracy:

“Smelling kind outlooks of [French President] Hollande on Russia, the terrorist state of USA organized the slaughter under the cover of religion” opined one proud Chechen

Meantime, Kremlin’s LifeNews channel produced Alexei Martynov, a political scientist who, after briefly reassuring us that he’s no conspiracy theorist, said that the terrorist attack was an American false flag operation.  You see, it’s “ridiculous” to think that people will kill for a cartoon.  Ridiculous it is.

Russia is our enemy (recently upgraded from number 1 geo-political adversary), but would you believe that our very own CNN employs a man who goes on conspiratorial tirades on Twitter?  The amusing thing about Putin is that he plastered half of Manhattan with advertising of his television channel.  Why should Americans watch it?  The ads insist that if we’d had a second opinion about Iraq, we’d never got into a war there.  No thank you, Putty; we have CNN.

For the sake of balance, Ukrainians push their own conspiracies, which, of course, propagate the idea that Moscow is somehow behind the terrorist act.  A chief proponent here is Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Djemilev, a Special Council to Ukrainian President for Crimean Tatar Affairs and a People’s Deputee of Ukraine.  Here is an exert from his interview to Ukrainian publication Depo:

This tragedy can be used in an anti-Islamic direction, which was the calculation.  To this moment, here is no concrete proof of Russian hand.  However, many analysts agree that Moscow is interested in diverting the French foreign policy from  from opposing the Russian aggression in Ukraine in anti-Islamic direction, and possibly to break up of the EU.

Puty does stand to gain from the attack in as much as his GF Marine Le Pen of National Front stand to gain from it.  Which is not to say that he’s somehow behind it.

January 6, 2015

Statism Wrapped in Statism Inside Statism

Filed under: politics, Russia — Tags: , , , — edge of the sandbox @ 9:07 am

UPDATE 01/10/15: Many thanks to Professor Jacobson for linking.

As goes California, so goes Russia?  As of January 1, 2015 Russia has banned indoor smoking:

The strictest part of Russia’s anti-tobacco law comes into force on June 1, making it illegal to smoke cigarettes in cafés and restaurants.

The smoking ban also spreads across to hotels and marketplaces, as well as long distance trains, train stations, and ships.

From now on, smoking areas will cease to exist in eating establishments across Russia, with special rooms for tobacco lovers also forbidden.

In the US liberty dies the death of a thousand papercuts — now the governments tell supermarkets how to bag our groceries, and now parents are obligated to sign in when they volunteer in schools.  Putin, who’s now been in power a full 15 years, didn’t bother with such nonsense — he went after the free press and abolished the elections of regional governors.  No fascism with a smiley face there: while Russia has been a playground of the autocrats, its social problems are notoriously intractable.  The state tried and failed to fix the behavior of ordinary people.

When, back in my wasted youth, California prohibited smoking in bars my friends were swearing to defy the law, which I found fabulous, and some bars stubbornly offered ash trays.  I should note, that while I never made a habit out of smoking, I did enjoy a cigarette or two with a drink, and I usually got them off of other people.  Soon after the ban went into effect cigarettes became hard to come by, and within a couple of years everyone quit.  I mean everyone.  Now I mostly hang out with parents who consider smoking some sort of a high crime on par with gun ownership.

Will Russians quit too?  Americans quit because Americans are law-abiding people, and Russians are not.  In Soviet days, everyday life required conducting black market deals of some sort, and living outside the law was the norm.  Corruption remains a pervasive trait of post-Soviet society in both Russia and Ukraine (as well as, I’m sure, in other “republics”).  In this light:

A violation of the ban will result in significant fines – which must be paid by both the smoker and the owner of the establishment.

An individual owner will be forced to part with 30,000-40,000 rubles (around US$870-1,150) if one of his customers is caught puffing a cigarette. Meanwhile, a chain-run corporate business must pay a larger penalty of 60,000-90,000 rubles (around $1,700-2,600) for the same crime.

Which leaves a restaurateur some space to bribe a policeman.

Will Russians quit?  They are no civil libertarians, but perhaps their cafe owners have some common sense:

Eighty-two percent of Russian restaurateurs believe the smoking ban is a “direct discrimination of smokers” and expect a huge outflow of visitors starting from June 1.

Actor Mikhail Boyarsky, here as d’Artagnan, one of his most famous film appearances, is a leader of All-Russian Movement for Smokers’ Rights. Boyarsky is an early Putin supporter

With Europe going tobacco-free, Russian looks like the last outpost of lung destruction freedom.  One would hope that the Ruskies will stick up for personal liberties, but here is the thing:

The law “On protection of citizens’ health from tobacco smoke and the consequences of tobacco consumption” was signed by President Putin in February last year and fully came into effect on June 1, 2013.

However, the restrictions were introduced gradually. Smoking was first outlawed in certain public places – including educational, healthcare, and sports facilities, as well as airports, state administration buildings, and lifts and stairways of apartment blocks.

Earlier this week, Russia’s Health Ministry announced that the anti-tobacco law is working and the number of smokers in Russia has decreased 16-17 percent since it started being introduced. (Emphasis mine.)

If Russians vote in presidential elections in which any competitive candidate is eliminated years in advance, is it really big deal if the state will ride shirtless atop a bear to rescue them from ugly cancer death?  Or, more specifically, of lung cancer because liver ailments are a whole different story.  The Russian economy collapsed late last year, and inflation is in full swing.  To help his countrymen in hard times Putin ordered a cap on liquor prices.  A reminder: many Russians never get to develop lung cancer because 25% of Russian men die before 55, and alcohol is to blame.

Speaking of uncompetitive elections, Putin put his sights on Alexei Navalny who generally presents as a liberal, if not a classic liberal, while taking positions, such as deportation of ethnic Georgians, that Western press bashfully describes as “nationalist”.  Navalny once made a video, ostensibly in defense of gun rights, comparing immigrants to cockroaches.  His nationalism is not of a popular Russian variety because true Russian nationalists are also statists and imperialists.  Navalny would rather rid of parts of the empire — he supports cutting subsidies to the Caucuses, for instance.  True Russian nationalists smell fowl; in their typical fashion they accuse this Moscow lad of being a Jew.

That a thirty-something loudmouth and a failed mayoral candidate with hardly a real following outside the country’s capital is Putin’s arch-nemesis says something about Kremlin’s ability to destroy opposition.

In any event, Navalny and his brother were tried for embezzlement, and two days shy of the New Year Alexei was sentenced to house arrest and Oleg, the brother, to 3,5 year prison term.  This is a first for Putin (family members used to be off limits in the post-Soviet days) and a further proof, if one needs any, that Russia is moving in the direction of restricting freedoms.  On the bright side, unlike our generous creditors, Russians are not harvesting organs.  Yet at the rate they are going, there might not be a liver left in the country in a few year’s time.  Lungs, on the other hand…

Could Putin have miscalculated? This is made for daytime TV: Oleg Navalny (left) possibly the hottest political prisoner today. Meantime his wife (center) is pregnant with their third baby.  Alexei Navalny is pictured center right

The title of this post is referencing this quip by Winston Churchill.

December 18, 2014

Why Normalization of Relationships With Cuba MAY Be A Good Move

Filed under: politics, Russia — Tags: , , — edge of the sandbox @ 4:05 pm

Russian opposition leader (unlikely to ever be elected to the highest office) Alexey Navalny tweets:

Cuba wrote off its $32 billion debt, and a half a year down the road normalized relations with the US. Once again, Putin outwits everyone.

Why would Putin write off Cuba’s debt?  In July it was said that Russia plans to reopen its Soviet-era spy base on the island.  If that’s not bad enough, now that Russo-US ties are deteriorating rapidly, they might find other use for “The Isle of Freedom”, as it was called in the Soviet days.

And yes, Castro operates a nice little Gulag, and Cuban Americans are aghast.  But the Castro brothers are ailing and Russia, with or without Putin, is capable of threatening our security to far greater extent than Cuba, and they are grinding an axe.  Drawing a wedge between Russia and Cuba is obviously in our interest.

Normalizing relations with Cuba was in the works for a while — it’s one of those things that makes Obamka think he’s historic.  But he could had accidentally done something positive for his country, provided that we insist on the Castros breaking up with Putin.

August 16, 2014

March for Federalization of Siberia

Filed under: Russia — Tags: , — edge of the sandbox @ 3:23 pm

Read my post about March for Federalization of Siberia at Legal Insurrection blog.  Considering the time differences, the march is probably not happening as I type.

August 15, 2014

Ukraine: Finally a Conflict Worthy of New York Times Coverage

Filed under: politics, Russia, Ukraine — Tags: , , , , — edge of the sandbox @ 9:40 pm

Given how they are too post-modern for the conflict between good and evil,the New York Times doesn’t do well with moral clarity.  Israel fighting HAMAS is too much for them.  But here comes Ukraine’s Donbas region, with war full of no good guys, and voila– they get it!

LUHANSK, Ukraine — Every night, as darkness falls over Luhansk, the focus now of intense humanitarian concern and geopolitical intrigue, a cat-and-mouse artillery duel begins.

In a neighborhood of high-rise apartments, residents can readily identify the hollow pops of mortars as they echo among the buildings. After that, rebel fighters can be seen hastily dismantling the weapons and hauling them away.

An hour or so later, the Ukrainian military’s response comes: the whistle and boom of incoming artillery shells, fired from guns outside the city, in a fruitless attempt at silencing the rebel gunners.

You mean, it’s not Russian terrorists executing multiple large-scale false flag operations bombing Ukrainian cities?  While Putin’s fingerprints are all over the whole separatist business and some of his special forces are fighting in Ukraine, let me assure you, as a person who reads both Russian and Ukrainian, and knows people in Eastern Ukraine, few in Ukraine* believe the fairytale that Russian terrorists are slaughtering loyal Ukrainians.  And that it’s not a widespread opinion presents a problem for Kiev — the kind of problem that requires a radical solution.  Many Donbas residents are so convinced that it’s Ukrainian armed forces shell their towns, that they flee to Russia en mass, while others move westward into Ukraine where they don’t register as refugees for the fear of being drafted into Ukrainian army, but busy themselves with defacing Ukrainian flags.

NYT collected the following sample of popular opinion in Luhansk:

Polina Ivanova, a resident of one ravaged area, was sympathetic to the rebel mortar crew. “Look how many civilians are dying,” she said. “They are trying to protect us, and they have nowhere else to fire from. We are surrounded.”

She stood on a stoop in the predawn with Ekaterina Vladimirova, a neighbor who had a different opinion. “Both sides don’t care about us,” Ms. Vladimirova said. “For them, it’s a game. One shoots that way, the other shoots this way, and simple people suffer.”

Oleg Romanov, 29, said he huddled in terror with his wife and 1-year-old son in an apartment while “it booms all night long, and plaster falls from the ceiling.” He then rises at 4 a.m. to take his place in a line for water, and make the rounds of stores to hunt for groceries.

“The rebels fire Grads and leave, and then, of course, the answer comes back to that spot,” he said. “The rebels are long gone by then, but people are still around.”

That’s a pretty representative spread.

The only thing NYT missed in their story is that the utilities in Luhansk, Slavyansk and other Eastern Ukrainian cities were turned off by Kiev.  All in all, the paper of record should stop covering Israel and refocus on Ukraine, which they are infinitely more adept to cover.

It’s not just Ukrainians who question the official account.  Human Rights Watch checked out what’s going on in Donbas, and came up with a report confirming the use of Grad rockets by Ukrainian Army.  Yes, I know it’s HRW.

June 19, 2014

Dear Parents of Russian Federation, Are You Nuts?

Filed under: parenting, politics, Russia — Tags: , , — edge of the sandbox @ 11:39 am

Echo Moskvy, one of the few opposition media sources (this is not an all-out endorsement, there are some despicable opposition figures in Russia) retells a personal story, corroborated with pictures, that previously made the rounds in Russian social media.  The event took place in late May:

Sick and sunburned, my daughter Ksenia returned from a Saturday celebration staged for Putin on St. Petersburg’s Isaakievsky Square.  5000 people, most of them from children’s’ choirs were appropriated to sing songs for the leader!  It was titled “The Limitless Wonder of the World”.

It was 30 degrees Celsius [~90 F – ed.] in Peter [St. Petersburg — ed.] that day.  All 40 under the sun!  The children were sent off at 8 am.

Prior to the entrance to the square, the children’s choir was thoroughly searched. Documents were required (my child is 12, so I provided her birth certificate), then bottled water and juices brought by children were confiscated.

And then as usual – everyone waited several hours for the tzar, who’s always behind the schedule.  A five-thousand-strong crowd was blazing under the sun until noon.  The only entertainment was watching the snipers that swarmed all the roofs around Isakievsky Square.  Six out of the 37 children in our choir fell ill, and, our daughter observed, people were fainting right and left — volunteers and doctors were barely able to take them away and treat them with water.

Putin appeared for about 3 minutes in the middle of the concert, took pictures against the background of several thousand children (the leader and children — always a good picture!), then gave a short speech and departed.  The concert went on until 2 pm.

Ksenia did not last until the end of performance. She regained consciousness in medical tent where they threw water on her.

With all the traffic jams, the children returned to Sestroretsk by 4:30.

The child was hungry — she was not allowed to take any food — sunburnt, and in wet clothes, so she refused to go to the Birthday party of our friends’ child.

She also missed school on Monday because she wasn’t feeling well.

She is still not 100% after this show-off (Russian показухa — ed.) for the leader, which should really be called “The limitless shame of Peter”…

Words fail me.

Words fail me too, but for a different reason.  It’s not merely that the children got sunburnt — kids get sunburns — or even that so many of them fainted. It’s that the parents allowed the state to use their kids for propaganda purposes, when they should have expected the state to use them up and spit them out.

How to raise a slave

When in 2008 a group of Beverly Hills parents encouraged their children to sing a silly ode to then presidential candidate Obama, at least half the country was vocally disgusted by the creepy production.  But note, that was parents raising their own kids.  And while some of these parents surely think, in abstraction, that children belong to the “community”, they do not realize that the logical outcome of this line of thought is wholesale child abuse.

The fatalistic submission of St. Petersburg parents is not at all surprising.  When I was growing up in the former Soviet Union, subjects, young and old, were herded to all sorts of mass events.  We went because we went. Adults had their own parallel holiday — gave to Caesar what was Caesar’s and had a semi-discreet swig of vodka.  Children came, and our little selves were twisted into submission early on.

Not much has changed since the collapse of the Soviet Union.  It did not occur to the parent, who obviously dislikes Putin, to excuse her child from the event, however easy that would had been to do.  Nobody called in sick. Everyone knows their place.

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