Beliefs and Politics

Hands Off Russia’s Sacred Cow

WWII propaganda posters. Photo by author

Soviet WWII propaganda posters. Photo by author

This week the Russian Duma passed a law forbidding the expression of disrespect for “days of Russian war glory and memorial dates tied to the defense of the Fatherland,” as well as “publicly dishonoring symbols of Russian war glory.” Anyone who spreads “well-known false information about the USSR’s actions during World War II” could be fined up to $6,000 and spend up to 3 years in prison. Using the mass media to spread the “lies” would result in harsher punishment. The bill also outlaws any “rehabilitation” of Nazism or denial of Nazi crimes.

If the law goes into effect, it will be risky for Russians to contradict the Kremlin’s official version of what happened during World War II or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Or the wars in Chechnya. Or events from the 13th through the 19th centuries, according to some sources. Russia has a lot of history to protect.

World War II in particular has long been a very sensitive subject. It’s Russia’s sacred cow. The Soviet army (which included more than just ethnic Russians) defeated the Nazis on the war’s eastern front at an immense cost. That’s reason to feel proud, but silencing any criticism of that history is just one more sad sign of where things are headed in Russia. With some exceptions, the country is still unwilling to publicly discuss and come to terms with the ugly parts of its past, a lot of which happened before, during, and after WWII while Stalin was in charge.

In 2009 a push for this kind of law failed, but this time the law’s sponsor, Irina Yarovaya, has the support. Why now? The government daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta said her colleagues were convinced by “recent events that show that attempts to rehabilitate Nazis or reconsider the outcome of WWII impact the global interests of international security and pose a threat to international peace.”

That means this is about Ukraine, and it’s no coincidence that Moscow’s been using words like “fascist” and “Nazi” lately to criticize Ukrainians it doesn’t like. It’s not a shock that Moscow recently revealed so-called “formerly unknown classified documents” showing that Stepan Bandera, a WWII-era Ukrainian hero whose name has been circulating again, collaborated with the Nazis. That’s propaganda, not news. Bandera’s partisans fought at one point with the Nazi army against the Soviet army, hoping to regain independence from Moscow, so he’s been a controversial figure for a long time already.

WWII vets celebrating Victory Day on May 9. Photo by author

WWII vets celebrating Victory Day on May 9 in Moscow. Photo by author

I’ll bet remembering WWII makes Russians feel stronger, as well as proud. Taking back Crimea and menacing eastern Ukraine must also make some of them feel like they once again live in a powerful country. (Read my post on the subject of Russia’s “great power” status if you haven’t already.) One journalist made a good point when she noted that the “law on glory” had its first reading on “April 4, on a wave of patriotism stemming from the annexation of Crimea and the propaganda war with Ukraine and the West.”

Wouldn’t you know that VTsIOM (the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion), found in a March poll that 42% of respondents said they considered “having powerful armed forces” a condition for being a great power, up from 35% in March 2013. Last year, 33% thought “providing citizens a high level of material well-being” was a necessary ingredient. This year only 25% thought so. Hhhhmm.

If Russians were free and able to rely on the rule of law, if the leaders actually prioritized the country’s interests over their own, then it could do so much more than grasp at the glory of its military past. But until Russia can create a more benevolent reason to be proud about now and optimistic about the future, it will hold on to the past like a former jock whose life has gone nowhere since he peaked during high school.




You’re Not The Boss Of Me

Putin subtle bird

Russia’s prickly president, Vladimir Putin

The expression “You’re not the boss of me!” has always bothered me from a grammatical point of view, but it’s been on my mind (on the mind of me?) since the Russia/Ukraine/Crimea story started making the news. It captures my impression of Moscow’s attitude toward Washington and perhaps the West in general.

Ever since the Cold War ended, Russian officials have emphasized their desire for Equal Partnership when interacting with us, and not being dictated to. “We have our own interests, thank you very much, and do not feel the need to do things your way.” They’ve complained about the unipolar world order that resulted when the USSR collapsed, and they have constantly pushed for establishing a multipolar system that would give them more of a voice in international affairs.

They’ve also asserted since then that Russia remains a great power, if no longer a superpower. In other words, “We must be reckoned with, we will not be relegated to the kids’ table, and need we remind you that we still have nuclear weapons?”

Scar Tissue

Rhetoric aside, it’s fair to say that the collapse of the Soviet Union was devastating for Russia. We know Putin has said he considers it one of the greatest catastrophes of the 20th century. Whatever you may believe about who won or lost the Cold War, the aftermath meant political, economic, social, and psychological upheaval for Russians and many others. Not only were people having trouble surviving, but Russia was no longer viewed as a formidable opponent, as the USSR had been. Russia was actually feared for its weakness and the possibility that it wouldn’t be able to keep nuclear material out of the hands of radicals or smugglers.

Crimea has shown that this scar tissue is obviously still relevant. In recent weeks, the Russian press has run plenty of stories about what the annexation of Crimea means for Russia and the world, good and bad. An editorial in Vedomosti said it is “presented by the authorities and accepted by the [Russian] population as an answer to defeat in the Cold War.” The paper says it might seem odd that 90% of Russians support the annexation, according to VTsIOM, but “such a reaction reflects the urge to overcome the post-traumatic syndrome and win back the respect of the outside world, even if it’s through fear.”

An earlier editorial from the same paper wrote, “Vladimir Putin can feel triumphant. Russia refused to follow rules” established in the Belovezha Accords that formally ended the USSR, which Putin “considered unfair. He demonstrated his leadership in the former Soviet space, showing his wavering neighbors his readiness to energetically oppose the West.”

“Leader among the Losers”

Not everyone in Russia is euphoric, however. For example, writer and psychologist Leonid Radzikhovsky was apparently very angry about what this move will cost Russia. After the UN General Assembly approved a resolution rejecting the Crimean referendum on independence, Radzikhovsky railed in a blog post that Russia had voluntarily taken its place at the head of the global “F students.” The 10 countries that voted with Russia against the resolution included “democratic beggars” like North Korea, Syria, Sudan, and Zimbabwe, as well as two former Soviet republics that depend completely on Moscow — Belarus and Armenia.

It’s sad, he said: “The USSR held a similar position, but it still occupied Eastern Europe. And like the Russian Federation, it knew how to build relations only on the basis of brute force and subordination.”

He criticized the pridefulness that says it’s “better to follow your own path at the head of the losers (which Russian society deeply despises…) than to be one among the masses of polite Western countries.”


Russian information campaign against Crimean Tatars?

Prince Ukhtomsky in the Battle with Tatars at Volga in 1469. 1904.  Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia

Prince Ukhtomsky in the Battle with Tatars at Volga in 1469. 1904. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia

This morning I was listening to Kommersant FM radio talk about today’s referendum in Crimea and heard something disconcerting—likely part of an information campaign against the Crimean Tatars. Over the last week or two the Russian station has been playing 1- or 2-minute spots about the peninsula’s history, and this one focused on the Crimean Khanate. It mentioned how the Tatars burned Moscow in the 16th century, killing many, and how they made a habit of enslaving and selling Russians, Poles, and others.

Is this kind of message an attempt to reduce listeners’ sympathy for the Tatars, who have a lot to lose when Russia takes over (again)? Or is it a way to prepare Russians to tolerate oppression of the group? (Remember what they did to us…..)

Samethink, Otherthink, and the Russian Constitution

Statue of Lenin in Moscow. Photo by author

Statue of Lenin in Moscow. Photo by author

A few days ago, a member of Russian Parliament announced that he and some colleagues are working on legislation that could change the country’s society and politics, and not for the better.

Duma Deputy Evgeny Fedorov and the others propose removing language from the 1993 constitution about adherence to international laws and norms regarding human rights, saying that Russian law shouldn’t be subordinated to external laws.

They also want to change Ch.1 article 13, which forbids any official state ideology.

Considering Russia’s past, that’s a sensitive issue, to put it mildly.

In the Soviet Constitution, the Communist Party was explicitly given the “leading role,” and Marxism-Leninism was the party ideology.

Depending on who was in power and what was going on politically, there were times when people felt brave enough to criticize the system—gently or very obliquely. Twentieth-century Russian literature is full of impressive examples. At other times, people suffered greatly for daring to question the official version of events openly.

English: Mikhail Bulgakov in the 1910s, during...

Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov in the 1910s, during his university years. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When the USSR collapsed and Russians wrote a new constitution, they banned any official or obligatory ideology, with the understandable aim of not repeating that history.

Fedorov’s argument in favor of bringing it back now—twenty years later—is that Russian law has no soul as long as the state has no ideology. He told Moskovsky Komsomolets, “Fundamental Law deprived of ideology is a document without a heart. We want it to have a heart.”

The journalist comments during the interview that the 13th article “is a guarantee that the state won’t persecute people for thinking differently [inakomyslie]. … We have a thousand-year history” of punishing people for that.

Fedorov is more concerned with the health of the Russian state, which he says is “ill.” “The 13th article is a ban on moral values and state support of them. How can one live without an understanding of good and evil? The state must have the right to support good, patriotism, a healthy lifestyle, properly teach schoolchildren.” He says it isn’t right that Russians should have a law forbidding ideology. “It isn’t right. It’s a lack of trust in one’s people.”

This project may or may not become law. Other deputies might oppose it, but the Duma set a powerful precedent last year by pushing Kremlin critic Gennady Gudkov out. Would supporters of Fedorov’s draft law follow this example, or threaten to? Anyway, the bill’s fate is really in Putin’s hands. He might want the constitution changed this way, or maybe he wants to scare people a little. In any event, the process of actually changing these parts of the constitution would be very complex.

In the meantime, the possibility is provoking some debate (with some of it written in verse—how Russian!). Among other things, critics are worried that removing the ban would lead to an official one-party system. It would be great to have several real, independent parties with competing ideologies, but Russians already know what can happen when there is only one party, one ideology.

In conclusion, I have some questions for Fedorov and his pals:

  • Why does ideology have to be “official” to exist or have influence?
  • Is “a lack of trust in one’s people” really the problem here?
  • Why do Russian citizens need their government to tell them what is right and wrong? Too bad they can’t simply observe their leaders to understand that.


UPDATE: The Kremlin said today (Dec. 4) that it doesn’t support the proposal to change the constitution.  According to Izvestiya, Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov said Putin is more interested in the search for a “national idea” that could protect national identity and unity. Fedorov says he is not giving up on his project.

Culture: A Shopping Cart With A Bad Wheel

Head In Hands

Head In Hands. When will the political posturing end?(Photo credit: craigmdennis)

I haven’t posted on this blog in a while. The aspects of US politics and political culture that have preoccupied me lately are frustrating, and I wanted a break from criticizing.

Plus, I was trying to spend less time thinking about politics as long as the theater of the absurd continued on Capitol Hill.

That continues still, but I read something this week about the US system of government that highlights some things I really love about this country.

Daniel Hannan’s “Saturday Essay” in the Nov. 16-17 Wall Street Journal looks at some values and institutions shared by the US and UK—and English-speaking countries in general. He says what sets them apart is an emphasis on “personal liberty, free contract, jury trials, uncensored newspapers, regular elections, habeas corpus, open competition, secure property, religious pluralism.”

Personal liberty is connected with an emphasis on the individual over the collective, which in my opinion is the root of some serious problems but also a source of great strength. Hannan makes some other interesting points, but the best part is about our legal system.

Talking about foreign observers like Alexis de Tocqueville, Hannan says

Above all, liberty was tied up with something [they] could only marvel at: the miracle of the common law. Laws weren’t written down in the abstract and then applied to particular disputes; they built up, like a coral reef, case by case. They came not from the state but from the people. The common law wasn’t a tool of government but an ally of liberty.

This liberty, “freedom under the law,” is passed on not through blood ties but through shared institutions and culture. So anyone can become a part of it.

Here’s the big “however.”

There is, of course, a flip-side. If the U.S. abandons its political structures, it will lose its identity more thoroughly than states that define nationality by blood or territory. Power is shifting from the 50 states to Washington, D.C., from elected representatives to federal bureaucrats, from citizens to the government. As the U.S. moves toward European-style health care, day care, college education, carbon taxes, foreign policy and spending levels, so it becomes less prosperous, less confident and less free.

We sometimes talk of the English-speaking nations as having a culture of independence. But culture does not exist, numinously, alongside institutions; it is a product of institutions. People respond to incentives. Make enough people dependent on the state, and it won’t be long before Americans start behaving and voting like…well, like Greeks.

When I first read this, I thought “great, I’ve been ambushed by more rhetoric about how Obama and the Democrats are destroying America.” Then I read it again and noticed that Hannan is British, so he’s not running for office here, trying to appeal to voters.  (I put down the Benadryl.)

He has a point. Our political identity is based so much on belief. If our beliefs change, then our institutions, culture, and identity will too. This shift toward European-style institutions does seem to be happening, but this is hard to observe from inside the country. Like standing on a glacier and trying to detect movement. You know something’s happening because you know that glaciers move, but you can’t tell exactly what.

Is there any way to influence where the “glacier” is headed?

A shopping cart filled with bagged groceries l...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I imagine political culture as a giant shopping cart with a wheel that sticks. It’s hard to steer, and when you put a few hundred million people and their mental baggage in it, the cart becomes even harder to control. So you’re along for the ride.

This worries me, but I also think the (apparent) difficulty of steering our culture could be a good thing, because that makes it less susceptible to the influence of any person or group that isn’t looking out for the interests of the majority.

Some People Make It Too Easy

The Guardians

The Guardians (Photo credit: oefe)

Yesterday, the Guardian reported that the National Security Agency has been requiring Verizon to turn over certain information about its customers’ phone calls. The paper said the Obama administration got the ok from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court in April to demand that the telecom provide on an “ongoing, daily basis” all “‘session identifying information’, such as ‘originating and terminating number’, the duration of each call, telephone calling card numbers, trunk identifiers, International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) number, and ‘comprehensive communication routing information.’”

The Guardian wrote that the collection of such “metadata” does not require a warrant under US law, and that the order does not allow the government to listen to the actual conversations (because, you know, that would be going too far).

As far as I know this hasn’t been confirmed, but it’s probably true.

What irritated me even more this morning was the reaction I heard from an NPR listener, who took the “if you don’t have anything to hide, then it shouldn’t bother you” position.

Oh, well, when you put it that way….

No. That doesn’t make it ok. We have to stop thinking like that.

It’s un-American. In our Bill of Rights, Amendment 4 says

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

What would the reaction be from George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or someone else who risked everything to create this country: Disgust? Despair? Gape-mouthed shock that Americans would be ok with any government–Democratic or Republican–that holds itself above the Constitution? (after we explained “telephone” and “cell phone” to them, of course)

Could this kind of thinking lead anywhere good?

Three surveillance cameras on the corner of a ...

Three surveillance cameras on the corner of a building (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Using the same argument, the police should be able to come into any home without probable cause. “Oh no, don’t mind us. Don’t let us interrupt your dinner. We’ll be out of your hair in a few hours.” And the people living there shouldn’t mind as long as they’re keeping out of trouble.

According to this mentality, those who object to warrantless searches must be people with something to hide. Not people who actually expect the government to obey the law. Yes, of course the government is run by imperfect, flawed humans, but being cynical about what we expect from those humans doesn’t get us anywhere.


Just think about this: The people doing the domestic spying aren’t necessarily the kind of “straight arrows” one might expect to be working at the NSA. I used to know someone who worked there and still downloaded pirated movies at home. As if he couldn’t afford to pay for them. Those responsible for protecting national security should have more integrity than that.

Among the people carrying out this or other surveillance could be the same kind of government employees and public servants who have been caught cavorting with prostitutes while on duty, spending taxpayer money on private parties and dance instruction videos, or providing classified information to foreign governments.

Is that the kind of citizen you want spying on you?

Fear and Loathing in the Gun Control Debate

On my “About” page, I ask these questions: “What do people expect from their leaders? Do they trust them and accept their authority? Do the people feel protected from threats?”

When I wrote that, months ago, I was thinking about threats like terrorist attacks or cyber attacks.

If you’ve read about the American gun-control debate lately, it’s hard not to notice the fear of another kind of threat.

Among those who oppose further restrictions or more thorough background checks there is a group that considers the government itself to be the threat. And they believe they must have firearms to protect themselves from the government.

This isn’t a new development. For a long time, gun rights advocates have pointed to American history as proof of how important it is for people to have—or be able to have—weapons.  They say our freedom was won from our former British rulers at the end of a gun. That’s hard to argue with, but we’ll never know if the colonists could have managed to win their freedom some other way–eventually.

Emanuel Leutze's depiction of Washington's att...

Emanuel Leutze’s depiction of Washington’s attack on the Hessians at Trenton on December 25, 1776 (photo credit: Wikipedia)

Former Augusta, Georgia City Council Member Grady Abrams puts this very well in an Augusta Chronicle opinion piece from earlier this year. Abrams acknowledges the difficulty of the guns problem, given that “the horses are out of the barn.” He also emphasizes this fear I’m talking about.

He says these gun-control opponents who view the government as a threat are not indifferent to the suffering caused by gun violence, but they fear something else more:

I DON’T BELIEVE at all that this group is callous about the shooting tragedies that have occurred recently, especially the killing of innocent children in Connecticut. To them, though, it is a matter of priority – what scares them most. Is it a person walking into a theater with an assault weapon and killing a bunch of people; a deranged individual going into a school and killing teachers and children; or a man shooting individuals from a campus tower in Texas?”

Although all of these events do shake the beliefs of this group of people, their overriding reason for fighting control, which very few want to discuss, is the hate some of them have for their government. It is not the enemy from without that they fear most. It is the enemy from within.”

Such a strongly felt need for the right to bear arms stems from the Declaration of Independence—the part where it reads people are obligated to abolish any government that becomes abusive or despotic:

THIS IS THE reason, I believe, that some will fight tooth and nail to keep their arms – assault weapons and all. It is not about hunting. Even a fool knows this. It is not about protecting homes from burglaries. It is not so much about protecting loved ones from violence. It is all about one day having to fight their government.”

Good example of what I'm talking about. From website

Good example of what I’m talking about. From website

It’s this attitude that stays on my mind.

Under what circumstances do members of this group imagine such a fight beginning?

How do they believe it would actually end?

Do they think it would benefit the common good, the economy, the country they presumably love enough to die for?

I’m not against gun ownership, but the last thing this country needs is more bad-asses with guns.

Wouldn’t it be better—and more patriotic—to take political action and try to solve the problems that bother them so deeply? Couldn’t they try to make the government look more like the one they wish they had? Easier said than done, but better than living in fear of it, no?

Do-It-Yourself Civilization

After almost two years of civil war, some Syrians have taken the law into their own hands—in a good way.

The city of Aleppo has been ruined by the civi...

The city of Aleppo has been ruined by the civil war. (Photo credit: FreedomHouse)

According to CNN, a “self-appointed council of judges, lawyers and clerics” in rebel-controlled parts of Aleppo formed the United Courts Council last fall, in “a desperate strategy…aimed at preventing Syria from descending further into chaos.”

One former government judge told journalists, “We came to work to stop people like the Free Syrian Army or others from taking advantage of the weak and to maintain law and order inside liberated areas.”

CNN said the values the rebel court is trying to uphold come from the Arab League’s unified criminal code, which is based on sharia. The court issues official documents, settles disputes, and even runs a makeshift jail, and council members have plans to set up similar courts in other parts of the country.

It’s impressive that local residents consider the “rebel court” at least somewhat legitimate, too. That must be because the alternative is anarchy.

In Leviathan, that’s what Thomas Hobbes called the state of nature, or “the war of all against all,” when there is no higher power to rule over a people. “Higher power” brings problems of its own, but it’s got to be better than a Lord of the Flies kind of existence. Hobbes could see this after his experience with the English civil wars.

We’re not likely to see civil war in the US, but if a prepper nightmare came true here, what would we do? (Feel free to leave a comment.)

28 Days Later: The Aftermath

28 Days Later: The Aftermath (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I imagine there would be a period when at least some people reverted to a state of nature, applying the brute-force method to get what they needed to survive. Some opponents of gun-control say they need to be able to protect themselves from a tyrannical government, but we should also ask ourselves if we want our neighbors to have guns in the event they go feral.

In such a crisis, others would prefer to continue living by their (political, social, religious) values and would probably form small-scale makeshift governments based on the Constitution or a religious text.

I hope never to experience this, but the Syrian story is an impressive example of how people can maintain some aspects of civilized life when their government can’t, or won’t, do it for them.

The Mysterious Russian Soul

I wanted to share a great article from the Moskovsky Komsomolets website about aspects of the Russian national self-image—the idea of the “mysterious Russian soul” and certain qualities that are considered uniquely Russian.

Tsarevich Dimitry, by M. Nesterov,1899. in public domain

Tsarevich Dimitry, by Mikhail Nesterov, 1899. In public domain

In the past I’ve read other work by the author, Georgi Yans, but this time I wondered about his name. Is it a cheeky pseudonym? (“Georgians”?)

Whatever the case, he comes across as a frustrated lover of Russia, and I thought his ideas might be interesting for my readers who are curious about Russian culture but don’t know the language.

Yans said a conversation with a disgruntled acquaintance made him think about what Russians typically believe about themselves and their country: That they are a special nation with their own special path. That they have an enigmatic soul and are distinguished by their patience, compassion, love, and capacity for self-sacrifice (according to writers like Dostoevsky). (more…)

Ride the Chimp in the Direction It’s Going

Chimp in Thought

Chimp in Thought (Photo credit: Jim Epler)

Human nature, aggression, and violence have become the subject of an interesting conversation between animal behavior expert Marc Bekoff and primatologist Jane Goodall and her two co-authors.

After the school shooting massacre in Newtown, Conn., Bekoff said on HuffPost that most “humans are really much nicer than we ever give them credit for.” It’s the 0.01 percent who kill and destroy that make the news, and the same misconception applies to animals. The “misleading sensationalist media” often portray animals as more violent than they are, “regardless of mounting scientific evidence that nonhumans are predominantly cooperative, peaceful and fair, and on occasion display social justice.” In his opinion, studying other animals could help us “harness our own innate goodness to make the world a better place for all beings.” (more…)