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…)

Newsroom and “Star-spangled Awesomeness”

This post is bound to offend some, but that would be a bad reason not to write it. So, for the record, let me start by saying that I love America and am grateful I was born here and live here.

I was discussing politics and society with someone at work, who said “hey, you should watch the opening scene from HBO’s Newsroom.” It’s been out for a long while, apparently, but I don’t have cable. I looked it up on YouTube and then had to watch it several more times. Hopefully this show will be available on Netflix.

Jeff Daniels in Newsroom. Photo courtesy of syracuse,com

Jeff Daniels in Newsroom. Photo courtesy of syracuse.com

In case you haven’t watched the scene, here’s a brief description: A moderator sits on a stage in what appears to be a university auditorium with three other people: a liberal, a conservative, and a news anchor (sounds like the setup for a joke….). A young woman in the audience asks all three speakers to state briefly why they think America is the greatest country in the world. (more…)

Does this joke make me look fat?

Did you hear that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was voted the sexiest man alive for 2012? In the words of one contest judge, “this Pyongyang-bred heartthrob is every woman’s dream come true,” with his “devastatingly handsome, round face … impeccable fashion sense, chic short hairstyle, and … famous smile.” The Chinese Communist Party’s official paper took the story from The Onion and ran with it, not realizing it was satire.

Cartoon by Heng in NYT Nov 30, 2012

Cartoon by Heng in NYT Nov 30, 2012

It’s unlikely that North Koreans could ever get away with something like this. (Back to that whole “freedom of expression” thing I’ve been writing about.) I love that we can make fun of our own leaders in the U.S. I love it even more when they’re willing to make fun of themselves. (more…)

Emotional Bubble Wrap and the Freedom of Speech, Part II

Extended International Dance Mix

My last post was about the US, but this issue of feelings vs. freedom of expression comes up in other countries too. It’s been making the news in Russia for months. At the end of September, the Duma began considering a bill that would alter existing law by criminalizing acts that offend “religious faith and feelings of citizens,” as well as acts against religious objects and places where religious ceremonies are conducted. The draft bill called for penalties of up to five years imprisonment and fines of up to 300,000 rubles (about 9700 USD). It is still under consideration but very likely to become law, considering the legislature’s recent work limiting other freedoms.

pussy riot livejournal

Photo from pussy-riot.livejournal.com

One part of the context for this was Pussy Riot’s “punk prayer” in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral in February. (more…)

Emotional Bubble Wrap and the Freedom of Speech, Part I

I’m all for the freedom of speech. People should have the right to say whatever [choose your adjective] thing they want. We should, but in the interest of civilization we’ve set boundaries against things like hate speech, which the American Bar Association defines as communication that “offends, threatens, or insults groups, based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or other traits.” So we don’t have the right to use “fighting words,” which are “without social value” and could be expected to provoke the listener, but the First Amendment does give us the freedom to say things that are offensive and hateful or that the listener may disagree with. If someone wants to explain the difference, I’d be grateful.Hear-No, See-No, Speak-No Evil Monkeys

It’s not threats or insults that concern me here. There’s no excuse for those. It’s the offending part of the definition that prompted me to write this, because in the news I’ve been coming across examples of censorship or self-censorship that come from fear of offending a group. (more…)

Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy theories make so much sense to the people who believe them, while “non-believers” are left shaking their heads… This week Slate featured a blog post from Quora.com about a 9/11 conspiracy theory. In answer to the question “what do 9/11 truthers believe?” Mark Rogowsky said truthers claim that the WTC towers fell because of an elaborate government bomb plot, not because of the planes that flew into them or the resulting fire. According to Rogowsky, such people argue that the collapse was caused by tons of explosives that government agents set up in each tower in the days or weeks before the attack, without anyone noticing. The plane hijackings, also supposedly arranged by the government, were to distract people from what was really going on. (more…)

“Russia to see more ‘traitors to Motherland'”

“Again and again, life is reminding us of the mechanism of Stalinist terror. From persecution of regime opponents, to the persecution of internal party opposition. From blaming technological catastrophes and social problems on sabotage, to all-encompassing paranoia. From reprisals within the elite, to total terror that paralyzes society and drains its blood.”  This is what political and rights activist Lev Ponomarev said after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a new law this week that broadens the definition of treason.

“The Motherland calls! The enemy is already here!!! Get out your bayonets.”
Poster by Irakli Toidze, 1941.

This new version of the law is intended to protect the country’s external and internal security. Along with more obvious crimes like selling state secrets, one can now be indicted for “providing financial, material-technical, consultative, or other aid to a foreign government, international or foreign organization or its representatives whose actions are directed against the security of the Russian Federation.” (more…)

Biting Our Collective Nails

Our leaders are being irrational. Once again Americans are approaching a “fiscal cliff” and we’re waiting to see if Congress and the White House will reach a compromise that prevents another recession. I’m not sure if this irrationality is “unintentional” or if it’s being used as a strategy in the game of chicken between Democrats and Republicans. In one version of that game, two drivers speed toward each other and certain mutual destruction, and the one who swerves to avoid collision at the last minute is considered a coward. It can be smart (even rational) for one player to signal that he is “crazy” enough not to change direction, so that the other player will. But in our case these drivers have millions of people in the cars with them, so-called fiscal hostages.

English: Two Knights Jousting Deutsch: Ritterl...

English: Two Knights Jousting Deutsch: Ritterlicher Turnier-Zweikampf (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Political scientists have used this game to explain nuclear “brinkmanship” during the Cold War, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it also applies to the neglected and disparaged art of political compromise–especially when a serious deadline looms. (more…)

Stalinism alive and well in Russia?

In Russia, October 30th is a day to remember the victims of the Great Terror under Stalin, and this year is the 75thanniversary of the beginning of that massive wave of repression and show trials, when millions of people were executed, exiled, or sentenced to prison camps if they were seen as “enemies of the people.” So there has been a lot in the Russian news lately about the historical and cultural importance of this Soviet leader.

If you don’t follow Russia, you might be surprised to learn that Stalin is still rather widely admired despite the suffering he caused. While some people acknowledge that there was serious repression under him, a shrinking percentage of Russians believes the Great Terror actually happened, according to the Public Opinion Foundation. In another recent survey of Russian citizens, the Levada Center found that people’s attitude toward Stalin and the Stalin era has improved significantly since the late 1990s. Since 1998, the percentage of Russians perceiving Stalin negatively has fallen from 60 to 22 percent. Currently, 48 percent see him and his role in the country’s history positively. Maybe they forget that he was Georgian and not Russian. (more…)