Soviet Union

Astronomy of the Bizarre in Eurasia

I discovered a little late during college that I really liked astronomy. Too bad, but at least I also loved what I did study.

I remember learning how stars are believed to form and change and die, and how that process creates what we’re made out of (carbon, nitrogen, iron, etc.). My favorite class was “Astronomy of the Bizarre,” where we studied things like black holes and quasars.

Supernova remnant Cassiopeia A

Supernova remnant Cassiopeia A. Courtesy pixabay.com

When we covered supernovas, it occurred to me that this could be a metaphor for what had happened to the Soviet Union.

In one theoretical version of events, a super-massive star gradually burns through its fuel, with the nuclear reaction turning the star’s material into heavier and heavier elements. At some point the pull of gravity within the core overcomes the outward pressure generated by the star’s heat, and the star collapses under its own weight.

It immediately rebounds in an enormous explosion that sends a shell of matter flying off into space. The remaining core can become a neutron star or a black hole, depending on the star’s mass.

If it’s massive enough, the core becomes a black hole. Even light can’t escape from it, and anything that comes too close gets sucked in—being torn apart in the process. A neutron star is not a threat, but it can become a black hole if it steals enough mass from a nearby star. That in itself qualifies as bizarre.

Binary system with one star taking mass from the other

Binary system with one star accreting mass from the other. Courtesy wikimedia

You could say the USSR collapsed under its own weight, too, and it lost its outer shell of Soviet republics. Those turned into Ukraine, the Baltic states, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and the other so-called Newly Independent States.

I used to wonder during the 1990s if Russia would prove to be a black hole and threaten to pull its shell back in. Eventually it looked like the answer was no. Moscow has made things hard for some of its neighbors, but they have stayed independent. Whether Moscow and the Russian people accept that independence is another question.

However, this year things have started to look different, considering that Russia has actually begun stealing “matter.” It has taken Crimea from Ukraine, and who knows what Putin will do next. Russia may turn into a black hole after all.

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.”

Ouch.

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.

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…)

Protest and Political Culture in Georgia

An enlargeable basic map of Georgia

An enlargeable basic map of Georgia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I listen to the nauseating campaign ads for the 2012 US presidential election, it makes me think back to previous years when my preferred candidate did or didn’t win. In cases where my guy lost, I assumed it was because more voters supported or turned out for the other candidate. I didn’t worry that the winner had cheated (too much). I also thought to myself that it was for eight years at most. More likely four, if he turned out to be as bad as I feared. Whatever the case, I’ve never worried that any president would change the constitution and make himself “leader for life.” Call me naïve, but I just don’t think any politician could get away with that here. It would go so strongly against American political beliefs and democratic values, against what is accepted.

I’ve thought about this because I’ve studied other countries, like the Republic of Georgia, where leaders stay in power long after a large part of society wants them out. There, people told me President Eduard Shevardnadze seemed “eternal” because he had ruled Georgia in one capacity or another for decades. Shevardnadze and the members of his ruling party wanted to stay in power, so they doctored the election results as necessary. (more…)