Minsk architecture

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April 23, 2017 by AK

Peter Pomerantsev, writing about the Belarus Free Theater on the LRB blog:

The journey took me out of the unspoilt Stalinist centre of the city. (The architecture is known as ampir in Russian, which sounds like, though doesn’t mean, ‘empire’, and contains the word for ‘feast’, pir. ‘Feast of Empire’ is a good way to describe Minsk’s elephantine Soviet neo-classicism.)

Actually, ampir doesn’t sound that much like impèriya – “empire” – in Russian, but it undoubtedly refers to “empire,” in more ways than one. Ampir is derived, by phonetic imitataion, from the French term le style empire (or Second empire). It can be used to describe the architectural styles prevailing in the reigns of Napoléon I (le style empire) and of his nephew, Napoléon III (le style Second empire).

In the former Soviet block, the term can also refer to the pompous official style of Stalin’s late empire, roughly from 1945-1953. The full form is stalinsky ampir; in its eclecticism, the style combined influences from late classicism, baroque, the first and second empires, neo-Gothic and art deco. The Russian word rhymes perfectly with vampir, vampire. As Irina Bogushevskaya sang in the 1990s (all translations are mine and imprecise):

The night is dark. I’ll run alone past the bridges, past the palaces of the ampir age. I’ll praise it, my joyful one: greetings, Moscow, my tender vampire.

Often enough, people exclaim “ampir!” at any buildings they feel are too ornate, pompous or vaguely “Stalinist.” That can include the post-constructivism of the 1930s, which ought not to be classed with ampir proper. Minsk has its share of 1930s pre-ampir, most notably the public buildings by Iosif Langbard. However, most of the Stalin-era architecture in Minsk must date from the post-WWII years because the war left the city in ruins.

This page (in Russian) has images of the ruins, of people cleaning up, and of new buildings from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s: in Pomerantsev’s words, the “unspoilt Stalinist center.” This photograph shows a surviving pre-war building in the background, in all likelihood a “post-constructivist” work from the 1930s.


“Activist Left Gets Putin Critic’s Scalp”

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April 22, 2017 by AK

Three headlines, all about Bill O’Reilly’s getting fired from Fox News. All translations are mine.

The BBC Russian Service:

The Fox host who called Putin a killer has been fired because of a sex scandal.

RT news in Russian:

The journalist who insulted Putin has been fired from Fox News.

Breitbart: the first version of the headline, removed later:

Activist Left Gets Monster Scalp.

Amusing. The title of this post is an attempt at a synthesis. Also see my note on Putin Critics.


Who’s next, the Pentecostals?

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April 21, 2017 by AK

Christianity Today reports from Moscow:

It’s official. Jehovah’s Witnesses can no longer practice their faith freely in Russia, where the Supreme Court on Thursday declared the pacifist religious organization an “extremist group” and banned all of its activity.

The judge ordered all 395 local chapters and its Russian headquarters to close and authorized the government to seize all property.

Considering the Witnesses’ tradition of non-violence, labeling them extremist must have taken some advanced judicial sophistry. There’s no shortage of this intangible but imperishable good in Russian courthouses. The Kremlin team’s legalism is more or less in line with Óscar Benavides’ maxim; “substantive due process” must be as odious to them as it was to the late, overweight Antonin Scalia.

Legal unsubtleties and property interests aside, what’s the ultimate motive for the ban? All grassroots activity not controlled by the government or its religious affiliates is suspicious and potentially dangerous. Non-traditional, charismatic Protestant churches are the fastest-growing (quasi-)Christian denominations globally. The Pentecostals are going strong in Africa but also in Latin America, including Brazil. A non-conformist charismatic church with potential membership in the millions? The towers of the Kremlin shall not tolerate the Watchtower.

The Soviets also hated Jehovah’s Witnesses – passionately. Under Stalin, they were persecuted – hardly surprising – but under his successors, they were still demonized as if evil incarnate. A brief respite under Gorbachev and Yeltsin, then back to the old habits.


Into deeper s—, endlessly: Russia to ban foreign VPNs?

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April 19, 2017 by AK

This reads like a good summary of what I’ve read in Vedomosti:

Russia has drafted a bill that blocks anonymous proxies and VPN services that refuse to prohibit access to forbidden websites…

According to the bill, anonymizers and VPN services will be required to block access to resources from Roskomnadzor black list.

What isn’t clear to me is whether individuals using VPNs and anonymizers not authorized to provide services in Russia will be penalized (fined, most likely), or whether VPNs and anonymizers allowing their Russian users to access blacklisted sites will be blocked in Russia.

Either way, the proposals sound characteristically moronic; the former route would be the more painful to common users and would probably put Russia somewhere between China and Iran. Actually, China does not even prohibit VPNs in general while suppressing some VPN traffic. The country that comes to mind is the United Arab Emirates, which does not allow Skype and WhatsApp, and VoIP more generally, and has criminalized using VPNs for “illegal purposes,” whatever it means. A sublime company.

I’ve written about similar plans in 2012, 2013, 2015. This slithery constrictor is crawling in narrowing circles.


“Sometimes pace _is_ argument”

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April 16, 2017 by AK

Ada Palmer, who teaches history at Chicagowrites science fiction and composes music, reminisces on her early encounter with Thomas Carlyle’s prose:

My cohort and I were wolfing down a book a day in those months, looting each for thesis and argument, so we could regurgitate debates, and discuss how our own projects fit with the larger questions of the field.  Only two books refused on that list to be so digested: Carlyle’s [Hero Worship and the Heroic in History], and Burkhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy.

That’s not surprising – difficult people, difficult books.  More precisely, both works are “unskimmable.” Not because the writing is bad – although it’s probably unacceptable by today’s academic standards – but because it’s too rich and complex:

Each paragraph of both was such a work of rhetoric and rhythm that the quick eye-slide from first sentence to last was as meaningless as connecting the first and final chords of a line of Renaissance polyphony without the intricate structure which transported us from A to B.

It gets more interesting from there onward – too good to be missed but too long to be quoted. Start from the second paragraph of this post.


“Positive obligation of the State to prevent any threat to life”

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April 15, 2017 by AK

The Kremlin has called the ECHR’s ruling on the 2004 Beslan attack “absolutely unacceptable.” And yet, unless Russia wins a reversal, it will have to accept it. After all, what did it expect? Everyone who has been paying attention knows that Russia bungled the siege and blocked attempts by victims’ relatives to get at the truth. Now the ECHR has concluded that the cause of the preventable deaths (330 people died in the attack and the siege, including 180 children) went beyond mere incompetence.

The court mostly found violations of Article 2 (right to life) of the European Convention on Human Rights. It was divided, 5-2, on whether the rescue operation was properly planned and whether more than necessary lethal force was used. The majority answered “yes” to both while the Azeri and Russian judges dissented. Typical, one’s tempted to say, but that’s not all there is to this ruling.

Remarkably, the court was unanimous in finding two other breaches of the right to life: a failure to take preventive measures and a failure of the “procedural obligation,” “primarily because the investigation had not been capable of leading to a determination of whether the force used by the State agents had or had not been justified in the circumstances.”

Judges Hajiyev (Azerbaijan) and Dedov (Russia), who dissented on the issues of adequate planning and excessive force, leave no doubt in their opinion about their support for the majority on the lack of prevention:

We take the view that the most important issue in the present case is positive obligation of the State to prevent any threat to life. We agree that there was a violation of the Convention on that point. Notwithstanding that the authorities knew that the threat was real, and that the terrorist group had gathered in a forested area, training and preparing for their next attack… no reasonable preventive measures had been taken by the authorities to locate the terrorists, isolate them, prevent their moving to any other populated area and destroy them. Also, no measures had been taken in Beslan, and the terrorists had reached the school unhampered.

Judge Pinto de Albuquerque of Portugal would go further than the majority in finding for the complainants – in contrast to Hajiyev and Dedov – but, like them, he acknowledges the importance of the “failure to prevent” finding by the court. Here’s one of the two reasons the ruling deserves praise, according to Pinto de Albuquerque:

…this judgment innovates, in so far as a positive obligation to prevent terrorist acts has been acknowledged in certain circumstances.

Obviously, such “positive obligation” should not be taken as a license to take away people’s liberties and everyday freedoms in the name of safety. I suspect that the judges were moved to introduce this innovation when they realized that the authorities had prior knowledge of the planned attack and even gave appropriate orders to the local police force but still, somehow, left School No. 1 defenseless – for reasons that seem by themselves an indictment of the Russian political system, now no less than then. (The quotes below are from the ECHR’s judgment.)

On 18 August 2004 the North Ossetian Ministry of the Interior issued the following telex (no. 1751) to all local departments of the interior:

“[The North Ossetian Ministry of the Interior] has received information indicating the movement of participants of [illegal armed groups] from the plains of [Ingushetia] and [Chechnya] to the mountainous and forested area along the border of [Ingushetia] and [North Ossetia]. A meeting of the fighters is presumably planned for mid-August of this year, following which they are intending to commit a terrorist act in [North Ossetia] similar to that in Budennovsk. According to the available information, the fighters plan to capture a civilian object with hostages in the territory of [North Ossetia]…”

Chechen separatists captured a hospital with some 1,500 people in Budennovsk in 1995 to demand a ceasefire in Chechnya. More than a hundred hostages died as a result. The reference to Budennovsk made it perfectly clear what kind of attack was to be expected in August or September 2004. The Ossetian police ministry sent out orders in late August putting the force on high alert for potential terrorist incursions.

However, when 1,200 people, including children up from kindergarten age, gathered in the courtyard of the Beslan school on September 1, it appears that there was only one unarmed policewoman present. The court provides this likely explanation:

According to some sources, on the morning of 1 September 2004 the Beslan traffic police were called to secure the passage of Mr Dzasokhov, the North Ossetian President, through the town. The applicants referred to the testimony of the traffic policemen and servicemen of the Pravoberezhny ROVD, saying that they had been instructed to take various positions along the route of Mr Dzasokhov’s convoy, and thus leave the school unprotected.

This sounds so much like Russia that it’s eminently plausible, although of course it would be a poor legal argument to claim “it’s true because it’s how things are in Russia.” Whether Mr. Dzasokhov’s passage was to blame or not, the fact is that the authorities had known about the attack and left the school unprotected.

Most facts of the case are not new to the Russian public, thanks to the independent media and the victims’ relatives. However the ECHR’s fact-finding procedure has validated them for a larger audience, and the court’s unanimous recognition of the Russian authorities’ failure in its duty to protect vindicates the view long held by many of the victims’ relatives.


Way too much credit for someone else’s work

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April 14, 2017 by AK

More details in the curious case of Turovsky & Meduza vs. Kramer & the Gray Lady, by RuNet Echo at Global Voices.

“Take one text by Turovsky on Meduza, then take a second text by Turovsky on Meduza, stir, stir, and POOF you’ve got a New York Times article,” Gorbachev [editor of Meduza] wrote on Facebook on December 30, adding, “As Donald Trump says in these cases, DISHONEST!”

Andrew Kramer insists he did interview Turovsky’s principal informant:

In fact, I was in contact with Vyarya directly. I verified and discussed elements of his story. And he gave me a quote that was similar to and slightly different from what he told Meduza.

If true, this would rule out straight plagiarism. Yes, Vyarya’s quotes from the NYT articles look like translations of his Meduza quotes. Still, I wouldn’t be too surprised if it turned out that Vyarya copied his own words from Turovsky’s piece and passed them on to Kramer.

However, a bigger question would remain: is Kramer’s work truly original investigative journalism?

The term “investigative journalism” is self-explanatory. Suppose a young provincial detective has solved a challenging case. A more experienced colleague arrives from the headquarters to double-check on the local officer’s work. The older man retraces the younger one’s path, talking to the same witnesses and going through the same dossier. Coming to the same conclusion as his predecessor, the weathered cop types a report that is short on detail but guaranteed to satisfy the police chief. The original investigator’s results have now been validated and repackaged; he’s still the one who solved the case.

The same should apply to investigative journalism. It’s worth adding that, as a rule, local reporters take greater risks while digging for the truth than their colleagues with American or British passports. The former risk death, injury, imprisonment; the latter, expulsion at worst.

There’s also the question of credibility. The NYT and the WaPo have taken an obviously partisan approach to all matters related to Donald Trump, even indirectly and tenuously, such as the subject of Russian cyberactivity. A Russian journalist looking into the latter is unlikely to have a strong anti-Trump bias, while the golden pens of the NYT tend to be never-Trumpers.


Andrew Kramer’s Pulitzer-winning piece: plagiarized or not?

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April 11, 2017 by AK

The New York Times won three Pulitzer prizes yesterday, one awarded…

…for international reporting for a series on Russia’s surreptitious assertion of power. The series, a collaboration among The Times’s international, Washington and investigative teams, explored how Russia was expanding its influence at home and abroad.

One report from the Times’ Russia’s Dark Arts series is How Russia Recruited Elite Hackers for Its Cyberwar by Andrew E. Kramer. To quote a few sentences from this piece:

Mr. Vyarya, 33, a bearded, bespectacled computer programmer who thwarted hackers, said he was suddenly being asked to join a sweeping overhaul of the Russian military last year…

“Sorry, I can’t,” Mr. Vyarya said he told an executive at a Russian military contracting firm who had offered him the hacking job…

“This is against my principles — and illegal,” he said of the Russian military’s hacking effort.

One would think that Andrew Kramer flew to Finland to talk to Vyarya, who has sought asylum in that country. Or, perhaps, Kramer interviewed Vyarya via Skype or phone or e-mail.

But did he? There’s no indication of personal communication or correspondence in the piece. Nowhere does Kramer mention meeting Vyarya or speaking to him. Later on, Kramer credits a local source for having first broken the story (more than a year ahead of the Times):

…an investigation by Meduza, a Russian news site based in Riga, Latvia, that first disclosed the recruitment effort.

He links to one long article by Meduza‘s Daniil Turovsky but neglects to cite another Turovsky piece, an interview with Alexander Vyarya in Helsinki. Had he done so, his debt to Meduza and Turovsky would have been obvious.

One can be forgiven for suspecting that Kramer merely repackaged Turovsky’s interview without speaking directly to his subject. (I’d bet that’s exactly what K. did.) Of the two, Turovsky does the better job telling the story of a gifted, self-made Russian cybersecurity professional who refused to become a hacker for a shady but possibly state-sponsored firm and fled abroad. Let’s say it looks like a case of substantial plagiarism, if technically borderline and deniable, as well as a regrettable loss of detail and quality.

Oleg Kashin, one of Russia’s best-known political journalists, gives Kramer a pass on plagiarism and blames the global voicelessness of Russian investigative journalists for Kramer’s taking liberties with Meduza‘s original content (the translation is mine):

We’re not talking about plagiarism here – Kramer even mentions Meduza (once) as the first publication to write about these hackers – but that’s beside the point. Apart from Turovsky’s texts retold, Kramer’s text has nothing else. Moreover, his retelling incorporates what’s called a presence effect, as if Vyarya had spoken to Kramer about his work in person – and that is, at least, unethical…

So Kashin doesn’t think K. ever met V., either. That’s interesting, but Kashin rushes off to mount one of his favorite hobby horses:

Doubtless this would have caused a major uproar if the reporter Kramer had been awarded the prize for rewriting articles from American or other, not necessarily Anglophone, newspapers – German, French, first-world more generally. But the Russophone Meduza, even if it starts beating all the drums within its reach, exists beyond the field of vision of the people who award Pulitzer prizes, of Kramer’s editors, of the world’s public opinion generally speaking. Russia is a global periphery, a province, a backwater; no one cares about the grievances of Russian-language authors and their voice is hardly louder than a mouse’s squeak – and that’s doubly paradoxical since the prize was awarded for a series of articles precisely about Russia’s being a formidable and dangerous global player.

Well, I don’t really know. Turovsky is only 27 years old but has done some excellent investigative work and had his pieces republished in The Guardian. The question is, does he feel like raising hell about it all, and how do his editors feel?


Search for clues by all means, just not in the courtroom

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April 9, 2017 by AK

The Guardian reported on the latest twist in the bizarre trial in Germany known as the NSU-Prozess:

Nearly five years into the trial of a German neo-Nazi gang who went on a killing spree against immigrants, relatives of the victims have become so frustrated with the police’s inability to untangle the case they have turned to a an unlikely profession in search of clues: architects.

If the police are unable to untangle a case, they shouldn’t bring it to trial. If the prosecution takes almost five years to make its case, the defendants should be acquitted. This seems an example of the inquisitorial approach at its modern worst, although, as I have read, Germany has adopted some of the best Anglo-Saxon principles and practices.

Now relatives of the victims want the judge to investigate the possible role of Germany’s intelligence service in the murders. So far, he has declined:

In March [2016], Judge Götzl took an hour to explain to the courtroom that the task of the NSU trial is simply to judge the accused, not to investigate what German intelligence agents knew or did.

That’s only appropriate but does not explain why the judge has allowed this trial to drag on for so long, despite his admirable focus on the central issue of these proceedings. Had the defense insisted on such an investigation, it might have been necessary since the secret services’ involvement might have diminished the defendants’ responsibility, even to zero. When the victims’ relatives request the same, they are essentially asking the court to give an exhaustive answer to the simple question, “What really happened?” But the court cannot be expected to divert its limited resources to this quest beyond what is directly relevant to the question of the defendants’ guilt. Once courts start digging for the whole truth, no one can expect a fair and speedy trial (and a dragged-out trial can’t be fair to the accused).


The global guillotine

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April 8, 2017 by AK

NBC reported this last Friday:

The National Security Council has presented President Donald Trump with options to respond to North Korea’s nuclear program — including putting American nukes in South Korea or killing dictator Kim Jong-un…

The second option, “decapitation,” is not limited to removing the one man at the helm of the slave galley:

Another option is to target and kill North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and other senior leaders in charge of the country’s missiles and nuclear weapons and decision-making.

This would contradict at least three executive orders by presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan, but I don’t see why, legally speaking, they cannot all be rescinded by the current US president.

Foreign policy experts seem to be concerned about the uncertainty that would follow the removal of North Korea’s key actors. I suspect that the greatest downside would be the temptation to repeat the successful operation elsewhere.

As for the merits of decapitation compared with other invasive treatments, they must vary from case to case. If Erdogan departed this world before the upcoming referendum, the constitutional reform would not pass, provided that the man’s demise appeared more like an unfortunate twist of events than an assassination. There are other polities where removing the top would send the pyramid of state power crashing down. One only has to watch out for unintended consequences.


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