Cheering for the greater evil

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May 24, 2015 by AK

The value of Mark Ameswritings to humanity lies in the fact that sometimes he goes after the right people. It is diminished by his habit of assaulting the lesser evil out of any two, in 2015 as in 1998, in California as in Moscow. Another of his habits is stating weak conjectures as proven facts. “A works for a non-profit partly financed by B, who might support political doctrine X. Therefore, A is a paid propagandist for the X-ers.”

Ames has made three principal accusations in his recent attack on Peter Pomerantsev and his book, none of the three aimed against its core message. One is that Pomerantsev is not specific enough about the people and events he describes, “a vague, foggy, masked quality to his writing and to his approach to most things… people without last names or recognizable faces…” Pomerantsev did not want to compromise his sources, most likely. Essentially, Ames doubts if Pomerantsev worked for TNT in the late 2000s at all, but these two links from 2009 leave little doubt in my mind that he did.

Second, Ames claims that Putin’s postmodern unreality machine is simply a continuation of Yeltsin’s and cites Victor Pelevin’s fiction as proof. I’m not convinced, simply put.

The third prong – typically Amesian – is the faulty inference that Pomerantsev must be a Neocon 2.0 propagandist because he works for Legatum Institute, founded by Christopher Chandler, once a major investor in Russian equities together with his brother Richard. The brothers Chandler were not as secretive about their Russian exposure as Ames claims – see this 2003 Gazprom press release – although they are not the best-known portfolio investors in Russian equities from the 1990s.

…the Chandlers make buckets of fast money by buying into totally depressed and corrupt emerging markets… driving up the price of their assets by making a lot of noise about corporate governance and corruption, and then selling out when those investments tick up during what look like to outsiders as principled battles over corporate governance issues.

That sounds like a sort of activist investing. Whether it benefits other investors and society at large is being debated in the US, but considering the state of corporate governance at most traded Russian companies in the 1990s, I can’t see much that was wrong with that approach there and then.

The Chandler brothers reportedly were the single biggest foreign beneficiaries of one of the greatest privatization scams in history: Russia’s voucher program in the early 1990s…

Reportedly? (Leaving aside the question of what’s a scam and what’s legitimate reform.) Let’s look at the 2006 Institutional Investor interview Ames also links to. The Chandlers’ denial of their activism sounds fake, I agree, but it’s the size of the gains that Ames is talking about. UES and Mosenergo, about $800 million over one or two years. Impressive, but Soros and Harvard probably made more than that.

What about the brothers’ largest Russian investment, $1 bln in Gazprom in 1998? It yielded a 12.5% total return over 4.5 years, close to pathetic, and a huge missed opportunity. In February 1998, when they bought 5%, Gazprom’s market cap was $20 bln; in May 2008, it almost hit $360 bln. The return would have worked out to more than 30% per year on a cumulative basis. Perhaps the Chandlers decided that once Miller had replaced Vyakhirev as CEO, further gains would be limited. Perhaps they were forced to divest – 5% is a politically sensitive share – especially if they violated the ring-fence rule by buying domestic shares, rather than DRs, in 1998, and found themselves in a vulnerable position in 2003.

Even assuming that the Chandlers are only seeking a second chance with Gazprom (especially as the DRs are worth about as much now as in 1997), activist investors are not Russia’s greatest problem.


Western culture in 250 pages?

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May 24, 2015 by AK

This is too simplistic (and confusing) even for a newspaper: as a book review, I suspect it’s a case of multiple simplification (and distortion). The scope of Christian views of human wretchedness is wider than the author suggests. Thomas Aquinas does not get a mention, nor does Erasmus, to say nothing of the theologians who discussed human nature in much detail in the so-called Christological debates of the 5th and 7th centuries. The extremely pessimistic anthropology of Augustine and Calvin has never been the single default position of the Roman Catholic Church, much less its Eastern Orthodox cousins, who believe the Fall marred man’s original wholeness and, like a hereditary disease, made Adam’s progeny prone to sin, rather than repugnant to God outright. But that’s just beginning to scratch the surface.

Since we’re talking theology, sort of, I don’t know why no one ever discusses the striking paradox of Calvinism (or its Reader’s Digest version) in the popular press. On the one hand, a select few are chosen for salvation and no human effort can change that. God reveals his chosen in this world in an Old Testament fashion, by granting them offspring and riches. Now, here’s the other hand: if you work hard and save rather than consume, you may be able to get rich and provide for a great many children, and end up looking like one of the saved. This make-believe is supposed to be driving force behind Western capitalism.

Russian Old Believers have a very different theology but they were almost as important to Russia’s capitalism as low-church Protestants were to Britain’s and America’s. What’s in common between the two groups is something else, not the religious doctrine: suspicion of government authority, a sense of collective purpose, appreciation of thrift, honesty, and book learning (narrowly understood, as opposed to full-scale education). I’m not even talking of Jewish communities and their contribution to capitalism on the Continent.


Who should pay for the trains?

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May 19, 2015 by AK

Adam Gopnik links the recent derailing disaster in Pennsylvania to the Americans’ unwillingness to authorize public investment in infrastructure.

It’s too early for any blame assignment, but the questIon of tax money spent on trains and such is evergreen. In this 2011 piece, Gopnik attacked the American aversion to public spending on infrastructure and education. David Boaz of Cato Institute penned a proper libertarian response.

Access to clean, reliable, fast means of transport – intracity, intercity, suburban – is a blessing. If some part of the world could change miraculously overnight from a trainless condition to a state of ubiquitous availability of train service, it would be a great improvement to the quality of life. Any such change, however, would be costly. It is possible that its costs will be too high for the change to happen. But how will the costs and benefits be evaluated relative to each other, and who will bear the costs and risks?

The author claims the US can only modernize its railroads when an enlightened majority – more likely, a plurality – orders the government to pay for the project from the public purse. He may have his wish eventually. It might well be that US elections are biased against urban voters; that rural voters are relatively dim; that negligibly few Americans resemble Jefferson’s gentleman farmer in any significant respect. True or not, sooner or later even the narrowest-minded voter might see the benefits to herself of a mass transit system and vote to have it built with public funds. Yes, it can be done this way.

But should it be done this way?

This approach is unfair to those who voted against or abstained, for their tax money would be used for something they do not want. Undoubtedly there would be efficiency issues, as is usual with government-supervised projects. Allocating enough resources can get one or two great things done – like in the Soviet Union – but resources are limited even in rich economies. For all its nuclear breakthroughs, the USSR was bad at providing indoor plumbing. Unfortunately, these fairness and efficiency objections have been advanced and countered thousands of times, and the argument is now moving in circles.

The fact remains, nevertheless, that all the existing railways in the US have been built by the private sector. It is worth noting that the principal lines of Russia’s (and Ukraine’s) rail network were built by companies with Russian and Western European shareholders in the 1860s through the 1890s. (When railway construction slowed down in the years before WWI, Russian industry leaders complained in 1913 that the government was reluctant to issue permits for new railroads even though private investors were queuing to finance them. Apparently the government became more interested in controlling new lines than laying enough track.)

If private capital no longer finds the rail sector attractive, perhaps it is worth asking why, and whether private investors’ reasons to stay away from the projects can be of value to society at large. Looking into those reasons, we should try and find out whether a market failure of some sort has occurred, and whether the government can put forward a remedy to this failure (possibly caused by its prior interference) short of substituting – crowding out – private capital with public funds.

In addition to all this, trains are not a public good in the sense of the term taught in economics classes. A “pure” public good is said to be non-rival and non-excludable. Having to purchase a ticket excludes some people from taking the train unless the operator is perfectly tolerant of freeriders. A non-rival good means that one’s consumption does not affect others’ ability to enjoy it. Trains would have more seats than the number of people wishing to ride at any time. So much spare capacity is unlikely.

However the existence of an affordable, safe and reliable train network could be a classical public good. Not the train service itself but its availability to the general paying public.


They are lovelier than Chihuahuas, but…

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May 14, 2015 by AK

I don’t think I like Yorkshire terriers. There are way too many of them in Moscow. They get insanely pampered, finely clothed, carried around to keep their dainty paws clean and warm. Their yapping is insufferable. My wife calls them “microorganisms.” But I never thought of them as a threat to any nation’s security.

Until this morning. The antipodean report in The Guardian is packed with first-rate humor.

He has decided to bring to our nation two dogs without actually getting proper certification and the proper permits required. Basically, it looks like he snuck them in. We found out he snuck them in because we saw him taking them to a poodle groomer.

This is Australia’s minister of agriculture denouncing Johnny Depp for bringing two Yorkshire terriers, Boo and Pistol, on his private jet “to our nation.” Does the farmstead ministry have its own homeland security department to spy on celebrity dog smugglers? The official is deadly serious:

Mr Depp has to either take his dogs back to California or we are going to have to euthanise them. He’s now got about 50 hours left to remove the dogs.

It’s time that Pistol and Boo buggered off back to the United States. He [Depp] can put them on the same chartered jet he flew out on to fly them back out of our nation.

A commenter wonders whether “bugger off back” is the way government ministers actually talk in Australia. Another one asks, “How many times can this idiot say ‘Our nation’ in a discussion about dogs?”

That was my first reaction, too — but there are no grounds to conclude that Barnaby Joyce is an “idiot”: he is merely taking his job seriously. It is not hard to imagine the extent of the harm an imported germ or pest can inflict on an insular nation’s agriculture. Being a rabies-free country is also great. Which does not cancel out the comical effect Joyce’s speaking style – mixing the pompous and the colloquial – is bound to make on the reading public.

As for “we found out… because we saw him,” government agencies don’t need to spy on celebrities as long as tabloid reporters are doing their jobs.

The other side in the skirmish is happy to supply its share of hilarity, The Simpsons meet Fry and Laurie material. Apart from a petition to rescue the dogs from the Dickensianly cruel minister, there’s this bit:

Lianne Kent, the owner of Happy Dogz, the grooming service where Depp and his wife Amber Heard had taken Pistol and Boo at the weekend, posted on the business’s Facebook page that it had been “an honour” to attend to the pets.

“Their hair was really long and they needed a trim. She [the celebrities’ handler] desperately wanted them trimmed back and their faces styled… They wanted the dogs groomed somewhere that’s a bit more private and we’re right near the set anyway.”

Their faces styled? Leaving aside the enigmatic “celebrities’ handler,” it brings me back to the beginning. I’m not taken in by this breed and was glad to find reinforcement for my prejudice in the comments section:

Yorkshire terriers… The worst kind of dogs ever… What is it with people who so desperately want them?

Oh, forgot chihuahuas…

On a more serious note, plenty of complaints of Australia’s border guards and customs agents in the comments, like this:

Whenever I return to Australia from working overseas, I absolutely resent the obnoxious way our customs and quarantine people treat visitors, returning residents and transit passengers.

Never been down there but their harsh quarantine rules for dogs are world-famous.


Translating Herztier

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May 14, 2015 by AK

I was going to write about a Russian’s author’s reaction to Herta Müller‘s Herztier but did not get far past the title. Literally, it means “Heart-beast.” The German Wiki entry claims it is a rendering of a Romanian neologism, inimal = inimă + animal, but it’s not the title of the Romanian translation.

Herztier looks similar in formation to a number of German words, such as Herzblut (lifeblood; mit H. = passionately), Herzblatt (darling), Herzeleid (heartache, heart’s sorrow, the name of Parsifal’s mother and of Rammstein’s best-known album), Herzenstrost (heart’s consolation), and Herztod (death of a heart attack). At first it may seem that it refers to a savage, beastly heart, but from what I have read, the underlying concept is different: the heart’s inner animal. For there is an animal within every human heart, and the beast’s nature is the essence of its host.

The Russian title, Serdtse-zver’, is a literal translation that probably communicates the wrong idea: it denotes a beastly heart rather than the heart’s resident beast. Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart became The Heart-Denouncer (Serdtse-oblichitel’) in the canonical Russian version. It works well, with “denouncer” modifying “heart.” But then by analogy, “beast” is understood to modify “heart” in Heart-Beast. Not good. I would consider dropping the hyphen and spelling the title as Serdtsezver’. Alternatively, why not calque the Romance versions (excluding Italian): La bête du coeur, Animalul inimii, La bestia del corazón?

The English title, The Land of Green Plums, is rooted in the text but is no match for the original. (It also became Il paese delle prugne verdi in Italian, rather than La bestia del cuore.) First, it speaks of the external, of the setting, of the environment. Second, it has an unintended comic undertone, with a hint of Borat or, more charitably, of Buñuel’s mocumentary Tierra Sin Pan. In its late years, the Soviet Union was sometimes called the country of evergreen tomatoes: that’s what one always found (or no tomatoes at all) in state-owned groceries, in contrast to farmers’ markets. That’s not what Müller had in mind.

But it could still be the best of practicable options.


Almost as expected?

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May 8, 2015 by AK

The SNP has won 56 out of the 59 seats in Scotland, a 95% success rate. Ninety-seven and a half years ago, Sinn Féin won 70 out of the 75 seats in the 26 counties that would make up the Irish Free State: 93%. The similarity probably ends here. The SNP does not have 60%+ of its new MPs languishing in English gaols, nor does it need to set up its own diet away from Westminster: it already has its own in Edinburgh. But this avalanche in Scotland will probably make the UK’s pullout from the EU impossible any time soon.

Overall, it’s one of those elections where it’s hard to sympathize on the basis of shared values with any of the parties (except, somewhat, with the doomed LibDems, namely their libertarian subset). The Tories used to have a Hayekian faction but it’s as good as dead now, losing its clout to moralistic paternalists (the anti-porn bills), anti-privacy totalitarians (Cameron’s encryption stance), and authoritarian nasties of the hanging-judge type (cutting legal aid and such). But what does the Conservative victory mean for the UK’s stance on Ukraine and Russia? Probably nothing. The City (writ large) will still be dependent on money of questionable origin, Russian or otherwise (although to what extent, I have no clue); politicians of all stripes will prattle on about Moscow’s “legitimate interests” in Ukraine; and the Kremlin will probably make advances at some of the new Scottish MPs.


Gono’s cows

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May 7, 2015 by AK

Mugabe’s 89th birthday in 2013 occasioned a predictable round of excesses, including these:

Supporters of the President used the birthday celebration, broadcast live on national television, to shower him with gifts and praises.

Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe governor Gideon Gono gave him 89 cows and one of the major diamond mining companies reportedly paid for the gigantic cake.

President Mugabe said he was moved by the gifts.

“The love that comes from the heart is far more valuable than the presents,” he said.

By the day Mugabe turned 89, the national currency of Zimbabwe had been out of use for about four years. A state that does not issue its own currency needs a central bank about as much as a doubly landlocked country needs a naval ministry. The generous Mr. Gono must have spent most of the years 2009-2013 doing nothing, as the head of a superfluous institution…

…but that inaction compared most favorably with his activity as the central bank governor in 2005-2009. When he was appointed, in November 2003, the year-on-year inflation rate was already above 600%: prices had risen seven-fold in the previous twelve months. Gono managed to bring inflation to just over 100% the next year, so prices would merely double every year if that rate had stabilized. It did but not for long: in the second half of 2005, inflation rates started to grow again, and Gono’s insane money-printing culminated in a half a trillion percent inflation rate late in 2008. It’s a textbook case now, of course.

Did that birthday hecatomb atone for the sin of prolonged hyperinflation in Mugabe’s view? Perhaps: there were reports of Gono as a possible successor last year. But the current heir, I’ve read, is another gentleman, nicknamed “crocodile.”


Doctor Robert is back

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May 3, 2015 by AK

I was barely in my teens when Robert Mugabe arrived in Moscow, then capital of the Soviet Union, and the Moscow University made him a doctor honoris causa. It must have been 1984… no, 1985. At about the same time, the University of Edinburgh and the University of Massachusetts Amherst bestowed the same honors upon the Zimbabwean PM.

Ten years later, I graduated from that fine school on Sparrow Hills. Thirty years after his, hmmm, endoctorization, Mugabe is coming to Moscow to keep the company of Putin, Maduro, and Raúl Castro at the 2015 victory parade. By now, Edinburgh and Amherst have rescinded Mugabe’s degrees but the MGU Chronicles continues to list him as an “honorary doctor since 1985.”


Colonel Obvious

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April 29, 2015 by AK

John Schindler argues that Woodrow Wilson’s insistence on breaking up Austria-Hungary led to multiple disasters, including the subjugation of Central Europe by Hitler and Stalin. There’s enough to be said in defense of the old Habsburg empire but I can’t help ogling it through the eyes of that Czech anarchist, Jaroslav Hašek. (Some of the higher-brow public might rely on Robert Musil’s Viennese optics.) Svejk is actually more sophisticated than I realized as a younger man but it’s cheerfully biased against a fairly large chunk of the old Empire, including, no doubt, its military commanders and senior officer corps.

One of Hašek’s favorites, Colonel von Zillergut, is described more or less as below. I used Pyotr Bogatyryov’s classic translation (1929-34) and the Czech original, freely available on on the web, to produce these translated extracts.

Colonel Friedrich Kraus, also called von Zillergut – from the name of the village near Salzburg his ancestors had guzzled away in the 18th century or so – was an outstanding moron. When he talked about something, he would state the obvious and ask if everyone understood the most basic expressions: “This is a window, gentlemen, yes. Do you know what a window is?”

Or this: “A road with ditches on both sides is called a highway. Indeed, gentlemen. Do you know what a ditch means? A ditch is an excavation dug out by many people. It is a trench. Yes. It is dug out with mattocks. Do you know what a mattock is?”

He was possessed of an explanatory mania and expounded on things with the enthusiasm of an inventor describing his work:

“A book, gentlemen, is a multitude of different sheets of paper cut in four, of various formats, which are printed and put together, bound and glued. Indeed. Do you know, gentlemen, what glue is? Glue is an adhesive.”

This sounds like a Soviet elementary military training textbook for high schools: every obvious thing received a definition and an abbreviation. “Generally, a spade consists of a blade and a handle. Army Spade Model One (AS-1) consists of an X by Y cm blade with a rounded edge and a wooden handle Z cm long and W cm in diameter made of birchwood,” that sort of tune.

Yet a Soviet officer who’d start quoting this stuff to his comrades would have become the butt of unpleasant jokes for the rest of his career. Unless he was a political education commissar, a type despised by default. Now, back to Colonel Kraus von Zillergut:

He was so stupendously dumb that officers avoided him from afar so as not to hear about the street consisting of the roadway and the sidewalk, and the latter being the raised strip along the facades of the houses. And the facade being the part of the house visible from the road or the sidewalk. For one cannot see the rear part of the houses from the sidewalk as one can easily ascertain by stepping back onto the road.

The colonel attempted this interesting experiment once but, fortunately, got run over. Since then, he has grown even more stupid…

It was mind-boggling how this blockhead moved up the career ladder relatively fast and had the support of influential people such as his corps commander… The colonel worked wonders during exercises: he was never on time anywhere and led his columns straight against machine-guns…

Thanks to the friendly relationship with the corps general and with other, no less thick-skulled, military mandarins of old Austria, he received various awards and medals and was extraordinarily proud of them; he believed himself to be the best soldier under the moon, the best strategy theorist and a master of all military wisdom…

He was uncommonly vindictive and destroyed subordinate officers he did not like for some reason…

The colonel missed half of his left ear, slashed off in his youth at a duel that happened because of a simple statement of the fact that Friedrich Kraus von Zillergut was an all-out idiot…

Once, at a reception at the officers’ club, colonel Friedrich Kraus von Zillergut declared all of a sudden, in the middle of a conversation about Schiller: “If I may, gentlemen, I saw a steam plow yesterday driven by a locomotive. Imagine, my good sirs, a locomotive: not one but two locomotives. I saw the smoke, walked up, and there was a locomotive and on the other side, one more. Tell me, gentlemen, is it not ridiculous? Two locomotives, as if one were not enough.”

He stopped for a moment and continued: “When the gasoline ran out, the car had to stop. That I saw yesterday, too. All this prattle about inertia, gentlemen! It’s not moving, it’s standing still, it’s not budging, no gasoline. Isn’t it ridiculous?”

For all his density, the colonel was exceptionally pious. He kept a domestic altar at home. He often went to confession at the St. Ignatius church; since the war began, he had been praying for the victory of German and Austrian arms…

Reading newspaper reports about new prisoners of war brought in made him furious.

“What’s the point of bringing POWs here?” he said. “Shoot them all. No mercy. Dance among the corpses, And burn the Serbian civilians, everybody to the last man. Bayonet the children!”

Enough of this gentleman for now. His is not the only portrait in the gallery.


“Thank you for standing with us”

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April 26, 2015 by AK

Two images from Moscow.

We Remember 1915” written in red under an image painted in black on the wall of an underground walkway.

The side panel of a bus stop. In the upper right corner: “100 years 1915-2015 // April 24 is the anniversary of the genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.” In the center, under “armenia futura // www.armeniafutura.com” and above the national flags: “Thank you for being with us.”

[Updated May 11.] Last Saturday, I saw that the 1915 memorial graffiti had been painted over, although one could still see its outline under the thin layer of yellow-orange paint. Municipal workers are always busy “refreshing” everything in sight in spring, especially before the May 9th holiday.


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