By the way, which one’s the Great One?


March 23, 2017 by AK

Reviewing five recent books on the Russian Revolution of 1917 for the LRB, Sheila Fitzpatrick quotes S. A. [Stephen Anthony] Smith, professor of history at All Souls College, Oxford:

The Soviet Union proved capable of generating extensive growth in industrial production and of building up a defence sector, but much less capable of competing with capitalism once the latter shifted towards more intensive forms of production and towards ‘consumer capitalism’. In this respect the record of the Chinese Communists in promoting their country to the rank of a leading economic and political world power was far more impressive than that of the regime on which it broadly modelled itself. Indeed, as the 21st century advances, it may come to seem that the Chinese Revolution was the great revolution of the 20th century.

By the absolute number of its victims, it was the great revolution of the century. Other than that, it wasn’t even capable of “generating extensive growth in industrial production.” China only started developing in earnest when the revolutionary strictures were relaxed or reversed.

A separate question is whether the military-driven Soviet growth of the 1930s and the 1950s, against a backdrop of hecatombic repression, is a sure sign of greatness. It’s not that Russia had never experienced economic growth prior to 1917. For example, Russian industrial production grew by 8% per annum in the 1890s – so it must have doubled during the decade – without mass famines, deportations and executions. Historians appreciate finance minister Sergei Witte’s contribution to that growth but manage without exstatic paeans to his grandeur.

Fitzpatrick comments on S. A. Smith’s warning:

Now that’s a conclusion that Putin’s Russia – still uncertain what it thinks of the revolution, and therefore how to celebrate it – needs to ponder: the ‘Russian Revolution’ brand is in danger.

Putin’s team are not the greatest brand managers out there, and this particular label makes them uncomfortable whenever they have to bring it up. They would gladly retire it if they only could.

Buch, East Berlin


March 21, 2017 by AK

The “sleepy German suburb” of Buch – a hotbed of rightwing nationalism according to the New York Times – reminds me of a middle-class Moscow residential area, only cleaner, greener, lower-rise and more orderly (note the neatly parked cars). I can understand why some residents fear that new tenants might be not so keen on keeping public spaces tidy and, once they have arrived in large numbers, the neighborhood could lose its “cozy, safe” appearance.

Not that the new arrivals would actually make it dangerous but the veneer of understated middle-class respectability might have to come off. In places like Moscow, where housing built under central planning is still predominant, subtle differences among almost identically built neighborhoods can signal major variance in property prices and perceived levels of genteelness.

Essential skills for dictators


March 20, 2017 by AK

Thomas Mann wrote in his 1939 essay Brother Hitler:

And then he — who had learned nothing, and in his dreamy, obstinate arrogance never would learn anything; who had neither technical nor physical discipline, could not sit a horse, or drive a car, or fly a plane, or do aught that men do, even to begetting a child — he develops the one thing needful to establish a connection between him and the people: a gift of oratory. It is oratory unspeakably inferior in kind, but magnetic in its effect on the masses…

Mussolini could ride a horse, drive a car and pilot an airplane. He was a good fencer. Needless to say, he had several children. He had the discipline to successfully run a newspaper for years. In all of that, he was Hitler’s opposite. Like Hitler, Mussolini was an effective speaker, but his speeches were more traditionally structured and he did not appear exceptionally feral compared with some other Italian firebrands.

What does it prove? Probably nothing at all.

[Turns out I wrote about it in 2015. Bonjour sénilité.]

Lâstik and lastik


March 18, 2017 by AK

In The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success, Geoffrey Lewis mentions a certain late-Ottoman author and civil servant:

…Kemalpaşazade Sait, alias Lâstik (‘Galoshes’) Sait, who held several senior posts in government service but was best known as a writer of articles on literature for the newspapers Tarik and Vakit, and as a minor poet. The reason for his nickname was that he was reputed never to take off his galoshes even in summer.

Since the Russian word lastik (лáстик) means “eraser” (BrE “rubber”), I thought for a second that Said Bey might have been a perfectionist keen on killing needless words until the text was suitably laconic. The next moment, he turned a semblance of Chekhov’s Man in a Case.

Both the Turkish and the Russian word were derived from Greek via late Latin, after which the transmission routes may have diverged. Lâstik entered Turkish from the French, evolving from the adjective in gomme élastique. The stress must remain on the last syllable: it is typical of Turkish and in line with the original. The circumflex above the a indicates that the initial l should be palatalized, as in French (Turkish also has a “dark,” “hard” l). The modern meaning of the word seems to include a wider range of rubber items than just galoshes, including the eraser.

The Russian word, ластик/lastik, strictly stands for one thing: a piece of rubber or rubber-like material used for erasing pencil or pen marks. (The other meaning, a durable cotton fabric used as lining, supposedly from “lasting,” is virtually extinct.) The stress is on the first syllable, and the l is hard. Like канва (from Fr. canevas) and кадриль (from Fr. cadrille), ластик feels completely domesticated in Russian, thanks partly to its ending, akin to a Slavic suffix, and partly to its root, pleasantly reminiscent of native words like ласточка (a swallow) and ластиться (to make up to somebody). There is no consensus view of its path from late Latin to Russian but I have an amateur theory of my own.

I think it’s a shortened version of the dated word гум(м)и(э)ластик (gum(m)i(e)lastik), whose origin – also a conjecture of mine – is not the French gomme élastique but, rather, the German-Latin gummi elasticum. See, for example, Der practische Naturforscher by the “practicing physician” Dr. Franz Walchner of Bühl, printed in Karlsruhe in 1842. This would explain the position of the stress and offer a plausible source for another Russian word, гуммиарабик, from gummi arabicum.

(The) Burgess-Kubrick Squib


March 11, 2017 by AK

In Prospect Magazine, Kevin Jackson writes that Stanley Kubrick’s “slick and meretricious film” was an “ambiguous triumph” for Anthony Burgess…

…since he regarded the book, most of which he had dashed off in three weeks, as a squib.

It’s not clear to me whether Jackson put “squib” to mean a witty tour de force – a brilliant lampoon – or a dud: a firework that failed to go off, a “damp squib.” Probably both: a quick success on one level and a lasting failure on another.

William Golding mistook a Bob Dylan puppet for Satan


March 8, 2017 by AK

Reviewing John Carey’s biography of William Golding in 2009, Peter Conrad reported:

Once, staying at a friend’s house in London, Golding awoke in panic and dismembered a Bob Dylan puppet because he thought it was Satan.

Conrad is unimpressed by Carey’s analysis of Golding’s symbolic violence:

…it may be that Carey is too sane or puritanical to comprehend the creative madness of his subject.

A most amusing incident (and comment). The very existence of that object is remarkable: a Bob Dylan puppet in a house in Hanover Mews in 1971. (In Marylebone, if I’m not mistaken, near Regent’s Park, between the London Business School’s Sussex Palace and the site of the London Central Mosque built in 1974-78.) Did Golding have the slightest intimation both he and Dylan would receive the Nobel Prize in literature, twelve and forty-five years later?

More details of the “Golding’s diabolic encounter” can be found in the book under review. The writer buried the poor doll in the backyard of his friend’s house but the host (the writer Andrew Sinclair) later unearthed it and even showed a photograph of the thing to the biographer. I’m reading The Inheritors now: defamiliarization, or estrangement, taken to the extreme, and surprisingly little pleasure in the recognition.

Troubetzkoy’s Children


March 5, 2017 by AK

The sculptor Paolo Troubetzkoy was born in 1866 in Intra, by Lago Maggiore in the north of Italy, to Ada Winans, an American pianist and singer, and Petr (Pyotr) Petrovich Trubetskoy, a Russian diplomat of aristocratic lineage. Paolo grew up in Italy and spoke little Russian but lived and worked in Russia for almost ten years, 1897-1906, and created memorable sculptural portraits of various Russians. The best known, perhaps, is his equestrian statue of Alexander III, now standing near the Marble Palace by the Neva in St. Petersburg.

There are a fair number of first-rate sculptures by late 19th century masters in the Russian Museum: Antokolsky, Troubetzkoy, Golubkina, the early Konenkov. On my latest visit, last month, I stopped by Paolo Troubetzkoy’s 1900 sculpture, Children. It depicts, if I’m not mistaken, the master’s first cousins, once removed. That is, Nikolai and Vladimir, the sons of Paolo’s first cousin, prince Sergei N. Trubetskoy (1863-1905), who taught philosophy at the Moscow University and was elected chancellor months before his death in 1905.

Vladimir Trubetskoy (1892-1937) was a career soldier and an amateur musician. He stayed in Soviet Russia after the Civil War and for a while supported his family by writing fiction and light music. Having survived through the 1920s, he was exiled to Uzbekistan in 1934 and executed in 1937, the peak year of the purges. His daughter Varvara, born in 1917, was executed on the same day as her father. Her younger sister, Alexandra, died in a penal camp in 1943. Trubetskoy’s wife was arrested in 1943 and died in prison a month later. One of his sons served ten years in prisons and labor camps. See A Russian Prince in the Soviet State, a selection of writings by Vladimir S. Trubetskoy translated by Susanne Fusso.

Nikolai Trubetzkoy (1890-1938), to quote the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics,

was a Russian émigré scholar who settled in Austria in 1922, serving as Head of Slavic Linguistics at the University of Vienna and participating in the Prague Linguistics Circle. Trubetzkoy wrote nearly 150 works on phonology, prosody, comparative linguistics, linguistic geography, folklore, literature, history, and political theory. His posthumously published Grundzüge der Phonologie (Principles of Phonology) is regarded as one of the key works in the science of phonology.

One can find Trubetzkoy’s portrait in the gallery of notables associated with the Institute of Slavic Studies at the University of Vienna. It begins with Siegmund von Herberstein, includes Josef Dobrovský, the founder of comparative Slavistics, and ends with Fürst Nikolaj von Trubeckoj, who headed the department in 1923-1938. The Oxford encyclopedia provides a helpful comment on the transliteration of the family name:

The surname Трубецкой is variously Romanized as Trubetzkoy, Trubetskoy, Trubetzkoi, Trubetskoi Troubetzkoy, Troubetskoy, Troubetzkoi, Troubetskoi, Trubet͡skoĭ, and Trubeckoj…

Three volumes of Trubetzkoy’s works have appeared in English under the auspices of Anatoly Liberman, including Studies in General Linguistics and Language Structure. This books were published, appropriately, in the Roman Jakobson Series in Linguistics and Poetics: Jakobson, six years Trubetzkoy’s junior, was his close friend and colleague in the 1920s and the 1930s, when they co-founded, together with other linguists, the so-called Prague School. Jakobson was based in Prague and Trubetzkoy in Vienna so the collaboration was largely through correspondence. Jakobson kept the letters received from Trubetzkoy and later published them. However, his own letters to Vienna disappeared.

They could have been seized during the Gestapo’s investigation into Trubetzkoy’s affairs after the Anschluss in 1938, which further weakened his chronically poor health. He died in Vienna seven month after his younger brother had been shot in Uzbekistan.

One reason for the Nazis’ suspicion of Trubetzkoy was probably his leading part in the so-called Eurasianism, although by the mid-1930s he had expressed growing disappointment in his earlier ideas. The Eurasianist circle became a target of Bolshevik infiltration and some of its members, like Pyotr Suvchinsky (Pierre Souvtchinsky), were leaning far leftwards. Trubetzkoy’s “Eurasian” theories deserve a separate post, but whatever their nuances, they precluded biological racism of the Nazi kind, as he made clear in his 1935 article On Racism. In the 1930s, Trubetzkoy witnessed disturbing polarization among the Russian émigrés: some of his fellow anti-Communists accepted Fascism and even, to a degree, Nazism, while some Eurasianists became increasingly tolerant of Bolshevism.

Lucilla in Lipetsk


March 3, 2017 by AK

Good to hear about Russian entrepreneurs doing something cutting-edge and producing something immediately marketable:

Amid the satellites, virtual reality headsets, 3D printers and other hi-tech products on show at Skolkovo’s recent Startup Bazaar, the stand housing a cage of buzzing flies and jar of writhing maggots stood out. Also on the table were jars of dried and crushed maggots – and this, according to Novye Biotekhnologii, the company behind the stall, is the future of our food.

Not sure about our food (one of the owners adds larvae-sourced protein to his morning milkshake) but the medium-term objective is to substitute for some of the fish- and soy-derived protein in chicken and hog feed:

Some 14 per cent of the world’s ocean fish catch is fed to farm animals and growing demand for soya-based feed is driving deforestation and undermining staple food crop production in South America.

Plus, it’s got to be cheaper. Insects are rather good at converting their food – in the case of greenbottle flies, organic waste – into pure protein. The devil is in the details, as usual: it seems the owners have built all the equipment themselves, by trial and error. The larvae come from the good old greenbottle fly, Lucilia Caesar, and feed on dead chickens – there’s always some die-off even at the best-run farms. They can also feed on dung and droppings.

Skolkovo is merely providing an exhibition platform: there’s no mention of their role in financing the enterprise. The owners say they have invested about $850,000 in the project (500 million roubles), 70% contributed by the family and friends and 30% by banks and other investors. That should be enough to produce 120 tons per year of protein, which would be $200k in sales with a roughly 50% operating margin. Not bad – but the protein segment of the cattle feed market in Russia is at least 100,000 tons per year and growing. I’d consider investing if they went public.

Trump did not invent unprofessionalism


March 1, 2017 by AK

Australian children’s writer Mem Fox reports on getting mistreated by an American immigration officer at the Los Angeles international airport:

When I was called to be interviewed I was rereading a novel from 40 years ago – thank God I had a novel. It was The Red and the Black by Stendhal… I was buried in it and didn’t hear my name called. And a woman in front of me said: “They are calling for Fox.” I didn’t know which booth to go to, then suddenly there was a man in front of me, heaving with weaponry, standing with his legs apart yelling: “No, not there, here!” I apologised politely and said I’d been buried in my book and he said: “What do you expect me to do, stand here while you finish it?” – very loudly and with shocking insolence.

The officer’s behavior was disgusting, typical of a petty soul invested with too much authority over fellow human beings. (Some specialize in yelling at polite old ladies.) Trump’s election may have disinhibited the man: if Trump is president, everything is permitted, as long as the receivers are all docile non-citizens.

However, I rather doubt the officer was hired under Trump. Since he is in his mid-30s, chances are he joined the force on Obama’s watch. In the comments section, people write of having experienced similar treatment years before Trump. These episodes are symptoms of chronic unprofessionalism. It doesn’t look like Trump is going to try and fix it but it didn’t break out last November or January.

Irrelevant does not mean wrong


February 28, 2017 by AK

A statement that is correct on its face can be irrelevant and – if wrongly presumed to be relevant – misleading. It won’t become “mostly wrong” in itself, no matter how misused.

President Trump tweeted on Feb. 25:

The media has not reported that the National Debt in my first month went down by $12 billion vs a $200 billion increase in Obama first mo.

If the national debt did what Trump said it had done, and if the media had not reported it by the time of Trump’s tweet, the statement above must be correct. (It can be logically correct even if the subordinate clause is not, as in “the media is not reporting the Earth is flat.”) Politifact agrees with the former, does not discuss the latter, but calls the tweet “mostly wrong” nonetheless. Why?

Certainly the most natural interpretation of the tweet is (a) the decrease in the national debt means something, probably something good; and (b) Trump deserves some credit for it. There’s no arguing with Politifact that (a) is wrong. To begin with, I would be looking at net debt, that is, total debt less the cash balance. Taking Politifact’s numbers for granted, it follows that the net national debt actually went up by $117 bln from the inauguration day to Feb. 22. As for (b), well, whatever.

Which still does not make the original tweet “mostly wrong,” merely pointless.


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