What was wrong with the polls?


June 25, 2016 by AK

The Financial Times’ latest poll of polls had a Remain-Leave-Undecided ratio of 48%-46%-6%. The Economist’s tracker had 44%-44%-9% (not sure where the missing 3% went). The actual vote went 52%-48% for Leave. Were the polls misleading or misinterpreted?

First, the polls may have accurately estimated the breakdown among the public in general but not among those most likely to vote. Second, the undecided may have made all the difference on the voting day. In any case, the six percentage point discrepancy between the Leave-Remain difference in the FT’s aggregate poll and in reality – between -2% and nearly +4% – cannot be waved away as a statistical blip.

Romey to Roy


June 23, 2016 by AK

A year or two ago, I first saw a “feminist coloring book for children” mentioned in the media – where else but in The Guardian? I thought the thing was a facetious outlier but it’s becoming mainstream. More than that, I admit that a feminist coloring book could actually do some good in a lot of places where women are obviously treated as imperfectly human: most, excepting some enclaves, are located outside the West.

Now I’ve come across a Hieronymus Bosch coloring book. I even had a chance to flip through a copy, on sale next to a large Bosch exhibition in one of Europe’s greatest museums. By the German artist Sabine Tauber, published by Prestel. It goes both ways then: blown-up pages from coloring books grace the walls of many a gallery.

The Italian of the Iliad


June 21, 2016 by AK

LanguageHat is wondering, “why would the Iliad be taken as a measuring-rod for Italian”? Namely, in Elena Ferrante’s first Neapolitan novel, My Brilliant Friend,

A teacher is said to speak “Italian that slightly resembled that of the Iliad,” and since the Iliad is not in Italian, I was puzzled.

My guess is that there must exist a definitive, influential Italian translation that has become the Iliad for most Italian readers. It is probably Vincenzo Monti’s 1810 version, in eleven-syllable blank verse. It is Monti’s vocabulary, style and possibly meter that Ferrante probably referred to.

Gnedich’s Russian translation, with its imitation hexameters, is excellent but more peripheral, as it were, in the Russian literary tradition. In The Golden Calf, Vasisualy Lokhankin declaims not hexametrically but in iambic pentameters.

Keep her on a string, or keep her out?


June 16, 2016 by AK

According to the cybersecurity specialist Crowdstrike and The Guardian, at least two groups of Russian hackers have “been lurking” in the computer systems of the Democrat National Committee (DNC) “since at least last summer.” However the DNC’s Trump dossier was only leaked to the media in June 2016. What happened?

Perhaps it was the Democrats themselves, after all, who leaked the file — an attempt at a (rather lame, let’s admit it) smear job. Perhaps the Kremlin, as I have argued before, does not really want Trump to win. It’s also possible that there is no consensus on the preferred candidate among the “towers” of the Kremlin.

But it all depends on how much dirt Moscow has on either candidate and whether it is planning to use it to influence the new president through blackmail or to prevent the less agreeable candidate from getting elected. If it goes for the latter option, assuming it did not waste the golden opportunity graciously offered by Secretary Clinton in 2013, things can finally get really interesting. Stay tuned but don’t hold your breath.

Peasants into Soviets: rereading Richard Pipes’ 2004 article


June 15, 2016 by AK

In July 2004, I linked to an article by historian Richard Pipes in Foreign Affairs, What Russians Think and Want (accessible with free registration). The old man overstated his case, perhaps, but as time goes by, I’m starting to think more along the lines he drew, wondering if they can be seen as extensions of Georgy Fedotov’s thought.

Russia’s transformation from an overwhelmingly rural to a mostly urban – with caveats – society happened (a) recently and (b) under the Communist regime. This should explain a lot about the state of late-Soviet and post-Soviet society. The urban population’s share of total was 15% at the turn of the 20th century, 18% in 1926, 33% in 1939, 52% in 1959, 69% in 1979, and 73% in 1989. It has not changed much since.

In addition, Russian rural settlements – mostly small villages – were poorer and more primitive than their German or French counterparts, not to speak of English and American farms. A rough comparison in terms of poverty and human underdevelopment could be drawn between Central Russia and the south of Italy and Spain in the first 20-30 years of the 20th century.

Had the revolution been limited to a general democratization with a land reform, the urban 15% would have largely shaped the way of life of the first- and especially second-generation new urbanites. Yesterday’s peasants would dream of graduating into the petty bourgeoisie; their children, of graduating from universities. Instead, the Bolsheviks started by attacking the upper and middle classes of the cities and continued by destroying some of the peasantry, driving other rurals into cities as near-free labor for the Communist industrialization, and reducing the rest to serfdom (literally, not in a lofty Hayekian sense: collective farm members had no passports and so were not allowed to travel to cities without permission from farm management). There was no longer a stable, sophisticated urban environment for the newcomers to assimilate into. They created their own Soviet villages in the brick and cinder apartment buildings.

True, Moscow was called an outsized village long before the revolution but the label referred to its informal, down-home character (as opposed to the buttoned-up, uniformed Petersburg) and to the chaotic city topography outside the Kremlin, with boroughs and neighborhoods dominated by churches and monasteries, often built on hills as if in the countryside. (This church-and-parish principle may have influenced the placement of Stalin’s seven towers.) The Soviet city-village – the Russian word some sociologists prefer is sloboda, settlement – stands out for a different reason. Its residents are political idiots, mistrustful of the world outside their cozy hamlet.

I’m obviously drawing a caricature but I hope it is useful. The “idiocy of rural life” – the famous maxim from The Communist Manifesto likely referring to isolation, not stupidity – was transplanted into the Soviet urban environment, which had replaced an earlier, more sophisticated cultural milieu, always quite thin and, finally, tattered by Bolshevik policies. Eugen Weber‘s famous treatise on the social modernization of France was called Peasants into Frenchmen. What do we have here? Peasants into Russians? No, Peasants into Soviets.

“Tough is winning systematically”


June 13, 2016 by AK

The 1990 Playboy interview also provides an insight into the meaning and the purpose of Trump’s supposed admiration for Putin. Trump saw little to admire in the Soviet Union:

I was very unimpressed. Their system is a disaster.

He showed no sign of being friendly with the enemy:

we should continue giving him [Gorbachev] credit, because he’s destroying the Soviet Union.

On the other hand, speaking, as I understand, of pre-Gorbachev Soviet leaders, Trump compared them favorably with US officials:

Generally, these guys are much tougher and smarter than our representatives. We have people in this country just as smart, but unfortunately, they’re not elected officials…

Trump was giving Soviet gerontocrats way too much credit – their system had always been dysfunctional and from the late 1970s onwards, the smell of rot was unmistakable. On the other hand, if the decline was systemic, not even the brightest and the toughest could stop it.

But what does toughness mean?

Tough is being mentally capable of winning battles against an opponent and doing it with a smile. Tough is winning systematically.

This explains a whole lot. If one ignores Putin’s domestic policies and only focuses on his foreign-policy record (I disagree completely with this approach but it comes naturally to some), one might concede that he’s been “winning systematically” as of late, unlike Obama.

Now as fifteen years ago, Trump is using the example of foreign authoritarians as a big stick to pummel his domestic opponents. A questionable method, but not entirely unjustified.

Mr. Trump goes to Moscow


June 12, 2016 by AK

Trump commenting in 1990 on his visit to the USSR in 1983 or 84:

Once you got to Moscow, how did the negotiations go?

I told them, “Guys, you have a basic problem. Far as real estate is concerned, it’s impossible to get title to Russian land, since the government owns it all. What kind of financing are you gonna get on a building where the land is owned by the goddamned motherland?” They said, “No problem, Mr. Trump. We will work out lease arrangements.” I said, “I want ownership, not leases.”

Heh, heh. Ownership my neck! It’s not 1984 any more (or is it?) and you still can’t buy land in Moscow. At best – I think the bill is still under discussion – apartment owners may be able to claim the land under their building as joint property. The rest is city or federal property – leased out for 100 years or something. Which means it can be taken away on a whim, like this. As the song goes:

But that can’t happen to us
Because it’s always been a matter of trust

Property rights are no guarantee against expropriation either, but they make your adversaries work harder on robbing you – sometimes it’s not worth the effort. And of course all this uncertainty means that investors require higher rates of return.

More from Trump’s negotiations with the Soviets:

They came up with a solution: “Mr. Trump, we form a committee with ten people, of which seven are Russian and three are your representatives, and all disputes will be resolved in this manner.” I thought to myself, Shit, seven to three-are we dealing in the world of the make-believe here or what?

You made my day, Sir. A solution indeed. I didn’t even suspect the Soviets were so much like the post-Soviets.

You can’t hate the man for stating the obvious.

Trump on trade: make free riders pay


June 12, 2016 by AK

“They are selling us their BMWs and TVs and oil and we are giving them security – for free. Either we slap a tariff on their goods or they start paying their fair share for joint defense.”

Surprisingly, this was Donald Trump’s view in 1990 and remains his view in 2016.

The claim that the Europeans are not bearing their share of the burden has since gone mainstream. The solutions offered by American politicians are limited to the obvious: joint military operations and anti-terrorist efforts. But they do not see it as a matter of international trade and division of labor, and do not ask themselves whether the least wasteful solution would be for the US to keep acting as the world’s policeman, although for better pay.

Some people are deliberately looking the other way and not paying attention, but Trump’s agenda is not a contradiction on terms and its non-negotiable parts are easily discernible with a modicum of effort. Two of its pillars are restricting immigration from the third world and doing something to reverse the damage to unprivileged American classes from policies masquerading as free trade. There is probably a third: a foreign policy rooted in national interest rather than democracy promotion and such. This third leg seems either vaguely defined or underdeveloped but it’s connected to the second – trade – in an interesting way.

Trump, it turns out, has consistently argued since at least 1990 that the terms of trade between the United States and its allies unfairly favor the latter because the US subsidizes them to a vast extent by providing for free a crucial public good: regional and global security. You can find this argument as well as the suggestion that imports from these countries be taxed to recover some of that subsidy or make the exporters contribute more to joint security, in the 1990 Playboy interview. Trump has taken lots of flak for these ideas lately but one should not accuse him of flip-flopping on them.

In 1990, Trump talked sense on the Soviet collapse


June 11, 2016 by AK

In early 1990, Donald Trump appeared to understand that Moscow’s inability to reign in mass violence would soon finish off Gorbachev’s regime and the Communist state. He probably did not realize that the violence had been and would be driven by ethnic enmities rather than by purely political and economic agendas.

Playboy interviewed Trump in March 1990. He had visited the USSR six-seven years earlier, before Gorbachev’s election, judging by his remark that it was shortly after the Soviets had shot down the Korean plane. The USSR shot down Korean civilian planes twice, in 1978 and 1983, but ’78 looks too early to me.

It turns out that Trump had the right idea of the Soviet Union’s future, despite misidentifying one or two factors of its impending collapse.

What were your other impressions of the Soviet Union?

I was very unimpressed. Their system is a disaster. What you will see there soon is a revolution; the signs are all there with the demonstrations and picketing. Russia is out of control and the leadership knows it. That’s my problem with Gorbachev. Not a firm enough hand…

Why is Gorbachev not firm enough?

I predict he will be overthrown, because he has shown extraordinary weakness. Suddenly, for the first time ever, there are coal-miner strikes and brush fires everywhere- which will all ultimately lead to a violent revolution. Yet Gorbachev is getting credit for being a wonderful leader and we should continue giving him credit, because he’s destroying the Soviet Union. But his giving an inch is going to end up costing him and all his friends what they most cherish-their jobs.

Gorbachev was removed from power for three days in August 1991. Reinstalled as president of the USSR, he found his powers diminished by centrifugal forces, which pulled apart the country and ended the USSR’s existence by the end of the year.

The empire ultimately fell apart without a violent revolution, but it had been disintegrating against a background of brutal ethnic conflicts and outbursts of state-sponsored violence. The striking miners never got more violent than Arthur Scargill’s trade union a few years earlier. The millions who had taken up to the streets to protest the old, corrupt, late-Soviet order – in Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Vilnius, Riga, Tallinn, Sverdlovsk, Novosibirsk and so on – remained reserved and peaceable. To use Tiananmen-like measures against them would have been so blatantly wrong that it would have provoked a popular uprising.

Ethnic conflicts, in contrast, quickly flared up across the country, mostly in the southern regions, and claimed hundreds of victims. Using force, even disproportionately harsh, against their instigators, might have saved lives that are still being lost.

Already in 1988, Moscow failed to defuse the Karabakh conflict and prevent the pogroms in Baku and Sumgait. The show of impotence was unforgivable, encouraging ethnic and religious radicals to strike in Uzbekistan, Georgia, Tajikistan and Moldova. Trump was probably right: Gorbachev failed to show firmness in dealing with the leaders of the extremist factions and the Soviet state was exposed as a clay-footed colossus that could not provide basic security to millions of its citizens – in peacetime.

Instead of interfering where it would have saved lives, Gorbachev permitted, authorized or tolerated attacks by military or paramilitary forces to seize key building and installations in the Baltics, where independence movements were overwhelmingly peaceful and parliamentary. (That was after Trump’s interview, in early 1991.)

But what are the “brush fires”?

Incongruous, but only at first glance. Trump was actually referring to something that was obvious to those who lived through the Perestroika but is seldom mentioned in the media today. The average Soviet citizen who watched TV news regularly – under Gorbachev, people started following the news again – had an disturbing feeling that both man-made and natural disasters were striking the country with unprecedented, vindictive intensity during Gorbachev’s tenure. It felt like everything that could go wrong was going wrong, as if a motley crew of misanthropic genies had escaped from their bottles.

That impression was partly a result of Gorbachev’s policy of information openness (“glasnost”): previously, only disasters in the West and some third-world countries had been covered in the news. But the underlying reality was not a figment of the media: Chernobyl, the Armenian earthquake of 1988, a string of horrible transport accidents. The authorities’ response to some of the disasters – such as the Soviet-Ukrainian leaders’ failure to cancel the May festivities days after Chernobyl – only made things worse.

It was like an uncontrollable brush fire with incompetent, useless firemen.

The Foreshadowings. My next novel.


June 10, 2016 by AK

Dr. Corin Throsby, a Cambridge academic, writes in The Times’ Literary Supplement:

Byron knew, more than any author before him, the power of an ellipsis. Foreshadowing twentieth-century theorists such as Wolfgang Iser, who posited that it is primarily the reader who creates a poem’s meaning by navigating gaps in the text, Byron filled his work with tantalizing omissions to fire the imagination.

I laughed, though silently. You’ve got to love the idea of Byron “foreshadowing” some obscure Continental “theorist”. Byron’s wit, vitriol and verve foreshadowed interminable pages on the phenomenological approach to the reading process.

I must admit I only came across a mention of Iser in the 2010s and have no intention of reading his work. Judging by the summaries, his ideas make perfect sense but should also seem perfectly obvious to a mature reader. Byron’s contemporaries, even those who only read him in French translations, were smart enough to figure things out by themselves without help from theorists.

And even now – let’s say a Russian child reads a poem assigned at class, one of those intolerably familiar ones that border on self-parody – by a 19-year-old youth with seven more years left to live:

I am not Byron – I am another chosen one, yet unrevealed: like him, a wanderer persecuted by the world, like him, but with a Russian soul. I started earlier and earlier I shall finish; my mind will not accomplish much. In my soul, as in an ocean, a load of broken hopes lies sunk. Who can, o gloomy ocean, penetrate your secrets? Who will narrate my thoughts to the crowd? I – or God – or no one.

Does she need a theorist to ask, who was that Byron and why would a Russian cadet – soon a lieutenant in the Caucasus war – speak of him as a hounded prophet? Eventually she might even find out that, had Lermontov been older by two-three years, he might have met the mother of Byron’s least fortunate child in Moscow – the woman who would later write of Byron as a “human tyger slaking his thirst for inflicting pain upon defenceless women,” which could equally be said of Lermontov’s best-known character, Pechorin.


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