Happy July 4th


July 4, 2015 by AK

…to my American readers and to all who celebrate the Declaration.

Stalin the helmsman and the imitation of Mussolini


July 2, 2015 by AK

This post has been inspired by this note by Language Hat on a slightly different subject.

In modern Russian usage, “the Great Helmsman” is taken by default to be a reference to Mao. The word most likely to denote Stalin is vozhd’, a leader-chief hybrid. (Of course he was also the Coryphaeus of All Sciences – and Humanities, especially the theory of language.) However, it’s true that Stalin was called a great helmsman as early as 1934 on the occasion of the Soviet ice-cutter F. Litke  (previously called Earl Gray, Canada, and The Third International) successfully passing the Northern sea route. That was 15 years before the Communist takeover of China.

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, going back at least to John Chrysostom (possibly to Justin the Martyr), the Church is sometimes referred to as a ship and Christ as its helmsman. Later Roman Catholic interpretations have St. Peter steering but in the East, it’s always the Messiah Himself. The nautical symbolism in Christianity goes deep and far back in time – consider the origin of “nave” for example.

Stalin, as a former priest in training, may have been familiar with the Christian connotations of the Great Henchman title. According to Oleg Khlevniuk’s latest bio of the dictator, Ioseb Jugashvili was either expelled or forced to leave the seminary “with a commendatory certificate on the completion of four years,” which “would have enabled him to work in the area of religion or teach elementary school.”

Did the coiner of the sacrilegious epithet realize what he was doing? A considerable number of Russian intellectuals and revolutionaries came from the clerical estate, but that’s all I can say for now.

Curiously, in the same year 1934, a Sardinian-born aspiring intellectual called Edgardo Sulis published a book titled The Imitation of Mussolini, no less. According to R.J.B. Boswell:

The first claim to fame of Edgardo Sulis is that in 1934 he published a book with perhaps the most egregious title of all the star-struck accounts of the Duce – **Imitazione di Mussolini**. In its pages, this Thomas à Kempis of Fascism set out the basic tenets of what he labelled in somewhat hackneyed phrase ‘the new political religion’. In the articles of this totalitarian faith, love of country, of nation, of Duce and potentially of race fused in mysterious fashion.

Sulis published more books in support of fascism and rose to a senior propaganda position in the republic of Salò but little if anything is known about him after 1945.

Primakov as PM and Yeltsin’s non-successor


June 30, 2015 by AK

When Russia defaulted on its public ruble-denominated bonds and the ruble lost two-thirds of its value to the dollar in August 1998, the Kirienko cabinet also fell. Facing a largely hostile Duma, Yeltsin appointed Yevgeny Primakov prime minister. It was feared the cabinet would push for counter-reform, for a return to a late-Soviet, state-dominated economy.

My impression is that Primakov’s cabinet did not do much at all. The Russian economy started to recover in 1999 without much government or IMF intervention, helped by the cheap ruble and temporarily unused production capacity (if in need of modernizing investment). August 1998 seemed like the end of the world; in May 1999, it looked like the worst was past us.

Meanwhile, Yeltsin was probably thinking of retiring and did not want the old spy Primakov to succeed him. (Eventually he picked for that part a young spy whose name also begins with a P.) Besides, Primakov – two years Yeltsin’s senior – was past 70 so and would have been almost as old when assuming the top office as Konstantin U. Chernenko was in 1984. “Comrade X assumed the post without regaining consciousness,” the standard early to mid-1980s joke went.

Owen Hatherley on Cheryomushki


June 24, 2015 by AK

I would recommend Owen Hatherley’s well-researched piece on Moscow’s residential districts (not quite suburbs) to anyone interested in post-Soviet urban life and urban planning in general.

I suggest that readers also browse the photos in the author’s Flickr albums, some linked to from the text. They give a pretty good overview of the three areas of Moscow described in the article, and a few others, such as the 1925 GosProm/DerzhProm complex in Kharkiv.

I suspect the author has a soft spot for central planning and an aversion to free markets – unlike myself – but he knows more about architecture than I’m ever going to learn. For example, I agree that “infill” construction borders on the criminal in some cases but I would argue it is a result of general lawlessness and poorly defined or allotted property rights rather than the market economy by itself.

I have never lived in Cheryomushki proper but I have lived nearby for long enough to be familiar with the area. It’s hardly the only part of Moscow built over with Khruschev-era five-stories but it’s the first, allegedly the best-planned, and probably the most expensive of them, in terms of rents and property values. All the three boroughs Hatherley examined are actually at the higher end of the property value range for middle-class urban dwellings. An apartment in a Cheryomushki-type mikrorayon in the South-West of Moscow is likely to sell at a 20%-40% premium to an almost identical one in the south-east. It may have to do with the sort of people who had populated these areas by the early 1990s and with the availability of good schools, greater in the south-west than elsewhere in the city, except the center.

Which means that after the ruble’s recent slide, a family of four would still have to spend over $200k to buy an apartment consisting of three rooms and a small kitchen (khruschevka kitchens typically take 6-7 square yards) in a block that was supposed to be demolished 20 years ago and wasn’t sturdily built in the first place. Those early prefabricated panel buildings, including the K-7 types, were not supposed to last very long. They are being demolished gradually and replaced with modernized versions of Belyayevo-style blocks as dictated by the economics of real estate development. If the house is due for demolition, the apartment owners get replacement flats from the developer, usually in recently built blocks of somewhat better quality but not necessarily in the exact same area.

If the city authorities believe the old khruschevka can wait for three-five more years, the family will console itself with the ability to choose among decent local schools and a not too long drive or commute to the city center, where most people work. If your child can walk to school and you spend less than an hour getting to work, one way, you’ve got a good deal by Moscow standards.

By the way, the four-story K-7 block shown in the first illustration to the piece looks like the one in Grimau Street that is allegedly the first khruschevka (Khruschev-era prefab panel building) ever built. It was the birthplace of the Cheryomushki project. But most of Moscow’s khruschevkas, whether of the K-7 series or of other types, have five floors rather than four, like this one, a couple of miles southwest of the first K-7.

To conclude with a translation quibble: Novye Cheryomushki does not really mean “New Cherry Town.” The name of the village razed to make room for the mikrorayon, Cheryomushki (Google Stan Wayman Moscow for images of Khruschev-era construction), is possibly derived from cheryomukha, Prunus Padus, technically a species of cherry known as bird cherry (and its fruit, as hackberry), or Mayday tree, or Maybush. But Russians do not call cheryomukha a cherry tree (vishnya) so the name Cheryomushki does not evoke memories of Cherry Orchard. Rather, it’s the first tree/bush to bloom in May in Central Russia, followed by the cherry tree and naturally associated with spring and the merry month of May.

Mr. Perfect goes to church


June 19, 2015 by AK

Putin met with Pope Francis last week, but just before that

In a rare newspaper interview ahead of his state visit to Italy, Vladimir Putin has claimed he never makes mistakes because God “built his life so he’d have nothing to regret”.

Which inspired this drawing by the well-known Russian political cartoonist who goes by Yolkin (Elkin).

Yulia Latynina, by turns sensible and unhinged but usually entertaining, hypothesizes that Putin may have offered Pope Frances a “PR church union.”

What could it be? “Your Holiness, I guarantee you the Russian church will recognize your primacy by the end of the year if you support me on Ukraine and especially on World Cup 2018?” Sounds crazy: another Russian schism à la 1653 would be all but inevitable. Eschatologically-minded literalists rebelled when Russia introduced taxpayer identification numbers in the early 2000s, interpreting them as the Antichrist’s seal.

Putin is probably hoping that papal support (which I don’t think will ever be provided) would come at a price the Russian church will be able to pay if pressured by the Kremlin. Moreover, I suspect that the Kremlin would like to take down the Russian Orthodox Church a notch or two, distrustful of its loyalty and fearful of its potential influence if led by independent and risk-taking bishops.

Curiously, Patriarch Kirill’s detractors in the ROC have long accused him of Roman Catholic sympathies, to the point of calling him a “secret cardinal” (cardinal in pectore), an accusation previously reserved for Metropolitan Nikodim (Rotov, 1929-1978).

These accusers tend to be isolationist obscurantists and reactionary purists but their extravagant claims are not all rubbish.

Apart from purely theological grounds, suspicion of the ecumenical movement is grounded in the KGB infiltration of it. In the past, the Kremlin has used interchurch dialogue to influence public opinion in the West; Latynina claims it was the case after the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the ensuing boycotts. Why not again?

Within Russia, Kirill apparently wanted his church to play the same role as the Catholic church once did in some European countries – Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and to some degree France — before secularization and urbanization enervated its influence. If Kirill is “popish,” it means he would like to have the powers and independence the bishop of Rome enjoys (significantly greater than any Eastern patriarch’s) with the social and institutional power of a firmly established Russian church greatly expanded.

The author of this 2010 piece, the Ukrainian journalist Vitaly Portnikov, is anything but a reactionary. This was written before Kirill was elected Patriarch:

But by all accounts what attracted Nikodim was not the church as such, but the Vatican’s administrative machine…

Kirill really does want to reform the Russian Orthodox Church as an organization, possibly even on the Vatican model, and he is capable of doing so. He wants to make the church more “telegenic” and open it up to the Internet, which is inevitable if the Russian Orthodox Church really wants to become not simply a cover and friend of the authorities in Russia…

But from the theological and social standpoint, this apparent reformer remains an arch-conservative… He is, in fact, the John Paul II of the Russian church, a man who is not afraid of television cameras or crowded stadiums, who can express himself not just on religious topics, but also on history and politics.

But there is one key difference: The Russian patriarch is not the pope. Kirill, however, refuses to admit this fact. He is trying to subordinate to himself the entire administrative machine of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The last Moscow patriarch to be suspected of Pope-grade ambitions was Nikon, and Tsar Alexei did not take it lightly: Nikon was deposed and banished to a monastery. It is rumored that Putin does not like Kirill, who has not been heard much on state TV since the Crimean invasion. (His silence may have to do with the risk of the Ukrainian church shifting from autonomy to full independence.) If it’s true that Kirill is ambitious and sees his role as different from the minister of religious propaganda, it’s natural that the Kremlin is wary of him.

Hungover at pretend headhunters’ party


June 16, 2015 by AK

Reading about the misadventures of the Kinabalu backpackers, I was so taken in at first by the exaggeratedly XIX-century opposition, “animist Sabah bureaucrat vs. young Western engineer,” that it took me several days to google the minister’s background and the bigger KadazanDusun-Sabah-Malaysian context.

As things stand now, I believe the locals’ ire was mostly feigned and the desecration story cut out of whole cloth. The talk about appeasing the spirits of the dead with hecatombs should not be taken literally. The tourists got caught in a reality show set in motion by politicians and possibly social media.

I see four parties to the case: the backpackers; Emil Kaminski, the provocateur/troll; the Sabah cabinet — or, at least, its pro-native members; and the federal Malaysian executive and judiciary, “Kuala Lumpur.” Let’s look at the Sabah party now. According to the BBC,

Sabah’s deputy chief minister, Joseph Pairin Kitingan, says this tragedy is connected to a group of Western tourists who recently posed nude on the peak and allegedly cursed at a local guide for trying to prevent them from stripping.

It was not established at the trial that the climbers had told the guide to “go to hell” so the cursing charge was bogus. The causal link that Kitingan suggested was too outlandish to be the subject of a legal proceeding. But why is this Australian-educated lawyer, a Roman Catholic, and a prominent pro-indigenous politician – the first non-Muslim native-born PM of Sabah (1985-94) – reverting to ancient magical thinking?

Bluntly speaking, he is deliberately playing savage. “It matters not what we descendants of headhunters believe, but you Malays, and you tourists invited by the Malays, had better not mess with us.”

In support of this, I’m going to quote folklorist/anthropologist Flory Gingging of Indiana University, who spent some of her early years in Tamparuli, a town 20 miles to the north-west of Mount Kinabalu. As one commenter summarized her 2007 work (expanded into a dissertation since):

…her point is that this self-exoticizing has not only a commercial value but also a cultural and political one, it’s a means of responding to threats, discrimination etc.

Gingging makes her case in more detail using some anthropology/humanities jargon, but her conclusions are easy to grasp:

I propose that the tongue-in-cheek invocation of headhunting by the tourism industry represents one way in which Sabah’s indigenous people counter the outside world’s designation of them as the Other; that is, by parodying their headhunting past, they demonstrate their understanding of the joke and thus guard their indigenousness and their status as human beings. I also argue that their use of their headhunting heritage is a means of responding to the threats to their identities posed by the Malaysian state, which, in the process of globalization and nation building, has interpolated them into a Malaysian identity, an identity that they seem to resist in favor of their regional ones.

The notion that spirits of the dead (or of their body parts) reside on Kinabalu is part of the headhunting tribes’ worldview. As one blogger explained in 2009:

Talking to various elderly Kadazan here in Sabah it seems that they needed to sever the head of their enemy while he was still alive, preferably in combat. The head of an already dead man or woman was considered ‘useless’ because devoid of any spirits: the Kadazan, and other Dusunic ethnic people believe that our body is maintained by a number of specialised spirits that inhabit our body… There are spirits looking after our knees, others after our chest and so on. The most important spirit is of course located in the head… “When someone dies,” the stories continue, “our ‘maintenance spirits’ reassemble, go to Mt Kinabalu and eventually find themselves back on the earthly plain in the body of a newborn. If a human head is severed the body maintenance spirits leave through the wound the decapitation created, but without the head spirit which has rolled away with the head and finds itself alone and confused. It remains in the severed head hoping that someone will take care of it.”

Obviously, not many KadazanDusun people hold on to this peculiar theory but sometimes it pays to pretend they do, especially in the face of an all-obliterating, nation-building Islam from across the strait. Far from being ancient primitives, they are playing a sophisticated game of resistance, and I’m in sympathy with their dislike for Islamization, even its moderate Malay variety. The young Westerners got hungover at someone else’s party, as a Russian saying goes.

Malaysia: tops at spotting bare nips, less so at running airlines


June 14, 2015 by AK

Unanswered questions remain in the matter of the sunbathing backpackers on mount Kinabalu. (For the record, I cannot stomach the notion that a young, fit woman’s breast, bared in a natural environment, can be offensive to anyone.) The principal question to me is whether the Malaysian government played a part in hyperinflating this minor, run-of-the-mill episode to a clash-of-civilizations mudstorm.

A commenter has suggested that Malaysia may have been desperate to draw the public’s attention away from the tribulations of Malaysia Airlines, declared technically bankrupt last week. (Incidentally, it barely avoided a major accident last Friday in Melbourne.) The company cannot merely shake off responsibility for losing MH370 last year, even though the cause of its disappearance remains unclear. Some may argue that Malaysia Airlines could have avoided the downing of MH17 by diverting its flight path away from the war zone, although it was hardly alone in that imprudence – just the most unlucky of the unwise airlines.

Naturally, one can be forgiven for asking whether Malaysians are as good at aviation safety as they have lately been at detecting naked breasts on hilltops. Ironically, Eleanor Hopkins has an M.Sc. in aeronautic engineering.

A more specific question is who uploaded photos of the disrobed tourists to social media, if they truly were uploaded. It has been reported that the tour guide who ascended the mountain with the tourists decided to file a complain after a park service official showed him some of those images. I am skeptical of this narrative. I suspect the undressing ritual is a must in a backpacking/globetrotting sub-subculture and those harmless pranks had happened dozens of dozens of times without anybody getting offended. Something was different this time: perhaps the earthquake interfered, but possibly Kuala Lumpur as well.

Another of the secondary questions is the part played by the social media provocateur Emil Kaminski, who seems to have acted irresponsibly in more ways than one. The online abuse he has been subjected to proves how easily some people are provoked into extrene nastiness. In general, there has been plenty of anti-Western racism in the online backlash against the Kinabalu backpackers. Others have merely demanded “respect,” even though it is hard to respect people who believe, or pretend to give credence to the idea, that nudity in the wild causes earthquakes.

I definitely respect those Malaysians who have said the matter should be brushed away as trivial and best forgotten.

The rotten empire vs. Stalin’s strategic genius


June 9, 2015 by AK

John Schindler has written a number of posts on the less known or commonly misunderstood campaigns of WWI, including Isonzo and Galicia. The Soviet take on Russia’s role in WWI, as taught at schools and colleges, was that the war was unnecessary and bloody and the army was incompetently commanded and inadequately supplied. An exception was made for the Brusilov breakthrough, since it was a major military achievement and Brusilov joined the Red Army after 1917.

Yes, WWI was probably as avoidable in the Russian theater as in the others. Yes, the casualty count was enormous, owing to the front line extending from the Baltic Sea to the Carpathian mountains and later, after Romania’s disastrous entry, almost to the Black Sea. Yes, logistics was a mess. The Russian army suffered a terrible setback at the start of the war, at Tannenberg, East Prussia. But, unlike the Red Army in 1941, the Russians, under the supposedly incompetent imperial generals, managed to stop the German offensive without losing much land in 1914. In Galicia, they advanced well into Austrian Ukraine that fall.

In contrast, during WWII the Nazis took Minsk — 400 km from the USSR’s western border — less than a week after they had invaded on June 22, 1941. They occupied Kyiv — the third most important city in the country — less than three months into the war, in September 1941. Also in September, the German army encircled Leningrad, the second-largest Soviet city. On the weekend of October 14-16 there was panic, looting and general disorder in Moscow on rumors that the city was about to be abandoned to the Nazis. The Germans got as close as twenty miles to the Kremlin.

That Red Army lost more men in 1941 than Russia did in all of WWI.

1921: Bolsheviks cede Western Armenia to Turkey


June 4, 2015 by AK

Neither Edward Luttwak, in his 2015 review of They Can Live in the Desert and Nowhere Else by Ronald Grigor Suny, nor Mark Mazower, in his 2001 review of The Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, 1915-16 by James Bryce and Arnold Toynbee (yes, that Toynbee), mention the Bolshevik-Kemalist alliance that ended all hopes for Armenian unification, crushed the first Armenian Republic, and resulted in the ultimate Turkization of Western Armenia.

Under the Kars Treaty of 1921, the Bolshevik government transferred to Ankara the Kars and Ardahan areas, taken away from the Ottomans in 1877-8, and even ceded to Turkey Armenia’s national symbol, the Ararat mountain, annexed from Persia in 1828 under the terms of the Turkmenchay peace. Official Soviet histories never made a secret out of Lenin’s enthusiasm for Kemal nor of the Communists’ hostility to the Armenian “bourgeois nationalists,” the Dashnaktsutyun.

What was omitted from the official line, as a rule, was the fact that the Bolsheviks’ view of Turkish nationalists as natural allies against the Entente “imperialists” translated into financial aid and weapons shipments from the Soviets to the Kemalists. This omission allowed Soviet historians to blame Armenia’s Dashnak government for losing Kars and Ardahan to the Turks in 1920 and to present the 1921 Soviet-Turkish treaties as a necessary settlement reflecting the actual front lines, without mentioning how Soviet assistance had contributed to the Kemalists’ advance and the Armenians’ defeat.

I should add that the Kars treaty was only valid for 25 years. Moscow did make noises about reclaiming Western Armenia after WWII but, for reasons that probably had to do with the emerging Cold War, quickly backed down.

Kremlin rationality


June 1, 2015 by AK

As for the single most important reason why the Kremlin is attacking the science-focused Dynasty Foundation, it’s probably this. Dmitry Zimin’s son Boris is the chairman of Fond Sreda, a nonprofit foundation supporting independent Russian media with cash grants. If most of the money under Sreda’s control originally came from the Zimin family, I wouldn’t even doubt that the Kremlin is pummeling Dynasty in retaliation for Sreda, convinced that starving independent media is worth defunding science.


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