When science has no chance

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September 14, 2014 by AK

An enlightening piece on the 2012 conviction of Italian seismologists by David Wolman.

The prosecutor offered, and the judge accepted, the theory that Italy’s leading seismologists had conspired with the mayor’s office in l’Aquila to send a falsely reassuring message to the town’s residents, who had been warned of an impending disaster by a lay forecaster called Gianpaolo Giuliani, a charlatan by the scientists’ standards.

The scientists said the likelihood of an earthquake was “low”. That meant two things: first, even in a high-risk area like l’Aquila, a major quake was unlikely to occur on any given day; second, the likelihood of it happening within a short-term period was no higher on the day before it did than on any other day.

Unfortunately, some residents latched on to that “low” probability and believed the earthquake was “unlikely”. That’s why they did not leave their homes when the first shocks hit, even though normally they would do just that.

The scientists’ statement, in essence, was: “You should not worry today about tomorrow any more than you worried yesterday or the day before yesterday. This is not to say you should not worry at all – do not forget that you live in a high-risk area. There’s always a risk, although relatively small, but it’s the same every day. When Giuliani tells you that you should worry more today than you did yesterday because of some gases or energy escaping, that’s rubbish.” But it was never communicated properly. The people of l’Aquila were confused and disaster ensued.

At the trial, the prosecutor claimed the scientists had lied: they knew the probability was high, not low. He cited a map produced by the government research center where two of the defendants had worked showing probabilities of a major earthquake occurring within 50 years. The province of Abruzzo and l’Aquila were in a high-risk zone. Bingo! No, not really. In absolute terms the probability of an earthquake happening in l’Aquila within several days was still low, and equally low on any given day. It was only high relative to other places — but the scientists were not warning people who planned to move to l’Aquila from elsewhere. Their audience were l’Aquila residents, for whom this risk was part of everyday life.

The prosecutor also cited a paper published by one of the defendants the 1990s with a hypothetical predictive model which resulted in the probability of an earthquake in Aquila in the next year being 100%. If the model had been correct, there should have been an earthquake there within a year. But there was none. As another scientist explained on the stand, the model proved itself wrong – in a self-evident [and possibly embarrassing] way – and no reasonable scientist, including the author of the paper, would consider that model valid thereafter.

The judge, however, claimed in his written opinion that the author of the paper continued to believe in his own discredited model. That sort of idiocy, as I have learned, is typical of Italian courts. The point of the trial was, apparently, not to find justice but to provide some sort of consolation-through-retribution to the victims of the latest l’Aquila quake – and to humiliate the bespectacled.


Putin and Solzhenitsyn

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September 14, 2014 by AK

Miriam Elder and Robert Coalson argue that Putin has been influenced by Solzhenitsyn’s view of Russia’s proper borders. That’s plausible, but Solzhenitsyn was a proponent of grassroots democracy of the sort he witnessed in Vermont. He probably had in mind an honest plebiscite in post-Soviet Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan, hardly a hybrid war.

In addition, Solzhenitsyn’s essay known as Rebuilding Russia in English was written in the late 1980s and published in 1990, when redrawing internal Soviet border lines was at least thinkable.

That train has left. Russia has recognized its neighbors’ boundaries. No, Soviet borders were neither sensible nor fair and yes, the treatment of Russian speakers by post-Soviet dictators in Central Asia has been deplorable. But a politician’s or a nation’s idea of a fair world order and the price they are prepared to pay for breaking through to that ideal are not one and the same.


Keep honking till it’s dinner time

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September 13, 2014 by AK

The great Russian fabulist Ivan Krylov creatively retold La Fontaine and Aesop but The Geese seems to be original. Faced with the prospect of being sold in the market for food, a gaggle of geese protest that they are descended from the Capitoline Geese of Rome, who had saved it from the Gauls in 365 B.C., and deserve to be spared. The farmer wonders if the fowl have any achievements of their own, detects none and decrees them “only fit for the stew”.

In arguments over the Perugia murder case or the conviction of Italian seismologists, advocates of Italy’s legal system would sometimes remark that it is 2,000 years old and Cicero flourished when Anglo-Saxons still lived in caves. That gets me thinking of the geese at once, and of the anonymous Italian magistrate quoted by Piero Calamandrei in A Eulogy for Judges (1935):

It may be that half of the sentences handed down are unjust… and therefore half of those in prison are innocent; but by the same reasoning half of those acquitted and set free are in fact guilty and should be in prison… [I]t’s important to look at the bigger picture and understand that every error is compensated by another in the opposite direction. So the scales of justice are in balance and we judges can sleep easy at night.

Cicero would have recognized this Lottery-in-Babylon approach as an extension of his own, no doubt.

I don’t argue with Russians much online these days – I lose my cool too quickly in the face of insanity. But like some of the Italians, proponents of the Russian Universe (Russky mir) imagine themselves to be direct descendants of the greats. “Ours is the culture of Pushkin and Tolstoy,” they claim without understanding much of either, and tend to confuse their bastardized, Soviet idea of Russian culture with the real thing.

Their version of Eastern Christianity also tends to be a bastardization. In 2009 Putin visited the personal gallery of a Russian painter known for “spiritual” and “patriotic” kitsch. One painting depicted the saints Boris and Gleb, the Kievan princes were murdered on the orders of their elder brother Svyatopolk (“the Accursed”) and declined to resist their killers. Putin remarked that Boris and Gleb were saints but “one must fight for oneself, for one’s country – they gave it up without a struggle… This cannot be an example for us – they lay down and waited to be killed.”

Heads of state do not have to endorse extreme non-violence, of course, but Putin either did not know much about Boris and Gleb or consciously denigrated the two young men who – as the legend goes – chose to die rather than perpetuate violence in a bloody feud. It’s remarkable considering that Boris and Gleb were widely venerated in old Russia, as evidenced by the large number of settlements and churches bearing their name (Borisoglebsky).

Boris and Gleb were the first native saints canonized by the Greek Church after the baptism of Kievan Rus. According to the chronicles and hagiographers, they did exactly as written, “But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” That type of martyrdom was new to the Byzantines, who hesitated whether they should canonize the barbarian princes whose martyrdom did not conform to established patterns of sainthood. According to Georgy Fedotov, in the “passion bearer category of sainthood… we are in the very core of the Russian religious world. Many a Russian saint was canonized for the only obvious reason: his violent death.”


Better stories

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September 12, 2014 by AK

Peter Pomerantsev’s latest in The Atlantic is a great read. The author, a UK TV producer, knows what he’s talking about: he used to sell British TV shows to Russian channels, which rely heavily on these imports. I’ll limit myself to just two excerpts.

During one Russian news broadcast, a woman related how Ukrainian nationalists had crucified a child in the eastern Ukrainian city of Sloviansk. When Alexei Volin, Russia’s deputy minister of communications, was confronted with the fact that the crucifixion story was a fabrication, he showed no embarrassment, instead suggesting that all that mattered were ratings. “The public likes how our main TV channels present material, the tone of our programs,” he said. “The share of viewers for news programs on Russian TV has doubled over the last two months.”

If I remember correctly, Volin also said the crucifixion report was OK with him because the woman was a legitimate source. Which reminds me of Irina Bergseth, a Russian lady who married a Norwegian, got divorced, lost custody of the children and went clinically insane, not necessarily in that order. Bergseth was on Russian TV saying Norwegians were all pedophiles and her four-year-old son had been gang-raped while dressed up as Putin. She said lots of other, equally believable things, but that’s my all-time favorite, and “Putin suit” enjoyed its 15 minutes as a RuNet meme.

Not surprisingly, Bergseth soon became a “coordinator” of a “patriotic” “movement”, “Russia’s mothers”. To quote from Švejk, “Forensic doctors examined her and wrote in their report that she, although weak of mind, was nonetheless eligible for any government position.”

…Christo Grozev, of the Bulgaria-based Risk Management Lab, found that the majority of the country’s newspapers followed Russian rather than Ukrainian narratives about events such as the downing of Flight MH17. “It’s not merely a case of sympathy or language,” Grozev says. “The Russian media just tell more and better stories, and that’s what gets reprinted.”

So do tabloids, and their concoctions are often reprinted by mainstream publications.


That’s not it at all (Russian demographics)

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September 10, 2014 by AK

Masha Gessen’s review of two books on Russian demography in the NYRB begins with her account of a personal experience from the 1990s:

People—men and women—were falling, or perhaps jumping, off trains and out of windows; asphyxiating in country houses with faulty wood stoves or in apartments with jammed front-door locks; getting hit by cars that sped through quiet courtyards or plowed down groups of people on a sidewalk; drowning as a result of diving drunk into a lake or ignoring sea-storm warnings or for no apparent reason; poisoning themselves with too much alcohol, counterfeit alcohol, alcohol substitutes, or drugs; and, finally, dropping dead at absurdly early ages from heart attacks and strokes.

In his riposte in Forbes, Mark Adomanis does little to address the inescapable feeling Gessen attempts to communicate – the sense of Russians dying “before [their] time is due”. Gessen is hardly the only person of her age to detect that sad phenomenon from first-hand experience. Adomanis, who is much younger (1965 vs 1984 or 85) merely claims that Gessen’s evidence is outdated – that things have changed.

Perhaps they have, but where can I find data for that specific cohort, the “everybody” of Gessen’s review – let’s say inhabitants of Central Russia born in the 1950s through the 1970s? Have they stopped dying, or is their evanescence merely obscured by some other group of (younger?) Russians multiplying happily?

Adomanis prefers to speak about Russia as a whole and believes that Gessen is ignoring recent trends: Russia is no longer “dying”. That’s missing the point. First, Gessen’s piece is a book review and has to rely on the data in the books under review, somewhat outdated as good research takes time to edit and publish. Second, the most recent population data suggests that Central Russia is still dying out, although at a lower rate than 10 years ago. To put it differently, natural population growth in Central Russia remains negative, although the decline has considerably slowed down since 2005.

The rest of this post is a closer look at some demographic data for 2004-14. Russia’s state statistics service maintains a useful free database at gks.ru, which I recommend to anyone with an interest in Russia and some knowledge of the language. I am suspicious of population estimates between censuses because interregional migration is difficult to assess but I trust their data on organic, or natural, population growth because vital records are probably kept with reasonable accuracy across the country.

According to gks.ru, Russia’s population started growing, year over year, in 2009 but only because of immigration as the natural growth rate remained negative. It was only in 2013 that both total and organic growth turned positive, although the organic increment made up only 8% of total population growth. But how was it distributed geographically?

The tables below summarize my calculations from gks.ru data. I have looked at four large parts of Russia. The first is “the Core” or “the Center”: in this Wiki map, it is districts 1, 5, and 6, that is the Central, Volga, and Northwestern federal districts. Then comes “the East”: the Urals, Siberian and Far Eastern districts, coded 2, 3, 4 on the map. Next, “the South”: for my purposes it is the Southern district of Russia (number 7) plus the Stavropol kray, region 49 on the map, whose settlement history and ethnic makeup are closer to Krasnodar in the Southern district than to North Caucasian republics. Finally, “North Caucasus” is the North Caucasian federal district (8) without the Stavropol kray.

Annual natural growth (1,000 persons) and growth rate (%), 2004-13.

Annual natural growth (1,000 persons) and growth rate (%), 2004-13.

Two things are clear: the natural growth trend has been positive in the Center, East and South since 2010 but the population of Central Russia is still declining: no longer at the rate of 600k+ per year as in 2004-5, but by a hardly intangible 125k in 2013, of which 90k was contributed by the Central federal district. The South got close to zero growth in 2013 but was still technically in the red. The East has been growing, propelled by the Urals, since 2009 – but not enough to offset the dying Center. Without the Northern Caucasus, Russia’s organic population change would have been negative in 2013.

Natural growth in the North Caucasus peaked in 2011 and has edged down slightly since, in contrast to the other three areas, but it remains incredibly high by Russian standards. In per mille terms, it was 12.5 in 2013, way ahead of 2.7 in the Urals and 1.9 in the whole East, to say nothing of the declining areas. It cannot be said that all of Russia’s organic population growth is due to the Caucasus, but that underindustrialized peripheral area with less than 5% of total population is contributing more to population growth than the whole area from the Urals to the Pacific with 26% of total.

More detailed breakdown of 2013 data

More detailed breakdown of 2013 data

I have also looked at the preliminary data for January-July 2014. The Center looks set to lose about 100k in 2014. On the other hand, the positive trend is still here. The negative 7-month totals are due to seasonality: December through May see more deaths than June through November, with January leading the death count.

Preliminary data for 7 mos 2014

Preliminary data for 7 mos 2014


Happy in their tinfoil houses

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September 5, 2014 by AK

I have translated a blog entry by Natalia Samorukova, a Russian artist who lives in France. The title is “Why there’s no point in mounting barricades”. I’m not happy about the way she talks about the mentally ill but that’s not my choice.

I’m going to say it – I’m seeing this too often in my friend feed: “Why don’t you, Russian brothers, go man the barricades?”

I’ll tell you why. Any struggle must have a goal and a motive, plus at least a minimum chance of success. I know something about this situation from the inside – I have relatives, friends and buddies you’d call vatniks; and I call kin or kith. One doesn’t get to choose them and I won’t dump them whatever their views. [Based on that knowledge] I am perfectly sure: an overwhelming majority of the population do not need that [the barricades]. It’s not that they have not matured enough: they dwell in an altogether different world and so far they are comfortable there.

Yes, that world is pretty much like a lunatic asylum. But suppose you come to a real-life mental ward and try to explain to the loonies that you’re going to tell them about a better life and patients’ rights. Then you’ll put up quick little barricades in the corridor. Can you imagine that?

Who’s going to be the greater fool, you or the crazies?

To go die for someone who rejects you, your way of life, and your convictions – fiercely and sometimes quite consciously? No, thank you. Honestly. Also, that crowd, those simple souls will rip any protest to shreds before police arrive.

It’s a critical moment and everything is going to change. Very fast. But right now, apart from one-person pickets… I don’t know what I can suggest. Probably nothing. Protect yourself, your kids and whoever you can… And of course defend prisoners of the regime by all possible means, with pickets, with money, with words.


China to the rescue, mere trifles in return

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September 4, 2014 by AK

From the 1990s until very recently, domestic critics of government policies repeated the mantra that Russia was but a resource appendage of the West. Now that Russia’s use of Western financial markets and petroleum technology has been restricted, China seems to be coming to the rescue, asking for greater access to Russian hydrocarbons in return. China has already extended large loans against future deliveries to Russian oil and gas companies and plans to lend more.

There’s a sense of purpose about it. Western banks and oil traders used to offer export financing to Russian companies for no reason other than earning money for their shareholders. But Chinese companies seem to be offering long-term loans against future deliveries for a strategic objective – to provide China with reliable, predictable sources of oil and gas for decades ahead. It’s not about CNPC or Sinopec as such but all about Corporation China.

If Russia eventually becomes China’s resource colony, it will be the outcome not of complex interactions in global energy markets but of Russia’s readiness to accept this role at the prompting of China in the face of the Western sanctions. “Overall, we are very cautious when it comes to choosing foreign partners but, of course, there are no restrictions for our Chinese friends,” according to President Putin.

Specifically, he has welcomed the sale of an equity share in one major upstream project, Rosneft’s Vankor, to Chinese investors. “Today, Vankor is one of Russia’s largest enterprises by production, with great prospects,” said Putin. True, and that’s why the deal is out of the ordinary. Most of the field’s future output, though 2038, has been pledged to China anyway. But that is no longer enough for China, which prefers an ownership share and some degree of oversight at the wellhead.


O brave RU world

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September 2, 2014 by AK

Putin’s supporters are touting him as a defender of a “Russian world” (russkiy mir). In an earlier post, I have mentioned “Russian-worlders” abusing a patriotic Ukrainian lady. She has been freed and the BBC has some details on her ordeal and release. However the BBC abridged and sanitized its account of the woman’s treatment by Russians and separatists. Radio Free Europe has a good report in English. Radio Liberty has more but in Russian. I have translated some of the captive’s story.

Detained for giving clothes to Ukraine soldiers, she was brought to the headquarters of Battalion East (Vostok). The captors searched her belongings:

It was a screenshot I had made to show an acquaintance so she would know that these people had appeared in Donetsk – not Ukrainians, not even Russians but mercenaries from other countries [Ossetia is part of Russia though]. When they found a photo of Zaur, he first abused me cruelly – he forced me to stretch my arm and yell “Sieg Heil!” because he said I was a fascist [Russians often call Nazis "fascists"]. When I refused, I was beaten. I was lying on the floor and he squatted by and started screaming in my year – I don’t know how many times, several dozens: “Sieg Heil!” – all of them screamed. I covered my head. They said: “Turn around, let’s see how we’re going to rape you now. How many men do you want – 10, 20? There’s a lot of us here. We can supply 40 or 50 men for you!” All that lasted for a very long time. I told them the PIN codes to all my family cards… Someone hacked our bank accounts and found something. The found out we had a family bank account, EUR12,000, and demanded I give the money to the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) because I had donated to the Ukrainian army…

Then someone printed out that sign, that I’m a fascist and I’m killing children. They put this sign on me, wrapped me in a[n Ukrainian] flag, added other Ukrainian accessories and drove me out to a square, a major intersection in Donetsk. I wasn’t tied to that post – I was merely using it for support. They kept yelling at me, “Sieg Heil! Stand to attention!” I was not allowed to bend my knees or move – I was forced to stand on my tiptoes, pressed against that post. Cars drove by… There are hundreds of Ossetian mercenaries in Donetsk. They stopped, they asked questions, they laughed, they took pictures with me in the background. Someone put up a show, saying: “Disperse – I’m going to shoot through her kneecap now.” I started shrieking, jumping up – they laughed. He shot but missed. Did you see the woman in a photograph kicking me in the belly?

(Interviewer) Yes, she has been identified.

She was hardly the only one. There was an older woman – she beat me with her walking stick – beat me on the head, on the back, on the shoulders. I’m covered in bruises. Apart from the fact that they beat me with rifle butts on the legs, there was that older woman hitting me with her walking cane. And how many young women hit me on the face, on the head, on the ears – one photograph cannot tell it all. But the people who hit me were not as frightening as those who merely walked up. Cars would stop and well-dressed young guys would get out. One would take a picture with me in the back, then pass the camera or phone to another one, who’d take another shot. Young girls did the same. No one defended me, not one person. They kept telling me that I’m a fascist, a dirty creature, that I direct artillery fire [for the Ukrainian army], that I’m killing children. I shouted that I have two kids and an a granddaughter, that I’ve never killed anybody. My eyesight is “three plus”, I must wear glasses. It’s just so absurd – I don’t want to repeat all that. Then there was a woman who took such effort – she opened the trunk of her car and took out some tomatoes and started throwing at me first. Then she smeared two tomatoes against my face, flooding my eyes with the juice. Then I saw through that juice what I thought were gentlemanly [intelligentnye] faces – first a bearded man with a professional camera: I realized I was being photographed by the press. Then there was a taller man – he also took pictures of me. I started hoping: people with these gentle faces – perhaps they would intervene. [They did.] I had been saying goodbye to life all that day, begging all the time: please kill me. Don’t tortment me, just kill me. If you think I deserve it, just shoot me. They replied: “Bitch, you won’t get off that easy.”

She was taken back to the barracks, or rather headquarters, of Battalion East.

They brought me back from the square to the ground floor of the building and locked me up in a small room. They kept tormenting me, spraying gas from a can at me. The Ossetian who took to hating me for some reason came twice. He had a sophisticated method: he ran towards me and kicked me with his foot in the chest. I was hurled across the cell, my back hit the opposite wall and I could not breathe for a long time. They liked that very much – they enjoyed themselves. Then there were breaks because other people were brought in and also beaten. They screamed and were taken away. I saw nothing: I was crouching in a corner, suffering from convulsions.

She mentions a man accused of pedophilia being brutally tortured.

They detained me at 9am; at 10am, the Ossetians seized me. When I was taken up on the third floor again to the Vostok people – let’s say they were normal, Ukrainian people [as opposed to the Ossetians] – it was already dark. I was all bruised, all covered in spit because the women had not only beaten me but had spat me in the face many times. They let me wash a little. Then I lost consciousness. I spent all night hanging under that radiator [handcuffed to a heating radiator, the way Russian thugs treat their victims] – it was a horrible night…

One of them said: “Your house will be occupied by people who support us, whose houses were damaged by shelling”… I recalled that phrase and realized that I would never live in my own house again. This lasted for three or four days. I lost count. I refused to eat… They threatened me, they said they would find a probe and tear my esophagus…

Her house was vandalized and all the valuables were stolen. She lost all her savings. But at least she and her family are safe now.


Novorossiya: a geographical name misused by propagandists

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August 31, 2014 by AK

Novorossiya is a historical and geographical, rather than political, term. It has recently been much abused by Russian demagogues. The term dates back to the 18th century, when it referred to the steppes north of the Black Sea where agricultural settlement began about that time.

In a broader sense adopted by the end of the 19th century, Novorossiya included all the steppes from the Dniester to the Kuban and even to Stavropol. Dnepropetrovsk was founded as Novorossiysk in 1776, later to be renamed Ekaterinoslav. The Russian port of Novorossiysk, founded as a fortress in 1838 on land ceded by the Ottomans and captured from the Circassians, is evidence that the term Novorossiya applied to lands on the east coast of the Black Sea as well.

I believe the paragraphs above are in agreement with the Encyclopedia of Ukraine’s History (2010). Interestingly, the Great Soviet Encyclopedia limited Novorossiya to the south of Ukraine and admitted it had been settled mostly by Ukrainians and Russians. The much-respected Brockhaus and Efron encyclopedia (1890-1916) also favored a narrow definition and includeв a detailed account of the 18th-century settlement.

The -rossiya in Novoròssiya sound close to Rossìya, but does it meant today’s Russia? No, rather the old Russian Empire or its tripartite core: Greater, Minor, and White Russia, that is in today’s speak Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The term was never meant to exclude Ukraine. Recall that Grushevsky insisted that Ukraine was the true Rus’, and Gogol’ russky includes “Ukrainian”.

Why “Novo”? Because it was a colony in the sense of empty land to be settled, like New France, New England, New Holland or New Caledonia. Why colonized so late? Because slave raids by the predatory Crimean Khanate prevented safe settlement until the Russian Empire put an end to them. Settled by whom? Novorossiya’s countryside, largely by Ukrainians and Russians but also by Serbian, German, Greek colonists. Novorossian cities were ethnically mixed: Russian-speaking with strong Jewish, German, Greek and Armenian presence. It all changed after WWII, of course.

Novorossiya is no more Russian than New England is English – the dominant language may be a dialect of Russian but that’s it. Ethnically and culturally, Novorossiya is a unique mix and is closely related both to “old” Ukraine and to Southern Russia, the Russia of the steppe – which is also a “new” Russia compared with the forests north and east of Moscow. But Canada is not aiming to annex Maine and armed minutemen from Seattle don’t cross into British Columbia. Even if the UK breaks apart, it’s hard to see England sending tanks over the border because the south of Scotland is so much like the north of England.

In the next post on Novorossiya, I’d like to discuss Grigory Danilevsky’s once-popular novel, Fugitives in Novorossiya (1862). Danilevsky’s focus is on the eastern parts, “Rostov, Mariupol, Taganrog.” I’ll get back to this work because Danilevsky (not to be confused with the proto-Eurasianist Nikolai Danilevsky) drew from his experience as an ethnographer and geographer charged with describing the Azov Sea area in the late 1850s.


Vladimir Bukovsky on how to speak to Putin

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August 30, 2014 by AK

I have freely translated pieces from a recent interview by Vladimir Bukovsky, the famous Soviet dissident, with Ukrinform. The subject is how to deal with Putin: tell him to go hang himself.

To clear things up from the start, poslat’ na khuy technically means “to tell one to impale oneself on the speaker’s or somebody else’s penis” but in practice is a rude way to tell a person to go away and never come back. A short version, poslat’, is essentially the same but more socially acceptable. I’m using “f— off” and similar expressions in the translation.

You mustn’t give in and you shouldn’t put up with it. While the enemy is in your territory, don’t negotiate. That would be admitting defeat, de-facto. I understand that one has to put up with pressure from Merkel and other clueless people. They think they are peacemakers but they actually do a lot of harm. In fact, if you’re negotiating with Putin, it means he is halfway to winning. But Merkel does not understand anything – what can you expect from her? She was chief of East German Komsomol under Honecker. She’s a conformist by nature.

What can you do then? I’ve thought about teaching a special course in the West: how to tell people to f— off. We’ve got a simple answer in such situations in Russia: “Go do you-know-what to yourself.” My lessons are primarily for politicians. Together with my friend Edik [Eduard] Kuznetsov, we spent two hours teaching this to the current Israeli PM, Netanyahu…

In Camp 35 in Perm, convicts had their own interethnic Grand Council. It dealt with problems in the camp unofficially, making sure there was no arbitrary breaking of rules [proizvol]. Once Ukrainians complained to the council: “We have a problem. One of us, an aging, mild-mannered teacher from Transcarpatia, often gets summoned by the kum [a cop with broad authority overseeing convicts' lives in a camp] and from his office, the cop always sends the teacher to solitary for fifteen days. So he gets locked up all the time and he’s an old man and his health isn’t that great…” I said the case was clear: “The cop is recruiting him as an informant and the teacher doesn’t know how tell the cop to f— off. The teacher is replying to him in a nice way: ‘Sorry but I can’t… sorry but I don’t really want to…’ You’ve got to tell it the Russian way: explicitly, looking him in the eye.’

The High Council asked me to explain all that to the teacher. When he was out of the hole, I approached him and we brewed tea… The teacher turned red: ‘I cannot say such words.’ I spent two hours teaching him… His lips wouldn’t curl to utter that expression – he knew several languages but couldn’t tell a person to f— off. But I prevailed. The cop called him to his office again; the teacher told him to go f— himself and got locked up again. But they left him alone after that.

Telling people to go hang is a great art, which the West never mastered in dealing with the Soviets. But that’s the only way because KGB is a special breed of animal. They don’t understand a “no”; you can’t have an agreement with them – they won’t offer a compromise themselves and an adversary’s offer of a compromise is a sign of weakness to them. So if you don’t flip off KGB, you’ve just brought great trouble upon yourself. It means they are going to pressure you more and more until they recruit you. To the KGB, you’re one of two things: either you’re their enemy or you’re their agent. And there’s nothing in-between the two.

That’s why you have to stare Putin in the eyes and say, “Putin, go and do you-know-what.” That’s all. I’m ready to go to Kiev and teach Petr Alexeevich [Poroshenko] how to do that.

Two notes. Bukovsky is speaking Russian so it’s natural that he calls Poroshenko Petr, or Pyotr, Alexe(y)evich rather than Petro Olexiyovych. If Putin were to move to Ukraine and speak Ukrainian, he would be addressed as Volodymyr Volodymyrovych.

Second, Bukovsky was truly famous in the USSR: only 29 in 1971, he was arrested for a fourth time and sentenced to seven years in prison and five in exile for protesting against the political abuse of psychiatry in the Soviet Union. The Soviet press tended to avoid mentioning political dissenters but Pravda not only wrote about Bukovsky but called him a “heinous hooligan.” When the dissident was exchanged for the leader of Chilean communists, Luis Corvalán, a doggerel became popular in the USSR that went like this:

They’ve exchanged a hooligan
For Luis Corvalan.
Where can we find a suitable whore
To exchange our Brezhnev for?


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