A difference in caliber

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March 4, 2015 by AK

I underestimated Boris Nemtsov as a politician and did not quite appreciate the obvious fact that he was an honest, ingenuous, hardworking man of many gifts. Having known a fair number of multifariously gifted ladies and gentlemen, I started taking too much for granted.

For people of my social circle and generation, it was common to abandon a promising academic career in mathematics or natural sciences for a career in business, or politics, or arts and letters. If you grew up in a family of scientists, chances are either your parents, or some of their friends, or some of the friends’ children were at least talented or capable or promising.

But even by the standards of that circle, the young Boris Nemtsov was an overachiever. Graduating from the Nizhny Novgorod (then Gorky) University with a degree in physics, he received his PhD in 1985, at 26, for some high-quality publications. Vitaly Ginsburg (1916-2009), awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 2003, wrote in his memoir On Science, On Myself, On Others (1997, 2001):

I should note that a number of papers developing this work [a 1959 paper by Ginzburg and V.Ya. Eidman, Nemtsov’s uncle], as well as other studies in this area, were authored by B.Ye. Nemtsov, the well-known governor of the Nizhny Novgorod region, and in a not-too-distant past, a very capable theoretical physicist.

The Russian Wikipedia article on Nemtsov also quotes Ginzburg saying this about Nemtsov in 1997:

He studied at the chair of radiowave propagation, which I founded at the department of radiophysics. He was a PhD student of two of my PhD students: Eidman, his uncle, and [N.G.] Denisov. He’s a truly talented physicist; he has [(co-)authored/produced/published] a lot of good papers.”

Compare this with the education and early achievement of the Kremlin’s current occupants. The Higher School of the KGB? A Soviet law degree? “A very capable recruiter of informants” in a not-too-distant past?


Multitasking a must.

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March 3, 2015 by AK

“Never has so much been written about a speech that hasn’t been given,” said Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu of his address to US Congress scheduled for today. True: it’s been on the front pages for weeks. Some argue that Netanyahu is out to destroy Obama’s yet undisclosed nuclear deal with Iran with a powerful appeal to Congress. Other claim Obama wants Netanyahu out of office so badly that he cannot tolerate the Israeli’s effort to speak directly to US lawmakers and, allegedly, to torpedo Obama’s supposedly all-solving non-proliferation plan. You would think a leader of a friendly nation would always be welcome at the Congressional podium so this situation is clearly out of the ordinary.

The US has to deal with at least three crises at once: Iran, ISIS, Ukraine. Some lobbyists and foreign policy experts are arguing for prioritizing one or another crisis; voices in support of Ukraine’s priority are getting drowned out. Obviously, Israel is a close and congenial ally, and the US owes a debt to the Kurds. But Ukraine is not peripheral to US interests either: some politicians may have forgotten the world before 1991, but the Kremlin has not, and Russia is a nuclear power with neo-Soviet ambitions. Suddenly, the 1994 Budapest memorandum, which made the US and the UK, along with Russia, the guarantors of Ukraine’s security in exchange for its abandonment of nuclear weapons, has become notionally relevant but practically useless, going the way of the Franco- and Anglo-Polish agreements of 1939.

I’m not even talking of Russian propaganda, more corrosive than anything coming out of Iran or China. I can understand punditry like this, “One thing at a time: give Ukraine to Putin for the meantime and focus on Iran, and Iran alone.” I just cannot agree with it.


An open secret 2

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March 3, 2015 by AK

Kommersant‘s February dispatches from Donbass mentioned “Buryats,” apparently Russian servicemen from the republic of Buryatia. Yesterday, Novaya Gazeta published an interview with a young man, apparently an ethnic Buryat from Chita, wounded in a tank fight against the Ukrainian army. The Interpreter has a summary of the interview with some explanations.

At a gut feeling level, I suspect that the soldier’s distant superiors somehow OKed the release of the interview and possibly coached him up to a point. The propaganda paradigm is changing for domestic consumption, it seems to me: the involvement of Russian servicemen won’t be denied for much longer. They could soon be feted as reincarnations of Spanish republicans.


Russia as Hunger Games territory

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March 1, 2015 by AK

From Stratfor’s latest 10-year forecast:

…we do not think the Russian Federation can exist in its current form for the entire decade. Its overwhelming dependence on energy exports and the unreliability of expectations on pricing make it impossible for Moscow to sustain its institutional relations across the wide swathe of the Russian Federation. We expect Moscow’s authority to weaken substantially, leading to the formal and informal fragmentation of Russia…

Without the FSB inspiring genuine terror, the fragmentation of the Russian Federation will not be preventable.

These days, terror works best with bread and circuses. The necessary inputs for a Hunger Games scenario are there:

  • Russians are dangerously dependent on television for vital information and life-shaping experiences. Reality shows and various we’ve-got-talents are more than simply “big” or “successful”.

  • Russian TV broadcasts poisonous, mind-altering mixtures of the real and the unreal: see Pomerantsev, Shteyngart. Donbass as a sequel to Survivor.

  • The Russian capital is already a vampire sucking life out of the provinces and staging postmodern shows, half fruit juice, half real blood.

  • Moscow has nukes and “Bomb Voronezh” is becoming less and less a joke. Pro-Kremlin forces have no problems razing “Russian” places like Debaltsevo. Getting ready for Dark Days.

  • A force made up of Donbass fighters, Chechen paramilitaries, ex-FSB toughies and ex-security guards could function as “Peacekeepers”.

  • District 3 looks like a pliant sharashka, and District 13 like a defiant one.


The Nemtsov memorial march

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March 1, 2015 by AK

The Boris Nemtsov memorial march, which has recently ended in Moscow, was impressively attended. Despite the short notice and the bleak weather, an unbelievably large number of people took part. It’s only my feeling at this point but estimates are already being released from various quarters.

Two and a half members of the “means, motive, opportunity” triad point at the Kremlin as the most likely culprit, although none indicates which of its towers could be at fault, nor what agents were employed, such as nationalists, pretend liberals, jilted lovers or renegade Ukrainians.

One question I’m asking myself is what news is going to be shifted to the background in the meantime. A surprise offensive on Mariupol or Kharkiv? Savchenko’s slipping into a coma, God forbid? The Kremlin dragnet has just hauled in fresh catch: Rada deputy Olexiy Goncharenko was detained at the Moscow march today and could face charges related to the fire at the Odessa Trade Union building in May 2014.

Another question is whether Russia has finally added the missing crucial component for classical definitions of fascism to apply, which is paramilitary violence ostensibly originating “from below”. For example, Michael Mann defines fascism as “the pursuit of a transcendent and cleansing nation-statism through paramilitarism. See Chapter 1 (pdf) of Mann’s Fascists for a discussion of other definitions. Normally, paramilitaries appeared early on during the fascist ascendancy. That’s the wave Mussolini et al. rode to power; the Russian regime is conjuring up a tsunami in order to stay in existence.


The assassination of Boris Nemtsov

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February 28, 2015 by AK

Boris Nemtsov was assassinated last night in Moscow, on the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge near the Kremlin.

Nemtsov was the only Russian opposition leader who had held both a major elected public office, as governor of the Nizhny Novgorod region (appointed 1991, elected 1995, resigned 1997) and a senior government job, as vice PM in reformist Yeltsin cabinets (1997-8). He was one of the leaders of the still-influential Union of Right Forces in the Third Duma in 2000-4.

I cannot recall an earlier murder in Russia of a public politician of comparable stature except, perhaps, that of the popular Duma deputy Galina Starovoytova in St. Petersburg in 1998. Also, Sergei Yushenkov, a prominent Union of Right Forces parliamentarian, was shot in 2003.

The site of the killing would normally be considered one of the safest in Moscow, closely watched by police and security services of all kinds. Recall how fast they reacted when opposition activists tried to hoist a Ukrainian flag upon a nearby bridge.

The Kremlin will likely make a major effort to pin Nemtsov’s murder on the Russian opposition and/or the Ukrainians, and use it as a pretext for the persecution and demonization of Russian dissidents.

Murder, opportunity and motive [updated March 1]: Judging by the location of the murder and by the way things work in Moscow, however perfunctory my understanding may be, it’s uncomfortably clear who had the most fitting means and the greatest opportunity for committing the crime. There is far less clarity about the motive, but for the time being, let us simply note it is not unusual for dictatorships to murder political opponents.


Play your own game and strike where it hurts

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February 27, 2015 by AK

Apart from discussions of whether the US should make use of its military potential in certain parts of the world, there is also disagreement on where it should do so, and in what order of priority. I have heard calls for Iran or ISIS to be prioritized over Ukraine – even though a direct military intervention in Ukraine is not on the cards – and worse, for Ukraine to be left to Putin’s mercy in order to neuter Iran and ISIS.

David Goldman aka Spengler believes, like Putin, that Ukraine is “barely a country, rather an amalgam of provinces” and advocates partition. At the same time, he wants the US to get directly involved in Iran because – with Russia’s help, triggered by the alleged US interference in Ukraine – Iran is growing into a credible, immediate, existential threat to Israel.

Likewise, Alan Dershowitz believes that “Iran is so much more dangerous than ISIS,” which is but “a passing blip.” Dershowitz mercifully leaves out Ukraine, but that does not change the big question, Should the US give priority to protecting Israel, or Kurdistan, or Ukraine, and will protecting two or three at once overstretch the US military?

The fact that the ayatollahs have ruled Iran for 35 years is an abomination, of course, and the fact that the strict recent sanctions have not yet brought them down is a depressant to anti-Putin hopefuls. But Goldman’s suggestion that, in order to win the geopolitical chess game, Americans should sacrifice Ukraine and attack Iran is simply wrong.

Because… because you don’t play with cheating partners. Because a Russian saying goes, “Offer him a finger and he’ll bite off your hand.” Because confronting him can slice a few knots while compromising will leave behind more tangles. And because Ukraine is close to home.


A partner of the state

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February 26, 2015 by AK

Matthew Schofield reported for McClatchy last week:

A Russian newspaper claims to have an official government strategy document outlining the invasion of Ukraine that was prepared weeks before the Ukrainian government collapsed last year…

…Muratov [Novaya Gazeta editor-in-chief] said that… he could with some confidence speculate that the authors included Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofayev [sic]… Muratov said the document was passed from Malofayev to aids of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who then approved of the plan.

Also see Paul Goble on the same Novaya Gazeta report.

Now Novaya has made this “strategy document” public and The Interpreter has uploaded a translation.

I have no idea if that “analytic note” played any role in the planning and conduct of Russia’s hybrid interference in Ukraine. Was it the controlling opinion or merely one of many concurring ones? Further, I would not call Malofeyev a first-rank oligarch like, say, Abramovich, Deripaska or Prokhorov; rather, he’s a “young”, “new” oligarch from the past decade, a man who came into the money in Putin’s, rather than Yeltsin’s, time – but not one of Putin’s inner circle.

This said, my question is, how did this 40-year-old amass several hundred million dollars in less than a decade? I have discussed one source of Malofeyev’s fortune in this post. Was it all won like that? When a private Russian company steals a loan from a state-controlled Russian bank and goes unpunished by Russian authorities, it must be a particular, privileged, specially designated company. A special-purpose vehicle. And a very special purpose.


On probabilistic loophole artistry

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February 24, 2015 by AK

In weak imitation of Archimedes, let’s talk mathematics in the time of war. I had some formal training in the subject but lately I’ve grown fond of popular books explaining basic concepts of math and science. A good explanation can be of great educational value – I’m always looking for better ways to explain math my own child – and, besides, I am normally able to check whether the author is being rigorous enough.

Years ago, I bought The Drunkard’s Walk by Leonard Mlodinow, probably at a US airport bookstore, but only got down to reading it last December. Mlodinow is a physicist and a co-author of Stephen Hawking’s, an accomplished scientist and an effective writer.

The subject matter of The Drunkard’s Walk is likely unoriginal. The history of probability and statistics part is textbook stuff. Bayesian logic, the Gaussian distribution, the central limit theorem and the numerous fallacies have long been known to students of the field. But as I’ve just said, I believe that every book that explains at least one important and/or fine point better than its predecessors deserves to be printed. A popular book that explains a wider range of topics in a manner accessible to the general public should also be welcomed. Mlodinow’s book surely gave me plenty to think about.

Here’s what Mlodinow writes about a relatively minor but interesting episode from the O.J. Simpson trial. It concerns Alan Dershowitz, the man alternatively called “a highly talented and honorable advocate, and a fearless public intellectual” and “the obsequious loophole-artist for such fragrant clients as Claus von Bulow and OJ Simpson,” and Jeffrey Epstein more recently.

The prosecution made a decision to focus the opening of its case on O.J.’s propensity toward violence against Nicole. Prosecution spent the first ten days of the trial entering evidence of his history of abusing her and claimed that this alone was a good reason to suspect him of her murder. As they put it, “a slap is a prelude to homicide.” The defense attorneys used this strategy as a launch pad for their accusations of duplicity, arguing that the prosecution had spent two weeks trying to mislead the jury and that the evidence that O.J. had battered Nicole on previous occasions meant nothing. Here is Dershowitz’s reasoning: 4 million women are battered annually by husbands and boyfriends in the United States, yet in 1992, according to the FBI Uniform Crime Reports, a total of 1,432, or 1 in 2,500, were killed by their husbands or boyfriends. Therefore, the defense retorted, few men who slap or beat their domestic partners go on to murder them. True? Yes. Convincing? Yes. Relevant? No. The relevant number is not the probability that a man who batters his wife will go on to kill her (1 in 2,500) but rather the probability that a battered wife who was murdered was murdered by her abuser. According to the Uniform Crime Reports for the United States and its Possessions in 1993, the probability Dershowitz (or the prosecution) should have reported was this one: of all the battered women murdered in the United States in 1993, some 90 percent were killed by their abuser. That statistic was not mentioned at the trial.

From what I have since read, Dershowitz appears to have made that argument not directly to the jury but to the judge, in a brief prepared for a preliminary hearing. Later, however, he repeated it on TV and in his book about the trial. He argued that the evidence of O.J. beating his wife should be excluded because it could easily prejudice the jury. According to Dershowitz, its statistical value was negligible, therefore it was merely character evidence, which is normally inadmissible at the trial stage. The lawyer claimed, correctly but irrelevantly, that very few wife-beaters go on to become wife-killers. But its statistical value was not insignificant, as Mlodinow explains.

As early as 1995, I. G. Good of Virginia Tech (in Nature [pdf]), Jon Merz and Jonathan Caulkins (in Chance Magazine), and John Allen Paulos of Temple University (in The Philadelphia Inquirer) explained – in slightly divergent ways – how Dershowitz got that one wrong.

It’s also explained in this presentation [PDF] by prof. Richard Gill of Leiden University (not to be confused with the forensic DNA guru Peter Gill), who played a major role in the exoneration of Lucia de Berk.


Prince Dunduk

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February 23, 2015 by AK

Language Hat discusses The Broken Cubit-Ruler: An Annotated Treatise by the St. Petersburg literary scholar Samuil Lurie:

…I’m rather at a loss as to what to say. It’s a brilliant and brilliantly written book… and ordinarily I’d urge you to read it, but 1) it’s heavily allusive and ironized… 2) it’s about a forgotten figure who’s never going to regain even the modest prominence he deserves, so why bother… and 3) it’s sad, sad, sad — it’s one thing to read fiction about pathetic characters ground down endlessly by fate, but when it’s a real person with real kids he’s trying to support, it leaves you feeling miserable.

Lurie’s work, in two words, is about the editor, writer, and translator Nikolai Polevoy getting crushed by the reactionary minister of education Sergei S. Uvarov and the progressive, rebellious critic Vissarion G. Belinsky. The former was a highly controversial character, a classicist in the service of a despot as it were.

Pushkin called Uvarov a “great villain”: see this comment by Language Hat for more details on the meaning of the Russian word podlets. It was not Uvarov’s homosexuality per se that angered Pushkin. My feeling is that Russian high society of Pushkin’s time was only mildly homophobic and not sanctimoniously Victorian in its attitudes to gay relationships. But it did not go well with people like Pushkin when Count Uvarov had his reputed paramour, Prince Dondukov-Korsakov, appointed Vice President of the Academy of Sciences: the Prince, in contrast to the Count, was not qualified for the post.

In 1835, Pushkin called Dondukov “an idiot and a bardache” in his private diary. Pushkin’s ire was inflamed not by Dondukov’s “deviance” but his insistence on censoring the poet’s work. Also in 1835, Pushkin penned a famous epigram against Dondukov, asking “why is the man occupying a seat at the Academy?” and explaining, “because he has a butt.” The next year, 1836, Pushkin apparently made piece with Dondukov, who nonetheless went down in Russian history as “Prince Dunduk,” pronounced “doon-dook.”


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