“The insidious power of framing”

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October 30, 2014 by AK

The Russian government has found a pretext to cancel FLEX, an exchange program that let Russian teenagers spend several months with American host families and go to a local school. Masha Gessen comments on the deceptive framing of the story by Russian media:

But such is the insidious power of framing: whoever tells the story first controls it. Russian propaganda outlets have this down to a science. They shape the stories, and Western journalists, even those who make a good-faith effort to unpack them, can fall into traps of narrative and terminology.

Journalists have to do something counterintuitive: follow the lead, but insist on disbelieving almost everything about it until it has been proved.

Preach it: “whoever tells the story first controls it… journalists… can fall into traps of narrative and terminology.” It applies to many more cases apart from FLEX.


On the way down

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October 25, 2014 by AK

According to Vyacheslav Volodin, first deputy chief of staff to the president, “attacks against Putin are attacks against Russia”, and Russia’s people understand “that if there is no Putin, there is no Russia.”

According to his boss Sergei Ivanov, chief of staff to the president, “One cannot imagine today’s Russian without Putin… moreover, I cannot imagine Russia’s future without such a national leader.”

The two sycophants were immediately compared on Twitter to Rudolf Hess, who said in September 1934 that Hitler was Germany and vice versa. Yes, we’re dealing with two delusional, paranoid nations. Yes, but…

In July 1934, Hitler (45) gets rid of his only Nazi rival, Röhm (46). Less than three months later, Hess (41) proclaims, “Deutschland ist Hitler”. Everyone loves the winner. That year, Germany’s real GDP grows by 9% year-on-year. Unemployment is down to 15%, from 26% in 1933. Five years later, in 1939, Germany’s GDP per capita more than doubles on 1932 and unemployment drops below 2%.

Over to 2014. Putin is 62, Ivanov is 61 and the youngster Volodin is 50 years old. Putin has ruled for 15 years. In 2003 he promised to double the Russian GDP within a decade. It rose by 50% instead; by the end of 2013 GDP growth had all but stopped. Russia is cut off from advanced know-how in its main export industry. It’s locked out of Western capital markets. Its “counter-sanctions”, aka “import substitution”, aka “foot-shooting”, have led to double-digit food inflation. The oil price is falling and threatening a depression next year.

It’s cause enough for panic and desperation: to paraphrase Jim Morrison, “where will we be when the Führer’s gone?” “We won’t give back Crimea in a hundred years” is another mantra that sounds like self-therapy.


Disaster in Vnukovo

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October 21, 2014 by AK

Christophe de Margerie‘s jet hit a snowplow and crashed on a Vnukovo runway last night. Total’s CEO and the three crew members died. Margerie was returning to Paris from Gorky, south of Moscow, where he took part in a meeting of international investors with PM Medvedev. Russian investigators are now claiming the snowplow driver was drunk. He has been detained. His lawyer claims he was perfectly sober.

Is this going to be a case of “the switchman is always guilty”? After the previous major accident in Moscow, the July metro disaster, “a senior track master and his assistant” were detained and are still sitting in jail waiting for their day in court. However more senior people have also been charged, although not arrested.

Judging by the Investigative Committee’s latest statement, the switchman isn’t the only bad guy: “It is already evident that the reason for what had happened was not a terrible, tragic turn of events – as the airport’s representatives are trying to claim – but criminal negligence of executives who failed to ensure coordinated action by the airport staff.”

Perhaps — but it’s been less than 24 hours since the accident and the investigators say they already know who to blame, even as the “black boxes” remain unopened. Typical.

Yesterday, October 20, was the International Day of the Air Traffic Controller.


A blog on L’Aquila

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October 20, 2014 by AK

Via David Wolman‘s Twitter feed, I have found Earthquakes and Great Risks, a blog on the Aquila earthquake trial maintained by a group of Italians. I have written about the earthquake trial here and here but I’m no authority on the case – I’ve learned most of what I know about it from Wolman’s article and notes. The Italian blog has detailed information on the progress of the case as well as some important court documents.


“Russian intelligence” has many meanings

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October 19, 2014 by AK

Nikolai Patrushev used to be head of the KGB, oops, the FSB, and currently heads the so-called “Security Council” of Russia – a body made up largely of intelligence and defense bosses that seems to have a major influence on Putin’s policy making these days.

Last week, the official Rossiyskaya Gazeta ran an interview with Patrushev under the title, The Second Cold War. Genuinely funny stuff: Patrushev manages to be both paranoid and silly, as in “I didn’t go to school and I’m an honorary member of the Flat Earth Society.”

And the ROTFLMAO award goes to this bit:

In the 1970s, Brzezinski [yes! Brzezinski is to KGB types what Zionist Occupation Government is to wingnuts] developed a version of a strategy of “vulnerable spots” as applied to the USSR, which became the basis of US policy under president Reagan. The National Security Council, headed by the US president, was in charge of implementing that strategy. Detecting and specifying the “vulnerable points” as well as arranging ways to transform them into substantial problems for the USSR was a task assigned to the Central Intelligence Agency of the USA. [Sic: not just "the CIA" but "the Central Intelligence Agency of the USA".]

It is remarkable that the then CIA director William Casey decided to engage prominent scientists/scholars in the activity, above all economists as well as business professionals with a real experience of business wars with competitors. As a result of the wide-scale analytic work, the USSR’s “vulnerable spots” were identified and systemically studied, in the economic, ideological, and other areas.

The principal “vulnerable spot” of our country, as the CIA had determined, was its economy.

At which point, I choked on my buterbrod. Mate, how old were you in 1980? Going on 30, right? And you still thought that Ladas were the best cars in the world? That Soviet shops were bristling to the brim with organic foods unheard of in the decaying, decadent West? Come on, Americans can be a little slow at times, but in 1980, it did not take a Nobel winner to figure out what any Soviet schoolchild knew, if only from standing in food lines: outside of the military-industrial complex, the Soviet economy was shit.

Last time I heard this CIA-Brzezinski-Casey-Reagan pabulum as an official line was back in 1983 or 1985 on the Soviet TV show called International Panorama. Where did they keep Patrushev all those years between Andropov and third-term Putin — pickled in a KGB jar? It feels wonderful to know that Russia is governed by such Pyecraftian heavyweights, people who manage to combine highly developed paranoid fantasies with stunning educational deficiencies.

To quote Alexander Ostrovsky’s great play, “O tell us, o tell the world how you managed, having lived to the age of sixty years, to preserve in complete inviolability the mind of a six-year-old child?”

 


Budzhak, Budjak, Bucak, Bugeac

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October 19, 2014 by AK

Like his parents, Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko was born in the area between the estuaries of the Dniester and the Danube known by its old Turkic name, Budzhak, spelled Bucak in modern Turkish, where it means “corner“or “nook”.

Located in the southwest of Ukraine, it is remarkably diverse, ethnically and linguistically, with residents speaking Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Russian, Moldovan, Gagausian and Albanian as this Ukrainian map shows. It also has a rich history, possibly dating back to ancient Greek colonization.

Budzhak was part of the Russian empire in 1812-1917, except for 1856-76, as it was ceded to Romania in the aftermath of Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War. For more than three centuries before 1812, the area was ruled by the Ottomans. Romania was in control again in 1918-40 and 1941-44. Poroshenko’s parents are both Romanian-born Ukrainians.

This reconstructed Russian-language map, apparently from a brief period before toponyms in the area were Ukrainianized and Russified by Soviet authorities, shows the names of many towns in a Russian transcription. This Romanian map, which could have been the source from the Russian map, shows Budzhak as part of interwar Basarabia. The names on the maps are delightfully multilingual.

Bayramcha (Bairamcea) sounds like it’s derived from bayram, Turkish for “feast”. Tatarbunary sounds like “Tatar wells” if “bunar” has the same meaning as in Croatian and Serbian, akin to Turkish pınar “spring, fountain”. Fyntyna-Zenilor in Russian is Fântâna-Zânelor in Romanian/Moldovan, apparently “Elves’ Well”. Chishmyaua (Cișmeaua) and Dumitreshty (Dumitrești) are also Romanian.

Tuzly, or Tuzla in Romanian? There’s already a Tuzla in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and a Tuzla island in the Black Sea once disputed between Russia and Ukraine – a name of Turkic origin, no doubt. Friedensfeld, Lichtenthal and Klastiz were probably founded by German colonists whose descendants were expelled in 1945. Also,  names from the 1812-15 Napoleonic wars: Borodino, Berezina, Tarutino, Paris… they are also found in the Russian Orenburg region.

Belgorod-Dnestrovsky sounds great but it’s better known from history as Akkerman – no relation to the German Ackermann but rather, ak-kermen in old Turkish, “white fortress”, Cetatea Albă in Romanian.

Poroshenko’s home town, Bolgrad, was founded as a settlement of Bulgarians who fled Ottoman rule in the 19th century, as the name indicates. In the 2001 census, a third of its residents named Bulgarian as their mother tongue.


In Donetsk, you had a real junta

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October 18, 2014 by AK

Keith Gessen, a co-editor of the NYC journal n+1, a novelist, and a brother of Masha Gessen, sent this dispatch from Donetsk last August or September. It is an insightful piece, although colored by Gessen’s New-Yorker prole-o-philia. He seems to dislike the middle class but admits – an important admission – that the Maidan was a middle-class uprising. I would add that the character of Ukrainian nationalism has changed: the dominant strain appears to be civic rather than ethnic, middle-class urban rather than rural or small-town, and bilingual or Russophone, requiring knowledge rather than mandatory use of Ukrainian.

On the Donetsk regime, Gessen says this:

In Donetsk I had expected to find a totalitarian proto-state, and I did. The Kremlin liked calling the government in Kiev a ‘junta’, but here you had a real one.

On the other hand, Gessen seems to think that if the middle class of Kyiv could quietly, painlessly wipe out the chavs of Donbass, they would gladly do so – hence the title of his field report, “Why Not Kill Them All?”

In the Letters section in the latest LRB issue, a Ukrainian lady from Maryland protests:

He [Gessen] quotes gossip and supplies misrepresentations. Among them is his ‘story’ that a Kharkiv professor showed him ‘an order from the Ministry of Education demanding that all senior university officials take part in mobilising staff for the ATO [Anti-Terrorist Operation]. Those who “sabotaged” the process, would be found guilty of “separatist tendencies”.’ This is very difficult to believe. The Ukrainian minister of education is the highly respected former rector of the National University Kyiv Mohyla Academy, Professor Serhiy Kvit. I sent him Gessen’s text, and he responded saying that the claim was ‘complete and utter nonsense’.

Gessen responds:

My apologies. The order in question, warning against ‘sabotage’ of the partial military mobilisation, came from the Ministry of Defence. It was accompanied by orders for speedy compliance from the university administration, under a Ministry of Education letterhead.

That’s a rather Soviet reaction from the Ministry of Defense, betraying panic in the face of a Russian military offensive. But Ukraine can’t just snap out of being the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. You have to dismantle the Soviet institutions, and neither Russia nor Ukraine has quite achieved that.

 


Alexander Lipson’s unforgettable Russian course

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October 16, 2014 by AK

A short text from A Russian Course by the late Prof. Alexander Lipson of MIT:

The Abnormal Woman.

I’m an abnormal woman. My dear husband loves his wife. If he knew, what would he say?! My dear children love their mommy. If they knew, what would they think?!

Do you know where I was today? And do you know what I did? In the city there is a chic restaurant. I was there the whole day. Other women were there as well. They drank tea and, in general, behaved well. I drank vodka and, in general, behaved very badly. They listened to classical music while I sat under the table and smoked big black cigars. While they spoke about culture and life, I stole all their shoes. And while I stole their shoes, I cried.

My God, Dr. Schultz! Why? Why?

Dr. Schultz is not an analyst but an expert on concrete (as in “concrete and glass”) and the little masterpiece above serves an educational purpose: Lipson was a brilliant, innovative teacher. There are links to scanned pages of his Russian course in the comments section here. I’ve read somewhere that Lipson followed a system proposed by the great linguist Roman Jakobson. To quote from reviews on Amazon:

Many years ago, I studied Russian with this textbook. It was the funniest and most effective foreign language class I ever took (of the seven languages I know). Although the take on Soviet life is dated, Lipson’s linguistic theories completely revolutionized and simplified the notorious idiosyncratic Russian verb system into an easily learned system of rules.

Or this:

I took Lipson’s course from the master himself at his home in Cambridge Massachusetts the summer of 1963. He was then a graduate student of Horace Lunt at Harvard… I learned Russian using Lipson’s text which was then under development and under his direct tutelage in his parlor at home with half a dozen other course attendees. The learning speed was breathtaking to me who was a veteran of courses in three other languages and knew how quickly or unquickly learning in those other much simpler languages had proceeded. Lipson was a shooting star teacher with a truly five star text!

Or this from the Language Hat post linked above:

I respond well to linguistic approaches such as the one Lipson pioneered for Russian. Thank Bog I used Lipson’s books for 2 years, I really, really understand the structure of Russian in ways that those who learned from Soviet sponsored texbooks do not. His choice of vocabulary was pretty weird, though. I learned the word for “concrete mixer” before I learned the word for “airplane”, for instance, because one of the dialogues we had to memorize concerned a lazy construction worker. Lo and behold when I got to the USSR I wound up working on a construction site. Full of lazy (and drunk) construction workers. Working on – you guessed it – the betonomeshalka.

Or this testimony:

 I failed Russian my second year at Harvard, (that was doing it the hard way). After I was out of Harvard, I took Russian at night in a course by Professor Alexander Lipson of M.I.T., and studying Russian Lipson’s way, I learned basic Russian in ten months (that was the easy way).

This is the LRB blog post that got me talking about Lipson.

 


Waiting for Poroshenko’s new government

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October 15, 2014 by AK

Ukraine’s President Poroshenko has fired the minister of defense, a career policeman who started service in the late Soviet Union and rose through the ranks in a post-Soviet environment. Not to deny Heletey’s achievements as minister, I wonder whether a graduate of a Soviet police academy is a good fit for the top military job in a country at war.

I have high hopes for the Ukrainian parliamentary election scheduled for October 26, not least because it should enable Poroshenko to form a strong cabinet instead of having his administration double-check the actions of Yatsenyuk’s government. Ukraine deserves a better cabinet than the current one, neither representative nor professional enough. It is dominated by politicians from Western Ukraine, with only two members out of nineteen from Kyiv, two from Kharkiv and none from Odessa and Dnipropetrovsk, to say nothing of Donetsk.

Most ministers do not belong to any party but some are former or current members of Julia Timoshenko’s Batkivschina, which is all but defunct, and Svoboda, whose popular support is limited to 2-3%.

Ukraine is going to need people like Pavlo Sheremeta, also a Western Ukrainian and a graduate of Lviv University, an Emory MBA graduate and the founder of the Kyiv Mohyla Business School. His background is more in management and education than in academic economics, which isn’t bad at all in my book, but more important are his cosmopolitan, rather than narrowly provincial, post-Soviet experience and worldview. Unfortunately Sheremeta resigned in September but why not invite him again? Poroshenko would also do well to invite a Western-educated (ideally, Anglosphere-educated) legal scholar to help reform the legal system. I wouldn’t trust graduates of post-Soviet law schools with the job.


Honor Thy Heroes

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October 12, 2014 by AK

Kedrov Street is a fairly quiet road in the southwest of Moscow, an area known for good schools and relatively high property values. One can find Gymnasium 1534 nearby, ranked in the city’s top 30.

The street was named after Mikhail S. Kedrov (1878-1941). The gymnasium, unusually for a good Moscow school, has a revived Young Pioneers’ organization, named after the same man.

The logic being, apparently, that schoolkids are a nasty bunch and killers of these brats deserve the highest honors.

Here is what Roman Gul (1896-1986), a White Army officer and a prolific émigré author, wrote about M. S. Kedrov in his book Dzerzhinsky (the Start of the Terror).

A well-off son of a well-known Moscow notary, Mikhail Kedrov graduated from the Demidov lyceum in Yaroslavl and studied medicine in Berlin and Lausanne. In Yaroslavl, he used to appear in public wearing a perfectly tailored uniform, with a fencing sword – a handsome, conservative dandy student. By the way, Kedrov’s main occupation as a student was music: he was preparing himself for the career of a virtuoso pianist. But suddenly, instead of Beethoven, the young man was engulfed by Bolshevism. His uniform gave way to a proletarian’s smock; Marx took the place of Beethoven and Bach. It might have turned out all right if Kedrov had not exhibited, early on, signs of a mental disease.

Heredity was his curse: his elder brother, a violinist, died a mentally disturbed man in a psychiatric clinic in Kostroma. Kedrov’s eccentricities first manifested themselves as pathological greed that seized him. A rich man, Kedrov denied food to his children. He distributed the required “number of calories” among them with such exactitude that they cried and wept, and Kedrov’s wife begged his friends to persuade him to stop those “scientific experiments”.

By the time of the October revolution Kedrov had probably been afflicted by a serious psychiatric disorder. In spite of that, or precisely because of that – perhaps – he became a senior bureaucrat of terror in Dzerzhinsky’s department. Credit goes to Kedrov for introducing the notorious “seven categories” of detainees: the seventh category meant the firing squad at once; the sixth was the death row of a second order; the fifth, of a third. Kedrov was equally diligent in apportioning food among his children and detainees before execution.

In 1919 Dzerzhinsky dispatched Dr. Kedrov to pacify the north of Russia… In turning Russia’s north to Communism, Kedrov – well knowledgeable in history – parodied the murders of Nantes. Not far from Kholmogory [Lomonossov's birthplace] he put over 1,000 people accused of counter-revolutionism on a barge and ordered to fire on them from machine guns. Dr. Kedrov watched the execution from the shore.

…Kedrov crowded prisons with 8-14 year-old children, as “spies of the bourgeoisie”… And on the orders of the same man overtaken by sexual insanity, Chekists – under the pretext of the same class struggle against the espionage of bourgeois offspring – executed children seized on their way to gymnasium.

However the aesthete Kedrov’s sophisticated inner self wore out quickly on the “wet” job. ["Wet job" = slang for "murder".] The virtuoso pianist – Lenin was delighted by his playing… – Kedrov was not as thick-skinned as the lumpen-proletarians Eiduks and Lācis, who have been “polishing their blood” with murder for eighteen years [this refers to 1936, when the first edition of the book was published. 2nd edition, 1974].

After the fantastically bloody conquest of the Russian north Kedrov’s career came to a sudden halt. They say that Kedrov left the bloodied stage dramatically, having been placed into a psychiatric ward because of his mental illness. Apparently he recovered somewhat after a while, for at the 20th party congress [1956] Khruschev told of Beria arresting, torturing and killing Kedrov, “as if a lowly traitor to Motherland”. Kedrov implored in his letters from the Lubyanka prison: “My torment has come to a limit. My health is broken. Boundless pain and bitterness have overfilled my heart.” But once gangsters have quarreled among themselves, they are usually merciless to each other. Beriya put a bullet in the back of Kedrov’s head…


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