31 January 2008

Edward Lucas' The New Cold War: How the Kremlin Menaces both Russia and the West

I think of Edward Lucas and Vladimir Socor as the best major journalists writing about Eastern Europe in English (my apologies to those who would wish the term away; though Estonia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic have dragged themselves out of the swamp in most respects, and though I think Larry Wolff's book -- Edward Said sent to l'Europe orientale -- is a must read for anyone interested in this part of the world... I still find the fading division of the old Cold War meaningful much of the time).

Another book with Lucas' title, by a different journalist, came out last year -- Mark MacKinnon's The New Cold War. It has a different subtitle: Revolutions, Rigged Elections and Pipeline Politics in the Former Soviet Union. Unless my attention drifted, I don't think Lucas mentions MacKinnon's book in his. I haven't read MacKinnon's, but it seems to me that Bloomsbury and Lucas could have noticed this (the earlier book was released last April) and found a different title. From the reviews, one can gather that they cover some of the same ground, albeit with a somewhat different focus.

Mart Laar, the former Prime Minister of Estonia (and a historian), hopes that Lucas' book "will be a wakeup call for Western civilisation." Richard Pipes, David Satter, Anne Applebaum, and Vladimir Bukovsky offer blurbs on the dust-jacket of the UK edition -- stellar endorsements from a constellation that would tell even the most bewildered navigator which political waters Lucas sails in.

This is, unfortunately, a choppy book. Don't get me wrong -- I do recommend the book, and I do hope Western civili[s/z]ation wakes up.

Many Latvians, like our brethren to the south and cousins to the north, are well nigh obsessive Russia watchers. Many a brother and sister in the mammoth country to the east would replace "Russia watchers" with a heavily loaded and often perversely bent, catchall term -- "Russophobes." The first definition of "phobia" in American Heritage is of a "persistent, abnormal, and irrational fear of a specific thing or situation that compels one to avoid it, despite the awareness and reassurance that it is not dangerous."

Baltic "Russophobia" might be persistent, but it is neither abnormal nor irrational -- it is, in short, not a phobia but a rational wariness that is sometimes suffused with fear and can often include irrational elements, as simply as a little girl left alone with known serial rapists might sometimes get the willies. Being neighbors, we can't avoid Russia, and Lucas makes it quite clear in this book that our willies are misunderstood. We live next to a country that tortured us and does not recognize that fact.

Someone I debate with stridently on a regular basis, in his zeal to paint the Russification of occupied Latvia and its residue in bright colors, observed that we are well poised to know Russia; as it is, Russian is still spoken as a first or second language by more people in Latvia than Latvian is, though there are freshly encouraging signs of language shift.

Latvians know Russians because about a third of Latvia's inhabitants are more or less Russian, most Latvians speak Russian, Russian media space is actually contiguous, and the sense and sensibilities of even "truly" Russophobic Letts often resound with Russo-Soviet echoes.

The gentleman I invoke above might praise the possible value of this intimacy (which is, in essence, healthy -- though politics as some alien imaginal animal might insert many a verst between us, Letts and Russkies actually get along so well that inter-ethnic marriage may eventually do what screwed-up, belated, and essentially superficial integration programs cannot), but whenever Latvians sound the warning... it falls upon deaf ears.

At 342 pages (including the copious footnotes and index), Lucas' book seems to be an extension onto paper of what many have read of him and the like-minded online; not a few of the footnotes actually refer to websites, and those of us into Russia-watching are familiar with a lot of the material. As a result, the book came off as more polemical than informative, to me. Anybody not worried about Russia should order this immediately.

I call it choppy because I just don't understand, in places, why and where the weight is placed. I assume that Estonia receives extraordinary emphasis because Lucas knows more about Estonia, as he does. But in the context of the Baltic states -- a skin many an Estonian would wish to shed -- Estonia is actually an aberration, whether as a suburb of Finland or a radiant example of the possible beauties of neoliberalism. Lucas' determination to place it at the front of a front line in a new Cold War does not make sense to me -- Estonia is essentially healthy and therefore ready for this "war," whilst Lithuania and Latvia (especially Latvia!) are not.

The last chapter is the thinnest and, to my mind, weakest: "How to Win the New Cold War: Why the West Must Believe in Itself." Sadly, that nearly religious chapter title reflects the substance of what seems to be part of the marketing strategy for this book, and I'm not sure that the marketing didn't infect the form.

I don't in the least agree with the Exile, (okay okay, eXile or whatever) which ran a typically twisted review of Lucas' work sight unseen... but even I don't find the final concentrated platitudes convincing.

The West should be something we can believe in before we believe in it, and one of the worst things about this book is that Lucas just doesn't seem to see the failures of the ideologies that have been presented as salvation. Correction -- he sees them, and he mentions them, and though Russophiles (grin) can try to accost him tu quoque (which tactics he analyzes most beautifully)... Lucas certainly does not merit the "Russophobe" epithet.

Neither Chechens nor the reign of Borya receive Lucas' blessings, Berezovsky is slammed, and the book is eminently sane. Lucas doesn't even like the idea of moving the Bronze Soldier. Scurrilous attacks published in the Exile and reprinted in the partly non-existent Tiraspol Times make no sense.

I've been more critical than I meant to be, I suppose -- I stayed up into the night to read The New Cold War and marveled at the timing; though this book gets as close as it can to the present, events are unfolding at such a pace that Lucas needs no plug. The latest gas deal with Serbia, the spy scandal in Latvia, the newest episode anent the British Council in Russia, Energy Commissioner Piebalgs' latest remarks on Nord Stream, the obsequies for Nabucco, etc. -- the roots of all of these burning issues are discussed, predicted, and underscored in this book. People who aren't obsessive Russia-watchers will find Lucas' framework useful.

What I found disappointing was the lack of depth, and maybe that's a common affliction in a book by a working journalist (I've read a few lately, including the massive Fisk tome... I'm now reading Politkovskaya's Putin's Russia in Latvian). The New Cold War is very much worth reading, but the distribution of weight struck me as flawed -- if one is going to bring history and even national character in, one should be more careful. It just doesn't do to splice together glosses, and leaps about the nature of the Russophones in Estonia and Latvia, for example, are just too much lightning and elide.

I also couldn't help thinking that Lucas just won't accept how traumatic the 1990s were - even in parts of sainted Estonia. It's not that he evades the subject -- it's just that the demoralization of the countries he rightly calls "ill-governed, tetchy, and intolerant" is based in reality more than it is in belief. One of the very few errors in the book, for example, is in his attempt to explain the exodus to the West; it may be that wages are two or three times higher in the destination countries, as he writes, but many of the economic migrants work at minimum wage. In Ireland, that was ten times higher than in Latvia not so long ago. Costs in Latvia not rarely exceed Western European prices these days. Entire civil parishes can seem emptied out -- because they are. If independence in 1918/20 meant a national destiny, questionable as that may have been, it also meant a measure of control that included a radical land reform (upon which Lucas has elsewhere looked askance), which brought social stability -- then the "restoration" of the Republic has meant a dizzying transition from one system to another, and such credit that serfdom is being reestablished... health care is returning to the 19th C, too. Like Lucas, I would underscore individual and personal freedoms. Political freedom, however, is a lot iffier.

The Economist praises the flow of Polish bus drivers to London, etc. -- in theory, that may have sounded good to someone a while back. Some still make ridiculous claims. As a speechwriter and translator for the former President, Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, I got to tell Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth about how Letts go get valuable experience in Britain and the British come en masse to savor our culture. The real truth is that most Letts go work numbing, low-wage jobs in which they learn no skills at all, some of them under gangmasters, whilst most British tourists come here for the cheap whores and the booze.

In reality, the human and social effects are not so easily quantifiable -- an empty village with "mushroom orphans" and no visible future is a dead village. A "free" market devastated by foreign eggs is a market with no local eggs, and after dumping it can get pretty eggless. Even if one can point to an Estonia to show that Milton Friedman is divine -- in most of Eastern Europe, the system is a sick sham, and there is very good reason to be tetchy. Lucas does not entirely evade these issues -- but neither does he get into them. He skirts them.

If the West fails to believe in itself -- it's at least partly 'cause the neoliberal god has failed. Dangling the Demon Russia -- and I do find it demonic, and intensely threatening -- is like waving the terrors of Islamism at the narod, in the end. This book also echoes that; I couldn't help thinking of Martin Amis' arrogance. And though it makes utter sense to separate civil liberties and politics when looking at each, and to inspect how they combine -- I suspect that the capability of winning a new Cold War will depend a lot more on what we are and do, without mirroring devils, than Lucas would like to admit. The way the Russian propaganda machine works is one thing -- but accusations of Western hypocrisy hit so many homes 'cause there's a lot of blatant Western hypocrisy, not just because Kremlin apologists have perfect training in
tu quoque.

I interviewed Edward Lucas last May -- here. I would like to thank Bloomsbury for the review copy of the book.

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28 January 2008

The Nearest Outpost of Tyranny

I watched Ploshcha (The Square) before dawn today -- Yury Khashchavatski's film about the mass protests in Minsk in March 2006. Ploshcha just won First Prize for Best Documentary at the Trieste Film Festival, and can be downloaded for free -- with English subtitles -- in .avi or .wmv format. It's a wrenching movie, and watching it is a good way to mark Ceauşescu's birthday and Suharto's death. The still above is from the film (the blur is a blizzard the protesters braved -- the video [at least in .avi] is of excellent quality).

Though Belarus is a mere 33 km from where I live, I haven't been there since 1992 -- though I do meet Belarusians now and then (Daugavpils and Vitebsk cooperate closely in the arts). Years ago I had the pleasure to get to know Uladzimir Katkouski online, at a time when many Belarusian intellectuals were looking to Latvia for support, especially for their endangered language. Because many of the English-language Belarus-oriented sites on the 'Net are discontinuous -- like Uladzimir's splendid Pravapis -- I didn't realize that Uladzimir had passed away after a tragic accident. Vieglas smiltis, as we say in Latvian -- "may the sand be light."

Uladzimir published fine articles like Alexandra Goujon's "Language, nationalism and populism in Belarus"; just as politics and language issues in Ukraine ought to be of interest to Balts, so the dire situation in neighboring Belarus should be -- in fact, a group of Belrusians concerned about their language published an open letter in Diena some years ago, asking that Latvians help during Lukashenka's dictatorship. Latvia and Belarus have longstanding ties; Latgallia was long part of Vitebsk guberniya, for example, and part of the belated Latgallian Awakening was centered in that city. I live a few blocks from what was the first Belarusian school in Latvia, now no longer functioning. The plaque on the building preserves the Pahonia and is written in Belarusian, whilst the large Consulate in 18 November Street delighted the homines sovietici of Dźvinsk in 1995, when Lukashenka's Belarus restored its Soviet symbolism, pulling down the "fascist" flag of the Republic (nearly an inverse of the Latvian flag, though the proportions and hues are different). The notices outside the Consulate are in Russian, not Belarusian.

A map of "Ruthénie blanche" from 1918 included Daugavpils (Dünaburg, Дзьвінск), not to mention Vilnius, in the fledgling Belarusian Republic -- or the Republic that never got off the ground. Daugavpils was actually claimed by Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia as well -- so it goes at the crossroads. Then as now, identity in these parts was weak, mutable, and mixed, partly religious rather than ethnic (e.g., Orthodox Latvians were often counted as "Russians" by the Tsarist police). These lands were in flux linguistically also -- some of the Belarusian schools that Rainis worked to establish later used Russian as the language of instruction, even before the occupation. Most of the Belarusians in Latvia today are almost entirely russified.

And now? Marko Hoare in Greater Surbiton, a blog I only recently discovered (via Roland Dodds' But, I am a Liberal!) wrote a superb piece last Thursday called "Are there any fascists left?" Like Timothy Garton Ash's "Bitter lemons: Six questions to the critics of Ukraine's orange revolution", an article I linked to in my musings on Latvia's pro-Americanism, Hoare's insights tickle my spleen. Just as one is constantly subjected to descriptions of the Baltics as "American puppets" by (indecent) "leftists" mixing near-total ignorance of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania with full frontal ahistoricism, so one has to endure bubbling sympathetic bromides for Lukashenka's régime, often from these same folk -- after all, if Condi calls Belarus an "outpost of tyranny," it must be paradise (on par with Fidel's Cuba, perhaps). Lukashenka himself has used images of "the ravages of capitalism" in Latvia, from which he "protects" "his people," in his "campaign" ads. Khashchavatski speaks of dispelling myths: "For instance, that the majority of the Belarusians support Lukashenka. We know that it is a myth, and we know absolutely different figures. After all, we hear people in the streets. But a myth created by the Belarusian dictator around his name and supported by many mass media, in fact changes the situation, it makes many people have no faith in future victory. That is why the aim of the elites of our countries, the aim of the intellectuals is to dispel these myths, actually, to say the truth.”

Not that the forms capitalism took in the Wild East haven't been ravaging -- they have been, and part of the reason for that in Latvia is the oiliness of stark juxtaposition. I once called Lattelekom to complain about a thousand-dollar dial-up bill and got called a communist by the gentleman in the service center; since Lattelekom is forced by socialists to grant discounts to pensioners for their basic telephone service, they had to soak their richer clients and the Internet was therefore more expensive than America's. The fact that many telephone companies in America (which are not monopolies, as Lattelekom was at that time) also give discounts for basic service disturbed him -- the fact that there's no sales tax on food or medicine in many a state, or that there can be a reduced sales tax, would be even more disturbing, I'm sure. The trouble is that laissez-faire, flat taxes and free markets are like unto infantile religions for many here.

The thing is, though, that Latvia is free and Belarus isn't. Does maintaining a safety net require totalitarianism? Does admiration for aspects of Cuban health care require one to ignore human rights abuses in Cuba? Is freedom as Antyx describes it?

I've a cornucopia of questions, but the one question that doesn't puzzle me is whether the children of free societies have the right to blithely avert their eyes from tyranny in the name of... of? Are there any leftists left?

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26 January 2008

The Blue Danube

Rumor has it that my city's new master plan calls for restoring the Zilā Donava -- The Blue Danube, a saloon that was gutted by fire not long ago. As it was one of the few seedy bars to survive the clumsy gentrification of darkest Dvinsk, and as its character is now a rarity rather than the norm -- bravo! I append a brief, relevant fragment from The Penetralium. Other extracts from my work-in regress may be found here. The work pictured (paper, watercolor, ink) is "Padegs un astrālais" ("Padegs and the Astral") by Kārlis Padegs, 1939.

Vegetable Street (literally the Street of Roots) runs parallel to Bread Street until the latter curves. Vegetable Street is the steepest street in the city, reaching Station Street at an ugly monument built for the Dvintsi, their bronze faces scowling under the red star, across from the Blue Danube, first tavern to greet a visitor to our fair city, the kind of bar that only certain women enter late at night, or long-suffering women accompanying their suicidal husbands for a last drink – what the rite is here: a man, dressed in hideous synthetics (no longer so obvious, since there is a “sekondhends,” a second-hand clothing store, on nearly every corner, erasing the old distinctions in No-Man’s-Land) – such an one, shining with the slime of masculinity, slimed with machismo, brings his draugs his droog his buddy, for early destruction (“no man is safe who drinks before breakfast”) – eight a.m., at the Blue Danube or Uyut (vaguely Gemütlichkeit) or the nameless bar next to the ragpickers’ – the scene is the same: a bottle of Agdam, a sort of faux port that is really grain neutral spirits and color, sugar, a trace of grapes – my buddy – the man with whom I am entering the grave – my buddy and I: Agdam, half-liter jars of bad beer (once, mine had maggots at the bottom of the glass), and a thick, hexagonally patterned tumbler of vodka, two three hundred grams of vodka each, and a pair of voblas, a dry, salty fish – the Caspian roach. You talk, the benches scraping against the floor, sip Agdam, down vodka, and drain your beer, beat the fish against the side of the table to loosen its meat, and then it is morning. And that is manhood, far from the nervous children and neurotic wife, finally far from your buddy’s seeming inability to see what it is you were saying as the fish kept time, far even from yourself. Somehow lately everyone is dying from cirrhosis, or from the brake fluid they drank during prohibition in the eighties. You stagger home to Stropi, where the slaughterhouse is (“please celebrate your wedding at our café”), or Grīva, crossing the river by ice if it is winter. When the thaw comes, the last to cross seem to disappear, or ice fishermen adrift, devoted folks, away from the family each day, warming themselves with grain alcohol, waiting for fish. This is only a man and his bottle, dawn or was it dusk, crib.

And then we came out and saw the stars of hell. In vino veritas, pravda? “And ruthlessly sow the salt of deformation.”

For years now, the Fortress is a place of internal exile. If you are unable to pay the “heating net” or the hot water (only on weekends in summer), and are delinquent for a few months, you are sent to the Fortress – “allocated space” – and live there with men who can no longer afford the aforementioned manhood. They gather by the yellow tanker trucks that sell beer, loll in the grass of the dry moats, torture their families (what is a family) and create hell as easily as I drift into doubt and ambivalence. The poetry of departure. In Hochsommer, the barges still function, bearing ordinary sand from as far as the rapids – this is an unnavigable river beyond Pļaviņas – the formerly proud tugboats lately sinking when they are not moved on time from the summer to the winter dock, the pressure of the ice, the pilots ensconced in the sorry Blue Danube or another nameless place known by a graffito of a crescent and star, where they were about to plow under the shuttered wooden hovels of Viduspoguļanka and build soc-houses, what leader are the buildings named after today, what is built, confused crones bearing sour cream to market, so that yesterday by mid-afternoon, when the hopeful enter despair and pack it up and head for their homesteads, the tables were still laden with cottage cheese and the eyes of those who milked that animal were dark... they look good, things here, from the bars the few foreigners enter, the ones where one beer would buy you seven at Uyut, and there is some fresh happiness in the ulitse Lenina, after all my daughter went to Denmark to study drawing and Sasha is working for that man behind the tinted windows of the Lincoln Navigator… and now is something akin to goldenrod, last night’s mussels in brine, I reacting to my sudden presence after two days dragging my lover into selfsame nightmare, an old and degenerate man rounding our house, peering at the garden, and entering I’s mother’s apartment, my not understanding a word he said as I led him away (how do I know what he wants? Once it was a man whose family squatted here when this house was abandoned during the tail end of the German occupation – he only wanted to see his memory – “my first bath, I had never seen a bathtub before”) … kak cauchemar, why have the Russians taken the French word for nightmare, did they not have them before?

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22 January 2008

A Letter

Here you can listen to a song sung by the wives of Alsunga (German exonym: Allschwangen), about 30 km northwest of Kuldīga (Goldingen -- a town I'd like to live in at some point for a year or so, or at least spend more time in; Werner Herzog chose it for a recent film). The people of Alsunga and the neighboring parishes, called suiti, are unusual because Graf Ulrich von Schwerin, the local nobleman, married a Polish aristocrat in the 17th C, converting to Catholicism.

Cuius regio, eius religio
; what's now Latvia was fervently Lutheran with the exception of parts of Selonia (across the river from here, where we have our dachas) and the eastern region of Latgallia (where I live -- Latgola in the local dialect/language, this province belonged to Poland for quite some time [as Inflanty, a corruption of Livland] and was thereafter not part of das Baltikum but of Vitebsk guberniya; as a result, Latgallian developed separately, preserving some old forms [and being close to Lithuanian in some ways] but was also subject to more Russification, injured [and/or preserved] by illiteracy, etc. -- I wrote a bit about [fledgling] Latgallian activism here).

...Courland was quite Lutheran, but the Catholic suiti successfully defended their identity and traditions. Interest about them rose 82 years ago, when the composer, photographer, and ethnomusicologist Emilis Melngailis brought some to Rīga to sing (there's a bit on Melngailis here -- it's in Latvian, but there are tracks and photos). They're known for exactly the type of song I linked you to. As one of them put it in an interview, they cannot sing without an opponent. The song is accordingly an attack by the alsundznieces (women of Alsunga) on the jūrkalnieces and gudenieces, (the women from Gudenieki and especially Jūrkalne -- their neighbors).

A quick, crude gloss of the song's lyrics: Let those who need an organ buy an organ, I don't need an organ, don't need. My throat, my voice [dim.] is the organ [+ verb for organ -- I guess there isn't a verb in English?]. I've a wide throat when singing -- it's even wider when I bellow [howl -- but the word for instance is used also as auru laiks... not the time of auras /which it can also mean nowadays but not etymologically/ but the time cats mate]. I howled off the branches of the pine and the crown of the oak. The wives of the suiti sing splendidly; they drink sweet beer. The neighbors do not sing; they drink marsh water. When the jūrkalnieces sang, not a leaf rustled. When the gudenieces sang, the oak dropped its acorns. When the alsundznieces sang -- the oak itself bent, danced [līgojās... inf. līgot -- this is a word central to all things Lettish, so rife with meaning; to dance, to sway, to sing līgo songs, i.e., the songs with that refrain, ļeigū in Latgallia, sung on Līgo eve, that is Johannesnacht/solstice eve /Pound mentions the refrain of the Lithuanians in this regard, in connection with the pre-Christian "authenticity" he sought/]. The word līgava, bride, is from the sway of her hips.

Now that I gave you a discursive version of the history/identity of those suiti -- it turns out there is a bit in English on them, here. I attach a photo from Diena of their massive demo in front of the Cabinet, against splitting the region in the territorial administrative reform that was adopted over the objections of many and will soon be implemented. The signs say "the same fate for the suiti as for the Livs?" and "don't decide in our place" ...and "ēēēēē, Latvija!" (which needs no translation... the "ēēēēē" can be heard at the link in the very first word of this post).

As I mentioned when recounting my adventures at the Ventspils bus station with those seductive teenagers at the crack of dawn -- the character still exists. They themselves call it "of coarse fiber, somewhat impolite" -- to the teens of the villages, even when steeped in technopop, a suitu girl is still of another species.

This was adapted from a letter to Ken Irby. The suitu song and many other free .mp3 files, as well as additional information on folk and ethnographic ensembles in Latvia, can be found at the marvelous folklora.lv site.

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12 January 2008

Seventeen Years Ago

Balts are now marking the anniversary of the "January Events" of 1991 in Lithuania and Latvia, when thousands of unarmed civilians defended our fledgling democratic institutions from Soviet aggression. The clip below is from Juris Podnieks' documentary Krustceļš (The Crossroads); the photograph above is from the Support Fund, where there are additional photos and a chronology of events.

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10 January 2008

Borderlands (VI)

There is a fresh and bizarre footnote to the loss of the eastern civil parishes of Abrene. Latvia is embroiled in a stunning scandal once again -- the sale of perhaps a hundred passports to wealthy individuals, mostly Russian citizens seeking to take advantage of Latvia's EU and Schengen membership. The Baltic Times has a brief article on the subject here. This latest episode of corruption, which may well involve the highest levels of the Office of Citizenship and Migration Affairs, was a deal worth at least seven million euros.

In Diena, the filmmaker and pundit Laila Pakalniņa adds fascinating detail -- apparently, no apparatchik noticed that many a millionaire suddenly hailed from Abrene (according to the falsified data on these fictitious citizens). If they had, either the crime would have been discovered -- or the area we've now recognized as merely "magical" wouldn't have been handed to Russia so smoothly, what with its wealth (in reality, it was the poorest part of interbellum Latvia and is now an impoverished Russian backwater, Pytalovo).

But what can one expect in a country with so many prosperous corpses?

My previous post has links to all of my posts on border issues. The photograph of a 1930s Latvian passport is from the Office of Citizenship and Migration Affairs.

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