Thursday, January 28, 2016

"Enemies of the State" - Stalinism making a comeback in Russia

My inbox and news feed this past couple of weeks had been filled with stories of the British enquiry into the 2006 poisoning of Litvinenko, FSB defector turned MI6 informant.  The enquiry, which the British did NOT want to hold and delayed almost 10 years, because it might upset relations with Russia, found as fact which had previously been suspected.  Litvinenko was poisoned with Polonium 210 by two Russian acquaintances, FSB employees, and at the behest of the FSB and probably approved or ordered by Putin.

Once the poison had been identified, a fortuitous accident in itself, it was a no-brainer to follow the radioactive trail of the assassins which stuck to them like a bad small everywhere they went.  Polonium 210 is only manufactured in a couple of places, Russia being one of them and you don't lay your hands on it without top level authorization. There were a number of reasons to kill him.  He was a fierce critic of Putin and had written a couple of books, one about the apartment bombings in 1999 that brought Putin to power.  Others investigating this met untimely ends. The most likely scenario is that he was killed to prevent him from testifying before a Spanish investigation into connections between the Kremlin, including Putin, as Russian mobsters. Ideology, the Soviet reason for killing, has been replaced by money.

The full 329 page report is available in PDF here and The Guardian has the detailed story here.

Putin's Russia has quite a history of killing off opposition.  This article from Foreign Affairs provides a list of hits and a couple of misses. License to Kill: The Kremlin's Long History of Assassinating Opponents

As Putin's economy unravels, so does his social contract with the people of Russia and with the elites who make up the power structure.  That was essentially 'you let us govern and steal and we'll spread enough money around to make you better off than you were'. Alexander J. Motyl's article Lights Out for the Putin Regime: The Coming Russian Collapse describes the situation but in my opinion expresses a little too much wishful thinking in forecasting a coming collapse.  Lots of people have been killed or injured in the dying threshings of a fatally wounded animal. And Putin knows he must remain in power for the rest of his life so he does not have to answer for his misdeeds.

Since he cannot buy his way out, he has to use the other tool of dictators: repression.  And for that, he is reaching back into the era of Stalin. Putin is going to make Russia a great power in the world.  For this, the Russian people must make sacrifices for the good of the country as they did in Soviet time during the Great Patriotic War.  They are surrounded by enemies on all sides of which the greatest is America from which the EU takes its direction.  

This is just a small example of what Russian citizens are fed on a daily basis by the Kremlin controlled media
"The U.S. wants to dissolve Russia so it can get access to its resources", Russia's Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev said in an interview with the Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper on Tuesday. “The US government has a goal — to dominate the world. It's possible that they want to achieve this goal through Russia's collapse, which will allow the U.S. access to its rich resources, which, in their opinion, Russia does not deserve to possess. Moscow is not interested in a standoff with the West. The initiator of the current conflict is the U.S. Europe obeys their will,” In the interview with the Kommersant newspaper last year, Patrushev said that the U.S. wished that Russia didn't exist as a country and that it considers Russia's possession of the Far East and Siberia illegal.

In case you didn't know, America is also responsible for the flu epidemic in Russia which has killed a number of people (it is much more serious in Ukraine with over 80 deaths reported). As well homosexuality is an American plot against Russia (Russian homophobia makes Pat Robertson seem like a liberal). By the way, publicity of the goat-tiger friendship in a Russian zoo is gay propaganda and should be stopped as it will affect children.  And the list goes on.  So Russia has a huge and powerful enemy just like during the war.  And of course, everyone opposed to Russia is a Nazi or a Fascist.

That is not the only language of the Stalinist era making a comeback.  The phrase 'enemies of the people' from the time of the Great Terror in 1937-1938 is being heard again. The following is sort of abstracted from For Putin, For Stalin: Fearful of unrest, Russia’s presidentis using the memory of Stalin to exhort his people to sacrifice.

Over the last few years, President Vladimir Putin has presided over the rehabilitation of one of the 20th century’s greatest monsters. Bedeviled by the country’s economic decay and fearful of dissent, he has turned to the ghost of Stalin help to rally the Russian people and to prepare them for the sacrifices that lie ahead.

The unspoken deal between Putin and the Russian people had gone something like this: He would relieve them from the instability and economic crises of the 1990s, and in return, Russians would allow him to run the country as he saw fit. For many years, this was a successful endeavor. The Russian people lived increasingly comfortable lives while Putin consolidated power. But the protests of 2012 and 2013 that followed his fraudulent reelection made it clear that, while many Russians enjoyed their economic success, some were no longer happy to leave politics to Putin.

So he changed tack, declaring in every medium he could find that the protesters were sponsored by Americans or inspired by the European Union. With the help of the state-controlled media, the Kremlin found and vilified an ever-growing list of fifth columnists: homosexuals, foreigners, NGOs, and activists. The message to the broader, non-protesting populace was clear: Russia and the Russian way of life were under attack, and Russia must unite around its leader to defend herself.

So Putin asked Russians to tighten their belts for the sake of making Russia great again. Many Russians had seen a marked increase in their quality of life, but now they would be asked to give up some of those gains for the country’s greater geopolitical good. In this new social compact, economic growth must be sacrificed to help Russia reassert herself on the world stage.

To better make his case, Putin turned to Stalin’s playbook, looking increasingly to the events of World War II, known in Russia as the “Great Patriotic War.” Millions of Russians were killed during the Nazi invasion of 1941, and millions more lost their lives fighting Nazi Germany in Central and Eastern Europe. Nearly every Russian family — Vladimir Putin’s included — experienced loss, deprivation, disease, and death. It is a visceral, emotional part of the Russian historical fabric.

And indeed, polling reveals that some 34 percent of Russians agree that “Whatever flaws and failures are attributed to Stalin, the most important thing is that, under his leadership, Russia was victorious in World War II.”

This is why the war is the perfect way for Putin to evoke the worldview he wants Russians to have — besieged on all sides, with only a great leader to save them. With this lens on history firmly in place, Putin has prepared the way for his own crimes, sins, and wars to be dismissed. All he needs do is maintain the charade that he is fighting for the good of Mother Russia, and Russians will be willing to overlook his failures.

By March 2015, fully 45 percent of Russians believed that the sacrifices made by the Soviet people during the Stalin years were in some way justified. Less than three years earlier that number stood at only 25 percent. Further, a December 2014 poll found that 52 percent of Russians regard Stalin as having played a fully or generally positive role “in the life of [Russia],” a ten percent increase since 2006. In 2008, a nationwide TV poll saw Stalin named as the third greatest Russian to have ever lived.

Just as their grandparents did in Stalin’s time, most Russians seem ready to do whatever Putin asks of them as long as he delivers — or can convince the public that he has delivered. Whether he succeeds in convincing Russians that the price they’re paying for his adventures is worth it will determine how long his system survives.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Snow Storm Brings Wife Home

Eastern Europe was blasted by a heavy snow storm and blizzard conditions, from what I gathered on the news.  The temperatures were not cold but at least two deaths reported in Odessa of homeless people. Transportation in several Oblasts is shut down until they get the highways cleared. Here in Zhovti Vody the storm lasted from sometime early Sunday night until sometime early Tuesday morning.

Normally, being snug and warm and all, I would have enjoyed the storm but Tanya was trying to make her way home from Moscow.  The weather had fought her the entire way.  Last week Moscow was shut down because of snow.  Friday she was scheduled to fly out of Abakan and to arrive in Moscow by 9:00 am.  Moscow was clear; Abakan was socked in.  The airline sent everyone by bus to Krasnoyarsk (400 km, 6 hours) and she flew out at 3:00 am Saturday morning arriving in Moscow five hours later at 4:00 am.  She had a somewhat shorter visit with our friends Galina and Zhenia than planned but still got to the theatre.

They put her on the train about noon Sunday.  It was already storming here and I had warned her that the roads to Dnipropetrovsk would be impassable and that she may have to stay overnight.  Like that was going to happen.  When Tanya decides, nothing gets in her way.  She got into Dnipro at 10:00 am Monday and jumped onto the Express train to Kyiv which stops at P'yatikhatki, our nearest railway station, 30 km from here, to arrive at 1:30 pm.  Andrei set out to meet her.  He is a good son.

Not sure how far he got but ended up like several others, stuck in a snow bank.  Time to call reinforcements.  One of his friends had a 4WD army type truck with a closed in box for hauling soldiers or whatever.  He and Andrei got to the railway station about 4:00 pm.  On the way back to ZV, he picked up 15 people stuck in the snow. They got within 3 long blocks of our place and Tanya walked the rest of the way in the storm dragging her suitcases.  I went to meet her but had to shovel out the gate so I could leave the yard. She was home safe by 6:30 pm.

Tanya was up bright and early this morning reclaiming her home after 40 days away.  The storm had stopped and she wanted the front gate closed.  I call her "Mrs Now".  She calls me "Mr Tomorrow".  I went out and shoveled the front walk as far as the gate and closed it. The rest could wait.  My theory is that if you put things off long enough most don't need to be done anyhow.  Monday I had also shoveled the walk during a lull in the storm and for all the good it did me. . . like putting a suppository in your Postum.  At about 1:00 pm, two boys showed up looking to shovel snow. (See, I told you).

Not only did they finish shoveling the walk; they also dug out the dog house and moved it into the outbuilding.  So when that -25C hits the dogs will be snug and warm.  We gave them each $5 and they were thrilled.  So was I.

Snow blew in level with the centre of the gate, effectively rendering it useless

Trench warfare

The boys shoveled a path to the dog yard.  Our street will not be plowed until spring

The wind made fancy patterns with the solid fence.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Russia begins 2016: the Bad and the Ugly; there is no Good

For the citizens of Russia, things are going from bad to worse.  The ruble is down, inflation is rampant and Russia's sanctions against food from EU and now Turkey are seen on grocery shelves and at the cash register.  My wife will be home Monday or Tuesday (or Wednesday? It is storming hard here so roads will be impassible for a while) and I will get the lowdown from her.  She did tell me that a huge sort of big-box supermarket combination that sold everything is only half the size it was, with the other half leased out.

As the price of oil plummets, Russia is having to rejig its budget for 2016 constantly.  Health services, education and social safety nets are already almost totally defunded to keep feeding the military machine. They are about as close to volunteer organizations as you can get

Politically, the Kremlin is clamping down harder and harder on anything that looks like variance from the party line.  Any kind of public protest will land a person in the police station and possibly in prison from 1-5 years.  Or more. Theoretically a one-person picket is legal twice in 6 months.  However the authorities send out a couple of phony pickets to stand close and then bust the lone picketer.

Kadyrov is demanding that ALL dissenters be treated as 'enemies of the people', a good Stalinist phrase and sent to labour camps. Russians will continue to support Stalin because they consider the use of force “the privilege of the state,” will burn books if the authorities give the signal, and even would approve the creation of a new GULAG and the liquidation of its potential inmates. 

Not all Russians subscribe to these horrific views; but enough do, the commentaries suggest, that their attitudes inform and will continue to inform the way in which the Russian state will operate and the situation in which Russians as a people will continue to exist for some time to come.

Since Russians have never been forced to confront their past and deal with it, they still carry the attitudes that they have had since Tsarist times “the sacralization of the state and power” and continue to view the use of force “as a privilege of the authorities to whom has been delegated the responsibility and right to make choices for everyone.”

On the international side, if one accepts the premise of "Russia Watchers", that Putin's goal is to destabilize and destroy the EU, NATO, and the world order changes which occurred since the breakup of the USSR, then at the moment he appears to be winning more than he is losing. In an interview with German paper BILD, Putin said international boundaries were not important to him, just (Russian) people, meaning he wants his empire back

Russia supports extreme Right or Left parties and individual politicians in Europe.  They do not have to be pro-Russia, just anti-EU, though it helps if they are also anti-sanction.  

To know what Russia is doing or will do, it is only necessary to see what they accuse others of doing. When they declare as now that NATO is planning to use the Baltic countries as a base to attack Russia that may in fact constitute the clearest early warning signal that Moscow may be planning to attack them first. The Baltic countries are interested in having NATO forces on their territory because it is “economically profitable.” Indeed, the governments of the three are “exploiting the sharpening of the confrontation between Russia and the West for their own goals.”

His Syrian adventure has two purposes. To keep Assad in power (or possibly replace him with another that supports Russia) and to continue to flood Europe with refugees.  Very few of the Russian bombing runs have been targeted at Daesh (ISIS) and most against anti-Assad rebel groups with indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets included. If anything Russia may be supporting Daesh as factories in the Russian proxy held Donbas are turning out arms with instructions etc in Arabic. (But then, trying to figure out who is or is not supporting Daesh is a puzzle).

Some links:

Friday, January 8, 2016

Ukraine begins 2016 with little change

Russia's war against Ukraine continues unabated.  The Russian proxies in Donbas attack Ukrainian positions many times every night, resulting usually in the deaths of one or more Ukrainian soldiers and the injuries of others.  Not sure what they hope to achieve other than just a slow grinding down of Ukraine's willingness to fight.  Ukrainian army defends itself but is not allowed any freedom that might be interpreted as breaking the precious "Minsk Agreement".

Russian "humanitarian" convoys continue to bring supplies to the Russian proxies and they are reported as amassing heavy equipment and soldiers in a n umber of locations along the border with free Ukraine.  How people in DNR and LNR are surviving the winter is beyond me but is Russia's problem.  Almost all aid groups have been turfed out, possibly because the honest aid groups refuse to allow the war lords to profit from the distribution of relief supplies.

Frankly, I think it is time for Ukraine to issue an ultimatum to Russia: remove your equipment, your soldiers, your mercenaries and any rebels who wish to leave OR Ukraine will recognize the independence of DNR and LNR and redraw the borer without them.  They want independence; they get it. Then see what they will do with it.  As the Minsk agreement now stands, they want to be part of Ukraine under rules in which they are independent and Ukraine pays for everything.  Not likely to happen.

Ukraine is fighting back on other fronts.  The Tatar blockade of land routes to Crimea still holds and is now officially recognized.  Consumer goods other than humanitarian are not allowed into Crimea from Ukraine.  Back in November "somebody" blew a couple of transmission towers and halted electricity from Ukraine to Crimea.  It was never fully restored before the contract to supply ran out.  Ukraine insists that any contract specify that Crimea belongs to Ukraine.  Putin commissioned a telephone survey of Crimean residents and behold "143%" voted in favour of freezing in the dark rather than sign such a contract. Some electricity is provided by local generators and some by newly laid cable from Russia across the Kerch strait but the peninsula is still suffering from rolling outages. This article pretty much sums up Crimea today

Ukraine's biggest problem isn't even Russia.  It is corruption.  Some improvements have been made but most are cosmetic. Anything that even comes close to dealing with the real people involved is fought tooth and nail. For example - NO ONE has been punished for deaths on Maidan, even though there is ample evidence to do so.  No one still residing in Ukraine has been punished for the theft of billions during the Yanukovich era. New police have been trained to serve and protect but the top bosses are still the same.  Investigative reporters looking into corruption in the SBU (Ukrainian Security Forces) are roughed up and their cameras taken.  No charges laid.  The most corrupt people in the system are the Prosecutors.  A great deal of effort has gone into trying to clean up that mess.  No improvement because Proroshenko refuses to fire the Prosecutor General of Ukraine who is stonewalling everything to protect not only himself and other Prosecutors but all those who benefit from their illegal activities. The head of a political party and a strong supporter of Proroshenko's bitter rival, oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, has been arrested and held.  No one else has been arrested.

People are getting fed up, including countries and organizations who have been bailing out Ukraine. One of two things will happen.  The country will revert to form and fall back under Putin's thumb OR there will be a revolution headed by the nationalist parties and it won't be pretty.  All they lack today is a leader.  I would not blame them as after a while people stop waiting to see things change and they take it into their own hands to change it NOW.  The problem with revolutions is that they never end well.  They may start with the best of intentions on the part of all involved.  If they are violent, the violence only increases (France, Russia). Even if they are non-violent (Iran, Maidan), those looking to increase their own wealth and power always rise to the surface.

We live in interesting times.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Books I read in 2014

I read more than these but didn't keep as close track by writing in the dates I finished them so those ended up in a general heap and not on a dated list. I try for 50 books per year.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Books I read in 2015

Goodreads helps me keep track of books I have read and a place to write a review if I am so moved.  It also gives me a list of the books I have read in a given year.

Thought I had read 60 books but found a duplicate, so only 59.  I am 70% through Ann Applebaum's "Gulag: a history" but simply could not finish it in time to make the even number.  It is 1100 pages and tough reading, believe me.  Not as bad as Solzhenitsyn which I could not get past 3rd chapter but still.