Putin’s statement to Nicholas Sarkozy, “I’m going to hang Saakashvilli by the balls” is making the rounds in the news. Putin’s crude words, which he is known for, has prompted questions over how much he really detests Saak, and whether this hatred figured in how Russia dealt with the Georgian leader. Whatever Putin said or not, and if he did what it means for Kremlin policy is besides the point. The image of Saakashvilli hanging from his balls wasn’t the only image of humor in Putin and Sarkozy’s exchange.
“I am going to hang Saakashvili by the balls,” Mr Putin declared.
Mr Sarkozy thought he had misheard. “Hang him?” — he asked. “Why not?” Mr Putin replied. “The Americans hanged Saddam Hussein.”
Mr Sarkozy, using the familiar tu, tried to reason with him: “Yes but do you want to end up like [President] Bush?” Mr Putin was briefly lost for words, then said: “Ah — you have scored a point there.”
Even Saak found the incident funny. “I knew about this scene, but not all the details. It’s funny, all the same,” he said on French radio.
Putin’s “hang’em by the balls” quip reminded me of similar statement made by none other than Stalin. In a note attached to V. I. Mezhlauk’s 1930 sketch N. P. Briukhanov (above), Stalin wrote:
To the members of the PB:
For all the sins, past and present, hang Briukhanov by the balls. if the balls hold out, consider him acquitted by trial. If they do not hold, drown him in the river. I. S.
Briukhanov’s balls must have held. In April 1931, he was rehabilitated and appointed Deputy of the People’s Commissariat of Supplies. Unfortunately for him, his oppositionist past caught up with him and he was arrested in 1938. His balls, now eight years older, must not have been able to stand the tension. They snapped. Briukhanov was shot.
Both pictures come from Piggy Foxy and the Sword of the Revolution: Bolshevik Self-Portraits.
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By Sean — 10 years ago
Two of my favorite magazines, the London Review of Books and Vanity Fair, have two must read articles on Russia in their recent additions. Vanity Fair‘s annual “Green Issue” is full of amazing articles, particularly Phillippe Sands’ well researched article “The Green Light,” which exposes how White House lawyers “legalized” the use of torture.
In regard to Russia, Alex Shoumatoff’s “The Arctic Oil Rush” delves into the logic behind Russia’s scramble for the North Pole. This time, however, the rush back to the Pole isn’t solely driven by the exploratory urges of Frederick Cook or Robert Perry. The Cold Rush, as Shoumatoff calls the Arctic Great Game, is spurred by, you guested it, oil. Scientists estimate that 25 percent of the world’s remaining fossil-fuel reserves sit under the Arctic floor. Russia, the United States, Canada, and Denmark are now in a renewed effort to claim possession over the the globe’s ice cap.
But the main contribution of Shoumatoff’s article is not so much the Cold Rush, as it is how global warming is affecting the million residents of Yakutia. The capital, Yakurtsk, is a boom town, mostly because of diamond mining. In good Putinist fashion, Alrosa, the diamond company which dominates the region, is jointly state owned by the Russian and Yakutia governments. Vyacheslav Shtyrov, the president of the Republic of Sakha, is a former president of Alrosa.
Life for Yakutia’s native population is far removed from the the political and corporate machinations of Russia’s political elites. The three main ethnic groups, Eveny, Evenki, and Yukaghir, like many indigenous peoples around the world are more victims of the double pronged assault of modernity. The first is cultural. Much of their nomadic life, language and religion has been destroyed by a two century old effort of Russification and modernization. One of the oldest groups, the Yakaghir, only number 1,509 people, and only 23 of them still speak their language with fluency.
The second prong is of course global industrialization and its ecological consequences. Global warming, which most Russian scientists reject (they actually think the world is getting colder), is having detrimental effects on the two staples of the Eveny, Evenki, and Yukaghir people: reindeer herding and fur trapping. As Shoumatoff explains:
The Eveny and Evenki people (same way of life, different linguistic heritage) have been relying for centuries on reindeer (known in the Nearctic as caribou), which provide transport, food, shelter, and clothing. There are still a few thousand nomadic reindeer herders in Siberia, moving with their animals in the largest territory of any remaining traditional people. But the wild and domesticated reindeer have been experiencing massive die-offs in the spring and fall, I’m told by Eveny and Evenki activists. Reindeer eat mainly lichen, and now when the seasons change there is more rain that freezes at night, often with melted snow, into a sheet of ice that the reindeer can’t break through with their hooves, so entire herds are starving to death.
Vyacheslav Shadrin, the head of the council of Yukaghir elders, tells me that in the Upper Kolyma basin, 700 miles north of Yakutsk, where he is from, last November and December, when it is normally minus 40 degrees Celsius (also Fahrenheit—Celsius and Fahrenheit converge at 40 below), it rained. That means it was 72 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than usual. The Yukaghir are one of the oldest aboriginal peoples of Siberia. There are only 1,509 of them left, as of the last census, and only 23 who still speak the language fluently. They are a culture on the way out, unless something is done fast to keep it going.
The Upper Kolyma Yukaghir are hunters and fishermen whose main source of income is trapping sable. “Usually in one season a hunter can get 20 to 25 pelts, half of them in the middle of October, when the sables all go to their winter hunting ground,” Shadrin says. “By then the snow comes thick and the lakes are frozen and the hunters can go out to the winter routes on snowmobiles. But now it’s no longer safe to go out until mid-November, because the snowmobiles can fall through the ice, so the hunters are losing the most important month and a half for their income.
“Every year the pasture for the wild reindeer, which the Yukaghir hunt, is getting less and less because the taiga is coming up from the south,” Shadrin goes on. “Grasses, birches, and some bushes like willow are covering the lichen. And the reindeer no longer come to their traditional river crossings, which is the best place to kill them. The hunters no longer know where they are going to be, so they lose time and are less successful.
“The quantity of wolves is growing,” he says. “Before, we used to have only tundra wolves. Now we’re getting taiga wolves, too, which run in bigger packs. The wolves kill many reindeer and give trouble to the herders. So for all these reasons, both wild and domestic reindeer are disappearing. Also, geese and sea ducks have changed their migratory routes and schedules. Hunters used to wait for them where they rested at night in the beginning of June; now they don’t know what time to go. Last few years the waterfowl have been appearing in very small quantity. They must have changed their route to another river basin. Trapping polar foxes was a big part of our traditional life, but in the last 10 or 15 years there have hardly been any. No one knows why.
I recommend reading the whole article, if not the whole issue.
The London Review of Books is unsurpassed in its book reviews. They’re in depth, engaging, and well written. I eagerly await its delivery in my mailbox every fortnight. For Russia watchers, I highly recommend Lewis Siegelbaum’s “Witness Protection,” which disassembles the analytical logic of Orlando Figes’ The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia. Unfortunately, the review is only available to subscribers. Here a lengthy but key passage:
Figes’s own narrative is constructed around the idea of the family as a site of ‘human feelings and emotions’, a ‘moral sphere’ that was opposed to the ‘moral vacuum of the Stalinist regime’. The antithesis is striking but unsustainable. First, it is based on an ahistorical notion of the family. Millions of abandoned and orphaned young people roamed the cities of Russia in the early 1920s not because of Bolshevik hostility to the family but because the combination of war, revolution, civil war, penury, epidemics and famine had carried off their parents. In these historical circumstances attempts by the state to take over responsibility for functions previously associated with the family both assumed urgency and attracted widespread interest abroad. Figes is silent about them.
Second, associating the family with morality and the ‘Stalinist regime’ with its absence may give us a comfortable feeling that we are on the right side of history, but historians have a responsibility to try to explain what those alien beings from the past thought they were doing. This is not a matter of ‘tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner,’ but of granting Stalinists – yes, even Stalinists – the capacity to believe they were acting morally. Claudia Koonz entitled her book The Nazi Conscience: why is the notion of a Communist morality impermissible? Figes puts the words in inverted commas and asserts the impossibility of being ‘a Stalinist in public life’ without letting ‘the morals of the system infect personal relationships’.
There is another reason why the dichotomy cannot be sustained. From the middle of the 1930s, as Figes says, ‘the Party adopted a more liberal approach towards the family and the private home.’ If not exactly a volte-face, the ideological promotion of the family – including images of Stalin as the ‘father’ of the Soviet people and a ban on abortion – made it possible for male members of the elite to tell their wives that their place was now ‘in the home’, even while most urban families continued to live in communal apartments. The family, it turned out, was very adaptable. So adaptable that Figes can claim it ‘emerged from the years of terror as the one stable institution’, the only place where people ‘felt a sense of belonging’. I suppose many people did feel this way, but there is evidence of other customs and social institutions emerging from the years of terror, everything from the keeping of pets and the cultivation of friendship to the strengthening of ties among people from the same village or district (zemliachestvo) or the bonds forged in desperate circumstances between soldiers, workers and camp inmates. Many of Figes’s witnesses cite these new forms of association, which in some cases were a substitute for the family. Figes, though, reads into their testimony evidence of split identities. On the one hand, ‘millions’ of children bearing the ‘stigma of a tainted biography’ needed to ‘prove themselves as fully equal members of society’. On the other, they ‘could not help but feel alienated from the system that had brought such suffering on their families’. They were thus ‘constantly torn’. Figes presents this as a Manichean struggle, made all the more tragic by the capacity of the system to ‘infect’ personal relationships with its perverse morality. This evidently is what Mikhail Gefter, the Russian historian quoted here, meant by the ‘Stalinism that entered into all of us’. To adopt Stalinist ways was ‘a necessary way of silencing . . . doubts and fears’, a ‘way to make sense of . . . suffering’. The whispering of the parents thus resulted in a ‘silent and conformist population’, the ‘one lasting consequence of Stalin’s reign’.
Leaving aside the question of how to explain the Stalinism of other people, what we have here is a modified picture of the individual in a totalitarian society: not the brainwashed automatons of Cold War nightmares, but surreptitiously resisting liberals assuaging their fearfulness and shame by becoming complicit in their own and others’ victimisation. ‘It was impossible to be oneself,’ one of the interviewees says, as if such an authentic self existed. This may have been the case in some instances, but applied universally it flattens out all complexity. People were fearful not only of persecution or arrest but of being excluded from the giant project of building socialism, of being out of step with history at a time when the capitalist world appeared hellbent on destroying itself. They lived ‘in the expectation of a happy future’; they believed that ‘Soviet history was correct’; they yearned to be ‘part of an enormous “We”’.
This flattening of all complexity of life under Stalin is rendered in part though the interviewer’s lack of interest. The interviews, though rich, have moments in which the interviewee is hectored into a giving an answer that fits into the desires of the interviewer. Here is one example Siegelbaum gives:
[Figes’] assertion that, because witnesses can be cross-examined, oral testimonies are more reliable than written memoirs remains an article of faith – unless one consults the transcripts provided in the original Russian on Figes’s website, orlandofiges.com. There one can find not only cross-examination but occasionally hectoring on the part of the interviewer; or incomprehension, as in these extracts from an interview with Leonid Saltykov, the son of a priest who was shot in 1938:
Q: What did you think of Stalin in the 1930s after the arrest of your father, and in the 1940s?
A: Well, first of all, we knew little of politics, very little; second, even if my father suffered and so many others did too, we related to Stalin better than to our leaders now. He was an honest man . . .
Figes renders the passage somewhat misleadingly: ‘Yes, my father suffered, and so did many others too, but Stalin was still better than any of the leaders that we have today. He was an honest man.’ The interviewer continues:
Q: So it didn’t occur to you that the country’s repressive policy was mainly at Stalin’s initiative? That your father suffered because of Stalin, such thoughts didn’t arise?
A: We weren’t given to such philosophising. First, throughout the country factories and roads were being built. Practically every year Stalin was lowering prices, bread arrived and there was no more hunger, we could buy things . . .
After Saltykov has explained that he didn’t learn of his father’s execution and posthumous rehabilitation until 1962, the interviewer asks at what point he changed his opinion of Stalin:
A: Well, we felt that under him there was more order, although granted, he was guilty of many things.
Q: But I’m asking when did you start to feel that he was guilty?
A: [Sighs deeply. Begins to speak very emotionally] I will tell you something else. A lot of people are saying on the contrary that if Stalin were around now there would be order, more order . . .
Saltykov then starts talking about the way Stalin related to his own children, is interrupted, and gets onto the subject of the army. Again he is interrupted and asked about his own family: ‘A: We did our work, we fulfilled our duty as people, we fulfilled . . .’ Although Saltykov had more to say, the transcript indicates that ‘no substantive information’ was forthcoming. The interviewer tries one last time:
Q: So, throughout your entire life, when you were working in the 1960s and 1970s, it never occurred to you to be sceptical about the Soviet system?
A: No. Now there are few hard workers like those with whom I worked, whom I directed, and who when we meet will always say: ‘Oh, Leonid Konstantinovich, how well we worked with you.’ They trusted me and I trusted them.
Again, ‘no substantive information followed.’ This is a good example of the trickiness of oral history: it all depends on what one is looking for. Figes speaks of ‘nostalgia’, noting (twice) that Saltykov kept a picture of Stalin on his desk right up until his retirement. What seems to be difficult for him and the interviewer to accept is that Saltykov’s identity as a hard and successful worker, an identity intimately and inextricably tied up with that of his country, may have nothing to do with the victimisation of his father and his own ‘spoilt biography’. Whether it should or should not is another matter.
And such is the analytical challenge for understanding Stalinism. To sidestep its horrors is an injustice not just to its victims, but to humanity. But to reduce all life under Stalin to terror fails to understand the often contradictory complexity the human condition. A balance must be struck if we are ever able to understand Stalinism as a period where happiness and horror often existed as concomitant experiences within the individual.Post Views: 444
By Sean — 9 years ago
Lewis Siegelbaum has a cover interview with Rorotoko for his recent book Cars for Comrades. I didn’t know about this interview until I received an email from Cornell University Press’ Publicity Manager. I should note, however, posting a blurb about Siegelbaum’s interview isn’t purely out of disinterest. He’s on my dissertation committee and bringing attention to his book is the least I can do to thank him for his quick and gracious reading. Plus Cars for Comrades is a book worth mentioning regardless of my relationship with him. For car lovers it tells a story virtually unknown in the West. For lovers of Russian history, it adds to our knowledge of Soviet culture and consumerism through something we in the United States take completely for granted: the car.
Cars for Comrades also provides some historical context to accompany all the recent articles decrying the state of Russia’s roads and how Russia leads European countries in road fatalities. This past few weeks have been particularly bad for the Russian driver and passenger. According to Pravda.ru, 592 people died in accidents between July 20 to 26 alone. Between 30,000 and 35,000 people die in car accidents in Russia a year. The spate of red asphalt over the last few weeks put this year’s total over 10,000. Even President Medvedev commented on the state of Russia’s road system. “We can’t bury so many people because our traffic system is organized like this,” he said on the Kremlin’s website.
Then there is the current status of the Russian car industry as symbolized by last year’s protests in the Far East against new car import taxes. Not to mention many union struggles, assembly line closures, mandatory furloughs, layoffs occurring the Russian car industry. All of this makes the upcoming protest by AvtoVAZ workers against the indefinite closure of their auto plant, and their possible firing, worth paying attention to.
But Siegelbaum’s book is not a treatise on road fatalities or the class struggles within the Soviet auto industry. As he explains to Rorotoko:
I set out to write a book not so much about the varieties and comparative deficiencies of cars in the Soviet Union as what these objects meant to Soviet citizens. The structure and organizing principles of the book were among the first things to become clear. There would be three chapters on the “Soviet Detroits” – the places where automobiles were built, the people who built them, and how the cars and trucks they produced both embodied the state’s agendas and inspired popular identification.
I settled on Moscow’s AMO factory (later known as ZIS and still later ZIL) from where the first Soviet-made motor vehicles emanated in 1924; the Gor’kii Automobile Factory (GAZ) that began turning out Model A cars and trucks in the 1930s and later the Pobeda, Volga, and Chaika; and AvtoVAZ, the giant factory built on the banks of the Volga in the late 1960s and early 1970s to produce the Zhiguli, or as it became known abroad, the Lada.
These chapters would be followed by one on roads and their construction, the forms of labor relied upon to build and maintain them, and other dimensions of the struggle against “roadlessness.” The final two chapters would tell the story of how Soviet citizens experienced trucks and cars in their daily lives, how Communist ideology eventually accommodated the private automobile, but why cars required a lot of semi-legal or illegal activity to keep them on the road.
The book is structured around three axes: foreign and domestic, public and private, and continuity and change.
Contrary to Cold War-era assertions, the Soviet automobile industry was neither entirely dependent on nor completely autonomous from western technological developments. It did a lot of copying, mixing and matching, and innovating on the fly. In the 1930s, Soviet highway design and construction emulated Fascist Italy’s autostradas and Nazi Germany’s autobahns but for better or for worse otherwise depended on indigenous inspiration and approaches. Foreign trucks and cars – the pre-revolutionary playthings of the aristocracy, the “Renochka” that the revolutionary poet Vladimir Maiakovskii bought as a gift for his mistress, the legendary Lend Lease Studebakers, the trophy cars that Red Army officers brought back from defeated Germany, Detroit’s finest on display at the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow – were icons of a world few Soviet citizens had seen. Yet, Soviet citizens took pride in “their own” luxury models (ZIS and ZIL limousines, Chaikas, etc.), thrilled to accounts of auto races and rallies in which Soviet drivers heroically overcame obstacles, and for the most part leapt at the opportunity to acquire even the most modest of Soviet models.
Actually, even the state’s property – trucks and, until the 1970s, the vast majority of cars – often was appropriated for private or personal purposes by drivers and officials in need of wheels. With the proliferation of privately owned cars in the 1970s and 80s, owners appropriated state supplies of parts and gasoline too. The mutuality of such relationships and the hybridity of forms they produced meant that occasional ruptures in the life of the Soviet automobile did not prevent the emergence over the long haul of a Soviet “automobility.” Many of its features survived the collapse of the USSR itself.
The book’s main argument is that the Soviet automobile had to adapt to Soviet circumstances as much as it provoked adaptation. If the particularities of Soviet socialism can better inform us about the history of cars and trucks, then the Soviet automobile can help teach us about Soviet socialism.
Soviet socialism via the Soviet automobile. Hey, we evaluate America through the car, so why not?Post Views: 362
By Sean — 9 years ago
Prime Minister Putin continued his annual Q&A with the Russian people on Thursday. A full English transcript is now available on Putin’s website. Russia watchers have already began combing through his words, interpreting their significance, and assessing their political resonance. As most reports emphasize, Putin spoke at length about the economic crisis assuring Russians that things will get bad but the nation will weather the storm. It’s not surprising that the PM’s comments focused on the economy. Issues like unemployment, inflation, benefits and pensions were naturally what concerned most people.
Russians were eager to pose questions to the PM, or as a caller named Dasha Varfolomeeva called him, “Uncle Volodya.” About 2.2 million flooded in via phones, text messages, and the Internet. At times it appeared the studio was barely handling the deluge. At one point, Maria Sittel, the event’s co-host said, “The load is tremendous, Mr Mackevicius. No time for rest. I think we have crossed an important psychological barrier: 2.2 million communications, including 1.5 million telephone calls and just over 600,000 text messages. The rest is from the Internet.” Putin may not be president, but he certainly is “the father of the nation.”
This idea of Putin as “father” or even “uncle” to the masses is certainly not a new political idea for Russia. Direct communication with the Father, whether it be the Tsar, General Secretary, President or Prime Minister has been a dynamic between leader and people for centuries. Normally, the distance between leader and led is vast, giving the opportunity to be in the leader’s proximity a momentary but significant symbiotic relation. Here I find myself in agreement with Masha Lipman’s explanation of this event:
“[It] emphasizes the paternalistic nature of the regime. It is a style of government in which the most important thing is the rapport between the top decision-taker and the people. Many of those questions were local or even individual. And people have their own legislators. They have federal legislators they voted for, they have their own governors and yet there is this sense that maybe the only way to get a problem solved is to get through to the supreme authority.”
Putin’s Q&A does say a lot of about the personalized nature of the regime, but it also says that Russians themselves recognize this as an effective means to get problems solved. For example, the Financial Times notes,
From the southern city of Nizhny Novgorod, a mother called to complain that a subsidised baby food clinic had been closed. Half an hour after the show, the governor of the province announced the miraculous resolution of the problem.
The Tsar + people against the boyars dynamic continues to function. The interests of the leader are sublimated into the people so that for one brief moment they embody the sovereign body of Putin. When looked at closely, the whole exercise exerts an air of the carnivalesque.
The notion of proximity between leader and lead is further seen in how so many Russians crafted their questions. Not only did they address subjects as wide ranging as Christmas trees and pedophiles, how callers crafted their questions says volumes about the language of appeal. The questions were often personal and callers were quick to give Putin a short autobiographical note mixed with a political statement. For example,
Good afternoon, Mr Putin. My name is Oksana Klimova. I’d like to express the pain of many people who live in the Far East. We feel detached from central Russia, since many families cannot buy train or air tickets, because air tickets cost around 30,000 rubles or even more. My kid asked me if we could go to St Petersburg for winter holidays, but I said No.
What will be done for the healthcare and education professionals to help them afford such luxury?
Good afternoon, Mr Putin. My name is Olga Savelyeva.
I am a single mother. My daughter is 16. She studies in the 11th grade, this is her final year. I work at the radio-electronics plant, the Kontakt plant with billions in sales. These days, they have announced layoffs because of the crisis. Out of its 4,000 workers, 1,500 will be dismissed. I have worked as a production engineer for more than 20 years, and my salary grew from 6,000 to 8,000 rubles, but now it is being reduced. I am afraid I may lose my job.
Mr Putin, how will you deal with massive unemployment?
As someone who has read a number of appeals to leaders during the Soviet period, I’m struck by their narratological similarities. Often letters to power began with an autobiographical introduction of some sort. Since those appeals were written, the authors tended detail their life in greater depth than those fielded by Putin. Citizens’ requests from the early Soviet period also had a similar individual tone. I have letters to Komsomol General Secretary N. Chaplin asking for advice on marriage, employment, money, and other forms of assistance. Sometimes people got results. On some letters to Stalin, one can see his marginal notes directing the appeal to the appropriate authority. In other cases, letters of complaint and denunciation opened up investigations of local officials.
Finally, I think the most interesting part of the Q&A was the final part when Putin took short questions and at many points took personal responsibility for their resolution. Here are a few examples:
“I have eight children, my eldest daughter is 20. I have not received the Order of Maternal Glory, and, hence, I don’t get the benefits.”
It goes without saying I will check on this. I can’t comment on this particular case now, but this mistake should be corrected. I hope you’ve left your address here. We will find you.
“Dear Mr Putin, I found my father’s grave killed during WWII on the Internet.” The man asks to help with restoring the monument, which the local budget cannot afford.
We shall contact you. This is a sacred duty of local and regional authorities alike. If they do not have enough money, I would stress that the matter implies not only money but also morals. We shall help if they cannot afford such things, but I don’t think this is a matter where thrift should come in to play.
“We have no school and no art or knitting classes near our home. The children hope you will help.”
This is also a matter of regional scope, but we shall help, as the message has reached me. We shall certainly help.
“My request concerns my son, who will be conscripted next autumn. He dreams of serving in the Kremlin Regiment.”
Good boy! It’s great that he wants to go into the army. As for the Kremlin Regiment, it has certain qualifications. I will pass your message along to the Federal Guard Service, and I believe its chiefs will do something for you.
Whether Putin actually comes through on these is immaterial. What is important is that he acknowledged people’s individual voices in a very public forum. In the big political sense, that recognition is more important as any results.Post Views: 411