My flight back to
Ilya, my driver from Sheremetevo to my apartment, was a friendly guy. A bit obsessed with cars, though. I spent the whole one and a half hour ride listening to his various takes on cars. He’s a big Nissan fan (he claimed that he was buying a new one next week), and thought BMW and Mecedes were good in band only, while the cars themselves were shit. When I asked him if Russian cars had any merit, he went on a rant on how they were total shit. When I jokingly suggested that perhaps Russian car companies might disappear in ten years, he added that this would be a good thing.
Yes, cars are the shit in
To really experience the congestion and to know makes traffic in
Pimp My Ride just came on Russian MTV. “Pimp my ride” in Russian is pronounced “Tachka na prokachu.” There is nothing special about the Russian version, except that it is apparently really popular.. It is just the regular Pimp My Ride dubbed in Russian. The Russians just aren’t as inventive as say the Germans, who have their own version of the show, but it’s called Pimp My Bike. Makes sense since few German youths have cars.
Tonight I’m having dinner with a friend from
Speaking of Foucault, the conservative online newsletter Human Events just published its “10 Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries.” Foucault’s Madness and Civilization only got an honorable dangerous mention. The 10 Most Harmful Books according to Human Events are:
10. John Maynard Keynes, General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, 1936.
9. Freidrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 1886.
8. Auguste Comte, The Course of Positive Philosophy, 1830-1842.
7. Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, 1963
6. Karl Marx, Das Kapital, 1867-1894.
5. John Dewey, Democracy and Education, 1916.
4. Alfred Kinsey, The Kinsey Report, 1948.
3. Mao Zedong, Quotations from Chairman Mao, 1966.
2. Aldoph Hitler, Mein Kampf, 1925.
And the number one most harmful book of the 19th and 20th century is:
1. Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto, 1848.
Not bad for a newsletter that features the rhetorical Manichaeism of Anne Coulter and the conservative crust of Robert Novak. Not surprising either. Notice how if you remove Hitler’s Mein Kampf, all the books deal with liberalism, sex, feminism, or anti-capitalism. It is clear that Nietzsche only makes the list because of the Nazi “affinity” for his philosophy. To think that such reductions of great thinkers of the modern era would be old hat by now.
The list makes me wonder about a few things. First, why include Hitler at all. Given the general trend of the list, it makes me wonder why give das Fuehrer a shout out at all? Clearly the conservative scholars and right wing think tank fellows think that Hitler is just a token evil compared to the real evil words of Karl Marx, Alfred Kinsey, Betty Friedan, and John Dewey. I think Hitler is listed more because to not do so would make the whole list a complete joke. The truth is when tabulating texts that harm, Adolph bring credibility. The fact remains however, that Marx only wrote books and Hitler wrote a book and started a world war, invaded and occupied several countries, and, and was directly responsible for the extermination of 8 million Jews, Slavs, Romi, mentally ill, homosexuals, and others. By placing the Communist Manifesto over Mein Kampf is to suggest that Marx’s text is more horrible that Hitler.
As I wrote that last line I can already hear the conservative response. Yeah Hitler was responsible for a lot of people’s deaths, but compared to killings inspired by Marx’s writings, Hitler pales in comparison. Hence Hitler’s second most harmful and Marx is first. Okay even if I buy this argument, my point isn’t about rehabilitating Marx and further demonizing Hitler anyway. Let’s remove Hitler and Marx from the equation. How the hell can you explain the presence of figures such as Alfred Kinsey, Betty Freidan, Auguste Comte, Jonh Dewey, and John Maynard Keynes? (I leave Mao and Nietzsche out purposely because they can be collapsed into one point for Marx’s team and one point for Hitler’s)? Clearly their sins are liberalism in economics, education, thought, sex, gender. I think that their real ire is not so much directed against the radical left or right, but at the five liberal texts that standout as a bit strange and, frankly, paranoid of the perceived specter that is haunting our present existence: the specter of liberalism.
Alright already. To my utter surprise, many people have asked me why I haven’t posted anything to this blog in a while. I have no real excuse besides the proverbial laziness. Sometimes it is difficult to come up with things to write. Often it is more difficult to actually put things into writing. So here is a promise to my ever so concerned readers (which btw are all friends): I hereby promise that I will be more consistent in my postings.
I have a few things planned for this blog. Not only will I continue posting about my happenings in Russland; I will try to speak a more about my personal (mis)adventures. I also plan on continuing this blog after I return to the US of A in September. I figured the blogging thing has become such a trend that I might as well hop on the bandwagon. I personally find the whole blogging thing fascinating and I will probably comment more on blogging as a phenomenon in the future.
As you can see to your right, I’ve begun listing links to various things. Most are news sources and journals on a leftist nature as well as a few noteworthy blogs. I especially recommend Professor Juan Cole’s Informed Comment and Dahr Jamail’s Iraq Dispatches for news and analysis on the Iraq War. If you are into sex columns and are hankerin’ for some advice, I highly recommend Dan Savage’s Savage Love.
For those readers who can read Russian, I point your mouse to Neprikosnovennyi zapas, a hip Russian political and cultural journal. There is a limited English portion. I encourage all you other non-Russian readers to check it out.
I will expand the link list over time so keep an eye on any changes.
I don’t have much more to say now except thanks for reading and keep reading!
“At least under the Communists I wasn’t hungry.”
—Zoya Ivanova, 73, pensioner, protester, (Moscow Times, Jan. 25, 2005)
It has been a year of colored revolutions in the former Soviet Union, and many pundits and experts are speculating whether Russia might get its own. For the last two weeks pensioners have been protesting across Russia, from St. Petersburg in the northwest to Khabarovsk in the Far East. These are the largest protests in Russia since the coal miner strikes in 1998. Vladimir Putin’s uncontested dominance over Russian politics suddenly looks like it stands on shifting sands. The issue: a new law that went into effect January 1 that stripped pensioners, servicemen, WWII veterans, victims of Stalinist repression, Chernobyl victims, and the disabled of their in-kind benefits for cash payments. In-kind benefits of free public transportation, medicine, reduced rents, and other state subsidized services were a hold out from the Soviet system. The Putin Administration decided to celebrate the New Year by removing all of these benefits in exchange for an increased monthly cash payment of 200 rubles ($6). The result: the possible emergence of Russia’s Grey Revolution.
Even in the wake of Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution” the protests caught everyone by surprise. After all, for the last few months experts routinely denied any such thing occurring in Russia. Putin had too much control, was too popular, and the Russian electorate was too passive. Moreover, as many Western pundits like to explain the Putin phenomenon, Russians are “naturally” tuned into the authoritarian personality. Its logic speaks to them in simple language. Despite the fact that Russia has experienced three revolutions in 100 years seems to escape most, though this is not to suggest the pensioner uprising will result in anything of the sort. Not even in the year that marks the 100th anniversary of the 1905 Revolution.
Not even the most opportunistic anti-Russia pundits have jumped on the opportunity to spit venom on the Putin regime like they did in the Yushchenko affair. No Western foundations are pouring funds into any “pensioner” or youth organizations. No Western campaign strategists have arrived to coordinate the pensioner campaign. Even William Safire has yet to write a column declaring that “democracy was on the march” in Russia.
Perhaps “democracy” isn’t on the march according to Western pundits because pensioners are doing exactly what their brethren in the U.S. should be doing: flooding the streets against the Bush Administration’s swindle of social security privatization. Yet, we Americans are the more democratic nation, while the Russians are perfectly comfortable living with what their government dishes out. But the silence from the American Right is understandable. The whole pensioners’ revolt probably has their pro-market and anti-Russia personalities waging their own subconscious civil war. But, they are not the only ones that seem dumbfounded. These protests seem abnormal even to well intentioned journalists, like Fred Weir. “What’s astonishing,” he wrote in the Christian Science Monitor, “is that this is the generation that grew up under Stalin. The idea that someone who fought on the Russian and Polish fronts during World War II would now confront the Russian police is remarkable. You expect the post-Soviet generation, like the students in the Ukraine, to behave this way. But this is the first time we’ve seen such widespread demonstrations in the Putin era, and I certainly didn’t expect to see pensioners to be leading it.” Apparently, such actions are unfathomable to the pre-Soviet generation, who were thoroughly atomized by Soviet totalitarianism.
Many instances during the Soviet period could be cited to the contrary, but I will only point to one. These protests are not so remarkable if you consider the historical phenomena of “babi bunty.” In 1930, civil war loomed over the Russian countryside. The violence of collectivization was met with peasant uprisings, rumors of apocalypse, bands of peasants slaughtering any Communist they could find, and something called “babi bunty”, or “women’s riots.” In many cases, special military detachments of the NKVD (the then secret police) were sent to quell the uprisings. According to Historian Lynne Viola, in an article published almost twenty years ago, “babi bunty” were when women “physically blocked the carrying away of requisitioned grain or the entrances to huts of peasants scheduled to be exiled as kulaks, and forcibly took back seed and livestock, and led assaults on officials.” “Babi bunty” were tactical masterpieces because they played on the regimes own prejudices toward peasants. Since these “riots” were led by women, Soviet officials viewed them as expressions of the “dark masses” and tended to let them run out of steam rather than crush them with violence. Peasant men, knowing they would be thoroughly crushed if they participated from the get go, could join the protests by claiming they were “protecting” their wives and daughters. So much for that totalitarian atomization.
One can’t help view the current protests of the elderly as a contemporary echo of the “babi bunty.” Pensioners around Russia have spontaneously blocked intersections in the towns of Penza, Vladimir, Samara among others. In the Moscow suburb of Khimki, they stopped commuter traffic on the Leningrad Highway for two hours. Russian TV news show images of old people chastising local politicians and crowd the entrances of government buildings only to be held back by walls of police. (Ironically, the police themselves also lost their transportation benefits at the start of the year.) Veterans in Petersburg greet the year of the 60th anniversary of the Soviet defeat of the Nazis with signs that read: “Putin is worse than Hitler!” and “No to Genocide!” For people who survived WWII and the 900 day blockade of Leningrad, not only can these actions punch holes in Putin omnipotence, it shows that they aren’t going to be deterred with idle threats or cheated with verbal promises.
To free market reformers, the monetization of benefits was a long time coming. The in-kind benefits were yet another moribund legacy of the former system. Monetization would give the government flexibility that marketization had longed for: cash payments, unlike their in-kind variant, can be streamlined, more closely monitored in the government books, and slowly whittled down. Nothing indicates this more than the fact that the Kremlin only allocated $6 billion to cover $18 billion in benefits. Moreover, the center has shifted the majority of the pension payment to its provinces. As the law went into effect, two-thirds of Russia’s provinces could not afford to make the cash payments. Some opted out of implementing the law altogether, citing a provision that allowed cash strapped provincial governments to do so.
The unpopularity of the monetization law was well known before January 1, yet the Putin government decided to strip all in-kind benefits in one fail swoop. Some 40 million Russians (out of a population of 144 million) were affected. In St. Petersburg, where 15,000 protested, one out of four residents are pensioners. Interestingly, Moscow residents are exempt from the law. Pensioners in the capital retain full in-kind benefits. Perhaps this “exemption” is the reason why the Putin government is still standing.
The outrage over the law goes beyond the fact that compensation does not cover the costs of lost benefits. For residents of Moscow’s environs, free public transportation allowed many to travel to the capital to earn extra money. The entrances to the Moscow Metro are frequently occupied by old women selling trinkets, fruits, vegetables, nuts, clothing, and prepared salads to earn a few extra rubles. Now with the costs of transportation added to their expenses, whatever is earned is quickly siphoned away. Cash payments only cover about 20 one-way trips a month. To make matters worse a Metro ticket in Moscow was increased from 10 to 13 rubles ($.50) and a bus ticket from 10 to 11 rubles ($.30) on the New Year. Not only has Putin alienated the pensioners, who were a large portion of his political support, the law also strips servicemen of free travel. Reports indicate that the rank and file have been grumbling increasing concern that the soldiers might join the elderly.
Protesting old women plus angry soldiers makes the specter of February 1917, not to mention Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution,” haunt Russian pundits’ analysis and predictions. The more outlandish experts predict (or perhaps hope for) Putin’s demise before his presidency ends in 2008. Others, especially those tied to the liberal Yabloko Party, hope that this will spur the creation of a much desired “civil society.” While still others issue idle threats such as that from Duma Deputy Andrei Isayev, who promised harsh punishment to “those who seek to carry the orange illness to Russia.”
Such threats have done nothing to deter the elderly and the forces that now support them. There have been reports of the elderly attacking bus and train conductors. An anti-Putin student group called Marching Without Putin (a play on the pro-Putin group Marching Together) has emerged in St. Petersburg to protest not only the abolition of benefits, but also the Chechen War and the government’s plan to eliminate student exemptions from military service. A dozen WWII veterans who participated in the Khimki protest are to be prosecuted. The Christian Science Monitor reports that some pensioners claim the police have used dogs and beat them.
Even Russia’s political opposition of Communists, Nationalists, and Liberals has decided to step into the fray, as they did after the protests took down the Tsar in February 1917. Unfortunately, Marx’s remark that history occurs the “first time as tragedy, the second time as farce” rings true in this situation. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation’s attempt to wrest control of the protests has only injected it with hyperbole that is usually reserved for Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Communist Party leader Gennadiy Zyuganov declared on radio station Echo Moskvy: “We demand that this government be sacked, it couldn’t cope with Beslan, it still hasn’t managed to cope with it, and now it has created a quiet social Beslan here, in a country in which citizens are dying by the million, now they are putting this plastic bag over the heads of all the veterans.” The Communists are also collecting support to hold a no confidence vote in the Duma. Not to be outdone, five members of the Motherland Party, who until now supported Putin, have declared a hunger strike. All the opposition parties, who ironically formed an anti-Putin coalition a few weeks ago, are vowing to stage a day of mass protest in February.
Putin has made the typical response: blame subordinates and make compromises to defuse the situation. After coming out of silence last week, he immediately blamed the provincial governments and his lower functionaries for not implementing the law correctly. He also declared an increase in payments from the measly $3.57 scheduled for April, to an equally measly $7.14 now to begin in March. Also pensions would be pegged to inflation two months earlier.
The Putin government has since bended further. Free transportation has been reinstated, though only for those pensioners on the federal list. Although this is a great victory, the central government has stated it will only finance 30% of the costs, once again leaving the provinces in yet another bind. The Kremlin also announced it will fund any pension short fall with oil receipts from the recently nationalized Yukos. The government has also backed away from plans to eliminate student exemptions from military service, fearing that students might join the pensioners. Finally, the Russian Minster of Finance, Aleksei Kudrin, has assured citizens that the benefit payments would be pegged above inflation and all disbursement mistakes would be solved by the end of the month. Regional governments in Liptesk and Omsk, for example, have paid the cash payments and reinstated the majority of benefits. Despite these concessions pensioners persist, knowing full well that what the Russian government says and what it does are always two different things.
Should we be even surprised that the Russian government has made some compromises? Not really. No, because even Stalin compromised. Most historians recognize Stalin’s March 1930 speech “Dizziness with Success” as a retreat from full throttle collectivization. Collectivization remained but not without some permanent compromises: peasants were allowed private plots, domestic livestock, and limited direct access to markets. Viola argues that “babi bunty” played an important role in forcing these compromises. Peasant women didn’t back down from Stalin, so there is no reason to think Russian pensioners would let Putin run roughshod over them. One therefore shouldn’t be surprised by pensioners’ willingness to take to the streets or success in gaining some victories. For all we know, some of these pensioners’ mothers could have been participants in “babi bunty” or maybe they grew up with the folklore that now surrounds them. If not, they survived WWII, and anyone who thinks these people are going to let the State push them around, let alone the Russian police, then you haven’t been to Russia.
Democracy or something like it rules in the Ukraine. The tenacious efforts of hundreds of thousands Viktor Yushchenko supporters have paid off in another runoff presidential election scheduled for December 26. In an unprecedented ruling the Ukrainian Supreme Court nullified the election that named Viktor Yanukovich the winner by a mere 3 percentage points and by about 800,000 votes. The standoff sparked an international tug of war between Washington and Moscow over the legitimacy of the elections. Putin, who favored Yanukovich, quickly sent his congratulations, while outgoing Secretary of State Colin Powell publicly declared the results “unacceptable.” President Bush gave a more moderated statement that his administration was watching the process closely. In all, for about two weeks Ukraine, a state of about 80 million, about the size of Texas, and has only been independent from the Russian yoke for 13 years, was on the world stage.
Already Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution” is getting top billing as one of the most significant developments in the former Soviet Union over the last decade. And in retrospect, there is no doubt Russian specialists in the United States will place it within the pantheon of other “colored,” that is peaceful, “democratic”, pro-free market, and most importantly, pro-Western, revolutions of Eastern and Central Europe. The way many Western commentators are narrating the events of the Ukraine, you would think the Cold War was won all over again. Take for example, the weekend edition of the Moscow Times (an free English language newspaper here in Moscow), where a columnist from Agence France Presse likened Putin’s opposition as stamping “the big paw of Russia’s authority and influence in the former Soviet Republic.” The NY Times, for example, wrote that a resolution to Ukraine’s crisis was “especially incumbent on President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who, apparently forgetting that he’s no longer in the K.G.B., has been trying to ram last month’s fraudulent election results down the country’s throat.” I wish they would write something this forceful about Bush. Other headlines called Putin’s support for the pro-Russian Yanukovich his “biggest blunder” and his “Ukrainian dilemma.” Longtime Washington Post correspondent Michael McFaul wrote a long piece in the Weekly Standard, the neo-con equivalent of Bolshevik Party’s Pravda, declaring that Putin gambled and lost big and that his position on Ukraine should give Bush second thoughts on his relationship with Pootty-poot. It is hard not to read too much bravado in such swill. All I can say is, hey Condi, if you’re listening, Michael McFaul is looking for a job in the State Department. Such analyses could also be nostalgia on the part of the McFauls of the world for an enemy that you could locate on a map instead of the amorphous international terrorist network.
Whether the triumph of Yushchenko will actually mean a blow to Putin’s political capital is mere speculation. The reality is that whoever leads Ukraine cannot exactly ignore its Slavic big brother to the east. If anything, the situation in the Ukraine should make Putin more apprehensive and hard-line in reinforcing Russia’s sphere of influence. It should make him question his relationship with Bush. After all, it’s not Putin who is placing Russian military bases in and wooing America’s neighbors into a military alliance. Nor was it Putin who suggested the Bush Administration negotiate with Al-Qaeda after September 11, though the Bush Administration made such suggestions after Beslan. I can only imagine how the Bush Administration would act if such a situation happened in Mexico, and say the Chinese government made similar statements that Colin Powell made. What’s clear, is that many politicians, diplomats, pundits and experts still see the world as a bi-polar struggle between East and West. Despite the Bush Administration’s attempts to recast this global binary in religious-ethnic terms under the euphemistic “War on Terrorism,” Russia still remains that ambiguous midpoint that cannot be fully trusted. Russia continues to be almost Western, but not quite.
This is no defense on my part of Putin’s actions or policies. It is just to suggest how the narrative of the “Orange Revolution” is being written in the West. Nor is it to suggest that the situation in the Ukraine was not a triumph for Ukrainian democracy. It was, but not because Yushchenko will be any better than Yanukovich, but because the Ukrainian people stood up and stood firm against clear election violations. And election fraud there was. The Moscow Times reported on December 1 that the Ukrainian Central Elections Commission reported that there was a 9.1% voter surge in regions that supported Yanukovich. In Donetsk, one of the regions that threatened to succeed, voter turnout was up 18.6% to remarkable 96.7%! To think 96.2% of them voted for Yanukovich (Did they think that the 0.5% was going to be convincing?). An estimated total of 1.7 million votes were added by Yanukovich’s people. And Kathleen Harris and Jeb Bush thought they were good at rigging elections.
No, this was certainly a great victory for the Ukrainian people, though to call it a “revolution” is to engage in all sorts of Western hyperbole and self righteousness. As most level headed experts have noted, the difference between Yushchenko and Yanukovich is about as big as between Bush and Kerry. There is no indication that there will be any sweeping changes to the Ukrainian system. Nor is there any real indication that Yushchenko will risk poor relations for Russia in exchange for EU or NATO membership. Given the corrupt bastard that Yushchenko apparently is, there is no indication that anything will change. That is unless, of course, the protests in Kiev have really reinvigorated, if not revolutionized democracy from below. The people now have a sense of their power. As Misha Kolodiy, a brightly, orange haired Ukrainian 20-year-old, put it to the Associated Press, “It’s very cool to be Ukrainian now.” Yep, cooler than Jesus. Its seems there is a possibility that the forces Yushchenko unleashed to catapult him into power might force him make some compromise to the masses, who, it seems supported him because he isn’t Yanukovich.
The power of the Ukrainian protests seems to have been forgotten in the effort to narrate the “Orange Revolution” as yet another triumph for the Western values, as grave mistake on Putin’s part, and as the Cold War reborn. This is even true, and somewhat surprising, among the American Left. One would think that the successful protests in the Ukraine would be a shining example of the global power of slogans like “Power to the People!” and “Who’s streets! Our streets!” And perhaps there was some of this, but it was overshadowed by a mourning of the death of democracy in America. This is seen in the fact that most left commentators framed the Ukraine as the United States’ democratic Other onto which they could project all their hopes and dreams for a popular movement to raise similar questions about our recent Presidential election. The similarities of which, I noted a few blogs ago. Unfortunately, when the American Left held up the Ukrainian mirror and struggled to see their reflection cast in a Ukrainian key, all they got back was an atrophied visage, withering further despite recent calls against despair and for organizing and struggle. Perhaps the real blow came to the American left, when they realized that last week marked five years since the glorious Battle in Seattle, where anti-globalization activists facilitated the collapse of World Trade Organization talks. Yet this deeper irony, that five years after Seattle the American Left seems weaker than ever before, seems to have escaped many.
Instead, the Ukrainian elections and protests were harnessed as yet another opportunity to damn Bush. While I don’t disagree with this in principle—such incidents of Bush’s hypocrisy are just too good to pass up—the effort to cast US involvement in Ukraine as some sort of omnipotent force misses the fact that hundreds of thousands of people were on the streets longer and in worse conditions than any American Leftist, perhaps even including your humble writer, would ever spend. Many Leftists jumped on the article in the London Guardian that noted the presence of groups such as the Soros Foundation (hey didn’t he also bankroll MoveOn.org?), the National Endowment for Democracy, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Freedom House in Yushchenko’s camp after he got the United States’ public support. The masses in the streets were frequently portrayed as completely manipulated by the mystical powers of advertising, campaign spin, focus groups, and other nefarious American electoral mainstays. Ironically, the Left analysis sounded a lot like Putin’s camp, except they never made the connection between Yushchenko’s wife and her service in the Reagan Administration. Hell, even my khoziaka, Natasha, came home from work one evening and accused the US of being a hibernating snake. When you get it close to your warm body, it suddenly awakens and bites you.
Yet again the Left analysis was narrated in terms of two dueling states, the US and Russia, for little young Ukraine’s affection. US neo-imperialism with all its arms sales, IMF loans, WTO membership, and World Bank projects, seeped into the scene only to manipulate the poor Ukrainians who are too inexperienced to understand democracy. For example, Gary Leupp’s article, “Poll Results Aren’t the Real Issue: Ukraine and Inter-Imperialist Rivalry” on Counterpunch.org portrayed the Ukrainian crisis as imperialist rivalry and that the Ukraine was part of the US larger campaign to get control of Central Asian oil. A Yushchenko victory would open the possibility of Ukraine opening oil deals with its Caucausian neighbors to bypass Russia. Leupp then went on to place Ukrainian “democracy” in a Cold War context with a reference to Henry Kissenger’s statement about “irresponsible democracy” in Chile after that nation elected the soft Marxist Salvador Allende in 1973. Now I don’t disagree with the gist of Leupp’s article. However, there is no need to overdetermine US power. Plus all of this is predicated upon Yushchenko doing the bidding of his western masters at the risk of pissing off Putin. Overall, the narcissism of the American Left analysis where all roads go through Washington is almost too much to bare. It seems that according to the Leftist view, Ukrainians are almost democratic, but not quite.
I would suggest that even if Yushchenko was bankrolled by the West, his victory is a good thing. Not because he will be in power, but because of the means he came to power. The fact that hundreds of thousands of people were on the streets for days to challenge the electoral system, and not leaving until something was done, is a positive development. We don’t know how much this really galvanized the political grassroots of Ukrainian society, partially because no one has bothered to report on it. Moreover it is one of the few times mass protest actually worked. If American Leftists want to learn something, perhaps they should take a gander at how their Ukrainian comrades did it. What was it about this election that made some many people get personally involved? How were these protests organized and sustained? How much pressure did they put on the Ukrainian government? What was the binding ideology? Was it Yushchenko or something else? How did it sustain its peacefulness? What happened to the police?
Perhaps more important is not what Western organizations came to Yushchenko’s aid, but how and why? Would this have occurred if they didn’t? What exactly was their role? Is this really an inter-imperialist rivalry or the Cold War revisited as the pundits would have us believe or is this how democratic “revolutions” now occur? What exactly is the local context of the Ukraine and how it tied to the global?
I don’t have the answers to these questions. But I certainly will be looking for them in the coming weeks and months.
According to one article in the London Independent, after Yushchenko got the nod from Western governments, cash flooded into his supporting organizations. This money seems to come from a variety of government and non-government organizations set on promoting “democracy” in the East. These same groups also bankrolled the exit polls that named Yushchenko the winner. Putin, never one to be outdone, has apparently inaugurated a similar phenomenon with Russian cash flowing to prop up Yanukovich. Anyway you look at it, I think the article’s suggestion that a “postmodern coup d’etat” is taking place in the Ukraine is not too far off. I don’t agree with direct CIA involvement. The Ukraine isn’t Venezuela or Haiti. Yanukovich is not calling for a something akin to Hugo Chavez’s “Bolivarian Revolution” nor is he a democratic thorn in the side of the US like Haiti’s Aristide. However, the fact that some 470 foreign ministers have publicly pledged their support for Yushchenko, thereby de facto recognizing him as President, does little to douse speculation of a Western organized coup.
Whether an actual coup is in progress or not is anyone’s guess. I doubt there is something so James Bond at work where Yushchenko’s wife is secretly fulfilling a longtime CIA plot in the making. That’s just a little to Manchurian Candidate for me. It does, however, speak to a point that Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri make in their new book, Multitude. They write, “a ‘network power,” a new form of sovereignty, is now emerging, and it includes as its primary elements, or nodes, the dominant nation-states along with supranational institutions, major capitalist corporations, and other powers.” In this formulation, Hardt and Negri argue that there is no multilateralist or unilateralist position available for nation-states. Global power flows through networks; it involves state power and civil society. One can certainly see this happening in the Ukraine. Forces from below are aligning with foreign NGOs, nation-states, and other groups to effect the election in a sovereign state. This is far different from the tactics used in the past, where coups occurred through assassination or good ol’fashioned fascist thuggery. No, the seemingly local political situation in Ukraine has now become a global situation with many groups playing a part according to their interests. Many commentators are correct to see the Ukrainian crisis a rerun of the ousting of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia and Eduard Shevardnadze in Georgia. Whatever the outcome is, it will appear “democratic” only because the forces at play are diffused and decentralized along various nodes of the international network of governance.
To be sure there are some real issues at stake in this democratic debacle. Old world commodities like oil and natural gas continue to plague the politics of new Europe. Ukraine doesn’t produce much or either, but the country is a major transit territory for Russian natural gas and oil. In addition, Yushchenko has promised that under his rule the Ukraine will move closer toward the West and seek European Union membership and possibly joining NATO. If this turns out to be more than campaign rhetoric, Moscow does have something to worry about. Commentators signal the possibility of the Ukraine raising transit costs for Russian energy companies. Some even speculate unfavorable trade conditions between Russia could push the Ukraine to import more oil from states like Azerbaijan rather than its Slavic big brother. EU and NATO membership could further turn Ukrainian economic interests 180 degrees to its Western neighbors.
Western concerns are the mirror opposite of Russia’s. Europe is concerned about having a non-democratic state at its border. Ukrainian membership in the EU will provide yet another eastern state to exploit through monetary policy and labor extraction. NATO membership probably has the US arms manufacturers salivating over the potential arms sales. NATO membership requires a commitment to retool and modernize the candidate’s military further extending America’s military industrial complex into another state’s coffers.
Over the last few days, relations between Washington and Moscow are said to have cooled. However, this could just be a case of the winter chills; the latest tiff in two powers’ geopolitical rivalry. I doubt Putin’s open invitation to Crawford will be revoked. Nor do I think Putin will be making anti-US rhetoric a standard policy. Moscow’s position is simple enough. The US is simply pissing in the wrong yard. In addition, experts point to little real difference between Yushchenko and Yanukovich. Kinda reminds one of US politics. Both come from the same corrupt Ukrainian elite who profited off of the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. No matter who is elected with have to deal with both internal and external forces that will keep their hyperbolic campaign rhetoric at bay. Ukraine’s next President will have to balance relations with both the West and the East. It can’t escape its social and economic situation any more than it ignore being geographically sandwiched between Europe and Russia.
I think that this last point about geography is probably the most interesting aspect of the whole situation. Ukraine’s emergence on the international stage speaks to the long standing cultural animosity shared between East and West. The Ukraine has emerged as representation of the political, cultural and even religious divide that has plagued Eastern and Western relations. The Ukraine is constructed as a country divided along these tensions: suspended between democracy and authoritarianism, western liberalism and eastern conservativism, Catholicism and Orthodoxy, free markets and state regulation, the future and the past. The cultural Other is now embedded in the body of Yushchenko and Yanukovich. I’m surprised there hasn’t been any arguments about Ukrainian crisis that highlight the legacy of Asiatic modes of production. It seems that the entire future of the Ukraine as a ‘Western” or “Eastern” country is entirely based on the outcome of this election. Perhaps this is why the specter of civil war, however unlikely, has begun to loom over the situation.
Unfortunately for the Ukraine, in the United States the Andy Warhol principle seems to now apply to nation states. Every state seems to have its fifteen minutes under the American gaze. I’m positive that if the situation continues much longer the Ukraine will fade into the annuls of history just like Serbia, Kosovo, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Liberia, Sudan, Haiti, and Venezuela. America is a cold lover that is unless your name is Israel. No more CNN.com headlines for little Ukraine. We, Americans just don’t have the attention span for such events. It forces us to consult maps and learn pronunciations of names with too many consonants. The story of that evil Peterson guy, his poor darling wife Lacey, and her unborn child is much easier to follow. Forget the Ukraine! Ukraine is boring! Why don’t they just go home like we do and let the lawyers figure out all that hard election stuff. Long live the live coverage from Redwood City!!!
There are certain political ironies that have occurred in the last 15 years that continually stick in my mind. One is the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999. While Clinton was intent on preventing genocide in Kosovo, (Or was it stopping. We were led to believe at the time the genocide of Kosovars was already taking place), another more horrible genocide occurred a few years earlier in Rwanda. An event so horrible, it is said that 700,000 people were killed mostly by machetes. Nothing was done to stop it and like the extermination of European Jewry, the slaughter of Armenians in 1910, or the killing of a million Cambodians by Pol Pot in the 1970s, we are left to ask the question of how was it allowed to happen.
The second irony is similar to the first. At the same time Bush regaled us with the humane mission to “free the Iraqi people,” a more devastating and horrible genocide in Sudan was brewing. Exact numbers as to how many African Sudanese have been displaced and killed by Arab Sudanese militias are difficult to get. Estimates I’ve read place the deal toll around 300,000 with about a million displaced. It could be higher for all I know. So as American bombs and Marines destroy Iraq in order to save for democracy, the Sudanese have no world leader acting on their behalf. I must say that the U.S. is certainly not responsible for these genocides by its inaction. Its just ironic how for the most recent genocides, the U.S. choose not to get directly involved in the more severe of them, both of which occurred on the African continent. One cannot, however, say the same for the Europeans, who conveniently turned their heads away from the mutual slaughter in Serbia as well as what has occurred in their former colonies on the African continent. Their complete lack of action deserves the highest condemnation.
The third irony, and this is far less tragic on human levels, is the recent concern over the presidential elections in the Ukraine. The issue, for those who don’t know is this: The Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych seems to have beaten opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko by a slim margin of 800,000 votes in a runoff election for President. The percentage breakdown is 49.53% for the former and 46.66% for the latter. A close election for sure. Despite the fact that exit polls came out with Yushchenko ahead, Yanukovych won. Sound familiar? Except for one crucial difference. Instead of sitting at home, for the past three days, Yushchenko supporters have filled the streets of Kiev demanding at least an investigation of voter fraud and at most, Yanukovych to hand over power. Other countries have gotten verbally involved, with many Western countries, including the U.S., calling for election officials to not certify the vote, while Russia has told them to mind their own business and wait for the counting to be over. The West favors Yushchenko because he is pro-Western and desires to move Ukraine to possible entry into the European Union. Russia supports Yanukovych because of his pro-Russia stance and desires to keep Ukraine in their obit. This split between East and West is also visible in the electorate. Western Ukraine, which is Catholic and more cosmopolitan favors a move to the West, while the East favors, well, the East. All this has given the Russian media something to cover besides Putin’s “reforms” of Russian elections by making governors appointed rather than elected and the Yukos affair where billionaire Mikhail Khordokovsky is being charged with tax evasion and theft of government property. As of today, other executives of Yukos, including one American born executive, fled the country fearing that they might be next.
Now the irony is that the U.S. has passed judgment on the validity of the Ukrainian elections at the same time it refuses to pass similar judgment on its own. Even more ironic, the Ukrainian people on both sides of the issue have flooded into the streets giving support to their candidate. And in the freezing cold, mind you. In a country where “democracy” is only 13 years old people are making sure their votes are counted, while in the U.S., the supposed shining star of democracy, the so-called opposition candidate concedes before all the votes in Ohio are counted. To make matters even farcical, the same Bush Administration that is charging fraud in the Ukraine was urging Kerry to concede for the “good of the nation.”
Now I’m not one of those “Bush stole the election” people. He won and its not going to do us any good to continue with that line. Especially if it will forsake any real examination as to why he did win. But it is clear that American democracy needs fixing. It’s petrified beyond belief and there is no indication that politicians on either of the isle are willing to fix it. It’s better to have a system you can manipulate. You just have to make sure you can do so better than the other guy. There is no reason why the wealthiest country in the world votes the way it does. In most democracies, election day is a holiday or is extended over a few days, voters are issued a national voter ID card, much like a library card, and some countries even fine people for NOT voting. This is not to say that their elections are perfect either, but if our government is going to declare itself the shining example of democratic government, then elections should be at least a little better, dontcha think?
So today it was -13 C. You will have to console your conversion charts for what this means in Fahrenheit. I have no idea. To me its just cold and to tell the truth, I don’t feel much difference between 0 C and -13 C. I think past freezing cold is just cold. The sun has been out the last few days, so that has been a relief. The lack of new snow has allowed Russian work crews to get the snow off many of the sidewalks. It is a lot easier to get around than it was 4 days ago.
I have yet to slip on the ice, but like not getting sprayed by a skunk while walking Coco in my neighborhood in LA, each day of success only makes failure a greater possibility. Today, I discovered that Russians lack skills in defensive driving. Despite the fact that there is snow, and some streets still have a little ice, Russians seem to drive as they would under normal conditions. This means fast and getting to the next intersection by any means necessary. In the past four days I’ve seen four car accidents, twice as many as I’ve seen on the surface streets of LA over the two years I’ve lived there. Now its not the fact that there are accidents that is the problem. These are bound to occur in such weather conditions. What irks me is that when there is an accident they don’t move the cars out of the fucking way. They just sit there clogging all the traffic until whatever needs resolution is resolved. See, in America we have this thing called a shoulder, where here in Russia this is just another lane. Normally, I would give a shit either way. Most of my traveling in Moscow is either underground or by foot. I do however have to take a trolleybus to the metro from my apartment. Its about a mile and half, which normally I don’t mind walking, but with the cold, snow, and ice this easily feels like 3 miles.
This morning I get on the #49 trolleybus like usual. After going about 25 feet, the driver opens the door and tell everyone to get out. There is an accident between two delivery trucks blocking the trolleybus. The bad thing about trolleybuses is they can’t exactly go around things or each other because they are connected to a line of wires above the bus. The trolleybus basically has to wait until the road is cleared. One would think this would happen quickly to restart the flow of traffic. Not here. About six trolleybuses, that’s right S-I-X, were stopped behind this accident for at least an hour. I walked the one and a half today (which is the third time I’ve done so in the last week.). A 15 minute commute under normal conditions took me about an hour.
My khozika (which means landlady), Natasha, constantly refers to the mayor of Moscow as that “shit” (govno) Luzhkov. For the fourth time this year, Luzhkov is raising the metro fair, from 10 to 15 rubles. This is still a deal by American standards. For about $.50 you can get anywhere in Moscow by metro. There are no transfers. Once you’re inside the system, you’re inside. For Russians, however, this can be a heavy burden when your monthly salary is $200 a month and you have to take the metro everyday. Luckily for Natasha, she rides for free. Moscow has a whole class of people who ride the metro for free: pensioners (which she is one), invalids, war veterans, and probably many more than I don’t know about. There is some talk about getting rid of this too. When this happens, the old are going to rise in revolution.
The problem is that the metro represents one of the leftovers from the Soviet system. It’s an amazing system, with more than 120 stations, with more being added on. Some of these stations are like communist palaces. The Soviet past is still on display, with iconography of workers, peasants, and Lenin. The Moscow metro deserves a tour in itself. The metro moves at least 8 million people a day, and without it, there would be no Moscow. In addition to its aesthetics, it also represents the past because during the Soviet Union it was very, very cheap along with the whole class of people who could ride for free. Each increase in fares or restriction of free riders symbolizes another security you could rely on. In the end, I think that by the 1970s, the Soviet system was that: security. Sure people weren’t rolling in luxury. There wasn’t much you could buy. Sometimes there wasn’t anything you could buy. But in the end, you could count on the system’s security and predictability. For this security and predictability people traded their democratic rights. It seemed that by the late 1970s there was a silent agreement between state and society: if you don’t mess with our business (the running of all aspects of the country), we won’t mess with yours. However, there is always a glaring contradiction in this formula, one that the Chinese are finding out about more and more. The divide between state and society is never that stark. Affairs of the state always seep into the affairs of society and individuals. I think China’s capitalism without democracy is one attempt to negotiate this contradiction.
In Russia, there is no compromise. This doesn’t look like it will change with Putin’s political reforms. The Russians have capitalism with all its unpredictability and lack of security; you can buy shit if you have the money. You can buy more shit than you ever can imagine. People like this and consumerism is now the new ideology. Ask people if things are better now than 20 years ago and they will say yes (especially if they are younger). Either way you look at it, consumption is cool. It’s why Americans don’t give a shit their political system, and I would suspect why Russian’s don’t either.
I think there is a flawed assumption in liberal democratic thinking. We assume that people care about their democratic rights. That freedom is the most prized possession of the human spirit. The flaw is in the fact that “freedom” is equated with the mechanisms of democracy like free speech, voting, elections, etc. Late capitalism has been able to brand freedom differently. The liberal subject is not just a political subject; it is a consuming subject. In fact there is no difference between the two. As long as one can consume, one is politically happy. Perhaps this is why the economy in America is measured by the Consumer Confidence Index. Freedom is in the consumption of individualism, which is communicated to us through products. A perfectly reified existence.
Late capitalism has aestheticized politics. We are no longer interested in the actual policies (or policy failures) of a candidate. We are only interested if they emit an image to fulfill our desire; whether that desire be one for security, leadership, strength, principles, morals, etc. Much like an advertisement fulfills our desires not for the product itself, but for the psychic and emotional satisfaction it brings. This, according to many cultural theorists, is called the affective properties of late capitalism. Late capitalism is not so much in the business of creating things, as it is affects—the things that tap our emotions, desire, etc. We don’t use Crest because it’s better than Colgate; Pepsi doesn’t taste better than Coke. They simply tap into a desire, perhaps even a nostalgia for some feeling from the past.
In the 1920s, the Frankfurt school of Marxism called this fascism. Its philosophers argued that when all politics became aestheticized, like how the fascist movements of Europe did, they tapped into people’s inner desires for national greatness, belonging, purity, security, what have you. Politics became less about satisfying your material needs: employment, housing, social services etc.; it became about satisfying your affective desires, desires that could never be completely fulfilled. People’s desires are what Slavoj Zizek calls the “sublime ideal.” This ideal can never be fulfilled; it is only imagined.
Perhaps this is why the “ironies” that I began with occurred the way they did. Clinton’s concern for the Kosovars and Bush’s mission to “free the Iraqis” was more publicly acceptable than helping the Africans. Perhaps this is why elections in the Ukraine can be accepted as corrupt, but American elections cannot. It is easy to accept corruption in the Ukraine because it is not us; it is not the Earth’s shining example of democracy. The actions of its people attest to this. For Americans to say the same about their own system would be treading on the outskirts of that sublime (blind) ideal. The affective nature of American politics makes the realization that its system is corrupt (though many Americans will admit that it is, but will shrug their shoulders when asked what to do about it) is possibly too much of a shock to their individual identity. America doesn’t bring them material well being, as it brings them emotional well being. The knowledge that you live in the greatest country not only in the world, but that has ever existed; that its existence is sanctioned by God himself is too powerful to assuage by lies, deceit, corruption, or incompetence. These realities don’t fit in the narrative. They don’t come close to shaking the grip of the emotional explosion the red, white, and blue brings to one’s heart.