I don’t have a lot of time for blogging these days. The finishing touches on the dissertation (one . . . more . . week), job applications, and getting ready to spend the next year in Russia fill up all my time. Inevitably commenting on missiles, Medvedev the modernizer, not to mention Moscow’s Holy Father of Fury, has been relegated to the eternal back burner. Yet, there are some things in the world of Russia that just can’t be left to simmer on the boiler plate. Especially when it involves a pant-less Boris Yeltsin.
Former President Clinton recalled getting a security alert in 1995 that the Secret Service had found Mr. Yeltsin, in his underwear, outside Blair House on Pennsylvania Avenue trying to hail a taxi. He was clearly inebriated, wanting a pizza. And he eluded security the second night, nearly causing an even more serious ruckus when he was initially mistaken for a drunken intruder, according to these accounts. What that says about the security near Blair House or those who protected Mr. Yeltsin is anyone’s guess.
Forget about the Blair House security, though the inability to nab a drunken Yeltsin does raise eyebrows. Is this tale not the perfect metaphor for the Yeltsin era? A mere four years after boldly standing on a tank and mouthing whatever democratic platitudes he could ride into power, Yeltsin is in America, plastered, and looking for pizza in his skivvies. Or worse almost getting 187ed by Blair House security. One can imagine a similar scenario when he signed the Belovezh Accords abolishing the USSR or when robber barons freely pilfered the Russian state. Drunk, pant-less, looking for pizza. If only a cab picked him up. If only . . .
Two questions, though. Did anyone ever explain why Boris was in his underwear? And, more importantly, were they boxers or briefs?
One things for sure. The dude knew how to par-tay.
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By Sean — 10 years ago
My participation in the Paul Klebnikov Fund’s event “What is Russia Thinking? The Word from the Last of the Independent Media” was a great honor. Paul’s widow Musa Klebnikov and his brothers Peter and Michael were amazingly gracious and thankful for my participation. The pleasure however was truly all mine. They’ve built a vary warm, lively, sophisticated and touching community around Paul’s memory. Being a part of it was certainly an emotional and intellectual experience. For those who’ve never read Paul Klebnikov’s work, I highly recommend it.
What of the event itself? I would say that well over 100 people were in attendance. Being in a crowd of such politically well connected people was intimidating at first. I still consider myself a lowly graduate student who lacks the proper credentials to mix with such a crowd. But thankfully people were incredibly nice and any nervousness I had wasn’t anything that a few glasses of wine couldn’t smooth out. Most attendees seemed to have some connection to Paul, whether they were friends and neighbors, colleagues, or admirers of his work. At the same time, many people who I talked to had a deep interest in Russia, and particular America’s relationship to it. What was perhaps most encouraging was that many appeared frustrated with the typical thinking about Russia, and my sense was that there was a real craving for a more nuanced discourse. Hopefully, Mikhail Fishman, Sarah Medelson, Andrew Meier and I provided that.
The forum was a dialogue that lasted around an hour and followed by a half and hour of questions. As often the case in forums like this, not to mention topics as complicated as Russia, time proved to be our greatest enemy. Not only was there not enough time to cover everything, there was barely enough time to adequately address the questions Andrew Meier posed to us. Topics ranged from what advice we would give Barack Obama in formulating a Russia policy, the workings of Kremlin politics, the state of Russian journalism and English language journalism on Russia, the Georgian War, the effects of the economic crisis, and the state and future of Russian-American relations. I won’t recount the details of the discussion. I doubt my memory would do it justice. I’m told that the event was recorded and I will provide information about how to get access to that when I find out.
The star of the event was Mikhail Fishman, this year’s recipient of the Paul Klebnikov Prize for Excellence in Journalism. By all accounts, Fishman is one of the “rising stars” of Russian journalism. Fishman covers Russian politics for Russian Newsweek, though he wonders how much time he will have to do this since he was just recently promoted to the magazine’s chief editorship. If Fishman’s comments at the forum were any indication, his stewardship of Russian Newsweek will certainly be something to follow.
What was the final answer to the event’s title/question: What is Russia thinking? Well to paraphrase how Andrew Meier ended the evening: We don’t fully know what Russia is thinking, but we know what the three participants think about Russia. Very true. Speaking for myself, I would never presume I could speak for Russia or Russians. My only hope is that through this blog and participating in events like Monday’s, I can at least attempt to be a fair mediator for Russians to speak and think for themselves.Post Views: 589
By Sean — 11 years ago
There is a specter haunting Russia–the specter of colored revolution. Or so says Vladimir Putin. Clearly having no qualms about beating a dead horse, Putin told a Moscow campaign rally that shadowy Westerners are supporting oppositionists with hopes of returning Russia to the dark days of the 1990s. Here some quotes the Guardian has supplied:
“Unfortunately there are those people in our country who still slink through foreign embassies … who count on the support of foreign funds and governments but not the support of their own people.”
“There are those confronting us, who do not want us to carry out our plans because they have … a different view of Russia. They need a weak and feeble state. They need a disorganized and disorientated society … so that they can carry out their dirty tricks behind its back.”
“They are going to take to the streets. They have learned from western experts and have received some training in neighboring [former Soviet] republics. Now they are going to start provocations here.”
On the one hand, I get the hyperbolic pontificating. Much of electoral politics is about conjuring a bogeyman in hopes to scare the public into voting for you. And inciting public panic over orange clad revolutionaries, “islamo-fascists,” immigrants, homosexuals etc works well to mobilize voters. Demonizing the Other and then linking your opposition to it is a proven political tactic.
On the other hand, I can’t help chuckle at the Putin and United Russia’s excesses. First they ensured that the OSCE pull out of monitoring the elections. Limiting the number of observers, stalling visas, and placing restrictions on observers made the OSCE cancel their plans. Now Russian Electoral Commission chief Vladimir Churov claims that OSCE’s decision was their own, or more specifically the decision of the United States, which he says controls its Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, or ODIHR. Again more bogeymen.
Plus Churov was quick to note that while the OSCE bowed out, other election monitoring organizations didn’t. Russia’s Duma elections will be “observed” by 300 monitors from Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Commonwealth of Independent States. That’s about 25 observers per Russian time zone.
All of this points to the Russian propensity to overstate their efforts. The truth of the matter is that Russia can be flooded with election monitors and United Russia would still win. Even if the United Russia parliamentary margin will be less that desired, “Plan Putin” still maintains hegemony over Russian politics. No opposition party in real contention seeks to radically change course. Even the Communists are acclimated themselves to Putin’s Russia.
Sure, there may be something to Kremlin’s claim that they don’t need their elections verified by anyone and that sovereignty means not succumbing to outside meddling. But what all of this rhetorical and bureaucratic maneuvering really says to me is that Russia still hasn’t learned the democratic game. First, the game requires using money and advertising not so much to pummel your opponent, but control the boundaries of political discourse. The former is well done, the latter not so much. Here they might want to sneak a peak at the American Republican Party’s play book. They are masters at it. Second, the game requires the adept use of the law to mask corruption with good legal arguments. Lawyers have a knack for making something clearly illegal appear perfectly within the boundaries of the law. Postmodern politics have made armies of lawyers much more effective than detachments of police. Lastly, the game requires challenging anyone who criticizes you to do something about it. Yes, one aspect of sovereignty is about preventing meddling. But real sovereignty is when you have the confidence and fortitude to just ignore whatever critical salvos tossed at you.
So in the end, Russia should have let the OSCE come and monitor. And when the OSCE would make the inevitable cries of foul, Russia should just shrug its shoulders and promise to better next time. That’s what any other real democracy would do.Post Views: 750
By Sean — 11 years ago
Time’s Person of the Year. Who would have thunk it? Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin joins Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, and Mikhail Gorbachev. Three other Russian leaders who’ve received the honor.
Stalin was named twice, in 1939 and 1942. The first for “dramatically switching the power balance of Europe one August night” when the vozhd’ signed the now infamous Nazi-Soviet Pact. “History may not like him” Time prophesied,”but history cannot forget him.” And how. Ironically, the 1942 honor came when Stalin became an ally of the United States against Hitler. According to Time, everything that happened that war plagued year–Chiang Kai-shek holding his own against the Japanese, Churchill’s victory over the Nazis in Egypt, Roosevelt’s bringing the full weight of the US war machine on the Axis–seemed small next to Stalin. As Time explained, “and, worthy though they may prove, they inevitably pale by comparison with what Joseph Stalin did in 1942.” The Red Army repulsed the Germans at Stalingrad, leading to four Soviet offensives that eventually pushed the Germans back to Berlin.
The garrulous Nikita Khrushchev was named “Man of the Year” in 1957. Nothing other than a little satellite that went “beep, beep, beep” gained him the accolade. Russia won the space race by launching Sputnik I and Sputnik II into the Earth’s orbit. But that wasn’t all the peasant’s son did in 1957. A year before he shocked the Communist world with his “Secret Speech” which denounced his mentor, Stalin. It also allowed him to politically outwit his rivals on the Politburo. He reached out to the Middle East by giving $563 million to aid Arab nationalism in Syria and Egypt. He achieved much more in that year even though he did “not yet have absolute power, [was] still best described as chairman of the gang.” Still, he proved politically wily toward his opponents, using a combination of guile and good old Russian muzhestvo to beat them. Said Time, “In 1957, Nikita Khrushchev outran, outfoxed, outbragged, outworked and outdrank them all.”
Mikhail Gorbachev was awarded “Man of the Year” in 1987 and “Man of the Decade” in 1989. So far Gorbachev has been the only person praised with the latter title. Not bad for a peasant born in the village Privolnoye during the nightmare of collectivization. But Time didn’t recognize Gorbachev for his background, or as a symbol of Soviet upward mobility (Khrushchev was probably a better symbol of the particular Stalinist kind). He was honored because he did the unthinkable. Although a Stalinist in his youth, Gorbachev instituted reforms that would eventually unlock many of the secrets of that ideology. Perestroika, which he argued was “to revive the spirit of Leninism,” was a kind of neo-NEP that sought to institute controlled market forces and decentralization into the stagnant Soviet economy. Glasnost turned much of the Soviet profane into the sacred. As a result, the “black spots” of Soviet history rapidly began to lighten. In the eyes of Time, all of this made Gorbachev “a new unfamiliar kind of leader” who recognized that “the old rules of dealing with that long-suffering land [were] suddenly outdated.”
But that was only the beginning of Time’s recognition of Gorbachev. In 1989, they saw him as the “Man of the Decade.” Why? “Because,” Time explained, “he is the force behind the most momentous events of the ’80s and because what he has already done will almost certainly shape the future.” And though Gorbachev didn’t “mean to abolish communism,” he learned that history is a real bitch to control. Right when you think you have it by the reigns, it violently bucks from your grip. Don’t think so? Just ask George Bush. The future Gorbachev was ushering, however, wouldn’t fully emerge until 1991, when the Soviet Union imploded. That historical act, which this year’s “Person of the Year” has called “the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century,” has certainly shaped our present. More than people seem to be willing to acknowledge.
In 1989, Gorbachev was still considered a positive revolutionary. Time compared him with all sorts of world historical figures. He was the “Copernicus, Darwin and Freud of communism all wrapped in one.” He was “Prospero in a realm ruled by Caliban.” He was “simultaneously the communist Pope and the Soviet Martin Luther, the apparatchik as Magellan and McLuhan.” Indeed, Gorbachev was in a sense a “global navigator” but one similar to how Viktor Chernov described Lenin in April 1917,
“He seems to be made of one chunk of granite. And he is all round and polished like a billiard ball. There is nothing you can get hold of him by. He rolls with irrepressible speed. But he could repeat to himself the well-known phrase “I don’t know where I am going, but I am going there resolutely.”
If Gorbachev didn’t have a clue where he was going and where he was dragging Russia behind him, this year’s “Person of the Year” has no doubts. Vladimir Putin is not so much dragging Russia as he is pushing it. True, he is not the first Russian Sisyphus, all those listed above were sisyphi in their own right. And if Time began their “Man of the Year” award three centuries earlier, it would have certainly recognized Peter the Great, Catherine II, Nicholas I, Alexander I, and Lenin among their honored. Some say Putin is a Tsar. The more idiotic call him a neo-Stalin. Putin, however, would be better seen as a manager, a CEO, and a sort of mafia don. Putin sees himself as a Russian Franklin Roosevelt. He has the insurmountable task of prosecuting Russia’s revival at the same time he has to keep his rival boyars’ corruption within acceptable boundaries. Putin is a pragmatist more than anything. And this requires him to pick his battles. Sometimes he does so with exactness. Other times hubris gets the better of him.
Putin is mostly demonized in the West. Nothing says this more than the fact that Time’s Adi Ignatius spent three and a half hours with the man, yet in the article we hear as many quotes from Garry Kasparov than from Putin. The response from the American political class on Putin’s recognition was predictable. Republican Presidential candidate Mit Romney called Time’s move “disgusting” instead designating the US military viceroy in Iraq General David Petraeus as more worthy. John McCain also thought Petraeus was a better pick. All McCain sees in Putin is “three letters – a K, a G and a B.” Then in his cowboy way McCain stated ““I would have had a much stronger response to Mr. Putin a long time ago.” If elected, it seems that hubris might get the better of McCain too.
But there you have it. Time has spoken and not without sparking controversy. That’s one thing it as its Person of the Year have in common. Putin is controversial the world over. And like Time, we can certainly count on him to continue speaking.Post Views: 708