29 September 2022

Russia: Beautiful future or dead end?

Zdes' i seichas ("Here and Now") presenter Valeria Ratnikova interviews sociologist Grigory Yudin.
Screenshot from source.

The lead story on today's Dozhd' ("TV Rain") daily news program was the Russian government's plan to hold a ceremony with Duma legislators and staff tomorrow at 3 p.m. Moscow time to witness the signing of documents annexing four parts of Ukraine to Russia. The official announcement promises an "extended" speech by Vladimir Putin.

The ceremony is to be followed by a celebration and concert on Red Square. Among the details in the newscast were social network posts promising payment for people to participate in the event, along with a plea for help from an immigrant worker, who explained that she was threatened with loss of her job if she didn't show up.

In the meantime, Ukraine's president Zelenskyy has called a meeting of his Security Council for tomorrow, presumably to formulate a response to the announcements from Moscow.

On the newscast, presenter Valeria Ratnikova interviewed sociologist Grigory Yudin concerning social reactions to the mobilization and annexations, starting with a comparison of today's situation with the 2014 annexation of Crimea. She suggested that these annexations might serve as a sort of conditional victory for Putin and a sign of the usefulness of the "special operation." (After all, in 2014, many Russians were happy to have Crimea "returned" to Russia.) Yudin answered that anyone who is paying attention will hardly count the present situation as any kind of victory.

She continued with a question about the effect of these events and campaigns on, for example, Putin's popularity rating. Yudin points out that when people are in shock, it's unrealistic to expect accurate surveys. People will answer, "We didn't do anything wrong, we love Putin, please go away."

Ratnikova turns to another form of social reaction. We see various protests to the mobilization, she says, but nothing on any sort of mass scale. Yudin:

In order for masses of people to go out on the streets, they need to have some idea that things could change. Of course they understand that the cost might be high, they may be put in jail or in the current situation could even perish. (If thousands can be sent to die in Ukraine, they can just as well die right in Russia.) But that's not the main problem. If you're talking about a collective action ... then there must be a clear path from point A to point B. ... Right now there's no understanding about what we will do when we arrive at B. That understanding will happen when new possibilities appear. If the system starts to crack, then, yes, people will see a path from point to point. For the vast majority of the population today, that option isn't there.

Ratnikova asks her question in a different way: we see the young men going to the induction centers, with bands playing and flags waving, with their friends and relatives cheering, or crying as the case may be ... why are so many going there so obediently, so submissively?

Yudin's answer is interesting. "Imagine the table you're sitting behind begins trying to bite you. Your first reaction will be to deny that this could be happening." People cling to the illusion of normalcy as long as possible. "The preservation of the sense of normalcy is paramount. Otherwise, people couldn't function." When people understand that the boundaries of normalcy have been breached, then they might run, hide, or protest. But for most people, that kind of initiative is simply too difficult. They have become too accustomed to things being normal. They'd rather die than take action, much as Dmitry Bykov said in the interview I cited here a few weeks ago.

As for the instigator of all this, Vladimir Putin, what might he be expecting from mobilization and the annexations? Earlier in the newscast, Ratnikova spoke with political scientist Abbas Gallyamov. She asked him about the fumbling nature of the scheduling and rescheduling of all these events, including Putin's appearances. Gallyamov's answer was blunt: these actions have been taken because Putin had no good options, but something had to be done—one bad option or another had to be chosen. A bit later he suggested that Putin himself is confused and uncertain. Furthermore, Ukraine's successes and Russia's failures have made Putin look like a loser, and the more he looks like a loser, the less use he is to other central actors, foreign and domestic. And there are no easy ways out of this dead end. Even nuclear weapons ("the 'I'm not bluffing' bluff" as Ratnikova put it) cannot provide a more favorable outcome.

Women protest in Makhachkala, Dagestan.
Screenshots from source.
To return to Yudin's words about collective action, does it seem that the system is any closer to cracking? It doesn't appear this way at the moment; Putin's resources for maintaining political and social order are overwhelming. The system's guarantee of "normalcy" seemed to hold, for the most part, through the outbreak of war, through the repression of the remaining independent media outlets and harsh prison sentences in several notorious court cases, through rising inflation, and through increased social and economic isolation from most of the rest of the world. 

However, now his tacit covenant with the Russian people ("Leave politics to me, and I'll keep things stable and comfortable") is on the verge of being torn up by the war, and most dramatically by the mobilization—and its brutal implementation in incidents that even government outlets have acknowledged. 

So now, cracks are appearing. Hundreds of thousands of potential conscripts, preceded by a hundred thousand IT specialists (just to choose one group as an example), have left Russia; tens of thousands of soldiers are dead, wounded, or missing in action; and hundreds of thousands more are on their way to Ukraine to "plug the holes" on the front lines. Each of these people leaves behind relatives and friends who have a new understanding of what Putin considers "normal." There is nothing like having a son ripped from his family by conscription or death to make a mom or dad or dear friend lose their illusions and re-evaluate their priorities.

Nor can we expect that the Ukrainians who have been displaced from the occupied Ukrainian territories, or who are still there despite the occupation, will accept a new Russian normal. Not only that; some of their relatives in Russia may have somehow rationalized the situation, but others constitute a witness to the ruthless sundering of their family.

I continue to hope and pray for the beautiful Russia of the future. Sadly, it looks like the path to that future is obscured by the false normalcy of today. That future may only appear after those cracks spread, and the system fails spectacularly, possibly at the cost of many more lives. If the resulting chaos brings another authoritarian regime to power, the cycle may start over again, preempting a new and better outcome for a time; but those hundreds of thousands of creative emigres, and their disillusioned families and friends at home, might prove to be an enormous force for good. A fake normalcy will no longer fool them.


Related, more or less:

The beautiful Russia of the future, part one, part two.

Hall of mirrors.

How to write about Russia, part one, part two, part three.

I ain't no stranger.

To Russia with love.

Russian humor as testimony.


Farida Rustamova and Maxim Tovkaylo: Putin always chooses escalation.

Illia Ponomarenko: Why Putin's "partial" mobilization is "unlikely to change Ukraine's war course."

Two articles from Open Democracy: Volodymyr Artiukh on the future of Russia's Ukraine war; and Olya Romashova on Russia's conscription centers under attack.

White American evangelicalism is shifting to the South.

The God of transformation, not revolution.

Nancy Thomas: when there are too many funerals.


Re-running a Muddy Waters/James Cotton clip that speaks truth to fake normalcy: "You Can't Lose What You Never Had."

22 September 2022

Naming things by their true names

Top: "Serving Russia is real work." Source.

Ever since Vladimir Putin's announcement yesterday morning (Moscow time) of a partial mobilization of the Russian army and his approval of so-called referendums in occupied parts of Ukraine, a flood of reactions in the media and on the Internet remind me of how small a role is played by truth these days.

For example, the BBC interviewed (starting at 30:00) a person who expects to receive a call-up notice to serve. He's covered by the mobilization order because he once served as a conscript.

BBC: "Have you had military training?"

Interviewee: "It was called military training but I don't get it. I mean, things in Russia they make it on papers but not make it in real life. So I have machine gun for one time in my hands, so I am lieutenant on paper but not in real life."

We experienced this formula of "on paper but not in real life" (and its corollary, "in real life but not on paper") countless times in our years in Russia, so when we read the stream of testimonies from those affected by the mobilization order, it's entirely believable. Some examples collected from a Telegram channel:

  • They took my father with other men from Yakutia.... He's 49 years old, and never served in the military.
  • My dad is 50, today received the order to go to training.
  • Today classmates of my husband received their orders at work. Born in 1985. They were never in the military.
  • My neighbor is a 63-year-old colonel. Got his notice today.
  • Yakutia. They took my 58-year-old father who never served but is classified as a military specialist. They came at night to deliver his notice, took him to the conscription board in the morning, and now he's already flying to his unit.
  • Volgograd. I have a colleague, a 55-year-old lieutenant, who also got a notice. He was supposed to show up on Monday, but they phoned him at home today and told him to show up tomorrow morning.

From another channel we learn that some of the young people arrested for protests against mobilization are being met by representatives of the conscription board who order them to present themselves for conscription at 9:00 the next morning. "From the very first day, mobilization is being used to put pressure on the protesters," reports the human rights organization OVD-Info.

Keir Giles comments in The Guardian:

Russia says it plans to mobilise an additional 300,000 soldiers. That raises the question of whether Putin is fully aware that his army is already unable to train and equip the much smaller numbers of reinforcements it has received to date. Coming as Russia’s parliament passes laws for severe prison sentences for those evading military service, the new measures seem likely to set up a comical game of musical chairs: thrown into prison for not going to war, Russian prisoners can then be recruited to go and fight with the promise of their sentence being annulled. [Link in original.]

So that is how to round up 300,000 (or more) additional soldiers to face Ukraine's defenders. At least on paper.


Now, about those votes in the occupied territory.

Commentators on the independent Russian-language channel Populyarnaya politika called them "pseudoreferendums." Timothy Snyder cautions us about even using the term "sham referendum":

There is not only no legal basis for speaking of a “referendum,” but not even much factual basis for speaking of a “sham referendum.” A sham is shambolic but it does actually exist. What Russia is undertaking is nothing more than a media exercise designed to shape how people think about Russian-occupied Ukraine.

It would be illegal to hold referendums during an armed conflict and under the threat of the use of force. And this is reason enough to ignore the media exercise completely. But it is just the surface of the problem. If held, referendums would indeed be illegal. But we should be careful: even when we say "illegal referendum" we are not quite getting to bottom of things. We might convince ourselves that some voting happened with some flaws.

It takes infrastructure to hold an election. That infrastructure is not there. Although we will no doubt see photographs of old ladies holding pieces of paper, it would be wrong for reporters to speak of a “vote.” What is more: even if the Russians actually had voting infrastructure, which they don't; and even if they intended to have people in the occupied territories vote, which they don't; they couldn't do so, since they do not actually control the totality of any of the regions where they will claim that voting is taking place.

Some commentators believe that this exercise is simply intended to escalate Ukrainian attempts to liberate these territories, allowing Russia to portray such actions as direct attacks on Mother Russia herself, with consequent permission to Russia's forces to respond at maximum force. Putin's announcement yesterday did not make such a link explicit, so commentators might be doing it for him.

I personally doubt very many Russians would be fooled by such maneuvers, especially since the stakes are suddenly higher for every family and every friend of anyone now caught up in the new mobilization. And they are all already aware of the difference between what's on paper and what's real.


The obligatory "whatabout" acknowledgment: Russia is not the only place where there's a disinformation gap between what's claimed officially and what is real. The USA has only recently endured a period of shameless lying on the part of its highest elected official, which he continues to practice brazenly as a private citizen, so it hardly becomes us to act the global moralist.

Some of the USA's past disinformation cost lives as well—for example, the U.S. government's resistance to acknowledging the harm caused by weapons such as Agent Orange or depleted uranium. The whole U.S. large-scale involvement in Viet Nam was founded on distortions of the Gulf of Tonkin incident. The eight costly years of the Second Persian Gulf War were similarly based on fake evidence and outright lies. I could go on ....

Wherever in the world there are power structures, those structures tend to prioritize self-preservation. Ephesians 6 refers to our struggle "... against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." (From Ephesians 6:12.) Aside from prayer, the classic approach of those in this struggle is to apply truth: "It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light." (Ephesians 5:12-13.)

For this reason, the "light" provided by freedom of speech and of the press is rightly cherished as vital to the struggle against the powers and principalities. The (relatively) free exercise of these rights in the USA, even when they convey lies, is an important distinction that "whataboutism" must take into account. Russia's power structures have changed the information landscape drastically compared to just five years ago, when we left Russia, even though the hunt for "foreign agents" and "undesirable organizations" was already well underway at that point. Here in the USA, we have our own liars in the public arena, often well-organized and well-financed, but they are always subject to public challenge—provided we don't all give in to passive cynicism. 

Although it may look like Russia has fallen on difficult times in this matter of disinformation and repression of free speech, we know that all is not lost. The phrase "to name things by their true names" is still an honored quality in Russian rhetoric, often quoted by those who attempt to speak truth to power, and those who praise such attempts. 

Here's what one of my friends in Russia posted just a few hours ago on her social media page. After citing examples of how people are avoiding getting caught up in the conscription dragnet, she added:

PS: What is important: if our country were really in danger, if we really protected innocent people from the horrors made by someone else's evil will, the reaction of the Russians, I'm sure, would be very different (all morning yesterday I read chats in non-political, totally non-oppositional publications; it's the same everywhere—anxiety and rage, the highest degree of irritation and dissatisfaction with what is happening). Russians do not want to go to war/let their loved ones go, not because they are cowards or selfish, but because (very many) understand that the state is lying.

This mobilization has once again brought thousands of courageous Russian people into the streets and public spaces, despite the acute risks of naming "war" by its true name.


The Russian superstar Alla Pugacheva spoke for many of those protesters when she expressed solidarity with her husband Maksim Galkin's desire for "...the end of the deaths of our boys for illusory goals that make our country a pariah and weigh heavily on the lives of its citizens."

The last time I remember Alla Pugacheva in a political setting was during the 2012 Russian presidential election campaign, when she appeared as part of candidate Mikhail Prokhorov's team in his debate with candidate Vladimir Zhirinovsky. She directly challenged Zhirinovsky on his manners and behavior as unsuitable for a president. He in turn accused her, and her fellow artists, of being political prostitutes at the service of whomever was in power.

"Kings Can Do Anything"

My own first memories of Alla Pugacheva go back much further. I visited the Soviet Union in 1975, and while I was there I became acquainted with a guy my age who lived on Vavilov Street. We began a correspondence, and began exchanging phonograph records. I remember sending him B.B. King's Live in Cook County Jail, for example. One of the records he sent me was Alla Pugacheva's bouncy ballad "Kings Can Do Anything" (1977), which I played often enough for the chorus to threaten to cycle around endlessly in my brain 45 years later.

(By the way, according to her song, "kings can do anything" except marry for love. If you remember Soviet pop songs of that era, you might recognize another song my friend sent me, the unbearably sentimental "How Young We Were." Maybe the most interesting thing he sent was an album by David Tukhmanov.)

So now the Soviet Union's and Russia's number one living pop music legend is naming things by their true names.


Nancy Ries on the Kremlin's fascist project.

complex case study of a city at war: Politics, leadership, industry, trade unions, and the dilemmas of war in Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine.

Sergei Nikitin's history of Quaker work in the Russian famine of 1921-22 and its historical context of Quaker contacts with Russia, Как квакеры спасали Россию, was published in 2020. I first mentioned it toward the end of this post, promising to let you know when it would be available in English. The translation by Suzanne Eade Roberts, entitled Friends and Comrades: How Quakers helped Russians to survive famine and epidemic, has just been published. In the USA, it's available as a "print replica edition" in the Kindle format.

Adria Gulizia and Windy Cooler are presenting an online retreat, "Time to be Tender," October 21-22, in Powell House's "Testimonies to Mercy" series. The series calendar is here.

Friends United Meeting announces the schedule for nine Unleashing the Power monthly workshops starting October 27.


"I cannot express how good this is!" says guitar teacher Michael Palmisano about Albert Collins's "If Trouble Was Money."

Here's a link to the video Palmisano used in his appreciation of Collins's musicianship.

15 September 2022

Royalty

Queen Elizabeth II (UK) and King Olav V (Norway) in Stavanger, 1981. Source.

My one encounter with royalty was totally by chance. On Thursday, September 23, 1971, my grandfather Knut and I went to Oslo's old Fornebu Airport to see my aunt off as she began her return from Norway to the USA. As we passed through the central hall, we saw a bit of a stir, and then realized why: King Olav V was arriving into the hall, and was being greeted there by his son Crown Prince (now King) Harald. The small crowd at the scene clapped warmly, and in a couple of minutes the whole thing was over.

I was struck by the calm normalcy of the scene, and the fact that a random bystander like me could witness the whole thing at little more than arm's length. If security forces were present, they were well concealed.

The scene came back to me as I reflected on the death of Queen Elizabeth II a week ago. In the tiny world of European royalty, Norway's and the UK's royal families are related: Norway's first king of the modern era, Haakon VII, was married to the youngest daughter of Britain's King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. She became Queen Maud of Norway when her husband accepted the Norwegian throne. This meant that Queen Elizabeth II and King Harald were second cousins.

King Haakon and Crown Prince Olav,
shortly before leaving Norway in June 1940.
The royal families of Norway and the UK gained
great respect by their conduct in World War II.
Source.
By one calculation, the British monarchy goes back almost 1100 years. Norway has been in existence roughly the same length of time, but its monarchy was interrupted several times during periods of domination by other countries. When it achieved independence from the Swedish monarchy in 1905, Norway invited Danish Prince Carl, already married to Princess Maud of Wales, to become king. He agreed only if Norwegians voted to accept him (and, in so doing, chose a monarchy rather than a republic). A majority of nearly 79% approved. Carl chose the name Haakon for himself and Olav for his son to form a link with the last rulers of an independent Norway centuries earlier.

This plebiscite may be one of the few examples of a monarchy rooted in a democratic process, but the 21% "no" vote showed that the issue was far from unanimous. Even now, the Norwegian parliament (as of 2019) includes a roughly similar percentage of legislators who would favor conversion to a republican form of government.

To the perennial debates about the advantages of having a monarch for the sake of national cohesion I have little if anything to contribute. Yes, kings and queens and grand potentates of all brands are usually unelected, but in modern times they are also practically without political power. They may inherit their ancestors' sinful legacies (for example, colonialism and all its cruelties), but can we expect those ancestors to have been wiser than their contemporary constituencies? And in any case the guilt is shared with other political actors of those times, and with acquiescent populations who enjoyed the fruits of colonialism.

Norway's current royal dynasty benefits from the residual goodwill and legitimacy of having been approved in a plebiscite. (Note, however, that in 1905, all Norwegian voters were male.) But royalty in both Norway and the UK is sustained by a different sort of poll: the weight of popular approval. In both countries, individual members of the royal families have become controversial, but the actual monarchs have distinguished themselves by their dignity, their ability to connect with their constituents, and their consistent spirit of dedication to their countries.

Crucially, these sovereigns maintained a crucial distance from political power and political controversy. Should USA citizens envy these monarchies and their ability to project and protect national identity? I don't think so. I cannot think of any process by which we could choose a figure to carry out a monarch's symbolic duties, so the whole question is completely hypothetical. We have our own national conceits that could serve us (as they have sometimes in the past, however imperfectly) as points of unity: the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the high ideals of government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Occasionally, we have temporarily anointed celebrities as exemplars of our national values, or at least of some of them—Helen Keller, for example, Mark Twain, Billy Graham, Eleanor Roosevelt. For some, the U.S. flag has uncanny power.

If we lose our commitment to due process and the equal protection of the law, no national celebrity, symbol, or charismatic figurehead will restore them, and if in desperation we choose a ruler of this kind, he or she may well become a dictator. I find it far more useful to admire the British and Norwegian monarchies, and to cherish the lessons they teach about courtesy and service, than to dream about some kind of equivalent American royalty. For better or worse, we are our own Caesars.

Unless we abdicate.


Whatever advantages this or that system may have in preserving national identity and fair access to scarce resources, I can't help reflecting that, the end, we are still just two-legged mammals. We insist on fooling ourselves with our elaborate behavior patterns and sense of self-importance. The only importance we really have involves getting to know our Creator, and through that relationship, learning how to cherish and care for the rest of creation. Kings and queens come and go, but—as Elizabeth II seemed to know well—there is only one Prince of Peace.


Wikipedia: Republicanism in Norway.

Norwegian tributes to Queen Elizabeth II.

UPDATE: Norway's king and queen attend Queen Elizabeth's funeral.

Fighting the Western Left's stereotypes about Ukraine.

Natalia Savelyeva and her colleagues interviewed 200 Russians about their attitudes towards Putin's invasion of Ukraine.

Claire Flourish finds it deceptively difficult for Quakers to discuss politics.

Nancy Thomas and her September warning: Dangerous women, dangerous books.


Blues from Ukraine: Konstantin Kolesnichenko plays William Clarke.

08 September 2022

“You can never learn that Christ is all you need...”

Corrie ten Boom

Corrie ten Boom is credited with saying “You can never learn that Christ is all you need, until Christ is all you have.” Dozens of devotional essays on the Web feature this quotation, mostly with the (probably laudable) purpose of encouraging personal piety.

Nobody doubts Corrie ten Boom's authority to make this claim, based as it is on her own experience of being in a Nazi concentration camp, left with literally nothing of her own, under the constant threat of death. Her father Casper had already died shortly after their arrest, and sister Betsie died in the concentration camp. Their crime? They had sheltered "the people of God" (as Casper called them): Jewish people.

The quotation itself has always puzzled me. Are we literally unable to learn total dependence on Christ without having everything precious to us, even our freedom, taken away? Is this another impossible standard of holiness, another form of spiritual athleticism that can be used by preachers to tell us how inadequate we are?

But recently I've been thinking about her words in some new ways. First of all, it brought to mind Isaiah's teaching: "Thou wilt keep [them] in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on thee.... (from Isaiah 26:3). This too can be interpreted as an outrageous claim: just keep thinking about Jesus and nothing bad will happen -- not a promise the ten Boom family experienced in this life. Now I see the promise in a different way: the choice to keep one's mind stayed on Christ is a choice that nobody can take away. Whether we will in fact remember that choice under trial is nothing to be glib about, nothing to make the subject of sentimental teachings from affluent preachers to affluent audiences, but it is still a desperately worthwhile goal.

Secondly, and closely related: Corrie's words are a powerful corrective to much that is repellent about contemporary Christianity. Recently I've seen Christians mocking other Christians for stating their pronouns, for advocating being "safe men" (apparently what we need are dangerous men!), for using contemporary music in worship. (You know, even assembling this list might be a form of mocking; I better quit before I enjoy it too much....) So much of what passes for discourse among Christians (Quakers included) seems so hypercritical and crabby. And I won't even go into all the ways Christians scandalize the secular world we're supposed to be engaging.

For all this negativity, I hear Corrie's words as a severe but refreshing corrective. If the last choice I had in this world would be to stay centered on Christ, can I exercise, or at least imagine, that choice right now? What would that do to my priorities? How would that affect how I communicate what's in my heart and listen to what's in yours?

This same exercise is helping me to confront despair. God is apparently not forcing humanity to make decisive choices concerning global warming (although nobody could accuse God of hiding the evidence). God is not staying the trigger fingers on the front lines in Ukraine. Basically, God doesn't seem to be doing what I spend hours asking God to do. Intellectually I know that we humans have the ability and freedom to treat each other cruelly, to overthrow each other's empires and sabotage democracies, and even to choose self-extinction. We're not guaranteed happy endings to any story at all, except one: our relationship with our Creator. Prayer is an expression of that relationship, but not a form of control. The relationship itself is where we rest.

Corrie's words have implications for evangelism, since (speaking somewhat facetiously here) the higher the proportion of people on our planet who prioritize their relationship with the Creator over the temptations to correct and control others, the better our lives will be. However, that's not likely to happen as long as those who already identify as Christians are not choosing to keep our minds stayed on Christ, who are not realizing that Christ is all we really have.

Here is the power of Corrie ten Boom's words: They correct and refresh without mocking, without controlling. Hers is simply the honest voice of testimony. Can we do likewise?


Earlier vaguely-related posts:


Ecological Grief, an experiential workshop under the care of Quaker Earthcare Witness, is scheduled for September 21, 7:00-8:30 p.m. Eastern (USA) time.

Russia: students recorded a patriotism lesson.

Ivan Safronov is sentenced to prison for 22 years. Why?

"Don't mention the war." Russians and the limits of "agreeableness."

Which is the first commandment of all? (Part of Becky Ankeny's series "Jesus and His Bible.")

The people of Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends: Kendra Purcell remembers her friend Bernie Bosnjak.

Prayer can be difficult. The trees help.


Lightnin' Hopkins. 

01 September 2022

Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev

Dozhd TV on the death of Gorbachev (screenshot from source).


A thread on imprisoned Russian politician Alexey Navalny's Twitter feed yesterday:

1/6 Prison radio reported the death of Mikhail Gorbachev. It was under his rule that the last political prisoners were released in the USSR.

2/6 The fact that today people like me find out about his death through loudspeakers in their prison cells perfectly characterizes the transformation of my country initiated by this outstanding man

3/6 My attitude toward Gorbachev evolved from savage irritation - he was standing in the way of the "radical democrats" I adored - to sad respect.

4/6 When it turned out that those "radical democrats" were mostly thieves and hypocrites, Gorbachev remained one of the very few who did not use power and opportunities for personal gain and enrichment.

5/6 He stepped down peacefully and voluntarily, respecting the will of his constituents. This alone is a great feat by the standards of the former USSR.

6/6 I am sure that his life and history, which were pivotal to the events of the late XX century, will be evaluated far more favorably by posterity than by contemporaries.

My deepest condolences to the family and friends of Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev.


Sputnik (March 1986).

Before Gorbachev, my assumption about the permanence of the Soviet system was summed up perfectly by the title of Alexei Yurchak's excellent book Everything Was Forever, Until it Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation. Ever since Brezhnev and Kosygin pushed out the lively Nikita Khrushchev in 1964 (I heard about that during a drama class in grade school!) and "stagnation" descended on the USSR, it really did seem like "everything was forever."

The death of Brezhnev brought Andropov to power, giving Kremlin-watchers like me a bit of fascination: would the former KGB head turn out to be a game-changer? Then Andropov died, and a safe, elderly placeholder, Konstantin Chernenko, was slotted in. But he, too, died, and this time the Politburo approved Andropov's ally Mikhail Gorbachev as general secretary of the Communist Party, thus the functional head of the USSR.

In those years I was a subscriber to Sputnik, a sort of Soviet-style Reader's Digest. Words like "acceleration," "openness" and "restructuring" began to appear in the magazine, signs that (as I later understood) reflected Gorbachev's belief that the Soviet Union's economy was unsustainable with the nation's then-current management culture and centralized control.

The March 1986 issue of Sputnik contained a special supplement, an essay by Gorbachev on another topic entirely, presented with a kind of vigor that gave me hope. That topic was nuclear disarmament.

The Soviet press had often published formulaic denunciations of war and nuclear weapons, typically including swipes at NATO, the Pentagon, and the wealthy industrialists supplying them. Gorbachev's article was a closely-reasoned essay divided into seven sections, urging the USSR, the USA, and the world to end the threat of nuclear warfare, step by step, by the end of the century.

The Twentieth Century gave humanity the gift of atomic energy. But this great victory of the intellect can become the weapon by which we destroy ourselves.

Can this contradiction be resolved? We are convinced that it can. To find an effective path toward the elimination of nuclear weapons is feasible, if we take up this task without putting it off any longer.

The Soviet Union proposes the implementation, starting with the year 1986, of a program that will liberate humanity from the terror of nuclear catastrophe. And the fact that the United Nations designated this year as the International Year of Peace, serves as an additional political and moral stimulus. This demands approaches that go beyond national egoism, tactical calculations, quarrels and disputes, all of which mean practically nothing in comparison with preserving the principal value: peace, a future we can rely on.

It seems that, on some level, both Gorbachev and Reagan shared this dream, but many in their respective governments did not. Part of Gorbachev's reason for his peace initiative was to divert military spending into civilian purposes, but with Reagan resisting cuts to his "star wars" defense program, Gorbachev saw no possibility of reducing the USSR's strategic position.

In any case, it wasn't the practicality of Gorbachev's proposals that impressed me, it was the combination of idealism and intellectual force, a different tone from the cliches and the often snide defensiveness of past Soviet rhetoric. 

It was only a short time later that the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe challenged Gorbachev to make good on his principle of openness. After several days of the usual dodges, the Soviet press began giving more accurate coverage of the accident's scale and danger.

Sakharov's apartment with the fateful telephone.
On December 25, 1986, dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov, in exile in the city of Gorky, was visited unexpectedly by technicians who installed a phone and told him to expect a call the next day. Gorbachev himself called, informing Sakharov and his wife Elena Bonner that their exile had ended and they were free to return to Moscow.

When this news reached us, we knew we were dealing with something very new. Gorbachev's ideals would, in the end, complicate his life immensely, as Sakharov and his supporters publicly pushed for more radical implementation of those very ideals than Gorbachev was ready or able to deliver. And the gradual end of censorship under Gorbachev amplified the ever-increasing levels of criticism from all sides that came to a head with the attempted coup of August 1991. The coup failed, but its aftermath spelled the end of the Soviet Union, and of Gorbachev's leadership.

This was certainly not the first time that a figure unleashed historical forces that he or she could not control. It's less usual for such a figure to be as elementally decent and, ultimately, loyal to principle above self-preservation, as Gorbachev turned out to be. I believe Navalny is right; Gorbachev will get a more charitable assessment by future historians than he enjoys now.

(Dare I expect this could be true even in Russia?)


Obituaries and commentaries on Mikhail Gorbachev by William Taubman in Politico; Jonathan Steele in The Guardian; Thomas Rowley in openDemocracy. Meduza's Gorbachev photo albumMichael Kimmage in Foreign Affairs:

Despite his self-confidence, his intellectual brilliance, and his dignified bearing, Gorbachev had no idea what he was doing. In the name of preserving a form of Leninism that had little purchase on the actual functioning of the Soviet Union, he undertook a series of actions that quickly spun out of control. After granting individuals and groups greater freedom for the sake of saving the Soviet Union, he had to watch as they employed this freedom to undermine the Soviet Union. He did not understand the motivations of the people he ruled. He did not understand their nationalism. He did not understand their cynicism. He did not understand the role that coercion played in keeping the Soviet Union afloat, and he was thus naive about what would happen when that coercion was diminished through glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring), the buzzwords of his tenure.

Saying goodbye to Bernie Bosnjak (1945-2021), pastor at Hillsboro Friends Church for twenty years: a conversation with Kendra Purcell.

Meetings for worship under the care of Friends World Committee, to pray for peace in Ukraine, are held every Tuesday at 5:30 a.m. Pacific time, 1:30 p.m. in London. There's more information on the Web site of FWCC European and Middle East Section.


The things that Freddie King used to do....

25 August 2022

Ukraine, Roizman, and the future of Russia

Volodymyr Zelenskyy: "Earlier, we talked about 'peace.' Now we say 'victory.'" Screenshot from source.

From Roizman's Twitter account.

An exchange with reporters as Yevgeny Roizman is being led out of his Yekaterinburg apartment by police:

"Why are you being arrested?"

"For one phrase: 'the invasion of Ukraine.'"

"Where did you say that?"

"Everywhere."

In Russia, at the half-year point of the disastrous invasion of Ukraine, someone had the bright idea of arresting one of the genuinely popular Russian political figures, Yevgeny Roizman. Roizman never hesitated in denouncing the war, calling its authors and supporters "traitors to Russia," and replying with salty language to his critics in and out of government.

His popularity doesn't rest solely on his opposition to the current regime. During and after his years as his city's mayor, he held weekly open-door events to which people with seriously ill children and other difficult personal  situations could come, and he would try to get them connected with the medicines, funds, or other help that they needed. He established the Roizman Fund to support this activity. He founded a museum of icons from his region of Russia. He often led urban hikes open to anyone who would like to participate. 

Here, speaking with reporters about Roizman, is the father of a child with muscular dystrophy who got treatment after Roizman intervened. The father is saying, "Every hour that his [Roizman's] work is stopped, every hour another life will be lost." Screenshot from source.

His earthy language, his honesty about his mixed record as a student, and his stint in prison for theft and fraud -- all served to extend his notoriety and popularity well beyond the "liberal" sphere of most dissidents. Some still remember his aggressive and controversial approach to the treatment of addicts during his years with the City without Narcotics organization he ran before his political career started. As in the case of Aleksei Navalny's history of nationalism, this may be a limiting factor with Roizman's popularity among some. But if you've helped thousands of people in their struggles with personal disaster and tangles with bureaucracy, you will earn a place in many people's hearts -- and some of those people are now out on the streets of Yekaterinburg, risking arrest to show their support for Roizman.

"...What is going on now would be impossible..."

Now circulating on Russian-language Twitter is a brief video. It begins with an apparent question-and-answer exchange.

Roizman: "... Honest elections, a free press, and an independent judiciary."

Participant: "A world at peace."

Roizman: "See, that depends directly on what I just said. In other words, what is going on now would be impossible if we had a regular turnover of leadership in power. It would never have happened. You understand, right?"

Here's what I understand. Ukraine is suffering the dramatic and tragic effects of Russia's eight-year war and its six-month-old full-scale invasion. Every day, Russian artillery, bombs, and missiles are visiting violent death, destruction, and dislocation all over the Ukrainian nation, while Russian leadership claims that its slow progress in its "special operation" is explained by its care for civilians! Millions of Ukrainians are external or internal refugees. You don't need me to inventory the awful consequences of this war.

What are the consequences for Russia? I ask this question without any intention to imply that we should compare disasters and find any sort of equivalence. From what I hear, life goes on normally in most of the places I got to know in Russia. Elektrostal's three McDonald's restaurants, now sold, reorganized, and rebranded as "Vkusno -- i tochka" ("Delicious -- period") along with their counterparts throughout Russia, are apparently doing well. People are improvising their way around shortages caused by the departures of western businesses, or finding new ways to import what they want. A few mysterious explosions in the Belgorod region (and more serious incidents in Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine) cause local worries, but in general most of Russia seems oblivious to the war.

The long-term economic consequences for Russia may be more serious, of course, given the loss of access to certain high-tech spare parts, reduction of petroleum and natural gas sales, and the emigration of many talented professionals. But the most serious consequence may be what Roizman pointed to: the utter rigidity of the ruling structure, and its complete subordination to the rule of one man. To that one man's decision to redraw the map of Eastern Europe, whatever his motives, we can link the needless deaths of thousands of Russians, and the diversion of vast amounts of Russia's wealth, in addition to all the costs that Ukraine has borne. To ensure that Putin and his system will never face a "regular turnover of leadership," an Orwellian ban on words such as "war" and "invasion" and the obligatory redefinitions of "fascist" and "Nazi" -- all enforced by threat of prison -- have been added to all the other ways that Russia's civil society faces strangulation.

Of course, nothing is "forever" in Russia. There are political, social, economic, and demographic cracks in the foundation. We will see whether the reaction to Roizman's arrest will add to those cracks. At some point, an earthquake is inevitable. But, judging by Russia's past, such an earthquake is likely to be very costly indeed, even in comparison with Ukraine.


Half a year ago, in the first days of the war, I remember watching webcam feeds on the Internet day and night, especially the cityscapes of Kyiv and Kharkiv, and the cameras at border crossings. I kept vigil on Kyiv at dawn, and Kyiv at dusk, trying to pray away the soldiers, missiles, and shells. I tried to envision hosts of angels in the skies. 

It was an elemental response, nothing of any wisdom or consequence. I did not want to be limited to the obvious alternatives of the world's ways: to arm Ukraine to the gills with ever-more-lethal weaponry, or to placate Russia with concessions under the stupid delusion that Putin could be satisfied. "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." (Ephesians 6:12.)

Now I don't watch the webcams anymore, but I do pray for consciences to be awakened, and trigger fingers to be restrained. I pray for all those dreading the sounds of guns and bombs and the ghostly wail of air raid sirens. I keep up ties with our friends in the region while trying hard not to expose them to even more danger through our contacts. (I honestly don't know what to say when someone writes directly to me, "I feel as if I live in a prison.") I pray for those who cherish their languages and cultures, both Ukrainian and Russian. And I pray that those who are working for truth will be protected and encouraged despite all risks. Their example is important in every time and place -- including in the USA, where our own hold on democracy and the rule of law sometimes seems very precarious.


In this post from a month ago, I referred to Dmitri Bykov's assessment of some of the spiritual costs and risks to Russia in this current war. "It is clear that Russia crossed many red lines. It cannot live any longer as it did in the past. The world will no longer see [in Russia] a place of spirituality, a place of great culture, a place representing victory over fascism."

Report on Yevgeny Roizman in court today.

A disillusioned Russian soldier on the war in Ukraine.

Remembering Frederick Buechner. Washington Post. Christianity Today. Philip Yancey (1997).


"The Sky Is Crying." Allman Brothers with a solo by Derek Trucks.