24 November 2021

Khrushchev and "gullible" Americans

To my readers in the USA: Thanksgiving blessings!

Please help me evaluate and improve this site! My readers' survey is here--answer as many or as few questions as you like. Thank you!

A real card-carrying Communist: Nikita Sergeevich Khrushchev's party membership ID (with membership fees for 1954). Source.

I hadn't heard this particular piece of false witness before I saw it in my own relative's post on Facebook:

A sobering reminder. Almost exactly sixty years ago since Russia's Khrushchev delivered his Do you remember September 29, 1959? THIS WAS HIS ENTIRE QUOTE:

"Your children’s children will live under communism. You Americans are so gullible. No, you won’t accept Communism outright, but we’ll keep feeding you small doses of Socialism until you will finally wake up and find that you already have Communism. We won’t have to fight you; We’ll so weaken your economy, until you fall like overripe fruit into our hands." "The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not."

Having studied Soviet and Russian history my whole adult life, this quotation did not ring true to me at all. Khrushchev was blustery, boastful, and prone to "harebrained schemes," as his colleagues charged when they ousted him in 1964, but he was convinced of the superiority of the Soviet Communist system, and seemed certain that this superiority, would, in the long run, "bury" Western capitalism. He really did say that Russia would catch up to, and overtake, the USA, but you will look in vain for any quotation of his that this victory would take place through "small doses of Socialism." The Marxist line is that capitalism itself is fatally flawed, and will fail when the working class becomes fully aware of their own exploitation.

Apparently this "you Americans are so gullible" quotation has been circulating in one form or another for a long time. Here's one review of its history; here's an earlier and more thorough study. And now it's flourishing again:

Three examples of text from Facebook

Graphic version of text posted by nine Facebookers and reposted thousands of times

Notice the enhancements seemingly designed to increase the credibility of this fake: the exact date, the reference to "those that are old enough will remember this" -- and I even found someone willing to say that "It was Sept. 29, 1959, when Khrushchev delivered his prediction for America at the United Nations. I remember this like it was yesterday: The TV showed the coverage of him banging his shoe on the podium." That shoe incident (no podium involved, and perhaps no shoe!) took place in October 1960 in an unrelated context.

Another sharer of this fake quotation added, for good measure, another popular fake: the "eight levels of control" falsely attributed to another stock demon, Saul Alinsky.

I realize that using fake or artfully edited quotations to slander political opponents is not new. What fascinates me is how eager their audiences are to accept them and recirculate them. It's ironic to me that the real "gullible" Americans are not the ones mentioned in the fake Khrushchev text; it's the Americans who believe these sorts of campaigns, whatever side they come from. The graphic version of the Khrushchev quotation has been shared thousands of times from one user's profile alone. I don't have the time or patience to calculate the full circulation of all of these various versions over the years -- and of course I have no way of knowing how many times the repeaters are aware that it's a fake but use it anyway because it reinforces a message. 

What is that message today? Apparently, we are meant to be alarmed by one or more of these threats to our freedom:

  1. Joe Biden's "Build Back Better" program is really a program of creeping socialism.
  2. The Biden presidency is itself a fraud; the real winner of the 2020 U.S. presidential election was his predecessor.
  3. Official public health measures to limit the spread of COVID-19 are part of the socialist conspiracy.
  4. So are efforts to mitigate global warming.
  5. So are efforts to confront systemic racism.
  6. (What have I left off the list?)

To me, Khrushchev's threats (fake and real) now seem faintly ridiculous, the Soviet Union itself having failed, and the Russian Communist party having been utterly marginalized in today's Russia. The USA's Communist parties are microscopic and fragmented, and neither of our two major parties is even remotely socialist (assuming you use honest definitions). Ironically, most of the Russian efforts to subvert politics in the USA now either favor right-wing forces or simply promote cynicism.

My challenge to those who traffic in these fakes: yes, there is an actual threat facing our country. We are witnessing a slow-motion coup by the far right, reinforced by "Christian" nationalists and well-financed by the Trump money machine among others. Are you as ready to consider the evidence for this coup as you are to consider these worn-out fakes? Or are you part of a new generation of gullible Americans?

If you are a Christian who likes to share misleading quotations, here's a post just for you (and me).

The Aspen Institute's report on information disorder in the USA.

Information disorder is a crisis that exacerbates all other crises. When bad information becomes as prevalent, persuasive, and persistent as good information, it creates a chain reaction of harm.

"I don't mean any disrespect" ... seventy years after Joe McCarthy, John Neely Kennedy red-baits Saule Omarovka.

In support of the Freedom to Vote Act.

A film on militarism ... War School: The Battle for Britain's Children. Thanks to Sergei Nikitin for the link.

Josh Wilbur wants to know what religious leaders would do if actual (space) aliens showed up.

GOOD NEWS Associates: A new URL and Web site. Current Associates: Margaret Fraser, Christine Hall, Emily Provance, Jan Wood.

Are you looking for a reason to hope in a season that might tempt you to despair? Becky Ankeny has some words for you.

Caminando con la Biblia: A bilingual Bible study sponsored by Beacon Hill Friends House and Friends World Committee for Consultation.

Right Sharing of World Resources considers adding a partnership in a fourth country (after India, Sierra Leone, and Kenya) and issues its annual report (PDF).

Did I mention I'm running a readers' survey?

For some reason I needed to hear this again:

18 November 2021

Digesting 2005—and reader survey

The year 2005 was the first full year of this blog. As I catch up with my self-imposed task of choosing twelve posts from every year I've been writing here, this is probably my last digest of old material.

Yes, old in some ways. I'm struck by how angry George Bush's presidency made me at times. Little did I know what was awaiting us a little more than a decade later. I think I was more bitter and argumentative in these older posts. Is increasing mildness a virtue? You're a better judge than I am.

On the other hand, sometimes when I read these older posts of mine, I notice how often I revisit the same themes, and basically repeat myself. I comfort myself by reasoning that hardly anyone remembers these old posts!

As I said when I assembled my 2006 digest, most comments on my blog came on the blog itself in the olden days. Nowadays, most comments are made on Facebook. I always appreciate comments, wherever I get them.

Thank you for reading.

January 2005: Jolting Islam Forward

Herbert E. Meyer has just issued "an open letter to opponents of the war in Iraq," arguing that, given the stakes involved (winning a war for the future of Western civilization), the least we opponents can do is be responsible and get with the program, stop whining, and actually do something to shore up the areas where we think the program is weak. To do anything else is aiding the enemy.

A Northwest Yearly Meeting Friend posted this open letter on several Yearly Meeting e-mail lists, saying that "I found this interesting, and thought it worth sharing. While I am against war, Herb has many interesting points to think about."

He was right on several counts. The letter is interesting on its own merits, and gives insights on the ways people in and near power justify the Iraqi war intellectually. Judging by those who link to Herb Meyer's writings, however, he appears to be a hero to many who utterly dismiss us opponents of the war, who celebrate the apparent ascendancy of the neoconservative vision in Washington, and whose rhetoric ranges from sober and intellectual thinking to complete and idiotic nonsense. Some of the latter is sprayed with a repulsive christian deodorant.

(read full post)

February 2005:
Quiet ecstasy

On his Web site, musician Derek Trucks quotes a question he received about his onstage style:

How can you play such soulful music without expressing it physically in your body language. In other words how can you channel all that energy JUST through your playing without cracking more than a grin. Does this help your expressiveness with the instrument or is it just natural?

Derek replies:

I think early on all the musicians that I respected the most just stood or sat there and played (John Coltrane, Ali Akbar Kahn, Duane Allman). It just depends on the musician but for me it feels more natural. As long as I have been on the road people have told me that they thought I wasn't enjoying playing because I looked so bored, but it's actually when I am most aware and engaged.

... It was one of the best concerts I have ever attended. The word "concert" was made for evenings like this: the musicians were completely in concert with themselves and each other. Sure enough, Derek barely moved; often his eyes were closed; he smiled just three times that I could see. But the coordination among the musicians was palpable.

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March 2005: The Return and the cult of the patient woman

On the film The Return:

Referring to the mother as played by Natalia Vdovina, the director Andrei Zvyagintsev says, "My ideal woman? I don't know. I don't know. Maybe it's close to what was shown in the film. Because for me this woman embodied [femininity] ... for me, this is Woman with a capital W. A woman who knows how to be patient, to wait, and is wise. It is like in Russian fairy tales, where there is Vasilisa the Beautiful and Vasilisa the Wise."

Mikhail Krichman, the cinematographer, adds, "I really like the scene in the house. I like very much how Natalia looks there. I like this shot, where she pours wine and dilutes it with water for the kids. How she obediently carries this out and doesn't say anything."

I don't disagree at all with the extraordinary beauty of this scene and of the bedtime scene that follows. Her bearing reflects dignity and endurance ... and extraordinary acting. But I have no context from the story to evaluate whether her response to her husband's absence is from nobility, or strength, or fear, or pathological dependence, or perhaps it represents the calm before the storm. Perhaps the storm (or whatever form the accountability of husband to wife might have taken) happened while the boys were still away from the house.

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April 2005: Leaving Quakers

Here's a great example of a perennial theme, especially in the earlier years of my blog:

About eight years ago, a weighty Friend in Iowa Yearly Meeting (FUM) came to me with a question. He had found a congregation in Iowa that was actually more in accord with what he thought Friends stood for than his Friends meeting. However, he was torn by loyalties to that meeting and to the Yearly Meeting he had served for so long, and to Friends United Meeting. What did I think he should do?

... When I first joined Friends, shortly after my Christian conversion, the joy of finding a church home where a New Testament faith found prophetic social expression carried me blissfully along past the point where a more discerning person might have noticed some gaps along the way. We still find these major gaps among Friends--meetings that specialize in quakerishness and marginalize the living Gospel from which our peculiar discipleship sprang OR meetings that, on the contrary, talk Christian language with enthusiasm but have allowed that precious and still-needed discipleship to atrophy--and eventually these incongruities became the central ingredients in FUM's civil war.

(read full post)

May 2005: Creative discontent

[Referring to Martin Kelley's blog] -- In Martin's May 16 posting, ... he asks, "If we could get a message out to larger Quakerdom, what we want it to be?" I read with great appreciation the responses that have been accumulating as comments to that May 16 item. I am happy that important issues are being raised by Martin and the readers of his blog. I am happy that I don't know most of these people (beyond their familiarity to me as a reader of Martin's blog/forum for over a year) -- this means that a whole new generation of prophetic and creative voices is in the Friends movement, no thanks to previous generations, whose lack of vision and encouragement is frightening. And I am shocked at how many of the diagnoses articulated by these Friends and ex-Friends have arisen in my generation and earlier, remaining unaddressed.

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June 2005: Mississippi mellowing?

I have been following the coverage of the trial of former KKK-man Edgar Ray Killen for his involvement in the deaths of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney, the three Freedom Summer civil rights campaigners murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1964.

I spent most of the summer of 1975 in Mendenhall, Mississippi, working with Voice of Calvary, founded by John Perkins to promote "Black Christian leadership development" and alternative economic structures. Back then it seemed as if the era of civil rights violence was in the distant past; from my current time horizon, of course, things look different. Eleven years between the Freedom Summer campaign and my first visit to Mississippi doesn't seem long now.

Mendenhall looked like many of the stereotypes I'd received of small-town Mississippi—right down to the railroad tracks dividing the races. We summer volunteers (all but one were white) were not popular downtown, with the exception of the Post Office, where we were treated with almost startling courtesy.

(read full post)

July 2005: Chaos and community, 2005

Recently, London's mayor Ken Livingstone and an Israeli spokesperson had an exchange typical for modern public discourse: Livingstone suggested that the way the West treats the Arab world was a cause of terrorism, and that our past miscalculations were coming home to roost; and the spokesperson, along with many others, charged that Livingstone was apologizing for terrorism. We are apparently not allowed to reflect on root causes (no matter how obvious) without being counted among the enemy. "Don't think, just use our message." (See New Statesman, "The Politics of Delusion.")

My first response was to remember a book about dealing with difficult personalities. Sometimes you just have to calmly repeat your truth over and over in the face of such blasts.

I also remembered these words by Yakov Krotov, which I also quoted somewhere in my Evangelism and the Friends Testimonies forum. His advice concerns bearing a courteous Christian witness across lines of faith, but I think his disciplines are useful for general discourse as well. In my mind, I combine these principles with the one from the book on difficult people: keep calmly repeating what you believe, over and over.

... I have formulated five principles which aid me in my efforts not to proselytize, and still bear Christian witness. They are: ...

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August 2005: The Quaker voice

In several parts of the world, not just the USA, the dignified Quakers and the restless Quakers are once again struggling over the issue of "freedom in the Spirit" vs long-standing cautions against emotionalism and manipulation. It's an issue that split second-generation African Friends and continues to cause stress in both Africa and Latin America. The issue is understood differently in different places: articulate, liberal, urban Friends may not recognize that they are under any sort of bondage whatsoever, but let someone speak in tongues or speak twice in the same meeting for worship (setting aside theological allergies for a moment) and the limits of freedom may appear.

One doesn't even have to open one's mouth: the late Fred Boots, a very experienced and well-traveled Evangelical Friend (who used to sell copies of Elias Hicks's journal at Evangelical Friends Church Eastern Region book tables, but that's another story), told of the cold shoulder he and his wife received at one unprogrammed meeting simply for being dressed too well.

One of my own relatives, most of whose experiences had been in unprogrammed Friends but who was a member of a pastoral meeting, visited a meeting in the Philadelphia area. After she introduced herself as a Friend from Richmond, Indiana, a local Friend hastened to explain to the others that "That's a very different kind of Friend."

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September 2005: Books and crosscultural hunger

Judy and I have been attending a Hispanic Mennonite congregation that has been a huge blessing to me. This has been my most sustained exposure to the Spanish-speaking dimension of today's United States. To help me reflect on what I'm learning through that experience, I was eager to read Hector Tobar's Translation Nation: Defining a New American Identity in the Spanish-Speaking United States (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005). As recently as a decade or two ago, the "Spanish-speaking United States" could have been principally defined as a few specific regions within the USA. Now all that has changed. If the Bloomington-Muscatine Friends Church in Iowa can have a significant Hispanic outreach, our reliance on regional assumptions is shaky. It is this reality that Tobar's book presents clearly and engagingly. This excerpt is a great example:

I am in a two-stoplight town in the Alabama hill country, in the heart of the Bible Belt and Crimson Tide football mania, listening to an old-fashioned, heated argument between Cubans like the ones I've heard in Little Havana in Miami, but the moment very quickly loses its sense of strangeness and cultural dissonance. This is what America is like now—North America, I mean, the United States. The craziness of cubanos and mexicanos and guatemaltecos can find you just about anywhere. Juan's smile turns a little mischievous as he reaches into his pocket and pulls out his wallet, searching for something stuck between his driver's license and his Alabama gun license. It is picture slightly larger than a postage stamp of a line of marching rebels on horseback, the portrait of Che Guevara looming behind them.

(read full post)

October 2005: Evil and Islamo-fascism

Evil is back in the news, thanks to President Bush's latest rationale for the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

At the National Endowment for Democracy, Bush outlined an analysis of Islamo-fascism (one of the names for the "evil, but not insane" phenomenon he's describing). This is an important speech. It is as close as I've seen him come to a detailed description of the assumptions behind his lethal adventure in Iraq. It is important for the administration's critics to read and respond to such material, because at the very least, the President is absolutely right concerning the global importance of the issues and trends he's addressing. Just to work the Christian angle for a second: we can neither love nor confront our enemies if we are not willing to look at them straight in the eyes and take in the full measure of their actions, motives, and capabilities.

Unfortunately, the speech does not measure up to what I'd hoped and yearned for—an intelligent, respectful engagement with the claims and grievances (justified and unjustified) and assertions of the presumed enemy. It is a rhetorical hatchet job—frankly, low-grade demagoguery—that does not respect the intelligence of observers either in America or in the rest of the world. Why can't our leaders manage better? Surely Bush and his speechwriters are more intelligent than this—do they think that a more dispassionate, thoughtful, self-reflective analysis would signal weakness? In my mind, this sort of sloganeering presented as leadership is far more damaging.

Some examples: ...

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November 2005: Nancy's questions

We live in an age of consumer spirituality, where people love to display their sophistication by saying that they're spiritual, not religious. People seem to want just enough spiritualness to be cozy, but not enough to overcome the twin idols of affluence and autonomy. These poisons are by no means unique to Quakers, but we have a peculiarly attractive version of them: a sort of delicious antiquarian progressiveness that can deceive us into think we're going deeper than we really are. This cultish quakerishness adulterates the spiritual power of both evangelicals and liberals, and has led to the near-extinction of the precious conservative witness among Friends.

By making our choices a matter of enhancing our own spirituality, and by becoming ultra-squeamish about our corporate biblical roots and our Puritan-era apostolic revival history, we have left GOD out. God desires joy and liberation for us and, through us (as in the early days of Israel), for our neighbors throughout the world.

The way that this joy is shared and liberation accomplished is not by our subtle cleverness, our middle-class politics, by carefully-calibrated "outreach" and transfers of wealth from us to those others lucky enough to know us. It is by relationship: first of all, our relationship with God, then our relationship with each other, and the way we provide access to that relational community by our physical and attitudinal open doors ... for example, adequate meeting space in your [Nancy's] case.

But to get there, we have to give up our cool, our autonomy, our intellectual pride, and confront the twin experiences of conversion and convincement.

(read full post

(read R.W. Tucker's "Revolutionary Faithfulness," which inspired much of this post.)

December 2005: All of me

A couple of Sundays ago, back in Portland, at Reedwood Friends Church, we sang a chorus that went more or less like this:

I want to be a servant, Lord
Please take all of me
I want to be a servant, Lord
Please take all of me....

When programmed meetings and Protestant congregations in general get into the full swing of Advent and Christmas programming, it feels very hard for a prophetic word to wedge its way in. For one thing, a lot of the church culture is riding on the glow of Christmas, the cuteness of kids, the familiar warmth of all the Advent paraphernalia, all of which has undoubted community-building power. But on this particular Sunday, this particular chorus, and this particular sermon, gave my spirit a nudge to stand up during open worship and speak.

The opening was there, but that didn't make speaking easy. What struck me about the chorus (I said) was how little it matched my life. I should rather sing

I'd like to have the reputation of being a servant, Lord,
Please take 10% of me.

Musically, the chorus (as originally written!) swings very nicely. I could usually sing it, with at least an aspirational spin, quite enthusiastically. But as I told Friends that Sunday, the Christian Peacemaker Team members in Baghdad were not 10% servants or witnesses, and now they were certainly not 10% hostages. Their commitment as servants was 100%. We do not yet know what level of sacrifice will be required, and I would rather pray than speculate.

(read full post)

Russia's Jehovah's Witnesses are not extremists.

Neither are the Memorial organizations. In defense of Memory. And: An attempt to erase my memory...

Seven Russian bloggers who will introduce you to their vast country.

How to make comics: a four-part series from the Museum of Modern Art, via openculture.com.

Christopher Stern finds a way to peace. (With thanks to quakerranter.org for the link.)

Saint Paul Meets a Quaker Lady.

Ronnie Baker Brooks and Stacy Brooks -- thanks to 1AnitrasDance.

11 November 2021

Insane clickbait? Game over!!!

Youtube has figured out that I like videos about space travel, so they serve me up with lots of suggestions about the latest rockets and their builders.

Many of those videos have calm, interesting titles and descriptions, and the day is not long enough to view even a small portion of those. That's especially true for a video like this, modestly entitled "Crew-3 Mission | Approach and Docking," that takes more than six hours to watch from beginning to end.

Six hours may seem like a long time, but it's a lot shorter than the preceding video, "Crew-3 Mission | Coast and Rendezvous," which clocks in at nine hours. Strangely enough, that title completely omits the dramatic centerpiece of the video -- the launch!

Many of the videos I'm invited to watch are exactly the opposite: the titles are far more dramatic than the content. Often the titles reflect today's equivalents of the overused superlative "extreme" of a couple of decades ago.

These overly dramatic titles and descriptions are sometimes called "clickbait." This word entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 1999, longer ago than I realized. (According to the OED, clickbait is "Internet content whose main purpose is to encourage users to follow a link to a web page, esp. where that web page is considered to be of low quality or value.")

In our classes at the New Humanities Institute in Elektrostal, Russia, we occasionally presented our students with carefully curated cutting-edge lists of buzzwords and jargon (and sometimes asked them to predict whether those words and phrases would still be in use in five years), but I don't remember "clickbait" being in those lists. I think one of the last classes we did on this topic included the word "binge-watch" ... in case that helps you deduce what years I'm talking about.

Far from exciting my interest, clickbait titles and descriptions of videos relating to space travel usually repel me. Here are the top five words and phrases practically guaranteed to prevent my click:

game over! (which it never is!)

insane! (meaning, as far as I can tell, audacious)

humiliated! (usually comparing one tech entrepreneur/celebrity's success to another)

this is huge! (probably not)

it's happening! (and so is everything else)

I watched one of these videos, out of sheer curiosity and to maintain a shred of integrity for this screed. (What if it really was "game over" and my protests were just ill-informed?) 

GAME OVER! Elon Musk & Google's INSANE Partnership Will Change EVERYTHING 🔥🔥🔥

The video on the "insane" partnership of Elon Musk and Google was underwhelming. The commentator simply described the Starlink/Google collaboration, which was already public news five months earlier, using video clips that were only vaguely related to the narrative, not a single voice other than his own, and no analysis that could not be found in corporate press releases. Youtube doesn't mind, of course -- the video was preceded by two ads.

More samples from one evening's Youtube browsing:

Post from the past: overusing the word "passion."

For my students in Elektrostal: Weird Al Yankovic's Mission Statement. Cable-news financial language.

But why send people to space in the first place? Sian Proctor is in favor; Marina Koren has her doubts.

Israeli crackdown on organizations advocating for Palestinians: 304 U.S.-based organizations ask for a response from the U.S. secretary of state.

Quaker past: Benjamin Lay. President Hoover. (Thanks to Jim Fussell for the Hoover link.)

Quaker future: Johanna Jackson gathers visions.

Everybody wants to know why Chris Cain sings the blues. (From a tribute to B.B. King at Notodden Blues Festival, Norway.)

04 November 2021

Vitaly Vladimirovich Adamenko 1977-2021

Vitaly (right), speaking on the history of conscientious objection and alternative service in Russia, on a video prepared by the Soldiers' Mothers of St. Petersburg, 2017.

Screenshot from another video on alternative service,
with subtitles added by Friends House Moscow.
I want to tell you about our friend Vitaly Adamenko, mathematician, historian of pacifism and nonviolence, editor, librarian, and student of the Tolstoyan movement -- and now, at 44 years of age, a casualty of the COVID pandemic. He died this past Monday in St. Petersburg.

Historian Irina Gordeeva spoke for many of us when she posted these words on Facebook yesterday:

The first thoughts that come to us -- self-centered though they may be -- are these: how will we go on without him? He had such a detailed knowledge of the history of pacifism in Russia that, in one article, I had to write that those who participate in this social movement are ahead of the professional historians by one step. On any little thing I could turn to him for help -- for a clarification, a text.

And I feel so sad on a personal level -- he hadn't even reached 45 years of age.

We first heard of Vitaly through Friends House Moscow, which supported the periodical Alternativshchik ("The Alternative Service Worker"), which was published for conscientious objectors and the church congregations that supported them. At that time, Vitaly lived in Samara. On one of our visits to Buzuluk, the central point for U.S. and British Quakers working for famine relief and economic redevelopment in the early 1920's, we stopped in Samara, and he accompanied us on the train to Buzuluk.

That was how our friendship began. In 2011, when Vitaly needed to do some work in Tolstoyan archives located in Moscow, he stayed with us in our Elektrostal apartment. He returned for another visit three years later. As a vegetarian, he had a strict (it seemed to us) diet, consisting mostly of potatoes. I remember sometimes coming home from the institute where we taught, and seeing a big new pile of potatoes, I'd say to Judy, "I see Vitaly has done his grocery shopping."

Most memorably, we spent hours talking into the night at our kitchen table. Once the subject of Russian persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses came up. He later followed up in a letter to me:

... If they [Jehovah's Witnesses] did not have a principled opposition to violence, there would be no repressions and no attempts to portray them as extremists. Take the Roman Catholics, for example -- everyone knows that the Catholics for several centuries killed their opponents by burning them at the stakes of the Inquisition, but nobody tries to portray them as extremists. Everyone knows that there were Old Believers who incinerated themselves, but nobody tries to prove that the Old Believers are a totalitarian sect. Why? Because each of these, and others, by and large have nothing against participating in state violence and killing. I say "by and large," not wishing to forget about individual exceptions. And if in our country there were similar numbers of Quakers [as Jehovah's Witnesses], there would be a daily campaign to make them out as a totalitarian sect and the principal extremists of our country.

One of his other interests was late Soviet-era rock music. We spent several wonderful evenings looking at his collection of music videos of the bands of that period.

The last time I saw Vitaly was on Zoom, just a couple of months ago, August 29, when he dropped in on our Russian-speaking online Quaker meeting for worship. Later that day, he wrote me, saying that I didn't look any different from years past. I could say the same of him. As one of his fellow team members at tolstoycenter.org said of him, "He is really a unique person with encyclopedic knowledge and a pure heart like a child."

Goodbye for now, Vitaly. Eternal memory!

In our kitchen -- playing Dixit with our students and guests, 2014.

With Judy (left), Kara Maurer, and Anna Thomas, in 2014.

With Sergei Grushko at Friends House Moscow, 2011.

At the Sorochinsk newspaper office, 2011. This building was the headquarters of the U.S. Quakers participating in the Buzuluk-based relief operation. At center: Liubov Surkova, editor at the time.

A quiet moment in our apartment, Elektrostal, 2011.

Vitaly's legacy: the huge online Russian-language Nonviolence Library. The home page bears the sad news of Vitaly's passing, and continues: "... Now our task is to persist and not give up, to find time to communicate and support both our resources and ourselves, to continue adding high-quality content to the site -- now in memory of Vitaly's enormous contribution to the benefit of all seekers."

Once again, here is the bilingual Tolstoy Center for Nonviolence, whose organizers included Vitaly, and for which I served as an editor.

Mondoweiss: The Times Are a-Changin'? (Or, how happy is Israel, really?)

GetReligion gives a hat tip to Al Jazeera's strong coverage of religious persecution.

Emily Provance: When new people show up in your meeting or church ... hooray, and what next? (Part of her series on "being the church.")

Greg Morgan: The Northern Lights and the worshipping community.

Mark Russ on James Cone and white liberal Quakerism.

Steve Guyger in Brazil. "I Tried So Hard."

28 October 2021

Ordinary heroes

I read these two books in quick succession -- first The Good Germans: Resisting the Nazis 1933-1945, then Word for Word: A Translator's Memoir of Literature, Politics, and Survival in Soviet Russia. For the past couple of weeks, while I've been reading them, I feel as if I've been given a glimpse of what it means for ordinary people to keep their heads above water ... or not ... in times where the lives of millions were hanging in the balance as the forces of good and evil struggled, and evil appeared triumphant.

Books and films about such periods often focus on well-known heroes and leaders, or on the wider conflicts and battles that provide convenient mileposts for the chronologies of the times. These two books are on a different scale; at their centers are stories of people who are not exactly typical, but who had no apparent power to influence events -- beyond the power of elemental decency and friendship in their own networks of relationships. Nor did they always make the right choices; both books vividly illustrate the occasions when compromise seems the only way forward.

These two books -- one about Hitler's Germany, the other about the Soviet Union -- are set up very differently. Catrine Clay writes as a historian. With the deliberate goal of shining a light on the two-third of Germans who never voted for the Nazis and who, for the most part, spent the whole of the Third Reich trying to survive unnoticed by their Nazi neighbors, Clay chose six Germans, along with their families and friends, to represent those two-thirds. To the extent possible, she uses letters, diaries, reminiscences, interviews, photos, and other first-hand documentation to bring them to life, but she stands at a writer's remove from them. Lilianna Lungina, on the other hand, is telling her own story. In fact, she is telling filmmaker Oleg Dorman her story, which became a television documentary series before being published as a book. The recording was made in 1997, almost at the last possible moment for such an important record: her dear husband Semyon Lungin died the year before, and Lilianna would die in 1998.

However different these setups might be, the two books have much in common. Families and friendships are always at the center -- nothing is said or done in isolation. As each person is confronted by the need to make fateful choices in the face of oppression, whether naked or subtle, the outcome may reinforce a lifelong alliance -- or prove to be a terrible betrayal.

One of Clay's representative Germans, Rudolf Ditzen, was a writer whom I already knew as the author of the amazing novel of German resistance, Every Man Dies Alone, written under his professional pseudonym Hans Fallada. But, during Nazi times, he was under unrelenting pressure to produce stories whose heroes and plots exalted National Socialism. Sometimes he played for time, putting off the requests to do a book or screenplay for the cause; sometimes he gave up and compromised.

Lilianna openly admits her compromises -- for example, in an incident following the trial of writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel:

When Alik Ginsburg was released from prison, he gathered material on the Sinyavsky-Daniel case and published the so-called White Book. He gave one copy to Nikolai Podgorny, the chairman of the Supreme Soviet, and the other copies he distributed among friends, with the request that they pass them on to others when they had finished reading them. He was arrested again. Sima and I were asked to sign a petition about him, but we refused; because at just that moment, at the end of the 1960s, I had received permission to go to France.... I desperately wanted to go, if only to connect my adult life with my childhood. I was afraid that they wouldn't let me out, I told myself that one more signature wouldn't matter ... I was terribly ashamed of myself. It tormented me, but I still didn't sign.

The cost of compromise is a theme with Catrine Clay as well:

It was the day before the Jewish boycott of 1 April 1933. Sebastian came from a conservative but anti-Nazi family. His best friend was Jewish. Everyone in the [High Court] library was suddenly tense. The library doors were flung open and an SA troop in their brown shirts marched in. They looked like the kind of guys who delivered beer from the local brewery, Sebastian said. They made their way from desk to desk, weeding out the Jews, including the Presiding Judge. Most of them had already picked up their leather briefcases and quietly slipped away -- two months of the Nazi terror regime was enough warning for them, not to mention Hitler's stated aims in Mein Kampf. The remaining Jews in the library were ordered to leave, never to return. But one stubborn student refused, insisting on his rights, and he was duly dragged from his desk, beaten and taken off into 'protective custody'. Then the SA went from desk to desk, checking. No one remonstrated. When they came to Sebastian, they asked: 'Are you an Aryan?' To his eternal shame and humiliation, he later admitted to his close friends, he replied, 'Yes.' As he left the building, he realised he'd betrayed his best friend. Everyone hearing the story ... knew what he meant, and each wondered what he would have done in Sebastian's place.

As I read The Good Germans, I couldn't help thinking of my own German family. I've told how I found out that my grandfather in Japan joined the Nazi party in 1934, even as my grandmother continued her opposition to the Nazis. As for the rest of my relatives, the ones who remained in Germany, I hope that most or all of them were among the suppressed two-thirds, but I honestly don't know.

Mira Perper
Tatiana Pavlova

Word for Word also hit me at a personal level. I almost felt as if I knew Lilianna Lungina personally. I did know a few members of her generation with similar commitments to decency and honor -- historian Tatiana Pavlova, who revived the Quaker movement in Russia, and Mira Perper, a literary scholar who collaborated with Indiana University's Bill Edgerton, among others. The interior scenes of Lungina's home reminded me of their homes, with every available space stuffed with books and papers.

Reading Dorman's printed account of Lungina's reminiscences, you'd think it had been edited for readability, but in fact what he recorded in print is what she spoke into the camera, with unrehearsed clarity and vigor. Here, for example, is her account of how she and her classmates were kicked out of the Communist Youth League (Komsomol), followed by the Youtube excerpt in which she tells that story. I don't think you need to know the language to see what I mean about the clear and vigorous flow of her narrative.

When we were in the eighth grade, the fathers of two of our classmates were arrested.... Later their mothers were arrested, too; but at first it was only their fathers. At the school, a Komsomol meeting was immediately called to expel Volodya and Galya from the ranks, on some charge that appeared utterly awkward and idiotic to me. If young people today are reading this, I hope it will be useful to them to hear about the horrific absurdities of life during that period. Modern-day Communists walk around at demonstrations filled with nostalgia for the old times, and yet back then they expelled a fifteen-year-old boy and girl from the Komsomol because they had not managed to denounce their own parents before they were denounced by the KGBV (then NKVD). How do you like that? Not used to keeping my mouth shut yet, at my paltry fifteen years of age, I stood up and said that it was stupid, absurd, and impossible to expel children. First, no one would denounce their own parents; and, second, how could they have done so, on what grounds? The meeting was adjourned for a time, and after it resumed they expelled me for having dared speaking against their decision.

[When she and a classmate went to the local Komsomol office to protest the decision,] ... Why we had been expelled didn't interest anyone in the least. The expulsions of Galya Lifshitz and Volodya Sosnovsky didn't interest them, either....

I think this was the definitive moment in my disenchantment with the system, and my final rejection of it. I realized that it was rotten to the core. I saw that it was all performance, staged theatrics. I remember this very clearly -- my eighth-grade class, the visit to the local Komsomol office, the degree of apathy we met with, the lack of any desire even to pretend that they wanted to listen to us. This produced a very strong impression on a young, unprejudiced person. I realized that I simply couldn't accept such a system. Later, when my peers, my fellow students, especially during my studies at the Institute for Philosophy, Literature, and History, began to think critically about these matters, and to become disillusioned, it seemed that I was the wise one, that I had seen it all coming much earlier. But I want to stress that it wasn't really so. I had simply learned to exercise freedom of thought during my childhood abroad; and that faculty stayed with me. I wasn't better, or smarter, or more prescient, than anyone else. It was just that certain notions had formed in me early on, and had become so deep-rooted in my soul that even the mind-numbing stupefaction that was inculcated in all of us was powerless against them. This was why I didn't believe in the trials of the "enemies of the people" for a single minute. I was absolutely convinced that it was all staged; there wasn't a drop of doubt in my mind about it.

I'm very glad I have spent the last couple of weeks in the inspiring and sobering company of these ordinary heroes.

Here are a couple of reviews of these books:

On The Good Germans.

On Word for Word.


The Leo Tolstoy Center for Nonviolence has assembled a variety of resources on practical nonviolence. Our old friend Vitalii Adamenko is part of the team behind the project, and I worked on some of the translations into English. In the words of the organizers,

For us, the most important concept in nonviolence is the value of human life. Therefore we focus on replacing the current methods of defense (both personal and collective), recognizing that a sustainable peace is impossible while maintaining violent security forces such as armies and police, the main tools of which are threats, murder, and bodily harm.

We also offer guidance for individuals seeking to live nonviolently — from overcoming personal indifference and aggressiveness, to renouncing citizenship, which is a status that relies on involuntary participation in crimes against human life.

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned Tamara Horsburgh's search for Christians with recent diagnoses of dementia who might be willing to be interviewed for her research on  "the impact of holding the Christian theologies of hope and suffering, when one is first diagnosed with dementia." Here is a simplified information sheet in case you might be willing to be interviewed or know someone who might consider Tamara's invitation.

Timothy Snyder on killing parents in bad faith.

Peter Wehner: "The aggressive, disruptive, and unforgiving mindset that characterizes so much of our politics has found a home in many American churches."

The Chambers Brothers and Joan Baez, "Just a Closer Walk with Thee."

21 October 2021

A great people to be gathered?

Bunhill Fields Friends Meetinghouse (narrow building on right)

Our four weeks in London -- our first international trip in the COVID-19 era -- have just come to an end. Our priority was to spend time with our son, and to get to know his new habitat better. Thanks to London's amazing public transit system, almost everything we wanted to see and do was within half an hour or less from the one or more of the three nearby underground stations or from the bus stop two minutes away from his apartment.

Equally convenient was the nearest Friends meeting, Bunhill Fields, which was a pleasant walk of less than half an hour. Appropriately, most of that walk consisted of the full length of Worship Street. (Toward the end of that stretch you'll find the corner of Worship and Tabernacle streets.)

There were attractive diversions along the way -- and I'm not talking about the bingo parlor on Worship Street. The first quarter-mile or so of the route went right through the Petticoat Lane Market, which takes over the streets of our son's neighborhood every Sunday since about 1650. It's mobbed with bargain hunters going through every sort of clothing, footwear, cosmetics, fabrics, souvenirs of all kinds. Equally diverting are the many languages we heard, most of which I wasn't able to identify. Prices seemed a small fraction of what we saw in stores.

Full of these vivid impressions of good-natured selling, buying, general hustle and bustle among a virtual United Nations on legs, we would arrive at Bunhill Fields Meeting. The meetinghouse and its own tiny plaza bounded by a low wall perfect for sitting in worship, weather permitting, occupied a corner of Quaker Gardens, with a children's playground and a walking path which are in active use at all daylight hours, including worship time. I couldn't help wondering what the people passing by thought about us as we sat in our square circle, worshipping in full view of passers-by. I'm sure many already understood that this was our church, but did any of them feel a tug to find out more?

I had assumed that, during our weeks in London, we might find ourselves in different meetings on different Sundays. For example, I was hoping to visit Westminster Friends on St. Martin's Lane, where I attended worship as a brand new Quaker back in 1975, in my brief stay in London on my way to the Soviet Union. However, the warm welcome we received at Bunhill Fields, and the prayerful atmosphere of that place, settled it for me: that was going to be my Quaker home away from home.

Britain Yearly Meeting's Web site classifies Bunhill Fields Meeting as "small," which is true. The first Sunday we were two out of six in attendance. On our last Sunday, there were eleven in attendance, but several others were visitors like us. The size didn't faze us -- these kinds of numbers were familiar to us from Moscow Friends Meeting. But it did cause me to think once again about a more general question: why are we so few?

Bunhill Fields, for example, is located in a densely populated area. It is right next to an apartment complex called Quaker Court, and another, bearing the familiar name Braithwaite. (I don't know whether Braithwaite House is connected with that well-known Quaker family.) But it doesn't seem that the people who live one or two minutes' walk from the meeting are choosing it as their place of worship. Judging by the warmth of the meeting's welcome to us, two unknowns coming in off the street with no prior warning, this is not because this little congregation is private or standoffish or afraid of newcomers. Nor is there anything secret about the place or its purpose. Most churches I know would love to have the quality of signage that they have -- including the big sign right on the street. It also appears on most reasonably detailed maps of the city, including online maps.

I'm sure that I'm not alone in asking questions like this, and it's not the first time I've chewed on it on this blog. It's just that this hospitable little meeting in a crowded corner of the city vividly demonstrated the very qualities of a congregation that seem to me to be badly needed in our challenging times.

Here are four brief observations -- please comment, if you feel led.

1. In some places, Friends have drifted into a weird sort of low-key exceptionalism. Most effective marketing begins with the audience and its needs, or with God and God's promises, but Friends seem to be compelled to start with us -- how wonderfully subtle our spirituality is, how undemanding we are doctrinally, how advanced we are politically. (This is my impression of Britain Yearly Meeting in particular, so British Friends, please set me straight!) In contrast, some of the other London churches we saw directly addressed people's need to be in God's presence. "Start your morning with God," or words to that effect, said a banner at the front of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, followed by information on a worship opportunity on weekday mornings.

2. That focus on our lack of theological content (which is dishonest on some level) also cuts off a huge part of our potential market. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, it marginalizes people who already know they hunger for God or are already intensely aware of God, but who are seeking for a trustworthy community that honors this knowledge. Maybe I feel this bias more immediately than some because that is exactly the situation I was in when I found Friends. I wanted everything that Christian religion promised, but without the religion industry, without the elaborate trappings, without theatricality, without hierarchies and celebrities and power plays. This is what I found for myself, and I hope against hope that we're not drifting away from the ability to provide that access to Christian experience.

(I know that the things my youthful mind dismissed as theatrics and trappings are deeply meaningful to millions of people, but those people are, in many cases, already taken care of. They've made their own peace with the eternal contents-vs-packaging questions, and I'm less judgmental about that, I hope, than I used to be! If our apparent "Quakerly" rejection of what is precious to others is only for the sake of our own special trivialities and our own comfort, rather than an equal or increased passion to hear and do what God wants us to do in our time and place, that's just vanity.)

3. Quakers who live in skeptical cultures (contemporary England, for example) sometimes seem to become hyper-sensitive to skeptics and lose their teaching voice. On the other hand, Quakers who live in societies with a higher proportion of active Christians are likely to reflect that influence -- and not always with due discernment. Rather than live in self-congratulatory isolation from each other, these Friends need to learn from each other and pray for each other, so that neither group would simply pander to the culture around them, but learn how to be prophets and evangelists rooted in the universal and everlasting Gospel. Where have you experienced this sort of mutual encouragement?

4. In the first formative period of the Quaker movement, George Fox reported that when he climbed Pendle Hill, ... "there atop of the hill I was moved to sound the day of the Lord; and the Lord let me see atop of the hill in what places he had a great people to be gathered." Have we forgotten to ask God where there is now a great people to be gathered in God's power? Have we lost the expectation that such people exist, and that many of them may be very different from the Quakers you and I know best? Do we choose leaders who will keep us safe from such questions?

Related: Are Quakers marginal? part one, part two.

I'm posting this at the end of a long day of plane travel, so I'm sparing you my usual links and music clip. Back to my usual format next week.