05 August 2010

Peat-bog shorts

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Caption at site:
There's significantly 
more smoke here 
than in Moscow.
Plotting nearest fires 
on Google Earth.
(As of yesterday.)

More smoky photos.
This is an unusual summer here. The Moscow Region is one of several in western and central Russia that are suffering from record-breaking heat, destroyed and damaged crops, and fires. Forest fires, wildfires, and hard-to-extinguish peat bog fires. Over fifty people have died, thousands are homeless.

It was about a week ago that I first noticed the odd smell in the air--from the various fires burning east and southeast and southwest of us. (See the second image--posted last night.) I was walking out of our apartment building on the way to help water a family garden (using buckets of water hauled out of a well) when I realized that the smog mentioned in the news had descended on us. It dissipated by noon. Yesterday, when I was walking around near the New Humanities Institute, around noon, the smog was a lot more visible, and it wasn't dissipating. It was gone this morning, but this evening it's back. One Moscow doctor was quoted on the news as saying that a few hours of breathing this stuff is equivalent to two packs of cigarettes.

There are several fires burning within a thirty-mile radius of Elektrostal. The nearest seems to be near Elektrogorsk--interestingly the site of the country's first electrical power station to use peat fuel.

I've been coping by staying inside, out of the scorching sunlight and the smog. Yesterday the smell began penetrating the windows and curtains of our apartment. I've actually taken to burning incense--reminding me of my teenage years. Yes, it adds to the smoke, but pleasantly.... (Thank you, Rina!)

Hiroshima Day is upon us again, tomorrow (Friday). I still agree with the sentiments (or anti-sentiments) I expressed five years ago in "How the Grinch stole Hiroshima." But this time I want to urge any American citizens tempted to expend their energy on Hiroshima observances to direct that energy, also or instead, at their Senators: please lobby for them to ratify the New START Treaty. (Friends Committee on National Legislation's information sheet is here, with Senate contact links.) The treaty is not perfect, but it is on the angels' side of the issue. Generations of Democratic and Republican statespeople have poured their efforts into nuclear arms control, and it would be wicked and tragic if either the Senate calendar or demagogues screwed up this latest round. Please write now and ask for a vote before October 8.

Among pundits writing about Russia, it seems to be fashionable these days to ridicule the small-d democrats--the liberals, dissidents, or whatever shifting label you want to use.

It's like the other end of the pendulum swing; a few years ago--for American observers, anyway--our heroes were those resisting the supposed return to authoritarian rule. Everything that the Kremlin powers that be did--things that in any other country might seem like sweet reasonableness--was evidence of dictatorial intentions.

Then someone noticed that when the liberals had their chance, under Yeltsin, chaos ensued. When I first visited Russia in 1975, the dollar and the ruble were roughly the same. In 1994, I found that a dollar was worth more than 4000 rubles. In came Vladimir Putin and his teams, and things stabilized--and the ordinary people of Russia ratified his administration in both surveys and elections.

Now in opposition, the liberals couldn't put together either persuasive platforms or cohesive coalitions. Some of them, however, were adept at getting attention and funding from Western sources for themselves and their non-governmental organizations. In the USA, our politicians cry foul when foreign money is used to influence our political process, and we have laws governing this scene. But our Russia-watchers were most unhappy when Putin and the Duma put equivalent regulations in place for foreign resources seeking to influence Russian politics.

The reality of Russian political life (as in any country) is incredibly complex; no single grid explains everything. Individual politicians, whether in power or out of power, may be motivated by idealism, greed, fear, prejudice, huge egos, uncertainty--and sometimes more than one factor at once. Ordinary Russian people, in my experience, understand this. Not given to hoping for too much, their basic, understandable requirement is that the guy at the top should keep things stable and otherwise leave them alone. They neither demonize nor romanticize their leaders.

Pundits, on the other hand, can't display their wit and wisdom without having villains on which to target their cleverness. For some, Putin and Medvedev have pragmatic credibility with the people of the country, therefore their political opponents are discredited. Worse, their opponents sell themselves out for Western journalists' attention, and for grants and free trips to Western countries. For others, it's the reverse: nothing the Kremlin does is right, and only the opposition's politicians preserve Russia's honor. Most fashionable of all, maybe, is the position that is 100% cynical about all of them. Nobody ever does anything honorable. If Kudrin has a new idea, it must be at Sechin's expense, and every move that Surkov makes is antidemocratic and opportunistic.

Here's my tentative list of heresies:
  1. Many competent people with humane ideals work at all levels of the Russian government. Others take bribes or are plain stupid. In this the Russian government is like most others.
  2. Some Russian liberals really do love Western attention and money. But they're mainly at the celebrity level, and despite their flaws, many of them also have ideals. Meanwhile, at the grassroots, civil society is building--one blog, one journalist, one environmentalist, one city counselor, one automobile association member at a time. To mock all Russian liberals and democrats is simply convenient ignorance.
  3. Among idealists, there can be a sensible division of labor between "prophets" and "collaborators." Some will operate on the inside--clearly there are some within the current administration--and some will be most effective on the outside. This also is true everywhere in the world.
  4. Every country needs a healthy patriotism, and Russia is no exception. Yes, Russia has some supernationalists, and a percentage of those are really scary people. But I find that the larger problem is indifference. In responding to this indifference, Russia's political parties, especially the ruling party, are trying to calibrate their approach to patriotism, and they're bound to get it wrong often. Before we Americans get too critical, however, just remember how much sheer, destructive stupidity is involved in our own politicians' constant attempts to exploit patriotism.
  5. A pundit who is simply clever at Russia's expense, who has no love for the human beings living here, is not worth reading. Russia's latter-day martyrs--journalists, human rights workers, lawyers, ethnic minorities--died because someone thought they were objectively expendable. Why keep reading someone whose writing objectifies people--liberals, politicians, even celebrities--and treats them as intellectually expendable? Life is too short.

Leonard Ravenhill on George Fox.

"How many times have I insisted the people I work with do everything my unique and quirky way?"

"Good, Evil, and Rest for the Weary."

"The man who farts is thus not a man at all. He cannot be taken seriously, nor can any of his ideas or promises or plans."

"Prayer that 'Fights'."

Another expatriate: Champion Jack Dupree. When someone stole the potatoes from my friend's garden (the one I've been helping water), I couldn't help thinking of this song.

Champion Jack Dupree - Diggin' My Potatoes
Загружено Delta_Mike. - Видео клипы, интервью, концерты


Vail Palmer said...

The local paper here in Albany, OR, reports that haze in the Willamette Valley likely came via the prevailing winds from the Russian peat bog fires! Not too serious, though -- I hadn't noticed the haze myself.

Vail Palmer

Johan Maurer said...

Yes, I just heard this from Mark Ankeny, too. What a season. This morning (Sunday here) the smoke seems as thick as ever.