12 December 2013

Befitting a democracy

"First of all, don't forget that there are at least two Ukraines," cautioned one of our friends when we asked for his opinion on the situation there. "Eastern and Western Ukraine are divided by more than geography. Their economic situations are different, and even the mentalities are sometimes different. What's 'normal' for one group may be very different from what's 'normal' for others."

The situation is made even more complex by the crisscrossing interests of young Europeanists and long-time Russian trade partners, USSR-era politicians and maverick newcomers, industrial and agricultural oligarchs, Russian Orthodox and Greek Catholic believers, and others. Russian-Ukrainian ties are not just historical, political, and economic, they're intensely human--millions of families have members from both countries. (It's only been one generation since they were all in the same country.) But Ukrainian nationalists' anti-Russian grievances also go back a long ways, and those feelings don't necessarily correlate neatly with other social categories.

For all these reasons, I'm extremely distrustful of analyses that neatly fall into the East (read: corrupt, benighted Russia) vs West (read: progressive, democratic Europe) line. Ukrainians have a lot of difficult knots to untangle before choosing the right set of strings to pull, both eastward and westward, to weave a worthy future for themselves. The process will be messier than anyone might prefer, but I think the needed intellectual and political resources are right there in the country.

This is why I'm so steamed about the official American response to the crisis. I'm all for the wise people in the U.S State Department to give quiet, modest, expert advice to anyone who invites it. Millions of American immigrants have direct ties to both Russian and Ukraine, aside from other political and economic realities. But for Kerry and his colleagues to express "disgust," make thinly-veiled threats of sanctions, and issue pronouncements from on high about what does or doesn't "befit a democracy" is not helpful.

We expatriate residents are constantly reminded by our embassies not to get anywhere near mass demonstrations, no matter how innocent or legal they appear to be. But now we're treated to the sight of U.S. assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland wading into crowds of demonstrators, and by some reports even handing food out to them. Reuters reports, "After talks with [Ukrainian president] Yanukovich that lasted more than two hours, she told reporters: 'We also made clear that we believe there is a way out for Ukraine and it is still possible to save Ukraine's European future, and that's what we want to see the president lead, and that's going to require immediate security steps.'" This is apparently the USA's job: to define Ukraine's future and issue requirements, while criticizing the country next door to Ukraine for also attempting to influence events.

Reality check: what would American authorities do if Occupy demonstrators suddenly put up barricades and blocked streets in the center of a big city, tearing up park benches and statues, lighting fires, swinging chains at police officers, occupying government buildings? Would law enforcement reactions necessarily meet John Kerry's definitions of "respect for democratic rights and human dignity"?

I'm not denying that there is a powerful idealistic component to the European yearnings of some Ukrainians, nor am I defending anyone's brass-knuckle tactics in opposing those yearnings. But for our country, the USA, to appear to ignore all the nuances and loudly blunder into an already loaded confrontation, and reinforce the stereotype of arrogant world schoolmaster, seems unhelpful. Grandstanding for "the American way" worldwide is one thing; building practical pathways for a divided Ukraine--and Russia, too!--to enjoy a better future is something very different.

Kazan' Zoo and Botanical Garden

Every year one of the assignments I give my high school students is to write an essay on "whether animals should ever be kept in zoos." I thought of that assignment when we visited the Kazan' zoo earlier this week. We visited most of the animal exhibits and ended up at the enormous greenhouse. Looking around at the amazingly rich collection (the oldest plants are two centuries old) and its undeniably shabby enclosure, one staff member said to us with a mixture of pride and sorrow, "We can't let you up to the second and third levels, it's not safe. But we're glad you like what you see. We're glad to know all our work is worthwhile."

Link to Zoo and Botanical Garden Web site.

Link to conception of Kazan's project to rebuild and upgrade the zoo.

The Gutenberg Bible is online in high resolution! Thanks to openculture.com for this and related links.

The "Secret History" of the author of "Take My Hand, Precious Lord."

Tom Garry on Ukraine: "Time for Bold Magnanimity"

"The Russian opposition is asking itself..."

The Blog of Legal Times: Senator Leahy on the technology industry and reform of National Security Agency bulk data collection.

From the Royal Albert Hall to an Israeli prison: an unusual conscientious objector.

"Let the Linux gaming begin."

Muddy Waters!

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