14 June 2017

St Petersburg shorts

Crossing St Petersburg's Fontanka River (Lomonosov Bridge)
Soul Kitchen Hostel (recommended!), on the Moika River embankment

Study in Dostoevsky's final home
The high point of this visit to St Petersburg was, for me, a return to Dostoevsky's final home, his apartment on Kuznechny pereulok.

Looking in on the room where he slept and worked -- the room where The Brothers Karamazov was written -- brought back vivid memories of my only previous peek into this same room. It was 42 years ago. At the time, this study and the attached living room were practically all there was of Leningrad's new Dostoevsky Museum, which had been established in 1971, four years earlier. The museum as it exists now has been carefully developed into a first-rate cultural landmark, with lots of explanatory resources in many languages.

Dostoevsky is not necessarily Russians' favorite novelist. I remember our doctor in Noginsk expressing surprise at my admiration for him; she said, "We consider him rather morbid." I can see her point.  He's a total bundle of contradictions, often rambling and disorganized, prejudiced, cranky. His voices argue with his characters, with each other, with the reader. Maybe it was these somewhat shambolic qualities that attracted me as a reader in my teens; he wasn't just telling stories, he seemed to reach through the printed page and demand my response. I enjoyed reading these comments by Himadri Chatterjee, who expresses some of the same wonderment I feel at liking a writer who's not a predictably perfect fit for our own views.

Being on the road has not stopped me from following events in the USA. Yesterday was Jeff Sessions's turn to be questioned by the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee. This particular bit caught my attention:
[Sen. Tom] COTTON: Do you like spy fiction: John le Carre, Daniel Silva, Jason Matthews?

SESSIONS: Yeah, Alan Furst, David Ignatius’ books.

COTTON: Do you like Jason Bourne or James Bond movies?

SESSIONS: No, yes, I do.

COTTON: Have you ever ever in any of these fantastical situations heard of a plot line so ridiculous that a sitting United States senator and an ambassador of a foreign government colluded at an open setting with hundreds of other people to pull off the greatest caper in the history of espionage?

SESSIONS: Thank you for saying that, Senator Cotton. It's just like Through the Looking Glass. I mean, what is this? I explained how in good faith I said I had not met with Russians, because they were suggesting I as a surrogate had been meeting continuously with Russians. I said I didn't meet with them and now, the next thing you know I'm accused of some reception plotting some sort of influence campaign for the American election. It's just beyond my capability to understand, and I really appreciate, Mr. Chairman, the opportunity to at least to be able to say publicly I didn't participate in that and know nothing about it.

COTTON: And I gather that's one reason why you wanted to testify today in public.
(From this transcript, with my unlicensed italicization.)

As much as I suspect that a lot of the Red Threat of Russian mischief is a Red Herring, I understand the need to get a full picture of the situation -- the actual Russian interference (as distinct from sloppy attributions connected with various hackers who also bear tracking down but who might have nothing to do with Russia), and the breakdowns in cyber-discipline and vigilance on the U.S. side.

I also understand how some might look at this whole five-ring circus of Russia-related investigations with incredulity. The Cotton-Sessions exchange is a bit theatrical, given how Cotton presents such a cartoonish summary ("the greatest caper in the history of espionage"). Even so, it seems bizarre that this theme dominates U.S. political news day after day, week after week.

Why all this attention? The answer is relatively simple, and it doesn't primarily involve the supposed danger from Russia. The country is confronted by a challenge that is in itself not provided for by the Constitution or any federal statute: dangerous incompetence at the top of the executive branch, complicated by cowardice in the legislative branch. Neither incompetence nor cowardice are themselves indictable. At the policy level, cruel legislation (health care financing legislation) and devious legislative processes (secret health care financing legislation) are also not statutory crimes. Efforts to change the regime legally and peacefully must necessarily find handles for effective response -- so it is no wonder that those who are alarmed for American democracy have latched onto the Russian scandals.

Thankfully, another track has also developed: lawsuits alleging that the U.S. president has violated his oath of office by not staying clear of foreign emoluments that haven't been approved by Congress. On this track, there is no need to resort to villainous Russian operatives. The villains are mainly domestic. Here, too, however, efforts at changing the regime (either its practices or, failing that, its personnel) may be defeated by venality and cowardice among the Republicans. (Inaccurate scare tactics by Democrats and others don't help.)

The stakes are high; we risk (1) wholesale degradation of ethical standards in government; (2) major damage to social safety nets, environmental regulation, voting rights, and other areas of concern to progressive evangelicals; and (3) disconnection from the global community, including those many millions of actual Russians who have no desire to hack our elections!

D.L. Mayfield asks whether we are seeking "the welfare of the city," or just our own?
Writer Nate J. Lee, responding to a video put out by Hillsong church to announce their intention to plant a church in San Francisco (including the phrases “God has great plans for this city” and “San Fran, the best is yet to come!”), wrote this: “Any kind of language that implies that God’s work or God’s plan starts when we arrive … is indicative not only of terrible theology, but of white Christian exceptionalism, the oppressive belief that the correct kind salvation and healing can only be facilitated through us, on our terms with our methods—and us always happens to be white missionaries, white pastors, and white churches.”

The same critiques can be said of gentrification in general. The problem is not an influx of resources or more diversity (both of which can be very beneficial to everyone, including long-term residents). The problem is the belief that dominant culture is best—so that people move in and change a neighborhood to look just like the last one they left.
What would you ask the Russian president? And does he now lack a compelling story?

Who benefits from transborder corruption -- and who pays for it?

J.R.R. Tolkien's love story.

We've often admired the quality of music education in Russia. And here's a bit of the output! ... performers on Nevsky Prospekt we encountered totally randomly earlier today. (If anyone knows the name of this group or its members, I would really like to give credit.)

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