Friday, December 31, 2004

Happy New Year!

Here in Moscow fireworks, and car alarms, have already been going off all over town. Kids shoot off rockets from streetcorners, they explode right in front of our window on the street. BANG! and then the car alarms follow.

Strange, considering the pervasive fear of terrorism, that they sell fireworks all over Moscow--and not just cherry bombs, lots of giant rockets--almost everywhere, and they are shot off in parks, on streetcorners, almost anywhere.

Putin announced his big Novi God present for Russia--ten days of paid vacation from January 1st to 10th for all workers. Everyone is very happy about that, as Russian Orthodox Christmas is on the 7th and New Year on the 12th. All offices and government buildings will be closed, but concerts, museums, and cultural activities, such as the Russian Winter music festival at the music conservatory and Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, will continue as usual.

We can't give you ten days of paid vacation, but we wish all our readers a happy, healthy, and peaceful New Year. May your dreams come true in 2005...

Monday, December 27, 2004

The Tsunami Tragedy

Russian television news has broadcast extensive coverage of the tsunami in the Indian Ocean that has killed thousands of people so far, leaving many more homeless.

The Russian government is shipping aid to Southeast Asian nations affected by the killer wave. TV news features massive Russian cargo planes being loaded with supplies. It's not just politics. Among the victims were Russian tourists, spending the Novi God holiday in the warm climates of India, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives. TV news featured Putin meeting with is minister of emergency affairs, other ministers, spokespeople for travel agencies, and the families of loved ones lost in the worst natural disaster in years. When Putin gets involved personally, on TV (they show him talking to his ministers at a little table, actually discussing the actions government will take, not simple photo opportunties like in the US), it is a high priority for the government of Russia. Russia also has a history of friendly relations with India and other nations in Southeast Asia (remember Vietnam?).

The footage of death and destruction Sri Lanka has been affecting, particularly since two years ago we stayed at the Bentota Beach Hotel, in the southern part of the Island. Our rooms was on the ground floor, right on the beach, and we can imagine the horror facing tapped tourists in their last moments. There are very few roads in Sri Lanka, and it would have been difficult to evacuate the coastal villages, even with proper warning. The tragedy is all the more horrible because Sri Lanka has faced years of civil war between the Hindu Tamil Tigers and the the Buddhist majority. That is why our hotel cost only $20 per person, while a similar room in the Maldives cost about a thousand dollars.

It was Tamil tigers who pioneered the use of suicide bombers. And they kept at it until India dropped support after the assasination of their prime minister by a Tamil extremist (the Tamils originally come from Tamil Nadu, a state in India also hit by the tsunami). Without state support, the terrorism and extremism dropped off. A lesson for our own war on terror, and a reminder that suicide bombers are not peculiar to Islam.

By the time a temporary cease-fire took effect a couple of years ago some 60,000 Sri Lankan's had been killed in Tamil Tiger violence.

Rothschild's Fiddle

Last night, saw a theatrical adaptation of Anton Chekhov's short story,Rothschild's Fiddle, at the Moscow Theatre of Young Viewers.

The show was directed by Kama Glinkas in a very un-Stanislavsky style, more like contemporary New York-- lots of mugging and prancing around on big symbolic set that looked like Samuel Beckett as furnished by Ikea. The theatre program didn't have much information, but published a rave review from the New York Times, which give you some idea...

Chekhov's story is a parable of Russian-Jewish relations, and while this production was kind of distracting (there is also an opera and a film, my google search shows) it was thought-provoking and worth seeing.

Moscow is not exactly a Jewish city, but there is still a Jewish presence, even after years of emigration. Mayor Luzhkov was on TV lighting the Hannukah menorah with Russia's Chief Rabbi, Beryl Lazar, who looks like a Lubavitch from Brooklyn (though the sect originated here). The old choral synagogue in Kitai Gorod has been restored, and a gleaming steel and glass new synagogue is under construction near fashionable Tverskoy Boulevard. A holiday television special featured Russian Army soldiers holding hands and dancing to a rendition "Hava Nagila".

And yet, somehow, "Rothschild's Fiddle" reminds one that Russian-Jewish relations are complicated, have not always been nice, and subject to sudden change...

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Irony of Fate

Last night the Russia TV channel broadcast IRONY OF FATE, OR ENJOY YOUR BATH! a 1975 romantic comedy directed by Eldar Ryazanov. This films is the "It's a Wonderful Life" of Russia, shown every New Year (yesterday was only the Western Christmas, Russian Christmas is January 7th). The story is about two people who accidentally meet, against all odds, as a result of the soulless conformity of Russian architecture and urban planning, when a drunken surgeon flies to St. Petersburg after a night drinking with friends in a banya. He gets in a taxi and goes to his home address (from Moscow), puts his key in the door, opens it--and meets a lonely 34-year old Russian Literature teacher who becomes the love of his life, after some stormy confrontations with her, her boyfriend, and her mother...

It is Russia's favorite movie, and says a lot about the strength of the human spirit in an oppressive and inhuman environment, understandable even to an American with only rudimentary Russian...

Happy Holidays to Roger L. Simon: More Moscow Musings...

Roger L. Simon: Mystery Novelist and Screenwriter ran a nice plug for us on his blog, which has shaken some writer's block--no doubt caused by Culture Shock and adaptation to the Russian Winter.

So, as turnabout is fair play, take a look at his analysis of the AP's problems in covering the war in Iraq.

And since Roger says he likes reading what I have to say about Russia, here are some more thoughts:

Of course, almost everyone in Moscow is on the side of the AP, viewing the toppling of Saddam Hussein, the bombing of Yugoslavia, the support of Georgia and Ukrainian independence as American agression against Russia. Iraq was sort of Russia's Saudi Arabia, an oil partner and Middle East ally, so it sort of makes sense from their point of view. But they don't understand that American's don't see it the same way.

The problem is the same as the one De Tocqueville described in 1835:

There are, at the present time, two great nations in the world which seem to tend towards the same end, although they started from different points: I allude to the Russians and the Americans. Both of them have grown up unnoticed; and whilst the attention of mankind was directed elsewhere, they have suddenly assumed a most prominent place amongst the nations; and the world learned their existence and their greatness at almost the same time.

All other nations seem to have nearly reached their natural limits, and only to be charged with the maintenance of their power; but these are still in the act of growth; all the others are stopped, or continue to advance with extreme difficulty; these are proceeding with ease and with celerity along a path to which the human eye can assign no term. The American struggles against the natural obstacles which oppose him; the adversaries of the Russian are men; the former combats the wilderness and savage life; the latter, civilization with all its weapons and its arts: the conquests of the one are therefore gained by the ploughshare; those of the other by the sword.

The Anglo-American relies upon personal interest to accomplish his ends, and gives free scope to the unguided exertions and common-sense of the citizens; the Russian centers all the authority of society in a single arm; the principal instrument of the former is freedom; of the latter servitude. Their starting-point is different, and their courses are not the same; yet each of them seems to be marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.

This insight was repeated 175 year later by Dmitri Simes, in "After the Collapse: Russia Seeks its Place as a Great Power," when he observed:

Russia derived little material benefit from its imperial possessions. This was a consequence of the fact that Russian empire building was primarily driven by the needs of an absolutist government to expand its reach, not an outward flow of merchants or settlers. Its dynamics were precisely opposite to the building of the American nation.

Until Americans and Russians realize they are still using different "operating systems," misunderstandings between the two nations are bound to continue.

Just yesterday, an educated Russian told me that the solution to the Ukraine crisis will be for the Crimea to secede--since it was a mistake for Kruschev to give this historically Russian territory to Ukraine in the days of the Soviet Union. This was not government propaganda, but dinner table conversation...

Friday, December 24, 2004

Merry Christmas from the Diplomad

The Diplomad reflects on the meaning of Christmas in an American Embassy:

"As an American Jewish kid I just assumed I was destined to grow up to be worshipped or be Master of the Universe. But, sigh, I took the Foreign Service exam instead, and got married, and have voted straight Republican since 1972. I know, I know, I am a disappointment to my people, all those hopes and dreams . . . shattered!

"Life's too short. Everybody enjoy and let others enjoy the great freedoms we have. And every Jewish kid in America should have on his wall the names and pictures of the greatest friends the Jewish people ever had: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Reagan, Bush and the millions of GIs who tore the guts out of Hitler's war machine and whose grandchildren continue to keep us free."

Leon Aron on Ukraine's Election

In Moscow, it would seem that many here agree with whatLeon Aron writes about tomorrow's election in the Ukraine. The country is divided between Russian-speaking Orthodox in the East and Ukrainian-speaking Catholics in the West. (This religious division is one of the fault lines in Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations):

"By the same token, those among Yushchenko's more radical supporters in Ukraine and the West who advocate the abrupt removal of Ukraine from the Russian sphere of influence must face the facts. In addition to the cultural, linguistic and ethnic bonds (there are 8.3 million ethnic Russians among Ukraine's 48 million citizens), economic imperatives are straightforward.
In what amounts to perhaps the world's largest, albeit unheralded, bilateral assistance program, Russia supplies Ukraine with oil and gas at prices that are way below the world market's. The precise size of Ukraine's overall debt for oil and gas is anyone's guess, but conservatively it cannot be less than $2 billion to $3 billion. (By contrast, the U.S. annual assistance to Ukraine is $150 million.)

"Millions of Ukrainians work in Russia (often illegally) and their remittances provide a significant although largely uncounted portion of the Ukrainian gross domestic product.

"To his credit, as an underdog Yushchenko has been very considerate of the feelings and preferences of his Russian-speaking compatriots. As a favorite going into the new election and, especially, as the victor, he must redouble the effort of projecting moderation, restraining his more radical supporters and proffering the olive branch to those who voted for his opponent. He might, for example, try to assuage fears of 'de-Russification' by saying that regions themselves ought to decide if Russian should be their second official language.

"In the end, only courage, imagination and hard work will stave an upheaval."

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

S'novim Godim!

Moscow is ablaze with decorations--Grandpa Frost and Snow Princess riding in troikas, giant evergreen trees sparkle with blue lights at major intersections, shops and businesses atwinkle with tinsel and flashing displays.

Also, lots of roosters, chicks, and even little bunnies, as well as babushkas selling dead branches that bloom when placed in a vase of water.

New Year, seems to be a secular Christmas and Easter combined. The Russian calendar takes from the Orient as well as the West--the coming Year of the Rooster is of Chinese origin--and one becomes aware that Eurasia is not just a figure of speech, but a real place, where East and West (contrary to Kipling) meet. For example, Moscow has so many seasonal displays because it is required by law. Shops and businesses that don't put up a holiday bush or colored lights by December 1st are subject to a fine. Which makes for some interesting sights. Such as the Tsimmis Shtetl-themed Jewish restaurant (it has a kosher kitchen) featuring two Christmas trees (Hannukah bushes?) at the entrance--one inside, and one outside...

Happy Holidays!