Tag Archives: Mexico

Times: “Top Secret Russian Unit Seeks to Destabilize Europe, Security Officials Say”

8 Oct

No kidding.  Is this a surprise to anybody? 

Someone I know in the Greek foreign service once said to me that he thinks Western policy towards Russia is not even leftover post-Cold War, but that it’s perhaps even an unconscious but very persistent and irrational remnant of Great Game mentality left over in the Anglo-Saxon world/mind that influences the rest of the West.  And if you know a bit, that’s a smart analysis.

But even if you start from there you immediately have to turn to the chicken-or-the-egg dynamic that’s happening here and that has obtained in the world’s policy towards  Russia and vice-versa for almost forever.  You can’t always treat Russia like the big, drunken thug that needs to kept out of the club by the bouncers and not expect them to react with a defensive — and offended — stance.

It seems impossible to get out of the West’s mind the sense that Russia is an inherent enemy that needs to constantly and aggressively be watched and contained instead of accepted, and expect it to not be actively aggressive in return.  What “accepting” Russia would mean exactly is tricky and needs to be thought out — but needs to be given a chance in terms of policy.  We might get our rocks off by saying that Putin is a bad, strong-man who’s unacceptable in x amount of ways, undemocratic blah blah.  But some thoughtful expressions of good will towards Russians might eventually be the precisely the “soft power” that prods Russians on to getting rid of Putin themselves — and all the other huge flood of positive changes that might, and will, come in his eventual disappearance from the scene.

I’ve said before, in “Syria, Russia, ISIS and what to do about everything” :

“First and foremost and again: let Russia in. ENGAGE RUSSIA. We all have everything to gain and nothing to lose if we stop treating Russia like a pariah nation. Russian power is not a threat and can instead prove massively useful to the world if we bring Russia into the fold instead of trying to desperately keep her out of everywhere and even foolishly try and fence her in. It may be a little more complicated than a simplistic “more flies with honey” theory but whatever it is we choose to describe as Russian aggression, Russia sees as defensive and that may not be an irrational response from a powerful nation that sees itself treated as an amoral being that is constantly excluded from all the West’s major moves.

“And I’m talking about radical engagement: not just lifting sanctions and trade blocks and visa requirements. I’m talking about making Russia a part of the European family of nations, as laughably dysfunctional as that family may be looking right now. Why are Montenegro or Georgia on the list of candidates for NATO membership — Montenegro probably as some sleazy old promise offered to it if it seceded from Serbia; and Georgia, one of the oldest polities in the Russians’ sphere of influence (for better or worse and partly of its own initiative at the start) and with a complicated love-hate relationship between them – while Russia itself is not?  Too big to absorb. Well, yes, but my point is to stop thinking of her as an entity to control and absorb and start thinking of her as a political and especially military power that’s just too enormous to not have as an ally in the current struggle we’re engaged in.

“ISIS (and Turkey to some degree) ticked off the Russians bad and they have already done more to weaken the “caliphate” in the past few weeks than all other Western actions combined. Is it escalating the conflict? There is no escalating this conflict: when your enemy is sworn to escalate it to the maximum, and there’s no reason to think they’re bluffing, you’re already there. Yes, there’s reason to fear that Russia – which uses Powell-Doctrine-type “overwhelming force” more than the United States ever has – will go too far and turn central Syria and Raqqa into a Chechnya and Grozny, but the best way to limit those kinds of excesses are to enter into some coordinated action with Russia and not just allow her to act alone. Because we’re going to need Russia when the air campaign needs to stop, when at some point it will. And that’s when I predict that Russia will also be willing to send in men on the ground and I don’t mean just a few special operations groups. While they’re certainly not eager to send their young men off to die in another Afghanistan or Chechnya, this has already – again, for better or worse – become a sort of Holy War for Russians and they will be far less squeamish about sending in troops than any other European society or even the United States at this point. And working with them on such an operation will not only increase its efficacy but limit the risks and excesses.

“In the end bringing Russia in from the outside will also change it from the inside; as the nation itself feels less like it has to be on the constant defensive, then so will the Russian government adopt a more open and progressive attitude to its own internal political life.   This is what we saw happening in Turkey in the early 2000s when European Union accession was still a negotiable reality; much of what Turkey and Erdoğan have turned into since are a result of those cards being taken off the table. Do it for everyone then, for us and for them. Engage Russia; it’s a win-win proposition.

And in The first two of my cents on Ukraine and Russia…“:

“So treating Russia like a pariah will only play into Putin’s hand.  That’s, in fact, what has happened; the whole country has fallen in line behind him and anything like the РОССИЯ БЕЗ ПУТИНА — “Russia without Putin” — protests of two years ago would be considered, in a spontaneous act of socially unanimous censoring, pure treason these days with no one even daring to publicly air such opinions in the current heady climate of nationalist excitement.”

“History, climate, geography have always conspired to isolate Russia.  And, in a sense, the pathos that drives Russian history and is the force behind her brilliant civilizational achievements (and, yes, her imperialism too), is  that of a constant, heroic struggle to break out of that isolation and find her place in the larger world.  Yacking on, like Snyder, about how Ukraine is somehow “essential” and central to the very idea of Europe (when, ironically, it’s very name means “the edge”…the edge of what? of Russia/Poland…the EDGE of Europe…what an elevation of status Snyder grants Podunk…), while treating Russia as dispensable or as a dangerous threat that needs to be hemmed around and contained — isolated again — is criminally unfair to Russians (if not to Putin and his cronies) and will end up backfiring on the West in ways it hasn’t even begun to anticipate.  Russia is not dispensable.  Nor is she to be ignored or patronized.  We think of her in those terms and the results will just get uglier and messier.”

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

October 4th: “San Francisco de Asis Orante,” Diego Velázquez and Zurbarán

4 Oct

San Francisco de Asís Orante Diego Velásquez“San Francisco de Asis Orante” — Diego Velázquez

One — I always loved San Francisco among Catholic saints, and the affective weight of the name triples in tonnage through, two — a deeply loved, truly, sweet, saintly Neapolitan friend that goes as Francesco — or Franceschì to me, and, three — the other F. who was the terrifying amour fou of my life who got away and left me like a piece of roadkill.  Look out for him in the videos I’m posting soon…among all the other beautiful Mexican faces.

I thought of posting the usual airy-fairy Giotto images of Saint Francis, the bright early Renaissance pastels of Francis preaching to the birds, images that are more a spoon-full-of-sugar and palatable for the New-Age squeamishness we call religion.

But after this past Sunday’s “CATALAN PRIDE” celebrations, I’ve been in a Counter-Reformation mood: dark, High Catholic, mysterious Spanish, Castilian and Andalusian…and am kinda immersing myself in paintings of the above and below type, with skulls and crosses and not enough blood as I would’ve wanted.

Zurbarán - San Francisco

“San Francisco” — Francisco de Zurbarán

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

See “Родные” — “Close Relations” — at the MMI in Astoria

23 Sep

Bad translation.  “Pодные”…”rodnye” means intimate, familiar, related; by extension born-beloved, dear one, cared for, same root in Russian as parents, birth, homeland, Christmas…wouldn’t be surprised if it has the same Indo-European roots as “root”.

Rodnye Vitaly Mansky

Vitaly Mansky‘s documentary is being screened this coming weekend and the next at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens.  (See schedule. It’s two train stops into Queens, guys.  Then you can have a nice dinner for half of what you pay in Manhttan at a good friend and koumbaro‘s place: Mar’s.)

“In this follow-up to his award-winning documentary Under the Sun, filmmaker Vitaly Mansky examines Ukrainian society amidst the 2014 national election, a period rife with political chaos and growing uncertainty over national identity and integration. As both a Russian citizen and native Ukrainian, Mansky deftly underscores personal and political complexities as he visits with relatives living in Lvov, Odessa, the Crimean peninsula, and the Donbass region, and in the process discovers a wide and disorienting spectrum of outlooks and affiliations, including his own sense of ongoing exile and unease. Close Relations is at once an intimate family portrait and a graceful journalistic endeavor, a movie of the intense present that illuminates a place caught between a troubled past and an anxious future.”

Watch the trailer below.

Lots of moving, “disorienting” footage.  Also, lots of humor, which reminds us that so much of a certain ironic, sardonic take on the world — a viewpoint “from a certain angle”, as E.M. Forster said of Cavafy — that we in the United States think is particularly Jewish, is really just a trait common to all eastern Europe, even Greece, or perhaps just a trait common to the powerless everywhere:

“Crimea was a pity, but the Donbass…they can have it.” *

But I think the most important moment in terms of geopolitics comes at 1:15:

“So Ukraine decided to join NATO.  Isn’t that its own business?”

“Nyyyyyet!”

…comes the reply without a moment’s hesitation.

“Nyet” with its palatized “n” and final “t” is one of humanity’s great no-words.  Like “yok” in Turkish, it literally means “there isn’t” or “Il n’y a pas”.  But while “yok” has a kind of know-nothing passivity about it, “nyet” is an active “Halt!  No way you’re going further down this road.  There’s no access.” **

That moment in Mansky’s doc is why, despite widespread support for a Putin I find repulsive, I can’t get as angry at Russians as I get at Trump Americans and Türk-doğans; because Russians aren’t stupid.  They’re not as smart as they used to be in the old days, при коммунизме, when everybody knew not to believe any-thing.  They now believe all kinds of nonsense.  And they went and got religion on me too, which is one of my life’s greatest watch-what-you-wish-fors.  But they’re still pretty intelligent about the world.

I can’t get inside Putin’s head, like Ben Judah convincingly does in what’s still the best book on the Путинщина, the “Putin-ness” or the “Putin thang.”  Judah’s thesis is that Putin is really just a nebech apparatchik who others put in his place and who now — having trampled over so many people on his way up — is terrified of stepping down and that the macho persona he so tiringly projects masks mega insecurity.  It almost makes you feel sorry for him.

But this relative of Mansky’s and her coldly realpolitik “nyet” tell you why he has so many Russians’ support.  Because it means: nyet, you can’t tell me that the U.S. and NATO suddenly developed a major crush on Estonia and Georgia; nyet, you can’t suddenly tell me you’re interested in Ukraine too, because this was already starting to feel like a corporate raid on all the old girlfriends who dumped me, but Ukraine, especially, is like hitting on my sister; nyet, you can’t moan and groan about how we’re violating a basic credo of the European Union by changing borders, when neither Russia or Ukraine are part of the European Union and you wouldn’t even have considered Ukraine — with its resources, access to the Black Sea and huge Russian population —  a candidate if it weren’t a way to totally encircle Russia; and, nyet, you can’t tell us that you’re not still treating us with a Cold War mentality that you inherited from an Anglo tradition of Great Game power struggle that doesn’t apply anymore and is now completely counter-productive.

At least talk some truth and maybe we can get somewhere.  And then I’ll reconsider breaking up with Putin.

In the meantime, we can try to think of everyone as “close relations.”

For more on these issues see: The first two of my cents on Ukraine and Russia… from a couple of years ago, and more on the imperative to engage Russia in Syria, Russia, ISIS and what to do about everything“.

Putin Judah Fragle Empire

************************************************************************************* * The Donbass, the river Don basin is part of southeast Russia and the Russian-speaking parts of eastern Ukraine where the current conflict is centered.  From The first two of my cents on Ukraine and Russia“:

“Also, thence, a crucial point: that Ukraine wasn’t so much conquered, but settled by Russia…

“The independent “frontiersmen” mentality of the Russians of these areas, a sort of Russian Texas  — among its ethnic Cossack peoples especially — should not be underestimated and should not be disregarded as a possible element in the current conflict.  (See: And Quiet Flows the Don at Amazon and at Wiki.)”

“Новая Россия,” (Novaya Rossiya), New Russia, is not a Putinism.  It’s a name for these lands that goes back to Catherine the Great and the first serious subduing of Cossack rebelliousness and settling of Russians in the region in the 18th century.  It was part of the Russian empire’s most fertile grain-producing regions and then the scene of crazy industrialization under the Bolsheviks; maybe it was once a sort of “Russian Texas” but now it’s more like a sort of Russian Rust-Belt.  Hence, the “they can have it” comment.  The Soviet Army, decapitated by Stalin’s purges of its most talented and experienced, and ill-prepared and ill-equipped, only made the Nazi sweep through Ukraine grind to a halt once the Germans had made it this far east and after hundreds of thousands of Russian men had already been sent to a meaningless death and the Nazis had swept the old lands of the Pale clean of Jews through massive massacring and mass executions which were an integral part of the military strategy of the eastern front; many military historians believe that if the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union hadn’t been slowed by German troops stopping every other community to round up and shoot its Jews (a method/process that killed more Jews than the gas chambers did), they might have been successful in beating the coming of winter and more successful in their campaign long-term.  The region then became the scene of brutal attrition warfare, culminating in the siege of Stalingrad (now reverted back to its original name, Волгоград / Volgograd on map below).  This left the region seriously trashed and so huge numbers of Russian workers were settled there post-WWII, Russianizing the Ukrainian far east even further and setting the stage for today’s conflict.

Map of the Don Basin.  The grey line shows the border between Russia (РОССИЯ) and Ukraine (УКРАИНА) and the broken grey lines in Ukrainian east indicate the Lugansk (Луганск) and Donetsk (Донетск)

Don_basin

** “У меня денег нет” (“U menya deneg nyet”) in Russian is the same structure as the Turkish “Benim param yok” — “I don’t have any money.”  Though Russian has a verb for “to have” like other Slavic languages, these structures both mean, literally: “By me there’s no money” or “My money isn’t there/isn’t by me.”  Wondering whether it’s a construction Russian acquired through contact with Tatar.  There is apparently a phenomenon where languages effect each other and transmit certain properties between them, though there’s no large bilingual population to bring them together and though they’re not genetically related, at least not closely.  The absence of an infinitive, for example, in modern Greek, Albanian, Bulgarian and Romanian/Vlach, though each are from different Indo-European families and more closely related languages have an infinitive, is one good example.  Also, Yiddish “by mir” (as in “By mir bist du shayn”) which is like the Russian по-моему (“according to me”) — for me, in my opinion.  Though German uses “bei mir” also to mean same thing.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

“Those of us who love Naples…”

4 Jan

“…are constantly called upon to defend her…” writes Shirley Hazzard in her  The Ancient Shore: Dispatches from Naples.

Screen Shot 2015-01-03 at 7.36.15 PM

And yet how can you not?  That’s what I thought when the Times came out with this article a few days before Christmas:In Naples, Gift of Coffee to Strangers Never Seenabout the Neapolitan tradition of buying two coffees at an espresso bar and only drinking one, leaving behind the paid receipt on the second one for someone who can’t afford it — “sospeso,” suspended — to enjoy.

Screen Shot 2015-01-03 at 7.40.33 PMThe Storico Gran Caffè Gambrinus, which honors the Neapolitan tradition of the “suspended coffee.” The practice, which boomed during World War II, has found a revival in recent years. Gianni Cipriano for The New York Times (click)

There may not be anything particularly Neapolitan about such a tradition of anonymous generosity — except perhaps the poverty it was born from.  But there is something distinctly Italian about the idea that even the poorest person deserves a moment of luxury and pleasure.  You could leave old shoes or clothes too.  Or donate money to someone.  But an aromatic stretto is a gift of a different order because it confers another order of dignity on the recipient: a moment of rich joy at a beautiful place like Gambrinus (shown in pic).

Surfeit and excess has always been the mark of sacrifice and offering.  I remember going to the Virgin of Guadalupe on Fourteenth Street here in New York once on December 12th, her feast day.  And young Mexican guys bringing massive flower arrangements — massive, layered, wedding-like affairs — in her honor; bouquets that easily could have cost these guys a night’s restaurant pay or more.  But, in some sense, sacrifice is about being free, if just for that day and that moment, of necessity.  “My cup runneth over.”  I’m not bound by the material limitations of my existence.  Not today.  I expand and give.  Like the Christmas carol: “A child shivers in the cold, let us bring Him silver and gold.”  Not blankets, or food for His mom, or pampers.  Luxury.  Opulence.

I don’t get a chance to write about Naples as often as I want to.  Here’s a piece from an old post about a favorite film:

“[Garrone’s] Gomorrah is a must, must see film.  The trailer kind of stupidly makes it sound like a mob film — albeit an ‘unromantic’ one — but it’s really about a hundred deeper things: the loss of the profound Italian love for the land and its fruits; the destruction of centuries of Italian craftsmanship; the beauty of the language of one of the world’s most ancient and unfairly maligned cities; the environmental degradation that comes from moral degradation; and the fraying of the social bonds and ties that once made life for the poor bearable.  SEE it.  You’ll never look at a peach the same way again.  It’ll break your heart.”

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

The first two of my cents on Ukraine and Russia…

31 Aug

01UKRAINE1-master675

Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters (click)

See this story from the Times: Putin Urges Talks on Greater Autonomy for Eastern Ukraine,” which I’m pretty sure was his objective to begin with: force a crisis to get so bad and then negotiate for autonomy.  What repercussions that will have for Ukraine’s future or what patterns it’ll set for other areas (like the Baltic countries — Putin’s most vociferous critics — or Central Asia) of the former Soviet/Russian sphere that contain large Russian minorities has to be seen.

Belgravia Dispatch had an excellent and frighteningly prescient opinion piece on the escalating Ukrainian crisis back in March:  What To Do–And Not Do–About Ukraine — which, unfortunately, the whole world ignored and whose worse case scenarios have now come true, including the annexation of Crimea and what I think it is now safe to call a full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces and not just a rebel movement of local Russian separatists.

One important point from me, first and up front: the West can rush to get tough on Russia if it wants to; I can guarantee you that Russians are tougher.  This is a point that Gregory Djerejian on Belgravia makes and one that has certainly manifested itself in exactly the way he predicted.  We need to remember that this generation of Russians that has come of age since the momentous changes of the nineties are the first generation in that people’s history, perhaps, to not have been dragged to hell and back at least once in their lifetime.  They’re proud — rightfully, I feel — of their capacity for survival.  This isn’t an expression of support on my part for Putin’s cheap machismo: my loathing for him and his posturing, his whole persona and everything he represents — including the craven adulation of him that is Russians at their most infantile — is something I’ve written on endlessly.  It’s just stating a fact that the West should be aware of: they’re not going to be pushed around.  Think hard before you put them in a position where they have to prove that to you…because they will.  So treating Russia like a pariah will only play into Putin’s hand.  That’s, in fact, what has happened; the whole country has fallen in line behind him and anything like the РОССИЯ БЕЗ ПУТИНА — “Russia without Putin” — protests of two years ago would be considered, in a spontaneous act of socially unanimous censoring, pure treason these days with no one even daring to publicly air such opinions in the current heady climate of nationalist excitement.

The other point is one that Belgravia makes right off the top of his post with the following quotes:

Yet, Kievan Russia, like the golden days of childhood, was never dimmed in the memory of the Russian nation. In the pure fountain of her literary works anyone who wills can quench his religious thirst; in her venerable authors he can find his guide through the complexities of the modern world. Kievan Christianity has the same value for the Russian religious mind as Pushkin for the artistic sense: that of a standard, a golden measure, a royal way.”

–Georgy Fedotov

“The problem of the origin of the first Russian state, that of Kiev, is exceedingly complex and controversial.”

–Nicholas Riasanovksy

“Without Ukraine, Russia can remain an empire, but it cannot remain Russia.”

–Title of a recent article in Russkoye Obozreniye, a Russian periodical.

This was one of the first things you would’ve realized if you were on the ground in Russia this July and August like I was (but despite my suggestions to several industry friends and acquaintances, no Western journalists seemed to think that the “story” was not just in Donetsk or Luhansk, but in living rooms and at kitchen tables in Moscow and Petersburg and countless other places): that is that Russians simply don’t consider Ukraine a foreign country or foreign culture.  I’m not making a judgement call on whether that’s right or wrong or imperialist on their part or not; judging such sentiments “ethically” or putting them through the political-correctness grinder is pointless and counter-productive.  It’s just that their historical experiences have led Russians — and arguably, till a certain point, had led most of the people who now call themselves Ukrainians — to think that way: that they were both intimately and inseparably related, and there’s as much point in calling those feelings “wrong” as there would be in your therapist telling you that your neuroses are “wrong.”  And so Russians were/are, in fact, in shock that the rest of the world thinks it has no role to play in Ukraine or no vital interests in political developments there.  The reason that this doesn’t seem to register in Western consciousness is a result of the fact that the West is so immersed in thinking along an ethnicity-based nation-state model of discrete national units with clear, essentialized, historical trajectories, that it is incapable of seeing nationalism as a construct: flexible, malleable, unclear, even “made-up-as-you-go-along” if you will — so that Russians, and the new Ukrainian nationalists, can have radically opposing views on what their relationship is, without either of them being “wrong.”  As brilliant a historian as Timothy Snyder, author of the devastating Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin is capable of writing in The New Republic this past May, in an article called: The Battle in Ukraine Means Everything  the following:

“Ukraine does of course have a history. The territory of today’s Ukraine can very easily be placed within every major epoch of the European past. Kiev’s history of east Slavic statehood begins in Kiev a millennium ago. Its encounter with Moscow came after centuries of rule from places like Vilnius and Warsaw, and the incorporation of Ukrainian lands into the Soviet Union came only after military and political struggles convinced the Bolsheviks themselves that Ukraine had to be treated as a distinct political unit. After Kiev was occupied a dozen times, the Red Army was victorious, and a Soviet Ukraine was established as part of the new Soviet Union in 1922.”

Snyder’s history — “of course” — with its suggestion of a straight, uninterrupted historical lineage of “Ukrainian-ness” from Kievan Rus’ to modern Ukraine is just patent bullsh*t, and is one that simply chooses, in the glossing-over-of-breaks-and-ruptures fashion and in the fabricating of false unities that nationalist narratives always engage in, to ignore several fundamental, historical realities: one, the fact that the Russian principalities that rose up in the northern forests of what we now consider the Russian heartland after Kiev’s demise at the hands of the Mongol-Tatars — Vladimir, Pskov, Novgorod and later Moscow and its unifying power — were more highly conscious of their political descent from early mediaeval Kiev and were, in fundamental ways, far more its true political and cultural and spiritual heirs than any “Ukrainian” polity could even try to claim to be until the twentieth century; two, that most of what is now Ukraine had already been part of Russia for more than two centuries before the Bolshevik revolution; and that, three, before that, the western quarter of it, maybe, was Polish and then Austrian, while much of the rest — through “every major epoch of the European past…” — was just a frontier no-man’s-land, a coming-and-going corridor for nomadic peoples either conquering or fleeing someone else.  (You can find a place for each and every corner of the world in “every major epoch of the European past” if you want to; that doesn’t mean it was central or even remotely important to that past.)  Also, thence, a crucial point: that Ukraine wasn’t so much conquered, but settled by Russia, while Snyder’s quote taken on its own makes it sound like an eternal Ukraine, populated by a people who had always thought of themselves as solidly and eternally Ukrainian, was just subjugated by the Soviet Union in the twenties.*  So it ignores all the ways that “Ukrainian-ness,” a term that did not even come into common usage until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was the product of a complex negotiation and mixture of different sub-identities converging from different directions in those fertile flatlands and has always, in that sense, been bound up in a million intricate ways with the history of its larger kin-nation to the north.  But we’re making the same mistake I believe we made in Yugoslavia: seeing the “nation” as something essential and essentialized, first and foremost; and secondly, assuming that the nationalism of the powerful player — in this case Russia, in the Yugoslav case, the Serbs — is pathological, inherently oppressive and dangerous, while ignoring the fact that the nationalism of the “little” — in these cases, Ukraine, and in Yugoslavia, that poor, powerless victim, Croatia — can not only be just as venomous and illiberal and murderous, but is often more so because it has a point to prove or a chip on its shoulder.  But the West is so in love with what by now should be the completely discredited Wilsonian idea of “self-determination” (while simultaneously supporting the “inviolability” of national borders**) that it fails to see that dark truth.  I’ll probably need to get into greater historical detail in another post in order to clarify a bit better.

(And now I’m ready for the barrage of accusations that all I ever do is knee-jerk defend my Orthodox brethren, but that’s cool; it’s just par for the course.)

History, climate, geography have always conspired to isolate Russia.  And, in a sense, the pathos that drives Russian history and is the force behind her brilliant civilizational achievements (and, yes, her imperialism too), is  that of a constant, heroic struggle to break out of that isolation and find her place in the larger world.  Yacking on, like Snyder, about how Ukraine is somehow “essential” and central to the very idea of Europe (when, ironically, it’s very name means “the edge”…the edge of what? of Russia/Poland…the EDGE of Europe…what an elevation of status Snyder grants Podunk…), while treating Russia as dispensable or as a dangerous threat that needs to be hemmed around and contained — isolated again — is criminally unfair to Russians (if not to Putin and his cronies) and will end up backfiring on the West in ways it hasn’t even begun to anticipate.  Russia is not dispensable.  Nor is she to be ignored or patronized.  We think of her in those terms and the results will just get uglier and messier.

bloodlandsweb

**************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************

* There’s even a subtle subtext to the narrative of the Revolution and subsequent Civil War that Snyder gives us, which suggests some kind of identity between Ukrainian-ness and White Russian resistance to the Bolsheviks, when, in fact, I think that if the White Russian movement can be said to have had an ethnic or regional “base,” it was among the Russians of eastern Ukraine (the grandfathers of these very separatists of today? I wouldn’t know…) and the neighboring parts of southeastern Russia that stretch to the Caucasus.  The independent “frontiersmen” mentality of the Russians of these areas, a sort of Russian Texas  — among its ethnic Cossack peoples especially — should not be underestimated and should not be disregarded as a possible element in the current conflict.  (See: And Quiet Flows the Don at Amazon and at Wiki.)

** The contradiction between the ideas of self-determination for peoples and the inviolability of borders — a contradiction that can’t be avoided if we keep thinking in terms of the EBNS (ethnicity-based nation-state) — has plagued do-gooder Western policies in all parts of the non-Western world from Wilson and Paris till Helsinki and still does.  And this despite the fact that its randomness and practical inapplicability has been made so obviously clear on so many occasions: if Croatia can secede from Yugoslavia, why can’t Krajina Serbs secede from Croatia?  If Ukraine deserves — has an inalienable right — to be a country independent of Russia, then why doesn’t its overwhelmingly Russian eastern parts have an inalienable right to be independent of Ukraine?

As for where it all started, Crimea, I hate to report to outraged Western observers that of all parts of Ukraine, Crimea was always the area with a practically non-existent Ukrainian element in its population.  Not that the March “referendum” was not a total farce.  But if any people have a right to Crimea and to feeling displaced and dispossessed it’s Crimean Tatars — not Ukrainians.  Hell, just to play Devil’s advocate…the millenia of Greek presence on the northern shores of the Black Sea, and the numerous Greek mercantile communities that existed in Crimea and around the Sea of Azov until the twentieth century (Chekhov attended a Greek elementary school in Taganrog), even give us a technically greater ethnic claim to Crimea than it does to Ukrainians.

In any event, I knew as far back as the early nineties, that sooner or later Russia would find a way to take Crimea back and am actually surprised it took so long.  The drang nach süden impulse that drove Russian imperial policy for hundreds of years — the equivalent of American “Manifest Destiny” — south into Ukraine and on to the Black Sea, with the ultimate objective of a re-Orthodoxed Constantinople and Russia as a Mediterranean and world super-power with access to India and the East, was not a desire for the rich soils of the Dnieper valley.  It was a need for access to warm weather ports.  Crimea thus became a crucial site for the base and deployment of Russian and then Soviet naval power and there was no way that it was just going to be handed over so casually.  Ask the United States to just hand over Camp Pendleton and Twenty-Nine Palms, the naval bases at Coronado and Loma Catalina, along with the whole San Diego metropolitan area, to Mexico.  Or just grant Hawaii its independence.  Or give it to Japan.  Or try, even, just to get the U.S. to close its base in Okinawa!  It’s the same thing.  Is this an apology for imperialism?  No.  It’s just a statement of a historical and political reality that can’t be ignored.  Or one that it’s necessarily the West’s business to “fix.”

Note: The Ukrainian national case or argument may have one key point that is rarely discussed and is surprising to me in that sense.  I’m not certain of it, but it may be that eastern Ukraine acquired its overwhelming Russian ethnic character because it was the region hardest hit and left most depopulated by Lenin and Stalin’s murderous collectivization disaster, and that many Russians were settled there afterwards when the region was turned into one of the industrial heartlands of the Soviet Union.  This is seriously guessing on my part and someone with greater knowledge should be sought out for a definitive answer.

A corollary to that is the hypocrisy of western Ukrainians, the most fanatical nationalists and perhaps the most extreme element on the Ukrainian political stage today (whom Putin uses, of course, to paint all Ukrainian nationalists as fascists and Nazi collaborators), who did not suffer any of the horrors of collectivization and famine because they were under Polish rule at the time — not always so benign either — and only became part of the Soviet Union in 1945.  Yet, they use those events as some of the main tools in their anti-Russian arsenal.  Furthermore, just as many Russians suffered during those violent socioeconomic processes and it’s a slightly cheap appropriation to call them a purely Ukrainian set of humanitarian disasters.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

The Annunciation: “And I thank you for choosing me…”

25 Mar

AnnunciationSantaMariaMaggiore

The Annunciation of the Virgin mosaic from Rome’s Santa Maria Maggiore (click)

Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to a terrified, barely post-adolescent Jewish girl in a village in Galilee and told her that she was going to become God’s mother.  And in one of the greatest acts of moral bravery in history, this — what? fourteen-year-old? — Jewish girl said: “Yeah…ok.”

This is a “yes” which we should all pray to be given the opportunity to offer up to some one or to some greater thing, in even the tiniest of manners, at some one point in our lives.  It, oddly enough or not, always puts me in mind of the name “Reza,” which I’ve always loved on Persian men, since as far as I understand it, it means “willingness, acceptance, consent…” a saying-yes to Life or to the Divine Will.  (The other is “Peyman,” with its comparable sense of promise and commitment.)  Except in Mary’s case it’s a “saying-yes” that’s particularly female in its bravery, since she barely understands what’s being asked of her and she consents out of pure love, and most men find such consent difficult without first knowing what glory there is in it for them.  Instead Mary does the glorifying:

Μεγαλύνει ἡ ψυχή μου τὸν Κύριον καὶ ἠγαλλίασεν τὸ πνεῦμά μου ἐπὶ τῷ Θεῷ τῷ σωτῆρί μου,
ὅτι ἐπέβλεψεν ἐπὶ τὴν ταπείνωσιν τῆς δούλης αυτοῦ. ἰδοὺ γὰρ ἀπὸ τοῦ νῦν μακαριοῦσίν με πᾶσαι αἱ γενεαί,
ὅτι ἐποίησέν μοι μεγάλα ὁ δυνατός, καὶ ἅγιον τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ, καὶ τὸ ἔλεος αὐτοῦ εἰς γενεὰς καὶ γενεὰς τοῖς φοβουμένοις αυτόν.
Ἐποίησεν κράτος ἐν βραχίονι αὐτοῦ, διεσκόρπισεν ὑπερηφάνους διανοίᾳ καρδίας αὐτῶν·
καθεῖλεν δυνάστας ἀπὸ θρόνων καὶ ὕψωσεν ταπεινούς, πεινῶντας ἐνέπλησεν ἀγαθῶν καὶ πλουτοῦντας ἐξαπέστειλεν κενούς.
ἀντελάβετο Ἰσραὴλ παιδὸς αὐτοῦ, μνησθῆναι ἐλέους, καθὼς ἐλάλησεν πρὸς τοὺς πατέρας ἡμῶν τῷ Αβραὰμ καὶ τῷ σπέρματι αὐτοῦ εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα.

46 And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord,

47 And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

48 For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.

49 For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name.

50 And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation.

51 He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

52 He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.

53 He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.

54 He hath helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy;

55 As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.

That’s March 25th: the Annunciation of the Virgin.  The rest — by which we mostly mean Greek Independence Day — is bullshit.  Nothing that led to the establishment of the first independent Kingdom of Greece happened on March 25th.  There were sporadic outbreaks of rebellion, some semi-coordinated, among Ottoman Greeks throughout the Empire in the early spring of 1821, but there was no raising of any standards, or launching of any campaigns or declarations of any kind made on March 25, 1821 as far as we know.  Except for sporadic massacring nothing much occurred at all that year until the fall, when, only with foreign help, the Greek rebels were able to finally take Tripolitsa in the Peloponnese and butcher the majority of its Muslim and Jewish — meaning practically its entire — population.  And eventually all that happened is that the Greek statelet slapped its observation of Independence Day onto the Annunciation in a conscious-or-not appropriation of the holiday’s already inherent meanings of conception, inception and beginning (I think that, the Julian Calendar still in operation at the time, March 25th was also Easter Sunday that year so, with the theme of Resurrection added, the temptation was irresistible) and so Althusser’s Ideological State Apparatus smothered one of the loveliest holidays of the Church with flags and parades and tanks and national anthem sap and all the other cheezy trappings of N/S patriotism.

But by the same token, the Annunciation itself was slapped by the Church onto the pre-existing observation of the Vernal Equinox (by a few days), the Persian Zoroastrian New Year, Nowruz, the first day of spring, the first day of the month of Aries — with its already inherent meanings of conception, inception and beginning.  And fast forward nine months, exactly (she was nothing if not on-time our Pantanassa*) and we have Christ born on (or near) another Zoroastrian holiday, Yalda, which marks the Winter Solstice and the beginning of the lengthened days and the Sun’s return to our lives.  The Winter Solstice, in more ancient Iranian religion, was the birth date of the deity Mithra, often associated with the Sun, and who — guess what? — was often said to be born in a cave, of a virgin mother, and who saved the world through the sacrifice of a bull along with a whole other complex of shifting tales and myths that I’m not an expert on.

But though Mithra seemed to fade into a secondary deity in classical Sassanian Zoroastrianism, he was accepted with great fervor and enthusiasm into the highly eclectic polytheism of the late Roman world, where he was especially popular in the Roman army.  Many of the latter emperors were devout followers and there are historians that believe — seems like a bit of an exaggeration to me — that the West came close to being a Mithraic civilization instead of a Christian one.  But the Church slapped Christ’s December 25th birthday onto Mithra’s (I’m simplifying some) and that was the end of Mithraism.  Which is a bummer, because by the Second Century A.D., Mithraism had evolved, in Roman hands, into a super-butch, male virility bull-cult for an initiated military elite, all wrapped-up in the full panoply of Hermetic-Alexandrian-Astrological wisdom, where Roman officers and soldiers gathered in caves and commemorated the sacrificed bull and honored its blood  (we don’t really know what occurred because it was only for the initiated but a sacrifice and subsequent shared meal of some kind was probably involved) and Christianity is kinda — well — is kind of lacking in those kinds of thrills.  One of my best beloved Roman ancestors, Julian the Apostate (the subject of four Cavafy poems), a fascinating figure, who was both a devotee of Mithra and an initiate into the Eleusinian mysteries, tried to reverse his uncle Constantine’s establishment of Christianity as the Roman state religion and give support to the traditional pagan cults, their rites, rituals and sacrifices, but it was already too late.  People just wanted their blood as metaphor by then, a shift in consciousness that has always been considered psychic or intellectual progress of some kind though — like the shift to monotheism itself — I could never quite understand why.  Those of us who still like reality better still have and have always had Spain though; that’s unless the European Union and PETA and the Catalans take their sanitary Handy-Wipes to the corrida too and that’ll be the real end.

Ah, but even then we’ll still have Mexico…

"Tauroctony" - Mithras slaying a bull

Mithra and the Bull, from the Vatican Museum (no other info) (click: it’s a huge and beautiful file)

What conclusions can we draw from all this?  One, is that humanity is not particularly imaginative and just kinda copies itself over and over ad infinitum.  Second, is the idea that often comes up when looking at our zone, thinking about “our parts,” more closely — and that’s the simple conclusion that everything is Persian.  Not just our food, our music or dance, our dress, our color palette, our poetic sensibility and ideas about love, but our common penchant for narrative cycles of martyrdom and rebirth (see: “Ashura 1435: a poem from Agha Shahid Ali”) and the deeper structures of our spiritual psyches.  It’s tempting; instead of the inane arguments about what’s Greek and what’s Arab and what’s Indian and what’s Turkish — everything is Persian, and be done with it.  Alexander seemed to have gotten it; shouldn’t be too hard for the rest of us.  But probably the truth lies and always will lie with Jung: and that is that all of the imaginary activity of the human unconscious operates on one, unified, symbolic grid of archetypes.

Chronia Polla to those whose namedays are today.  And signing off this post with R&B singer Lauryn Hill’s beautiful “To Zion” where the subtitle of this post comes from.  This was a song that came from her real-life experience of having to choose between having an unexpected baby and sticking with her career.  “One day…you gonna understand…”  Lyrics are below:

“To Zion”

Unsure of what the balance held
I touched my belly overwhelmed
By what I had been chosen to perform
But then an angel came one day
Told me to kneel down and pray
For unto me a man child would be born
Woe this crazy circumstance
I knew his life deserved a chance
But everybody told me to be smart
Look at your career they said,
“Lauryn, baby use your head”
But instead I chose to use my heart

Now the joy of my world is in Zion
Now the joy of my world is in Zion

How beautiful if nothing more
Than to wait at Zion’s door
I’ve never been in love like this before
Now let me pray to keep you from
The perils that will surely come
See life for you my prince has just begun
And I thank you for choosing me
To come through unto life to be
A beautiful reflection of His grace
See I know that a gift so great
Is only one God could create
And I’m reminded every time I see your face

That the joy of my world is in Zion
Now the joy of my world is in Zion
Now the joy of my world is in Zion
Now the joy of my world is in Zion

Marching, marching, marching to Zion
Marching, marching
Marching, marching, marching to Zion
Beautiful, beautiful Zion
[repeat to end of song]

*************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************

*”παντάνασσα,” pantanassa, is one of my favorite epithets for the Virgin, but whether it means “all-breathing, giver-of-breath, breath-granting” I can’t tell, nor can anybody else I know.

**Latest addendum note: Beloved dinosaur cousin — who is the always the one one should go to for these question, since he’s a monster of erudition in most fields, but especially Greek language, informs us that Pantanassa has nothing to do with breath or breathing, as many of us must assume, but: Η άνασσα είναι το θηλυκό του άνακτος (ονομαστική: άναξ), του βασιλέως (εξ ου και ανάκτορα).  “Anassa” is the feminine form of “Anax,” meaning king, same root as “Anaktora,” or palace.  So it simply means “Queen of Queens,” which is kind of disappointingly Catholic-sounding.  Speaks to a whole history of Greek and Latin vocabulary mixing itself up, replacing, re-replacing, disappearing and then appearing again, especially in titles of government or military due to initial composite character of Byzantine state structure.  I’m assuming, i.e., άνασσα was already an archaically Greek word at the time, for example, the Chairetismoi were written.

And a personal sensory note:  According to the guidelines of Orthodox fasting, which if observed carefully constitute the most elegantly designed spiritual economy of partaking and abstaining one can imagine (probably only Hinduism could produce a more intelligent  schema) — again, the guidelines, not the rules, meaning it doesn’t affect your G.P.A. at the end of term if you slip up, like if you’re Catholic — fish is considered meat, and is not eaten during Lent.  But there are festive days, essentially the Annunciation and Palm Sunday, which even in the sorrow of Lent, should be marked as Feasts, and then the eating of fish is practically obligatory.  Today in the streets of Greek neighborhoods, therefore, here in Athens or in Astoria, in apartment house corridors and restaurants, the smell of fried bacalao is all-pervasive.  One of my strongest sensory memories of Holy Week as a child is being taken to the matins for Holy Monday on Palm Sunday evening, the first of the so-called “Nymphios” or “Bridegroom” services (the reference being to Christ coming to Jerusalem for Passover and to meet his fate) and all the old women in church smelling like fish fritanga.

And a really interesting article from Wiki about “Tauroctony” or “Bull-slaying” if you’re interested in the phenomenon religio-anthropologically.  Again, the best book, that’s both an anthropology of Mediterranean bull cults and the best sociological history of Spanish bullfighting there is, is Timothy Mitchell’s “Blood Sport: A Social History of Spanish Bullfighting.”

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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