What a Mensch!

Provocative British novelist and former Conservative MP Louise Mensch outdid even herself today with the following message on Twitter:

Leonard Cohen’s death reminds us that America’s enduring greatness is as multifaceted as a diamond. Russia has nothing. Russia is joyless.

Quite why Cohen’s death should provide an excuse for some Russia-bashing, I cannot imagine, but her tweet provoked an immediate backlash for another reason, with respondents rushing to point out that ‘Cohen was Canadian, you ****!’

Faced with this unpleasant fact, Mensch defended herself by denying that she’d ever said that Cohen was American, and by doubling down on the claim that Russia was a country without culture. ‘No culture is worth anything without Leonard Cohens of its own. You are rock-free, joyless and soulless.’ ‘LOL, “great music scene” in Russia’, she tweeted later.

Boy, oh, boy, what ignorance. Not only does Russia have a vibrant popular music culture, but it has also had its fair share of Cohen-style singer songwriters. Has Louise never heard of Cohen’s contemporaries Vladimir Vysotsky or Bulat Okudzhava, for instance? I guess not. Or maybe she just thinks that they are American too.

‘Pro-Russian’ wins election

No, not Donald Trump, although I’ll mention him later. On Monday, Bulgaria held the first round of its presidential election. In an effort to scare voters into supporting the government’s preferred candidate, Tsetska Tsacheva, outgoing president Rosen Plevneliev warned that Russia is trying ‘to weaken Europe, to divide Europe, and to make us dependent’. Unsaid but implied in Plevneliev’s statement was the idea that a vote for the ‘pro-Russian’ Socialist Party candidate, and former air force general, Rumen Radev, would be a vote for Putin and a vote to turn Bulgaria into a Russian satrap. As Tsacheva has said, ‘There are two options – to allow Bulgaria slide back into its dark past of ideological lies and submission to foreign interests or … to make sure that Bulgaria stays where it belongs, among free European countries’.

Unfortunately for Plevneliev and Tsacheva, Bulgarian voters viewed things differently. Radev came out on top in Monday’s election, winning 25.7% of the vote, compared with 22% for Tsacheva. The two now go face to face in a run-off, which the ‘Red General’ is expected to win.

The dominoes are falling. On 31 October, ‘pro-Russian’ candidate Igor Dodon won 48.2% of the vote in the first round of the Moldovan presidential election, beating ‘pro-European’ Maia Sandu, who garnered only 38.4%. Next to fall was Bulgaria. Now America. Who’s next? France and Marine Le Pen six months from now? No doubt, they’re beginning to panic in the editorial offices of The Economist and The Interpreter. The ‘pro-Russians’ are on the march.

Or, maybe not. I don’t doubt that Dodon, Radev, and Trump are less hostile to Russia than their opponents, but the ‘pro-Russian’ label is misplaced. People who cast their vote on the basis of foreign policy are relatively rare. Most people’s concerns are thoroughly domestic. They don’t vote for Dodon, Radev, Trump, Le Pen, or anybody else because they are ‘pro-Russian.’ They vote for them because they think that their policies better suit their own personal interests as well as the interests of Moldova, Bulgaria, America, or wherever. Dividing the domestic politics of these countries into ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ Russian is not a useful way of framing events.

Moreover, when elected, the ‘pro-Russian’ candidate often turns out not to be so ‘pro-Russian’ after all. Take, for example, Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovich. The Russians didn’t regard him as ‘pro-Russian’ in the slightest, and actually preferred the ‘pro-European’ Yulia Timoshenko. There is no telling whether Trump, Dodon, and Radev will actually be ‘pro-Russian’ once in office. What they will be is pro-American, pro-Moldovan, and pro-Bulgarian. If their own country’s interests clash with those of Russia, they will pursue the former at the expense of the latter. They will also be constrained by their countries’ membership in multilateral institutions (most notably NATO and the EU in the case of the Bulgaria), by their countries’ economic and financial ties with other states, by the pro-NATO, pro-EU, anti-Russian attitudes of their bureaucracies, and so on.

Simply put, the media’s obsession with viewing other countries’ elections in terms of the candidates’ relationship to Russia does a disservice to those countries’ politics and to our understanding of the world.

Book Review: Soviet Space Dogs

As the American presidential election reaches its gruesome end, it’s good to have something to take one’s mind off politics. So, it was with great pleasure that I read Olesya Turkina’s book ‘Soviet Space Dogs’. This tells the story of the canines who participated in the Soviet space program, from Desik and Tsygan, who travelled to a height of 100 kilometres on a R-1V rocket in July 1951, through to Ugolyok and Veterok, who spent 22 days in space in February and March 1966.

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The main heroes of the book are Laika, Belka, and Strelka. Laika was the first animal to reach orbit.  She was blasted into space on 3 November 1957 on what was always going to be a one-way mission, since there was no plan for re-entry. As Soviet Space Dogs reveals, the scientists responsible for her flight knew that the rocket’s heating system was malfunctioning, but went ahead with the launch anyway. As a result, Laika died after just a few hours. The Soviets were well aware of this, but having trumpeted the flight to the international press, were unable to admit it. Pretending that all was well, they provided fabricated updates on Laika’s supposed condition for several days before finally admitting that she had died. The full truth only came out in 2002.

Belka and Strelka had a happier ending. On 19 August 1960, they flew into space, and spent a day in orbit before returning successfully to Earth. They thereby became the first living things to travel into orbit and come back again. The pair became media superstars, and Strelka later gave birth to a litter of six puppies.

The space dogs were a gift to advertisers worldwide. Soviet and foreign manufacturers used the dogs’ images to adorn postcards, cigarette packets, toys, books, commemorative plates, and other objects. As much as the dogs’ stories, what makes Soviet Space Dogs a great buy is the 230 mainly colour photographs showing these items.

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Matchbox label showing Laika
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Strelka and Belka confectionary tin

Friday book # 42 : Three who made a revolution

Natalia Poklonskaia made news again this week by denouncing Trotsky and Lenin, along with Hitler and Mao Tse Tung, as ‘monsters of the twentieth century’. The leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, Gennady Ziuganov, called the equating of Lenin and Hitler ‘an absolute provocation’. Personally, I don’t have any objection to what Poklonskaia said, though I do wonder why she left Stalin out. Collectively, Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin did untold harm. Coincidentally, this week’s Friday book is a biography of the ‘three who made a revolution’, although a better title might be ‘Three who ruined Russia’.

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Blame Canada! … Or Putin

Why are Hillary Clinton and her supporters so obsessed with Vladimir Putin? Do they actually believe that Donald Trump is taking orders from the Kremlin? Or has somebody in the Hillary campaign team decided that the Putin meme is a vote winner and given instructions that everybody is to mention it? If it’s the latter, it’s not working. With a week to go to the US presidential election, Clinton is actually behind Trump in the latest polls. Her response? Double down on the Putin theme. Accuse FBI director James Comey of being a Russian agent, and spread unfounded rumours of a connection between Trump and Alfa Bank. It’s all a little desperate.

Both Russia and the US election have generated reams of silly commentary in recent months, and it’s never been sillier than when the two issues have been combined. Take, for instance, an article in today’s Ottawa Citizen entitled ‘What will you do when Trump’s troops invade?’ According to author Madeline Ashby:

Canada is a country worthy of invasion. Canada has abundant resources of fresh water, oil, coal and timber, all of which will be increasingly important as climate change continues its death march across history. … Would President Trump wait for a pipeline? No. Waiting for a safe and legal pipeline takes too much time. Annexations for oil resources are much simpler.

The idea that President Trump would order an invasion of Canada is absurd enough. But for some reason Ashby feels the need to throw in a reference to Putin too. It’s as if there is a directive from Clinton HQ saying that any mention of Trump has to be followed by a mention of the Russian president. Ignoring the inconvenient fact that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort was an adviser not to Vladimir Putin but to Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich, Ashby says:

Just ask Ukraine. Given Trump’s connections to Putin via ex-adviser Paul Manafort, and his pro-Kremlin foreign policy positions, it’s not a daring leap of imagination to consider that Trump might put Putin’s tactics to use regarding Canada.

So, let’s get this right. Not only might Trump invade Canada, but if he does so, it’s because Vladimir Putin inspired him. Part of me wants to think that this article is a spoof. But political commentary has become so deranged of late that it is no longer possible to tell what is a joke and what is for real.