Happy Days

In a recent post, I discussed the spiritual malaise which afflicted the Russian people during the Soviet era, leading to rampant alcoholism and early death. If anybody doubts that contemporary Russia is successfully overcoming this malaise, then the results of two surveys published last week should enlighten them.

The first survey was produced by the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Centre, VTsIOM (Vserossiiskii Tsentr Izucheniia Obshchestvennogo Mneniia). Its overall index subtracts the percentage of people dissatisfied with their lives from those fully or partly satisfied. As seen from the results below, the overall index has declined from a peak one year ago (perhaps associated with a Crimean annexation feel-good factor), but within that index the percentage of Russians declaring that they are ‘fully or mostly’ satisfied with their lives is currently just below the all-time high registered in February of this year, and nearly twice what it was ten years ago. It seems that Russians are lot happier than they used to be.

Continue reading Happy Days


‘Deterring Russian Aggression’

Not content with extending its bombing campaign in the Middle East to Syria, the Canadian government has announced that it will get involved in yet another country’s war by sending 200 troops to Ukraine. The objectives, we are told, are to deter Russian aggression and to ‘help Ukrainian forces’ personnel to better defend their country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.’

Most of the contingent (150 in total) will train members of the Ukrainian National Guard in Yavoriv in the far west of the country. The remaining 50 Canadians will provide training in explosive ordnance disposal, military policing, military medicine, and logistics. They will join 800 American and 75 British soldiers doing similar jobs.

There are a couple of ways of assessing this decision: the first is in terms of its own internal logic, that is to say examining whether the policy in question is capable of achieving the desired objectives; the second requires stepping outside that logic and questioning the assumptions behind it. The first approach involves asking whether Canada’s action will deter ‘Russian aggression’ and enable the Ukrainians to fight more effectively; the second involves asking whether ‘Russian aggression’ really is the primary cause of Ukraine’s current difficulties.

Looking at the first of these questions, will Canada’s 200 men and women serve as a deterrent? The answer is clearly no. If by ‘Russian aggression’ one means the support which Russia is giving the Donbass rebels, then to date nothing which any Western nation has done, individually or collectively, has had any noticeable impact on Russian behaviour. Certainly, it hasn’t dissuaded Russia from providing aid to the rebellion. In fact, over time Russian assistance to ‘Novorossiia’ has grown steadily. It is quite obvious that Russia will not permit the rebels to be defeated, and Moscow certainly isn’t going to be dissuaded from this objective because 200 unarmed Canadians, located 1,000 kilometres from the front line, are doing a bit of training.

It is also doubtful that the Canadians will help the Ukrainians fight more effectively. Although poor training has been a factor in the Ukrainians’ defeats, it hasn’t been the most important one. After all, the rebels aren’t exactly better trained. The real problem on the Ukrainian side has been very poor high level political and military leadership, which has resulted in a series of major strategic and operational errors. These led to Ukrainian troops being surrounded on at least three occasions – in the ‘southern cauldron’, at Ilovaisk, and at Debaltsevo. No amount of low level tactical proficiency can compensate for failure at the higher level, and since Canada’s training mission does not address that, it won’t do much for the Ukrainians’ overall performance.

Moving on to the second approach mentioned above – questioning assumptions – it is worth noting that Ukraine’s greatest strategic blunder has been the Anti-Terrorist Operation itself. Support for rebellion was actually fairly low a year ago, and the numbers willing to protest, let alone take up arms, was small. A year of living in cities which are being shelled has driven thousands of Donbass residents into the rebel armies. Listening to Canadian politicians and generals speak on the matter, it appears that they view the conflict in Ukraine in utterly black and white terms – the war is the result of ‘Russian aggression’, period. That implies that the solution lies in ‘standing up to Russia’. But this is a grotesque oversimplification of reality. While Russia shares some responsibility for what has happened, the rebels aren’t rebelling because Moscow told them to. They are doing so because they dislike the Ukranian government. Deterring ‘Russian aggression’ is irrelevant to this.

A route to a political settlement does exist. It was laid out in the Minsk II agreement, according to which Kiev must negotiate constitutional reform with the representatives of the provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk. The agreement doesn’t specify who these representatives are, but it is obvious that they have to include the rebel leaders, because the latter will not accept any agreement which does not involve them. Ukraine cannot defeat the rebels by military means. That is now impossible, regardless of how much training Canada or any other country provides. Realistically, the only way to a lasting peace which preserves Ukrainian territorial integrity is for Kiev to strike a deal with the rebel leaders. This means engaging in political negotiation and compromise. Unfortunately, the military training mission not only doesn’t contribute to this but is also likely to strengthen the hand of those within the Ukrainian government who believe that no compromise is necessary.

Politically, therefore, the Canadian mission sends entirely the wrong signals to Kiev, indicating that Western states will support it regardless of the errors it makes and regardless of its degree of willingness to take the steps required for peace.

Ode to Kornilov

On this day (13 April) in 1918, General Lavr Kornilov, briefly Supreme Commander of the Russian Army in July and August 1917 and later one of the founders of the anti-Bolshevik White Volunteer Army, was killed by a Bolshevik shell which landed on his headquarters outside the city of Ekaterinodar in the Kuban region of southern Russia. Below is an ode to Kornilov penned by Ivan Savin in 1925. Ivan Savin (1899-1927) was the pen name of Ivan Savolainen, a Russian Finn who fought in the Volunteer Army in the later stages of the Civil War before going into exile in Finland, where he died in 1927. Savin’s brothers all died in the war, and his poems are full of the pathos of loss – loss of family, of youth, of homeland. In this poem, which was regularly reprinted in émigré military journals, he declares that Kornilov saved Russia’s honour by proving that at least somebody had stood up to the Bolsheviks. The (not very poetic) translation is mine.

Не будь тебя, прочли бы внуки                                                                              В истории: когда зажег                                                                                            Над Русью бунт костры из муки.                                                              Народ, как раб, на плаху лег.

И только ты, бездомный воин,                                                       Причастник русского стыда,                                                                              Был мертвой родины достоин                                                                              В те недостойные года.

И только ты, подняв на битву                                                         Изнемогавших, претворил                                                                             Упрек истории – в молитву                                                                                       У героических могил.

Вот почему с такой любовью,                                                                                 С благословением таким                                                                                Клоню я голову сыновью                                                                                Перед бессмертием твоим.


But for you, our children would have read                                                             In history, that when revolt                                                                                             Kindled in Russia fires of torment;                                                                             The people, like a slave, lay down on the executioner’s block.

And only you, homeless warrior,                                                                                 Sharing in Russia’s shame,                                                                                               Were worthy of the dead motherland                                                                     In those unworthy years.

And only you, having roused                                                                                           The exhausted to battle, turned                                                                                   The reproach of history into a prayer                                                                       By heroes’ graves.

That is why with such love,                                                                                              With such blessing                                                                                                               I bow my head as a son                                                                                                       Before your immortality.

Goodbye Lenin

The city of Donetsk has a Lenin district, a Kalinin district, and a Budyonny district. It has a Lenin Avenue, Ilich Avenue, Alexander Ulyanov Street, Mariia Ulyanova Street, Kalinin Street, Kiubyshev Street, Frunze Street, Kirov Street, 18th Party Congress Street, Red Guards Street, Budyonny Street, Budyonny Partisan Street, Proletarian Street, Red Proletarian Street, Engels Street, and many, many more commemorating the Soviet Union, the Communist Party, and communist heroes past. A law passed by the Ukrainian Parliament this week prohibits all of these. The law bans the promotion of communism, the use of communist symbols (such as the hammer and sickle), and ‘names of streets, squares, enterprises, institutions and organizations who used the names of leaders of the communist regime, the names of the USSR, Soviet Republics, USSR, names associated with the Communist Party congresses, etc.’ Communist symbols, it says, ‘may be used only in the museum, works of art, for the purposes of research and/or as a description of historical events.’

Under the new law, were Donetsk ever to be reintegrated with the rest of Ukraine, all of the place names above would have to change, as would countless others like them in Donetsk and many other towns and villages. As the price of reconciliation, the inhabitants of Eastern Ukraine would have to accept a wholesale rewriting of their history.

What lies behind this sweeping piece of legislation? A couple of reasons come to mind. One has to do with values, another to do with identity. First, some Ukrainians see the survival of a so-called ‘Soviet mentality’ among a significant part of the population (disparagingly referred to as ‘Sovoks’) as a serious obstacle standing in the way of their country becoming a liberal, democratic, Western society. The prevalence of Soviet values in Eastern Ukraine is seen as a major cause of the insurrection there. Supposedly, Ukraine can only achieve its goal of becoming a European country by adopting a new set of values and turning its back decisively on its Soviet past. Second, some other Ukrainians, especially in Western Ukraine, regard communism as an alien, foreign, primarily Russian, ideology, which suppressed and even attempted to exterminate Ukrainian identity. To promote that identity in independent Ukraine, Soviet symbols must be eradicated.

These positions are not completely unreasonable. As I wrote in a previous post, ‘I cannot think of anything positive to say about Lenin, consider communism wrong in theory and disastrous in practice, and view the continuing Soviet mentality as something which Ukraine would be better off without.’ But, as I also wrote, ‘I understand that other people see things differently.’ Attempting to force upon such people a vision of history which they do not share is bound to cause conflict.

In that previous post, I was talking solely about the destruction of Lenin statues. The new law goes far beyond that. It is an assault on the historical identity of a sizeable part of the Ukrainian population. More importantly, it is an assault on the identity of those who are currently in rebellion against the Ukrainian government, many of whom view the Soviet Union as having had some positive characteristics (such as guaranteed employment and social welfare) and as having saved the people of Ukraine from annihilation at the hands of the Nazis during the Great Patriotic War. By outlawing this version of history, the new law places yet another obstacle in the way of national reconciliation. How can we expect the people of Donetsk to agree to end their rebellion if this means that they must agree to the suppression of their history? Even if the makers of the law are correct that communist symbols are undesirable, the way they have chosen to deal with them is entirely counterproductive.

Moreover, it would be ill-advised even without the ideological element, if only because it is likely to result in injured local pride. Imagine that you live on 18th Party Congress Street. Its name might mean nothing to you, and in principle you might be willing to change it. But if the government in Kiev, 700 kilometres away, which you already dislike, orders you to change it, there is a good chance that you might bristle at the idea. And imagine how you would feel if Kiev then tells you that you have to change every other street name in your neighbourhood as well. From the start of the current crisis, the people of Donbass have been demanding a greater say over local affairs. It’s hard to see how they would tolerate intrusion of this sort.

In his book Frontline Ukraine, Richard Sakwa contrasts two visions of Ukraine: the ‘monist’ and the ‘pluralist’. The first seeks to create a country with a homogenous identity. The second believes that Ukraine would be better off celebrating diversity. Sakwa argues that the war in Donbass is largely a product of attempts to impose the first vision at the expense of the second. One might have hoped that the war would have taught those in authority in Kiev that a new approach was needed. Instead, the law outlawing communist symbols suggests that they have decided to double down, and to exploit the emotions created by the war as an opportunity to advance their agenda with extra zeal. They have a choice: either they can continue to pursue their monist agenda, or they can seek reconciliation with Donbass in order to reunite the country. They cannot do both. It seems that they have chosen the former.

Friday object lesson #23: Music box

Last week’s object came from Sergeev Posad: this week’s is something I bought at another Russian religious centre, Suzdal, in 2011 – a tiny music box, which plays an extract from The Nutcracker. Suzdal, which is a couple of hours outside of Moscow, is not the easiest place to get to for the average tourist, but is well worth the visit.


Je suis Val?

In January of this year, the Charlie Hebdo attacks provoked worldwide debate about the right to publish images which others might find offensive. Free speech, most commentators agreed, includes the right to offend.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) apparently disagrees. This week, it cancelled a performance by pianist Valentina Lisitsa on account of comments she made on Twitter about the conflict in Ukraine. Lisitsa is an outspoken opponent of the current Ukrainian government. As a result her performances have become the focus of protest by that government’s supporters. They have sought to persuade orchestras and theatres to boycott her, and in this case, they have succeeded.

Valentina Lisitsa
Valentina Lisitsa

I suggest that there are a number of factors which can help us think about whether the TSO’s decision is justified, namely: the nature of the institution; the role morality of musicians and orchestras; the nature of Ms Lisitsa’s statements; and the task which she was invited to perform.

1) The nature of the institution: As a private individual I am ethically free to invite or disinvite anyone I choose into my home. Somebody else’s right to free speech does not extend to a duty by me to provide that person with a platform. Public institutions are different. The state is meant to be politically neutral. It would surely be wrong for a public organization to take somebody’s legally-expressed political opinions into account when determining its relationship with that person.

Is the TSO a private or a public organization? In 2012 the TSO received about $5 million from private donations and $5.8 million from government funding. It is officially a private institution, but it receives very considerable public funding. Consequently, I believe that the TSO does have public responsibilities, and that its decision to uninvite Ms Lisitsa is not a purely private matter. It seems to me that it should be of some concern to Canadian citizens if a publicly funded institution chooses whom it invites to perform on political grounds.

2) The role morality of musicians and orchestras: Aristotle remarked that a ‘good flautist’ was somebody who played the flute well. A good pianist is thus somebody who plays the piano well. On these grounds, Valentina Lisitsa could be a good pianist even if she is (and I have no reason to think that she is) a loathsome person. Philosophers make a distinction between ‘general morality’ and ‘role morality’, between the values of society as a whole and the morality required in a given role. The role morality of the TSO is founded on what it means to be a good orchestra. That is to put on the best possible performances for its audiences. Its performers’ political opinions are irrelevant to this obligation. There were, no doubt, classical music lovers in Toronto who were looking forward to hearing Ms Lisitsa play Rachmaninov, and now will miss that. TSO is not serving its audience well as an orchestra.

That said, any institution also has to guard its reputation.  Consequently, an organization might rightly decide not to be associated with a given person if that person holds views which might reflect badly on it. The TSO cannot be a ‘good’ orchestra if it entirely ignores general morality or public opinion. At the same time, though, free speech and tolerance of different political opinions are key values of liberal democracy. Intolerance will damage rather than enhance a reputation. Disassociating oneself from somebody because of that person’s legally-expressed political views is something which should be done in extreme cases only.

3) The nature of Ms Lisitsa’s statements: The key issue may be the nature of Ms Lisitsa’s statements on Twitter. The mere fact that somebody might disagree with an artist, or even find their views offensive, is not sufficient for a public organization devoted to the arts to disqualify that person from performing.

The TSO’s position is that the views in question go beyond that. According to Slavyangrad.org, in a private letter to Ms Lisitsa the TSO claimed that its lawyers had determined that she might have committed ‘public incitement of hatred contrary to section 319(2) of the Criminal Code of Canada’ due to statements she had made on social media. If this is true, then it could constitute a legitimate reason for the TSO not to wish to be associated with her.

Certainly, some of Ms Lisitsa’s tweets are decidedly crude, as can be seen by those mentioned at this link. But crudity is not synonymous with inciting hatred. Moreover, in its public justifications of its action, the TSO has said nothing about ‘public incitement of hatred.’ Rather the TSO has made a more limited claim, that ‘Due to ongoing accusations of deeply offensive language by Ukrainian media outlets, we have decided to replace Valentina Lisitsa. Valentina Lisitsa’s provocative comments have overshadowed past performances. As one of Canada’s most important cultural institutions, our priority must remain on being a stage for the world’s great works of music, and not for opinions that some believe to be deeply offensive.’

4) The task which Ms Lisitsa was invited to perform : A final consideration is that the TSO did not invite Ms Lisitsa to come to Toronto to give a political speech. She was to play Rachmaninov’s piano concerto no. 2. Had the TSO allowed her to perform, it would not have been, as it fears, providing a ‘stage … for opinions that some believe to be deeply offensive’ but rather a stage for Rachmaninov’s music.

Although freedom of speech includes the freedom to be vulgar and offensive, I am not a fan of those who choose to exercise their liberty in that way. None of the above therefore should be read as an endorsement of Ms Lisitsa’s tweets. Nevertheless, it is worrisome that the TSO should apparently be so easily pressured. If we prevent people who hold controversial opinions from carrying out professional activities entirely unrelated to those opinions, we create a situation in which any public deviation from one particular simplified version of the truth becomes socially unacceptable. McCarthyism of that sort is not a desirable outcome.

Russia, the West, and the world

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