Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Fending Off a Hostile Takeover at the Banya

Fending Off a Hostile Takeover at the Banya

Amusing and enlightening article by Bryon MacWilliams at The Moscow Times, regarding an attempted banya putsch. The story is remarkable for how very Russian it is ...
The message dropped into my inbox with a virtual kerplunk. "Banya Crisis," it said. It had been sent by a friend, an American lawyer who negotiates multibillion-dollar oil deals. He is not prone to hysterics.

I paused. I have been living in Russia since 1996. I have lasted this long, in no small part, because of the banya. The Russian bath is my survival ritual. It keeps me healthy, keeps me energized in a city that takes more than it gives. This, for me, was grave news.

Had the new director of the banya been murdered like his predecessor? Had mercenaries in black masks and fatigues stormed the premises, as before, in a bid to settle issues of partnership? Had a wall of the oven crumbled, spilling the 20 tons of pig iron onto the floor of the steam room?

I straightened my spine and double-clicked.

"We had a banya crisis today. Three asshole thugs came in and took over control of the parelka away from Grisha. All the regulars were appalled but these guys were very aggressive. They ended up agreeoing that we would take turns between Grisha and them but it was still not the same. We better hope these guys do mnot come back. They yelled at us for talking in the parelka and for sitting on the stairs."

Three misspellings. Errors of punctuation, grammar. My friend is no dummy. Clearly, he was shaken.

I hadn't gone to the banya that day because I was away, traveling. I was sitting before a computer in an Internet cafe, learning how my life in Russia had changed while I was gone.

My friends and I have been steaming in these baths in central Moscow since the late 1990s. We've tried, we think, every other public banya in the city. Every single one. And while just about everything connected to the banya is subject to argument, this is not: For two hours on Sunday mornings, we luxuriate in the best steam in the city.

It's not just us, a handful of Americans and Russians, and the occasional Italian, Brit and Finn. Others, a good two-dozen Muscovites, already know what we know. They, too, go to see the wizard.

Grisha is a regular guy, but, for us, he's also something of a guru. He is in his mid-40s, with close-cropped brown hair and a moustache. He walks with flat feet, and a flapping mouth. He is what Russians call obshchitelny, or sociable -- but that is an understatement.

Each Sunday he arrives at the banya at about 9:40 a.m. We arrive about 10 minutes later. By 9:55 a.m. he has aired out the steam room and begun to make new steam.

I am part of a small ritual. I give him an open bottle of Zhigulyovskoye beer. He chides me for paying 12 rubles and 50 kopeks when, where he lives, it can be found for 11 rubles. Then he removes his tan felt hat, pours some of the beer onto his scalp, massages it into the skin, and empties the rest of the bottle into the hot water that he will hurl into the oven.

His steam is not extraordinary because he adds beer, or mustard or sage. It's not remarkable because he pushes waves of steam over our bodies with a lollipop-shaped wand upon which he splatters scented oils, combinations of herbs or citrus.

It's true that Grisha knows the oven, he knows the steam room. And that's important. But his steam is special because of his ability to strike just the right balance of heat and moisture. This ability falls outside the realm of habit, or science. He is guided by intuition, something I would liken to divine intervention.

His is the kind of steam that makes this night owl get out of bed early on a Sunday -- even when it is dark and frigid outdoors and, indoors, a warm, curvaceous body is bowed against mine.

So it was with an uneasy sense of powerlessness -- in the very Russian understanding of the ways of fate -- that I received the urgent e-mail from Moscow.

I felt as if I were about to lose one of the last things I had left. Friends and lovers have come and gone over my years in Moscow, but the banya has been one of the constants. I could not just pick up and go somewhere else -- I already had been everywhere else.

The following Sunday, after I returned to Moscow, I looked for a Mercedes SUV -- the thugs' set of wheels -- as I approached the baths on foot. There it was, parked on the sidewalk, hampering passersby.

Inside, Grisha started with beer. It was an intense steam, so hot that I crept to the upper level and promptly squatted on my haunches. I cooled off in the pool, drank some mineral water. Then my buddies and I gathered up all our veniki -- tightly gathered switches of birch, oak and, in this case, juniper -- and returned to the parilka to beat ourselves, to finish the cycle of steaming. Only someone already had begun to make new steam.

It was them. Indeed they were three. But they didn't look like thugs. One looked a lot like the Pillsbury Doughboy, only with something akin to a snarl in lieu of a smile. He was in charge of the steam, but he wasn't in charge. His boss was a younger man, very tall, who wore a goofy felt hat that sat askew on his head. He was soft, but not fat.

The Doughboy's steam was good, but not exceptional. It was heavy on mustard. In fact, his steam later would be so heavy on mustard that our eyes and nostrils burned. Grisha, for the first time, began to show his aggravation.

"Smoke is hanging in the air," he said, loudly, to no one in particular.

Smoke? In the parilka? Amateurs! We took Grisha's words as a call to arms.

Could it be that we were the only ones who minded this inelegant steam, who objected to Doughboy fanning his boss with the wand and no one else?

Like good Republicans in the United States, the thugs were asserting minority interests in the face of a passive majority. And they were succeeding. It seemed that everyone was willing to submit. But we decided to intervene.

A good friend of mine, an American who moved here in 1994, told Doughboy that we come because of the artistry of Grisha. I got more specific: Doughboy's steam, I told him, was too moist and too heavy on mustard.

But we were ill-qualified to resolve the situation. We speak Russian well, but it wasn't about language. It was all in the approach. We were too polite. We, like good Americans, smiled too much. That is only an invitation, as is said here, to sit on someone's neck.

Ultimately it would require an approach, a cure, indigenous to Moscow. Boorishness.

"You're outsiders!" it began. A short, pudgy, hairy man who rarely comes was shouting the words as he soaped up in the shower. He stood alone, encircled by the thugs. Doughboy, too, was yelling.

To be honest? I didn't understand all they said. But the following Sunday, the Mercedes SUV was not parked on the sidewalk when I arrived. It did not show up the next week, or the next.

Things returned to the way they were. The only change, all but invisible, came from the realization that the ritual upon which we depend -- a ritual, we thought, that was ours as much as anyone's -- did not, in fact, depend on us. We're outsiders, too.

Chernobyl, 20 years on

Russia Herald

I don't usually quote Russia Herald, as they typically just broker news articles from other resources. However their article today by Anya Ardayeva and Lisa McAdams regarding the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant disaster is rather well done, detailing not just the accident 20 years ago today, but the problems for the future with the reactor.
The destroyed reactor is still extremely radioactive, covered by the so-called sarcophagus, built to protect the environment from radiation, but it was only designed to last 15 years and now scientists and environmentalist say it is falling apart.

Twenty years on, radiation levels are still extreme, says Yulia Marusich, Chernobyl's information officer. She says the sarcophagus does not completely seal off the radiation and it is not structurally sound. 'The existing shelter is not stable, it is not reliable. It [sarcophagus] was constructed remotely. On one hand, it reduced the personnel exposure. On the other hand, it didn't provide the accuracy of a shelter structures installation.'

Outside experts confirm the sarcophagus is falling apart and could collapse.

Francis O'Donnell, head of the United Nations Development Program in Ukraine, says there is also a problem with what's inside. 'They still haven't figured the way to deal with 180 tons of nuclear fuel-containing mass which is at the core of the reactor, there's no nuclear waste disposal strategy, and 20 years on we can do better than this.'

The sarcophagus, and the tons of nuclear fuel inside of it, are not the only problem.

There are three other reactors, which were put back on line shortly after the sarcophagus was built. The reactor was not turned off until 2000 and only following international pressure.

And Chernobyl has not been decommissioned completely: Ukraine does not have the facilities for the long-term storage of the plants' nuclear fuel.

Oleg Ryazanov is an engineer at the Chernobyl Plants reactor Number One, who monitors the condition of the disabled reactor. He says money is the real issue. 'We have the technology, the people, the knowledge, the desire but we don't have the money.

If the sarcophagus covering the Fourth Reactor collapses, another explosion, though less powerful, is likely to occur. To prevent that, some 28 countries pledged to chip in more than $800 million for the construction of a new steel coffin.

The project is scheduled to be finished by the year 2010.

But even with the new shelter in place, it is estimated it will take from 30 to 100 years to safely get rid of the fuel and debris inside the plant.
The article also details the cleanup operation, those that died to contain the accident, and the lives of those people remain within the Exclusion Zone.

Cesium 137 Distribution Resulting from Chernobyl Accident
Eighty two-year-old Mikhailo Radkevich was evacuated from his village a week after the accident and moved into a new home a few months later. But he didn't like the new house and decided to go back.

'If I was 20, I would have probably gone away from here. But I am 81, where can I go? Where? I have two sons and a daughter in Kiev, and they are asking me to come live with them, but I don't want to. My home is here,' says Mikhailo.

He and his wife eat home-grown vegetables and meat and seem to worry little about radioactive contamination.

'When the explosion happened, everyone started talking about radiation. But it was here before. The wind blew it all to Belarus. Here, its clean,' he says.

More 20 years after Chernobyl Headlines:
USA Today: Chernobyl Issues Live on After 20 Years
NY Times: First at Chernobyl, Burning Still
BBC: Ukraine remembers Chernobyl blast
Financial Times: Ukraine remembers Chernobyl nuclear disaster
The Nation: Remembering Chernobyl
Reuters: Mourners, candles mark Chernobyl anniversary
Boston Globe: Years later, Chernobyl exacts toll
Guardian Unlimited: Hell on Earth
Spiegel Online: Chernobyl Remembered "My Friends Were Dying under my Eyes"
Mainichi Daily News: Ukrainians recall Chernobyl tragedy on mournful anniversary
Turkish Daily News: Chernobyl plant then and now
Khaleej Times: Ukraine marks 20-year anniversary of Chernobyl accident
Euronews Net: Testing of reactor triggged nuclear catastrophe
The Independent: The big question
BBC: In pictures: Chernobyl remembered
Times Online: Stalled: The Chernobyl Rescue Ark

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Thoughts of Mortality Turn Pacifists into Killers

Thoughts of Mortality Turn Pacifists into Killers

As long as we are on the topic of death and violence, I thought this article was rather newsworthy and interesting.
Young adults in Iran tend to support martyrdom more when they are thinking about their own mortality.

Likewise, Americans are more in favor of extreme military intervention when they are contemplating their own deaths.

In a new study, 40 Iranian college students heard statements supporting and opposing suicide bombing attacks on U.S. targets. A portion of the test subjects who were also asked to ponder their own deaths were more likely to favor the bombings and consider joining such a cause.

"Thoughts of death led young people in the Middle East who ordinarily preferred a person who took a pacifist stance to switch their allegiance to a person who advocated suicide bombings," the study authors write this month in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. "These findings provide the first experimental evidence documenting the psychological determinants of the appeal of martyrdom."

A similar survey was done on 127 students at Rutgers University in New Jersey. They were asked whether they support extreme military actions such as the use of nuclear and chemical weapons and pre-emptive strikes against countries that might pose a threat to the United States.

Support for extreme measures increased among those Rutgers test subjects who were first asked to ponder their own deaths.

"Despite their differences, Americans and Iranians have something in common—thoughts of death increase the willingness of people from both nations to inflict harm on citizens of the other nation," the authors write. "The same psychological inclinations that make them want to kill us make us want to kill them—regardless of which specific group is referred to by the words 'us' and 'them.'"

The research was done by psychology professors Tom Pyszczynsk (sic - Pyszczynski) of the University of Colorado and Abdolhossein Abdollahi of the Islamic Azad University in Iran along with colleagues at Skidmore College and the University of Arizona.
If you are interested in more regarding this study, it can be found at the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin here. It requires registration and payment for review of one article (pdf) is $2.50. The paper is entitled "Mortality Salience, Martyrdom, and Military Might: The Great Satan Versus the Axis of Evil".

14 Ethnic Hate Murders Committed in Russia in 4 Months

14 Ethnic Hate Murders Committed in Russia in 4 Months
Human rights activists are alarmed by the growth of nationalist hate crimes in Russia. Since the beginning of 2005, over 100 people have been attacked. 14 of them were killed and 92 injured, Interfax reported Tuesday.

“This year we have registered more than 100 attacks motivated by ethnic hatred,” the deputy head of Sova, a leading public opinion analysis centre, said.

“In these attacks, 92 people were injured and 14 killed,” Galina Kozhevnikova said.

Most nationalist crimes are committed in Moscow and St. Petersburg, she added.

“In Moscow alone nine people have been killed in attacks since the beginning of this year, and 35 have been beaten up. In St. Petersburg two people have died and 17 received injuries,” Kozhevnikova said

Before we Americans start riding our high-horse, we have the following statistics from

The most recent available hate crimes statistics compiled by the FBI are for the year 2003 antagonism toward a particular race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity/national origin, or physical or mental disability prompted crimes against 9,100 victims during 2003. Hate Crime Statistics, 2003, published by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program, includes data aggregated from hate crime reports submitted by local, state, tribal, and federal law enforcement agencies throughout the Nation. The report documents 7,489 bias-motivated incidents, which include 8,715 separate offenses.

It is important to note that reporting by law enforcement is voluntary and it is widely believed that hate crimes are seriously under-reported.

Law enforcement agencies reported 5,517 offenses as crimes against persons, which accounted for 63.3 percent of reported hate crimes in 2003. Investigators determined that 3,139 offenses, 36.0 percent of reported hate crimes, were crimes against property. Fifty-nine offenses (0.7 percent) were crimes against society”. Racial bias motivated more than half (52.5 percent) of the 8,706 single-bias hate crime offenses reported in 2003. Religious bias and sexual orientation bias each accounted for 16.4 percent of all reported single-bias hate crimes reported. Ethnicity/national origin bias prompted 14.2 percent of offenses, and disability bias spurred 0.5 percent of bias-motivated offenses”. For the 2003 report, law enforcement identified 9,100 victims of 8,715 criminal offenses within 7,489 separate incidents”.

While we don't have comprehensive statistics for Russia, and the US population is twice the size of the Russian Federation - it is clear that hate crimes are not a strictly Russian phenomenon. About the most marked thing you can say about what is occuring in Russia, is the murder rate related to hate crimes appears to have climbed sharply. It also stands in strong contrast to a society that, in general, is not as violent as the United States. That is not to say that Russian crime is non-violent - it is simply that US crime is phenomenally violent.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Spaceship Junkyard - Altai Region, Kazakhstan

Jonas Bendiksen / Magnum Photos - Slate Magazine

Slate magazine has a short photo essay about the "spaceship junkyard" of spent rockets and spaceship parts in the Altai Region of Kazakhstan. Locals mine the parts for valuable components or recycle them into farm equipment, when possible.

There are also concerns about the health effects of the rocket fuel used. Images of groups of dead cattle (yep, they aren't taking a nap together) send the message home that rocket fuel components are toxic and abundant enough to cause near immediate death (if the photos and causes for death are to be believed).

Vitaly Tretyakov: "Never Been Any Aggression Against the USA"

Vitaly Tretyakov: USA obtained state system thanks to Russia’s support

From Regnum, portions of a debate between Richard Perle and Vitaly Tretyakov at the Restoration of Post-conflict Societies discussion at The 5th Eurasian Media Forum in Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan.

Richard Perle is a research fellow of the American Business Institute, former Chairman of Commission of US Defense Policy, and former US Assistant Secretary of Defense under Ronald Reagan. Vitaly Tretyakov is editor-in-chief of Moscow News and founded Nezavisimaya Gazeta in 1990 until dismissed in 2001. He also is the author of the book "How to Become a Famous Journalist". Apparently that involves having a rather distorted view of history.
Debating with Richard Perl, Moscow News newspaper Editor-in-Chief, Russian Vitaly Tretyakov mentioned that Americans, to whom, as a rule, organizers of various political panels let have the floor as first, evaluate behavior of other countries as they wish, in particular, speaking about development of Russia “in a wrong way,” even politically, not to mention mass media. “Being absolutely free, we – Russians have to react somehow. I am not going to justify before any audience development of the Russian press. I assure you, we have free press. As for state establishment, it is quite strange to hear from representative of the country, which is not even 300 years old, reproaches to the state with a 1000-year long history, i.e. to Russia, it develops wrongly,” stressed Vitaly Tretyakov.

According to the journalists, at its time, the USA received state independence with support of Russia. "I want to stress, that for last 500 years Russia has been absolutely independent state, it has not been obeying to anybody except for short time of occupation, which was successfully eliminated every time. Meanwhile, the USA took some part in occupation of Russia during WWI, but Russia has never participated in occupation of the USA. “In such way, I want to say, that the Russian state proved its historical stability,” stressed Vitaly Tretyakov.

Also, according to the journalist, having proved its internal prosperity, the USA has not proved its external stability, because there have never been any aggression against the USA
Well ... where to begin. I certainly hope this isn't the history that they teach in Russia.

First, saying that Russia has a history of 1,000 years is a bit like saying the US has a history of 18,000 years because that is the first evidence of Native Americans in what became the USA. The current Russian Federation formed in 1991 and it certainly seems either irresponsible or deliberately misleading for Mr. Tretyakov to equate the Russian Federation with the history of organized Slavic/Rus' peoples.

As to this idea that the history of the US is "less than 300 years old" - my own ancestors settled in an area of what we now call Quincy, Massachusetts around 1643, meaning there have been Shedds in the English colonies that became the United States of America for 363 years. I suppose the Russian version of US history involves large numbers of English suddenly arriving in the New World sometime around 1775 and declaring themselves independent in 1776.

It is just as distorted a historical viewpoint as declaring the current Russian Federation as having a history of 1,000 years - Mongols and Monarchs and Bolsheviks were just a small distraction on the course to the Russian Federation. This reads like some sort of Third Reich propaganda of history, to be honest. Hitler was fond of speaking in terms of a thousand year history of German peoples also - from Holy Roman Empire to the Third Reich in an unbroken string. Next
Mr. Tretyakov will be suggesting that Vladimir Putin defeated Ghenghis Khan.

Lastly, the statement that the US has not proven it's internal stability, because there has never been aggression against the US - is a gross distortion of history. I am sure even Russians are taught in history class about
one or two attacks against the United States. Surely at least one is within recent memory.

Perhaps Mr. Tretyakov forgot about the
  • French and Indian Wars ...
  • War of 1812 ...
  • Mexican wars including the Alamo (1836) and leading up to the Mexican-American War (1846 - 1848) ...
  • US Civil War where the Confederate States were supported by France (among other European powers) ...
  • Spanish American War (Spain declared war upon the US) ....
  • Japanese attack upon Pearl Harbor and other bases at the start of World War II ... and
  • Various fundamentalist terrorist attacks upon US soil or US personnel leading up to ...
  • September 11, 2001.
This is the response to the suggestion that perhaps Russia is moving in the wrong direction and that state-owned Gazprom retaining ownership of nearly every major news outlet in Russia (including rumors of buying Kommersant earlier this year) might not be a good idea. That is quite a distorted world view in defense of actions which smack of old-school communist control of information.

Russia Shrinks

Russia Shrinks

The top topics in Western newspapers as regards Russia these days appear to be (in no particular order): Iran/Hamas deals, US-Russia headbutting, neo-fascist skinheads killing people who don't look like them, oil-gas thuggery with the EU, and ... dead Russians. In fact, that would be an excellent name for a punk rock band, The Dead Russians (perhaps I should trademark or register the domain name while I still have that chance). Writing on the topic of dead Russians this time is the Canadian Globe and Mail's Graeme Smith dramatic and at least somewhat numerically accurate report of the death rate in Russian, particularly among young men.

As Mr. Smith cites, if trends continue, Russia could lose as much as 1/3 of its population in the next half century. The important part of this is, of course ... IF trends continue. It should also be pointed out that even if this trend continues, Russia's population density will remain above such nations as say - Canada. So it isn't as if Russia will melt away. Also, Russia seems acutely aware of what is going on, but is unsure how to deal with the behavior. Much of the article focuses upon drug use and HIV/AIDS in Russia.
The problem is at least partly psychological, said Boris Tsvetkov, director of the AIDS treatment centre in Irkutsk. His patients know they're risking their lives when they inject drugs or have unprotected sex, he says, but sometimes they just don't care.

"To persuade a person to have the right behaviour, that person must be raised with a good understanding of how to live correctly," Mr. Tsvetkov said. "It's easier for the young people to break everything, including themselves. We broke our country for the last 10 years and now we're trying to put it back together."

From his spare office on the city's outskirts, in a compound that resembles a factory, Mr. Tsvetkov stands at the forefront of Russia's fight to stop the bleeding. The Irkutsk region has the highest drug-addiction rate in the country, and the highest AIDS infection rate.

Among the many problems driving down Russian life expectancy, the government appears to have chosen AIDS as one of its most urgent battles. The Kremlin plans to spend $126-million (Canadian) on AIDS programs this year -- a 30-fold increase from the previous year. The budget will grow again next year, to $324-million.

That makes Russia's program fairly small by international standards; Canada's federal AIDS strategy provides at least three times as much funding for each infected person. But observers say the new money shows that Russia takes the problem seriously, as the country's overall infection rate is believed to have climbed past the 1-per-cent threshold that separates low-level outbreaks from broad epidemics.

In Irkutsk alone, with a population of about 600,000, 18,000 people have tested positive for HIV, and the numbers are growing by roughly 1,000 a year.
This generation is free to make its own choices, but are they prepared to make good choices? After many decades of telling its citizens what to do and how to do it - very few young adults in Russia seem to have a good social model in the wake of communist collapse. And even with an improving economy, outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, there are really very few career opportunities for young Russians. I personally know of university graduates in the Yaroslavl region who have been looking for work for 2 years and likely will end up collecting some minimum salary to work as teachers (excrutiatingly low-paid work in Russia). The export of economic growth throughout the country has yet to happen, even in areas within 200 to 300 kilometers of Russia. There is little incentive for Russians to adopt positive social behaviors (ie not drinking, drugs, and casual sex - but working and raising families).

Russia, of course, has a rather good prior model to follow for affecting change in social behavior - good in the sense that it worked, rather ruthlessly. Communism and internal policing affected human behavior to an unprecedented degree; it was social engineering at a scale never before attempted. In what is perhaps a sign of what the Russian government might turn towards in the future, as we have watching some of this happening in Russia right now - consider the recent return to state control of various aspects of the Russian economy.

All of this points Russia towards an answer contained perhaps within its history. We shouldn't be surprised if Russia turns to its recent past for answers as to how to affect positive social behaviors among its people. The former CCCP battled hooliganism, drinking, and to a lesser degree, drugs and casual sex in the past.
Ms. Burdanova was trying to persuade one of her HIV-positive patients, a 35-year-old carpenter with work-scarred hands, that his heavy drinking was sabotaging his drug regimen. He admitted a penchant for Russkii Razmer, a vodka whose brand name translates as "Russian-sized," saying he needed the drink to ease the daily pressures of life in a wooden cottage where the water taps work only when the pipes thaw in summertime.

"I still drink a little vodka," the man said.

"Every day?" Ms. Burdanova said.


"After work?"

"Yeah. I drink to relax. Sometimes 200 grams, sometimes half a litre."

Ms. Burdanova paused, as if holding her tongue. She put down her pen and looked at him seriously.

"You really shouldn't," she said.

"But I can't live without drink," he said. "What else is there?"

By the way, for those who do not know (and I certainly did not), Hanka is made from "poppy straw" (Papaver somniferum L.) which is cultivated and grown in many countries in Europe and Asia, prinicipally for poppy seeds used in baking and poppy-seed oil. However, the straw does contain some of the same elements as poppies grown for heroin production, so it can be used as a sort of poor-man's heroin. You can read a bit more about this drug problem in Moldova here (which would also serve as a similar model for more rural regions of Russia). There is also a National Institute of Health article regarding drug-related spread of HIV/AIDS in Ukraine, which touches upon the problems generated by hanka use.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Gazprom's Huff and Puff

Richard Wachman of The Guardian's Unlimited "Observer" wrote a brief opinion piece today that might summarize it best:
Gazprom huffs and puffs, but it's all hot air

Gazprom , Russia's state-controlled gas monopoly, has shot itself in the foot for the second time in three months. Its jaw-dropping ineptitude means it is now extremely doubtful that it will ever be able to acquire European energy companies such as Centrica, owner of British Gas.

First, we had the Ukrainian fiasco, when Gazprom, which supplies a quarter of Europe's energy needs, threatened to cut off supplies if the Ukrainians didn't agree to steep price increases - punitive action that would also have affected most of Europe. Then last week, chief executive Alexei Miller warned the European Union that if it thwarted Gazprom's international ambitions, it would divert supplies elsewhere: China, central Asia and the US.

Miller's latest broadside comes after it emerged that the British government considered amending merger rules to allow it to block a takeover of Centrica. After last week, UK ministers will surely be dusting down those plans.

Gazprom has only itself to blame: running around Europe and telling people to expect a smack over the head if they don't give it what it wants is hardly a way to win friends and influence people. And Gazprom's threats are silly from a different perspective. How will it pump gas into the Far East? There are precious few pipelines into the region. It will have to spend billions on new infrastructure that will take years to build.

For all Gazprom's huffing and puffing, it needs Europe as much as Europe needs it.
Subtlety would appear not to be one of Alexei Miller's strong suits.

Vilhelm Konnander has more on the topic, citing a Washington Post editorial "Imperialist Gas". From Mr. Konnander's post:
An editorial in Sunday's Washington Post - "Imperialist Gas" - claims that 'Russia doesn't want to "politicize" energy sales. It just wants to use them to bully its neighbors.' Expectations that Russia would restrain itself in its imperial ambitions during the country's 2006 G8 presidency thus seem to have been falsified. Instead, Moscow continues its increasingly aggressive energy policy towards not only its "near abroad" but also European and global markets.

According to the editorial, Alexei Miller, Gazprom chairman, last week threatened EU governments that 'his company will sell its products in other markets unless they give way to its "international ambitions".' The background was reactions against Gazprom plans to buy Britain's largest gas company. Thus, Miller denounced 'supposed Western attempts to "politicize questions of gas supply"' despite the fact that it is now becoming increasingly apparent that Russia is using the "energy weapon" to 'restore Moscow's dominion over neighbours' such as, on the one hand, Russia-defiant Ukraine and Georgia, and on the other hand, Russia-friendly Armenia and Belarus, and in the process affecting energy supplies to EU-countries.
It would appear sometimes that the strong-arming success of the Russian mafia in business dealings within Russia, has taught Russian businessmen to follow comparable tactics on the international markets. Continued tactical mistakes of this nature will certainly encourage European nations to develop renewable and alternative energy resources. Perhaps Mr. Miller and Mr. Putin are secretly members of Greenpeace, and they seek to scare the world off of Russian gas and oil.

If so, they are really off to a great start. Only they could make buying an almost necessary product with little competition outside of Russia seem like a bad deal.

Russian Reaction to Jamestown Conference Reveals Fear of Free Speech

Russian Reaction to Jamestown Conference Reveals Kremlin Fear of Free Speech About the Situation in the North Caucasus

Another interesting article from the Jamestown Foundation, via it's Eurasia Daily Monitory website. Andrei Smirnov writes about the Russian reaction, with a few interesting tidbits regarding the Russian presence at the meeting:
Two officials from the Russian Embassy to the United States attended the event as observers. They were accompanied by journalists from the Kremlin-controlled ORT television network. ORT broadcast a story about the event on the popular 9 pm news program that night. The panelists were surprised to learn from the ORT story that they had planned new terrorist acts in Russia during their discussion in Washington.

"The statements that are made in the USA imply that new, large-scale acts of terrorism in Russia are necessary," according to the ORT headline. "As a matter of fact, the presented subject of the event is ‘Perspectives of the New Nalchik.' These perspectives were treated with sympathy" (ORT, April 14).

The note of protest from the Russian Foreign Ministry likely had been prepared in advance so that Russian authorities were ready to condemn the discussion irrespective of its content. The ORT report about the conference was needed to provide grounds for a protest to the American ambassador. ORT and the Russian authorities likely had coordinated their actions.

Clearly, the Kremlin was enraged just by the title of the discussion: "Sadullaev's Caucasian Front." Unlike in the United States, where the government encourages public research on terrorism issues and open analysis of al-Qaeda statements and publications on websites belonging to Islamic radicals, in Russia such topics are the exclusive prerogative of the authorities.
It was pointed out by Sean Warner of Sturmovik earlier this week that a simple transcript would answer the question of what was (and wasn't) said at the conference. Mr. Warner has written to Jamestown requesting a copy of the transcript, but I believe this hasn't yet been forthcoming. However, neither has the Russian TV shows transcript of what was said at the event.

Andrei Smirnov further writes his opinions about what the Russian governments attitudes towards information and free speech:

The Kremlin is not interested in providing either Russian society or the international community with detailed information about the Caucasian insurgency. Instead, officials in Russia use vague terms like "international terrorism" or "dark forces" to describe the source of instability in the south of the country. Sometimes some "unknown Arabs" are mentioned, but never actual insurgency leaders such as Abdul-Khalim Sadullaev. Nor does official Moscow recognize the existence of the Caucasian front, preferring to speak about "the criminal underground in the North Caucasus."

The Russian authorities do not want to focus on Sadullaev, as his presence proves that the insurgency across the North Caucasus is directed from Chechnya by Chechen separatists, not by terrorists from Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan, as official propaganda claims. The authorities were even angrier about the fact that Vachagaev called Sadullaev the "Chechen president," trying to present the rebel leader as a legitimate figure in the eyes of the Americans. Since Abdul-Khalim Sadullaev succeeded Maskhadov after the latter's death last year, the Kremlin has used a number of devices to hide his name from the West, fearing that one day Western governments will start to persuade Moscow to initiate a dialogue with him. Previously they had called on Russia to negotiate with Maskhadov.

Russian authorities are also afraid of any accurate, thorough analyses of the situation in the North Caucasus. As it increasingly loses control over the region, Moscow has tried to make it off-limits to foreigners by deporting journalists and humanitarian-aid workers. Public discussions like the Jamestown forum on April 14 are considered as threatening to the Kremlin as independent, inquisitive journalists who try to enter the volatile region.
While I was in Russia for New Year's, I actually had a small conversation with Sergei about Chechnya (our language skills limited us). But we both agreed that perhaps Russia was better off to let Chechnya go, rather than continue to engage in conflict. The price is high for both Russians and Chechens, and neither really wants to be part of the other. Sergei seems rather practical and not particularly aggressive in terms of his politics, so other Russians might have strongly different views. However, Russians have no love of Chechens, seeing them as predominantly and historically criminals or "bandits". It seems it is just the Russian government which wishes to retain control of the region - with or without the Chechens who call it home.

Russians take aim at Western anti-AIDS methods

Russians take aim at Western anti-AIDS methods

From the AFP, via Yahoo - We have a news story that will sound very familiar to Americans. Surprise! Yes, we Americans have this very same debate regarding the nature of safe sex promotion and various groups which promote it, versus churches, conservative parents groups, conservative congressmen, etc.
As AIDS cases rise in Russia, tactics to fight the disease have become a divisive issue with some politicians charging that education on safe sex pushed by Western groups amounts to promotion of immorality and calling on President Vladimir Putin to intervene.

"In the guise of AIDS prevention, Western foundations encourage pedophilia and prostitution," Lyudmila Stebenkova, a member of the Moscow municipal legislature representing the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, charged recently.

"They even show children how to put on a condom!" she complained.

Shocked by a UNICEF film distributed to Moscow schools, Stebenkova urged the Moscow legislature - which, like the national parliament, is controlled by United Russia - to vote in favor of an appeal calling on Putin to limit the activities of international anti-AIDS groups in Russia.

A draft text of the proposed appeal to Putin has received the backing of Patriarch Alexy II, head of the Russian Orthodox Church.

This was not the first time that the country's authorities, increasingly out of synch with the West, have addressed the issue.

Stebenkova, who chairs the city's health commission, had already drawn the ire of AIDS-combatting groups after recently launching a poster campaign in Moscow dominated by the slogan: "There is no safe sex."

Critics interpreted the slogan as an attack on contraception use and a call for abstinence.

"We're buying AIDS prevention programs from countries we were at war with a few years ago," said Vadim Pokrovsky, chief of the federal center on preventing and fighting AIDS.

While I agree with promotion of safe sex and sexual education, within the United States it seems to be started at earlier and earlier ages, and with undesirable messages and subtexts (this is my opinion). Sexual education seems to have become so liberal in the past decade, to the point that even liberal minded people question the methods and messages favored by groups such as Planned Parenthood.

These groups within Russia are picking up the identical message. Although this sounds like mostly conservative backlash - Russia can be surprisingly conservative. There is a very real dichotomy within Russia, between the decadent and lurid versus the traditional and religious. The West positions itself yet again to suffer another backlash from conservative Russian elements, through guilt of association.

Ukrainian Easter Eggs - Pysanky

Georgia's Ukrainian Easter Eggs

I had happened upon the webpage of Georgia Sawhook of Fairfield, Ohio a couple of weeks ago. She is of Ukrainian ancestry through her grandfather Michael Markiw, who came to the USA in 1907.

On her webpage, Georgia discusses some of her ancestry and family history, including an upbringing in the highly slavic area of western Pennsylvania.

However, the real claim to fame for this page is her discussion and demonstration of Pysanky. Pysanky derives from the Ukrainian word meaning "to write":
Many ancient Ukrainians believed the eggs possessed magical powers and that wealth could be obtained by decorating the eggs with certain symbols. When Christianity was introduced into the Ukraine, the symbols changed and others were added to reflect Christianity, the Resurrection and a promise of eternal life..

Making pysanky became a Lenten ritual in Ukraine. A family produced many eggs during this time to be shared with friends and family and the local priest. Some were planted or placed in the fields or feeding troughs to insure a wealth or abundance in their crops and livelihood. Some were placed by the family graves or placed in the coffins out of respect for their loved one. Others were kept in the home for protection. And then, some were presented to young men as signs of affection. (Have you given a pysanky to your boyfriend lately?).

It seems that the women of the house were to make all these eggs during Lent. They even had secret recipes for their own special dyes in the villages. These were always handed down from mother to daughter. An interesting piece of information I found was that before they would begin to create the pysanky, they would pray "God help me" and they also prayed that the person who received the eggs would be given joy, good fortune, happiness and protection from harm.

The process - although looking difficult - is very simple. It is a long process and takes a steady hand, time, and patience. Once completed, you have a real sense of accomplishment.
Mrs. Sawhook also sells some of her eggs, and works with hen's eggs, goose eggs, and even ostrich eggs. She works with raw eggs through the process, as she has been taught it is more traditional and symbolic of the Resurrection. However, since she started selling Pysanky on the internet, she takes the time to blow out the eggs afterwards.

From the Kozmic Dreams website, we have the following short history of Pysanky culture in Ukraine:
Pysanky and pysanka, the singular form, are derived from a Ukrainian word meaning "to write." Pysanky are whole, raw eggs which have been decorated with a wax-resist method whereby one draws (or "writes," as Ukrainians would say) those portions of the design one wishes to be white with melted wax on the plain, white egg. A small, hollow funnel attached to a stick is often used to heat the wax and write with. This tool is called a kistka. One then dips the egg in a light colored dye - yellow, for instance - and writes those designs that are intended to be yellow. Another, darker dye bath is followed by more writing, and so on till the entire design in its several colors is on the egg. One then heats the egg, often in the flame of a candle, and wipes the melted wax off it. This is the finished pysanka.

Archeologists have discovered ceramic pysanky in Ukraine dating back to 1300 B.C. They have linked pysanky designs to those of Egyptian ceramics created in 1500 B.C., and to symbolism of the Trypilljan culture in Ukraine of 3000 B.C. Six thousand years ago, the Trypilljan culture flourished in Ukraine. The society existed 3000 years before biblical Abraham and long before Greek mythology and the Bronze Age. Trypilljan people lived in the land of Ukraine at the same time as the Egyptian pyramids were built. The Trypilljans were a matriarchal society that worshipped "mother earth" and had little interest in power struggles concerning politics, taxes, money and ruling, as in patriarchal societies. Trypilljans lived peacefully with each other and with their neighbors. The tools people used most were hoes and sickles, not clubs and arrows. Their homes were decorated inside and out with beautiful drawings and paintings. Because they took time for artistic and aesthetic beauty, scientists feel they had enough food and time to spend on higher pursuits such as beauty and art. In both design and color, Trypilljan symbolism echoed the people's close attachment to the soil and other elements of nature. Ukrainian symbolic art is based, in large measure, on these early ideograms. The most notable example is the Ukrainian meander or unending line, which denotes the cyclical nature of life. Other examples include such motifs as the circle, cross, stars, dots, matriarchal symbols, wheat, fir tree, horse, stag, horns and bear's paws.

What is a symbol on "pysanka"? It is a word picture, an ideogram, a code, containing the secrets of a culture. More effectively than words it reveals feelings: love, happiness, hope, dread, despair, etc. To those who understand symbolic art, it means something, and to those who cannot decipher the code, it remains a mystery. The sense of mystery is inherent because each pysanka involves a trinity of symbolisms: the symbolism of the egg itself, the symbolism of design, and the symbolism of color.

Since the earliest of times people have sought meaning for life’s mysteries and in the process have found the need for worship. One of the earliest objects of worship for primitive man was the sun and in Ukraine, eggs were an integral part of the ceremonial rites of sun worship. The ancient Ukrainians determined that when an egg was broken the yolk represented the sun and the white the moon. Beeswax was considered as a magical ingredient of the writing process. This was entwined with the sun cult. The wax was made from honey; the honey was collected from flowers; flowers grew because of the sun. The egg became part of various ceremonies and took on a particular significance in the spring rituals. In winter Earth was dormant and appeared to have no life, just as the egg appeared to have no life. But as the seemingly dead egg hatched a living thing the earth too sprang to life in spring. Consequently, the egg became a symbol of life.

The tradition of decorating eggs, especially at Easter or in spring, was widespread through Europe. It was especially prevalent in Slavic areas. There were the Moravian eggs from Czachia and the Sorbian eggs from the Slavic tribes of eastern Germany. Nowhere, however, did the decoration of eggs become so vital a part of a society’s culture as it did in Ukraine. The people in Ukraine came to see the egg, now referred to as pysanky, as a talisman. Pysanky became part of daily life and were believed to possess power. Evil pirits were believed to be afraid of the rooster and chicken eggs. The Cossacks often took roosters with them on their travels to serve as time clocks and also to ward off evil. To the ancient people of all cultures life could not be lived without a talisman of some sort. Danger was everywhere. In the Ukraine, pysanky became needed, necessary, and cherished.

Art Ukrainian
Learn Pysanky
All Things Ukrainian (Pysanky supplies)
Georgia's Pysanky Page
Kozmic Dreams

Untimely Thoughts: US-Russia and Conflicting Perceptions

Untimely Thoughts: US-Russia and conflicting perceptions

Interesting discussion on Untimely Thoughts regarding US-Russian relations and the conflict of perceptions. This week is the first of two parts, starting with Russian perceptions this week, and US perceptions next week. The panel this week consists of Patrick Armstrong (Canadian Government analyst), Sergei Roy (editor of, Dale Herspring (Political Science professor, Kansas State University), Gordon Hahn (Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies), Ira Straus (US coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO), and Dmitry Babich (staff writer, Russia Profile). Starting with Patrick Armstrong:
15 years ago, Russians had hopeful, if unrealistic, expectations from the USA and its Western partners. Much of that hopefulness has been replaced with suspicion and, in some circles, with actual mistrust of the West and the USA. There are objective reasons for this change. Russian opinion polls have consistently shown a population divided on many things but united in two: opposition to NATO expansion and to privatization as it was carried out. These two can easily be woven into a conspiracy theory.

In the 1990s Westerners were shipped over to advise the Russians on how to effect the changes. US assistance was channeled through the Harvard Institute for International Development. Janine Wedel was the first to show, in 1998, in her book Collision and Collusion, the failures on the ground. The US actors selected a particular group of Russians, immediately named "reformers" - everyone else by implication being wooden-headed opponents of "reform" – who pushed their prescriptions through by presidential decree. In short, the principal beneficiaries of this policy were the oligarchs whom it created. When the long lawsuit against HIID rumbled to an end last year, she was shown to have been correct. Russians are not so stupid that they didn't notice this and for many Russians, therefore, democracy has become associated with insiders ripping off the people and enriching themselves, while cheered on by Western observers. This association has, to put it mildly, tarnished the image of one of the West's most important foundations; while polls show that Russians like freedom, democracy is now a tainted word. Old people saw NATO expansion as the extension of a military alliance up to Russia's borders; young people saw it as a door slammed in their faces. But NATO expanded anyway. Then the fears of the fearful appeared to be confirmed when NATO had its adventure in Kosovo - this indeed seemed to be muscle flexing by a confident military alliance that didn't care about anyone else.

To these two policies, we add the Russian predilection for searching out conspiracies. Driven by convictions that hidden plots underlie every surface event, they "connect the dots". One can easily imagine some Chekist warning Yeltsin in, say 1995: these people aren't our friends, although they pretend to be; they want to weaken Russia and break it up; their advice is designed to loot the country; their democracy is just a cover word; they will expand their military alliance until we are surrounded; they will promise to invest and trade, but they won't; they will say nice things to gull us. In 1995 this could be dismissed, but ten years later, consider what these people would now be telling Putin (who is perhaps more inclined to listen, given his background): Russia is weak; external forces do want to break it up (Berezovsky supports Basayev, Berezovsky has asylum in the UK; Brzezinski is high up in the American Committee for Peace in the Caucasus - see, it all fits!); it has been looted; NATO has expanded everywhere; there still is little trade and investment. Connect the dots... we told you this would happen.

And so it goes. Suspicious Russians can now point to quite a few dots. And, for dot connectors, the connections are the only truth - they can never accept any such explanation as human stupidity or the bad execution of well-meaning plans.
The rest of the discussion is also worthwhile and interesting, other points are raised, and it all touches upon topics that were also discussed here earlier this week. I recommend the discussion for anyone interested in the current perceptions and state of US and Russian relations.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Klitschko vs Byrd: Is Wladimir Klitschko a 'Shot' Fighter?

Klitschko - Byrd: Is Wladimir Klitschko a 'Shot' Fighter?

Tonight is the rematch of the Владимир Кличко (Vladimir Klichko) and Chris Byrd fight in Mannheim, Germany. The 35-year old Byrd, IBF Heavyweight champion is hoping that this fight won't end as it did 6 years ago. On the surface, Byrd would appear clearly overmatched, as Klichko has a considerable advantage in youth and size. However, from Tim Neilson of East Side Boxing, we have an exposing assessment of Vladimir Klichko

Wladimir Klitschko, 30, will be fighting Chris Byrd this Saturday, April 22nd in Mannheim, Germany. Based on what I've been reading, many people are under the impression that Wladimir (45-3, 40 KO's) will simply be too much for Chris Byrd, who at 6'ft (sic), is a liliputian (sic) compared to compared to (sic) the 6'7" Klitschko giant.

Based on size alone, you would think that this will be an easy fight for Wladimir, right? Wrong! Although Wladimir beat Chris Byrd, winning a 12-round decision in October 14, 2000, Wladimir is nowhere near the same fighter, having been knocked out twice since then and on the verge of another knockout in his last fight against Sam Peter, in September 24, 2005.

Let's return, then, to the point in Wladimir's career where, I feel, he was ruined as a fighter and that was in his fight against Ross Purity, on December 5, 1998. Purity, a hard punching (sic) journeyman with a dismal 24-13-1 record, was punched silly by Wladimir for 10 rounds, but then the fight suddenly changed late in the 10th, when Purity landed a hard right to Wladimir's chin, hurting him badly. The round ended with Wladimir taking vicious head shots from Purity. In the following round, Purity immediatley (sic) pounced on Wladimir, who out (sic) on his feet and almost helpless. His corner, seeing that Wladimir couldn't do anything to keep Purity off of him, ran into the ring and stopped the fight before Wladimir could take any further punches to the head..

At the time of the fight, Wadimir had a record of 24-0 with 22 knockouts, which spoke volumes about his punching power. However, what the record didn't show was that Wladimir hadn't really been tested during any of those earlier fights. I mean, he had fought essentially 3rd tier fighters who were not even close to being in the same league as Wladimir. So, basically, you could call Ross Purtity (sic), a 2nd tier fighter, Wladimir's first real fight and it marks where, in my opinion, Wladimir was ruined physically and mentally as a fighter. A lot of people point towards Wladimr's (sic) fight with the South African, Corrie Sanders (38-2, 29 KO's), in March 8th, 2003, as the point where Wladimir was beaten down and destroyed as a credible fighter, however, I disagree strongly with that opinion. True, it obviously didn't help that Wladimir was brutally chopped down in two rounds by the Sanders, a knockout artist of the first order.

However, I think Wladimir had never gotten over the Puritty (sic) loss, mostly from the chin standpoint but also with his confidence, which took a major nose dive following his loss to Puritty (sic). To Wladimir's credit, he did what he could after his loss to Puritty (sic), to steer his career back on course, by winning his next sixteen fights over mostly soft opposition. However, Wladimir was carefully brought along, keeping him away from really hard punchers, other than Derrick Jefferson, who despite having tremendous punching power, had a chin much like Wladimir's.[..]

So, with a weak chin and shattered confidence, can Wladimir win against Chris Byrd on Saturday night? The answer is, No! Sorry, but Wladimir is too far gone, in my opinion, to beat someone as skilled as Chris Byrd, who has improved steadily over the past 5 years. Based on what I’ve seen of Byrd in his past several fights, I predict a stoppage win by Byrd, probably by the 8th round. It’s too bad, because Wladimir could have been a great one, maybe even a Hall of Famer, who knows?
I personally have been a fan of the Klichko brothers for quite some time. They are two well-educated, intelligent, and well-spoken boxers ... at a time when we have very few such individuals in the heavy-weight division. They also are the first wave of a new generation of former CCCP heavyweight boxers. For generations the heavyweight championship seemed like an American birthright; however, this generation of Slavic fighters has signalled the clear end of that era of dominance.

Thus far we are two rounds into the fight, and Klichko seems to be keeping Byrd at a distance and wearing him down. The pre-match statistics cited the two fighters having the same arm length, Klichko appears to be using his arms and longer body to keep Byrd on the defensive and at a distance.

As we come to the last 30 seconds of the 3rd round, Klichko has opened up on Byrd, scoring a string of solid punches. Byrd continues to try to work inside, and does so for brief periods of time, working on Klichko's ribs and body.

When Byrd comes inside, Klichko holds Byrd, forcing the referee to seperate them. He's been warned 6 times thus far (4th Round), but it is a tactical strategy to keep Byrd at a distance.

5th round and early in, Klichko DRILLS Byrd and knocks him flat. Byrd gets up, but he is on the ropes. Klichko is working to finish him off with a knockout, working him hard with 1:30 left, he is simply killing Byrd. Byrd is just hoping to finish the round, he hasn't landed a single counterpunch since the initial knock-down blow. The crowd is going crazy. We're at 50 seconds left in the round, and Byrd is a little less wobbly, he seems that he will finish the round, and he does. Jim Lampley says it might have been the most devastating round of Chris Byrd's career; that right by Klichko was perfect, caught Byrd on the chin just as Byrd was leaning forward.

6th round and Byrd is still on the defensive. Chris Byrd's wife is yelling instructions at him, telling him to move his head, as it is a constant target for Klichko. Byrd can't get inside to hurt Klichko and to tell you the truth, Klichko is looking almost untouched at the half-way point of the fight. I'm actually disappointed that Klichko wasn't more aggressive in this round, as it seems Byrd is ready to lose.

It is worth noting that Vitaly Klichko is working his brother's corner as well.

7th Round and down goes Byrd at about the 2:30 mark and Byrd's face is a bloody mess - the ref ends the fight, Byrd's eye was just destroyed, a bleeding mess after that knock-down right-handed punch in the 7th Round. Byrd was kept at a distance by Klichko's left all night long, and he unleashed hard right-handed punches judiciously to just destroy Byrd. Emmanuel Steward, Vladimir Klichko's trainer devised a great strategy against Byrd. Now Klichko is looking forward for a chance to unify the heavyweight titles

As Jim Lampley just stated, the best fighter out of eastern Europe is Vladimir Klichko. Extremely good post-match interview with Vladimir also - he is very well spoken, especially for a guy who just learned English a few years ago. Barely a scratch on him at the end of this fight. Nice of him to cite his brother also, and say that a win for one of them is a win for both of them. I remember an interview with these brothers a few years ago, where they said they would never fight each other in a match, because it would break their mother's heart. He is now two-time heavyweight champion of the world, the "Steel Hammer", Dr. Vladimir Klichko.

Pasha Night

Courtesy of photojournalist Elena Skochilo, we have this presentation of Pasha Night photos to share with everyone. Her work will be available on as well as part of a photo assignment on Easter in Bishkek.

For the curious, she also has a recent photo assignment from an American-style Football game in Bishkek.

Happy Birthday, Volodia Ilich Ulyanov

What's that? Did you hear something? Shhhh ... be quiet everyone, I think I hear something. He said ... he said ...

"Bury me already! What is wrong with you people?!"

Friday, April 21, 2006

Misinformation - Power Line: Russia Decides Not To Exist

Power Line: Russia Decides Not To Exist

Happened upon this post that someone wrote on Powerline Blog. They don't offer an opportunity to respond to statements on their forum, so I'll point out their extremely misleading statement and inaccurate use of language here.

Russia Decides Not To Exist

Demography is destiny, as Mark Steyn has written. We know what the world's population of 20-year-olds will look like in 20 years, because that population has been born. There is no way to come up with more people in the meantime. To a shocking degree, today's birthrate statistics reflect a decision on the part of a number of nations, especially in Europe, effectively to commit suicide.

Today the Washington Times reports on a Russian Parliamentary hearing on "family policy," at which it was reported that nearly half of Russia's families have no children at all, and another 34% have only one. Russia's current birthrate is 1.34 per woman, far below the rate needed for population equilibrium. At the current rate, Russia's population will be cut in half by the year 2050.

This implies a rate of depopulation greater, on a percentage basis, than when the Black Death killed around one-third of Europe's residents. Villages, towns, and even cities will be deserted and cease to exist. Or else they will be occupied by someone other than the Russians.

When people leave one territory and more to another, they are said to be voting with their feet. When a society makes a collective decision not to reproduce itself, its people could be said to be voting with their--well, let's not go there.

It's often noted that when people lose confidence in the future, they tend to stop reproducing. I think that's true, but the issue goes deeper, and is ultimately, I think, philosophical. Whatever its causes, I doubt that changes in a government's "families policy" will have much impact on this particular voting pattern.

The biggest problem statement that I see is "This implies a rate of depopulation greater, on a percentage basis, than when the Black Death killed around one-third of Europe's residents." First, a rate, by definition ... is an quantity measured with respect to another measured quantity. Miles PER hour, $6.99 per pound, etc. The writer here actually means to say that the % decline in population, if the trend continues, will be comparable to the Black Death (Bubonic Plague).

However, the actual RATE of population decline per year due to the Bubonic Plague was 25 times faster than what is happening in Russia, occuring over 2 years (1348 to 1350 in Europe) rather than the 50 years speculated upon in the article.

Further, the birth rate per woman is skewed due to the age of Russia's population. One can expect that as elderly women pass on, the total birth rate per woman will actually increase. Using figures for birth rates is misleading in this case.

Wikipedia cites 2005 estimated figures of 10.2 births/1,000 people and 16.5 deaths/1,000 people. However, these figures alone are not sufficient to estimate what future population declines might occur. It does not account for the death rate among the fertile vs. non-fertile portions of the population, and the numbers of elderly and the overall aging of the population in Russia. In other words, the elderly are not an infinte pool and with increasing death rates, you should expect the average age within the country to decrease.

Further, the UPI article cited by Powerline is equally bad at math, citing:
U.N. statistics say that at this rate Russia's population will be 101.5 million by 2050, shrinking by almost half from the over 143 million population of today.
My math suggests that half of 143 million would be 71.5 million. A difference of 30 million on this scale doesn't quite qualify as "almost" in my book. In fact, a decline from 143 million to 101.5 million would be an approximately 29% decline in population - closer to 1/4 than 1/2.

There are obviously disturbing population trends within Russia, where having one child is considered the norm. It is estimated that the abortion rate is higher than the birth rate and many women use abortion as a form of birth control. Many of the orphans in Russian orphanages actually have parents and family who have abandoned them due to their own economic hardship, substance abuse, or psychological problems.

It also appears there are no easy solutions for this trend. While economics clearly play a part in Russians not having children, the number of Russians living below the poverty line has been halved since the economic crisis after the decline of the CCCP - with no subsequent impact on the nations birth rate.

Economic vitality combined with revised immigration laws, to attract the Russian diaspora into returning to Rodina might be one consideration to help reduce the decline. However, it is likely that ethnic Russians will continue to remain in fairly rapid decline within large portions of their own country. It simply won't be on the exaggerated scale inaccurately portrayed in articles such as Powerline and the UPI present here.

Слава Богу, сегодня пятница!

I have a few short announcements before the weekend. Next week will be a bit of an unusual week for me, I'm not likely to spend a great deal of time around the computer after Tuesday, although I will try to post something short on Thursday and Friday. I actually have been anticipating this and will wrap up some articles this weekend that I will save as drafts and post later in the week.

Also, The Accidental Russophile has a new member, Natasha Andreyeva (
Somnevaushayasya), who will hopefully be contributing on political topics. Her posts will be in Russian, which I hope will encourage more Russian readers and also might challenge me to improve my own Russian. I think Natasha will also give us a very authentic Russian point-of-view on political topics and might lend itself to more discussions and challenge American-centric points of view.

Soviet Moon Images

Soviet Moon Images

I happened upon an interesting site that I thought to share. Mental Landscape has a series of interesting photos from the Soviet Space program (as well as some other topics). Most notably they have a page devoted to Soviet Moon Images which features the Luna-3 images (the first images made of the dark side of the moon), through to Luna 24 in 1976 (the last spacecraft to land on the moon).

Mental Landscape also has pages devoted to the Soviet Exploration of Venus and Nikola Tesla.

Don Mitchell is the creator of Mental Landscape, and for the curious he maintains a blog here.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Izvestia Interview with Leon Aron - Only the G8 Summit Can Break Iran

Evgenie Baj of Izvestia has an interview with political sociologist and resident scholar Dr. Leon Aron of the American Enterprise Institute regarding the cooling of attitudes between the US and Russia. Dr. Aron discusses the areas of mutual interest between the US and Russia and gives his rather optimistic forecast for compromise between the two nations.

I think Dr. Aron is being diplomatic in his assessment, but it is likely at time when diplomacy is necessary. I think both the US and Russia have been moving at rather more deliberate cross-purposes than Leon Aron presumes. However, it is likely better to focus on new agreements and working towards common goals, than continued actions to undermine each nations interests.

The American press has determined that the attitudes between Washington and Moscow are going downhill. The US Congress and news media, the American "the fourth authority", have increased pressure upon President Bush, attempting to force him to reconsider attitudes towards the Russia Federation. [..] The Washington Post has announced its verdict "The debate is over: Russia is not a democracy". But not so long ago, the same newspaper wrote that in the USA there are different centers of authority which influence decision-making concerning Russia. On the one hand is Vice-President Dick Cheney who calls for a tough policy towards Russia, and on the other is Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, insisting on a more balanced approach. Has this debate really ended?

Leon Aron: Actually in the USA there is another, more global debate ongoing - about American national interests and Russia's place within this system of coordinates. Really, it is being said that attitudes are rapidly worsening. But within this phenomenon there is no sorcery or malicious intention, and there is a difference in the essence of these two schools of thought. In this case I understand the ruling elite, their agenda and ideology as modes.

The American policy is dominated by two tendencies. The first is defined by the consequences of the monstrous act of terrorism on September 11. From this point of view, the White House appreciates and will certainly continue to appreciate Russian cooperation. The priorities of the USA will still be the war on terrorism and nuclear non-proliferation - two areas in which Russia plays an important role. Recently these foreign policy objectives have received an improbable impulse because of the sharply increased danger of a nuclear weapon coming into the hands of the nations which then will supply them to terrorists.

Another mark from his father on this administration is its roots in neo-conservatism. And for them maintained communication essentially important, that the foreign state achieves on a world scene based upon how it behaves at home. In the USA there has been a returning to John Kennedy's slogan: "that we shall bear any burden and pay any price, to help democracy in the world". [note: Dr. Aron misquotes or paraphrases Kennedy here, the full quote is actually "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty."]

Here also there is a dividing line between neo-conservatives and the so-called realists. For the last it is not so important, what occurs inside Russia, and it is more important how many Russian rockets there are and that we agree with them. Therefore, in my opinion, it would be more reasonable to look not at the difference of the ideological centers within Washington, but at these two tendencies which often conflict among themselves.

Izvestia: But it does not explain the increased mutual irritation between both Washington and Moscow?

Aron: I am absolutely convinced that Russian leadership does not willfully carry out an anti-American policy. And Washington does not aim to take an anti-Russian position. But in the USA, due to the dominate neo-conservatives within the administration, they begin to watch very intently what occurs within Russia. And Russia begins to trust the USA less, because they see these democracy nations turning against them. And in Moscow also there is a certain genetic predisposition towards Putin's policies. There was shame from the chaos and weakness of the 90's years, when Russia rode in the wake of the USA. In Moscow it has been decided, that the absolutely inadequate decentralization of policy and the economy has taken Russia in the wrong direction, and that now it is necessary to reanimate the role of the state, to use the highest authority to remove the "brilliance of the crown" and to approve the role of a ruling political party. These conclusions also dictate Russian foreign policy. In the opinion of the Kremlin leaders, it should be completely independent. If this policy is not pleasant to America, then so be it. In the Kremlin it is considered the best policy, and that Russia will be appreciated more as an independent power.

The trouble is that this policy, by virtue of the nature of a present political mode within the USA, is perceived as anti-American. And in Moscow the policy of the USA is also perceived. They witness the promotion or the so-called "planting" of democracy as it becomes a primary factor of American policy. And Moscow looks at the consequences of this policy in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan and immediately forms the conclusion that these are anti-Russian actions. [..]

Izvestia: And nevertheless till 2008, little will change in the attitudes between these two leaders. Bush repeatedly has said, that he "will not hand over" Russia. And he obviously ignores appeals of Senator John McCain to exclude Russia from the G8.

Aron: McCain is not responsible for safety of America, and President Bush responds. And in the time while the administration that was burnt on September 11th is in power, it will measure seven times, before cutting off attitudes towards Russia. And in the policy priorities in the war on terror and nuclear non-proliferation it is necessary to include the power and influence of Russia. In fact here it is understood that it is better to pay Russia for oil, than to buy from other countries where the money flows to terrorists. But remember my words: in a year the pre-election debate will begin and we shall see very serious attacks upon Russia from John McCain. And in fact, he will be one of the most serious American presidential candidates from the Republicans. Besides, considering that elections will also be occuring in Russia, Washington will paying even greater attention to our country. Also be assured we will see many unpleasant things from the during these democratic procedures. The attention towards Russia is always amplified 12 to 18 months prior to presidential elections in the USA. So it was for both Yeltsin and Putin.

Izvestia: And what is your forecast for this time up to the elections in both countries?

Aron: Nothing catastrophic will occur. But it is necessary to tighten your seatbelts. The plane will not fall, but it will shake very strongly.

Izvestia: And it is obvious, quite good attitudes between Bush and Putin become property of history. The same attitudes any more will not be between the American and Russian leader who has come to power in Washington and Moscow.

Aron: it will not be exact. The last years the factor of personal attitudes between presidents in many respects defined the American policy in relation to Russia. In the middle of a monstrous shock which has shaken America on September, 11th, 2001 to Bush Putin with words of support has called. Such it is not forgotten. Also it is the main reason of that Bush will hold a former position concerning Putin and Russia.

Izvestia: In Moscow one of primary points of irritation is that America appears to make all new demands for the introduction of Russia into the WTO. Many Russian politicians perceive it as a desire to punish Russia for deviation from democracy.

Aron: It isn't so. Here, look first of all at the interests of business. And business representatives blame Russia for subsidizing the prices for energy carriers and infringement of intellectual property rights. But it not a political plot by the US administration.

Izvestia: And the nortorious Jackson-Vanik amendment?

Aron: Here is another algebra at work. The White House has spoken in every possible way for the amendments cancelling. But the current administration doesn't have the political capital to spend. It is already politically half-dead, bleeding profusely because of the war in Iraq. And in this situation, it remains to the US Congress and to pass through McCain - which means it is doomed to obvious defeat. The White House says: the amendment has become outdated and Russia has carried out of all obligations on free emigration from the country. But to Bush, they will object: what about the state of local democracy, and the absence of free elections, and the dependence of the press on the Kremlin, and Khodorkovsky's arrest?

Izvestia: In occasion of the forthcoming G8 summit, there are calls for Bush not to attend [..] What do you expect will occur?

Aron: It is assured, nothing will happen. The G8 is too serious and heavy a structure. To shake it, to try to take out one of columns, something to file - dangerously and unreasonably. But there is one element which can be dangerous to a forthcoming meeting. It is the crisis around Iran. If there happens to be a sharp deterioration of the crisis around the nuclear program of Iran, if there is the impression that Iran will not only create the nuclear bomb - already very few people doubt it - but that it is really determined to carry out its threats, and if the West will rise into a united front, and Russia says it will not be part of that, it will lead to a situation where the summit can not take place.

Izvestia: And what is your personal forecast?

Aron: I think, that it will not occur. Iran will continue to play for time. And Russia begins to show flexibility in every possible way. The first summit of club of the civilized states at which the President of Russia will be the head - is an extremely important step for the Kremlin. I have a impression that Moscow, will probably go on towards a certain compromise with the West over Iran.

Izvestia: And in your opinion, a compromise is possible?

Aron: Iran continues escalation of provocative applications. The difference expressed towards Moscow at its approach to the Iranian crisis was shown not only from the USA, but also by Western Europe. And, as the summit approaches, the desire within Moscow will probably ripen to prevent or at least to delay the occurence of an Iran with a nuclear bomb on the Russian border. Actually the Kremlin does not have many moves left. It will either condemn Iran or it will not condemn. I think that in the Kremlin they pray, that the conflict has not progressed to an uncontrollable stage before the summit. Because to speak about Bush personally, the administration, and the Congress, the impudence of Iran combined with the connivance of Moscow can provoke a big fire. And in this sense, the destiny of the summit depends on Tehran.

My apologies for the hack translation. While I can slowly get most of the understanding from a Russian news article, it takes me quite a while to work out a translation, and I am sure I don't get the grammar and meaning perfectly. I was fiddling with this translation a little bit on and off all day and only had time to complete it this evening.

For the most part, I agree with Dr. Aron, although I disagree with the Russian idea of the US "planting" democracy in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. Those countries rebelled against the status quo, of which Russia was a part. And if Russia had such great relations with those nations over 90 years (which seems to be the Russia perspective) than what could the US say in a few weeks to overturn that? It is like saying that you and your wife have been in love for 40 years, but 5 minutes on the dance floor with another man and she is leaving you. Meanwhile you blame the other man. If she left so quickly, it isn't because she was in love with you, buddy. It is because she was tired of picking up your dirty socks and sleeping next to you while you snored.

I think it is also unfortunate that the continued Russian perception of the economic ups and downs of the 1990s were the result of following US policies. In fact, I think the US gave very little advice or support in those years - Republicans love to point this out as a major failure of the Clinton administration. I personally see the economic upheavals in Russia during the 1990s as being due to the rapid changes which happened in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The US role in that was rather small. It is a natural human tendency to look outside for causes, than to look inside for the real reasons.

Revisiting these issues really isn't important, however. Of greater importance is working towards further diplomatic agreements and our nation's common goals.