Daily Archives: July 6, 2008

July 6, 2008 — Contents


(1) The Sunday Photos

(2) The Sunday Sports Section

(3) The Sunday Mass Murder

(4) The Sunday Salvation

(5) The Sunday Funnies

The Sunday Photos

A reader points us to a YouTube video (embed disabled) in which, among other things, Vladimir Putin is shown ferociously growling as he lectures some Nashi youth cult members about the evil foreigners waiting to destroy them.

The Sunday Sports Section: Putin + Footlball = Franco?

Yevgeny Kiselyov, a political analyst and political talk show host on Ekho Moskvy radio, on Russia’s football frenzy and how it apes the Franco dictatorship, from the Moscow Times:

For three glorious weeks, football ruled in Europe. But that is all behind us now. Spain won the championship, and passions have died down — that is except in Russia, where football fever is still gripping the population like some form of mass madness.

There is a good reason for that excitement, of course. To everyone’s pleasure and amazement — including mine — Russia’s team rose from its initial standing in 16th place after a dismal showing in the qualifying round to finish in third place overall.

Now even housewives who never cared about football before know that nothing like this has happened since 1988, when the Soviet team last made it to the European championships. Soccer coverage dominated the airwaves almost as much as Putin’s Plan did before the presidential election.

But we heard much less about the fact that Spain last made it to the finals in 1964, when they beat the Soviet team. But it is worth recalling some of the events from that period, a time when Spain was locked in a duel with the Soviet Union. It was foremost a political battle. Spain, which hosted the championship game in Madrid, was still haunted by the memories of its civil war from 1936 to 1939. The republicans, supported by the Soviet Union, lost to Francisco Franco’s nationalists. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev wanted the Soviet team to trounce Spain in full view of the Spanish dictator. Just the opposite happened. In an intense game, the Soviet players missed the decisive goal in the final minutes and lost to Spain 2-1.

Khrushchev was beside himself with rage. His team lost to Spain in front of the caudillo himself. The defeat brought shame upon the red flag and dishonor to the Soviet state. The head trainer, Konstantin Beskov, who had assembled one of the best teams in the country’s history, was immediately fired.

Objectively speaking, Spain’s team was the strongest in Europe, with Real Madrid winning five consecutive European championship cups from 1956 to 1960. No team has since matched that accomplishment.

Spain’s total obsession with football began in earnest under Franco in the 1950s — a period during which Spain was viewed by most of the world as the “sick man” of Europe. It was a rogue state, one of the last dictatorships in Europe, scorned and criticized by other countries. It was poor, backward and stagnant. Its glory days as an powerful empire — one that earned the world’s respect for its amazing military victories, great voyages and geographic discoveries — had long passed by the mid-20th century. Therefore, Spain found its much-needed self-esteem on the football field.

And not only football. In 1968, Spain was beside itself with delight when the Spanish singer Massiel won the Eurovision song contest in Britain. With her eloquently named song “La, La, La,” she beat out Britain’s future rock ‘n’ roll star Cliff Richard, who took second place. Even then, there were rumors that the voting process was rigged. Now, 40 years later, those suspicions have proved well-founded. Spain released a film documenting how Franco had the contest’s jury members bribed in order to ensure a win and the boosting of his country’s international reputation.

I don’t mention this story to cast doubt on our excellent finish in the European Football Championship, Dima Bilan’s recent Eurovision win, Sochi securing the 2014 Winter Olympics, Zenit St. Petersburg’s UEFA championship victory or Russia’s hockey win after so many unsuccessful years. All of those performers and athletes deserved the glory and honor that comes with victory.

But when celebrations over victories in athletic or Eurovision contests reach the level of hysteria, Russia becomes very much like Franco’s Spain.

In fact, the histories of Russia and Spain have a lot in common. The great 20th-century Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset called the two countries “the two poles of the great European axis.” If we take his famous book, “Spineless Spain,” and substitute the word “Russia” for “Spain,” the reader will find the numerous parallels between the two simply amazing.

The regime that former President Vladimir Putin’s built is in some subtle ways reminiscent of Franco’s regime during its era of decline — when, like the Sphinx without the riddle, all that remained of the harsh, bloodthirsty dictator was the uniform of the generalissimo. It is no coincidence that the system almost immediately collapsed after Franco’s death and that his hand-picked successor, King Juan Carlos I, played a leading role in returning Spain to democracy.

As for the euphoria following athletic victories or artistic triumphs, yesterday it was the Bolshoi Ballet, today it is Bilan. Communist propaganda touted the success of Soviet hockey players, figure skaters and ballet dancers as proof of “the indisputable superiority of the socialist system.” And the same propaganda reacted very negatively when famous Soviet figures, such as dancers Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov and figure skaters Lyudmila Belousova and Oleg Protopopov, defected to the West. They were portrayed as the worst kind of traitors to the state.

Rooting for the success of Soviet athletes gave ordinary citizens a way to feel like they were a part of some great cause. It also allowed them to forget for a short time about their lack of freedom, their meager Soviet standard of living and their limited opportunities for personal success or prosperity. On the other hand, when all other channels for self-expression were closed, the mass interest in football served as a substitute for a full and healthy social life. Direct broadcasts of football games were practically the only Soviet television programs shown live, and they were a rare glimpse of the real world — one filled with the drama, passion and suspense of a live global sport event whose results were not preprogrammed by the state. The only other live broadcasts were of military parades, workers’ demonstrations on Nov. 7 and May 1, funerals for Politburo members on Red Square and, of course, “Vremya,” the stiff government nightly news program.

Football is an outlet to express the people’s patriotism without nationalistic excesses or xenophobia. It also allows them to make nonstandard pragmatic decisions that in other circumstances might be considered politically incorrect, such as inviting a foreign coach to head the national team. Football is perhaps the only issue that is subject to serious, hard-hitting and impartial analysis by the pro-Kremlin media.

In 1964, when Franco’s Spain went head to head with Khrushchev’s Soviet Union in the finals of the European championship, the two countries were on equal footing. By 2008, however, democratic Spain, which has long since moved on from its past as a dictatorship, twice routed Russia, a country stuck in its authoritarian past.

Perhaps this should be a lesson not only for Putin but for the football team’s coach, Guus Hiddink. The team is overly burdened when so much of the country’s pride and self-worth rests on its performance on the field. With this huge weight on each player’s shoulders, it makes it very difficult to compete against more nimble football teams from free and democratic countries.

The Sunday Mass Murder

Radio Free Europe reports that, as always, the number one form of “birth control” in barbaric Russia is the abortion. Russians love their country all right — right up until they have to actually do anything personal to support. The Chinese can’t get their people to stop having babies, and the Russians can’t get them to start.

Dilyara Latypova is a gynecologist in the Russian republic of Tatarstan. With more than 25 years of experience, she’s seen some progress in family planning since the days of the Soviet Union, when such topics were largely taboo.

Still, she says, the situation today is far from ideal. For many women, the most common method of birth control remains a Soviet-era holdover: abortion.

“Young women who think that having an abortion is an easy thing are wrong,” Latypova tells RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service. “An abortion is not only an operation. It’s a deep psychological trauma for a woman. This is an operation that causes a woman physical and moral pain. I don’t think it’s the right decision.”

Despite an abundance of new family-planning options, Latypova says lack of public awareness and prohibitive expenses — like $25 monthly packs of birth control pills — mean many women still see abortion as their only choice.

“Students and young girls can’t afford birth control. Many girls are afraid to talk about it with their mothers and ask for money,” she says. “An unplanned pregnancy can cause them enormous stress. They immediately opt for an abortion, and don’t even tell their parents or boyfriends.”

Russia was the first country in the world to legalize abortion, in 1920. The procedure was briefly driven underground, when Soviet leader Josef Stalin banned abortion in an attempt to encourage women to have larger families.

But after Stalin’s death in 1953, the ban was lifted. A decade later, the practice had become so common that the USSR officially registered 5.5 million abortions, compared to just 2 million live births.

A Private Matter

The number of abortions has fallen dramatically since then. The most recent available figures, for 2006, show 1.6 million abortions compared to 1.5 million live births — a dismal figure, especially in a country struggling with a looming demographic crisis.

Women are entitled to abortions up until the 12th week of pregnancy, and — unlike in many countries — are not obligated to alert relatives or give a reason for requesting the procedure.

The relative ease of getting an abortion, in fact, has blinded many women to the numerous health risks associated with the process, especially for those who turn to it more than once. “The complications include bleeding and inflammation in the short term,” says Lyubov Yerofeyeva, the director of the Russian Family Planning Association, an NGO that works to improve sex education in Russia. “In the long term, the most severe complication could be infertility.”

Yerofeyeva is speaking in a brightly lit office in central Moscow whose walls are adorned with posters of cuddly babies. But Yerofeyeva and other association employees can also paint a stark picture of the reality of abortion in Russia today.

Sex education is not part of the national curriculum in Russia. So when most young people become sexually active, at around the age of 16, Yerofeyeva says they know almost nothing about how women become pregnant.

“You can’t say the idea of family planning and birth control is flourishing,” she says. “The tradition in Russia is not to talk about sexuality loudly, not to tackle these issues — even within a family, even between husband and wife. Sometimes they’re not even communicating about their own sexual relations. These issues have always been very closed.”

Growing Options

Part of the reason abortions were so prevalent during the Soviet era, health professionals say, was that contraceptives were so unreliable. Oral contraception was not available and more often than not, Soviet-made condoms and intrauterine devices didn’t work.

In the years after the Soviet collapse, before the expense grew too great, some gynecological clinics attempted to provide birth control for free, a practice that has proved successful in places like the United Kingdom. The number of Russian women who use the pill as their primary form of birth control remains low — between 3 and 13 percent, as compared to 52 percent in Europe. The predominant form of preventive birth control is the highly uncertain rhythm method. But Vladimir Shchigolev at the Moscow office of the World Health Organization says the situation is improving.

“At the moment, the younger generation knows more about family planning, and they have better access to family planning services. Today, they can go to the pharmacy and buy contraceptive pills, condoms, modern IUDs that are quite different from Soviet IUDs — they are absolutely safe,” Shchigolev says. “Of course they talk about abortion, but they talk about abortion as not a good way to prevent pregnancy and to plan a family.”

Abortion techniques have come a long way since the Soviet era, when 35-year-old Olga Lipovskaya related her experience in Francine du Plessix Gray’s acclaimed book “Soviet Women Walking the Tightrope.”

“You stand in line before the door of the operating room, waiting to be taken in,” she says. “Then it’s your turn, and you go into a hall splattered with blood, where two doctors are aborting seven or eight women at the same time; they’re usually very rough and rude. If you’re lucky they give you a little sedative.”

According to du Plessix Gray, Olga estimated that she had had about 14 abortions in total, and she knew women who had had as many as 25.

‘Huge Psychological Trauma’

Today, modern techniques make the experience less traumatic and dangerous, but Natalia Vartapetova, the director of a Russian NGO called the Institute of Family Health says complications following abortions are still widespread.

“Unfortunately, still, the consequences of abortion are among the key causes of maternal mortality in Russia,” she says. “One of the problems, perhaps, is infection control — infection and sepsis afterward — or other complications, like hemorrhage. Infertility, as well — we know about one-third of infertility is due to previous abortions.”

But for all that, the situation is improving, Vartapetova says. One of her projects is to educate health professionals about modern methods of birth control, and in the 20 or so regions where the programs are taking place, abortion rates have fallen.

And with the population level in severe decline — demographers estimate it could fall below 100 million by 2050, from 150 million in 1992 — the Russian government is also keen to tackle the issue of abortion. Last year, then-President Vladimir Putin introduced a long-term project to encourage women to have families with more than one child.

The pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi this year staged a demonstration to protest abortion, adorning rows of cemetery-style crosses with signs reading “architect,” “driver,” “editor,” and other professions — a nod to the potential labor lost to terminated pregnancies. (Nashi’s conservative social streak extends to birth control; the group has protested against condoms and other preventive family-planning methods.)

Vartapetova warns that attempts to prevent abortions or to restrict access to birth control would be a mistake. “When we talk about the demographic crisis, quite often there’s a misunderstanding — that family planning leads to smaller family size. International evidence that shows that that’s not true — and that family planning actually improves women’s health and decreases abortion rates. But this information isn’t that well-known among our policymakers.”

Doctors like Latypova in Tatarstan are also quick to remind women of the enormous emotional cost that abortion can inflict. While the topic of abortion does not spark the kind of fierce moral debate seen in countries like the United States, Latypova says terminating a pregnancy can be a devastating experience.

“You can’t compare the emotional state of a woman who undergoes an abortion with anything else. As both a doctor and a mother, I can say that it’s a huge psychological trauma. There are very few women who can just breezily say, ‘oh, I had an abortion.’ I think there’s no abortion that doesn’t leave its mark on a woman.”

The Sunday Salvation

The blogger at TakeYourCross refers us to Andrei Piontovosky, persecuted neo-Soviet dissident, Russian political scientist and a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., writing in the New York Sun:

Russia and the West are losing each other yet again. The magnetic attraction and repulsion between the two has been going on for centuries. Indeed, historians have counted as many as 25 such cycles since the reign of Tsar Ivan III.

In the past, however, Russia’s sharp anti-Western turns were reversed — usually out of simple necessity — after relations reached rock bottom. Not this time. On the contrary, the deterioration of the relationship nowadays has developed a momentum of its own.

There are four reasons for this. First, the “loss” of the Cold War, and with it imperial and superpower status, has created a deep and so far unresolved crisis in the collective mentality of Russia’s political class. Russian leaders continue to perceive the West as a phantom enemy in opposition to which all the traditional mythologies of Russian foreign policy are being resurrected.

Second, by the end of Vladimir Putin’s second presidential term, Russia’s modernizing dreams had been shattered. Modernization, indeed, simply turned out to be yet another redistribution of property to those on top, particularly those who came out of the St. Petersburg mayoral office and the Federal Security Bureau. The image of the West as an enemy has become the only ideological excuse for Mr. Putin’s model of the corporate state.

Third, the soaring price of oil has made the Kremlin’s inhabitants believe that they are all-powerful. Today’s Russia, which thinks of itself as a “great energy state,” laughs at its previous meager desire to catch up with little Portugal in terms of living standards.

Finally, a series of Western mistakes and misfortunes, a crisis in transatlantic relations, lack of leadership, and the growing threat of Islamic fundamentalism — in both the Middle East and Europe — have led Russian leaders to believe that the West is a sinking ship, to be abandoned as soon as possible.

While this belief unfortunately does have some validity, it requires one very important caveat: Russia is part of that ship. Russia can make advances to Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran, and it can remind the Arab world that the Soviet Union helped it develop and offered it protection in the United Nations Security Council.

But in the eyes of Islamic extremists, Russia is part of the West — indeed, its most vulnerable part. Thus, it is Russia, with a soaring birth rate among its Muslim citizens that is the most attractive for expansion and take-over.

But Russia’s self-destructive confrontation with the West can be halted, and its centuries-old debate between Westernizers and the Slavophiles put to rest once and for all. This, however, will depend on Ukraine’s success on the path of European development it chose in the Orange Revolution of 2004-2005.

Ukraine does, indeed, present a threat, but not to Russia’s security, as Kremlin propagandists claim. The real threat is to the Putin model of a corporate, authoritarian state, unfriendly to the West. For the Kremlin’s occupants, it is a matter of life and death that countries that were once part of the Soviet Union but chose a different model of development — Ukraine being the chief example — should never become attractive to ordinary Russians.

The example posed by the Baltic nations does not threaten the Kremlin much, because they are perceived as foreign to the Russian psyche. Indeed, in Soviet films, Baltic actors were usually cast in the roles of Nazi generals and American spies. Ukrainians, on the other hand, are close to us in their culture and mentality. If they made a different choice, why can’t we do the same?

Ukraine’s success will mark the political death of Putinism, that squalid philosophy of “KGB Capitalists.” If Ukraine succeeds in its European choice, if it is able to make it work, it can settle the question that has bedeviled Russian culture for centuries — Russia or the West? So the best way to help Russia today is to support Ukraine’s claim that it belongs to Europe and its institutions. This will influence Russia’s political mentality more than anything else.

For if Russia’s anti-Western paranoia continues and the Kremlin’s Eurasian fantasy of allying with China lasts another 10-15 years, Russia will end up seeing China swallowing its Far East and Siberia. Indeed, the weakened Russia that will be Mr. Putin’s legacy will then also lose the Northern Caucasus and the Volga region to their growing Muslim populations.

The remaining Russian lands would then have no other choice but to attach themselves to Ukraine, which should by then have become a successful member of the European Union.

After 1,000 years, Russia will have come full circle, returning to Kievan Rus after wandering on the roads of the Mongol hordes, empire, communism, and farcical Putinism.

So Russia now has a choice: Ukrainian plan A or Ukrainian plan B.

The Sunday Funnies

Get yours today!

Bring me the head of Vladmir Putin!