Daily Archives: July 13, 2008

July 13, 2008 — Contents


(1) The Sunday Photos

(2) The Sunday Book Burning

(3) The Sunday Salvation

(4) The Sunday Snoop

(5) The Sunday Sham

(6) The Sunday Funnies

The Sunday Photos: YouTube Edition

Google Video.

The Sunday Book Burning

Reuters reports:

A Russian court has banned a book about Adolf Hitler by the late historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, saying quotes attributed to the Nazi leader insult Russians and Jews, prosecutors said on Tuesday.

Under anti-extremism laws the court banned the 1953 book “Hitler’s Table Talk: 1941-1944”, which records Hitler’s sometimes racist ramblings on a wide range of topics.

Trevor-Roper, Regis professor of history at Oxford University between 1957 and 1980, wrote what is considered one of the classic accounts of the fall of Nazi Germany: “The Last Days of Hitler”.

Russia’s Prosecutor-General said in a statement that texts published in “Hitler’s Table Talk” are of “an anti-Slavic and anti-Semitic character”.

“A host of statements by A. Hitler in the book insult the dignity of Russian and Jewish peoples who are presented in quotes as inferior and primitive people because of their nationality.”

The Prosecutor-General said certain Hitler quotes in the book — such as “Russians are beasts,” “Slavs are a mass of inborn slaves” — had caused offence.

The book will now be put on a national list of extremist works that are banned and owning or distributing it would then be illegal.

Trevor-Roper, one of the leading scholars of his generation, became Lord Dacre after being made a life peer in 1987. He died in 2003.

Initially an expert on the 16th and 17th centuries, he drew on information gained while serving as an intelligence officer in World War Two to write “The Last Days of Hitler”, considered a classic of Hitler scholarship.

His reputation took a knock in 1983 when he was briefly taken in by diaries purportedly written by Hitler that turned out to be forgeries.

The Sunday Salvation

The International Herald Tribune reports:

Nina Khrushcheva [shown above], the great-granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader who boasted that the Soviet Union would catch up with and overtake the United States, has a different model for post-Soviet Russians making their way in the Western world: the life and works of Vladimir Nabokov [the statute in the picture], the émigré writer who became a giant in the West decades before being acknowledged in Russia.

The Moscow publisher Vremya recently released her book, “V Gostiakh U Nabokova,” or “Visiting Nabokov,” first published in English in 2007 by Yale University Press as “Imagining Nabokov,” a slightly different version. Khrushcheva was in Moscow in June, lecturing on individual freedom and national identity, which are at the heart of her book.

Freedom, as it was understood during the Putin era, was the antithesis of Nabokov’s own understanding of the term, Khrushcheva said in an interview.

“I think Putin stops at Dostoyevsky,” she said, musing on whether Vladimir Putin had read Nabokov. “I think Nabokov would be very threatening to his whole worldview. He doesn’t really provide for any exceptionalism and sovereign democracy.”

“The ‘American’ Nabokov of the second half of the twentieth century is the most important cultural and literary phenomenon for Russia in the first half of the twenty-first,” writes Khrushcheva in the book.

Both editions deconstruct “Pnin,” “Pale Fire,” “Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle” and other works by Nabokov as breaking with the Russian literary tradition of suffering epitomized by Gogol and Dostoyevsky and nurtured by fatalistic, submissive Russian Orthodox culture.

Nabokov depicts characters who “take responsibility for their own lives,” Khrushcheva writes.

“He is our textbook, and our road map for today’s transitional period from a closed and communal terrain to its Western alternative, one open and competitive,” she continues. “How to survive and succeed in this Western world, which Russia always deemed linear, cold and calculating: this is what the art of Vladimir Nabokov teaches us.”

Khrushcheva dedicates “Imagining Nabokov” to Andrei Sinyavsky, the Soviet dissident author who wrote under the pen name Abram Tertz. His essay “Strolls With Pushkin,” written in prison camp and shocking at the time, is an irreverent take on Russia’s god of literary gods.

Likewise, “Imagining Nabokov” and its Russian counterpart, “Visiting Nabokov,” are far from dry literary analyses. Khrushcheva converses with the statue of Nabokov in Montreux, Switzerland. He comes alive and responds, citing passages from his works.

In June, Ex Libris, the literary supplement of the Moscow newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, praised the “amazing lightness and sincerity” of “Visiting Nabokov.” Khrushcheva has also been taken to task, on the basis of her ancestry, for daring to approach Nabokov.

Nabokov was forced out of Bolshevik Russia and fled Nazi Europe for America, where he realized his passion for butterflies as an entomologist at Harvard and taught literature at Cornell University. He then returned to Europe and settled in a hotel in Montreux.

“Nabokov showed others how to live now – in a world with open borders, among different people, different cultures,” writes Khrushcheva. “He showed us how to live in the new solitude of multiple worlds.”

She recalls her repellant introduction to Nabokov – a cardboard-bound, carbon copy, or samizdat, of “Lolita” that was furtively passed around – but then describes how she grew to identify with his writing.

In 1991, just as the Soviet Union was collapsing, Khrushcheva went to the United States, where she earned a degree in comparative literature at Princeton University. She now teaches international affairs at the New School in New York. At a 1999 exhibition at the New York Public Library, “Nabokov Under Glass,” honoring the 100th anniversary of his birth, the writer’s notebooks, with their constant, organic interchange between Russian and English, captivated Khrushcheva.

“Those who live in several languages know, and at times can almost sense, how their minds wander not between words but between worlds,” she writes of the experience, so close to her own. “Nabokov is me!”

Nabokov, who as a member of the well-educated Russian gentry was trilingual, wrote his first works in Russian, then switched to English and translated some of his own books, including “Lolita.”

In a Nabokovian twist, Khrushcheva wrote her books in parallel – in English and Russian – with some variation based on cultural context. The conversations with the statue of Nabokov in the English-language version were jarring to her American editor and moved up closer to the beginning of the book, where they were explained, said Khrushcheva, while the Russian editor had no problem with the long passages quoting Nabokov in English.

In “Imagining Nabokov,” her literary and political interests have converged. Khrushcheva lectured on the book last month in London at the Royal Society of Arts and Pushkin House.

Khrushcheva outlines the way responses to Nabokov changed under Vladimir Putin’s presidency. In 2001, she taught a course called “Nabokov and Us” at Moscow State University and found that the “post-postcommunist new-century kids” in her class had wholeheartedly embraced Nabokov’s worldview, calling him “our Pushkin.”

By 2006, she writes, young listeners at her lecture at the Nabokov Museum in St. Petersburg responded by downplaying Nabokov’s social and political significance, saying that Russia was strong enough to find its own way.

But there are signs of a new openness to Nabokov. Elena Nemirovskaya, the founder and director of the Moscow School of Political Studies, which runs seminars about civil society, was impressed by Khrushcheva’s book and invited her to lecture there on June 12, Russia’s independence day.

“This book shows that through the wonderful language of Nabokov, the modern embodiment of genius of the Russian language, we can read how language forms identity,” Nemirovskaya said.

Nabokov’s transition from Russian to English marked a quest for personal responsibility, she added. “I make a choice and I want to realize my freedom and answer for it.”

Nabokov, after years of writing in English, compared his Russian language to “frozen strawberries.”

Sergei Sulimsky, a Moscow-born lawyer and Nabokov enthusiast who is based in London and commutes between the two cities, wrote by e-mail: “The taste of the frozen strawberry on the tip of my tongue still keeps me going as distinctively Russian through my English odyssey and helps me to feel not as conspicuous reading a Penguin paperback of ‘Ada’ on the Moscow underground.

“Nabokov taught us how to remain Russian without Russia.”

The Sunday Snoop

Sweden has joined the cold war against Russia, The Local reports:

Sweden’s new surveillance law will enable the National Defence Radio Establishment (FRA) to scan massive quantities of Russian computer and telecom data, Svenska Dagbladet reports.

Information gleaned by the signal intelligence agency can then be used as currency when trading data with other western countries. Despite the headaches the bill has caused since entering parliament in 2007, the government has never revealed the true purpose of the law, SvD writes. Several sources close to the Swedish intelligence community told the newspaper that the controversial new eavesdropping law was primarily intended to keep track of Russian communications.

“Our geographical position means that 80 percent of Russia’s contacts with large parts of the world travel through cables in Sweden. That is the core of the issue,” said one source. “The most important reason for the law is that the government, the Armed Forces and other agencies need intelligence about Russia.” But neither former Prime Minister Göran Persson nor his successor Fredrik Reinfeldt have mentioned Sweden’s desire to listen in on the neighbours.

FRA in its turn has wanted to keep its intentions quiet for as long as possible to prevent Russia from rerouting its computer and telecommunications systems. Swedish-Finnish telecom giant TeliaSonera owns one of the world’s largest fiber-optic cable networks, and company maps confirm that the vast majority of all cable traffic to and from Russia crosses Sweden’s borders, SvD reports.

All Russian email and telephone calls, for example, pass through Sweden, regardless of whether the recipient is located in Berlin, Hong Kong, Kiev or New York. And 85 percent of Europe’s broadband customers are connected in some way to TeliaSonera’s network. The new surveillance law will require all Swedish telecom operators to store any communications passing Swedish borders and make them available for FRA’s perusal at collection nodes located at various points around the country.

TeliaSonera said it was currently considering ways to circumvent Sweden. “Our aim is for international traffic and transit traffic to bypass Sweden,” Malin Frenning, CEO of TeliaSonera International Carrier, told SvD. But to construct a new network outside of Sweden would cost the company a lot of time and money. And there is also a risk that communications would then pass through other countries that have created laws similar to Sweden’s, such as the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Germany.

The Sunday Sham

The Streetwise Professor demonstrates that the Russian emperor has no clothes:

It is evident that Russia’s current advances are powered by high energy prices and built on a foundation of quicksand, and hence are unlikely to persist long into the future. Russia suffers from several debilitating structural weaknesses, some of which I have touched on in SWP before, but which are worth remembering.

Three such weaknesses are readily apparent: institutions, demographics, and infrastructure.

Russia’s weak institutions are well known. Headline events, such as Yukos, or Sakhalin, or as of late, BP-TNK provide spectacular illustrations of the precarious state of property rights. It is widely acknowledged–by Russians and outsiders both–that corruption is worse today than even during the 90s–perhaps by an order of magnitude. Even President Medvedev acknowledges the “legal nihilism” of his country.

But this article describing a Levada Center poll shows how deep the institutional rot is in Russia, and how it affects not just foreigners or out-of-favor oligarchs, but every Russian. According to the poll, about half of the Russian middle class contemplates emigration, primarily because of their palpable sense of vulnerability to the predations of the state:

Only 13 percent of those polled by Levada Center agreed with the statement that Russia had entered a period of protracted stability, while 59 percent said the situation could change for the worse at any moment. Around 76 percent of those polled said that they could not protect themselves from the arbitrary actions of the authorities, in particular the police, and around 65 percent said they were not sure that they could protect their rights and interests in court.

“Despite the fact that Russians are not delighted by this situation, it appears that they have resigned themselves to it,” wrote Nezavisimaya gazeta. “Many of the respondents believe that they cannot influence the political processes in the country and are prepared to use dishonest and unlawful means for the resolution of conflicts and problems. The readiness to give bribes and to use personal contacts is very high within the Russian middle class.” Indeed, around half of the respondents in Levada Center polls have said that if they were falsely accused of not paying taxes, it would be better to use bribes to resolve the problem than to take it to court. The respondents indicated that they were prepared to act similarly in more “neutral” situations. For example,
59 percent said that they would pay for medical services, which in theory are provided at no cost. . . .

Asked why they were considering leaving Russia, 86 percent cited the desire to get a greater guarantee for a stable and safe future; 79 percent cited a desire to live under conditions in which the rule of law, rights and freedom prevailed;
69 percent cited the desire to avoid governmental lawlessness; and 83 percent cited the desire to enjoy better and more comfortable living conditions.
According to Nezavisimaya gazeta, the Levada Center’s researchers believe that the high level of desire to leave Russia is evidence of serious social malaise.

“The central feature of the consciousness of the middle class is a feeling of the in-betweenness [sic] of its own existence and a radical collision of the way of life with the way of thinking,” Dubin told Nezavisimaya gazeta. He added that without radical changes in society, the prospects for Russia’s middle class to grow and transform into a wide and stable social stratum seem doubtful (Nezavisimaya gazeta, June 27).

By design, the poll focused on those most likely to have thrived as a result of Russia’s economic rebound. Even among this restricted sample, the effects of institutional weakness are manifest. This is hardly conducive to the formation of trust and social capital that facilitates exchange and investment in human or physical capital. This bodes ill for Russian growth.

The fears expressed in the poll are anything but groundless. This article from the Guardian details the practice of corporate raiding a la Russe, which puts a whole new meaning on the phrase “hostile takeover.” Through a combination of force and fraud, often abetted by–or committed by–corrupt state organs, the raiders confiscate the assets of successful firms that attract their attention, often leaving the firm’s owner in jail. This is a tax on success and capital (accumulate no capital–no risk of expropriation!), and it is well known that capital taxes are extremely detrimental to growth. Now, this tax is not paid with certainty; not all successful entrepreneurs are subjected to the tender mercies of these latter-day Mongol hordes. Instead, it is, well, a Russian Roulette tax; you lose everything with some non-trivial probability. Again, hardly conducive to encouraging small business growth. (Another reason, perhaps, that small business formation in Russia is notoriously low.)

Need more evidence? Consider this Business Week piece describing the results of a poll conducted by my friend Sergei Guriev and Igor Fayukin, his colleague at the New Economic School:

The study’s participants believe “the lack of political competition and restrictions on political, economic and personal freedoms” are “a serious problem for the country.” The vast majority are concerned about Russia’s declining population, but also see corruption, the lack of an independent and effective judiciary and a disregard for citizens’ rights by the authorities as the leading challenges in the near future.”

Executives think the solution to corruption and state inefficiency can be found through “broader political change in the country.” One respondent said that the situationrequires the “liberalization of civil society, a reduction of barriers for business, and the modernization of government institutions in accordance with the aspirations and business and civil society.”

“In the eyes of many, the current problems are connected with the low level of competition in the country,” the study’s authors write. Another of their respondents thought what is needed is “more competition, a fight against the fusion of government and business and against monopolization.”

One might argue that other nations–notably China–have weak institutions as compared to the US and Europe, but have prospered in recent years. There appears to me to be a significant difference between China and Russia, however. China is ruled by what Mancur Olson called “stationary bandits.” Yeah, the Chinese bureaucrats and party elite steal, but they are sufficiently confident in the security of their positions that they take a relatively long view, and discipline their short run rapacity to increase their long run take; due to the security of their tenure, China’s new mandarins have an incentive to encourage growth. Russia in the 90s was beset by roving bandits, who knew that their long run prospects were dim, so they took everything they could, the future be damned. Things are a little better now (this is one of the wages of Putinesque “stability”), but as the raiding and confiscations and widespread sense of personal insecurity before the agents of the state demonstrate, roving banditry and short termism are still rife in Russia. (An example: it has been mooted that one source of conflict between BP and the Russian partners in TNK is that the latter want to maximize the short term revenues from the company’s properties, whereas the former wants to use techniques to conserve the oil reservoirs in order to maximize their long run potential.) Another potential difference is that Chinese businessmen have been more successful at organizing to advance their interests, whereas the atomization of Russian society has prevented the coalescence of any corporate resistance to the state’s predations.

With regards to demographics, although the government has crowed about increased birth rates, the overall picture is still grim. According to a recent report by the Russian State Statistical Service as reported in ITAR-TASS, Russia’s permanent population fell .07 percent in the first 4 months of 2008, corresponding to a .21 percent annual decrease. Although this figure is lower than the .5 percent decrease experienced throughout the 1990s and early-2000s, it is still hardly a sign of a healthy country. Indeed, immigration has cushioned the effect of continuing low birth rates and high death rates: “In the first four months of the year, the statistics service reported 547,100 births and 725,200 deaths, Prime Tass said.” Although the birth rate is up slightly, so is the death rate. And, as is widely understood, a good portion of the increased birthrate is a demographic fluke as the last large generation of Russian women is reaching childbearing age. Although the statistics do not say this explicitly, it should also be recognized that the educational and skill level of most of the immigrants and a disproportionate number of the childbearing families is below that of those dying–because immigrants and those having children are disproportionately from the more backward regions of the former-USSR and the more backward regions of Russia. Some baby boom. Some demographic rebound; more like a dead cat bounce.

Russia’s infrastructure woes are also widely acknowledged. I can’t find the cite (probably JRL), but I remember reading that the mileage (kilometerage?) of paved roads in Russia has actually declined in recent years. It is widely recognized that the railroad system is in desperate need of maintenance and expansion. In a country as large as Russia, infrastructure is crucial.

Of course, the government has announced grandiose plans to improve Russian infrastructure. The challenge is translating those airy promises into economically productive investment. The institutional deficit is one obstacle to achieving anything substantive; large infrastructure projects are especially vulnerable to corruption that inflates costs, not just in Russia, but in Russia the problem will be especially daunting. Moreover, the Edifice Complex and political considerations tend to divert too many resources to “prestige” projects and megadevelopments; the Sochi Olympics and the fantastical plans for a tunnel between Siberia and Alaska being conspicuous examples. Russian tendencies towards giganticism and the above-noted Russian desire to proclaim Russia’s resurgence in blingy ways will only exacerbate these problems. My prediction?: Infrastructure spending will indeed expand, but the social return on this investment will be very low. The private return–to those feeding at the trough–will be high indeed.

Other problems abound, but many fit comfortably in the categories just defined. Health care and public health are appalling in Russia, for instance, but this is really one of the sources of the demographic meltdown described above, and the intransigence of the problem reflects Russia’s institutional deficit.

So, to repeat old themes: Russia is never as strong as she looks, and her current strengths and successes are likely to be transitory as the institutional, demographic, and economic foundations for long run success are decrepit; the bleak long run prospects arguably contribute to the short term focus that characterizes Russian business and government; Russian aggressiveness is fueled by remarkable events in the commodities markets, the volatility of which make a very tenuous basis for long term success; and, in the end, no amount of chest thumping or prestige projects today will defer indefinitely a very painful future crash.

Russia would be much better served by a focus inwards on its pressing structural problems rather than by its current attempts to achieve some simulacrum of great power status. Not going to happen, unfortunately. And given that, Europe in particular should recognize Russia’s debilitating and deep seated weaknesses, and abandon its cringing and pusillanimous posture towards its eastern neighbor. This only feeds Russia’s presumptions and enables its dysfunctional political and economic culture.

The Sunday Funnies

Source: Ellustrator.

A commenter wrote: “Medvedev is full of hot air, not gas, so maybe you should have had him as the balloon.” Another, perhaps a “Kommisar of the Internet” threatened: “Keep on laughing, funny boy. Given the verdict in the case of Savva Terentiev, you may well be under investigation for inciting social discord.” He suggests that Ellustrator’s admirers get a fine of 300,000 rubles each and some time in prison.

Translation: Bush shakes Medvedev by the hand and repeats like a mantra: “Just don’t look him in the eye. Just don’t look him in the eye.”

Source: Ellustrator