Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Emerging citizen

This days, my 10-yr-old son is for a first time realizing in earnest that he will die. He has asked me anxious questions about this several times.

Because I do not believe in any afterlife, it is a bit hard for me to confront his questions. I tell him that all people die and that not death as such but premature death is scary (so he must always be careful when crossing the street); but when a person lives to an old age and has seen and experienced much, it becomes easier for him to part with life, he can even get tired of life.

Today, after inquiring about death again, my son asked another, unexpected question:

"Will the city also die?"

I reassured him that cities are not like individuals, they are not doomed and can exist indefinitely, as long as their residents maintain and protect them.

The question surprised me because I have never tried to explain to him what it means to be a citizen, and in our conversations about death I have never mentioned that our deeds continue after us.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Discussions on Ukraine in earlier generations of my family

When I read news and analyses about Ukraine, I often make the mistake to look also at the comments below the articles. It is sickening, because no matter what source and what language I am reading, most of the comments are strongly pro-Russian, pro-Putin. Has the entire world gone crazy?

Analyzing the current situation invariably turns to digging into history, WWII and beyond. What strikes me is the tendency of some pro-Russian commenters to present the Holodomor as a natural and likely unavoidable famine. Quite like the pro-Palestinian Jew-haters with their Holocaust denialism.

This reminds me of my maternal grandfather. I am thinking of him on this day every year, because his name was Lazar, and today in Bulgaria is Lazarovden, i.e. St. Lazarus' day (tomorrow will be Tsvetnitsa - lit. "the day of flowers", i.e. Palm Sunday). I have mentioned in an earlier post that he was a carpenter. My mother still has in her home some excellent furniture made by him.

Unlike my paternal grandfather Georgi, who was strongly anti-Communist (and logically was killed by the Communists within weeks of their coming to power in September 1944), my grandfather Lazar was a Communist until 1945. His life had not been easy. His father Pavel, while serving in the cavalry, died in an accident. As he was riding through a forest, his head hit a branch and he fatally fell from the horse. After that, his family was of course doomed to misery.

The general with whom my great-grandfather Pavel had been serving wished to do something for his children. He arranged for Lazar to be enrolled in a carpentry school. So my grandfather learned his craft due to the goodwill of this general. Unfortunately, I am not sure in his name; I think it was Rusev.

When my grandfather grew up, he left his village Priboy and moved to the capital Sofia. His brothers gave him money that gave him the opportunity to settle in the city; in exchange, he renounced his share in the family estate. Poverty and injustice were widespread in Bulgaria at that time (the 1920s and 1930s). So he started to think that there were defects deep in the core of this society. He was shocked when his best friend's sister, a factory worker, died in an occupational accident. The young girl's death drove him to Communism.

My grandfather married a woman named Rilka, from the village of Herakovo. Her father Vladimir was a farmer - well-to-do, competent and respected. Like most people with a position in society at that time, he was anti-Communist. Thinking of this now, I even wonder how he allowed his daughter to marry a Communist. When he and my grandfather were together, they often had hot arguments on political subjects.

The regular topic of controversy was the Soviet Union. Information about oppression and misery in Stalin's realm was readily available, but my grandfather Lazar dismissed it all as capitalist propaganda. This included all reports of the Holodomor. His father in-law, however, knew that it was true. Not only because his greater experience in life was giving him better judgement, but also because some Russian refugees had settled in Herakovo, and actually one of them was working for him as a farm-hand. Their testimony was reliable. (I do not know what happened to these people after 1944. It is known, however, that many refugees from the Soviet "paradise" were rounded up after WWII and sent to Siberia, where they generally had short life spans.)

After Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, my grandfather, like many other Bulgarian Communists, took part in the Resistance (though not in armed struggle). He told me about going out at night to cut telephone wires of presumed military importance. Happily, he never fell under suspicion. Had he been cought, he would have been imprisoned, tortured and maybe even killed.

When Soviet invasion and occupation of Bulgaria brought Communists to power, my grandfather quickly saw his error and repented. He could no longer close his eyes for the ugly face of Communism - "the face of the Gorgon", as poet V. Svintila called it. In 1945, while many people were applying for membership in the Bulgarian Communist Party, my grandfather left it. However, he never became open and active opponent of the new dictatorship. The situation was clearly hopeless.

Now, grandfather Lazar realized that the anti-Soviet "propaganda" had been right all along and even underestimated the dire reality of Communist totalitarian rule. His regrets were made worse by the thought that he could and should have seen the truth earlier. He remembered e.g. how during the war he and two of his Party comrades visited a poor wagoner, hoping to win him for their cause. He angrily ordered them to leave him alone: "Get out of my sight! When you seize power, you will take my cart and my horse!" My grandfather later said, "And indeed, this is exactly what happened." He was sad for having made an error which the wagoner, poorer and less educated than him, had avoided.

By mid-1980s, when I was a teenager, grandfather Lazar was my only grandparent still alive. He already considered me mature enough to discuss political subjects. He often talked to me about pre-Communist Bulgaria, which he had struggled to reform. He was comparing it to the current Socialist Bulgaria, and the comparison was almost invariably in the favor of pre-1944. As I was listening to his tales, the lost Bulgaria of his youth, made beautiful by the golden aura of nostalgia, was appearing in my imagination. A dead and gone world was briefly resurrected, like the miracle of his namesake Lazarus.

The Socialist society, which had seemed indestructible for so long, was now showing signs of weakness. My grandfather was more optimistic than me. He said every year, "This autumn the Communists will fall (from power)!" Unfortunately, he died at age 86 in 1988, a year before "classical" Communism finally collapsed.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

With Russia, the West repeats Chamberlain's errors

The text below is from There is no appeasing Russia's mad king at, by former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili.

In early March, the Russian Federation, after staging a referendum under Kalashnikovs in Crimea, proceeded to annex the region and laid the groundwork — according to Moscow — for "new political-legal realities," that is to say, a new Russian paradigm for a lawless world. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in her speech to the Bundestag on March 13, Russia is bringing the law of the jungle to the table. For those of us who have lived through Vladimir Putin's attempts to reverse the results of what he calls "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century — the dissolution of the Soviet Union — what is happening in Ukraine is not unexpected. Nor does it mark the last act of the drama.

It should be abundantly clear now that Putin's initial plan of taking eastern Ukraine by mobilizing the Russian population there has failed. But that doesn't mean he's giving up. Russian strategists talked about a "weekend of rage" that could involve some kind of armed siege of government buildings in southern and eastern Ukraine. It happened — and if these local provocateurs and "self-defense forces" manage to hold these buildings as they did in Crimea, it might serve as a basis for further military intervention. Not that we should be surprised by this cynical playbook any more.

History can be a useful guide for politicians: first, to help prevent new disasters, and second, to help react to disasters that inevitably happen anyway, despite the best laid plans. And yet, plenty of politicians are making the same mistakes they should have learned from decades ago...

In Chechnya, tens of thousands of people were killed just to make Putin president and consolidate his power. Then, when the Colored Revolutions — and their successful reforms — became a menace to his rule, he invaded Georgia in order to kill this contagious model and again reconfirm his power. Now, as before, faced with eroding popularity in Russia, a shale gas revolution in North America, and the need for consistent port access to equip his allies in the Middle East, Putin attacked Ukraine and seized Crimea.
And yet, even with these myriad examples, the West continues to misunderstand or excuse Putin's aggression. These days, many pundits are busy with soul-searching, with one of the constant refrains being how the West overreached with NATO and EU expansion, and how it needlessly provoked the Russian bear. The conclusion they come to is that part of the reason for Russia's behavior, however petulant, lies in Western activism. It's a particular kind of intellectual self-flagellation and, for Putin, a reflection of Western weakness that only emboldens him.

Neville Chamberlain, when presenting the case for the great European powers to acquiesce to Hitler's occupation of the Sudetenland, argued that Europeans should not care about a "quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing." I hear a lot of pundits now talking about the "asymmetry of interests," implying that Russia is entitled to annex neighboring countries' lands for the simple reason that it cares for these lands more than the West. Others opine that we should all get used to the idea that the Crimea is gone, and that Russia will never give it back. This is exactly what I was told in the summer of 2008 — that I should be resigned to the idea that a part of Georgian territory, then occupied by Russia, was gone for good.

But this logic has its continuation. As we know from history, the cycles of appeasement usually get shorter with geometric progression. Soon, the same pundits may declare — with their best poker faces on — that now Moldova is "lost," or Latvia "lost," even some province of Poland. And just because Russia is not in the mood to give it back...

Certainly, Moscow didn't seem to care much about the minority Russian populations in its near abroad — so long as they were comfortably ruled by corrupt cronies of the Kremlin. But over the ensuing decade, Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova have learned to look to the West, not so much because of geopolitical priorities, but because people there aspire to a Western way of life that respects human rights and universal values...The basic facts are very clear. Russia presents the greatest challenge to international law and order since the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. And even though the West has much greater superiority over Russia — both economically and militarily — than it ever had over the Soviet Union, today's leaders are reluctant to take advantage of this asymmetry...

Despite President Barack Obama's rhetoric, the West — particularly Europe — appears reluctant to impose tougher sanctions. Unlike during the Cold War, Western companies draw much more benefit from Russia today, and thus they too will have to pay the price of sanctions... The dilemma is simple: Is the West willing to pay this price now, or delay the decision and pay a much higher price in the future?...

Winston Churchill once prophetically told Hitler's appeasers: "You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will have war." Surely, we cannot expect modern-day politicians obsessed with polls and midterm elections to be Churchillian all the time. But at a minimum they should not want to go down in history as the Neville Chamberlains of the 21st century. And misreading Putin for the man that he is — and has always been — is at the heart of appeasement.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Some pro-Russian Crimeans already regret their votes

Supporting Russia is one of the choices that often are often regretted later. This is exactly what is expected to happen in Crimea. Some vulnerable people, like canaries in a coalmine, are already regretting.

Quating from Laura Mills' report Crimea side-effect: Addicts deprived of methadone (AP via Yahoo! News):

"Every morning, Sergei Kislov takes the bus to the rundown outskirts of this port city for the methadone doses that keep him off heroin without suffering withdrawal. Now that Russia has taken over Crimea, the trips are about to end...

Russia, which annexed Crimea in mid-March following a referendum held in the wake of Ukraine's political upheavals, bans methadone, claiming most supplies end up on the criminal market. The ban could undermine years of efforts to reduce the spread of AIDS in Crimea; some 12,000 of the region's 2 million people are HIV-positive, a 2012 UNICEF survey found.

After years of rapid growth in the infection rate, the Ukrainian Health Ministry reported the first decline in 2012.

Many have attributed that decline to methadone therapy...In Russia, which recommends that addicts quit cold turkey, HIV is spreading rapidly. According to the Russian Federal AIDS Center, the number of people registered as infected increased by nearly 11 percent in 2013...

In preparation, Kislov has already started reducing his daily intake of methadone by about 10 milligrams each week.

Although he voted enthusiastically for Crimea to join Russia, he didn't expect the methadone program to end so quickly...

Patients say that since the program started here five years ago, local doctors had been nothing but supportive of the therapy. They reassured recovering addicts ahead of the referendum that the program would be extended at least until the end of the year.

That attitude changed on March 20, when the director of Russia's Federal Drug Service, Viktor Ivanov, announced that the program would be banned in Crimea...

Even if the group gets permission from local authorities to extend the program, the Ukrainian health minister told local news agencies Monday that Ukraine would not be sending any more methadone to Crimea, and recommended that any addicts there move to mainland Ukraine if they wanted to continue their treatment.

For Alexander Kolesnikov, a 40-year-old who has now been in the group for four years, moving to Ukraine isn't a possibility. He's proud of being from Sevastopol and has an aging, diabetic mother to care for.

But while the two went proudly to the polls on March 16 to vote for joining Russia, they are now dreading how a return to life without methadone might affect them.

"One half of my mother's heart is for Russia — for example, she will get a higher pension and she'll have a better standard of living," he said. "But the other half of her heart supports me, and she doesn't want to see me in that state ever again.""

Let me first mention that I am filled with disgust to the Crimean voters mentioned in the report. I think that people like Kislov and Kolesnikov who have made such a mess of their lives should have the decency to abstain from voting. They have proven in a dramatic way their decision-making incompetence, and they should not go "proudly" to decide the fate of their country and their fellow countrymen.

As for Mr. Kolesnikov's mother, she shows us in pure form the ugly face of elderly egoism. What is her primary motivation for voting? To get "a higher pension and a better standard of living". For the same reason, elderly Bulgarians keep voting for the Bulgarian Socialist Party, although everyone knows that electing this party is a recipe for disaster. Obsessed with their pensions, selfish old people do not hesitate to doom their young compatriots to misery and nonfreedom. A surprisingly high number of retirees are happy to sell their souls for the equivalent of $ 5. Elderly egoism is a very serious menace for the future of all countries that have completed the demographic transition.

Let me finish by copying a comment to the report, by someone posting as Randy:

"Dude, you voted to become part of Russia and now you are complaining? Maybe you should have voted to stay as part of Ukraine. Given your choice, you would be facing this sooner or later. I don't know why I am having a problem giving you sympathy...  Many people in Crimea will soon realize that they have not exactly solved all their problems by joining Russia. Many things will, in fact, become a lot worse. Better get your visa so you can leave what you voted to create."

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Dictators who attack other nations always oppress their own people, too

In recent years, Russia not only regained its image of a country attacking neighbors in order to grab land. It also became (again) a country where young women, mothers of infants, are jailed for years because of a protest song.

Now, we have new "achievements" of freedom of speech in Russia. Copying from Christian Science Monitor via Yahoo! News, A bit of satire in Russia earns a big backlash, by Fred Weir:

"A newspaper editor in Vologda had a simple question for President Vladimir Putin. Considering all that Mr. Putin has done in Crimea to protect the rights of downtrodden Russian-speakers there, won't he please consider sending troops to do the same for long-suffering residents of Vologda?

The open letter was tongue in cheek, of course. Vologda is a Russian city deep inside its country's borders and about 300 miles north of Moscow. And the letter wasn't even published in print: Roman Romanenko, its author, posted it to Facebook.

Mr. Romanenko, editor and part owner of Premier, a fairly mainstream newsweekly in Vologda, thought it might be thought-provoking to adapt the plot of "The Mouse that Roared" and ask the Kremlin to send troops to throw off Vologda's corrupt oppressors and free the Russian population.

"Our rights are very restricted, we suffer greatly," Romanenko's open letter to Putin says. "The occupiers who seized power here with the help of fraudulent elections do nothing to help the conquered population.... They lavish money on themselves, on their homes, offices, and private planes," while living standards, education, agriculture, and child care are collapsing.

"We will be very grateful to you [for taking action] and we guarantee there will be no danger of guerrilla war [against you] here, nor are there likely to be any international sanctions as a result.... We've heard about all the money you're going to spend in Crimea, and hardly dare to hope that you might do the same for Vologda region? Our region has become a debt pit, and we desperately need new bridges, roads, industrial development, new jobs.... With respect and profound hopes for liberation, the Russian-speaking inhabitants of Vologda," it concludes.

Vologda's governor, Oleg Kuvshinnikov, did not find that the least bit amusing... Mr. Kuvshinnikov turned the case over to the regional prosecutor, who is currently investigating the post, and Romanenko himself, for signs of "extremist activity and fomenting social, ethnic, and linguistic strife."

In case there was any doubt, Romanenko, reached by phone Tuesday, insists that it was a joke and he only meant to stimulate a bit of discussion among his Facebook circles in Vologda... But called into the prosecutor's office late last month, he found himself facing a battery of harsh and insinuating questions. For example: "Did you write it yourself, or did somebody else write it for you?" and "What social group were you targeting" with this appeal?"

The investigation against Romanenko is ongoing. If he should be convicted of "extremist activity" under new, recently toughened laws, he faces up to 6 years in prison. And that's no joke."

Wake up, Russians! As long as you sleep, you will be a plaything in the hands of psychopaths!