Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Lights out Luzhkov

Driving past the Moscow mayor's office at night in the early 1990s, lights were always on in Mayor Popov's office. During the turbulent times back in 1991-92, this was meant as a sign to Muscovites that at least someone struggled to get things back on course. As usual, the paradox of doing the impossible merely resulted in a plethora of Popov anecdotes. Now, lights have gone out for his successor, Yuri Luzhkov, and as a conflict unveils before the eyes of an amazed public, interpretations of it as part of a general Russian power struggle for the 2012 presidential elections risk becoming anecdotical. To avoid this, my advice is simple: Follow the money!

That Luzhkov's position was precarious has been evident since this summer's wild fires covering the Russian capital in smoke for weeks. Still, one should not forget that his dismissal has been longer in the making than most would care to remember. The struggle between Russia's two capitals, Muscovites and Pitertsy, is a major theme in Russian politics, that also Putin's road to power is part of. As a protegé of erstwhile St. Petersburg mayor, Anatoly Sobchak, Putin is likely never to forget how instrumental Muscovite interests were for defeating Sobchak back in 1996, and the dire consequences this had for himself. Ever since, the Pitertsy have been longing to get back at Luzhkov, barely succeeding to keep him at bay in the 2000 presidential elections that brought Putin to the Kremlin. Of course, this is common knowledge for anyone following Russia. What is interesting is how little this has been the focus of attention recently. Instead, Luzhkov's dismissal is predominantly interpreted as part of a struggle between Medvedev and Putin for the 2012 presidential elections.

Of course, as Gazprom-owned TV-channel NTV led the campaign against Luzhkov, it is easy to draw the conclusion that Medvedev, still retaining power over Gazprom, pushed the button, which is likely also the case. Does this mean that Putin was against ousting Luzhkov, as part of some ongoing duel between himself and Medvedev? Well, there is reason for skepticism to such arguments, even though they currently seem at sway. As much as there are contrasting interests between Putin and Medvedev - as in any dual power system - one should be careful when it comes to explaining everything in such terms. Still, the temptation is great for any Kremlinologist to jump at too far-reaching conclusions when centres of power engage into open battle. Simply following the political trail may however prove a sidetrack.

Instead of zooming in on who will succeed Luzhkov as Moscow mayor - a relevant question in itself - now any Russia watcher may - in real time - be able to cover a greater field in charting power relations in the country than might be deduced merely from the political game. Those who remember the Khodorkovsky case and the Yukos scandal back in 2003 are likely to recognize a recurrent pattern. As back then, Putin stands aside, some mediator - this time Sechin - carries on deceptive negotiations on how to settle a conflict of interests, while the possy prepares to move in for the kill. So, as was the case with Yukos, the interesting issue is who will divide the spoils after Luzhkov - or rather what will happen to his wife's business empire. As illustrated by the NTV-documentary, it is not only Luzhkov one is going after, but also his financial basis.

Needless to point out, there is a reason why Luzhkov's wife, Yelena Baturina, ranks eight in Russian riches. The politico-financial symbiosis between the mayor and his wife in the capital's building and construction business is a racket that has sky-rocketed Moscow real estate prices to some of the highest in the world. With all adjoining businesses under the former mayor's influence, living costs have reached ridiculous levels for most Muscovites. Still, this is the sort of daily corruption that no one cares to bother with, regarding it merely as a way of life. The question now is if Luzhkov has reached a settlement e.g. with Sechin, giving him some sort of immunity in an ordered exchange for his wife's business empire, or if we will witness something similar to what happened to Yukos.

The point is that regardless of struggle or settlement over the Luzhkov spoils, following the money may shed much more light on how forces arrange themselves for the future than merely regarding it as a traditional Kremlinologist game. So, it may be worthwile to pay attention to who goes in for the kill on Luzhkov's legacy - whether in person or by proxy. As lights go out for Luzhkov, lights on his legacy should be kept on for anyone wanting to decipher the machinations of Russian politics.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Creditors of conscience

What makes it all so hard to understand? That is the question that arises with authoritarian regimes and comprehension of basic political dynamics. On the surface, it seems they are rather daft, but perhaps it is the corrupt system, the brutality out of which they are born and bred, and the sense of no tomorrow that make them turn a blind eye to realities? So, does it take a child to point out that the emperor is naked or is he well aware of the fact and simply pretends being dressed?

For over a year now, Azeri bloggers and youth activists Adnan Hajizade and Emin Milli have been jailed on fabricated charges in a travesty of justice that would rock most legal systems – but Azerbaijan’s.

On the eve of 8 July 2009, Hajizade and Milli were assaulted and beaten by two strange men in a Baku restaurant. Reporting the incident to the police, they were – instead of their assailants – detained on charges of hooliganism. After a prolonged legal process, Hajizade and Milli were sentenced to two and two and a half years’ prison respectively – severe convictions for such petty crime. That allegations were unreasonable must have dawned on the officers of the court. The two plaintiffs were former professional athletes trained in martial arts, and the accused two slender bloggers. What is the likelihood of Hajizade and Milli provoking a pub brawl with karate clones, except possibly for a severe death wish? No, their true crime is saying “The emperor is naked!”

Making a mockery out of a regime with no sense of humor may prove dangerous, which Hajizade and Milli experienced first-hand. As youth activists, they used comedy as means of opposition, and this was obviously regarded dangerous by the regime. In this respect, their destinies differ little from most similar cases worldwide. While peculiarities of each individual miscarriage of justice can never be underestimated, there is no need to go into further detail here. Suffice to say, for once, international reactions have been stern, by e.g. the UN, the EU, and the US. Amnesty International has declared Hajizade and Milli prisoners of conscience.

So, is that all there is to it? Perhaps not, for there is an aspect often overlooked in cases like these. Despite international pressure, most regimes do not budge to demands of releasing political prisoners with relatively short prison sentences. Getting amnesty for prisoners of conscience is a long-term commitment, and most regimes simply do not care if they get another smudge on an already smeared international image. Instead, an economic analogy may be in place to get the message through, in currencies and denominations comprehensible for a regime where power is a pyramid-scheme for personal enrichment. In such a system, the persecuted are creditors of conscience.

We have all seen this before – an authoritarian regime ruling a strategically situated country with natural resources in international demand. The result is most often a system where corruption is endemic al, government office distributed as fiefdoms for a limited élite, and a small degree of wealth distribution. The only things that trickle down to ordinary people are oppression and the sense of no future. Politics is economics and economics is politics.

Lessons learnt should be evident, but still the same mistakes are made repeatedly. For the outside world, Azerbaijan carries strategic importance, but there is little strategic about the country’s politico-economic system. Certainly, the going may be good in the short run, but in the long run, all stand to become losers. For states and companies alike, strategic investment in an unsustainable system is putting one’s capital at stake – whether a capital of confidence or of hard cash. In Azerbaijan, there is as little transparency to actual governance as there is to real oil reserves. Basically, you invest in junk bonds both politically and financially, and the only reason you stay on is because there is a line of people behind you willing to fill your place for short term gain. The hard question is when to opt out, but then quitting is not an option, although you know deep down that sooner or later the bubble will burst. Somewhere down the line, investors will have had enough and start asking hard questions needing good answers.

So where do two jailed bloggers fit into this scheme? What makes them creditors of conscience? Basically, people like these are like inconvenient auditors of a Lehman Brothers, a Freddie Mac or a Fannie Mae, threatening to shake the foundations of the system by posing fundamental questions. That the system is unsustainable is for all to see, but most people choose to turn a blind eye to realities. It is just the way it should be, as it always has been, and always will be. For the whistleblowers, there is a high price to pay, pointing to greater or minor absurdities, and in the process challenging the system and its persistence. Repression of critique and opposition only serves to demonstrate mounting regime deficiencies. This is the political equivalent of economic indicators. The greater need for repression the more the curves turn downward in terms of political – and indirectly economic – stability and development.

In essence, it is all like a great poker game with a cheating gambling addict trying to persuade you to be let in on the game: “Hey, Hilary! Tell them I’m good for it… I’ll even bring my own stack of marked cards.” And when reminded of old unpaid debts, there is always some rationalization like: “Just look at what happened in Iran last year! Is that what you want also here in Azerbaijan – the spread of Islamic fundamentalism?” That there is no reason or rationality in such flawed and faulty arguments seems irrelevant, as the main message is: “Don’t rock a sinking boat!” The Azeri government asks the world to bankroll it in terms of non-existent politico-economic legitimacy, with the empty threat of turning to another casino where moral debts are considered null and void. Perhaps it is time to call this bluff as gambling at “Casino Moskva” holds too great stakes with debts collected as “pounds of political flesh.” There simply is no fresh start with a regime burdened by moral debt and even if there were, old habits die hard – resulting in the same situation as before – in one form or another.

Eventually, the flow from the cornucopia of unchallenged credibility must end. The question is who will make the call – spectators of a naked emperor or players of a greater gamble. They all know that authoritarian Azerbaijan lives on borrowed time. The difference is pointing this out to the world, which obviously needs to be reminded that – as with any debt collection – it is often the small creditors, perceivably standing the least to lose – that are the first to call for bankruptcy making the fraud collapse like a house of cards. That is why creditors of conscience – whether a Hajizade, a Milli, or a Sakharov – provoke such fears with repressive regimes.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Orthodoxy or Death to Degenerate Art?

For Global Voices Online: "Orthodoxy or death!" are the war cries sounded in recent weeks as forces of religious reaction have entered into fierce battle with liberal arts, in an apparent Russian parallel to the Muhammad cartoon case. The casue of conflict is the trial and conviction of two art curators for a 2007 Moscow exhibition of contemporary art. Following the media spin, one may be led to believe the conviction was a resounding triumph of reactionary religious forces, but as so often is the case, appearances may be deceptive.

On 12 July, the Moscow Tagansky court found art curators Yuri Samodurov and Andrei Yerofeev guilty of "inciting ethnic and religious strife" by their exhibition "Forbidden art - 2006" -- in a case brought against them by the Russian right-wing organization Narodny Sobor -- and sentenced them to pay fines of 200.000 (6,500 USD) and 150.000 (4,900 USD) roubles respectively. The verdict was a disappointment for both reactionaries -- hoping for a three year jail sentence -- and liberals -- wanting an acquittal. Once again, concerns are raised where the limits on freedom of expression in Russia really are heading. Thus, yet another Russian case is likely to end up in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

So, is that all there is to it? Perhaps, but it may also serve as an example of how not only freedom of speech lies in the balance, but also how that balance itself becomes an art "happening" by treading the thin line between art and society -- as the debate surrounding "Forbidden art - 2006" illustrates.

The saying "A picture says more than a thousand words" is truer to Russia than to most other countries. Take a tormented Jesus with the head of Mickey Mouse or Christ with the face of Lenin, and then wait for reactions. The limits of art are constantly pushed further afield. The dictum of the century-old Russian futurist manifesto "A slap in the face of public taste" maintains as much a prominent role in Russian arts and culture today as it did in the early 1900s. But in our day and age, slaps are not always what they seem.

So, what is then the basic story behind it all? Well, back in March 2007 art curators Yuri Samodurov and Andrei Yerofeev organized an exhibition of artworks that had been rejected from mainstream Moscow museums and galleries during 2006 -- thus the title "Forbidden art - 2006." The purpose of the artshow was to shed light upon self-imposed censorship quelling the Russian artscene, turning the tide towards more traditional displays of art. The exhibition had a meagre total of 1,020 visitors. Still, it attracted the attention of a small reactionary religious movement, which took Samodurov and Yerofeev to court for offending their religious feelings. Thus, the show was on the road, ending with the very verdict against the art curators, that now has brought so much attention to the case both in Russian and international media. LJ user don_beaver indignantly summarizes [RUS] the case thus:

Not long ago, some artists organized an exhibition in a private gallery. People, who were not even at this gallery, declared that their religious feelings had been hurt by the exhibition and went to court. The judge agreed with them and fined exhibition organizers heavily. The only good [thing] about it was that they were not put in jail.
What was then the drama that turned media's attention towards the case -- beside its freedom of expression aspects? As the verdict was read out last week, a small crowd of bearded men in black uniforms had gathered outside Tagansky court, wearing T-shirts with the text "Orthodoxy or death." Behind these lines lies more than what meets the naked eye. "Orthodoxy or death" (gr. ορθοδοξία ή θάνατος) was originally a motto of the famous monastery of Esphigmenou on Mount Athos, Greece, in its struggle against the Patriarchy of Constantinople, but since the 1990s it has become a token of intolerance and extremism also in Orthodox countries like Serbia and Russia. This photo-op was what caught the eyes of media present outside the court, resulting in vivid pictures of crackpot nationalists setting the Russian civil liberties' agenda in newspaper articles throughout the world. The symbolic effect was so great, that rumours about an upcoming church-initiated proposal to addend the Criminal Code with the crime of "heresy" reached respectable newspapers such as Argumenty i Fakty. However, according to LJ user tristen2e [RUS], this was all a hoax:

Besides, everyone believed the sensational news, even though they sounded words, ascribed to father Vsevolod, about heresy "as any form of opposition to Orthodoxy." Obviously, such an unlearned expression in itself could hardly be uttered by such a skilled church diplomat and rhetoric as archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin [spokesman of the Russian Orthodox church]. However, as is often the case with a summer languishing with heat, journalist colleagues could have mixed it up -- everybody thought -- and thus the news started to travel the web.
For the liberal supporters of Samodurov and Yerofeev, the "Orthodoxy or death" emblem, obviously, was like raising a red rag, reminding them of battles fought during dissident days of a soviet past. This is perhaps also an important aspect that has largely been left out of reporting on the case. In fact, the art curator, Yuri Samodurov, springs from the same soviet dissident movement as Nobel Peace laureate Andrei Sakharov during the 1970-80s, and became one of the founding members of Memorial Human Rights' organization.

However, Samodurov regarded opposition to soviet power not as a political but a cultural act. This, arguably, not only set him apart from the mainstream dissident movement, but also enabled him to remain relevant in Russian debate as society at large increasingly deemed dissidentism obsolete. As director of the Sakharov museum, Samodurov, in February 2006, became an active participant in the debate over the Danish Muhammad cartoons controversy, by heralding a Moscow exhibition of these pictures. So, Samodurov's artistic career has been straddled with the constant cooptation of society as art and art as society. It would thus seem that Samodurov and his actions have become a work of postmodern art personified, in blurring boundaries between art and society.

What are then the effects of the "Forbidden art" case on societal debate? LJ user and poet Vitaly Kaplan, critically, tries to draw the larger picture [RUS] of how art has come to divulge greater tendencies of societal developments in present Russia:

To begin with, there is the "dry residue" that then moistens a multitude of flavours. Thus, the exhibition "Forbidden art - 2006" is really a mockery with the feelings of believers. Does it need society's condemnation? Yes, it does. Was it necessary to go to court? That is where I have my doubts. What do I think about the verdict? I am happy that they did not put Yerofeev and Samodurov in jail. What do I think about the polemics on the Internet? I would say it is a battle of banners with red dogs.

And now for the details. First concerning the mockery with religious sentiments. The problem is that most disputers, regardless of their positions, do not at all understand what it is all about. So, Yerofeev's and Samodurov's defenders indignantly sigh: Oh, these Orthodox people! Everything offends them! If they were to decide -- then every man would be forced to grow a beard, and the women wear scarves, they would raze the "McDonald's" and burn mosques and synagogues alike. Because everything that does not coincide with their Orthodox ideals hurts their delicate religious feelings. And the opponents of Yerofeev and Samodurov shed tears because the pictures of an exhibition offend the Russian people and contradict national traditions, due to their terrible testimony of lost ideals, as such normative decay prevents the revival of Greater Russia...
Consequently, the effect of the "Forbidden art" case is not only pitting perceptions of postmodern and medieval icons against each other, but also serves as a token of differences between imagery and reality of current Russian society. The original grievance of Orthodox believers was -- in religious terms -- that the "Forbidden art" pictures constituted a desecration of icons as carriers of divine messages, in accordance with an Orthodox tradition arguing that the words of God cannot be reduced to text, but must be represented in symbols. What lies at the heart of the matter is then the exhibition's iconization of images portraying a metamorphosis of the divine with the profane. Icons are turned into idolatry of symbols with a mixed message representing the complexities of current society.

What impact has then the conviction of Samodurov and Yerofeev had on perceptions of Russian society, and can it serve as an indicator of where freedom of expression is heading in the country? As much as easy answers would be welcome, reality probably has more in store for the greater picture. Possibly, by seizing the agenda with a question that transcends the borders of art and society, the core of the issue becomes obscured -- whether one of art or freedom of expression, of both or neither. However, society -- in the image of the state -- chooses to take a stand for or against freedom of expression in terms of artforms which purpose may actually be to exploit the interaction such a stand unavoidably involves.

Still, at the end of the day, the question must be raised about the ramifications of that stand for the development of freedom of speech and expression in Russian society. Here, under the headline "Forbidden art gets more expensive," LJ user timur_nechaev77 offers an assessment [RUS]:

The sentence passed against the organizers of the exhibition "Forbidden art - 2006" shows that during the last few years, the price of criticizing the state ideology - Orthodoxy - has risen nearly twice. In 2005, Yuri Samodurov was fined 100 thousand roubles for the exhibition "Beware of religion" which provoked a pogrome from religious extremists of the Russian Orthodox Church. Now they sentenced Samodurov to pay 200 thousand, and Andrei Yerofeev 150 thousand roubles. Of course, the verdict will be appealed as high as Strasbourg and if the European Court will stand on the side of the pogromists and religious fanatics from the Russian Orthodox Church, then of course, Yerofeev and Samodurov will have to pay the fines.
As is often so poorly realized by contemporary society, art may cut to the core problems and developments of our times. The role of an artist increasingly becomes one of pushing the right button to ignite societal debate on issues that may actually be more profound than art itself. Art then merely becomes the symbol of greater tendencies, and thereby recreates itself sui generis by mechanisms greater than the specific work of art and its originator. In the "forbidden art" case, the verdict may serve as a conveyor -- a sign of premonition of either desirable or undesirable developments -- of what is ceasing the normative middle ground in Russian society. Is it right or wrong? Right or wrong is perhaps both not the issue here and still the issue in itself, as everything becomes part of the spectacle, a happening, or the (in)famous fifteen minutes of fame.

As the Romans used to say: “There is no accounting for taste” and art is well beyond the domain of things society may hold people accountable for. That is a matter of taste, and that taste is for each and all to decide on individually — including the right to support or protest against the views and beliefs that agree or conflict with one's own — without state interference. For who is to deem what is degenerate art?

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Godfather of refused offers

For Global Voices Online: Is it a deliberate provocation, a government-engineered attack on a foreign head of state, a gas-giant's attempt to rock Russian foreign policy - or simply an example of good and critical journalism? Questions abound in the Russian-language blogosphere following Russian TV-channel NTV's 4 July screening of "The Godfather" - a documentary about Aleksandr Lukashenko, omnipotent president of neighbouring Belarus.

For long, Russia and Belarus have stood out as brothers in arms in the dysfunctional family of post-soviet states. Strings of harmony have even sounded a 1999 ouverture to formal unification of the two states. But as with any family, outward accord often hides domestic discord, and disturbances have been both frequent and harsh. However, up until now Moscow and Minsk have made efforts to keep up appearances. It is against this background that Sunday's screening of NTV's Lukashenko-critical documentary - beside overall sentiments of indignation - has sparked speculations that "The Godfather" of Belarus may have refused too many offers from the Russian Dons.

Then, what about the documentary in itself? As LJ user zmagarka notes [RUS], the Lukashenko documentary has little new to offer about government involvement in political repression, murders, and disappearances in Belarus over the last 16 years:

Thank you NTV for this documentary about the biggest Belarusian psychopath. For us, this was absolutely nothing new, not least because the greater part of the video was clippings from old films [---]. The theme of the "vanished" (disappeared political opponents) should never be forgotten and there is no forgiving the murderers, not even hoping so in their sweetest dreams. Still, over the last 10 years, matters have grown so much worse. About this there is hardly a word.
Returning to the major theme of discussion, it is no secret that relations between Moscow and Minsk have been tense in recent years, and it is likewise well-known that Russia's former President and now Premier, Vladimir Putin, has had to make little effort to restrain his enthusiasm, on both a political and personal level, in dealing with Aleksandr Lukashenko, President of Belarus. Consequently, many see the documentary as a political commission to NTV, although opinions differ on whether Russian state gas company, Gazprom, is behind it all or if sanction has come from the very top of Russian politics. That NTV is controlled by Gazprom, which until recently was engaged in a prolonged gas war with Belarus, may not be sufficient reason to simply point the finger at this company. As LJ user sergeland points out, also state owned Russia Today sounds critique towards Lukashenko:

At the same time, the multilingual international channel Russia Today ran a similar story about the last dictator of Europe. Formally, NTV is an independent TV-network, although it belongs to Gazprom, and Gazprom belongs to the state. However, Russia Today is a wholly state-owned company. Therefore, it is wrong to think that this action is merely a limited revenge against Lukashenko for the loss of the recent gas war. Without sanction from the very top, nothing would have happened.
Some Russian bloggers also believe that this is not simply a temporary squabble, but that the documentary marks a change in Russian dealings with Lukashenko, and even call for a straightout annexation of Belarus, arguing that Moscow anyway constantly has to pay Minsk's bill. Thus, LJ user elf_ociten, in a piece called "NTV tears the mask off the godfather" [RUS], writes:

At long last, the elite of the Russian Federation has made it clear that it is not heading down the same road as the bloody and thieving last dictator of Europe. It is time to disassociate ourselves from an independent Belarus and stop the farce of a union state, and thank God, Moscow has also put the question squarely to the Belarusian élite: Either Belarus becomes a North-Western territory (as an option) - without Lukashenko - as part of the Russian Federation, and with possible separation of ethnically Polish territories, or let's dump it together with Lukashenko and his free lunches to all four sides. As the saying goes, the cards have been called, and it's time to pay up.
However, such ideas are dismissed with ridicule in Minsk, and Belarusian bloggers are not late to underscore that also Russia is dependent on Belarus. As LJ user pan_andriy [RUS] is quick to point out:

On Belarusian forums, you can come across blunt suggestions to cut off transit of food to Russia. After all, Moscow sits with 90% imports of chow, of which a lot is rolled through Belarus. Within two days there would be full chaos in Moscow (remember the madhouse with salt because of rumours of a "war with Ukraine").
There are also voices in Belarus expecting its political leadership to pay back in kind, and according to LJ user Nagnibeda [RUS], there are even rumours that a documentary about Putin is in the making:

As a very initiated television source is saying, recruitment of staff has started for a film about Putin, in which the subject will be tougher than in the one reeled on NTV about Lukashenko. Putin will not merely be a murderer, but an outright serial killer of his own people.
Finally, as the saying goes: Why do you see the speck that is in your brothers eye, but do not notice the beam that is in your own eye? Consequently, LJ user varfolomeev_v draws some parallels [RUS] between politics in Belarus and Russia:

I wonder whether the executors of this political contract noticed that, telling about the horrors of political life in Belarus, they made a film about contemporary Russia? Only the names are different, but everything else - crackdowns, arrests, murders, and so on - wholly characterises also our own regime.
At the end of the day, and despite a recent customs union, it is becoming increasingly evident that Russia and Belarus do not head in bed again, and still they seem destined to more horsing about, not least if hiring media gunmen. Perhaps, both Slavic brothers should thus heed the advice of another godfather: "Never tell anybody outside the family what you're thinking again."

Friday, June 04, 2010

Stalin's summer snowstorms

Some stories are too good - or bad - not to be retold. One of them is about Moscow's summer snowstorms that annually rage across the city at the beginning of June to the surprise and bewilderment of unsuspecting visitors. For Muscovites, they simply form a half a century old legacy of folly and megalomania.

As a guest to Russia's capital, waking up to to the sounds and sights of a bustling metropolis may also present a freak of nature in the form of an apparent summer snowstorm. For those not drawing the curtains again, going back to sleep as after a bad dream, curiousity drives the kind of questions that demand but do not await an answer. For most, though, they are simply met with a frown or a dejected shrud of the shoulders, possibly followed by a sighing sound exclaiming "pukh." If not mistaking this pooh sound for Russian rejection to an inquisitive foreigner, "pukh" is the first lead in a Moscow mystery waiting to be solved. Likewise, a subsequent "topol" should not be interpreted by prospective security specialists as some Russian trying to divulge secrets about the country's latest nuclear missile programme, coincidentally carrying that very same name. Instead, the true secret is - as many secrets are - common knowledge to any Muscovite.

So, "pukh" and "topol" - meaning tuft and poplar - are the first keys to a mystery waiting to be solved. Still, some visitors content themselves with learning that the white drifts amassing the streets of Moscow are simply poplar pollen that this time of the year terrorize the lives out of allergics and asthmatics. Looking at the mere mass of it, the question "why?" brings you back to an era when questions were dangerous and answers were deadly. It is the era of Stalinist folly and megalomania.

The year 1934 has come down in the historic annals for the Congress of the Victors, finalizing the success of the first five year plan. For 1,108 of the 1,996 delegates to this Communist Congress, it was to become the Congress of the Condemned. From this perspective, it is perhaps a historical irony that 1934 also serves as a constant reminder of how wrong things may come out when fulfilling the plan, and what punishment lies in wait for generations to come. So, what is the reason for this "Stalin's revenge" as an afflicted US ambassador once chose to call it?

Having in the 1930s razed Moscow of its pictoresque 19th century architecture to give way for his Empire style skyscrapers and stucco laden street buildings, Stalin was struck by the depressing sight of the urban stone desert he had set out to create. There simply had to be greenery to match the fearful façades with equally imposing trees to straddle soviet streets and avenues. Moreover, it had to be done fast, not merely fulfilling but over-fulfilling the plan. Whether dizzy with success or merely desperate, Stalin's city planners and gardeners made an unlucky choice, by settling for the poplar.

Surely, poplar is an imposing tree, reaching some 20 metres full-grown, giving ample shade during hot Moscow summer days, and - of crucial importance - grows faster than most trees accustomed to the dire Russian climate. For all reasons, it seems as a natural choice. That a quarter of Moscow trees would become poplars was not possibly perceived as any major problem. However, as a latter day potentate once put it: "We wanted the best, but it turned out as always."

In a freak turn of events, it so happened that the consequential mass tree plantation was exclusively of female poplars. So, each spring, as the poplars bloom, there are no male poplars to pollinate the abundant seeds of the females. The result is that the female poplars, let go of their seeds, as there are no males to fertilise them, producing clouds of white fluff floating through the air, in places creating ankle-deep drifts of pollen, and - with a gale - producing a virtual summer snowstorm. As usual, the soviet system could not let nature take its natural course, and now Muscovites have to pay the price for Stalin's megalomanic folly, presenting parades of poplar to the people.

If but one lesson is learnt from history, it is that victors often become the vanquished. Thus, turning from the victors of 1934 to those of 1945, a phrase from A.N. Vertinsky's triumphant song to Stalin comes to mind:

Slightly grey, as a silver poplar,
he stands to receive the parade.
What was not the price of Sevastopol,
not the price of Stalingrad!
And in those blind, cold nights,
when the front was swept by snowstorm.
These clear and penetrating eyes,
in the end looked through the enemy.

Perhaps, we - the people - should learn not to trust the vision of our leaders, whose sight may well be obscured by the vertigo of victory and absolute adoration. Perhaps, it is instead our task to penetrate the plans and programmes of populist power, or else have to suffer the summer snowstorms of natural condemnation. Perhaps, Moscow's Stalinist poplars could serve as a memento for us that politics of pure power may bring snowstorms in the summer and heatwaves in the winter.

Monday, March 15, 2010

BBC + Global Voices = True

As traditional media is increasingly turning attention to social media, the roles and cooperation of the two has become the focus of widespread discussion. Which form such interaction should assume is a question of intense interest for both parties. One attempt to interact is a recent and temporary cooperation betweeen the BBC and Global Voices.

As is generally known in social media, Global Voices is a community of more than 200 bloggers around the world who work together to bring you translations and reports from blogs and citizen media everywhere, with emphasis on voices that are not ordinarily heard in international mainstream media. Global Voices seeks to aggregate, curate, and amplify the global conversation online - shining light on places and people other media often ignore. We work to develop tools, institutions and relationships that will help all voices, everywhere, to be heard.

In a joint statement the two declare: "Global Voices [and the BBC] are working together for two weeks to see how online citizen media can complement some of the BBC's international reporting and vice versa." Thus, an assortment of pieces from Global Voices are published by the BBC as part of its SuperPower Season, with concurrent publication on Global Voices' special coverage page on BBC News and Global Voices cooperation. Please, stay tuned for what might become a start of a great friendship.