First Sentences

“One winter morning several years ago, I got an email with some ridiculously exciting news.” A.J. Jacobs, The Puzzler: One Man’s Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, from Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life.

“The police decided to enter the flat, but rather than break down the door they called a locksmith, figuring that a few minutes either way were unlikely to make a difference.” The Shadow District by Arnaldur Indridason (translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb).

“At a recent lecture on the Piltdown disclosures a member of the audience remarked, ‘When I read in the paper that Piltdown man was bogus, I felt as if something had gone out of my life; I had been brought up on Piltdown man!’”  J.S. Weiner, The Piltdown Forgery.

“In my dream I was reaching right through the glass of the window on a hockshop.” Fredric Brown, The Fabulous Clipjoint.

“Magic matters.” David Copperfield, Richard Wiseman, David Britland, David Copperfield’s History of Magic.

“It is never easy to move to a new country, but in truth I was happy to be away from New York.” Katie Kitamura, Intimacies.

“A little before eight on the morning of March 21, 1829, the Duke of Wellington, England’s prime minister, arrived on horseback at a crossroads south of the Thames, about a half mile beyond Battersea Bridge.” Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen.

“It’s hard to know, ever, where a story begins.” Jennifer Haigh, Mercy Street.

“We forget that love is revolutionary.” Tiya Miles, All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake.

“His cousin Freddie brought him on the heist one hot night in early June.” Colson Whitehead, Harlem Shuffle.

“The politics of inevitability is the idea that there are no ideas.” Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America.

“It wasn’t far off midnight, but it was still light.” Ragnar Jónasson, Snowblind. (translated by Quentin Bates).

“’We need every one of you,’ proclaimed an anonymous 1985 article in a major white power newspaper.” Kathleen Belew, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America.

“The dust hovers in a cloud behind the Reykjavik coach, the road is a ridged washboard and we rattle on; bend after bend, soon it becomes impossible to see through the muddy windows and, before long, the Laxdoela Saga trail will vanish into the dirt.” Auour Ava Olafsdóttir, Miss Iceland.

“Somewhere in the vast northern ocean, between Iceland and Norway, Thorsteinn Olafsson got himself involved in the biggest mystery of the middle ages by making an honest mistake: he turned his ship a few too many degrees west.” Egill Bjarnason, How Iceland Changed the World: The Big History of a Small Island.

Putin, America, and the Politics of Being (continued)

          Putin, coming out of relative obscurity, was elected Russian president in 2000 with 53% of the vote. He consolidated his power quickly and extensively in ways large and small, such as by nationalizing television, and was reelected in 2004 with a reported 71% of the vote. The Russian constitution then only allowed two consecutive four-year presidential terms. Putin endorsed Dmitry Medvedev for the March 2008 election and Medvedev got more than 70% of the votes. He then appointed Putin his prime minister.

          A constitutional change increased the presidential term to six years after Medvedev’s term, and Putin again ran for president in 2012. The election was viewed by many within and without Russia as corrupt. Masha Gessen in The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin reports: “Putin declared victory in the first round of the presidential election, with 63 percent of the vote. Holding a virtual monopoly on the ballot, the media, and the polls themselves, he could have claimed any figure, but he opted for a landslide, and a slap in the face to the Movement for Fair Elections.” The Movement had been part of widespread demonstrations that started months before the election. They wore white ribbons, which Putin tellingly sexualized by saying the cloth looked like condoms.

          Putin won, but it was clear that a significant portion of Russians were unhappy with him and the direction of their society. Putin had invaded Georgia in 2008, which perhaps was initially popular, but became less so as the war wore on. Privatization had put money into private hands, but little of it went to anyone other than what are now known as the oligarchs. Russians could increasingly see the results of wealth, but few had it as Russia became the most economically unequal society in the world. More and more people felt dangerously unsettled. Gessen again: “Many Russians, however, got poorer—or at least felt a lot poorer: there were so many more goods in the stores now but they could afford so little. Nearly everyone lost the one thing that had been in abundant supply during the Era of Stagnation: the unshakeable belief that tomorrow will not be different from today. Uncertainty made people feel ever poorer.” And people took to the streets in numbers that Putin could not ignore.

          He responded not by trying to distribute wealth more equally, increasing civil liberties, or having fairer elections. Instead, in something that should feel familiar to Americans today, he sought to unite Russians by launching an anti-homosexual crusade. Gessen states, “In the spring of 2012, Putin decided to pick on the gays. In the lead-up to the March 2012 election, faced with mass protests, Putin briefly panicked. . . . And faced with the protest movement, the new Kremlin crew reached for the bluntest instrument it could: it called the protesters queer.” Timothy Snyder in The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America sees Putin as making this an external threat: “Some intractable foreign foe had to be linked to protestors, so that they, rather than Putin himself, could be portrayed as the danger to Russian statehood. Protestors’ actions had to be uncoupled from the very real domestic problem that Putin had created and associated with a fake foreign threat to Russian sovereignty. [The protestors] were mindless agents of global sexual decadence whose actions threatened the innocent national organism.” These protestors were the tools of a foreign power, a power embodied in the person many American conservatives loathed. “Three days after the protests began, Putin blamed Hillary Clinton for initiating them: ‘she gave the signal.’” A few days later, without providing evidence, he claimed that the protestors were paid.

          The propaganda maintained that the forces promoting sodomy were not just trying to affect Russia. They were also after Ukraine. “European integration (of Ukraine) was interpreted by Russian politicians to mean the legalization of same-sex partnership (which was not an element of Ukraine’s association agreement with the EU) and thus the spread of homosexuality.” Gessen tells us that a Russian politician “warned that if Ukraine went west, that would lead to ‘a broadening of the sphere of gay culture, which has become the European Union’s official policy.’ Over the next couple of months, the image of the Western threat menacing Ukraine broadened to include not only the gays but also the Americans, for whom the gays were always a stand-in anyway.”

          Whether or not American manifest destiny (see previous post) compares to Russian exceptionalism, Putin’s turn to sexual matters does have American parallels. How American does this sound? Putin announced, Gessen reports, that he was “defending traditional values.” Russia passed legislation “not only banning ‘homosexual propaganda’ but also ‘protecting children from harmful information,’ which meant, first and foremost, any mention of homosexuality, but also mention of death, violence, suicide, domestic abuse, unhappiness, and, really, life itself.” (The law was entitled, “For the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values.” Perhaps it produces a snappy acronym in Russian.) Russian kiddies should not learn of things that might make them uncomfortable. A similar agenda is being implemented in an increasing number of American schools.

          Putin has adopted the basic political stance that when the topic is about the shortcomings of Russia or Putin himself, shift the topic: “Putin was enunciating a basic principle of his Eurasian civilization: when the subject is inequality, change it to sexuality.” American conservatives have followed a broader path to avoid confronting American shortcomings: the topic may be switched to a number of topics, including critical race theory or Black Lives Matter, but, of course, the staple of avoidance still remains of waving the rainbow flag of gaydom and transdom. American conservatives and Putin share the goal of wanting to make “politics about being rather than doing.”

(concluded May 9)

Putin, America, and the Politic of Being

          The reading for the history book group was The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America (2018) by Timothy Snyder. In preparation, I reread The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin (2012) by Masha Gessen. I read it shortly after it came out, with a postscript, in paperback in 2014. The two books were written of course before Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine and our 2020 election with its fallout, but the two books complement each other in their portraits of Putin and Russia and present pictures that aid in understanding the present Ukraine situation and our politics. This reading did not lead to a full-blown depression, but it did not improve my mood.

          Putin’s obsession with Ukraine is longstanding. The Soviet Union, founded in 1922, was a federation of national republics that included Ukraine, but during the 1970s and 1980s in every Soviet Republic increasingly felt as though they were being exploited by other regions. In March 1991 Mikhail Gorbachev, the head of the USSR, organized a referendum on whether to maintain the Soviet Union as a single entity. Voters in nine of the fifteen constituent republics voted in favor, but six republics boycotted the vote. A few weeks later, Georgia held its own referendum and voted to secede from the USSR. Two months later, Ukraine declared its independence from the USSR, as did Chechnya, which was part of Russia. (In August 1991, President George H.W. Bush went to Kyiv and urged Ukrainians not to leave the Soviet Union, saying “Freedom is not the same as independence.”) More than 90% of the Ukrainians voted for independence.       A coup to remove Gorbachev failed, but in the aftermath, Boris Yeltsin became increasingly popular. He was soon head of the Soviet Union and removed Russia from the USSR and ended it.

          Putin, who came to prominence in Russia after 1991, proclaims religious, ethnic, and near mythical connections between Russia and Ukraine. Snyder says Putin sees Ukraine as “an inseparable organ of the virginal Russian body” and that Putin has said that Russians and Ukrainians “are one people.” The independent Ukraine that came into being in 1991 may have been tolerable to Putin as long as it remained receptive to Russia’s desires. Viktor Yanukovych was elected head of Ukraine in 2010 and, according to Snyder, began his term “by offering Russia essentially everything that Ukraine could give, including basing rights for the Russian navy on Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula,” which as it was then understood, would prevent Ukraine from joining NATO.

          The Ukrainian population, however, increasingly looked not to Russia for guidance and inspiration but to the West, and when Yanukovych canceled an association agreement with the European Union in 2013, demonstrations broke out in Ukraine. After several elections, the present government took power, and as we all know, this is not a Ukraine that takes orders from Moscow.

          The westward turn by Ukraine has been especially troubling for those who have “Mother Russia” feelings about Ukraine. While former Soviet satellite countries and the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania joined the European Union in 2004 and 2007, the EU had not extended into any territory that had been part of the original Soviet state of 1922.

          This history and Putin’s viewpoints about Ukraine struck me as Russian. I remembered the first time I read about Raskolnikov kissing the soil at the crossroads and trying to understand a semi-mystical feeling for Mother Russia that seemed alien to American experience. Snyder writes that Russian slavophiles believed “that Russia was endowed with a particular genius. Orthodox Christianity and popular mysticism, they maintained, expressed a depth of spirit unknown in the West. The slavophiles imagined that Russian history had begun with a Christian conversion in Kyiv a thousand years before.”

          But as I thought about these aspects of Russia, I wondered whether there were counterparts in American history. Putin apparently believes that Ukraine is an integral part of Russia, and it is Russia’s destiny to include Ukraine. How much different is that from the nineteenth century American faith in “manifest destiny,” that it was the mission of Americans to push onward to the Pacific even though other peoples already populated the land? Didn’t the use of “destiny” imply that this path was preordained by an Almighty? Putin and others believe that Russia is somehow exceptional, distinct and more holy than other lands. And Americans? Of course, America is exceptional, and just below the surface of that notion is a kind of religious belief. When Jesus comes back, perhaps he is going to Galilee, but more likely he is coming to America. (That is if he can navigate our immigration laws, for nothing in them would allow him to enter. He might be able to walk over the river, but what if a border wall keeps him out, and he is consigned to a squalid camp on the Mexican side?)

          Perhaps finding links among Mother Russia, manifest destiny, and American exceptionalism is a stretch, but comparing some aspects of recent Russian and American political history is not.

(continued May 6)