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)

Compare and Contrast Assignment

          Today’s post is different. It is a request or an assignment for thoughts, facts, and opinions that would help me with my thinking. Here is the assignment: Compare and contrast the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine with the 2003 American invasion of Iraq. Send me what you come up with, and perhaps I can turn the results into a meaningful essay.

The Ukrainian Jokester (concluded)

The man with the accent who, to my regret, had just told an offensive joke on the subway to me, loudly announced at the joke’s conclusion that he had to take care of some personal business. He fished out of a fanny pack-sized satchel a dented plastic cup. He moved to the end of the car. I feared that he was going to urinate there, but, instead, he opened the subway door and stepped into the space between the cars as we lurched to our next stop. A considerate man, apparently, to do this out of sight and to use a cup.

My hope that he would take another seat and find a new conversant was dashed as he sat in the place he had vacated. I could not take my eyes off that plastic cup, which looked surprisingly dry, as he placed it back into the satchel while I wondered what that cup was nestling against.

Based on zero evidence that his comedic efforts were a success (no passenger had laughed or, strictly maintaining the no-eye-contact rule, had even looked in his direction), he launched into several more stories. Each time the punchline was, “It was the Jew!” After one of these inevitable endings, he said, “I must be Jewish. My grandfather was Jewish, but he converted to Catholicism.” Perhaps there was a story worth hearing there, but I was not about to try finding out.

We came into a stop that allowed a transfer from our local train to an express, and I got up to exit as did other passengers. “You’re leaving,” he said, and I nodded pointing at the subway sign. He looked a bit hurt, and for a brief, irrational moment I felt sorry that I was sneaking out on him. Even so, I hurried out the train door and scurried to get on the subway car directly in front of the one I had left.

 Now that I was separated from him, I did exit at my planned 110th Street station, but I was immediately pleased that as I stepped from the car I was behind a pillar on the platform, for I could easily hear “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah” coming from my “friend” who, too, was on the platform. (He did not advance the song beyond this refrain, but his voice was pretty good.) I had a view of the exit turnstiles, but I did not see him go through them immediately. He had to be lingering on the platform, and if I headed for the street, he would see me. I waited. I still did not see him. I can’t tell you how foolish I felt hiding behind a narrow subway pillar that required me to suck in my gut to remain unseen. Finally, thanking all the Christian, Arab, and Jewish gods, I saw him go through the turnstile. I could not see the stairway to the street, so I waited some more. I inched forward, but with his back to me, he was still at the bottom of the steps that I had planned to take. I tried to calculate the likelihood of being spotted going up a different set of stairs that would have made a slightly longer trip to my destination. I eschewed the risk and waited further behind my protective pillar. I finally took baby steps forward again, and blessed day, I did not see him. I left the platform and ascended to the street, fearing he would be at the top, but although I did a 360, I did not spot him.

I hurried—a rather loose term for the way I now walk—up to Columbia University stopping for a few quick errands along the way. I was going to meet for the first time a student whom I was going to advise for his senior thesis. I had read his proposal. It was for the definitive biography of Supreme Court Justice John Marshall. My goal was to aid the student in narrowing his topic so he could complete it in the next year and not need five more years to graduate as his proposal would require. I knew that I was about to dash some dreams, but sometimes you have to break some eggs to make the omelet for the greater good. (Ok, I agree that this is a mixed metaphor and not a good one, but I can’t come up with anything better right now. I am listening if you have a suggestion.)

 

The meeting site provided a complication. Although I have taught a course at Columbia, and I am currently advising another senior on his thesis, I am not a regular member of the Columbia faculty and do not have a Columbia ID. In this land of Covid, Columbia now limits access to its buildings, and I can’t get in them. The student and I had worked out a solution. We would meet on the steps of Hamilton Hall (yes, that Hamilton of musical fame—a graduate of a precursor of Columbia) and then move into a wedding-sized tent set up on a lawn in front of the building, one of the many “temporary” erections now marring the Columbia campus. Enough heat is provided by portable heaters to make it reasonably comfortable inside.

 he student calls out my name as I approach Hamilton. We shake hands and head into the tent, which contains a dozen or more eight-person tables and find a place to talk. Doing my job, I ask some incredibly insightful questions that will advance the student’s thought processes exponentially. He is answering, and I am listening when I spot him. My pisser, Polish-Ukrainian, Jew-joking subway rider is walking on the far side of the tent. My eyes are glued to him hoping he does not spot me. He sits down at a table where there is one other man. Does he know this guy? Does he have some connection to Columbia? I am not about to ask him, but I realize that I have not been listening to the student’s painstakingly thoughtful comments. I stop the student’s discourse and say, somewhat embarrassed, that I was not listening. I briefly explain to him why, and then immediately wonder if I should have told him about the anti-Semitic jokes since the student has a Jewish sounding name. However, he seems to think that my awkward situation is funny. My subway companion is sitting with his back to me and is unlikely to see me, so I get back to my business of advising a Columbia senior thesis. After a forty-minute discussion, I leave the tent with hopes that I have left my subway regaler behind.

I have garnered no great wisdom from this encounter, and it will not change my subway behavior. Someday again I will be asked about a book I am reading, and I will still give a brief reply, and the odds are overwhelming I will quickly return to my reading. All I can take away from my subway trip is the reminder that not every experience in New York is pleasant, but even those that are not may add interest to life.

The Ukrainian Jokester

          New Yorkers have rules for subway riding. Some are for efficiency—let passengers exit before boarding. Other rules are for privacy and safety. Thus, don’t make more than fleeting eye contact with other passengers and then only  as an “excuse me” after bumping into someone. Similarly, no engagement with ranters on the train, whether they are preaching what they think is a gospel truth or telling us about the presence of alien beings or the dangers of fluoridated water. When performers seek to collect money, don’t ask them about their lives, where they got their dance or musical training, or how much money they make—they are in a hurry to get to the next car. Riders, of course, can give money to the beggars, but should seek no other engagement with them. (I am beginning to worry about inflation. In the past panhandlers would seek any loose change passengers might have, but yesterday one asked for dollar bills, suggesting quarters were not enough.)

          Only certain conversations between passengers are proper. It is all right to ask travel directions. Is this the 4 train, for example, or does this train stop at Spring Street? Someone will almost always give the correct information. However, all personal questions and comments are to be eschewed between passengers not known to each other. You don’t ask where another passenger is going or what they do or where they live. You don’t comment on someone else’s clothes even if their dress looks as if it is meant to elicit remarks.

          All those rules, of course, do get broken occasionally even by nice (i.e., non-crazy New Yorkers), such as the time I was asked whether I could calculate the circumference of a heptagon by a seatmate who was on her way to buy antique wood for a frame. I have broken the rules myself a few times. Once I asked a young man holding a basketball about his ability and learned he played professionally in Israel. Another time I played rock, paper, scissors with a high school student as we hung onto a subway pole.

          Perhaps the most frequent question I have asked or been asked on the subway has been, “Is that a good book?” referring, of course, to the material someone is reading. I have not been or seen anyone offended by this query, which is often asked as an effort at self-aggrandizement. It is akin in some circles to a wag of the middle figure in front of a closed left eye—a signal of membership in a group. This not a secret society, but the book question announces that I, too, am in that select group that reads books. The answers are usually mundane: Yeah, it’s good. I am not far enough into it to know yet. It was highly recommended to me, but so far it’s only so-so.

After the answer the inquirer usually responds with something such as: I read [name of different book] by that author and have wondered about the one you are reading. People have recommended that book, but so far I haven’t gotten to it. I am looking for a new author. This brief interchange is almost always the entire conversation, and we readers quickly go back to our books.

          It was not surprising, then, as I headed uptown at noon the other day, that the man seated across the car from me asked, “Is that a good book?” He was about sixty with a shock of thick hair on a big head. He was dressed simply—not in business or fashionable attire, but he did not look like a homeless person. His left hand held a sheaf of papers bound together but it did not have a cover as if it had been a pamphlet. From my vantage point six or eight feet away, I could not tell what the material was, but it did not appear to be in English. He had an accent, but he was perfectly understandable. There was no indication from his speech that he was under the influence of drink or drugs.

          I answered his book question simply, “I am enjoying it.” Then came my first warning for he asked, “What is it about?” Normally we book questioners have spotted the cover and know something about the book or the author and that has prompted our original question. But perhaps he was captured by the catchy title of the book. I replied, “It is about a baseball catcher who was a spy during World War II.” I glanced down at my book hoping to end this conversation. He probed, “For who?” I said, “America” and turned a page even though I had not read it as my signal to be left alone.

          Silence for the briefest of moments, and then, “Books are wonderful. They can take you to other worlds.” Now I definitely wanted out of this conversation. No subway book lover would say this to another book lover. I remained silent. He: “I read a lot when I was in prison.” This confirmed that I should find a way to get out of this conversation, not because the guy had been in jail, but because this was not a subway-book-lover discussion. On the other hand, my long-ago career as a public defender makes me a sucker about talking to those who are usually shunned, those who have been imprisoned. He continued that he read history book after history book while locked up. I couldn’t resist; I acted foolishly for a sensible subway rider and asked how long he had been in jail. “Twenty-two days,” the bigheaded man said with a smile. I had trouble not laughing, but I was convinced that this was not the time for jocularity or asking whether he was a speed reader.

Instead, to avoid saying something more about jail, I asked where he was from originally. He told me Ukraine but also mentioned Poland. He said his last name, which I did not get, but it sounded as if it was Polish. I gathered he was Ukrainian of Polish descent. He launched into a short geopolitical discussion and said that Ukraine was really part of Russia and Ukraine needed Russia for protection. He said that the countries were close culturally, with similar ethnicities, music, literature. “The countries share an alphabet.” I have listened to many crazies on the subways and streets of New York as well as at work, but, I thought, this guy, if crazy, is not typical; pointing out a common heritage from a shared alphabet had an intelligence not encountered with most ranters.

Silence for a few moments, and I hoped that the conversation was over, but then he said, “I am getting off at 110th Street.” I tried to hold my face and body steady to not betray that that was my planned exit, although I immediately started thinking about getting off at another stop instead. I was not sure why he announced his destination, but then he said that he had time to tell a joke. I had concluded that he was not totally crazy, but I was not so confident of my psychological skills that I wanted to risk making him angry by telling him to shut up. But I quickly regretted not taking that chance when the joke started loud enough for most people on the car to hear, “A Christian, an Arab, and a Jew were in the desert.” The punchline was, “It was the Jew!” indicating the inherent rapaciousness of Jewish people. This was not a joke that I would have wanted to hear anywhere, much less in New York, much less in a subway car. And to make things worse, it was not funny.

Concluded on Feb.9

Viktor is Still Waiting

Viktor, tall with sharp facial features, intentionally or not, often flattered me. In pre-Covid days, he was a server in DSK, a biergarten in my Brooklyn neighborhood that I frequented. I am sure that I stood out in this place for my wit, knowledge, good cheer, and distinguished looks, but probably more so because I was much older than any other semi-regular. Even so, Viktor, who was in his early twenties, would often sit next to me at the bar when his shift ended, and we talked. That pleased me. At some point he estimated my age as the same as his parents, and I laughed and told him I was then seventy-three. He did a double take and, after a pause, said that was how old his grandmother was. Viktor’s mother was forty-four and his father a year older. He told me that his mother had told him that he was a “mistake,” and so I was surprised to learn that he was an only child.

 Viktor was born in Ukraine where his parents live. Without bragging, he said that he was a smart kid who graduated from high school when he was sixteen and got a master’s in marketing by twenty-one. Then he came to the United States. Like many who staffed the establishment, he had other gigs. He was helping American friends to open a restaurant in the Queens part of New York City. He told me that he also did some video editing. That had started in Ukraine where he and a friend shot videos from a drone and posted them on YouTube. Viktor said that the videos were not particularly good, but back when they did it, few had seen videos from a drone’s perspective. He and his friend got a following.

We often talked about food. He told me that a recent addition to the bar’s menu was very good—a vegan sausage primarily made from beets. He insisted on getting one and splitting it with me. (I said that I’d pay, but he told me that he got free food when his shift was done.) It was not my favorite, but presumably healthier than the bratwurst I often got. In spite of this mediocre recommendation, I listened when he told me that he had a favorite Ukrainian restaurant. Manhattan’s lower east side was once chock-a-block with Ukrainians, and a Ukraine presence still lingers there in a few well-known restaurants. Viktor said that their food was not nearly as good as his favorite, which was in a different part of New York. He insisted that we go to lunch there, and we set a date. However, Covid intervened, and the favored restaurant closed during the pandemic.

I know little about Ukraine, and Viktor was eager to answer my questions, including about the comedian who became prime minister or president or whatever the title for their head of state. (Viktor was ambivalent about the guy.)

During one of our conversations, I jokingly asked Viktor what he was going to do when he got rich. He replied seriously that being wealthy was not his goal, but he did want to make enough money to be able to buy his parents a home in America. He said that when he first came to this country, his parents indicated no desire to move to the United States, but their feelings were changing. It sounded like he missed his mother and father tremendously. He told me that he talked to his mother daily via computer. I asked when he had last been home, and he said that he had not been back since he came to the United States, three years ago. He told me that while he was expecting to get one, he did not have a green card, and without one, he was not sure that he could reenter this country if he left.

During another conversation, however, Viktor indicated that his immigration status was a bit more complicated than just waiting for a green card. He came to the US on a tourist visa although I suspect that he entered planning to stay. He had an introduction to a friend of a friend of a friend in Baltimore. With this tenuous connection, he started living with a Russian couple and had some sort of job. For some reason, however, the man thought that Viktor was sleeping with his wife—“even though I am gay,” Viktor told me. The husband went to Viktor’s employer, said that it was illegal for Viktor to work, and threatened to report the business to the authorities. Viktor’s boss was apologetic but told Viktor that he had no choice but to fire him.

Unemployed and homeless, he begged a friend to allow him to stay with her. She said that she couldn’t take him in but knew a place where he could stay. Viktor: “He was a drug dealer, but he was nice.” I don’t know how long Viktor stayed there, but eventually the drug dealer said, “You need to start over. Here’s $50. Go to a new city and begin again. You can go wherever you want, but if I were you, I would go to New York.” Viktor came to New York.

Homeless again, he called LGBT groups for help, and he got the name and number of someone. Almost immediately, that man came to the phone booth Viktor was using and gave Viktor a subway card and directions to that man’s apartment. Viktor lived with that guy for months. Viktor, without using the man’s name, said that he was Black, about 45, worked in IT in the healthcare industry, and made a comfortable living. The man was gay, and Viktor thought sex was going to be involved, but the man never even hinted at that. Viktor proudly told me, “I have never had sex for material gain.”

(concluded November 10)