Posts Tagged ‘Russia’

WEAK THOUGH I MAY BE, I DO NOT STAND FOR RUSSIA’S NAKED AGGRESSION

March 3, 2014

Russia's President Putin, Defence Minister Shoigu and head of Russian army's main department of combat preparation Buvaltsev watch military exercises at Kirillovsky firing ground in Leningrad region

Russia has returned to its bullying, autocratic ways. Its arguments and actions in Crimea are the same as it used in invading Hungary in 1956 to put down the Uprising and sending tanks into Czechoslovakia in 1968 to crush the Prague Spring.

Now as then, Russia (at the time the Soviet Union) disagrees with a government brought to power by a popular revolt in a neighbouring country, and for no other reason feels justified in launching a military invasion.

Having been a correspondent in Eastern Europe in the Cold War, I vividly remember the loathing of the local populations for the occupying Russians who foisted on them oppression and poverty.

I also recall the euphoria after the enlightened Russian Mikhail Gorbachev set about democratising Russian society and in doing so ended the Cold War and released hundreds of millions of people from the fear of nuclear annihilation.

Now the ex-KGB Vladimir Putin has reverted to the Russian norm. I hear the “explanations” that Crimea once belonged to Russia, as if that justifies trampling over treaties it freely entered into.

I hear the “realistic” assessments that there is little the West or anyone else can do. That may be true but they are weasel words, excuses for failing to take a personal stand against wrong. I remember how my German mother took a stand against the Nazis and paid the price. I prefer her courage in a fight she was bound to lose than the comfortable evasions of the realists.

It may be useless, but I am angry and proud of it. I do not accept that in the long term might will prove right. In the meantime, I wait to hear one Russian voice raised in dissent.

Photo: Reuters

Advertisements

Ukraine: cut off and thirsting for contact with the world

February 23, 2014

I first published this blog after a visit to Ukraine in April 2010

The roads are broken up with potholes, the pavements are full of ice, slush and mud, the buildings are Soviet and not much works. The students I am teaching can’t speak much English or any other foreign language. The Schengen visa system makes travel to western Europe difficult, and few can afford it.

I am in the Ukraine. It means “borderlands,” and that’s what it is. One of my students asks me anxiously: “Do you think we are European?” I say: “Of course you are.” She is relieved. She was not sure she qualified, but she definitely does want to be one of us.

Excluded as Ukrainians largely are from contact with the West, they have an uphill task joining the modern world. The Institute for Human Development “Ukraine” in Kirovograd, a sprawling provincial city, is doing its best by inviting foreign teachers, but its internet service usually goes off in mid-afternoon because the service provider rations its kilobytes.

Nobody speaks nostalgically of the old days, but there is little sense that the collapse of Communism and the Soviet Union in 1990 was a turning point. Life did not change much. Now the oppressors are corrupt politicians, officials and businessmen. Individuals are unsure that they are empowered. Pessimism is the norm.

In the gloom of the fag end of an Eastern winter however shines the eternal Slav spirit – warm, hospitable and emotional. My journalism students snatch the western newspapers I have brought from my hand (the Swisscontact aid organisation has sent me). I give lessons in journalism, but what they really want to hear is how it is where I come from. They beam with pleasure that somebody has taken the trouble to come to them.

My hosts immerse me in culture. I eat bortsch and blinis with cottage cheese. Two of my students take me to a sauna, I buy a fur coat and I end up at the local beauty contest. I learn how to toast vodka: the first of the 39 traditional Ukrainian toasts is for good, the second for friends, the third for women, and after that nobody can remember any more.

After a couple of weeks, I am feeling quite at home.

Ukraine: more Russian than you may think

February 23, 2014

I published this blog in April 2010 after spending two weeks teaching journalism in Kirovograd, in central Ukraine 

Most East European countries which left the Soviet embrace in 1990 felt they were regaining their independence. Not so the Ukraine, where the desire to differentiate itself from Russia is not so obvious.

It depends which part of the country you are in. In the west, there is a long separatist tradition. There, the Ukrainian language is widespread, and Polish words are used too, since Poland used to rule there.

In Kirovograd in the centre however, Ukrainian and Russian are used almost equally. A teacher at the Institute where I have been teaching journalism told me she spoke Ukrainian with her students and Russian with her friends. Further east in the Ukraine, Russian is even more common.

Kirovograd was founded in the 18th century by the Russian Empress Elizabeth as a fortress defending Russia against Tartars and Turks. Two Russian generals who defeated Napoleon came from its military academy. It was named first after Elizabeth, then after an early Soviet Communist, Zinoviev (a local boy), and then after another top Soviet Communist, Kirov. Trotsky also came from here.

Local guides don’t mention that Stalin had all three murdered. Somehow that does not help the townsfolk’s sense of identity.

So what to call the city now? An Orthodox priest tells me it should be Elizavetgrad again. One of my young students snorts in indignation: too old-fashioned. For lack of agreement, it stays Kirovograd. Three streets remain named after Lenin, Marx and Dzerzhinksy, the head of the Soviet Cheka secret police. For these too, nobody can come up with anything more suitable. It is hard to find historical references which are appropriate.

So what IS the Ukraine’s cultural identity, and how close does it want to be to Russia? This is a tough question for a young country and it deserves respect. It is not just a question of democratic Western Europe versus autocratic Russia. Many Ukrainians feel so close to Russia they do not even consider it “abroad.”

But the European Union of the West is likely to help the Ukraine to modernize itself much more effectively than Russia. There is not really a choice.

Ukraine: the revolution has won and it changes everything

February 22, 2014

A policeman from Lviv (L), who has joined anti-government protesters, visits barricades in Kiev February 21, 2014. REUTERS-Vasily Fedosenko

This weekend (22.2.2014), all the signs are that the Revolution in Ukraine has won:

– Russian-supported President Yanukovych has fled to the east, where there is an ethnic Russian population.

– Parliament in Kiev has declared him deposed.

– His riot police have lost control of the streets and partly deserted to the revolutionaries.

– His army has failed to intervene on his side.

– His main political opponent has been released from prison.

– He has lost control over the news flow: all the news now comes from the revolutionaries.

He may yet make a comeback, but as time passes, this seems less likely. The likely consequences:

– A huge setback for Russia. Having actively supported and protected him for years, their man is now more or less on the run.

– The historic beginnings of Russia were in the Ukraine; many Russians consider it de facto an integral part of their nation. The prospect of “losing” it to the West is therefore highly damaging for Russia’s standing.

– The mostly Russian population of the east may not wish to break with Russia. However people there are as aware as anybody that the European Union offers valuable benefits and an opening to the world at large. On whose side will they be?

– Nobody seems to want partition. So Ukrainians have to try to see what they can rally around. They show few signs currently of being able to do this. So expect long unrest.

– The EU negotiating team included a German and a Pole. Both are aware from recent history of the advisability of assuaging offended Russian pride. Have they offered any quid pro quo to Putin?

Lastly, the battered European Union has received a fillip at the sight of revolutionaries brandishing its flag to despatch a tyrant. The introspective grumblers in Western Europe must find it a shock to realise tens of millions of Europeans want to get closer to the EU, not more distant.

No big surprise really. The EU offers the rule of law, a harmonious framework for international relations and an efficient open market economy – none of which the Ukraine enjoys at the moment.

Picture: Reuters

By Marcus Ferrar: The Budapest House: a Life Re-Discovered. http://www.thebudapesthouse.com/

British classroom question: who is to blame for World War I? (Clue: it’s the Germans.)

January 11, 2014

The British Education Minister has said that the British fought World War I as a just war to prevent Germany’s aggressive bid to dominate Europe. The Prime Minister’s office says it sees nothing wrong with this.

Of course, there is another view, propagated by British and other historians, that Serbia started it by stirring up trouble in countries with Serb minorities, egged on by its Slav brother, Russia, in response to Austria’s greedy annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, unwisely supported by Germany, which wanted to be a great power and felt hostile to both Russia and France, all hardly helped on the eve of war by the British Foreign Secretary going off fishing while German troops mobilised, possibly hoping that Germany would be drawn into a war against both France and Russia which it was bound to lose.

But that’s a bit long, and as you have only 15 minutes, keep to the first version. And remember, this counts for the grades for your university place, which we might otherwise sell off for much more money to the Chinese.

Next week: why the European Union is wrong for Britain? (Clue: it’s the French.)

Russian editor heckled at Oxford University

May 20, 2012

A senior Russian editor attracted a large audience at Oxford University today to hear her view of Putin’s Russia as seen from London, but found herself harangued by a couple of Russians with decidedly anti-British and pro-Putin views.

Irina Demchenko, Deputy Editor-in-Chief and UK Bureau Chief of RIA Novosti news agency criticised anti-Putin coverage of British media as superficial. But she herself was clearly none too enthusiastic about the prospect of another 12 years of Putin either. “Maybe he will still be there when I am taking my teeth at night and putting them in a glass,” she remarked gloomily.

She recalls the collapse of Communism when she was 30, and the subsequent years when she and her peers put politics aside and devoted themselves to ensuring a good education for the children with the possibility to meet people from other nations.

Now the young Russian intellectuals (average age 31) are out on the streets against Putin demanding political reform. He needs them to modernise Russia, but they have gone into opposition against him. “The government can’t do anything with them, nor without them,” she says.

When it comes to questions, up jumps a Russian with a speech about how well Russia is doing, how viciously anti-Russian the British government is, and how British newspapers editors are given orders about coverage by MI6 – the spy agency.  What was the question? Not much. Shortly afterwards, another Russian in the audience delivered a similar diatribe.

The atmosphere grew a little tense, and one participant asked Irina if she felt at risk because of her views about Putin.

An apt question. The wild allegations and latent menace in the interventions of the two Russians reminded me of my time as a Reuters correspondent in East Berlin and Prague before Gorbachev. I asked a question too, for which I was berated by one of the visitors as “a Cold War dinosaur.”

When somebody asked them who they were, they replied that they were research fellows. Mmm.

Ukrainians: among the best – in two ways

April 17, 2010

In the Ukraine, many things don’t work. Government is corrupt, the roads are holed, unemployment is high and living standards low. In two respects however, the Ukrainians are among the best in the world.

Firstly, the young women dress extraordinarily well, with stylish dash, impeccable taste and beautiful quality, right down to the high-heeled boots in which they pick their way through slush and mud at the end of winter.

Secondly, the Virsky Ukraine National Folk Dance Ensemble offers precision, flair and athletic excellence which recall the very best of Russian ballet. Not a foot or an arm out of place, superb cohesion, and a driving exuberance. http://www.virsky.com   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mb1–JkQh3g

Thank you, Ukrainians. You do some things very, very well. You raise our spirits.


%d bloggers like this: