Sunday, October 31, 2004

Exit poll results get updated regularly at the Ukrainska Pravda site: right now Yushchenko is leading in only one of the four polls, the anonymous one (44,1% vs 38,8%)...

We voted at the former Pioneers' House, where I used to take dancing classes as a kid. It went very fast and without any problems.

The list of the candidates was ridiculously long; posters with faces and bios of all 24 of them were on the walls - and the one of Yanukovych happened to be the first thing we had to look at as we entered the place. Funny how relative alphabetical order can be when politics is involved: Yanukovych was the last one on the list, but his poster got the best - central - placement at the polling station, whereas those ahead of him on the list were stuck way off to the side, to the "beginning" of the room. If there had been some 50 candidates, then his poster might have been in a less prominent spot, at the "very end" of the room - though I'm sure that even then they would've found a way to have him jump right into the voters' faces.

We voted and then went for a walk. Kyiv was wonderful again today, as happy and carefree as yesterday, as normal. We walked till it got dark and didn't see anything that could've been taken as a sign of impending disaster, a curfew or something. Even by the building of the Central Election Commission, ominously fenced off and with several armored personnel carriers and water-jet trucks hidden underneath the camouflage net in the courtyard, it was calm: they were broadcasting an instrumental rendition of The Beatles' Yesterday and the original Kashmir by Led Zeppelin when we came by; cops were walking around in pairs; there were a few people wearing something orange, Yushchenko's campaign color, and there were a few big guys who could easily pass for pro-Yanukovych thugs.

It is still seemingly okay out there, but everyone is nervous: reports of violations are coming in, and the exit poll results are confusing (according to two of them, Yushchenko is ahead of Yanukovych - 45,2% vs 36,8% and 41,98% vs 40,11%, but according to the other two, Yanukovych has a lead - 43% vs 39,2% and 43,5% vs 39,2%.) Everyone is talking about having to wait for the run-off in November.

We were planning to go to our polling station after it closed at 8 pm, but then something distracted us and now we are switching back and forth from Channel 5 to Ukrainska Pravda news, waiting for tomorrow morning, when they begin announcing the official results.

More later.

Maybe I'm just not used to Kyiv anymore, but it did feel so happy yesterday. Too happy. Maybe I'm paranoid, but it did seem as if people in the streets were trying real hard to make this happiness last, knowing perfectly well it wouldn't survive past today's vote.

I really hope nothing bad happens tonight.

One of my friends bought a huge flashlight yesterday - the rumor is there'll be no electricity tonight. He could also use the flashlight as a weapon, to defend himself in case there're street fights after the polls close.

Another friend, who works at Kuchma's Administration, is voting against all candidates: Yanukovych or Yushchenko, he's not expecting to keep his job (strange but he does want to keep it, even though it pays very little and kind of stinks in general). I had to tell him that if something bad happened, I wouldn't want to see him for a long long time - because I'd feel part of the blame would be on him.

Everyone else I know is voting for Yushchenko - I'm yet to meet a single Yanukovych supporter in person.

I'm off to vote now. More later.

Saturday, October 30, 2004

My compartment-mate was a very nice 40-year-old Ukrainian who had spent three years working in St. Pete. At some point at the beginning of the journey, he asked, ambiguously, if I was going to Kyiv to "support the besieged opposition" - and I, careful not to incite a political argument when we still had over 20 hours to spend so close together, answered with a question: "Why not?" To which he replied: "Well, I'm gonna vote for Yushchenko just to spite them all."

Having spent 24 hours with an ally, I arrived in Kyiv just after 8 pm Friday, happy and peaceful. I took a cab home and asked the driver if something bad had happened during the time I was shut off from the world and the news. He said he worked night shifts and slept during the day, so he wasn't that reliable of a source, but from his friend he heard that way too many troops have been assembled in and around Kyiv. As we approached my neighborhood, he said, pointing at a khaki truck ahead of us, the one used to transport people, usually soldiers: "Here're some of them, I guess."

My mama told me she'd seen a tiny rally on Khreshchatyk the other day, a pro-Yanukovych student rally, sort of. They were carrying little flags with his portrait or something, and when they approached the end of the street, they dropped them and walked over them, like it was some trash underneath their feet. My mama asked one of the guys, "And who are you gonna vote for?" - and he replied, "Yushchenko, of course."

Something unrelated to the election: we went out to smoke in Chernihiv, a few hours away from Kyiv. Old women were walking along the station, selling food, beer and dried fish. One was leaning on two crutches and had two transparent bags of apples in one hand. "Someone, please save me, please buy these apples from me, I'm selling them very cheap, only one hryvnia per bag, per kilo." She was very old, too miserable, and even though 1 hryvnia is something like 25 cents, I couldn't buy the apples because my bags were already too heavy. I gave her 2 hryvnias and told her that someone else would definitely buy those apples from her. She started thanking me, telling me that I'm such a good "granddaughter" and that her own granddaughter was no good and left her to starve, all alone.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

I'm in a suitcase mood - chemodannoye nastroyeniye: I'm leaving for Kyiv tonight. It's a 24-hour train, so I bought myself some books a few days ago, but yesterday, instead of getting packed, I read one (loved it) and then a little bit of another (didn't like it), and now I'm not sure what to take with me. It's very important to have something cool to read on this train - because if the book is boring, you're doomed to having conversations with people in your compartment. That sometimes is okay, but now, with the Ukrainian election mess approaching the climax, everyone talks politics, and that gets tiresome after a while, even when you avoid reading or talking with people holding the opposing views, calling Yushchenko a fascist, etc, and the possibility of getting stuck in a train compartment with someone like this, for 24 hours and without a book, is scary.

Anyway, I have to get packed now, I have to call my parents to tell them I'm coming, I have to supply Mishah with something to eat while I'm away, and I have to decide on a train book.

The book I read yesterday - I swallowed it - was amazing. Written by a 40-year-old Uzbek woman from Turkmenistan, it's a story of being an immigrant in your own country, first in the Soviet Union, then in Russia. She was born in a tiny village in Uzbekistan, never learned to speak Russian well, always wanted to escape the village and have a life, ended up in a town four hours away from Moscow, selling stuff at the market, having her sons harrassed at school for being non-Russian - but she also found some pretty wonderful friends there and wrote this book that was long-listed for the Russian National Bestseller prize this year. I'm researching something from it now, so I'll probably have more on it later - but all I can say is that this is a story that an average Muslim woman would be too embarrassed to tell. Actually, it's a story that most village women would prefer to keep to themselves. And most city women wouldn't have the guts to tell a story like this, either.

The author calls herself Bibish, but her real name is Hajjarbibi Siddikova, and the book is called "A Dancer from Khiva, or The Story of a Simple-Minded." Her American friends have promised to translate it and have it published in the States, but that hasn't happened yet, I guess, or I would have found it.

It's an awesome book for someone who's interested in Russia but is stuck in the 19th century with Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky (I myself prefer Chekhov's short stories). It's an awesome book for most people here - one newspaper guy wrote that the morning after he finished reading it, he saw this Tajik woman surrounded by her kids, begging for money in the street, and he reached into his pocket for the first time that morning, because even though he saw that Tajik woman every morning there, after reading the book, he could no longer ignore her and her kids.

Okay, I really have to start getting packed now. I've been quite sporadic on this blog, and I'm gonna be even more sporadic from now on, I'm afraid. At least for a while. We'll see. Sorry.

Here's a link to the story I wrote in 2003, about my first trip on this 24-hour train, from Kyiv to St. Petersburg - the title is kind of corny and I hardly remember what it was about myself - Belarus, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez' The Autumn of the Patriarch... All I remember is that I loved writing it.

RED DUSK: A UKRAINIAN EXPAT TAKES A TRAIN THROUGH THE REMNANTS OF THE SOVIET EMPIRE

Hope you all have a nice weekend.

Monday, October 25, 2004

We were watching The Recruit on TV yesterday ("Trust. Betrayal. Deception. In the C.I.A. nothing is what it seems.") and, somewhat absent-mindedly, I wandered off to the CIA website, their press releases page, during the commercials. There, I saw a statement by Michael V. Kostiw, and I read it only because "Kostiw" sounded like a Ukrainian last name.

In the statement, Mr. Kostiw was announcing his decision not to accept "an appointment as CIA's Executive Director" - "[a]s a result of recent press articles and attendant speculation."

Allegations about my past would be a distraction from the critical work the Director of Central Intelligence needs to focus on, as well as a distraction from the war on terrorism and the other national security challenges being addressed every day by the extraordinarily talented and dedicated men and women of CIA. [...] In light of my decision, the Director asked me this morning to serve as a senior adviser to him. I accepted this assignment with pride and very much look forward to serving the Director in this capacity.


That seemed intriguing enough, so I googled Mr. Kostiw's name. He indeed turned out to be of Ukrainian descent, and has been quite involved in Ukrainian affairs since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1996, he wrote an article for the Ukrainian Weekly, welcoming the adoption of the Ukrainian Constitution:

As someone with Ukrainian ancestry, I celebrate the fact that the country of my heritage has now fully joined the world of freedom-loving nations and that the people of Ukraine enjoy the right to self-determination. As an American, I am glad that the United States has a new, constitutionally legitimized partner in Eastern Europe that shares our democratic principles. Likewise, as someone intimately involved in promoting democracy's growth around the world, I also take great pride in the contributions made by U.S. organizations that are supporting Ukraine's political transformation.

Organizations such as the International Republican Institute (IRI) and other U.S. groups have provided technical and political advice and training to those pro-democratic activists struggling to restructure Ukraine' s former Communist system. Since 1993, IRI has worked at the grass-roots level with Ukrainians who, because of their commitment to improving the lives of their families and fellow countrymen, desperately seek the experience we as Americans have gained through over 200 years of practicing democracy.


In addition to being the IRI's Vice-Chairman, Mr. Kostiw is also on the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation's Board of Directors. He is a colonel in an Army Reserve military intelligence unit at the Pentagon and used to be Vice President of International Government Affairs at ChevronTexaco Corporation, as well as staff director of the terrorism subcommittee of the House intelligence committee.

The reason Mr. Kostiw refused to accept the third-ranking position at the CIA was an Oct. 3, 2004, article in the Washington Post, by Walter Pincus, which revealed that "in late 1981, Kostiw was caught shoplifting a $2.13 package of bacon from a supermarket in Langley, according to two former CIA officials familiar with the incident. At the time, Kostiw had been a CIA case officer for 10 years."

A $2.13 package of bacon cost Mr. Kostiw the No. 3 CIA post. And the weekend the Washington Post broke the story, Mr. Kostiw's historical homeland, Ukraine, was celebrating "a nationwide salo festival" - the "festival of lard" - whose "centerpiece" was a 9-square-meter sandwich filled with 40 kilos of this favorite Ukrainian dish.

This is all too grotesque not to be funny.

Sunday, October 24, 2004



This is a painting of Aya Sofya in Istanbul - Rain over St. Sophia, 1920 - by Oleksa Hryshchenko (1883-1977). Below is part of his bio - and you can read more about his life and see more of his work here (link via Lynn S from Reflections in d minor):

During the Russian Revolution, Hryshchenko became professor at the State Art Studios in Moscow and a member of the Commission for the Protection of Historic Monuments. He was offered the directorship of the Tretiakov Gallery, but in 1919, not wishing to became a state functionary, he escaped by way of Crimea to Constantinople, leaving all his paintings and other possessions in Moscow. In the Turkish capital, he lived a life of extreme poverty, but never ceased to paint and his watercolors of that period soon made his name famous in the art world of the twenties. He made the acquaintance of the American archeologist and collector Thomas Wittnore, of Boston, the restorer of St. Sophia, who acquired 66 of his water colors. This enabled Hryshchenko to make a trip to Greece where he painted in Mistra, Delphi, Corinth and Olympia. In 1921, when he came to Paris, 12 of his Constantinople paintings were accepted by the Salon d'Automne, and Fernand Leger placed them next to his own works.

Another huge pro-Yushchenko rally took place in Kyiv Saturday, Oct. 23, 2004. According to the AP, there were more than 50,000 protesters, but the CNN International and EuroNews reports said approximately 100,000 people showed up.

With so many Ukrainians voicing their support for Victor Yushchenko, it will be really hard for his main opponent, Victor Yanukovych, to turn the approaching election into Belarus-style farce.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

It happened again today: I opened a story about Gorbachev in the New York Times and saw Putin, then I clicked to get a single-page version and saw Khodorkovsky. I was assuming everyone gets these - but Servant writes that he's "seeing ads for Jim Moran, [his] Democratic Congressman here in Alexandria, Virginia. It's as if the NYT moved to Mount Vernon." This is very funny.





I'm posting these screenshots here because they look a bit like conceptual art to me. Actually, I went looking for other evil Putin/poor Khodorkovsky cocktails: the ones with Gorbachev and a Muslim Sinead look-alike were just too good and I wanted more. Unfortunately, I found none. I had special hopes for the story titled "Crocodile Husbandry is Really Hard, China Finds" - but the ad next to the picture of a guy about to lose his hand to a crocodile was about cooperation between Columbia Business School and London Business School.



As for Gorbachev, he's an environmentalist now - the founder of "Green Cross International, the Geneva-based organization [...] [whose] focus is on safely eliminating unconventional weapons, stemming climate change, reducing the use of nonrenewable resources and preventing conflicts over fresh water." This seems like a good way to repent for his ugly attempts to conceal the Chernobyl catastrophe back in April 1986.

Yesterday morning, the New York Times had a story on how the French continue to be tough on Muslim schoolgirls. "Perfect," I said to myself. "I'll start the day with reading about someone other than Russians or Ukrainians acting absurdly and counterproductively."

I read the caption to the Reuters photo of a Sinead O'Connor look-alike: "Cennet Doganay, 15, a Muslim who showed up for school in Strasbourg wearing a large beret, was barred from class by an administrator who called it a religious symbol, so she shaved her head and was let back in."

Then I made it through the first few paragraphs, smirking:

PARIS, Oct. 21 - To enforce its new law banning religious symbols from public schools, the Ministry of National Education has decided to get tough.

This week it held formal disciplinary hearings and began expelling students who violated the law. The goal was to get rid of those defined as hopeless cases before the 10-day All Saints school vacation that ends with a national holiday honoring all of Catholicism's saints.

The French government sees no contradiction or irony here.


And then I got hit below the belt, sort of: I suddenly realized that an advertisement I hadn't been looking at, right there, in the middle of this wonderful story, was about Putin and Russia. "Russia on Trial," it read, white letters inside a black rectangle, stamped over Putin's face, leaving only his ear and his ambiguous, KGB-spy eyes visible. "Suppression of free media. Human rights abuses. Assault on democracy. NEWS COVERAGE. TAKE ACTION."

"Oh boy, that's some irony," I thought and clicked on the ad.



The insides of Russia on Trial were as much about democracy in Russia as they were about oil:

Tell President Bush to say "NO!" to a Kremlin-controlled oil supply. Vladimir Putin is attempting to destroy YUKOS Oil and seize its assets. The Kremlin hierarchy, stacked with former KGB officers, is moving to control Russia's oil industry and gain access to a powerful global tool.


Russia on Trial, as well as another Russia-related site, Future of Russia, are sponsored by the National Center for Public Policy Research, "a communications and research foundation dedicated to providing free market solutions to today's public policy problems." Established in 1982 "to provide the conservative movement with a versatile and energetic organization capable of responding quickly and decisively to fast-breaking issues," the organization seems stuck in the Cold War mentality, unable to get over the excitement that the Evil Empire is back at last. Much of the content they provide is a bit too hysterical, and banners like the one below only reinforce the impression:



According to Russia on Trial, the rationale for caring about the Russian democracy is this:

- Like it or not, the world's economy runs on oil - and Russia is the world's second largest producer. The Kremlin hierarchy sees an opportunity to seize YUKOS, control Russia's oil industry and gain access to a powerful global tool.

- One need only to think back to the days of the Cold War when nations that espoused freedom and democracy lived on the precipice of global conflict. The US and former Soviet Union committed billions of dollars to build and maintain national defenses.

- The largest and most prosperous nations of the world need to encourage Russia to consistently honor contracts, protect property rights, shield investments from arbitrary interference, and recognize legal deals.


This last item, about recognizing legal deals, refers to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, among other things:

Putin’s takeover of YUKOS directly interferes with negotiations the private company was pursuing with the U.S. Mikhail Khodorkovsky had already met with Vice President Cheney, Energy Secretary Abraham and other U. S. officials to discuss oil exports to the U.S. The first shipment arrived in Texas in 2003, offering hope that the U. S. would at last have a major alternative source of oil imports. That was before Mr. Khodorokovsky’s imprisonment.


The oil deal that Putin disrupted a year ago was supposed to be, in fact, between Khodorkovsky and ExxonMobil. Here's what the Newsweek's Michael Meyer wrote on Sept. 29, 2003, roughly a month before Khodorkovsky's arrest on charges of fraud and tax evasion:

Oil and the Oligarchs

Yukos, Russia's largest oil company, may soon gain some American friends. U.S. oil majors ExxonMobil and ChevronTexaco are each bidding for a 25 percent stake in Yukos, at a price approaching $12 billion. But there's more at stake than just money. This could be one of the final rounds of President Vladimir Putin versus the oligarchs.

Certainly, Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky stands to make a killing off the deal. But he may have more than money on his mind. Khodorkovsky spent the summer on the defensive after he funded anti-Putin opposition parties in the run-up to December's parliamentary elections. Now a key Yukos associate is in jail, and Khodorkovsky fears he might be next. By selling to the Americans, analysts say, he would protect himself. Putin would hesitate to take on a major U.S. company, and Khodorkovsky could reinvest proceeds from the sale into less vulnerable assets.

He's not alone. Other Russian oligarchs, like Roman Abramovich, are also looking abroad. Abramovich recently bought London's Chelsea football club for $230 million and is in talks to sell off key assets. "The tycoons have come to the end of their life cycle," says Stanislav Belkovsky, a Moscow political analyst. Destroying them would solve many of Putin's political troubles. Yet he recognizes that they are the source of Russia's economic dynamism. That's the reason, perhaps, that Putin has yet to deliver the final blow.


And here're CNN.com's Oct. 3, 2003, predictions that never came true:

The Exxon Mobil chief's presence at the forum alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin had fuelled talk the U.S. major would consolidate its world number one status by buying a stake, possibly as much as 50 percent, in the newly born Russian giant.

A London source familiar with the YUKOS-Sibneft deal said: "Exxon Mobil are in the driving seat if they want to be...It's down to whether they have the guts and the brains.''

However, completion of the YUKOS-Sibneft merger, effectively a $15 billion takeover of smaller Sibneft, was seen as the prerequisite to any foreign involvement.

It will simplify talks between the newly-created firm and a potential Western investor, even though minority investors who hold eight percent of Sibneft have yet to be brought into the deal.

The Financial Times also said on Friday that Exxon Mobil was in talks with YUKOS, reviving speculation that has been running for weeks. A trader in Moscow said the market believed a deal was on the cards.

"The market consensus is that talks are under way and this increases the attractiveness of other oil assets as well.''

[...] YUKOS-Sibneft will become a group with oil and gas output on a scale similar to that of French giant and world number four firm Total, and more than that produced by Kuwait.

It is expected to have a market value of about $45 billion, making it by far the largest listed group in Russia and ranking it number seven in the league of the world's top oil firms by market value.

Under terms agreed earlier this year, YUKOS's core shareholders will pay Sibneft's core shareholders, who hold the other 92 percent of the firm, $3 billion plus 26 percent and one share in the new group.


And this is the Business Week's take on the situation, from an Oct. 20, 2003, story by Jason Bush (Khodorkovsky was arrested five days later):

[...]Khodorkovsky and ExxonMobil [...] Chairman Lee R. Raymond were rubbing elbows at a panel in Moscow organized by the World Economic Forum. The Financial times reported that Exxon was offering Yukos $25 billion for a 25% stake -- a deal rumored since August. But neither side will acknowledge that a deal is in the works. ChevronTexaco Corp. [...] is nosing around, too.

And what about Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, who supposedly wants Khodorkovsky taken down a few pegs? He has publicly endorsed the idea of big foreign investment, leaving open for now the possibility of an ExxonMobil-Yukos deal -- a deal that would net Khodorkovsky, already Russia's richest man, several billions. In a recent interview with The New York Times, Putin signalled that he would welcome a major investment in Yukos by Exxon.

[...] It's a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, to borrow from Winston Churchill's description of Russia. How the saga is resolved could determine whether ExxonMobil makes one of the biggest oil deals of the year, whether Moscow really wants to open the country up further to foreign investment, and whether Putin and the Kremlin will end their war on Russia's most powerful oligarch.

In this drama, ExxonMobil's motivations are the clearest. The newly completed merger of Yukos and its local rival Sibneft has created the world's fourth-largest nonstate-owned oil company, with a wealth of reserves and output that is rising at a rate of 20% a year. Its exploration and production costs, at $1.47 per barrel, are among the industry's lowest. All of these are attractions in the eyes of the world's largest integrated oil company. Despite its extensive acreage, ExxonMobil has seen production levels fall off in the past year. The U.S. company would also stake a big claim on one of the world's fastest-growing oil patches, and would be keeping pace with BP PLC [...], which in February inked a $9.8 billion deal with Russia's TNK. As Paul Collison, a Moscow-based oil analyst at Brunswick UBS puts it: "Russia's risk can be mitigated -- and it has the reserves that these companies need." Just how eager is ExxonMobil to boost its profile in Russia? According to Collison, who recently met with ExxonMobil executives, the American oil major is willing to settle for a minority stake in any Russian venture -- even though it usually demands control.

But whether ExxonMobil gets a deal depends on the Russians. Khodorkovsky stands to profit handsomely from any sale. When the former banker acquired his 36% stake in Yukos at a bargain price during Russia's privatization program in the mid-'90s, most people assumed he would cash out as soon as a rich opportunity presented itself. The surprise was that he actually had a head for the oil business. He seemed to relish the job of turning Yukos into a world-class oil company. And he has succeeded: Yukos is on track to log a $4.3 billion profit on sales of $15 billion this year. A runup in oil prices, and steady improvements in Russia's investment climate, have boosted Yukos' share price by 68% since December, to almost $16. This could be the moment to sell. "If someone comes along and offers you a lot of money for half your company, and if you can make more money working together, then why wouldn't you?" asks Stephen O'Sullivan, co-head of research at Moscow investment bank United Financial Group. Khodorkovsky would not comment for this story.


According to the Center for Responsive Politics, ExxonMobil has contributed $549,017 to federal candidates and parties in the 2004 election cycle (11% to Democrats and 88% to Republicans) and ranks third among the oil and gas industry contributors. In the 2000 election cycle, ExxonMobil made the second-largest contribution: $1,378,400; 10% to Democrats and 89% to Republicans. (The winner that time was Enron, of course, 70 percent of whose $2,478,923 contribution went to Republicans.)

According to Disinfopedia.org, the National Center for Public Policy Research has also received funding from ExxonMobil: the total of $100,000 in 2002 and 2003. (Disinfopedia.org provides both the breakdown of these donations and the links to the ExxonMobil reports in .pdf: 2002 - $30,000 for "educational activities" and $15,000 for general support; 2003 - $25,000 for general support and $30,000 for "global climate change/EnviroTruth website").

EnviroTruth.org site is likely to need a serious revamp soon. One of its goals was to "encourage Russia to stay out of Kyoto" Protocol by having visitors to the site send letters to Putin (295 have been sent since Dec. 1, 2003). Ironically, the Russian Duma ratified Kyoto Protocol yesterday, Oct. 22, 2004, just hours after I ran into the National Center's anti-Putin ad.

ExxonMobil, according to the Guardian, "has been increasing its greenhouse gas emissions after supporting George Bush's refusal to sign the Kyoto treaty." In 2002, the company was also involved in a controversy over the selection of the head of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Khodorkovsky and Kyoto give the National Center and its affiliates enough reason to be furious, radical and unrelenting in their views on the implications of Putin's economic policies:

The bottom line: If Putin is successful in exerting control over the Russian oil industry, the U.S. economy will be directly dependent on decisions made by the Russian president and Kremlin. President Putin, a former KGB operative who has systematically populated the top tiers of Russian government with anti-western members of Russia’s current and former security service, will hold the reins of U.S. oil imports.


But there're more realistic views out there as well. David Ignatius, a columnist for the Washington Post, thinks Russia may be becoming more and more like China:

Westerners like to believe that democracy and free markets go hand in hand. That optimism should have been tempered by China, which is becoming a global economic powerhouse even as the Communist Party keeps a lid on political expression. And now there is Putin's Russia, which seems to be following a Chinese path.

What should the West do about Putin's putsch? The right model, many analysts would argue, is U.S. policy toward China. In dealing with Beijing, the United States is clear about its values -- condemning human rights violations and advocating democratic reforms. But at the same time it maintains an economic relationship that, over time, is making China richer and eventually freer. The same process should happen with Russia, and an attempt to isolate and punish Putin would almost certainly backfire.


And it doesn't look like the isolation is about to begin. Both before and after Khodorkovsky's arrest, Western oil companies did make major deals with their Russian counterparts. In August 2003, the U.K. energy group BP PLC spent $6.15 billion to acquire a 50% stake in the Russian oil company TNK, and slightly over a month ago, in late September 2004, ConocoPhilips, a U.S. company, acquired a 7.59% stake in Lukoil, currently Russia's largest oil company:

Conoco paid $1.98 billion for the stake, making it both the largest single privatization in Russian history and the largest-ever investment by a U.S. company in Russia. It's a sign that, despite Russia's notorious political and legal risks, the world's biggest energy players are eager to get a piece of Russia's abundant oil reserves.

[...]"I think it's going to be very good for both companies," says Ron Smith, oil and gas analyst at Renaissance Capital, an investment bank in Moscow. "Conoco will get access to reserves -- and oil companies are very desperate to get reserves." Lukoil has proven reserves of 16 billion barrels. Add in probable oil reserves, and the total tops 30 billion barrels.

That means Conoco is paying just $1.63 per proven barrel of oil, which is between a third and a quarter typical replacement costs in the West. And for Lukoil, the partnership will bring much-needed Western management and knowhow.

In addition to the equity investment, Conoco and Lukoil have announced a global partnership. That could come in handy in Iraq, for instance. Lukoil has an existing agreement with the Iraqi government to develop the country's West Qurna field, and Conoco has the links with the U.S. government to help ensure these rights now get recognized.


And this is important, too:

Guy de Sellier, a former vice-president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development who sits on the board of Norilsk Nickel and dairy company Wimm-Bill-Dann, doesn't see Putin's play for oil-sector control as putting a damper on foreign interest. "Controlling energy doesn't mean controlling everything else," he says.

But the worrying signs don't stop there. Since Putin's reelection in March, hardly anything has been done to push promised liberal economic reforms, such as measures to help small businesses by cutting back on red tape. Such moves are badly needed to diversify and strengthen the Russian economy. "The reforms haven't happened, and there's no evidence they're about to happen," says Chris Weafer, head of research at Russia's Alfa Bank.

To promote liberalizing reforms, Putin would need the support of private business lobbies to push back against the bureaucrats. But following the attack on Yukos, business is cowed and its political influence weakened, argues Carnegie's Aslund. He says Putin is becoming ever more dependent on the security services and their allies at the large state companies and banks.


***

I haven't finished reading the story about Muslim schoolgirls in France. When I opened it once again, there was another ad there, linking to the very informative Khodorkovsky Trial site (you can even "mark" the first anniversary of his imprisonment "by sending [him] your personal thoughts and reflections").



And sometime in the middle of writing this, I strayed off to Gazeta.ru and read a piece (in Russian) by one of my favorite Russian jouranlists, Valeriy Panyushkin. Here's a tiny part of it:

"Dirt-poor teachers' rallies take place every year in this country, but this time they were showing this slogan on TV: "Give Putin a salary of 1,800 rubles" [$60 a month]. Have you ever seen a slogan like this? If teachers and doctors protested before, they blamed the government and the State Duma deputies for their troubles. The last name "Putin" was a taboo at such rallies. A now there's the slogan: "Give Putin 1,800 rubles." And what's even more surprising is that they are showing this slogan on NTV, and NTV belongs to Gazprom, and Gazprom belongs to the state."

The title of this piece is The Virus of Rebellion.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

As if all those Nigerian scam letters weren't enough, now there are also the Russian ones, inviting you to partake of some of Mikhail Khodorkovsky's riches. Today's Gazeta.ru has a story (in Russian) on one of the scammers: "Ms. KIMAEVA LIOUDMILA , a personal secretary to Mikhail Khodorkovsky the richest man in Russia." Since I've never read a single Nigerian letter to the end and know nothing about the Nigerian politics, it was interesting to learn from this story that the Nigerian scheme often involves references to oppositional leaders victimized by brutal dictators - and that the Russian scammers are employing the same technique: Khodorkovsky, according to them, is in jail for sponsoring Russia's opposition to Putin.

In addition to "Ms. KIMAEVA LIOUDMILA," there have also been a "Mr john paul," "representing mr. mikhail khodorkovsky (m.k.);" "Mr. Ivan Ruskov, a personal treasurer to Mikhail Khodorkovsky the richest man in Russia;" "Mr. Ronny Barakat, a Confidential Financial consultant to Mikhail Khodorkovsky the richest man in Russia;" and "Mrs. Danijela Djuric a Yugoslavian and personal secretary to Mikhail Khodorkovsky (M.K) the richest man in Russia."

I found this last one at such an unlikely place - TerrificPets.com - and before I realized where I was, I was pretty confused about the little warning type of thing that precedes the text of the actual scam letter:

The below is from a Scammer! Some of the emails may not look like scams, but they all lead to the same thing. The scammer will pay by check (cashier's check/money order) for more then the pet is worth, then they will ask you to send them back the difference in money. A couple weeks later you find out the check was fake and the bank will take it out of your account. This scam can be set up several ways.

Some key points for pointing out a scammer:
1. Doesn't care much about the pet, just the transaction.
2. Says they will use their own shipper.
3. 95% of the scammers are from overseas (Nigeria, Israel, South Africa)
4. Pays you more then the pet is worth, then asks for the difference in money back.


My favorite fake associate of Khodorkovsky is this one, though: "Yogi Khodorkovsky, first cousin to Mikhail Khodorkovsky."

What kind of name is Yogi?

Sex and the Elections

It wasn't a joke at all, my friend wrote me again yesterday: people in Ukraine do discuss their voting preferences prior to having sex.

Considering what the two main contenders look like, it's too fucking scary: Victor Yanukovych is too ugly to be true and has always been this way; Victor Yushchenko was poisoned by his opponents last month (allegedly, I should add, however unwillingly) and, though he survived (thank God), the way he looks now makes one want to cry.

***

It may be tough for us Ukrainians, but it's even tougher for Arnold Schwarzenegger. Reuters has reported today that Schwarzenegger's wife, Maria Shriver, wouldn't sleep with him because of his RNC speech back in August:

"Well, there was no sex for 14 days," Schwarzenegger told former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta in an on-stage conversation in front of 1,000 people.

"Everything comes with side affects," he said, drawing laughter from the crowd.

Panetta, a Democrat, had asked how Shriver, whose uncle was President John F. Kennedy, had reacted to his praised but partisan convention speech.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Thousands of people showed up at the pro-Yushchenko rally in Kyiv on Saturday, Oct. 16. None of the Russian TV channels mentioned it, but the EuroNews did. I wanted to post a picture or two from the rally here right away but couldn't find any that were representative enough. Today, I've found quite a bunch, through the site of Victor Yushchenko's bloc, Our Ukraine.

***

Looks pretty exciting, and I guess I wish I were in Kyiv, not in St. Pete, now. But I'll be there soon, and the way the situation is developing, we're definitely gonna have a few more rallies like this...

Then again, I feel I've had enough of politics and drama and tragedy and bullshit in the past month and a half to last me a few years: I do need a break from it all. I know who I'm voting for - so leave me alone now. I realized it today, when I received an email from a friend who, among other things, wrote this about the pre-election Ukraine: "Even before having sex people now ask each other who they'll vote for." That's partly a joke, I know. But I also know how close it is to the truth. It's making me sick. Really. I'm sort of glad I'm not there now.

The vote is in 13 days.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

I was planning to write about something else, but I'm so mad at one of our friends now that I have to vent and distract myself. The easiest way to explain what I'm so mad about to people who aren't from this part of the world is to have them think of Raymond Carver's short stories and the aftertaste they leave you with. Our friend is being self-destructive on a much larger scale, and it is affecting the people around him, including at least one precious kid. Being self-destructive is nothing unusual, especially here. I know that. But it doesn't mean I shouldn't get mad.

So I was sitting outside our apartment, smoking and trying not to choke on all the anger I feel. And something reminded me of the downstairs neighbors we used to have a year ago here: they used to get drunk all the time, and then they'd scream and fight and sing and throw chairs at each other and break windows till morning. And the police would never come, and when they would, they were helpless. Then someone else bought that apartment downstairs and the drunks disappeared. Everyone in our part of the building is extremely grateful and happy about it. Really.

To have neighbors like this is nothing unusual, especially here, in this part of the world. In Kyiv, our downstairs neighbors were just as horrible. Once, they had a drunken fight and when most fell asleep afterwards, one of them went to the kitchen, turned on the gas and left. Soon enough, one of the sleeping neighbors woke up because of this immense hangover thirst, and he made it to the kitchen to have a glass of tap water, and noticed that the gas was on. We were all extremely lucky that he did wake up and that he didn't light up a cigarette before he reached the kitchen. When I say "we" I mean all the people who live in our building, some 100 apartments and 400-500 people, not just my family upstairs. Thank God, someone bought that apartment a few years ago, and the drunks moved out, and our immediate world is much safer now.

So I was smoking and thinking about all of this, and then I realized that though it's totally normal to have neighbors that make your life hell, there are exceptions: Mishah and I are an exception, as well as the people who live in the two apartments that are closest to ours.

One of our neighbors plays chess, skis, studies Ancient Greek and Finnish, knows German, has a cute little dog that gets hysterical when left alone at night. This neighbor also studies to play the clarinet: she likes to do it around or after midnight, but it doesn't bother us at all because we can only hear her when we step outside to smoke. It's poignant: she's gradually getting better, but still, her clarinet sounds a lot like a breed of an elephant and a soccer fan trying to produce a classical tune. She is a wonderful woman.

Our other neighbors are as sweet. Recently, they've acquired an exercise machine that's too big to fit into their apartment, so they keep it by the staircase. I've been told I'm welcome to use it - and I did use it once but found it too hard to want to try again. They have a cat who always sits on the windowsill and watches me, and I always wave back at her and say good things about her that she can't hear but, I'm sure, understands. When I met her in person for the first time, she didn't run away - she acted as if I were part of her family - and the neighbors were very surprised because their cat is not known to be friendly to strangers - and I explained to them that I wasn't a total stranger to her. When I was having my insomnia this past month, the neighbor - the mother of the family - called me one morning to check if everything's okay: she was worried because the lights were on in my apartment for several nights in a row. I felt guilty for making her worry - and I was so moved by her concern. Not something you'd expect from your neighbors here.

Mishah and I have recently brought out an old carpet and set up a smoking area. Our neighbors' son is welcome to sit and smoke there, too. I use it as my office pretty often: I've even figured out how to make the internet work there. I'm not sure we'll be able to spend more than 10 seconds there when it gets really cold - but for now, it works beautifully.

Our building was built at the end of the 18th century. (I've only learned it recently, from the new downstairs neighbors, the ones who replaced the crazy drunks.) Only God and the building itself know something or all of it about everyone who's ever lived here.

Monday, October 11, 2004

In one of my earlier entries, I mentioned a Sept. 12 New York Times story by C. J. Chivers and Steven Lee Myers ("Chechen Rebels Mainly Driven by Nationalism"), which seemed to have treated Putin and the Russian Federal Security Service (the FSB) rather indulgently.

One of the story's main sources was Sergei N. Ignatchenko, 43, a second-generation intelligence officer, an Arabist by training and the FSB's chief spokesman. Such proximity to the infamous Lubyanka must have kept the journalists from providing more background on the 1999 apartment building explosions; it must have also prompted them to turn Mr. Ignatchenko's mention of Ayman al-Zawahiri, a man on the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorists list, into a modest historical aside:

Among those drawn to Chechnya was Ayman al-Zawahiri, who would later become Mr. bin Laden's top deputy. At the time Dr. Zawahiri led the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Late in 1996, Russian authorities detained him. He was held for six months.

"He had four passports, in four different names and nationalities," Mr. Ignatchenko said. "We checked him out in every country, but they could not confirm him. We could not keep him forever, so we took him to the Azerbaijani border and let him go."


Nothing special - just another confirmation of the official claim that "international terrorism" is to blame for the situation in and around Chechnya, and of the story's main point that "Al Qaeda was much more interested in Chechnya than Chechen separatists were interested in a global religious war." Also, an elegant attempt to show the world that all those reports of extrajudicial executions are simply not true.

Yet, there's more to al-Zawahiri's Russian misadventure than the New York Times and Mr. Ignatchenko chose to share, and here's some additional reading:

- Saga of Dr. Zawahri Sheds Light On the Roots of al Qaeda Terror: How a Secret, Failed Trip to Chechnya Turned Key Plotter's Focus to America and bin Laden - by Andrew Higgins and Alan Cullison, The Wall Street Journal, July 2, 2002 (text via Johnson's Russia List # 6336, the last item on the page)

A relatively detailed story of al-Zawahiri's detention and trial in Russia (actually, the most detailed I've been able to find); the focus is primarily on al-Zawahiri's persona and his comrades-in-arms. No explanation is offered as to how and when the FSB realized it was the leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad that they had mistaken for a merchant and let go so easily. Al-Zawahiri ascribed the miracle of his liberation to God:

"God blinded them to our identities," Dr. Zawahri wrote later, in his account of his trip. "God's mercy accompanied us during these months."


- The Man Behind bin Laden: How an Egyptian Doctor Became a Master of Terror - by Lawrence Wright, The New Yorker, Sept. 16, 2002

A substantial profile of al-Zawahiri, with a brief mention of the Russian episode. The author, Lawrence Wright, received the 2002 Ed Cunningham Memorial award from the Overseas Press Club of America for this text, for "best magazine reporting from abroad": "A superb, fluidily detailed portrait of Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda's strategic mastermind. The piece showed remarkable breadth of reporting and context, and was filled with hard-to-get interviews and rich contextual detail." It is also part of a not-yet-completed book about the events that led to 9/11. Wright also wrote the screenplay for The Siege (1998), and is the author of "God's Favorite," a political novel about General Manuel Antonio Noriega.

- A Russian Agent at the Right Hand of bin Laden? - by Evgenii Novikov, the Jamestown Foundation, Terrorism Monitor, January 15, 2004 (Volume 2 Issue 1)

A rendition of the Wall Street Journal piece, spiced up with allegations "that Russian intelligence knows exactly where [al-Zawahiri] is and may even have regular contact with the elusive Egyptian." Formerly "an elite Soviet expert on Islamic affairs," Evgenii Novikov defected to the United States in 1988 and is now a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation. This is an interesting read, though the plausibility of Novikov's assertions falters significantly once you're reminded of the dubious yet popular claims that the U.S. government was actually behind 9/11. (Also, since Osama bin Laden is a lefty, a better title for this piece would have been "A Russian Agent at the Left Hand of bin Laden?"...)

Friday, October 08, 2004

St. Pete Archways and Backyards

I've posted over 50 pictures of Moscow on my photo page today. All from one day, July 19, when we stopped there on our way to Kyiv. Mishah worked that day, and I walked.

That day I realized something for the first time: that I'm gonna miss St. Pete when we move away from here (and we will, sooner or later).

I love Moscow, I miss it. I miss its energy, and its anger, and the way it kicks you in the ass and makes you run around like crazy. I love it. But St. Pete is too sleepy. Even when I can't sleep at all - like now, or like during the White Nights, when it never gets dark. And I didn't think I'd ever miss it too much.

But that day in Moscow, I kept turning my head to look into every archway I passed - and I didn't see anything worth remembering. Nothing but the boring, green, somewhat dirty backyards. Disappointingly boring. (Another way to look at it, though, is to admit Moscow's mayor is doing a good job.)

It was then that I realized I'd acquired at least one habit in St. Pete - to expect something from those archways and backyards. A habit that seems sort of useless elsewhere.

It's not just the graffiti - that stuff is cool but it's everywhere. It's not knowing which components you'll see through the next archway, or how many components together: trash, graffiti, trees, kids' chalk drawings on the walls, homeless people, mamas with baby carriages, wrecked cars, cars that cost a fortune, drunks asleep on kids' playgrounds, freshly laid cobblestone, recently installed streetlamps, cats, dogs, rats, dog shit, swastikas, people's laundry, things that are impossible to describe, little nothings presented dramatically... I'm sure there's more.

And when I walk in St. Pete, I always turn my head to see what the archway/backyard I'm passing is like. (It's also helpful to check for cars driving out right at you - but that's a generic survival skill, valid everywhere.) It's like having a million of boxes in front of you, filled with all kinds of stuff, each unique - it's like opening all those boxes and always being surprised with what you find in them. It's like attending a modern art exhibit every day - only better.

And most of the time I don't feel like taking pictures of what I see. Most of the time I'm kind of scared to enter those backyards - shit does make me nervous. Most of the time each of the components that you see through those archways, pretty or not, you've also seen elsewhere, more than once, more than you'd have liked to. Most of the time I think I'd rather not see what I see - I'd rather be in Istanbul.

But I am in St. Pete - and these archways/backyards are one thing I'm gonna miss terribly when I leave.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

On a different note, The New Yorker's CartoonBank has this wonderful cartoon that I can't fully relate to - because I'm not a vegetarian! (Is vegan different from vegetarian?)

An interview with Michael Specter, a journalist, and his story on the AIDS epidemics in Russia, in the latest issue of The New Yorker.

There are some very minor inaccuracies (poryadochny chelovek, for example, translates as a decent person, a person of high moral principles, someone you can trust, not as "a man of order and discipline" - even though poryadok is indeed "order" in Russian) - but overall, reading this was as heartbreaking, depressing and scary as thinking about radiation. And perhaps just as pointless. I'm not saying it shouldn't have been written. No. It's just that whenever I read stories titled as dramatically as the interview with Specter ("A Disappearing Country"), I take it too personally: so many people I love, including myself, happen to be part of what's disappearing. This is the wrong attitude, I know, but I can't help it: I do get freaked out. Also, if one trusts the statistics, Ukraine is disappearing at an even faster rate than Russia - but how many people are bothering to write about that? Okay, I did last year, but it was as much of a rant as what I'm writing now. Pointless.

But I really loved the final section of Specter's story - even though it's as much about me personally as it is about that huge, abstract mass, "the people" of this country that I'm not a citizen of:

How many fact-finding tours of southern Africa, of India, and of various countries in Eastern Europe will Russian officials take before they see the implications of the epidemic that is now spreading rapidly within their borders? Why does Brazil, with a comparable population and a slightly lower per-capita income, spend nearly a billion dollars on AIDS each year when Russia doesn’t spend even a tenth that? It can’t be poverty; Russia is not rich, but it has eighty-five billion dollars in its financial reserves. The Kremlin is certainly capable of spending money when it wants to: last year, for example, the lavish three-hundredth-birthday party for the city of St. Petersburg—Vladimir Putin’s home town—cost $1.3 billion. There are more billionaires in Russia today than in any other country—at times, they seem to be buying everything that is not nailed to the ground, from yachts and British soccer clubs to Malcolm Forbes’s collection of Fabergé eggs. “Do you think for one minute that if Putin called these people into a room and said we have a crisis and we need to come up with some money for AIDS they would say no?’’ a senior international health official asked me. “Do you think that anyone in Russia can begin to justify spending just a few million dollars on AIDS each year? There are people there who spend that maintaining their private jets.”

The Kremlin demands to be taken seriously as a world power and as an active member of the Group of Eight industrial nations. The country’s leaders often mention AIDS in public at international gatherings, acting as if Russia still had an empire to control. At home, though, the story is different. “Russia went ahead and made a decision to contribute money to the Global Fund,’’ Christof Rühl, who was until recently the World Bank’s chief economist in Russia, told me. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS was set up by the U.N. to provide money for those countries which cannot on their own defeat aids, tuberculosis, or malaria. I talked to Rühl one day when I was in Moscow. He was taking a break from a conference on Western investment, held at the Radisson SAS Slavyanskaya Hotel. Men in Valentino suits were talking on cell phones and smoking huge cigars. Their drivers and bodyguards, all clad in thick black leather, stood smoking cigarettes patiently by the coatroom.

Russia invested just over four million dollars in 2003 in its federal aids program, but it committed twenty million to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS. Two years ago, the Kremlin’s protracted negotiations effectively delayed a hundred-and-fifty-million-dollar loan offer by the World Bank on the ground that it did not wish to incur further foreign debt. “If you watch,” Rühl said, “you will see the President and all the ministers and the economic advisers going out and saying to the world, with great pride, ‘Russia is a donor country. We are one of you. We are going to help solve this health crisis for these poor nations.’ It is cheap and cynical. It has not been about H.I.V. at all. It was to say, ‘We are a country that helps; we don’t need handouts, like Africa.’ But the truth is that the government is so disorganized and so removed from the needs of its own people that it could not even help get one application filed for the first round of this Global Fund.

“The people just don’t care. On a very broad scale, it’s a country where people care about their family and their friends. Their clan. But not their society. Yet they have this attitude that we are a great power. A donor nation. What does that really mean? It means you pay a few million dollars to the world AIDS fund even though you are too stupid to attempt to profit from it when your own citizens are dying.’’

Looks like Alu Alkhanov, the newly sworn-in president of Chechnya, has to live as dangerously as Hamid Karzai, the not-yet-elected president of Afghanistan. The New York Times' C.J. Chivers reports from yesterday's inauguration:

A band played. Children in traditional garb wished him well. The state mufti offered a prayer. Then Mr. Alkhanov slipped away in a black Mercedes-Benz sedan, beginning what can only be described as one of the world's most unsavory jobs.

The Chechen presidency became available in May when the previous president, Akhmad Kadyrov, was killed by a bomb hidden in a stadium. [...]

While Mr. Alkhanov's Kremlin support is beyond question, his legitimacy is less clear. Nongovernment organizations have pointedly dismissed his election as a farce, and warned that a charade of democracy disenfranchises moderates and will not dissuade the rebels.


On Aug. 29, the day of the "farcical" election in Chechnya, a car bomb in Kabul killed ten people and ruined the office of Dyncorps Inc., a controversial U.S. company that has been providing Hamid Karzai with bodyguards since late 2002. And, according to John Simpson, the BBC's World Affairs Editor, it wouldn't hurt, perhaps, to spend more money on those bodyguards:

[Karzai] is heavily guarded, of course, but experts in security say that not all the Americans around him are of the highest calibre. The big money for security men is in Iraq nowadays, and Karzai's bodyguards include former American policemen and rank-and-file soldiers, not always in the best physical shape.

Used Books in St. Pete

I have two favorite bookstores that sell used books here in St. Pete: one is located on Vasilyevsky Ostrov, the other is just off Nevskiy Prospekt. Vasilyevsky Ostrov has a strange air of loneliness about it, and when I interrupt a walk there by going down into the bookstore basement, I continue feeling as spellbound as I did back on the surface. Nevskiy Prospekt, however, is a total mess, jammed and polluted, and when, in early August, I escaped first to Liteyny Prospekt and then into a backyard with a bookstore sign, I felt blessed.

Both the backyard and the bookstore are quite famous, and I've no idea why it took me well over a year to end up there. The backyard, actually, is one of the most incredible things I've ever seen in my life: it's The Graffiti Backyard!



Most of the used books here are Soviet editions, and the selection is quite comprehensive: volumes like the translated world classics series that every Soviet family seemed to own (many still do today); the Soviet propaganda trash that you wouldn't want anyone to see on your shelves; superb arts albums and ethnographic editions (Mishah, for example, keeps buying everything he can find on Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East); specialized works in linguistics, musicology and other disciplines; prose and poetry by authors who, prior to perestroika, had been either misrepresented to various extents or banned altogether.

Used books in English, on the other hand, are very few, and most are maddeningly drab: either some expat's former toilet reading or the ubiquitous Penguin Classics. But every once in while I do run into something worthy, and the surprise factor is what keeps me looking.

Back in August, already blessed with the discovery of the Graffiti Backyard and a bookstore in it, I was further blessed with finding these three items there:

- The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses (the FIRST edition! published in 1976! when I was 2 years old!);
- The Pushcart Prize, II (the SECOND edition, published in 1977!);
- and The Agni Review #8 (published in 1978!)...

I paid 150+80+15=245 rubles for it all (something like $8.50) - and felt too ecstatic to stop leafing through the volumes and actually start reading from them. Like anyone who writes in English, I've heard too much about the Pushcart and the Agni. And everything felt just too overwhelming about this rare purchase for the first week or so: to hold these early editions in my hands and realize that both the Agni and the Pushcart Prize have survived and flourished throughout nearly three decades; to know that in the States you could go to almost any library and check these volumes out, while running into them just like that here is a pure miracle; to try to imagine how they ended up here, who owned them before me - some old Soviet dissident with friends abroad? or some young American writer wanna-be who came to the city of Dostoyevsky in search of inspiration? - could be anyone; to notice passages underlined with a pencil; to catch two old, really old, St. Pete trolley tickets that fell out of one of the books...

But then two planes fell from the sky, and more horrible shit followed, and Mishah's wonderful, dear grandmother passed away five days ago, and there's been little but pain in this month and a half - and no time or desire whatsoever to think about my literary treasures. I've turned into what I call "a closeted American" - I rarely sleep during the Russian night (which is daytime in the States) and take naps during the Russian day (the U.S. night): I'd be considered the normallest person if only I lived on the other side of the the Atlantic. Mishah says maybe I should start reading something offline again to get my sleep back - so this is how I've finally decided to look at the two Pushcart Prize volumes and the Agni more carefully.

(I hope to have an update on my reading and sleeping later this week.)

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Slate has started a week-long dispatch from Afghanistan by Nathan Hodge: "Election Week in Afghanistan" (via The Periscope).

Also, in Slate archives, there's an Aug. 9 story by Michael J. Kavanagh, as well as a three-day dispatch (Aug. 9, 10 and 13) from David Bosco.

Here's a bit from the Kavanagh piece, "Hamid Karzai and the Hopeless 22":

Few people I talked to in Afghanistan—save several warlords and the poppy-growers—were particularly happy with the interim head of a country that some Anglophone Afghans have taken to calling "Trashcanistan." One resident of Jalalabad summed up the feelings of many when he said: "Tell me about someone beside Karzai, and I will vote for them. But who is there?" With only a month to campaign, no money, and a media still in its fetal stage, it seems unlikely Afghans will go to the polls knowing much about any of Karzai's rivals.


And one more:

All the Afghans I talked to are thirsting for the chance to vote, and judging by the numbers that have registered, most Afghans share that sentiment. (The United Nations claims registration has reached 90 percent.) But rather than an election, many feel they're witnessing a coronation engineered not for the good of Afghanistan but for the political benefit of the Bush administration. One Afghan journalist told me he was thinking of writing John Kerry's name on the ballot. ("I have his campaign button in my office, and I pray toward it five times a day," he said.)

But the Afghan people have another way to make their ambivalence known to the international community. If none of the 23 candidates wins at least 50 percent of the vote, election rules call for a runoff. (It would most likely be between Qanooni and Karzai.) Ramadan and the winter snows could delay the runoff until spring. And though that might not be the best possible outcome for the country's stability, perhaps an extra six months would be enough time to send in more troops, run a prolonged campaign, and ensure that Afghanistan's first presidential election is truly democratic.

In the New York Times' "Afghans Studying the Art of Voting" story, there's this passage about the importance of knowing the presidential candidates' faces (I quoted it in the previous post as well):

Without modern communications, villagers like Mr. Muhammad do not recognize the candidates they are supposed to vote for. So for the many voters who are both illiterate and do not recognize the faces of candidates, voting is a real problem. Mr. Muhammad said he knew none of the faces.


Voting could also be "a real problem" if, in addition to not being able to connect a face to its name, voters don't really know what their candidates stand for. Actually, that's the real problem. And the more candidates are running, the bigger the problem gets, and the more money is wasted.

In my country, Ukraine, the presidential election is scheduled for Oct. 31, 2004. Inshallah, I'll be able to go down to Kyiv to vote. I do know how I'll vote and why.

So far there're 24 candidates, a few may get disqualified by the end of the month, and, though it may be hard to believe looking at all their faces, the presidential race in Ukraine is actually as compact as the one in the States: Victor Yushchenko versus Victor Yanukovych. Yushchenko is a former prime minister, with a solid banking and economics background; Yanukovych is the current prime minister, with two (revoked) criminal convictions and very unimpressive language skills. To choose between the two is as easy as to choose between Kerry and Bush.

The New York Times ran a story on Oct. 4 about the upcoming presidential election in Afghanistan. I started reading it only because of the headline, "Afghans Studying the Art of Voting": I thought it'd be about some cute Afghan PR tricks - poster-like rugs with candidates' slogans on them, fragile tea glasses with candidates' portraits, or something as exotic. But no, even though the story turned out to be quite a vivid read, much of it was, literally, about teaching and learning how to vote.

The Afghan election is in four days and there are 18 candidates to pick from. Here's one of the ways "Western election experts" and their local colleagues are spreading the "art" of democracy among the Afghan masses:

Across parts of Afghanistan, male and female teams have arrived in villages with mock ballots and boxes and a poster showing the photographs and symbols of all the 18 presidential candidates. They make the villagers act out the voting procedure, telling them that illiterate people can hold the marker pen in their fist and make any mark in the box of their choice. Relatives can help the blind and old people. Women will vote in women-only enclosures and so should familiarize themselves with the candidates' pictures. There is only one day of voting, and they can vote only once, they say.


And here's one of the biggest obstacles:

"We have our registration cards, but the main problem is we don't know the candidates; we do not know who they are," said Mirza Muhammad, an old farmer sitting at a teahouse where election posters were stuck on the windows.

Without modern communications, villagers like Mr. Muhammad do not recognize the candidates they are supposed to vote for. So for the many voters who are both illiterate and do not recognize the faces of candidates, voting is a real problem. Mr. Muhammad said he knew none of the faces.


The Guardian ran a similar piece one day earlier:

The burly nomad with a henna beard and a fierce scowl grips the pen between his thick fingers. Turgul cannot read the election material around him, but is determined to practise the first vote of his life.

The turbaned tribesman drags the pen across a scrap of paper. 'Just like that,' he says uncertainly, holding aloft the squiggle that will mark his choice.


It doesn't look too promising, and little can be done in terms of imposing higher standards. According to the Guardian,

Few elections have faced such a dizzy array of challenges as Saturday's presidential poll in Afghanistan. Taliban terrorists are threatening bombings and warlords may try to warp the result. The terrain is forbidding, the logistics maddening and, like Turgul, many voters are illiterate. 'It's been very difficult,' said Amandine Roche, a United Nations civil education officer. 'But Afghans really want this to work.'


The New York Times provides a similar assessment:

Only about 230 foreigners have come as observers or "special guests," according to United Nations officials. The United States is financing only about a dozen elections experts who have moved to Afghanistan to help develop democracy. Many aid groups and United Nations agencies have actually urged their staff members to leave the country for the election because of the security threat, and they are doing so en masse.

As a result of security problems, international observers will be largely confined to the country's eight largest cities, where ballots will be counted. But over 70 percent of Afghans live in rural areas where much of the expected intimidation, violence and irregularities could occur.

With so few international observers involved, 120,000 Afghans are being trained to run 5,000 polling centers on election day. Of 16,000 domestic observers, 12,000 will be political party agents, raising the potential for intimidation or fraud.


The Guardian story says the UN "is spending £111 million on the election." That's almost $200 million. Not much compared to other countries' election expenses, I'm sure. But still quite overwhelming if you consider that a significant number of potential voters have to be taught how to hold a pencil. And then they'll declare Afghanistan a real democracy, despite the New York Times' prediction that the result of this voting "art" would be "a uniquely Afghan democratic mélange."

But what would be so unique about this waste of money? On Sept. 27, Reuters reported that "the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan denied [...] that he was interfering" in the election.

While the United States and other nations have been careful not to publicly endorse any particular candidate, interim President Hamid Karzai is widely expected to win the poll and is the clear favourite of the West.

But some of the 18 candidates standing for election have complained that Khalilzad [the U.S. ambassador], an Afghan emigre but now a naturalised American, had put pressure on them to quit the race in favour of Karzai, appointed interim president after the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban in 2001.

Candidates have also complained that Karzai has an unfair campaign advantage in being able to use state apparatus, much of it provided by the American government and military.


According to Reuters, Karzai "has barely campaigned because of security constraints" - but he "depends on U.S. bodyguards to protect him," so it's unlikely that much money has been saved this way. However, he's not trying to conceal his concern for the country's financial well-being:

"I hope for good reasons that the elections will not go to a second round, because it will be very expensive for us to have a second round and will be easier to have the results at the first round," Karzai told reporters after talks with German Foreign Minster Joshka Fischer.


The whole point of this election seems to be the change of Karzai's status from someone "handpicked" by the U.S. to that of a legitimate leader:

"Legitimacy will increase tremendously after the (presidential) election," [Karzai] added.


There's nothing unique about this approach. The much-criticized August 29 election in Chechnya appears to have had the same drawbacks - or perhaps those were just practical considerations:

"People will come to the elections. We expect the turnout to be high enough," committee head Abdul- Kerim Arsakhanov said in an interview Monday.

He said he expects one candidate to win 50 percent or more of the vote, which would remove the need for a runoff.

Given the predictability of the outcome, the election campaign has been smooth -- if not boring -- so far. Six candidates are taking part in the race in addition to Alkhanov. None is mounting a serious challenge because they are reluctant to upset Alkhanov or have been encouraged by the Chechen administration to run to create the semblance of a race, said Edilbek Khasmagomadov, an independent political analyst.

"These elections are senseless, as it is clear that there is no alternative and the winner is known beforehand," he said. "All they will achieve is to give a shade of legitimacy to the authorities, who rule as they please rather under the mandate handed them by society."


The Guardian had called that election 'farcical.' For the "Afghan nomads," however, theirs will be a rehearsal of "dawn of democracy."

Monday, October 04, 2004

From a Sept. 30 story in The Guardian:

The EU is providing more than £100m in grants and loans to tackle pollution from Russia's second city, St Petersburg, which has already killed off vast stretches of the Baltic sea.

The decision to fund work outside the EU's borders - £5m is coming from the UK - is a departure for Brussels, but officials believe it has been forced upon them by the refusal of Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, to provide cash for the work.

The millions of gallons of raw sewage which flow out of the river Neva every year have already taken a toll: the Gulf of Finland is devoid of all life on large areas of the sea bed, ruined by the high levels of phosphorus. On the surface, toxic algae are turning the sea blue-green.


It's hard to think of such global issues when you're sitting on the toilet, taking a crap. No one does, I'm afraid. And it's hard to see why they deserve so much money when you set out for a walk outside St. Pete: you arrive to enjoy the nature and fresh air, but instead there's stench and garbage almost everywhere, in and around the Gulf of Finland. You'd think all they need is to just stop getting rid of their shit right outside their dachas, but who needs such a cheap solution.



Sunday, October 03, 2004

My ancient story on studying Arabic in Iowa City... I did a Yahoo search on myself (yes...) and there it was! Google never shows it. I've totally forgotten about it.

It's a Spring 1997 story that I wrote for a class where grad students were required to set up a website at the end of the semester and post all our stories there. Intercultural Affairs Reporting or something. We had to figure out the HTML stuff - and I totally skipped that part, partly because the boys in my group didn't mind me just sitting around, doing nothing. They did all of it. And boy, does it look pathetic.

No, actually, I did accomplish one sort of technical thing myself - I found this Arabic inscription that we then stuck in the left-hand corner - if I remember correctly, it's a Lebanese proverb that says something like "An intelligent deaf-and-mute person is better than a fool who can speak." But I'm not sure.

It's been seven and a half years. Hard to believe. All the mixed feelings I'm having now: it looks horrible and it doesn't read too well; but there are some really nice parts; I would've re-written this and that, and I would've added some stuff, too; it's like reading something by a long-lost friend, poignant; but it's also very embarrassing.

And I wonder where all those people are now, what has become of them...

- Taha, the teacher;
- Ali, the Jesus Christ look-alike (yes, another one!), who was the first person I met at that mosque;
- Vedat, the Turkish engineer guy who kept looking underneath the table, saying, But how do you know that a table is a "she"? How do you determine it?!?!?
- Shuw-Hwey, the Taiwanese woman, and her Egyptian husband, and the parents-in-law she was preparing to meet...

There were some others but I didn't mention them in the story. I hope they're all well.

I didn't learn any Arabic at those lessons. Well, except for introducing myself and saying I'm a journalist. I later learned the alphabet by myself, but that was it, unfortunately. My handwriting is still good, though. Arabic script is so beautiful - writing in it is very soothing and it doesn't matter whether you know what it is that you're writing or not. I learned to write using an English-language Pakistani textbook on the Arabic of the Quran; the font in it was very very large and that was very helpful - most other textbooks I've seen use those tiny letters that look like mice, very intimidating. And most other textbooks are about tourists looking for a bathroom or currency exchange places - and that gets really annoying after a while.

It's sort of funny to read now that the University of Iowa didn't have "enough resources to hire teaching staff for a two-year sequence of courses" in Arabic back in 1997. I wonder if they do now. This language is so very relevant now.

P.S. I'm scared to re-read other stories from that class - I'm scared to let myself remember too much from that time, I'm scared to miss it all too much...

Kerry's Treblinka slip didn't go unnoticed in his opponents' blogocamp, though some admitted it was inconsequential. VodkaPundit, for example, wrote this:

On the other hand, the "Treblinka Square" flap is a dry hole for Republicans. It was just a mental burp on Kerry's part, and a dumb thing to get upset about--particularly given Bush's own propensity for mixing up names and mangling the mother tongue in general. I wouldn't vote for Kerry if he handed me the keys to his Ducati, but still, I can't find it in me to blame him for flubbing a foreign name in front of 55 million people.


In one of the comments to this post, some guy referred to Lubyanka as "a Russian landmark" - which, in a way, is a correct definition. Similarly, Treblinka and Auschwitz are Poland's landmarks. You can tour those places, almost as you would the Holocaust Memorial Museum. But there's horrible and very recent history behind these names, and that makes Lubyanka and Treblinka and Auschwitz immensely more than the mere landmarks. So, perhaps, it's wrong to call them that.

In another comment to the same post, someone calling himself Gonzo fumed about this: "Kerry's flippant attempt to look like he was an intelligence wonk who rubbed elbows with those who unearthed the KGB's secrets came off horribly wrong. He tried to name-drop like an overzealous job seeker, but he dropped the name of a death camp." Yes, he did. But Lubyanka was a death camp, too. A humongous one. Its history embraces both the victims, millions of them, and their killers. Treblinka's history has the same components. Kerry, one of whose relatives perished in Treblinka, said he had seen "reams of files with names in them" at Lubyanka - and this means he was talking about the victims. Gonzo's grandfather "was a WWII vet and saw the camps," and he passed to his grandson "laminated photos his company took of the attrocities they saw." To imply that Kerry was bragging about his association with the KGB's big shots is as inhuman as to say that Gonzo's grandfather took pictures of the Nazi camp horrors in order to brag about his war experience back home.

Another Treblinka-related entry - by Mad Minerva, a history expert - really cracked me up, though. After quoting from the transcript, she provided this very honest account of a morning of research:

At the time I remember thinking that it just didn't sound right, but I couldn't put my finger on why. (Or on why "Treblinka" sounded familiar too.) Then this morning The Rottweiler pointed out that Treblinka isn't the location of the fomer KGB headquarters. It was a Nazi concentration camp. So I went snooping around. I hold a BA in history -- surely that's good for something!

And look what I found:

Treblinka was indeed a Nazi concentration camp, located about halfway between Warsaw and Bialystok in Poland, in operation from 1942-3. Incidentally, there were prisoner uprisings at Treblinka, as at the camp of Sobibor, and much documentation in general. There's even a PBS web feature on Treblinka. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 300,000+ Jews from Warsaw's Jewish ghetto were deported to Treblinka in a late 1942 mass deportation.

So where were the actual headquarters of the Soviet KGB? Lubyanka Square in Moscow.

You know, I don't care if Kerry's trying to show off how much he knows (or thinks he knows) about foreign affairs. But please, Senator, do get the place names straight.


***

On a different note, the online store of Sovok of the Week has a fair and balanced selection of the 2004 campaign buttons, stickers, mugs, t-shirts and more, with the candidates' names in Russian.

Kerry/Edwards supporters will find their stuff HERE; Bush/Cheney supporters should go HERE.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

A quote from Masha Gessen's grandmothers story:

And then my grandmother got a summons. A phone call, actually, but at that time people could be arrested in many different ways: any time of the day or night, by a single person or a squad, taken away by foot, by car, by bread truck. They telephoned to tell her to report to Lubyanka, the headquarters of the secret police, at ten on the following day.

Everyone cried, no one slept, and her husband promised to raise the boy and care for her mother. They packed the usual basket: dried bread, sugar, soap, a sweater and a change of underwear. She had forgotten all about the JAFC; she thought she was being arrested for the congratulatory telegram she had sent to a Zionist organization in Warsaw on the occasion of the founding of the state of Israel. Decades later, she would learn that hers was the only telegram sent by a private individual from the USSR. She had been unable to restrain herself.

'So I take my basket and go to Lubyanka—oh, pardon me, at that time it was called Dzerzhinsky Square. I go to the entrance door they told me to go to. The guard looks in my bag, laughs like it's very funny, and says, "Young lady, people with these bags go through the other door. But that's all right. Leave it here so you can pick it up when you leave." He calls on the telephone and says, "Someone will take you to Major Ivanova's office."'


And a quote from John Kerry (from The New York Times' transcript of yesterday's debate):

Well, let me just say quickly that I had an extraordinary experience of watching, up close and personal, that transition in Russia because I was there right after the transformation and I was probably one of the first senators, along with Senator Bob Smith of New Hampshire, former senator, to go down into the K.G.B. underneath Treblinka Square and see reams of files with names in them. And it sort of brought home the transition to democracy that Russia was trying to make.


I couldn't believe he actually said "Treblinka" instead of "Lubyanka" when I was watching the debate live yesterday morning, and sometimes you can't really trust the people who do those transcripts - but this one seems credible.

Both Bush and Kerry have managed to squeeze quite a bit of Russia into their statements: stray nuclear materials, Beslan, Putin and the war on terror. I hope Kerry wins.

Every once in a while I re-read the story of Masha Gessen's grandmothers published in Granta 64: Russia: The Wild East ("My Grandmother, The Censor"). I keep recommending it to everyone. I love it. I've been planning to post the link here since early September. I re-read the story today, and I cried throughout it, thinking about Mishah's grandmother, wishing she were alive.

Masha Gessen's book about her grandmothers ("Two Babushkas") was published by Bloomsbury in May. Here's the review in The Guardian. I'd like to read it sometime. (There seems to be a separate U.S. edition, due out in October, from a different publisher, Dial Books, and with a different title: "Ester and Ruzya: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler's War and Stalin's Peace.")

Friday, October 01, 2004

Yes, the bird dies.
Remember the flight.

(Forugh Farrokhzad)

Mishah's grandmother died today. I loved her so much.