Comments on life, the universe and everything from an aging Sixties survivor.

Location: Massachusetts, United States

Ummm, isn't "about me" part of the point of the blog?

Tuesday, March 04, 2014


One of the most formative periods of my adult thinking was Russian history during my junior year. It was brilliantly taught by a Nazi-era German emigre, who refused the then-current line that all you needed to know about the USSR was found in the Soviet rubric. He showed instead how the behaviours of the Soviet Union mainly formed a natural extension of centuries of Russian thinking.

Evidently, this is still an unpopular point of view in Washington, which is too bad. We could have avoided much of the Ukraine mess by heeding my professor's lessons. In summary, most of what Ukraine has done since 1989, and much of what we have done in support of it, touches Russian where it has been raw for 500 years or more. The only wonder here is that Putin didn't send troops sooner.

Item: Someone in Washington recently called Putin a "narcissistic autocrat." That's perfectly true, and Putin is popular in Russia despite his failings because of it. The country regularly throws up narcissistic autocrats as rulers because they are a perfect reflection of a country which is narcissistic and thoroughly paranoid about all its neighbours, but the West in particular. This viewpoint has been embedded in the culture for over 1000 years, since the days of Kyivan Rus.

Item: That's right, Kyivan Rus. Ukraine isn't some foreign entity swallowed up by Russia Cold War style: it's the original Russia. When its ruling house was conquered by upstarts from Moscow, the upstarts were at pains to assimilate into the older nation, not the other way around. Western initiatives in modern Ukraine cross a hot, red line with Russia. They feel profoundly threatened by nearly every move a tone-deaf US has made in Ukraine since 1989.

Item: Borders in Eastern Europe have long been relatively abstract, and no borders have been more abstract than Ukraine's. It has had the geographic stability of Silly Putty since the Middle Ages, chiefly because it's steppe and swamp: Perfectly flat and defensible only along its rivers, and those too became liabilities when the Vikings showed up. It's hard unless you live there to put a finger on the map and say "this is Russian and this is Ukrainian." It is that, along with the ill-feelings generated in the 20th Century, that makes dividing Ukraine much more difficult than it seems

Item: To understand why Ukraine is independent now, you have to go back to the 1917 Revolution and the expectation of emerging nationalistic groups that they would be able to form their own nation. Soviet Russia didn't see it that way and kept control (especially brutal under Stalin) until the Nazi invasion of 1941. Encouraged by the Nazis, large numbers of Ukrainians sided with the invaders, which Russians elsewhere have never forgotten nor forgiven. Collaboration was nowhere more thorough than among the Crimean Tatars, a Muslim nationality of mixed origin. After peace in 1945, the entire Tatar nation was exiled to Siberia. They have returned to Crimea in large numbers since 1989, and will not welcome Putin's Russians with open arms. Their presence, and Russia's sorry record with other Muslim nationalities, explains to some degree why Putin is walking on eggs in Crimea.

Item:  Ever since the Princes of Moscow began running the show, one standing obsession of Russian foreign policy has been securing of warm-water ports. Although Russia now controls most of the northern coast of the Black Sea east of Crimea, the obsession originally focused on this peninsula, and Russia's naval presence on the Black Sea centres there. It's hard to imagine what possessed Russia to make even the compromises they did with Ukraine over Crimea.

A commentator I heard this morning was astonished by the anti-Western feeling he encountered in his recent trips to Moscow. I'd say that's the rule, not the exception. The West has been dense about this since the days of Peter the Great, and remains dense. Any Western policy that doesn't take this and other Russian sore spots into account is likely either to complicate matters or make them much worse. We'd do better to make a bigger effort to listen to both sides.

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Saturday, March 01, 2014

Lost afternoons and such.

Those who examine the Mankoski pain scale will note that level 10 is simply "unconsciousness." The difficulty with defining something like this is, of course, that one is unconscious. It is not really possible to distinguish between falling into blessed sleep from your meds when you are marching through Mankoski #9, and losing consciousness due to pain. You are out like a light and not taking notes. At any rate, that's what I did with my afternoon.

Either way, you pay for your relief with the notorious pain hangover. For those who haven't been around here before, or experienced it, this is what it says it is. After you have been shaken around like a puppy toy by whatever your chronic pain is, and you fall asleep/pass out, when you wake up you feel exactly like you have a hangover without having had the pleasure (however dubious) of having been drunk. That's what I'm doing with my evening.

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