Monday, April 11, 2022

What is an Oblast?


An oblast is a region, an administrative division in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. It is roughly equivalent to 'state' in American terms, or 'county' in the UK terms, or 'departement' in French terms. 

It is pronounced with a soft 't' at the end, like in 'tea'. The stress is usually on the 'o'.

What is noticeable since the beginning of the war in Ukraine (NB: not 'the' Ukraine), is that Western media have adopted the local term 'oblast' and not 'region'.

Proof, from the BBC

"Russia suffered a serious defeat around Kyiv and had to pull back. But it has not lost the war, and is grinding out territorial gains in the east and south. Since they left the Kyiv Oblast the damage they have done is clearer than ever."

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Breaking crockery over Russia

 This is a guest post by Miranda Ingram, a well-known English international journalist. While we all watch in shock the events in Ukraine, this is what she has to say addressing the Russians.

To Sasha, my husband, and your Russian friends – our Russian friends…

Not only the best, but almost all the years of my life have been inseparable from my love of Russia, Russians. Russian-ness. 

Those of us who are afflicted call it “the Russian disease”.

I had a mother who talked incessantly about Tolstoy and Solzhenitsyn. About Lenin, even.  When I was a child, she wrote an essay about Vladimir Ilyich for an international competition and won a tour of the Soviet Union. The local papers wrote about it.

Thus my enchantment with everything Russian was a fait accompli even before my first faltering words when I chose Russian as a second language at school.

I soaked up Russian literature through my teens, took my degree in Russian history and politics, visited the country both as a student and, later, for work.

I moved to Russia!

I got to know every inch of Moscow, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, spent weekends at dachas, swimming in rivers, picking mushrooms in the forest, eating new potatoes and dill and sour cream and berries. 

I travelled right across Russia and all over the former Soviet Union.

I married a Russian, for God’s sake. 

I have Russian children. Sasha doesn’t like me to say “half-Russian” – ‘they are both Russian and English’, he says.

Since we left Moscow, I have missed Russia more than he does. He calls me part-Russian.

I was with you in August 1991, outside the White House, watching tracer bullets in the sky and cheering for Yeltsin. I breathed that hope and joy that filled the air. ‘In two years, maybe five at most,’ my future husband promised, ‘Russia will be a normal country’. 

We laughed; it seemed possible.

Of course, the 90s were wild, then along came Putin with a simple deal. He would put sausages into those empty shops and nobody need bother themselves about what was going on in the Kremlin. 

Not rich, by any means, but comfortable, a Russian middle class started to shop at Zara and Ikea, drink Starbucks coffee and watch Netflix on tv.

Just like people all over the world.

A modest professional class also learned to travel, eat oysters, choose French cheeses. Civilised global participants, some of you emigrated - to the States, France, the UK. Some of you stayed. On Facebook, via WhatsApp, in person when possible, you continued to debate politics. 

You were appalled by the death of Politkovskaya. 

You bemoaned curbs on freedom and wrote articles that were just inoffensive enough to slip past the censor.

You admired, or didn’t admire, Pussy Riot and Navalny. 

And now you are in shock. My husband, Sasha, rings Ukrainian friends to apologise even while he can’t take in what is happening. 

He is depressed. He feels it is somehow his fault. 

Don’t be silly, I comforted. It’s not your fault. We watched the news and grieved together.

And then I snapped. You know what – I turned on him – you are right: this is your fault. All of you - you, Andrei, Mikhail, Sergei, Lev, Alexei, Vasily…

Like the sausage-buying masses, you took your eyes off the Kremlin.

How could you? With your history? With your story? 

A few years ago, I wrote a novel set in 1990s Russia in which I despaired that within a couple of years of the defeat of a one-Party state, “ordinary” Russians had already lost interest in politics. 

And among you intellectuals, that post-putsch appetite for opening the files and learning the truth about the past quickly waned. 

Who wanted to rake through all that?

Yet if you don’t know your past, I argued, what was done to you, how you responded –  who you are, in other words – how can you hope to avoid the same mistakes again? Sleepwalking into yet another dictatorship?

This was your job - you, Sasha, and your friends, our friends, I ranted as I smashed crockery and burst into tears.

And you, Sasha, agreed with me, for once. You’re right, you said.

Oh, I don’t blame you New Intelligentsia entirely. I was uneasy with Western boasts of “winning” the cold war. I understood the humiliation of nozhki busha. I was livid at Britain’s spineless response to the Litvinenko murder in the heart of London and Europe’s and the West’s pusillanimous acceptance of Putin’s various annexations.

Nevertheless, I feel cheated. I must be like those true-believing communists who were told in 1991 that what they had believed in all their lives was a cruel joke.

I have loved, admired – romanticised, yes, been frustrated by, of course – Russia nearly all my life. And now those years of belief have been jerked from under me and my hand-woven Russian carpet turns out to be just a moth-eaten doormat.

After a lifetime of extolling the wonder that is Russia – the literature, art, music, science, warmth and that vast, vast nature – I no longer wish to recall my adventures, tell my anecdotes, bring out my photographs and souvenirs, cook Russian food for friends.

Will I be able to love Russia and Russians and Russian-ness again?

And you, does protesting that you “never supported Putin” make your hands feel clean when you introduce yourselves: “I am Russian”?

©M.Ingram 2022 ©publication A.Anichkin

Monday, March 07, 2022

Books to understand Ukraine


The Guardian offers a list of books to understand what is happening in Ukraine. 

'Beyond the fog of war: books to help us understand the invasion of Ukraine' is compiled and annotated by Oliver Bullough, himself a very good writer on Russia/Ukraine (The Last man in Russia, Moneyland and others).

From his list, I've read most and am looking forward to reading the rest. 

In the latter category, Serhii Plohy's history of Ukraine seems the most interesting. I am getting rave reviews and enthusiastic recommendations from my friends in Russia and Ukraine. Andrei Kurkov's 'Death and the Penguin' is a must read, as well as the classic Ukrainian novellas by Nikolai Gogol. 

To Bullough's list I would add Terry Martin's 'The Affirmative Action Empire', an exhaustive, thought-provoking study of the bolsheviks' nationality policy and how it backfired. It includes a well-balanced analysis of Holodomor, the great famine in Ukraine during the collectivisation of individual farms in the late 1920s - early 1930s. 

Another very good summary of the history of Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and Poland and their relationship with the Muscovite Russia is in Norman Davies' 'Vanished Kingdoms. The History of Half-Forgotten Europe'. It contains a long chapter on the Polish-Lithuanian-Russian Commonwealth and its legacy — it only ended in 1795. And of course, there is a chapter on the 'ultimate vanishing act' — the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.  

Here is the Bullough list as published in the Guardian:

1. The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine by Serhii Plokhy

2. Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder

3. Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West by Catherine Belton

4. Sale of the Century: The Inside Story of the Second Russian Revolution by Chrystia Freeland, who worked as a journalist in Moscow and is now deputy prime minister of Canada.

5. Kyiv-born Peter Pomerantsev in Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible,

6. Joshua Yaffa did a fantastic job of exploring how ordinary people navigated the system Putin built in Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition and Compromise in Putin’s Russia.

7. Kleptopia by Tom Burgis.

8. Nikolai Gogol’s short stories. Raised in Ukraine, discovered in Russia, adored in both, Gogol conjures up the absurdity of life under autocracy better than anyone.

9. Andrey Kurkov’s Death and the Penguin

©Alexander Anichkin/Tetradki 2022

Friday, February 25, 2022

Ukraine. The war and the history.

This is from my column written at the end of 2013, when the events were rolling up and eventually lead to the curent crisiss. 

[Ukrainian President] Viktor Yanukovych's refusal [2013] to sign an association with the EU under the Eastern Partnership programme is spoken of as a "victory" for Russia. Of course, it was a victory. Only a victory with an unpleasant aftertaste. Because the “victory” of one is the defeat of the other.

Here in Europe, both French and English commentators agree: Ukraine's retreat is a Moscow's victory. True, they also talk about “strategic patience”. As they say, 'the process is still going on'.

Why is the Eastern Partnership, proposed by the Polish Foreign Minister Sikorski, causing such rejection in Moscow? In addition to today's considerations, there is also an old, deep-seated one.

"Poland" and "Lithuania" — Польша, Литва — in the Russian mass consciousness, have long acquired a mythical meaning, the image of the enemy on the western borders. But where is this from? 

Well, yes, for Mayakovsky, in 1920s, Poland was “geographical news”. There was also the Livonian War, Gogol's Taras Bulba fighting with the Poles, then the partitions of Poland and the “Polish question” that remained after all that. The older, statist Pushkin wrote a poem 'To the Slanderers of Russia' about the suppression of the uprising of the Poles against the Russian empire. To the critics in France he said: do not interfere, this is our internal, Slavic family business.

At home, we are accustomed to one reading of our history — the Moscow reading, without even noticing it. There was a Kievan Rus, then the feudal fragmentation, then the Moscow principality began to “collect lands” and so on up to the empire and the USSR. 

One long Summer evening I was talking about modern politics with an old school friend, who by that time had gone into big politics. The chatter turned to history. 

My friend suddenly asked: Where did Ukraine and Belarus come from? There's nothing in our history?We had Kievan Rus, then the feudal fragmentation, the principalities... Then, suddenly, in a leap, Moscow “gathers” Russian lands, fights with Lithuania and Poland. And between that, what? 

Where were Ukraine and Belarus?

But it was not only Moscow that 'collected' Russian lands. And the 'Russian lands' in question didn’t always want to “get collected”. 

“Lithuania”, for example, was not the one state that is now [2013] holding the summit. The old 'Litva', or Lithuania was multinational, multi-confessional, with Orthodox, Catholics, Muslims left over from the Tartar-Mongol “yoke”, and Jews, who fled to Lithuania from persecution in Western Europe, engulfed in religious wars. The state was fully called the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Rusian (with one s) and Zhomoytsky. 

The state stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea. In addition to Lithuania, it included modern Belarus, part of modern Ukraine, Russia and Moldova. The state (administrative) language in the principality was Russian, more precisely Western Russian (or Old Belarusian). All office work was carried out in it, all legal documents were written in Russian and the early printer Francis Skoryna (Francysk Skaryna) put this on the cover of the Bible he printed — "Библия руска" - “The Russian Bible”. 

Later on Lithuania united with Poland in what was to be called the Confederation or the Commonwealth. The name is a reverse translation into the languages ​​of the state of the time of the expression 'res publica' — a common cause, a republic. Later, in our time, historians agreed to call that polity the Commonwealth. However, in the Russian mythological consciousness, the enemy remained as "Poland".

From Muscovite Russia, which built the state on the principles of the 'vertical of power', the Western Russian Commonwealth was different in that it had an elected head of state (the king was elected), a parliament, an autonomy of city self-government and a religious tolerance. The Commonwealth ceased to exist only in 1795, with the 'third partition of Poland'.

You say, it was a long time ago! And a lot of things happened since, and now we have completely different interests at work. But no, isn't a commonwealth, an alliance of friends, more attractive than an empire? 

The drift of Eastern European countries towards the commonwealth, even if it is now the European Union, is also a drift away from the empires. The ghost of “Lithuania” wanders around Europe, it still attracts.

It is difficult to part with an empire, especially the one in our mind. This one battle with Kiev can be won, but will the European drift stop there?

Vladimir Putin once remarked that England would never part with her Empire. And the recent “non-statement” by Dmitry Peskov about England as a “small island” completely stung the British. The Prime Minister delivered a fiery speech in defence of the English heritage, including even the fact that all sports were invented by the British. The country laughed, people compared it with the speech of Prime Minister Hugh Grant in the film 'Love, Actually', also about heritage, from Shakespeare to Harry Potter and Beckham's left foot.

So the empire was not just dismantled, but moved on to the Commonwealth of Nations, now even without the "British". Fifty-three states, both large and small. Moreover, even some of those who were not colonies of the British Empire had asked to join and were included, eg the former Portuguese Mozambique and the former Belgian Rwanda. One can underestimate the influence of this community, one can overestimate iIn Russia, hardly anyone follows it closely. But there is an influence, and a membership in the "family of peoples" is valued. 

The attraction remains. Apartheid in South Africa collapsed not least because the country was put outside the Commonwealth. In Pakistan, democratic change was stimulated by the fact that the Commonwealth expelled the country for a military coup. Thatcher fell out with Reagan when the Imperial US invaded the little Grenada in 1983 because it suddenly decide to have a communist government. After the event, Thatcher refused to talk to Reagan at all for a long time. They almost ruined the Russian perestroika! And take India, the former "pearl in the British crown", it remains the biggest democracy in the world.

In terms of economics, it has been estimated that, on average, one Commonwealth member trades with another 50 percent more than with a non-member country. Yes, and in Britain itself there is a movement to develop and strengthen the Commonwealth instead of EU membership.

The Soviet Commonwealth, the CIS, has stayed as a leftover of the Soviet empire. Perhaps, it it were less of an empire and more of a commonwealth, there would be no need to win “battles”. Talk, don't fight.

This column was also published in my blog "Like in Europe" on the portal. Texts may vary. 

Thursday, September 23, 2021

When two generals meet

Gen Mark Milley and Gen Valery Gerasimov, 
Helsinki, 22 September 2021,
Photo: Master Sergeant Chuck Burden,

As the Chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States Gen. Mark Milley and Chief of the General Staff of the RF Armed Forces Gen. Valery Gerasimov held lengthy negotiations in Helsinki on Wednesday 22 September all eyes were on their tunics.

It is believed that the main agenda was the likely resumption of the US military presence in the countries of Central Asia, the former Soviet republics.

But of course, the generals had more to talk about.

Gerasimov in the West is considered to be the author of the doctrine of hybrid war, and the meeting itself coincided with the British authorities' announcement of identifying "the third man", an employee of the GRU of the General Staff of the Russian Federation, who allegedly led the operation at the Salisbury spire. (GRU — Main Intelligence Department, the Russian military intelligence)

And note: the American general showed up in a single-breasted tunic! As opposed to the proper double-breasted tunic of Gen.Gerasimov. 

In the West, you may not be aware of the reference. Yet, as every Russian knows, you don't fight a war in a single-breasted suit, not in our days. It follows from the film 'That Very Munchausen' ("Тот самый Мюнхаузен", 1979), a witty paraphrase on the stories of the great Baron, written by Gregory Gorin and produced and directed by Mark Zakharov.

In this scene the actor Leonid Bronevoy gets all excited by the prospect of a war with England that the Baron declared in support of the American colonies. 

However, the chief is more worried about the uniforms than the logistics. Shall we fight it in single-breasted or double-breasted uniforms? What an affront! Nobody fights a war in a single-breasted tunic, not in our time! 

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Russian Kontakion at Prince Philip's funeral


Russian Orthodox Kontakion sung at Prince Philip's funeral yesterday: 

Give rest, O Christ, to thy servant with thy saints:
where sorrow and pain are no more;
neither sighing but life everlasting.

In Church Slavonic (Russian):

Со святыми упокой, Христе, души раб Твоих, 
идеже несть болезнь, ни печаль, ни воздыхание, 
но жизнь безконечная.

Thursday, February 06, 2020

Falling out over Pushkin.

The Onegin Live site offers a free download of Pushkin's 'Eugene Onegin' read by Stephen Fry. But there is also a brief historical bibliography of over forty translations of the great Russian novel in verse. 

Much of it would be known to those who have an interest in Pushkin, but still I found this snippet thoroughly enjoyable. Nabokov and Edmund Wilson falling out over whose translation is best:

In 1963, Walter Arndt published a verse translation of Eugene Onegin preserving the rhyme schemes and metrical structure of Pushkin’s text. Vladimir Nabokov reviewed Arndt’s work in an essay entitled “On Translating Pushkin Pounding the Clavichord” that was published in The New York Review of Books. Nabokov furiously criticised Arndt’s translation; according to him, the attempt to preserve the original iambic tetrameter resulted in Arndt’s defacing Pushkin’s spirit and the literal meaning of the novel. Arndt replied with a letter “Goading the pony” that was followed by an article “The strange case of Pushkin and Nabokov” by Edmund Wilson, a critic who rose to Arndt’s defence and thus ruptured his close friendship with Nabokov.

In this clip Nabokov reads Pushkin's testament 'Exegi Monumentum' (1836) -

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