Archive for September 1st, 2008

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Understanding Russia’s Anniversaries

September 1, 2008

By Jason Vaughn, Guest Contributor

 

Those who know something about Russia know that Russians like to celebrate their military anniversaries with a due level of remembrance and a touch of sadness, not so far removed from their American, French, and British counterparts. For Russians however, these occasions entail a fair amount of drinking and reminiscing about the times of the past that speak of a more glorious and powerful Russia. It is telling when the best Russian vodkas such as “Putinka” are often named for leaders.

 

The biggest of these holidays usually include Victory Day (May 9, celebrating the defeat of Nazi Germany), but also every May Day (May 1, what is now called ‘The Day of Spring and Labor’ to dampen its communist roots), and Russia Day (June 12). Survivors of great Russian victories such as the battles of Kursk, Berlin, and Smolensk gather together  in their own time to talk about who’s still alive, about the Great Patriotic War, and to comment (usually quite negatively) on the current state of Russian affairs.

 

The contemporary, hardened present-day military men—the Russian Colonels and Generals of today—reminisce with an air of resentment; something that might be of interest to outsiders, if they wish to see intimately Russia’s political path since the collapse of communism and where Russia might be going in the future.

 

This year, on October 4 is the 15th anniversary of the shelling of the Russian White House (then the seat of the Russian Parliament) by the army acting under the orders of the then-President Boris Yeltsin. In 1993, Russia was on the brink of chaos and under the threat of civil war. October 4, 1993 marked the culmination of a great crisis for post-Soviet Russia in which the parliament and the President jockeyed for power.

 

The result of that battle for power: the President won. The resulting constitution of Russia, which was installed and ratified by the Russian people in the aftermath of that crisis, is still in force today.

 

However, much like the various holidays related to Afghanistan (December 24 for the Soviet invasion), such an occasion is not publicly remembered today. While those who were involved will remember the storming of the White House in private—some vodka will no doubt be drunk in honor of lives lost in that bloody affair—few in public will mention the day.

 

Another occasion is December 11, which marks the 14th anniversary of the first invasion of Chechnya by Russian forces. From that December of 1994, Russia has fought its way through two Chechen wars, with a nearly four-year pause in between (1996-1999), managing during this period to lose the first one while turning the second into a low-level guerilla movement.

 

For the most part only officers and soldiers who were there come together, usually in their own homes, to talk about their experiences and to complain about the present state of Russia.

 

But, Russia today is much different since those tanks fired on their own parliament building. The Russia of 1993 was in a frightful state, still recovering from the fall of the Soviet Union and the loss of most of its empire, and having experimented with a number of Western-supported economic policies, which failed to improve the living standards of the Russian people in any significant way.

 

Russia is generally more uninhibited these days. The country has been making some significant gains towards regaining the strength of its lost Soviet empire. It is now flying military flights over the Pacific again and it is trying to plant its flag as far north as possible to claim distant possible strategic oil reserves.

 

Looking now at their recently strong military adventure in supporting South Ossetia and Abkhazia in breaking away from Georgia, Russia is again “flying the flag.” While acknowledging that Georgia might have started it, the hardened soldiers of Russia will vow to finish it.

 

Russia, they will say, cannot be surrounded by a foreign military alliance—namely NATO—no matter how “defensive” it may be. Russia can do without friends, looking at the hesitations of China and their other usual allies of the Shanghai Cooperation Agreement. They will be looking back to times of WWII when Russia also felt that they were fighting, and winning, the war alone. Having lost millions of people in that past war, of which was a fight to the death both figuratively and literally—the Soviet Union lost over 20 million people, compared to around 400,000 on the U.S. side—for them the protestations of the West mean nothing.

 

Russia will do what they must do, as the toast will go. Quietly, to the military men—who still reminisce during the anniversaries of Russia’s past glory and the heady days when the ‘Volzhd’ (‘Chief’) Stalin as their great leader—Russia’s rising power is what they have been longing for.

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Russia’s Struggle with Capitalism

September 1, 2008

By Michelle Blanter, Guest Contributor

 

In 1979, the “Central House of Artists” was built in Moscow, Russia. The building housed the Soviet Artist’s Guild, known today as the “International Federation of Artist Unions.” The building is large and gray with sharp angles—edgy and modern for the late 70s and early 80s. It now houses mostly 20th century Russian art and constantly runs exhibits of international modern art.

 

In 2004, the completion of “The Gherkin” in London became one of the most admired architectural projects in the world. The building is modern, energy saving, and stunning. The architect, Lord Norman Robert Foster was awarded his second Stirling Prize for it.

 

Driving through Moscow today, I can’t help but reminisce about the how much the city has changed in the past five to ten years. Moscow is one of the richest cities in the world, has the most billionaires, and is the most expensive—quite the transition from Soviet times when people had to stand in line for hours in the cold only to find out there was no bread left in the store.

 

BMWs, Range Rovers, and Porsche’s are parked everywhere—including the sidewalks—and gas prices are much lower than in Europe—roughly equivalent to U.S. prices. An ad for Rolex stands over the Red Square.

 

Russia is forever looking for a way to incorporate the benefits of western lifestyles without losing sight of the “Russian Soul.” Peter the Great cut Russian beards and brought in western industries but, left the culture of the countryside untouched. Lenin brought Marxism with his own twist. Now, former President Putin seems to have done the same with capitalism and globalization. Moscow may be rich and flashy but the Russian temper is omnipresent and Russian historical sites and culture are celebrated more than ever with a surge in Russian nationalism (it didn’t hurt to beat the Netherlands in the Euro Cup.)

 

But, recent surges in Russian nationalism did not prevent the Mayor of Moscow, Lushkov, from giving lucrative construction contracts to his wife’s company INTEKO. Recently, Russia’s “Central House of Artists,” a building of the twentieth century is now under threat of demolition. Ownership of the building is split between the Tretyakov Gallery—a government owned museum of classical Russian painting—and the “International Federation of Artist Unions.” INTEKO has submitted to replace the building with “Orange,” without even notifying the Director of the “Central House of Artists.”

 

The “Orange,” will be designed by architect Lord Norman Robert Foster and once built will be the largest building in Europe to date. It is going to have condominiums, a hotel, shops, and a small gallery in the center.

 

As I sat in the basement of the “Central House of Artists,” with their attorney she explained to me that there was little they could do if the government decided to take down the building and “oh, that evil capitalism; they are calling this art gallery a barn.”

 

That sums up my experience in Russia: the ever present struggle of Old Russia and New Russia; the Russia that looks to the East and the Russia that looks to the West. The Russia that celebrates capitalism and the one that resents it. The Russia that is nostalgic of the past glory represented in the beautiful artwork of the “Central House of Artists” that may now easily turn into an “Orange.”

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Bosom Friends or Bitter Enemies?

September 1, 2008

By Michelle Blanter, Guest Contributor

 

On the 27 of May, 1944 Latvian born Vassili Makarovich Kononov battled German Collaborators in the Latvian territories of the Soviet Union. The territory was a village known by the name “Mazie Bati.” The Soviet Union annexed Latvia in 1940. And, in 1941, the Soviet Army drafted Kononov, a Latvian citizen—the same year that German forces occupied Latvia. In February 1944 members of the Latvian village “Mazie Bati,” welcomed Red Partisans to hide into the village. While the women of the village assured the Red Partisans that they were safe and kept watch, the men ran to a German Garrison to inform them of the Partisans’ arrival. The Germans arrived and massacred the Partisans including two women and an infant and the villagers received compensation from the Germans for their collaboration in the form of weapons, firewood, sugar, alcohol, and money. Kononov was asked to investigate the incident and to bring those that were responsible to trial. On May 27, 1944, Kononov and his troops searched the homes of the suspected villagers. The soldiers found weapons, and evidence of collaboration with the Nazis against Red Partisans and realized that the villagers were not civilians. Violence broke out.

 

Liberated post-war countries viewed Russia as heroic for fighting off Nazi Germany in the years following World War II. Soviet generals and soldiers received honors for their brave actions in the fight against the German occupiers. Partisans who died on German occupied territories were regarded as martyrs. Kononov himself was decorated with the Order of Lenin, the highest distinction in the Soviet Army.

 

On May 4 1990, Latvia became the Latvian SSR and by 1994, Russia had completely withdrawn from the territories. In 1996, Latvia declared that the Soviet Union had in fact occupied Latvia during the years of World War II. 

 

Kononov went on to become educated and work as a policeman in the Soviet Union. In 1993, a new addition to the Criminal Code by the Latvian Supreme Council criminalized genocide and war crimes. Under these laws, Kononov was tried for the attack on the village “Mazie Bati,” in 1944. The case against Kononov regarded the villagers of “Mazie Bati” as innocent civilians and victims of the Soviet occupation. These trials began in 1998.  Kononov was detained during the trials. He was the only partisan on trial; all others died before 1993.  Fifty four years after the attack on “Mazie Bati” Kononov was tried and found guilty. As a result, he lost freedom, property, and honor. He could not attend the funerals of his son and two brothers.

 

In the context of World War II, the idea of a “war criminal” is significantly broadened. Clean-cut men in suits and soldiers from the “good side,” can just as easily be war criminals as the “bad guys,” who rape and pillage civilians. But, outside of what is broadly reported in the media, a war crimes trial such as this one does not have clearly defined “good” and “bad” sides.

 

On July 24 2008, the imprisonment of Vassili Makarovich Kononov was considered an injustice. How could Kononov be a Soviet Occupier in Latvia if he had Latvian citizenship and was, if anything, a victim of the Soviet Union when he was enlisted in the army? How could his actions—an order carried out from a commanding officer—be seen as war crimes when the people with whom they were fighting were not civilians, but soldiers, armed and fighting for the German army on Soviet territories?

 

With the fall of the Soviet Union came the independence of many nations, now bitter from the years of “forced,” rule. Now, members of the European Union—Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are fighting back, altering laws and criminal codes according to the standards of the newly-independent nations. New laws are invoked in order to bring justice, and cases like the one involving Kononov, become proxies of much larger power struggles between bitter enemies.