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Author: edgeofthesandbox

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The announcement of passing of Uzbekistan's veteran dictator Islam Karimov came as surprise to no one in the Russian-speaking world.  The rumors of his death, following a stroke that his younger daughter announced on her Instagram account, had been circulating for days when, in a situation similar to a true Soviet leader's demise:
The Uzbek government did not confirm the reports at first but played funeral music on state channels. [Put yourself in their shoes: How does one break the news like that to the population?] Later on Friday the government eventually released a statement saying the 78-year-old president had died.
Soviet leaders' state of health was never discussed in press, death announcements -- delayed. Western Kremlinologists and ordinary Russians alike had to crack their heads to figure out what was going on. The lack of transparency gives an edge to the strongmen: Recall the Vladimir Putin's pointed disappearance last March prompting speculations of the Russian president's death.  If Putin was only playing with our heads, Karimov was for real.

When Bernie Sanders honeymooned in the Soviet Union in 1988, Andrei Sakharov had already been released from internal exile, Refusniks were allowed to leave the country, the press were discussing the legacy of Stalinism and the state was allowing elements of the free market to take hold. The country was in the midst of perestroika, which generated excitement both in the Soviet Union and abroad. Many foreigners came to visit, among them my future brother-in-law, (more about that later) and we were clamoring to meet them, Americans especially.  And sure, it was still the Soviet Union and the GULAGS were still functioning, but without a doubt, things were going in the right direction.  I don't fault the then-Burlington mayor for visiting USSR, it's his ego, his intent and his conclusions that I find problematic. Sanders took his new bride on a trip to Yaroslavl, a historic city on the Golden Ring of Russia, a region known for the quiet exotic charm of onion-domed churches and ornate wooden cottages.  Avert your eyes from the glib Soviet projects --and you got yourself a perfect backdrop for a radical chic honeymoon circa 1988. Bernie played up the radical chic aspect in his book boasting of "a very strange honeymoon". Strange it was because, lets face it, not all  newlyweds surround themselves with an entourage of 10, hob-nob with provincial nomenclatura and tour Lenin's tomb.

Funny: conservative commentator Monica Crowley recently called Bernie Sanders Lenin of Brooklyn. I don't think Bernie has Lenin's cunning and brutality.  Vladimir Lenin managed to seize the day in 1917, leading his extreme minority party to overthrow the very tenuous government of the largest country on Earth and then held on to the power, consolidating the majority of the crumbling empire. Clown-haired Bernie doesn't leave an impression of an individual capable of such feat. The way I see Sanders, the reason I think he's popular among the college campuses or those under 30 in general, is very similar to the reasons why Ralph Nader was popular sixteen years ago.  Both men leave a similar impression on the impressionable.  They're very much alike in appearance: Nader, like Sanders, had rather imperfect hair; his suits were ill-fitted, his face -- asymmetrical.  This was all part of his appeal.  Although Nader received loads of favorable attention from the media, his imperfections lent him an aura of authenticity. After eight years of Clinton, a candidate who didn't seem overly media-produced was refreshing.

On Holocaust Remembrance Day, we revisit the story of Anatoly Shapiro. Major Anatoly Shapiro was a Jewish officer in the Red Army who led his troupes to liberate Auschwitz concentration camp on January 27, 1945.  He enlisted in the Red Army at the onset of Operation Barbarossa in 1941, was wounded in Kursk in 1943, but it's what he saw 71 years ago at Auschwitz that left the most indelible mark. Shapiro recalled additional details of the day of the liberation in this remarkable interview given shortly before his death in 2005 at the age of 94 to an Israeli radio host Tovia Singer.  This was during the second intifada, and Shapiro spoke to that too:

Warning: Spoilers I can't call myself an aficionado of action flicks, so I'm not sure where where 13 Hours falls within that genre.  I did find the movie intense, the lead parts were masterfully played and it offered plenty of food for thought. It might be red meat for the conservative base, but in terms of pure propaganda value, in terms of effect on those who don't study politics closely, 13 Hours falls short. The movie follows six veterans, now contractors, providing security for the CIA outpost in war-torn, terrorist-infested Libyan town of Benghazi.  On one hand we have bravery, camaraderie and leadership of men like Jack Silva and Tyrone Woods, played by John Krasinski and James Badge Dale respectively, and on the other --stupidity and indifference bordering on betrayal everywhere they turn.  The American team was abandoned by the key local allies, denied adequate resources by its own country and when they needed rescue, help was too slow to come -- you know the story.

In late December last year East Bay Area regulated utility EBMUD released a list of "water guzzlers", a naming and shaming strategy the utility adopted in response to the drought that hit the state during the last couple of years. The local media had a ball with the release, publishing names of offenders and aerial pictures of their property.  Names of celebrity "water guzzlers" graced the headlines.  Although they obviously tried their best, Bay Area journos are yet to perfect the art of naming and shaming. In the Soviet Union such a list would be accompanied by an expose of how it was really the water criminal Kristi Yamaguchi, not as previously thought Tonya Harding, who plotted to break Nancy Kerrigan's leg.  Seriously, though, one must feel powerless to engage in this kind of behavior. A few days later I drove to Los Angeles and was relieved to see that somebody in California has a different approach to water crisis.

If, dear reader, you are wondering how easy it is to lie to the United States immigration officials, you are not wondering alone. A little over 25 years ago I, along with other Soviet Jews, were going through the immigration process wondering out loud about how easy it would be to deceive our future homeland. That wasn't our main concern, however.  Our main concern was the politics surrounding admission of refugees from the USSR because we knew that ultimately the question of us coming to America was a political one -- just as it is today. We were interviewed abroad, in Italy, and the interview consisted mainly of personal questions, related to political views and religious issues. [caption id="attachment_153649" align="alignnone" width="500"] [Soviet Jews arriving at Vienna train station][/caption]Our scaredy grannies on blood pressure meds feared the day of the embassy trip; no doubt contemporary college students would find it "triggering". Seniors laughed and cried and then cried again when asked "Did you ever work for or associate with (either directly or indirectly) with the Nazi government of Germany?"

1. Federalization

In Ukraine, parties on the losing end of the electoral process take turns demanding federalization or even secession. The idea's been floating around for years; The Svoboda party, formerly known as the Social Nationalist Party of Ukraine, includes decentralization in their official platform.  After Viktor Yanukovich, whose power base is located in Ukraine's Russian- speaking south-west won presidential elections in 2008, the Svoboda stronghold of Galicia was talking secession.  Their head, Oleh Tyahnybok, is currently against federalization, however:
Regarding the idea of federalization, this structure suits Russia, where in some regions ethnic minorities make up a majority of the population such as Tatarstan, Kalmykia, Ingushetia, Buryatia and others. The idea of Ukrainian federalization is nothing more than another underhanded attempt to weaken Ukrainian statehood and subordinate Ukraine to Putin's geopolitical ambitions.
That Ukraine is a homogeneous society would be news to people mildly familiar with the country. The current push for federalization is spearheaded by, among others, Ukrainian Communists as well as Vladimir Putin, who, while massing his troops on Ukraine's border, continues the talk of extending self-rule of Ukraine's regions, something that Russia does not allow.  Federalization is a frequent demand of separatists in the south-east. Mikhail Dobkin, the former Kharkiv mayor and gubernatorial appointee of the deposed Yanukovich, is running for president on the platform of federalization. Dobkin, however, is not a serious candidate because a) his Party of Regions is all but dead; b) he's a bona fide Jew in a country where politicians go out of their way to hide their Jewish roots and c) he doesn't appear to have support outside of Kharkiv. [caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="529"] [Ukrainian GDP by region. Dnipropetrovsk governor and second richest person in the country Ihor Kolomoisky had formed his own security force in the wake of Maidan's victory][/caption]To be sure,  federalization is not a popular idea, and Ukrainians view centralized government as the perfect expression of the nation-state. And yet it continues to be tossed around by all sorts of politicians, among them the mayor of the western-most city of Lviv, Andriy Sadovy.  Proponents of federalization include high profile Western figures, most notably, Nobel Prize Laureate in Economics Roger Meyerson.

The United States is not Ukraine, so, I hope, we don't find ourselves living in interesting times. 1.  Somewhat educated young people with no opportunities are a revolutionary class.  Between 1990 and 2006, as Ukraine's population declined, the number of students entering colleges shot up an unbelievable 60%.  According to another source, " The number of students enrolled in Ukrainian universities grew from 1.5 million in 2001, to 2.5 million in 2009-2011."  Towards the end of this period the student population consisted primarily of those born in the 1990's when fertility went through the floor. At the same time, the quality of education continued to decline.  Ukrainian universities are not highly ranked, and that grades and diplomas are bought and sold is an open secret.  In 2006, 32% of recent college graduates were unemployed.  Overall youth unemployment (ages 15-24) is 18.6%.  That the students and young people in general and are very active in protests is not surprising, but it helps to know their circumstances. [caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="450"] (Ever wonder why Ukrainian women are so eager to bare their chests for the joy of media outlets across the world? Femen protest against sexual harassment in universities.)[/caption]

I generally dislike Olympic ceremonies because, staged on immense stadiums with numerous extras, they lend themselves easily to a totalitarian aesthetic.  The 1980 Olympic opening ceremony in Moscow was an exercise in totalitarianism: pyramids of humans erected on the stadium, extras marching lockstep, etc.  Likewise, the 2008 Beijing Olympics showcased loyal subjects moving around on cue. Russians learned their lessons and sought to wow foreigners in Sochi through high art and high tech.  Producer Andrei Boltenko was faced with the uneasy task of presenting the authoritarian extravaganza that is Russian history in some kind of truthful but positive light, and he did it through celebrating culture, not politics.  Cue the cuckoo clock speech. Russians opened up the program with a walk through the Cyrillic alphabet that highlighted Russia's contributions to civilization.  A quaint idea that a bunch of white men (save for Pushkin, and Russians don't dwell too much on him being part black), most of them dead, did something worth treasuring. I thought the list of great Russians was a bit heavy on emigres: Nabokov, Chagall, Kandinsky.  I'm not sure Kandinsky belongs to that short list anyway -- personal opinion, I know.  Considering that Russia nurtured so many chess champions, maybe the producers could had Kasparov stand for the letter K.  OK, never mind. In the best Soviet tradition, Russians couldn't help exaggerating.  For letter T, for instance, they had "television".  While the word is Russian in origin, Russians (and Russian emigres) only invented some of the technology that went into it.