My letter to the Observer:

Dear the Observer and David Mitchell,

Just read Mr. Mitchell’s article about the controversy over the Hitler wax-figure in Madame Tussaud museum.

Recently, two Israeli tourists filed a complaint with Madame Tussaud’s after observing youngsters taking pictures with the Hitler figure, “heil-Hitlering and doing moustache with the other hand.”

The picture taken by Israeli Tourists

David Mitchell doubted “just for a moment” the sincerity of the couple’s complaint. Regarding their argument that such an engagement with the wax-figurine is “unequivocal demonstration of antisemitism and bigotry” he “just doesn’t think that’s true.”

Mitchell believes that the “heil-Hitlering and doing moustache” is a joke, and does not deserve a serious response.  “When you ban something like this, you only dignify it with significance,” he writes. » click to continue reading

Title: Putin nominated "person of the year" by Time Magazine in 2007 = appreciation of things he've done. Subtitle: the new Russian Tsar = clearly suggests "Russian Special Way".

So basically it boils down to this:

On the one hand we should see Russia as part of larger European and international context; abolish the divisions into first, second and third worlds; and eschew explanations arguing for “Russian exceptionality”.

On the other hand, we are to avoid European/American Centric interpretation and see things as they were perceived in Russia: its notions of ideology, power, diplomacy, security, democracy, etc.

But if we assume that Russian culture has its own particular understanding of, say, ideology, aren’t we in essence arguing that there is a “Russian special way”?



My Perestroika (Hessman, 2010)

My Perestroika (Hessman, 2010)

This week a British friend and I went to see My Perestroika, a lovely documentary by an American film-maker about how four classmates were affected by the changes in Russia from Brezhnev to Putin.

The film weaves together contemporary interviews, archival footage and one family’s archive of home videos – all these elements come together to tell a gentle and instructive story of how the relationship between personal life and public events. While all the heroes started at the same class, the life has thrown them in different directions. Borya and Luyba are history teachers at Moscow’s most liberal and high profile public school. Andrey became a successful businessman. Ruslan initiated the Soviet heavy metal scene, but grew disenchanted and now leads life on the fringes of the society. Olga fends for herself and her son by working for a gaming-service company. One of the greatest achievements of Robin Hessman, who filmed and directed, is in managing to establish a feeling of intimacy between the protagonists and the viewers. When the lights turn back on you feel that you know them, and like them.

The film was absolutely fascinating, although the story it tells is a slightly one-sided. Despite the different walks of life all the protagonists experienced the Perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet Union as a positive thing. What the film doesn’t tell is, the story of those, for whom the transformation from “developed socialism” to Perestroika and then to capitalism, resulted in personal tragedy or loss of faith and direction in life.

Equally interesting was the Q&A after the film. Most of the audience seemed your perfect, middle aged and middle class English men and women. And yet, each of the people to ask a question, talked with great passion, as if having a very personal stake in this country so far from their own. An elderly lady got up, saying she volunteered in Russia for several years and accused the director for not exploring what she called the “rising Russian conservatism and the rise in patriotism under Putin”. (As if Russians are not entitled to some patriotism and as if everyone else around is doing such a great job questioning their own disturbing legacies. Are there any monuments for the victims of British colonial empire that I failed to notice ?) » click to continue reading

This week a Russian spy ring was exposed by the FBI after many years of investigation. On Monday they were brought before a court in New York, accused of “failure to register as agents of a foreign government” – an offence that could put them in jail for 5 to 9 years. Is the Cold War back?

According to the FBI the purpose of the agents was to “gather information on nuclear weapons, American policy toward Iran, C.I.A. leadership, Congressional politics and many other topics”. They were also supposed to “penetrate” the ruling circles at Washington DC., hang out with nuclear scientists and recruit other agents.

Spy stories are the most fun and the most exciting legacy of the Cold War. Not many people today are willing to contemplate the meanings and the dangers of worldwide doomsday arsenal (if it is held by “responsible Western” countries and not NC or Iran). But who wouldn’t watch James Bond or some other “undercover agent” stuff?

Cold War espionage was indeed wide spread, and lets remember, exercised by BOTH Russia and the US. Post-Cold War memoirs by agents retired and agents deflected only fed more fuel into the already thriving spy folklore. Often left outside of our popular memory is that the spy-searching also ruined people’ lives, cost them their livelihoods, made them outcasts within their own communities – and even cost lives. Quite often it later transpired that these were false accusation. But hey, better safe than sorry, right?

The spy story is on “the most popular” list of most newspapers. No real damage was done, so it seems, so why not enjoy ourselves a bit? But it seems to me that in this excitement rush into the new real-life spy thriller, even the best media, like the Guardian or the NYT, are forgetting to ask some important questions. It will be up to the FBI to prove their case in court. Here, I just want to raise some (hopefully) reasonable doubts.

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A Lovely Day for a Trip to the Graveyard

June 21, 2010

There is a peculiar brand of Russian tourism – visiting cemeteries. First, there is the most important grave of the most important Soviet dead – the Lenin mausoleum. Second, right behind him, there is the Necropolis under the Kremlin wall – the entire length of the wall facing the Red Square is the burial site [...]

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How Cultural Boycotts Undermine the Peace Process

June 13, 2010

In recent years we see the rise of the trend to boycott the Israeli academia and to cancel cultural performances in Israel. According to Wikipedia, such boycotts were inspired by the boycotts against the South Africa, in an attempt to pressure it to end the policies of Apartheid. Following the recent Israeli attack on the [...]

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Victory Day

May 29, 2010

It happens again. I am sitting on a couch and watching the Victory Day parade on the television. May 9th is the day when Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War (or WWII) has been commemorated since 1945. Everything is almost similar to the last I watched it as a Soviet child. Only that this [...]

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The Internal Colony

May 28, 2010

Went with Zohar to  a screening of The Time that Remains, by Elia Suleiman. The film narrates a story of one family from the Nakba – the Palestinian name for the establishment of Israel in 1948 – to the present. This is not your typical “Arab-Israeli Conflict” film. It focuses on poetics and aesthetics, the [...]

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