Roving thoughts and provocations

Russia’s Dying: A Postscript

Masha Gessen

Associated Press

Over at Forbes, Mark Adomanis claims to have found eight errors in my piece on Michelle Parsons’ and Nicholas Eberstadt’s books on Russian demographics. I can go on and detail all the cherry-picking and misinterpretations in Adomanis’s piece, but the careful reader can easily do that herself. So I’ll concentrate on the substance of his criticism.

From China to Jihad?

Richard Bernstein

Stringer/China/Reuters/Corbis

Among the many stories concerning foreigners setting out to fight in Syria, the allegations about Chinese Uighurs arrested in Thailand—many of them women and children—stand out. They have triggered a quiet tug of war between China, which is pressuring Thailand to send them back, and the West, which has argued that deporting them would expose them to savage mistreatment.

Into the Trenches in Red and Blue

Adam Hochschild

Jules Gervais-Courtellemont/Taschen

Because of the photography of their day, we tend to think of the world wars in black and white. Peter Walther’s The First World War in Colour feels like looking at a familiar scene through a different pair of eyeglasses. The first thing that stuns you is the brilliant colors of the uniforms. The French army of 1914 was the most snappily dressed in Europe.

Ukraine: A Catastrophic Defeat

Tim Judah

Sergei Grits/AP Photo

The scale of the devastation suffered by Ukrainian forces in southeastern Ukraine has to be seen to be believed. On a sixteen-mile stretch of road from the village of Novokaterinivka to the town of Ilovaysk, I counted the remains of sixty-eight vehicles, in which a large but as yet unknown number of Ukrainian soldiers died trying to flee the area.

The Dying Russians

Masha Gessen

Gueorgui Pinkhassov/Magnum Photos

Sometime in 1993, after several trips to Russia, I noticed something bizarre and disturbing: people kept dying. I was used to losing friends to AIDS in the United States, but this was different. People in Russia were dying suddenly and violently, and their own friends and colleagues did not find these deaths shocking. Upon arriving in Moscow I called a friend with whom I had become close over the course of a year. “Vadim is no more,” said his father, who picked up the phone. “He drowned.” I showed up for a meeting with a newspaper reporter to have the receptionist say, “But he is dead, don’t you know?” I didn’t. I’d seen the man a week earlier; he was thirty and apparently healthy. The receptionist seemed to think I was being dense. “A helicopter accident,” she finally said, in a tone that seemed to indicate I had no business being surprised.

A Granite State Miracle

Charles Simic

Cecil Aldin

In 1973, when I moved to New Hampshire, wines were available only in state liquor stores in selections so limited and of such mediocre quality that someone like me, coming from California and accustomed to an immense variety of wines available everywhere, had a reason to panic. To remedy the situation, I and a couple of friends who shared my love of wines used to make monthly trips to Boston and Cambridge to diversify and replenish our supply. We did this for years, until the state loosened the regulations. What became obvious over the years is not just the increase in quantity, but the improved quality of the wines that are being drunk. Since I associate wine with good life and civilization, knowing that everyone from the old Greek and Romans to our Founding Fathers drank it too, Benjamin Franklin even claiming that wine is a proof that God loves us, I find this to be a most felicitous development.

The Genocide That Wasn’t

Stéphanie Giry

Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP/Getty Images

August 7 was supposed to be judgment day for the last two leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime. Thirty-five years after the end of Pol Pot’s calamitous agrarian revolution, a United Nations-backed court in Phnom Penh found the movement’s chief ideologue Nuon Chea and the former president Khieu Samphan guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced them to life in prison. But neither Nuon Chea nor Khieu Samphan was convicted of genocide on August 7. And the tribunal will never even consider that charge in connection with the vast majority of the Khmer Rouge’s victims, the Khmer people, who make up 90 percent of the Cambodian population today. Even Cambodians who were relieved by the guilty verdicts were left feeling baffled, even betrayed, by the court’s handling of the genocide charge.

What Only Soldiers Understand

Christopher de Bellaigue

Outpost Films

Sebastian Junger’s new documentary Korengal follows the same soldiers over the same fifteen-month tour of duty in Afghanistan as his acclaimed 2010 film Restrepo, but it cannot be considered its sequel; it might be misleading even to call it a war film. Korengal‘s subjects are youth and male friendship, and it deals in a peculiarly profound way with the unsettling sense that a young warrior experiences, after fighting alongside his brothers-in-arms, that he knows all the joy and agony that life can offer.

Conversations with the Dead

Alberto Manguel

Oskar Reinhart Collection, Winterthur, Switzerland

Reading has always been for me a sort of practical cartography. Like other readers, I have an absolute trust in the capability that reading has to map my world. I know that on a page somewhere on my shelves, staring down at me now, is the question I’m struggling with today, put into words long ago, perhaps, by someone who could not have known of my existence. The relationship between a reader and a book is one that eliminates the barriers of time and space and allows for what Francisco de Quevedo, in the sixteenth century, called “conversations with the dead.” In those conversations I’m revealed. They shape me and lend me a certain magical power.