Roving thoughts and provocations

The Kremlin’s Chechen Dragon

Amy Knight

yuga.ru

In the summer of 2004, two years and four months before she was gunned down in the entrance to her Moscow apartment, Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya made a bold visit to Chechnya to interview 27-year-old Ramzan Kadyrov, who had recently become (with the Kremlin’s blessing) the republic’s de-facto leader. It proved to be a harrowing experience. When they met face to face, Kadyrov could not contain his rage at Politkovskaya for reporting on his brutal rise to power, even threatening to have her shot. Politkovskaya concluded later that “a little dragon has been raised by the Kremlin. Now they need to feed it. Otherwise it will spit fire.”

Springtime for Stalin

Timothy Snyder

Sergei Supinsky/Getty

Three and a half months after a Ukrainian court convicted Stalin of genocide against the Ukrainian nation during the famine of 1932–1933, a new monument in honor of the Soviet dictator has been erected in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhia. Separating the two events was this year’s Ukrainian presidential election, in which Viktor Yushchenko, who had pursued a radically anti-Stalinist memory policy, was defeated and replaced by Viktor Yanukovych, who promised to avoid extremes and unite the nation. Though Yanukovych would prefer to steer clear of such ostentatious nostalgia for Stalin, he is responsible for a remarkable change in mood.

Talking About Tibet: An Open Dialogue Between Chinese Citizens and the Dalai Lama

Perry Link

Jason DeCrow/AP Photo

Following is an English translation of an Internet dialogue between the Dalai Lama and Chinese citizens that took place on May 21. The exchange was organized by Wang Lixiong, a Chinese intellectual known for his writing on Tibet and for theorizing about how China might generate its own kind of democracy in the Internet age.

The idea of promoting “free dialogue” on the Web between the Dalai Lama and Chinese citizens is an extremely bold notion. To China’s rulers, nearly every word in the phrase “free dialogue with the Dalai Lama” is anathema. The Dalai Lama, in their language, is a traitor, a “splittist,” an “enemy of the people,” a “monster,” a “wolf in monk’s robes.” The word “dialogue” has not fared well in Chinese Communist history, either. It is what student protesters were asking for in spring 1989 just before tanks and machine guns settled the question by massacre.

From Venice to Vegas: The Back Stories of Buildings

Martin Filler

Wikimedia Commons

Every so often, writers outside the architectural profession publish works on the building art that capture the public imagination and make the best-seller lists, most lamentably Tom Wolfe’s wildly misinformed fantasia on early Modernism, From Bauhaus to Our House (1981). Far more benign was Tracy Kidder’s House (1985), a numbingly detailed report on the creation of an architect-designed dwelling for a Massachusetts family. More recently, the architect and educator Witold Rybczynski has mastered the art of explaining the commonplaces and arcana of the architectural process and its products in several books commendable for their lucidity and even-handedness. Now they are joined by Edward Hollis, a British architect and preservationist whose new book, The Secret Lives of Buildings: From the Ruins of the Parthenon to the Vegas Strip in Thirteen Stories, offers an advanced seminar for graduates of Rybczynski’s introductory courses. Hollis, who teaches at the Edinburgh College of Art, stands apart from other popular writers on the building art in his acknowledgement that architecture is anything but the immutable medium most people suppose it to be.

Dan Chiasson on Lydia Davis

Podcast

chiasson_1-042910.jpg
Dan Chiasson reads from The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, which he reviewed in the April 29, 2010 issue of The New York Review, and talks to Gabriel Winslow-Yost about accidental greatness, lonely translators, and reading at stoplights.

Strangers on a Train

Charles Simic

Baker Street
Sergio Larrain/Magnum

Everyone who walks the busy streets of a city takes imaginary snapshots. For all I know, my face glimpsed in a crowd years ago may live on in someone’s memory the same way that the face of some stranger lives on in mine. Of course, out of the hundreds of people we may happen to see in a day, we become fully aware of only a select few, and often not even that many if we have too much on our minds. Then it happens.

All the poets who loved colorful street life, starting with Whitman and Baudelaire, knew that the unforeseen was one of the inherent qualities of the beautiful. We come face to face with someone, or we catch a peek at them from the corner of our eye and the camera in our heads clicks, suspending the image. Here is a tall, well-dressed young woman with a look of utter despair in her eyes and an incongruous smile on her lips. In the next instant, she’s gone and we forget her as we busy ourselves with other things, except she may reappear later that day to haunt us, or in a month, or even years after, like some snapshot we found in the shoebox in the attic that we can’t stop looking at because we no longer remember who that person in it was or when or where it was taken.

Father Maciel, John Paul II, and the Vatican Sex Crisis

Alma Guillermoprieto

Pope John Paul II blesses Father Marcial Maciel, November 2004
AP

Of all the terrible sexual scandals the hierarchs in the Vatican find themselves tangled in, none is likely to do as much institutional damage as the astounding and still unfolding story of the Mexican priest Marcial Maciel. The crimes committed against children by other priests and bishops may provoke rage, but they also make one want to look away. With Father Maciel, on the other hand, one can hardly tear oneself from the ghastly drama as it unfolds, page by page, revelation by revelation, in the Mexican press.

The Times Square Bomber: Homegrown Hatred?

Ahmed Rashid

Pakistani demonstrators
Banaras Khanb/AFP/Getty Images

The Pakistani media is in a state of apoplexy about the would-be Times Square bomber, the Pakistani-born US citizen Faisal Shahzad. Predictably a great many commentators in the press and on the non-stop talk shows that run on over 25 TV news channels have discussed whether it was a CIA plot to embarrass Pakistan or provide an excuse for American troops to invade us: Was Shahzad an Indian or Israeli agent? And in any case, why should Washington hold Pakistan responsible, since he was an American citizen?

Not surprisingly, the Zardari government, the army, and Pakistani politicians have also muddied the waters. Although the government has said it will fully cooperate with US investigators seeking to find out which extremist groups trained Shahzad and where, Islamabad continues to fudge the paramount issue—the need for Pakistan to launch a comprehensive campaign against all extremist groups rather than the hit-and-miss anti-terrorism measures it is presently pursuing. That selective campaign leaves untouched the Afghan Taliban based in Pakistan—including Mullah Omar and other top leaders—who are not killing Pakistanis but are organizing attacks against US troops in Afghanistan; it also has ignored the Punjabi Taliban groups who have been attacking Indian nationals and government buildings in Kashmir, Kabul, and elsewhere, as well as killing numerous Pakistanis in suicide bombings in Lahore and other cities.

Berlusconi’s New Rival?

Ingrid D. Rowland

Silvio Berlusconi
Alessandra Tarantino/AP Images

The Italians have a one-syllable word, an interjection, that means “I don’t know”: “Boh.” And “Boh” is probably the only credible commentary anyone can make right now about the country’s political situation. At the end of March, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà or “Freedom People” party swept regional elections nationwide, gaining control of four new regions (roughly equivalent to states in the US), including Campania (Naples), Lazio (Rome), and Piedmont (Turin), while holding on to Lombardy (Milan) and the Veneto. The opposition’s Democratic Party, forever split into squabbling groups, once again missed an opportunity (indeed there is no opportunity so far that they have not missed). Most of the contests were close, and turnout was unusually low by Italian standards.