The horrors of Soviet prisons and labor camps were described vividly in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, Yevgenia Ginzburg’s Into the Whirlwind, and later, by the Soviet dissident and former political prisoner Anatoly Marchenko, in his 1969 memoir, My Testimony. To judge from a disturbing new report about the tragic death of 37-year-old lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow prison in late November, Russia’s current penal system is almost as bad as it used to be.
When Troy Erik Isaac was first imprisoned in California, his cellmate made the introductions for both of them. “He said to me, ‘Your name is gonna be Baby Romeo, and I’m Big Romeo.’ He was saying he would be my man.” Troy was twelve at the time. A skinny, terrified little kid, he accepted the prisoner’s bargain being imposed on him: protection for sex. He wasn’t protected, though. Soon he was attacked and raped at night by another cellmate, a sixteen-year-old. He told staff he was suicidal, hoping to be placed in solitary confinement, but they ignored him; the rapes continued.
In the summer of 1989, I spent several weeks in Madrid. It was my first time out of the United States, and I was overwhelmed by the shock of difference: the life-giving daily approach to time; the ghost dregs of imperial supremacy; the post-Franco traces of bleak limbo that were thankfully almost done eroding; the particular charisma, not quite the same as what I had absorbed from so far away, in books and movies, as “European charm.” There was a pop soundtrack to that summer, an album that had come out months earlier but was still at its viral peak. One addictive song especially spilled out of windows onto plazas, with a stately beat and a girlish voice recalling (from the male point of view) an affair with a woman described as half-finished, with the body of a gypsy and “an eye here, a tooth there.”
The fact that Gaza is still under siege has hardly infiltrated Israeli awareness. The first anniversary of Israel’s military intervention in Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, has of course been noted in the Israeli press. The predominant tone, even in Haaretz, supposedly the voice of the liberal left, is almost smug. The rain of Qassam missiles on Israeli cities and villages has more or less halted; in recent months housing prices in Sderot, which is less than a mile from Gaza, have soared, and demand for plots of land in the moshavim close to the Gaza border far outstrips supply. So for Israelis the campaign was clearly a success, despite the 1,400 Palestinian dead, the 3,540 houses destroyed in Gaza, the devastation of the civilian infrastructure there, and the international outcry about possible Israeli war crimes.
Coinciding with the fiftieth anniversary of Robert Frank’s The Americans, the exhibition “Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans” is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City through January 3, 2010. Dominique Nabokov—whose own photographs appear regularly in The New York Review—saw the exhibition both in New York and in Washington, where it originated at the National Gallery of Art. Recently, she stopped by the office to talk about why Frank’s photographs are not only still relevant but also a “miraculous” body of work.
On April 5, 2009, Denmark got a new Prime Minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen. He was the third Danish Prime Minister in a row to bear that surname, replacing Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who had been named the new Secretary-General of NATO. A capable local politician in his forties, Lars Rasmussen had, in contrast to his predecessor, almost no experience in international politics. His appointment received little media coverage outside Denmark. But just eight months later, with Denmark the host of the Copenhagen climate summit (officially the 15th United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP-15), Lars Rasmussen’s—and Denmark’s—lack of experience in international politics would have a global impact.
At one point during Blanche’s final mad scene in the Sydney Theater Company’s much discussed revival of Tennessee Williams’s modern-day masterwork, which just concluded its sold-out run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a woman sitting across the row from me began to sob uncontrollably. Despite her obvious pain, she could not look away from the stage’s brightly lit scene of daytime disaster. One wondered about the source of that spectator’s tears. Was it the sight of Blanche being led to her dark future, her sister Stella’s flush cheeked confusion, or both?
Thursday morning—Christmas Eve, that is, just after 7 a.m.—the United States Senate did something it’s never done and passed a bill that aims for broad reforms of America’s private health-insurers (it also delivers them 30 million new customers over the next decade, a bone of contention on the left). Potential snags exist, to be sure, but in all likelihood Barack Obama will become the first president, out of eight who’ve tried, to pass large-scale health reform. His presidency is either one-quarter or one-eighth over. Let us say, for argument’s sake (because the economy is starting to turn around; and because of the advantages of incumbency), that it is the latter. What have we learned in this first year that might tell us something about the next seven?
President Obama’s announcement that the United States intends to purchase a maximum security prison in Thomson, Illinois, and plans to move as many as 100 remaining Guantanamo detainees there has prompted a variety of criticisms from right and left. Not-in-my-backyard populists oppose holding these prisoners anywhere in the United States (though in a classic prison-industrial complex move, the Obama administration realized that those concerns can be bought off with a promise of bringing 3,000 jobs to a depressed, rural Illinois region).