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Archive for July, 2013

Taking the waters: Russian literature’s holiday in the Caucasus

By Blog Admin, on 29 July 2013

Le Proval a Piatigorsk

Le Proval a Piatigorsk.
Via Wikimedia Commons

In the final post before the SSEES Research Blog takes a short summer break, post-graduate student Benny Morgan reflects on the brief flowering of health tourism in southern Russia, and as a setting for Russian Romantic literature.

What the American temperance campaigner Diocletian Lewis (1823-1886) called the ‘mineral water mania’ of the mid-nineteenth century took a scientistic turn in the Russian Empire at around the same time as it did in Western Europe and the United States. In the 1860s the universities of Moscow and St. Petersburg examined a rash of medical dissertations on such topics as ‘The Effect on Blood Pressure of Baths and Showers at Different Temperatures’, describing in awed detail the results of douching experiments on rabbits and large dogs – and the language of the burgeoning hydropathic establishment trickled quickly into the promotional material of Russia’s self-proclaimed ‘watering places’.

By the century’s close, every southern town of note – Slaviansk, Borzhom, Piatigorsk – was producing brochures puffing the benefits of its waters, listing ailments treated and tabulating the testimonies of bathers and drinkers cured or ‘partially relieved’ of unpleasant symptoms. Yet spa therapy’s medicalization at mid-century also had the curious effect of sending the Russian watering place as a destination of fashion into apparently terminal decline. The empire’s Crimean and Caucasian resorts could compete neither infrastructurally nor rhetorically with the appeal of Baden-Baden, Wiesbaden and Vichy; dire comparative statistics – forty thousand visitors to Russian spas annually compared with half a million to German ones – drew hand-wringing about national ‘underdevelopment and lack of culture’ on the part of civic pamphleteers.

One marker of the commercial struggles of the Russian water-cure industry in the latter nineteenth century is the near-death of the southern spa theme in literature. Lidiya Veselitskaya’s Mimochka at the Waters (1891), a rare fin du siècle novel with a Russian health resort setting, makes fun of the westward trend in bathing culture by having its heroine ask, when a cure atKislovodsk is broached, ‘Aren’t there waters enough abroad?’ Foreign spas had monopolized the narrative as well as the therapeutic imagination.Despite their vivid ideological differences, both Dostoevsky and Turgenev look to Germany in their watering-place novels; the conspiratorial picture of resort culture given in The Gambler and Smoke (both 1867) offers perhaps the closest thing to a fictional consensus the two ever mustered. Tolstoy too, for all his creative investment in the Caucasus, takes the protagonists of his mature fiction to German spas in pastoral landscapes (see Family Happiness (1858) and Anna Karenina (1873-77)), not notionally domestic ones wedged into ravines.

Indeed, Chekhov’s minor-key masterpiece The Lady with the Little Dog (1899) draws for much of its melancholic atmosphere upon a sense that Yalta, another liquid mainstay of the Russian South, has become a place perpetually out of season: that the brightest heads have turned elsewhere. But for the critic with an interest in place and its ideological significance in fictions, a look back at the brief flowering of the southern cure has much to recommend it. The Romantic spa also offers itself as a point of departure for attempts to think through the attitudes that modern Russian literature has shaped and reflected with respect to cultures of health – and when tracing the ties that bind the realist spa text (Smoke), the bania tale in revolutionary skaz (Zoshchenko’s ‘The Bathhouse’ (1925)) and Brezhnev-era medical allegory (Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward (1967)).

The Caucasian spa resort is a vital setting in Russian literature of the first decades of the nineteenth century. As Robert Reid has written, spa resorts in this period frequently serve as a microcosm of metropolitan social life. (more…)

Putin’s Russia: The view from unglamorous places

By Blog Admin, on 23 July 2013

Church View

Photo: Igor Mironovsky via Flikr  CC-BY-2.0

Ben Judah’s new book  seeks out the view of ordinary Russians  to offer an insightful and readable account of Putin and the Putin regime. It nevertheless over-estimates the potential of civil society as an engine of change, finds Imogen Wage .

For journalists, commentators, academics and the general public Vladimir Putin never fails to intrigue. There has been a proliferation of recent books looking at Putin’s life, rise to power and the system he has created. Ben Judah’s Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell in and out of love with Vladimir Putin presents a new angle.

It examines not only Putin’s popularity and rise but also his relative decline, marked by the popular protests that started in the winter of 2011-12. The book tries to explain how and why Putin became so popular and powerful, and how and why his system started to decay from 2011. Judah finds that Putin rose to power because of the poverty and chaos of the 1990s and managed to create a sophisticated regime that is at the same time deeply backward.

Putin’s regime was sophisticated because it was a ‘videocracy’ which gave censored TV to the masses but allowed free newspapers and blogs for the intelligentsia’ (p.325). The regime was, however, simultaneously deeply backward because it built inefficient institutions and an obsolete structure of power, and because Putin is a bad bureaucrat: much money was put into a poorly performing system, but because of corruption few results were produced.

Judah’s argument echoes that two recent books on Russia. In Can Russia Modernise? , Alena Ledeneva argues that informal power arrangements in the form of the ‘sistema’ explain the failure of well-intended modernisation programmes in Russia. Like Judah, her focus is on modernisation and Putin as a person, rather than on institutions. Similarly, in Russian Politics: the Paradox of a Weak State Marie Mendras takes a statist approach to explain what kind of a state Russia is and how social freedoms (widespread Internet usage, cooperation with the West, high consumption) can coexist with political repression. She, like Judah, highlights the different between a civil society and political society and emphasises Putin’s role, but unlike Judah devotes more time to analysing the question of whether Russia is a strong or weak state. (more…)

New anti-gay laws are a lightening rod for the Putin regime

By Blog Admin, on 19 July 2013

Gay Pride

Photo: Valya Egorshin via Flikr (CC-BY-2.0)

By banning ‘homosexual propaganda’, protecting ‘religious feeling’ and reining in ‘foreign agents’, Vladimir Putin is seeking to entrench Russian traditional values against Western liberalism.  LGBT activists may now need to rethink their tactics, writes Richard Mole.

 Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to tighten his political grip at the expense of the country’s nascent civil society is continuing apace. Following the bill last summer requiring NGOs which receive foreign funding and engage in ‘political activity’ to register as ‘foreign agents’, on 30 June Putin signed into law a bill banning the spreading of ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations’.

 The bill, which passed in the Russian Duma by 436 votes to 0 (with one abstention), levies fines of 5,000 roubles (£100) on individuals who disseminate information about ‘non-traditional sexual orientations’ among minors or promote ‘the social equivalence of traditional and non-traditional relationships’.

The fine is increased to 100,000 roubles (£2,000) if individuals discuss gay-related issues in a positive or neutral manner in the media or on the Internet, and rises to one million roubles (£20,000) for organisations. The inclusion of the phrase ‘among minors’ ensures that practically any public LGBT event will violate the law; just in case, anti-gay protestors at last month’s Gay Pride in St Petersburg were encouraged to bring their children with them to ensure that the law did indeed apply.

 Activists have argued that the ‘homosexual propaganda’ law legitimises discrimination and violence against LGBT individuals in Russia, citing the cases of two gay men murdered in separate incidents in May. Critics have sought to establish a causal link between the new anti-gay law and anti-gay feeling in Russia. However, this overestimates Putin’s ability to mould public opinion – his anti-Westernism has, after all, failed to dent Russians’ generally positive feelings towards the EU –  and underestimates the pre-existing intolerance towards lesbians and gay men left over from the Soviet period. (more…)

In step with the time? Bulgaria’s protest wave in transnational perspective

By Blog Admin, on 16 July 2013

Protests in Sofia, Bulgaria - 16.06.2013

Photo: Bmw Spirit via Flikr CC-BY-2.0

Since 2011, few countries have been exempt from protests against traditional ways of doing politics. Guest contributor Ivalyo Iaydjiev examines how similar Bulgaria’s experience is to those countries that have recently seen mass protests and how it will cope.

The chances are, you are not aware that Bulgarians have spent over three weeks on the streets in what are the the biggest anti-government rallies since 1989. That’s hardly surprising, given that worldwide media attention has been fixated on the violent repression at Taksim square in Turkey, the mass protests in Brazil, or, most recently, anti-Morsi demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Yet as this hardly exhaustive list demonstrates, the sheer number of protest movements since 2011 makes it hard to believe that all is just coincidence.

One way to generalise meaningfully about this recent wave of protests is to follow Moises Naim’s idea that traditional power is actually ‘evaporating’, leaving many situations quasi-ungovernable.  Alternatively, we can look into what the World Economic Forum presciently named the key geopolitical risk of 2013, the ‘vulnerability of elites’. However, it is probably too early to draw large-scale conclusions about this period; instead, it is interesting to see how events in Eastern Europe resonate with other similar developments around the world. Indeed, Bulgaria is neither, as a famous graffiti put it, ‘in step with time’ as many protesters seem to think, but nor is it completely divorced from our times. (more…)

Hungary versus Europe

By Blog Admin, on 10 July 2013

Flags Makó

Photo: Burrows/Wikimedia commons

The EU must find a response to the increasingly aggressive nationalist turn of Hungary’s current government write Erin Marie Saltman and Lise Herman.

What does the European Union do about a member state that has recently been referred to as the ‘cancer in the middle of Europe’?

Hungary has come under increasing scrutiny from European Union bodies and international watchdogs since the 2010 national elections, when the Fidesz government won a two-thirds majority in parliament. Since then the right-wing government has installed large overhauls of the country’s foundational institutions, including a new constitution, fundamentally changing the functioning of the media, the judiciary, the Central Bank and the education system. Many of the government’s changes have mirrored propositions first put forth by Hungary’s radical right party, Jobbik.

These changes have been criticized by the European Union and international actors for reinstating undemocratic and authoritarian elements into Hungary’s governing foundations. While the Fidesz government has re-tailored some of their new legislation to appease international critics, they remain largely defensive of the new direction Hungary is taking. As a consequence, European institutions are having to confront the real challenge of defining their supranational power over members. (more…)

History is too important to be left to politicians

By Blog Admin, on 10 July 2013

Sudeten-Gedenktafel (Linz)

Photo: Christoph Waghubinger/Wikimedia Commons

Czech debates about the forced removal of the Sudeten Germans exercise a powerful fascination, but they are refracted unevenly in historical writing in English writes guest contributor  Martin D. Brown.

 Seasoned Czech Republic-watchers will be well aware of the paucity of coverage provided by English language sources. With some exceptions, on the sporadic occasions when the country does make an appearance it tends to be in stories about political corruption, natural disasters, or the Czechs’ fondness for beer.

 This is nothing new – see Neville Chamberlain’s comments, circa 1938 – and the obvious solution is to read Czech, although, even this approach is not always straightforward, as was revealed by a dispute that arose during the Czech Presidential elections in early 2013.

 The elections, a contest between foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg and former prime minister Miloš Zeman (who won), proved ill-tempered, and included a heated televised dispute over the legacy of the forced removal of around two and half million Sudeten Germans from Czechoslovakia after 1945. Intriguingly this just happens to be one subject that has garnered a fair amount of English language coverage in recent decades.

 Superficially this was a clash between opposing sides of the Czech political spectrum: Schwarzenberg, on the centre-right decried the ‘expulsions’ as illegal, unjust, against all the accepted norms of international law and argued they had contributed to the success of the communist coup in 1948; while to the left, Zeman defended the ‘transfers’ as a necessary response to the Sudetens’ collaboration with the Nazis, legal under international law and part of the constitutional   foundations of the modern Czech state. Particularly noteworthy was the way both candidates expressed their respective positions through the terms ‘expulsion’ (vyhnání) and ‘transfer’ (odsun)  to denote their approval or disapproval for the process.

 Anyone following this spat would have been left with little idea which position was the more accurate, and turning to Czech sources wouldn’t have offered any immediate answers. (more…)

Losing Riga – losing Latvia?

By Blog Admin, on 3 July 2013

Licia Cianetti explains the broad appeal of Latvia’s traditionally Russophone Harmony Centre party in Riga– but argues that ‘post-ethnic politics’ may not be just around the corner.

 On 1st June the residents of Riga went to the polls to elect a new City Council. The election came after four years under mayor Nils Ušakovs, the first ethnic Russian to lead an administration in the capital. Ušakovs secured another victory for his moderate Russophone ethnic party, Harmony Centre, and kept his post for another term.

That Ušakovs won did not come as a surprise to anybody was politics in Riga; the main question before the elections was not whether Harmony Centre would win but by how much it would win.

 Ušakovs was elected mayor of Riga in 2009, when Harmony Centre won 34% of the vote and had entered a coalition with the mainstream Latvian party Latvia’s First Party/Latvian Way (LPP/LC). The unthinkable then became reality: Riga, where a great share of Latvia’s population and wealth is concentrated, came under the control of a Russophone party that – by virtue of being Russophone – had consistently been excluded from power at the national level.

 The 2013 municipal election did not mark the end of this ‘anomaly’, but instead entrenched Harmony Centre’s dominant position in Riga. Harmony Centre’s electoral bloc with the local political party Gods kalpot Rigai! (Pround to serve Riga, GKR) won an impressive 58% of the vote, giving them 39 seats of the 60 seats in Riga City Council. Only two other parties made it beyond the 5% threshold: the right-wing nationalist National Alliance (17.8%, 12 seats) and the centre-right Unity (14%, 9 seats), both currently in the Latvian government. Ušakovs’s success in Riga surely will force other parties to reconsider about what to do with Harmony Centre at the state level, whose ongoing exclusion from national power is looking a less and less tenable strategy. (more…)

Czech Republic: A challenge to parliamentary democracy?

By Blog Admin, on 3 July 2013

Miloš Zeman March 2013

Photo: David Sedlecký CC BY-SA 3.0

Last month, the Czech Republic’s prime minister Petr Nečas resigned after his chief of staff was charged with corruption. Following the collapse of the Nečas government,  President Miloš Zeman, appointed a technocratic caretaker administration over the heads of the country’s main parties.  Zeman’s move may pose a fundamental challenge to the parliamentary character of Czech democracy, writes Seán Hanley.

The collapse of the centre-right government of Czech prime minister Petr Nečas last month came as little surprise. His coalition had struggled on for more than a year without a parliamentary majority trying to push through an unpopular package of reforms and austerity measures that divided even its own MPs. Nor, in hindsight, was it surprising that Nečas was forced to resign in a corruption scandal. Although by reputation a geekish ‘Mr Clean’, Nečas’s efforts to root out corruption in his own Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and in wider political life proved patchy and ineffectual.

The main talking points were how close the arrests came to Nečas – the main accused is his former chef de cabinet Jana Nagyová – and why Czech police and prosecutors had only now got their act together after years of suspicious inaction. Commentators speculated that the anti-corruption probe could open out into a Central European version of Italy’s Clean Hands operation in the early 1990s that brought down the whole party-political establishment.

Most commentators assumed, however, that in the interim the coalition would limp on until scheduled elections in 2014 under the Civic Democrats’ stopgap leader Miroslava Němcová, or that the deadlock would be broken by a cross-party vote to dissolve parliament. Attention shifted to the familiar ritual of party delegations being called in for talks with the president, who constitutionally appoints the prime minister and informally plays a brokering role in government formation.

At this point, however, the country’s recently elected president Miloš Zeman tore up the political script. (more…)