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Archive for July, 2012

Some New Old Books

Saturday, July 28th, 2012


Arakcheev: grand vizier of the Russian Empire by Michael Jenkins

Time Of Stalin, The: Portrait Of A Tyranny by Anton Antonov-Ovseenko

I just returned from a short vacation in Door County and was able to squeeze in some time to browse some of their independent and used bookstores. One in Ellison Bay had an unusually good Russian and Soviet collection and I picked up a few titles. Naturally, it would have been even cheaper on Amazon, but the used and rare bookstore is an experience for a serious reader, not just a transaction. Supporting their existence and preserving the tacit knowledge about books, authors and publishers of that niche market is worth a few extra dollars.

Count Alexei Andreievich Arakcheev was a somewhat terrifying figure from early 19th century Tsarist Russia whose career came to personify the out-of-control military authoritarianism nurtured by “the Gatchina system”. Gatchina was the princely estate of the Tsarevitch under Catherine the Great and it was here that military culture was first imported from Prussia and took root in Imperial Russia. While this had the beneficial effect of stimulating modernizing advances in Russian artillery, the Gatchina system also inculcated a zealous love of  “paradomania” in the Tsars and their army officers who served there – a fetish for obsessive detail in the minutia of barracks square drill, the ritualistic mummery of military insignia and a sadistic excess of harsh disciplinary measures for discipline’s sake.

Arakcheev, a parvenu who climbed into the ranks of the aristocracy through the Petrine state service nobility, embodied both aspects of the Gatchina system and combined it with the fanaticism of a totalitarian bureaucrat. He was loathed by the powerful families of  high boyar-descended nobility, but Arakcheev’s dog-like loyalty to the mad Emperor Paul I and the quixotic Tsar Alexander I made Arakcheev an invaluable figure who was part fixer, part chief of staff, friend and confidant to the supreme Autocrat.

I had not expected that Arakcheev would have a biography in English and skimming this one tells me that Jenkins is writing from an overly sympathetic POV for a historical figure who really merits very little empathy. While no Beria or Himmler and a more than competent artillery general and military reformer, Arakcheev was an intolerant man of violent temper, given to casually arbitrary brutalities that were shocking even by the standards of  Tsarist Russia. He presided over a disastrous experiment in agrarian military socialism that foreshadowed Soviet collective farms that intruded into the most intimate aspects of the lives of peasants and soldiers alike and combined all the disadvantages of serfdom with military service.

Anton Antonov-Ovseenko is the son of an Old Bolshevik executed by Stalin during the Great Terror, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, and a former inmate of Stalin’s Gulag himself. Given that his father had been an ally of Trotskii and Tukhachevskii, it is something of a minor miracle that the author survived to write a denunciation of his family’s great tormentor. Many other Soviet citizens of his generation, with tangential or purely imaginary connections to Stalin’s enemies vanished without a trace, unlettered and unremembered.

Despite being a professional historian, Antonov-Ovseenko’s The Time of Stalin belongs grouped with the dissident/defector literature of the likes of Kravchenko, Solzhenitsyn, Penkovskii, Amalrik, Kalugin, Chambers, Djilas, Pacepa, Voslenskii and many others. This book is less a work of objective history than an impassioned testimony of an eyewitness to horrific crimes or a memoir. Even from a casual thumbing through, one can see that there are valuable nuggets here but a critical eye is required of the reader. Stalin is admittedly one of the greatest monsters in all history but he was not superman, but a conductor of an orchestra of repression and democide.

Many hands lent themselves, often eagerly and more often fearfully, to carrying out Stalin’s will.

The most contested piece of real-estate on earth

Friday, July 27th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — Jerusalem and apocalyptic sentiment, not at the emergency crash warning level, but still something to keep an eye out for ]


If you’re interested, as I am, in the ways that end-times theology impacts geopolitics, whether in its Christian, Judaic or Islamic (Sunni or Shi’ite) formulations, then two recent articles in Ha’aretz deserve your attention.


The first, published July 27, has Ari Shavit interviewing Gov. Mitt Romney on behalf of Ha’aretz, and asking the following question:

Governor Romney, you’ll be arriving in Jerusalem on Saturday night, on the eve of the day on which we commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temples. Many Israelis feel that the fate of the ‘Third Temple’ relies on its strong bond with a strong America. Can you assure them that should you be president, you will reverse the trend of American decline? Can you guarantee that both America, and Israel’s bond with America, will be strong once again?

Gov. Romney does not speak to the Third Temple issue in his response, though the rest of the interview will no doubt interest those with a focus on foreign policy – and policy with regard to a nuclear Iran in particular.


The second Ha’aretz piece, posted almost a month earlier, gives some context on why the issue of the Third Temple is important – it is part and parcel of Jewish messianic prophecy. The problem here is that the rebuilding of the Temple would presumably take place on the site that’s currently considered the third holiest in Islam – the plateau that Muslims term the Noble Sanctuary and Jews the Temple Mount.

And that could mean trouble:

In 1990, after Muslims became concerned that the Temple Mount Faithful would come to lay the cornerstone for the Third Temple – as they had several times in the past – the muezzin of the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the mount called on the thousands of worshippers there to defend the site against such a move. This led to what became known as the Temple Mount riots, in which 17 Palestinians were killed and several Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall were injured. The riots led to a serious toughening of the police stance regarding the Temple Mount, but it did not stop attempts by the various right-wing organizations to restore a full Jewish presence there.


As the navel is set in the centre of the human body,
so is the land of Israel the navel of the world…
situated in the centre of the world,
and Jerusalem in the centre of the land of Israel,
and the sanctuary in the centre of Jerusalem,
and the holy place in the centre of the sanctuary,
and the ark in the centre of the holy place,
and the foundation stone before the holy place,
because from it the world was founded.

— Midrash Tanchuma, Qedoshim.

Tisha B’Av, the day on which Jews mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples, begins in the evening of Saturday, July 28 this year, and ends in the evening of Sunday, July 29.


Gershom Gorenberg calls the plateau “the most contested piece of real-estate on earth” — and his book The End of Days is the definitive text exploring the different apocalyptic expectations asspociated with it in the three Abrahamic religions.

In it, he notes that according to one Jewish source, the fight between Cain and Abel arose over a dispute as to which of them had the better claim to the Temple Mount.

When they say it’s a game-changer…

Thursday, July 26th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — are they talking about shooting for a goal, hitting your target, making a move — or lofting one up the fairway? ]

As you may have gathered, I really love that quote from the philosopher MacIntyre. Here we go again:

Image courtesy of my friend Oink, aka Peter Feltham. It seems like gameplay gets more risky by the hour…

Two TED Talks: Stavridis and van Uhm

Thursday, July 26th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — talking across the military / civilian divide ]

Adm. Stavridis' rheostat


I thought these two TED talks — one given in Amsterdam by Gen. Petrus J.M. “Peter” van Uhm, current Chief of the Netherlands Defence Staff, the other by Adm. James Stavridis, current Commander, U.S. European Command (USEUCOM) and NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) — were interesting in terms of the speaker-audience combination in each case, and the topics the two speakers chose to present.


First, Adm. Stavridis, speaking to A Navy Admiral’s thoughts on global security:

I’m particularly intrigued by the sub vs raft image, and by the admiral’s hard and soft power rheostat (image above) — I hope we’ll get to discuss that image.


Then Gen. van Uhm, speaking to Why I chose a gun:


Stavridis is the guy who says:

We are excellent at launching Tomahawk missiles … we need to get better at launching ideas.

and told his audience at National Defense University convocation:

in the end, 21st-century security is about brain on-brain warfare.


There’s some interesting bridge-building going on here — from military speakers to civilian audiences. I welcome your comments.

Silent reading, silent thinking, bifocal glasses

Thursday, July 26th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — two forms of creativity: far out and close in ]

Some of the most obvious things aren’t obvious at all, until you think of them. The things my friend Derek Robinson talks about as being in the beforeground. Too close to notice / right under our noses all along.
And I think that’s one of the principles of creative thinking — a lot of creative detailing takes place out on the bleeding edge, where someone pushes the limits of existing knowledge that little bit farther, and sometimes those insights can be revolutionary. But profound revelations also come from questioning the most basic assumptions — as Cambridge University Press blogged last year, celebrating the centenary of the Russell-Whitehead Principia Mathematica, vol II:

Principia attempted to ground mathematics in logic and the authors left no stone unturned in their attempt to create the ultimate definition of mathematics. For example, they were well into volume two before they had proved that one plus one equals two! They concluded their proofs with the laconic statement: “The above proposition is occasionally useful.”

BTW, that’s a point I also addressed in the context of my work on social entrepreneurship for the Skoll Foundation:

IMO, we need some funding sources that understand that the next significant breakthrough, too, will be all but invisible — and who therefore look specifically for projects that are categorized by their radical rethinking of the seemingly known and obvious.


For anyone who’s curious, the bifocals pictured in the tiny “specs” section of my graphic above come from Ben Franklin‘s original letter proposing the idea of bifocal glasses, courtesy of the Library of Congress (link is to complete image).

The Odel Na’aman story, The Checkpoint: Terror, Power, and Cruelty is up at the Boston Review site. I haven’t read it yet, just tasted the first paragraph.

There are times when it helps to have bifocal (contrapuntal) vision…

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