Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Home from Luhansk

Since I made it home I have been constantly on the go, so I haven’t had the opportunity to discuss how the Summer Institute and the trip home went, so here goes, albeit late.

The Summer Institute did go very well this year. We had a much larger group of students this year and their skill levels varied considerably. To keep things sane and to make sure all the students got something out of class, Irina, my Ukrainian teaching colleague split the students into two mixed sections, and making sure we had students of different skill levels in each section. Over the course of the 4 weeks, we went over (besides English) US business culture, US history, American Literature, and American Cinema. The students really seemed to like the curriculum and worked very hard. I can honestly say that we made some real progress. Dr. Kurylo, the Luhansk University President, who came to graduation and knows some of the students, noted the improvement in his speech as well.

This year’s students were a very social bunch. On the third Saturday, they organized a “sashlik” or traditional barbeque at the University farm. I felt kind of bad as they were all working like demons to prepare the food while Mary and I just hung out and chatted. I did help find some firewood, which was the least I could do. There is a cool little river (the border with Russia) and some “frolicking” ensued. The weather was perfect for a swim and we made a few trips there during the day. We also went target shooting in the woods. I am apparently a pretty good shot; I won my first round. Dr. Shevchenko, the acting rector, and my dear friend Victor showed up so the “adults” had a little side get together. Mary and I rode home in one of our students Nissan Armada, which he bought in New York and shipped to Ukraine.

On the last Thursday, we held a combined class in the morning, leaving the afternoon for a trip to the champagne factory near Donetz. This place was pretty neat. It was built into an old gypsum mine, so you have to travel through the old mine shafts to get around. All the while, trucks and other vehicles speed past you moving product or equipment around. It was definitely pretty impressive. Everywhere you look, you see stacks of bottles of sparkling wine (since working on EU membership they can no longer call it champagne) in various stages of aging and fermentation. In the caverns carved out of the mountain, these aging racks go on as far as the eye can see. The tour ended with a tasting, where we sampled various types of their products and I have to say I am a fan of the “brut.” Most Ukrainians seem to like the semi-sweet.

On the way home our van died. Gennady, our Georgian driver, and I tinkered with the thing, but the pulley that held the belt for the cooling system seized up and there was nothing to be done with it but wait the two hours while other cars showed up from Luhansk. We took the opportunity to relax and have a little picnic on the side of the road. I learned a little about Georgia from Gennady (which has come in handy since Russia invaded them last week) and talked shop with Irina. If I had to be stuck on the side of the road, hours from home, in a place where I only had a rudimentary knowledge of the language, that was the place and those were the people to do it with.

Graduation went off the next day without a hitch. The student presentations were great and everybody had a good time. A lot of us just hung out afterwards because we just didn’t want to say goodbye. Eventually, we were shooed out of the hall because Mary and I had an appointment with the CEO of the Luga-Nova Vodka factory.

I had met their CEO, Leonid, at a party in New Hampshire a few months earlier, so after exchanging greetings he took us on a tour of the facilities. The factory is very impressive and an interesting combination of old and new technology. The factory makes many varieties of vodka and each had its own infusion process for flavor. The factory was shut down for the week as all of the workers were sent on vacation in Crimea. The tour ended with a delicious lunch in the worker’s cafeteria, which is probably the nicest one I have ever seen. Leonid takes very good care of his workers and the US could learn a lot from him. After a generous sampling of Luga-Nova’s latest brands, Mary and I went back to the hotel for a well deserved nap.

Saturday morning was spent packing and cleaning up the hotel room. It is truly amazing how much junk accumulates after a month! Mary and I had a lunch date with some of our students, so we met them and walked to the restaurant, which was across the street from the library. I hadn’t been down that street this trip to Luhansk, so I was pretty impressed with the renovations to the library building. Since we had troubles saying goodbye again, the lunch lasted about 5 hours (!) which was fine for me as I was in very pleasant company. No sooner was lunch over than the teaching team went out for a quiet dinner in a very cool Uzbek restaurant.

The next morning, Mary and I flew into Kiev without incident but all of the plans we had made to explore and go to the Buddha Bar were dashed against the rocks of our own exhaustion. We managed to get some dinner in before completely dying for the night in the Hotel Lybid.
The real drama started when we tried to get out of Kiev. Our ride showed up early, which was great, and the ride to the airport was without incident. We got in line to check in, but this guy about three people in front of us took about ½ hour to get checked in. My blood pressure continued to rise as the minutes ticked past. Finally he got out of the way and the two people in front of us breezed past, lowering my blood pressure. Then Mary and I got to the front of the line. The woman takes one look at us and starts talking away in Russian or Ukrainian and everyone around us starts to get angry. Luckily it was not us that they were angry with; Royal Dutch Airlines (KLM) had overbooked our flight; not by one or two, but by, as it appeared, close to 40 people. They finally found someone who spoke English to explain this to us, which means I was number 40 in line when I hit the ticket counter to make new arrangements.

There were a few ways this could have been handled. The best way would have been to have five or six people gather our information and figure out who needed to get to Amsterdam and who did not. Those of us going elsewhere could then find new connections and move on quickly. The second best way would have been to have five or six people deal only with us who got bumped. Then there was option number three- have two people available to deal with an increasingly hostile mob around the kiosk, one of whom was dealing exclusively with a party of 14 French people trying to stay together, and one person who took lots of breaks and seemed incapable of making any decision without first consulting the woman dealing with the French people. And then there were the people who had regular business at the kiosk.

After an hour and a half of jostling for a place in line, I finally got to the woman not dealing with the French people and in pretty amazing time got a flight to Boston via Frankfurt. The best part was that the flight was on Lufthansa in Business Class. I have never had the money to fly business class, so this was a real treat. Business class has big seats, amazing food and drinks, and a pre-flight lounge, which was pretty sweet. The best part was actually getting in two hours earlier than expected. My wife and I had plans for dinner that night and we were concerned that those would be disrupted by our friends at KLM. Susan was a real trooper, rearranging Mary’s limo service back to New Hampshire and staying awake late into the night to stay informed of the situation.

The flight into Boston, after the drama in Kiev, went pretty well. Susan and I had a wonderful early dinner at The Burren in Somerville and within a few hours I settled in my own bedfor a well deserved rest.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Sunday Salon-August 11, 2008

Julius Caesar
Philip Freeman
Simon & Shuster

Julius Caesar has been making a comeback in the last decade. Michael Parenti’s The Assassination of Julius Caesar and Adrian Goldsworthy’s Caesar; Life of a Colossus are just two of the recent treatments of this larger than life figure, almost legendary in his own day, mythic in ours. Freeman’s stated purpose was to parse out the myths from the facts and his Julius Caesar is a brilliant and compelling narrative which will help the general reader realize just how important Caesar was to the way western civilization evolved.

While the current trend in historical studies is to minimize the role of the “great men,” it is hard to ignore the fact that at times some people do change their world, for the better or worse, and without them, that change would not come. Caesar was one of those men. But Caesar knew, as Freeman points out, that his power was not cut from the whole cloth of his charisma. Caesar was dependent on the Roman lower classes for his political and military successes. Bertolt Brecht asks the question in his Questions from a Studious Worker, “Caesar conquered Gaul- Did he not even have a cook with him?” As Freeman shows, Caesar knew his cooks and his men. Growing up in a gritty working class neighborhood, Caesar saw better than his richer contemporaries the problems of the lower classes in late Republican Rome.

The inability of the Roman nobility and their “business leader” allies to deal with the social and political problems created by the rapid expansion of the state created an instability that was to prove as fatal to the Roman Republic as it did to Caesar himself. A century of civil war, of which Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon was but a small blip, left the state as little more than a resource to be exploited for the personal gain of the various contenders for power. The entrenched interests of the nobility left any notion of reform unacceptable and the increasing violence of the reaction left little room for compromise.

Freeman’s Caesar is neither a hero nor a villain, to use the author’s own definition of the extremes. But his treatment of his subject is sympathetic, and justifiably so. There is little doubt that Caesar’s motives were self serving, but that does not take away from the effect of what he tried to do. The land reform question, which claimed the lives of many reformers before Caesar, was not solved by the time of Caesar’s death, but one does have to ask the question of how Roman society would have evolved had he been successful. Much like how Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms were designed to ameliorate the worst problems of the working classes, Caesar’s land and debt reforms did not radically change the Roman system, but strengthened it. Caesar was a product of that Roman political system, a system in which he was just the most successful manifestation of what competence and charisma could accomplish. To destroy the system would have been to destroy his own place in his society.

Freeman’s Julius Caesar is a good read and well worth the effort of the general and specialized reader. I highly recommend it.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sunday Salon-August 10, 2008

Harvest of Despair; Life and Death in Ukraine Under Nazi Rule
Karel Berkhoff
Belknap Press

The history of Ukraine is a tangled web of invasion, exploitation, and, despite it all, hope. As you drive through the Ukrainian countryside, you can see monuments to the “Great Patriotic War” and most major cities have more than one memorial to the Soviet citizens who defended their homeland against the Nazi invaders who planned on re-making Ukraine into a German agricultural colony.

Karel Berkhoff’s Harvest of Despair is an attempt to look at the Nazi plans for the occupied Ukraine and Ukrainian reaction to them. In every sense, the Ukrainian people were caught between a rock and a hard place- the two choices left to them were Hitler’s Nazis or the Stalin’s Soviet Union. Berkhoff’s narrative places the Ukrainian choices into context, explaining why the two choices were variously chosen, and why, in the end, both proved inadequate.

When the Nazi’s first invaded Ukraine in June, 1941, many welcomed the Germans as liberators. Indeed, the treatment that the Ukrainian peasantry received under Stalin’s collectivization plan and engineered famine would make almost any alternative seem attractive. Coupled with the lack of good information about Nazi rule in other parts of Europe and the almost total collapse of Soviet defenses, Germany seemed a ray of hope. That hope was soon dashed as the nature of Nazi rule manifested itself.

The Nazis planned on making Ukraine an agricultural colony to be populated by “Germanic” people. The Slavic Ukrainian people, by definition inferior according to Nazi ideology, were at best an impediment to these plans. The Ukrainians were tolerated insomuch as there were economically useful to the Nazi regime. Peasants, who produced food in abundance, were allowed to survive, albeit with the ever-present danger of forced labor in Germany or summary execution. City dwellers, especially those who were not deemed economically useful were expected to starve, which they did by the thousands.

The brutality of the Nazi regime, whether revealed in the mass execution of the local Jewish populations, the summary executions under the most flimsy of pretexts, or the conditions suffered by those in forced labor in Germany, soon soured the Ukrainians to the prospect of their “liberation.” But the Ukrainians found themselves as powerless in the face of Nazi power as they did under the Soviets. That there was resistance at all, be it evading work to sheltering Jews, is remarkable in a society where resistance to authority was swiftly and severely punished, regardless of the regime.

Berkhoff organized Harvest of Despair thematically, which allows the reader to “spiral” their knowledge into a coherent whole after reading the entire work, while allowing each chapter to stand alone if necessary. One item that would have been useful to the general reader would be an explanation of the German military and civilian terms in greater detail. Comparisons with other Nazi occupied territory would have also been useful as context. Whether the Ukrainian experience was typical or not would help the general reader understand the extent in which Ukraine suffered, before, during, and after the occupation. Harvest of Despair is a well researched and written treatment of this horrible chapter of history.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Sunday Salon: The Conquest of Bread

The Conquest of Bread
Peter Kropotkin
AK Press Working Classics Series

Peter Kropotkin was a Russian prince who lived during times of great flux in his country. He was born to nobility during the “last hurrah” of the tsarist regime. He witnessed the disintegration of that regime through the early decades of the 20th century, and before he died, he watched as the Bolsheviks consolidated their power, substituting one authoritarian system for another. It would have been easy for Kropotkin to maintain his aristocratic life, which would have brought him tremendous privileges even after the fall of tsarism, but he renounced his title and became one of anarchism’s foremost theorists.

The Conquest of Bread is one of Kropotkin’s contributions to anarchist theory. Kropotkin posits, like Marxists, that the concentration of wealth which is the basis of a capitalist economy is the root cause of poverty. Unlike the Marxists, however, Kropotkin does not suggest a centralized state as the solution to workers’ exploitation. His solution is autonomous collectives in which produce what they can and barter for what they need and want. In essence, Kropotkin is suggesting an anarchist market economy.

This market is not profit driven, as it would be in a capitalist market, having no regard for the basic needs of the individual. Kropotkin believed, instead, that the productive system is efficient enough to produce not only the needs of the population, but also enough of the luxuries that make life pleasant. What prevents the general enjoyment of these goods is not lack of production or inability to distribute them, but the determination of production by profit motives rather than social consumption motives.

Kropotkin’s divides his book thematically, looking at basic human needs and wants. He examines why despite the ability to produce enough for everyone, people live in want. He looks at the need for luxury and sees it as an understandable and necessary part of being human. And despite being written over 100 years ago, his analysis is still fresh and relevant. The same problems that limit the lives of the working class in 2008 limited them in 1905. The difference is in scale and scope.

Charles Weigl’s Introduction is well-researched and gives important insight into Kropotkin’s life and context for his work. For someone unfamiliar with Kropotkin, it will prove invaluable. Weigle takes the reader through the ideas and critiques of Kropotkin without the pedantic idealizing of many who write about the people they admire.

The Conquest of Bread is an important contribution to anarchist economics and anarchist theory in general. This edition by AK Press is well presented and of high quality. I highly recommend it.