A snapshot of society on the verge of rewiring its history in “Crimea: Unmasking Revolution”

Artyom Somov, Pavel Burnatov, “Crimea: Unmasking Revolution” (RT.com, 2014)

Powered entirely by interviews with Crimean Russians in the street and following people about as they rouse others and mobilise a referendum for independence and accession to Russia, this RT.com documentary presents what most people in Crimea thought of the regime in Kyiv in Ukraine after the Yanukovych government was overthrown in February 2014. Interviewees included Berkut officers recounting their experiences clashing with neo-fascists in city streets and the parents of a soldier who died in western Ukraine fighting neo-fascists and followers of Ukrainian nationalist and Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera.

Ordinary Crimeans are in no doubt at all that they were betrayed by lies and propaganda from the Ukrainian government since 1991 and that their future lies with secession from Kyiv and accession to Moscow. The astonishing thing about the Crimeans is how very quickly they grasped the situation and united to organise the independence referendum in super-quick time. By the beginning of April 2014, in defiance of Kyiv and its supporters in the West, Crimea had held its referendum, had counted the votes and found overwhelming support for secession, and broken away to join Russia.

The documentary film crew interview a local historian, Oleg Rodovilov, who tells them about Stepan Bandera’s actions during the Second World War and the terror he and his followers spread among Jews, Russians and others. They also show film of scenes in western Ukraine in which fascists beat a governor and intimidate and cuff another local politician. The film crew travels around the peninsula to Sevastopol and Simferopol to find out what people are thinking, saying and doing. In Simferopol, the people cheer on Berkut officers. Later in the film, a peace activist retells the terrifying experience he and fellow activists had when their bus was held up by fascists and everyone was forced out and made to crouch and move while repeating fascist slogans.

The interviewees who appear are articulate and seem well educated. That may or may not be deliberate on the film crew’s part. To their credit, they do talk to some Crimean Tatars attending a rally to support Kyiv and Ukraine. The Crimean Tatars and Russians nearly come to blows on a public street but the tension is defused  by calls for peace.

The interviews may have taken place quite early in 2014 just after Kyiv fell to the EuroMaidan movement and before the independence referendum was held. They constitute a snapshot of the tense yet excitable situation that existed in Crimea at the time. For those viewers unfamiliar with the history of Crimea and its incorporation into Ukraine in 1954, the film unfortunately provides no background history as to why the peninsula is dominated by Russian-language speakers and supporters of Russia. Nor does the film say why Crimean Tatars prefer to support Ukraine rather than Russia.

The Ukrainian fascists and nationalists are portrayed very negatively and the documentary makers did not interview any pro-Kyiv supporters in Crimea. Given the very tense and polarised situation throughout Ukraine, not to mention the violence stoked by the post-Yanukovych regime and its Western supporters, perhaps the film-makers were wise to avoid the pro-Kyiv side. I am sure though that they would make no apologies for not making a film that shows Western-style “balance” in which supporters of two extreme sides are given equal time to make their case in such a way that the film subtly manages to support one side while appearing even-handed.

The documentary can be viewed at this Ukraine Crisis Updates link.

Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of Safra, Magnitsky and Berezovsky in “Through Sherlock’s Eyes: The Letter M”

“Through Sherlock’s Eyes: The Letter M” (EZ Productions, 2014)

Presented by Russian actor Vasily Livanov, known in the West for playing Sherlock Holmes in a highly regarded 1980s Soviet TV series “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson”, this documentary is a keen and critical study into the mysterious deaths of Edmond Safra and Sergei Magnitsky, both associated with the British-American investment fund manager William Browder. The documentary cleverly uses a narrative structure, based on the famous English detective Sherlock Holmes investigating yet another strange crime, to explore the circumstances of Safra and Magnitsky’s deaths, compare Magnitsky’s prison experience and death with similar experiences and deaths in the US prison system, and make a case for Browder being linked to the CIA and MI5.

Livanov’s Sherlock Holmes plunges into the mystery straight away by introducing both Browder and his Hermitage Capital Management partner Edmond Safra and mentioning Safra’s puzzling death in a fire in 2007 in almost the same breath. Mention of Sergei Magnitsky’s death in prison and of Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky’s death by hanging in his British country home in 2013 comes hot on the heels of Safra’s demise. Interestingly the film detours through an interview with human rights activist lawyer Paul Wright into a detailed comparison of the medical treatment Magnitsky received in prison and the way in which the US prison system treats many sick prisoners, and pointedly picks out the hypocrisy in the way the US government and Browder have complained long and loudly about how dreadfully Magnitsky was treated by prison doctors (which he was, there is no doubt he was treated appallingly) but are silent on the equally shocking conditions in which US prisoners are often forced to live and how such conditions affect their health and contribute to their early deaths.

The circumstances surrounding the deaths of Safra in 1998, Magnitsky in 2011 and Berezovsky in 2013 seem to have quite a bit in common: before both Safra and Berezovsky died, they had been preparing to take steps to reveal some valuable information – in Berezovsky’s case, to reveal valuable information to the Russian government and President Vladimir Putin. The documentary relies heavily on interviews with freelance journalist Oleg Lurie and Berezovsky’s former head of security services Sergei Sokolov to explain the possible links with the two businessmen’s deaths and HCM and Browder.

A French counter-terrorism officer Paul Barill is roped into the documentary to recount the career of Bill Browder from the time he renounced US citizenship and took up British citizenship, and went on to found HCM and through that investment fund raided the wealth of privatised Russian state corporations and stole other Russian monies. Barill claims that the wealth Browder acquired was used to discredit Russia in various ways, including the destabilisation of Ukraine and the brainwashing of Ukrainians to hate and fear Russia and President Putin.

Technically the documentary is well made and beautifully presented though for Western viewers not familiar with the tax fraud case surrounding Bill Browder and HCM, the treatment of Safra and Magnitsky’s deaths together with Boris Berezovsky’s demise might be confusing and leave viewers knowing no more about Magnitsky, Safra and Berezovsky than they did before seeing the documentary. There is enough known about Magnitsky’s career and association with Browder and his own employer Firestone Duncan in the public domain that a shorter documentary about Magnitsky alone could have substituted instead. In particular, the public needs to know that Magnitsky was an accountant who invented a tax evasion scheme for his employer’s client as the mainstream Western media inaccurately portrays the man as a tax lawyer. Some simple animation demonstrating in chronological order what Magnitsky did for Firestone Duncan and Browder would have supplemented the information from the interviews in a way viewers can understand.

The film narrows its focus down to the character of Browder himself and by then many viewers who have followed the sometimes confusing narrative will have concluded that Browder may well be working for the CIA or British intelligence services with the ultimate goal of destabilising and overthrowing the Russian government, and replacing it with one more subservient to the US government which aims to control the country’s energy resources and profit from them.

This documentary could have been a lot more informative and even quite fun. Instead it is quite dry and doesn’t even try to engage with its viewers with techniques such as addressing and challenging viewers to try to solve the mystery of whodunnit to Magnitsky before Holmes does. For all its faults though, this documentary seems to be the only British documentary to show the Russian point of view on the largest tax fraud in Russian history and its reverberations for Russia and its relations with the West.

Fanny and Alexander: a film of many personas revisiting familiar Bergman themes

Ingmar Bergman, “Fanny and Alexander” (1982)

In part an autobiographical film based on his own childhood experiences of growing up with a severe Lutheran pastor father, “Fanny and Alexander” was Ingmar Bergman’s last major film and is a celebration of family and its continuity, and an affirmation of life and rebirth. The film under review is the 188-minute theatrical version and splits into three parts. The first part which takes up the first 90 minutes brings together the Ekdahl family members at their matriarch’s mansion for Christmas dinner in 1907. The Ekdahls are a theatrical family whose scion, Oskar (Allan Edwall), runs a drama company. Besides Grandma and Oskar, the family includes Uncle Gustav who carries on a secret affair with a young maid with his wife’s tacit acceptance, and Oskar’s wife Emilie (Ewa Froling) and their two children Alexander (Bertil Guve) and his younger sister Fanny (Pernilla Allwin). Through the way they celebrate Christmas, the Ekdahls are shown as lively and exuberant people who enjoy life and its luxuries, live for the moment and who are rather at a loss at dealing with the real world. Oskar worries about the debts his theatre company is accumulating and this concern puts a strain on his health. Grandma is having a secret affair with the family’s banker (Joseph Erlandsson) and seems unconcerned that the domestic staff are aware of it.

Although the film usually takes a third-person view of events, it generally revolves around the boy Alexander, a highly imaginative lad who enjoys showing his sister and cousins moving pictures on a kaleidoscope-like contraption. The boy is sensitive and becomes aware early on that his father’s days might be numbered. Sure enough Oskar falls ill and deteriorates rapidly. Emilie is devastated by Oskar’s death and finds coping without him difficult; she is drawn to the bishop Vergerus (Jan Malmsjo) for comfort and eventually agrees to marry him. After the wedding, Vergerus brings her and the two children to his home to live with his relatives in what becomes the second part of the film. Viewers will guess very quickly that Alexander and his step-father won’t be the best of friends as Vergerus imposes a severe regime on his new family and Alexander chafes not only at the physical restrictions but also the restrictions on his thinking and imagination. The two clash and Emilie begins to regret the haste with which she married Vergerus but she is pregnant with his child and Swedish law in the early 1900s did not favour women who divorced their husbands.

The film’s style ranges from lavish to minimal in a calm and understated way that one associates with Scandinavian film-making. Sven Nykvist’s cinematography is rich and beautiful and is one of the film’s major highlights. The actors fulfill their roles admirably whether they play main characters or supporting roles. Though the plot may be a simple and hackneyed Cinderella-style piece with an unbelievably happy ending, Bergman uses the three-part narrative not only to express the themes and ideas that have been dear to him throughout his directing career but also to underline his career and the people who have worked with him. The Ekdahls represent the family he would have liked to have had as a child and also the actors and technical crew Bergman relied on over the years of his career on stage and in film; Bishop Vergerus’ family on the other hand represents Bergman’s birth family.

The film can be slow and very understated. Viewers should rewatch it at least once to pick up and understand fully Bergman’s concerns with the life cycle and the fears of those facing the Grim Reaper sooner rather than later. As always in Bergman’s films, the plight of women in a society where the dice are loaded against them is of concern. The maid seduced by one of the Ekdahl men falls pregnant: in real life in Sweden at the dawn of the 20th century, she would have been turfed out from the Ekdahl household and either forced to put up the child for adoption or driven to live in the poorhouse with the baby.

Magic realist / gothic horror elements come thick and fast in the film’s second half and are associated with Alexander’s contact with his grandmother’s Jewish banker friend whose nephews run a puppet-making business and help the banker rescue Alexander and his sister on their grandmother’s behalf. The boy meets Ishmael (Stina Ekblad) who tells Alexander that his fantasies about his step-father’s death can come true as he visualises them; in eerie parallel, the bishop dies in a mysterious house fire. It would seem that with the Vergerus family out of their lives, Emilie and her children are finally reconciled with their Ekdahl relatives, and everyone can live happily ever after, but Alexander receives an unexpected visit from the bishop’s ghost who vows to give the boy a hard time from that moment on.

Bergman enthusiasts will find that “Fanny and Alexander” revisits familiar themes and aspects of the Swedish director’s past oeuvre: the film attacks the hypocrisy of institutional religion and social traditions that weigh heavily against mothers and their children; the film examines the different roles people play throughout their lives as they travel through the life cycle, and how role play reveals their inner characters; and it opposes Alexander and what he represents against Vergerus who, though a religious man, represents aspects of the restriction of life and nature, and ultimately of death. One can imagine Alexander constantly looking over his shoulder at the shadows that will follow him for the rest of his life; whether he can live his life in spite of Vergerus’ haunting or end up succumbing to the malign influence is left with the viewer as the film closes.

While the full 300-minute TV film would have cleared up the loose ends of the shorter film – there are many such loose ends and the fall-out between Vergerus and Emilie doesn’t seem quite convincing – as it is , the movie is very self-contained and its circular narrative is delineated very gracefully. The children are reunited with their family but they are not as innocent of the ways of the world as they were previously and there is a burden that Alexander must suffer in silence. The film has a low-key and graceful way of telling its dialogue-driven story – even the fire and the bishop’s demise are not nearly as startling as they could have been, thanks to the way the incidents are portrayed as report by a police officer – and this matter-of-fact style allows Bergman to explore the themes that were always important to him throughout his career. Admittedly the film is hokey in parts yet the silly bits co-exist well with scenes of horror in what turns out to be a work of many … well, personas itself: family drama, comedy, magic realism, gothic horror … it’s got it all.

Exposing Browder: a glimpse into a sordid world of tax fraud and undermining a sovereign country

“Exposing Browder / Spisok Braudera” (Rassledovaniye, 2014)

At last this Russian documentary exposing the shady activities of the investment fund manager Bill Browder has an English-language voiceover soundtrack and is available on Youtube. The grandson of Earl Browder, a founder and secretary general of the Communist Party USA (which later expelled him on suspicion that he was a spy), and son of Felix Browder, a famous mathematician, Bill Browder gained experience as a consultant in the Boston Consulting Group in London and as an investment manager for Salomon Brothers. Along the way, Browder shed his US citizenship and adopted British citizenship. In 1996, he and a partner established Hermitage Capital Management to capitalise on the large-scale privatisations of state corporations in Russia. The firm used the services of Firestone Duncan as consultants on legal, taxation and accounting issues in Russia and the head of that firm, Jamison Firestone, seems to have become quite close to Browder and HCM in their subsequent forays in the Russian investment scene.

HCM did very well though the financial crisis in 1998 must surely have threatened HCM’s capital inflows and gave quite a few of its investors headaches. Riding on HCM’s success – by 2004, it was the largest foreign investment fund in Russia managing over US$3 billion and representing several thousand investors – Browder became a shareholder in the energy corporation Gazprom where he made a name for himself exposing corruption and financial mismanagement.  HCM’s strategy was ostensibly to buy shares in a large undervalued company (usually an energy company) and demand access to that company’s financial records, supposedly for the purpose of uncovering suspicious irregularities in company management. HCM would loudly bray about such irregularities in articles published in Western financial media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal or use lawsuits to shame the target company managers. Political lobbying was another weapon Browder did not hesitate to use.

HCM’s fortunes took a turn in 2005 when Browder found himself barred from entering Russia on the grounds of “national security”. Initially supportive of Russia, Browder soon turned against Moscow as HCM became the subject of tax evasion probes and government raids on its offices. In following years, Russian police came across a network of various companies based in odd parts of Russia (Kalmykia near the Caucasus being one such place) through which HCM operated. These companies employed mentally and physically disabled people as financial advisors to exploit a loophole in Russia’s taxation system so as to claim tax rebates. This harebrained scheme was the brainchild of the Firestone Duncan accountant / auditor Sergei Magnitsky.

Magnitsky’s subsequent imprisonment and later death from undiagnosed heart disease or a chronic pancreatic condition (I’m not sure which) while in prison received a great deal of publicity and media attention in the West as an example of Russia’s treatment of political prisoners. Magnitsky’s purported ill treatment was one of a number of issues the United States government flagged as a stick with which to beat and taunt Russia, and an example to sell to a gullible news media and its audience as “proof” of the authoritarian and repressive police-state nature of Russia since Vladimir Putin came to power as President in 2000 and set the country on an independent political and economic course that greatly displeased the US. Among other things, the United States government drew up and approved the so-called Magnitsky blacklist of Russian politicians, business people and other prominent figures who could not enter mainland US territory and whose financial assets in the US, if they had any, were frozen.

As there is such a huge disparity between what Browder claims the Russian government did to bring down HCM and Magnitsky, and what government investigators say they found, and given that investing in Russian companies during the 1990s and the early 2000s was a complicated business even at the best of times when the country’s financial markets were unstable and financial regulatory laws and institutions poorly developed – and the country’s assets were being seized by foreigners like Browder, HCM and Firestone Duncan – a documentary like “Exposing Browder” is very welcome to help viewers try to understand something of what happened and why the example of Browder and HCM and what they did in Russia in stripping the country’s assets and engaging in tax fraud and evasion on an outrageous scale is so important. There is no little irony in the fact that the grandson of a former Communist Party office-bearer in the US should have become the very exemplar of a predatory self-interested capitalist investor who got to the top in that supposedly time-honoured American tradition of striking out on his own, taking major risks, riding out the bad times, reaping benefits in the good times and presenting as a heroic white knight uncovering and reporting corruption and criminal activity.

It is a pity then that the documentary seems rather rushed in its English translation and looks quite slapdash in its breathless presentation. The film was made for TV as part of a current affairs program and should be appreciated in that light. It follows Browder’s career as an investment consultant and manager in the developing financial market in Russia after the country adopted free market principles in running its economy during Boris Yeltsin’s presidency. Being a Russian-made documentary, the viewpoint understandably is aligned with that of the Russian government and investigators against Browder. It makes no apologies for being partial. There is plenty of detail and viewers may need to see this film a few times to understand the scale of Browder’s underhand activities.

The second half of the film deals with Sergei Magnitsky and his involvement with Browder and Firestone Duncan, how his collusion in tax fraud led to his imprisonment and death, and the way in which the last years of his life have become politicised and exploited by others, Browder most of all. Though what he did merited serious jail-time, Magnitsky emerges as a pathetic figure. While prisons in Russia are not lovely places to be in, and the medical treatment Magnitsky received from prison doctors speaks of their incompetence and indifference to his plight, his death from heart failure is eerie in that he was one of several people associated with Browder who met mysterious deaths from heart disease and other strange causes. The film makes a case that Magnitsky remained loyal to Browder to the end and counted on the American to get him out of jail. After his death, Browder used Magnitsky’s treatment and death as a stick to continually beat the Russian government, slandering various government officials and lobbying the US government to slap travel bans, asset freezes and other punishments against Russian politicians and civil servants.

The last few minutes are a revelation in which the value of Browder and the Magnitsky List to the US government’s agenda against Russia, and the propaganda potential that can be milked from it to convince Western audiences and Russians opposed to Vladimir Putin and Moscow (whether they are genuine oppositionists or those liberal oppositionists funded by US agencies) that Russia is an authoritarian police state hell bent on persecuting individuals, is spelled out. As of this time of writing, Browder is protected by the United Kingdom from arrest by Russian authorities for tax fraud and tax evasion. He is currently working towards convincing the European Community into adopting its own version of the Magnitsky List to further damage Russian financial and other interests in European Community member countries (especially Cyprus). The feeling that Browder may be acting as an agent provocateur and spy on behalf of the UK and US governments is hard to shake off. Why have so many individuals close to Browder, HCM and Firestone Duncan died in mysterious circumstances nearly all at once? How did Browder manage to convince the US government into passing bans and restrictions against Russia and Russian individuals despite his having renounced US citizenship?

With all its faults, the documentary is an excellent introduction into the complexities of the tax fraud / tax evasion affair of Bill Browder, HCM, Firestone Duncan and Sergei Magnitsky from the Russian point of view.

Interstellar: a rather ordinary film dominated and spoiled by a deterministic and hermetic viewpoint

Christopher Nolan, “Interstellar” (2014)

“Interstellar” managed to hold my attention for most of its 169-minute duration which was quite a feat as the plot is quite straightforward for a film helmed (and co-scripted as well) by Christopher Nolan, he who is famous for movie plots boasting multiple possibilities and ambiguous endings that can be interpreted in different ways. “Interstellar” is really no different from “Inception” and “The Dark Knight Rises” in this respect; it even boasts the presence of Michael Caine in yet another supporting role where he plays a mentor and father figure. Nolan must be praying that Caine gets access to a revitalising or age-reversing elixir from Merck or Pfizer for his own directing career to continue.

Before seeing “Interstellar”, viewers might be advised to watch Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” first to anticipate the younger film’s plot and narrative arc, its characters and some of its visual story-telling devices. The film begins as a post-apocalyptic dystopia in which the Earth can no longer sustain humanity: crops are failing, dust storms ravage the US Midwest with increasing regularity and Western civilisation is basically whatever people are able to remember and conserve. Former NASA pilot Cooper (Matthew McConnaughey) lives with his father-in-law and two children on a farm: his older child Tom looks forward to inheriting the family cornfields and daughter Murphy (or Murph for short) believes a ghost is hiding in her bedroom trying to communicate with her. Cooper eggs the girl on to use her knowledge of science to solve the mystery of the identity of the ghost and both discover that the ghost is a mysterious intelligence sending messages in binary code via gravitational anomalities in the red dust. One of these messages tells Cooper to contact Professor Brand (Michael Caine) at a secret NASA facility.

Cooper and Murph meet Brand and his scientist daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) who advise that a wormhole has opened up near Saturn. The scientists at the NASA facility believe fifth-dimensional beings exist in a universe beyond this wormhole. Cooper agrees to be pilot for Amelia’s team as part of the Lazarus Project series. Already a series of manned capsules has already used this wormhole and data sent back from these capsules indicate there are three habitable planets, named Miller, Edmonds and Mann after the astronauts who led the teams there.

Cooper’s decision estranges him from his daughter and the two part on very bad speaking terms. The plot jumps from Cooper’s departure from the farm to the launch of his spacecraft the Endurance, in a sequence that mimicks the famous sequence in the Kubrick film in which a bone flung up into the air becomes an orbiting space station. Thereafter the Endurance crew (which includes a HAL-like robot called TARS) follows the path set by Mann’s team, travelling through the wormhole and landing on Miller’s planet, close to the black hole Gargantua. The crew loses a member and is forced to scramble back, wasting 23 Earth years in what appears to be an hour. After wasting more crucial Earth time arguing about whether to visit Edmonds’ planet or Mann’s planet, the crew opt to visit Mann’s planet and in double-quick time – which amounts to another several Earth years – find Mann (Matt Damon), apparently the sole survivor of his team. Mann has an unpleasant surprise in store for Cooper, Brand, Romilly (David Gyasi) and TARS which jeopardises not only their mission but the future of humankind.

In a parallel story, Murph (Mackenzie Foy, then Jessica Chastain) is taken in by Professor Brand as a daughter substitute and becomes an astro-physicist and assistant to Brand. Brand’s personal mission is to solve the problem of how humans can escape Earth’s gravity but to do this properly, he requires information from a singularity behind a black hole. Part of the Endurance’s mission was to supply this data. Unfortunately much of this data was forged by Mann who wanted a spacecraft to rescue him. Brand dies, believing that he has failed, and Murph must pick up where he left off and solve the equations. In the meantime, the dust storms afflicting America worsen and her brother’s family is in danger of dying from a tuberculosis-like disease caused by too much dust inhalation.

With “2001: A Space Odyssey” as its inspiration, “Interstellar” has some of that film’s majesty and beauty, and some of its sequences can be quite breath-taking if nowhere near as psychedelic and mind-bending. The acting overall is competent though not outstanding. McConaughey and company do all they can to turn their characters into flesh-and-blood creatures and though McConaughey succeeds with Cooper, Hathaway and Chastain do not with their characters. Some actors are able to infuse sketchily developed characters with life and imagination and others need direction in this regard.

The drama feels quite forced with banal dialogue that tends to state the obvious too much and a familiar theme of love for family conquering a fear of the unknown and inspiring hope juxtaposed with Hollywood’s favoured view of humanity as essentially self-centred and mean-spirited. A parallel theme of deception in the plot tempers the more sentimental aspect of the idea of love transcending all barriers and makes the film’s final moments more ambiguous.

Inevitably the science in a film like “Interstellar” is forced into warp drive for the sake of moving the plot forward: a scene in which Cooper must try to redock his space pod with the main station is rather tricky, not least because an explosion has forced the Endurance into a rapid spin (there being no air in space so spinning spaceships can whiz about forever) so presumably Cooper must spin his pod at precisely the same speed as the Endurance to have a chance of redocking properly. Apart from the difficulties involved in calibrating his pod’s speed, and the fantastic odds against getting the redocking right on the first go, Cooper and Amelia Brand are spinning along with the pod fast enough that their heads might explode from internal pressures caused by the spinning. While that would be entertaining to watch, the film would be killed stone dead so artistic licence must be allowed.

The last hour is quite a doozy to watch if rather drawn out. Sadly (spoiler alert) we never see anything akin to the jaw-dropping / mind-slackening sequence in “2001 …” in which the Keir Dullea character’s space-pod is pulled into another dimension by unseen aliens in a psychedelic light-show, though the movie comes tantalisingly close. Viewers may feel the events plug plot holes rather too neatly; a few ragged loose ends might have made the film a little more credible. The finale is too simpering, happy Americana but one must remember that “Interstellar” is of a piece with “Inception” and “The Dark Knight Rises” where conclusions aren’t really quite what the viewers are led to believe they’re watching. Is Cooper really reunited with Murph or is the whole sequence a figment of his dying imagination? One imagines that this finale was filmed for the benefit of an American audience while audiences in Europe get to see a different finale in which Murph continues to wait in vain for her father to return while ensconced in an abandoned underground bunker because the dust storms have become a permanent fixture on the American landscape and the Lazarus Project has had to be shut down by NASA.

“2001: A Space Odyssey” continues to be relevant to the present day because much of it is deliberately left open-ended and unexplained, and therefore subject to endless interpretation which freshens opinion about the film and one’s own experience of it with repeated viewings. Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s desire to leave No Loose Ends Untied or Unexplained, if only to make “Interstellar” easier for the bean counters in Hollywood to understand, makes their film too hermetic to the point where it starts to feel suffocating. If there is only one way to watch a film, then the film becomes a creature tied to its times and will quickly grow stale.

For all its spectacular packaging and visual delights, “Interstellar” is an ordinary work let down by poor characterisation, banal themes and plot, and ultimately a deterministic worldview that does not tolerate diversity in how viewers might watch and interpret cinema.

A clash of two worlds existing in parallel: the Q&A Session after Vladimir Putin’s Valdai 2014 speech

Vladimir Putin’s Valdai Speech at the XI Meeting (Final Plenary Session) of the Valdai International Discussion Club (Sochi, 24 October 2014) – Part 2: Q&A Session

This second part of my essay focuses on the Q&A session that followed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech at the Final Plenary Session of the XI Meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club held in Sochi in late October 2014. Part 1 deals with the President’s speech and can be read elsewhere on this blog.

Having finished his speech, Putin took a number of questions in a Q&A session from a number of people starting with questions by the British journalist Seumas Milne and (later in the session) Canadian political scientist Piotr Dutkiewicz on the issue of Crimea’s independence referendum, subsequent breakaway from Ukraine and reunification with Russia in early 2014. In answer to these questions, Putin patiently reiterated that Russia would seek conservative and proven solutions emphasising co-operation and mutual respect and that the country was not seeking to recreate an empire but will defend its own regional interests. He referred to the United Nations’ Charter – Part 2 of Article 1, to be precise – on the right of peoples to self-determination and to decide on their government without pressure from external others (even if these others are supposedly their legitimate rulers) with respect to the validity of Crimea’s independence referendum and compared the situation in Crimea with that of Kosovo in 1997.

Nevertheless in reporting his chairing of the discussion and the Q&A session in an article for The Guardian newspaper, Milne inexplicably portrayed Putin’s answer to his question in such a way as to misrepresent what he said, omitting to mention that Putin had mentioned the UN Charter as the basis that justifies and validates the Crimean independence referendum, and which also justifies Putin’s comparison of both the Crimean and Kosovar referendums. In particular, Milne omitted to give the full context of the statement in which Putin admitted stationing Russian troops in Crimea “to block Ukrainian units”, implying that Russian soldiers prevented Ukrainian soldiers from guarding polling stations when in fact Russian soldiers were protecting polling stations from being invaded and voting disrupted by Ukrainian forces. The overall result of Milne’s omissions was to suggest that Putin and Russia had wilfully annexed Crimea and had been prepared to use force and violence to brazenly claim another nation’s sovereign territory on flimsy pretexts; in other words, Putin and Russia were acting as if a No Rules global regime were already in place, and Might Is Right is one of its guiding principles. Such biased reporting might be expected of other Guardian reporters like Shaun Walker but I had expected far better from Milne.

As demonstrated by Milne and Dutkiewicz, a number of Western representatives in the Q&A session took for granted a particular point of view about Putin in which he behaves like a stereotypical autocratic dictator who has stashed several hundreds of millions of US dollars in bank accounts throughout the world and who conducts his foreign and domestic policies on the basis of self-interest, greed and expediency, and on that basis asked Putin rather slanted questions that seemed intended to rattle him and/or force him to contradict himself over points he made in his speech. Thus a media representative, Neil Buckley, asked Putin if he considered Ukraine to be a real and sovereign country and why there apparently were soldiers in Russian uniforms in Eastern Ukraine aka Novorossiya. To his credit, Putin not only patiently answered the questions (even though some were repeated but in a slightly different guise) but took the opportunity to explain something of Ukraine’s 20th-century history and how it became a hodge-podge nation of a number of ethnic and religious groups with nothing in common and even very different pre-1945 histories. He holds his own well against other speakers by  being able to recall and quote details of issues discussed with little prompting.

One of the more (though slightly) thoughtful questions came from Toby Trister Gati who wanted to know something about Russian-US relations and perhaps what Putin had in mind while criticising the US and its actions in the Middle East and in Ukraine: was he referring to the US President, the US political elite or American citizens generally. Putin seemed genuinely surprised that Gati did not know how the US is destabilising the Middle East by helping the terrorist organisation ISIS. The President kept coming back to the American insistence that it (the US) is always right and that it is an exceptional country bringing democracy to the benighted corners of the Earth.

Another of the few intelligent questions batted to Putin was one by academic Robert Skidelsky who expressed concern over Russia’s reliance on energy exports and the country’s low levels of economic diversification. This gave Putin the opportunity to expound on the economic and financial reforms that have taken place since he first became President in 2000.

An interesting question was posed by Nikolai Zlobin to Putin on whether Russia was making a great mistake by isolating itself from the rest of the world and in so doing, becoming more nationalistic and less democratic. Again this question reflects the prevalent viewpoint that Putin is re-establishing the Soviet Union in all its isolated and isolating ersatz glory in a Russian form. Putin’s reply was that Russia does not intend to shut itself off – it is the rest of the Western world, under pressure from the US, that is shunning Russia. In answer to Zlobin’s statement that Moscow has shut down various educational exchange programs, cut off certain non-political non-government organisations (NGOs) from Russian funding and clamped down on certain foreigners and dual citizenship, Putin pointed out that these programs, NGOs and the foreigners who had been asked to leave had been financed from abroad to carry out agendas that amounted to spreading propaganda of a subtle kind and portraying certain political and economic ideologies and philosophies as the only ones for Russia to follow. He also pointed out that the US has similar laws that prevent  backdoor subversion of US culture and society through exchange programs and charities. To rub salt into a wound, Putin even took apart aspects of US political culture – such as indirect electi0n of the President by an electoral college, contrary to what most American voters themselves believe – and pointed out the hypocrisy of a nation that tells others what to do but does not practise what it preaches. Putin and Zlobin both discussed nationalism in its American and Russian contexts and came to agreement on its ability to unite people in a nation and at the same time cut them off from others and set countries onto paths of isolationism and distrust of others.

In answer to a Chinese university academic on what he meant by “conservatism”, Putin assured him that he was referring to its original meaning of preserving the best of policies, attitudes, values and traditions that have stood Russia well over the decades, even centuries, and being open to everything new that is effective and worthwhile, and which helps Russia to advance and grow. Some people will recognise this as the kind of conservatism that used to exist in politics in the Anglosphere around the middle of the 20th century before it was distorted by Thatcherism / Reaganism and which is still represented by commentators like the American palaeo-conservative Pat Buchanan.

The Q&A session was generally more noteworthy for what the questions say about the mind-sets of the people who asked them than what they were actually about. The questioners generally proceeded from an assumption that the US is basically good, that the current US government has lost its way and, if only it had better politicians who were less self-interested and more genuinely interested in advancing their country’s welfare and in cooperating with everyone else, then US President Barack Obama would fulfill his presumed role as a sort of Messiah who would eliminate all inequalities and discrimination, abolish poverty and wrongdoing, and lead his people into a New American Century, all shiny and glittering with gold. There is no consideration at all that perhaps the US government and its agencies are populated by rogue elements answering to a power other than the American people, and that the country’s institutions, values and belief systems are much to blame as they continue to attract the most psychopathic personalities into the upper political, economic and social echelons. Clearly Putin operates on a different planet than many of the people who quizzed him. Thus there was a certain amount of repetition in some of the questions and an obsession with the situation in Ukraine and Crimea, suggesting that the people asking the questions couldn’t believe what they were hearing from Putin and trying to grill him until he came up with the answers they were expecting.

On that note, I conclude that the Q&A session was not in itself as highly informative and illuminating about Putin’s speech as it could have been, apart from Putin’s replies to Professor Feng Shaolei about conservatism and to Nikolai Zlobin about Russia’s relations with the rest of the world.

Challenging the New World Order: Vladimir Putin’s Valdai 2014 speech

Vladimir Putin’s Valdai Speech at the XI Meeting (Final Plenary Session) of the Valdai International Discussion Club (Sochi, 24 October 2014) – Part 1

Founded in 2004, the Valdai International Discussion Club brings together experts ranging from politicians to economists, public servants, journalists and academics from around the world to analyse and debate on Russia’s role and position in the world. The first meeting was held in Veliky Novgorod near Lake Valdai, hence the name of the club. The goal is to promote dialogue and debate on political, economic, social and other major issues and events of importance both to Russia and the rest of the world.

In 2014 the eleventh meeting was held in Sochi and it was here that Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a speech in the final plenary session of the meeting (as is his custom) that in the future is likely to be seen as signifying a major turning point in geopolitical history. Under the theme of New Rules or a Game Without Rules, Putin declared that Russia will no longer participate in international politics according to rules set by the United States and its allies but will forge its own path as a regional power in its neighbourhood, as determined by the will of the Russian people, pursuing the path of peace and economic development and avoiding war where possible unless threatened by others. By making this statement, Putin has put Russia on a path the country has never trod before – previously Russia in various manifestations has either copied and followed other (usually Western) countries or has cast itself in a messianic role, whether as successor to the Byzantine empire, leader of the Slav nations or leader of the Communist world – and by doing so, has perhaps shown the rest of the world that there is an alternative to the tired Cold War paradigm that posed one set of countries and ideologies against another set of countries and ideologies, and both sets having long outlived their usefulness and relevance to a world beset by ominous developments that transcend political, economic and social divisions.

The Content of Putin’s Speech

Putin noted that current geopolitical institutions, systems and law mechanisms have become weak, distorted and ineffective against a rising tide of violence, instability and brutality in many parts of the world, in particular in parts of the Middle East and in Ukraine. Increasingly countries, Russia included, are searching for ways that will lessen their dependence on the use of the US dollar in trade and are establishing alternative financial and payments systems that do away with the US dollar as the reserve currency. The use of sanctions against Russia and other countries like Iran are undermining trade and causing economic stress in EU countries in spite of the fact that these countries have initiated sanctions under pressure from the US. Putin also referred to the 2013 banking crisis in Cyprus, in which that country’s government attempted to seize monies from uninsured savings accounts in major Cyprus banks as part of a bail-out agreement struck with finance ministers of Eurozone countries with the blessings of the EU and the IMF, as a motivator to seek out alternatives to the current global financial system that help preserve political and economic sovereignty.

From Putin’s point of view, much of the blame for the breakdown in the systems and mechanisms that maintain world peace and stability lies with the United States which, since the early 1990s with the end of the Cold War, has broken its promise made to Russia by then US Secretary of State James Baker that the US would not extend NATO membership to former Warsaw Pact nations, and has sought and instigated regime change in several countries in western Asia and northern Africa as outlined in the Project for the New American Century, authored in part by neoconservative historian Robert Kagan whose wife Victorial Nuland is the current Assistant US State Secretary to John Kerry. Regarding itself as the winner of the Cold War, the US and its allies have tried to impose their own narrowly interpreted and highly militarised solutions onto major world and regional problems and conflicts: solutions that have the effect of throwing gasoline onto fires to put them out. Putin referred to US-led overthrows of governments in Iraq and Libya, and the current US attempt to unseat Bashar al Assad’s government in Syria, with all the dire consequences that have followed and resulted in hundreds of thousands of casualties and millions of refugees, and large-scale environmental catastrophe that surely must influence global climate change, as examples of such hubris on the part of the Americans.

Having surveyed the sorry state of the world thus far, Putin comes to the question of whether to live by New Rules or No Rules. He explicitly rejects the No Rules option because the current global situation is clearly on the path to No Rules. He reminds his audience that nations must agree on fundamental values and to co-operate in finding collective solutions to common problems and issues. Major participants in such co-operation must lead the way in behaving with self-restraint and in ethical and responsible ways that others will be happy to follow. International co-operation and relations should be based on international laws that are themselves based on moral principles and respect by nations for one another and their interests.

Within this world of New Rules, Putin places Russia decisively on a path in which the country will emphasise pursuing its own development with an emphasis on open, democratic and accountable political and economic institutions, selectively adopting those modern global trends that would enhance the country’s progress and strengthen its society by emphasising traditional values that have stood the country well in times of crisis. Russia will look back into its history, forward into a likely future and around it to find and draw upon those resources and forces that will ensure and enhance its progress. Putin explicitly rejects the idea of Russia becoming an empire again and envisages the country as being a partner willing to work with others on the basis of mutual interest and respect.

The Russian blogger known as chipstone summarises what he believes to be the main points of Putin’s speech, what follows are  chipstone’s words (explained further by myself where they don’t appear to be too clear):

1. Russia will not play in the proposed “game”, leading the backstage trade on trifles. But she is ready for any serious discussion and agreement, if they will contribute to the security and will be based on a fair and equal integration of all interests. [Russia refuses to play any more games and indulge in backroom horse-trading on trifling issues; Russia is interested only and ready for serious discussion and agreement based on whether this contributes to collective security and on fairness and consideration of all parties’ interest.]

2. Any system of global security [is] destroyed. The future is not guaranteed. And this destroyer is, as they say, first name and patronymic. [All current systems of global security are in ruins, there are no more guarantees of international security, thanks to the United States of America which has trashed them.]

3. The builders of the New World Order have failed and built a castle in the sand. Build or not a joint world order to solve not only Russia, but without Russia and expense, this issue is not resolved. [The creators of the New World Order have built a house with a foundation of sand. Whether a replacement order should be built is not only Russia’s decision but any such decision to create a new system of order must include Russia’s participation.]

4. Russia favors a conservative approach to the implementation of any changes in the society and the existing elements of the order, but does not refuse to consider new products for their meaningful implementation. [Russia prefers to tread carefully where fools would rush in, in introducing social change but would be happy to discuss and test such change first where justified.]

5. Russia is not going to fish in the troubled waters of chaos, is not going to build a new empire (we just do not need it, we would have his master), but is not going to save the world and at the expense of himself, as has happened before. [Russia has enough territory to satisfy its imperial ambitions if any, Russia is not interested in building empires and certainly will not be the world’s policeman at its own cost.]

6. Russia is not going to reformat the world for themselves, but do not give reformat themselves to please someone else. We’re not going to close the world, but woe to those who try us “close”. [Russia is uninterested in reshaping the world to its preference and will not allow anyone to reshape Russian territory and society according to their interests. Russia will not be isolationist and will not tolerate being shut off from the rest of the world.]

7. Russia does not want the onset of chaos, not seeking war and it is not going to start first. Nevertheless, today Russia is considering the prospect of a global war almost as inevitable, is ready for this and continues to prepare.Russia does not want war, but not afraid. 

8. Russia is not going to take a proactive stance in opposing the mountain – the builders of the NWO as long as it does not concern her vital interests, preferring to give them the opportunity to stuff as many cones as sustain their head. When violent Russian involvement in this process, at the expense of its interests, little nobody seems. [Russia won’t object to those still pursuing their dreams of a New World Order as long as they don’t impinge on Russia’s interests; Russia is happy to let those countries whack themselves silly but if they try to drag Russia into their schemes, then they will really know what it’s like to be whacked!]

9. In its foreign and domestic policy the more power Russia will increasingly rely not on the elite and backroom deals, and the will of the people. [Russia will follow foreign and domestic policies aligned with what the Russian people desire or prefer as opposed to backroom horse-trading deals.]

The Q&A Session

(Originally when I wrote this essay, only a small early part of the Q&A session had been fully translated or retranslated from a Russian translation into English. As the whole Q&A session is now available in English, and is lengthy to boot, I will write a second essay covering the questions and Putin’s responses.)

Having finished his speech, Putin took a number of questions in a Q&A session from a number of people including questions by the British journalist Seumas Milne and Canadian political scientist Piotr Dutkiewicz on the issue of Crimea’s independence referendum, subsequent breakaway from Ukraine and reunification with Russia in early 2014. In answer to these questions, Putin patiently reiterated that Russia would seek conservative and proven solutions emphasising co-operation and mutual respect and that the country was not seeking to recreate an empire but will defend its own regional interests. He referred to the United Nations’ Charter – Part 2 of Article 1, to be precise – on the right of peoples to self-determination and to decide on their government without pressure from external others (even if these others are supposedly their legitimate rulers) with respect to the validity of Crimea’s independence referendum and compared the situation in Crimea with that of Kosovo in 1997.

Nevertheless in reporting his chairing of the discussion and the Q&A session in an article for The Guardian newspaper, Milne inexplicably portrayed Putin’s answer to his question in such a way as to misrepresent what he said, omitting to mention that Putin had mentioned the UN Charter as the basis that justifies and validates the Crimean independence referendum, and which also justifies Putin’s comparison of both the Crimean and Kosovar referendums. In particular, Milne omitted to give the full context of the statement in which Putin admitted stationing Russian troops in Crimea “to block Ukrainian units”, implying that Russian soldiers prevented Ukrainian soldiers from guarding polling stations when in fact Russian soldiers were protecting polling stations from being invaded and voting disrupted by Ukrainian forces. The overall result of Milne’s omissions was to suggest that Putin and Russia had wilfully annexed Crimea and had been prepared to use force and violence to brazenly claim another nation’s sovereign territory on flimsy pretexts; in other words, Putin and Russia were acting as if a No Rules global regime were already in place, and Might Is Right is one of its guiding principles. Such biased reporting might be expected of other Guardian reporters like Shaun Walker but I had expected far better from Milne.

The rest of the Q&A session will be covered in Part 2 of this essay.

Some Observations

That Russia seems content to be only a regional power in its sphere of influence may disappoint those people who want to see a new world power leading a coalition of nations pulverise the United States and its allies. But such a scenario would be a repeat of old Cold War fantasies and would certainly play into the US government’s own desires of provoking Russia into war. From the experience of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, Russia is well aware of the pitfalls of travelling down that path again and how among other things the arms build-up and race against the US which the war in Afghanistan entailed weakened the USSR and distorted its economic decision-making and priorities. Also there would be no guarantee that a rerun of the Cold War would not come to corrupt Russia’s decision-makers and its economic elites in the way the Cold War corrupted the US the first time. The Russian strategy means that the US and its fellow head-bangers will continue to bash themselves silly (and waste taxpayers’ money) with trying to stir up conflict in Ukraine, the Middle East and other arenas, only to see these conflicts fizzle out to their own disadvantage.

It might seem extraordinary that for the first time since 1945 a major power is content to remain within its own region and not take active steps to ensure that peace and stability in places beyond its immediate neighbourhood endure. This scenario is one that might strike Americans who know their country’s history well as being similar to the isolationist policy that the US tried to follow after World War I, to the extent of spurning membership of the League of Nations. The fact that the most powerful nation in the world in the 1920s and 30s turned its back on the rest of the world may have encouraged countries like Germany, Italy and Japan to pursue their ambitions and embark on empire-building; if the US did not support the League, then those other countries also would not support it. Isolationism as a nation’s foreign policy then failed to prevent instability and the drift towards another major world war. But this is not to suggest that Russia will follow isolationism in the same way that the US did; Russia may very well follow a selective isolationism in which the country will concern itself mostly with issues in the Eurasian region but will retain membership of the UN or its successor organisation, and might intervene in situations far beyond Eurasia if requested to do so as a third party mediator perhaps under UN or similar auspices.

What I think is most likely at this point is that Russia will refuse to be at the beck and call of every insecure small nation or group of such nations (like, say, the so-called Baltic nations Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania; or the Vyšehrad nations Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary) to intervene militarily in every problem that these countries perceive as threatening to them (whether they actually are or not) and to turn its armed forces into a mercenary global police force for hire, as the US has done over the past 60+ years. Whether in the long run that turns out to be a good thing or not, or the right path or not, we cannot judge from our vantage point in which most major global issues and conflicts have become extremely polarised politically.

What Putin has done is to signal the end of an age in which ideology and abstract concepts determine inter-relationships among nations and whether some nations should be judged “good” and others “bad” by selectively applied criteria from particular mishmashes of ideologies held by dominant partners. Instead his speech heralds an age in which nations greet one another at face value and co-operate as partners on pressing global issues, finding common cause and working together on agreed principles to resolve problems. It is time to approach and tackle problems as they are on their own merits and to find the most appropriate solutions based on the nature of the problem and the context at hand, and whether they will benefit most of those people who might be affected by the problem, not on whether it adheres to a narrowly interpreted abstract ideal. Pragmatism and policies based on fairness, justice and accountability should govern nations’ relationships with one another.

Disappointingly but not surprisingly, Putin’s speech was either not broadcast on mainstream news media in the Anglosphere or was cherry-picked over for comments he made that would back the Western propaganda narrative of Putin as a dictator and tyrant whose removal from the global scene is now due. Anyone reading who has not yet viewed the speech can watch it on Youtube by clicking this link; the Q&A session follows as well. An English-language transcript of the entire session can be read here.

What Makes a Genius? From Voltaire to Edison (and Beyond …) – more to genius than meets the eye (and ear …)

Christopher Hartney, “What Makes a Genius? From Voltaire to Edison (and Beyond …)” (WEA Sydney, 28 October 2014)

What makes a genius? Is genius inborn in certain individuals, irrespective of where they live and what they do, or does a certain environment have to exist to cultivate genius? Is genius, especially the lone genius, a real figure or is genius a myth that tells us more about the society that needs the genius myth and what it values? Why do some societies need the genius and others not? Why is it that at particular times in a society’s development, geniuses may appear at the same time in the same arena of intellectual, artistic or scientific endeavour, as in the case of Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace independently conceiving of natural selection as the driver of evolution? These questions were all tackled in just under 90 minutes with varying degrees of success by University of Sydney lecturer Christopher Hartney at WEA Sydney as part of its annual George Shipp lecture series.

Starting with Voltaire and working his way through individuals such as Mozart, Darwin, Alexander Graham Bell to Thomas Edison, Hartney delivered a fast-paced lecture that pulled in insights from aesthetics, philosophy, science and religion. He explored different concepts of the genius such as the genius as hero, the genius as prophet and other stereotypes. Hartney also pointed out the phenomenon of concurrence in which two or more creative people, acting independently of one another, have the same idea at the same time: this calls into question as to whether people considered geniuses are genuinely innovative or are merely conductors through which ideas and inventions may come into being. Hartney then explored the social context in which genius may arise and noted that geniuses often are never fully integrated into their societies: rather, they may be antagonistic towards some aspect or aspects of the culture in which they live and tend to set themselves apart from it in some way. They may be considered eccentric, bizarre or socially maladjusted; a common cultural theme in Western society is that of the mad scientist who works on his (rarely her) own pursuing projects that promise both great revelations and discoveries for humankind and great disaster as well.

The talk was very dense with information and there was little opportunity for audience input for most of Hartney’s time until the end. I must confess that early on I felt a bit dozy and missed quite a bit of Hartney’s speech. Hartney was very entertaining and fluent, very sure of his topic and I imagine quite a few people who attended the talk must have been spellbound.

In the space of 90 minutes, covering so much ground, Hartney did not go into much depth into each aspect of his lecture: it was clearly intended as an introduction into the nature of genius and its complex relationship to society. There was not the opportunity to investigate why some ideas and inventions often wait many years, even decades, before they become reality or are mass produced for the public. There was also no time to explore why genius often comes in pairs, as in famous song-writing duos – think of John Lennon and Paul McCartney during The Beatles’ heyday, Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon, or Elton John and Bernie Taupin – or in founders of corporations such as Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the founders of Apple Inc who conceived the idea of making personal computers as opposed to computers for businesses and organisations, or Akio Morita and Masaru Ibuka, the founders of Sony. A third issue that Hartney was unable to investigate was why some creative individuals go unheralded while others take credit for their work, and why some people are brilliant at coming up with ideas but are unable to bring their ideas to full fruition: is the nature of the individuals themselves that their genius goes begging during their lifetimes or is it that society for some reason cannot accept their ideas and inventions at the time but is only able to accept them later if they come from somebody else?

Hartney concluded his talk by observing that genius is as much a product of nurture as of nature: genius may be genetic but it must be encouraged by a family upbringing and education that recognises and prizes individual ability and effort; genius needs interest and immersion in a particular field which may require and lead to isolation from others; genius needs to incubate, experience the moment of revelation and discovery, and then to develop and elaborate on the discovery and bring the concept into material reality and usefulness. This all must take place in a social context in which others are willing to accept the idea and give genius the time, space and resources to develop the idea.

On that open-ended conclusion, the audience cheered and I daresay many people were inspired enough to pursue the ideas in Hartney’s talk further.

 

 

 

Spotlight on Cuban medical diplomacy and ISIS in “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 46)”

George Galloway and Gayatri Pertiwi, “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 46)” (RT.com, 3 October 2014)

In the first half of this episode, George Galloway interviews Bernard Regan from The Cuban Solidarity Campaign / The Campaign for Cuba on Cuba’s response to the Ebola epidemic outbreak in western Africa by sending a team of doctors and nurses there as opposed to the automatic US and UK emergency response in sending thousands of soldiers to the region. Galloway and Regan discuss Cuba’s use of medical professionals as diplomatic shock troops and bearers of goodwill who ask no questions and demand no payment as they assist Third World nations deal with unexpected medical emergencies. They contrast Cuba’s response in Sierra Leone with the tortoise-like reactions of First World nations in providing medical help to Guinea-Conakry, Liberia and Sierra Leone which have been badly hit by the Ebola disease outbreak since March 2014 when Guinea-Conakry reported its first case. Both host and guest then discuss the punitive US attitude towards Cuba since Fidel Castro seized power in the country in 1961 and how this has affected Cuba’s economic development and trade relations with other countries.

The focus is mainly on how Cuban medical diplomacy has benefited Third World countries, having helped over 80 million people throughout the world since the 1960s and trained many doctors from many of these countries and even from the US itself. Unfortunately there is very little about how Cuban medical training might emphasise the importance of community and public health infrastructure and policies, and how these affect the health of individuals and their families, over medical technologies that favour wealthy individuals and the diseases and conditions they suffer (like heart disease and certain cancers) as a consequence of their life-styles. There isn’t much about the history of Cuban medical diplomacy, how and why it developed, what its goals and agendas originally were and how these might have changed over time, and what future developments the Cuban government intend for it. There is no discussion of what threats the program might face, how continued US economic isolation might jeopardise its future, and what might happen after Fidel Castro and his brother Raul pass on.

The Ebola outbreak itself is not dealt with on the program and viewers interested in a discussion about how the disease appeared in the poorest west African countries, all of them with a history of unstable politics, civil war, interference from foreign powers coveting their considerable natural resources (diamonds, oil to name a couple), and Liberia and Sierra Leone especially host to US bio-weapons laboratories, will have to wait for another episode.

The second guest invited onto the show is Irish foreign correspondent for The Independent Patrick Cockburn, recent author of a book on the Middle Eastern terrorist organisation Islamic State (hereafter referred to as IS), also known as ISIS or ISIL. Cockburn describes the connections between IS and previous terrorist organisations like al Qa’ida and those Sunni Muslim nations whose religion is Wahhabi Sunni Islam, and the severity with which IS applies its narrow and literal interpretation of Shari’a and Islam to captured Iraqi soldiers and civilians. Galloway and Cockburn then go on to discuss the ways in which Western nations, in particular the US and the UK, have shaped the conditions in the Middle East that have given rise to IS and allowed it to flourish in the borderlands of NW Iraq / NE Syria. The opposition from Sunni Muslims in Iraq to the Maliki government, appointed by the US, practising sectarian politics and looting the country’s treasury and resources, has been instrumental in allowing IS to grow by recruiting disaffected youth in Sunni Muslim communities. The Western decision to bomb IS-held territories (and also areas reclaimed by the Syrian Army, for the real goal of Western intervention is the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar al Assad) will only make a bad situation much worse and benefit IS.

In 12 to 13 minutes, the conversation can’t penetrate very deeply into the complicated politics involved and why the West and its barbarous allies in the Middle East resort to more violence and brutality to deal with violence and brutality. Nevertheless the discussion is wide-ranging and very informative. Cockburn is a very eloquent speaker and Galloway and Pertiwi listen attentively and respectfully.

By now, Galloway and Pertiwi are a good double act, Galloway often quite theatrical and Pertiwi acting as his foil. Their program has a very marked politically socialist bent with guests usually coming from that side of politics but, given the often extreme right-wing bent of most mainstream news and current affairs media, the Galloways provide a welcome breath of fresh air with their discussion of topics that would otherwise remain unknown.

Sunday evening TV discussion of geopolitics on “An Evening with Vladimir Soloviev – Russia’s Response to US ‘Declaration of War’ ”

“An Evening with Vladimir Soloviev – Russia’s Response to US ‘Declaration of War’ ” (Rossia 1, 2014)

In Western countries, Sunday evening TV consists of reality TV shows, nature documentaries or light entertainment; in Russia, or at least on one TV channel, there is “An Evening with Vladimir Soloviev” which comes in prime-time viewing right after the evening news and which draws in a large audience. Host Soloviev interviews various public figures on the hot issues of the day and this episode, featuring six experts on geopolitics, revolves around US President Barack Obama’s speech to the UN in October 2014 in which he effectively said that Russia was a greater threat to world peace and stability than either ISIS in the Middle East or the emerging Ebola pandemic in western Africa.

Each expert gives his view – by the way, all six experts are male – on what the problem is, and how the US is trying to undermine Russia and conduct warfare through economic and diplomatic means, and via proxy nations like Ukraine. The discussion initially focuses on what has influenced Barack Obama to say what he said in the speech and one interviewee notes that in the past Obama had read works and was inspired by past American Cold War-era politicians such as Dean Acheson and George Kennan who held anti-Soviet views and advocated “containment” of the USSR. One expert eventually swings the discussion around to what Russia can and should do, which is to focus on its own economic development and progress, and to curb the growth of Bandera worship among Ukrainians. (Stepan Bandera was an infamous Ukrainian nationalist who collaborated with the Nazis, was jailed by them, and after the Second World War worked with British, American and West German intelligence agencies to run agents into Ukraine before eventually being assassinated by Soviet spies who infiltrated West German intelligence.)

The second half of the program becomes considerably animated as host and interviewees decry what they view as shortcomings in Russian society and culture, in particular the shallow materialist culture that took hold during the 1990s with its emphasis on immediate gratification, a consumerist mind-set and the degradation of values, qualities and beliefs that conflicted with the demands of a consumption-based society where people are treated as clients and consumers and not as citizens. Soloviev and his guests all agreed that Russia needs to develop a different economic system that includes its overseas partners in China, Iran, Pakistan and several others in Asia and Latin America, and that the Russian state must improve upon and escalate its manufacturing and engineering sectors. The moral fibre of the nation is also found lacking, evidenced in the high rates of vodka consumption and alcoholism, and the experts agree more must be done to improve people’s lives.

The program is interesting in one way in that it affords Western viewers the opportunity to see what Russians themselves consider to be ideal Sunday evening TV viewing and what the important issues facing their country are. They take quite seriously the threat against them posed by the US and its allies. Russians are deeply aware that there is still a lot they have to do to advance their economy and manufacturing before they are equal to the US. They know they need China’s help and friendship, and the friendship of other countries such as Brazil and India.

The program may be an example of state-controlled TV, and is very mainstream in its views and presentation, but at least it treats its audiences as intelligent and familiar with the topics it presents, and does not talk down to them. The pace is fast and viewers need to concentrate quite closely on what Soloviev and his guests say. The discussion is quite lively and there is no obvious Putin worship that Westerners might have expected. Unfortunately there is no opportunity for the studio audience to ask questions of Soloviev and his guests but this does mean that the program does not get bogged down in confrontational politics. Soloviev is known to detest the so-called liberal opposition forces in Russia who receive funding and instruction from various US agencies such as the National Endowment for Democracy, so presumably the guests who appear on his program will be those public figures who more or less support the current Russian government under President Vladimir Putin and its agenda.

Brain-washing propaganda or not, this particular evening with Soloviev is good viewing and one only wishes that Sunday evening TV viewing in Australia could be even half as good.

Thanks to Vineyard of the Saker for uploading the episode of the TV program onto his website and to his team for translating the Russian dialogue into English and providing sub-titles.