guaranteeing soviet borders

A map of Crimea (1922)

THINGS ARE LOOKING SHAKY in Europe’s East. It seems that the Russian Federation has adopted a policy of trying to destabilize the new government in Kiev by questioning its authority and right to exist. To what end, I do not know, because it is clear that European, American, and other powers recognize that new government’s legitimacy. But deposed President Yanukovich is asserting his continued status as the country’s legal president, and his messages are being circulated by Russian state-owned news media. Meantime, masked gunmen have been seizing control of buildings in Crimea. We are warned against separatism in Ukraine’s south and east, and are holding the air in our lungs, fearing an escalating conflict over Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

The trouble with the concept of territorial integrity in the post-Soviet countries, is that the borders of the countries were drawn by Stalin and others specifically to foster internal divisions that would keep any of the republics from achieving goals of independence based on specific, national concerns. The most legendary case of this is in the resource rich Fergana Valley in Central Asia, which is split between Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, making it an obvious source of contention for all three countries. Most of this mapmaking was done in Moscow, and with a quick stroke of Comrade Stalin’s pen, land became Ukrainian, or Uzbek, or Tajik. And now, more than sixty years after Stalin died, teenagers must bear arms, and diplomats must issue warnings, to defend the territorial integrity of the nonviable republics he created — states that were created to fail should they try to achieve and maintain independence.

While anybody who cares about anybody on Russia’s borders cringes at the idea of Russian expansion, we may eventually have to step back from our stalwart defense of, say, Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and ask ourselves hard questions about the creation of these states, and how they managed to produce so many of such problems — so-called “frozen” conflicts that just happen to flare up from time to time. Will the government in Kiev risk a war with Russia over a peninsula inhabited by people who do not want to be ruled by Kiev, just for the sake of the ideal of territorial integrity? Will young people have to die to defend borders that are, by their very constitution, unsustainable? How far should we go to defend Stalinist cartography? Is it even worth it?

Some things to consider.

the ansip years

"Ansip, born in Tartu in 1956, perhaps best reflects the ideal Estonian leader."
“Ansip perhaps best reflects the ideal Estonian leader.”

I LEARNED A LOT about my wife’s people, the Estonians, from Prime Minister Andrus Ansip. When I look back, to how much I thought I knew about them in 2005 when he was named prime minister after two years of chaotic ministerial sackings and resignations under his predecessor, Juhan Parts, I am astonished by my then ignorance of the supporting cast of our lives.

The Estonians, a small nationality of 1.3 million, resident on a piece of land about the size of Vermont, New Hampshire, and some of Maine put together. If you look at it via satellite, you will see that Estonia is a peninsula, surrounded by water on three sides. And if you count those marshes in the south of the country that separate it from Latvia, it becomes a true island, for these are people with an island mentality.  For the Estonians, there is but Estonia. They travel with gusto to exotic locales, but with the main objective of reporting back to the other Estonians about what it’s like out there or to compare notes with other Esto adventurers.

One other thing you should know about the Estonians, is that they are inconvenient. Nobody ever wanted them to exist. The Germans tried to make them Lutherans and gave them German-sounding names, the Russians tried to convert them to Orthodoxy and gave them Russian-sounding names, the Nazis wanted to salvage the most racially similar parts of the population for breeding and murder or enslave the rest, and the Soviets tried to erase large parts of the local population via deportation and replenish the stock with reliable Russophone workers. And yet the Estonians clung to their roots, like obstinate head lice, and one of the reasons they still exist is because they are a  stubborn, insubordinate lot that have convinced themselves that they are right, even when they are wrong, and will continue into strong headwinds and against snowy storms if they believe it to be the correct direction.

In short, they are a lot like Andrus Ansip, for Ansip, born in Tartu in 1956, perhaps best reflects the ideal Estonian leader. To begin with, he’s a man, and in Estonia, the men are still believed to possess awesome powers of logic and reason that make them preferable to the women, with their rash, emotional decisions and unsettling vanity. Ansip had that that determined patrician’s squint, in some ways similar to George W. Bush’s resolute pucker, except that Ansip wasn’t faking it when he answered a question about taxation policies while strapping on his cross-country skiing gear. He would stare off somewhere behind the interviewer and speak in slow, declarative cadences, and we would all know that Ansip was the kind of man who would, say, amputate his own arm should it get stuck under a boulder, and not shed a tear about it, “because it made sense and it was the right thing to do.” The Estonians have a word, kindel, which can mean “certain” and “secure.” Ansip seemed to embody both meanings.

This certainty certainly got him into trouble at times. About two years into his tenure as prime minister, he encountered a colossal shit storm known as the Bronze Soldier. This was a calamity of diarrheaic intensity. In Ansip’s certain mind, there was a problem, a Soviet war memorial in the center of Tallinn, and a solution, moving it to a nearby war cemetery. And that should have been the end of it. It wasn’t exactly, and many blamed the chaos and violence that circled and followed its removal on Ansip’s own Estonian myopia, but in the end, it was removed, and he even laid flowers at its feet, with the more sensitive and emotive (and pretty) Population Minister Urve Palo clutching his arm. 

When that was over, the economy tanked, and euro adoption was delayed, and many called on Ansip to step down. But he didn’t budge. At a time when Swedish financiers were urging devaluation of the currency, Estonia underwent something called an “internal devaluation.” The real estate holdings, which had fueled the long boom, lost much of their worth, and many people found themselves paying off mortgages that were three or four times the amount of what their apartments and houses would now sell for, but euro adoption was achieved, and Estonia became “more European,” which was good. Andrus Ansip — the man who removed a controversial Stalin-era war monument, undertook an internal devaluation, and led his country into the common currency at the time it degenerated into crisis. And yet he did not blink, because he knew he was leading his country in the correct direction.

As his time in office wore on, people began to suspect that Ansip was a new Konstantin Päts, in reference to the Estonian president who led the country from 1934 to 1940 (a long stretch for a state so accustomed to turnover in politics, but three years short of Ansip’s reign). They even poked fun at his name, rendering it as the perverse homophone, “Undress Unzip.” And yet as much as they grumbled about a new Päts or Unzip’s “father knows best” approach to politics, the same people savored it, because they preferred that kindel certainty to the revolving cast of characters they had known in the years prior. While Latvia burned through Prime Ministers Aigars Kalvītis, Ivars Godmanis, Valdis Dombrovskis, and Laimdota Straujuma, Estonia had only one: Ansip. And as long as the Estonians could feel they were outdoing the Latvians, they could feel content about their place in the world.

Ansip even stayed in office for so long that the Russians forgot a bit about that Bronze Soldier thing and started doing business with him again. A border treaty, which disappeared into a puff of smoke in Putin’s chimney after some disagreements in 2005, was revived and signed anew just a few weeks ago in Moscow by Foreign Minister Urmas Paet and his Russian Federation counterpart Sergei Lavrov (who was also holding the same exact position in 2005). And then it became known that Siim Kallas, the founder of Ansip and Paet’s Reform Party, had tired of life of his life as a commissioner in Brussels, and wanted to come back to Estonia, to lead his party in the 2015 elections. And Kallas’s desire at last prompted Ansip to do what no monument scandal, economic crisis, or any other very big problem he had encountered during those long nine years could force him to do. 

He resigned.

that tiny, grimy gem of truth

“Beware of any messianic political figures who are, innately, the right person to lead their country forward into the light of the West.”

IT’S DISHEARTENING to come across opinion pieces from self-described left-leaning media sources that are critical of what has happened in Ukraine. They are regurgitating Kremlin talking points about a US or EU coup, about the resurgence of antisemitic ultra-nationalist groups, even recycling World War II propaganda about pogroms and Nazi-allied partisans.

To any of my friends who think of themselves as progressives, I think we should be aware that Kremlin disinformation campaigns have used left-leaning Western media for decades. We should also remember that the Kremlin in those years was never our friend, and some of the first people on Lenin’s hit lists were social democrats {“traitors to socialism who would castrate Marxism”}. But too many of us have eaten it up, unquestioningly. Because if our own corporate media is lying to us, then this other media must be correct, right? Right????

Putin is no Communist, but he represents a state built on the foundation of the USSR, with many of the same ideological underpinnings, memes, and channels of delivering information. And the propaganda against foreign meddlers and Ukrainian “fascists” is exactly the kind of tripe that would have been published in Pravda in the 1930s. Word for word. Putin never reinvented the Kremlin’s arsenal of disinformation, you see. They upgraded the channels of delivering it, but the logic behind it remains the same. So, what you hear coming from the Kremlin and its Western dispensers is just that: recycled propaganda. And the thing about leftovers, is that you can only reheat them so many times before they lose their flavor, or go bad and start to ferment. Which is why it pains me to even read these warmed up dishes of Stalinist junk food. I can’t stomach it.

And you shouldn’t either. Any mention of “fascism” or World War II should be a clue that you are dealing with something very antiquated and tied to long-debunked belief systems. It’s been 70 years since Mussolini and Hitler walked the earth, and 70 years since that war to end all wars. Seventy years is a long time, especially when you consider that many of the victims of those sharpshooters on Maidan were 22 or 23 years old. If your well-meaning progressive friends start using these terms, it’s probably best to take them aside, grip them by the collar, and shake them, until that fragile connection with reality is remade.

I am like you, though. I’m a skeptic. While some are bathing in the golden light of freedom and hope, I’ve got my hands in my pockets, whistling in the corner. Whenever I hear the word “freedom” or “freedom fighters,” I become suspicious. Smells too much like Nicaragua, right? And so many of the cheerleaders of the ouster of the Yanukovich government in Ukraine are the same people who told us that Iraq would be a cakewalk, and that we would be welcomed as liberators, and that their oil would fund their recovery. Just because the Kremlin is deluding itself with yesteryear’s golden nuggets of Stalinist propaganda, doesn’t mean their right-wing counterparts across the seas aren’t also living in a fantasy land. I would caution you to beware of grand narratives of “freedom and democracy” sweeping aside the old order in Ukraine and making over everything with wonderful and glistening neon signs from Western chain stores.

Also beware of any messianic political figures who are, innately, the right person to lead their country forward into the light of the West. How many times have we seen this? In an unstable, incomprehensible situation, a magical leader rises to the surface, with an iconic look and catchy name, and we put all of our faith into this one person to fix everything? The mainstream media outlets repeat that name over and over again, until it becomes synonymous with all that is just and good in the world, until it turns out that this modern day Moses is actually just as corrupt as the stooges he or she replaced.

What you have in Ukraine is a very messy situation. The crooked stooge Yanukovich is gone and the politically motivated murder has stopped, but there are still a lot of different interests (and yes, ultra-nationalist groups were one of them) and it remains to be seen where this will all lead. Whatever is happening there, though, it is not over, and it will be very difficult for the average person to grasp it all as it takes place (I’d wager that it’s perhaps tough for the average Ukrainian to know everything). So, don’t trust anybody — not your own media, not left-leaning media regurgitating Kremlin talking points, not the Kremlin-owned media itself (I wouldn’t even want to know what the Russian state-owned TV channel RT is broadcasting, though I am sure some musty, worm-eaten phrases from the Stalinist era have been put back into rotation). The best bet is to read as much as possible from as many sources as possible. Poke with care through the piles of a propaganda dung in search for that tiny, grimy gem of truth.

It’s in there, I swear. In there somewhere.

a kayak full of ghosts

“IN THE TIME of floods and earthquakes, there was only one woman in all the world and she lived off by herself on a rocky island. She was an angakok who’d made her penis into a vagina. Her name was Putu, Hole, and she was quite pretty as well.”

Each night I read myself off into the dreamland,  with Lawrence Millman’s  A Kayak Full of Ghosts as my swinging lantern. It’s a collection of Eskimo tales, and it was published in 1980, which makes it feel safe and cozy and childlike to me. I remember watching a film called Iceman that was made around that time, about a group of explorers at an arctic base who thaw out a prehistoric man and resuscitate him.

You could say this book has had the same effect on me, brought my internal ancient being back to life. For these are very primordial stories, those strange urges you feel in between dreams and lucidity, laid out in parables about walruses and seals, narwhals and giants, entrails and shit piles, cavernous vaginas and corpses. There’s even a tale called, “Him-Whose-Penis-Stretches-Down-to-His-Knees.” I think I once had that dream, too, though I never dared to speak of it. It was very hard to ride a bicycle in that dream, though.

Or, sometimes when I see Inuk throat singer Tagaq grunting I have those same bloody, pounding recollections. Tagaq, who I saw in Viljandi at the Pärimusmuusika Ait. Yet these days, when America is spelunking about in the underground caverns of its homosexual regions, I am left feeling that my own delirium, my core hetero heart, is dismissed as ordinary, or not that important. My own subliminal furies  are like the frozen Greenlandic wastes — people look at it and yawn and say, “But there are no trees up there,” or, “It’s covered in ice.”

That’s all. But I believe there is much more to it than that, and this book is like an old treasure map for us last few adventurers. It’s leading me somewhere, I think. But not into myself. Into the pulsing, sinewy substrata that connects us.

washing the dishes never got me going either

“DOES A MORE EQUAL MARRIAGE MEAN LESS SEX?” So ponders Lori Gottlieb of The New York Times. It seems, upon reading, that women prefer us men when we’re all sweaty after a hard day’s work, or a workout at the gym, rather than when we are sweeping up broken toys or washing pots and pans or folding the laundry. “The greater the husband’s share of masculine chores compared with feminine ones, the greater his wife’s satisfaction.”

For the most part, I agree, except when it comes to cooking, because I don’t think that making food is a “feminine” activity. I started cooking not only because I was encouraged to by a feminist mother, but also because I was hungry, and I thought that I could make a better meal than most of the ones available to me. So, I’ll be damned if womankind is going to steal “cooking” from me as a “feminine chore.” I mean, seriously, fuck you. And don’t ask me. Ask Clemenza and Michael Corleone. In this classic scene from The Godfather, Clemenza instructs young Michael on the nuances of making the sauce. “Come over here, kid. Learn something. You never know. You might have to cook for 20 guys some day. Start out with a little bit of oil. Then you fry some garlic. Then you throw in some tomatoes, tomato paste. You fry it, you make sure it doesn’t stick. When it comes to a boil, you shove in all of your sausages and meatballs. Add a little bit of wine. And a little bit of sugar. And it’s perfect.”

Anyway, The New York Times piece was supposed to be provocative. We have been raised to think of egalitarian couplings as ideal. Yet egalitarianism might lead to a lackluster love life, and that can’t be good in this world where we are all expected to be everything and have everything. Yet after reading it, I have to agree with it, not because I endorse old school divisions of labor, but because, apart from cooking, doing the dishes and laundry has never got me going either. Washing a frying pan is tedious, folding towels is dull. And I don’t think there was one time when I felt like, “God, all of this vacuuming of the living room is really turning me on.” These are activities that frustrate a person, not make them more likely to head for the sheets. I do remember when I was out shoveling snow all morning in Estonia, though, that when I was finished, certain primitive synapses rewired themselves, and there was less thinking and more forward motion. My female counterpart, meantime, who was seated in the same position as when I left her, was now radiant and gorgeous. So, something very funny was going on, and shoveling snow had something to do with it.

There was also that time I cycled across Vormsi Island, and then went into the cafe to purchase a beverage to quench my thirst. I had sweat stains all over my shirt and smelled like a horse and spoke with the demanding, rapid-fire cadence of a psychotic, but I did sense a tingling curiosity from the otherwise alarmed seller behind the counter, something like, “Holy shit, I better give this guy his Evian or else.” Or else nothing. But I am sure it was the most memorable bottle of Evian she sold all week.