There have been many celebrations about the overthrow of tyrants. We always expect that when the tyrant has gone there will be a flowering of righteousness; that good people will step into the light, take the vacant helm and steer the ship of state onto the right course.
The right course always means our own – of course. In the Western World the right course is towards democracy, capitalism and individual rights. We felt cheated when China adopted our technology and business models, moved into our markets and grew rich, but failed to adopt our politics and morals. That wasn’t the deal! And what about Russia? Iraq? Libya? Myanmar?
Now we rejoice in Joe Biden’s victory. Another tyrant has been overthrown. Will we be disappointed again? Will the unhealthy miasma that produced the phenomenon of Trumpery be blown out to sea by the Bidon/Harris breeze? Or will it linger? Will the honest efforts of good people be brought to nothing by an infection that they barely understand and lack the tools to fight?
Let me change the subject, but only slightly. I have tried to think of an instance where bitter fighting has been brought to an end without a clear victory and decisive defeat. I cannot. Can you?
It was not the US presidential election that prompted me to think along these lines, but the outbreak of war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This is not a new fight. Wikipedia has a good account of its dismal history. Can generations of genuinely-felt grievance be ended at a conference table? Can some outsider mediate a lasting peace? Will a signed piece of paper stop the bloodshed?
I think not. I think one side must win and the other side must lose. Clearly and decisively. Like Donald Trump, the loser will have to surrender before the fighting can stop. Usually this means fighting until one side is too exhausted, broken and broke to carry on. Then a kind of healing can begin. Some of the closest allies were once the bitterest of foes.
And this brings me to a conclusion that surprises me. For all the things that Trump did wrong, history may judge him well for siding uncritically with the Rogue State of Israel, climaxing in a deal with the UAE. Much as one weeps for the dispossession and oppression of the Palestinian people, perhaps they have to accept and acknowledge defeat at their oppressors’ hands before they can heal and rebuild – helped by generous gazillions from Israel’s friends.
A few months ago I had a go at bathroom designers. Now it’s the kitchen designers’ turn. Have a look at the three photographs below. They were taken in the kitchen of my otherwise elegant apartment in central Kyiv…
The first time I opened the far-right cupboard and saw the band-aid solution (close-up in photo 3) I was reminded of a sketch on Spike Milligan’s TV show ‘Q8’ many years ago. Spike was playing the part of a do-it-yourself enthusiast painting vertical stripes on the wall in lieu of wallpaper. When he came to the light switch he painted the stripe around it.
I’m searching for words to compose a neat final paragraph but… well, words fail me.
Note: ‘Kyiv’ is the Latinised version of the Ukrainian spelling of what is more familiarly rendered as ‘Kiev’. Since the Russian annexation of Crimea and military support for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine, written Russian has almost disappeared from public places.
When President Putin is mentioned in the Western press the phrase ‘former KGB officer’ is often thrown in, presumably to remind readers that this man is smart, wily and not to be trusted. Such a reminder is probably unnecessary. It might be more useful to insert the reminder that he’s a black belt in judo. I Googled ‘principles of judo strategy’ and came up with the following:
Principle #3 Exploit leverage that uses the weight and strategy of opponents against them. Movement and flexibility are prerequisites for judo strategy. They’re crucial to keeping the competition off balance, and they prevent large competitors from dominating smaller, more vulnerable opponents.
This is the principle at the core of President Putin’s success. He looks at the Western allies, which are collectively many times more powerful than the Russian Federation, both economically and militarily. But he sees their weaknesses and understands how to exploit them to his own advantage.
Chief among these weaknesses are democracy, respect for the rule of law, short-termism and a love of comfort. We will make any compromise, betray any promise and scuff out any ‘line in the sand’ to avoid unfavourable poll numbers, shortages, unemployment, encroachment on citizens’ freedoms, accusations of political incorrectness, or armed conflict that might result in a lot of body bags – body bags containing the bodies of our own people, that is.
One could add another to that list: rejection of the nation state as a political ideal. But that’s a big topic that calls for a separate post.
Disclosure: I am working in Ukraine at the moment, and I have every sympathy for Ukraine’s position over Crimea and its eastern parts that are effectively occupied by the Russian Federation. So Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is not my friend.
People tend to conform unconsciously to their national stereotypes when they are abroad or when they are interacting with foreigners. The Italians behave excitedly; the Germans are stolid and efficient; the British are polite and orderly (unless they are football hooligans, who constitute a special case outside the scope of this post).
I saw a great example of this today. Mrs SG and I are on a cruise in the Baltic and this morning we went ashore in St Petersburg. We had already gone ashore in Denmark, Sweden and Finland, where immigration formalities were handled by P&O and we just tripped down the gangway clutching our cameras, but in Russia we had to go through Immigration Control. I cannot speak for all the immigration officers but ours was straight from Central Casting: she was surly, unsmiling and rude. (This is a stock photo of a male immigration officer, just to add a little atmosphere and colour.)
That may be her natural disposition of course, but I prefer to believe that she is normally sunny, charming and witty, given to practical jokes and uploading kitten videos to YouTube. It’s only when she puts on her uniform and has to represent her country to a shipload of foreigners that a voice in her head says, “Now then, Natasha, you are a Russian official. You know what people expect from you. Don’t let them down!”
I have met one immigration official who was ruder than Natasha (that’s not her real name by the way – or perhaps it is, I don’t know her real name). It happened when I crossed the border from Ukraine into Transnistria. Transnistria is a sliver of Moldovan territory occupied by rebels who, since they are of Russian ethnicity, enjoy Russian Government protection. National Stereotype Conformance Syndrome again.
Have you seen other examples of NSCS? Please share them!
PS I should add that we encountered only friendly people once we had passed through Immigration Control. There was the man at an open-air bar beside a public toilet, who didn’t want to change a dollar bill but gave us 20 roubles out of the till so we could have a pee. Three young soldiers were happy to pose for a photo with Mrs SG beside the historic warship Aurora. When we tried to blow our few remaining roubles on ice-creams outside the Hermitage our three scoops weighed more than we could afford – so the man carefully scraped some back into his tub and re-weighed. When the bill came to less than our little pile of notes and coins he insisted on giving us the proper change (which was enough for another pee-and-a-half).