Archive for the ‘Russia’ Category
New York- I recently interviewed Ambassador Vlad Lupan, Moldova’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, here in his Manhattan office for IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review (subscription required). Though the finished product was a succinct summary of the present day challenges Moldova faces between Putin’s incipient Customs Union project and the hopes of its Western-leaning coalition government of joining the EU’s common market, our discussion went far beyond the first half of 2014 and the upcoming signing–along with Georgia–of the EU Association Agreement this week.
Our lengthy discussion into some detail on the ‘frozen’ Transdniester conflict along Moldova’s eastern frontier with Ukraine as well as the nature of the Turkic Gagauz minority’s autonomous politics in Moldova’s southeast. Moldova is a country often little understood in the broader Western mind (and is still referred to by some rather anachronistically as ‘Moldavia’ which can result in a degree of collective confusion).
One of Ambassador Lupan’s concern’s involved the influence of pro-Kremlin or outright Kremlin-controlled media outlets. As his country grapples with the prospect of broader European integration, Moldova’s separatist-minded peoples or those hailing from rural or elderly demographic cohorts holding on the the vestiges of what he termed “Soviet nostalgia” may feel that they have much to lose should their state turn its back on Russia by leaning too far West too rapidly. s We’re witnessing to this wistfulness for a Soviet time gone by to some degree in swaths of Ukraine’s industrial and mineral-rich Donbas region in a good many media reports this year.
Ukraine is currently plagued by an incredibly unhelpful lexicon that draws from everything from the battle for Stalingrad to the Russo-Chechen wars. With competing sides painting their opponents as ‘fascists‘ and ‘terrorists’ respectively, a civil society-based solution to the crisis-cum-conflict seems increasingly unlikely from a pessimistic-inflected vantage.
The Republic of Moldova most certainly has a stake in the outcome of events in Ukraine. The port city of Odessa is Transdniester’s oxygen valve to the wider world. After Crimea, Tiraspol’s retrograde Soviet-esque authorities have made known their separatism for accession to the apparently now expanding Russian Federation.
Though a non-contiguous sliver of land that cannot connect to Russia unless all of Ukraine were to somehow become a constituent region in a kind of Crimea scenario writ large, perhaps Transdniester elites imagine their unrecognized state as an outpost of Russian rule akin to Moscow’s Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad. Kaliningrad currently sandwiched between EU and NATO member states Poland and Lithuania. exists today essentially as a geopolitical relict of the aftermath of the Second World War
Between the agreement to be signed this week and elections scheduled for the end of November coupled with no end in sight for the violent conflict in its eastern neighbor, Moldova may be entering a period of heightened uncertainty as its pro-EU leadership attempts to move toward Brussels while Putin’s Customs Union awkwardly coalesces.
New York- I appeared on BBC Arabic’s Newnight programme last week with presenter Malak Jaafar and Elena Suponina of the Russian International Affairs Council. The debate kicked off with the framing of the tension in Ukraine as one of the pro-EU Ukrainian-speaking, Catholic west of the country versus the more Orthodox east dominated by native Russian-speakers bordering the Russian Federation. But as we know, it is far more complex than that. Take in Ukraine’s own localized geopolitical and historic place:
Within its own region, Ukraine is a veritable geographic hub surrounded by once Soviet or Eastern Bloc spokes. Western Ukraine borders more recent EU accession states like Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania. But to the north western Ukraine abuts authoritarian Belarus, oft dubbed “Europe’s last dictatorship” where President Alexander Lukashenko has been in power for 20 years. On western Ukraine’s far southwestern frontier is the bizarrely anachronistic Soviet-esque ‘Republic of Trans-Dniester‘ a (also known as Transnistria) a sliver of land east of the Dniester River which broke away from Moldova after a brief 1991-1992 conflict shortly after the USSR’s dissolution. Northern Moldova proper borders Ukraine. And I suppose most notably, Ukraine borders the Russian Federation to its east which considers itself the hub and Ukraine one of its spokes.
Part of the spark for the EuroMaidan protest movement was now ousted President Viktor Yanukovych’s backing out of entering the beginning of an EU Association Agreement before the November 2013 Vilnius Eastern Partnership Summit under Kremlin pressure.
Georgia and Moldova, which both have Russian-protected secessionist regions, did initial the early stage of this framework which is meant to ease visa restrictions on citizens of the signatory states and encourage a broader free trade zone on the EU’s outskirts. But as the EuroMaidan crisis dragged on through December and January, the mood became increasing bitter.
After some 78 people were killed in Kiev’s now infamous square, a friend there messaged me to clarify: “now we don’t fight for Europe, we fight for our rights and democracy! We forgot about that association [agreement] with Europe.”
Alas, to say that the debate over Ukraine’s place in the geopolitical sphere can be neatly bisected into a compartimentalized east-and-west dynamic is not entirely useful as a starting point of argumentation. Though live television with its intensity and time constraints often doesn’t leave so much room for nuance.
On the broadcast I stated that I felt the immediate struggle for the future of the country was not a binary east-west one but that the immediate trouble would be between Kiev and Simferopol, Crimea’s capital in addition to the obvious conundrum of the port of Sevastopol being the home of Russia’s Black Sea fleet. The following morning, my concerns became an apparent reality.
The situation in Crimea has so far been a rather muted stalemate but the danger lies in Russian forces creating facts on the ground. while the international diplomatic community shuttles around. Ukraine’s acting president Oleksander Turchinov made an analogy with the Russian occupation of Abkhazia in a televised speech. A contact of mine in the Georgian diplomatic corps informed me that his colleagues in Tbilisi were watching events in Ukraine very closely and that such [predictable] Russian provocations were all the more reason for Georgian accession to NATO.
And while the comparisons between Crimea and Abkhazia are not perfectly precise in terms of local ethnic politics–no analogy is perfect–the overall Russian strategy may be read from the same playbook. Under the pretext of protecting a client population, Moscow may yet create another statelet while Kiev remains in disarray. Putin fears and loathes former Soviet states joining Western security and economic architectures, namely NATO and the EU in Brussels. He seeks to re-create a realm under his own control be it the Customs Union or the Eurasian Union. He had hoped to twist Kiev’s arm into joining the Customs Union but EuroMaidan did away with all that.
One clever thing Mr. Putin has done is that by keeping states once ruled by Moscow divided and with Russian troops on their territories, it has made Western decision makers tepid about full integration with these states. Ever fearful of an actual direct hot war confrontation with the standard bearers of the Kalashnikov–something that was avoided during the most arduous years of the Cold War, no Western military is at all eager to challenge Russian forces on land or at sea. Integrating Moldova into the EU or Georgia into NATO is tricky when leaders in Brussels must think through the ‘Russian troops factor’ the the breakaway territories of those two states.
Now Ukraine–which already had the Russian Navy more or less peacefully being hosted on its territory–may indeed be grappling with an incipient yet irreversible future frozen conflict if the crisis in Crimea is not immediately resolved. What happens in Ukraine today may well affect Georgia, Moldova and other vulnerable post-Soviet states with unresolved issues from the 1990s that the Kremlin can turn to its advantage opportunistically if need be.
I remember speaking to a Moldovan diplomat last year who described growing up outside Tiraspol and how she lamented the essentially lost idea of a truly united Moldova. Putin may not at all be an eloquent uniter, but he is an agile divider in the post-Soviet periphery.
New York- The Sochi Olympics currently plod awkwardly ahead, the trendy stories have tended to be about the brand new, dilapidated hotels confounding journalists and athletes alike in this modern day “Potemkin village” and gay rights or lack thereof in the Russian Federation. These two themes have been largely dominating the spectrum of the ethical debate that has been surrounding the games for some time. Last week I decided to post my reportage on Buzzfeed (linked to screen grab I’ve posted below) along the “Administrative Boundary Line” that serves as the de facto border separating the ‘Republic’ of South Ossetia and the Republic of Georgia in the South Caucasus region.
In addition to all this mess, the games are also occurring under threat from Doku Umarov’s Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate) which has ostensibly sought to garner world attention with a trio of bombings in Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad) which were automatically attributed to it by Russian security services. All in all, not an ideal location for a world sporting event meant to bring in prestige and hard currency.
Perhaps the most troubling ethical issue at present is that “Olympic Coastal Cluster,” transforming the village of Adler on the Black Sea is within walking distance to the banks of the Psou River. The Psou separates Russia proper from Russian-occupied Abkhazia which is internationally recognized as Georgia territory despite decades of quasi independence after a civil war there in the early 1990s. In internationalist speak, ‘occupation’ has been a dirty word for quite some time and is employed ubiquitously when describing the West Bank today and Gaza before the Israeli withdrawal in 2005.
Evidenced by the recent controversy over the actress Scarlett Johansson promoting Soda Stream, an Israeli company that operates a manufacturing plant on an Isaraeli settlement in the West Bank, ‘occupied’ is most often an electric term, at least when employed by activists decrying injustice in the post-war Levant. Within Georgia, Sochi-adjacent Abkhazia and South Ossetia that abuts the Russian-adminstered Republic of North Ossetia are commonly referred to as “occupied territories” to little effect outside the political spectrum of the immediate region.
This has partly to do with the incredible complexity of the the ethno-lingustic patchwork of the broader Caucasus region when compared with the binary Israeli-Palestinian dispute that is known across the world. And it is partly due to ignorance of the so-called “frozen conflicts” of the South Caucasus (unlike the hot conflict to the north). Alas, there has been no great global outcry to boycott the Winter Olympics that has managed to gather steam. Although some Abkhaz may be grateful from Russia’s protection from a militarily weak Georgia, aside from the export of gravel for flimsy construction projects, Abkhazia has almost nothing to benefit from Putin’s $50 billion-plus extravaganza practically on their shores.
The other under-emphasized ethical issue with the games is that they are occurring on land that the global Circassian diaspora claims is the site of their genocide exactly 150 years ago in the winter of 1864 when it is alleged the czarist forces ethnically cleansed the Circassian people from what is now Russia’s Krasnodar Krai.
Despite the best efforts of Circassian advocacy groups such as “No Sochi 2014” to bring attention to the horrors their people faced during Russia’s violent conquest of the Caucasus, other than write ups from a cadre of sympathetic journalists and historians, No Sochi has sadly gained little actionable traction such as a mass boycott of the event by participant countries. Jimmy Carter’s boycott of the 1980 Summer Games in then Soviet Moscow in reaction to the Soviet invasion of independent Afghanistan is looked upon today as a bout of foolhardy diplomacy.
Nonetheless, there are plenty of people who hoped some sort of mass global outrage would suddenly materialize after a hard fought grass roots campaign and perhaps at least deter the mainstream media from glorifying Putin’s vanity project just by their presence on the Black Sea coast, even if they are poking fun at hotel oddities.
New York- When news broke on December 8 of organized protestors toppling a Lenin statue in Kiev, after pro-Moscow (generally speaking) President Viktor Yanukovych abandoned the EU Association Agreement in what is believed to have been under Kremlin pressure at the recent EU summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, some people were surprised that some 22 years after the Soviet collapse a Lenin would still be standing in Kiev in 2013.
Disenfranchised Ukrainians subsequently took to the streets in protest to demand more integration with the EU, cooling of ties with Russia, and that President Yanukovych step down. Many in western Ukraine do not want their country to forever be an economic vassal state to suzerain Moscow. Even if that Lenin had stood still after 1991, one might think that after the 2004 Orange Revolution (Помаранчева революція) that any works of Soviet socialist realist art would have been eradicated in Ukraine but not so. Nor in many other places in formerly Soviet lands.
So pervasive is Lenin’s stoic gaze that he may show up just when you think he’s gone. In June 2010 when I was reporting on the anti-Uzbek pogrom in Osh, Kyrgyzstan there stood a massive Lenin statue untouched in a square outside the city’s main ministry building (where I was meant to get a journo accreditation but never did when I felt it was too convoluted a process). As this blog somewhat humorously shows, Lenin statues, many of them quite sizable, are still found throughout the post-Soviet space.
Lenin and his much more horrifying successor Stalin–like Mao in today’s China–are at nowhere near the level of vilification as Hitler, though it is commonly believed that many more were killed in Stalin’s USSR and Mao’s PRC than the parts of Europe in the relatively brief throes of Hitlerism. Stalin’s and Mao’s respective rules each lasted for several decades.
Though of course the adulation of Lenin, Stalin and Mao has been greatly toned down over the years, their bitter legacies are still felt in much of Eurasia today. Case in point: I was reading a recent article in Outside Magazine (“The Sochi Olympics Are a Five-Ring Mess”) about the upcoming Winter Games and it featured an image of Stalin’s dacha in Krasnodar krai with a wax figure of “The man of steel” sitting at the desk of one of his favorite retreats. So the Winter Olympics will be held in place where Stalin is insufficiently demonized I suppose.
Can one imagine going to Berlin or Obersalzberg today and seeing a dull wax figure of the author of Mein Kampf being passively celebrated? And in the lead up to a major international sporting event no less?
When I visited Gori in central Georgia in 2009 (see the post “Hollywood Comes to Gori“) as the Finnish director Renny Harlin was recreating the August 2008 war that occurred barely a year earlier, there stood a giant statue of Stalin in Gori’s main square as a backdrop of Harlin’s abysmal flop Five Days of War.
Mikheil Saakashvili tore down the above statue of the hideous Soviet dictator in Gori in 2010 but others in Georgia are defiantly planning on re-errecting it, partly to humiliate the former president and partly to perhaps bring in tourist dollars via a depressing attraction. It’s just hard to shake some of these guys. They are so 20th century.
In the wake of the fall of the Lenin statue in Kiev, I randomly met a young guy from Tiraspol, the capitol of the unrecognized Republic of Trans-Dniester (which broke away from Moldova during and after the Soviet collapse) the other week. Of course for those who know just a shred about Tiraspol and its retrograde Lenin-idolatry regime, then you know that there is a heck of a big Lenin statue there today in front of the parliament building in the city’s main square. I asked him not only how he got to the United States, but how he left Trans-Dniester with a passport not even accepted by the Russians as Trans-Dniester is only recognized by the mostly un-reocgnized Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabagh in the South Caucasus.
He told me that as an ethnic Ukrainian he was able to obtain citizenship in that country as well as a passport valid for international travel and that the Black Sea port of Odessa with its international airport is the lifeline for young Trans-Dinistrians trying to leave their ideologically anachronistic mini state. “Everyone needs either a Russian or Ukrainian passport to get out. And our airport is only for military flights so we have to travel by land to Ukraine to leave” he told me.
Not much is really understood about this very obscure, very non-EU corner of Europe but for years Trans-Dniester has been said to be a source point for both arms and human trafficking in the Black Sea region.
After I mentioned that he was the first Trans-Dnistrian I’d ever met in the U.S., he smilingly replied “and you’re the first person here who has ever heard of my country and our capital.” In Ukraine the Euromaindan protests go on, but in neighboring Tiraspol all is quiet on the pseudo-Soviet front. Russia may have military footholds in Moldova and Georgia’s breakaway regions, but at least Chișinău and Tbilisi will be able to sign EU Asssociation Agreements of their own free will.
New York- In the two weeks since the tragic double bombing of the Boston marathon with improvised explosive devices, the media has fixated on the ethnic and religious background of the Tsarnaev brothers of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Though various mass casualty attacked have been carried out in the United States in the past year, media outlets did not fixate on whether James Eagan Holmes, who killed 12 people in Aurora, Colorado or Adam Lanza, who killed 26 people in Newtown, Connecticut were Protestants or Catholics nor what their precise ostensibly ethnic European backgrounds were. But the fact that Tamarlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were ethnic Chechens and [I would think Sufi] Muslims while also not being native-born Americans has become an obsession of U.S. national media which has almost no knowledge of the history nor present dynamics of the North Caucasus region of which Chechnya is a central part.
In the wake of the Boston attacks and with the Sochi Winter Olympic Games just 10 months away and the insurgency’s western most fringe not far with just 250 kilometers (155 miles) drive separating Sochi and Nalchik, it may behoove some of the ultra ambitious yet very young D.C. jihadi wonks or overnight area experts in the Dupont Circle-Think Tank Row (Massachusetts Avenue) zone to read up on some of this stuff before inadvertently advancing an FSB narrative on the North Caucasus.
With so many people suddenly thrust in writing about a region with which they appear to have only the faintest familiarity (judging by for instance referring to Dagestan as “Russia” rather than as a constituent republic of the Russian Federation), it struck me that a minimal reading list might be useful.
This is by no means meant to be a comprehensive list but more of books in my collection the influenced me into the intrigue that is the Caucasus region. A longer list would have to begin with Anatol Lieven’s Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power which was published only months before the start of the second war in 1999 or say Thomas de Waal and Carolotta Gall’s Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus all the way to Emma Gilligan’s Terror in Chechnya: Russia and the Tragedy of Civilians in War.
Here is my very short Chechnya/North Caucasus reading list in no particular order as drawn from my personal library:
I stumbled upon an autographed copy of the incredible book in New York’s legendary strand bookstore not long after returning to the U.S. from covering the Afghanistan war in the fall of 2001. With a classic James Nachtwey cover photo catching my eye in the book stacks, I quickly became enthralled with the story of Chechnya forever. Part of the reason I went to the first D.C. conference I ever attended was because Ms. Politkovskaya was slated to be a speaker. Disappointed she wasn’t actually there, all day throughout the conference I wondered what happened to her.
Finally a very frustrated audience member shouted out that she didn’t come to Washington because she had been threatened by the Kremlin that were she to speak about war crimes in Chechnya to [an anti-Kremlin] D.C. crowd, she would not be allowed to return to Russia (she was a dual Russian/American citizen). She was then killed by a “control shot” less than three years later while entering her Moscow apartment building.
This analysis of the first Chechen war (December 1994-August 1996) and the early stages of the second war beginning in the fall of 1999 discusses the role (or lack thereof) of international law in the Chechen conflict and what it meant for the future of democratization in the Russian Federation. Done from an in-depth sociological angle, Evangelista examines the broader problems inherent to Russian federalism when faced with ethnic and regional nationalisms in places other than Chechnya such as Tatarstan, Bashkortostan and even Sakhalin island facing the Sea of Okhotsk. A fascinating read.
Nearly all of the books in my collection on Chechnya have covers and are illustrated by black and white photography. The Chechen wars were perhaps the last great era of black and white photojournalism before the American intervention in Afghanistan after 9/11 heralded in the mainstreaming of digital photography writ large. The defining photography book of both Chechen war is Open Wound by Stanley Greene by Trolley Books of London. As a fellow photographer, I cannot recommend this stunning, chilling book highly enough.
This book by veteran Caucasus correspondent Goltz is centered around in the notorious Samashki massacre that took place in April 1995 near Chechnya’s eastern border with Ingushetia. Goltz’s book, a sort of sequel-at least in title anyway-to his earlier Azerbaijan Diary, is a real journo’s type of book. It contrasts the viciousness of war and it attendant crimes with the banal egotism and tiresome logistical challenges of getting a tough story out of a deadly environment.
My current read about the disappearance of The Open Society Institute’s Fred Cuny who was on his way to Bamut, Chechnya in February 1995 and was never seen again. With a stark cover photo diptych by the above mentioned Stanley Greene, this book reads like a fictious thriller save for the scary fact that it is real.
6. A Small Corner of Hell-Dispatches from Chechnya by Anna Politkovskaya
Politkovskaya’s 2003 follow up to a A Dirty War with a dramatic cover photo by Dutch photojournalist Eddy van Wessel. Hard to read but of course well worth it.
7, To Catch a Tartar: Notes from the Caucasus by Chris Bird
A memoir of the chaos taking place in the post-Soviet Transcaucasus of the 1990s by a former AFP and AP Tbilisi-based correspondent with cover photos by my colleague Thomas Dworzak. This book focuses not solely on the first Russo-Chechen war but also on the tumult in Georgia and even a bit on Abkhazia-which are essential to understanding the overall situation in the greater Caucasus region today.
Griffin’s book explore the legacy of the legendary ethnic-Avari anti-colonial warrior Imam Shamil from a sector of Avaristan in what is now Dagestan. Griffin writes about the difficult sectarian and communal history of the Caucasus ending with the rise of the late Shamil Basaev, named after the 19th century Sunni Avari resistance leader.
Smith, an AFP correspondent during the first Chechen war and later IWPR analyst in Tbilisi, profiles Russia’s geopolitical enfant terrible that is the Caucasus. All in all, a complex, fantastic read.
Nivat’s recollection of 6 months spent behind the lines after sneaking in Chechnya from neighboring Ingushetia during Putin’s re-invasion of the rebellious independence-minded republic. Nivat’s book highlights the importance of refusing to follow rules imposed on modern journalists by both authoritarian and democratic states (think of the French military impeding journalists in northern Mali at present). A decade ago, Nivat very astutely put the hopelessness of the conflict in a passionate context in an excellent NPR interview.
New York- I have a piece in today’s edition of Asia Times Online about Russia, Chechnya and the Russian view of Syria. Russia, like it’s red-headed authoritarian stepchild China, constantly asserts an inviolable concept known as “national sovereignty” which is essentially a brutal policy used to suppress ethnic questions within present day borders.
Being schooled in the West, it is easy to believe that an empires had two distinct traits that defined them: they began with death defying, deep sea voyages that emanated from western and northern Europe and that after the immense devastation European societies incurred during the second world war, they had no choice but to abandon their colonies in Africa and Asia whose upkeep and administration was no longer viable as Europe’s shattered nation-states were forced to turn inward in order to rebuild themselves from the ground up.
Beginning with the Netherlands’s withdrawal from Indonesia in 1949 and Britain’s exit from Libya in 1951 and largely ending (at least in a formal sense) with the collapse of the recalcitrant Portuguese empire in 1975, Europe’s last remaining maritime colonial power, Americans and other Westerners have been under the impression that the Age of Empire is a dusty relic of a best forgotten time period that long predated the political correctness revolution that began in the early 1990s.
But what this unfortunate view of history largely obscures though is that broader Eurasia today remains a continent of present-day land-based empires who have very much yet to embrace “the end of history” as it were. Russia’s never-ending struggles to contain ethnic rebellion in the Caucasus and even ensure that a restless Republic of Tatarstan remains in the Kremlin’s fold and a China still very much wrestling with the Tibet question while trying to turn Xinjiang Province into some sort of a living cultural museum run by ethnic-Han migrants, indicates that the still subjugated populations in these regions often view Moscow and Beijing as colonial powers in the post-modern Oriental sense of things.
So sure, at points you will have people abroad advocating for human rights in these places in order to serve an anti-authoritarian agenda but the post-war Western powers with their own unaccounted for, sordid history of collective rape and colonization, combined with half-hearted diplomacy that is doomed to fail from the start and hampered by both conservative isolationists and anti-imperialists at home, means that there are no worthwhile mechanisms for resolving these conflicts.
So in essence, Chechnya and Tibet, Tatarstan and East Turkestan can have no realistic hope of achieving an independent statehood because the very IDEA that they are presently under the yoke of empire has been suppressed. When the British Foreign Office issues weak kneed statements like “Tibet is part of China. Full stop” and when President Bill Clinton characterized the then ongoing ethnocide in Chechnya as an “internal affair” for the Russians alone to resolve, Whitehall, the White House and others abet expansionist authoritarianism with Eurasian characteristics.
Russia, and to a somewhat lesser extent China, have extended this hardened concept of non-interventionism to the unwilling inhabitants of Syria. Today, we the world have let the ancient, stunning city of Aleppo be transformed into another Grozny. When will it stop?
New York- So the Lotus revolution has come and gone (sort of ) and the story has moved on to the more mundane and TWD has to comment on more important matters, namely the new cover model of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Irina Shayk is described to the American reader in a typically dumbed down fashion as ‘Russian’ but having what appeared to be an Arabic-to-Russian-to-English transliterated last name I doubted very much she was ‘Russian’ in the way ethnic nationalities are defined in Russia. In the Soviet era and in post-Soviet successor states today like, say, Kyrgyzstan, your ‘nationality’ (what Americans term ethnicity) is written in your passport and is ascribed to you by the state. Cultural diversity in post-Stalinist in Eurasia is not a concept dreamed up by left-leaning American university professors in the early 1990s blindly promoting multiculturalism but part of an oppressive system aimed at repressing the populace.
I assume her name was shortened by a modeling agency or talent scout early on in her career to enhance her marketability. Likewise, it probably wouldn’t be prudent to promote her Muslim background in light of what happened when certain pundits got ahold of the fact that Miss USA, Rima Fakih, was, gasp, an Arab and a Muslim.
Upon a quick gander of Irina’s Wikipedia page, as I suspected, her actual last name is Shaykhlislamova which is a Russified-version of the Arabic ‘Sheikh al-Islam’ (‘Scholar of Islam’), nothing vaguely non-Islamic about that last name. She says that her father is a Tatar (though she grew up in the Chelyabinsk Oblast on the border of Kazakhstan, to the east of Tatarstan) which is a Turkic Muslim ethno-religious group that inhabits the present day Tatarstan inside the Russian Federation in the Volga region. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, when the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic was transforming into what would become today’s Russian Federation, it sent out a Federation treaty in the spring on 1992 to be signed and ratified by its 89 internal republics and regions: two republics refused; Chechnya and Tatarstan. While Chechnya spiraled into a violent rebellion that destroyed most of the nation and continues to this day, Tatarstan fell into line a couple of years later and flourishes today with its capital of Kazan having become one of Russia’s best destinations for investment thanks in part to its oil reserves.
So there you have it, Sports Illustrated has its first (nominally) Muslim cover girl. Hooray for progress!!! It’s time to throw the clash of civilization into the ash heap of history and move forward with over-simplified bikini diplomacy! The Kremlin currently demonizes Muslim women in the Russian Federation as so-called ‘Black Widows’ but a bombshell named Irina can help explode that myth. Wishful thinking on my part…
New York- I was looking through some boxes of old dusty books today and came across my now most treasured copy of A Dirty War: A Russian Reporter in Chechnya by Anna Politkovskaya. Anna was killed by a so-called “control shot” in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building on October 7, 2006; the assassin still unknown. Her killing has been unsolved for over four years now and likely never will be. It is the Russian Federation after all. Many years ago now, I stumbled upon a semi-rare copy of her paperback book from England in the stacks of the Strand bookstore here in New York. I hurriedly went up to the register to pay for it knowing it was a score. Then when I went to leaf through it on the subway I noticed it was autographed. In December of 2003, I attended a conference on Chechnya in D.C. where she was supposed to speak. I disappointedly noticed she never arrived. An ally of hers, an American professor then stood up and announced to the audience that she had been notified by a crony of Vladimir Putin that if she traveled to Washington and spoke out against the atrocities of the second Russo-Chechen war, which she had every right to do as an American citizen (she was an ethnic Ukrainian born in New York holding US citizenship, the child of Soviet diplomat parents), she would be barred from returning to Russia. I have no way of ever knowing if that was exactly the case but I have no reason to doubt it either. Damn.
A Dirty War is one of the most serious books on the subject out there. Her second book A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya is hard to read. I’m not sure if I ever quite finished it. I still haven’t brought myself to read any of her posthumously published works. Вы все еще пропустили Анна… (на украинском языке: Ви все ще пропустили Ганна)