About Doug Merrill

Freelance journalist based in Tbilisi, following stints in Atlanta, Budapest, Munich, Warsaw and Washington. Worked for a German think tank, discovered it was incompatible with repaying US student loans. Spent two years in financial markets. Bicycled from Vilnius to Tallinn. Climbed highest mountains in two Alpine countries (the easy ones, though). American center-left, with strong yellow dog tendencies. Arrived in the Caucasus two weeks before its latest war.

Just Send Me Word by Orlando Figes

From the Preface to Just Send Me Word: A True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag, by Orlando Figes:

Three old trunks had just been delivered. They were sitting in a doorway, blocking people’s way into the busy room where members of the public and historical researchers were received in the Moscow offices of Memorial. … Noticing my interest in the trunks, they told me they contained the biggest private archive given to Memorial in its twenty years of existence. It belonged to Lev and Svetlana Mishchenko, a couple who had met as students in the 1930s, only to be separated by the war of 1941-5 and Lev’s subsequent imprisonment in the Gulag. …
We opened up the largest of the trunks. I had never seen anything like it: several thousand letters tightly stacked in bundles tied with string and rubber bands, notebooks, diaries, documents and photographs. The most valuable section of the archive was in the third and smallest of the trunks, a brown plywood case with leather trim and three metal locks that clicked open easily. We couldn’t say how many letters it contained – we guessed perhaps 2,000 – only how much the case weighed (37 kilograms). They were all love letters Lev and Svetlana had exchanged while he was a prisoner in Pechora, one of Stalin’s most notorious labour camps in the far north of Russia. The first was by Svetlana in July 1946, the last by Lev in July 1954. They were writing to each other at least twice a week. This was by far the largest cache of Gulag letters ever found. But what made them so remarkable was not just their quantity; it was the fact that nobody had censored them. They were smuggled in and out of the labour camp by voluntary workers and officials who sympathized with Lev. Rumours about the smuggling of letters were part of the Gulag’s rich folklore but nobody had ever imagined an illegal postbag of this size. …
As I leafed through the letters, my excitement grew. Lev’s were rich in details of the labour camp. They were possibly the only major contemporary record of daily life in the Gulag that would ever come to light. Many memoirs of the labour camps by former prisoners had appeared, but nothing to compare with these uncensored letters, composed at the time inside the barbed-wire zone. Written to explain to his sole intended reader what he was going through, Lev’s letters became, over the years, increasingly revealing about conditions in the camp. Svetlana’s letters were meant to support him in the camp, to give him hope, but, as I soon realized, they also told the story of her own struggle to keep her love for him alive.
Perhaps 20 million people, mostly men, endured Stalin’s labour camps. Prisoners, on average, were allowed to write and receive letters once a month, but all their correspondence was censored. It was difficult to maintain an intimate connection when all communication was first read by the police. An eight- or ten-year sentence almost always meant the breakings of relationships: girlfriends, wives or husbands, whole families, were lost by prisoners. Lev and Svetlana were exceptional. Not only did they find a way to write and even meet illegally – an extraordinary breach of Gulag rules that invited severe punishment – but they kept every precious letter (putting them at even greater risk) as a record of their love story.
There turned out to be almost 1,500 letters in that smallest trunk. … These letters are the documentary basis of Just Send Me Word, which also draws from the rich archive in the other trunks, from extensive interviews with Lev and Svetlana, their relatives and their friends, from the writings of other prisoners in Pechora, from visits to the town and interviews with its inhabitants and from the archives of the labour camp itself.

Does the book live up to the promise of its preface? Yes. Yes, it does.

(Cross-posted to The Frumious Consortium.)

Their Eyes Were Watching Vlad

Occasionally, representatives of Germany’s Left party (Die Linke) will complain about being tagged as the successors to East Germany’s communist party. Well.

As part of the German parliament’s debate about the budget and foreign police, Gregor Gysi, parliamentary leader of Die Linke, spoke out forcefully against further sanctions against Russia. He called them “absolutely counterproductive.” He added that they provoked Russian countermeasures and hurt the economy. Rational policy, in his view, would be to lift the sanctions immediately.

Not to be outdone, Sara Wagenknecht, Gysi’s first deputy, said that economic warfare with Russia was damaging and “playing with fire.” She added that NATO maneuvers and EU sanctions were making the implementation of a ceasefire in Ukraine difficult.

Russia and the Russian government are, of course, utterly blameless in all of these events.

Not coincidentally, the party’s history as recounted on its English-language web site begins in 2007. If I had their background as the unreformed heirs to the Kremlin’s stooges, I’d keep it off the web site, too.

It’s not like this was a surprise

Or, why reading David Remnick is nearly always a good idea:

I spoke with Georgy Kasianov, the head of the Academy of Science’s department of contemporary Ukrainian history and politics, in Kiev. “It’s a war,” he said. “The Russian troops are quite openly out on the streets [in Crimea], capturing public buildings and military outposts. And it’s likely all a part of a larger plan for other places: Odessa, Nikolayev, Kherson. And they’ll use the same technique. Some Russian-speaking citizens will appear, put up a Russian flag, and make appeals that they want help and referendums, and so on.” This is already happening in Donetsk and Kharkov.

“They are doing this like it is a commonplace,” Kasianov went on. “I can’t speak for four million people, but clearly everyone in Kiev is against this. But the Ukrainian leadership is absolutely helpless. The Army is not ready for this. And, after the violence in Kiev, the special forces are disoriented.”

That’s from March 1.

Overtaken by events

The draft blog post said to watch out for funny business in Melitopol and Mariupol, Ukraine. Those are the largest settlements along the coast between Russia and the Crimean peninsula, and sit astride the road that runs from Rostov-on-the-Don and the Crimea. Mariupol is the second-largest city in the Donetsk region, with a population of nearly half a million. Melitopol is also a crossroads: east to Russia, south to the Crimea, north to Zaporizhia and west to Kherson.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s daily summary noted:

By early evening there were reports of skirmishes between pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine groups in Kharkiv, a tense standoff in Zaporizhia, and the occupation by pro-Russian activists of local government buildings in Makiyivka and Mariupol. Pro-Russian activists were also reportedly moving on the Security Service building in Odessa.

So let’s go with a quick scoreboard from this weekend and last instead.

Kharkiv: occupation attempt repulsed
Zaporizhia: tense standoff
Kramotorsk: buildings occupied
Druzhkivka: buildings occupied
Yenakijeve: buildings occupied
Makiyivka: buildings occupied
Mariupol: buildings occupied
Luhansk: buildings occupied
Donetsk: buildings occupied
Slovyansk: buildings occupied
Mykolaiv: occupation attempt repulsed
Odessa: occupation attempt repulsed
Krasny Lyman: disturbances

The buildings that are being occupied are local city halls, police stations and administrative buildings. That most definitely includes any local arsenals.

This weekend has also seen the return of the “little green men,” so called during the occupation of the Crimea because their origins are so mysterious that they must be from Mars. Never mind that they wear Russian uniforms sans insignia, have equipment issued to Russian armed services, and use Russian words that are not generally used by Russian-speaking persons who live in Ukraine.

Ukraine’s acting president has not minced words. In a live televised address, Oleksandr Turchynov spoke of

war that is being waged against Ukraine by the Russian Federation. The aggressor has not stopped and continues to organize disorders in eastern Ukraine.

This is not a war between Ukrainians. This is an artificially created situation of confrontation aimed at weakening and destroying Ukraine itself.

He also said that a large-scale counter-operation would begin Monday morning. Stay tuned.

Looking back at last month’s guide to revisiting the 1930s, further east:

Kharkiv, Donetsk: Sudetenland. Some real tension, mostly trumped up and stage-managed confrontations. ((Check.)) Pleas for “protection” from some parts of a particular nationality to the outside power. ((Check.)) Not fooling anyone. ((Check.)) In contrast to then, Kiev would try to defend the frontier region militarily. ((Check, as of April 14.)) (The great powers will not intervene, should it come to that.) ((Check.)) Whether that defense would succeed is rather an important question. There’s not a major defensible barrier until the Dniepr. Speaking of which…

Dnepropetrovsk, Zaporizhia: Poland. The great powers would not be able to overlook the dismemberment of a major European state. They wouldn’t be able to stop it, either.

Zaporizhia hasn’t seen much in the way of disturbances. Yet.

Also: Toomas Hendrik Ilves noted on Twitter, “After these several weeks, Europe’s M-F, 9-5 foreign policy establishment might perhaps recognise what’s happening next door weekends too.” Maybe all of the little green men and their associated crowds have day jobs, or maybe the powers-that-be on Mars have noticed that Saturday is not a big day for news, and are timing their operations accordingly. It’s not likely that they read John Scalzi’s blog, but he makes a point concerning publicity and next weekend:

But of all the Saturdays in all of the calendar year, the very worst possible Saturday to announce anything is the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter. Because it’s the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter, that’s why — the Saturday sandwiched between two major religious holidays, which means the “weekend” that week starts on Thursday and Sunday’s news cycle is swamped by the most important Christian holiday of the year — Christmas is noisier for longer, but Easter is concentrated. If you’re the Pope, Easter Sunday is great for you, news wise. If you’re not the Pope, not. …
If I were a crooked politician who had been caught murdering kittens while masturbating to a picture of Joseph Stalin, then the day I would choose to have that news go out into the world would be the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter.

That Western and Orthodox Easter align this year makes the news gap even larger. People in the wider world will not be paying attention next weekend. Don’t be surprised if the little green men are very active indeed.

Old habits die hard

Occasionally, representatives of Germany’s Left party (Die Linke) will complain about being tagged as the successors to East Germany’s communist party. Well.

Yesterday, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe voted to strip the Russian delegation to that body of its voting privileges for the rest of 2014, as a reaction to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea. The overall vote was 145 in favor of revoking the Russians parliamentarians’ votes and 21 against, with 22 abstentions.

The German delegation voted 5-1 to revoke, with Yes votes coming from a Green, two Christian Democrats and two Social Democrats. The sole No vote? From a Left parliamentarian. Because Moscow, I suppose.

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Right on schedule

Last night, I noted that staged takeovers of local government buildings in eastern Ukraine are

one of the shoes that everyone keeping track of the crisis has been expecting to drop (Odessa and the region that was known in the 19th century as “New Russia” is another).

This morning, Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe reports:

RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service quotes local media as saying around 100 pro-Russians attempting to surround a government administration building in the southern city of Mykolaiv were thwarted after police moved in late last night. There were several injuries in the ensuing clashes, which also pitted the pro-Moscow ranks against members of a pro-Ukrainian group. (From their liveblog 0923, 8 April 2014. Here’s the original report in Ukrainian.)

Mykolaiv is a city of about a half million people, a major shipbuilding center about halfway between the Crimea and Odessa, along the main road between the two.


View Larger Map

Let’s hope the police and local authorities in Kherson are equally loyal to Ukraine, and equally alert.

Odessa, of course, is the real prize of the southwest, and not just for the nightlife or the film nostalgia. Odessa is also just a good day’s bicycle ride from breakaway Transnistria. These lands were conquered by the Russian Empire in the late 18th century, somewhat after the American Revolution broke but before the French. The Crimean Khanate had left them sparsely settled, and homesteading in “New Russia,” as the region was known, was a major development of the 19th century. Before World War II, it was a significant area of Jewish settlement. In short, the pretexts are there, if Russian forces want to meddle.

The second act of Ukraine’s test has only just begun.

Stress test

Reports from eastern Ukraine that pro-Russia (perhaps one should write pro-Putin or pro-annexation) protesters have seized local government buildings in Donetsk, Kharkiv and Luhansk. The protesters in Kharkiv seem to have been driven back. In Luhansk, they seized weapons from a local arsenal and set up barriers in the main streets; Ukrainian police have sealed off access to the town. (As well they might. Parts of Luhansk are less than 10km from the Russian border.)

In Donetsk, they have seized an administration building, proclaimed a “People’s Republic of Donetsk,” called for a referendum on sovereignty on May 11, and asked for Russian troops to come as “temporary peacekeepers.” Temporary until another annexation treaty could be printed out, one presumes.

Here is how the Russian Foreign Ministry reacted to these developments:

“If the irresponsible attitude toward the fate of the country, the fate of their own people, on behalf of the political forces that call themselves the Ukrainian government were to continue, Ukraine would inevitably face ever new difficulties and crises,” ministry spokesman Aleksandr Lukashevich said today. “Enough finger-pointing at Russia — blaming it for all the troubles of today’s Ukraine. The Ukrainian people need to hear from Kyiv clear answers to all questions. It is time to listen to these legitimate demands.” (As reported by the Radio Free Europe live blog at 1911 today, Kyiv time.)

Key phrases to note: “the political forces that call themselves the Ukrainian government” and “legitimate demands.” With these words, Moscow is again signalling that it does not recognize the interim Ukrainian government as legitimate. The Kremlin still regards Viktor Yanukovych as president of Ukraine, never mind that he now has about as much chance of holding that office as I do. As for “legitimate demands,” if you — as a government — consider someone who last won 4% of the vote the legitimate spokesperson of a region (as Russia did with Crimea), that is a very elastic reading of the word “legitimate.”

(As I write, the channel “Kharkov antimaidan” on ustream.tv is broadcasting live from the square in front of the administrative building in Kharkiv. It’s about 30 minutes past midnight, local time, and a great many people are milling about on the square. My Russian is not good enough to follow the narration of the POV broadcaster. Sometimes living in the future, as we do now, seems surreal.)

This is one of the shoes that everyone keeping track of the crisis has been expecting to drop (Odessa and the region that was known in the 19th century as “New Russia” is another). Not quite a month ago, I wrote that if Crimea was the Anschluss, the Kharkiv, Donetsk and eastern Ukraine are the Sudetenland.

Here’s my checklist from last month:

Some real tension, ((check)) mostly trumped up and stage-managed confrontations ((check)). Pleas for “protection” from some parts of a particular nationality to the outside power ((check)). Not fooling anyone ((check)). In contrast to then, Kiev would try to defend the frontier region militarily.

So that’s where we are now.

Ukraine’s acting president canceled a visit to Lithuania and described the eastern Ukraine occupations and unrests as “the second wave in Russia’s special operation against Ukraine.” US Secretary of State John Kerry told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that the actions did not appear “spontaneous.” The White House has suggested there is “strong evidence” that some of the pro-Moscow protesters “were paid and not local residents.” The Moscow Times reminds readers that ethnic Ukrainians account for 56.9% of the population in the Donetsk region, 70.7% in the Kharkiv region and 58% in the Luhansk region. (Caveats about ethnic identification in that part of the world duly noted.)

This is a very serious stress test both for Ukraine’s interim government — and don’t forget, they are preparing for a presidential election in less than two months — and for the European state system as it is presently constituted.

How much of a revisionist power has Putin’s Russia become? That’s the most important question hanging over Europe right now, and precious few people know the answer. If indeed anyone at all knows.

The pretexts are all there. Will the Russian government and armed forces take them up and further dismantle a European state?

Buy Me Some Peanuts and Cracker Jacks

Once upon a time, there was a lovely newspaper known as the International Herald Tribune. Each year on baseball’s opening day, the paper would publish its late sports editor Dick Roraback’s poem recalling what it was like to be Over Here when the season was starting Over There.

Its language is sliding toward the archaic, its references even more so — although while Forbes and Griffith have been gone for decades, the Nats are back and playing their 10th season — but since the international edition of the New York Times (the Hairy Trib’s successor) won’t be putting any rhymes on its sports page today, we might as well.

Under the fold, “The Crack of the Bat.”
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Handy Guide to 1930s Analogies

Crimea: Anschluss. Mostly wiling population, dissent shouted down or stamped out, stage-managed sham referendum. The main difference is that the troops of the larger, external power were already in Crimea, rather than just across the border in Bavaria.

Kharkiv, Donetsk: Sudetenland. Some real tension, mostly trumped up and stage-managed confrontations. Pleas for “protection” from some parts of a particular nationality to the outside power. Not fooling anyone. In contrast to then, Kiev would try to defend the frontier region militarily. (The great powers will not intervene, should it come to that.) Whether that defense would succeed is rather an important question. There’s not a major defensible barrier until the Dniepr. Speaking of which…

Dnepropetrovsk, Zaporizhia: Poland. The great powers would not be able to overlook the dismemberment of a major European state. They wouldn’t be able to stop it, either.

Poland: France. It’s on.

Maidan Voyage

The scenes from Yanukovych’s private zoos, and the very post-Soviet opulence in his residence and summer house give off a bit of a Ceausescu vibe. The melting away of the police and other security forces remind me of Lenin’s observation that he found power lying about in the middle of the street, so he picked it up.

Some of Ukraine’s institutions are functioning again, but this is certainly not the end, nor even the beginning of the end, nor likely even the end of the beginning. There are just too many open questions. Will the parties of the Maidan be able to work together? How much daily corruption will they be able to get rid of? Do they even really want to? (I wonder if any of the new leaders knows how Georgia did it.) What about the governors and mayors in the eastern part of the country? What about the Crimea?

How will the Russian government and state-owned companies respond? What kind of time frame will that response come in? How much are EU countries willing to pony up? Will EU aid be just throwing good money after bad? Can EU leaders see past “everything but institutions,” i.e. everything except what really matters?

But for the first time in a while, there’s a chance for things to go right.