- Published on Saturday, 11 May 2013 07:15
- Category: Books and Reviews
A Ukrainian magazine published in Prague, but addressed to readers in multiple countries – the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia? But who would read this? Where did the idea for such a specific customer profile come from? The interest in Ukraine is not only prejudged by geographical proximity, but by the strong presence of Ukrainian communities in these countries – both indigenous, minority and migrant. Additionally, the uniqueness of the magazine is decided by the ambition needed to create such a publication, whose perspective goes beyond the boundaries of the given country and local specificities; an attempt to look at Ukraine and being Ukrainian in the wider context of Central Europe.
At the source of the creation of the magazine in 2005 was the encouragement of the exchange of ideas and the integration of Ukrainian speaking intellectual circles in Central Europe. For example by the publication of articles and interviews with the participation of authors from all countries, including the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia and of course Ukraine.
Each issue of the magazine focuses on a leading topic, but since its beginnings there has been a noticeable shift in theme from cultural and socio-historical topics, towards politics. While in the previous numbers you could find topics such as leading architecture and urbanism, religion, historical Ukrainian cinematography and Bukovina, the last few numbers concentrate on current political issues. And so, in the most recent copies you can find a discussion about the last parliamentary elections in Ukraine, as well as an attempt to assess the Yanukovych presidency over its three years, and an analysis of the opportunities for Ukraine get closer to the European Union.
How does this balance of recent years look like according to the authors? On the pages of the Ukrainian Journal you will find key points about the contemporary political debate in Ukraine. Much space is devoted to tearing the country between the East and the West, between Russian and European influences. On the one hand we have the ambiguous policy of Yanukovych, whose manoeuvring between Russia and the European Union at least properly illustrates the last summit in Brussels. Jurij Romanenko, as well as Taras Berezowec’ point out that Yanukovych is really a skilful politician, despite being portrayed in a completely different way in widespread media coverage.
Another subject for discussion is the issue of Russian influence. In the article Russia has forgotten Ukraine Iwan Preobrażeński points out that the last Ukrainian election did not receive much attention in the Russian media. Nor were there any open attempts to influence the outcome of the elections. Among various reasons (such as Yanukovych’s disappointment as well as understanding the organisational influence of Russian media on Ukrainian receivers), Preobrażeński also underlines that Russia finally started seeing Ukraine as being abroad; the same trend being noticed in the relationship with Moldova. Ołeksandr Piddubny has a completely different opinion. He believes that from the Kremlin’s perspective, Ukraine is still a “domestic territory” where Russia is fighting for influence through economic instruments, disinformation and discreditation. In strong words, like an economic or informational war, in his text Piddubny calculates the impact of the measures applied by Russia, as well as the significant role of the neighbour in irritating the Polish-Ukrainian conflict of memory. But focusing on such broad Russian influence, the author does not however want to notice the neglect of the Ukrainian state – not only in relation to the current leadership team.
Comments about the developments in Ukraine have always been an important element of the Ukrainian Journal (mainly because of the readers in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, where the subject matter of the Ukrainian media is portrayed in a much more stingy way than in Poland). It is unfortunate that the most recent numbers are lacking in topics that are not political and “cross-cutting” in theme, which distinguished the magazine, not only with a taste of timelessness but also by allowing the reader to see Central Europe through the Ukrainian perspective.
The Ukrainian Journal is a cultural-political magazine addressed to Ukrainian-speaking intellectual circles in Central and Eastern Europe, particularly Poland, the Czech republic, Slovakia and Ukraine. Published in 2005, it points out important issues from the regional, social, political, historical and cultural perspectives. The magazines archives (since 2007) are available at: http://www.ukrzurnal.eu/. The monthly publication is now accessible every two months.
The review was written within the Free Speech Partnership programme supported by the Visegrad Fund.
- Published on Saturday, 11 May 2013 07:13
- Category: Books and Reviews
The Russian Jużnyj Kavkaz (Southern Caucasus) almanac can hardly be counted as an "ideological and cultural magazine". Indeed, it is even questionable whether or not we are actually dealing with a magazine. According to the definition of "almanac" found in the dictionary, it is a publication, usually a periodical, containing the work of various writers. Although the editors have ensured the continuous release of publications, there have only appeared two issues so far: in October 2011 and March 2012. And yet, just by its appearance, the Jużnyj Kawkaz almanac has taken a unique position in the regional periodical press.
To fully appreciate the significance of this project, it is necessary to glance at a map of the region. Next to the three states of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, you can find three semi-separatist republics, which have enjoyed their de facto independence since a series of wars in the early 1990s. Two of them – Abkhazia and South Ossetia – are on the territory of Georgia, and the third – Nagorno-Karabakh – on the territory of Azerbaijan. Because it is inhabited by Armenians, Azerbaijan considers the government of Armenia as its adversary (both countries do not maintain diplomatic relations with each other). The wars were accompanied by ethnic cleansing, which means that current generations of Abkhazians are entering adulthood without having seen a live Georgian, having no idea about what Armenians look like, knowing their Azerbaijani neighbours only from stories and propaganda. Because it is necessary to know that the image of the enemy in the Southern Caucasus nations is concrete, unambiguous (maybe except for the Georgians who blame their loss of province mostly on Russia).
The idea of the almanac was very easy: gather texts from significant writers, poets and essayists from all countries and semi-states of the region into one place (a means for publishing the magazine were awarded to an international NGO based in London, International Alert). But under the conditions of the Southern Caucasus it was not only a huge logistical challenge, but most of all mental. Communication between Abkhazia, South Ossetia as well as Georgia is very difficult, and between Armenia, Karabakh and Azerbaijan it practically doesn’t exist. Publishing a title next to "enemies" requires courage. Unsurprisingly, the idea was born in Brussels, where the Russian-Georgian war of 2008 gathered representatives of regional NGOs. The fact that the people of the "third sector" managed to convince developers to approve of it, proves that such a project could exist, even if it was through unconscious needs.
In accordance to the nature of the almanac, texts appearing in the journal do not connect specifically to any mottos. Poems, essays and short prose pieces speak primarily about the present and everyday life; about the "here and now" of Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh, and well-known inhabitants of these places, but constituting terra incognita to their nearest neighbours. The only consciously imposed taboo is conflict. As one of the editors, Guram Odiszaria from Tbilisi points out (recently Georgia's minister of culture; the second editor is Batala Kobachia of Sukhumi): "Literature does not solve all problems, but it helps people understand each other." Because Jużnyj Kawkaz in its entirety is available on the internet, the "enemy image" may begin to erode over time. Of course it is far too early to speak about reconciliation, but the first step is getting to know one another.
An interesting faulty theme is the theme of the city. This could be seen in the first issue containing a cycle of short prose written by Warden Fereszetian devoted to Erywian. The author tries to find a steady middle ground between continuation and change: “Without tradition man’s life dries up, and when tradition prevails, life is petrified.” In the second issue there are two essays by Rachman Badałow about Baku and by Nairy Gelaszwili about Tbilisi. While analysing the role of the capital of Azerbaijan in the construction of national identity, Badałow comes to the conclusion that, contrary to the "democratic rhetoric", the rapid development of Baku secures the "tribal-clan organization of social life". Gelaszwili criticizes contemporary (created under President Mikheil Saakashvili) buildings in the capital of Georgia: "Walk through Chavchavadze’s alley; soon you will not see the mountains anywhere." The city theme will be continued in subsequent editions of the almanac.
Both current editions of the Jużnyj Kawkaz are available (in Russian) at: http://www.international-alert.org/ourwork/regional/caucasuscentralasia/caucasus (under: “Publications”). The first number includes works by 22 authors, with the second number including 21 authors (as well as photographs by 6 photographers). This includes well known authors previously seen in magazines such as: Selim Babullaogły, Rafik Tagif from Azerbaijan, Gurgen Chandżjan and Lewon Checzojan from Armenia, Dato Turaszwili and Naira Gelaszwili from Georgia, Aleksiej Gogua and Giennadij Alamia from Abchazji, Meliton Kazity from South Ossetia and Robert Esajan of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The review was written within the Free Speech Partnership programme supported by the Visegrad Fund.
- Published on Thursday, 18 April 2013 08:54
- Category: Books and Reviews
- Written by Veranika Mazurkevich
As the journal’s title clearly indicates, it is a source in which Europe is always topic for discussion. Novaja Europa (New Europe) publishes informational and analytical articles about trends in EU politics and culture, alongside coverage of regional EU strategies, the Eastern Partnership, and, of course, EU-Belarus relations.
With respect to the latter topic, namely, attempts to involve Belarusian authorities in closer cooperation or to make them respect European (read democratic) values are described as failures rather than as successes. In these conditions, EU cooperation with the Belarusian society is declared to be a priority. However, this strategy likewise seems inefficient. A number of Novaja Europa’s authors, at least in their recent online discussions, have stated that European values somehow appear to be valueless for the majority of Belarusians.
In her article about Belarusians' attitude to Europe, Adarja Huštyn states that people welcome closer integration with the EU, in principle, and are open to accept all the necessary changes in order to be closer to “prosperity and security”. They just do not know about it. The access to EU-related information is limited in Belarus, with state-controlled media only spreading negative images of the EU. Adarja Huštyn is sure that systematic promotion of EU-related information is crucial for the growth of the EU power of attraction.
Paveł Usaŭ disagrees. Under the title The Rule of the Ignorant, his article describes the situation as a bit more difficult to cope with. The author thinks that the authoritarian regime in Belarus gradually deprived the population not only of the right to be practically involved in politics, but also of any interest in the process itself. The population are not citizens, as they lack basic political culture. The society that consists of non-citizens is quite unlikely to appreciate democratic values. Therefore, Paveł Usaŭ’s conclusion is that all we need is more political and civil education, especially for younger generation.
This is still not enough for Siarhiej Nikaluk. He tries to reveal Why Belarusians Deny European Values. The reply is essentially as follows: there is a desire to refuse responsibility for any personal choice. According to the author, this feature is common for Eastern Slavic societies because it has deep roots in Orthodox traditions. In this case, we deal with a complex cultural paradigm, which is quite difficult to modify.
All three texts describe Belarusian society as quite reluctant to easily acquire European democratic values, but the responsibility for this state of affairs is ascribed to fundamentally different factors. If the first reason mentioned, the lack of information, is the feature of one concrete authoritarian regime, the other two relate to a much wider historical and cultural context (such as the Soviet past or Orthodox religion).
This context can be found, at least some aspects, in any Eastern Partnership country. Recent developments in Ukraine or Georgia only supply more food for thought. There definitely is something that makes the majority of people in this part of the world distinguish “our values”, from “European” norms. Hardly anyone would deny that Belarusians, Ukrainians, and Moldavians consider their countries European only in a very wide geographical context. However, even the most passionate supporters of historical-cultural type theory and Orthodox civilisation exclusiveness have to accept that political process does not necessarily reflect cultural or even axiological paradigms of the respective societies in question, especially those at the edge of a “cultural type.” It is agency that matters. Wider positive images of a united Europe in the media, education, along with closer business and person-to-person contacts are all factors in making democratic values popular among EU eastern neighbours as long as there is a possibility to make practical use of them.
Novaja Europa is an internet-journal, specialising in EU-related topics. It was created in 2006 by Belarusian analysts, experts, and journalists in order to "spread information and stimulate debate about the EU, promote European education among a new generation of intellectuals who share European values and sees Belarus as a part of Europe”. The review was written within the Free Speech Partnership programme supported by the Visegrad Fund.
- Published on Friday, 21 September 2012 13:24
- Category: Books and Reviews
Change or Decay: Russia’s Dilemma and the West's Response. By: Lilia Shevtsova and Andrew Wood. Publisher: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington DC, 2011.
This review originally appeared in New Eastern Europe Issue 2/2012.
Lilia Shevtsova and Andrew Wood are no strangers to the community of Russia watchers. Shevtsova, a Russian national currently with the Carnegie Moscow Centre, has been a keen and engaged observer of Russia’s domestic politics and her country’s foreign relations for more than two decades. Andrew Wood was first posted to the Soviet Union as a diplomat in 1964 and served five years as Her Majesty's Ambassador to Russia (1995-2000). Both are prolific writers: Lilia Shevtsova has written a number of books about leaders and trends which have shaped the last two decades of Russia's history – some of these publications, such as Yeltsin's Russia or Putin's Russia, have already become classics. Andrew Wood's policy papers on Russia's domestic and foreign policy, written in his capacity as an associate fellow of Chatham House, belong to the core output of this think tank’s Russia and Eurasia programme.
The authors have known each other for some time and have now joined forces to produce Change or Decay: Russia's Dilemma and the West's Response. A book-length dialogue on how Russia emerged from the ashes of the Soviet Union and the implications for the country itself as well as the rest of the world, is as solid as any of the authors’ individual work. Change or Decay is not just the title of their book; as both authors show in their candid and sometimes sparking conversation, this is also the fundamental choice Russia has been faced with for the past twenty years. Shevtsova and Wood agree that successive leaders from Mikhail Gorbachev to Vladimir Putin to Dmitry Medvedev have contributed much more towards the latter than the former. Twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia continues to lose tens of billions of dollars in capital flight (more than $80 billion in 2011) and is regularly called “not-free” in international democracy indexes such as Freedom House’s Freedom in the World. Between 2005 and 2010, 41 journalists have been killed and 344 injured. Without major reform, they argue (and this reviewer agrees), Russia’s decay will continue.
It was Socrates who famously introduced the dialectic method of inquiry, breaking down the problem into a series of questions not only to draw individual answers but also to distil fundamental insight into the discussed issues. Some may find the dialogue-style of the book difficult to follow, especially in the beginning. But what better way is there to explore Russia’s multiple contradictions and plurality of views and interpretations of its history? The book tells the story of Russia spanning more than two decades, from the collapse of the Soviet Union to a discussion of who would sit in the Kremlin after the March 2012 elections. The dialogue between Shevtsova and Wood goes beyond a mere description of historical events – their conversation is also about unfulfilled hopes and what remains twenty years after Russia's re-emergence onto the world map. Russians first pinned their hopes on Boris Yeltsin, who turned out to be weaker than some would have thought and less democratic than many would have liked him to be. After all, as Shevtsova points out, it was Yeltsin who laid the foundations of today’s system of centralised and personalised power. Putin managed to persuade many of his co-patriots as well as a large portion of the western audience that he is a real economic reformer and that progress was possible even if it came at the cost of the concentration of power, deepening of the country’s dependence on energy resources, and tightening of the political screws. Not long ago, then-President Medvedev, hand-picked by Putin, produced a pressing call for modernisation which led many to believe that the regime's determination to modernise was real. Yet most of the hopes these leaders inspired remain unfulfilled to this day.
The question of whether things could have gone differently reappears throughout the book: what options did the Russian elite have and did they choose the best ones? What influence did the West have on the developments in Russia and was this influence used wisely? Could and should western leaders have acted differently and could they have done more to help steer Russia towards a different, possibly more democratic course? These questions, and the answers offered by the two authors, are far from being purely theoretical “what if?” questions. With thousands of people gathering on the streets of Moscow to demand free and fair elections, the West again faces the question today of how to (re)engage Russia and its society rather than with just those who sit in the Kremlin.
Lilia Shevtsova and Andrew Wood go to great length to undo stereotypes about Russia’s history and answer some of these questions hoping that lessons can be learned and mistakes be avoided in the future. The book makes interesting reading for a number of reasons but it is worth mentioning at least two. Firstly, for anyone interested in where Russia stands today, Shevtsova and Wood’s discussion about the evolution of Russia’s political regime over the past twenty years is a very useful guide: it engagingly explains where the challenges to the current political system come from and why they are unlikely to go away unless the system itself changes. Imitation of democracy may have brought Russia more legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens and the West. Yet as the authors rightly argue, by choosing the “easy” options – i.e. faking democracy rather than exposing themselves to be challenged by their political opponents in free and fair elections or relying on natural resources rather than diversifying Russia’s economy – Russia’s political leaders have built a system which is unsustainable. “When the shell is empty, it stays empty,” Shevtsova says about Medvedev, although this also applies to the Russian political system in general.
Secondly, the book asks a number of essential questions about western policy towards Russia; questions which many in the West would prefer to ignore. The authors state their case very clearly: while they place the responsibility for Russia’s historical path fully on the shoulders of the Russian political class and the country’s intellectuals, they argue that the West should not stand aside and watch. The Russian ruling elite “depends to a degree on the placatory positions of western politicians and experts in order to sustain the current system”.
However, it is precisely in the parts of the dialogue on the West’s approach to Russia where some readers’ expectations may remain half-fulfilled. While both authors are very persuasive when they describe western policy towards Russia, including its (many) shortcomings, they offer much smaller doses of a prescription for what the West should do to aid Russia’s democratic transformation. Short-term pragmatism or a purely interest-based approach is not going to work. Shevtsova and Wood argue that the West's strategic agenda towards Russia must also embrace values. They also propose that conditionality becomes an equally integral part of western relations with Moscow and argue that a piecemeal approach, i.e. focusing on concrete possibilities such as Russia’s entry into the OECD rather than on grand designs, would serve the objective of Russia’s democratic transformation better than hard-core realism or idealism. Although few would disagree with these recommendations, others (including this reviewer) might point out that this more hard-nosed, piecemeal approach has already become a more or less established part of many European Union countries’ policy towards Russia, including those such as Poland or Germany.
The authors seem to have somehow naturally divided the roles they play in this Socratic dialogue. Shevtsova is one of the best incarnations of Russia’s liberal thinking and her sharp and pressing analysis excels in debunking the realities of today's Russia and its relations with the West. She asks tough questions about the failures of the EU's “let's pretend” policy towards Moscow and questions the contribution of the US reset policy to the improvement of the political situation in Russia (or lack of thereof). Skilled in both diplomacy and business, Andrew Wood brings a pragmatic and nuanced view which adds flavour to the debate. The outcome is a synergy that deserves to be read by all those hungry for knowledge about where today’s Russia comes from and what path it may embark on in the future.
Jana Kobzova is a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and the coordinator of its Wider Europe programme.
A Review of Lotem gęsi (Following the Path of Geese) by Mariusz Wilk. This review originally appeared in New Eastern Europe 3(IV)/2012.
Mariusz Wilk, Polish writer and wanderer, does not write his diaries like others do. Wilk has a different intellectual perspective in writing: for him what matters is space and place, and to follow Wilk, the reader needs to take his path. In his travels Wilk does not just follow a specific route. Neither does he chase excitement. He wanders. And he’s been wandering for years, with his thoughts and mind. This style of travel is also reflected in his latest diary, Lotem gęsi, which has recently been published in Polish.
Wilk has friended the north and has been living there for the last 20 years. He has traded his life as an oppositionist, co-author of Konspira (a book published in 1984 in Paris which became prime reading for the Polish communist opposition movement) and journalist, for the life of a writer/wanderer. During the 1990s, Wilk decided to abandon his urban life and moved to the Solovki Islands, where his book, The Journals of a White Sea Wolf, was written. Years later, this wanderer of the north, as he calls himself, moved to Lake Onega where he started writing his diary, and where subsequent parts of his diary were written: Dom nad Oniego (House on the Onego) (2006), Tropami rena (Following the Reindeer) (2007) i Lotem gęsi (Following the Path of the Geese) (2012). Wilk’s books have been translated into many languages, including English, German and French.
Lotem gęsi comprises three stages of a story. It starts in Petrozavodsk, the capital city of the Republic of Karelia, and at some point moves to Canada and follows the path of Kenneth White’s novels (a Scottish poet and writer – editor’s note), ending up back in Konda Bierezna, a place described in his Dziennik północny.
We travel through Petrozavodsk following the steps of his research notes, the traces of city tours, and Wilk’s own walks. In the capital of the Republic of Karelia, Wilk seeks the traces of Charles Longseville, an engineer with the French artillery who, during Napoleon’s march towards Russia was captured and imprisoned by the Cossacks. In Petrozavodsk, Longseville builds canons and becomes the model of a hero. The story of this man, which, in fact, sits somewhere between reality and fiction, involves nobody else but Maxim Gorky (an early Soviet writer credited with promoting the idea of Socialist Realism – editor’s note). The investigation, which is almost criminal, provides a surprising solution, which cannot be revealed in this review. Nevertheless, this is just one of such stories. The book includes many more.
The next stage of the diary brings the reader to Canada. Wilk takes us there to follow the path of La Route Bleu, a novel written by Kenneth White about a journey to Labrador (in the far north of Canada). Wilk makes his travel from Karelia to Canada to confront White’s geopoetics, and to personally witness the place, which a few decades before him, the Scottish writer explored to find space and, as he writes, “to make [his] way out of the Jehovian occupation of the world”. Wilk’s tribal sense of connection with White takes him into the unknown. However, this path brings him more disappointments than enjoyment.
Page after page, we travel 6,000 kilometres by car and 2,000 by boat. When experimenting with La Route Bleu, Wilk clearly and consciously cannot keep up with his pen and constantly makes quick notes. Short, touristic “glimpses”. But he does not find comfort in such travels. In following White’s footsteps, Wilk, is in fact, searching for the history of the places he has visited. This is not an easy task for somebody who is not attracted to the reality cut out of a guide book. Hasty travels do not allow much more than a post-card type reflection, and modern tourism takes over old-fashioned travel. Only in literary terms does Wilk not lose his breath.
However, this dream journey does not seem to give him as much joy as he initially thought it would. Surrounded by empty lakes and empty scenes of other tourists, Wilk tries to compare his own experiences with what White described in his book. At each step, however, he returns unconsciously to his own northern experiences with his pen and his thoughts. We learn that his own experiences are dearer to his heart than the foreign land of Labrador. On his path of whales, unable to avoid the literary association with Herman Melville, he comes to the rather grim conclusion that Canadian restaurants don’t serve fresh fish.
In Konda Bierezna, Wilk returns to the voice which the reader can easily recognise from his other works, such as Dom nad Oniego. After this point, his clear writing returns – a mix of irregular, but witty rhythm, which is so characteristic of Wilk’s style. The wanderer, clearly, feels most at home when he is in his Konda Bierezna, not only physically but also in literary terms. Konda is the ghost village of the north where in the winter nobody even ventures to deliver mail. Here, one can sit, read, and reflect, or simply work. Emigration and correspondence with the outside world from a place which is hard to find on a map take on a new meaning. But this Russian settlement also gives him an impulse to tear away all labels of being a Pole, a Catholic, and many others. To lose them, Wilk encounters the “other”, his nomadic spiritual journey. He does not want to be a tourist-writer. In Konda Bierezna he tries to devour the reality and pay attention to every detail. Going deep to record the truth of a given place, don’t we get, in fact, deeper into ourselves and find our own truth? Perhaps yes, but by writing about such small fragments of reality, Wilk provides his reader with a paradoxically large part of Russia. This is not bait for readers who are fans of reports, like those of another Polish writer and reporter, Jacek Hugo-Bader, but rather an inspirational offer for those who spend their lives wandering.
Wilk writes his diaries by catching “traces”. However, each new experience on his path can change these traces. Wilk doesn't seek individual experiences which can be caught in a hasty manner, such as tourist attractions and an idolatrous admiration of the countryside. Looking deep into Russia, Wilk looks deep into his own soul. If he traces history, it is based on a solid literary foundation. And to document it, he only needs words, not photography. There is also a new trace in his life: his young daughter. Her arrival, as Wilk himself admits, has changed his life entirely. If it wasn’t for her, the book would probably not include a reflection on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. She becomes a new direction in her father’s nomadism.
Lotem gęsi isn't a hasty piece of prose. Its story is similar to the people who want to visit Wilk in his northern house: many promise to come, but few ever make it. Others who come to visit can't tolerate the silence. The select few who do reach it have a powerful conversation – in silence.
Łukasz Wojtusik is a Polish journalist and radio reporter. He is the head of the Krakow office of the radio program TOK FM.
Translated by Iwona Reichardt