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    Monday, April 13, 2015

    Of Calvin, Hobbes and Saddam Hussein's swimming pool

    One from the archives...

    Tikrit, Iraq - There’s a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon that I refer to whenever I’m in need of guidance. In this particular adventure, etched in my brain, Calvin is doing his homework — math, I think — but staring out the window at the falling snow. He discusses his options with his orange, black and ever-present tiger/swami.

    Ditching the homework and running outside to build a snowman, Calvin opines, would be far more pleasing than sitting at his desk learning to carry the one while he adds and subtracts. Simple enough. But he thinks about it some more.

    In the long run, surely, he’d be better off having doing his assignment, getting good grades, graduating with honours, going to a good college and getting some fabulous job afterwards.

    Calvin considers this too for a moment, then looks out the window again.

    “In the really, really long run,” he tells Hobbes. “I’ll remember the snowman.”

    Standing on the edge of Saddam Hussein’s swimming pool, the strip once more jumped into my brain. Here I was, in the Iraqi strongman’s hometown of Ouja, inside a palace built on the place of his birth, and all I wanted to do was go for a dip in the figure-eight shaped indoor pool. It was 35 degrees Celsius outside after all, and my shirt was sticking to my back.

    One side of my brain, the one I usually consult during working hours, was telling me several things. First and foremost, I was in the midst of an Important Assignment, and shouldn’t be wasting time on water sports. Second, there were men outside with guns. They were angry at people for stealing things from the palace. They’d already shot at a few looters. They might not enjoy the idea of an infidel splashing around in the presidential pool.

    On the Calvin-o-meter, however, it was no contest. In the really, really long run — after the deadlines had passed and the vigilantes had gone home and become shopkeepers again — I’d remember the naughty feeling of swimming in Saddam’s pool. I wound up on the diving board (it had a nice spring to it) and gave the lukewarm water a Stittsville, Ont.-style cannonball. It seemed the method of entry Mr. Hussein would best appreciate, were he there to take in the moment.

    Nihad, a young man my own age I’d met in the nearby town of Tikrit the day the fighting there stopped, was appalled and overjoyed at the same time. He’d spent his adult life in Mr. Hussein’s Baath party, and told me earlier that day that he’d been ready to sacrifice his life for the president, until the last minute when he realized that Mr. Hussein and his cronies had no intention of dying for Iraq.

    The expression on Nihad’s face as he took in the scene of a Canadian reporter cannonballing in Saddam’s pool was both indescribable and priceless. He was appalled and loving it at the same time.

    It’s these little victories over the madness of it all that keep one sane in a war zone.

    Some times it’s something big and memorable, like standing on the belly of the toppled statue of a dictator while you call your parents on a satellite phone. Or playing a game of soccer with the kids at the Baghdad orphanage, ignoring for a moment, the gunfire and the looting on the street outside.

    Other times it’s a smaller outlet, like leaning out the window and swearing a blue streak at the snipers that have kept you up all night with their deadly game of tag. A useless (and perhaps dangerous) gesture, to be sure, but fulfilling nonetheless.

    Having plunged into the water at Saddam’s palace pool, I floated there for a moment, taking it all in. The glass doors shattered by the U.S. bombing, a black telephone that somehow ended up in the deep end.

    Just then, a wave splashed over me. Nihad had plunged in feet first, and was laughing deliriously as he came to the surface. He climbed out, and took a run at it, and plunged back in, head first this time.

    A medical student and good Baathist who had spent his whole life doing his homework, he had finally started thinking about the really, really long term.

    Originally published April 18, 2003 on

    Friday, January 23, 2015

    The king is dead. Long live the king. And the Saudi "queen scene"...

    (As the world rushes to Riyadh to attend the funeral of the late King Abdullah, I find myself reminiscing about being there the last time a Saudi king died. Oddly enough, I ended up at one of the best parties I've ever attended...)

    Jeddah, Saudi Arabia -- It's 4:45 a.m., and Faisal is trying to encourage a little romance among his guests. Slipping through the crowd of partygoers assembled in his living room, he reaches the CD player and puts on a slow, sensual track.

    Two young men respond to the change by moving to the centre of the makeshift dance floor in Faisal's ornately decorated living room. One, a thin twenty-something in tight blue jeans, grabs a purple head scarf and wraps it flirtatiously around his waist before thrusting his hips at his partner in an imitation of a female Egyptian belly dancer.

    His gender-bending turn wins whistles and laughter from the other partygoers, who are packed tight onto the plush couches that surround the dancers. A pair of thickly rolled hashish cigarettes travel through the gathering.

    "Bet you never thought Jeddah had a queen scene," laughs Ra'ed, a colleague who invited me to this most unlikely of Arabian nights intent on demonstrating that there is more to his country than oil, al-Qaeda and repressed women.

    The party isn't strictly gay, either. The thing that shocks me most as I enter the room is the presence of young women with cascading black hair and blue jeans instead of the headscarves and abayas demanded by the country's ruling clique. They're the first bare-headed women I've seen in nearly a week in Saudi Arabia, and two respond to my surprised look by casually sliding over to make room on the couch. "Welcome to Saudi Arabia," smiles Samar, a professional in her 30s, wearing a tight white dress. "Is this what you expected?"

    No, it certainly isn't. This is a side of the country rarely glimpsed by outsiders: bored, Westernized young people who live in this strictly religious society and who, desperate for entertainment, break stereotypes, taboos and the law almost every weekend at such gatherings. Like Ra'ed and Samar, most at the party are young professionals who went to colleges and universities in the United States and Britain and find it hard to adjust to the same old repression that they grew up with now that they're back home.

    Cans of Pepsi, 7-Up and Red Bull energy drink mingle with dripping candles on a glass table in the centre of the smoke-filled room, which is dominated by a mirrored pole that looks as though it were borrowed from a Las Vegas strip club. There's no alcohol on this Thursday night, but much moaning at the currently exorbitant black-market price of whisky. A 750-millilitre bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label is running at upwards of $200 (U.S.) this week.

    The party is campy, fun and would be unremarkable on any university campus in the West. But because of its location -- Faisal's two-storey home in an upper-class neighbourhood of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia's second-largest city -- this is a party with a definite edge to it. There are innumerable things going on around me that could draw the attention and ire of the muttawa, the feared religious police.

    As I've been warned countless times since arriving in the kingdom, the penalty for being in the same place as narcotics is death. Homosexuality and the mingling of unrelated men and women are also treated as serious crimes and affronts to Islam. In recent months, the muttawa have rounded up hundreds of suspected gay people; most have received jail terms ranging from six months to two years, as well as 200 to 2,000 lashes with a rattan cane. Women caught in the company of men who are not their immediate relatives are often treated as prostitutes and receive jail terms and lashes as well.

    I seem to be the only one concerned about such matters, perhaps because I'd been to visit the place in Jeddah where the weekly beheadings are, a place known locally as "chop-chop square." Among the more minor offences being committed by the partiers is having the music up so loud that the muezzin's call to go to mandatory Friday morning prayers goes unheard in the din.

    "Don't worry," laughs Mohammed, a 17-year-old student, pausing between long drags of hashish. "In Saudi Arabia, a man is king of his own home. They can't come in here."

    Though I'm sure the muttawa can and do raid private homes, I'm comforted to learn that many at the party are sons and daughters of the Saudi elite, and therefore considered close to untouchable by the police. Ra'ed tells me he's been at secret parties where some of the younger princes from the ruling House of Saud have been in attendance. (Despite this, I was allowed to attend and write about the party only on condition that no one there would be named. None of the names above are real.)

    "Life in Saudi is like a prison, so we need to escape," Mohammed tells me. "Sometimes we have a party in a house like this, sometimes we go to a private beach and there are even women in bikinis."

    In a country where an estimated 60 per cent of the population is under the age of 18, analysts say the disaffection that many young people feel is a challenge that King Abdullah will have to move fast to head off if the government wants to keep them and their talents.

    In the country that spawned Osama bin Laden, the biggest concern has long been that poor education and high youth unemployment outside the urban centres are creating a pool of bored young people that are easy recruits for groups such as al-Qaeda. But at Faisal's party, the obvious contempt for the country's laws poses other, less violent, dangers to Saudi Arabia's future.

    "The young people are going in one of two directions: extremely into religion, or extremely away from it," according to Sami Angawi, an architect and historian from nearby Mecca. He says that while he opposes wholesale Westernization of Saudi culture, the country needs to find a less repressive balance between its Islamic roots and modernity that allows young people to experience both.

    "It's not just that we're making criminals out of our young people, it's creating a feeling that if I can't do this here, I'll go outside Saudi Arabia and do it elsewhere. We'll lose all of our new energy this way."

    A few kilometres north of Jeddah, in the walled courtyard of another private home on the same night as Faisal's gathering, another party is also well under way. It's a semi-public concert given by a quintet of young Saudis who form Panjiah, the country's first heavy-metal band. There are no women or alcohol here, but the crowd is nonetheless in a rebelliously un-Saudi mood.

    As 24-year-old lead guitarist Khaled Abdulmannan thrums the first bars from the band's Metallica- and Megadeath-influenced nine-song catalogue, the nearly 50 people in the courtyard begin to bang heads and jump about. It's a made-for-MTV scene being played out by young Saudis who were supposed to have been studying the Koran, not the wildest in Western music.

    Saudi society is governed by a strict interpretation of Islamic sharia law, and the religious establishment has banned many websites and books that are either critical of the regime or that are seen as promoting Western culture. The national television channels play recordings of sung Koranic verses for hours at a time, though most affluent Saudis can now bypass those controls through satellite television and even satellite Internet connections.

    Other efforts to force youth to follow the strict Wahhabi school of Islam are also being defeated by technology. Sit in a Jeddah restaurant or even a traffic jam with a modern mobile phone and you're likely to receive wireless invitations to swap photographs from others within range. If two people like what they see of each other in the high-tech exchange, they often plot to meet at a restaurant and feign being married so that they can sit together in the "family" sections of the country's gender-segregated public establishments. One of the unintended side effects of the gender-segregation policies imposed by the Wahhabis is that it's far easier for Saudi gay people to meet and date than it is for heterosexuals.

    Like the youths at Faisal's place, the members of the band Panjiah speak English as well as they do Arabic, and two members lived in the United States. In a story shared by many of the country's disaffected youth, drummer Yazeed Nazer said he returned to Saudi Arabia in the face of heightened discrimination following the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Fifteen of the 19 suicide plane hijackers that day were Saudi nationals.

    "I felt the mood change," the 27-year-old said. The band sings in English and many of its lyrics are about the need to overcome discrimination and hate. The name Panjiah is a riff on "Pangaea," the single land mass that existed before the world broke up into continents.

    Though hesitant to openly attack the country's system of government -- one of the band members is related to a minister in King Abdullah's cabinet -- they're clearly frustrated by the lack of opportunities for musicians to promote themselves in Saudi Arabia.

    Back at Faisal's, it's well past dawn when the party breaks up. Samar and another woman who stayed late leave before their male friends, slipping wordlessly into headscarves and abayas before they head out into the street.

    Afterwards, Ra'ed and I chat about the evening, and the risks people are forced to take just to have an evening of fun. I confess to him that I was most surprised by the presence of drugs at the party, given the Draconian punishments on the books.

    "I never took drugs before I came back to Saudi," he says. "But there's just nothing else to do here. We're just so bored.

    "I think things are going to start opening up a bit more with King Abdullah," he adds, scrambling to inject a positive note. "At least, I really hope so, because I'm getting really tired of living here."

    This article was initially published in The Globe and Mail on Aug. 8, 2005, one week after the death of King Fahd, and the ascension of King Abdullah.

    Wednesday, March 20, 2013

    Ten Years Ago.

    Here's the report I filed from Baghdad on the day the Iraqi capital fell to US troops. It ran in The Globe and Mail under the headline "Fear melts away at last in the heart of Baghdad."

    You can read what I wrote when I returned to Baghdad five years later, in 2008, here.

    BAGHDAD -- Suddenly, in the heart of Baghdad, it was okay to laugh.

    For 19-year-old Zara, the moment came yesterday morning, when from behind her headscarf she let slip a derogatory remark about Saddam Hussein.

    "His heart," the young woman said, still afraid to give her surname to a reporter. "It was like an air conditioner."

    She looked momentarily stunned by what she had just said, until her 16-year-old sister Sara started to giggle. Zara also began to laugh, and soon the sisters were doubled over in gales of hysterical, alleviating, laughter.

    And so, it seemed, was the heart of Baghdad, where for much of yesterday statues and posters of Mr. Hussein were toppling, crowds were cheering U.S. soldiers and people were laughing, often at the man they had feared for so long.

    The dictator was gone, they knew, and life in Baghdad was different.

    Though it may take longer to erase from people's memories, Saddam Hussein's 24-year reign over the Iraqi people came symbolically crashing down before noon, three weeks from the start of the war, with the screech of twisting metal and the roar of an elated crowd, as American troops seized the centre of Baghdad and toppled a signature statue of the tyrant.

    Groups of Iraqis loyal to Mr. Hussein continued to fight in other parts of the capital and the country -- as they may for weeks or months to come -- but those living in the centre of Baghdad gradually began to get the sense that the worst of the war was over, and their long nightmare finished.

    After enduring concussive air strikes day and night, they awoke this morning from the first night without U.S. bombs dropping on the city in three weeks.

    Fighting resumed today, however, as U.S. troops battled Iraqi fighters at a palace to the north of the capital and at a mosque in the city. Marines later were searching the mosque, believing that Mr. Hussein might be hiding inside, the British Broadcasting Corporation reported.

    At first, the coming together of the U.S. soldiers and the people of Baghdad yesterday was a nervous one. Like two teenagers at a high school dance, unsure of how the other felt, they watched each other from afar -- the Iraqis daring only to peek from the balconies of their homes, the Americans looking back cautiously over the barrels of their raised guns.

    But early yesterday morning, as a column of U.S. tanks and armoured personnel carriers rolled down National Theatre Street, toward Mr. Hussein's statue on the square, the mood began to lighten.

    In those early hours, when Iraqi defences seemed to evaporate in the spring heat, only a few Iraqis dared to appear on the street. Some hurled debris at the statue, which featured Mr. Hussein in a business suit with his right arm raised. Their actions emboldened a few more, and within minutes the square was filled with perhaps 200 Iraqis chanting for the statue to come down.

    The first attempt to topple the statue with a sledgehammer failed, as did a subsequent try with ropes.

    A U.S. armoured vehicle, fitted with steel cables and a pulley, intervened and soon, the monument fell, sparking a gush of joy in the crowd. Some danced. Some sang. Some threw flowers and kisses at the American soldiers.

    Dhaffar al-Mansuria, a 25-year-old university student whose father had been killed in the 1991 Persian Gulf war, rushed to stomp on Mr. Hussein's likeness, nearly falling over several times in his enthusiasm to kick at what he saw as a symbol of evil.

    "Saddam killed many, many Iraqis. He raped many girls. He is a very bad man and now he is gone," Mr. Mansuria said, panting to catch his breath.

    "Even though my father was killed by Americans, I am not angry with them. I am angry only at Saddam. He did this to us."

    Hassid Nouri, a 55-year-old who stood back from the crowd, said he was thinking of a friend who disappeared in 1978, shortly after taking part in a protest against the regime, and has not been heard from since.

    "Everybody was waiting for this day to come," Mr. Nouri said. "We want to build a statue for Bush in the middle of Baghdad, for freeing us from Saddam."

    There were an angry few, however, watching the scene from the sidelines and warning those around them that they would pay for their displays of dissent.

    "You are not allowed to do this. This man is Iraq," a woman in a business suit told a group dancing on the pedestal where the statue once stood.

    She was wearing a badge that identified her as a government official.

    "This man is not Iraq," a man wearing a tattered jogging suit shot back. The crowd cheered. "Iraq is food and water and electricity and all the things we don't have. This man is just Saddam."

    The scenes of jubilation had vanished by this morning, but the anger against Mr. Hussein had not. Without a crowd to encourage him or a media throng to record the display, a lone Iraqi walking in the early hours past the empty pedestal where the dictator's statue once stood stopped to give the base a swift kick before continuing on.

    American soldiers caught up in the jubilation the day before seemed surprised at their reception, and at the easy time they had moving into the middle of the city. A day earlier, they had been locked in fierce urban warfare on the outskirts of Baghdad, but by yesterday morning it seemed the resistance had almost completely melted.

    "There was nothing today, we just rolled straight in," said Sergeant Grant Zaitz of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, the unit that seized a large swath of central Baghdad yesterday morning, including the square where the statue once stood.

    Nodding at the crowd, he smiled. "It's better than down south, better than getting shot at. I guess we should have got here sooner."

    Soon after the statue was toppled, however, the crowd began to ask tough questions of the U.S. forces suddenly in control over much of their city. One man approached a marine standing guard on the square and asked him how quickly his electricity -- knocked out earlier this week in the midst of fighting -- would be switched back on. "One day? One week? More? And the water pressure is very poor," the man said.

    The marine, who moments before had been signing autographs for the crowd, appeared dumbfounded. "I'm sorry, that's not my job, sir," he eventually responded.

    Many Iraqis said they wanted the U.S. forces to stay only as long as it took to restore services and set up an Iraqi-led, government.

    "I hope the American soldiers will stay for one year, then go," said Furat abd-Algamy, a 24-year-old engineering student. "If they stay longer, there will be trouble. I know this will happen, and there's nothing we can do about it."

    In Saddam City, a poor Shia Muslim neighbourhood that had borne the brunt of several of Mr. Hussein's crackdowns, crowds swarmed out to meet a group of foreign journalists, showering them with kisses and flowery words as if they were the liberators. Moments later, however, a rock crashed through our back window.

    "They are killers of my people," seethed Mejdee Abdul Khadr, glaring at the passing troops. "They bomb anywhere, they kill everybody."

    The civilian death toll -- one measure by which coalition efforts to oust Mr. Hussein will be judged -- also continued to climb, with one Baghdad hospital reporting it had received 30 dead and 300 injured Tuesday night alone.

    For much of the morning, however, the streets were simply empty. One man estimated that three-quarters of the people he knew had fled the city, seeking refuge in small towns and villages around the country. Of the few civilians we saw, some waved at us, while others looked on grim-faced, gripping their Kalashnikov rifles.

    Such scattered militia units were the only defenders left in evidence as we weaved through the north and west of the capital. Very few uniformed Iraqi soldiers could be seen, and certainly nothing that could pass as a fighting unit. The only Iraqi tanks or defensive positions that we saw were either destroyed or, more commonly, deserted.

    There was looting in many parts of the city, especially government office buildings that all seemed to be stripped of their computers and furniture by midday. At the Iraqi Olympic Committee headquarters, which Mr. Hussein's son Uday had turned into a torture centre, one man was seen leaving with a refrigerator. The base of the Mukhabarat secret police was being looted by the time U.S. Marines arrived and took it over.

    While much of the city was surrounded by U.S. forces, free entry and escape was still possible to the north, toward Mr. Hussein's hometown of Tikrit.

    While rumours about Mr. Hussein's whereabouts, or his existence, continued to ripple through the city last night, most residents seemed content to know that his days as leader were over.

    Shortly after watching Mr. Hussein's statue fall, Fousi al-Hasseini made a phone call to his sister, who now lives in Toronto. His young nephew answered.

    "Did you see? Did you see it?" Mr. al-Hasseini asked in English, dabbing at his eyes while his own children wept openly around him. "Today we got freedom."

    Tuesday, March 5, 2013

    "He's Still With Us"

    (Here's an article I wrote in March 2003, about how Russians were treating the 50th anniversary of Stalin's death. Sadly, much of it - although obviously not the lead paragraph - could be published again today.)


    In his palace in Baghdad, increasingly isolated from the rest of the world as war looms, Saddam Hussein is said to seek inspiration on his bookcase -- from the many volumes he treasures that contain the writing of another infamous mustached dictator.

    Joseph Stalin, the legend goes, is one of the few people Mr. Hussein looks up to. He sees his own story as linked to the former Soviet leader's -- Stalin survived famine and war and accusations that he was killing his own people to remain in power until the day he died.

    Half a world away in North Korea, as the sabre-rattling Kim Jong Il pushes his country toward a confrontation with the West, the Dear Leader basks in the constant adulation of his citizens -- a cult of personality consciously built on the Stalinist model. He has gone much further in his hero worship than erecting a few statues; since assuming power in 1994, Mr. Kim has imitated everything from Stalin's labour camps to his penchant for nuclear brinkmanship.

    It's perhaps no surprise that Mr. Kim, famously linked to Mr. Hussein in George W. Bush's "axis of evil," looks up to Stalin. His father was installed by Moscow in 1945.

    In her two-room Moscow apartment, 85-year-old Galina Ionova hugs a book praising the man she says saved the Motherland, and explains why she thinks that Stalin is still having an impact five decades after his death.

    "Stalin was a genius. None of us common people can understand what he was guided by," the retired history professor says, eyes glowing with an almost religious fervour. "Stalin is not our past. He's our present and our future."


    Next Wednesday will mark 50 years since Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili -- also known as Koba the Dread and Joseph Stalin -- died peacefully at his countryside dacha near Moscow, ending one of the more violent periods in Russian and world history.

    To most of the planet, Stalin's legacy is clear. He was a monster. The number of people executed by the secret police and other government organs during his 29-year reign is still being counted, but is known to be in the millions. Tens of millions more died during mass famines that he organized from his Kremlin office, ranking him with Adolf Hitler and Mao Zedong as one of the bigger murderers in recent world history. Among his more minor crimes, Stalin bulldozed churches and sent entire ethnic groups into exile.

    But in Russia, the anniversary of Stalin's death will be remembered with deeply mixed feelings. He may have terrorized this country and killed millions of its citizens, but he also presided over a period that saw the Soviet Union transformed from a backward peasant state into an economic and military superpower, a time that inspires nostalgia for many.

    Many here believe that Stalin's crimes have been exaggerated by his enemies. Many, many more see him as the heroic figure who rallied the country when the Nazi army was at the edge of Moscow, and led the Soviet Union to victory in what is known here as the Great Patriotic War. That single accomplishment, many say, balances or perhaps outweighs all the evil Stalin wrought.

    "We fought the war for the Motherland, for Stalin," Ms. Ionova's war-veteran husband, Alexander, says solemnly. "If he repressed so many millions, who was fighting in the war?"

    The centre of next week's celebrations will be the dictator's sleepy hometown, Gori, an hour's drive outside Tbilisi, capital of the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Although Stalin, who grew contemptuous of his fellow Georgians while in power, is believed to have visited only once after leaving the place as a teenaged troublemaker, the entire town has become a shrine to its famous native son, the only place in the former Soviet Union where a statue of Stalin still stands on the town's main square.

    But it is Gori's renowned Stalin Museum, housed in a marble neo-Renaissance palace near the centre of town, that will be the target of many a pilgrimage in the next few days. Its exhibits include poetry written by Stalin in his youth, the furniture from his Kremlin office, and the death mask that covered his face for his public funeral, when weeping millions converged on Red Square.

    What's missing from the museum's collection is any mention of the purges. Not one exhibit makes even passing reference to the millions who suffered in what author Alexander Solzhenitsyn later dubbed the Gulag Archipelago that stretched across the barren land mass of Siberia and present-day Kazakhstan.

    That suits Yevgeny Dzhugashvili, Stalin's grandson, just fine. A retired military colonel who cultivates his resemblance to his grandfather to the point of trying to grow an identical mustache, Mr. Dzhugashvili dismisses the charges that Stalin was a mass murderer as "all lies." The real culprit, he says, was Leon Trotsky, his grandfather's rival in the fight to take over the Bolshevik party after the death of Vladimir Lenin. Stalin later had Trotsky assassinated.

    "They always call them Stalin's repressions. Yes, there were mass repressions and the best people of the country were killed or exiled, but they were organized by Trotsky and his gang. It's not Stalin who blew up the churches, it was Trotsky," argues Mr. Dzhugashvili, who tried to become Georgia's president, but couldn't because he's a Russian citizen.

    Instead of being condemned, he says, his grandfather should be praised for tracking down the "Trotskyists and Jews" behind the purges, and bringing them to justice in the infamous show trials of the 1930s.

    "Stalin punished them for those repressions and he did it with open trials, publicly," he explains. "If they were not guilty, they were released, gradually. [Stalin's] enemies don't have any conscience and they invent any figures, like Solzhenitsyn, who named 110 million victims."

    He says he even admires the way his grandfather allowed his oldest son Yakov -- Mr. Dzhugashvili's father -- to die. An artillery lieutenant, Yakov was captured in 1943 by German troops who offered to trade him for a captured field marshal. Stalin refused.

    "War is war," he supposedly said. "All soldiers are my sons. What am I going to say to other mothers? I don't exchange a soldier for a field marshal." He even had Yakov's wife interrogated, bizarrely fearing it was all a plot to embarrass him. The Germans left Yakov's bullet-riddled body hanging on a barbed-wire fence for the advancing Red Army to recover.


    Diana Suvarova was eight years old in 1937, when the knock at the door that all Soviet citizens feared came. A year later, her father, Mikhail Suvarova, was executed by the NKVD, Stalin's secret police.

    "Nobody knows why they chose him," the 78-year-old retired librarian now says. "It was totally unexpected. They just came one night and took him."

    The crimes he was accused of were many. While he was a farmer, the police said, Mr. Suvarova had been poisoning the wells and killing cows. Later, when he worked on the railway near the city of Kursk, he had been "organizing train wrecks." According to the case file, the NKVD also believed the elementary-school graduate had been spying for an unnamed foreign country.

    Ms. Suvarova says her father, like many of Stalin's victims, was a good Communist who taught his children to look up to their country's leader.

    She got the same sort of education at school. Stalin, she learned, was a selfless man who did everything for his country and his people. Ms. Suvarova learned this lesson so well that when her father disappeared, she believed he must have been guilty of some crime.

    After his arrest, the whole family was tainted for being associated with an "enemy of the people." Thrown out of their comfortable apartment in central Moscow, they moved to the outskirts of the city, and her mother kept her job only because her employer took a personal risk and chose to look the other way. People on the street shunned them, not wanting to raise the suspicion of the NKVD. "Even when I was a child, people would cross the street so as not to meet a child of an enemy of the people," Ms. Suvarova recalls.

    For years, the family believed her father was just in prison, and that all would be made well as soon as Comrade Stalin realized how his secret police were running out of control. Right to the end, Ms. Suvarova believed that Stalin was unaware of the terror his thugs had unleashed. She cried on March 5, 1953, when she heard that he had died, grieving for the man who was ultimately responsible for her father's death.

    "We really believed, like good young Communists. Despite what happened to our parents, we believed in him, we loved him. That's how we were educated. We thought maybe he didn't know."

    Arseny Roginsky has devoted his life to proving just the opposite. Born to two political prisoners in a camp near the northern city of Archangelsk, he now heads Memorial, a Russian human-rights organization dedicated to chronicling the true extent of Stalin's crimes.

    Memorial has compiled a list of 12 million victims of the gulags, and another one million who were executed by the secret police. Documentary evidence shows Stalin personally signed off on at least 40,000 of the murders.

    For Mr. Roginsky, the painstaking work is a way of trying to understand his own past. His father was arrested for anti-Communist activities in 1938, just before the war. His mother endured the "900 days" Nazi siege of Leningrad, then travelled to the Velsk prison camp, whose supervisor gave them special dispensation to live together since the father's sentence was formally over, even if he was not yet allowed to leave.

    Being born in a prison camp, Mr. Roginsky says with a smile, had its advantages. The people Stalin terrorized the most -- because he saw them as potential threats to his power -- were the intellectuals. As a result, many of the country's top doctors were in the camps, to the extent that average citizens often asked to be treated at prison hospitals.

    His father was eventually released, only to be arrested again a few years later. He died during his second stint in the gulag. It was 1951, two years before Stalin's death. Thirty years later, near the end of Leonid Brezhnev's reign as Soviet leader, Mr. Roginsky himself was arrested for trying to research Stalin's crimes, and sent to a labour camp not far from the one in Velsk where he'd been born. He was released four years later, shortly after Mikhail Gorbachev took over as Communist Party boss.

    Although Mr. Gorbachev's policy of glasnost,or openness, made it possible to discuss Stalin's crimes frankly, many Russians still choose not to listen. A poll conducted this week asked 1,500 people what they think of Stalin, and 36 per cent, the largest share, feel the dictator did the country more good than harm. Another 29 per cent disagreed with that statement, while the remaining respondents were so split on how they felt they couldn't answer one way or the other.

    Forty-five years after Nikita Khruschev denounced Stalin in his famous "secret speech" to the 20th Communist Party Congress, it's clear that many Russians are either unconvinced by the evidence, or believe that whatever Stalin did, he did for the good of the country.

    Mr. Roginsky thinks that it's the latter phenomenon -- and that many Russians today still believe in the idea of a "Great Russia" that personal sacrifices must sometimes be made for.

    Unlike in Germany, or post-apartheid South Africa, there has never been a concentrated attempt to prosecute those who knowingly took part in crimes against humanity. There has been no public discussion of compensating victims or their families. Stalin's grave remains on the Soviet Walk of Heroes along the Kremlin wall. A fresh rose is place on it every day.

    "The official history still remembers Stalin as the great commander-in-chief who defeated Hitler," Alexander Yakovlev, the former Soviet ambassador to Canada and one of the chief architects of glasnost, said in an interview last year.

    "No one wants to face the fact that he killed 30 million of his own people, most of whom disappeared without a trace. No one has apologized for what they did, and most people do not seem to care whether we confront this chapter in our history or not."

    Mr. Roginsky sees something more sinister than a collective wish to forget in Russia's unwillingness to deal with its past. To him, it's proof that some of the traditions Stalin initiated -- notably, the idea of putting the needs of the state ahead of the rights of the individual -- still hold sway in the Kremlin today.

    "It's not that Stalin, this short, plain man matters much anymore, it's what he left behind, his legacy," Mr. Roginsky says. "The spirit of Stalinism stayed with us. It's around us. . . . Physically, we outlived him, but he's still with us."


    Tamara Shumnaya, director of Moscow's Museum of Contemporary History, is taking fire from all sides right now because of an exhibit entitled, "Stalin, the Man and the Symbol."

    No one objects to the subject matter. It's just that no one is satisfied with what she and the museum staff decided to include. Some see too much about Stalin the great ruler, and not enough about the executions and the gulags. Others have exactly the opposite complaint. The exhibit "should have helped people remember the greatness of the country and the greatness of the people under strong leadership," reads one of the more tame entries in the museum's guestbook.

    Ms. Shumnaya says she expected nothing less. "Fifty years ago, there were different, controversial opinions about Stalin, and there are the same opposing perspectives now, too. We wanted both opinions represented here. To be objective."

    The exhibit opens with thick books that list the victims of Stalin's purges, which are in a display case alongside a simple green banner that reads "our parents don't have graves." On the wall above are photographs from the gulags.

    The next room, however, is where most museum visitors spend a lot of time -- among the photographs and propaganda posters of Stalin at the height of his power. The most jarring display features a group of dolls in a case, against a background painted to resemble Red Square, holding aloft a banner: "Thank you Stalin for our happy childhoods."

    Eventually, visitors gather around a small TV set in the corner to watch a black-and-white video of the scene in Moscow the day of Stalin's funeral. It's a short loop, and many of those staring and remembering watch it three or four times, as though comparing every detail with their memories of that day. Asked what they are thinking, they burst into lengthy personal stories, as though they've just been waiting to release pent-up emotion.

    "I listened to the funeral on the radio. All the people were crying," 75-year-old Yuri Timofeyev, a retired metal worker, says as tears well in his eyes at the memory. "He was a great leader. It was a great loss."

    Like many older Russians, Mr. Timofeyev is dismayed at how society has become more cutthroat since communism ended and a wild breed of capitalism swept into Russia to take its place. Life was much better under Stalin, he insists, gesturing sheepishly at his tattered clothes.

    "It was a good time for us. We could study and we could learn and we were never hungry. There were no bandits, no hooligans -- there was order. It would be a good thing to have that order now. I will toast him on March 5th."

    Standing two paces away, 54-year-old Ludmilla Shumskaya has the opposite reaction. "He was a bloody monster. He destroyed all the talented people, and all the witnesses of his crimes." It's clear she has a personal story beneath her rage, but she says she's still not ready to talk about it, even half a century later.

    While most of those taking in the exhibit one afternoon this week are older Russians personally connected with the Stalin era, a few backpack-toting students show up after school.

    "The idea is to form our own impressions," says 19-year-old Anatoli Balykin as he and two friends pause by a poster that reads: "Glory to Lenin, Glory to Stalin, Glory to the Great October."

    The history books he is given in school offer a "neutral" portrait of the former dictator, mentioning both the days of the Red Terror and Stalin's role as a successful wartime leader, Mr. Balykin says. "Many young people respect him," he adds, and some of his classmates regard the evidence that millions were executed and sent to the gulags as "just some figures."

    His friend, Artiom Dojev, also 19, says Russians alone have the right to judge Stalin. "It's interesting that in the West he is considered a monster, but nobody there suffered because of him. Here, people suffered, and they still admire him."


    "Stalin wasn't just a symbol," the daily newspaper Kommersant declared last week. "He continues to exist in mass consciousness, not like a historical figure, but like a folklore image, someone like Dracula. Such persons are doomed to be liked by the masses."

    Of course, they're also doomed to be imitated. An acquaintance of the young Saddam Hussein said the future Iraqi ruler used to sleep on a cot under bookshelves that sagged with books by and about Stalin. "One could say he went to bed with the Russian dictator," the friend famously quipped.

    Since taking power, Mr. Hussein has repeatedly showed what he learned from his readings, ruthlessly using terror and frequent purges to keep a firm grip on power, staging phony elections and mass executions.

    Meanwhile, his alleged "axis of evil" partner Kim Jong Il has modelled his entire state on the Stalinist vision. Run down a list of notorious dictators -- from Fidel Castro in Cuba to such lesser lights as Turkmenistan's Sapuramad Niyazov and Belarus's Alexander Lukashenko -- and each could cite the Soviet icon as as a leading influence.

    But in Russia, even a dozen years into its experiment with democracy, the echoes ring eeriest. Every year, it seems, Russia has taken another small step toward embracing a past that most countries would be ashamed of and apologizing for. This pattern has accelerated since Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent, took office as president. In the past four years, he has issued a set of coins commemorating Stalin as war leader and unveiled a Kremlin plaque in his honour. The tune of the old Soviet anthem was brought back, albeit with new words, and most recently the red star was reinstated as the symbol of the Russian military.

    While political opponents accuse Mr. Putin of being a closet admirer of Stalin, it's likely that much of his desire to turn back the clock stems from the popular support for doing so. Communists remain the country's single biggest political party, and their current leader, Gennady Zyuganov, has won points with his largely rural following by praising the Stalin era as a "great period" and denouncing the allegations against him as "slanderous."

    Mr. Putin also is the focus of a growing personality cult that makes some observers nervous. The President's likeness now can be found everywhere -- on matryoshka dolls, T-shirts and photographs hanging in homes and offices. A recent pop hit referred to the need for "a man like Putin." Entrepreneurs across Russia have tried to name everything from restaurants to a new breed of tomato after him. Some are reminded of a time when Stalin's image hung on every wall.

    Mr. Roginsky of the Memorial group says that "I don't blame Putin. He's not the guilty party in this; he's just a creation of the system. He's like Russian leaders always have been. Most people don't share democratic ideals. They just want order, no corruption, security and social justice. They think it's as simple as some nice guy, some strong leader, coming in and doing it."

    One young man has a much more basic interpretation of what's going on. Yakov Dzhugashvili, 30-year-old son of Yevgeny, believes that, having kicked away at his great-grandfather's reputation for 50 years, history is taking a fresh look.

    Unlike his father, he doesn't believe that everything Stalin did was right. Embarrassed by his ancestry for years, he studied at the Glasgow School of Art under a false name. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and his native Georgia's spiral into chaos and poverty, he says he has come to understand why his great-grandfather did what he did.

    "He was right in having ideals. Bad or good, people had aims to reach in his time. Now, we don't have any ideals at all, and that's very bad. The deeper the crisis in Georgia gets, the better I understand that Stalin wanted society to be perfect. He wanted people to live better."

    On Wednesday, he says, his family will gather to toast Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili -- who will be back among them. Yakov's father Yevgeny explains that he insisted his infant grandson be given the name his famous forefather had been born with, and changed as a young revolutionary.

    "I wanted to bring back the name of Stalin," he says, "so it will live forever."

    Tuesday, November 15, 2011

    Vladimir Putin wins 2011 Confucius Peace Prize

    Beijing: Vladimir Putin, man of peace?

    Mr. Putin, the former and future President of Russia who is currently doing an internship as the country’s prime minister, has been called many things. Supporters have written pop songs about wanting “a man like Putin” in their lives, while his detractors think the precise opposite of the former KGB agent accused of demolishing Russian democracy and restoring parts of the old Soviet system.

    One imagines that even Vladimir Vladimirovich himself would have been surprised by Tuesday’s news that he had been named this year’s winner of something called the Confucius Peace Prize. Mr. Putin is, after all, a man who shot to power by crushing the Chechen separatist movement with brute military force, famously vowing to hunt down the “terrorists” behind a series of mysterious Moscow bombings and to kill them “in the outhouse” if necessary.

    Mr. Putin beat out a field that also included South African President Jacob Zuma, whom many see as tainted by allegations of rape and corruption, and Gyaltsen Norbu, the Tibetan whom Beijing controversially named the Panchen Lama after the 6-year-old boy identified by the Dalai Lama as the real 11th Panchen Lama disappeared in China in 1995. Other nominees reportedly included Bill Gates and Kofi Annan.

    The inaugural Confucius Peace Prize was awarded last year in response to the somewhat more reputable Nobel Peace Prize being given to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who is currently sitting in jail for his role in drafting a pro-democracy manifesto known as Charter 08.

    That first Confucius prize went to Lien Chan, a Taiwanese politician who said he’d never heard of the award, and who didn’t bother to pick it up. The prize – a glass statuette – was instead received at a Beijing ceremony by a baffled young girl (pictured) with no apparent connection to Mr. Lien.

    “China is a symbol of peace…. With over one billion people, it should have a greater voice on the issue of world peace,” the prize committee explained on its website at the time.

    Nobel Peace Prize host Norway, meanwhile, was dismissed as “only a small country with scarce land area and population” thereby unqualified “to represent the viewpoint of most people.”

    This year’s prize will be again handed out on Dec. 9, one day before the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo.

    The award has evidently embarrassed China’s Ministry of Culture, which once backed the Confucius Prize, but earlier this year disavowed it and set out to establish its own Confucius World Peace Prize. That trophy is also scheduled to be handed out on Dec. 9, though a winner has yet to be named.

    The announcement of Mr. Putin’s award was only briefly available on Chinese news websites Tuesday before those webpages disappeared. The choice was considered a jaw-dropping one by those who saw the news before it was censored.

    “This prize is insulting to Confucius,” was one commonly expressed sentiment on the popular web portal, where the news was briefly available.

    “If it goes on for another two years, Ahmadinejad will be the next winner, and then will be [Hugo] Chavez and Kim II [Kim Jong-il]. What a pity that Gaddafi died too early, otherwise he would have had a turn too,” wrote another commentator.

    Gaddafi may indeed have had a chance. One of the reasons the Hong Kong-based China International Peace Research Centre said it chose Mr. Putin was his push to prevent NATO from intervening in Libya’s civil war. Though Russia decided against using its United Nations Security Council veto to prevent military action – and Moscow later switched its support to the rebels when it became clear that Gaddafi’s regime was nearing an end – Mr. Putin’s efforts were deemed “outstanding in keeping world peace.”

    Meanwhile, Liu Xiaobo remains in a prison in northeast China. He has another nine years to go on his sentence.

    Wednesday, September 28, 2011

    Democracy, managed (po-russki!)

    Мой анализ решение Путина вернуться в Кремль, которая была переведена на русский язык сайта "Открытая Уфа".

    Sunday, September 25, 2011

    Democracy, managed

    (My article below is now online - with a vibrant comments section - at The Globe and Mail)

    Saturday afternoon, at a political rally in Moscow's Luzhniki Sports Palace, Russia's two-decade experiment with democracy came to an end. A different, more authoritarian, system with only a mirage of choice, is now firmly in place.

    Russia's new political model is often called Putinism, after the man who built it and who will soon return as its unequivocal head. Elections are still to be held, and Putinism is far freer in most aspects than the totalitarianism that Russians lived under for most of the Soviet era. But it is a one-man show, completely dominated by Vladimir Putin, the man who served as Russia's president from 2000 to 2008, and who is now primed to return to the Kremlin after a token four years as prime minister.

    Dmitry Medvedev, a longtime Putin aide who was drafted into the presidency in 2008 (when Mr. Putin stepped aside in deference to an annoying clause in the post-Soviet constitution that limits presidents to a maximum of two consecutive terms) told a gathering of the dominant United Russia party on Saturday that Mr. Putin should be their nominee in the presidential election scheduled for next March.

    "I think it would be correct for the congress to support the candidacy of the party chairman, Vladimir Putin, to the post of president of the country," a stoic Mr. Medvedev said. Mr. Putin quickly accepted, and said it would be "a great honour" to take his old job back.

    The announcement brought an end to hopes that Mr. Medvedev, who had shown a slightly more liberal side than Mr. Putin and who had occasionally flashed a willingness to challenge his former boss, would stand against Mr. Putin next spring and give Russians a real choice. In recent months, Mr. Medvedev and Mr. Putin had both fed speculation about a head-to-head race by refusing to answer questions about which of them would run for the presidency.

    Instead, Mr. Medvedev - at Mr. Putin's suggestion - agreed to lead United Russia into December's parliamentary election, putting him on track to switch jobs with Mr. Putin and become prime minister. Mr. Putin told the party congress that the decision had been made "a long time ago, several years back."

    The game of musical chairs will only affirm what most Russians believed about Medvedev's time in the Kremlin: the real power remained with Mr. Putin throughout, even while in the nominal No. 2 job.

    (A key part of Mr. Medvedev's legacy is a constitutional change extending presidential terms from four to six years, starting with the 2012 election. The change makes it possible for Mr. Putin, 58, to remain Russia's president until he's 70.)

    Other parties will contest the Duma elections in December and the Kremlin will ensure that other candidates will be found to run against Mr. Putin in the spring. The appearance of choice is an important facet of Putinism, or "managed democracy," as the system's creators prefer to call it.

    But those other parties and candidates will face a host of obstacles - ranging from the Kremlin's near-complete control of the media to physical intimidation and ballot-stuffing - that will make an electoral upset close to impossible. As the cases of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oligarch now serving his seventh year in a Siberian prison, and Anna Politkovskaya, the Kremlin critic who was murdered for her investigative journalism in 2006, have made all too clear, there's no tolerance for genuine threats to the system.

    Ten days ago, billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov - one of the last figures who could have made Russia's election season somewhat interesting - bowed out in disgust, withdrawing as a candidate for a Kremlin-backed opposition group (another unique feature of Putinism). "We have a puppeteer in the country, who long ago privatized the political system," Mr. Prokhorov said, in remarks taken to refer to Vladislav Surkov, a political strategist who remained a key figure in both the Putin and Medvedev presidencies.

    Few Russians seem to mind. Aided by national media he hammered into submission after coming to office, Mr. Putin - who has been shown on state television fighting forest fires, tracking tigers and flying fighter jets - is easily the country's most popular politician, credited with stabilizing the country's economy (which remains heavily reliant on energy exports) and restoring its international prestige, in part via the 2008 war against neighbouring Georgia, a former vassal.

    Western-style democracy, which the country briefly experienced in the 1990s, when Boris Yeltsin was president, is associated with corruption, lawlessness and economic collapse.

    The man who oversaw the end of the Soviet Union has warned that Russia is headed for disaster if Mr. Putin and his coterie insisted on clinging to power.

    "The unwillingness to start reform or the desire to have partial change is often explained by the fear of losing power and the desire to prevent a new collapse of Russia," Mikhail Gorbachev wrote in an article carried this week by two Russian newspapers. "But it is the very absence of change which threatens to provoke instability and put the future of the country in question."