Thursday, August 30, 2007

Back To School

Russia Today is a 24-hour news channel, the English-language arm of Kremlin wire service RIA Novosti. The channel's website boasts:
"Millions of viewers switch on to Russia Today to learn what other media are not likely to have".
Feel free to giggle.

The reason I'm mentioning it is this video, a segment about Estonia's school reform. According to the anchor, "Russian-speaking children in Estonia are in for big changes when the new school year starts next month. Fresh laws mean all lessons have to be taught in Estonian, the country's only official language."

This is, quite simply, not true. I've talked about this before: the current plan is to gradually introduce more and more classes taught in Estonian, up to 60% of the entire curriculum over the next few years. I've also talked about why it's a stupid idea and what would be the right way of doing it. But that's not the point today.

The point today is yet another tired effort at pointing out the Russian media's blatant lies about Estonia, and specifically about the "abuse" of Russian-speakers here. The partial transcript conveniently omits the part of the segment that talks about a gradual fade-out of Russian in schools, and the local citizen and mother of a small girl* saying she sent her daughter to an all-Estonian school because she, herself, was not confident in the quality of education that would be available in Russian schools in the future. Despite being a school history teacher herself. (Saw a statistic the other day, apparently some 17% of Russian-speaking kids are going to Estonian-speaking schools this year.)

Really, I'm only posting this because it was mentioned in my LiveJournal feed. Official Russian media lying through the teeth is not news. Nor is it surprising to see them make such an obvious blunder.

But it does still raise a chuckle.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007


Fall has arrived. Weeks of stuffy heat have ended, and Tartu is now in normal Estonian weather: +20C and overcast. To be honest, I'm relieved. It's nice to have a bit of warmth, but if you're born and raised around here, you can only stand so much of it. Somehow, the constant drizzle is comforting.

News of the day is an interview given by the head of the Estonian Orthodox Church. The elderly cleric has just returned from a trip to one of the remote regions of Russia settled by Finno-Ugric peoples, and in addition to talking about that, took a stab at the bullshit session that takes place today - a congress of Russian "compatriot" organizations. Apparently he was invited to attend, but the exact time of the congress is the same as the mass for an important chuch holiday. Nobody bothered to check. More importantly, the Metropolitan Cornelius mentioned that local Russians really ought to learn the Estonian language and make more of an effort to learn Estonian history and culture; that assimilation is not really a deadly sin. Masters Klenski and Zarenkov proceeded to accuse ETV, the public broadcasting authority and state TV channel, of twisting the Metropolitan's words. Which is a difficult charge to make stick when the entire interview is available online, as is the transcript. Then again Zarenkov might just get kicked out of the compatriots' congress. I'm not sure yet how much I want to dig into that whole mess.

(While the EOC submits to the Moscow Patriarch, and as such is mostly a Russian organization, there is a measurable number of Orthodox among Estonians. To the extent that you'd find religious, church-going Estonians, anyway.)

The other local news is that both the Chancellor of Justice and the State Controller (two very senior civil servants conducting oversight of government actions) are likely to be replaced. Postimees suggests that Taavi Veskimägi of IRL is liked for the Controller's position, and that Reform wouldn't mind making Rein Lang the Chancellor. Lang may be the party's most senior lawyer, but he's a bit too - let's say, colorful - for Estonian politics. The Chancellor of Justice is supposed to be a figure of authority. So I'm not sure that's going to work out very well.

Carry on...

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Intentionally Outrageous

From a forum.

When people say to immigrant minorities, "I don't want you to be white", I don't understand this hedge.

You, Black Jack, moved to White England from your native country of Jackimbe. You did so because you thought you'd have a better life here. That this country is doing better than yours.

Now, the reason this country is doing better is because the people here are white. They think white and they act white. By acting white for the last hundred years or so, they've built up a massive industry and a very healthy economy.

If you're coming to this country because you like it better here, then it makes sense you should act white, because being white is why this country is good. If you're coming to this country to stay black, but still enjoy the union jobs, public healthcare and Dr. Who on terrestrial television, then you're an asshole and you're going to be treated like an asshole.

Of course, by "white" I mean mentality, not biology.

In mental terms, most established, latter-generation minorities are white Europeans. They believe in fundamental white concepts - the superiority of personal freedom, the government's prime obligation to provide security and prosperity for its citizens, and individual responsibility for one's fate.

White ideology isn't limited geographically to Europe, of course. It works in Australia, it works in Japan, it works in Brazil, it even works in Botswana.

Juxtaposed to this is the Asian ideology, where the state is more important than the society; the group is not just an efficient way to act in the interests of individuals, but rather individuals are called upon to act for the good of the group. Where European ideology may exceptionally request personal sacrifice, and that is given as a personal choice and accepted with heavy heart, Asian ideology demands personal sacrifice to begin with, and it is an everyday occurrence. Whether you are tolerating abuse, corruption and limitation of personal freedom for the glory of Allah or for the glory of Mother Russia, it is still an ideology that diminishes the value of the individual, where European ideology idolizes it.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

How It's Our Fault

Fancy a bit of spin fun?

Lost among the crap in Russia the last week or so was the Litvinenko spinoff story involving Pablo Miller, an MI-6 agent and apparently a bit of an expert on Russia. The man had been implicated in a couple of arrests in the Russian cloak & dagger circles, including a certain Valeri Ojamäe, a retired Lieutenant Colonel of the FSB, who was later sentenced to seven years for treason. This particular recruitment took place in the late 90s in Tallinn, where Miller was working under diplomatic cover at the British embassy. According to FSB's statement, Miller was aided in his endavours by Kapo.

Now, what you have to understand is that Kaitsepolitsei is strictly an interior agency. Foreign intelligence is handled by the very quaintly named Teabetalitus, while Kapo is indeed responsible for keeping other countries' spies in Estonia in check.

Personally, I find the fact that the MI-6 station chief would enlist the help of the local counterintelligence for a job, actually quite flattering. Do you?

Meanwhile, the Russian government's newspaper of record - the one that publishes all new laws when they come into force - had an op-ed on the likely leads in the train bomb event. At the end of the article they mentioned that nearby Estonia was at the same time playing host to the Erna Raid, a war game recreating a WWII-time marine landing by assorted German forces. The Russian newspaper suggested that perhaps one of the international teams taking part in the raid got a bit carried away, crossed the border, and engaged in a bit of light sabotage to pass the time.


Wednesday, August 15, 2007

August Redux

You remember how I talked about nationalists?

Well, shit has just hit the fan.

Yesterday a video was posted on several Russian blogs and ultra-nationalist websites, showing the murders of two men - ostensibly one from Tajikistan and one from Dagestan*. One was shot in the back of the head, the other's head was cut off with a knife, all this with the Nazi German flag in the background.

A bit of looking around on LiveJournal's Russian segment reveals the usual range of opinions: from "good going" to "the FSB made the video to discredit the nationalist movement". Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most popular sentiment is "bad move". People who talk about white power and Russian supremacy online, usually anonymously, are actually scared to be associated with something so gruesome.

But not all of them.

* Tajikistan is in Central Asia and is a former Soviet republic, now independent. Tajiks have a big presense in Moscow as construction workers. Dagestan is in the North Caucasus, and part of the Russian Federation.

** Full disclosure: I have not watched the video, but most of the reports say it does appear genuine. Whether it is or not is of marginal significance: a double murder is of course tragic, but the video serves as a lithmus test for the attitudes of various groups in Russia.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Well, That Was Predictable...

When Egypt and Syria attacked Israel on Yom Kippur, they were being very clever: on this holy day, both soldiers and the army brass would've been at home with their families, not ready to fight back. (As it was, the national slowdown made the troop recall a lot more effective, since the HQ knew where to look for the people, and the empty roads meant that the reserves did not have to fight traffic on their way to the rally points.)

August is usually a slow news month: most folks are on vacation, and nobody can be particularly bothered to do anything. But not in Russia, where traditionally August means a tragedy of some sort. Whether a terrorist attack (like the explosions of residential buildings and subway crossings), a random disaster (like the fire on the Ostankino TV transmission tower or the sinking of the Kursk submarine) or an economic crash (like the government default of '98), people have learned to dread August in Russia. At the start of it, one cannot help but guess at what's going to happen this time.

Well, it happened last night: a terrorist IED caused the crash of a Moscow - St. Petersburg express train. The bomb, about 2 kilos of TNT in force, was planted just short of a railway bridge and exploded under the second carriage. The train was doing 180km/h at the time, and several of the cars were derailed. Fortunately, none of the 230 passengers and 20 crew have been killed; around 60 people have been injured, according to current reports. The intention was apparently to destroy the bridge and dump the train in the river, but this didn't happen.

All in all, a good-ish result. Nobody's dead, no permanent harm to infrastructure. Let's just hope this is the one thing to go wrong in Russia in August this year.

EDIT: They do say that history repeats itself thrice: once as a tragedy, again as a farce, and a third time for the benefit of the twits who didn't get it first two times around. It now appears that the helicopter of the chief investigator rushing to the crash site has landed on the satellite dish of state TV channel RTR. About half a million dollars' worth of equipment written off. Nobody's dead or injured, again, but it does make the tragedy look like something of a Monty Python sketch.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

There's life in the old horse yet

So might as well keep beating it.

Giustino presents talking points for arguing with Russian nationalists. By coincidence, I have spent all morning reading more LiveJournal stuff on Estonia and Russia, and I have a couple points to make.

1) As pointed out in the comments, your purpose is not to convince your opponents, because they are not rational and will not be swayed by reason or logic. Your target audience instead are the lurkers, the people who have not formed an opinion or are not locked into any side yet.

The upshot of this is that changing the topic does not accomplish your goal. If you show your opponent less knowledgeable than you are, or incapable of arguing his point in a chosen context, that certainly improves your own reputation within the forum, gives you a higher standing (the social dynamic of flame forums is a very exciting topic that I may touch upon later). It does not, however, convince the lurkers. They are there, and lurking, because they don't have sufficient information on the topic; they are more likely to identify with the loud simpletons who bring forth uncomplicated, if subtly false, points.

What you need to do is to debunk the opponents' arguments, specifically the ones they put to you, methodically, consistently and convincingly. Use your knowledge and your sources to make the loud simpleton appear a complete moron who doesn't know what the fuck he is talking about. If you perfect this technique, you will eventually reach a level of discourse skill where you can make your opponent's words to discredit him. The true zen master will not even need to respond for the audience to start seeing the weak and implausible points in the opponent's argument; the very act of attack on the zen master is what defeats the attacker.

(I will not claim to have reached enlightenment, however on at least one prominent political forum - a heavily moderated one, where the discourse does not deteriorate into feces-slinging - I had been used as a measure of convincingness. I.e. "your argument is so stupid, it convinces me to take the opposite stance more than ten Flasher T-s could.")

2) It is not fair to call our opponents nationalists. Whether they are Nashi comissars, or flamers of conviction, nationalists they are not. For the purpose of this argument, Russia is not a nation, it is a state. The Kremlin-jugend we are fighting in cyberspace is not representing the Russian nation, it is representing the Russian state and its government, which are for most intents and purposes a single entity.

Russian nationalists do exist, and they are something else entirely. Ostensibly they are our allies, because they have come out firmly on Estonia's side during the conflict. However, after having the opportunity to observe them more closely, I do wonder if they're the sort of allies we really want. Being juxtaposed to Russian cronies, Russian nationalists are professional rebels, continuing the fine tradition of Soviet dissidents: they will take any position that is against the Kremlin. They will stand for Estonia, or for Georgia, or for Juschenko, or for neonazis, or for gay rights - not necessarily all at once, for they are far from a cohesive organization, but as a group they have enough in common to focus on a single enemy. Their fight is difficult, long, and quite possibly hopeless.

However, their fight is not our fight, and it would be extremely foolish for us to get dragged into it.

The pro-Estonian contingent does have an endgame, a specific goal that it is trying to achieve: getting Russia to lay off. If Putin announced tomorrow that the Bronze Soldier is Estonia's private matter, that Russian-speakers in other countries are welcome in Russia if they choose to leave but otherwise are on their own, that Russian companies are encouraged to do business with Estonia; that Russia couldn't give a flying fuck about Estonia in general - we will be satisfied and grateful. These are the terms of armistice which we will accept. If Putin, or his heirs, then continue to tighten the screws on their own population and fuck with various former Soviet states, sell nuclear fuel to Iran, send submarines to place flags on the ocean floor; then we shall certainly be concerned, but we shall stand on the sidelines and shrug.

The ultimate fate of Russia is not our problem.

Russian nationalists are also not our problem, because in large part they are somewhat unpalatable characters. Concentrating on the Russian nation as juxtaposed to the Russian state has left them very hardcore; their principal objection is the massive number of immigrants, guest workers and traders from the North Caucausus, as well as the corrupt police force and civil service. Their ideology is based on the understanding that the Russian people are fundamentally competent, cultured and Good*. It is simply the foreigners, and the corrupt government, that are keeping great Russia down. The moderate element here might advocate a retreat into traditional Russian territories stretching to the Volga river**, while the more extreme contingent here push for absolute Russian dominance on all territories comprising the multinational Russian Federation; whether or not any of them have a point, this shit is far too heavy for us, as Estonians and Europeans, to get into. And at the end of the day it's none of our business.

Small nations cannot afford ideals.

* Someone asked if presuming that Russians are by default incompetent and incapable of building a democracy is in fact a fascist assumption. It's a very good point, and I'll admit that the presumption itself is Evil, but I just can't escape the thought that if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck...

** My personal opinion is that this might be the solution - Russia giving up territories which are not authentically Russian, territories which the Empire and then the Soviet Union conquered out of greed and were never able to satisfactorily control. A Russia that stretches from Novgorod to the Volga would be far more manageable and could eliminate the irritating factors that bring out the asshole in a Russian; and the worst case scenario then is that the Russians will only be hurting themselves. This leaves out Siberia of course, but the Russian bits of it - the ones that were previously populated by bears - are nationalist in their own way. The people who actually manage the natural resources that make Russia rich have a different attitude from the Moscow beltway wanks, and as they would gladly make Siberia an independent state given the chance, they would probably do well, and even build the model Russian community - sort of the Switzerland to Great Russia's Germany. Then all they have to do is fight off China.

Of course, none of this is actually in any way realistic.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Eurotrip: No Sleep Till Schoenefeld

Cologne is a city of roughly one million, a significant industrial center (Ford's main European operations are based there) that enjoys a big trade fair scene; its zoo is the proud host of a baby elephant.

It also gets about 4,5 million tourists a year. And it's hard to see why.

Yes, there's always the cathedral, and it's a very impressive one indeed (though I still like Sacre Coeur better). There are old churches dotted around the city center, as well as bits of old Roman walls and towers, and a gold-plated Ford Fiesta with wings. However, 92% of the old town was destroyed in WWII; downtown Cologne is almost entirely new, and almost entirely a shopping district. Four point five million people a year, who take an hour to walk up the cathedral spire if they're quite dedicated (I couldn't be bothered), and then spend the rest of their time shopping.

It's also not a very Ordnung sort of town. I'd mentioned this before about Berlin, but Berlin is in East Germany at least; Cologne does not have this excuse. My host said he admired Holland for being so effortlessly clean, and having actually compared the two I can see his point: the Netherlands is where you go in Europe if you want to see stereotypical Germany. Cologne is an industrial town, it feels very similar to Rotterdam in this. However, my host and his friends said that Cologne is a very good place to live, even if it's not overtly pretty. As a Tallinn boy who moved to Tartu, I can appreciate the sentiment.

Total time on the road was just under two weeks - starting on a Tuesday morning and coming home the next Sunday afternoon. I've been to some interesting places, met a lot of wonderful people, and took over six hundred pictures, some of which are available here. I also accomplished my ultimate goals:

1. Get a feel for North Europe. There are things you start to understand only when you've seen a place for yourself, even if it's only a day or two; subtle things about the streets, the buildings, the attitudes of the people. It takes an outside perspective, but the trip has reassured me in the ideal of a single Europe: a lot of people I met had no faith in the EU lasting, but they had no idea of the extent to which the territories I traveled through are in fact one big community.

2. Get a sense of accomplishment. It was an implausible, complicated trek, put together at the last minute in parts, but in the end it went off without a hitch. It was important for me to know that I could pull it off. And now when people ask me what I did this summer, I can tell them that I went to London; Paris; Amsterdam; north Holland; Cologne; and Berlin. And they're impressed.

Next step? Something more exotic. I feel like I've done everything that the germanic North could offer me, and Paris was the most unusual stop on the trip, so I'm now interested in what Latin Europe can offer me. So my next big trip will probably be the Mediterranean Rim - including, quite possibly, North Africa.

Stay tuned.


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