Friday, November 29, 2013

Boris Berezovsky: Game Over

I arrived in Russia in 1997, when Boris Berezovsky’s influence was at its height. The year before, he had managed to get Boris Yeltsin reelected, and we need not think too hard about how or why that was achieved. In those days Berezovsky was often in Chechnya, and I couldn’t keep up with how much stuff he owned. Then Putin became president, and shortly afterwards the “Godfather of the Kremlin” was out.

Sometime later I read a vehemently anti-Putin editorial in a major British newspaper, before such things were commonplace. Who wrote this? I wondered. And then I saw the byline:
Boris Berezovsky.
I was stunned. Hadn’t the editor done a quick web search before paying this “Russian businessman” to write his screed?
Evidently not, although I now understand that serial failure to grasp that not every opponent of Putin is a brave Solzhenitsyn is characteristic of the UK and US media.  Last year, for instance, I watched a documentary on Khodorkovsky, and the filmmaker was baffled when Russians expressed contempt for the fallen billionaire.

On the Bolshoi Acid attack

For somebody who’s not remotely interested in ballet, I’ve watched a lot of ballet. I acquired my experience by accident, after getting to know a Moscow bank executive in the early 2000s. He had a box close to the stage at his permanent disposal, and offered me free access. Figuring I might as well see what this jumping about in tutus lark was about I went very often, for a year or so.
I can’t recall much of what I saw now, and probably remember the weird ones better than the good ones. “Spartacus”- that turgid old Soviet warhorse- made me laugh when the legionaries pranced across the stage. Then there was a ballet called “Legend of Love”, a strange Azeri effort based on a story by Nazim Hikmet that I enjoyed more than “Swan Lake”, though the music was nowhere near as memorable.

Iran is Not Very Good at Image Management

So anyway, apparently the Mullahs of Iran are not scary theocrats after all. They’re actually tender petals with exquisitely sensitive feelings. In fact, I hear they silently weep into their beards when nobody is looking.

No, really: according to The Guardian, the regime has just hired a French lawyer named Isabelle Coutant-Peyre to take the directors and producers of Hollywood to court for something they call “Iranophobia.” Speaking this Monday at the intriguingly titled “The Hoax of Hollywood” conference, Coutant-Peyre said: "I'll be defending Iran against films that have been made by Hollywood to distort the country's image, such as ‘Argo.’"

Don't Tear Down This Wall

he Berlin Wall was a powerful symbol for me of the rottenness of Marxist regimes as I grew up in the 1980s. After all, no country in the capitalist West ever built a wall to keep its inhabitants from escaping. Thus when I first visited the city in the late 1990s, one of the first things I did was visit the East Side Gallery of graffiti art, sprayed on a surviving stretch of the Wall.

Who Are the Hair Police?

This week,, a website run by Hong Kong’s Phoenix TV network, reported that there are 28 officially acceptable haircuts in North Korea – 10 styles for men and 18 for women. Unsurprisingly, the styles are pretty conservative – dye jobs are out; nothing spiky is permitted (nothing too long either, even on women) and definitely NO MOHAWKS.
Looking at the styles, however, I think the figure 28 may be an exaggeration. For instance, female cuts 13 and 17 look almost identical, while the first four male cuts look like the same style photographed from different angles.

I Rather Like the Taste of Horseflesh, Actually

So I’ve been following the horsemeat scandal in Europe for a week or two now. It spreads wider and wider, drawing in abattoirs in Romania, meat processors in France and now the factories of food titan Nestle. I’ve been particularly struck by the shrill, hysterical tone of a lot of the coverage, especially in the UK, where the scandal first emerged. There’s a deep sense of moral outrage in the reporting, as if some terrible violation of human norms has just taken place.
And yet, British as I am, I just can’t muster any outrage myself. Yes, it’s very cheeky to mislabel a product and intentionally mislead consumers. I’d even agree that it’s wrong. But try as I may to find some sense of horror in my soul at the thought of eating Black Beauty, well, sorry. It just ain’t there.

Of Ex-Popes, Politicians and Pensioner Rock Stars

This Monday Pope Benedict XVI surprised the world by resigning, making him the first pope to do so in 600 years. The media was immediately abuzz with countless instant articles on the legacy of “God’s Rottweiler.” Most of it was written by non-Catholics, none of whom have a dog in the fight, but that didn’t stop them from rambling on.
A non-Catholic myself, my response was nonetheless admiration: the Pope knew when to call it a day. As a spiritual leader of 1.2 billion people, it must be difficult to get up in the morning and deal with all that responsibility when you’re geriatric and sickly. I can barely be bothered with it myself, and I’m 47 years younger than Benedict and a spiritual leader of nobody. But power has a strong allure, and very few people surrender it willingly.

The Tower of Babble

The other day I was filling up my car at a gas station, when all of a sudden I heard a weird, squeaky voice coming from somewhere close behind me. Unnerved, I looked around. First left, then right, but I couldn’t see anybody. It was bizarre: as though I had a talking cricket on my shoulder.
Listening more closely, I realized the cricket was chatting about Lindsay Lohan and a terrible dress she had worn to a premiere. I was being haunted by the ghost of a microscopic E! channel talking head.