Inspired by Cervantes, William Polk has written a trenchant and appropriate description of our contemporary Don Quixotes and Sancho Panzas. Read, laugh, and then weep.
A Fable for Our Times
It was over half a century ago that I first read Cervantes’ marvelous novel, Don Quixote de la Mancha. I was then studying at the University of Chile, trying to learn Spanish, and Don Quixote was the first novel I remember reading. Or, to be honest, “reading at” because my Spanish was still weak and the text is full of unfamiliar expressions. Also, I was very young and did not know enough about the world to understand fully what Cervantes was saying. But, he had a remarkable gift of writing on different levels. His tale could be enjoyed as just a good story or more profoundly. So, despite my shortcomings, he caught me in his magical web. A few years later, somewhat better equipped, I dipped into Don Quixote again in a delightful course on satire I was taking as an undergraduate at Harvard.
So now I have gone back. Continue reading
Responding to the shock of the gang-style execution of Nemtsov in Moscow, Duma Deputy Ilya Ponomarev, speaking at Tufts University yesterday, said that it reminded him of the Kirov assassination, and predicted that the effect on Russian politics might be of comparable magnitude. I did not have the opportunity to question him directly about what precisely he had in mind, but I gathered from his other remarks that he believes the crime was prompted by a struggle for power within the Putin regime. After all, Stalin used the Kirov murder to launch the infamous purges that reached their height in the trials of 1938 and is widely suspected of having arranged the murder himself.
Russian politics for some time has resembled the proverbial dog fight under a rug, despite the image promoted by the regime of a seamless and efficient “vertical of power.” Continue reading
I have been amazed that so many people whose judgment I respect have criticized President Obama’s decision not to go to the mass demonstration in Paris following the shootings at Charlie Hebdo and the kosher grocery. It was appropriate to have the American ambassador in Paris represent us. After all, an ambassador is the personal representative of the president, authorized to represent the president in all respects—that’s what “plenipotentiary” means in the formal title. (When I was ambassador to the Soviet Union I was designated to represent President George H.W. Bush at Andrei Sakharov’s funeral.)
Of course, I am as outraged as anyone at the wanton murders that occurred in and near Paris last week. Continue reading
I was invited to speak at the Eighth European-Russian Forum tomorrow in Brussels. Because of a bureaucratic glitch, I am unable to attend. But I append below the notes from which I intended to speak.
My description of the false myths about the end of the Cold War will doubtless seem like listening to a broken record (back when we played records). These myths are so widespread and so fundamental in encouraging destructive foreign policies that I feel I must continue to refute them.
The ideas for the way the Ukrainian crisis might be resolved will doubtless seem unrealistic to many. But how can either the Ukrainian or the Russian leaders believe that the interests of either country are served by prolonging the civil war in Eastern Ukraine?
Ukrainians and Russians in the area are the main victims of the violence that continues. How long will it take their leaders to come to their senses and put a stop to it?
I was as thrilled as anyone to see the reports of the missile strikes on ISIS and other terrorist sites in Syria and I felt that President Obama made a stirring speech at the United Nations regarding the terrorist problem. Still, I have been uneasy these last few weeks with the way these issues have been handled in Washington, and the context in which they were taking place. It is laudable that the President has been able to line up so many Arab states as allies in this fight. But where are the Europeans, the Turks, the Iranians, and the Russians in this effort? All of them have stakes in the struggle against jihadist terrorism greater than we have, being closer to the scene and in many cases, more vulnerable.
Since I write and lecture mainly about international relations and twentieth-century diplomatic history, most of my reading is related and leaves little time for fiction. But this summer I decided to relax with a thriller or detective story to get my mind off the fast-paced disasters taking place in the Middle East, Ukraine, North and West Africa, and the slower-paced ones brought on by environmental degradation, organized crime, pervasive corruption, and political deadlock. Maybe fiction could provide distraction and even, perhaps, restore some remnant of the optimism I felt about the world a quarter century ago when the Cold War ended, Europe united, and the world was at peace–even, for a time, in Palestine.
In his interview with Thomas Friedman published on August 9, President Obama gave a convincing explanation of why the United States could not create an effective government in Iraq: “We cannot do for them what they are unwilling to do for themselves,” he pointed out, and also explained: “Societies don’t work if political factions take maximalist positions. And the more diverse the country is, the less it can afford to take maximalist positions.”
The President has identified the central issue, not only in Iraq but also in many of the world’s hotspots. In particular, his perception should be applied to guide our policy toward Ukraine and its conflict with Russia. American policy makers also need to pay closer attention to regional power realities and perceived interests than they apparently have in the recent past.
Former Secretary of State Clinton remarked in her interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic that President Obama’s admonition not to do stupid stuff “is not an organizing principle.” Quite true. But then, the opinion she expressed regarding Obama’s early decision not to supply arms to the opposition to Assad in Syria is almost certainly dead wrong. Continue reading
The elections to the European Parliament have produce a flow of articles stressing the rise of “extreme right” or “neo-fascist” parties. An important article today by William Pfaff puts that in perspective. The rise of opposition to the bureaucrats in Brussels has little to do with the fascism of the past.
Europe’s Electoral Aftershock by William Pfaff
Paris, May 29, 2014 – The outcome of the recently concluded European Parliament elections is described in press and political circles in Europe and North America as a shock or crisis, but the actual reaction is better named hysteria, as if “Europe” is all over, and the rise of the right in these elections resembles the rise of fascism in the 1930s — all of which is sheer nonsense. Continue reading
As Ukraine approaches a fateful election next Sunday, I have been drawn to contemplate one of the most moving and thoughtful paintings in our collection. The painting pictured above is by Viktor Hryhorov (Grigorov–Григоров). Rebecca and I purchased it from the painter in the early 1990s. We visited Victor’s apartment and were stunned by his and his wife’s art. He was not in good health but his art was bright and joyful. He explained that he had been asked to do an exhibit of his paintings in an area affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster shortly after it occurred. It seems the Communist Party officials wanted to demonstrate to the locals that there was no danger. Of course, there was danger. And then, by the time we visited him, Viktor was suffering from his exposure to the radiation, and could no longer drive the Mercedes he had purchased in Germany from the sale of his paintings. He died in 2002.
Independence Day is not a typical Hryhorov painting. Art critic Svitlana Fesenko described his work as follows: “His lines are lively, always moving in a fantastic dance, turning into an inconceivable maze full of vague images.” The lines in Independence Day are lively, but the images are anything but vague and the patterns are not “inconceivable.”
Reception of a work of art is always a very personal matter. But what I see in this painting is a combination of celebration and reserve. The bright colors of the Ukrainian flag and the clapping hands portray joy and celebration, but a close look at the faces reveals something else: they convey not joy or celebration but contemplation with a touch of sadness, a pensive mood. Could it be brought on by doubts about the future? No way to know. But I have turned to contemplate this painting frequently over the last few months.
You can find more about Viktor Hryhorov here.