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1. Western (and other) perspectives on Ukraine

By Robert Pyrah


Untangling recent and still-unfolding events in Ukraine is not a simple task. The western news media has been reasonably successful in acquainting its consumers with events, from the fall of Yanukovich on the back of intensive protests in Kiev, by those angry at his venality and signing a pact with Russia over one with the EU, to the very recent moves by Russia to annex Crimea.

However, as is perhaps inevitable where space is compressed, messages brief and time short, a habit of talking about Ukraine in binaries seems to be prevalent. Superficially helpful, it actually hinders a deeper understanding of the issues at hand – and any potential resolution. Those binaries, encouraged to some extent by the nature of the protests themselves (‘pro-Russian’ or ‘pro-EU/Western’), belie complex and important heterogeneities.

Ironically, the country’s name, taken by many to mean ‘borderland’, is one such index of underlying complexity. Commentators outside the mainstream news, including specialists like Andrew Wilson, have long been vocal in pointing out that the East-West divide is by no means a straightforward geographic or linguistic diglossia, drawn with a compass or ruler down the map somewhere east of Kiev, with pro-Western versus pro-Russian sentiment ‘mapped’ accordingly. Being a Russian-speaker is not automatically coterminous with following a pro-Russian course for Ukraine; and the reverse is also sometimes true. In a country with complex legacies of ethnic composition and ruling regime (western regions, before incorporation into the USSR, were ruled at different times in the modern period by Poland, Romania and Austria-Hungary), local vectors of identity also matter, beyond (or indeed, within) the binary ethnolinguistic definition of nationality.

The Bridge to the European Union from Ukraine to Romania. Photo by Madellina Bird. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via madellinabird Flickr

The Bridge to the European Union from Ukraine to Romania. Photo by Madellina Bird. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via madellinabird Flickr.

Just as slippery is the binary used in Russian media, which portrays the old regime as legitimately elected and the new one as basically fascist, owing to its incorporation of Ukrainian nationalists of different stripes. First, this narrative supposes that being legitimately elected negates Yanukovich’s anti-democratic behaviours since that election, including the imprisonment of his main political opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko (whatever the ambivalence of her own standing in the politics of Ukraine). Second, the warnings about Ukrainian fascism call to mind George Bernard Shaw’s comment about half-truths as being especially dangerous. As well-informed Ukraine watchers like Andreas Umland and others have noted, overstating the presence of more extreme elements sets up another false binary as a way of deligitimising the new regime in toto. This is certainly not to say that Ukraine’s nationalist elements should escape scrutiny, and here we have yet another warning against false binaries: EU countries themselves may be manifestly less immune to voting in the far right at the fringes, but they still may want to keep eyes and ears open as to exactly what some of Ukraine’s coalition partners think and say about its history and heroes, the Jews, and much more.

So much for seeing the bigger picture, but events may well still take turns that few historians could predict with detailed accuracy. What we can see, at least, from the perspective of a maturing historiographic canon in the west, is that Ukraine is a country that demands a more sophisticated take on identity politics than the standard nationalist discourse allows – a discourse that has been in existence since at least the late nineteenth Century, and yet one which the now precarious-seeming European idea itself was set up to moderate.

Robert Pyrah is author of the recent review article, “From ‘Borderland’ via ‘Bloodlands’ to Heartland? Recent Western Historiography of Ukraine” (available to read for free for a limited time) in the English Historical Review. Robert Pyrah is a Member of the History Faculty and a Research Associate at the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages at the University of Oxford

First published in January 1886, The English Historical Review (EHR) is the oldest journal of historical scholarship in the English-speaking world. It deals not only with British history, but also with almost all aspects of European and world history since the classical era.

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2. Is there a “cyber war” between Ukraine and Russia?

By Marco Roscini


Alarming headlines have recently started to appear in the media (see, for example, the CNN’s “Cyberwar hits Ukraine”). This, however, is sensationalism. What has actually happened so far is limited disruption of mobile communications through Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks. In addition, certain state-run news websites and social media have been defaced and their content replaced with pro-Russian propaganda. In the months that preceded the current crisis, Ukrainian computer systems were also allegedly targeted by “cyberspies”.

If the above scenario sounds familiar it is because it isn’t the first time that cyber operations have occurred during a military crisis involving the Russian Federation. In 2008, immediately before and after the Russian troops entered the secessionist Georgian province of South Ossetia, several Georgian governmental websites were defaced and their content replaced with anti-Georgian propaganda, while DDoS attacks crippled the Caucasian nation’s ability to disseminate information. Estonia was also the target of severe DDoS attacks in 2007, although in the context of a political, and not military, confrontation with Russia. In neither case has it been convincingly demonstrated that Russia (or any other state) was responsible for the cyber operations. The same can be said of the cyber operations against Ukrainian computer systems and websites, which have also been, at least until now, far less severe than those on Georgia and on Estonia, leading some to suggest that Russia is exercising restraint in the use of its cyber capabilities.

Does international law apply in this scenario?

Fingers on the keyboard

While the DDoS attacks and the defacement of websites obviously don’t establish on their own an armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the fact that they have been conducted in the context of kinetic exchanges of fire and a situation of occupation may potentially lead to the application of the law of armed conflict (jus in bello). Two points are important from this perspective. First, although there have been no extensive armed hostilities between Ukraine and Russia yet, it has been reported that at least one Ukrainian soldier has been killed and another wounded, allegedly by Russian military forces or pro-Russian militias. Unlike in non-international armed conflicts, the jus in bello applies to any shot fired between states, regardless of intensity thresholds. The Commentary to Article 2 common to the 1949 Geneva Conventions on the Protection of the Victims of War clearly states that “[i]t makes no difference how long the conflict lasts, or how much slaughter takes place, or how numerous are the participating forces” (p. 23). Secondly, the fact that Crimea is now under the control of the Russian forces determines a situation of occupation that also falls under the scope of the law of armed conflict (Article 2(2) of the Geneva Conventions).

However, the law of armed conflict would extend to the DDoS attacks and other cyber operations against Ukraine only if these have a “belligerent nexus” with the hostilities and the occupation. Otherwise, they would be mere cyber crimes and would fall under the scope of domestic criminal laws. To have a belligerent nexus, the cyber operations must have been designed to cause a certain threshold of harm to a belligerent (Ukraine) in support of another (Russia) (see Recommendation V(3) of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)’s Interpretive Guidance on the Notion of Direct Participation in Hostilities). Harm must be either death, injury, or destruction on civilian persons or objects, or military harm, whether physical or not (Recommendation V(1)). Even though they didn’t result in material damage on protected persons and property, then, the threshold of harm would have been crossed if the DDoS attacks and other cyber operations had at least aimed at affecting the Ukrainian government’s ability to communicate with and the operability of its armed forces, so to disrupt Ukraine’s military operations or military capacity. From the information available, we don’t know whether this is the case.

Do the DDoS operations against Ukraine amount to “attacks” under the law of armed conflict? The question is important because the rules on targeting and protecting civilians, including the principles of distinction and proportionality and the duty to take precautions, only apply to “attacks”, defined in Article 49(1) of Protocol I Additional to the Geneva Conventions as “acts of violence against the adversary, whether in offence or in defence”. I have argued elsewhere that a cyber operation is an “attack” in this sense whenever it employs cyber capabilities that produce or are reasonably likely to produce “violent” consequences in the form of loss of life or injury of persons, more than minimal material damage to property, or loss of functionality of infrastructures. From the available information, this doesn’t seem to be the case of the DDoS attacks against the Ukrainian communication systems and, even less, of the defacement operations. Cyber “espionage” also doesn’t normally affect the functionality of the accessed system or amend/delete the data resident therein. It doesn’t have “violent” consequences and is therefore not an “attack”, although it may be an act of hostilities.

To conclude, we can’t establish for sure whether the international law of armed conflict applies to the cyber operations conducted so far against Ukraine because we don’t know whether they were designed to militarily support Russia to the detriment of Ukraine. What we do know is that the operations in questions are not “attacks”, and therefore the rules on targeting don’t apply to them, whether or not they have a belligerent nexus.

Dr. Marco Roscini is Reader in International Law at the University of Westminster. He has written extensively in international security law, including cyber warfare and nuclear non-proliferation law. His most recent book, Cyber Operations and the Use of Force in International Law, has just been published by OUP. He is also the author of ‘Cyber Operations as Nuclear Counterproliferation Measures’, published in the Journal of Conflict and Security Law (2014). Dr. Roscini regularly blogs at Arms Control Law and can be followed on Twitter at @marcoroscini.

Oxford University Press is a leading publisher in international law, including the Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law, latest titles from thought leaders in the field, and a wide range of law journals and online products. We publish original works across key areas of study, from humanitarian to international economic to environmental law, developing outstanding resources to support students, scholars, and practitioners worldwide. For the latest news, commentary, and insights follow the International Law team on Twitter @OUPIntLaw.

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Image credit: Fingers on a keyboard, via iStockphoto.

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3. Did Russia really spend ‘$50 billion’ on the Sochi Olympics?

By Michael Alexeev and Shlomo Weber


Much of the world watched the Winter Olympics in Sochi. While most people are primarily interested in the athletic achievements, the fact that the Games are taking place in Russia has also brought the Russian political system, economy, human rights, etc., into focus, inadvertently highlighting the interaction of the still pervasive Soviet legacy and the momentous changes since the collapse of the USSR.

Presumably the intended message of the Games is, as the Economist put it

, “Russia is back.” The question, however, is back to what? Is it back simply in terms of playing a major role on the international stage or also back to the Soviet ways of doing things such as creating Potemkin villages and making wasteful investments that foster corruption?

One of the major themes in the media coverage on the eve of the Games was the cost of construction. The commonly cited number of approximately $50 billion would make the Sochi Olympics the most expensive Games ever. According to the Washington Post, this number has appeared in almost 2000 news accounts last year, yet it almost certainly misrepresents the true cost of the Games. It is based on a year-old statement by Dmitry Kozak, a deputy prime minister in charge of preparation for the Games, and it includes both the state budget expenditures of about $23 billion and private investments by Olympic sponsors, although some of these sponsors appear to have been pressured by the government to invest.

Moreover, on closer inspection, some of the “private” investments have been actually made by state-owned or state-controlled corporations such as the Russian Railways and Gazprom. Much of the funds have been spent on improving general infrastructure and it is unclear what part of this investment would have been made in the absence of the Games. The Russian government argues that the investments in infrastructure and at least some of the Olympic facilities have turned Sochi into a much more attractive resort for Russian vacationers and would replace foreign resort destinations for the Russian middle class. At the same time, the number provided by Kozak a year ago probably underestimates the actual expenditures as such large projects typically exceed their projected costs.

Sochi Olympic Park

Like most large investment projects in Russia, the Olympics probably involved a substantial amount of corruption and fraud which are in part responsible for the high price tag. A report co-authored by the former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, a long-time critic of President Vladimir Putin, claimed that “between $25bn and $30bn have been stolen” from the funds invested in the Olympics. While Russian officials strongly deny the presence of widespread fraud in the Olympic construction projects, Nemtsov’s numbers are roughly in line with the estimates from a survey conducted by Mark J. Levin and Georgy A. Satarov, which found that bribe revenue in Russia amounted to about 50% of GDP in 2005. Of course, “bribe revenue” could involve some double counting because lower level officials may share bribes with their higher-ups, but at the same time construction projects represent notoriously fertile soil for corruption.

Whatever one thinks of the reliability of the investment or, for that matter, corruption numbers cited above, it is clear that public and private investments engendered by the Games have been substantial. Let’s put the $50 billion number into perspective: this sum represents about 2.5% of the Russian 2013 GDP. While rating agency Fitch says that this amount is too small to produce a significant impact on the state budget, this percentage is close to one half of approximately 5.5% of GDP of the United States post-2008 recession stimulus under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

This investment could help increase the size of the service sector, particularly tourism, in the Russian economy that continues to be highly dependent on oil and gas rents. While the diversification effect on the economy is likely to be relatively small, the impact on Krasnodar region that includes Sochi and the rest of the Russian Black Sea shoreline, as well as most of the Azov Sea shoreline, could be substantial. The new hotels could accommodate a three-fold increase in the number of tourists visiting the Sochi region. Perhaps the investment in residential housing and infrastructure could even facilitate, at least on the margin, relocation of some of the Russian population from the Northern parts of the country — a relocation that is needed but has not been proceeding at sufficiently fast pace.

Initially, the prospect of the Games hinted at a macroeconomic stimulus for Russia. Indeed, the Krasnodar region has been growing at roughly twice the rate of the rest of the economy since the Games were awarded to Russia in 2007. But the stimulating effect on the overall economy is hard to discern. Russia’s economic growth slowed down considerably in 2013, as was predicted by Revold Entov and Oleg Lugovoy, and in the last half of the year, the growth stalled almost completely, despite some recovery in much of the world. Moreover, the seasonally adjusted January index of manufacturing activity in Russia released on February 17 dropped to 48.0 — the lowest level since the 2009 crisis and almost a full point lower than an already weak level of December 2013.

As with most large projects, the effects of the Olympic Games on the Russian economy appear to be ambiguous and demonstrate both the new-found economic prowess of the country and the old ills of corruption and inefficiencies of the state involvement in the economy. Perhaps the best thing to do is to leave the more detailed analysis of these issues to some future date and for now simply enjoy the recent memories of Olympic competition and pageantry.

Michael Alexeev and Shlomo Weber are the co-editors of The Oxford Handbook of the Russian Economy. Michael Alexeev is a Professor of Economics at Indiana University in Bloomington. Shlomo Weber is the Robert H. and Nancy Dedman Trustee Professor of Economics at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, and PINE Foundation Professor of Economics at the New Economic School of Moscow.

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Image credit: “Sochi Olympic Park Architecture” by Alex1983. Public domain via pixabay.

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4. The Power of Derision

Of the many monopolies once and future Russian president Vladimir Putin has held over the years — on violence, on the media, on the gas industry — one of the most powerful has been a monopoly on the expression of derision. Over the past decade, the state's stranglehold grip over television has kept public dissent [...]

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5. “Madagascar 3″ Leads Global Box Office Again

For the second week in a row, DreamWorks’ Madagascar 3 remain atop the US box office. It earned an estimated $35.5 million last weekend, pushing its 10-day total to $120.5 million. It is currently pacing ahead of the first two entries in the Madagascar series. Madagascar 3 has also been the top film overseas for the past two weeks, and has added $157 million from 43 foreign markets. The film’s top market overseas is, of course, DreamWorks-obsessed Russia.


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6. Max Frei Returns with The Stranger's Magic

This week Russian literary sensation Max Frei returns to the United States with the third installment in the internationally bestselling Labyrinths of Echo fantasy series, The Stranger's Magic.  First published in Russia more than fifteen years ago, Frei's Labyrinths of Echo series has since become a bestselling international phenomena, infusing highly philosophical comic fantasy with

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7. Secession: let the battle commence

By James Ker-Lindsay


There has rarely been a more interesting time to study secession. It is not just that the number of separatist movements appears to be growing, particularly in Europe, it is the fact that the international debate on the rights of people to determine their future, and pursue independence, seems to be on the verge of a many change. The calm debate over Scotland’s future, which builds on Canada’s approach towards Quebec, is a testament to the fact that a peaceful and democratic debate over separatism is possible. It may yet be the case that other European governments choose to adopt a similar approach; the most obvious cases being Spain and Belgium towards Catalonia and Flanders.

However, for the meanwhile, the British and Canadian examples remain very much the exception rather than the rule. In most cases, states still do everything possible to prevent parts of their territory from breaking away, often using force if necessary.

It is hardly surprising that most states have a deep aversion to secession. In part, this is driven by a sense of geographical and symbolic identity. A state has an image of itself, and the geographic boundaries of the state are seared onto the consciousness of the citizenry. For example, from an early age school pupils draw maps of their country. But the quest to preserve the borders of a country is rooted in a range of other factors. In some cases, the territory seeking to break away may hold mineral wealth, or historical and cultural riches. Sometimes secession is opposed because of fears that if one area is allowed to go its own way, other will follow.

For the most part, states are aided in their campaign to tackle separatism by international law and norms of international politics. While much has been made of the right to self-determination, the reality is that its application is extremely limited. Outside the context of decolonisation, this idea has almost always taken a backseat to the principle of the territorial integrity of states. This gives a country fighting a secessionist movement a massive advantage. Other countries rarely want to be seen to break ranks and recognise a state that has unilaterally seceded.

When a decision is taken to recognise unilateral declarations of independence, it is usually done by a state with close ethnic, political or strategic ties to the breakaway territory.Turkey’s recognition of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are obvious examples. Even when other factors shape the decision, as happened in the case of Kosovo, which has been recognised by the United States and most of the European Union, considerable effort has been made by recognising states to present this as a unique case that should be seen as sitting outside of the accepted boundaries of established practice.

However, states facing a secessionist challenge cannot afford to be complacent. While there is a deep aversion to secession, there is always the danger that the passage of time will lead to the gradual acceptance of the situation on the ground. It is therefore important to wage a concerted campaign to reinforce a claim to sovereignty over the territory and prevent countries from recognising – or merely even unofficially engaging with – the breakaway territory.

At the same time, international organisations are also crucial battlegrounds. Membership of the United Nations, for example, has come to be seen as the ultimate proof that a state has been accepted by the wider international community. To a lesser extent, participation in other international and regional bodies, and even in sporting and cultural activities, can send the same message concerning international acceptance.

The British government’s decision to accept a referendum over Scotland’s future is still a rather unusual approach to the question of secession. Governments rarely accept the democratic right of a group of people living within its borders to pursue the creation of a new state. In most cases, the central authority seeks to keep the state together; and in doing so choosing to fight what can often be a prolonged campaign to prevent recognition or legitimisation by the wider international community.

James Ker-Lindsay is Eurobank EFG Senior Research Fellow on the Politics of South East Europe at the European Institute, London School of Economics and Political Science. He is the author of The Foreign Policy of Counter Secession: Preventing the Recognition of Contested States (2012) and The Cyprus Problem: What Everyone Needs to Know (2011), and a number of other books on conflict, peace and security in the Balkans and Eastern Mediterranean.

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8. Book Review: Finding Zasha, by Randi Barrow (Scholastic, 2013)


Recommended for ages 9-14.

Author Randi Barrow's debut novel, Saving Zasha, was one of my favorite historical fiction titles of 2011, and was recognized with many honors.  Not only was it terrific historical fiction, it was a great dog story, one that could appeal equally to both boys and girls.  I was therefore excited to read her newest novel, Finding Zasha, a prequel to Saving Zasha. 

Set in the middle of World War II Russia, Finding Zasha is another page-turner, filled with adventure, danger, and yes, adorable German shepherd puppies being raised by the Nazis for nefarious purposes.  As the novel opens, we meet our hero, twelve-year old Ivan, who lives in Leningrad with his mother and loves to play his concertina.  When Leningrad is besieged by the Germans and its citizenry begin to starve, Ivan's mother sends him on a dangerous journey across a frozen lake to stay with an uncle in the countryside.  But as the Germans march across Russia, this seemingly safe town, too, is occupied by the Germans, and Ivan is determined to help the war effort by joining the Partisans, who work secretly to undermine the Nazis however possible.

When a Nazi officer, the sadistic Major Recht, discovers Ivan's musical talents, he brings him to stay in the German camp, a valuable opportunity for Ivan to discover information which he can feed to the partisans.  At Nazi headquarters, Ivan also befriends two adorable German shepherd puppies, Thor and Zasha.  The Nazi commander plans to train the puppies to hunt Russians, and then breed them to create a corps of Russian-hating dogs.  Ivan can't imagine a worse fate for the innocent puppies, and dreams of somehow rescuing the prized dogs from their Nazi handlers.

When a turn of events in the war provides an opportunity for Ivan and the puppies to escape the Nazi's clutches, he's separated from Zasha, and is torn between trying to rescue her and possibly put the partisans in danger or saving himself and the other puppy Thor.  And he lives with the knowledge that the vindictive Recht will stop at nothing to get his prized dogs back.  Will he ever find safety for himself and the dogs?

Once again, Randi Barrow has penned an outstanding title with appeal for boys and girls alike, a "historical thriller"  (a phrase I borrow from author Laurie Halse Anderson) that will especially capture the imagination of animal lovers, students interested in history and World War II, and anyone who enjoys a good adventure novel.  I had a hard time putting the book down, as I followed Ivan's nail-biting story of the hardships of life in Leningrad during the Nazi siege, his harrowing journey out of Leningrad, his life with the partisans and under the nose of the Nazis, and his eventual escape.  This book can be read with or without having read its companion novel, Saving Zasha, although undoubtedly those who have read one of the books will be eager to read the other.

The author includes a helpful afterword on Russia and World War II, which gives some historical context to the story, particularly to Hitler's campaign against Russia, the siege of Leningrad, during which one and a half million civilians starved, and the role of the partisans in Russia's war effort.


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9. Paint-on-Glass Ad by Aleksandr Petrov for Russian Railways

Fans of Aleksandr Petrov (The Cow, The Old Man and the Sea) will appreciate this ad he created for Russian Railways using his trademark paint-on-glass technique. The spot celebrates the 175th anniversary of railways in Russia.

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10. say hello wave goodbye

Well, hello dolly.

There certainly seems to be a theme running through my work at the moment. The drawing, above, was another that I really enjoyed doing. I love having so many different textures to tackle, and each of the dolls had a texture and character of it's own. I'm leaving them there, for now, though. I'm all dolled out.



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11. Ruta Sepetys on Historical Fiction Research

While researching her debut novel about Russia’s 1939 invasion of Lithuania, author Ruta Sepetys interviewed survivors, isolated herself in a deportation train car, and endured a prisoner’s immersion experience.

We caught up with her to find out more about the research for Between Shades of Gray.

Q: How important is it for writers to ‘get their hands dirty’ during the research process?
A: I imagine it’s different for every writer. I personally love the immersion experience. If at all possible, I want to see it, hear it, smell it, touch it, and experience the emotions associated. That makes it easier for me to write about it. But I do have to say, I doubt I will ever go the lengths I did to research Between Shades of Gray. I damaged my back during research and spent two years in physical therapy. Next time I don’t need to get my hands that dirty.

continued…

New Career Opportunities Daily: The best jobs in media.

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12. “The Red Heels” by Olesya Shchukina

The Red Heels

For my money, cut-out animation is still one of the most charming animation techniques when done well. Take for instance The Red Heels (Les Talons Rouges) by Olesya Shchukina. The Russian-born animator produced the cut-out piece at the French animation school La Poudriere for an assignment to make a one-minute film from a child’s point of view. Watch The Red Heels on her website.


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13. Phantom states and rebels with a cause

By Daniel Byman and Charles King Three years ago this month, Russia and Georgia fought a brief and brutal war over an obscure slice of mountainous land called South Ossetia that had declared its independence from Georgia. Flouting international law, Russia stepped in to defend South Ossetia and later formally recognized the secessionists as a legitimate [...]

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14. Face front, true believers!

Face front, true believers!

I love the way Stan Lee addressed his readers with such an intimate and glorifying phrase. True believers! Sure, you were just reading a Spiderman comic book, but he implied that this act joined you with a like-minded group, and certified your character as loyal and faithful.

I poked around looking for an appropriate “Face front” image, and found this poster in the Soviet Museum‘s digital collections. If you have a bit of time, check out the collection of pro-Lenin fairy tales.  I also found an associated grumpy thread on Metafilter, comparing the ubiquity of this style of propaganda art in Soviet Russia to something like garish ads for fast food and grocery store mailers.

Face front, true believers! Today is beautiful, and we will face it with the resolution to do good.

 

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15. Animated Fragments #12

Drawn Animation for Chris Milk’s interactive video “Three Dreams of Black” by Anthony Schepperd (US)

Brainflow by Fiorella Pierini (UK)

Jumpman by Denis Borisovich (Russia)

Hawaï Fish by Laurent Clermont (Sweden)

Droppp by Hajime Nagatsuka (Japan)


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16. Book Review: Breaking Stalin's Nose, by Eugene Yelchin (Henry Holt, 2011)

Recommended for ages 8-12.

Illustrator Eugene Yelchin's first novel, Breaking Stalin's Nose, is a brilliantly conceived expose of the horrors of life in Stalin's Russia, seen through the eyes of a very naive young boy.  And since the book was recently recognized with a Newbery Honor, it is likely to make it onto the shelves of school and public libraries around the country.

Ten-year old Sasha has been dreaming of being a Soviet Young Pioneer ever since he can remember, and he can recite all the Young Pioneer laws by heart. He loves Comrade Stalin like a revered grandfather, but when the long-anticipated ceremony to be inducted into the Young Pioneers is finally to take place, everything seems to go wrong.  When his father is taken away by the police, arrested as an enemy of the people, Sasha slowly begins to wonder if everything he has learned about Stalin and the Soviet state is a lie.


With its naive, optimistic narrator, this book reminded me very much of Morris Gleitzman's Once, John Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and Jerry Spinelli's Milkweed. Like the heroes in those novels, Sasha's naivete manages to be somehow funny and heartbreaking at the same time. Through his eyes, we see the incongruity of the Soviet propaganda and the realities of life in a society where even children were encouraged to inform on their parents.

Although there are many novels for children about World War II, there are few about Stalin's Russia, and this book definitely fills a gap in the literature.   Despite the sophisticated subject matter, the simplicity of the language in the book is suitable for children in elementary school, and would work well as discussion for a book club as well. Yelchin provided the dramatic graphite black and white illustrations for the book as well as the text.


An author's note provides some background on Stalin's reign of terror, and, paradoxically, how few people of Yelchin's generation (he grew up in the Soviet Union in the 1960's) were aware of the scale of Stalin's crimes, which were carried out in secrecy.  There is also an excellent website for the book, which allows users to click on various images to learn more about Stalin, Sasha's dad, the Young Pioneers, Sasha's school, Lubyanka Prison, and other topics dealt with in this slim but powerful book.

2 Comments on Book Review: Breaking Stalin's Nose, by Eugene Yelchin (Henry Holt, 2011), last added: 2/1/2012
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17. The Book Review Club - The Apothecary

The Apothecary
Maile Meloy
Young Adult

Something Cold War-ish must be in my reading water. I seem to be choosing books with a Cold War themes fairly regularly -- David Almond's The Fire-Eaters, which centers around the Cuban Missile Crisis, Cecil Castelucci's Rose Sees Red, which is set in the early 80s with the Cold War tension as a back drop to a friendship that develops between an American and a Russian immigrant, and now, The Apothecary. It's not the side effects of too much dystopian ya for dessert, I promise.

It was for dinner.

Nonetheless, if  you find yourself feasting on dystopian but are looking for a little diversity in your dark, The Apothecary serves it up fresh and fun. The story centers around Janie, a teen whose writer parents are marked as Communists during the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s and thus forced to leave LA for London where they get jobs writing for the BBC. At her new school, Janie meets a boy, Benjamin, who wants to be a spy, a Russian boy whose father is, and a chemist-apothecary-physicist triangle trying to contain the effects of a nuclear bomb.

There are so many twists, James Bond-like chase scenes, an unexpected apothecarian surprises, replete with a serum that turns humans into birds and another that can make them invisible, as well as the threat of a nuclear bomb that does go off. It's all there in spades.

The biggest leap of faith I found strained in the novel were the serums. The book is so solidly set in the Cold War, that to expect a character, let alone the reader to buy into the fact that chemical compounds can do what alchemists believed they could do hundreds of years ago is tough. The author acknowledges this by having her character say that it would have been hard to believe her friend could turn into a bird if she hadn't actually seen it happen herself. Still, for me, it disrupted the fictional dream. I believed that chemstry and physics could come together to undo the destruction of a bomb, but to tie that right into the magicalness of herbs was a stretch.

Then again, I spent my teens in the Cold War era. I'm bomb scare scarred. Today's young audience will likely have far less trouble taking that leap. If the reader does, the book continues on in a fast-paced, no-holds-barred, edge-of-your-seat ride to the very end.

One other interesting note. The book is told from the perspective of the main character, Janie, albeit as an adult. I haven't run across too many POVs from this angle of late, and Meloy plays it lightly, allowing the adult only to surface at the very beginning and the end to lend the story an air of continuing mystery. It's well-balanced and a great example of how to use the adult POV to a writer's advantage.

For more great reads and winter distractions, sled on over to Barrie Summy's website. She's serving them up hot...and with marshmallows!

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18. Japanese attack Port Arthur, starting Russo-Japanese War

This Day in World History

February 8, 1904

Japanese Attack Port Arthur, Starting Russo-Japanese War


On February 8, 1904, just before midnight, Japanese destroyers entered the harbor of Port Arthur (now Lü-shun, China). Soon after, they unleashed torpedoes against Russian ships in a surprise attack that began the Russo-Japanese War.

The conflict grew over competition between Russia and Japan for territory in both Korea and Manchuria, in northern China. Japan had won Port Arthur, at the tip of the Liaotung Peninsula, from China in an 1894–1895 war. Russia joined with other European powers to force it to relinquish the port, however — and then three years later had compelled China to grant the city to it. These actions rankled Japan, as did Russia’s refusal to honor a promise to withdraw troops from Manchuria. Japan decided to go to war.

The attack on Port Arthur resumed in the late morning of February 9, when bigger Japanese ships began shelling the Russian fleet and nearby forts. The Russians put up more resistance than expected, however, and the Japanese ships withdrew.

The attack on Port Arthur was inconclusive, but the rest of the war went largely Japan’s way. The Japanese enjoyed several victories in 1904, seizing Korea in March, and defeating Russian forces twice in Manchuria during the summer. More success followed in 1905, with the surrender of Port Arthur in January, a victory over a large Russian army in Manchuria in March, and a decisive naval battle at Tsushima Strait in May that destroyed the Russian fleet. Russia’s government, facing unrest at home, was forced to seek peace.

The Russo-Japanese War marked the first victory of a non-European nation against a European one in modern times. It also contributed to unrest in Russia that would lead, more than a decade later, to the Russian Revolution.

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19. Alexander II Becomes Czar of Russia

This Day in World History

March 2, 1855

Alexander II Becomes Czar of Russia


Aleksandr II Imperator Vseross. Source: New York Public Library.

When his father, Nicholas I, died of pneumonia, Alexander Nikolayevich Romanov succeeded to the throne of emperor of Russia, becoming Czar Alexander II. While his 36-year rule was marked by substantial reforms, it was also dogged by unrest and several assassination attempts.

Two strong influences stamped Alexander’s character. One was the autocratic personality and rule of his father; the other was his education, tinged with the principles of liberalism and romanticism. He ascended to the throne with Russia in a crisis, fighting the Crimean War against the Ottoman Empire, which had the support of Britain and France. The fighting continued for nearly a year, but Alexander had to sign a treaty making concession.

Russia’s defeat convinced him that he had to modernize the nation and spurred a program of industrialization and liberal reform. New railway lines were built, universities and courts were reformed, and there was even some steps made to reduce censorship. The signal achievement of Alexander’s reign was the emancipation of the serfs, as tens of millions of peasants were released from centuries-old feudal bonds and even given land allotments. The reform failed to produce a viable class of small farmers, however.

Another liberalization, with Russia lightening its grip on Poland, led to nationalist revolts there and the growth of radicalism both there and in Russia. Alexander responded by strengthening the secret police, which produced more unrest, further suppression, and several assassination attempts against the emperor. In 1881, he leaned once more toward liberalization, signing a decree on March 1 that would create a new constitution. That very day, he was wounded fatally in a terrorist attack, dying one day short of the anniversary of the day he took the throne.

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20. Masha Gessen Talks About the Reign of Vladimir Putin

The journalist Masha Gessen discusses her new book about Vladimir Putin's rise to power and what he has done with it.

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21. Available Today: RUSSIA: A 1,000-Year Chronicle of the Wild East by Martin Sixsmith

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22. Aske/Sicksystems Design

sicksystems, graphic design, aske, russia

Typographics is where it’s at!

This illustration, designed for Computer Arts Projects, is by Moscow based artist Aske. Created for his personal art project titled Sicksystems, Aske playfully shows the various levels of typography…literally! He has a real knack for using interesting forms, bright colors, and celestial details in his work.

Sicksystems has evolved from initially being a graffiti crew to being the showcase of Aske’s graphic, illustration, and art work. To see more, check out his newly updated website.

sicksystems, graphic design, aske, russia

sicksystems, graphic design, aske, russia

sicksystems, graphic design, aske, russia

sicksystems, graphic design, aske, russia

sicksystems, graphic design, aske, russia

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23. The 39 Clues ...

An update on The 39 Clues series... I've fallen behind in this series that may not have been the Harry Potter blockbuster that Scholastic was hoping for, but still appears to be quite popular.  I've just finished books 4 and 5, Beyond the Grave by Jude Watson and The Black Circle by Patrick Carman as audio book downloads. Both books are read by David Pittu, who does a fine job, considering the many characters and their many diversities.  I continue to be amazed that despite being written by popular and signature authors, each book flows smoothly into the next.

A quick note on both titles:

In Beyond the Grave, Irina Spasky's character becomes more developed, Dan and Amy have their first real "falling" out, the one-dimensional Holts are (thankfully) mostly absent, and Jude Watson does a fine job of highlighting the wondrous nature and historical significance of Ancient Egypt.


In The Black Circle, set in Russia, Dan and Amy find out more about their parents, the Madrigals role becomes somewhat more defined, and the Holts reappear as major characters (though thankfully, Hamilton Holt, at least, becomes more singularly identifiable).  Also in book 5, Dan and Amy finally obtain a source of money and venture forth without au-pair, Nellie Gomez.  Bonus material is available in the audio book version.

Book 9, Storm Warning is due out in 5 days and is written by Linda Sue Park (I love her books and am looking forward to a female author's contribution to the series).

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24. Iv Orlof

iv orlov, illustration, russia

Summer is here, and tis’ the season for road trips! This illustration, created by Russian illustrator Iv Orlov, depicts some folks out for an evening drive along a line of colorful trees. Entitled “Night Rio,” this piece uses combines cool blues and greens with bright corals and yellows for a nice tropical feeling. Orlov uses some great shapes throughout this piece, evident in the various cars and leaves of the trees.

Orlov has a great collection of work that employs a lot of geometric shapes and fine textures. To see more of his work, check out his Flickr and his Behance.

iv orlov, illustration, russia

iv orlov, illustration, russia

iv orlov, illustration, russia

iv orlov, illustration, russia

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25. before the years flew by

Here's a spread from my travel Moleskine. I know. I know what you are thinking. You don't spell recieved like that.

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