We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

The blistering English heatwave

Yesterday, after a walk in the warm weather, I went into a pub. I am going to name and shame here – it was the King William IV in Chigwell. It’s a nice place with fancy decor, an elaborate menu and London prices. I attempted to order a pint of lager.

However, beer was only coming out of the taps in a little dribble. One of the staff members vanished for a few minutes, returned, shook his head to one of his colleagues, and came over to me and said something along the lines of “Sorry, we are having a little bit of trouble with the draught beer due to the temperature in the cellar. This means that the beer is not coming through to the taps. It’s the hot weather, see”.

The temperature was a horrific 32 degrees Celsius – 89 degrees Fahrenheit. As an Australian, I would describe this as fairly warm but not especially hot. In England, though, it becomes quite unpleasant, due to the lack of any infrastructure for dealing with it, for instance the ability to provide beer when temperatures go over 30. (Cold drinks in newsagents and other shops are normally kept in strange cooling devices that are open to the air, rather than in proper refrigerators with closed doors. These lose the ability to keep drinks cold when the weather gets hot – ie when you most want your drink to be cold). Buildings simply aren’t designed to keep heat out, nor are they designed to be easily cooled when it gets in.

I could just say that the English inability to deal with warm but not especially hot weather is simply a consequence of their not hot climate, but then one also must think about the English inability to deal with cool but not especially cold weather, their inability to deal with weather that is a bit wet but not especially stormy, and indeed to deal with weather that is dry but not especially droughty.

Seriously, though, a pub that cannot provide beer when the temperature gets over 30 belongs in an Australian comedy sketch.

Where do they get these people?

Let me get this straight. The World Cup is being held in Brazil. Prior to this tournament there was a ban on consumption of alcohol inside stadia in Brazil, but FIFA insisted that the ban be overturned because one of their sponsors is a brand of beer and their contractual relationship with the brewer of this beer required that it be on sale inside the stadia during the World Cup. Fans at these matches have apparently been buying this beer and getting unbelievably drunk. The impressive cogitative processes operating in the brains of senior FIFA officials are now just starting to deduce that there might have been a reason for this ban in the first place.

Soon, Russia is authoritarian and corrupt. Also, it is hot in Qatar in summer.

Further news from Sarajevo

 

 

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As I wrote previously, the city of Sarajevo yesterday commemorated the centenary of the assasination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand with a fairly confused set of events. A member of a not entirely ceremonial royal family and in a sense therefore a political leader was murdered 100 years ago, as was his wife. Neither of them were bad people and the murder was a horrible thing in itself, even without the terrible events that it set off. The city of Sarajevo held events to commemorate this centenary, but there was much ambiguity about what message (if any) were being sent.

Inevitably, the memories of more recent events in Sarajevo were in the air, even if not explicitly spoken about. The assassin Gavrilo Princip was a Serb nationalist and the sides of buildings in Sarajevo are full of holes that were put there by other Serb nationalists for four years during the siege of Sarajevo between 1992 and 1996.

However, there are two Sarajevos. The bulk of the city is part of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (not to be confused with the nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, of which it is a constituent entity), and is populated mostly by Bosnian Muslims, with a small Bosnian Croat population also. However, to the east is Istočno Sarajevo (East Sarajevo), which is part of the Serbian Republic (not to be confused with the Republic of Serbia, of which it is not a constituent entity but would probably like to be) and which is populated by Bosnian Serbs. East Sarajevo consists mostly of new housing that was built on the edge of town using international aid money in order to house Serbs from Sarajevo who either fled or where expelled from Sarajevo during the siege. There is no obvious sign that one is crossing the boundary between the two entities when one does, but they are quite separate just the same. Public transport does not cross the border. People from East Sarajevo to not have access to healthcare in the principal hospital in Sarajevo. People from one side do not socialise or work on the other.

If you look more carefully  there are differences between what is on the two sides. As I said,  the housing in East Sarajevo is mostly new. The housing in nearby neighbourhoods of non-East Sarajevo are older, and the walls of buildings are full of holes where they were hit by shells during the siege. There is a large and new Orthodox Church overlooking the boundary between the two parts of the city. Away from the populated areas but still on the boundary is the base of the EUFOR peacekeeping force. The boundary goes right through its middle.

Although the memory of the siege of 1992-6 was hanging over the events in the historic part of Sarajevo yesterday,  allusions were vague. In East Sarajevo, not so much. Public spaces are still being established in that part of town. One of these is a new park. A ceremony was held yesterday to name it “Gavrilo Princip Park”, and a statue of the murderer himself was also unveiled. Thankfully, I suspect, we did not make it to East Sarajevo for that dedication ceremony. However, we did visit the park and the statue today. A few people were posing for photographs with it. Whereas the main commemorating events were deliberately non-provocative, those in East Sarajevo were extraordinarily provocative, and very crude. Also, insane.

A mildly strange day

Samizdata’s World War 1 correspondent Patrick Crozier and I are presently in Sarajevo,  on the hundredth anniversary of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which triggered World War 1. It has been a slightly peculiar occasion, as nobody – local, or visiting – seems to be quite clear about what exactly is the correct way to commemorate such an event. There are musical events, art exhibitions (mostly only tangentially related to the occasion), conferences, and a vast number of television crews from all around the world looking for people to interview and things to film other than one another, mostly without great success. It has been, a long, hot day, and the journey into Sarajevo from Belgrade (that we made yesterday evening) is a long and tiring one through steep mountain roads, and I lack the strength to write at length now, alas.

However, whatever the correct way of commemorating an event such as this is, my guess is that it does not involve dressing up as the Archduke and/or his wife Sophie and sitting in a similar open car to the one they were riding in when they were murdered on the exact same spot exactly one hundred years earlier.

It was, however, possible to to that in Sarajevo today.

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A strange map

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Partly due to despair at my unwillingness to decorate my flat in any way whatsoever, and partly because she knows I like this kind of thing, a friend of mine sent me this antique map of central Europe as a gift. She obtained it in an antiquarian map shop in Krakow, Poland.

First, obvious observation. This is a map from Nazi Germany. In the margin, it is identified as being the product of a mapmaker in Leipzig, but there is no date given.

Secondly, when I see a historical map, I like to play the game of figuring out the dates of the map by looking at the border, and using my historical knowledge of political geography to narrow the date down.

Figuring out the year of this map is easy. This map is from 1939. In most instances, getting the year is all you want to do. However, 1939 was a somewhat problematic year.

Klaipeda and the area around it is shown as part of Germany, not Lithuania. Also, Czechoslovakia has ceased to exist, Bohemia and Moravia has been annexed by the Reich, Slovakia is a supposedly independent country, and Carpathian Ruthenia has been invaded and annexed by Hungary. All these events occurred in March 1939, so the map was clearly designed after March 1939.

It’s looking at Poland that things get interesting. Firstly, Danzig is not shown as a free city, but is shown as part of the Reich. Danzig was invaded by Germany on 1 September 1939, proclaimed part of Germany on 2 September, and formally annexed under German law on 8 October. Danzig had, however, been under the control of the local Nazi party since 1933, and would have joined Germany instantly if it had been allowed to under international law. Is it possible that some German maps showed Danzig as part of Germany prior to September 1939? Possible, but I suspect probably not.

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By far the most fascinating thing in this map is the red line through Poland, however. Poland is clearly identified as “Polen”, but the Molotov-Rippentrop line – it the limits of German occupation after the invasion of Germany in September 1939 – has been drawn through it. Therefore the map must have been printed no earlier than September 1939. This has clearly been printed at the same time as the rest of the map – it is not something someone added with a pen later, or anything like that.

What I suppose is possible is that the mapmaker had a map prepared reflecting recent border changes immediately prior to the German invasion of Poland in September 1939. When the invasion occurred, the map was quickly modified to show Danzig as German and the zones of German and Soviet occupation before being printed and sold.

And yet, this map does not reflect the view of the world that the Nazis wanted to present. Upon invading Poland, they declared that Poland as a country did not exist. On that same date of October 8, Germany formally annexed the northern and western sections of their Polish conquests (including the Suwalki triangle, clearly shown on this map), and declared the South-East to be the “General-government”, essentially a German colony (but not a “Germany colony in Poland”, as Poland did not exist). This map is therefore curious, as it essentially shows Poland (clearly identified as Poland) under German (and Soviet) occupation.

I cannot imagine maps like this being printed in Germany long after the annexation decree of October 1939. In the Nazi view, there was no occupied Poland the way there was later an occupied France. There was simply German territory that unfortunately happened to have Poles, other Slavs, and Jews living in it. It’s easy to imagine foreign maps from later showing the German and Soviet occupation of Poland like this, but German ones, not so much. So my conclusion is that this map was printed very soon indeed after the German invasion of Poland in September 1939.

Plus of course this map ended up in an antiquarian map shop in Krakow in Poland, which between 1939 and 1945 was in that aforementioned “General Government”. One has no idea how and when it got there, but I suspect that “during the occupation” is the most likely answer.

Thoughts anyone?

You will fear The Council. And you will Obey.

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Foolishly drawing conclusions through architecture.

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The above photograph is of the main building of Moscow State University in the Sparrow Hills district of Moscow. This is one of the so called Seven Sisters - the Stalinist buildings that are prominent in the Moscow skyline. When completed in 1953 this was the tallest building in the world outside New York City, and it remained the tallest building in Europe until 1990. The building was built partly with gulag labour. As it was nearing completion, the gulag workers were housed inside it in order to minimise the number of guards required, so the building functioned as something resembling a gulag itself during construction.

The Seven Sisters were built in the 1950s after the USSR obtained the technical knowledge to built large steel framed skyscrapers from the United States. There are a few more such buildings scattered throughout the former USSR and the former Warsaw Pact states. The most notable of them outside Moscow is the Palace of Science and Culture in Warsaw, which I have written about before.

The Polish attitude to that building is, at this point in time, mixed. It is a memento of having been occupied by the Soviets, an experience of which the Poles are not especially fond of the memory of. However, the familiar becomes familiar, and it is hard to imagine it not being there. The Palace of Science and Culture is full of many good cinemas, theatres, concert halls, and other venues for cultural activities, and many a good evening has been had there by many a Polish person. As the years go by, other tall buildings have been built in Warsaw, none of which have anything like the same style, and the Palace of Science and Culture has become just a historical artifact (and a reasonably interesting one) in a more modern, and more western city. Nobody would ever think of building another building anything like it, and it remains as an integral, but singlular, landmark of the city.

Moscow is different. There are seven large buildings in the same Stalinist gothic style, and a number of smaller ones. They are not physically together, but are scattered all over the city. They don’t dominate the Moscow skyline, exactly – if anything does it is the spires of the cathedrals of the Kremlin and Red Square – but they lend an essential part of the character of the city. Take photographs and there is always one lurking in the background somewhere. Their style is one of the defining styles that defines Moscow, and even defines Russia.

Consider this building, though, to be found elsewhere in Moscow.

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This is the Triumph Palance. This is a residential apartment building out along Leningradsky Prospect corridor in the direction of Sheremetyevo airport and the stadium belonging to the football team CSKA Moscow. It was completed in 2003. For a few years after that, it was the tallest building in Europe. There is also a hotel on the 53rd floors and above. A quick check on booking.com finds that the hotel offers rooms from £171 a night, which I think in Moscow puts it in the “very nice but not extremely luxurious” category. I bet the views are great. A walk up to the building finds security and people who come and going who look prosperous but not obscenely rich. I think we are talking oligarchs’ lawyers rather than oligarchs themselves.

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The building, though, is clearly influenced by the style of the Stalinist-Gothic architecture from the 1950s. It would seem that there therefore exists an architectural style that might be called “Stalinist revival”. Saying that this style is nostalgic for the communism of the Soviet 1950s is probably not right, but it is clear that that era has had a big influence on what makes Moscow Moscow just the same – to the extent that the city is still building upon it. This is unthinkable in Warsaw, but is what happens in Moscow. This almost makes me think about some of the strange iconography I have seen recently from Eastern Ukraine: “Russian Nationalists” holding up communist symbols and Russian Orthodox Christian iconography side by side. Communist iconography no longer means anything as communism, but has become part of the language of Russian nationalism.

I am told there are some Stalinist revival buildings in Kazakhstan, too. In fact, there is even another Triumph Palace in Astana. What I should read from this, I shall leave for another day.

A Japanese hero in Lithuania

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I visited the above house in Kaunas, Lithuania last month. In 1940, this house was the Japanese consulate. Kaunas functioned as the capital city of Lithuania prior to the Second World War. The Lithuanians considered Vilnius to be their rightful capital, but it was masquerading as the Polish city of Wilno at the time. Upon the German occupation of Western Poland and the Soviet occupation of Eastern Poland in late 1939, many (both Polish and Lithuanian) Jews were trapped in Lithuania and clearly in great danger, but were unable to gain exit visas to leave the Soviet Union (or travel across it by the Trans-Siberian railway) unless they had visas to go somewhere else. There were Japanese government rules stating that transit visas could be issued to Japan, but only if the applicant had plans to go somewhere else after Japan, and also that he had adequate financial resources.

Seeing the desperation of the situation, and against orders, Japanese consul Chiune Sugihara issued Japanese transit visas to anyone who asked. (In the book Bloodlands historian Timothy Snyder – who clearly finds Sugihara as fascinating a figure as I do – makes it clear that Sugihara was a Japanese spy as well as a Japanese consul, and his job was to keep track of Soviet troop movements for the Japanese government). During September 1940 he spent something like 20 hours a day writing out visas. When the consulate was closed and he had to leave, he was followed by a crowd to the railway station. As his train left, he was still throwing blank visas with his seal and signature on them to a crowd of desperate people. In total, he wrote something like 3000 visas, and as dependent family members could travel on the same visa as the principal person it was written for, those visas covered several times that number of people.

kaurailKaunas railway station today.

Upon receiving these visas, Jews were able to travel on the Trans-Siberian railway to Vladivostok and then go by ship to Japan. They then dispersed to various places, but many were deported to Shanghai when the tripartite pact with Germany was signed shortly afterwards. Shanghai was also under Japanese occupation, and there these people spent time in the Shanghai ghetto – Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees – where they stayed until Shanghai was liberated by the Americans in 1945. I visited the remnants of the Shanghai ghetto in 2006, and wrote about it at the time. Although this was crowded and at times squalid, it was a place of relative safety. The Japanese behaved monstrously towards certain other groups, but they had nothing against Jews, and did not turn the Jews in Shanghai over to the Germans despite German requests. Rather cleverly, Jewish leaders in Shanghai played upon Japanese mistrust of their German allies. Upon being asked by a Japanese governor why the Germans hated the Jews so much, rabbi Shimon Sholom Kalish replied “They hate us because we are short and dark haired”.

Most Jews who got to Shanghai survived, and then emigrated to Israel, Australia, the US and other places after 1945. Estimates of the number of lives saved by Sugihara go as high as 10,000, although estimates of about 6,000 seem more common.

Half of the building in Kaunas is now a museum to Sugihara. I wanted to see this – it was why I went to Kaunas. The other people in the museum when I went there were a busload of Japanese tourists. Almost everyone who had signed the guest book had done so in Japanese, too. I didn’t see any Lithuanians or many other Europeans, which is a shame given this extraordinary story.

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It’s an exceptionally good thing that the museum is there, but I did find the tone of the museum to be slightly curious. The museum did seem to be going out of its way to present the Japanese in general in the best possible light overall, rather than simply telling the story of Sugihara. That Sugihara was acting against orders was mentioned but not emphasised, and much was made of Jews who reached Japan being treated well, but not much was said about where they went after the Japanese alliance with Germany intensified and they were deported from Japan. The truth – the Shanghai ghetto mentioned above – doesn’t actually reflect too badly on the Japanese, but it is rather unfortunately connected to other things that do reflect badly on the Japanese. It is impossible to praise Sugihara himself too much – the man saved the lives of 6,000 or more people just out of basic human decency – but does this reflect well on Japan as a whole? That is harder to say. As is the case with other various people who did similar things, his story remained obscure for many years. His career with the Japanese foreign service ended after the war for reasons that may or may not have had to do with disobeying orders in Lithuania.

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Eventually, Sugihara’s story became widely known, and he was later honoured by Yad Vashem, the state of Israel, the state of Japan and the state of Lithuania, but this took a long time. As it did with Paul Grüninger, Oskar Schindler, and others.

The joys of London

Often, when walking near Old Kent Road close to my home in Southwark, I have seen this peculiar sight.

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Yes, it appears to be a tank. London is London though. Our glorious city contains a lot of weird shit. Is it a war memorial? I doubt it. Is it a decoration in a public park? Again, I doubt it. The land is overgrown and is fenced off, although the fence has long ceased to be effective. Is it an art project? Possibly. Certainly the paint and graffiti on the tank changes from time to time, but as to whether this is planned or simply something done by the nearby and bored, once again who knows? As to what type of tank it is, my knowledge of military hardware is sadly lacking.

Half the Samizdata commentariat (and certainly this blog’s glorious leader) is no doubt jumping up and down and saying “It’s a T-34, you idiot”. As it happens, I discovered this when looking at Google Maps yesterday. The tank is in fact shown on the map, at the intersection of Mandela Way and Page’s Walk in London SE1. (Places in the UK that were ruled by Labour local governments in the 1980s are full of streets, council buildings, and lord knows what else named after Nelson Mandela, as this was considered a good way to annoy Margaret Thatcher).

Curiouser and curiouser. A T-34 is a Soviet tank. What the hell is it doing on an overgrown piece of land in Southwark? Thankfully we have the internet, which tells us one of those stories that is probably not entirely true but should be. Reputedly a man named Russell Gray, the owner of the now overgrown block of land, wanted to build a house on it. This seems perfectly reasonable to me. Although the block is fairly small and a peculiar shape, it is certainly big enough for a small house. As the location is no more than a 15 minute commute to the financial jobs in the City of London, any house there would be of considerable value. However, when Mr Gray applied to Southwark Council for planning permission, it was denied. In frustration he submitted another planning application requesting permission to put a tank on the site. This was granted. He then obtained a surplus Soviet T-34 and this has been on the site ever since. Apparently the turret was originally pointed in the precise direction of of Southwark Council’s offices and the tank was given the nickname “Stompie” after an ANC activist murdered by thugs loyal to Winnie Mandela after they suspected him of being an informer to the apartheid South African government in 1988.

Where does one obtain a surplus Soviet T-34, exactly? It was imported from Czechoslovakia as a prop in the 1995 film of Shakespeare’s Richard III, starring Ian McKellan and a large ensemble of Britain’s other finest actors. Prior to that it may or may not have been used by the Soviets in putting down the Prague Spring in 1968. In any event, Mr Gray was able to buy it cheaply after the film-makers had finished with it.

Er, come again? Didn’t Richard III die in 1485 before spending the next five hundred years beneath a car-park in Leicester? Were there a lot of T-34s involved in the Wars of the Roses?

Ah, this version was set in a fictionalised 1930s England. Soviet tanks that did not go into production until the 1940s were apparently a better fit in that world.

As I said, London contains some weird shit. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.

An amusing little factoid.

The least dangerous sport at the Winter Olympics is Biathlon. This is also the only sport at those games that involves the use of firearms.

(HT to the Australian Liberal Democrats for noticing this).

The Sochi Olympics and the future

We are now a week into the Sochi Winter Olympics. The opening ceremony was spectacular, apparently. (I stuck to my regular custom of watching nothing of Olympics opening ceremonies except for the march past of athletes from countries with names starting with the letter I). Many events have apparently gone smoothly, especially the indoor ice events taking place in the city of Sochi itself. There have been a couple of minor issues with individual sporting cultures coming up against strict Olympic rules – for instance the alcohol ban inside venues is said to be “against the spirit of curling”

At the other end of the outrageously expensively constructed road and outrageously expensively constructed railway to the outrageously expensively constructed resort of Krasnaya Polyana in the Greater Caucasus mountains, I am not sure that the snow events are going quite so well. Some of the downhill skiing looks a little slushy to me. Cross Country skiers have at timesbeen competing in T-shirts and shorts in temperatures of around 15 degrees Celsius, I am told. Ski runs in such hastily constructed places are seldom as good as in the most famous resorts of the Alps or the Nordic countries or Canada, and one senses a certain discontent. One can’t tell from the vapid commentary of the BBC coverage – and I suspect the vapid TV coverage in most other countries. Sports journalists and TV networks are too close to the organisers and too close to the sportsmen and too close to the IOC and wish to retain access to all these people and organisations in future to do much but gloss over these things, on the whole.

The odd piece of discontent is being reported. The Australian media is being rather franker than it would be if talking about, say, cricket. (This might have to do with Australia not being much of a winter sports power, and so having less to lose). Combine this with the interesting culture of the sport of snowboarding – arguments at previous Olympics about whether a ban on cannabis use was against the spirit of snowboarding do appear to have been resolved under the table in favour of the snowboarders – and we have found out the snowboarding halfpipe course is “f—king retarded”.

So it is probably fair to say that a huge amount of money has been spent on these games, the money has been filtered through a very corrupt Russian political and economic system and through the IOC, and venues that are good for the ice events and sort of okay for the snow events have been constructed, with the minor problem that it isn’t actually very cold in Sochi in February being a bit of a problem, as predicted.

What does this mean for the future of the winter Olympics?

The 2018 Winter Olympics are in Pyeongchang county in South Korea. Assuming that North Korea does not collapse or try to start a war between now and then, this will be straightforward, as these things go. A vast amount of money has been spent building new world class ski resorts at Alpensia and Yongpyong. These have largely been built already. They were built in anticipation of Pyeongchang winning the Winter Olympics. Pyeongchang also made unsuccessful bids for the games of 2006 and 2010, and has therefore been building for some time. There are already large financial black holes from the construction of these venues, but one cost overruns will be anywhere near as bad as have come from the highly corrupt race to get things built on time that took place prior to Sochi. Plus there have been and will be time for lots of test events to get the venues right. Of course, there are still highly expensive new highways and railways to be built, and a lot of indoor venues to be built for the ice events in the coastal city of Gangneung. As national pride is at stake, South Korean taxpayers will undoubtedly suffer painfully, but South Korea is a rich industrial democracy with competent people in charge. These games will likely go smoothly, but they will cost a lot – just not as much as Sochi.

The venue for the 2022 Winter Olympics has not yet been decided, but the IOC announced last year there were six final bidders: Stockholm (Åre), Sweden; Oslo, Norway; Krakow, Poland (Zakopane, Poland and Jasná, Slovakia); Almaty, Kazakhstan; Lviv, Ukraine; and Beijing (Zhangjiakou), China. [It has always been the case that the indoor ice events would be held in a city and the outdoor snow events in a mountain resort. In recent times the need for the city to be close to the resort has been relaxed somewhat, and I have listed the mountain resort(s) in brackets if it is a long way away from the official host city].

Sweden has already withdrawn their bid, and Norway appears to be close to doing so. The reason: they are seeing the immense expense and horrible shenanigans going on in Sochi. A little secret of the Olympics is that many of the the same people run it every time – the host city largely just picks up the bill. Once the event has ridiculous expenses and large amounts of outright corruption attached to it, this all comes with it to the next venue. Receiving kickbacks on construction projects becomes what it is all about.

Relatively uncorrupt places like Norway and Sweden look at this, and find that they want nothing to do with it. As great centres of winter sport, they have many of the right facilities already, meaning less scope for construction industry kickbacks. This means that for some of the IOC the fact that a country is already prepared for the Games is actually a negative rather than a positive.

Anyway, though, the point is that the two countries best able to host the games end up not being serious candidates.

As for the others: Poland and Slovakia would run the games just fine, but a fair bit of infrastructure and facilities would need to be built. Krakow is a lovely city. Zakopane is a lovely resort, and the Tata mountains are a suitable place for the games, even if the best downhill resorts are on the Slovakian side rather than the Polish side. (Some of the infrastructure construction would not be too counterproductive: Poland built lots of new roads, railways stations and airport terminals before the Euro 2012 soccer tournament, most of which were needed anyway and were part of Poland’s long term post-communist infrastructure modernisation). The Olympic games are not what money should be spent on in the present economic circumstances, though, and one also hopes that the richer countries of the EU are past paying for the Olympics to be held in the poorer countries of the EU (see Athens 2004). But with the EU, who knows?

So the others:

Lviv, Ukraine is far too poor and backwards a place to consider even before the present political turmoil in Ukraine. This is not going to happen.

Almaty, Kazakhstan is a hyper, oil money kind of place. The Olypics there Would be over the top and hilarious, and spending levels would be outrageous. This could be the IOC’s kind of thing, actually. As a positive, the Kazakh winter really is very cold, and the mountains around Almaty are spectacular. So in that way, this would be a good venue.

Then there is Beijing, China. Another Olympic games there would be all about prickly Chinese nationalism again. The Chinese would spend whatever is necessary to pull it off. Lots of clearing of poor people off the streets would occur before the games. Both of Japan and Korea have hosted the games before, which is always likely to get the Chinese riled up. An Olympics here might well happen. One does wonder about the outdoor snow events, though. China does not appear to have any culture of these kinds of sports whatsoever, and a mountain resort at Zhangjiakou would be a spectacular Olympic venue carved out of nothing that would likely become one of the great Olympic ruins in very little time at all, rather like the venues of the summer games of 2008. The Chinese have been doing well in the speed skating and figure skating events in Sochi, though,

My hunch is that the games will be given to Beijing, or perhaps Almaty. Helpfully, or not, the Russian government has endorsed the Chinese bid. Hopefully the Poles will have the good sense to simply get out of the way.

There is risk, though, in giving the games to cities and countries with dubious records on human rights and fragile politics far away from the homes of the sports in question. One day, one of these choices will go badly wrong, and the obvious countries to hold these Games may be so pissed off with the IOC that they me no longer be willing or interested in hosting.

If Beijing or Almaty does get the games, by 2026 it will be a long time since the Winter Olympics will have been held at any of the great skiing resorts of Europe or North America. This is a shame, really, as until recently the winter games has to some extent avoided the excesses of the summer games. Here was an event in which Norway was a superpower, and the sports were all fundamentally ridiculous, even by the standards of other sports. We may miss that.

Samizdata quote of the day

A $64.2m road built for the games leads to the “Science Centre Biosphere,” which Russian officials say will monitor climate change during the Olympics. The site consists of a ski lift, tennis court, snowmobile trail, two helicopter pads, and a 14-room alpine chalet”

- An infographic in (of all places) Mother Jones, reporting on the immense cost of the current Sochi Winter Olympics. Research in other places informs me that this private ski resort is of course Vladimir Putin’s dacha, or more correctly one of his many dachas. Apparently he was trapped there once and had to walk out after it became impossible to get helicopters in or out during a snowstorm. As it was obviously appalling for a man such as Putin to suffer such an indignity, it became necessary to spend $64 million on a road.

Disregarding the absurd plunder of Russian public money that these games represent, I personally rather love the Winter Olympics. Rich people from rich countries compete with each other at absurdly dangerous activities. I am often baffled as to why or even how some of these sports came to be invented, but they sure are fun to watch.