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

Foolishly drawing conclusions through architecture.

msu_1

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.

tp_1

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.

tp_2

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.

Putin and the Russian internet

Via the Twitter page of Dominique Lazanski, I recently found my way to a fascinating but depressing piece about Russian internet policy, by “Russia’s First Blogger”, Anton Nossik:

As for Putin’s solemn oath to protect the Russian Internet from any undue and arbitrary attempts at government regulation, well, he honored it for the next 13 years. As keen as Putin was to control the federal nationwide TV channels, he seemed absolutely uninterested in regulating the Internet, be it the content, the cables, or the e-commerce. Any attempts by overzealous Russian lawmakers, ministers or law enforcement (the infamous siloviki, or strongmen) to regulate the Net were routinely aborted by Putin’s administration. Anyone who proposed such legislation to please the Kremlin soon found out that the Kremlin was very far from pleased. Internet regulation bills sponsored by everyone from Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, to government ordinance drafts by ministers, and dozens of other proposals to regulate the Net had been quickly buried and forgotten for lack of presidential support between 2000 and 2012.

As a result, the Internet developed into Russia’s only competitive industry. Companies like Yandex and VKontakte easily outperformed international competition (Google and Facebook, respectively) in Russian-speaking markets. These Russian start-ups did not copy successful American models, but rather the other way round: Almost every Yandex service (maps, payments, webmail, contextual advertising, etc.) was launched several years ahead of its Google-based analog. The VKontakte social network has many services and features that Facebook badly lacks, such as social music and video hosting and an advertising exchange, allowing any popular page or group to monetize its traffic almost automatically.

The Internet also became Russia’s only territory of unlimited free speech. Opposition figures, banned elsewhere in mass media, found easy access to their audiences by going online. Moreover, privately owned online media sources, such as Lenta.Ru, Gazeta.Ru, NewsRu.com and RBC News, used to outperform traditional mass media outlets in terms of audience and pageviews. Alexey Navalny, Russia’s most prominent independent politician and Kremlin-basher, found millions of followers all over the country, despite being banned from all nationwide TV channels and radio stations for almost half a decade.

But then, President Putin decided to shut it all down. What had happened?

We should blame the 2011-2012 Moscow protests for Putin’s unexpected and instant conversion into a paranoid Internet-hater.

He blamed the messenger for the message, in other words.

He made his change of mind public during a speech on April 24. Putin shocked the entire world with his epiphany that the Internet was initially created as a special CIA project, and is still run as such. Putin went on to claim that Yandex, Russia’s biggest and most successful Internet startup – ranked fourth in the world by number of search requests, valued at about $15 billion on NASDAQ in mid-February 2014, earning more revenues and profits in 2013 than any other media company in Russia—is also controlled by foreign intelligence seeking to harm Russia’s interests. Those remarks instantly brought Yandex shares down 5.5 percent. As of this writing, the company is now worth $9.19 billion, nearly $6 billion off its mid-February mark.

And so on. The golden days of the Russian internet would appear to be over:

Under the new laws, any social media platform that wishes to serve a Russian audience will be obliged to retain all user data for at least six months and to surrender this information to Russian security services upon request, without a court ruling or any other form of justification or explanation. Moreover, any foreign social media platform serving Russian users has to physically keep all sensible user data within the boundaries of the Russian Federation. And we’re not talking Russian user data, but rather all personal information of any user who happens to have some readers from Russia – like, say, Barack Obama, who has no less than 3,000 Russian nationals among the 40.5 million subscribers to his Facebook page. Twitter should also prepare to move all of Obama’s personal data to Russia and hand it over to the FSB, since both Putin and Medvedev are his followers on Twitter. Ditto for Google. If any of these companies don’t comply they would be subject to administrative fines, up to 500,000 roubles ($14,000), and Russian ISPs would have to block access to these platforms.

This Orwellian masterpiece of legislation was signed into law by Vladimir Putin on May 5, 2014, and it will be enforced from August 1, 2014. Will that be the last day of Russian Internet? Maybe. Unless a new law kills it even faster.

As you can see, picking out the highlights of this piece was a task that was basically beyond me. This really is one of those Read The Whole Thing things. I am in no position to second guess Anton Nossik, but given that the excellent Dominique Lazanski linked to it, I assume the story he tells to be at the very least roughly right. And if it is roughly right, doesn’t it remind you of another similar tale that unfolded in Russia just under a hundred years ago? From dire economic necessity, Lenin had presided over a similar period of economic liberty and creativity, known as the New Economic Policy. And then he shut that down.

But Lenin shut down his NEP because he never believed in it. He only let it happen in the first place because people were starving and the Soviet State wasn’t yet able to suppress the resulting popular complaints. As soon as Lenin and his new apparatus of tyranny got strong enough to do this, bye bye NEP.

But what is Putin thinking? My first guess at a guess would be that he thinks that shutting down the Russian internet is of no more consequence than had been his initial impulse to leave it alone. Letting a thousand internet flowers bloom didn’t mean anything. And nor does him zapping all the flowers with legislative weedkiller. That’s his attitude.

But what do I know? Not much, but I will soon know rather more about such stories as this one, because Dominique Lazanski will be speaking at my home this coming Friday, on the subject of “The Future and Its Digital Enemies”:

I will talk about International Internet policy issues otherwise known as Internet Governance and how individuals, groups and governments play key roles in this process. Ultimately, it is the work of governments that is the real threat, but many play interesting roles in the political chess game. However, all is not lost, innovation and the market process are helping to undermine these threats.

Whenever that word “governance” is heard, you just know that something very bad is being attempted, so it is good to know that the Governancers are not having it all their own way in these matters.

Antoine Clarke on the boom and bust in French private investment in pre-revolutionary Russia

About a month ago, I was at the Institute of Economic Affairs to hear a talk given by Antoine Clarke to the End of the World Club. The audience was larger than usual, and of a very high quality. It listened, fascinated and engrossed, and with some rueful laughter at the intense relevance of a seemingly rather obscure slice of history to our own times.

The talk was about French investment, private but egged on by French politicians for their own foreign policy reasons, in pre-revolutionary Russia. This investment was huge, and for a while it provided a healthy income to French savers, by French standards. But then, because of events which the French media of the time somehow neglected to inform their readers about, it all started to go wrong, and wronger and wronger, and then of course very wrong indeed. Collusion and corruption on a huge scale among and between politicians, bankers and journalists is not, said Antoine, anything new.

Antoine has now gathered his spoken thoughts from that night into a blog posting at the Cobden Centre.

Quote:

The first Russian bonds sold in France were in 1867 to finance a railroad. Others followed, notably in 1888. At this point the French government decided on a policy of alliance with Russia and the encouragement of French savers to invest in Russian infrastructure. From 1887 to 1913, 3.5% of the French Gross National Product is invested in Russia alone. This amounted to a quarter of all foreign investment by French private citizens. That’s a savings ratio (14% in external investment alone) we wouldn’t mind seeing in the UK today!

A massive media campaign promoting Russia as a future economic giant (a bit like China in recent years) was pushed by politicians. Meanwhile French banks found they could make enormous amounts of commission from Russian bonds: in this period, the Credit Lyonnais makes 30% of its profits from its commission for selling the bonds.

In 1897, the ruble is linked to gold. The French government guarantees its citizens against any default. The Paris Stock Exchange takes listings for, among others: Banque russo-asiatique, la Banque de commerce de Sibérie, les usines Stoll, les Wagons de Petrograd.

The first signs of trouble come in 1905, with the post-Russo-Japanese War revolution. A provisional government announced a default of foreign bonds, but this isn’t reported in the French mainstream media or the French banks that continue to sell (mis-sell?).

During the First World War, the French government issued zero interest bonds to cover the Russian government’s loan repayment, with an agreement to sort out the problem after the war. However, in December 1917, Lenin announced the repudiation of Tsarist debts.

Boom, bust. And surprise surprise, French governments of the twentieth century were neither willing nor able to provide anything like the kind of compensation for disappointed French savers that had earlier been promised.

Antoine Clarke is fluently English thanks to his English father and fluently French thanks to his French mother, and he has lived and worked in both countries. As long as I have known him I have urged him to make maximum use of this bilingualism, in connecting us Anglo libertarians to French stories and writings, and vice versa. This talk and his subsequent written version of it is a perfect example of the sort of thing I had in mind, and I thank and congratulate him for it. How many non-French libertarians already knew this story? Some, certainly, a bit, but certainly not me.

Samizdata quote of the day

Putin cracked jokes and the audience roared and applauded when an old lady asked him whether Russia would be taking Alaska back from America.  Just imagine, though, how Russians would react if German Chancellor Angela Merkel did the same at during a German broadcast when asked about taking back the former German enclave of Kaliningrad from Russia, and then you’ll get a sense of how horrifying the exchange with Putin really was.

- Kim Zigfeld.

Russia… lets keep a sense of proportion

The subject of Russia has been on many peoples minds ever since the shenanigans started happening in the Crimea.

Russia needs to be taken ‘seriously’ but please people, they ain’t Nazi Germany circa 1935. They are a busted flush. Ukraine? Yeah, unfortunate but history does not apportion its favours with kindness. If they try the same in the Baltics, well sure, lets go to war with them. No kidding. Seriously, lets rip Russia a new one. Oh and Poland says “Thanks for giving us Kaliningrad, Vladimir! Or as it will henceforth be known, Królewiec!”

But I doubt that is how it will play out, because I think Putin is not even nearly that delusional.

Even if the USA picked up its toys and went home in a huff, which they won’t I might add, more’s the pity for the hapless US taxpayer, the effete dissipated welfare addicted gender quota apportioned peoples of Europe that dwell so prominently in the imaginations of Real Men From Texas (or wherever), are actually quite capable of keeping the Russian Hordes, in their rust covered jalopies with siphoned fuel tanks, from sweeping across the steppes and threatening to once again park themselves somewhere near the Fulda Gap, presumably out of nostalgia for a place with half decent food. Russia… big dick, but no shoes.

I have often said the difference between British and American arrogance is the Brits think they run the world, the Americans think they are the world. Yet somehow the world will bumble along even if either don’t get involved with spanking Putin. The US should just fixate the collective paranoia on China because that actually is something of a Good Old Fashioned Looming Threat, of the kind much loved by people like Boeing and Lockheed.

Samizdata quote of the day

The only thing the West needs to do to see the final end of Russia as the historical threat it has always been is… do nothing. Talk a bit, posture a bit, make a few disapproving clucking sounds when Putin has one of his bare shirted Mussolini cosplay days, but essentially… do nothing. Just wait and watch. Russia’s catastrophic demographics and fragile resource based economics are doing everything the West needs.

- Perry de Havilland

Latest on the referendum in the Ukraine: Hughesovka votes to join the UK

Via Tim Worstall, this:

Donestk was founded in the 19th century by John Hughes, a Merthyr Tydfil steel worker who had landed a contract from the Tsarist government to provide steel plating for the navy.

Now residents of the city have responded to pro-Russian protests for autonomy from Kiev with an internet vote that rejects Russia’s claims in favour of a turn to the Queen and London.

It calls for the restoration of the original name Hughesovka or Yuzovka and requests London rule.

After the Bolshevik revolution, the city was renamed Stalino and finally called Donetsk in 1961.

A total of 7,000 people had voted by Sunday with 61 per cent voting to secede to Britain and a further 16 per cent voting to make the city an English-speaking autonomous region inside Ukraine.

“We demand a referendum on the return to Yuzovka to its original bosom – a part of Great Britain,” the preamble declared. “Glory to John Hughes and his town. God Save the Queen.”

I read in Colin Thomas’s book on Hughesovka / Stalino / Donetsk, Dreaming a City, that the name “Stalino” preceded the era when everything was named after Stalin, and initially was intended to identify the town with its main industry, steel.

Samizdata quote of the day

If Russian govt. endorses Crimean referendum, will they also allow/endorse similar votes in republics in Russian Federation?

- Michael McFaul, former US ambassador to Russia

Seen on a building site in cosmopolitan London…

building site putin

I saw this in a very affluent part of London, scrawled on the hoarding of a building site. One of the people working there saw me taking this picture and laughed.

Me: “I wonder who wrote that?”

Builder bloke, foreign accent:  “Many guys here are Polish.”

Me:  “One of them wrote this?”

Builder bloke, shrugging: “I guess.”

Me:  “Is this because of what is happening in Ukraine?”

Builder bloke:  “Yeah, Ukraine.  And because it’s true.  People forget, then something like this makes you remember what it is to live close to Russia.  My son is in Army.  Shit like this is why.”

Me: “Polish army?”

Builder bloke:  “Latvian army.”

Samizdata quote of the day

A Russian communist-era movie played on the TV. I couldn’t understand the dialogue, but it was at least passively propagandistic. The main characters, scientists in white lab coats, worked in a sparkling clean high-tech facility, the kind of place science fiction writers of the 1950s imagined were in our future. The movie portrayed an entirely staged idealized version of an advanced communist utopia without gulags, without long lines for potatoes, and without the NKVD. Ukrainians don’t need communist-produced re-runs. They, like the rest of us, need a serious film about Stalinism for a mass audience, a Schindler’s List of the Soviet Union.

- Michael Totten

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.