Reading for Putin

While he won’t have time at the moment, Russia’s Vladimir Putin might profit from flicking through ‘The Day Will Pass Away: The Diary of a Gulag Prison Guard 1935-1936’ by Ivan Chistyakov and published by Pegasus Books.

He might pause on the passage on page 38:

“27 December 1935. Commissioner Morozov [Frost in Russian] from the Third Section: what can he actually do, what guidance is he supposed to offer, when he doesn’t have a clue about the situation or the measures we have already taken, when he doesn’t know that we have already tried everything, we’re not our own enemies, and we’re not trying to get ourselves awarded fatigue details or arrested.  All they do is swear at us, punish us: the commissioner, the political adviser, the company commander, the head of the Third Section. That’s all any of them can do. Who is there to advise, support and explain? Nobody. Just get on with your job!”

The ring is familiar to anyone who has been in a bureaucratic hierarchy under impossible pressures.

Which brings out the importance of the degree of choice in any system.

Not that there was very much of that in Chistyakov’s case.  In the summer, he was a Muscovite technician, unconscripted, catching the tram to work and going to concerts.

By Christmas time, he was working in 50 degrees of frost, sleeping in all his clothes and dreaming that the bathhouse might get fixed.  As a prison guard officer, he was well up the hierarchy.

His diary entries suggest that his incentive to do his job (or be seen to do it) was the implicit threat that he might drop down to join the zeks.  Their incentive – also effective – was a sliding scale of daily bread ration, from 2 kg to 100 grams.

You might suspect that keeping a diary was a sign that he wasn’t cut out for the job.  In any event he was ‘repressed’ a year later and presumably joined the prison population.  In 1941, he died at the front near the town of Tula, not far from his beloved Moscow.

Now Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin’s version of the system has come a long way in the last eighty years and we can comfortably assure ourselves that its brutality is substantially mitigated.  It is unquestionably less bad.

But strip away the material improvements and the essentials look pretty similar.

That is important for understanding what is happening in Ukraine right now.

Putin acquired power by offering Russians more attractive choices than others.  But they look less attractive now – particularly for the soldiers called upon to fight and perhaps die on Chistyakov’s battlefields of eighty years ago.

The choices for military age Ukrainian men might not seem terribly good to us, but they have better and more honourable choices than Russians.  And so far that seems to march with a greater willingness to fight.

The latest reports from well-informed observers like the Institute for the Study of War suggest that the Russian military is regrouping and using its weight of materiel to grind out a solution in the east.  Enough to avoid toppling the structure of choices which Putin has been erecting since his presidential inauguration on 7 May 2000.

An embarrassment of choices too for us in the west.  Many of them hard. Whether to give Ukrainian fighting men the equipment they need to win – or just to survive? Whether to continue to pay record prices for Russian carbon? Whether it is realistic to tell voters that the costs are all going to be carried by multinational companies? Whether it is in our interests to aim for a stalemate that minimises our own short-term financial damage?

Or even whether to try to help change the choices available to today’s Ivan Chistyakovs.

The day it all changed

 As Russian forces raise their horizons and start killing more Ukrainians in what seems to be a full-on invasion, Britain’s PM, Boris Johnson, got the stakes right when he said “this mission must end in failure”.

That covers a multiplicity of outcomes of varying bloodiness – but the logic is that conflict continues until the goal is reached.  It may take quite a while then.

The phrase game changing is overused, but – in the sense of recognition of a profound change in direction – it might well be applicable in this case.

Continue reading “The day it all changed”

The limits of compassion are clearer at a distance

As the PM’s staff start drafting her Harvard commencement address, they might want to allow for a more critical reception from the overseas media than say 18 months earlier.   The questions are getting more pointed.

Douglas Murray, writing in London’s Daily Telegraph for example, comparing the paths taken by Jacinda Ardern and Justin Trudeau, asks:

Who knew that empathy wasn’t enough?”

And follows with:

Continue reading “The limits of compassion are clearer at a distance”

Covid divide in 2022: you ain’t seen nothing yet

As the Omicron wave washes through, it’s hard, even with the seasonal perspective, to reckon what things might be like in say a year’s time.

But perhaps necessary.

Because the day-to-day measures seem less and less meaningful – except where they provide a pointer to the direction of long-term policy.

Continue reading “Covid divide in 2022: you ain’t seen nothing yet”

In Britain, Christmas locks itself down

Experience suggests one should only call a turning point after it has actually – well – turned.

That said, it might be wise to keep an eye on developments in the UK over the Christmas and New Year period.

While Europe is fast locking down for fear of Omicron, Britain’s cabinet is the fulcrum of a political battle over whether any policy response would be meaningful.

Continue reading “In Britain, Christmas locks itself down”

Vaccinating the underclass

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Brian Easton – writing for Pundit – says if we want to minimise the impact of the Covid virus, we are going to have to think about social class.  

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New Zealanders do not easily talk about social class: that there are groups in the community who connect together, live different lives and have standards of living very different from the average – who are different from, but still a part of, us. We may recognise such groups exist, but we generally avoid using the notion or incorporate it into our social thinking. (A bit like Victorians being chary of talking about sex.)

Once we would say that New Zealand was a ‘classless society’ or, more cautiously, that we were the least class-bound society in the world. We may have been but the data suggests this is no longer true if it ever was. Often all we meant was to compare ourselves with the English but they are hardly a useful benchmark in the whole world.

We have a curious dialogue which implicitly equates Māori with the lower classes, drawing attention to their low incomes, their poverty, their unemployment, their poor health, housing and life prospects and their high incarceration rates. All true on average, but demeaning to many Māori, who have good jobs, decent incomes, reasonable health, their own homes and high social status and who are proud of their culture. It is true there are proportionally fewer of them than for Pakeha, but it is also true that there are many more Pakeha in total who are low in the socioeconomic rankings. Continue reading “Vaccinating the underclass”

Come on, Joel – more research should show that classism and the pox weren’t the only exports sent here by the Poms

ACT​ leader David Seymour (who is doing nicely in opinion polls) irked many people when he sent out priority vaccination access codes intended for Māori.

The critics (no surprises here) included

  • Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson, who said the move was “despicable” and she would be writing to Speaker Trevor Mallard about it.
  • Māori Party co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, who said it was a “low-life move” aimed at intentionally sabotaging the Māori vaccine campaign.

This week, former Stuff reporter Joel Maxwell pitched in, too, to huff:

I’ll admit, Māori like myself were pretty angry about it. Some might accuse us of being ideologically driven, and that’s true – if the ideology was not wanting our whānau to die.

Having told us what he thinks of Seymour and his politicking, Maxwell proceeded to a bout of Pommy-bashing: Continue reading “Come on, Joel – more research should show that classism and the pox weren’t the only exports sent here by the Poms”

Everyone has a different Covid reality. That could be important

The role of chance in politics is often underrated.  The impact of Covid in different countries might illustrate this.

Take New Zealand and the UK, for example.  It’s difficult to think of a time when the mood in each country – to the extent that such a thing can actually be gauged – has been so divergent.

Continue reading “Everyone has a different Covid reality. That could be important”

Our post-covid future: the downside of working from home and the grim lessons office owners should learn from the retail sector

Post-Covid trends in workplace choices and the implications for the office market are the subjects of two recent articles drawn to our attention.

An article about the modern-day workplace, published in The Conversation, is headed How the pandemic will shape the workplace trends of 2021. 

It reminds us that the economist John Maynard Keynes  in 1930 predicted the amount we work would gradually shrink to as little as 15 hours a week as technology made us more productive.

It didn’t happen.  Rather, we began to spend extra time away from home

 … due to commuting and suburban living patterns, which we often forget are recent historical inventions.

An article in the New York Times,  headed The Future of Offices When Workers Have a Choice, reminds us that at the end of the 19th century, most American urbanites walked to work.

As late as 1930, Manhattan’s residential population was larger than it is today, meaning the city was more mixed in terms of land use, not dominated by office towers.

In the post-Covid society, the author surmises, many people will again prefer to work within walking or biking distance of home. Continue reading “Our post-covid future: the downside of working from home and the grim lessons office owners should learn from the retail sector”