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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Russia and Kavanaugh

The Daily Escape:

Moscow supermarket – October 2018 photo by Wrongo

The two topics in the headline are not related.

Wrongo and Ms. Right are back in the US, jet-lagged, and at home in the Mansion of Wrong. Our Russia trip was an eye-opener. In St. Petersburg and Moscow at least, Russia seems to be a wealthy country by global standards. People seem to be well-informed about their history, and about the current geopolitical climate in the west. They are consummate consumers.

We saw quite a few churches, but the Russians we spoke with didn’t seem to put much emphasis on their faith. Increasing their income and getting ahead in a career sense seemed to be the primary thing that interested them. “Pragmatic” best describes the people we met. They are strivers, and hope that their government won’t screw up what the citizens finally have going for them.

Mostly, we were struck by how similar the Russians we met are to the average American. We had lunch with a couple in Uglich, a poor town of about 30k residents that is about 125 miles north of Moscow. The town hasn’t benefited from the 18-year economic expansion in the Russian Federation, and has unemployment in the 25% range. It also has a declining population, and crumbling infrastructure.

The couple we met had both lost their jobs in the 1985 Perestroika period under Gorbachev. Thirty-three years later, the husband has a part-time government job, the wife is unemployed. They grow most of their food in their ¼ acre garden. Their refrigerator is covered with pictures of the grandkids, who visit every few weeks.

Their message to us was that people everywhere have the same hopes and dreams, but the politicians always want to demonize the outsiders.

We returned to American just in time to start calling Brett Kavanaugh “Mr. Justice Kavanaugh”.

It’s not worth dwelling on his confirmation process, or repeating stale arguments. It is time to gather ourselves, to register non-voters, and turn out all the votes we can on November 6.

It also isn’t the time to overthink the closing arguments for November, despite polls that show Republicans being energized by the Kavanaugh confirmation. But, it is important to understand GOP messaging for the midterms. From the WaPo’s article, ‘An angry mob’: Republicans work to recast Democratic protests as out-of-control anarchy:

Weeks ahead of the midterm elections, Republicans have cast the Trump resistance movement as “an angry mob,” a term used by many of them to describe a faceless amalgamation of forces that they say threaten the country’s order and, they hope, energize their voters.

Think back to the Tea Party protestors who disrupted town hall meetings in 2009. From today’s GOP viewpoint, they were just good citizens exercising their First Amendment rights. And all those people who chant “Lock her up!” at the encouragement of their dear leader? They really don’t mean anything by that, they’re also exercising their right to free speech.

But when a few liberals pound on the doors of the Supreme Court, that’s mob behavior, and it can’t be tolerated. In Trump World, crowds of marching alt-right men with tiki torches = some very fine people.

And crowds of protesting women in Washington = angry mob.

We should remember that the American Revolution wasn’t a polite discussion; it involved mobs making a point, too.

Democrats are on the edge of winning the House. Before Kavanaugh, they had a long-shot chance at taking the Senate. Right now, Dems need to be smart. Richard Nixon won because he scared Middle America with pictures of immoral hippies who were demonstrating against the Vietnam War.

Let’s assume that those of us who are already energized to vote can work to figure out how to reach those who are only half paying attention, or who plan to stay on the fence all the way until Election Day.

It is clear that accusations of the type made by Dr. Ford don’t resonate with GOP voters. Roy Moore’s near-pedophilia didn’t seem to change any Republican minds in Georgia. Whenever a Republican is under attack by the liberals, it’s always the time for the rest of them to circle the wagons.

There is no single, lock-step message that Dems should use to take both Houses in November. The best antidote for those “Energized by Kavanaugh” Republicans is for the rest of us to get, or stay, more energized.

There is zero to be complacent about. The Dems could remain in the minority in both Houses after the mid-terms if they fail to turn out their voters in November.

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Letter from Russia

The Daily Escape:

Peterhof Palace, St. Petersburg, Russia — Peter the Great designed Peterhof as his summer palace to imitate Versailles. It is a vast palace of glittering gold cupolas set in a park of fountains beside the Gulf of Finland.

No one becomes an expert in a new country and its culture in a week. As someone who has lived in three foreign countries, Wrongo knows that he barely scratched the surface of those cultures, even after several years in each, and a reasonable facility in the local languages.

With that caveat, here is a hot take on Wrongo’s time in St. Petersburg, Russia. This is a place where Faulkner’s quote; “The past is not dead. It’s not even past” is fully believed. In St. Petersburg, the past is a palpable presence, not simply for tourists who flock to visit the Hermitage, the winter palace of the czars, or Peterhof, the summer palace. The Russians we met all can draw a line from Peter the Great who ruled from 1682 – 1725 through the country’s incarnations as the Soviet Union, to today’s Russian Federation.

After the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, the Hermitage was occupied by the revolutionaries, but a few of the Imperial rooms were left intact. The idea was to allow the proletariat to witness the disgusting materialist way that the former rulers had lived. It turned out that the view into the imperial past was enormously popular with the people, so the authorities decided to close them.

They have now been restored, and the huge art collection established by Catherine the Great is on display, and most of the visitors Wrongo saw were Russian.

The desire of Russians to stay connected with their past is seen most clearly in the herculean efforts to rebuild Peterhof and the Catherine Palace after they were destroyed by the Nazis in 1941. Both were sacked. The Nazis carried off art and other treasure, and burned the buildings a few days after they occupied the territory. Peterhof Park, along with the famous fountains pictured above were devastated. The palaces sat on the front lines until January, 1944, when the Germans withdrew.

Work began immediately to restore the Peterhof, which looked like this:

The destruction inflicted on the Peterhof and the Catherine palaces was appalling. It is difficult to see the military necessity in damaging art work, or as happened in the Catherine Palace, using a part of it for horse stables. The priceless “Amber Room” at the Catherine Palace was removed by the Nazis. It has never been found.

It was the Soviets under Stalin that began the work to restore a place that represented everything the Bolsheviks had hated about their past. Repairs to the Hermitage, which had suffered considerable damage during the bombing attacks, started even before the war ended.

It is hard to imagine the strength of will shown by of the citizens of St. Petersburg after the war. The city’s entire infrastructure had been destroyed or damaged during three years of bombing, shelling, and fires. Over a million civilians had died, another million had been evacuated. The 600,000 people who remained began rebuilding their ravaged city and its palaces.

Today, St. Petersburg looks like almost any other wealthy, sophisticated western city. The streets are jam-packed with predominantly foreign cars. There are huge traffic jams. Many high end European retail firms have storefronts in the historic part of the city. Gazprom, the largest firm in Russia, majority-owned by the Russian government, has built an office tower in St. Petersburg that is the largest in Europe.

Most people live in apartments in large tower blocks. The newer apartments sit side-by-side with the so-called “Khrushchev apartments”, built in the immediate post-WWII era. They are low-cost, concrete three-to-five story apartment buildings which were put up to ease a critical housing shortage. After the war, most people were quite happy to have any roof over their heads. Later, the apartments were deeded to the occupants, and subsequently, people were able to sell them and keep the proceeds. Only about 6% of Russians live in collective housing today.

Today, people live in modern, mid-rise apartment buildings like this one:

In speaking to our guide, a grandmother, she expressed two concerns that we in the US can easily understand. Her 12-year-old grandson spends most of his time looking at a screen that he holds in his hand. She asked him, and he has no idea who Lenin was. She says that her grandson’s generation only knows the “Lennon” of the Beatles.

So she, who grew up as a child of the Soviet Union and who now is a proud citizen of the Russian Federation, fears that the 300-year history of her home town will be lost.

That the will to suffer to preserve St. Petersburg’s history will be forgotten.

That it may be impossible to regain if necessary in the future.

That the past will merely be dead.

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Sunday Cartoon Blogging – May 27, 2018

Wrongo and Ms. Right are at Fredrick Chopin airport in Warsaw, heading to JFK. This is an abbreviated post with a few more photos from our time in Poland and Hungary, along with a few cartoons:

Pierogis at Baza Smakow, Warsaw, Poland:

2018 photo by Carol Huston

St. Ann’s Church, Warsaw:

2018 photo by Wrongo

1963 Volga, a Russian car outside a wedding in Warsaw:

2018 photo by Wrongo

And a final photo from Budapest, the Liberty Bridge:

2018 photo by Wrongo

A few cartoons from another week where truth was again stranger than fiction. Opinions of Trump scuttling talks with North Korea differ:

Kim cancels arrangements for Trump summit:

NFL decides to punt on kneeling by the players. Trump suggests that the kneelers leave the USA. Some of us stand because we think we can be better. Some kneel to remind the rest of us to be better:

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Last Day In Budapest Teaches a Valuable Lesson

The Daily Escape:

Liberty (or Liberation) Statue, Budapest, Hungary. The statue was erected in 1947 in remembrance of the liberation of Hungary by Soviet troops. Many recalled the period of  Soviet control as a time when they were “under liberation” – 2018 photo by Wrongo

Sometimes a person-to-person experience can jolt you from your comfort zone, and provide insight into a wholly different life experience. On Monday, we visited Tabitha House, a pediatric hospice and palliative care facility in Hungary. As its name implies, it provides end of life care for terminally ill children or for those kids with chronic and life-shortening conditions.

We spent time talking with Judit Hegedus, head nurse of Tabitha House. She told us that Tabitha House is the largest pediatric hospice in Hungary. It has five beds.

Just five beds.

There are 9.8 million people in Hungary, of which 2.1 million are children. The first Hungarian hospice started in 1991, and insurance coverage for adults in hospice began in 2004. But it took until 2017 before there was any government financing for pediatric hospice and palliative care.

As of 2015, the most recent year with data, there were only 215 hospice/palliative care beds in Hungary. If this seems low, the World Health Organization’s recommendations for a country with a population of 10 million like Hungary is that a minimum of 500 beds are needed.

Tabitha House has a mostly part-time staff of 15, including pediatric and hospice nurses, a psychologist, a physiotherapist and a physician. There is a problem recruiting sufficient professionals because some misunderstand the value of palliative care, and they share society’s fear of childhood death.

Obviously, there is a large unfilled pediatric hospice need in Hungary. The most cost-effective way to expand assistance to terminally ill kids would be by offering home care services. Judit says that in-patient costs average about $72/day, low by US standards. In-home care costs about $16.50/visit.

While funding expansion is an issue, she hopes to initiate offering home care services later in 2018.

When we arrived at Tabitha House, we expected to be moved by the struggle of kids fighting for their lives. Of course that happened, but the biggest emotional wallop came from listening to Judit, and watching her staff deal with the impossible situation they face. In their country, there is an overwhelming need for pediatric hospice services, and totally insufficient resources to meet that need.

You leave feeling that these people are saints. They are a happy team, persevering despite having to make do with less-than-the-best equipment, and fighting the long odds facing their patients.

It was touching to stand with Judit in front of their “family tree”, a wall mural of a tree with many branches. At the end of each branch was a photo of a child. Judit would pause with her finger over each, say the child’s name, and offer a short memory of him or her.

There are wonderful people in the world. People who are not playing the angles, who are not reaching for wealth. People who exclude no one from their care and concern.

People who do good simply because it is necessary.

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Sunday in Budapest

The Daily Escape:

Buda Castle at night – 2018 iPhone photo by Wrongo

We landed in Budapest on Saturday morning, May 19, after an all-night flight from JFK. Walking around in Budapest shows a capital city that is both full of tourists, and plenty of old, beautiful architecture. Hungary is a country of about 9.8 million people of which about 1.8 million live in Budapest.

The country’s central European location means that it has been a target and a victim of various conquerors across the centuries. The Ottomans, the Hapsburgs, the Germans under Hitler, the Soviets, along with others back in the middle ages, all occupied and governed Hungary at various points.

Hungary became a satellite state of the Soviet Union in 1949, and operated as a socialist republic until 1989, when it became a democratic parliamentary republic. Hungary joined the European Union in 2004.

Our guide Erika says that her parents call the four decades under socialism ws very much like Hungary’s golden age. Everyone had a job, and prices for consumer goods were very stable. In comparison, the pre- and post-war period under the Nazis and the Soviets were times of both hardship and well-founded fear. When Hungary shifted to a market economy in 1989, many citizens, who had make-work jobs in government factories became unemployed, with few prospects. People thought that the market economy would make everyone rich, but capitalism doesn’t operate that way.

Erika and others in her cohort, who are now in their early thirties, were the first Hungarians in a very long time to experience job insecurity. Schooling and language skills became as important to finding work in Hungary as they are in the US and Europe.

In some ways, that generation has been quite successful. Today, unemployment in Hungary is about 3.9%. Coming out of the Great Recession in 2012, it was 11.9%. It then began a long decline. Today, among EU countries, only the Czech Republic (2.9%) and Germany (3.8%) have lower unemployment. Walking around Budapest, you can feel that the economy is booming: There is a hipper-than-Brooklyn bar scene, packed restaurants, and newly built apartment complexes all around.

OTOH, Erika says that the minimum monthly wage is about 95,000 Hungarian Florins/month ($353), while apartment rentals are about 120,000 Florins/month ($447). So, most young people have to find roommates, the same story as in every major city in any advanced economy. Buying homes is beyond the reach of most, because it can be very difficult to qualify for mortgage loans.

Hungary is a largely white, Christian country, and only 5% of the population is foreign-born. Victor Orban, newly elected to his fourth term as Prime Minister, is largely known in the US as anti-immigrant, a nativist, and an authoritarian. On Budapest’s streets over this Whitsunday weekend, there was little outward evidence of Orban’s chipping away at Hungary’s democratic checks and balances, or the clamping down on independent media.

Budapest is a beautiful and interesting city to visit. Highly recommended by Wrongo. Hungary is also home to the world’s largest pinball museum, although we will not have time for a visit. Here are some photos taken on Saturday and Sunday. The Rubik’s cube was invented by a Hungarian:

(2018 photo by Wrongo)

Interior of the Basilica of St. Stephen during Whitsunday Mass

(2018 photo by Wrongo)

Hungarian Parliament

(2018 photo by Wrongo)

Upscale bar in the venerable Pesti Vigado:

(2018 iPhone photo by Wrongo)

A sign on a side street showing that Hungary is open to tourists:

(2018 photo by Wrongo)

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