Posts Tagged ‘Timothy Snyder’

Farewell to one of Europe’s leading thinkers, Leonidas Donskis (1962-2016)

Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

“Erudite, ambitious, and prolific as an ethicist.”

Leonidas Donskis died yesterday from an apparent heart attack. He was 54. The Lithuanian Jewish philosopher and public intellectual – he was a political theorist, historian of ideas, social analyst, political commentator, and professor –was little known in the West, but is a major figure in Eastern European thought. He was also a member of the European Parliament from 2009 to 2014.

One of Europe’s leading poets, Tomas Venclova (his correspondence with Donskis was published last year), wrote to the Book Haven: “Leonidas Donskis was the only one Lithuanian philosopher (mainly historian of ideas) who merited the title. I would say he was on a par with, say, Konrad, Krastev, or even Havel. His sudden and untimely death is a terrible loss.” Tomas Venclova and Donskis were both born in Klaipėda, and both attended the University of Vilnius.

Donskis recently coauthored a book with a man he considered of the greatest thinkers of our times, Zygmunt Bauman. The book Moral Blindness: The Loss of Sensitivity in Liquid Modernity (Cambridge, 2013) was “a high point of my life,” Donskis had said. “Such an opportunity can occur only once in a lifetime.”

"Above all, love language" (Photo: Dylan Vaughan)

Correspondent Venclova

At a discussion at the Central European Form in Bratislava last November, he spoke on the role of the intellectual in today’s world: “The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman said that if you want to be a star in your society you need to invent yourself either as celebrity or as victim. But I think there is also a third way out for the intellectuals, who way too often become fear-mongers. This is in my opinion their sin against societies. At the same time, we still have many sober voices resisting this temptation. The principle of intellectual or journalistic work is not to scare or paralyze people. The best thing to do now is to encourage audiences to live their lives without fear, in dignity.”

“The great paradox of modernity is that everything is very close to its polarity, to its own antidote. For instance, in terms of political existence, I am afraid Europe will become even more securitized and surveilled. But the crucial thing is to defend the humanistic legacy of Europe. First and foremost, our task is not to become paranoid or fear-ridden. The challenge for the 21st century is to protect democratic Europe with respect to our humanistic sensibilities, and respect to human rights and civic liberties. This will be quite difficult, but we must stand together for it, especially given the rise of violent political extremism.”

A few words on Donskis from some important voices on my Facebook feed:

marci-shoreMarci Shore, author of The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe and Caviar and Ashes: A Warsaw Generation’s Life and Death in Marxism, 1918-1968: I’m writing from Belgrade, in shock at the news of the death of our friend Leonidas Donskis. I had just seen Leonidas in Krasnogruda, at Fundacja Pogranicze on the Polish-Lithuanian border, at our seminar “Second reading: Tony Judt on Arendt, Camus, Miłosz, Kołakowski.” In Krasnogruda, he spoke about Bulgakov‘s Master and Margarita as a novel about the devil as superfluous in modern politics: we are in the age of do-it-yourself. He spoke about the death of the Left in Lithuania and about “ontological junk food” – quick, ready-made theories for easy consumption here and now. “I’m afraid there is just a void,” Leonidas said. But he never stopped trying to fill the void with a passionate insistence on truth and ethics. We were meant to meet in Vienna two weeks from now at this year’s Leszek Kołakowski symposium devoted to the topic “Paradises Lost: Entzauberung, Utopia, and their Afterlives.” I never imagined “afterlives” taking on this additional meaning. Now of all times our world could not afford to lose Leonidas.

TimSnyderTimothy Snyder, author of Black Earth:The Holocaust as History and Warning and Bloodlands: Between Hitler and Stalin: Erudite, ambitious, and prolific as an ethicist; liberal in his politics, generosity and individuality; trilingual in Lithuanian, Russian, and English. A rapid wanderer in our best traditions, a loyal companion with expansive ideas of friendship; a European link to much of what was admirable his Soviet generation and the ones that came before; an eager interlocutor who wanted to bring out the best in those he admired (such as Zygmunt Bauman and Tomas Venclova with whom he wrote books); a patient teacher whom I last saw among grateful students, filling my notebook with the connections I never would have seen without him.

iosselMikhail Iossel, author of Every Hunter Wants to Know: A Leningrad Life and contributor to The New Yorker: I am absolutely devastated. I loved him dearly. He was one of the most brilliant, altogether remarkable people I have ever met, one of Europe’s leading public intellectuals, one of world’s most interesting philosophers and social thinkers, an enormously erudite and prolific scholar and a passionate patriot of his country, son of Holocaust survivors and member of the European Parliament – and also one of the kindest, gentlest, and most decent and honest people I’ve ever known. In point of fact, I have never known anyone quite like him, in all of my long life: he was absolutely unique, unrepeatable and, to my mind, a perfect human being. I cherished each and every one of our conversations: in Lithuania, in New York, and, most frequently, online – about politics, Europe, Lithuania, Jewish history, Russia, art… It is impossible to believe he is gone. The world was so much better with him in it. There are no words….

Postscript on 9/23: We received this message from Beatriz Miranda in Mexico City, and thought we’d share it (it’s also in the combox below): “With great sadness we have received the news about the death of our beloved friend, Leonidas. I met him in Amsterdam. The University of Amsterdam asked me to invite Prof. Bauman to present their book Moral Blindness in Amsterdam. The invitation was accepted by Prof. Bauman with a condition: to bring Leonidas too. It was the beginning of real friendship. Later on, he came to Mexico invited by the 17, Institute of Critical Studies and helped us to think critically about the role of universities and academics. I will never forget the way he conducted himself, with humility and sweetness. He even travelled with me around Mexico City by metro. He ate at the Coyoacan Market and enjoyed visiting the pyramids of Teotihuacan. During that visit and taken by his passion for jazz he proposed to the Institute to give the doctorate Honoris Causa to the great jazz musician Vyacheslav Ganelin. We did it last January but unfortunately, Leonidas could not come. We will keep his words alive in our Institute. This is important especially in this violent time. Leonida’s call for peace and understanding will be missed but kept immortal through his work and publications. 17, Institute will keep the promise to translate some of his work into Spanish. Gracias querido, Amigo Leonidas! You will be missed.”

Postscript on 9/26: Read a few of his reflections and aphorisms here.

What happened to Irena Lypszyc and the man with the shotgun: Tim Snyder on statelessness in the Holocaust

Sunday, April 3rd, 2016

Tim Snyder in 2016 (Photo: Creative Commons)

From Timothy Snyder‘s The Black Earth:

“Irena Lypszyc was a Warsaw Jew who fled to the eastern regions of Poland to escape the German invasion of September 1939, only to find herself unexpectedly under Soviet power. Such refugees were initially helped by local Jewish communities, insofar as that was possible, but were helpless when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. Almost all of the local Jews were then killed, and the proportion of already displaced Jews who died must have been close to a hundred percent. After all, they had no prewar connections with the place where they found themselves, and no knowledge of the terrain.


“Like most such people, Irena Lypszyc did not know much about her new surroundings. She was in Wysock, in Polesia, when the German invasion came. When the Jews of the town were rounded up for execution in September 1942, she ran into the swamps with her husband. It does not seem that she had ever previously spent much time out of doors. The two of them lived on berries and mushrooms for a few days before decided that she would stand on the first road she found, hail the first person she saw, and ask for help.

“The man approaching her had a double-barreled shotgun on his shoulder …”

To find out what happened to Irena Lypszyc, her husband, and the man with the shotgun, listen to the video below, from Tim’s absorbing, cogent, and insightful lecture (in my opinion, his best ever) last month at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco:

Marci Shore on Ukraine, a graduate seminar via Skype, and “the return of metaphysics”

Saturday, August 29th, 2015

marci-shoreIntellectual and cultural historian Marci Shore remembers Tony Judt in the current issue of the New Yorker, which quickly segues into the current plight of Ukraine:

“We are unwise to laugh too quickly at those who describe the world as a conflict between good and evil,” Tony said, in a lecture in 2003. “If you can’t use the word ‘evil,’ you have a real problem thinking about what happened in the world.” In February, 2014, the Polish philosopher Marcin Król told an interviewer that Europeans were facing a serious political crisis and a potentially fatal spiritual crisis: they had ceased asking themselves metaphysical questions, questions like “Where does evil come from?” As Król’s friend Adam Michnik, the Polish writer and dissident, once said to Václav Havel, “This is a civilization that needs metaphysics.”

Marci reminds us of Judt’s “insistence on the historian’s moral responsibility not only to understand, but also to engage.” Her own form of engagement, or one of them, took the form of skyping in for graduate seminar on Judt’s Thinking the Twentieth Century, Israel: An Alternative, and Past Imperfect. (The first is an excellent series of conversations between Judt and Timothy Snyder, who happens to be Marci’s husband.) “And so this spring, from my office at Yale, I saw Mykola [a graduate student and now soldier] in uniform on my computer screen, the unmarked walls of a Soviet-built bunker in the background. He had Skyped in as well, from the undisclosed location, and he appeared on one half of my screen; Yaroslav [Hrytsak], together with Mykolas’s classmates, appeared on the other half.”

In response to Michnik’s call, she said:

judtThe Maidan was the return of metaphysics. It was a precarious moment of moral clarity, an impassioned protest against rule by gangsters, against what in Russian is called proizvol: arbitrariness and tyranny. It united Russian-speakers and Ukrainian-speakers, workers and intellectuals, Ukrainians and Jews, parents and children, left and right. The Ukrainian historian Yaroslav Hrytsak … described the Maidan as akin to Noah’s Ark: it took “two of every kind.” For Yaroslav, the wonder of the Maidan was the creation of a truly civic nation, the overcoming of preoccupations with identity in favor of thinking about values. People came to the Maidan to feel like human beings, Yaroslav explained. The feeling of solidarity, he said—it cannot be described.

You can read more about Marci’s unusual graduate seminar here.

Ukrainian poet Serhiy Zhadan at the end of Europe

Friday, July 31st, 2015
Serhij Żadan

Reading from “Lives of Maria” in Wrocław, earlier this year. (Photo: Rafał Komorowski)

We wrote about Serhiy Zhadan, Ukrainian poet, novelist, essayist, and translator over a year ago, in a post titled, “They told him to kneel and kiss the Russian flag. Then he told them to…” That’s when the pro-Russian demonstrators broke his skull with bats in his native Kharkiv, the second largest city of Ukraine, a place that has the misfortune to be close to the Russian border.

“Americans need to understand, in Eastern Europe, writers still have a huge influence on society,” Vitaly Chernetsky, a professor of Slavic literature at the University of Kansas told the New Yorker in a story here. “It may sound like an old-fashioned ‘poet stands up to tyranny’ story, like something out of Les Miz—‘Can you hear the people sing?’—but it’s really kind of like that. … He’s a writer who is a rock star, like Byron in the early nineteenth century was a rock star.”

We were happy to see him appear last week in a New York Review of Books blogpost by Timothy Snyder, “Edge of Europe, End of Europe.” Tim said “What Zhadan actually seems to aspire to – and here his willingness to risk his life for Europe is a clue – is what [writer Mykola] Khvylovy called ‘psychological Europe’: the acceptance of conventions, the work to transcend them, and the absolute indispensability of freedom and dignity for the effort.” The discussion includes Czesław Miłosz as well:

Zhadan’s most recent work, a collection of poetry published earlier this year entitled Lives of Maria, is a book of Ukraine’s war and of Zhadan’s own survival: “you see, I lived through it, I have two hearts/do something with both of them.” Yet as the book proceeds the meditations are increasingly religious, the poems often taking the form of conversations with Maria herself. No one, in eastern Slavic culture or anywhere else, combines the writerly personas of tough guy and holy fool as does Zhadan. He raps hymns.

A happenstance Californian.

Kindred spirit?

At points in Lives of Maria, Zhadan sounds like Czesław Miłosz, the twentieth-century Polish poet, who also strove toward Europe through both the local and the universal: “I wanted to give everything a name.” Miłosz was the preeminent poet of a borderland, one to the north of Kharkiv, Lithuanian-Belarusian-Polish (and Jewish) rather than Ukrainian-Russian (and Jewish). His position, not so different from Zhadan’s perhaps, was that Europe can best be recognized on the margins, that uncertainty and risk are more substantial than commonplaces and certainty. And indeed, the last section of Lives of Maria is devoted to Zhadan’s translations of Miłosz. Zhadan begins with two of Miłosz’s poems, “A Song on the End of the World” and a “A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto,” that ask the most direct questions about what Europeans did during the twentieth century and what they might and should do instead. The second poem communicates the pain and difficulty of actually seeing and trying to learn from the Holocaust, which was, or at least once was, a central idea of the European project. The first transmits, almost breezily, certainly eerily, what a European catastrophe might feel like. It concludes: “No one believes that it has already begun/Only a wizened old man who might have been a prophet/But is not a prophet, because he has other things to do/Looks up as he binds his tomatoes and says/There will be no other end of the world. There will be no other end of the world.”

Where Miłosz wrote in Polish that the old man had other things to do, Zhadan writes in Ukrainian that there were already so many prophets. Perhaps so. Pro-European Ukrainians are taking a chance, not demanding a future. They watch the Greek crisis too, and their position is often more scathing than anything western critics of the EU could muster. The point then is not certainty but possibility. Zhadan might well have died for an idea of Europe; other Ukrainians already have. Yet the risks he has taken, both physical and literary, are not in the service of any particular politics. Many of his essays and poems are about the attempt to understand people with whom he disagrees. He is an outspoken critic of his own government. Like Miłosz, who described Europe as “familial,” or like Khvylovy, who called Europe “psychological,” Zhadan is pursuing experimentation and enlightenment, a sense of “Europe” that demands engagement with the unmasterable past rather than the production and consumption of historical myth. “Freedom,” writes Zhadan in Lives of Maria, “consists in voluntarily returning to the concentration camp.”

It rather makes me hanker for a translation. Anyone? Oh well, you can read all of Tim’s article here.

Does “September 1” ring any bells? It should.

Monday, September 1st, 2014


September 1, 1939.  The day has peculiar resonances if you are Polish, for reasons obvious in the 1939 headline above. The anniversary of the Nazi blitzkrieg almost slipped by me, were it not for my Polish friend Artur Sebastian Rosman‘s interesting and controversial post on the subject over at his blog, Cosmos the in Lost, in which the Czeslaw Milosz scholar discusses Timothy Snyders internationally acclaimed Bloodlands, which we’ve discussed before here and here and here and here. While Artur acknowledges that the Holocaust has become almost a “metaphysical measuring stick of humanity’s capacity for radical evil,” he reminds us that Hitler had even bigger plans in mind:

snyderBloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin puts the Holocaust within its Central European context. What’s frequently lost is how Snyder’s international bestseller suggests the Holocaust is not some ahistorical transcendent metaphysical essence, but rather a contingent historical event. First of all, Snyder’s book puts the Holocaust within the context of the genocides perpetrated against other populations stuck between Germany and the Soviet Union. Second, Bloodlands gives a thorough account of the Generalplan Ost: the secret German plan to exterminate the Slavs so that Germans could repopulate their lands and take advantage of the Ukrainian breadbasket.

The extermination of the Slavs was Germany’s main plan. What they did not anticipate was the strength of the Soviet resistance and how the herding of Jewish populations would cause the Nazis logistical problems. The rapid accumulation of large populations in ghettos led the Germans to send them to preexisting concentration camps. These camps were first used to systematically kill Catholic clergy, Polish resistance fighters, and Communists.

Read the whole thing here.  Of course, we couldn’t let the day go by without a mention of W.H. Audens September 1, 1939 (we’re glad that Artur didn’t forget it, either), which begins:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Right again

Sock it to us, Wystan.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

I’ve thought a lot of the last two lines of this excerpt in recent days – there’s plenty in the international news to remind us. What remedy? What remedy? How about the man who insisted that goodness properly understood is not passive, but active – that the world requires individuals who not only refrain from harming others, but energetically seek out those in need of help? Sir Nicholas Winton saved 669 Czech children from certain death in the Holocaust – about 6,000 people are alive today because of his efforts. He turned 105 years old last May, with an international celebration at London’s Czech Embassy; The Guardian wrote about that event here. “I am always surprised every time I come here to see all kinds of people who have come really very great distances to say hello,” Winton said. “As far as I am concerned, it is only Anno Domini that I am fighting – I am not ill, I am just old and doddery.”

wintonHis daughter has just published a book about her father – The Guardian wrote about that over the summer too, here. “Like her father, Barbara Winton is not sentimental; she lets the story tell itself,” writes Emma Howard. “Both father and daughter resist hero worship. The book’s title is a nod to his often-repeated motto: ‘If it’s not impossible, there must be a way to do it.'” An excerpt that tells the story:

“Nearly 6,000 people in the world today are alive because Winton responded to a phone call from Prague in December 1938. The call was from his friend Martin Blake, who was engaged in helping Jewish refugees and was asking for Winton’s assistance. On arrival in Prague, Winton immediately took action, setting up an office in his hotel in Wenceslas Square. He persuaded the German authorities to let a number of Jewish children leave, and identified British foster families who would open their homes to them. (In November 1938, shortly after Kristallnacht, parliament approved a measure that would allow the entry into Britain of refugees younger than 17, if they had a place to stay and provided that £50 was deposited to pay for their eventual return to their own country.) He then organised eight evacuations on the Czech Kindertransport train from Prague to London’s Liverpool Street station. He spent only three weeks in Prague – the maximum length of time he could get off from his job as a stockbroker in the City – though he worked in the evenings during the following eight months to complete the mission.

“For half a century, Winton knew nothing of the nearly 700 people who now call themselves ‘Nicky’s children’. He did not seek them out after the war and rarely spoke of the episode. But the details were waiting to be found – in a scrapbook crammed with documents, photographs and a list of every child he saved. It was not until the BBC got hold of the scrapbook in 1988 that the story came to light. Invited by Esther Rantzen to sit in the audience of her show That’s Life!, Winton was overwhelmed when she announced live on air that the people in the audience around him were the children he had saved.”

Here’s how he found out he’d become a hero. It’s an awwwww video, for a little hope on a grim anniversary:

The man who tried to stop the Holocaust: Jan Karski’s “report to the world”

Sunday, March 30th, 2014

Last year, Georgetown University Press republished Jan Karski‘s nearly 500-page Story of a Secret State: My Report to the World.  Alex Storozynski, president of the Kosciuszko Foundation, wrote about the man who tried to stop the Holocaust in the Huffington Post here.  The Kosciuszko Foundation kindly awarded Humble Moi a grant for An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz a few years back – let me take a moment here to thank the organization; they do good stuff.

Karski was a liaison officer of the Polish underground, who infiltrated both the Warsaw Ghetto and a German concentration camp and then carried the first eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust. We’ve written about him here and here.  An excerpt from Storozynski’s weekend piece:

First published in 1944, Karski’s book reads like a spy novel on steroids. But you can’t make this stuff up. The truth is indeed more horrible than fiction. That’s why first hand accounts of the war such as The Diary of Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel‘s Night, and Karski’s Story of a Secret State must be kept alive for posterity’s sake. Georgetown University Press has reissued Karski’s report to the world with a foreword by Madeleine Albright, an essay by Yale professor Timothy Snyder, and an afterword by Zbigniew Brzezinski that give context to Karski’s memoir 70 years after it was first published.

With the World War II generation nearly gone, opportunities to preserve their memories are fading. Brzezinski was a teenager and his father was a diplomat in Canada during the war when Karski came to visit. Brzezinski was stunned to see that Karski’s “wrists were badly slashed and cut and were healing.” After being arrested and tortured by the Germans, Karski was not sure if he could keep the Underground’s secrets, so he tried to kill himself.

karski2Polish Underground operatives were often equipped with cyanide in case they were captured, and Poles who collaborated with the Germans were killed. Whenever the Underground attacked the occupying German army, the Nazis took retribution with mass murders of Polish civilians. Poles where randomly put up against the wall and shot for minor infractions. Albright writes, “The Nazi’s demanded submission, the Underground mandated resistance. The residents of occupied Poland lived under two wholly incompatible systems of justice and law.” …

The Polish Underground told the world what was going on. Karski secretly traveled to the West, smuggling details about the Holocaust to the Allies. As early as 1942, Karski snuck microfilm out of Poland that resulted in a pamphlet called The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland.

Snyder points out that Karski’s “incontestable heroism reminds us that the Allies knew about the Holocaust but were not much interested.”

Read the rest here.

Timothy Snyder nails it.

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

We’ve written about Tim Snyder  here and here and here and here and here.


Will we pay the price? Tim Snyder and Sławomir Sierakowski on Ukraine

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

“The removal of a state from Europe has consequences for the continent.”

It’s hard to keep up with events in Ukraine. Every twelve hours some new development upsets what we thought to be true. Fortunately, longstanding Book Haven friend Timothy Snyder, author of the acclaimed Bloodlands and one of our leading experts on Eastern Europe (we’ve written about him here and here and here, among other places), has been writing a good deal. He’s worth googling, or following on Twitter and Facebook.  Here’s an excellent primer, “If Russia Swallows Ukraine, the European System Is Finished.”  An excerpt:

In Vienna, where I live, one also hears constant mentions of 1938. Austrians and other citizens of European Union countries are beginning to consider what the end of Ukraine might mean for their own European system. The point is not that Putin is like Hitler; the point is that the removal of a state from Europe has consequences for the continent.

When we consider any state in isolation from the system, it can seem fragile, new, perhaps unnecessary. Ukraine today, like Austria in the 1930s, is a creation of a dramatic change in the world order. Austria as an independent republic owed its existence to World War I, just as Ukraine as an independent republic owes its existence to the unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union. Independent Austria lasted for two decades; independent Ukraine has existed for only slightly longer. For some, an artificial creation that had no right to exist; for others home to a people indistinguishable from Germans, Austria had few friends in 1938. Ukraine finds itself in much the same position today. Just as most European leaders were happy to accept the German idea that Austria had no right to exist, many people around the West seem ready to forget about Ukraine or to believe the Kremlin’s propaganda that half of the country is Russian.

snyderYet the reasons why states are supposed to exist are general, transcending their particular histories. The principles of international law are not subject to particular claims about identities. As with Putin today in Ukraine, Hitler in 1938 in Austria based his claim on the need to protect fellow ethnics. It is easy to criticize Putin’s arguments in some important details. He claims to be defending Russian citizens. But since dual citizenship in Ukraine is illegal, the most visible of Russian citizens in Ukraine are (1) the Russian soldiers and sailors based in Sevastopol, (2) the Russian soldiers who have just invaded southern Ukraine and (3) Ukrainian riot police who are being given Russian citizenship at the Russian consulate in Simferopol to reward them for beating Ukrainian protesters. Putin claims to be defending “compatriots,” but that is a category that has no meaning. The suggestion is that anyone who speaks Russian needs a Russian invasion; that would mean that since I am writing in English I need an English invasion.

Read the rest here.  Or read his “Ukraine: The Haze of Propaganda” in the New York Review of Books here.  Or even his warning over a month ago in the New York Times – “Don’t let Putin Grab Ukraine” here.

Photo: Jarek Kruk

“Opinion polls have deprived politicians of conscience.” (Photo: Jarek Kruk)

Meanwhile, over at The GuardianSławomir Sierakowski‘s assessment is unsparing in “The West Must Act on Ukraine, But Nobody Wants to Pay the Price” (we wrote about him last month here):

“We can already hear politicians muttering that Crimea is in effect already lost. And the only specifics mentioned concern what the west will certainly not do, precluding military intervention and the irritation of Gazprom. ‘Economic sanctions against Russia would damage Germany itself,’ Philipp Missfelder, a member of the German government and key ally of Angela Merkel, told the Wall Street Journal. British government advisers are speaking in a similar tone, attempting to avoid aggravating Russian oligarchs.

“Even the mildest sanction – removing Russia from the G8 – is being questioned. The German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, says: ‘I’m more with those who say the G8 format is actually the only format in which we in the west still talk directly with Russia. Should we really sacrifice this only format?’ This is quite a renunciation. Who here is ‘out of touch with reality’, Mrs Merkel?

“If the west allows Crimea to be torn from Ukraine, this will be a major shock for the countries that are celebrating a quarter century of freedom from Russian tutelage and who are the west’s most faithful allies and the EU’s greatest enthusiasts. They will have to seriously reconsider their foreign and defence policies. It is difficult to predict the direction – good or bad – in which this development will lead. One thing is almost certain – if the US and EU remain as indolent as they have been in dealing with the situation in Ukraine, eastern European countries will put article 5 of the North Atlantic treaty, which may be summarised as ‘one for all, all for one’, back on the shelf with their fairy tales. Just like Russia. Although Ukraine is not a member of NATO, no one will believe that the west would move to defend one of the alliance’s smaller members.

“A fundamental reason for the west’s increasingly embarrassing ‘softy power’ in global politics is the growing weakness of democratic systems. The addiction of politicians to opinion polls, unbridled consumerism, the disintegration of social ties and the consequent weakening of the sense of solidarity between people have completely demobilised western society.

“The leaders of the western world would surely like to do something for Syria or Ukraine, but they know that any serious economic or military engagement, which would require sacrifices of their citizens, would amount to political suicide. Opinion polls have deprived politicians of conscience, character and any sense of responsibility for the future of democracy and freedom.

“This is not something dictators need to worry about, which is why Putin can do what he pleases. At least as long as he does not target the west. And the same applies to others who may be encouraged by his success.”

Read the rest here.


New York City in 62 hours: revisiting old memories, making new ones

Monday, May 6th, 2013

I spent a whirlwind 62 hours in New York City, but they were “cherce.”  Fortunately, photographer (and friend) Zygmunt Malinowski was on hand to document some of the highlights, and has kindly allowed the Book Haven to feature them.

First, I spoke at a commemorative event for Krzysztof Michalski, the founder of Vienna’s Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen, where I was Milena Jesenská Fellow a few years ago.  “Democracy is Controversy Plus Solidarity: In the Absence of Krzysztof Michalski” was sponsored by the Austrian Cultural Forum and the Polish Cultural Institute, in conjunction with the P.E.N. Festival in New York City.

The panel left to right:  Alfred Gusenbauer, former prime minister of Austria;  literary historian and author Irena Grudzinska Gross of Princeton;  Andreas Stadler, director of the Austrian Cultural Forum; Marci Shore of Yale author of The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe, and Humble Moi…


Whoops!  There’s someone missing from this line-up.  Same cast of characters, but below you can also see Yale’s Timothy Snyder, author of Bloodlands (and Marci Shore’s husband) at far right.


Next, some of us who met for the Czesław Miłosz centenary in New York City two years ago decided to celebrate a reunion.  What better place than the famous Russian Samovar, a longstanding mecca for the Russian literati (and other Slavs … and non-Slavs)? The place was a familiar haunt for Joseph Brodsky, a friend of Miłosz’s.

The Russian Samovar’s legendary proprietor Roman Kaplan appeared toward the evening – he’d founded the hang-out with Mikhail Baryshnikov and he’d also been an especially close friend of Brodsky’s.  No sooner did he find out about my association with the Nobel poet than he pulled me into the corner seat, where Joseph Brodsky had usually held court, and a photo with the (by then) glassy-eyed Moi was snapped.  Glassy-eyed, but nevertheless … stepping into a page of New York cultural history.


Finally, here’s the whole reunion crew.  This is the only photograph in the group that is not by Zygmunt, because that’s him at far left, looking gravely into the camera (in the mirror you can see the mystery guest photographer’s arms).  The poet Anna Frajlich is next to Zygmunt, then Alla Roylance, Moi, Izabella Barry, and Władek Zając.  Couldn’t find a better group of people.  And you’d hard-pressed to find a better dinner, beginning with vodka infused with horseradish, cranberries, and lemon (you can read about them at the Paris Review here) continuing with Georgian and traditional Russian dishes, and finishing with samovar tea with jam.  Dostoevsky would have approved entirely.

web version zygmunt malinowski archives-1

After the panel discussion, we ended at the residence of U.N. Ambassador Martin Sajdik.  Risotto with white spargel, a perfectly chilled white wine from the Kamp River region, quince schnapps, and plenty of Mozartkugeln.  Can’t top that … but ohhhhh, I wish I could find that brilliant Austrian wine here, but the ambassador, rightly known as a connoisseur, told me the American market likes its wines a little more fruity, a little less delightfully sharp – you have to go to Vienna to get these.  As good an incitement as any, should you need one.

Here’s Roman Kaplan reading Joseph Brodsky’s poems in the commemorative corner:


Part Deux: Tomas Venclova on Arthur Miller, Timothy Snyder, and an imprisoned friend

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

More on Tomas Venclova.  I can’t get enough.

Below, a few more clips from the celebration of World Poetry Day at the Web of Stories, continuing my post here.

I certainly didn’t know the playwright Arthur Miller had championed the Lithuanian poet and written a letter to the Communist authorities to protect him. Here’s the story:

I’ve written a lot about Timothy Snyder in these pages – but I didn’t know till now he is friends with Tomas (who is a great fan of Bloodlands). “A relationship with him is something you can be proud of,” he says of the acclaimed author.

A reading of his poem “Before the middle of July, Paris.” The poem is dedicated to the imprisoned Lithuanian dissident Viktoras Petkus. “Well, this is about how a person attempts to reach public opinion in the West, and doesn’t succeed.”