Sabbath musical delight: Franz Liszt, “Mazeppa” (piano and orchestra versions)


Ivan Stepanovych Mazepa (also spelled Mazeppa;[1] Ukrainian: Іван Степанович Мазепа, PolishJan Mazepa Kołodyński; 30 March [O.S. 20 March] 1639 – 2 October [O.S. 21 September] 1709)[2] served as the Hetman of Zaporizhian Host in 1687–1708. He was awarded a title of Prince of the Holy Roman Empire in 1707 for his efforts for the Holy League.[3] The historical events of Mazepa’s life have inspired many literary, artistic and musical works. He was famous as a patron of the arts.

Mazepa played an important role in the Battle of Poltava (1709), where after learning that Tsar Peter I intended to relieve him as acting Hetman (military leader) of Zaporizhian Host (a Cossack state) and to replace him with Alexander Menshikov, he deserted his army and sided with King Charles XII of Sweden. The political consequences and interpretation of this desertion have resonated in the national histories both of Russia and of Ukraine.[…]

The literary works alluded to above include both an 1818 epic poem by Lord Byron and a much shorter one in the 1829 collection “Les Orientales” by Victor Hugo. Young Franz Liszt read the latter and used it (as was his wont) as inspiration to write a virtuosic piano piece, which he reworked several times until including it as Nr. 4 of his daunting Transcendental Etudes. (Hugo’s poem is included with the original printed score. By the way, the original French title, Etudes d’execution transcendentale, literally: studies in transcendental performance, makes it clear the title referred not to the spiritual transcendant but to pushing beyond the limits of then-established piano technique.)

This is Daniil Trifonov’s piano performance from his Grammy-winning recording of the Transcendental Etudes. As the artist put it in an interview, “The pieces for the winning CD, Liszt’s Transcendental Études were chosen “because they all have a story” and not for “being challenging technically.”” [*]

Later Liszt reworked his piano etude into a symphonic poem, performed here by the Berlin Philharmonic.

Enjoy, have a nice weekend, and shabbat shalom!

[*] A longtime favorite of mine in the collection is Nr. 11 in Db major, “Harmonies du soir” — one of the first Liszt pieces I ever heard.

How did Russia and Ukraine come about? A very brief history. 3. The Romanovs

In the previous parts one and two, we have covered the early history of Kievan Rus (and its Viking-descended rulers), its disintegration under internal and external (Mongol Golden Horde) pressures, the beginnings of centuries-long Polish-Lithuanian rule over present-day Belarus and Ukraine in the West, and the gradual emergence of Muscovy in the east. The latter culminated in the long and bloody reign of the first crowned “Tsar of All Russia”, Ivan IV The Terrible.

The Time of Troubles

Ivan had killed his own crown prince in a fit of rage. When his time finally came, only the weak, sickly Feodor was left to take over. Feodor’s advisor Boris Godunov[*] became de facto regent, then the first non-Rurikid Tsar when Feodor died childless. (There was also a son named Dmitri from Ivan IV’s last marriage — the 7th or 8th, not considered legitimate by the Orthodox Church which set a hard limit of three marriages. Godunov sent Dmitri into internal exile at Uglich, where he died under suspicious circumstances at age 11.)

Godunov appears to have been a somewhat effective ruler but died of a stroke after just a few years in power. This ushered in a period of anarchy and devastation known as the Time of Troubles. Comparable perhaps to the misery wrought in Germany a few decades later during the Thirty-Year War, it merits a few blog posts in themselves, which I hope to share with you another day. For one thing, a famine in 1601-3 took the lives of one in every three Russians. For another, three (by some accounts, four) “false Dmitri” imposters claimed the throne. For a third, Poland-Lithuania took advantage by invading, and at one point briefly took control of Moscow, then conquered the fortress city of Smolensk just 220 miles away and established a firm hold on it.

Enter the Romanovs

The chaos ended when Mikhail Romanov, a first cousin once-removed of Feodor, was elected Tsar Mikhail I by a national assembly. His father, Patriach Filaret (born Feodor Nikitich Romanov, a first cousin of the last Rurikid tsar) of Moscow, was a Polish prisoner at first, then, upon his return from captivity, became the de facto co-ruler.

A history of their rule and of their first few successors would take us too far. One key event, under Mikhail’s son Alexei, was the end of another war with Poland-Lithuania in the 1667 Truce of Andrusovo, where Russia not just regained Smolensk, but also acquired the part of Ukraine east of the mighty Dnepr river, plus the city of Kiev that straddles it (dark green areas in the map below).

Note that Crimea and the Black Sea coast at the time were part of neither Russia nor Poland-Lithuania, but of the Ottoman Empire and its vassals (see the purple in the map). Note also the green-yellow hashed part in the southeast corner of the map, Zaporizhia — the lands ruled by the Zaporizhian Host of Cossacks.

The Cossacks

A brief digression is needed here. You see, Russia had instituted serfdom — serfs could not be bought and sold individually like slaves, but were tied to the land they worked, and hence ‘belonged’ to whomever owned the land and changed hands together with the land. The institution had existed in Western Europe but died out there during the Renaissance: in contrast, the institution actually became stronger in Russia — perhaps motivated in part by a desire to ensure land would be worked and famine would not return?

Polish-Lithuanian society was a bit different. Lots of nominally free farmers worked the extremely fertile lands of Ukraine (the prized chernozyem, “Black Earth”), while absentee Polish nobles preferred to live in the cities of modern-day Poland.

They would extract arenda (land “rent” [**]) from the farmers. Casimir the Great, the last and greatest Piast king, had invited Jews from “Ashkenaz” (Hebrew name given to the Rhineland in modern Germany) to settle in great numbers, to fill the economic gap between simple farmers and nobles.

In Poland-Lithuania’s eastern lands, many Jews thus filled a middleman role. (Others worked in skilled trades, were innkeepers,…) They collected arenda from the farmers on behalf of the absentee nobles and were awarded the excess above the appointed rent as a commission of sort (cf. “tax-farming”).

Some Ukrainians who were unwilling to put up with the arenda system fled to the “Wild Lands”, the southeastern borderlands between Polish-Lithuanian Ukraine and the Ottoman Empire. There, they joined the Cossacks, nomadic horsemen warriors who had picked up some of the ways of Mongols and Turks alike (the name, as do Kazakh and Kazakhstan in Central Asia, derive from a Cuman Turkic word meaning both ‘free man’ and ‘adventurer’. Specifically, they joined the Zaporizhian Host.

1648 saw an uprising led by Bogdan Khmelnitsky against Poland-Lithuania, which was accompanied by massive pogroms against the Jews (ca. 100,000 dead). [I will blog about this separately, and about the profound changes it wrought in Jewish society — fleetingly the mania for the false messiahs Shabbetai Tzvi and Jacob Frank, more lastingly the emergence of the Chasidic movement.] The 1654 effectively made the Zaporizhian Host an autonomous entity in the Russian empire — which precipitated the abovementioned 1654-1667 Russo-Polish war and hence the treaty of Andrusovo that ended it.

Peter the Great

One could write another, real-life, “Game of Thrones” about the power struggles in the early Romanov dynasty: I will just briefly mention the literally larger-than-life (he stood 6ft8in) figure of Peter the Great (Veliky Piotr). Through a “Grand Embassy” tour of the West, he unsuccessfully tried to gain allies for a war against the Ottoman Empire and a push to the Black Sea. He failed in that, as Europe was preoccupied with the War of the Spanish Succession following the childless death of the last Spanish Habsburg emperor, the cartoonishly inbred Carlos II. However, Piotr was by all accounts an avid learner of uncommon intelligence and sought to absorb everything he could about Western society — even working incognito at a Dutch shipyard for months, where he was prized for his great physical strength.

Upon his return, he embarked on an aggressive Westernization campaign, built a new capital from scratch (St. Petersburg, at the cost of 100,000 lives) nearly on Europe’s doorstep, etc.

As a local historian named Eyal Offenbach told me: Peter thought he could replicate the English civil service ex nihilo., forgetting it was built upon a tradition there. So instead he got ranks and corrupt bureacrats, but no true civil service.

Peter’s greatest military successes were against Charles XII of Sweden, breaking their military back at the Battle of Poltava. King of Poland and Archduke of Lithuania at the time was Augustus II the Strong of Saxony, who held the aforementioned titles in personal union.[***]

Catharina II and the Partition of Poland

We will fast-forward again until we get to the former German princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst, better known as Catharina II or Catherine the Great. Even more Europhile than Peter, she was an admirer of the Enlightenment, and in many ways an enlightened despot in the mold of Frederick II of Prussia and Joseph II of Austria-Hungary. (Hmm, strange coincidence, all “Second”s ;))

It is under her reign that Crimea and much of the Black Sea coast were conquered from the Ottomans and their vassals during the Russo-Crimean War, 1768-1774, ending with the Treaty of Kücük Kaynarka. Immediately after, the Russian army turned on its allies, the Zaporizhian Host (i.e., the Ukrainian Cossacks): the combined territories made up the new governorate of New Russia (Novorossiya, est. 1775), with Catharine’s confidant and lover Prince Grigory Potemkin as the governor.

Novorossiya in medium yellow (years of incorporation in red). Gray to the west: Habsburg Empire; pale green in the bottom: Ottoman Empire.

Meanwhile, at a 1772 meeting in Vienna, Prussia, the Habsburgs, and Russia basically divided the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth between them. In three successive stages, it ceased to exist as an independent entity.

Polish placenames in the above: Królewiec=Königsberg/Kaliningrad, Wilno=Vilnius, Kijow=Kiev/Kyiv, Lwow=Lvov/Lviv/Lemberg, Kassa=Košice

As you can see above, this is how present-day Belarus and most of present-day Ukraine ended up becoming part of the Russian Empire. The Westernmost part of modern Ukraine, Galicia (indicated in orange above), became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire: its principal city, Lvov/Lviv, then was known by its German name Lemberg.

Russia referred to her new formerly Polish[-Lithuanian] acquisitions as Malorossiya or Malaya Rossiya = Little Russia. They included vast tracts of some of the most fertile land on Earth — that came with their fairly large non-Russian populations. (The 19th century would see the first major Russification campaigns under her grandson Nicholas I.) Aside from Ukrainians and Belarusians, that now included a large Jewish population dwarfing any Russia had ever had.

The Pale of Settlement

As a compromise between judeophobes on the one hand, and on the other hand her own more liberal attitudes (plus her awareness of the essential role Jewish traders and artisans played in the new lands), in 1792 Catherine II issued an ukase (decree) that created the Pale of Settlement. With certain exceptions for rich Jewish “Merchants of the First Guild” and other prominent and well-connected professionals, Jews were now limited to Novorossiya and Malaya Rossiya up to about 30mi from the border with old Russia — effectively limiting them to areas in which ethnic Russians were not the predominant population.

Shortly later, in 1794, she approved the founding of the new port city of Odessa — from the start, this was the Empire’s most truly multicultural city.

And with this complex legacy, we stand at the threshold of the 19th century. Time permitting, I will cover that period in Part 4.

[*] as in the Mussorgsky opera, its libretto based on a play by Alexander Pushkin

[**] in modern Russian, “arenda” refers to apartment or house rental, as I can see here everyday on storefronts of real estate agencies that cater to Russian-speakers. (Israelis lump immigrants from everywhere in the former USSR into a single category of “Russim”; if they make any further distinction at all, it’s between those from the Central Asian “Stans” and everybody else.)

[***] Augustus the Strong could break horseshoes with his bare hands and fathered countless illegitimate children. His son, the piously Catholic Augustus III, would be one of J. S. Bach’s patrons, granting him the title of “Royal and Electoral Court Composer” some years after Bach dedicated the first version of his B minor Mass BWV 232 to him.

Music for Yom HaShoah: Viktor Ullmann, “Der Kaiser von Atlantis”

On September 8, 1942, the expressionist composer Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944) was deported to the Theresienstadt ghetto. Before he was transported from there to Auschwitz on October 16, 1944 (and gassed two days later), he wrote some 20 works there, including a surrealistic chamber opera titled “The Emperor of Atlantis“, probably his best-known work.

Its instrumentation is idiosyncratic — basically, working with the available instruments (such as banjo and harmonium) and musicians.

A summary of the libretto from Wikipedia: “The Emperor of Atlantis, ruler over much of the world, proclaims universal war and declares that his old ally Death will lead the campaign. Death, offended by the Emperor’s presumption, breaks his sabre; henceforth men will not die. Confusion results: a Soldier and a Girl-Soldier from opposite sides sing a love duet instead of fighting; the sick and suffering find no release. Death offers to return to men on one condition–that the Emperor be the first to die. He accepts and sings his farewell.[11]

After the dress rehearsal, the work was never allowed to be performed — apparently, the SS understood the work to be an allegory about their Führer [y”sh]. Before deportation, Ullmann entrusted the manuscript and performance score to a friend who would survive the war and hand it over to Theresienstadt historian and poet H. G. Adler.

Below is a performance of the 50-minute work.

If opera isn’t your thing, here is his Symphony Nr. 2 (his own adaptation of his Piano Sonata Nr. 8)

And here is his String Quartet Nr. 3 (the first piece by him I ever heard).

Never forget

Never again means never

Yom HaShoah commemoration by Jewish Partisans Education Foundation

Today on the Hebrew calendar is Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day.

100th Birthday Tribute to Jewish Partisan Mira Shelub, Memorial Candle Lighting with Jewish Partisans and Grandchildren, Keynote Address by Emmy Award Winner Paula S. Apsell and a Sneak Preview of her Upcoming Film “Resistance: They Fought Back”. Q and A with Mira’s Family and JPEF Founder Mitch Braff.

Also: Mossad releases testimony of two Holocaust survivors who served in key positions in the Institute for Intelligence and Special Assignments [ha-Mossad le-Modi`in ve-Tafkidim Meyuchadim]

intelligence agency.

Never forget

Never again means never

A couple good background videos: 1939-1940 Soviet-Finnish Winter War vs. 2022 Ukraine invasion;

Had an insane work day, so had to cut writing Part 3 short. Two videos I’d like to share though:

(a) The ForgottenWeapons gun vlogger makes an interesting comparison between the 1939 Winter War, where the Finns were able to fight a much stronger Red Army to a stalemate; and the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. Lots of similarities, such as:

  • numerical imbalance
  • Russian unpreparedness and overconfidence
  • defenders highly motivated
  • Russian mechanized units being confined to roads (where they are vulnerable) by mud in the Ukrainian case, by dense forests in the Finnish case

But also differences, notably, that the Finns had to make do with improvised equipment such as what they were the first to call “Molotov cocktails”, while the Ukrainians were supplied with cutting-edge defensive weaponry.

(b) Rabbi Dr. Henry Abramson, who wrote his Ph.D. on Ukrainian history, on the complex interplay between Ukrainian and Jewish identities

How did Russia and Ukraine come about? A very brief history. 2. The emergence of Tsarist Russia

In Part 1 yesterday, we covered the Varangian [for us: Viking] origins of the Rurikid dynasty, the emergence of Kievan Rus, its disintegration, the Mongol invasion, and the incorporation of nearly all of modern-day Ukraine and Belarus in the Polish-Lithuanian Union (est. 1385).[*] What happened meanwhile in the East?

Aside from the Republic of Novgorod (and the smaller Republic of Pskov to the West), nearly all of modern-day Russia was still under control of the Mongol/Tatar “Golden Horde”. Not having the numbers for permanent occupation of such a vast space, they had appointed local nobles as their vassals, exacting tax tributes from them.

One such local vassal principality was the Grand Duchy of Moscow (1263–1547), usually referred to in English as simply Muscovy. Alexander Nevsky‘s son Daniel I of Moscow, of the Rurikid dynasty, had been the first Grand Duke or Grand Prince [Russian: veliky knyaz] of what was then Nevsky’s least important possession. He and his successors, through clever local power politics, gradually enlarged their sphere of influence. A key step in this was when Ivan I, Daniel’s son (and second successor, after eldest son Yuri) secured the rights from the Khan of the Golden Horde to collect taxes from all the Russian cities on the Khan’s behalf, making him effectively a tax bundler.

His grandson Dmitry I, also known as Dmitry Donskoy (“Dimitri of the Don”) gained his sobriquet by winning a major battle against the weakening and ever more divided Τatars. He was the first not to consult the Khan concerning his succession.

The Golden Horde finally fragmented into rival Khanates during the long reign (1425–1462) of Dmitry’s grandson Vasily II.

Inside Muscovy, a major civil war took place, during which Vasily II was blinded. But the largest external event was no doubt the end of the Byzantine or East Roman Empire in 1453, with the Fall of Constantinople to the Turks and the death of the last “Emperor and Autocrat of the Romans”, Constantine XI of the House of Paleologos.

This was a landmark event in our story in more ways than one. Yes, the ‘second Rome’, the heart of Orthodox Christianity had now come under Muslim rule. But moreover, Zoe Paleologos, daughter of Constantine XI’s younger brother Thomas, wed Vasily’s son Ivan III (a.k.a. Ivan the Great). Importantly, she (a) encouraged him to add the double-headed eagle of the House of Paleologos to his coat of arms

Coin from Ivan III’s reign, with Paleologos double-headed eagle (Mediawiki)
For comparison: Current coat of arms of Russia (in abeyance during the USSR, restored 1993; Mediawiki)

indicating Muscovy was a successor state of sorts to the Byzantine Empire, a “Third Rome” (this is where Great Russian nationalists got the idea — yes, it’s that old).

(b) She also encouraged him to go by a different, grander title than Grand Duke: Tsar (a Slavic corruption of Caesar, that had already been in use as a title for monarchs in Bulgaria, Serbia,.. for hundreds of years). He did use the title informally and in correspondence[**] but never was formally crowned Tsar: that would have to wait until his grandson, Ivan IV “The Terrible”.

The time was now ripe to throw off the Tatar yoke. In 1376, Ivan III refused to pay the customary tribute to Achmed Khan: the resulting military confrontation ended with the Khan retreating into the steppe, preparing to come back another day — which never came as the Khanate suddenly disintegrated in internecine warfare.

Ivan III conquered the rival principalities of Tver and Novgorod: the latter was repressed especially brutally, and the Republic of Novgorod more or less written out of Tsarist history, as it offered an inconvenient counter-example to the theory that absolute autocracy was the natural form of government for Russia.

Interestingly, at least some of the Tatar nobility were coopted — for instance, the House of Yusupov. [***]

Upon his death in 1505, Ivan III was succeeded by his son Vasily III — jocularly referred to as “Vasily the Adequate”. His reign was mostly one of consolidation of his father’s gains — a minor detail of note perhaps is that in 1514, the (Habsburg) Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I recognized him as a fellow emperor.

When Vasily III died in 1533, his son Ivan IV was still an infant. Ivan’s mother acted as regent until her death (Ivan suspected all his life that she’d been poisoned), then a succession of nobles (boyar) did so until his coronation as the first Tsar of All Rus at the age of 16. In Russian he is referred to as Ivan Grozny — the latter word, like the Hebrew nora for that matter, carries dual meanings of “magnificent” and “fearsome” in English, and is usually rendered as Ivan the Terrible or its equivalents in Western languages. (Dutch: Ivan de Verschrikkelijke; German: Ivan der Schreckliche; French: Ivan le Terrible; Italian: Ivan il Terribile.)

The man-monster became a byword for strength, ruthlessness, cruelty, and extreme paranoia: in one fit of rage, he killed his own son and heir to the throne. Some of the stories about him are likely tall tales, such that he had the architects of the Kremlin’s famous Cathedral of Vassily the Blessed blinded so they would never build something more beautiful.

Ivan the Terrible conquered Kazan and Astrakhan, and made a start with the exploration and conquest of vast Siberia, a project that would be completed under his successors.

Upon his death from a stroke, he was succeeded by his middle son Feodor, whose childless death ushered in the violent, protracted succession crisis known in Russian as Smuta and in English as the Time of Troubles.

The dark green patch in the map below, labeled “1500” corresponds to the extent of Russia near the end of Ivan III’s reign: the medium-green patches correspond to expansion until the death of Ivan the Terrible. Note especially what is missing (i.e., most of today’s Ukraine and Belarus)…

From Mediawiki.

Coming in Part 3: Rise and heyday of the Romanovs [UPDATE: link here]

[*] The future Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1563-1791)

[**] His chancellery used Imperator in Latin, Kejser [modern spelling: Kaiser] in correspondence with the Teutonic Knights and the Hanseatic League,… rather than Grand Prince or Grand Duke

The actual first Russian potentate to use “Tsar” appears to have been Mikhail of Tver.

[***] It was Prince Felix Yusupov who would centuries later participate in the assassination of Grigory Rasputin.

How did Russia and Ukraine come about? A very brief history. 1. Kievan Rus, the Golden Horde, and the Polish-Lithuanian union

I’ve been asked a number of times by Europeans where distinct Russian and Ukrainian identities come from. And to tell you the truth, I wasn’t familiar with the medieval to early modern history of the region myself.

It was Alfred Tennyson who famously wrote “[…] for a lie that is half a truth is ever the blackest of lies”. When Putin starts going on about the fundamental unity of the East Slavic peoples, he isn’t all wrong. Where he goes off the rails is where he uses this historical unity as a “justification” for “uniting” them under his “benevolent” rule: this facetious argument is roughly equivalent to justifying a German invasion of the Netherlands and Flanders [=the North half of Belgium], on the grounds that the people living there are Germanic and speak a sister language of Low German. (Actually, having spoken to Ukrainian and Russian immigrants here — in Israel, those are essentially all Russian-speakers — the Ukrainian and Russian languages are about as different as Dutch and standard [High] German.)

But I freely admitted being at a loss when exactly the gradual “bifurcation” happened. For that, I needed to take a deep dive into medieval Eastern European history.

The Varangians, Novgorod, and the birth of Kievan Rus

The Vikings (or the Varangians, as they are known in East Slavic lands) did not just go a-pillaging everywhere, but were both very skilled seafarers and avid long-range traders. In the mid-9th century, a group of them from Sweden sought a route to rich Constantinople, where they could also ‘connect’ to the Silk Road. They established one via land and navigable rivers of modern-day Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. (I will collectively call them ESL, or East Slavic Lands, below.) On the way, they set up a trading post that grew into a city the natives called Novgorod (“new town”), first documented by that name in 859 CE but probably already existing for some time then.

They then invited a Varangian named Rurik to come over from Sweden and become their ruler: “we have everything one needs, except order”. He accepted and ruled 862-879 as the first ruling prince [Russian: knyaz] of the Rurikid dynasty.[*]

His successor (probably son-in-law) Oleg [Old Norse: Helgi or Holger] (reign 879-912 CE) conquered Kiev from the Khazar khaganate and moved his capital seat there. Oleg and his people were known to the locals as the “Rus” and the kingdom is hence referred to as “Kievan Rus” in English or Kievskaya Rus in Russian. Yes, the name “Russian” at first referred not to the East Slavic people it does now, but to Swedish Vikings: Fins and Estonians still refer to Swedes as Ruotsi, possibly from Old Norse rother=rower. The Byzantines called them Ῥώς, and the Arab travelogue writer Achmed Ibn Fadlan, Rusiyyah. [**]

The next knyaz, Igor [Old Norse: Ingvar] was Rurik’s son. A war with Constantinople ended with a trade treaty. After Igor was assassinated, his wife Olga became ruler, and in 955 converted to Christianity.

Following internecine and external conflicts, Rurik’s great-grandson Vladimir [Old Norse: Waldemar], a.k.a. Vladimir the Great, unified Kievan Rus. In 988 he converted to Christianity [of the Byzantine rite — what after the Great Schism of 1054 would become the Greek Orthodox church] and then presided over the mass baptism of all Kiev. He was later canonized for this as St. Vladimir [Sviato Vladimir, or Volodymyr for the Ukrainians] — the national emblem of Ukraine is his seal.

Ironically, both Vladimir Putin and his nemesis Volodymyr Zelensky are named after him.

Under Vladimir’s successor Yaroslav the Wise, Kievan Rus probably saw its heyday. Afterward the kingdom gradually fragmented between warring princes. Interestingly, Novgorod and the surrounding area evolved into a city republic of sorts, independent since 1136.

The Mongol invasion

In the Northwest, incursions by the Teutonic Knights and the Swedes were stopped by prince Alexander of Novgorod. One of these battles took place on the Neva, hence he became known for all time as Alexander Nevsky. This front was now secure.

Meanwhile to the East and South, the Mongol empire was  expanding at a dizzying pace. It reached its furthest expansion under Ogedei Khan, son and successor of Genghis Khan, whose cavalry was given a mandate to continue all the way to “the Great Sea” (=the Atlantic Ocean). They did briefly occupy Hungary and pushed even further westward, into Austria and the lands of the Bohemian Crown. Then Ogedei died, and possibly because a council of his underlings needed to elect a successor, the Mongols withdrew, though there would be later incursions.

[Ogedei’s son, Kublai Khan, would become the emperor of China known from Marco Polo’s travels and from Samuel Coleridge’s epic poem about Xanadu (not to mention, the eponymous Rush song inspired by the latter. By the way, the term Tatars, from Persian “mounted messenger”, refers to a cluster of subject peoples; in a Russian context, the terms Tatar and Mongol are used somewhat interchangeably.]

The Golden Horde took over much of Eastern Europe, including the former Kievan Rus. (They actually got all the way to Hungary before being stopped.) Not having the numbers to rule such vast territories directly, they turned the various successor principalities of Kievan Rus into tributaries (though Novgorod remained largely independent).

Alexander Nevsky’s youngest son Daniel inherited a timber fort “na Moskva” (on the Moskva [river]). He moved there, became embroiled in succession disputes for both Novgorod and Vladimir-Suzdal, and established Moscow as a city whence he would rule as Grand Duke. From there, gradually Moscow would emerge as the new power center of the Eastern part of the empire.

But it also became a spiritual center for the Orthodox Church.  Metropolitan Maximus moved his seat from Kiev to Vladimir in 1299; his successor, Metropolitan Peter moved the residence to Moscow in 1325.

Now look at the map above. Nearly all of today’s Ukraine and Belarus were in the Polish-Lithuanian ambit, and would remain there into the 18th century. This explains two major aspects of the Russian – Ukrainian “bifurcation”:

  • the heavy influence of Polish on the spoken vernacular, and hence on the emergence of distinct Ukrainian (and to a lesser extent, Belarusian) languages
  • religiously, the less Orthodox and more “eastern-rite Catholic” orientation
  • more generally, the more (Central) European cultural influence

This latter aspect would later (18th-19th centuries) be further reinforced for Western Ukraine (Galicia) after its incorporation in the Austro-Hungarian empire following the Polish partitions.

Tomorrow [G-d willing] we will continue with Part 2: the emergence of Tsarist Russia [UPDATE: Link]

[*] I am tempted to write a “Modest Proposal” for Russia and Ukraine to be unified under… Swedish rule. I mean, if Putin is so big on historical precedents…

[**] How much of Viking/Varangian/Norseman culture persisted in Russia? Probably it’s best seen as a story like Hrolf/Rollo and his descendants in French Normandy: in that case, a small group of Viking raiders were set up by the French king to protect his kingdom against other raiders, with the territory of Normandy being awarded them as a fief. Over successive generations, they thoroughly assimilated into the surrounding Norman French culture, to the point that Rollo’s descendant William the Conqueror actually exported that to England 🙂

Breaking: Le Figaro calls French presidential election for Macron (58%) over Le Pen (42%). In other news…

In other unrelated news:

  • Israel unmasked (literally): the last vestige of our social distancing requirements, the indoor mask mandate, officially expired last night at 8pm. It was already honored more in the breach than the observance
  • Austrian foreign minister says Ukraine should not be offered full EU membership. “While Schallenberg does advocate deeper ties between Europe and Ukraine, full membership is not one of them and instead, other paths should be used. This would include joining the EU’s economic zone or just maintaining the current status quo, Austrian outlet Heute reported.” Joining the economic zone would actually give Ukraine a similar status as Israel with respect to the EU
  • Daniel Johnson in the Telegraph takes a long look (cached copy here at the degree to which German politicians of both major parties have allowed themselves to become useful idjits for Putin. “Arrogant, incompetent and corrupt: war is shattering our delusions of the German elite”

Sabbath musical delight: Glenn Gould performs Beethoven’s Bagatelles, Op. 33 & 126

Beethoven’s Bagatelles (literally, “trifles”) are short, inventive piano pieces that are mostly playable by amateurs. The sheet music sold well, and publishing this sort of thing (as well as song arrangements) kept creditors and landlords at bay while Beethoven focused on the works that made him immortal: the nine symphonies, the thirty-two piano sonatas, the string quartets,…

There were three major collections, Op. 33, Op. 119, and Op. 126, plus several standalones, generally WoO (Werke ohne Opuszahl, works without an opus number). The most [in]famous, and ad nauseam overplayed one among those is of course WoO 59 in A minor, “Für Elise” 😉

Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (1932-1982) of course became identified with his seminal recordings of J. S. Bach’s keyboard music, to the extent that many classical music lovers don’t realize his repertoire was much broader. His musical preferences outside Bach one might call a bit idiosyncratic: he was fond of pre-Baroque composers like Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) and Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621), as well as 20th century composers like Richard Strauss, Paul Hindemith, and even Arnold Schoenberg. Yet he despised the piano works of Chopin, Liszt (except for his piano transcriptions of Beethoven’s 5th and 6th symphonies, which Gould was the first to record), Rachmaninoff… and notoriously quipped Mozart (whose complete piano sonatas he did record) had died too late rather than too early. (He did record some Haydn.) That a man who would refer to himself only half-jokingly as “The Last Puritan” would dislike high romanticism and crowd-pleasing of any kind is not entirely surprising.

Of Beethoven, he preferred the early and late periods. Below is his rather “Gouldian” reading of Op. 33 and Op. 126.

Have a nice weekend and shabbat shalom!

ADDENDUM: for those who prefer a more conventional reading, here is an older performance of all three sets by Arthur Schnabel:

Pesach musical delight: Avishai Cohen trio, “Ani Maamin”

Today is the last day of Passover in Israel; in the diaspora, where two Seder nights are observed, that will only be tomorrow. Jews of Moroccan heritage will tonight (tomorrow night in the Diaspora) celebrate their own community holiday of Mimouna. There are several competing theories about the origin of the holiday, but one is that it honors the medieval Jewish scholar Maimon, now mostly remembered as the father of the greatest medieval-Jewish scholar known in Greek and hence English as Moses Maimonides [Moses son of Maimon] and in Hebrew by the acronym Ramba”m [Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon].

A physician at the court of the Sultan in Fostat (outside Cairo) by day, after hours he wrote treatises on both halakha [practical Jewish law] — most famously the Mishneh Torah freely “recapitulation of the Torah” — and philosophy: his most influential work there, inside and outside the Jewish ambit was surely the Guide for the Perplexed.

What is the connection with today’s music video? As you may realize, Judaism is first and foremost about ritual practice and morality, with doctrine of faith a very distant third. Yet in response to challenges from outside, Maimonides formulated his Thirteen Principles of Faith, which were later set to rhyme into the familiar synagogue hymn Yigdal.

A Chasidic melody used for one verse, about the coming of the Messiah, became the Israeli folk song “Ani Ma’amin” [“I believe”, like the Latin, “Credo”. In idiomatic Hebrew, you can refer to a person or group’s doctrine or beliefs as their “ani ma’amin”].

Chick Corea fans will surely remember double-bassist Avishai Cohen from his work with the late great jazz pianist. Avishai later became a band leader in his own right, and regularly goes back to musical themes from Jewish tradition. Here is his take on “Ani Ma’amin”.

Here is a solo piano version of the same piece:

And here is a more “tutorial” version if you want to learn it yourself.

Chag sameach/Happy Passover!

Age in politics: a reflection on Joe Biden and Konrad Adenauer

Tucker Carlson[*] informs us that Joe Biden seriously wants a second term, and argues that the general consensus against this in his own party is the reason why the Palace Guard Media (a.k.a. DNC-MSM) are now finally starting to address Abu Hunter’s obviously faltering grasp on, well, reality, and that even the subject of the Biden family corruption is no longer verboten.

There are some who claim this criticism is “ageist”. I do find it remarkable that the party that claims to be the voice of hip youth is currently being run by a gerontocracy (I mean: Pelosi, Feinstein,…) — although I suspect some of the gerontocrats are behind the scenes fighting a rearguard battle against young unhinged radicals of the Occasional Cortex ilk.

But leaving that aside: biology is unfair. If you’ve never seen a loved one slip into dementia, I wish you never will — speaking from personal experience, it’s a heartbreaking sight. But some of us stay sharp as tacks even as nonagenarians. I’m increasingly hopeful that life sciences will crack this question in our lifetime.

And speaking of entering office at an advanced age: Konrad Adenauer (1876-1967) became the first postwar Chancellor of the German Federal Republic at age 73, and stayed in office until he was 87 — then continued to serve for another three years as party leader of the Christian Democratic Union which he had co-founded. And we’re talking before everyone was saying “sixty is the new forty” thanks to modern medicine.

So both Biden and Adenauer entered office at an advanced age, and Adenauer left at about the age where Biden would if (G-d forbid) re-elected. (Incidentally, they were/are also both Catholics, Adenauer devoutly so.) But this is where the similarities end, more or less.

First, Adenauer was still in full possession of his mental faculties by the time he (most reluctantly) handed over the baton to his economics right-hand man Ludwig Erhard.

Second, unlike the midwit lawyer Biden, Adenauer was an engineer with several patents to his name. Engineers have to build stuff that actually works in the real world.

Third, again unlike Biden, Adenauer had extensive executive experience as the longtime (1917-1933) mayor of Cologne, and during the Weimar years had additionally worn a “second hat” as President of the Prussian State Council (Prussia was by far the largest ‘state’ of the Kaiserreich and later the Weimar Republic). Adenauer’s political savvy and practical management skills were admired also by opponents: he was eventually forced out of office by the Third Reich.[**]

In postwar West Germany, the talent pool of experienced politicians who were untainted by National Socialist associations was quite small, and became even smaller when those considered too friendly to Uncle Joe or communism more generally were excluded from consideration. So when after the war, leaders from the old [Catholic] Center Party and its Lutheran counterparts met to form a joint Christian Democratic Union, Adenauer wasn’t just the doyen d’âge of the gathering, but was looked upon (and asserted himself) as a natural leader. (That he’d briefly been appointed acting mayor by the British, then sacked by them for being uncooperative, actually would help him politically, as it gave him a public image of being in nobody’s pocket.)

“With Adenauer for German peace, freedom, and unity, Therefore: CDU”

And of course, in terms of actual achievements while in office, the comparison couldn’t possibly be more stark. On the economic front, Germany saw a Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) that turned the country from a war ruin to a major economic player with a healthy consumer society in a matter of years. (True, much credit goes to his economics minister and eventual successor Ludwig Erhard, who would also later become de facto party leader despite never formally becoming a member [!]) On the foreign relations front, Germany’s reputation had admittedly nowhere to go but up, but Adenauer’s restoring the country to any form of international respectability is an achievement few, if any, others would have been capable of.

The comparison is an object lesson that no, it isn’t all about chronological age. At any age, Adenauer was a man whose shoes Biden wouldn’t have been fit to tie.

[*] I’ve tuned him out completely on Ukraine, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong on everything else.

[**] Adenauer would frequently move residences and even stayed at a monastery for a while. He was imprisoned at least twice by the National Socialists, once after the Night of the Long Knives, the second time after the failed July 20 plot. On this latter occasion, he was arrested and imprisoned in a local concentration camp, but a former municipal employee interceded on behalf of his former boss and had him admitted to a local hospital, whence he fled. The charges against him were eventually dropped due to “lack of evidence”.

Walter Russell Mead on Ukraine; Joel Kotkin on the working-class volcano about to erupt; the Russian mafia connection

(A) First, don’t miss Walter Russell Mead here.

Just a taste:

Under the Romanovs, the com­mu­nists and Mr. Putin, Russ­ian po­lit­i­cal thought has been shaped by three be­liefs: that Rus­sia is dif­fer­ent, that the dif­fer­ence is tran­scen­den­tally im­por­tant, and that it gives Rus­sia a unique role in world his­tory. De­feat in Ukraine would rad­i­cally un­der­mine con­fi­dence in these ideas, plung­ing Rus­sia into an iden­tity cri­sis with un­pre­dictable po­lit­i­cal con­se­quences.

(B) Second, here is Joel Kotkin on the working class volcano that’s about to erupt:

The French elections reflect the essential political conflict of our time. On one side, there is a powerful alliance between the corporate oligarchy and the regulatory clerisy. On the other, there are two beleaguered and angry classes – the small-business owners and artisans, and the vast, largely unorganised service class. The small-business class generally tends to favour the populist right, whether in America, Australia or Europe. These people want the government out of their business and to be left alone. Meanwhile, workers tend towards the populist left, which promises to relieve their economic pain.


Whatever the final outcome, the recent French elections have already revealed the comparative irrelevance of many elite concerns, from genderfluidity and racial injustice to the ever-present ‘climate catastrophe’. Instead, most voters in France and elsewhere are more concerned about soaring energy, food and housing costs. Many suspect that the cognitive elites, epitomised by President Emmanuel Macron, lack even the ambition to improve their living conditions.

Read the whole thing. I find it wryly amusing that, while the West is so preoccupied with the Russian oligarchs (who did run the place under Yeltsin, but have had to give way to the siloviki — the military and security services head honchos that are Tsar Putin’s boyars), Western economic oligarchs and the companies they own have ever greater power over, and influence on, the decision making apparatus .

I remember reading the other day a screed on a left-wing site. It was tearing into the use of performative wokebaggery (my term) and prating about social justice by large corporations as a “beard”: quoting from memory, “Blackrock Capital talks about social justice while engaging in policies [buying up real estate left and right above the asking price] that drive up house prices further and further out of reach of the working and middle classes.

(C) This documentary on Danish TV (much of it in English) looks into Putin’s Yeltsin-era alleged connections to the other power broker then, aside from the “oligarchs”.

Incidentally, Mark Galeotti’s book The Vory is a fascinating read for anyone interested in the history of organized crime there. (The title comes from the vory v-zakone, “thieves under the code” that were at the apex.)

ADDENDUM; student loan cancellation effectively amounts to a wealth transfer from the working and middle classes to the New Class (what Joel Kotkin calls the Clerisy).

Here, there, and everywhere: Russian botched logistics redux; lessons for Taiwan; puppet show, Spinal Tap, and Kamala Harris; political divide on Ukraine in… Iran?!

A few brief reads as I am catching up on backlogged work.

(A) A long but worthwhile piece by “masgramondou” on how the logistics problems of the botched Kyiv/Kiev assault are being repeated, and are likely endemic — whether you ascribe it to “the Russian way”, puttanesca kleptocracy, or both.

(B) Here is a good piece (h/t: Mrs. Arbel) on eight lessons Taiwan could learn from the Ukraine war about how to bolster its own defenses.

(C) It appears the Biden/Harris puppeteers have finally hit on a genius strategy to minimize the damage done by Kamala the Klueless Kackler: send her to speak at small-town events in deep-red states that are electorally unattainable anyway — so at least she can’t mess up anything (further) in states that are competitive.

featuring special guest Kamala Harris

(D) Even Tw*tter founder Jack Dorsey seems to regret the direction his former company has taken. “Bonchie” speculates he’s an old-school “live and let live” liberal who’s not ever going to be a conservative, but is aghast at the totalitarians on his own side.

(E) Bizarrely enough, in Iran (!) there is a political fault line about Ukraine. The Times of Israel has more:

(F) Meanwhile, Russia is unhappy at Israel for having voted in favor of its expulsion from the UN “Human Rights Council”. Frankly, I think FM Yair Lapid (or Yair Vapid, as some of my friends refer to him) made an unforced error here: he should have abstained on principle, based on Israel’s long-standing position (which Lapid restated, to his credit) that the UNHRC has no moral legitimacy.

At any rate, I believe Russia is in like-minded company there with such paragons of human rights as China, Venezuela, and Taliban Afghanistan. (I remember Libya and Iran also sitting on it.) Let the whole travesty of an organization go k’y*byeny mat.

ADDENDUM: today is April 19, the anniversary of the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (April 19, 1943). In honor thereof, the Song of the Jewish Partisans (in Yiddish):

Yiddish in transliteration

Zog nit keyn mol, az du geyst dem letstn veg,
Khotsh himlen blayene farshteln bloye teg.
Kumen vet nokh undzer oysgebenkte sho,
S’vet a poyk ton undzer trot: mir zaynen do!

Fun grinem palmenland biz vaysn land fun shney,
Mir kumen on mit undzer payn, mit undzer vey,
Un vu gefaln s’iz a shprits fun undzer blut,
Shprotsn vet dort undzer gvure, undzer mut!

S’vet di morgnzun bagildn undz dem haynt,
Un der nekhtn vet farshvindn mit dem faynt,
Nor oyb farzamen vet di zun in dem kayor –
Vi a parol zol geyn dos lid fun dor tsu dor.

Dos lid geshribn iz mit blut, un nit mit blay,
S’iz nit keyn lidl fun a foygl oyf der fray,
Dos hot a folk tsvishn falndike vent
Dos lid gezungen mit naganes[*] in di hent.

To zog nit keyn mol, az du geyst dem letstn veg,
Khotsh himlen blayene farshteln bloye teg.
Kumen vet nokh undzer oysgebenkte sho –
S’vet a poyk ton undzer trot: mir zaynen do!
Never say that you’re going your last way
Although the skies filled with lead cover blue days
Our promised hour will soon come
Our marching steps ring out: ‘We are here!’

From green lands of palm to lands with white snow
We come with our pain and our woes
And from where a spurt of our blood falls
Will sprout our strength and our courage

Today the morning sun will accompany us
And the night will fade away with the enemy
But if the sun waits to rise
Like a password this song will go from generation to generation

This song is written with blood and not with [pencil] lead
It’s not a tune sung by birds in the wild
This song was sung by people amidst collapsing walls
Sung with rifles in their hands

So never say that you’re going your last way
Although the skies filled with lead cover blue days
Our promised hour will soon come
Our marching steps ring out: ‘We are here’!

[*] Not a Yiddish word, but a reference to the Mosin-Nagant rifle

Here, there, and everywhere: al-Aqsa “protestors” show just how much they actually “care” about the mosque; something rotten in the state of Harvard; another look at the siloviki, the power behind Putin’s throne

(a) You may have heard there are riots on the Temple Mount where self-appointed “defenders of the al-Aqsa mosque” throw stones and other projectiles at Israelis.

But in the process… if they seek the ones who are desecrating the mosque, they have but to look in the mirror.

How utterly typical.

(b) A long and depressing read for those familiar with US academia. I remember being told by a department chair there: “Those who can’t teach, do research. Those who can’t do research, teach. And those who can’t do either, become faculty administrators [and get to rule over the rest of us].” Hahvahd [sic] is clearly no exception to the rule.

Related, check out this Passover editorial by the Tablet.

(c) Putin clearly isn’t doing what he’s doing alone, or because the vast, vast majority of the people support him (the polls showing 80+% support neglect to tell you of their 95% decline-to-participate rate). There’s a lot of focus on the (economic) “oligarchs” and on financial sanctions on them: in fact, the heyday of their political power was under Yeltsin. After Putin came to power, a few like Khodorkovsky, Berezovsky, et al. were made examples of, and the others fell in line. They were allowed to continue raking in money and maintaining their garish lifestyles (mostly) abroad, but they ceased being power brokers. A new, smaller group took their place: the siloviki (freely: strongmen) whose background and/or power base was in the defense and security apparatus. Some of them were actually appointed heads of large state-owned corporations and hence superficially seem like the “oligarchs” but, crucially, they do not own the corporations (although they skim off plenty of money from them).

So what do the siloviki have to gain from the Ukraine war? War history youtuber “Eastory” has a rather intriguing view on this.

My TL;DR summary: the invasion, immoral as it was, was not the irrational act of a madman, but a direct consequence of the siloviki wishing to ensure their continued dominance of the country, during and after Putin.

Basically, if Russia is a prosperous country trading freely with the West, who needs the siloviki? And if it isn’t, but just gets rich on oil exports — again, the country doesn’t need Putin or his putative successor for that, so the siloviki instead wanted to create a situation where “only Putin can stand up to the foreign imperialists” and thus ensure his re-election and re-election until he dies of old age and is replaced by an anointed successor. And they, themselves, will continue to be the “boyars” in this neo-Tsarist autocracy.

In the comments, a few revealing observations from a Russian who clearly isn’t a Putin supporter:

Yurii Kaiser

4 days ago

 @seneca983  As a citizen of the Russian Federation, I will insert my word. Putin is a former KGB lieutenant colonel and in his reign he always relied on the special services and the army, and this is not only the FSB. In the early 2000s, Putin really relied on the FSB, but then the positions of this special service gradually weakened. Over the past 20 years, it has been clearly seen how Putin has strengthened a separate federal service of the FSO (the FSO and the FSB are translated from Russian into English in the same way, but the task of the FSO is to protect top officials, and the FSB is security inside the country).

After that, the National Guard was strengthened – renamed Rosgvardiya and subordinated directly to the president (that is, Putin personally). The OMON and SOBR special units subordinate to the Rosgvardiya were withdrawn from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the positions of this law enforcement agency were extremely strengthened. Since 2018, the situation has changed, the Rosgvardiya has ceased to be Putin’s main support, exactly like the FSO and the FSB, even Putin has distanced himself from the presidential administration.

The Security Council of the Russian Federation, which represents all law enforcement agencies, was not aware of the invasion of Ukraine. All federal agencies, including federal and regional governments, were told in advance about the upcoming annexation of the LPR and DPR, as well as sanctions. because of this, no one could assume that it was a hoax and the “sanctions” would actually be not because of the LPR and the DPR, but because of the war. 

It is safe to say that only two departments were aware of the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine. These are the SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service) and its head, Director Sergei Naryshkin, as well as the armed forces, which are headed by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. This shows who Putin trusts inside the country now – 2 departments. 

And we have more than 10 law enforcement agencies, special services and departments, each with a staff of several hundred thousand people (for example, Rosgvardiya – 600+ thousand). This puts a heavy burden on the budget when 3% of the annual GDP is spent on education and medicine, but more than 35% of the federal budget is spent on the country’s military-industrial complex, where most of the information is classified (expenditure items are closed). 

As for the Russian armed forces [poor performance], as a former serviceman, I can say with confidence that I am not surprised. There are huge falsifications in military units, practically no systematic combat training is carried out, everything is exclusively “on paper”. Our army is a hostage of bureaucracy, everyone reports to the command that something is being done, they draw beautiful pictures, but they do not correspond to reality. 

I served in the Marine Corps, an engineering regiment that participated in the fighting in Syria in 2016 and in Ukraine in 2014-15. The colonels did not know what was really going on in their units, they believed the pieces of paper, although you could look out the window and see that no exercises were being held and all the documentation was a complete fabrication. Problems with staffing units, problems with providing equipment, problems with military equipment that officers and sergeants repaired for their salaries.

In general, Russia… Russia is Russia. I love my country, but I hate the state. I will also make a reservation that I voted against Putin in the elections, against amendments to the Constitution that gave Putin the opportunity to be re-elected further, and also supported the Yabloko political party, which opposed the war and predicted the invasion of Ukraine a year before it began.


It sadly looks like Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol is down to pockets such as in the tunnel system under the Azovstal (“[Sea of] Azov Steel”) factory.

Completing the conquest of Mariupol would effectively create a land bridge between Russia and the Crimea. As distasteful as it is for me to say it, this is something Putin could try to spin domestically as an “achievement” in this miserable war. If he were half as crafty as his groupies seem to think he is, he would do exactly that (maybe at a May 9 victory parade [*]), declare victory, and wind down the war. In the long run, neither Russia nor he personally have anything to gain from a protracted intense conflict (as distinct from protracted low-intensity warfare in, say, Donets , or from the “short victorious war” he was vainly hoping for.) Unless his fondest wish is for Russia to become a vassal state of China in all but name…


The Telegraph has a fascinating profile (paywalled; cached copy here) of Eliot Higgins, founder of the “open source intel” group Bellingcat. [The group is named after Aesop’s fable about mice tying a bell around a cat’s neck so they know when it’s coming. I was amused to see the group is chartered in the Netherlands — in Dutch, “een kat de bel aanbinden” — belling a cat — mostly refers to whistle-blowing.]

What exactly is OsInt (open source intelligence)? A taste from the article:

Higgins gives me an idiot’s guide to just how Bellingcat does it. “For any investigation we look at the initial digital footprint that is created by that incident,” he says. In many cases, as with the MH17 BUK launcher, the investigation team first must verify the exact time and place pictures were taken. This can be done by comparing background landscape details against pictures available on Google Maps, say, and finding a match. Time of day can then often be established simply by the angle of the sun’s shadow on vertical objects such as lampposts. 

For atrocities in Ukraine like the shelling of the Mariupol maternity hospital, where time and place is not in dispute, the team gather as many photos and videos posted online from those on the scene, then cross-check them against before and after satellite imagery, to get an assessment of physical damage and the position of destroyed cars or buildings. The claims and counter claims soon follow. 

In Bucha, for example, Russia first disputed the timing of the massacre, claiming that its forces had withdrawn before the bodies were seen on the street, then denied it had occurred at all, saying it was staged. In a simple yet painstaking process, Higgins compiled videos from social media showing corpses on April 1, before Russian troops pulled back. Similarly, he highlighted how Russian conspiracists had manipulated one film to make it appear a body had “moved”, claiming it was actually a “crisis actor”.

Of course, Bellingcat now has other, more sophisticated tools at its disposal. It can create a composite from individual frames of a film to render a blurred car number plate clear; it can also use AI face recognition tools to help identify suspects; and because Russia is so corrupt, it is easy to buy leaked passport or personal details in online marketplaces. But still, there’s no hacking, no secret source. 

[*] Russia marks VE-Day one day later than the West, as it was already May 9, 1945 in the Moscow time zone at the agreed-upon time for cessation of hostilities, May 8, 1945 at 23:01 Central European Time.

Passover/Easter post: Händel’s “Messiah” by the American Bach Soloists; R’ Jonathan Sacks zt”l on the meaning of the Passover seder

Happy Easter to my Christian readers! And mo`adim le-simcha [Appointed [Festival] times for Joy] to my coreligionists on this intermediate day of Passover.

(a) The American Bach Society here performs the entirety of Händel’s oratorio “Messiah”, which is of course in the holiday spirit of both Easter and Christmas. And any music lover, regardless of religion, can find joy in the music.

(b) Here is a must-hear lecture by the late lamented Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, R’ Lord Jonathan Sacks zt”l, on how the medieval philosopher, physician, and scholar of Jewish law Moses Maimonides (better known in Israel as Ramba”m, the Hebrew acronym for Rabbi Moshe ben-Maimon) saw the Passover seder and its discussion of miracles.

This is of broader interest to anyone struggling with the ‘conflict’ between their faith (any faith)and reason. You see: on the rationalist-mystical spectrum among Jewish authorities, Maimonides stakes out the extreme rationalist and naturalist position. What R’ Sacks means in context is that to a supernaturalist, miracles — G-d superseding the order of Creation— are powerful signs of the Divine Presence, while to a naturalist [believer], the order of Creation itself is the greatest miracle of all.

Now the Seder is all about reciting miracles that G-d wrought on behalf of the Israelites as He freed them from bondage in Egypt “with a strong hand and an outstretched arm” (be-yad chazaka u-be-zro`a netuya). How does somebody like Maimonides deal with such a thing? The answer may surprise you. Hint: the seder has two purposes. Commemoration, for adults, and education, for children.

Instapundit on US left going full Orwell over Elon Musk’s Twitter bid; what is hidden from the “83% of Russians support the special operation” statistic

(a) Why do we hear so little about the NYC subway shooter? By now we already know the playbook, of course. I know, an incoherent nutcase doesn’t a movement make. But considering the media is always sooooo happy to tar non-mascot groups or the other political camp whenever there’s even a 20 degrees of separation connection to an attacker (“he shopped for bagels at the same place as somebody whose mother voted for Donald Trump!” is only a mild exaggeration at this point)…

And the ADL continues to prove it has become the Yevsektsiya of the (anti)Democrat Party.

(b) Elon Musk’s offer to now buy Tw*tter outright and make it a private company, which he professes to want to turn into a free-speech town square, predictably has heads exploding everywhere. And in what Insty calls “gangster government”:

Insty’s column in the NYPost about it is one of his best.

“Democracy Dies in Darkness” is the motto of the Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Post. It may sound like a warning, but more and more it seems like a summary of the left’s aspirations to control debate and shut down any opposition. […]

[Robert] Reich’s […] argument, which is this: “In Musk’s vision of Twitter and the internet, he’d be the wizard behind the curtain — projecting on the world’s screen a fake image of a brave new world empowering everyone. In reality, that world would be dominated by the richest and most powerful people in the world, who wouldn’t be accountable to anyone for facts, truth, science or the common good.”

The thing is, what Reich describes is what we have now: a world in which unaccountable oligarchs like Amazon’s Bezos and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg — people who are in fact “the richest and most powerful people in the world” — use opaque algorithms to mute criticism and disagreement.

That’s not Elon Musk’s vision. That’s the world that Reich’s allies in Big Tech have created.

And you don’t have to look far to see it. Just last month, Issues & Insights reported a poll it conducted with TIPP, the most accurate predictor of the last five presidential elections, regarding people’s feelings about COVID. The survey found 65% of Americans think COVID policy in the United States is “driven by politics,” with only 21% believing it’s “driven by science.”

The poll was scientific, conducted by a respected source and accurately reported.

Google AdSense responded by labeling it “dangerous and derogatory content” and thus stripped its ads from the article. When Issues & Insights appealed, Google stood by its action. 

This isn’t the first time Google has attacked Issues & Insights over polls it didn’t like. In March, I&I released a poll showing that 67% of Republicans wanted President Donald Trump on the 2024 ballot while only 37% of Democrats wanted President Joe Biden on the ticket. Google called this “unreliable and harmful.”

We’ve seen a lot of this sort of thing — not least when Twitter and other tech giants banned The Post’s reporting, since admitted to be accurate, on Hunter Biden’s laptop and the damaging information it contained. Many social-media giants banned any links to the story, and Twitter even went so far as to stop its users from sharing the story one-on-one through direct messages. (CEO Jack Dorsey later admitted that was a “total mistake.”)

Their purpose was to affect the election’s outcome in favor of the Democrats, and they probably did.

Reich isn’t at all upset about this sort of thing. He’s upset at the idea that Elon Musk might bring it to an end. Despite his bluster, Reich is in fact defending the strongmen and oligarchs who are unaccountably censoring people’s speech.


In George Orwell’s “1984,” war is peace, freedom is slavery and ignorance is strength. To these Orwellian inversions, Reich would add another: Censorship is free speech. But it’s not, and claiming otherwise won’t make it so.

Sadly, though, Reich isn’t just one lone wacko writing in The Guardian. He is instead, as usual, parroting the establishment’s line.

The establishment doesn’t want free speech because if Americans can talk honestly about what elites are doing, people will understand just how rotten the establishment has become and will want to do something about it.

That can’t be allowed, obviously. If democracy dies in darkness, it won’t be an accident. It will be murder.

(c) Speaking of wholesale information manipulation by an unaccountable elite (not to mention of considering “The Lives of Others” to be a howto guide): a young Russian vlogger who recently left for Georgia explains what is missing from the story about “83% of Russians support the war”.

First of all, the polling organization that claimed 83% support for the invasion“special operation” is actually a governmental organization. Second, the hidden story is in the response rate. From the comments: normally, only about 30% of people polled agree to respond at all. Since the beginning of the invasion, this has dropped to five (5) %. I could not help being reminded of an old joke about the “free” elections in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The ballot looked something like:

Do you support Ayatollah Khomeini?

(a) Yes.

(b) No. Name: ______________ Address: _______________

But seriously: I know the anonymity of polls even in the West can be less than 100%. Over there, it’s basically nonexistent. So the only ones who will express a negative opinion to the pollster, knowing it will likely land them on an FSB watchlist, are those who have good reason to believe they are on there already anyway, or those who are otherwise so mad they don’t care about the repercussions anymore, or possibly those so well-connected they feel safe.[*]

Those who are gung-ho about the invasion will respond, and do so affirmatively. Those lukewarm or ambivalent: not so much.

Tonight is Passover, the Jewish festival marking the exodus from Egypt and the release of the Jewish people from bondage. It is hence also, in a broader sense, a festival celebrating the yearning for freedom.

Chag Pesach Sameach / Happy Passover.

ADDENDUM: heh. (Via Tully.)

[*] Without going Godwin: for a well-known historical example of the “relatives of top regime officials have maneuvering space for resistance” phenomenon, see Albert Göring , Heinz Heydrich, and Oswald Freisler (brothers of Hermann, Reinhard, and Roland, respectively, yemach shmam).

Meanwhile in Sri Lanka: double whammy of organic farming man-made disaster and debt peonage to China

Friends returned from a long-planned trip to Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) and commented on the degree of economic disarray the country seemed to be in.

The political leadership allowed itself to be taken in by China’s financial debt peonage schemeBelt and Road Initiative, and now is basically bankrupt.

But in addition, the “leadership” hit on what is probably the wet dream of many a Western eco-fanatic: turning Sri Lanka into the world’s first 100% organic farming nation. The results are predictable to anyone who hasn’t drunk green bong water.

The dismal effect on domestic food production is bad enough, but it has also wreaked havoc with Sri Lanka’s main export product: Ceylon tea.

It has gotten so bad that school exams are canceled for lack of… paper, as explained below. More on the background there too, including on the Tamil-Sinhalese civil war (1983-2009) and on the toxic rule of family clans like the Rajapaksa.

Arthur C. Clarke, who saw the potential of his adopted country, must be spinning in his grave…

Looking around: Zelensky snubs German president; Saudi TV sketch mocks Biden’s cognitive decline; Biden calls Russia’s actions “genocide”, while blaming high US gas prices on them. [Addendum: real US inflation near 17%]

(a) Germany’s (mostly ceremonial) president Frank-Walter Steinmeier wanted to visit Kyiv/Kiev, and was apparently told off by Zelensky, Der Spiegel reports (in German).

He was supposed to have visited Warsaw two weeks ago, but then caught COVID and had to postpone. When planning for a make-up visit, his Polish colleague brought up the idea of jointly traveling on to visit the capitals of the Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. After a confidential mini-summit of the five presidents, Steinmeier was then to travel on to Kiev to go visit Zelensky and offer his moral support.

Presidents Frank-Walter Steinmeier (L) and Andrei Duda (R). From the Spiegel article.

However, Kiev vetoed the Steinmeier visit, citing the latter’s complicity in appeasing Putin. (Steinmeier is widely seen in Germany as a Putinversteher, literally ‘Putin-understander’, idiomatically somewhere between ‘Putin-whisperer’ and ‘Putin-apologist’.) Apparently, Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany Andriy Melnyk played a major role in scuttling the visit.

I have mixed feelings about the snub. Yes, too many German politicians especially have been too “understanding” of Putin — because of a mixture of historical guilt, awareness of energy dependence on Russia, and (in cases such as former PM Gerhard Schröder) commercial interests. However, it could have had considerable symbolic value that precisely such an individual would ‘repent’ by making this ‘pilgrimage’. Zelensky and his staff are very PR-savvy, so I can’t believe this hasn’t occurred to him. Either there’s ugly stuff we don’t know, or Melnyk, who’s been harrying German politician relentlessly about their insufficient support, displayed more zeal than wisdom.

[UPDATE: More from the Daily Telegraph (archived copy).]

(b) Remember when we were told that Trump had tarnished the international image of the US, and how Buck Joe Fiden was going to restore it?

Watch this “Spitting Image” type skit on Saudi TV:

Would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad. [UPDATE: more here via Instapundit.]

(c) Biden’s recent declaration that Russia’s despicable actions in Ukraine amount to “genocide” would normally carry grave weight.

The US president stood by his genocide description offered earlier in a speech at an ethanol plant in Iowa, claiming that Vladimir Putin is trying to “wipe out the idea of even being a Ukrainian”.

“Yes, I called it genocide because it has become clearer and clearer that Putin is just trying to wipe out the idea of being able to be Ukrainian and the evidence is mounting,” Mr Biden told reporters.

He added: “We’ll let the lawyers decide internationally whether or not it qualifies, but it sure seems that way to me.”

Mr Biden has repeatedly called Putin a war criminal, but he has not declared that Russia has committed genocide in Ukraine.

Of course, he couldn’t resist mixing it in with blaming Putin for rising gas prices that had started rising long before the Ukraine invasion — rising because of the Biden puppet show’s war on domestic energy production.

During a speech in Iowa about gasoline prices, Mr Biden said: “Your family budget, your ability to fill up your tank, none of it should hinge on whether a dictator declares war and commits genocide a half a world away.”

Average US retail gasoline price per gallon, from

Gee, I have no idea what happened after January 20, 2021 in the above graph…

(d) Meanwhile, Elon Musk declined a board seat on Tw*tter — apparently, after discovering doing so would cap his personal stake in the company at 15%. So either he’s just been playing with the Tw*tterati or he’s gunning for a much bigger stake — possibly a ‘hostile’ takeover.

It’s quite amusing to see the utter self-unawareness on display — like Ellen Pao in the WaPo going on about the dangers of rich men owning communications outlets. Er… has she forgotten who Jeff Bezos is?


Annualized US inflation rate is officially 8.5% now. But Jeffrey Carter points out that the real rate, including energy and food costs, is just under twice that, at 16.8%.

To give the devil his due, this is not all [the] Biden [puppet show’s] fault — some of that is due to global supply chain factors entirely beyond his [their] control. But the attempts to pretend “everything is going swimmingly”, then to blame it all on anything other than their bone-headeds war on domestic energy production, are just risible.

ADDENDUM 2: Quoran Roland Bartetzko visited Bucha, Ukraine accompanying two French journalists. He reports on his conversations with the locals.

Apparently, the troops that initially conquered and occupied the place were messy, looted and broke stuff, but were behaving “relatively” well in the sense that they did not attempt to do bodily harm to the local civilians.

We were able to speak with a number of locals who were in the town during the days of the Russian occupation.

These people told us that in the beginning, the Russians were behaving “relatively” well. One of the guys I spoke with showed me his apartment that had served as the headquarters of a Russian unit.

During these first days, the Russian soldiers looted a lot, broke a lot of things, and left a mess but they weren’t murdering Ukrainians. Yet.

This would change after the Russian units that had initially taken Bucha were replaced by other troops.

Second-string occupation troops, while the first-string was needed for an attack elsewhere?

These new units were totally undisciplined and things slowly deteriorated. When they realised that they were losing the town to the Ukrainian Army, they started murdering every civilian they came across.

Followed by details too graphic to repeat here.

ADDENDUM 3: And Putin achieves the impossible 😉 Sweden and Finland look set to join NATO after surging domestic support for such a move.

US midterm tsunami coming? Media starting to throw Biden under the bus

Leaving you with two videos:

(a) Jesse Watters shows examples of US DNC palace guard“mainstream media” starting to throw F. Joe Biden under the bus, in a transparent attempt at midterms damage mitigation.

(b) and why? Tim Pool on the looming midterm tsunami, which has people like Matthew Yglesias seriously panicking

As he puts it, the median voter “gravity center” for either party isn’t that far removed from the center; the GOP has turned a bit more conservative; meanwhile, the (anti)Democrats turned bat guano looney. The result is predictable.

Tim does deadpan that “COVID might come back, we go back to all vote-by-mail, and ‘Democrats’ might win bigly”. I hope it’s only a deadpan joke…


Biden: “Imagine had the tobacco industry been immune to prostitute being sued”…

I’ve got nothing…

France, Ukraine, Israel: some quick takes

(a) So the French presidential elections are a runoff between “enarque” Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, with far-leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon a distant third. “Masgramondou” is depressed how little of his analysis five years ago needs to be updated, and draws my attention to this piece from UnHerd, How Marine Le Pen conquered Normandy. Note that the latter piece defies preconceptions, as the supposed “xenophobia” and “islamophobia” are not at all a factor in these rural localities with essentially zero immigrants: economic insecurity is, especially rising food and energy costs. (The latter pinch especially in rural areas where low population density precludes public transit and distances preclude walking or biking.)

(b) MEMRI posts a translation of an interview with Andrei Kortunov, the director of the Russian International Affairs Council. He professes to have been surprised by the invasion and, among other things, says it resulted in China no longer being perceived as the West’s #1 political rival. Also,

2. Moscow has virtually no allies or—at least—sympathetic observers left in the West. After the events of 2014, there remained significant forces in Europe, who were calling for taking Russia’s interests into account and combining pressure on the Kremlin with the possibility of some concessions to the Kremlin from the EU and NATO. Today, even such figures as the leader of the French far-right conservative National Union Marine Le Penn [sic] or the Czech President Milos Zeman are unanimous in their condemnation of Russia’s actions. As for the United States, the anti-Russian consensus in Washington has grown stronger than ever in the last third of a century.

[… interviewer asks. Remember, he is arguing from a Russian POV:]

Some patriots after the Istanbul talks argued that the talks are detrimental to Moscow in principle, that the Kremlin’s negotiators convey Kiev’s positions better than their own, that they are grist to the “enemy’s” mill, that if we won’t make it this time, we’ll have to try a third time later (2014 was the first time, 2022 – the second). How do you perceive this reaction to the news about the talks?

Indeed, there are two fundamentally different stances with respect to the talks and with respect to Russia’s ultimate goals in this conflict. One can depart from the assumption that the current leadership of Ukraine is illegitimate, dependent, and is not an independent political actor. It can be assumed that the current Ukrainian statehood project has no prospects, that Ukraine will never fulfill its obligations.

If one werer [sic] to proceed from this set of assumptions, then negotiations do in fact make little sense (at least the talks with the Ukrainian side). Moscow can negotiate with the West, with the US, with the behind-the-scenes puppeteers… However, the operation must continue until victory is reached, no matter what this victory will cost in the end.

Under such a scenario, the result of a special operation should be assertion of control over all major cities, perhaps up untill the western borders of Ukraine. This is one point of view, the other one is that the today’s leadership of Ukraine, for all its shortcomings and, perhaps, for all its deficient independence, is still legitimate and has a political identity. This is the only partner for talks that we now have.

Under this scenario the task of the Russian operation shouldn’t be a total surrender of the Ukrainian side, but a sort of compromise that would allow Zelensky not only to save face, but would also allow for Ukrainian statehood to be preserved (alas with certain restrictions insisted upon by Russia). These are the two points of view present in our socio-political discourse. I don’t see any way that these points of view can be combined into one.


I would very much like to hope that the point of view, which implies a compromise, will prevail. Because… I don’t see a military solution to the Russo-Ukrainian problems. Even if Russia were to occupy the entire territory of this country, this would require disproportionately larger forces and means than are currently involved in the special operation. We are talking about a country with a population of more than 40 million people.

Territorially, Ukraine is the largest country in Europe after Russia. It would be extremely difficult to put such a country under control. It will be extremely difficult to maintain it. Especially considering that the country’s population will regard external control most negatively. It seems to me that we have to look for a political endgam[e]. And only via this path can we achieve some kind of stability and security for both Russia and Ukraine…

Go read the whole thing. MEMRI for many years has been offered a fascinating window into what Arabic, Farsi, Russian, and (their most recent addition) Chinese media are saying when they think the Western “enemy” isn’t listening in.

(c) in this video, Gen-Z Russian vlogger “Roman” explained how the Russia he grew up in, with its relative freedom, no longer exists, which is why he left for Georgia (not the US state).

(d) In Israel, as discussed in the JPost by Herb Keinon, the utterly odious Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint Arab List (an amalgam of “former” communists and “Palestinian” nationalists) has called upon Arab-Israeli cops and member of other security forces to quit. Never mind that his own community would suffer the most from this, as it has an endemic crime problem, mostly gang-related. Odeh is the sort of self-serving extremist inciter of the people whom I’d loved to lock, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” style, into a stasis field with his antithesis, Itamar ben-Gvir (whom I’m convinced uses a picture of Meir Kahane’s tokhes as a mezuzah), and for them to be locked in eternal combat.

Screencap from

But there is a very different face of Israel’s Arab community — the face of Amir Khoury, the Christian[*] Arab policeman who gave his life trying to stop a terrorist, and in whose honor the fervently Orthodox Tel-Aviv borough of Bnei Brak is renaming a street.

Amir Khoury hy”d

Khoury’s father, Jeries, who also served in the police, reacted to the gesture by saying, “We are seeing unity [between Arabs and Jews] that we have not seen for years.”

And that is what the likes of Odeh (and Ben-Gvir) fear more than anything else.

[*] The surname “Khoury” means “Priest”