Blood On Your Face!

A portrait of Stalin hangs on the wall. The lector reads a report on Stalin, then, the choir sings a song about Stalin, and, finally, an actor declaims a poem about Stalin. What’s the occasion? An evening commemorating the hundredth anniversary of Pushkin’s death.
(A student tells this joke. For this crime, the student gets ten years in the labour and death camps, without the right of correspondence.)
Second-Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich

Stalin allegedly used to write poetry in his youth. So did Pol Pot, the butcher, and General Mohammed Ershad of Bangladesh. So did, perhaps, Idi Amin of Uganda and Augusto Pinochet of Chile.

Perhaps, Vladimir Putin too writes his own brand of botoxed poetry bloodied with the bloody redness of innocence — from Kiev to Lviv. Certainly, they would all be verse, as terrible as the terrible poetry Stalin wrote during his Georgian youth.

Think of Russia: 10,000 or more young soldiers dead. For no rhyme or reason. Most of them from the provinces did not even know why they were fighting this war, why they were killing people who looked like them and spoke their language and ate the same food and sang the same songs and shared the same oral traditions of the war against fascism.

Treacherous Generals! Thus wrote great Spanish poet Fredrico Garcia Lorca. So, he was shot in the woods by perhaps a footsoldier of another general, while, perhaps, another general gave him shelter. Several top generals of the Russian top brass have been killed in combat. Where have you ever heard generals fighting in the frontlines, except in those magical, mythical, medieval times?

As the sad song goes: It‘s happening in Russia. It is happening in Russia!

As another great poet, Pablo Neruda, a buddy of Lorca, wrote: Come and see the blood on the streets. Come and see the blood on the streets. Come and see the blood on the streets…

Think of Ukraine. Come and see the dead on the streets of Bucha. At Kharkhiv and Irpin. In the outskirts of Lviv and Kiev. Out there in the smoked-out Eastern Front of Ukraine. Hands tied at the back, some bodies. An entire family shot and dumped in the garden. A theatre bombed out. A railway station ravaged by hell-fire.

Dead children and mothers. A few million turned refugees; no more the warmth of their cosy homes in this freezing cold. Now, borderline cases stranded on various European borders: Lithuania, Moldova, Poland…

ALSO READ: Theatre Of Horror In Ukraine

In this grotesque anti-poetry Putin has penned, there are no between the lines. No verse or pause, silence or nuance. Only the sinister shadow of Ivan the Terrible, the Tsar of Russia, And, of course, Totalitarian Stalin of the Great Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). And he knows so well that this mindless war waged by him for mindless reasons, he has already lost. He lost it on Day One! He did.

Isolated in Europe and the West, and across the world, a megalomaniac Putin, a ruler for life, can’t even have his last hurrah. Another dictator with a half-twisted smile, in China, also a ruler for life, with his alleged communist hangover, seems to have backstabbed him on Ukraine. So, what will the hallucinating Tsar do now?

His banking system has been turned almost redundant, his lucrative oil economy is bleeding, the rouble has shrunk, his international financial system has collapsed, his finest sycophants in his caricature of a cabinet have all been sanctioned, his best billionaire buddies are finding their assets frozen, including the super-luxury yachts parked at multiple ports; so, what will Putin do now?

Till this day, even as it becomes 60 days and more, in a post-modern era where wars, rare as they are, are fought on the battlefronts in short, decisive stints, and, where diplomacy rules the roost,  this long march to eternity has only nowhere as a dead-end. Till this day, Putin and his beleaguered and confused armed forces, have not been able to win any city or town, port or infrastructure, despite the huge military resources at his command. Even from Chernobyl they have withdrawn.

Reports The Guardian: “Mariupol has become a symbol of Ukraine’s unexpectedly fierce resistance since Russian troops invaded the former Soviet state on February 24.” The UN World Food Programme has stated that 100,000 plus citizens in ravaged Mariupol are starving and there is serious scarcity of water, sanitation and heating. Undoubtedly, it is a major humanitarian catastrophe, and the blame squarely falls on Putin.

“The city still has not fallen,” the Ukrainian Prime Minister said on Sunday. “There’s still our military forces, our soldiers. So they will fight to the end,” he told ABC’s The Week. “We will not surrender.”

Putin and his commanders tried the strategy of putting the capital of Ukraine under siege for days. In contrast, even the satellite towns did not surrender, so brave, strategic and resilient has been the Ukrainian response on the ground. Hence, now top European leaders are making a beeline for Kiev, right under the nose of Putin, standing with the troops and the brave, fighting citizens of Ukraine. Even Joe Biden might land up at Kiev anytime soon, and as did Boris Johnson in a sudden, surprise, solidarity visit.

Hence, while the brilliant comic star of reality TV and valiant president and soldier in fatigue on the frontlines, Volodimir Zelenskiy, fights a winning battle 24/7 with his back to the wall, with clever rhetoric and imaginative manuevering, Putin stands cornered, ghettoized and isolated. All he now has is the dream to capture Donbas and Lugansk, etc, and focus on the Eastern Front, like he did with Crimea in the past. That is, indeed, a big loss to his grand project of extending the Great Stalinist Soviet Empire!

All he could do therefore was order massacres, executions, Stalin-style, indiscriminate bombing and missiles flying into homes, hospitals and schools. Surely, these are no signs of a smart and strategic military commander sitting in Moscow which led such a stoic and sustained battle for months in the frozen landscape in Stalingrad and Leningrad.

Putin seems to have willfully forgotten that more than 20 million Russians died in the protracted war against fascism, whereby, the Red Army first liberated Berlin, whereby, Adolf Hitler and his wife, then, chose to commit suicide. Many of the millions who died came from Ukrain and neighbouring  Belarus, also ruled by a tin-pot dictator, another best buddy of the Tsar in Moscow.

The tragic epic hereby unfolding is heart-breaking: between the young men and women fighting each other in a meaningless war in Ukraine, there is a history of deep, intrinsic, intimate and shared memory. These shared memories are stronger than war, victory or defeat. They are childhood memories, spoken as fairy tales turned real, inside the warmth of the home and hearth, around a soft, crackling fire, as the snow would fall over the meadows like sheets of white, and the howling wind would creep in through the cracks in the window. These are real stories, and they shall never die.

Nobel Prize winning journalist Svetlana Alexeviech narrates another joke cracked by the grandson of a seasoned communist and party card holder who was tortured and brutalized in all kinds of dingy hell-holes during the Stalinist purges for reasons no one knows till this day. His wife, also a card-holder, died of the brutality, cold and hunger in prison. The joke:

A professor and an Old Bolshevik are at a séance. The professor: ‘From the very beginning, communism was based on an error. Remember the song: Our train is flying forward… The next stop is the commune…’

The Old Bolshevik: “Of course, I do. What’s the problem? Trains don’t fly.’

Putin Has Already Won, Any War Will Be A Bonus

Even if Russia does not go into Ukraine, President Putin has already won at home with his narrative of ‘only Putin can save Russia’. Any further action, such as annexation of Donbas and exclusion of Ukraine from NATO will be a bonus on the international stage. With his gradual drip-drip action and by putting Ukraine’s future NATO membership at the centre of the standoff, he has managed to convince most Russians that the whole of ‘western world’ is united in its ambition to put nuclear weapons next door on Russian borders and destroy Russia.

Modern democracies survive on creating a narrative of an opposition threatening one’s lifestyle or prospects for a better life. There is less of what ‘our side’ can do and more of what damage the opposition can do. The Brexit tale was all about how Europe is a constraint on Britain’s rise to global glory again. Trump played to the perceived threat to ‘white supremacy’ and individual liberty. Putin similarly plays on the threat the west poses to Russian integrity, pride and power. Indian politicians play the threat by Pakistan, ‘Islamic terrorism’ and secessionists to India’s unity.

Putin is an ex-KGB man. His forte is the dynamics and intrigues between international powers. In the Ukraine standoff, he has played that with remarkable sophistication and reinforced the narrative that the whole of the west is intent to breaking up Russia and reduce its power.

The post Gorbachev and Yeltsin eras are still fresh in the minds of many Russians of the Soviet period. Soviet power on the world stage fizzled away in front of their eyes. The promise of better life with reforms and closer engagement with the west not only didn’t materialise, many Russians went into deep poverty. Thuggery and Oligarch warlords emerged ushering a dangerous period of lawlessness, murders and Mafiosi type gangsterism stripping away State assets.

From that post Soviet ruin arose Putin. His narrative has been that the west or rather America has no love for Russia. Rather it wants to drive Russia to the ground and exploit its natural resources.  The narrative has worked well.

In the last few years, the narrative was wearing down a bit. Russia sells and thrives on selling gas, oil and other natural minerals to most of Europe. There are many Russians engaged in constructive business, academic and even social relations with many Europeans. In fact there is a healthy trade between Russia and USA as well. Many western Multinationals, such as BP in Rosneft, have shares in Russian companies. Even some western NGOs operate in Russia. Russians travel to the west and see no hostility.

It was in this atmosphere of improving relationships that Putin’s ‘the West is the threat’ narrative was becoming less convincing to his voters. The Nordstream 2 project appears one of the great triumphs of cordiality and improved relations between the ‘west’ and Russia.

It was not surprising that in this apparent thaw, politicians like Alexei Navalny were becoming popular. He and others like him politically attack Putin of exploiting ‘national threat’ to stifle legitimate opposition, remain in power and enrich himself and his ‘friends’. Putin’s friends allegedly keep their money conveniently in the offshore financial centres that Britain owns, so it remains safe. There are said to be a number of investments in western countries including USA through these off shore companies. Navalny campaigns for a better relationship with the west, a more transparent Russian polity and end to an ‘artificial cold war’.

ALSO READ: Ukraine, Uncertain Fallouts

Despite Navalny being jailed, it was gradually going well for the opposition as it eroded into the Putin narrative. Until Ukraine.

By stationing his army on the doorsteps of Ukraine in what appears to be an ‘imminent’ invasion, he has united the west to echo his narrative. He has put NATO expansion at the centre of the conflict. He has demanded that western weapons not be deployed next to the borders of Russia.

Western countries had differential relationships with Russia. Some like Germany and France had closer relations than United Kingdom. Suddenly the west has started to unite behind the NATO narrative and played into the security neurosis that Putin feeds his own country on.

Almost every NATO member is singing form the same hymn sheet. ‘It is the sovereign right of Ukraine to join NATO’. From Russian public perspective, if Ukraine were ever to join NATO, it would also have the right to have NATO bases, meaning American, next door to Russia as has happened in some other neighbouring countries.

The narrative is game set and match for Putin. He can turn to his people and say. ‘See the threat hasn’t gone. Why do they want to put weapons next door to us if our relations have improved? They still want to disintegrate Russia and destroy its power’. It doesn’t matter how many Russians travel to the west, in their minds will be the question, why does America want to station missiles next door to mother Russia.

The NATO narrative is a difficult one for the west. It is illogical but one that cannot be denied in public. It needed highly competent, creative statesmanship and diplomacy not to fall in the trap set by Putin. Angela Merkel probably would have handled it better. British statesmanship and diplomacy no longer awes the world. And Joe Biden seems out of his depth against a seasoned master strategist. Putin has proven to his people that when it comes to survival of Russia, the whole of the west is united and plays to Washington’s tune.

The reality is that the west is not united on the NATO issue. Countries like Germany and France do not see any strategic gain if Ukraine joins NATO but leads to breakdown in relations with Russia. However no one can publicly declare that and no NATO country can openly say that ‘Ukraine should give up its sovereign right to join NATO’.

Putin has got what he wants and consolidated his position at home. Even if he withdraws all his forces from Ukraine now without a single concession, he can be assured of popularity at home for nearly a decade. The narrative of the ever remaining threat’ and ‘only Putin can save Russia’ will survive and thrive. The Ukraine-NATO narrative will continue to dominate Russian-West dialogues. Putin will make sure it remains in the public discourse. Politicians like Navalny unfortunately will continue to be exploited as ‘traitors’ by Putin.

Nevertheless Putin is also fully aware of the underlying disunity in the west even if on the surface it appears united and falsely bound in its own rhetoric of principles. He will probably stay put with his army on Ukraine’s borders, playing like a ‘cat plays with a mouse’, wrenching up the threat of invasion bit by bit and then getting a few concessions. But he won’t take over Ukraine completely unless provoked.

It is not in Putin’s benefit to invade Ukraine and take it over completely. He needs the threat of NATO next door to be alive to maintain his popularity at home.

When the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz mocked Putin and said, ‘I don’t know how long the president intends to stay in office?’ One wonders whether Putin thought, ‘As long as you keep me in power.’.

Weekly Update: The Flyover PM; Putin’s Khrushchev Moment; Political Petri Dish

Prime Minister Modi’s attempt to do a flyover visit in Punjab and get stuck over a flyover is a skit for satire if it wasn’t for real. The repercussions are still going around the social media with all sorts of threats, counter threats and allegations. The Prime Minister himself, who no doubt could easily get a job in Bollywood were he to lose his current role as ‘leader of India’, was as dramatic as ever.

‘Tell the CM I made it live to the airport’. Precisely who was threatening him is also a mystery. ISI? ISI don’t know what to do with a target if it was standing in front of them. They only work through ‘underground agents’ after coasting the target over weeks, if not months. ISI likes ‘clever’ games. It is a habit. Besides, that would have led to a war and ISI, for all its anti-India activities, isn’t quite ready for a war. Let us rule ISI out.

Sikhs? Why would Sikhs want to kill him? They just won the farmer protest having damaged him beyond repair. Modi is like a dead man walking in Punjab. Punjabis don’t respect losers. He lost and no point on inflicting more on him. His very presence is their victory. Some farmers simply obstructed his path and told him ‘Delhi wapas ja Bharava’ Go back to Delhi brother.

A Congress wallah? The Congress only kills people through the police and Army. They did enough in the 1980s and 1990s. They don’t do Jhatka, i.e do the work themselves.

It seems the only people threatening the beloved Modiji were Modi Bhakts. There was a bus load who were suddenly elated that they came almost face to face with their god and collectively said several times. ’Modi ji ki Jai’.

Modi ji, who doesn’t even give press interviews or face people directly and only speaks at big rallies through a bullet proof glass wall, was suddenly physically confronted by the sight of his worshippers in close proximity. He was obviously unnerved. This was a new situation for him since becoming PM. They are meant to be behind ropes and barriers, clamouring to touch his feet, not two yards away on a flyover. He misread their adulation as threats.

But what was Modiji doing in Punjab? After the protests ended in November, there were no hugs or stuffing laddoos in each other’s mouths. He took back laws. The Punjabis are still suspicious. A committee has been formed. But he decided to go over to Punjab. He probably thought to say, ‘No hard feelings’. The farmers probably thought he has come over to show that he is still Boss.

For a seasoned politician, it seemed a bit naïve to think that he could go over to Punjab and be greeted with garlands. The protestors had occupied several roads to stop any Modi Bhakts to get to the ground where he was going to speak. But they got lucky and managed to stop Modiji himself from getting to the ground, which was going to be mostly empty anyway.

For a ‘helicopter’ PM who flies everywhere, travelling on an Indian Road must have been an experience itself. And then getting caught over an India made flyover with no opportunity for a helicopter to ‘save’ him from his Bhakts, must have been another nightmare.

Instead of complaining about the hapless Punjab Chief Minister who had made all arrangements for Modiji to get to his empty ground by helicopter, Modiji needs to haul his transport minister and order him to build better flyovers. Flyovers where a helicopter can land and whisk the dear leader off, away, from his fans. Meanwhile his statement, ‘Buch je agya hun’ (I have come back safely), is causing roars of amusement in Punjab, further denting his muscular profile. ‘Kis se Buch ke ayaa hae bhai’ (who did you save yourself from? Who was threatening you?)

Putin’s Khrushchev moment

Putin has gone into a high stakes poker game with the United States. Having amassed some 100,000 troops and heavy equipment on the borders of Ukraine, Putin is threatening war unless US gives assurance that there will be no deployment of NATO forces in Ukraine and Ukraine won’t be permitted to join EU. Biden and EU are so far refusing. Putin is said to be threatening to install missiles again in Cuba.

This is a rerun of the 1962 Cuban crises. The head of the Soviet, Nikita Khrushchev, decided to install missiles in Cuba, an independent Island country only some 80 miles from Florida, US coast. The US under Kennedy, circled the Island with its Navy and blocked further supplies. A threat of war was looming. The Soviet (now Russia) wanted US to remove its missiles from Turkey in return. The standoff lasted about a month. The Soviet took away its gear. Khrushchev lost face in the Soviet and had to resign for showing ‘weakness’.

Strongman Putin now faces the same dilemma. He started a political poker which will only conclude with him or Biden losing face. For some time Ukraine has been seen as a possible NATO army base. Ukraine has also been openly saying that it will join the EU if permitted. Both are seen as evidence of Russia’s loss of power in that region.

Putin took over the Crimea in 2014 and part of Eastern Ukraine (Donbas) in some swift moves. The Eastern Ukraine is not strictly in Russia but is de facto Russian territory. Putin decided to threaten war and take over Ukraine if it doesn’t give up attempts to join EU and have NATO base. A NATO base is seen as a threat too near Russian border.

Treating Ukraine as a puppet of America, Putin is dealing directly with the US and NATO rather than Ukraine. Putin has said that the situation is similar to the Cuban crises of 1962.

Both US and NATO are refusing to budge citing Ukraine’s sovereign right to chose what it wants. As days go by it seems Putin may have little choice but to either backdown or invade. The west is trying to call Putin’s bluff, trying to see how far it can push Putin’s tolerance.

Sooner or later, Putin will have to chose if there is no movement on the discussions. If he deploys missiles in Cuba, that might be seen as too provocative. If he invades Ukraine it will be very costly for both countries. The economic crises that Russia will face afterwards will weaken him. If he backs down, Putin will be weakened as a political strongman in Russia. Either way, he has problems.

If Putin attacks Ukraine, Biden will face a barrage of criticism in USA from the Republicans. It will distract from the enquiry into the attempted insurrection of Capitol Hill. It will be the second country Biden administration will have failed to live up to a promise of protection (Afghanistan).

All indications are that this is leading to a war barring a last minute diplomatic breakthrough in the talks.

The Political Petri Dish

Look down a petri dish under a microscope and one will see bacteria or other organisms wandering around aimlessly from one end to another. Politics in India seems similar. With no clear agendas except caste, communalism or unachievable promises, the parties have little to differentiate between themselves.

So politicians often see parties as career ladders rather than organisations of conviction and loyalty. So it is in UP. A number of BJP MLAs have defected to Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party. They say that BJP is only interested in working for the big corporate houses and not representing the backward castes or the poor. The BJP in turn is trying hard to woo the backward castes.

So like a petri dish culture, the politicians are crossing from one side to another. So far Dara Singh Chauhan, Swami Prasad Muarya and Dharam Singh Saini and a few others have crossed over from Adityanath’s BJP to Akhilesh’s SP. Dara Singh was in Adityanath’s cabinet.

Soon no one will know which party any candidate is in and what he or she stands for until the morning of the upcoming elections. At least that day the election commission forbids any statements so no point in political promiscuity on election day.