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Vladimir Putin: Why the West loves to hate him?

Dr R Balashankar

Russian Politics - The Paradox of a Weak State, Marie Mendras, Hurst & Company, HB, Pp 349, £25.00

$img_titleVladimir Putin is widely seen as the man who pulled Russia from the verge of an abyss. Who brought stability to the nation that was reeling under series of political uncertainties. But according to author, Marie Mendras, Putin is the biggest problem for Russia, a single stumbling block in the country’s path of progress. In Russian Politics - The Paradox of a Weak State, Mendras heaps charges on Putin, of being an authoritarian, of being corrupt and on a mission to demolish all the public institutions. She harps on the theme that Russia is a “strong power based on a weak state.” 

“After the 1990s, which were marked by the dismantling and very imperfect rebuilding of government organizations, Vladimir Putin sought to undermine all the institutions that did not come within the compass of the central state from his point of view. Whereas Boris Yeltsin had let the institutions decline, his successor pursued a systematic strategy of hollowing out public institutions.” In this model, she says the ordinary Russians enjoy lot of personal freedom, which they had not under the Communist rule, but they are pushed out of the political system. “Private individual is now free while the public citizen is very weak.” 

Marie Mendras discusses the economic, political and social conditions that prevailed in the Communist era and how after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian nation reworked itself, only to land in a political system that can hardly be called better, at least from the West’s point of view. While people may have rejoiced over the fall of Communist regime, engineered by Gorbachev, the liberation also came with huge prize — the ‘free‘ nation now was only three quarters of its previous size, with a large part of the land lying in Siberia and the Far East. The population had shrunk by half. Fourteen republics had broken away, taking with them the mineral resources, and industries. It created a crisis of identity for the Russians. “When Vladimir Putin came to power in 1999-2000, conditions were conducive for a new attempt at ideologizing the nation and power.” 

Gorbachev was the darling of the West. For, he single handedly did what as a block the West had been attempting for decades—to bring down the communist rule. With it came the withering away of the Eastern Europe. The Western, capitalist conquest of the world was near-complete. Putin, with his brusque and not-so-friendly demeanor put paid to all the labour, by steering Russia away from the total take over by the West and its values.  

Post Gorbachev and Yeltsin, Russia was rudderless, a scene in which the communists gained strength. In the 1995 elections, they put up a good show. “There are several reasons for the strength of the Communist vote nearly five years after the demise of the USSR, the chief one being the feeling of depression and helplessness which had overcome the whole of Russia since 1992.” Putin, when he took over, Marie Mendras says, put up a pretense of building democracy, to win applause from the West. He later abandoned this quest. “The most striking feature of this systematic hollowing out of the institutions of state and society is that it now took place openly, in broad daylight, with no pretense of keeping up appearances. Until 2003, Putin’s regime attempted to maintain a semblance of democracy and still courted the approval of Western democracies. The fundamental difference between Vladimir Putin’s first and second term is the abandonment of civil liberties, competition, and self-government specific to liberal-democratic societies.”

That is the biggest charge against Putin. He no longer enjoys the appreciation of the West or craves for their approval. He has fallen out of their favour and worse, does not seem to mind it. He has refused to play by their rules only. The rest of the points in the chargesheet are only add-ons to this basic quarrel. 

Marie Mendras projects three paradigms that appear decisive for the present and future of the strength of the Russian system. They are: the relationship with the outside world would be a determining factor for the development of Russia; the relationship between the individual citizen and the state; and the weakening of the state in the post-Communist era.  In all her arguments, the author ignores the fact that Russia is an old country, older than most countries in the West, a nation that has seen some of the worst political trysts and suffered the most reprehensible dictatorship. But from each, it has arisen. The Russians have the resilience. And the West has mostly been only onlookers to these events. Judging Russia and its politics through the standards of the soft democracies of the West is not a fair study. If this book suffers from a flaw it is the overbearing tone of being judgmental. Unlike the floundering economies of Europe, being supported on their feet by global borrowings and donations, Russia is holding on its own. It is the strength of the state. The charges against Putin are not extraordinary. Nothing that has not been hurled at political leaders of a functional vibrant democracy like India. 

The book was originally written in French and is supported by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It was first published in 2008. Marie Mendras is Professor at Sciences Po University and Research Fellow with the National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris. 

(Hurst & Company, 41 Great Russell Street, London, WC1B 3PL)

A gripping narrative on making of Irish nationalism

Manju Gupta

Irish Nationalists and the Making of the Irish Race, Bruce Nelson, Princeton University Press, Pp 333, $45

$img_titleBruce Nelson’s main focus is on the evolution of Irish nationalism and Irish racial identity in the context of powerful global phenomena, such as slavery and abolition, the British Empire and the class and national struggles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He interrogates the stereo type of Ireland as a self-contained ‘Holy Land’ by focusing on elements of the nationalist movement that turned outwards to a global arena of suffering and struggle, affirming that “(our) sympathy and distress…extends itself to every corner of the earth.”

Chapters 1 and 2 trace the English (and British) contribution of the Irish race from the 12th century to the 20th – a process that is seen in the context of conquest, colonisation and Anglicisation. It is true that the Irish responded in diverse ways to the English presence in their country and that some Irishmen and women readily adopted to English mores and sought to build a better life for themselves and their families within the system that the newcomers imposed. It’s also true that there were periods of relative calm in the relations between Irish and English, tenant and landlord, native and stranger. But overall what stands out is not only the failure of British governance in Ireland but also the extent to which the English blamed the Irish for this failure and argued that something in the Irish nature made the people uncivilised, savage and dangerous to peace and order.

The rest of the book concentrates on how the Irish made themselves. Chapters 3 and 4 examine Irish nationalism in the context of the debate over slavery and abolition, especially in the 1830s and 1840s. They revolve around the larger-than-life figures, like Daniel O’Connell and Frederick Douglass. O’Connell was by reputation Ireland’s liberator, being the most authoritative voice of the emerging Irish Catholic nation of the early and mid-19th century. He was also an outspoken opponent of slavery and insisted on the Irish community in the US to stand with him and with Anglo-American abolitionists in opposing slavery. But his countrymen and women did not “come out of such a land.” Rather they continued to rush to the US, especially in view of the great famine that took themselves of a million people.

Chapters 5 and 6 examine Irish nationalism in the context of the British Empire and its rapid expansion in the second half of the 19th century. In a nation plagued by massive emigration, the empire offered employment to tens of thousands of Irish young men. But to most critics of British policy, the Empire symbolised Britain at its most rapacious and unjust. Irish nationalists developed a strong sense of affinity with the Boers of South Africa and the two Boer republics of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal, which were menaced by British subterfuge and outright aggression at the end of the 19th century. These two chapters highlight the contributions of two industrialists – Michael Davitt and Erskime Childers who were participants in the South African war.

Chapters 7 and 8 focus on Ireland’s relationship to the revolutionary movements that developed in the context of World War I and its volatile aftermath. Chapter 7 focuses on the strong attestation that Ireland held for Afro-Caribbean and African-American intellectuals and activists. Chapter 7 focuses mainly on the ‘Black Atlantic’ and its relationship to Ireland, while Chapter 8 lies within the framework of the ‘Green Atlantic’ and its relationship to socialism and black nationalism.

New York City became a world capital of insurgent movements during and after the Great War. The Irish Progressive League was founded in 1917 and it put simply and directly that “the Irish are for freedom everywhere.”

This book offers a different angle on the Irish nationalist movement and the men and women who participated in it to affirm that “the cause of human freedom is as wide as the world.”

(Princeton University Press, 41 William Street, Princeton, New Jersey– 08540)


A survey of Indian cinema

Manju Gupta

101 Hit Films of Indian Cinema, Renu Saran, Diamond Books, Pp 272, Rs 195.00

$img_titleHere is a book for lovers of Indian cinema as it brings information on top 101 films in Hindi and the regional languages of the country.

The Indian film industry is the oldest and the largest in the world, producing over 1,000 movies, which are released annually. Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, Bengaluru and Hyderabad are the main film production centres that churn out such a large number of films every year to hugely appreciative audiences around the world.

The author traces the history of Indian cinema back to 1896, when the famous Lumiere Brothers of France showed six soundless films in Bombay. In 1899, Hemchandra Bhatvadekar made India’s first short film. It was by 1920 that a regular industry at the rate of 27 films per year came into being. As many as 207 films were screened in 1931. Today, India makes about 800-1,000 films every year.

The film Alama Ara marked the genesis of the talkie feature films. Its dialogue in Hindustani language and seven songs became a big hit, instigating other film-makers to raise the number of songs in their films, till it reached a whopping 71, as seen in Indrasabha. The year 1931 marked the beginning of the talkie era in Bengal and South India with the release of Jamai Shastri in Bengali, Bhakta Prahlad in Telugu and Kalidas in Tamil. Regional culture and craze to see and hear a film in one’s own language led to mushrooming of regional films, beginning with languages like Bengali, Tamil and Telugu before encompassing Marathi, Gujarati, Kannada, Malayalam, Oriya, Assamese and English films.

The 30s is accepted as the decade of social protests with three films like V Shantaram’s Duniya na Mane, Aadmi and Padosi, Franz Osten’s Achhut Kanya, Damle and Fatehlal’s Sant Tukaram, Mehboob Khan’s Watan, Ek hi Raasta and Aurat portraying injustice.

The year 1937 saw the first colour picture, Kisan Kanya, followed by the release of first talkie film in Marathi – Ayodhiyecha Raja, Narasinh Mehta in Gujarati, Dhruv Kiran in Kannada, Sita Bibaha in Oriya, etc.

The decade of the Second World War and India’s Independence saw memorable hits like V Shantaram’s Dr Kotnis ki Amar Kahani, Mehboob Khan’s Roti, Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar, Shohrab Modi’s Sikander, Pukar and Prithvi Vallabh. The First International Film Festival of India was held in early 1952 at Bombay and in 1955, Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin, Devdas and Madhumati, V Shantaram’s Do Aankhen Barah Haath and Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje, Mehboob Khan’s Mother India, Guru Dutt’s Pyasa and Kagaz ke Phool proved box-office hits. 

After tracing the history of Indian cinema through the 70s and 80s, the book talks of the 20th century.

(Diamond Pocket Books, (P) Ltd, X-30, Okhla Industrial Area, Phase II, New Delhi–110 020; www.diamondbook.in)


A treasure of enduring tales

Manju Gupta

1/7 Bondel Road: An Endearing Collection of Stories, Gautam Benegal, Wisdom Tree, Pp 123 (PB), Rs 145.00

$img_titleWritten by a national-award-winning animation filmmaker, cartoonist and artist who grew up in Calcutta, the book explores and expresses his experiences through 10 vividly sketched endearing vignettes of adolescence in a quintessential lane, creating a universe filled with impressions that leave a lasting impact. He captures these compelling moments of life that decide the “course the rivers of our souls will take.”

In the story titled ‘The Baul’, young boys watch from a distance the students of Presidency and St. Xavier’s College considered the most intellectual and most knowledgeable centres, watch a baul singer perform. The boy called Tutul and his elder brother are also watching the baul dancer sing and dance on film songs. Tutul’s brother points out that the baul dancer was not genuine as firstly, the latter’s surname happened to be Sharma and not Das and secondly, a baul singer would die before singing a film song. Tutul plucks up the courage to ask the baul singer if he had always been a baul. The latter replies, “Being a baul is a state of mind, babu.”

Every year in winter, an evening of baul songs is organised and wandering singers from faraway places like Birbhum and Bankura arrive at the site. Children gather at the site. That evening the famous Gourhari Das is supposed to perform, but he fails to turn up. Sharma, the little baul singer, begins to sing and continues undeterred, despite being jeered thus – “Hey, dwarf, get off the stage!”, “Get a job in the circus”, etc. Sharma sings a song that no one has heard before. As it is his own composition, the song is on what all is happening in Calcutta, about the thousands losing their jobs, about young boys being killed by the police, etc. Eleven-year old Tutul watches in fascination to Sharma strumming away on his little ektara and whirling and pirouetting. Suddenly a clean-shaven handsome man in an orange robe stands up from the crowd and embraces the little baul singer who is not a baul. The handsome man is the famous Gourhari Das, who had come unseen and taken his place among the audience to see the performance of a fellow sadhak. “For what is a baul, if not the very personification of humility? And what is a true baul after all, but a state of mind?” asks the author of the story.

In the story titled ‘Bhultu’s Dad’, Tutul is highly impressed by his friend Bhultu’s dad who seems to be a storehouse of knowledge as he loves providing information on the books he has read, on how the Mahabharata refers to flying chariots and weapons of war and how he wanted to become a scientist but was to forced to drop out from St. Xavier’s College as he needed a job more than to study.

(Wisdom Tree, 4779/23, Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110 002; wisdomtreebooks@gmail.com)

A peep into modern New York economy

Ashish Joshi

Modern New York: The Life and Economics of a City, Greg David, Palgrave Macmillan, Pp 248 (HB), $ 28

$img_titleThe book presents the landscape of the economy of modern New York when measured by the number of jobs, the most reliable statistics to track the city’s ups and downs. It talks of the 1950s and 1960s when New York benefitted from the long national post-war expansion, “superheated in the first Lindsay term by the Go Go Years on Wall Street.”

The jobs reached 3,797,700 in 1969 but then followed a steep plunge. This was New York’s Great Recession, which lasted eight long years, from 1969 to 1977 and cost the city 620,000 jobs. While at the end of the 1960s, the Wall Street boom played a significant role in the downturn, the precipitous plunge in manufacturing caused the most damage, as the long-term flight of factories from the city accelerated in part because of the burdensome effects of Lindsay’s 1966 business tax overhaul. The loss of 800,000 people in the 1970s also devastated neighbourhoods and eliminated thousands of retail jobs. The city’s bankruptcy created a paralysing pessimism about New York’s future while further dampening business activity.

The city’s recovery began with the election of Ed Koch in 1977 and a new attitude towards the economy and business. The new Mayor reversed the outlook by stressing on business and especially development, which was the most important factor in the health of the city. Koch’s contribution led to the 1990’s boom where Salmon Brothers at Wall Street showed how much money could be made in fixed income securities, once interest rates were deregulated.

New Yorkers understood how by mid 1980s the city had become inextricably linked to Wall Street and feared the effects of the stock market crash of October 1987, only to become complacent when the city seemed to hold its own. Securities firms and other businesses began retrenching but the losses of the crash were offset by growth in city jobs as Koch rebuilt the municipal workforce as also government funded jobs in social services and health care increased as well.

(Palgrave Macmillan, St. Marin’s Press LIC, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010.)

A fascinating topography study in British Isles

 Jayant Patel

The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, Robert Macfarlane, Hamish Hamilton, Pp 433, £20

$img_titleThis book, a third in a loose triology, about landscape and the human heart, shows the relationship that exists between paths, walking and the imagination. It tells the story of walking a thousand miles or more along old ways in search of a route to the past, only to find oneself back to the contemporary. It is an exploration of the ghosts and voices that haunt ancient paths, of the tales and tracks that keep and tell of pilgrimage and trespass, of song-lines and their singers and of the strange continents that exist within countries.

One day while watching the snow out of the window, the author gets up and walks out and returns to look back at his trail. On seeing other print-trails, he chooses to follow these tracks to find out where they might lead. He thinks, “Humans are animals and like all animals, we love tracks as we walk; signs of passage made in snow, sand, mud, grass, dew, earth or moss.” He finds the landscape webbed with paths and footways – shadowing the modern road network or meeting it at a slant or perpendicular.” He also finds that many regions still have their old ways, connecting place to place, leading over passes to church or chapel, river or sea but not all of their histories are happy. In Ireland hundreds of miles of famine roads built by the starving during the 1840s connected nothing with nothing in return for a little. In the Netherlands, “doodwegen and spookwegen – death roads and ghost roads” – converge on medieval cemeteries. Spain has a vast and operational network of Canada, or drove roads; in Scotland there are clachan and rathad – cairned paths and shieling paths. In winter, the only route in and out of the remote valley of Zanskar in the Indian Himalayas is along the ice-path formed by a frozen river.

He describes the rather eccentric yet the most charismatic of modern walk-writers called George Borrow who spent more than 40 years exploring England, Wales and Europe on foot. He also has a special word of praise for Edward Thomas, an essayist, soldier, singer among the most significant of modern English poets and who suffered from perpetual depression and incited the author of the book under review to pen down his experiences. 

(Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Group, 80 Strand, London WC2R ORL, England; www.penguin.com)

Exploring climate patterns in Asia Pacific

Nidhi Mathur

Climate Change in Asia and the Pacific: How can Countries Adapt? V Anbumozhi, M Breiling, S Pathmarajah, VR Reddy (Eds), Sage Publications India Pvt Ltd, Pp 363, Rs 1195.00

$img_titleAs an outcome of the two workshops held on climate change in Tokyo and Colombo respectively, this book is a compilation of papers presented to focus on the vulnerability of the developing countries of Asia and Pacific region to the impact of climate change. The poor in these countries are at especially high risk, given their dependence on agriculture, reliance on ecosystem services, rapid growth and concentration of populations and relatively poor health services. As it is, developing countries are usually characterised by insufficient capacity to adapt to the impact of climate change due to their inadequate infrastructure, meagre household incomes and savings and limited support from public services. So adaptation through adjustments in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climate stimuli becomes a key strategy for sustaining economic growth. At the same time, failure to adapt could stall development, particularly in countries that depend on natural resources.

The book examines the framework conditions for integrating climate change adaptation measures into agriculture, water and natural resources management activities. This constitutes the main premise of the book, but we find the book divided into six parts for addressing these issues in greater detail.

Part I identifies the main risks associated with extreme weather events, quantifies their impacts and reviews the available risk management tools and planning instruments. The Asia and Pacific region is likely to face a reduction in the average annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate and negative impacts on agriculture and natural resources sectors. The authors suggest that the first step towards adaptive capacity should be to predict climate change impacts by assessing the likely exposure of natural resources and examining the follow-on impacts of changes on human, economic and social systems.

Part II discusses various driving forces to strengthen resilience to climate change.

(Sage Publications India Pvt Ltd, B I/1, Mohan Cooperative Industrial Area, Mathura Road, Post Bag 7, New Delhi-110 044; www.sagepublications.com)

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