The New Russia: Book Review

By David Michael Newstead.

Mikhail Gorbachev’s book, The New Russia, offers a glimpse at history from a decidedly rare point of view. Few Russian leaders have lived for so long after their time in office. So then, few others could ever provide the kind of perspective that Gorbachev gives as he reflects on the end of Communism and his last day in the Kremlin to the tumultuous years that followed and events right up to the present. Of those first years after Communism, he lists off a string of crises that plagued the nation as it transitioned to a new form of government.

  • The collapse of the Soviet Union; the rolling back of democracy in almost all the republics; chaos in the economy, exploited by the greediest and most unscrupulous, who succeeded in plunging almost everyone else into poverty; ethnic conflicts and bloodshed in Russia and other republics; and, finally, the shelling of the Supreme Soviet of Russia in October 1993.

The book is filled with letters, speeches, photographs, and interview excerpts from throughout these years. But in all, it shows a man trying to defend the decisions he made and watching from the sidelines at the people who came to power after him, for better or worse. He explores the war in Chechnya, the economic turmoil throughout the 1990s, the eventual rise of Vladimir Putin, NATO expansion, the rollback of democratic reforms, the war with Georgia, Ukraine, and more. As Gorbachev thought about the past as well as the present, two passages stuck out at me.

  • Already I was aware of just how deeply rooted the legacy of totalitarianism was, in our traditions, in people’s mindset and morality. It had seeped into almost every pore of the social organism. That deeply troubled me in those days and, more than 20 years later, still does.
  • We are living in the twenty-first century, a century of new technologies and new challenges. Conservative ideology has no answer to these. Traditional, conservative values do, along with others, have their place in society. But where have conservative policies taken us in the history of Russia? They have led, as a rule, to stagnation followed by upheaval. Sometimes the years of stagnation have been relatively prosperous, living off reforms carried through earlier and favorable external factors. Sooner or later, however, that energy runs out, the external factors change.

2+2=5

By David Michael Newstead.

Made famous by George Orwell’s novel 1984, the slogan 2+2=5 is used to represent the absurdity of political falsehoods and lying propaganda. But it wasn’t a figment of Orwell’s imagination. In fact, the author was referencing an actual propaganda campaign from Stalin’s Russia, which Orwell was highly critical of.

For Stalin, 2+2=5 was a rallying cry, boasting that the goals of the first five-year plan had been achieved ahead of schedule in only four years. Meant to rapidly modernize the Soviet economy between 1928 and 1932, the first five-plan had indeed collectivized farmland and created heavy industry throughout the country. But like most things Stalin related, there was a sizable body count. The collectivization of agriculture, for example, triggered a famine in which millions died, while industrial workers were harshly punished for failing to reach an ever-increasing set of quotas associated with the plan. Still, propaganda posters were churned out just the same, proclaiming success regardless of the numbers.

Today, circumstances may have changed, but political falsehoods live on. Orwell’s work is being re-read like never before and Stalin is once again admired by the Russian state. As for 2+2=5, it feels like the slogan is only one press conference, one tweet, or TV interview away from resurfacing – from being proudly shouted at anyone within earshot. It’s something George Orwell understood very well and a phenomenon that we’ll have plenty of time to think about.

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Nothing is True and Everything is Possible

By David Michael Newstead.

In Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, Peter Pomerantsev discusses his nine years working in reality TV in Moscow. It’s a place where beautiful gold diggers who never knew their fathers dream of meeting a rich husband, ex-gangsters become local heroes who direct action movies, and religious cults try to warp the minds of their followers to an absurd degree. But as he looked deeper, the British producer finds the scripted reality of television merging with the scripted reality of authoritarian politics into something new and frightening.

The book opens with Pomerantsev reflecting on his time in Moscow.

“Performance” was the city’s buzzword, a world where gangsters become artists, gold diggers quote Pushkin, Hells Angels hallucinate themselves as saints. Russia had seen so many worlds flick through in such blistering progression – from communism to perestroika to shock therapy to penury to oligarchy to mafia state to mega-rich – that its new heroes were left with the sense that life is just on glittering masquerade, where every role and any position or belief is mutable. “I want to try on every persona the world has ever known,” Vladik Mamyshev-Monroe would tell me. He was a performance artist and the city’s mascot, the inevitable guest at parties attended by the inevitable tycoons and supermodels, arriving dressed as Gorbachev, a fakir, Tutankhamen, the Russian President. When I first landed in Moscow I thought these infinite transformations the expression of a country liberated, pulling on different costumes in a frenzy of freedom, pushing the limits of personality as far as it could possibly go to what the President’s vizier would call “the heights of creation.” It was only years later that I came to see these endless mutations not as freedom but as forms of delirium, in which scare-puppets and nightmare mystics become convinced they’re almost real and march toward what the President’s vizier would go on to call the “the fifth world war, the first non-linear war of all against all.”

The author discovers how control of the media, particularly of television, allows for Orwellian levels of manipulation over the truth, creating phantom threats to the country and phantom supermen to defend it. And on TV channels like RT, journalism and propaganda go hand in hand, while every political voice seems to just be playing a part in some stage production mimicking a democracy. In particular, Pomerantsev focuses on key Kremlin spin doctor, Vladislav Surkov, as he churns out post-apocalyptic novels and discusses art ad nauseam, while simultaneously orchestrating the elaborate political theatre in Russia as well as the wave of propaganda that engulfed neighboring Ukraine. Of other politicians like Surkov, Pomerantsev writes:

Glance through the careers of these new religious patriots, and you find they were recently committed democrats and liberals, pro-Western, preaching modernization, innovation, and commitment to Russia’s European course, before which they were all good Communists. And though on the one hand their latest incarnations are just new acts in the Moscow political cabaret, something about their delivery is different from the common Russian political performer who gives his rants with a knowing wink and nod. Now the delivery is somewhat deadpan. Flat and hollowed-eyed, as if they have been turned and twisted in so many ways they’ve spun right off the whirligig into something clinical.

He continues:

The Kremlin switches messages at will to its advantage, climbing inside everything: European right-wing nationalists are seduced with an anti-EU message; the Far Left is co-opted with tales of fighting US hegemony; US religious conservatives are convinced by the Kremlin’s fight against homosexuality. And the result is an array of voices, working away at global audiences from different angles, producing a cumulative echo chamber of Kremlin support, all broadcast on RT.

But behind that curtain of misinformation, Pomerantsev details a system that robs owners of their businesses, proliferates corruption at all levels, and embezzles massive wealth right out of the country into the welcoming arms of Swiss and British banks. Eventually, the author returns to London only to find it inhabited by many of the Russian oligarchs and supermodels he thought he left behind in Moscow. Dismayed, Pomerantsev learns of a young tax attorney named Sergei Magnitsky who died horribly in a Russian prison for exposing a corruption scheme: money that eventually made its way to safe havens in the West. And in an excruciatingly relevant interview, he quotes Magnitsky’s former boss, Jamison Firestone, on the changes already in progress.

London shocked me. The whole system is built around wanting that money to come here. We want their money. We want their trade. And now you’ve got former German chancellor Schroeder and Lord Mandelson and Lord So-and-So working for these Russian state companies, and you know I think they should just be honest and say ‘some Kremlin company offered me 500,000 to sit on their board and I don’t do anything and I don’t know anything about how the company is run but sometimes they ask me to open some doors.’ And the argument I hear from everyone is ‘well if the money doesn’t go here it will go somewhere else’: well here ain’t going to be here if you take that attitude, here is going to be there. We used to have this self-centered idea that Western democracies were the end point of evolution, and we’re dealing from a position of strength, and people are becoming like us. It’s not that way. Because if you think this thing we have here isn’t fragile you are kidding yourself. This,” and here Jamison takes a breath and waves his hand around to denote Maida Vale, London, the whole of Western civilization, “this is fragile.”

Timely and ominous, the book is a must-read and perhaps a warning of things to come.

Read Nothing is True and Everything is Possible

Strange Fruit in America

By David Michael Newstead.

80 years ago, an English teacher in New York named Abel Meeropol wrote the anti-lynching song Strange Fruit later immortalized by Billie Holiday. Meeropol was also known for writing the patriotic Frank Sinatra classic The House I Live In and later for adopting the orphaned sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg after the couple was executed in the 1950s. And while Abel Meeropol passed away 30 years ago, his most famous work lives on as a powerful response to racism in America. Today, I’m joined by Robert Meeropol to discuss his adoptive father’s legacy, the contrasting truths of American history, and if we’ve really made progress since Strange Fruit was first written.

David Newstead: So, I learned about a lot of this from the Joel Katz documentary about Strange Fruit. I saw it as an undergrad and I had heard the song Strange Fruit prior to that, but I had no idea about the history behind it at the time. And that’s really stuck with me over the years.

Robert Meeropol: Joel took something like five or six years to make that film. One of those typical independent efforts that have problems because of lack of funding. That documentary came out in 2002 and it holds up very well. I’ve seen it shown to audiences within the last two years. And it’s not really out of date. Although it doesn’t capture what I consider the major renaissance of Strange Fruit that has really occurred in the last five years.

David Newstead: Say more about that. What renaissance is Strange Fruit having now?

Robert Meeropol: I always think of Strange Fruit as sort of bubbling beneath the surface. It was gaining cultural importance and prominence starting really in the mid-1990s with Cassandra Wilson’s debut album, which is one of my favorite versions of Strange Fruit. There was a book written about Strange Fruit in 2001 by David Margolick called Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song. But really the thing that changed the most in recent years is in the summer of 2013 Kanye West sampled the Nina Simone version as she sang “Blood on the leaves, Blood on the leaves” as he complained about the hassles he was having with his ex-girlfriend. I mean, Abel Meeropol would have turned over in his grave!

David Newstead: Not exactly the same context.

Robert Meeropol: Yeah, not exactly the same context. And it sparked an internet furor over his use of Strange Fruit and everyone started talking about Strange Fruit and Nina Simone. The result was that all of a sudden there was an explosion of people covering the song. In November 2013, there was even an episode of Criminal Minds entitled Strange Fruit in which they were dealing with a lynching. It was around that time that people in various newspaper articles referred to Trayvon Martin’s killing as someone Strange Fruiting somebody, using it in that matter. So, it’s kind of permeated the culture. And then, with Black Lives Matter and various other things going on, it’s just everywhere.

If you have a Google Alert on Strange Fruit as I do, you will find that every day somebody is doing something whether it’s a dance performance or an art exhibit or Audra McDonald winning all sorts of awards for her performance as Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. All that. It’s everywhere. In fact, the last time I saw a reference to it was last night on TV when Billy Crystal mentioned it at Muhammad Ali’s funeral. It is everywhere.

David Newstead: The last time I recall hearing it was during an episode of the Amazon series The Man in the High Castle.

Robert Meeropol: I haven’t watched the series, but I know that it’s been shown on that. Isn’t that about the Nazis winning the war?

David Newstead: Yes. In the show, the Nazis took over the East Coast and the Japanese took over the West Coast. And at some point, one of the characters walks by a record player that’s playing an old Billie Holiday album from 1939. But you know, obviously it’s a very dark show if it’s about Nazis winning World War Two. But Strange Fruit is applicable in a horrific alternate reality. It’s applicable 80 years ago. It’s applicable now. So, that’s a lot of crossover ability. I’m curious why you think the song has resonated for so long in so many different forms?

Robert Meeropol: Well, there are probably many reasons. But one is because racism is with us. Things have not changed enough since the song was written to make it out-of-date. That’s the sort of socio-politics of it in the grand scheme of things.

But if you want to look at it from an artistic perspective, I think the allusion of lynched bodies being strange fruit was so powerful that it seeped under the skin of the culture. Even when the song was suppressed particularly during the 1950s. So, it was kept beneath the culture’s skin. But as I’ve written, it seeped out its pores as time went on. And that’s the artistry of it. I mean, why is it that a certain painting lasts for centuries and another disappears? Why is it that a certain song, even one that’s incredibly popular, lasts for a year and then disappears? And others just go on and on? Well, it’s the power of the art and how it resonates with us. I think there’s an element of mystery in that. I can’t say that I can deconstruct it in a manner that rationalizes all aspects of it, but its longevity is a testament to its power. So, there’s that artistic component to it.

I think also because of the nature of the song – the political nature of the song. And this is one of the things that I try to point out and that I feel that a lot of people miss in referring to Strange Fruit particularly the mainstream media and people who I don’t think are particularly in tune with the politics of the song. I’ve seen it referred to as a sorrowful dirge. I’ve also seen it referred to as a protest song. In fact, you know Time magazine named it the Song of the Century in 2000 when it came out with its millennial issue. I don’t put much stock in these lists. You know, the greatest novels ever written. The best rock n’ roll songs of the last hundred years. Blah blah blah. But I’ve seen lists of the greatest protest songs and Strange Fruit always makes it into the top ten.

So, it is a protest song, but I think that misses the core of what Abel was doing with the song. And that is that it was an attack song! It was an attack upon the perpetrators of lynching and that is what infuriated so many people. That’s why it was banned. That’s why there were riots. That’s why Billie Holiday and others got in trouble for singing it, because they were attacking the phoniness and the hypocrisy of the supposedly genteel South. And ridiculing it in a way, saying the people who were involved in lynching were rotten to their core. That was totally unacceptable to be used in that matter at the time. So, that’s another reason why the song’s lasted. Because as an attack, it is something that allows people who’ve been discriminated against to fight back. And I think that’s one of its sustaining characteristics.

David Newstead: It seems like in a historical context, there’s a real element of risk in that for Abel Meeropol and Billie Holiday especially in the 1930s? I mean, this is years before the Civil Rights movement.

Robert Meeropol: I think so. It was groundbreaking at the time. People didn’t do that sort of thing. So, there were risks. There were risks all around. I mean, I can’t say I’m an expert on the life of Billie Holiday. But it’s generally believed that one of the reasons that she was hounded for her drug use was because she refused to stop singing Strange Fruit. You know, there was plenty of drug use among Hollywood celebrities and singers and the like in the 1930s and 40s, but only certain people were singled out. Those who refused to knuckle under and who sang songs that offended powerful forces were selected. I mean, the reality is that Billie Holiday died handcuffed to a hospital bed awaiting arraignment on a second drug charge. Whether that would have happened if she ever stopped singing Strange Fruit, I can’t prove it, but I believe that to be the case.

So, there was risk to her, tremendous risk to her. And part of the problem was that under federal law at the time, her first drug conviction and prison sentence prevented her from singing in clubs that served alcohol. You can imagine the problems that caused in her career. She was a club singer!

For Abel Meeropol, he was called before the Rapp-Coudert Committee in 1940, which was a kind of precursor to the House Un-American Activities Committee. And he was questioned. They were investigating Communist school teachers, which Abel Meeropol certainly was. I heard Abel talk about this when I was a kid and the committee questioned him, asked him if the Communist Party ordered him to write the song or if the Communist Party paid him to write the song. So, this was a cost to him as well. But he always found that kind of amusing – the idea that you could order somebody to write a song.

And I think one of the things that I find bittersweet about it all is that he died in 1986. And as far as he was concerned his song was eclipsed. Nothing much had happened with it. Billie Holiday had claimed that she had written the music to it. She said she took a poem he wrote and set it to music, which, of course, was false. He wrote the words and the music. And so, here he was losing the ownership of a portion of his best creation. And people weren’t playing it. And yet now, of course, as often happens with artists 30 years later the thing is everywhere. And of course, it’s too late for him to appreciate how appreciated his work has been.

David Newstead: My understanding is Abel Meeropol wrote Strange Fruit after seeing a photograph of an infamous lynching in Indiana, is that correct?

Robert Meeropol: I believe so. To the best of our knowledge. And it’s the kind of detail that I feel doesn’t matter when you think about it. One of the things that we know about lynchings in that period of time is that postcards were made of them and distributed. There was actually an exhibit in New York City of all these postcards and it was quite a sensation two or three years back. There were lines out the door. You know, people were horrified by it, but they were also fascinated by this cultural phenomenon.

And I would also point out that Bob Dylan’s song Desolation Row starts with the line “They’re selling postcards of the hanging” and “The circus is in town”. That whole opening stanza is about what happened in Duluth, Minnesota in the 1920s. The circus came to town and hired black people from Chicago to do the construction and takedown. And the local workers were not given work as a result. And they went and attacked and lynched at least one of the black workers to demonstrate their displeasure. They created postcards based on that. And Bob Dylan wrote about it years later.

David Newstead: You know, several things come to mind like how widespread the KKK was in America during that time. Or you know, those photographs are also known for the bizarrely normal behavior of the white people in the crowd. But also, that lynchings weren’t just something that happened in the South.

Robert Meeropol: Well, I think that there is this presumption that it was just a regional problem. And while it was more prevalent in certain regions, it was certainly not confined to just one region. And you know from reading news reports, the sort of frat boy joking around about ropes and things is quite common to this day. It’s not so far beneath the surface.

Question from a Reader: I want to ask this question and then kind of shift gears. So, there aren’t lynchings anymore. But it still seems like we have public or publicly sanctioned violence against African-Americans and other people of color based on race. In your opinion, do you feel like we’ve actually come that far from when Strange Fruit was released? Because on one hand, I feel like we have and we haven’t, if that makes sense?

Robert Meeropol: That would be a good summary: we have and we haven’t. We don’t have these mass, public, officially sanctioned on a local scale torture and torment festivals that lynching represented through the 1930s and even into the 1940s. It was the 1950s and the Civil Rights movement that really changed that. But the Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted that lynching has in some ways taken on a new form. It’s covered up to a degree. It’s carried out more in secret like police killings of young black men. But it still has a similar effect and serves a similar purpose of keeping a population down. So, I think that it’s not a qualitative change, but it’s a change.

David Newstead: Recently, a lot of people have been talking about the Stanford rape case and pointing out that the sentencing would have been much different if the rapist wasn’t an upper crust white male. Or I don’t know if you remember the Affluenza case a few years ago? But my impression of the justice system is that this is when they should throw the book at someone who is seemingly without remorse. But in both examples with white defendants, they got very lenient sentences compared to the huge incarceration rates among African-Americans.

Robert Meeropol: Michelle Alexander in her book, The New Jim Crow, pretty much highlights the disparate meting out of justice along racial lines. Or I shouldn’t say justice, I should say punishment. The most obvious one is the difference between the sentencing for crack cocaine and powder cocaine. You know for using the same thing that has the same impact, you get a sentence that’s sixteen times longer. But also, there’s the overlying gender related issues and rape related issues that impact that Stanford case and that’s another aspect of it. But yeah, I wouldn’t disagree with you.

David Newstead: Going back to Abel Meeropol, I wanted to ask. He also wrote the Frank Sinatra song The House I Live In. This song is very different from Strange Fruit in terms of its tone and content. Knowing him, how do you explain the contrast between those two songs?

Robert Meeropol: First of all, there’s the Frank Sinatra version of The House I Live, which is probably the best known version which leaves out one of the verses. If you want to hear The House I Live In as it was originally written, you have to listen to the Paul Robeson version. And there’s another verse in there in which he talks about “My neighbors black and white”. In other words, it’s a desegregation line, which was controversial. And that was cut out of the Frank Sinatra version! In 1944, a short film was made with Frank Sinatra of The House I Live In. So, they cut out his verse about “My neighbors black and white”. And it’s supposedly this anti-racism film about combating antisemitism, but it turns out that it wallows in its own racism.

The funny story about that is when it premiered at a local theater. Abel Meeropol went to see the premiere. He was in Hollywood at the time. And when he saw that they cut out the entire second verse and removed the line “My neighbors black and white”, he got up and started yelling “They’ve ruined my song!” And he started saying “Shit! Shit! They’ve ruined my song!” And he was thrown out of the theater.

David Newstead: You’ve mentioned that this was a very introverted person who was not prone to doing that kind of thing. So, he must have been pretty unhappy about it?

Robert Meeropol: Oh, he was extremely agitated. Just so uncharacteristic of him, it was like a switch was flipped. But that said, you have to put The House I Live In in the context of the politics of the time. Abel Meeropol was a Communist Party member and he followed the politics of the Communist Party. And while he was not ordered or paid to write Strange Fruit, the Communist Party had a big anti-lynching campaign going on in the 1930s. So, his song was in tune with their politics. And then in the 1940s with the war going, there was a grand coalition of the left to fight the Nazis. His song, The House I Live In, was politically in tune with that united front. So, you put it in that context and I think that explains the difference. And he once said that The House I Live In was more about what America could be than what it actually was.

David Newstead: Keeping with The House I Live In and trying to relate that to current events, the song itself and that entire Frank Sinatra film have a strong message of religious tolerance. When I watched the film on YouTube, it was impossible not to think about recent efforts to ban Muslims from entering the United States or how people demonize immigrants and refugees at the moment. So, what’s your view of that? What do you think about it? What do you think Abel Meeropol would think about it?

Robert Meeropol: He would, of course, be appalled by it. I think that’s pretty obvious given his background. For me, there’s the contrast between multinational corporations being able to move effortlessly around the globe and extract the resources from Third World countries in order to benefit people in the First World. And contrast that with the fact that people are not allowed to move across borders. And that is a real sign of the priorities of the system. And in fact, I would say that the priorities are standing on their head. That’s what strikes me today about it.

I mean, we can all get exorcised about Trump banning Muslims from coming into the country. But Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State essentially banned Honduran women and children from coming into the country. As I’ve heard people say the kind of things that Trump proposes, Clinton has actually done. So, I’m not a fan of either one of them. And sometimes I think that the outrage at Trump’s verbal excesses – which are totally justified – cover up the fact that what is being done in a not-so-outrageous or public manner by leaders who are considered more proper is horrible as well.

So, I have mixed and complicated feelings about these things. But again, I think Abel Meeropol came from an era of less political nuance. So, I don’t know if he would entirely agree with the complexity of my analysis. But that’s hard to say.

David Newstead: Out of curiosity, do you know if Abel’s parents were immigrants?

Robert Meeropol: Yes, his parents were definitely not born in the United States. I am confident of that. He was born in the United States in 1903. His parents came from the Ukraine or what is now western Ukraine. In those days, sometimes it was Russia. Sometimes, it was Austro-Hungry. There was a shifting border area. And you know if you look at the last name Meeropol, there’s actually a town called Meeropol (Miropol or Myropil). But that’s in eastern Ukraine. But “opol” is very much Ukrainian if you think about Sevastopol and all the different names in that area around the Ukrainian conflict.

David Newstead: So, you said he believed The House I Live In is what America could be. In your view, is America in 2016 the country from The House I Live In or the country from Strange Fruit?

Robert Meeropol: That’s a good question. I think he would still see it on the Strange Fruit side. In fact in the 1970s, he wrote a parody version of The House I Live In. And I don’t remember the parody very well except for one line. In the original, it says “A certain word – democracy!” In the parody, it says “A certain word – hypocrisy!” And so he did not feel that we were going in the right direction as he aged. And I see no reason why he wouldn’t have continued with that belief.

And I think he would have had a lot of problems with identity politics, because it just wasn’t in his political universe. Like a lot of people of his generation, I think he would have had a lot of trouble with gay rights. In the 1970s, women’s liberation and that Second-wave of feminism hit and my wife and I were certainly very involved in it. He was sympathetic in a sort of economic way, but I think he was too old to change. But it’s also true that his wife Anne was a very strong personality and they worked as a team a lot in producing political reviews and things. So, he was not a virulent sexist, but he didn’t escape from the cultural norms that existed as he was growing up.

Though I want to say one thing to his credit. When Abel and Anne got married, she kept her own name, her last name for the first two years of their marriage. They felt it was wrong for the woman to have to take the man’s last name, that it wasn’t right. And what Abel said was that it just became too much trouble. In those days in the 1920s and 30s, it was just too much trouble to have two separate names. And they changed it after two years. But that showed that he did have some sense of those kind of things.

David Newstead: That sounds like… I’m not sure if you’ve ever seen the Civil Rights film The Butler. But because there’s this generational difference between the father and the son in the movie, there appear to be these large chasms. And later in the movie, you realize they’re more style differences than anything else. Not necessarily substantive disagreements between what the father and the son are pursuing.

Robert Meeropol: Yep. And we used to argue New Left and Old Left all the time in the late 1960s.

Question from a Reader: I teach History in the Austin School district, which claims the highest percentage of English Language Learners and minorities in the district. In class, I include a discussion over the fear of the Other. Is there anything you would say to these students in relation to their cultural experiences within the United States?

Robert Meeropol: The reality is that this country was built upon stealing another people’s land and committing genocide against them. And then, its economic prosperity at least in the 19th century was to a large degree built on the backs of slaves. And you put those two things together and how can you justify that? Well, the Native Americans have to be the Other. And African-Americans have to be the Other. So, you have two types of people that represented Otherness that is at the core of nation’s success. And while it’s not generally acknowledged in the mainstream when you have that at your core, of necessity that’s going to be a powerful cultural component that’s not going to go away anytime soon.

Then, of course, there’s this sort of standard left-wing response, which is the people who run the show like to divide and conquer. If you keep the white workers fighting with the black workers, they won’t unite and fight against the bosses. That’s oversimplified, but you get the idea. So, you have this cultural component that has to do with both Native Americans and African-Americans. Then, you have this class component, which has to do with dividing the working class. But I don’t know that I’m telling this high school teacher anything that she doesn’t know already.

David Newstead: I saw an interesting PBS piece a month or two ago and it was about demographic changes going forward in the United States. And for people who are entrenched in the way things have been and the demographics of how things have been, there are changes coming down the way that if you have a problem with the Other you’re the odd person out.

Robert Meeropol: I mean, that’s responsible at least in part for the Trump phenomenon. It resonates with all the people who are terrified of becoming the Other themselves.

David Newstead: How do you think Abel Meeropol should be remembered? This year marks 30 years since his death in 1986 and I’m curious what you think his legacy should be?

Robert Meeropol: I think on a political level, he should be remembered for Strange Fruit. It’s clear to me that it was his greatest work, even though it’s less than a hundred words long. It’s the work that’s had far and away the greatest impact. So, that’s on a political or public level.

On a more personal level, I think he should also be remembered for he and his wife both adopting me and my brother. And the way that plays out is that there’s a certain congruousness to having the person whose best known and most powerful work was an attack on lynching then going ahead and adopting the orphaned sons of people who he viewed as being legally lynched. That showed to me that he was that sort of a humanitarian not only in his head, but in his heart.

Read Part Two

Top Putin Critic Discusses the Legacy of Sergei Magnitsky

By David Michael Newstead.

SWITZERLAND - JANUARY 25: HermitageCapital Chief Executive Bill Browder speaks an interview in Davos, Switzerland, Wednesday, January 25, 2006. The World Economic Forum opened Wednesday in Davos. (Photo by Adam Berry/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Bill Browder is at the center of one of the most well-documented human rights cases in history. The 2009 death of his attorney, Sergei Magnitsky, galvanized the former investor into becoming an activist and a staunch critic of the Kremlin. Since then, his work has led to the passage of the Magnitsky Act in the U.S. and similar efforts in the E.U., which ban the 32 Russians implicated in Sergei’s death from traveling to or banking in those countries. Currently, a proposed expansion to that law is being debated in Congress, which would place the same restrictions on human rights abusers from all over the world through targeted sanctions.

But Browder’s campaign has also unleashed increasingly bizarre reactions from the Russian government. In 2012, authorities in Moscow put Sergei Magnitsky on trial despite the fact that he died in 2009 – making this the first trial of a dead person since the medieval Catholic Church prosecuted a corpse in the year 897. Russia would further retaliate for the U.S. Magnitsky Act by banning American couples from adopting Russian orphans, even those already assigned to parents. Meanwhile, Putin’s government has issued so many arrest warrants against Bill Browder that they are now ignored by Interpol, citing that such charges are predominantly political.

Browder recently wrote about these experiences in his book, Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice. At one time, he was the single largest foreign investor in Russia. Now, he’s considered a top enemy of Vladimir Putin and he frequently comments on the war in Ukraine, the murder of Boris Nemtsov, and more. Today, Bill Browder joins me to discuss the current situation in Russia and the legacy of Sergei Magnitsky.

David Newstead: I want to start by asking about Sergei Magnitsky, the man. How would you describe him and how do his loved ones remember him today?

Bill Browder: The best way to describe him is that he was one of the most principled, moral, reliable people I’ve ever met. You generally only know a person when they’re faced with some type of duress. And when Sergei Magnitsky was faced with the most horrendous duress, his true colors of integrity showed through in an amazing way.

David Newstead: The corrupt officials responsible for Sergei’s death stole $230 million from Russian taxpayers. Recently, you said $15 million of that money was seized in the United States in the form of luxury apartments in Lower Manhattan. Is that correct?

Bill Browder: Yes. The U.S. Department of Justice has seized $15 million of property in New York, which was purchased using some of the money from the crime that Sergei Magnitsky exposed.

David Newstead: So without the restrictions that you helped put in place through the Magnitsky Act, Sergei’s murderers could hypothetically be walking around New York or traveling anywhere throughout the U.S.?

Bill Browder: There’s actually two separate things going on. The apartments were not frozen under the Magnitsky Act. They were frozen under just more generic money laundering laws in America. The Magnitsky Act itself has sanctioned 32 people, taken away their visas, and frozen their assets. And those people certainly can’t go to America. They can’t use the U.S. banking system. And they will have a pretty hard time using the global banking system, because almost no bank in the world would open an account for somebody who’s on the U.S. Treasury sanctions list. But the New York case is actually a case that would have gone through with or without the Magnitsky Act.

David Newstead: Are there specific human rights abusers from other countries who are good examples of why we need a Global Magnitsky Act?

Bill Browder: I think I could spend all week listing human rights abusers around the world who should be sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act. But one case in particular, which has really touched me and many others, is a case in Azerbaijan of Khadija Ismayilova. Khadija was an investigative reporter who was working on corruption in the Azerbaijani ruling family. And in retaliation for some hard-hitting reporting that she did, they arrested her, tried her for a mutating list of bogus allegations, and sentenced her to 7 years in prison. I can’t think of a more deserving bunch of people to be sanctioned than those people who arrested her and imprisoned her.

David Newstead: So because the Magnitsky Act only applies to Russia right now, human rights abusers from other countries are still able to come to the United States and use our banking system if they haven’t violated other U.S. laws?

Bill Browder: Correct. That’s why the Global Magnitsky Act is such an important next step. Russia doesn’t have a monopoly on human rights abusers.

David Newstead: Who opposes this law exactly? Because it seems straight forward.

Bill Browder: Well, there are the people I describe as the real-politickers who oppose it. These people say, “If we do a Global Magnitsky Act, that might sanction the ‘good’ human rights abusers.” Meaning those human rights abusers who are seen to be allies of the United States. You know, for example, Turkey and even Azerbaijan are considered to be strong allies of the United States in various geopolitical squabbles. So, the thought is that you can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. I believe you can have a mature relationship where you have diplomatic relations on one side and sanction certain corrupt officers on the other.

David Newstead: Besides that, are there any major roadblocks to the law’s passage and when do you think that might happen?

Bill Browder: The law is very quickly moving its way through the Senate. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has already approved it, which is the last bottleneck in the Senate. In the House, there is very strong bipartisan support. There’s also strong support from many different human rights groups from all around the world.

It’s very hard to say the timing of legislation in Washington, because it doesn’t just depend on the virtue of one’s legislation. It depends on the environment in which there’s a relatively limited amount of time for the lawmaking process to deal with all sorts of other issues. So, it all depends on priorities and politics. And as we get closer to the U.S. presidential election, you’re going to see much less bipartisan cooperation on anything as people want to score points. So, I think it’s either going to happen this year or probably after the presidential election, but before this Congress is dismissed.

David Newstead: You’ve said that Russian President Vladimir Putin is evil and probably a sociopath. If that’s true, how do you think Western governments should behave towards a sociopath who runs a major nation-state?

Bill Browder: I think that the simple answer is that he’s not a man who can be engaged with under normal rules of diplomatic engagement. Don’t expect any word that he says to be true or that any promises he makes will ever be honored. So in a situation like that, you have to deal with him in terms of containment not in terms of engagement.

David Newstead: What do you think the explanation is for Putin’s constant need to project strength and manliness? A cult of masculinity, if you will. Last week, for instance, there was a video of him lifting weights with Dmitri Medvedev. What’s behind that?

Bill Browder: Well, lack of strength and lack of manliness. You know, he’s kind of like an athlete who cheats. Imagine the scenario of a soccer player dribbling the ball towards the goal. Someone comes up to him to try to take the ball away and Putin pulls out a gun and shoots the person. Then, Putin gets close to the goal and the goalie is sitting there trying to guard the goal, so Putin shoots him as well. And then, Putin kicks the ball in and raises his hands in victory like this great soccer player when, in fact, he’s just cheated all the way through the game. That analogy is what he does in all aspects of his political life. And he’s cheating by eliminating all of his opposition by either putting them in jail, sending them to exile or killing them.

David Newstead: Is it accurate to say that Sergei Magnitsky and Vladimir Putin are complete opposites as men?

Bill Browder: Well, Sergei Magnitsky was a patriot – an honest patriot who wanted to help Russia. Putin is a dishonest kleptocrat who wants to steal all the resources of Russia for himself. So, they’re exactly the opposite.

David Newstead: Whenever I talk to people unfamiliar with the Magnitsky case, you know they’re always struck by the fact that he was put on trial years after he died. Do legal scholars ever comment on this to you? I mean, what was your reaction at the time, because this hasn’t happened since the Middle Ages?

Bill Browder: Absolutely. One of my most trusted advisers is the former chief prosecutor for the U.N. War Crimes Tribunal for Sierra Leone. He’s a professor named David Crane at Syracuse University. He wrote a whole series of articles in the legal academic press about the posthumous trial. He said he’s never gotten more feedback. In the legal world, it’s something that nobody can conceive of.

David Newstead: Everything ends someday. If you had to speculate, how do you think Putin’s presidency will end?

Bill Browder: I think that there’s 3 different political scenarios. The first is what I call the Mugabe scenario, which is that he somehow holds it all together for decades through further hyperinflation, destroying institutions, and driving the Russian people into poverty. And I think that could be the most likely scenario. The second is the Palace Coup scenario, which is the oligarchs and secret police officers at some point decide Putin’s a liability. And they gang up to overthrow him.

And the third is what I call the Maidan scenario, which is the name of the square in Kiev where the people of Ukraine overthrew President Yanukovich. I think that the Mugabe scenario probably has a 65% probability. The Palace Coup scenario maybe a 20% probability and the Maidan scenario 15% probability.

David Newstead: Is there any hope that opposition figures like Alexei Navalny, Gary Kasparov, or Mikhail Khodorkovsky might one day succeed, because that wasn’t on your list?

Bill Browder: Well, they would be part of the Maidan scenario. Those would be the people who become the new government of Russia once the people overthrow Putin. Having said that, all these men are either in exile or effectively in jail. Putin doesn’t allow any oxygen for the opposition. It’s like the cheating in sports analogy. If you don’t have an opposing team, it’s easy to win.

David Newstead: In your view, what will Russia be like in 10 or 20 years?

Bill Browder: I think if everything is status quo, it would be a Venezuela or Zimbabwe type of scenario. Hyperinflation. Mass poverty.

David Newstead: In addition to discussing Sergei’s imprisonment, your book Red Notice is really an autobiography with a good amount of personal detail, family history, and the progression of your career right up to the present. Do you plan on writing follow-up books as the campaign for a Global Magnitsky Act moves forward or if the political climate in Russia changes?

Bill Browder: The next step in my campaign is to find a way to adapt the book into a Hollywood feature film. Film is a very emotive median by nature. I think by bringing it into popular culture our campaign will be more effective. That will make the Magnitsky Act more well-known, broadening it in Europe, and also globalizing it as it applies to other human rights abusers.

David Newstead: Is that effort still in the early stages?

Bill Browder: Movies take a long time to make, because there are so many different people involved. We just started that process and we’ll see where it goes.

David Newstead: In the book, you’ve said that you have to take elaborate counter-measures based on death threats and harassment from Russian authorities or their proxies. Without commenting on the specifics of your counter-measures, can you say more about how they go after you?

Bill Browder: Well, the objective is to destroy me either physically, legally, or reputationally. So in their perfect world, if they could just get away with it, they would kill me. But so far they haven’t, probably because they haven’t figured out a way they could get away with it. And so, the next step is to try to destroy me legally. In other words, to try to get me arrested and extradited back to Russia. Through Interpol red notices or bilateral extradition requests. So far, that hasn’t succeeded. Then, the third thing they try to do is to destroy me reputationally by putting shows about me on their television, accusing me of crimes of murder and massive fraud in Russia. They provide dossiers of fake information to foreign governments and parliamentarians. So far, none of this has worked, but it’s a constant fight with the Russians to make sure they don’t succeed.

Question from a Reader: What’s your opinion on investing in Russia today? And what would it take for you to re-enter the market as you did 20 years ago during the fall of communism?

Bill Browder: It’s an un-investable country today. You have a regime that’s hostile to business and hostile to the West. And so you can’t bring in any money at any price level, because it’s absolutely uncertain what the next political decision will be. You know if you owned a media company before and they changed the media laws, your company was basically destroyed completely. And they do that all the time with all sorts of businesses and all sorts of rules. All sorts of arbitrariness. So, what would make me go back in? Well, I went in after the fall of the Soviet Union. I guess I would probably go in after the fall of the Putin regime, depending on who followed.

David Newstead: Final question. If people are interested in helping to pass the Global Magnitsky Act, what should they do?

Bill Browder: They should get in touch with me. There’s lots of very specific tasks to do in our campaign. There’s no petition or some easy thing to do. But if someone’s seriously interested, we want people to join the effort.

Read Red Notice by Bill Browder

Read my review of Red Notice

Stalin’s Barber: An Interview with the Author

By David Michael Newstead.

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Paul M. Levitt, author of the novel Stalin’s Barber. Our conversation is below and check out my review of Stalin’s Barber.

David Newstead: When did you first get the idea for the book? How did you think of it?

Paul M. Levitt: I guess you might say it’s been ruminating for a long time. My father was born in Ukraine. During my childhood, I often heard stories about Russia. The topic of Russia was always in the house with friends and family. The one story I never heard was why people were willing to confess to crimes they never committed, even without being tortured. Answer: for the greater good, namely, Socialism. I think my father and others like him found it difficult to think badly of the Russian Revolution, because it overthrew the despotic Czar. He could still remember pogroms against Jews committed by the Romanovs, so even though he knew Stalin was a monster, it was just different.

Then, the idea for the Turkish haircut and barbering came from a friend who had recently returned from Istanbul. Having had such a haircut, he described it to me. The moment he did, I knew that I had solved a major problem: how to get close to Stalin.

David: When did your father leave Ukraine? And what was his profession?

Paul: He left right before the Russian Revolution in 1917. He was a business man. Eventually, he started a cosmetics company that went under during the Great Depression. Later, he found success with other businesses. My father was a very generous man. Very kind man. I suspect that the memory of his experiences in Russia framed that kindness towards other people.

David: Can you describe the research you did to create the in-depth atmosphere of the story?

Paul: I actually spent seven years reading the fiction and non-fiction of the Soviet period, as well as numerous histories.

David: Have you visited Russia or conducted any interviews there in preparation for your book?

Paul: Yes, I have been to the Soviet Union, and yes, I spoke to friends in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg.

David: What challenges did you face while writing?

Paul: Getting information is always a challenge. There are still archives in Moscow that aren’t open to the public. I asked Soviet scholars various questions, but I knew their information was limited as well. To bridge that gap, I did things like read every memoir that’s ever been written about Solovki prison camp. I’ve never been there, but again, it’s about getting at the accurate information that does exist.

David: Did you learn more about your own family history in the process?

Paul: Shortly before my father died, I conducted a series of interviews with him that I taped. I did the same with my mother who came from a Polish family, so I got a lot of information from that. I often tell my students to interview their parents and older relatives and ask them important questions now, because your parents won’t be around forever. In my own house, we didn’t have an attic for old diaries or ledgers, so my parents had all this information from over the course of their lifetime.

My father was the youngest of eleven children. The first five didn’t like what the found in America, so they returned to Russia and ultimately didn‘t survive. Just to explain how certain aspects of Jewish immigration worked. My family benefited from the efforts of Baron Maurice de Hirsch who was a wealthy German-Jewish industrialist. He had made a fortune constructing railroads across Europe, then put a lot of those profits into assisting other European Jews, including financing their immigration to the Western Hemisphere. This was started around the late 1800’s. So it’s because of Hirsch that my father and other family members were able to start a life in America.

David: When did you first want to become an author?

Paul: I’ve been writing since an early age. My older sister was a theatre studies major in college and I used to read her stuff. I got my start writing plays. I wrote for the BBC for a number of years, but it all probably started in Junior High.

David: So returning to your novel, why Stalin? Why a Barber?

Paul: I wanted to understand the Soviet period. What better way to understand it than through Stalin? The barber enabled me to put someone close to Stalin, who was notoriously paranoid. One of Stalin’s actual barbers was a Jewish man named Karl who he had put to death, so there’s some basis in reality for the story.

David: You repeatedly mention Turkish-style Barbering and Hair Singeing. What made you want to include that so prominently in the book?

Paul: If Avraham Behar (The Main Character) was to find a position in the Kremlin, his barbering skills would have to be unusual.

David: There is a minor character named Benjamin Levitan, I couldn’t help noticing the similarity to your name. Any relation to you?

Paul: My father’s name was (Baruch) Benjamin Abraham Levitt. There was a famous Russian painter by the name of Isaac Levitan. I thought the similarity worth exploiting in the story.

David: Since the book’s publication, have any citizens of the former Soviet Union or historians commented on your depiction? If so, how?

Paul: Yes, the Soviet historian Suzi Weissman fact-checked the book for me.

David: Have you been paying attention to the current crisis in Ukraine?

Paul: Very much so.

David: What did you think when you visited the area?

Paul: Poor country. Lot of agriculture.

David: Considering your family background and your own research, what’s your opinion of contemporary Russia?

Paul: I think Putin’s a thug. I thought Gorbachev was one of the major figures of the Twentieth Century. I share some opinions with Stephen Cohen about the Crimea situation, but Eastern Ukraine is much different. For the moment, they’re all rallying behind Putin, because there’s a certain restoration of Russian greatness. But when they get the bill, that’ll virtually bankrupt Russia. Ukraine itself has been in a bad way for a long time: politically, ethically, financially. Then, Ukrainian Nationalism has historically gone hand-in-hand with Anti-Semitism as a way to get people riled up. We’re seeing some of that now.

Around that point, we wrapped up our conversation and I thanked Paul for his time. In the days that followed, I reflected on the constant stream of news coming out of Ukraine and how it related to historical context like the experience of Paul’s family. Many of the tensions now underway seem like a convergence of regular people, bad policies, and the unresolved legacies of men like Joseph Stalin. Paul’s novel illustrates those dark fingerprints on history. Moreover, it provides a view into the real-life circumstances of a region that’s perpetually waiting for a positive outcome. Unlike fiction, it’s an ending that still remains to be seen.

Read Stalin’s Barber 

Read my review of Stalin’s Barber 

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