The Victory of Ukraine

In later years, there would be bigger demonstrations, more eloquent speakers, and more professional slogans. But the march that took place in Kiev on a Sunday morning in the spring of 1917 was extraordinary because it was the first of its kind in that city. The Russian Empire had banned Ukrainian books, newspapers, theaters, and even the use of the Ukrainian language in schools. The public display of national symbols had been risky and dangerous. But in the wake of the February Revolution in Petrograd, anything seemed possible.

There were flags, yellow and blue for Ukraine as well as red for the Communist cause. The crowd, composed of children, soldiers, factory workers, marching bands, and officials, carried banners—“Independent Ukraine with its own leader!” or “A free Ukraine in a free Russia!” Some carried portraits of the national poet Taras Shevchenko. One after another, speakers called for the crowd to support the newly established Central Rada—the name means “central council”—that had formed a few days earlier and now claimed authority to rule Ukraine.

Finally, the man who had just been elected chairman of the Rada stepped up to the podium. Mykhailo Hrushevsky, bearded and bespectacled, was one of the intellectuals who had first dared to put Ukraine at the center of its own history. The author of the ten-volume History of Ukraine-Rus’, as well as many other books, Hrushevsky had spent much of his life in Galicia, the Polish- and Ukrainian-speaking region ruled by the Habsburg Empire, in order to escape persecution at the hands of the tsarist police. Now, in the wake of the revolution, he had returned to Kiev in triumph. The crowd welcomed him with vigorous cheers: Slava batkovi Hrushevskomu!—Glory to Father Hrushevsky! He responded in kind: “Let us all swear at this great moment as one man to take up the great cause unanimously, with one accord, and not to rest or cease our labour until we build that free Ukraine.” The crowd shouted back, just as crowds would shout back at Kiev demonstrations ninety years later: “We swear!”1  Continue reading “The Victory of Ukraine”

How He and His Cronies Stole Russia

For twenty years now, the Western politicians, journalists, businessmen, and academics who observe and describe the post-Soviet evolution of Russia have almost all followed the same narrative. We begin with the assumption that the Soviet Union ended in 1991, when Mikhail Gorbachev handed over power to Boris Yeltsin and Russia, Ukraine, and the rest of the Soviet republics became independent states. We continue with an account of the early 1990s, an era of “reform,” when some Russian leaders tried to create a democratic political system and a liberal capitalist economy. We follow the trials and tribulations of the reformers, analyze the attempts at privatization, discuss the ebb and flow of political parties and the growth and decline of an independent media. Continue reading “How He and His Cronies Stole Russia”

How to Succeed in Business

To begin with, a quiz. Who wrote the following sentences: Lee Iacocca, Jack Welch, or Sheryl Sandberg?

(a) When communicating hard truths, less is often more.

(b) It takes self-confidence, courage and a willingness to take the heat when you make the tough calls.

(c) Opportunities are rarely offered; they’re seized.

(d) Get your priorities straight and keep a hot list of what you’re trying to do.

(e) Seeking out diverse experiences is useful preparation for leadership.

(f) People used to ask me, “How could somebody as busy as you go to all those swim meets and recitals?” I just put them down on my calendar as if I were seeing a supplier or a dealer that day. Continue reading “How to Succeed in Business”

In the New World of Spies

To those who met them in Japanese-occupied Manchukuo in 1935, the Swiss businessman Charles Emile Martin and his American partner, Cy Oggins, must have seemed an enigmatic pair. Oggins was a distinguished-looking man with craggy features, well-made suits, and a penchant for silver-topped walking sticks. He seemed to know a great deal about Oriental antiquities, and sometimes described himself as an art dealer. Martin was more discreet, preferring plain neckties and gabardine overcoats, though his wife Elsa was fond of elegant handbags and furs. Both men were polyglots, with a wide if vague range of European connections. Working in concert with a Milanese businessman, they had come to Manchukuo to sell Fiat cars and airplanes to the Japanese.
Continue reading “In the New World of Spies”

Vladimir’s Tale

On November 20, 1998, Galina Starovoitova, a member of the Russian parliament, was murdered in the stairwell of her St. Petersburg apartment building. In the weeks that followed, obituaries, articles, and tributes to her life poured forth from all over the world. Starovoitova, almost everyone agreed, was different from the Russian politicians of the past and different from her contemporaries too. She spoke differently, moved differently, thought differently. She was frank, she was energetic, and she seemed genuinely interested in improving people’s lives. “Everything she said seemed fresh,” wrote The Economist. “Unlike others, she did not compromise her principles as the political winds changed; she did not mix business with politics,” wrote The Independent. Continue reading “Vladimir’s Tale”

The Worst of the Madness

Once, in an attempt to explain the history of his country to outsiders, the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz described the impact of war, occupation, and the Holocaust on ordinary morality. Mass violence, he explained, could shatter a man’s sense of natural justice. In normal times,

had he stumbled upon a corpse on the street, he would have called the police. A crowd would have gathered, and much talk and comment would have ensued. Now he knows he must avoid the dark body lying in the gutter, and refrain from asking unnecessary questions….

Murder became ordinary during wartime, wrote Miłosz, and was even regarded as legitimate if it was carried out on behalf of the resistance. In the name of patriotism, young boys from law-abiding, middle-class families became hardened criminals, thugs for whom “the killing of a man presents no great moral problem.” Theft became ordinary too, as did falsehood and fabrication. People learned to sleep through sounds that would once have roused the whole neighborhood: the rattle of machine-gun fire, the cries of men in agony, the cursing of the policeman dragging the neighbors away. Continue reading “The Worst of the Madness”

Yesterday’s Man?

He began his education in the twilight of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, at an experimental kindergarten in Budapest. His mother was briefly a patient of Sigmund Freud’s. In interwar Vienna he wound up as the personal secretary of Vladimir Jabotinsky, one of the early leaders of the Zionist movement. Traveling in Soviet Turkmenistan as a young and ardent Communist sympathizer, he ran into Langston Hughes. Continue reading “Yesterday’s Man?”

A Mad, Bad, and Brutal Baron

Like a contemporary reincarnation of Adela Quest, the heroine of E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, James Palmer was both attracted and repelled by his first encounter with the grotesque, grimacing, wooden gods of Inner Mongolia:

“I entered the shrine of a gruesome god, his sharp teeth grinning and his head festooned with skulls. I wasn’t certain who he was, since the Tibetan pantheon inherited by the Mongolians is replete with such figures. In a small dark room, with incense burning and other gargoyles looming, it seemed capable of an awful, twitching animation; I felt it might lick its lips at any moment. Continue reading “A Mad, Bad, and Brutal Baron”