Photo by Joe Carducci
Wild Man Fischer (1944 - 2011)
Joe Carducci & Joseph Pope
Larry “Wild Man” Fischer was someone a lot of people in Los Angeles knew and talked to over the years. All you had to do was hang out in record stores and you were likely to meet him. Platterpus Records was a chain of used record stores that existed in LA in the 1970s and I went to check out the one on east Sunset with a friend in early 1977. While I was going thru the Rock bins I became aware that Gary was not looking through the Jazz section anymore but was talking to this hippie who suddenly ran over near me and pulled out an album to show him. It was Larry pulling out his own album to show him. Larry had made the record for Frank Zappa’s new Bizarre label in 1968. It was called “An Evening with Wild Man Fischer” (Thedailypipe has it posted with the Zappa liner notes describing its making). The cover featured a grinning Larry holding a big knife to a life-size cardboard image of an old woman labeled “Larry’s mother”. According to his Wikipedia page he’d been committed to a mental hospital as a teen for some similar episode in real life. Gary had heard of the record and was thrilled to be talking to Larry. I think Gary knew more Zappa and he’d gone off into jazz as Zappa-heads often did. I don’t think Larry left the shop with us but Gary stayed in touch with him and took to calling him “Crazy” at Larry’s suggestion I assumed. I called him Larry. One day they came by my apartment, which was at Yucca & Wilcox in Hollywood, and we went over to Barnsdall Park to see the Toshiko Akiyoshi - Lew Tabackin Big Band which played outdoors. It wasn’t the best idea to bring Larry there if one were set on listening intently to one of the few big bands going. Larry had a great rough voice and a good musical sense I think, but he was designed to be Performer rather than Audience. He’d found one of those little noise toys that made a sound like a lamb “ba-a-a-a” in the park, and he kept turning it over whenever there was lull enough in the music so the sound would carry, and everyone would turn around looking for the lamb. Larry charmingly acted as if it were an accident each time he did it, or maybe he really thought that the next time he turned the toy over it wouldn’t make the sound.
Gary had something to take care of back in New Hampshire or wherever he was from and didn’t come back so I lost track of Larry. He told us he’d recorded a 45 for Rhino Records and sure enough he did an album for them later that year which I picked up in 1978 when I was in Portland at Renaissance Records. I played it on my KBOO show. We turned the shop into Systematic Record Distribution and moved it to Berkeley at the end of 1979 and got going as a mail-order/record distributor/record label. We were a small three-man operation mostly. We were in an industrial court and didn’t have retail customers come thru the door anymore. Visitors were usually from Rough Trade, or the local shops like Rather Ripped, Tower, Universal, Rasputin, or local labels like Subterranean or bands like Dead Kennedys, or Negativland dropping off their records. One day in Spring 1981 to my surprise Joe Pope came into work with Larry in tow. Somehow I thought he’d remember me but I couldn’t even get him to remember Gary who he knew better. But it was good to see him again….
I lived in S.F. at the time and would catch BART to get to Systematic, so it had to be early on -- early/mid 1981. I'm walking down the street and right near the station....
Wild Man Fischer: You ever heard of Captain Beefheart?
WMF: Ever heard of Frank Zappa?
WMF: I'm Wild Man Fischer, got a quarter?
I'd recognized him and from there I struck up a conversation with him and told him how much I liked his music -- he loved hearing that. (If memory serves he was hanging around Telegraph avenue in that period, so it wasn't a complete surprise to see him on the street.) I also mentioned to him that we were carrying a record that he was on which immediately got him quite suspicious -- there was a lot of that in the next couple hours: up/down, turning on a dime emotionally. The record in question was a compilation 7” called 'The First One', heavy cardstock, b&w cover that also had The Ragnar Kvaran Group, The Mohawk Brothers, and The Tulsa City Truckers on it. I think all the bands/recordings were from Michigan, including the Wild Man Fischer track “Monkeys Versus Donkeys” which was a live recording from a show he did there on January 26, 1979. I can't find a thing about the record online but it exists.
Anyway, it was the mention of this record that got him on the hook, as it were. He wanted to see it for himself and I said 'ok', telling him he'd have to come to Berkeley (I bought his ticket for him). We knew his feelings about how he'd been treated by the music industry, so this subject pretty much defined the ride over. He was upset that he was getting ripped off again.... I guess because I was a fan he felt he'd sing for me the whole time on the ride over. So there I was with Wild Man Fischer for the next hour on the BART, him singing a cappella to me (and everyone within earshot). He sang some of his 'hits' if I recall, but the song I remember most was one about Frank Zappa in his big house wearing a fancy bathrobe with his initials monogrammed on it. That was the focus-punchline of the song, the monogrammed initials.
Larry pretty much stayed in good spirits the whole time, even after he saw the record. I had to explain to him that I wasn't responsible for the record so I couldn't give him money for them (they were only costing us $1.00 each). What I did do was give him $20 to sign a bunch of copies, figuring that he'd get some dough, I'd get his autograph, and they might sell more easily -- seemed fair. Some of the records he signed 'Larry', some 'Wild Man'. After a period of him hanging around and being himself, I told him that I had to get to work. That triggered another sharp turn emotionally. He seemed to genuinely become scared like a child as he reluctantly ventured out the door. He lingered and looked lost. I can see him like it was yesterday -- I felt pretty bad about sending him out into the cruel world on his own. Thinking about this story on hearing of his passing, I remembered being struck by the fact that he had first asked me if I knew who Captain Beefheart was, before Zappa. Was it simply personal or was he placing them in their rightful order artistically?!
Alice Bag posted a nice remembrance up of Larry, and I was glad to see that someone made a documentary about Larry. It’s called “DeRailroaded” and in this clip you can see some great interview segments. What stands out to me is the little bit of Larry in a record store asking the clerk if he knows his record; he does but as the dumbfounded clerk looks from the camera to Larry he free associates the first thing he can think of and says “Frank Zappa.” Larry looks exasperatedly to the guy behind the camera as if to say, you see what I have to deal with? The comments section under the video are of course full of the kind of wounded defensiveness of the suburban Zappa brigades, few of whom know the first thing about what they’ve just seen but since Zappa’s in it they tuned in.
Pamela Des Barres writes wonderful things about Zappa in her book, but Larry in person not so much, and at length! It is interesting that Zappa stopped dealing with other bands and musicians in the same period (1969-1970) that the Beatles and the Rolling Stones shut down their Svengali sponsorships of others as well. Led Zeppelin tried for a few years as well. But that counter-culture ended and the survivors got down to business. You could say that the punk era movement labels, the band-owned ones like, say, Black Flag’s SST, similarly observed the end of their counter-culture, but then for them there never really was any business to speak of. Larry’s first album went out through Reprise Records. Today almost everyone is a DIY singer, only online rather than on the street. A Zappa doesn’t even form a band today, such duties were the real bane of Frank’s existence and genius no longer loves nor needs company.
Wild Man Fischer addendum:
Larry Fischer discography.
Wild Man Fischer, “Monkeys Versus Donkeys” on the Jimmy Kimmel show .
Jay Allen Sanford at San Diego Reader on Larry’s San Diego period (scroll down).
Cercotrichas Barbata by James Fotopoulos
From the Desk of Joe Carducci…
Tim Rutten in LAT, "No turning back in California budget mess".
“In April 1519, Hernan Cortes landed near what's now Veracruz, Mexico, and scuttled his ships so that his potentially mutinous troops would have no choice but to follow him into battle against the Aztecs. Gov. Jerry Brown's veto Thursday of a budget passed by his own party's legislative majority has something of the conquistador's either-or bravado. Brown has taken California politics into new territory with the first categorical budget veto since 1922, when the state began requiring a consolidated annual spending plan. Now, the question is: Is anyone willing to follow him off the beach? The 73-year-old governor acknowledged the difficulty of attracting followers Thursday in his post-veto news conference. ‘The political class is deeply divided,’ he noted. ‘If we can't find a way to get around that, then we will irreversibly enter on a pathway of decline.’”
Dennis Cauchon in USA Today, "Texas wins in U.S. economy shift".
“Texas became the USA's second-largest economy during the past decade — displacing New York and perhaps heading one day toward challenging California — in one of the biggest economic shifts in the past half-century. The dramatic realignment of the nation's economy was illustrated by North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia all overtaking one-time industrial powerhouse Michigan in economic size from 2000 to 2010. The economic winners of the last decade are states that focus on raw materials, government and senior citizens. The big losers are places that make things — industrial states and even California.”
MercoPress: "Controversy in Brazil over the release of ‘sensitive’ documents from imperial past.".
“Brazilian diplomats have warned that revealing the archives of the Triple Alliance (Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay) war against Paraguay could affect current relations, according to the influential Folha de Sao Paulo. At the time the Paraguayans virtually fought to the last man, with almost all the male population 10 to 60 years killed during the war and forcing the Brazilians to leave behind the Army. Brazil at the time was an empire, and Dom Pedro II ruler. In recent years the construction of the world’s largest operational hydroelectric dam, Itaipú, shared between Brazil and Paraguay could also expose alleged ‘dealings’ between the dictatorships of both countries at the time (1970).”
Mark Mazower in FT, "A sorry end to too fleeting a Greek dream".
“Greece has cut and run from its foreign obligations before -- at the height of the interwar depression in 1932. A comparison of the situation then and now underscores the gravity of the crisis. When the Venizelos government abandoned the gold standard and stopped payments on its debt, it did so with reluctance and paid a heavy electoral price. But the material costs were bearable. One reason was that other countries were being pushed into bankruptcy. Because the entire international monetary system seized up, interwar Greece lost relatively little in terms of credit forgone. Creditors grumbled of course. But Greek state debt was held mostly by private individuals in western Europe and the US; their pain did not count for much. Surprisingly, default did not really harm Greece’s economy. Protected from foreign competition by currency restrictions and trade barriers, it grew rapidly through the decade, and important new industries developed. In short, reneging on one’s debts was not a bad idea in the 1930s. Unfortunately for Greece, the situation looks very different today.”
Louisa Lim at NPR, "In Greek Port, Storm Brews Over Chinese-Run Labor".
“Cosco doesn't allow unions or collective bargaining among its 500-plus Greek workers. The unions report that Cosco workers are largely unskilled and working on a temporary basis, with no benefits. Despite persistent rumors about their labor conditions, until now no Cosco workers have spoken out to the media. But a former Cosco worker, who had just been sacked, spoke to NPR about work conditions on the Chinese-run pier, on the condition that his name not be used. The worker says he regularly worked eight hours a day with no meal breaks and no toilet breaks. ‘I think their actions are breaking the law,’ the worker said. ‘The rights are to have something to eat around 12 o'clock [and] to have our breaks, and not work like a dog straight [through] from morning till afternoon.’ He says workers were told by supervisors to urinate into the sea, rather than taking toilet breaks. Those operating straddle carriers had to take cups up into their cabins to urinate into, and he says they were not given breaks, either, despite the clear dangers of operating at such a height for so long.”
Delphine Strauss in FT, "A self-confident new-age Sultan setting out his stall".
“The ‘balcony speech’ has become something of a ritual for Turkey’s domineering premier. As a young man in the 1970s he used the deck of an empty ship moored by the Golden Horn to try out -- with his face to the sea -- the rhetorical flourishes he would use in speeches to the youth wing of a hardline Islamist party. Now he is acclaimed as the first leader of the modern Turkish republic to win a third term with increased support. He peppered his ‘balcony speech’ with the appropriate promises of humility, reconciliation, and consensual work to draft a new constitution. But his note of self-belief -- even grandiosity -- was striking. ‘Today is a victory for the wronged and oppressed on a global scale,’ he said, going on to claim his victory was for Bosnia, Damascus and the West Bank as much as Istanbul, Ankara and Turkey. With such a bid to protect suffering Muslims across the world, it is no wonder his domestic critics accuse him of taking on the airs of an Ottoman sultan -- and Israel frets over the trajectory of a man who has staked out an outspoken position on the suffering of the Palestinians.”
Jurgen Gottschlich at Qantara.de, " From Megalomania to True Greatness?".
“After almost 10 years as head of government, Tayyip Erdogan has recently displayed more frequent indications of acute megalomania. He viewed any criticism of himself as lèse majesté, and critics soon found themselves up against the public prosecutor – in one instance, after whistles from the crowd at the inauguration of a soccer stadium by Erdogan, spectators were questioned by police en masse. Erdogan also honed his profile on an international level. Growing popularity in the Arab world, triggered by a coolly stage-managed conflict with Israel, seduced him into believing he was something of new Nasser-style figure, or a modern version of the Ottoman rulers that once controlled the Middle East. Dampened euphoria: AKP supporters celebrate Erdogan's election victory. But the hoped-for two-thirds majority was elusive It was this megalomania that encouraged Erdogan to believe that with a new constitution to replace the current authoritarian set of rules established after the military putsch of 1980, he could replace the nation's parliamentary system with a presidential system tailored to his person.”
Delphine Strauss in FT, "Kurds’ gains bolster demands for autonomy".
“After more than 25 years of conflict between the Turkish army and the rebel Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), the Kurdish movement is now a part of mainstream politics. Its supporters poured into Istanbul’s central Taksim Square on Sunday night to celebrate with flags and Kurdish folk dances, as it became clear that politicians from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy party (BDP) would fill as many as 36 seats in parliament, up from the 22 seats they won in 2007. ‘The people have answered those who say There is no Kurdish issue,’ said Ayla Akat Ata, a newly elected BDP deputy, referring to a recent comment by Mr Erdogan….”
Algerian author Boualem Sansal interview at Signandsight.com.
“So is this the rebellion of an educated, well-informed youth that is being been denied all freedoms? The young people see what is happening out there in the world on the Internet and on satellite TV. They witness how young Europeans and Americans live. They see their contemporaries talking, trying things out, living their own lives. And then they look around in their own countries and realise they can't talk about anything. This is not only true for politics and discussions about the political regime or democracy, but also for everyday life. Even at home they can't talk about anything. It's all about respecting their parents, religion, traditions, they can't talk to boys or girls, or even their teachers ... The youth have been left completely on their own.”
Jeffrey Gettleman in NYT, "Sudan Steps Up Furious Drive to Stop Rebels".
“Tens of thousands of rebel fighters have refused the government’s threat to disarm, digging into the craggy hillsides. They are demanding political reform and autonomy, a familiar refrain in Sudan’s marginalized hinterlands that has set off insurgencies in Darfur in the west, as well as eastern and southern Sudan. ‘This is going to spread like wildfire,’ said an American official who was not authorized to speak publicly. Without mediation, ‘you’re going to have massive destruction and death in central Sudan, and no one seems able to do anything about it.’ The Sudanese Army has sealed off the area and threatened to shoot down United Nations helicopters. Sudan’s forces detained four United Nations peacekeepers and subjected them to ‘a mock firing squad,’ the organization said Monday, calling the intimidation part of a strategy to make it nearly impossible for aid agencies and monitors to work in the region. It seems that the Sudanese government, facing upheaval on several fronts, especially with the southern third of the country preparing to declare independence next month, is determined to suppress the rebels and prevent them from encouraging other restive areas to rise up. Even after the southerners secede, countless fault lines remain in northern Sudan. Non-Arab people in the Nuba Mountains, Darfur, Blue Nile State, Kasala — and all the way down the Nile to Egypt — have long been chafing against an increasingly isolated government dominated by a small group of Arabs and led by President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, a war crimes suspect indicted by the International Criminal Court.”
Peter Wise & Jonathan Ford in FT, "Portugal is warned of two ‘terrible years’".
“Noted for his thrift, the 46-year-old leader of the centre-right Social Democrats (PSD) is temperamentally well prepared for the formidable task of implementing the tough 78bn rescue programme the country has agreed with the European Union and International Monetary Fund. Portugal faces two ‘terrible years’ of deep recession and record unemployment, he acknowledged in an interview with the Financial Times, before the country can return to growth and regain the confidence of international investors. This will involve ‘a very rigorous programme of austerity and structural reforms’ covering everything from slashing public deficits and extensive privatisations to shake-ups of justice and education.”
Leigh Phillips at EUobserver.com, "The junta of experts tells us: ‘Vote how you like, but policies cannot change’".
“Europe seems to have slipped almost imperceptibly in the space of only a few months into an electoral interzone, a crack in the pavement of democracy. The formal trappings of clean elections -- in which political parties with competing manifestoes contest a ballot free of voter intimidation - are all still there, but someone else has decided in advance what the result will be. It's not the voters that are intimidated any more: it's the parties that are. The count of EU member states now tallies to four -- Ireland, Portugal, Finland and Greece -- where this post-political phenomenon has materialised, but committed democrats across the Union should wonder which country is next.”
Gideon Rachman in FT, "Political union cannot fix the euro".
“Those who argue that ‘political union’ is the solution to the current crisis seem to believe that Europe’s problem is institutional. Unlike the US, the eurozone does not have the political institutions to back up a common currency. But if Europe were just equipped with a finance ministry or the facility to issue eurozone bonds or to tax citizens directly, everything could be fixed. This is a profound misdiagnosis of the crisis. The real problem is political and cultural. There is not a strong enough common political identity in Europe to support the single currency. That is why German, Dutch and Finnish voters are revolting against the idea of bailing out Greece again -- while Greeks riot against what they see as a new colonialism imposed from Brussels and Frankfurt. To argue that even deeper political integration is the solution to this mess, is like recommending that a man with alcohol poisoning should treat himself with a more powerful brand of vodka. It is important to understand that the origins of the current crisis lie precisely in the dream of political union in Europe. For the true believers, currency union was always just a means to that greater end.”
Leigh Phillips at EUobserver.com, "EU president issues ‘plea for Euroland’".
“EU Council President Herman van Rompuy has issued an public appeal for people and markets not to be so ‘pessimistic’ about the state of the European Union, urging that the current crisis be approached with ‘serenity’ instead. In a speech to a think-tank in Brussels, the self-styled 'grey mouse' of EU leadership warned: ‘Whoever wants to judge the state of the Union has to regain a certain distance, a certain serenity and above all: a sense of proportions. Pessimism paralyses action.’ He complained that the eurozone is seen ‘as some sort of patient of the world economy’, and fretted that part of the current strife is being caused by the word used to describe the 17 countries that employ the single currency. ‘Words like 'eurozone' - which sounds distant like some industrial zone, somewhere outside the city's centre - make it worse,’ he said, and went on to propose that a different word be used instead: ‘Euroland’.”
George Pendle in FT on Rudolph Herzog’s book, Dead Funny: Humour in Hitler’s Germany.
“Herzog, the son of the film-maker Werner Herzog, shares his father’s curious and mordant wit. However, translating jokes suffused with wordplay is an almost hopeless task, and too often the witticisms repeated here sparkle like lead. If you can forgive this flaw you will find that Herzog‘s book contains an intriguing tension. On the one hand there has been an almost unbroken proscription against telling jokes about Hitler and the Holocaust for nearly 70 years, particularly in Germany, where this book was first published. Yet against this prohibition stands the unstoppable human urge to make jokes about suffering. ‘In the aftermath of a catastrophe,’ writes Herzog, ‘humour often appears as the only effective antidote against lingering horror.’ This book shows how it can serve both sides in the very midst of disaster too.”
Timothy Snyder in NYTBR on Andrew Roberts’ book, The Storm of War.
“If one considers the categories of martial endeavor from bottom to top, from the bunker to Berlin, one can see what he means. The Germans enjoyed advantages in weaponry, engagement, tactics and sometimes strategy. But at the moments when strategy was linked to politics, the German advantage was lost. Hitler’s war aims were vast, unrealistic and inextricably enmeshed in an ideology that celebrated destruction, above all of Jews and other racial enemies, but also of Germans when they failed to win. The quick successes in Poland in 1939 and France in 1940 convinced many of the generals that Hitler was indeed a genius. But what Hitler dreamed of was a rapid victory in the Soviet Union, which would have made Germany a great racial empire. Throughout the book, Roberts notes errors that, if avoided, might have helped the Germans to win battles and perhaps even the war itself. Hitler, he says, should have begun the war three years later than he did, in 1942 rather than 1939. He should not have allowed the British to escape at Dunkirk as France fell. He should have arranged for the Japanese to help in the invasion of the Soviet Union. Once on Soviet territory German forces should have recruited the non-Russian populations rather than repressing them, and returned farmland to peasants rather than exploiting their labor and taking their food. In September 1941, Army Group Center of the Wehrmacht should have pushed forward to Moscow rather than detouring to Kiev. Army Group South should have fought a war of maneuver rather than concentrating on Stalingrad. Inevitably, the reader of these observations will find himself posing counterfactual questions.”
Warren Kozak in WSJ, "What If Jews Had Followed the Palestinian Path?".
“In 1945, there were hundreds of thousands of Jewish survivors living in DP Camps (displaced persons) across Europe. They were fed and clothed by Jewish and international relief organizations. Had the world's Jewish population played this situation as the Arabs and Palestinians have, everything would look very different today. To begin with, the Jews would all still be living in these DP camps, only now the camps would have become squalid ghettos throughout Europe. The refugees would continue to be fed and clothed by a committee similar to UNRWA — the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (paid for mostly by the United States since 1948). Blessed with one of the world's highest birth rates, they would now number in the many millions. And 66 years later, new generations, fed on a mixture of hate and lies against the Europeans, would now seethe with anger. Sometime in the early 1960s, the Jewish leadership of these refugee camps, having been trained in Moscow to wreak havoc on the West (as Yasser Arafat was) would have started to employ terrorism to shake down governments. Airplane hijackings in the 1970s would have been followed by passenger killings. There would have been attacks on high-profile targets as well — say, the German or Polish Olympic teams. By the 1990s, the real mayhem would have begun….”
Ira Stoll at Futureofcapitalism.com, "Hitchens Versus Hillel".
“From a New York Times book review by Christopher Hitchens of David Mamet's book The Secret Knowledge:Eschewing irony, Mamet prefers his precepts to be literal and traditional. In case by any chance we haven't read it before, he twice offers Rabbi Hillel's definition of the golden rule and the essence of Torah: ‘What is hateful to thee, do not do to thy neighbor.’ As with Hayek's imperative of choice, the apparent obviousness of this does not entirely redeem it from contradiction. To Colonel Qaddafi and Charles Manson and Bernard Madoff, I want things to happen that would be hateful to me. Of what use is a principle that is only as good as the person uttering it?
It seems to me that Mr. Hitchens is missing the point. Had Gadhafi, Manson, and Madoff followed Hillel's injunction, they wouldn't have murdered or committed fraud, because they wouldn't have wanted to be murdered or to have been defrauded themselves. As for the punishment that Mr. Hitchens apparently desires to inflict on the evil trio, it's one thing to do this through a system of justice, another thing to do it spontaneously to a neighbor. Those punishments would be hateful if inflicted on Mr. Hitchens because, presumably, Mr. Hitchens is innocent of murder or fraud. So it's not really a contradiction. Maybe I'm missing something. Or maybe next week the Times editors will simplify matters by eliminating poor Mr. Mamet's book as the vehicle and by just going ahead and assigning Mr. Hitchens to write a negative review of the Torah.”
Steven Rattner in FT, "Savour the sweet scent of Germany’s success".
“For German workers, the current prosperity has come at a price. Beginning in 2003, then-chancellor Gerhard Schroder pushed through a massive ‘Agenda 2010’ reform programme that successfully peeled back the German welfare state (among other things, unemployment benefits were pared to encourage work), relaxed stultifying regulatory practices and created a ‘grand bargain’ with workers. That complex labour agreement traded lower wage demands for greater job security, achieved in part through ‘short work’, under which lay-offs were avoided by workers reducing their hours. Government subsidies made up part -- but not all -- of the lost wages. But even for those not on short work, wages were sacrificed on the altar of competitiveness. All told, real incomes dropped by 4.5 per cent in the past decade, reports the International Labour Organization. So Germany has been selling more and keeping its citizens employed without the rising standard of living that capitalism provides. In that context, the opposition of rank-and-file Germans to the bail-outs should not be surprising.”
Andrew Wilson at Opendemocracy.net, "“Political technology”: why is it alive and flourishing in the former USSR?".
“‘Political technology’ -- a term largely unfamiliar in the West -- is the euphemism commonly used in the former Soviet states for what is by now a highly developed industry of political manipulation. There is a general understanding that elections are fixed in most countries of the region, from Russia to Kyrgyzstan, but we still do not look closely enough at just how they are fixed. I first sought to describe the workings of ‘political technology’ in my book Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the Former Soviet World, which came out in 2005. The timing made sense. Political technology had by then helped the Kremlin achieve almost total control of the political process in Russia. The opposition was shut out of the Duma at the parliamentary elections in 2003, creating a four-party oligopoly of official Kremlin parties that more or less persists to this day. The presidential election in 2004 represented a different type of peak of control: overwhelming victory was achieved for Putin on a target of ‘70 and 70’ (vote and turnout). The high vote was achieved by ensuring that even the Kremlin parties only put forward second-string candidates to stand against Putin. High turnout was supposed to follow by forcing local authorities to act as competitive vote-farmers, but the two aims conflicted. Elections without real contestation inevitably lower public interest, forcing the Kremlin to use rising levels of ‘administrative resources’ to pad the turnout. Putin won 71.3% of the vote, but participation was a disappointing 64.3%.”
David Pilling in FT, "The ghost of Thaksin still haunts Thailand".
“The fact that the election is centred on Mr Thaksin is unfortunate, if inevitable. There is much to dislike about the demagogic, authoritarian style of the billionaire businessman turned politician. His administration prized getting things done over the rule of law and the protection of human rights, badly abused in its war on drugs. It also faced credible allegations of cronyism, and even Mr Thaksin’s supporters concede he is ‘no monk’. But the forces that Mr Thaksin let loose are real and more important than the man himself. By wooing the neglected peasant base, he (possibly unwittingly) uncorked long bottled-up tensions. Those forces threaten what Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of Thailand’s Institute of Security and International Studies, calls ‘the way we were’. That way was a paternalistic, monarchy-centred hierarchy in which peasants were grateful for the beneficence they received.”
Christopher Hitchens in Atlantic on Joseph Lelyveld’s book, Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India.
“Lelyveld’s high standing as a reporter was earned largely by his work in South Africa, culminating in the memorable book Move Your Shadow, which anatomized the deep psychology of racism. And it may well have been Gandhi’s years in that country that helped imbue him with a lifelong fear of a distraught, occluded relationship between sexuality, violence, and “hygiene.” Originally projected onto the sheer physicality of the threatening Zulus, this extreme fastidiousness lent him a certain identification with essentially conservative ideas of purity and order and simplicity. Very cleverly, Lelyveld connects this ethos to V. S. Naipaul’s shocked confrontation with Indian squalor — or, to be more precise, with Indian levels of public defecation — in his first study of the country, An Area of Darkness. It is not, perhaps, so surprising that the Brahmin-like Naipaul found so much to admire in the prim ex-attorney who experienced such combined revulsion and exaltation at the sheer filth and chaos of his own version of the beloved country. This complex of odi et amo, which led Gandhi to handle the night soil of beggars and sweepers as an act of restitution, also made him suspicious of passions and repelled by those — not by any means excluding untouchables and Muslims — who seemed to exhibit them. The strenuous manner of his fasts and mortifications and personal sexual repressions found a paradoxical counterpart in his attachment to passivity and acceptance.”
Sandanand Dhume in WSJ, "India’s Conservative Vacuum".
“On closer examination, however, the case for the BJP as a modern conservative party falls apart. The party does not consistently espouse faith in free markets. It remains ambivalent about India's ties with the U.S. and the West. And it lacks the capacity to draw a clear line between its largely moderate mainstream supporters and the assorted flakes and bigots who seem to consider the party their natural home. In recent months, for instance, the BJP has attacked the government's tawdry record on corruption not by demanding less government and fewer cumbersome regulations, but by backing assorted crackpots and activists: from lawyer Prashant Bhushan, to yoga guru Baba Ramdev, to ardent alcohol-prohibitionist Anna Hazare. Mr. Bhushan believes that corruption in India has soared on account of too much liberalization rather than too little. The BJP's foreign-policy credentials would seem right-thinking and pro-Western, unlike the Congress Party's. But in an abrupt about-face, three years ago the party voted against the landmark U.S.-India nuclear deal in parliament, on the absurd charge that New Delhi had sold out to Washington. The party's 2009 election manifesto spoke of restoring ‘balance’ in relations with America. Unlike, say, the Tories, whom nobody confuses with the quasi-fascist British National Party, the BJP appears unable to draw a line between assertive political Hindus and flaming bigots.”
Jeremy Kahn in Atlantic, "India Invents a City".
“Lavasa will be the first city in India — apart from a few company towns surrounding factories — to be built and governed entirely by a private corporation. It’s also the first city in India to be planned according to the principles of New Urbanism, which advocates walkable cities that commingle business and residential development, offer mixed-income housing, and preserve green space. Lavasa will provide centrally pressurized running water, reliable electricity, sewage treatment, garbage collection, and even fiber-optic connections in every home. These things are so alien in India that when prospective home buyers first saw Lavasa, Gulabchand says, many asked why they couldn’t see water tanks on the roofs, and whether the price of units included a septic tank. Perhaps the most radical thing about Lavasa is its government — or rather, the fact that it has a government. Most Indian cities are run largely by states, some of which are bigger than many countries. As a result, urban development typically falls to overstretched bureaucrats or state politicians chiefly interested in courting rural voters. The Lavasa Corporation — the company formed to build and run the city of Lavasa — hired Scot Wrighton, an experienced American city administrator, as India’s first city manager. Wrighton says Lavasa offered him ‘a chance to build a new governance model for a country where governance at the municipal level does not work.’”
Steven Borowiec at YaleGlobal, "People on the Move".
“These murders in the normally peaceful countryside highlight the difficulties of establishing a multicultural society in a place with no history of one. Foreign wives are given permanent residence but not citizenship. They’re allowed to remain in South Korea indefinitely and work, but not vote or own property. Despite a historic unease with outsiders, the reality is that South Korea’s birthrate is low and the country relies on immigrants for labor and spouses. Sex-selective abortions in the 1980s have had unintended consequences. There are now more men of marriageable age than there are women. South Korean men in rural areas turn to foreign brides as South Korean women generally find rural life undesirable. Newly arrived foreign women often find themselves in isolated settings, unable to communicate due to their lack of fluency in Korean and unfamiliar with the expectations for a Korean wife and daughter-in-law. South Korea is not particularly amenable to ethnic diversity. Koreans are taught in school that their people have populated the peninsula from time immemorial and withstood colonial occupation and other forms of outside interference with their culture intact.”
David Wessel in WSJ, "China’s Economy Faces Three Contradictions".
“With demand for labor strong, wages are increasing faster, a key to maintaining social stability Chinese leaders prize and fueling consumer spending needed for China to wean itself off exports. So far, so good. But rising wages appear to be diluting the competitiveness of Chinese factories. A tell-tale sign: T-shirts in The Gap stores in China say: ‘Made in Malaysia,’ and the cheapest toothbrushes are made in Vietnam. The solution is to migrate to more sophisticated manufactures and services. That requires a bigger, better, freer education system than the existing one, which is, as one official says, handicapped by a Soviet-style management model for scientific research and shunned by Chinese elites who send their offspring abroad. Second, the latest fad in Beijing government circles is ‘internationalization of the yuan,’ a currency whose use is nearly entirely domestic now. This is one part national pride, one part a trading power's desire to buy and sell in its own currency, and one part Chinese determination, if there's ever another financial crisis, to be able to borrow as freely and cheaply from abroad as the U.S. did. So far, so good. But China can't get there from here unless it stops holding interest rates so low that savers aren't even keeping up with inflation. Playing the global game means subjecting an economy to global markets.”
Kathrin Hille & Ben Bland in FT, "China warns over Vietnam dispute".
“At the weekend, the Vietnamese government said it would welcome efforts by the US and other nations to help resolve the territorial dispute…. China fiercely opposes any US role in settling the dispute and has insisted to settle its rivaling claims bilaterally. Meanwhile, Nguyen Tan Dung, Vietnam’s prime minister, has issued a decree detailing who will be exempted from conscription in the event of war breaking out. Diplomats and analysts said the decree, which was published on the government’s website late on Monday and replaces a similar measure from 1982, seemed designed to send a message to the Vietnamese people and Beijing that the government was willing to stand up to China.”
Joel Adriano at Atimes.com, "Waters roil in the South China Sea".
“China has also crossed swords with the Philippines through repeated intrusions on Philippine-claimed islands in the Spratlys. China has dismissed the accusations as ‘rumors’ even as Chinese ambassador to the Philippines Liu Jinchao during a news conference warned Asian neighbors to stop oil and gas explorations in areas Beijing considers as part of its sovereign territory. The two countries have swapped high-level diplomatic protests to stake their claims. The Philippines cited six Chinese intrusions from February to May in a protest filed with the United Nations earlier this month. The incidents include the Chinese navy firing on Filipino fishermen, a Chinese vessel intimidating a Philippine oil exploration ship and Beijing putting posts and buoys in waters claimed by Manila. Manila is also protesting China's construction of new structures on islands it claims. Senator Francis Pangilinan criticized China's actions as ‘unbecoming of a world power’. For its part, China submitted a diplomatic note to the United Nations claiming that the Philippines invaded the Spratlys in the 1970s -- a claim that security analysts consider ridiculous given the pathetic state of the Philippine navy.”
Ben Bland in FT, "Twist of fate sees old foes as allies in power tussle".
“Nguyen Duc De knows at first hand how alliances can change. The former Vietnamese soldier was stationed on the disputed Spratly Islands in the 1980s, when tensions with china were high following their 1979 border war, and he used to take pot shots at the Chinese marines who approached his base pretending to be fisherman. When diplomatic relations between the Communist neighbours were restored in the 1990s, shooting was prohibited, he says, but, as China’s economic and military might has grown over the past decade, strains over contested islands in the South China Sea have been on the rise again. ‘They’re so big and we’re so small, so what can we do?,’ asks 50-year-old Mr De, who works as a security guard at a memorial to Vietnamese and Russian soldiers who lost their lives in the Spratly Islands and at the nearby naval and air base at Cam Ranh Bay in south-central Vietnam.”
Ben Bland in FT, "Vietnam’s fishermen on front line in sea dispute".
“When Tran Hien, the 31-year-old captain of a Vietnamese fishing boat, saw a large Chinese vessel while sailing near the disputed Paracel Islands, he knew exactly what was about to happen. Officers from China’s fisheries agency boarded his 15m boat and, with neither party able to understand the other’s language, confiscated nearly $3,000 worth of fish and equipment. ‘We were in Vietnamese waters and had every right to be there but there was no way we could outrun them,’ says Mr Hien of the incident, which took place at about 9am on June 14. Mr Hien is one of dozens of Vietnamese fishermen who have had their equipment, fish or even boats seized by Chinese patrol vessels this year, as tension between the two neighbours over contested waters in the South China Sea boiled over.”
Brahma Chellaney at Project-Syndicate.org, "Deception by the Boatload".
“After it bought the 67,500-ton, Soviet-era Varyag carrier – still little more than a hull when the Soviet Union collapsed – China repeatedly denied that it had any intention to refit it for naval deployment. For example, Zhang Guangqin, Deputy Director of the Chinese State Commission for Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense, said in 2005 that the Varyag was not being modified for military use. However, work to refit the carrier had already begun in Dalian, China’s main shipyard. In order to deflect attention from the real plan, the state-run media reported plans to turn the Varyag into a ‘floating casino’ near Macau. And, to lend credence to that claim, the two smaller Soviet-era aircraft carriers that were purchased with the Varyag in 1998-2000 were developed into floating museums. The first official acknowledgement that China was turning the Varyag into a fully refurbished, deployable aircraft carrier came this month, just when it was almost ready to set sail. And the acknowledgement came from General Chen Bingde, the chief of the People’s Liberation Army, in an interview with Global Times, the Communist Party’s hawkish mouthpiece. Subterfuge is also apparent in China’s plans at Gwadar, where a Chinese-built but still-underused commercial port opened in 2007. From the time construction of the port began, Gwadar was widely seen as representing China’s first strategic foothold in the Arabian Sea, as part of its strategy to assemble a ‘string of pearls’ along the Indian Ocean rim. It was known that Gwadar, which overlooks Gulf shipping lanes and is near the Iran border, would eventually double as a naval base. Yet, all along, China continued to insist that Gwadar’s only role was commercial. Not surprisingly, then, Pakistani Defense Minister Ahmed Mukhtar’s public comments about a naval base at Gwadar deeply embarrassed China’s government.”
Philip Stephens in FT, "Round two: the rest versus the rest".
“The relationship between the US and China looks set to be the most important of the present century, but the most volatile will be those that see the rest square up to the rest. The new powers, of course, have aspirations and instincts in common, not least in challenging western domination of the global commons. As often as not, however, the rivalries between these states are deeper than those with the west. The decade-old Shanghai Co-operation Organisation speaks to an apparent confluence of interests between China, Russia and central Asian states such as Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. The SCO counts India, Pakistan and Iran among states with observer status. Some might consider the organization a natural counterpoint to Nato. Yet to list the participants in the SCO is also to see the fragility of the enterprise.”
Richard Clarke in WSJ, "China’s Cyberassault on America".
“Senior U.S. officials know well that the government of China is systematically attacking the computer networks of the U.S. government and American corporations. Beijing is successfully stealing research and development, software source code, manufacturing know-how and government plans. In a global competition among knowledge-based economies, Chinese cyberoperations are eroding America's advantage. The Chinese government indignantly denies these charges, claiming that the attackers are nongovernmental Chinese hackers, or other governments pretending to be China, or that the attacks are fictions generated by anti-Chinese elements in the United States. Experts in the U.S. and allied governments find these denials hard to believe. Three years ago, the head of the British Security Service wrote to hundreds of corporate chief executive officers in the U.K. to advise them that their companies had in all probability been hacked by the government of China. Neither the FBI nor the Department of Homeland Security has issued such a notice to U.S. executives, but most corporate leaders already know it.”
Jamil Anderlini in FT, "Corrupt officials smuggled $124bn out of China, says Beijing report".
“Around 17,000 Communist party cadres, police, judicial officers and state-owned enterprise executives fled the country between the mid-1990s and 2008, the 67-page report said…. The report, stamped ‘internal materials, store carefully’ and compiled in June 2008, was published on the website of the central bank’s anti-money laundering bureau this week. The bureau took the report down after it generated a public outcry.”
Jamil Anderlini in FT, "China’s army of migrant workers grows restless".
“According to the latest government figures, an estimated 153m people have left their homes in the countryside and moved to cities to work on construction sites, in restaurants and in factories. One side-effect has been the creation of a huge underclass of people that lacks access to basic social services in the cities and do not hold much of a stake in the modern society they have helped build. Thanks to China’s outdated and discriminatory hukou, or ‘household registration’ system, these people are mostly not entitled to the healthcare, education, housing support or social security benefits provided to their urban cousins. What was once the biggest driver of Chinese growth has now become a huge potential source of social instability, especially to places such as Zengcheng, where more than a third of the 1.3m residents are migrant labourers.”
Enid Tsui in FT, "China uses extra rights to lure riot informers".
“Migrant workers in the southern Chinese city of Zengcheng have been encouraged to inform on people involved in this month’s riots, in return for a promise of much sought-after residency rights. A police notice published in the Zengcheng Daily newspaper at the weekend offered rewards to individuals who provided information on suspected rioters, including up to Rmb10,000 ($1,545) in cash, a ‘good citizen’ award, and for migrant workers, a local household registration.”
Kent Ewing at Atimes.com on Sir Edmund Trelawny’s book, Decadence Mandchoue.
“The accusations against Backhouse were never fully substantiated during his lifetime, but in 1976, 32 years after his death, British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote a damning biography, Hermit of Peking: The Hidden Life of Sir Edmund Backhouse, which revealed the once-revered sinologist to be an inveterate fraud, a licentious homosexual and, even worse, anti-British. Trevor-Roper characterized Backhouse as a hermit because of his tendency to avoid other foreigners in Peking and expressed disdain for his loss of faith in British constitutional monarchy and his apparent attraction to the fascism that had taken hold in Europe and Japan in the run-up to World War II. As for his bawdy memoirs -- which had been gathering dust on a shelf at Oxford University's Bodleian Library since Backhouse's death -- Trevor-Roper wrote: ‘No verve in writing can redeem their pathological obscenity.’ Yes, Trevor-Roper was a homophobic snob who himself would later be implicated in the Hitler Diaries hoax. He may have been too quick to consign the talented and eccentric Backhouse -- among only a few Westerners in his time to have intimate knowledge of and contact with the Chinese -- to the dustbin of history.”
Benjamin Shobert at Atimes.com, "The wrong part of China in Manhattan".
“About 200 Chinese companies have listed on either the New York Stock Exchange or on the NASDAQ, but their reason for listing in the US may be an overlooked and much needed cautionary note to strike for American investors consider purchasing their shares. Paul Gillis, currently the visiting professor of accounting at Peking University, is one of the world's leading experts on China's accounting system and also the author of the China Accounting Blog. In an interview with Asia Times Online, he said he believes that the rationale for these US listings is not a business mandate, but rather, ‘... mostly because the founder wants the prestige of running a NYSE or NASDAQ-listed company.’ And, as Americans should know by now, prestige is a motive that both management and investors can get easily wrapped up in, causing both to overlook more fundamental questions about product, profit, and potential. For Gillis, the proof that prestige motivates many of these transactions is what tends to happen to the capital once the US listing occurs: ‘The companies often don't need the capital from an IPO [initial public offering], and the proceeds often just sit in the bank.’”
Alan Reynolds in WSJ, "Why 70% Tax Rates Won’t Work".
“This new fascination with tax rates of 70% or more is ostensibly intended to raise gobs of new revenue, so federal spending could supposedly remain well above 24% of gross domestic product (GDP) rather than be scaled back toward the 19% average of 1997-2007. All this nostalgia about the good old days of 70% tax rates makes it sound as though only the highest incomes would face higher tax rates. In reality, there were a dozen tax rates between 48% and 70% during the 1970s. Moreover — and this is what Mr. Reich and his friends always fail to mention — the individual income tax actually brought in less revenue when the highest tax rate was 70% to 91% than it did when the highest tax rate was 28%.”
David Brooks in NYT, "Who Is James Johnson?".
“Most scandals involve spectacularly bad behavior — like posting pictures of your private parts on the Web or hiding $90,000 in cash in your freezer. The intellectual, cultural and scientific findings that land on the columnist’s desk nearly every day. But the most devastating scandal in recent history involved dozens of the most respected members of the Washington establishment. Their behavior was not out of the ordinary by any means. For that reason, the Fannie Mae scandal is the most important political scandal since Watergate. It helped sink the American economy. It has cost taxpayers about $153 billion, so far. It indicts patterns of behavior that are considered normal and respectable in Washington. The Fannie Mae scandal has gotten relatively little media attention because many of the participants are still powerful, admired and well connected.”
Mark Everson in NYT, "Lawyers and Accountants Once Put Integrity First".
“Recent decades have seen a new model take root: a business plan tied to partner earnings. Obviously, to pay employees more and to increase partner pay to its present, staggering levels, billings needed to grow. Perhaps today’s approach to fee generation by leading law firms was best stated in a recent Wall Street Journal article about partners billing over $1,000 per hour. Said one such lawyer, “The underlying principle is if you can get it, get it.” Imagine a doctor saying that, for attribution, about an organ transplant.”
Alan Beattie in FT, "Take a deep breath, economists, it’s time for the lawyers".
“What with Robert Zoellick being president of the World Bank and Gene Sperling the chief economic adviser to Barack Obama, if Ms Lagarde is chosen, three of the top economics policy jobs in the world will be occupied by lawyers. Now, those three are smart, hard-working officials with long records of private and public service. But hear the cries of anguish from university economics faculties. How did that happen? Surely it is clear evidence of market failure? What happened to comparative advantage? Ou sont les economistes d’antan? (In the case of former economics professor Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the recently departed IMF managing director, the answer is ‘awaiting trial’, but let‘s skip over that.)”
Vanessa O’Connell in WSJ, "Lawyers Settle… for Temp Jobs".
“These short-term jobs, which can pay as little as $15 an hour, have increasingly become a fixture in the $100 billion global corporate legal industry as law firms and clients seek to lower their costs. This new ‘third tier’ of the legal world illustrates the commoditization of the legal profession, which once offered most new entrants access to prestige and power, as well as a professional lifestyle. It also shows how post-recession belt-tightening is permanently altering some professions. Responses to a June survey of top legal officers, conducted for the Wall Street Journal by the Association of Corporate Counsel, a bar association for in-house counsel:
Approximately 34% of 876 respondents said their companies had used non-staff ‘contract’ attorneys in the previous fiscal year.
The most common reason for their use was given as ‘project cost management,’ by 29% of those respondents using contract attorneys. About 26% said they were looking ‘to satisfy the need for a specific skillset.’ Another 20% said their use was the result of ‘cost management’ by a law firm.
About 35% of 319 respondents said their companies typically paid more than $80 an hour for document review work by contract attorneys; 18% said they paid less than $40 an hour. (Source: Association of Corporate Counsel/WSJ Contract Attorney Use Survey)
For 10 to 12 hours a day — and sometimes during graveyard shifts — contract attorneys such as Mr. Aponte sit silently in a big room, at rows of computer monitors. Each lawyer reads thousands of documents online and must quickly ‘code’ every one according to its relevance in litigation or an investigation. Supervisors discourage talking and breaks are limited. The computer systems count each lawyer's speed. Some law firms use their own contract attorneys, while others hire them through third-party agencies.”
David Carr & John Schwartz in NYT, "A Watchdog Professor, Now Defending Himself".
“Mr. Protess, who taught at the Medill journalism school at Northwestern University, was the founder and driving force behind the Medill Innocence Project, which was instrumental in exonerating at least 12 wrongly convicted defendants and freeing them from prison, including five who were on death row in Illinois, and in prompting then-governor George Ryan to clear the rest of death row in 2003. But during an investigation into a questionable conviction, the Cook County state’s attorney turned her attention instead on Mr. Protess and his students. Since then, questions have been raised about deceptive tactics used by the Medill students, about allegations that Mr. Protess cooperated with the defense lawyers (which would negate a journalist’s legal privilege to resist subpoenas) and, most damning, whether he altered an e-mail to cover up that cooperation.”
Caitlin Flanagan in Atlantic on Miriam Pawel’s book, The Union of Their Dreams.
“To understand Chavez, you have to understand that he was grafting together two life philosophies that were, at best, an idiosyncratic pairing. One was grounded in union-organizing techniques that go back to the Wobblies; the other emanated directly from the mystical Roman Catholicism that flourishes in Mexico and Central America and that Chavez ardently followed. He didn’t conduct ‘hunger strikes’; he fasted penitentially. He didn’t lead ‘protest marches’; he organized peregrinations in which his followers — some crawling on their knees — arrayed themselves behind the crucifix and effigies of the Virgin of Guadalupe. His desire was not to lift workers into the middle class, but to bind them to one another in the decency of sacrificial poverty. He envisioned the little patch of dirt in Delano — the ‘Forty Acres’ that the UFW had acquired in 1966 and that is now a National Historic Landmark — as a place where workers could build shrines, pray, and rest in the shade of the saplings they had tended together while singing. Like most ’60s radicals — of whatever stripe — he vastly overestimated the appeal of hard times and simple living; he was not the only Californian of the time to promote the idea of a Poor People’s Union, but as everyone from the Symbionese Liberation Army to the Black Panthers would discover, nobody actually wants to be poor. With this Christ-like and infinitely suffering approach to some worldly matters, Chavez also practiced the take-no-prisoners, balls-out tactics of a Chicago organizer. One of his strategies during the lettuce strike was causing deportations: he would alert the immigration authorities to the presence of undocumented (and therefore scab) workers and get them sent back to Mexico. As the ’70s wore on, all of this — the fevered Catholicism and the brutal union tactics — coalesced into a gospel with fewer and fewer believers.”
David Carr in NYT on James O’Shea’s book, The Deal From Hell: How Moguls and Wall Street Plundered Great American Newspapers.
“What Mr. O’Shea focused on was how the bankers — who he said should have known the deal would render the company insolvent — seemed to be too busy counting their fees to care. Here’s a note he found buried deep in court records from Jieun Choi, an analyst at JPMorgan Chase & Company, that demonstrated a breathtaking level of cynicism and self-dealing: ‘There is wide speculation that [Tribune] might have so much debt that all of its assets aren’t gonna cover the debt in case of (knock-knock) you know what,’ she wrote to a colleague, in a not very veiled reference to bankruptcy. ‘Well that’s what we are saying, too. But we’re doing this ’cause it’s enough to cover our bank debt. So, lesson learned from this deal: our (here I mean JPM’s) business strategy for TRB but probably not only limited to TRB is hit and run.’ She then went on to explain just how far a bank will go to ‘suck $$$ out of the (dying or dead?) client’s pocket’ in terms that are too graphic to be repeated here or most anywhere else.”
Obituary of the Week
Elena Bonner (1923 - 2011)
“Rather than being ‘the heroic woman,’ she once said, she would vastly prefer to be a ‘babushka,’ using the Russian word for grandmother. ‘I would much rather be a simple woman, mother and daughter,’ she said Elena Georgievna Bonner, whose first name is often spelled Yelena, was born in Merv (now Mary) in Turkmenistan on Feb. 15, 1923. As a child, she saw her parents’ lives stamped by Soviet totalitarianism. Her father, Gevork Alikhanov, was an Armenian who founded the Soviet Armenian Communist Party. He was arrested and disappeared into Stalin’s prisons in 1937. Her mother, Ruth Bonner, was Jewish and originally from Siberia. She was arrested in 1938 and sent to the gulag. Ms. Bonner, who was then 15 and already a worker in a Communist Party archive, later told a biographer that she remembered helping her mother pack and consoling her younger brother, Igor.”
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