“He Lived as a Free Man and Died as a Free Man”

(p. A1) Thousands of people crowded a neighborhood on Moscow’s outskirts on Friday [March 1, 2024] — some bearing flowers and chanting, “No to war!” — as they tried to catch a glimpse of the funeral for Aleksei A. Navalny. The outpouring turned the opposition leader’s last rites into a striking display of dissent in Russia at a time of deep repression.

. . .

After a procession to the cemetery, Mr. Navalny’s coffin was placed next to his freshly dug grave. Video live streamed from the site showed his family members and then other mourners kissing him goodbye for the last time. Then his face was covered with a white cloth and the coffin was lowered to the Frank Sinatra song “My Way” and then the final song from “Terminator 2,” which Mr. Navalny considered “the best film on Earth.” Mourners slowly passed by, each taking a handful of dirt and tossing it into the grave.

. . .

Outside the church, people chanted, “Thank you, Aleksei” and “Love is stronger than fear,” according to videos from the scene. As they gathered next to the cemetery, mourners cried out, “peace for Ukraine — freedom for Russia!”

. . .

(p. A8) Some people traveled from far away to attend the funeral. Anastasia, 19, had flown in from Novosibirsk, 1,800 miles from Moscow, to be present.

“I came here because this is a historic event,” she said in a voice message from the neighborhood where the church service was held. “I think that he is a freer man than all of us,” she said of Mr. Navalny. “He lived as a free man and died as a free man.”

In Russia, it is considered bad luck to give living people an even number of flowers in a bouquet — those are reserved for funerals. But Anastasia said that many mourners carried bouquets with an odd number, “because for them, Navalny lives on.”

For the full story, see:

Valerie Hopkins. “Crowds Flood Moscow Streets Over Navalny.” The New York Times (Saturday, March 2, 2024): A1 & A8.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date March 1, 2024, and has the title “Thousands Turn Out for Navalny’s Funeral in Moscow.”)

3.7 Million Russians “Flocked” to Film Satirizing “Tyranny and Censorship”

(p. C1) By all appearances, the movie adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s cult favorite novel “The Master and Margarita,” in Russian theaters this winter, shouldn’t be thriving in President Vladimir Putin’s wartime Russia.

The director is American. One of the stars is German. The celebrated Stalin-era satire, unpublished in its time, is partly a subversive sendup of state tyranny and censorship — forces bedeviling Russia once again today.

. . .

“I had an internal belief that the movie would have to come out somehow,” the director, Michael Lockshin, said in a video interview from his home in California. “I still thought it was a miracle when it did come out. As for the response, it’s hard to expect a (p. C2) response like this.”

More than 3.7 million people have flocked to see the film in Russian theaters since its Jan. 25 [2024] premiere, according to Russia’s national film fund.

. . .

State networks didn’t promote the movie the way they normally would for a government-funded picture. And the state film fund, under pressure after the release, removed the movie’s production company from its list of preferred vendors.

The antics spurred a new wave of moviegoers, who rushed to theaters fearing the film was about to be banned.

“The film amazingly coincided with the historical moment that Russia is experiencing, with the restoration of Stalinism, with the persecution of the intelligentsia,” said the Russian film critic Anton Dolin, who has been branded a “foreign agent” and fled the country.

. . .

“The movie is about the freedom of an artist in an unfree world,” Lockshin said, “and what that freedom entails — about not losing your belief in the power of art, even when everything around you is punishing you for making it.”

. . .

When Putin launched his invasion two years ago, Lockshin opposed the war on social media from the United States and called on his friends to support Ukraine. Back in Russia, that put the movie’s release at risk.

“My position was that I wouldn’t censor myself in any way for the movie,” he said. “The movie itself is about censorship.”

. . .

The film’s verisimilitude was unmistakable for many moviegoers.

Yevgeny Gindilis, a Russian film producer, said that he had crowded into a Moscow theater near the Kremlin to watch it, and sensed some discomfort in the hall. At the end, he said, about a third of the audience erupted in applause.

“I think the clapping,” Gindilis said, “is about the fact that people are happy they are able to experience and watch this film that has this clear, anti-totalitarian and anti-repressive state message, in a situation when the state is really trying to oppress everything that has an independent voice.”

Gindilis recounted how one of the most uncomfortable scenes for people to watch in Moscow was the final revenge sequence, when the devil’s mischievous talking cat repels a secret police squad that has come to apprehend the Master, leading to a fire that ultimately engulfs all of Moscow.

The Master and Margarita, alongside the devil, played by the German actor August Diehl, gaze out over the burning city, watching a system that ruined their lives go up in flames.

“Today the whole country is unable to take revenge or even respond to the persecution, restrictions and censorship,” Dolin, the film critic, said. But the protagonists of the film, having made a deal with the devil, manage to get even.

The film flashes to the Master and Margarita in the afterlife, reunited and free. “Listen,” she says to him. “Listen and enjoy that which they never gave you in life — peace.”

For the full story, see:

Paul Sonne. “Poking The Bear Right In His Den.” The New York Times (Monday, February 19, 2024): C1-C2.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Feb. 16, 2024 and has the title “Life Imitates Art as a ‘Master and Margarita’ Movie Stirs Russia.”)

In Final Message, Navalny Quoted “Hope, My Earthly Compass”

(p. 26) Aleksei A. Navalny, an anticorruption activist who for more than a decade led the political opposition in President Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia while enduring arrests, assaults and a near-fatal poisoning, died on Friday [Feb. 15, 2024] in a Russian prison. He was 47.

. . .

Mr. Navalny dedicated his final post on social media to his wife on Valentine’s Day.

. . .

The song he quoted, “Hope, My Earthly Compass,” is one of the best-known hits in Russia. Its refrain is “Hope is my compass, and success is a reward for courage.”

For the full obituary, see:

Valerie Hopkins and Andrew E. Kramer. “Aleksei A. Navalny, Russian Opposition Leader, Dies at 47.” The New York Times, First Section (Sunday, February 18, 2024): 26.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated Feb. 18, 2024, and has the title “Aleksei Navalny, Russian Opposition Leader, Dies in Prison at 47.”)

Reagan’s “Dogged Support for Human Rights” Helped Advance Freedom and Peace

(p. C7) Reagan’s confidence that the Cold War could be won made him unusual. At the time, both Republicans and Democrats believed that America was in decline. Communism was on the march in Afghanistan, Africa, Central America and the Caribbean. Then, in 1980, President Jimmy Carter seemed hapless and ineffectual after he failed to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran. The CIA mistakenly believed that the Soviet economy was growing. The policies of arms control and détente —or direct negotiations—were ascendant.

William Inboden’s masterly diplomatic history “The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink” reveals the qualities that made Reagan an extraordinary president who established the conditions for the collapse of Soviet communism. . . .

At almost every juncture, Reagan rejected the advice of former president Richard Nixon, whose realist worldview privileged China over Japan, geopolitics over economics, equilibrium over victory, and stability over human rights. Reagan envisioned a future where high technology, a universal commitment to freedom and dignity, and a willingness to risk confrontation with the enemy resulted in a global democratic revolution and the eventual abolition of nuclear weapons.

. . .

Reagan’s horror of nuclear war led him to envision a world where nuclear weapons would be obsolete. Woven into Mr. Inboden’s story are the many times that Reagan saw the potential for nuclear catastrophe. In 1979 the commander of the North American Air Defense Command, or NORAD, told him that the U.S. had no defense against a Soviet missile strike. In 1981 he took a flight on a special Air Force One called the “Doomsday Plane” that had been made to withstand nuclear fallout. In 1982 he became the first president to participate in a continuity-of-government exercise, codenamed “Ivy League.” Reagan watched helplessly as a simulated nuclear exchange destroyed his beloved country.

The following spring Reagan proposed the development of technology that could intercept nuclear missiles before they hit their targets. Both his secretaries of defense and state were against his plans for a Strategic Defense Initiative. They were not alone. The many critics of Reagan’s antiballistic missile shield followed Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in calling it “Star Wars.”

Scientists said SDI wouldn’t work. Arms controllers said it would increase the chances of nuclear escalation. None of them understood that Reagan had redefined the arms race to America’s advantage. “It put the Soviets on the defensive,” writes Mr. Inboden, “fueling the Kremlin’s perennial fear of America’s technological prowess.”

. . .

Reagan’s opponents said that his dogged support for human rights and missile defense was both counterproductive and a distraction from good relations with the Soviets. Rather than conform to the accepted interpretation of reality, he sought to establish new facts on the ground that favored the expansion of freedom.

For the full review, see:

Matthew Continetti. “We Win and They Lose.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022): C7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date November 25, 2022, and has the title “‘The Peacemaker’ Review: Ronald Reagan’s Cold War.”)

The book under review is:

Inboden, William. The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink. New York: Dutton, 2022.

“We Don’t Talk Anymore About Freedom”

(p. 25) “Gorbachev will pay for his sins! I can’t stand the sight of his pig’s mug!” On a winter day early in 2001, Grigori Romanov, once the party boss of Leningrad and an odds-on favorite to take over the Kremlin, stood on a Moscow sidewalk ranting to me, a Moscow correspondent for Time magazine, about Mikhail Gorbachev.

In the spring of 1985, Romanov had famously lost his shot at the government’s top post to the prematurely balding apparatchik from Russia’s south. It was Gorbachev — “a peasant who had no right coming to the big city,” Romanov all but shouted at me — who “started this disaster.”

. . .

. . . it’s only fitting that in “The Picnic,” Matthew Longo, an American political scientist who teaches in the Netherlands, revisits in captivating detail the actions of ordinary people during that heady summer of 1989, when the Iron Curtain cracked and a magical word — “freedom” — swept across the Eastern bloc. Within two years, the Soviet empire was over.

. . .

Longo sets himself a tight focus: the “Pan-European Picnic,” a stunt of political theater — organized by “budding” oppositionists (including the future prime minister of Hungary Viktor Orban, then a 26-year-old “with wild black hair and fire in his eyes”) and encouraged by a few reform-minded Communist higher-ups — that turned into political action. The picnic, a “giant, open-air party” convened on Aug. 19, 1989, and attended by hundreds, surprised all by forcing open the barbed-wire border between Austria and Hungary.

Blending oral history and political theory (including cameos by Plato and Isaiah Berlin), Longo recounts the drama in a vivid, fast-paced narrative.  . . .  . . ., Longo’s argument rings clear: “Sometimes the most important moments in history are forged by ordinary people.”

For Longo, the picnic was a revolutionary moment, bringing not only euphoria but an estimated 600 East Germans (in Hungary on “vacation”) across the border. “The scene was utter chaos,” Longo writes. “East Germans celebrating on the other side of the line; Hungarian officers in heated conversations; Austrians walking into Hungary, Hungarians crossing into Austria.” Three months later, the Berlin Wall fell. And in August 1991 — on the second anniversary of the picnic — a crew of revanchist putschists failed miserably in Moscow, speeding the demise of the Soviet Union.

. . .

“We don’t talk anymore about freedom like we did in 1989,” Longo writes, “freedom for collectivities, continents even; freedom for people fleeing oppression, wherever it is they were coming from.” He is right.

. . .

“All nations should have the opportunity for freedom,” Gorbachev said in one of his final interviews. This may sound like wishful thinking. But it happened to be the foolhardy belief that animated the ordinary heroes of Longo’s tale, both those who acted (politicians and civilians) and, just as vitally, those who did not (border guards and party lifers, who owed all they had ever known to the status quo), as well as, not least, the “peasant” who rose to the Kremlin.

For the full review, see:

Andrew Meier. “Bringing Down the Curtain.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, November 19, 2023): 25.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Nov. 5, 2023, and has the title “The ‘Picnic’ That Brought Down the Iron Curtain.”)

The book under review is:

Longo, Matthew. The Picnic: A Dream of Freedom and the Collapse of the Iron Curtain. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2023.

British Colonial Authorities in India “Eased Out” Vaccine Innovator

(p. 19) The story of Waldemar Mordechai Wolff Haffkine, little told in the West beyond the world of bacteriology and within the annals of Judaica, is thrilling in its nobility and verve, and it might have better served Schama’s purpose had he devoted the entire book to the tale of a man he so clearly adores.

. . .

He was born in Odessa in 1860, and as a teenager was set to defending his community from the endless Russian pogroms. In time he moved to Switzerland and then to France, where he trained at the Pasteur Institute and, after studying paramecium, threw his energies into the scourge of cholera. He treated himself with an experimental vaccine and took off to India in 1893 to see how it worked.

That it did, brilliantly, and by today’s reckoning his invention saved millions. His more remarkable eventual success came five years later with a vaccine for eradicating bubonic plague.

Schama — by his own admission no biologist — describes the painstaking method of making a plague vaccine with enthralling technical precision. He writes of the gentle and respectful means of extracting the noxious fluids from the swollen buboes that dangled in the intimate parts of the infected and the dying; of the subsequent culturation process, in ghee-covered flasks of goat broth — no cow or pig could be used, since the vaccines would be given to Hindu and Muslim alike — and then of the nurturing of the resulting silky threads that held the trove of bacilli, ready to be injected.

Notwithstanding Haffkine’s immense contribution to India’s public health, the British colonial authorities, haughty and racist by turn, eventually wearied of the man. Their own means of dealing with infection had, after all, relied on brawn and bombast — the wholesale destruction of villages, the eviction of natives, the smothering of everything with lime and carbolic acid. Such schemes had generally failed, and it irritated the burra sahibs that a foreigner, and moreover a keen adherent to an alien belief, could succeed where they had not.

And so Haffkine was eased out, first from his Calcutta laboratory across to Bombay, and then out of the empire’s crown jewel altogether. He later went to Lausanne, where he would spend his final years.

For the full review, see:

Simon Winchester. “The Vaccinator.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, November 5, 2023): 19.

(Note: ellipsis added. In the original only the words “burra sahibs” are in italics.)

(Note: the online version of the review was updated Oct. 28, 2023, and has the title “Not All Heroes Wear Capes. Some Prefer Lab Coats.”)

The book under review is:

Schama, Simon. Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines, and the Health of Nations. New York: Ecco Press, 2023.

Four Entities Succeeded in Sending a Capsule to Orbit and Returning It to Earth: “the United States, Russia, China and Elon Musk”

(p. A14) “In the history of space flight,” Scott Pelley intones in a “60 Minutes” segment, “only four entities have launched a space capsule into orbit and successfully brought it back to the Earth—the United States, Russia, China and Elon Musk.”

For the full film review, see:

Joe Morgenstern. “‘Return to Space’: A Double Booster.” The Wall Street Journal (Friday, April 8, 2022): A14.

(Note: the online version of the film review was updated April 7, 2022, and has the title “FILM REVIEW; ‘Return to Space’ Review: A Double Booster.”)

The “Woke-Mind” Is “Anti-Science, Anti-Merit and Anti-Human”

(p. 9) At various moments in “Elon Musk,” Walter Isaacson’s new biography of the world’s richest person, the author tries to make sense of the billionaire entrepreneur he has shadowed for two years — sitting in on meetings, getting a peek at emails and texts, engaging in “scores of interviews and late-night conversations.” Musk is a mercurial “man-child,” Isaacson writes, who was bullied relentlessly as a kid in South Africa until he grew big enough to beat up his bullies. Musk talks about having Asperger’s, which makes him “bad at picking up social cues.”

. . .

At one point, Isaacson asks why Musk is so offended by anything he deems politically correct, and Musk, as usual, has to dial it up to 11. “Unless the woke-mind virus, which is fundamentally anti-science, anti-merit and anti-human in general, is stopped,” he declares, “civilization will never become multiplanetary.”

. . .

The musician Grimes, the mother of three of Musk’s children (. . .), calls his roiling anger “demon mode” — a mind-set that “causes a lot of chaos.” She also insists that it allows him to get stuff done.

. . .

He is mostly preoccupied with his businesses, where he expects his staff to abide by “the algorithm,” his workplace creed, which commands them to “question every requirement” from a department, including “the legal department” and “the safety department”; and to “delete any part or process” they can. “Comradery is dangerous,” is one of the corollaries. So is this: “The only rules are the ones dictated by the laws of physics. Everything else is a recommendation.”

Still, Musk has accrued enough power to dictate his own rules. In one of the book’s biggest scoops, Isaacson describes Musk secretly instructing his engineers to “turn off” Starlink satellite internet coverage to prevent Ukraine from launching a surprise drone attack on Russian forces in Crimea. (Isaacson has since posted on X that contrary to what he writes in the book, Musk didn’t shut down coverage but denied a request to extend the network’s range.)

. . .

Isaacson believes that Musk wanted to buy Twitter because he had been so bullied as a kid and “now he could own the playground.”  . . .  Owning a playground won’t stop you from getting bullied.

For the full review, see:

Jennifer Szalai. “Self-Driving Czar.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, September 24, 2023): 9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review was updated Sept. 11, 2023, and has the title “Elon Musk Wants to Save Humanity. The Only Problem: People.”)

The book under review is:

Isaacson, Walter. Elon Musk. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2023.

Russians Are Reading Book on How to Remove Dictators

(p. A24) . . . the book, “The End of the Regime: How Three European Dictatorships Ended,” is not about Russia or Vladimir Putin. It’s about three dictatorships — those of Francisco Franco in Spain, Antonio Salazar in Portugal and the colonels in Greece — and how those countries became democracies, returning to the global fold. A large number of Russians haven’t suddenly taken an interest in the history of 20th-century Southern Europe. Rather, discussions of the book have common themes: How do prolonged right-wing dictatorships end? And can Russia become a democracy?

As one might expect, the book is being widely discussed by opposition groups and those calling for an end to the war. More surprisingly, it is also being read by the Russian nomenklatura — those at the apex of the Russian state. It seems that the book has become a pretext for discussion of taboo topics, such as political transition, the health and death of the leader, defeat in a colonial war, the end of isolation and, indeed, the end of the regime.

. . .

Russian readers have found much that is resonant in the book. How the Greek dictatorship, for example, collapsed after an attempt to annex Cyprus, which it regarded as a historical part of the country. Or how the Portuguese regime caved in as a result of a colonial, imperialist war that dragged on for years. Or how Salazar, plagued by health problems, was removed from power but continued to think that he was ruling the country. (To maintain the illusion, a special newspaper was published just for him.) And then there is the story of how in Spain, the idea of a transition to democracy slowly took hold and was brought about by the ruling elite itself.

For the full essay, see:

Alexander Baunov. “Russians Are Still Asking Questions About What’s Next.” The New York Times (Thursday, April 27, 2023): A24.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the essay has the date April 26, 2023, and has the title “Russians Seem Very Interested in My Book About How Dictatorships End.”)

Baunov’s essay discusses his Russian-language book:

Baunov, Alexander. The End of the Regime: How Three European Dictatorships Ended.

Launching Europe’s Largest Nuclear Reactor Gives Finland Electricity Resilience Against Russian Disruptions

(p. A7) Finland has started regular electricity output at Europe’s largest nuclear reactor, a move that contrasts with developments in other European countries, where opposition to nuclear power is stronger.

The long-delayed Olkiluoto 3 reactor is the first European nuclear-power facility to open in 16 years. Alongside two other nuclear reactors on the Olkiluoto island off Finland’s west coast, the new 1.6-gigawatt plant will eventually produce nearly one-third of the country’s electricity.

. . .

Finland’s reliance on nuclear energy, in combination with hydro and wind power, is part of the Nordic nation’s transition toward carbon neutrality, which has helped make Finland resilient against energy-supply disruptions, such as those following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

For the full story, see:

Sune Engel Rasmussen. “Finland Launches Nuclear Reactor.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, April 18, 2023): A7.

(Note: ellipsis added)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date April 17, 2023, and has the title “Europe’s Largest Nuclear Reactor Launches as Continent Splits Over Atomic Energy.”)

“France’s Most Famous Public Intellectual” Fears That if Putin Conquers Ukraine Western Civilization “Might Collapse”

(p. C1) In his new documentary film “Slava Ukraini,” Bernard-Henri Lévy, France’s most famous public intellectual, dodges Russian sniper fire in Ukraine, nonchalantly wearing a khaki bulletproof vest over a chic bespoke suit.

He climbs onto a Ukrainian naval vessel in Odessa that is sweeping the Black Sea for Russian mines, his mane of graying hair blowing gently in the wind. And he surveys blown-out apartment blocks in Kyiv, descends into trenches with Ukrainian soldiers in Sloviansk and comforts a mother whose young son is so traumatized by war, he has stopped speaking.

It can be easy to dismiss Lévy — and plenty do — as a 74-year-old reckless war tourist, an heir to a timber fortune playing action hero as Russian missiles rain down on Kyiv, Kharkiv and Mariupol. But instead of spending the last 12 months in his art-filled home on Paris’s right bank or enjoying retirement at his 18th-century palace in Marrakesh, Lévy has been braving Russian military assaults, vertigo and what (p. C5) he calls his natural tendency for melancholy to make his Ukraine film.

It was, he said, a necessary cri de coeur to support Ukraine in a conflict he views as nothing less than a battle for the future of Europe, global liberalism and Western civilization.

“In Ukraine, I had the feeling for the first time that the world I knew, the world in which I grew up, the world that I want to leave to my children and grandchildren, might collapse,” he said during an interview at the Carlyle Hotel in New York earlier this month, . . .

For the full story, see:

Dan Bilefsky. “A Philosopher Chooses Action.” The New York Times (Wednesday, March 1, 2023): C1 & C5.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Feb. 28, 2023, and has the title “A Polarizing French Philosopher Chooses War Zones Over Salons.”)