The Don…and the Donbass

 

When The Godfather opened, fifty years ago this month, one thing that really made it hit home to so many Americans, especially “white ethnics” like me, and probably many of you, was its sense of rough urban justice; when crime is out of control and the police can’t or won’t protect you, there’s a strongman who’ll stand up for you and avenge the humiliations and injustices you’ve suffered, even if there’s always a price to be paid.

That was New York City in the Seventies; painfully aware of how far it had fallen, aware and bitter about how much of it had been the city’s own fault, defensive and angry about having it rubbed in our faces by outsiders.

And that’s also the story of Russia in the Nineties. To many of the working class Russians who experienced them, Putin is Don Corleone; sure, they’ll say, his methods are undeniably rough, but it’s a tough neighborhood and there are a lot of scores to settle.

Russia was screwed in the Nineties, yes. But they weren’t simply innocent victims; the transition away from Communism was never going to be soft and easy. We didn’t demand that they allow gangsters to have free run of the place. That part was them, not us.

There are a few points where I have to give even the devil his due. I wouldn’t have pursued Clinton’s air war against Serbia in 1999, and many Hollywood conservatives protested it as firmly as we could. Even the millionaire guys walked a picket line when Madeleine Albright gave a speech at the Beverly Hills Hotel. We had media coverage that didn’t air. No impact—zip, zero, nada. To the media, Hollywood being antiwar was only adorable most of the time, not all of the time.

Serbia is Russia’s little brother. That particular war seems to have really stuck in Putin’s craw. It’s a moot point now. We were never going to make the guy into Thomas Jefferson or James Madison, but we could and should have handled Russia better.

There’s a type of liberal who seemed to have no problem with Putin until he declared himself, basically, anti-gay. The dioxin poisoning, the Corleone-style government, etc. was nothing compared to the supreme importance of “He won’t let them read ‘Heather Has Two Mommies’!”

Of course, there’s also a type of conservative who’s the exact opposite. “Sure, he’s lying scum and a nuclear-armed thug who hates us. But the really important thing is, he knows what bathroom to use.”

As of Monday, February 21, Putin’s strategy looked like it was going to continue his shrewd ability to play a limited stake into a win. The world hesitated to evaluate what it would mean to go to war over internationally recognized Ukrainian territory that had more or less been controlled by pro-Russian locals for eight years. There were already Russian troops there. There was just enough ambiguity to give the cautious a reason to hesitate.

He could have got the Donbass “countries” up and running and made them a tempting economic magnet for the alleged pro-Russian hordes in the rest of Ukraine. Sure, Kiev and most of the West would have rightly steamed over it, but the way the rest of the world would have seen it, Kiev wouldn’t have lost anything they hadn’t already lost.

That was Monday.

Once he rolled tanks five minutes after his predawn speech on Thursday, his winning streak ended. Putin wanted Crimea 2014 writ large; at best, he’s got Hungary 1956 on his hands now.  “Let them hate us, as long as they fear us” has the sound of cynical truth, but when it shatters, they no longer fear you, and they hate you for generations.

There’s always a place for speculation and strategy debates, and getting inside the mind and viewpoint of an opponent doesn’t make you a traitor or weakling. IMHO, there can sometimes be a problem of candor when someone starts out merely saying “Putin has a point about history” and then continues on to give every indication that they themselves see it totally his way. “Not that I’m defending that point of view…” That can be sincere, of course.

There was a time when it was useful to understand things from Putin’s side. There was a point when it was useful to listen to OJ Simpson complaining about his marriage. But when these guys reached for the knives, I lost my motivation to try to understand their points of view.

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  1. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    Superb. 

    • #1
  2. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    Fair enough. But what is our goal in all of this? 

    • #2
  3. Franco Member
    Franco
    @Franco

    The Godfather is my ‘bible’ for references to real-life situations. It’s how things work pretty much, and the older I get the more it holds true.

    We are living in a world of gangsters, some ‘nicer’ than others, but ultimately it’s hard to say.

    Famous exchange between Michael and Kay:

    You’re being naïve Michael, Senators don’t have people killed.

    Who’s being naïve, Kay?

    And in Godfather II, the scene from the Senate hearings where Pentangeles talks about “buffers” somewhat comically. The Senators, among  them Sen. Geary who we know was corrupt,  and then became in full control of the Corleone family, investigating the crime families, acting innocent and appalled at this ‘organized’ crime as though, to use Michael’s line from another scene “Senator we are all part of the same hypocrisy”, they aren’t also part of ‘organized’ crime.

    The undertone for me is how many ‘buffers’ a gangster has.

    Putin doesn’t have as many ‘buffers’. He has enough for a dictator though. 

    I honestly couldn’t vouch for most US politicians that, were they installed as the head of a government that lacked checks and balances, that they wouldn’t start to act without conscience.

     

    • #3
  4. BDB Coolidge
    BDB
    @BDB

    Gary McVey: There was a time when it was useful to understand things from Putin’s side. There was a point when it was useful to listen to OJ Simpson complaining about his marriage. But when these guys reached for the knives, I lost my motivation to try to understand their points of view.

    This and much more is spot-on!

    Somebody here wrote a post about seeing it from Putin’s point of view, but now that he has in fact invaded Ukraine — I no longer care what Putin thinks or says.  Let him un-ass Ukraine and then we can talk.

    Until then, I think our “stated” goals wrt Ukraine are right — enable them to stay in the fight, while bankrupting Russia.  Meanwhile, our actions (as ever) are at odds with those goals.  Sigh.  If this administration played the market, they’d be wrung out by stops every fifteen minutes.

    • #4
  5. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    Spot on, Gary.

    • #5
  6. WI Con Member
    WI Con
    @WICon

    BDB (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: There was a time when it was useful to understand things from Putin’s side. There was a point when it was useful to listen to OJ Simpson complaining about his marriage. But when these guys reached for the knives, I lost my motivation to try to understand their points of view.

    This and much more is spot-on!

    Somebody here wrote a post about seeing it from Putin’s point of view, but now that he has in fact invaded Ukraine — I no longer care what Putin thinks or says. Let him un-ass Ukraine and then we can talk.

    Until then, I think our “stated” goals wrt Ukraine are right — enable them to stay in the fight, while bankrupting Russia. Meanwhile, our actions (as ever) are at odds with those goals. Sigh. If this administration played the market, they’d be wrung out by stops every fifteen minutes.

    I agree, was more sympathetic to his concerns prior to the hostilities breaking out on the scale they did. 

    I’d like to know more about how borders were set when the dissolution of the USSR occurred. The security “assurances” that Clinton gave Ukraine, what specifically were they? Were the Ukraine leaders so naive or unfamiliar with our process for ratifying treaties that they didn’t understand it wasn’t worth the paper it was written on?

    Not sure how this all shakes out but if Putin is thwarted and has to withdraw, I’d support more humiliation of The Bear as far as borders and ‘spheres’ of influence than I was just months ago. 

     

    • #6
  7. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    What a great post, Gary.

    the transition away from Communism was never going to be soft and easy. We didn’t demand that they allow gangsters to have free run of the place. That part was them, not us.

    I remember the weird time of Gorbachev and Reagan. In my lifetime there had never not been a Soviet Union. I couldn’t even imagine it. And I wasn’t surprised when it was off to a rocky start. It always seemed to me that the Russians just never got the hang of freedom or capitalism.  They seemed to think capitalism=oligarchy.  They went from feudalism to monarchy to Communism, which meant there was always someone, some entity, above them taking care of them from cradle to grave. Sudden freedom also means sudden personal responsibility.  Scary.   So it might have been more comfortable for them to allow the rise of the Russian mafia and the oligarchs. And there has always been a faction in Russia who wanted to return to Communism.  Funny that the “Conservatives” in the Kremlin are Communists.

    • #7
  8. The Scarecrow Thatcher
    The Scarecrow
    @TheScarecrow

    Gary McVey: There was a time when it was useful to understand things from Putin’s side. There was a point when it was useful to listen to OJ Simpson complaining about his marriage. But when these guys reached for the knives, I lost my motivation to try to understand their points of view.

    This is very well said. It also applies to all the rioting in our cities the past few years.

    You may have a grievance, but once you pick up the first brick I’m no longer on your side.

    Or, at least, Once you pick up the first brick, the problem is no longer the problem – we now have a new problem.

    • #8
  9. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    The Scarecrow (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: There was a time when it was useful to understand things from Putin’s side. There was a point when it was useful to listen to OJ Simpson complaining about his marriage. But when these guys reached for the knives, I lost my motivation to try to understand their points of view.

    This is very well said. It also applies to all the rioting in our cities the past few years.

    You may have a grievance, but once you pick up the first brick I’m no longer on your side.

    Or, at least, Once you pick up the first brick, the problem is no longer the problem – we now have a new problem.

    Totally agree. 

    • #9
  10. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Clavius (View Comment):

    Spot on, Gary.

    Thanks, Clavius. It was your suggestion that turned a comment into this slightly more elaborated post. 

    • #10
  11. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    Maybe you should do a review of Brat and Brat2. They perfectly encapsulate a lot about these times and continuing attitudes. 

     

    • #11
  12. Franco Member
    Franco
    @Franco

    Gary, you seem to know so much about Hollywood lore, so maybe you are completely familiar with this commentary by Copolla. I just happened to watch this a few days ago, and it’s fascinating.

    It’s two hours long but filled with nuggets about all aspects of this film.

    What people need to know is, that perhaps the greatest film ever made could easily have been ruined by studio executives at many junctures.

    That, and it came in horribly over-budget totaling…. 5.5 million dollars!

    • #12
  13. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Hang On (View Comment):

    Maybe you should do a review of Brat and Brat2. They perfectly encapsulate a lot about these times and continuing attitudes.

     

    Yeah, they sure do! Where’d you see them, Hang On? I’d bet The Reticulator has seen them too. I wish more Americans had the chance to see what the post-Soviet years were like. For those of you who haven’t seen it, Brat (Brother) is the life and times of a young hoodlum. Like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, he’s an attractive villain, steely-nerved and resourceful. He looks like a choir boy. But he’ll kill you.  

    Brat became such a hit that Brat 2 had the money to film sequences in Chicago. The movie is entertaining but not quite as honest or pure as the first one. One thing that was true to life was the comically flashy, trashy outfit that his brother adopts when he comes to America. It’s his American dream to dress like a 70s playboy/pimp. 

    • #13
  14. WI Con Member
    WI Con
    @WICon

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    What a great post, Gary.

    the transition away from Communism was never going to be soft and easy. We didn’t demand that they allow gangsters to have free run of the place. That part was them, not us.

    I remember the weird time of Gorbachev and Reagan. In my lifetime there had never not been a Soviet Union. I couldn’t even imagine it. And I wasn’t surprised when it was off to a rocky start. It always seemed to me that the Russians just never got the hang of freedom or capitalism. They seemed to think capitalism=oligarchy. They went from feudalism to monarchy to Communism, which meant there was always someone, some entity, above them taking care of them from cradle to grave. Sudden freedom also means sudden personal responsibility. Scary. So it might have been more comfortable for them to allow the rise of the Russian mafia and the oligarchs. And there has always been a faction in Russia who wanted to return to Communism. Funny that the “Conservatives” in the Kremlin are Communists.

    I’d also be interested in what the advice and assistance we gave the Yeltsin in those early years, was it as ill-conceived as the state department & NGO’s running things in Iraq and Afghanistan? I was young and not following events like now but one would have thought there’d be a ‘Marshall-like Plan’ for the ruined, formerly Soviet Republics. 

    • #14
  15. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    WI Con (View Comment):

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    What a great post, Gary.

    the transition away from Communism was never going to be soft and easy. We didn’t demand that they allow gangsters to have free run of the place. That part was them, not us.

    I remember the weird time of Gorbachev and Reagan. In my lifetime there had never not been a Soviet Union. I couldn’t even imagine it. And I wasn’t surprised when it was off to a rocky start. It always seemed to me that the Russians just never got the hang of freedom or capitalism. They seemed to think capitalism=oligarchy. They went from feudalism to monarchy to Communism, which meant there was always someone, some entity, above them taking care of them from cradle to grave. Sudden freedom also means sudden personal responsibility. Scary. So it might have been more comfortable for them to allow the rise of the Russian mafia and the oligarchs. And there has always been a faction in Russia who wanted to return to Communism. Funny that the “Conservatives” in the Kremlin are Communists.

    I’d also be interested in what the advice and assistance we gave the Yeltsin in those early years, was it as ill-conceived as the state department & NGO’s running things in Iraq and Afghanistan? I was young and not following events like now but one would have thought there’d be a ‘Marshall-like Plan’ for the ruined, formerly Soviet Republics.

    Yep, you’d think so. But there wasn’t. We shipped over a whole bunch of fashionably dressed consultants who gave them Wall Street advice that was wildly naive for their conditions and state of development. They were like the old GOP–“Follow these simple rules, and by the year 2070, your grandchildren will be able to become manicurists and baristas”. 

    • #15
  16. Iver Mectin Prussian Oligarch Inactive
    Iver Mectin Prussian Oligarch
    @Pseudodionysius

    The Godfather is my ‘bible’ for references to real-life situations. It’s how things work pretty much, and the older I get the more it holds true.

    Edward Dowd also believes the same thing.

    • #16
  17. Iver Mectin Prussian Oligarch Inactive
    Iver Mectin Prussian Oligarch
    @Pseudodionysius

    And don’t forget Jeffrey Sachs feature role in helping the Russians become who they are today.

    • #17
  18. Raxxalan Member
    Raxxalan
    @Raxxalan

    Hang On (View Comment):

    Fair enough. But what is our goal in all of this?

    I think from a coldly cynical American point of view my hope would be that either Putin fails outright or pays an extremely high cost for this without the US having to be involved in a direct military confrontation.  We (the US) do not have a goal in this because our elites are feckless and we never bothered to develop a consistent world view or geostrategy to deal with the world after the cold war.  Additionally the cold war was the last time we really had adults in charge of the two parties, so we were unprepared to be serious.

    • #18
  19. The Girlie Show Member
    The Girlie Show
    @CatIII

    Franco (View Comment):
    I honestly couldn’t vouch for most US politicians that, were they installed as the head of a government that lacked checks and balances, that they wouldn’t start to act without conscience.

    Hence the reason we have checks and balances.

    • #19
  20. Jim McConnell Member
    Jim McConnell
    @JimMcConnell

    Raxxalan (View Comment):

    Hang On (View Comment):

    Fair enough. But what is our goal in all of this?

    I think from a coldly cynical American point of view my hope would be that either Putin fails outright or pays an extremely high cost for this without the US having to be involved in a direct military confrontation. We (the US) do not have a goal in this because our elites are feckless and we never bothered to develop a consistent world view or geostrategy to deal with the world after the cold war. Additionally the cold war was the last time we really had adults in charge of the two parties, so we were unprepared to be serious.

    Our “leaders” vision does not extend beyond their next election campaign. Every thing they say and do is with that in mind.

    • #20
  21. BDB Coolidge
    BDB
    @BDB

    Jim McConnell (View Comment):

    Raxxalan (View Comment):

    Hang On (View Comment):

    Fair enough. But what is our goal in all of this?

    I think from a coldly cynical American point of view my hope would be that either Putin fails outright or pays an extremely high cost for this without the US having to be involved in a direct military confrontation. We (the US) do not have a goal in this because our elites are feckless and we never bothered to develop a consistent world view or geostrategy to deal with the world after the cold war. Additionally the cold war was the last time we really had adults in charge of the two parties, so we were unprepared to be serious.

    Our “leaders” vision does not extend beyond their next election campaign. Every thing they say and do is with that in mind.

    You are too kind.  This is true of some of them certainly, but there are many of them on a long-term program which is working just fine.

    • #21
  22. GFHandle Member
    GFHandle
    @GFHandle

    Quadragesima Maximus (View Comment):

    And don’t forget Jeffrey Sachs feature role in helping the Russians become who they are today.

    Was he the “shock therapy” guy?

    • #22
  23. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist
    @WesternChauvinist

    Gary McVey: There was a time when it was useful to understand things from Putin’s side. There was a point when it was useful to listen to OJ Simpson complaining about his marriage. But when these guys reached for the knives, I lost my motivation to try to understand their points of view.

    Exactly! I don’t care why he commits acts of evil, I only care that he does. And I can walk and chew gum at the same time and care about domestic persecution of J6 defendants as well. These things are not morally mutually exclusive. 

    • #23
  24. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Western Chauvinist (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: There was a time when it was useful to understand things from Putin’s side. There was a point when it was useful to listen to OJ Simpson complaining about his marriage. But when these guys reached for the knives, I lost my motivation to try to understand their points of view.

    Exactly! I don’t care why he commits acts of evil, I only care that he does. And I can walk and chew gum at the same time and care about domestic persecution of J6 defendants as well. These things are not morally mutually exclusive.

    And it doesn’t have to be as simple as “Russia bad Ukraine good,” but it can be as simple as “Russian actions in Ukraine bad” and “War of Independence.”

    • #24
  25. lowtech redneck Coolidge
    lowtech redneck
    @lowtech redneck

    Iver Mectin Prussian Oligarch (View Comment):

    And don’t forget Jeffrey Sachs feature role in helping the Russians become who they are today.

    Check out William Easterly, he has some good critiques/takedowns against that sanctimonious prat, and the other self-important ‘experts’ of that era.

    • #25
  26. lowtech redneck Coolidge
    lowtech redneck
    @lowtech redneck

    GFHandle (View Comment):

    Quadragesima Maximus (View Comment):

    And don’t forget Jeffrey Sachs feature role in helping the Russians become who they are today.

    Was he the “shock therapy” guy?

    Yes; he later graduated into a UN hack shaming people for not granting more money and power to that organization under the guise of guided third-world development efforts.

    • #26
  27. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Traveling in eastern Europe, especially in the bad old days, always had me trying to factor out so many things that are different there. The culture of the different countries vary a lot, of course, and some common factors are really obvious: You’re in the Old World, constricted by past conflicts–clashing empires, religions, and languages. And Marxism–even the poorest countries in western Europe didn’t have the resentful, frustrated attitudes of the east. 

    But there was something else, another major factor beyond a timeless landscape and the chains of Communism. The best of their films had a deeper understanding of the tragic aspects of life than ours did. I’ve heard it said–you Southrons out there can correct me–that the literature of the American South, unlike that of our North, is infused with a knowledge that good doesn’t always prevail, that sadness is everyone’s lot sooner or later, that some humility in the face of God, or fate, is in order. Eastern Europe knows that, too. That’s a vitamin we could use more of in our own cultural diet. It’s a powerful reason why Polish films, for example, are among the strongest Catholic works in today’s world. 

    But take it from the Irish and Scots: a bitter acceptance of the randomness of bad fortune can be taken too far, particularly–how shall I say this?–when alcohol gets involved. This is also very much a part of Russian life. 

    • #27
  28. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Traveling in eastern Europe, especially in the bad old days, always had me trying to factor out so many things that are different there. The culture of the different countries vary a lot, of course, and some common factors are really obvious: You’re in the Old World, constricted by past conflicts–clashing empires, religions, and languages. And Marxism–even the poorest countries in western Europe didn’t have the resentful, frustrated attitudes of the east.

    But there was something else, another major factor beyond a timeless landscape and the chains of Communism. The best of their films had a deeper understanding of the tragic aspects of life than ours did. I’ve heard it said–you Southrons out there can correct me–that the literature of the American South, unlike that of our North, is infused with a knowledge that good doesn’t always prevail, that sadness is everyone’s lot sooner or later, that some humility in the face of God, or fate, is in order. Eastern Europe knows that, too. That’s a vitamin we could use more of in our own cultural diet. It’s a powerful reason why Polish films, for example, are among the strongest Catholic works in today’s world.

    But take it from the Irish and Scots: a bitter acceptance of the randomness of bad fortune can be taken too far, particularly–how shall I say this?–when alcohol gets involved. This is also very much a part of Russian life.

    What’s the line about the Irish?  All their stories are tragedies?  Something like that.

    • #28
  29. Gazpacho Grande' Coolidge
    Gazpacho Grande'
    @ChrisCampion

    Hang On (View Comment):

    Fair enough. But what is our goal in all of this?

    To admire Gary’s writing.  It’s delicious.

    • #29
  30. Gazpacho Grande' Coolidge
    Gazpacho Grande'
    @ChrisCampion

    Franco (View Comment):

    The Godfather is my ‘bible’ for references to real-life situations. It’s how things work pretty much, and the older I get the more it holds true.

    We are living in a world of gangsters, some ‘nicer’ than others, but ultimately it’s hard to say.

    Famous exchange between Michael and Kay:

    You’re being naïve Michael, Senators don’t have people killed.

    Who’s being naïve, Kay?

    And in Godfather II, the scene from the Senate hearings where Pentangeles talks about “buffers” somewhat comically. The Senators, among them Sen. Geary who we know was corrupt, and then became in full control of the Corleone family, investigating the crime families, acting innocent and appalled at this ‘organized’ crime as though, to use Michael’s line from another scene “Senator we are all part of the same hypocrisy”, they aren’t also part of ‘organized’ crime.

    The undertone for me is how many ‘buffers’ a gangster has.

    Putin doesn’t have as many ‘buffers’. He has enough for a dictator though.

    I honestly couldn’t vouch for most US politicians that, were they installed as the head of a government that lacked checks and balances, that they wouldn’t start to act without conscience.

     

    This made me theorize in my head how I’d engage in that conversation with Michael.  That’s right – I acted a scene in my head with Al Pacino.

    I did pretty well.  Suck it, Hollywood!

    • #30
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