Month: May 2006

Russia and Sweden

From time to time I'm struck by how many instances of apparent conflict between the Russian Federation and the countries of Northern Europe, particularly Sweden, seem to be cropping up nowadays. Two of the most recent cases I've noticed are the pressures being exerted on Mikael Storsjö, and the resurfacing of the issues surrounding the 1994 sinking of the Estonia, highlighted in Drew Wilson's recent book on the subject. This book, which I'll discuss in a future post, puts the focus on tensions which have existed between Sweden and Russia ever since the beginning of the Cold War. It also tends to point to a Swedish government cover-up surrounding the circumstances of the sinking of the passenger ferry, and to the possible involvement of Russian forces.

In the same connection, Vilhelm Konnander has an interesting post on a growing diplomatic dispute between Sweden and Russia. In the conclusion of his post, he writes:

Sweden has long been regarded by Moscow as one of Russia's greatest critics in the European Union. This should however not serve to conceal the fact that Stockholm's policy towards Russia has become increasingly conciliatory during the last few years. Thus, Stockholm now criticises Russia only in much severer cases of e.g. human rights' abuses than before. The difference is perhaps that there today is so much more to criticise in Russian behaviour. The threshold for critique has risen but so has also the number of severe cases. It thus seems that Russia and Sweden all the more are heading into a dead end in relations. It remains to be seen whether they will have the will and ability to turn developments around.

Chechnya: 5-year-old boy shoots 6-year-old girl in Grozny

 From Prague Watchdog

 May 26 2006 (my translation)

By Ruslan Isayev

GROZNY, Chechnya – A tragic incident occurred in the Chechen capital yesterday (May 25). A policeman who dropped in at his home for a few minutes left his car unlocked, and his 5-year-old son who was playing in the yard got into it.

In the car the boy discovered his father’s authorized pistol. He began to boast in front of other children and point it at them. At some stage the weapon was fired at a 6-year-old girl from a neighbouring house. The girl died of her injuries on the spot.

An official investigation has been opened, and the policeman who left his authorized weapon unattended has been taken into custody.

Although such cases are very rare in Chechnya, many note that the age of children who know how to use firearms has dropped. It is not at all uncommon for parents, especially officials of the law-enforcement agencies, to teach their children how to handle a sub-machine gun and pistol. There is one purpose – to protect the family in case of necessity.

This dangerous fashion was advertised by the case of a Chechen police officer whose home was attacked by guerrillas. The policeman and his eldest son were killed. His younger son, aged 13, picked up his father’s sub-machine gun and shot several of the attackers in cold blood. The slain policeman was awarded the posthumous title of Hero of Russia, and his surviving son was given a special enrolment in the Suvorov Military College.

For a young teenager to be able to put up such resistance to grown-up men with long experience of fighting would seem impossible. It turned out that the policeman father very often gave his children shooting lessons, training them in the rules of battle.

Chechnya: Protestors demand removal of ORB-2 Police Unit

May 23rd 2006 · Prague Watchdog / Umalt Chadayev (my translation)

Protestors in Grozny demand removal of notorious federal police unit from Chechnya

By Umalt Chadayev

GROZNY, Chechnya – A protest rally by local residents took place today in front of the complex of government buildings in the Chechen capital. The protestors’ basic demand was the removal of the federal police – the Operational/Search Bureau (ORB-2) – from the territory of the republic.

Around thirty people took part in the protest action. Almost all who took part were relatives of local residents who have been subjected to unsanctioned arrest or have disappeared without trace after being detained by law-enforcement officials.

"We have one demand – the removal from Chechnya of ORB-2, whose officials flagrantly violate human rights, detain people illegally and subject them to maltreatment and torture in attempt to make them confess to crimes they haven’t committed,” said one of the rally participants, 48-year-old Dagmara, a resident of Grozny.

“As far as we know, this agency (ORB-2) is not accountable to the local authorities, but is under the direct control of the Southern Federal Region. Our republic’s leadership is therefore unable to intervene in the activity of the officials of this agency who take advantage of their total immunity and are carrying out the most arbitrary repression here.”

In April this year the Moscow-backed Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov also spoke out in rather forceful terms for the removal of ORB-2 from the republic’s territory. Kadyrov accused its officials of illegal arresting local residents and of the brutal treatment of detainees. However, the same accusations are generally made against Kadyrov's own forces, popularly called "Kadyrovites".

"ORB-2 is the only agency that still escapes our attempts to make it observe elementary legal principles,” Kadyrov said. “I know that the people at ORB-2 flagrantly violate the law. They fabricate criminal charges where no crime has taken place. They break into houses wearing masks, presenting themselves as "Kadyrovites", and they kidnap people. I will try to secure the removal of this unit from the republic, as its officials are illegally detaining citizens, beating them up and brutally mistreating them.”

However, in the opinion of a number of observers Kadyrov is only trying to secure the withdrawal of ORB-2 from the republic’s territory because it is under federal control.

"Unlike the other local law-enforcement agencies, ORB-2 is not subordinate to the republic’s leadership. This agency is headed by Colonel Akhmet Khasambekov, a man of rigid principle. Also, he’s not one of ‘Kadyrov’s team’. While it’s possible that ORB-2 officials are guilty of human rights violations, I don’t think Kadyrov’s desire to remove this agency from Chechnya stems only from that,” a local political analyst says.

Speaking at Delphi – IV

(Horace Engdahl on Pia Tafdrup [my tr.], continued)

One must, however, be careful not to exaggerate the homogeneity in Pia Tafdrup’s writing. Her poetry has a shadow side, which one does not see at first because of all the sunlight in one’s eyes. After the large-scale Queen’s Gate, named after the entrance for the woman who never existed in patriarchal Jerusalem but whom the poet’s imagination had to add, after the expansive orchestration of the hymns in a major key comes the unexpected contrast of Thousandborn, a collection of aphoristic four-liners written in a tone of defiance and resignation. The language which caressed is now the mouth of a pistol. Love is a long goodbye after the first sovereign soaring over the abyss. I can’t resist quoting from this book in translation:

Don’t look for poetry’s black box,
it hasn’t recorded any answers,
is merely full of the dream’s counter-questions
or a silence to feel one’s way into.

The virtue of a collection like this one – apart from the fact that one is allowed to consign oneself to melancholy, according to Leopold the condition in which one sees things as they are – is that it sharpens one’s view of a rebellious aspect in Pia Tafdrup. One rereads the poem “Meteor” in Queen’s Gate, in which the poet’s I most closely resembles a life-threatening war machine. One discovers that the prevailing season in her poetry is actually winter, the harsh, windy Danish winter with its endless wet snow. One finds the terrible “Waiting Blow” in The Bridge of Moments, a poem about how the effort to reach someone who has been close to one must be given up for ever, in the same way as one accepts an incurable illness.

From Thousandborn I should also like to quote this scene, which could equally well be a portrait of poetry:

The boy up in the tree
sits there all day,
he sings loudly and refuses to come down
from his branch and be a person.

How well one understands the boy! If Pia Tafdrup’s poetry is at last dominated by openness and not by a stance of aversion, it is thanks to the secret union between poetic creation and the inexorable labour of time, which turns everything into its opposite. From emptiness and torpor, a reborn I finally rises, “thousandborn”, as for the romantics of an earlier age, when the Word made the world’s condition change from dead to living. “Between always and never,” the final poem in The Innermost Zone, is about the incomprehensible moment of change.

Between always and never
things happen
for a breathless second
when one least expects it
the world changes

sunk upon itself
at a depth of seven hearts
is the thing one suddenly imagines
a time when the stone
begins to bleed

People who are in alliance with change are always interested in reality.

Horace Engdahl is the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy.


See also: Speaking at Delphi
Speaking at Delphi – II
Speaking at Delphi – III

Speaking at Delphi – III


(Horace Engdahl [my tr.] on Pia Tafdrup, continued)

The unreality of reality is the fundamental problem of modern literature, and Pia Tafdrup’s writing is not, of course, free of it. In the very first poem of her first collection, a poem called “One Day” – one of the most moving in her œuvre – the poet is sitting on a bench in a park, but its planks disappear and she goes plummeting down into a childhood longing for real life where everything is in earnest. The objects in the game are dummies, which one day will be replaced by the real thing. As children we have probably all thought: one day we’ll bake real bread, sail real boats, and so on. Caress and be caressed by real bodies. When we grow up. But the poet still lacks that real bench, that real time. Life never became quite as real as we planned it to be in the days when we pretended chestnut leaves were boats.

From this point of departure, Pia Tafdrup’s poems always strive essentially for the moment when there will be a real bench underneath her and everything will be here and now. The tangible sends her into euphoria. She is a poet of the joy of touch, perhaps because the tangibility of things is seldom a real obstacle. As in Peter Pan, in an unguarded moment one can always go soaring up in the air and see everything from far above.

“I speak/ and so I soar.” The enjoyment of the sense of power in writing poems can sometimes make one think of Edith Södergran, and sometimes the poet is close to “Triumph of Being” – I am thinking, for example, of the introductory poem of Spring Tide, “Raised to Birth”, where she calls on us to live even though the signs of the times point to destruction.

It has been said that the wounded body is the centre of Tafdrup’s poetry, but I see in this view a reflection of a fashion in literary criticism which is most at home with loss, absence, cutting and silence. The wound is certainly there, but it is not a simple story of suffering. When in one of her most frequently quoted poems an angel breaks her silence, the angel being the author herself in the innocence of childhood, this destruction is the beginning of something new. It signifies the possibility of writing. When in a later poem love gives the former angel wings of stone, it is not, as I see it, in order to capture her but in order to invite her to remain on the earth, where all that she seeks exists.

As a beginner she probably saw out of the corner of her eye how busy the traffic on the Via Negativa was and was not unhappy to reject that route. Her rains are the kind that are followed by rainbows, not by Noah’s Floods or stars that come loose from their moorings. Even if one shrinks from generalizing about Danish and Swedish character, it’s hard not to reflect on how much less angst-ridden Oehlenschläger is than Stagnelius, how much lighter Sophus Claussen is than Fröding.

In Pia Tafdrup’s world, man is not free to invent himself, he has a gender (and not only a genus), he has a body and a history which calls through him. Affirmation requires a capacity for being passive, not only active, or perhaps an ability to linger in a state where active and passive cannot be distinguished between. One of those states is love, and another is religious feeling, which expresses itself in one’s relation to words: “I am a body/which language touches” (‘White Fever’). Some will perhaps be shocked when she praises the chasm of delight she experiences when the lover can do what he likes with her (“I lie down/I expose myself/I become your creature/for a moment”). But she is the girl who has learned trust in the unknown, swimming on her father’s back over the forests of seaweed in order to let go at the right moment, and soar.

Her favourite pet creatures, the whales, are a metaphor for the greatest forces in life, love, art and death. Their games in the ocean bear witness to a sovereign power on which the poet can call whenever life seems too cramped. It seems to me that it’s a breakout of this kind she describes in her recently published novel Surrender. The book is a daydream about losing control – the sort of daydream only intellectuals can have. Pascha, the main character, climbs over a fence and enters a strange house which belongs to a man she doesn’t know. “I just have to feel that I exist,” she thinks. The banality of the way events subsequently turn out is certainly a bitter lesson for this young woman, but at the same time it does not cancel the liberating giddiness caused by climbing the fence.

In Pia Tafdrup’s poems this violent encroachment does not prompt a fear of being invaded; instead, it brings fascination, delight, new eyes. This is also true of her relation to poetic antecedents, which seems unusually free of anxiety. In her texts she makes Emily Dickinson a queen without a throne. She unhesitatingly used erotic signal words from the Södergran repertoire. When she makes the journey into her Jewish heritage in the collection Territorial Song she takes possession of The Song of Songs and the Psalms.

(to be continued)

See also: Speaking at Delphi
Speaking at Delphi – II

Mikael Storsj√∂ – Finland Exerts Pressure

Mikael Storsjö, the Finland-Swedish IT entrepreneur who hosted the Kavkaz Center servers which were seized by Swedish police on May 6, and who was subsequently targeted by disinformation posted to a Russian-language site posing as one of KC’s own, has now commented on recent events which I highlighted in two posts to this blog – here and here.

One or two points to note: Mikael writes that Visami Tutuyev is no longer working for KC. Tutuyev's son, Zaur, is now in Finland with his family, after Mikael arranged for them to travel there. Zaur as applied for asylum, but Mikael says that “apparently I myself will end up in court because I “'falsified documentation’, i.e. my invitation, as in it I only mentioned a visit to Finland, not that Zaur was coming to seek asylum! I know it sounds crazy, but apparently our authorities want to prevent people entering the country on visitor’s visas from applying for asylum – is it better then that they come here with forged papers and by paying human smugglers? It will be interesting to see what happens.” (my tr. from Swedish)

In fact, however, Mikael notes, “Zaur can be 100% sure about getting refugee status, as the son of his father. Zaur was also 1½ years ago quite badly injured by some mob in Baku, you don't have to be paranoid to understand why and by whom he was attacked.” (verbatim, English)

More background: “Zaur lived in Ukraine, where he got an allowance to stay for 3 months each time. We tried first to get visa from Kiev, I spoke with the Embassy personnel, and everything was OK. But suddenly it wasn't, he got refusal. I called to the Embassy, and asked why. I got the very strong impression it was due to his ethnical background – they didn't want to grant visa for a Chechen family from Grozny. In the year 2005 373.483 visas were applied for by citizens of Russian federation. There were only 5.198 refusals, i.e.98,61 % of applicants got their visa. I can't understand what is the justification that makes those close to 370.000 Russians more welcome to my country than my friends are. (verbatim)

“We made a new request through our Moscow Embassy. I got some politicians involved, contacted Ambassador himself, I wrote maybe 5 letters and made some 20 calls there. Zaur then got a 7 day visa for himself, his wife and 5 year old son, and now they are here.” (verbatim)

The outcome of Mikael’s case will depend, he thinks, on the resolution of a court case currently underway in Finland. It concerns a Serbian family who sought asylum in Finland, but who are now, together with their lawyer, accused of having misled the authorities. The case has been reported in Finland's Swedish-language daily newspaper, Hufvudstadsbladet.

In a future post I'll look at some of the – often complicated – issues that relate to Kavkaz Center and the operation of its websites.
See also: Mikael Storsjö Radio Interview

Speaking at Delphi – II

(Horace Engdahl [my tr.] on Pia Tafdrup, continued)

Pia Tafdrup made no secret of the fact that what she did was Art with a capital letter, and that the literary canon was her bread and butter. In 1991, on top of everything else, she published a poetics. Its title was Walking Over The Water. She placed herself in the ranks of authoritative figures all the way from Aristotle to her direct antecedent Paul la Cour, discussing the nature of poetry, the ways in which it is written, and how it is to be understood. It’s a triumphant hubris of the kind that’s witnessed when Swedish golfer Annika Sörenstam insists on playing with the men.

There is only one thing one with which one can successfully compare Pia Tafdrup’s writing, and that is the experience of falling in love. In her poems it’s as though that experience can only really be compared with one thing – writing. What writing and falling in love have in common is that, as phenomena, they are all-consuming. They lay claim to everything and relate everything to themselves. They are rapid, cumulative events, descending like an assault. Improbably enough, they are both triggered by words.

In Pia Tafdrup’s poems, words stimulate the blood. In what is one of the most realistic love poems I have read, she has the ‘I’ of the poem conquer the beloved by saying his name as they both wander aimlessly across a rainy urban landscape, in a way he has never heard it said before, as though he had been given a completely new name, the one he really wants to be called, a word that unclothes him. The poet whispers him naked in his own name, naming him so that he falls completely under her power.

According to the psychologists, falling in love is a controlled psychosis. Readers who give themselves to Pia Tafdrup’s texts are invited to a folie à deux for the duration of the poem. No irony that might create uncertainty about whom the poem is meant for obtrudes between the poet and her addressee. Everyone is equally worthy. There is an unfashionable generosity in this way of writing, one that seems to have conquered the public’s natural mistrust of poetry and made Pia Tafdrup a poet who is widely read.

Sometimes her poems turn inward on themselves and become metaphoric fakir acts, climbing ropes of their own creation, or drinking themselves as Indian conjurers do. But seen against the background of an intellectual era which has been obsessed with the idea of language’s self-reference and materiality, these games are infrequent and are not intended to sow doubt in the reality of things or in poetry’s ability to talk about the world. The female body and the elements are as present in her language as the grammar. The sky menstruates in the rain, the star shines like the first white spot of the baby’s head as it emerges at the moment of childbirth. The ploughed field – Pia Tafdrup is a farmer’s daughter – is like the open page in a holy book, as in the poetry of Yesenin. In the water of intercourse the sperms are fish. When love is lost they are frozen into the ice.

She makes Uranus and Gaia rise again in the dream poem “Sleep Hieroglyph” in The Whales, and yet the body remains concrete and does not enter the realm of the mythical and allegorical. I am not even sure that the relation between nature and subject can be called metaphorical. It’s an inflow and outflow between two basins, the ebb and flow of language, exultantly affirmed in the book of fortune, Spring Tide, which is written in the spirit of the full moon and the sacred number 7. In Pia Tafdrup’s most magnificent collection of poems, Queen’s Gate, this theme swells into a mighty hymn to the sea, nine pages of inspiration in the style of Walt Whitman. But that is the kind of thing that can only be done once!

(to be continued)

See also: Speaking at Delphi