Meanwhile in Romania…

The flag of Romania

While most people in the United States are fixated on the war of words between the executive and judicial branches of our federal government, there is another such battle taking place far from away in the nation of Romania.

I cannot think about Romania without remembering my best friend from graduate school, who was a native of the former Communist state. In one of our first conversations, I told her that when someone said the word “Romania”, I immediately thought of gymnasts. She seemed a bit befuddled and replied, “From what I hear, it’s usually vampires…Transylvania!”

We would all gather for dinner in the cafeteria of the international students’ dorm. There was a group of Russian students that tended to sit together. Aura (for such was my friend’s name), who was normally a courteous person, looked upon them with disdain. When I suggested that perhaps these students should not be equated with the policies of the Russian government, Aura replied as if all Russians were exactly the same. “They invaded my country!” she complained. Continue reading

The Ukraine Crisis Explained in a Series of Maps

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The St. Sophia Cathedral complex in Kiev, Ukraine. Photo by Wikipedia user Elya

Ukraine has been in the news quite a bit lately. What began as a series of protests against President Viktor Yanukovych following his decision not to sign a trade deal with the European Union quickly escalated. Eventually, Yanukovych fled the country (or left orderly, depending on who you ask) and was removed from office by an act of parliament. The parliamentary chairman, Oleksandr Turchynov, became the acting president in charge of an interim government.

Within a few days, we all started hearing the word “Crimea” a lot as this semi-autonomous section of Ukraine became the center of an ever intensifying standoff between the Russian government led by Vladimir Putin, the new Ukrainian government in Kiev, and other foreign countries such as the United States. The rhetoric seems to get more severe by the day, Putin has received permission from his parliament to take military action in Ukraine to protect “Russian interests” (in addition to the apparent Russian military action already taken in Crimea), the Crimean parliament has voted to become part of Russia and put the issue to a public vote, and the Obama administration is struggling to come up with a proper response. Continue reading

Why is Vladimir Putin so Popular?

Russian president Vladimir Putin poses with members of the gold medal winning Russian figure skating team. (He's the guy in the middle of all those hot ladies.) Official Russian presidency photo

Russian president Vladimir Putin poses with members of the gold medal-winning Russian figure skating team. (He’s the guy in the middle of all those hot ladies.) Official Russian presidency photo

If you have been paying much attention to American commentators lately, you would be tempted to think that the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi has less to do with the athletes than it does with the Russian president. Vladimir Putin, never one to cede the limelight to anyone, has been at the center of these games every step of the way, from the time he helped to convince members of the International Olympic Committee to let Russia’s beach resort town host the Olympics (a questionable decision given that there seem to be more naturally occurring palm trees there than piles of naturally occurring snow), to the visually stunning Opening Ceremony (a perfect propaganda opportunity, some would grumble), to posing for photos with newly minted Russian gold medalists in the team figure skating competition. You might be tempted to think these are Putin’s games rather than Russia’s.

There are few international leaders who are demonized in the United States as much as Putin, rightly or wrongly. From his body language in bilateral meetings with U.S. President Obama, to his championing of an anti-homosexual “propaganda” bill, to his insistence on masculine self-promotion, practically everything that Putin does is viewed by many in the United States as arrogant, power-hungry, or downright evil. Likewise, Americans often assume that the Russian president is a dictator and national elections are marred by fraud. Even if they do believe that Russians like Vladimir Putin, most Americans would be hard-pressed to explain why this is the case. Continue reading

What was Missing in the Sochi Opening Ceremony (Other than the Fifth Olympic Ring)

These images show a brief portion of the international broadcast of the 2014 Winter Olympics opening ceremony in Sochi, Russia.  They were captured and posted online by Twitter user @BuzzFeedUK.

These images show a brief portion of the international broadcast of the 2014 Winter Olympics opening ceremony in Sochi, Russia. They were captured and posted online by Twitter user @BuzzFeedUK. Their use for commentary purposes qualifies as fair use.

The introduction to the 2014 Winter Olympics opening ceremony in Sochi may have told us something about how much success women have had in Russian history. Is the United States any better?

The opening ceremony at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games began with a recorded video segment in which a Russian girl went through the Cyrillic alphabet and assigned a prominent Russian personality, achievement, or location to each letter. While I admittedly did not understand all of the references, one thing was fairly clear: there was a notable absence of women, unless you count the little girl narrating the piece.

This made me wonder, “Are there no Russian women who could have been included in this list?” Perhaps Russian history has not been very open to female advancement over the years.  The main Russian females who leap to my mind are Catherine the Great (who was actually German), Anna Karenina (who was fictional), and a bunch of athletes. Were I an expert on ballet, I could undoubtedly find some female names there, but the point still stands that most of the prominent Russians throughout history have been men. Women have not been absent, but they seemingly did not merit inclusion by the team organizing the opening ceremony. Continue reading

2014 Olympic Figure Skating Preview and Medal Predictions

The Iceberg Skating Palace in Sochi, Russia, where the 2014 Olympic figure skating events will be held.  Flickr photo by Atos International

The Iceberg Skating Palace in Sochi, Russia, where the 2014 Olympic figure skating events will be held. Flickr photo by Atos International

I have now published an analysis of where I was right and where I was wrong, as well as a few general comments about the competitions. You can read the new post here.

Last fall, I posted an article looking at the potential medalists in the ladies’ figure skating competition at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.  It was rather a diversion from the usual topics I cover on this site, but given my better-than-average understanding of the sport, I decided it was worth a try, if only so I could have a little bit of fun.  Who would have thought that the article would become the most read in the history of this site?  Not me!  It was a welcome surprise, much like seeing one of the U.S. pairs teams skate a clean program. (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.)

In part because of the obvious level of interest, I am making a return to the subject with just over two weeks before the start of the Olympics on February 6.  There has been almost a full season of competitions since my original article, so there are plenty of updates to share.  This time, I will be covering all five figure skating disciplines: men’s singles, ladies’ singles, pairs, ice dancing, and the first-ever team competition at the Olympics.  Without further ado, let’s get a move on! Continue reading

Vladimir Putin’s Exceptional Op-Ed

Pete Souza (2)

There’s plenty of space to spare between the United States and Russia. White House photo by Pete Souza

A funny thing happened when I opened my copy of the New York Times today.  Well, actually, that’s not quite true: I, like so many Americans, rarely buy a printed version of the Times or any other newspaper.  Instead, I squeeze what I can out of the handful of free articles I can read online each month.  Apparently, I’m just too cheap to reward journalists monetarily for the fruits of their labors. (However, I am happy to reciprocate by making my own articles available free of any fees or advertisements!)

As I was saying, I opened up the New York Times app on my phone and viewed a most interesting op-ed by none other than Russian President “Vladimir V. Putin”.  (The “V” stands for Vladimirovich, a middle name that more than makes up for its redundancy with its ease of memorization.) The headline reads “A Plea for Caution from Russia” and there is an image of a blackened hand with two black stripes running across it. Continue reading

The Russians are Coming

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Photo courtesy of www.kremlin.ru

As President Obama spends the day at the G20 Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, trying desperately not to get caught dissing Vladimir Putin on an open mic, it appears that the Russians are planning to send their own delegation in the opposite direction. Moscow is naturally quite interested in the current congressional debate over the possible use of military force in Syria.  The Atlantic has an article up today by Abby Ohlheiser that details reports of lobbying efforts by the Russians on Capitol Hill.

Russian president Vladimir Putin suggested a plan to directly lobby Congress was in the works on Monday, after meeting with Valentina Matvienko and Sergei Naryshkin, speakers for the upper and lower houses of Russian parliament. They apparently proposed the idea to Putin, arguing that they could work U.S. lawmakers towards a more “balanced” stance on Syria.  Continue reading

Insert Cold War Pun/Analogy Here

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White House photo by Pete Souza

When writing about tensions between the U.S. and Russia, it’s all too tempting to choose a headline that brings to mind the Cold War.  I could have gone for, “New cold front hits U.S.-Russian relations”, “U.S.-Russia relationship enters deep freeze”, or “The Cold War is over, but it still feels frosty!”  Yet, in doing so, I think I would not have demonstrated personal creativity so much as a dependence on overused journalistic metaphors.  Instead, I’m going to go the smart Alec route and tell you to come up with your own headline.

All kidding aside, relations between the U.S. and Russia do appear to be on the downswing, although they may not have reached an all-time nadir. (Please note my impressive use of the word “nadir”, which is a much better testament to my creativity than a corny headline.) President Obama just canceled a planned bilateral summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, and he has decided not to meet with his Russian counterpart on the sidelines of the upcoming G20 gathering in St. Petersburg. Continue reading

Sochi Blues

Friendly mascots prepare to welcome the world to the 2014 Olympics in Sochi - but will they be welcoming the U.S.?

Friendly mascots prepare to welcome the world to the 2014 Olympics in Sochi – but will they be welcoming the United States?

What was meant to be an example of international cooperation is once again a cause for international bickering.

Since the Russian city of Sochi was awarded the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, there have been concerns in some circles that this would give the spotlight to a country with a poor civil rights record, not to mention a city located very close to the tense Caucasus region.  However, it wasn’t until a certain NSA whistleblower decided to take shelter in a Moscow airport that we had a prominent senator suggest that the U.S. should boycott the games.

In an interview with The Hill (a local D.C. paper), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) was asked if the U.S. ought to consider a boycott of the Sochi Olympics if Russia grants asylum to Edward Snowden.  Graham agreed that such an action might be in the cards.

“I would. I would just send the Russians the most unequivocal signal I could send them,” Graham (R-S.C.) said when asked about the possibility of a boycott.

“It might help, because what they’re doing is outrageous,” he said. “We certainly haven’t reset our relationship with Russia in a positive way. At the end of the day, if they grant this guy asylum it’s a breach of the rule of law as we know it and is a slap in the face to the United States.”  Continue reading