A light serving of Kyiv culture and politics. (Cue laughter.)


12 Angry Men

The US Embassy’s public diplomacy wing screens a film every Friday at the city’s American Library (conveniently hosted by my university here, Kyiv-Mohyla Academy). A contact of mine asked if I could fill in for a diplomat this evening, and I took the opportunity to show 12 Angry Men (1957).

The film follows twelve jurors as they deliberate over the life of a teenager accused of stabbing his father to death. An open-and-shut case, all but one thinks at first. One man wants to get to his baseball game; one can’t wait to put the rotten kid down; all of them are tired of six days of trial and want to get the voting over with. And then there’s one who thinks they should at least think over the facts of the case before sending him to his execution.

The men at the start of the film are not angry in the least. The anger first comes from the unsettling suggestion that to pass judgment without the use of reason– on the basis of unreasoned opinion– is irresponsible. It flares as the men realize that some of their fellow jurors do not wish to consider the evidence at all– that they are not just irresponsible, but immoral. It erupts when they realize that some members of the jury cannot reason at all– that some might wish for the boy to die to satisfy some passion within themselves.

Not just one of the best American movies ever made, 12 Angry Men also provides a gateway to political philosophy. The phases of the film’s ethical dilemmas match Nietzsche’s broad sketch of the history of morals: first consequentialism, as appeals are made to weigh the physical death of the accused teen; then intentionalism, as the jurors question why they should care about the trial or death at all; then pre-morality, as the room discovers that the internal struggles of some jurors constrict their ability to reason at all. The man whose dignity rests on his sense of intellectual superiority, the dweeb who lacks the confidence to think for himself, the fast-talker afraid to break from his cynicism, the failed father who masks his shame with anger toward all youth. Yet the film presents a challenge to Nietzsche’s nihilism: the one man who compels the room to question the case and ultimately themselves does so not by compulsion, but by his example of an honorable man. The appeal to reason, with a great deal of effort, overcomes the reasoned argument against reason itself. Through the presence of a Socrates in the room, we are able to see that it is Socrates who is again on trial.

I introduced the film by explaining that the original screenplay came around in 1954, the height and beginning of the descent of McCathyism. Literally: just take a look at the poll midway or so down the Wikipedia page (fully cited here, of course). The question debated in American society at the moment centered on fear of the Soviet Union and how to confront those demagogues who would use that fear to debase the principles of American society. The play and film suggest a deeper problem: the true thing to fear is apathy toward justice, an enemy within rather than without. It is a deeply Greek notion.

Klinias the Cretan tells the Athenian Stranger that he condemns "the mindlessness of the many, who do not realize that for everyone throughout the whole of life an endless war exists against all cities." (625e) The Athenian Stranger soon rebuts that "anyone who thought this way would never become a correct statesman, if he looked first and only to external wars, and would never become a lawgiver in the strict sense, if he didn't legislate the things of war for the sake of peace rather than the things of peace for the sake of what pertains to war." (628d-e) -Plato's Laws, the Pangle translation

Showing this to a Ukrainian audience proved to be an enlightening experience for me. First, I was reminded once again how incredibly well many university students speak English, something that should not surprise me given how common life-long English instruction is around the world, but which nonetheless reminds me how inept Americans tend to be with foreign languages (a trend that I think has started to change for the better).

Second, and more importantly, they offered extremely insightful comments and analysis. It was very clear that the men’s prejudice undermined the jury; it was even clear to some that apathy of this sort threatens the justice system. One woman caught the Cold War undertones (I totally mentioned McCarthy during of my introduction); one amazing gentleman suggested that Henry Fonda’s role as producer confirms the film’s humanitarian undertones. One student told me she had read the play in a drama class, and played the role of the defiant juror. Another brilliantly pointed out that each juror represents a particular human type (a notion that implies much about the need for philosophers to have courage). I was deeply impressed.

I enjoyed explaining jury duty to the audience. One student asked me if everyone in the room was a lawyer. “Nope, all citizens can be randomly selected to serve for jury duty. It’s not considered a desirable thing to receive.” Another asked if everyone in America really does this at some point or another. “It really is random, so most people will probably serve at least once in their lifetime, yeah.” The first student followed up, “maybe they should be lawyers.” I could interpret this in two ways: the jurors in the film did a far better job than the prosecutor or the defense (who, who are made to understand, is a public defendant: one of the most overworked, underpaid, under-appreciated professions in America).

Or perhaps he meant that a process like this should not be left up to ordinary citizens. The film does indeed raise that question. But then, we are made to understand that the lawyers did no better job. Reason need not be the domain of any one profession, regardless of its reputation: the true ranking of a citizen is reasoned commitment to a just society.

Another young man asked if it was possible that the US government had this film made as a form of propaganda, a question that baffled me at first given how deeply I interpreted it as a critique of American democracy. The room vehemently disagreed. But when I asked him why he thought this might be the case, he told me that the happy ending made him suspicious. “This is a very pretty picture, but it does not seem real.”

And he was right. This was an ideal, and one that brings a sense of shame upon realizing that we probably do not live up to it. But whereas Soviet propaganda would have presented this ideal as reality, the film allows the reader to realize this hangs above reality, as an idea to stretch toward. Like I said, it is Greek to the core.

On a final note, a number of students told me about a Russian film called 12 (2007) by Nikita Mikhalkov. It’s a Russian version of the the American classic, in which a jury deliberates the fate of a Chechen teenager accused of murdering his stepfather. It is political in a rather different sense: 12 Angry Men took place entirely in a jury chamber, removed from the necessities of political life. 12 remains deeply mired in the violence and complications of the Russian conflict in Chechnya. That is all I can say for now, but I very much look forward to seeing the remake.

Next week I am hosting a conversation group on the recent U.S. elections with a Fulbright-Hays doing research for her dissertation in Kyiv. I expect that entry, regrettably, to be far less philosophical.


Op-ed in the Kyiv Post

My thoughts on being an election monitor in Odessa made it into the Kyiv Post, under a slightly misleading title– it was two of my fellow observers who had the truly grueling experience. I was exhausted, but I couldn’t call what I went through a survivor story.

The point in a nutshell: while many problems were reported with the election, very few of them were the types of things I would be able to see as an election monitor, and much of what I did see suggested that some polling stations really did make an honest effort. The implication, not fleshed out, is that observers have very limited uses. A few scandals did pass before some of us personally, but the biggest problems with the election were set into motion before any of us picked up our official registration cards, or happened behind the scenes or out of most vote count rooms.

I'm the first one. I also have to admit I liked the original Post photo of a man passed out over his desk.

Adrian Karatnycky also published a sort-of-provocative piece today. There were certainly serious problems, he says, but he argues that they were not enough to change the final results. In fact, he believes the election represents a fairly accurate demographic of voting preferences. It may very well be true– but I myself would not be willing to reach any conclusions about the matter without a lot of hard, reliable data.

My article was originally published under a more provocative title, “What election fraud?” and the editors kindly changed it at my request. Lest I be accused of getting paid off (as Karatnycky inevitably is in the comments section), I emphasize that I only repeat what I saw or what I was told in person– for those things I did not and could not have seen that undermined the credibility of the elections, another source (of the many out there reporting violations) is needed.

Fall in Kyiv (photo entry)

I walked to the Botanical Gardens, a short stop from my house, at the end of October. “Woods” might be the more appropriate term for this collection of hills and leaf-covered paths. A perfect place for children to play, couples to find some quiet space for themselves, and old men to sit on a bench and reflect.

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The Crimean

The overnight train is a ritual for any traveler in Eastern Europe. Imagine a compartment about the length of one and a half men and a width even shorter, two sets of bunk beds, and a little set table protruding out from underneath the wall window, and you’ll see something like a standard kupe. I say “standard” literally– most of the trains still running across Ukraine were probably mass produced in Soviet times, judging from the identical trains I’ve seen in even relatively recent movies.

The main lobby of the Kyiv central train station. Even this photograph fails to convey just how majestic this place feels, what with the high ceilings, marble finishings, antique-style chandeliers, and massive stairwells facing the entrance.

I spent probably half of the real time of my last weekend hanging out in the top bunk of a kupe as I traveled to and from the Crimean peninsula. I apologize– the autonomous republic of Crimea. One should not forget that this is the only part of Ukraine in which ethnic Russians predominate, and having spent all of my time in Ukraine in Kyiv thus far, the absence of written Ukrainian (save for the obligatory translations of public buildings) stuck out. So too did the Party of Region signs– pretty much the only political party with a large advertising presence/realistic chance of victory in the upcoming elections in this part of Ukraine. In fact, the Crimea is technically only part of Ukraine because of a decision by Nikita Khrushchev to transfer the territory to the Ukrainian SSR– not at all with the expectation it would ever become distinct from Russia (this is the popular version of the history: the reality, I am pretty much certain, is more complicated).

My destination was Simferopol, the sleepy capital city where two of my fellow Fulbrighters reside. “Sim City” has a certain Soviet-industrial charm about it that I happened to like, but we three Americans spent most of the weekend traveling around the peninsula.

Our first stop: Sevastopol. Now this is a city. The geostrategic location of Sevastopol’s port almost guaranteed it a unique place in Russian history, witnessing more naval battles and peace treaties than I would care to memorize– not that one needs to with a memorial commemorating each event pretty much every block one visits. It consequently became a busy, and rather charming, city. Walking around the harbor and seeing babushki dancing, kids roller-blading, and men fishing, I felt a bit like being at a smaller, quieter beach in Miami, save for the absence of any sand. It’s a port city, not a resort (that’s what Odessa is for).

The highlight of the city was easily the Black Sea Fleet. Reaching the end of the harbor and seeing a sign announcing I had entered Russian territory, complete with white, blue, and red flags everywhere, easily makes the top of my list of accomplishments in Ukraine thus far. The Black Sea Fleet has existed for centuries in Sevastopol, and for a while, its permissions to continue using the harbor under Ukrainian control was a major political issue. That issue was resolved quite recently under the new administration when the fleet received an extension on its lease. As a realist, I am inclined to view this as the inevitable policy outcome. That fleet has played such a proud role in Russian history for so long, and the harbor itself is so valuable (and beautiful), that Russia would have been willing to negotiate quite intensively to make an extension worth the Ukrainian government’s while. Now which of those factors held the most value, I am less certain.

Depiction of the Black Sea Fleet (chernamorski flot) during the Crimean War, circa 1853.

The next day our group took a marshutka thirty minutes north to Bakhchisaray, the ancient capital of the Crimean Tatar Khanate. The Crimean Tatars are one of the most fascinating parts of Crimean history. As Kievan Rus smarted under the Mongol Yoke, the Tatars of Crimea rebelled against the Golden Horde and won autonomy for themselves. They established the headquarters in the capital and continued living there well past the Mongol expulsion. In the 13th century the Crimean Tatars converted to Islam, and over two centuries later became a protectorate of the Ottoman Empire (the Crimean Tatars still bear a very strong Turkish influence– look at a map to remind yourself of just where Turkey is in relation to Ukraine). The Khanate’s palace, now a museum, was naturally our first stop.

The palace was beautiful enough, but the politics behind its existence and renovation were of greater interest to me. The modern Crimean Tatar community carried out most of the restoration, a physical renewal of a spirit deeply battered under the reign of Stalin.

Nearly half of the some 200,000 Crimean Tatars expelled in 1944 died in their exile, either in transit or from hunger or sickness in the coming year or so. Many Crimean Tatars today understandably consider this an act of genocide.

This painting hangs near the exit of the Khanate Palace museum. Looking at it, all I could think was how familiar this scene was, how familiar it will be. Stalin’s regime decided that non-ethnic Slavs were a potential threat, and expelled the Crimean Tatars from their centuries-long home along with a number of other nationalities in the peninsula. They have since begun reestablishing themselves after exile in Central Asia, but I am told tensions remain despite some honest efforts from Kyiv. My fellow Fulbrighter who will be learning about the Crimean Tatar community will doubtlessly provide me with more details in the future.

Hiking in the mountains of Bakhchisaray after visiting the Khanate, the thought of exile from such a beautiful place became that much more painful. An old man played a flute as we made our way to a series of caves in the mountain walls (now graffiti’ed and littered with beer bottles), passing an Eastern Orthodox monastery built into the mountain and an ancient Tatar graveyard. Across the mountain: an old Jewish village. Not quite what we imagine by the word “coexistence,” but it will have to suffice.

My next entry will be about the local elections in Ukraine… and quite possibly about a pending visit to Odessa, too. Nu, poka!

Fairy Tales and Philology

“They lived together happily for many years, and then one day they died.”

So ended the first fairy tale I read in Russian. I tried asking if this is a typical ending, the “ever after” of at least Russian literature, and I could not get a straight answer. The few fairy tales I have looked up in Russian do not appear to end this way, and as for the English translations, I cannot help but question whether they have been sanitized.

In any case, being precisely the reverse of our fairy tale ending (whose origin I am now quite curious to know) does not make death and negativity coincide. This was still a happy ending to a love story: Boy meets foreign girl. Foreign girl gets stopped by the police and taken to the station for not having the proper documents. Girl is told she must go to a different city to register her stay. Boy defiantly stands up for girl, declaring he shall go with her to said city to register. Boy and girl fall in love, and live happily for many years. And then they die.


Viktor Vasnetsov's painting

Ivan Tsarevitch sought to capture the Firebird that stole his father's golden apples. On his journey, he finds three paths in the road marked by a stone. The stone explains that he who takes the first path will find only sorrow and coldness; the horse of he who takes the second will be killed; and he who takes the third will die himself. Ivan chooses the second path: our finest possessions must not blind us from fulfilling our duty. This fairy tale has a happy ending-- Ivan gets to keep the princess he kidnaps.


Theorizing about cultural norms from literature strikes me as a risky enterprise, especially since I still don’t know if the work represents the genre—but I’m going to do it anyway. Let’s pretend this does in fact speak to culture. To end with death in such a manner is to normalize death, and in normalizing to hold it in view in conceiving of the good life. Death is held close in the fairy tale; it is not a thing to be feared and avoided, but expected and met with good conscience. I would hate to take a page out of Richard Pipe’s repertoire—particularly since the intelligence exercise he helped conduct and which made estimates based on his theory proved to be morbidly wrong— but history might have something to do with this rather different take. Might year upon year of not just constant invasion, but constant insecurity, have lowered (raised?) death from an abstraction to a reality, and then to normalcy in the order of things? (EDIT: Probably not. But take my wild speculation here as a thought experiment, not a declaration.)

The Russian language, after all, has a most unusual word for ‘security.’ Bizapasnast (безопасность) literally reads “without danger (apasnost).” At one point in time, danger might have been conceptually prior in the minds of Russian speakers. Now consider this: the order in the Ukrainian language is the precise opposite. ‘Security’ in Ukrainian, according to the all-knowing Google Translate, is bezpeka (безпека). ‘Danger’: nebezpeka (небезпека), “not security.” Actually, they are imprecise opposites: the Russian ‘without’ suggests a reduction from the world, the taking of part of a whole (though the word ‘world,’ interestingly, is the same as the word for ‘peace’). The Ukrainian is binary: security, or not.

Ukraine and Russia trace their common ancestry to Kievan Rus, whose main language was Old Slavonic. The difference in language should therefore correspond to differences in history. I shouldn’t think it is as easy as to declare the Ukrainian people more secure for a longer period—but I cannot help but wonder how this split emerged. I dare not wonder if the difference corresponds to a still-existing difference in culture—especially because I am skeptical of those sorts of broad-stroked arguments. I am sure that someone, though, has attempted it—so if you find that theory, please do comment with the link.

Unraveling the origins and causation of language difference is a job for a philologist, a discipline still of nearly unrivaled prestige in Eastern Europe that does not exist in American universities anymore. Philo: love. Logos: word, argument, reason. Linguistics just doesn’t quite capture the way philologists study any and every language and gain insights into the culture, the philosophy, the intellect of a given time and place. What American universities call Classics is elsewhere called Classical Philology. It’s classics unbound.  And as soon as I find time to distract myself from my studies again, I’ll take up the question “without danger” with a knowing Ukrainian—preferably a philologist.

I have not updated this blog in a few weeks, but here’s the executive summary: the washing machine broke on its first use; some wonderful Ukrainian friends cooked me an equally wonderful dinner and I am now hooked on borsh; Fulbright Orientation was held at the embassy; I hosted Fulbrighters at my apartment after not-so-classically bourgeois night at the opera; I have eaten more cherry vereniki than is healthy or necessary; I attended a concert at “Gogol Fest”; I went to the Canadian Embassy’s beer night (half the attendees were American); my Russian is slightly less bad than upon arrival; winter has come two weeks early and by all looks, it’s going to be harsh.

The next entry will, hopefully, come more quickly than this one did. (Not what she said).

On Saints and the Ukrainian Language

The interior of St. Volodimir's Cathedral, a national landmark not too far from my new home.

“Divine favors were never late.”

It seems St. Volodimir, the great prince who baptized all of Kievan Rus, shall be my patron saint for the year, as I am living fairly close to his beautiful cathedral. I’m sure he shall watch over me better than McDonald, whose own house of worship is almost as close. I know not if Kyiv’s national opera house, another nearby landmark, has a patron– I suppose the Italy founded in part by Petrarch must have won a cultural victory in bringing opera eastward, but we rarely call humanists saints. No matter– the bottom line is I’ll be living fairly comfortably, thanks to a sharp drop in Kyiv real estate value. Saint Keynes is pleased.

Language in Ukraine fascinates me. As a symbol of personal and national identity, it is quite the political question. The root of ‘Ukraine’ is ‘edge,’ as in the edge of Russian lands. Saint Volodimir was prince of Kievan Rus, but several dynasties later his lands fell to the Mongols, and eventually the territory came to be held under a joint Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth. From there begins a complicated history I am only beginning to understand, but worth noting is shifting control of Ukrainian lands by Poland, Austria, and Russia. Ukrainian nationalism awakened as a movement in the 19th century with the help of the poet Taras Shevchenko (who we in the U.S. honor with a statue in Washington in Dupont, near Brickskeller, and whose name you can see virtually everywhere you go in Kyiv), and the language– which bears the historical influence of Russian and Polish– remains important to that idea. Hegel and Nietzsche alike would have us believe that living individuals need not have the memories of their history to bear it in their spirit, and Ukrainian as a national language consequently has not a little to do with the historical identity of Ukraine.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, post-1618. All colored areas mark a region within the commonwealth, with the crown occupying modern Poland and Ukraine in a single bounded area.

Yet languages in Ukraine today remain mixed, and in the Eastern regions especially, many Ukrainians also consider themselves ethnic Russians. In the autonomous republic of Crimea, ethnic Russians predominate. Hence the question of making Russian an official language of the country (meaning government documents would need to be available in Russian, and public affairs may be conducted in the language, among other effects that escape me at the moment) remains a constant question, and to a number of individuals I have met, a highly contentious one. One Ukrainian friend back home told me it would be like making Spanish an official language in America– though I would note that Spaniards or Latin Americans have not lived in what is now the United States for as long as ethnic Russians have lived in what are now the territorial boundaries of Ukraine.

At the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, where I shall be conducting my Fulbright research and learning Ukrainian, pride in the Ukrainian language is very strong. I met one student during the university’s opening reception who explained to me that she loves the space that the university provides to speak in Ukrainian with the other students. But when I asked what language she speaks at home with her parents, she told me it was Russian. I take this as a suggestion that the issue is not as simple as “Russian speakers vs. Ukrainian speakers.”

And how could it be when so much of the population is bilingual? The 2001 census declares, “the part of those whose mother tongue is Ukrainian totals 67.5% of the population of Ukraine… The percentage of those whose mother tongue is Russian totals 29.6% of the population.” Yet a 2009 poll by FOM (Foundation for Public Opinion) suggests that more than half the country continues using Russian as the language of communication. Another poll found that more than half the country considers the so-called language issue irrelevant (“laissez faire”, they say), and less than 15% consider it a pressing matter. The Razumkov Center, an excellent think tank based in Kyiv, in 2008 found that while 40% of the population considers Ukrainian its mother tongue (a sharp decline from 2001, if both numbers are accurate), the number who prefer not to choose between Russian and Ukrainian as their “primary” language increases every year, out-pacing those who would call Russian their mother tongue.

If that final number truly represents a trend, then Ukrainian national identity may come to rest on a certain kind of bilingualism. Though I must speculate that just because half the country does not believe language is a very pressing issue now does not mean this will be the case in the future, especially if those who call their mother tongue Ukrainian remains the group losing members to those who prefer not to choose a mother tongue at all.

Of course, these are just my first impressions, with a minimal amount of research. But for those Americans back home reading this blog, you might ask yourself how our country will respond to Spanish bilingualism. As a native of Miami, it’s pretty much a non-issue– Spanish is ubiquitous, even if business is carried out in English. But when I read about communities in, say, Arizona who clearly don’t respond well to a growing Spanish speaking population (yes, yes, I know the legality of residency is the nominal issue there– but I suspect that xenophonia plays a strong role), I wonder how Americans would react to a serious national debate on making Spanish an official language.

That’s all for now. Next time, notes on the apartment… and perhaps a Ukrainian-American project on our oil spill crisis?


I am in my hostel in Kyiv, awake at 6 am from jet lag, and searching for an apartment. After a solid 22 hours of traveling, I dropped my luggage and walked over to the university. I’m affiliated with the National University of Ukraine: Kyiv-Mohyla Academy (UKMA), a four-hundred year old school with a student body of about 3,000, and I thought I’d take a look while waiting to check in.

Fortune favored me, because my point of contact with the foreign student office walked in the building right around the time I arrived. I’m making arrangements to study intensive Ukrainian and Russian in addition to my research (Tufts has trained me to over-commit myself), and it looks like there will be a fair number of international students at the university studying with me. UKMA has been very good at drawing in students from Europe, and it looks like there might even be a few Americans there too. I’ll know more when classes start on the 1st– the “Day of Knowledge” (I’ve also heard it called Education Day) in the country, during which all schools begin the new year.

I explored the city a bit with a French student who’ll be studying sociology this year before collapsing from exhaustion– it’s a bad sign when someone as pale as I am looks like a ghost in the mirror.

Highlight of the day: ordering food in Russian without sounding completely clueless. Level up?

EDIT: Ordering breakfast in the morning and sounding like a complete idiot = level down. It was so much easier when my professor checked my responses before I had to present them.