Quotes: Ukraine’s Non-Revoultion in Half a Paragraph

From The Revolution that Wasn’t by Paul Quinn-Judge in NYRB

“The Polish foreign minister Radosław Sikorski, brought in at the end of Euromaidan to help mediate between Yanukovych and the mainstream Ukrainian politicians who represented the protesters, recalled the strangely friendly tone of those final negotiations in February 2014. At night “they all drank vodka together, and the atmosphere of their negotiations was ‘remarkably untoxic.’” The vodka-drinking politicians, ostensibly there to represent the protesters’ interests, quickly moved into power after Maidan. The demonstrators, meanwhile, were marginalized and left with little more than their dreams—“real democracy” according to one, solidarity according to another. But no regime change.”

A few more photos from Ukraine here.

Getting to Prague Unsecretly

The McClatchy newspaper company reported yesterday that Michael Cohen, the president’s personal lawyer, was in Prague last August or September. This is important because if true, it would seem to corroborate part of the controversial dossier compiled by British former spy Christopher Steele. The idea is that Cohen would have taken on the role of contact person with Russia after Paul Manafort was fired from/quit the campaign.

For about 25 hours so far, reporter Peter Stone has left out there twisting slowly, slowly in the wind kicked up by his report. No other news organization that I know of confirms his report. That must be uncomfortable.

If the report is true it is important. Cohen made a conspicuous point of denying the trip when the allegation appeared, when the Steele dossier was published by Buzzfeed. He tweeted a picture of the front of an American passport and wrote “I have never been to Prague in my life.”

•••••

Less than half of Americans have a passport, and as recently as 1997 that number was only 15 percent (After 9/11, for the first time “U.S. citizens traveling by air between the U.S. and Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Bermuda were required to have a valid passport,” Forbes reports, which raised the percentage dramatically).

Since so many Americans are unfamiliar with borders and how they work, I think it’s important to point out something that many might not realize: whether Mr. Cohen traveled to Prague in 2016 or not, his passport would not necessarily contain a Czech entry stamp.

Here’s how that works: 26 European countries, comprising some 400 million people, signed an agreement in the town of Schengen, Luxembourg, in 1995. Under the Schengen agreement, entry into any of these countries requires the usual pass control arrival procedures, the glowering official, the uncomfortable silence, maybe the fingerprint thing and all the flourescence and fatigue, but once stamped in, a visitor is not subject to further border checks within the Schengen area.

Here is a list of the Schengen countries: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.

It has been reported that Mr. Cohen traveled to Italy in July of 2016, though at a time not consistent with the claims of the dossier. He could have walked from the plane to the Hertz counter, rented a budget sedan and driven from Roma to Prague in about twelve hours with no need for his passport.

Alternately, his evil, opulent-luxury-yacht-wielding collaborators might have put him ashore on a quiet Portuguese beach, from which he perhaps begged a ride from an itinerant fisherman to the train station, and from there made his way to Prague. He might have caught the Delta flight up to Reykjavik, been waved through by a weary pass control clerk at the end of his shift, predawn, when all those flights come in at once, and caught the ferry to Denmark.

Or, of course, for the conspiracy minded, he might have been spirited in and out of the Czech Republic with the help of all those evil, conspiring collaborators. Doing something really mean about Crimea on the way just for the record.

Point is: these days in Europe, a passport needn’t have a stamp for you to have been there.

You can get to Prague with your initial entry stamp from any of these places:

Weekend Reading

Terrace café in Riga, Latvia

Here are some quality recent articles. Worth your time:

‘We know we may be killed’: the rangers risking their lives for Virunga’s gorillas by Jason Burke in The Guardian. These guys who guard mountain gorillas are heroes.
India and Pakistan are quietly making nuclear war more likely by Tom Hundley at Vox.com
Can We Be Saved From Facebook? by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone
How to Meet the Strategic Challenge Posed by China by David P. Goldman at imprimis.hillsdale.edu
The Gig Economy Celebrates Working Yourself to Death by Jia Tolentino in The New Yorker
Big data meets Big Brother as China moves to rate its citizens by Rachel Botsman at wired.com

I’ll be taking a little break for the next couple of weeks, so posts here will be less frequent, but stay with me. I’ll be back.

Cheers for now.

Weekend Reading

A nice selection of historical and literary topics for this week’s reading. Bonbons for your mind:

Floating in the Air, The world that made Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment by Jennifer Wilson in the Nation. How St. Petersburg felt in Dostoyevsky’s time.

New jeans, new schools, new worries: North Korean family settles into South Korea by Anna Fifield in the Washington Post. A family adapts.

After The Strongman by Karan Mahajan in the New Republic. Can Zimbabweans hope for a free and open future?

Is the Next Nobel Laureate in Literature Tending Bar in a Dusty Australian Town? by Mark Binelli in the New York Times magazine. Study of an author/bartender from Goroke, Victoria, a former stagecoach stop in southeastern Australia, pop. 200.

When the Heavens Stopped Being Perfect – The advent of the telescope punctured our ideals about the nighttime sky, an excerpt from the book Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine by physicist Alan Lightman

Now I’ll grant you this next one sounds stupefyingly dull. No way I’d read it. But click on through. It’s really interesting. Really. New Ecological Economics: Superorganism and Ultrasociality How the agricultural revolution changed the trajectory of our social and economic evolution Interview by Della Duncan with Economist Lisi Krall in Evonomics

And a couple of new articles about the early history of our species:

In to Asia, New evidence about the ancient humans who occupied Asia is cascading in: the story of our species needs rewriting again by Christopher Bae at Aeon.com, and Raised by Wolves by Tim Flannery, a survey of the latest evidence about when wolves became our dog companions, in the NYRB.

Have a nice weekend.

Book Excerpt: Iceland’s Thousand Year Old Parliament

In a recent article I posted a couple of photos taken along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge at Þingvellir National Park, Iceland, where the North American and Eurasian Plates are moving apart. The Þingvellir plain was home to Iceland’s parliament a thousand years ago. In this excerpt from my most recent book, Out in the Cold, we visit the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and the site of the parliament.

THOUSAND-YEAR-OLD PARLIAMENT

An hour’s drive east of Reykjavik family sedans fill a parking lot. Sven seems to think our Super Jeep needs more room, for he scoffs at that lot and aims for an empty one that looms ahead. We spin to a stop and scatter some rock and the monster asserts our arrival.

We set out along a footpath over one of the more remarkable bits of land on earth, the boundary between two tectonic plates. The bulk of the mid-Atlantic ridge lies beneath the ocean, so along almost all of its reach, standing in witness to its downright remarkableness is impossible.

It is the longest mountain range in the world, here separating the diverging Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. As manifest in Iceland, to the east rides a raised lava ridge, the Eurasian plate, from which the North American plate, to the west, pulls up from the Earth and apart.

Its width varies. Just here it presents as a three foot deep grass covered crevasse just wider than your arms can reach. You can jump inside and stand on the spot where the Earth is coming apart.

Elsewhere the crevasse deepens to twice the height of a man and fills with icy, transparent-as-the-ether water.

We stop along the path.

“Now we are on the Eurasian plate.”

With a hop, “Now the North American.”

Hop. Europe. Hop. North America. You can change continents in Istanbul too, but you have to drive across a bridge.

Here is the earth pulling itself apart

•••••

Most places, a morning walk along a fault line would make your day right there at breakfast. Here in Iceland, two for the price of one, you get epic geography and epic history too, for on this spot lies the heart and soul of the Icelandic nation.

Sven stops farther along the path. Just … HERE, he thinks, this may be the spot where was held the world’s original Parliamentary meeting in 930.

•••••

A WORD ABOUT WORDS, AND TALKING ABOUT TALKING

“Parliament” derives from the eleventh century Old French “parlement,” and every schoolchild knows “parlez-vous Français” means “do you speak French?” so quite literally, a Parliament is a talking shop.

Turns out, even before they worked out a word for it in French, way up here the real thing existed. “Thing” in Old Norse and Icelandic translates as “assembly,” and it is spelled “Þing” in Faroese and Icelandic. Resist the natural inclination to pronounce the letter (called “thorn”), written “Þ,” as “p.” Rather it is pronounced as an unvoiced “th.”

In modern Scandinavian tongues “thing” has become “ting.” The Faroes’ assembly began life as the Althing, a “general assembly of all free men,” and was later renamed the Løgting, “law assembly”. It began on the Tinganes peninsula in Torshavn, still the seat of Parliament and the city’s pride.

The Faroese Løgting and Iceland’s Althing carry on a rivalry to the claim of “world’s oldest Parliament.” The Faroese might logically claim the crown since expansion from the Norse mainland reached the Faroes before Iceland, but memory gets hazy when you gaze so far into the past.

Iceland claims its Althing was the world’s first, established here where we stand on the Þhingvellur plain in the specific year of 930. There are other “oldest” claims. The Tynwald on the Isle of Man claims to be the oldest “continuous” Parliament at over age one thousand, but without a great deal of evidence. And the Jamtamót, the Parliamentary assembly of a Swedish province claims, like the Althing, to have been created in the first half of the tenth century.

Whoever convened first, we know that each year at the summer solstice, leaders, village chiefs from around Iceland, convened on this spot to discuss common interests, and make policy. Though this plain was a more or less central spot, those from farthest east Iceland traveled as long as seventeen days around mountain and glacier.

The base of a cliff served as a natural amplifier for a speaker’s voice, allowing him to address the assembled. Each year, for two weeks in high summer laws were made, disputes settled, foreign VIPs petitioned.

Site of the Þingvellir

History played out for centuries at this place they called Þingvellir, the “Parliament Plain.” After that first meeting in 930 the Goði, or chieftains, convened on the same spot each year until 1798.

At one particularly fateful meeting in 1000, 39 Goði met under pressure, for Olaf, the king of Norway, had issued a threat. The wrath of his kingdom, and the most fearsome fleet of war-fighting longboats in the Atlantic hung poised to hammer the island if the Goði failed to accept Christianity. This was the king’s demand.

Iceland’s founding some seven decades before came about in flight from the tyranny – and taxes – of Harald Fairhair of Norway. The Goði meant for their new country to be a land of laws and not kings. That was why they were here, assembled at Þingvellir to make their own laws in the absence of a king.

Now, these elders were reasonably confident the king wouldn’t risk his fleet in a peril-fraught adventure to Iceland. As Frans G. Bengtsson wrote in The Long Ships, “… in the border country, few men’s authority extended beyond the limit of their right arm.”

Their grandfathers hadn’t been wrong fleeing Harald for the island (in fact, Icelanders specifically and knowingly benefitted from the lack of taxation needed for defense). Still, the Norwegian fleet could block Iceland’s tenuous European lifeline. King Olaf held the sons of some Goði hostage even as they met.

Legend tells us that as the men debated, a messenger arrived with word that an eruption had sent lava toward the farm of one of the attendees. That put a little bit of the fear of (Norse) gods into the assembly. Message: The gods won’t stand for this changing religion nonsense.

Christianity had come to Norway after most of these pagan Icelanders left. Some learned of Jesus while passing through the British Isles, many absconding with wives. Synecretism led some to worship both the Christian and pagan gods, but in hard times Thor was still the go-to god.

What to do?

Heads turned to a wise man called Snorri Þhorgrímsson, a chieftain from the west of the island. The Sagas reckoned him “… a very shrewd man with unusual foresight,” and “… the wisest man in Iceland not counting those who were prescient.”

Snorri asked, “What angered the gods when the lava burnt which we are standing on now?” He meant that eruptions were just part of life on their blasted isle, gods or no gods. The attendees saw his point. A vote was held and the Þing adopted Christianity as Iceland’s religion.

Besides, in accepting Christianity the most powerful men in Iceland surmised – correctly – that an appreciative hierarchy of Christian bishops and officials from Norway would look favorably on the Goðis’ power and rule.

In the event, the Þing had opted for the best of both worlds. Hoping to hold Harald at bay, the Goði proclaimed “one faith and one law” – the faith would be Christianity, but anyone wishing to worship the pagan gods were free to do so in private. Snorri had a church built at Helgafell, his farmstead on the western Snæfellsnes peninsula.

•••••

Everyone with power and influence attended the Þing. Crimes would be adjudicated, laws recorded, marriage alliances arranged. But besides the chance to forge and strengthen ties among the Goði, beyond their heavy responsibilities, most marvelous of all, the Þing was a flourishing Nordic medieval bazaar.

I try to conjure the spectacle of a Þing in progress a millennium ago; a governing experiment, societal pageant, a kind of grand plenum and Icelandic Burning Man, all tossed together and served on the volcanic plain:

Having come from far and wide, the villages chiefs have brought an entourage of family, competitive athletes and horsemen, traders and cattle. Over the years they have built structures of boulders and turf (ruins exist today) and each year they cover them with temporary roofs of wood and turf.

The Þingvellir is utterly unlike the attendees’ home villages. Just a few months ago back home, the silence was unrelenting (save for the howl when the wind got going, and the raking sleet across the roof; the nights went on and on, with stimulation scarcely more potent than the strength of a candle.

Now, in high summer, headmen are free from home affairs, laborers from the dismal croft, to a man exhilarated in the runaway intoxication of it all. News of the welfare of kin. Gossip from the farthest ends of the island. Intrigue at time-worn lies told over mead. Barely mediated chaos.

Every kind of merchant, sword-sharpeners and brewers, coopers and tanners and peat-cutters, clowns and tale-tellers, holding forth while itinerant farmhands seek seasonal work and traders probe for deals, some coming from abroad in search of exotic exports.

Villagers delight at the smell of grilling meat until they encounter the pungent atrocity of the tannery. Everywhere, in every direction, for days, Icelanders august and modest share in the spectacle.

Athletes astound. Ropes are tugged, cabers heaved, sheaves hurled, dice tossed and fortunes lost, challenges taken and gauntlets thrown, blood feuds resolved and new ones begun, all in a mad fervor to drink in life and all of it, here in high summer, on this lovely spot, softened by greenery and painted by wildflowers with waterfalls and cascading rapids in the river Öxará swaying across the plain.

Stories are humans’ most enduring possessions. Since the campfire and the cave we are a narrative species, and the tales we tell shape the people we become. The tales of this country’s founding were told and retold year after year at the Parliament Plain, the hardships of the earliest settlers, the privation, the fights for survival.

Stories told at the Þing traveled home to every corner of the land, and over the years and through the retelling, a common heritage was born and the people’s allegiance was bound to the nation, which duly bound itself back to Þingvellir. By a 1928 law Þingvellir, by the river Öxará, shall remain the protected property of the Icelandic nation.

The river Öxará on the Parliament Plain.

•••••

Get Out in the Cold via Amazon here in the U.S., or at your country-specific Amazon site in the UK, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Japan, India, Canada, Brazil, Mexico or Australia. And have a look at the photos in the Iceland Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.

New 10 City Skylines Quiz

A second installment to compliment last week’s version. See how many you can guess. Answers at the end. Yes, some are impossible.

IMPORTANT: You can click to enlarge them for a better look, but there will be a caption at the bottom that gives you the answer. Careful.

Good luck.









Answers:
1. Kyiv, Ukraine
2. La Paz, Bolivia
3. Gangtok, Sikkim, India
4. Rome, Italy and Vatican City
5. Hong Kong
6. Dar es Salaam, Brunei
7. Salzburg, Austria
8. Riga, Latvia
9. Valetta, Malta
10. Quito, Ecuador

There are 1153 more photos in the Cities and Urban Life Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.