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Archive for the ‘Ex-Soviet Republics’ Category

[The following post appeared May 20, 2011, on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – At least, that’s the thank-you letter Finland should send Slovakia.

I’ve never been to a Helsinki block party. But earlier this month, for a solid fortnight of the World Hockey Championship, Bratislava sure felt like one. By the end of their two-week drinking binge, I wanted the pickled Finns to grab their gold medals and get the hell out.

Team Captain Mikko Koivu wasn’t the only Finn to raise a cup in Bratislava. (IIHF)

I wouldn’t describe myself as a “hockey fan,” as that requires a curious affection for gap-toothed smiles – particularly among those who had involuntarily eaten a puck traveling about as fast as my car. However, I sure do love a good story. Living in tiny Slovakia, I hoped to live one through their hockey.

Slovakia spared little expense to throw a memorable bash as host of the 16-nation tournament, held every year. Hockey is a passion for this nation of only five million, with toddlers barely beyond diapers carving figure-eights on rounded hockey skates. Slovakia won the world title in 2002, and finished an eye-opening fourth at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.

I cheered these underdogs every step of the way, as I did their thrilling World Cup run. Meanwhile, Slovak star Marian Hossa helped lead the Chicago Blackhawks to the NHL Stanley Cup last year; the towering Zdeno Chara may soon do the same for the Boston Bruins.

The 2011 world championship would mark the first time Slovakia, independent only since 1993, had hosted alone. Finally, a chance to distinguish Slovakia from Slovenia. Hype began months ago. The wolf mascot, “Goooly,” was stationed at area malls, digitally counting down the minutes and seconds. As full-blown hockey fever hit, the national flag of red, white and blue fluttered from many cars. I came this close to buying my sons foam fingers and Dr. Seuss top hats in Slovak tri-color. I’ll take four more dust-collectors, please.

All this while officialdom weathers the arrows of the latest in a never-ending drumbeat of corruption that mars the post-Communist era, not only in Slovakia, but across the entire region. This scandal, naturally, was over the massive facelift performed on its main hockey stadium, plus the gleaming new hotel built illegally next door.

(more…)

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[The following Postcard was republished Feb. 24, 2011, in the Jewish Exponent of Philadelphia. It was originally published March 2004 in JTA.]

By Michael J. Jordan

The artist, circa 1920, from "Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater"

VITEBSK, Belarus — There’s no business like Chagall business. At least, not in the hometown of the legendary artist.

Shunned by the Soviet authorities for his leaving the “worker’s paradise” of the Soviet Union for the artistic incubator of Paris, Marc Chagall has undergone a remarkable posthumous rehabilitation in his Belarussian birthplace.

The charming provincial city of Vitebsk, an inspiration for much of the artist’s oeuvre — like his floating, dreamlike images of wood rooftops, barnyard animals and bearded fiddlers — is not only a must-see for Jewish tourists, it’s said to be a cornerstone of national tourism. Located 120 miles northeast of Minsk, the capital, Vitebsk draws German and Japanese tourists and countless foreign art students.

Hordes of schoolchildren tour the museum within the refurbished Chagall family homestead. The museum was opened in 1992 and has since been accompanied by annual “Chagall Days,” featuring music, exhibitions, lectures and poetry readings. It’s quite a turnaround for an artist revered by some, scorned by others as a symbol of dissent, and long banned from public discourse.

Chagall is now a symbol of another kind, says Vitebsk native Arkady Shulman, a Jewish journalist and amateur Chagall historian.

“Any person who emigrated was denounced as a traitor,” says Shulman, who helped establish the Chagall museum and is chief editor of Mishpoha magazine. “People didn’t know his pictures, but they knew his name, and that he was against the system. Today, more people know his art, but he’s become a symbol of a boy from a small town who became world famous.”

(more…)

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(This post appeared April 9 on The Mantle.)

BRATISLAVA – It’s always nice to hear what a colleague’s up to nowadays.

However, I was both pleased and troubled to recently find one featured in The New York Times, as the “curtain-raising” anecdote of an unhealthy trend emanating from Brussels.

Ina Strazdina is the Last of the Latvian Mohicans – her country’s only remaining correspondent in Brussels, covering the European Union. Heck, fellow Baltic state Lithuania has no journalist left to watch-dog the European body, which both of the ex-Soviet republics enthusiastically joined in 2004.

Times have grown so tough for much of Eastern Europe’s media, dramatic cutbacks almost forced Ina herself to walk the plank in 2008. I’d met her in Prague in January 2007, when she participated in a foreign-correspondence training course that I help lead every six months.

The next year, with Ina stationed in pricey Brussels, Latvian Radio cut her salary by two-thirds, from 2,000 to 700 euros per month – barely enough to pay her rent. So she dug into her nest egg and plugged along, landing freelance gigs with Latvian Television and a leading daily newspaper.

“I had to make a decision,” Ina, 34, told The Times. “I decided that it is easy to destroy things but very difficult to build them up again. Maybe it was an altruistic decision, but I decided I can stay here for another year and try to work.” Her efforts were appreciated: Latvia last year named her its “European Person of the Year.”

Now, I’ve reported from this part of the world for 16 years, so I grasp the financial constraints that hamper media outlets region-wide. Also, how the meager monthly wages of most journalists tempt them to cut corners, accept “freebies” with implicit strings attached, or moonlight on the side in PR.

But the steady exodus from Brussels is more than economic, and more than simply part of the broader trend affecting foreign-news coverage around the world. Just as troubling is how the EU machinery has responded to – and further fuels – this departure.

Then there are the consequences for Eastern Europe itself. (more…)

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Slovak hockey is making noise in Vancouver.

BRATISLAVA – How can you not root for the Olympic underdog?

Especially when it’s more than a mere “border rivalry,” as one EuroSport commentator painted the Russia-Slovakia hockey match last night.

No, if one thing unites Central and East Europeans, it’s delight when one of their own sticks it to Russia in a sporting event, as pesky Slovakia did with its overtime victory.

There’s nothing like rising at 6 a.m. to watch Olympic hockey; even better when it’s a stirring upset. Among all the Slovaks I came across today, I dropped a few words (in Slovak, of course!) about the game. The smile they flashed was one way to brighten a dreary winter day.

Sure, most every country in the region has a historic grievance or two against its neighbor. But many reserve a special animosity toward, and dread of, Moscow – courtesy of the 40-year Soviet occupation.

Here I won’t delve too deeply into contemporary politics, but this sentiment typically surfaces during the ongoing debates over the U.S. missile-defense plan, or Russia’s pipeline politics over winter heating oil.

Most Czechs and Slovaks, in particular, will never forgive what happened in 1968, when Soviet tanks rolled into Prague, Bratislava and elsewhere to squash the hopes for democratic reform. Indeed, Czech legend Jaromir Jagr commemorated that trauma by donning the number 68 during his NHL career.

When the Czechs and Slovaks square off, like earlier in the Olympics when the Czechs prevailed 3-1, it’s more a sibling rivalry. With Slovakia, and its 5 million, the kid brother. Hopes are high for both teams. And when one nation is eliminated, their fans will likely continue the tradition of pulling for the other.

Above all, if it’s a rematch against mighty Russia.

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Vilen Molotov-Luchanskiy, standing in front of the lone memorial in Karaganda to gulag victims, says his grandmother's faith in the Soviet system never wavered despite eight years in the gulag. (Photo: mjj)

Vilen Molotov-Luchanskiy, standing in front of the lone memorial in Karaganda to gulag victims, says his grandmother's faith in the Soviet system never wavered despite eight years in the gulag. (Photo: mjj)

 

By Michael J. Jordan · December 22, 2008

 

KARAGANDA, KAZAKHSTAN (JTA) — Liza Luchanskiy was born to a poor, Yiddish-speaking family in Berdichev, the historic, heavily Jewish city deep in the Pale of Settlement.

 

Lured by Soviet promises of equality, she became a communist true believer, working her way up to serve on a committee in Siberia that targeted so-called enemies of the revolution. But her zeal wasn’t enough to save her or her similarly devoted husband, Josef.

 

They were swept up during the frenzy of Stalin’s Great Terror, from 1937 to 1939. Josef was shot by a firing squad in 1938, and Liza was exiled by cattle car to Karaganda.

 

Luchanskiy was sentenced to eight years in the vast network of forced-labor camps here, on the southern edge of Stalin’s fearsome gulag. Enduring extreme cold, hunger and exhaustion, which afflicted her health ever after, Luchanskiy never let go of her faith in communism, her grandson says.

 

“She never blamed the system, only Stalin,” says Vilen Molotov-Luchanskiy, an internist who today heads the Jewish Cultural Center in Karaganda.

 

As many as 1.2 million Soviet citizens — spanning practically all the myriad ethnic groups nationwide — were worked to death or near death in the 75 camps that comprised Karaganda. Among them were many Jews, including many rabbis. (more…)

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Koran teacher Adilkhan Serikbay says Kazakhs want no trouble with Jews or any other of Kazakhstan's many ethnic and religious groups. (Photo: mjj)

Koran teacher Adilkhan Serikbay says Kazakhs want no trouble with Jews or any other of Kazakhstan's many ethnic and religious groups. (Photo: mjj)

By Michael J. Jordan · December 18, 2008

 

ASTANA, KAZAKHSTAN (JTA) — Seventy-five years ago, the once-nomadic Kazakhs endured a famine, purportedly orchestrated by Moscow, in which some 1 million people starved to death.

 

Not long after, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin created a network of prison camps in Kazakhstan that in the late 1930s became the southern flank of his notorious Gulag, sucking in countless Kazakhs, Jews and myriad other ethnic groups.

 

Then, during the Holocaust, thousands of Jews from places such as Ukraine and Belarus were evacuated ahead of the onrushing Nazis eastward to the vast, sparsely populated steppes of Kazakhstan. The local Kazakhs mustered the hospitality to greet them with milk and bread.

 

“That which united our grandmothers and grandfathers makes us closer today,” says Jewish activist Valentina Kuznetsova, who lives in Karaganda, the country’s third-largest city.

(more…)

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In tightly controlled Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbayev's ubiquitous face and words are seen as a "cult of personality." (Photo: mjj)

In tightly controlled Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbayev's ubiquitous face and words are seen as a "cult of personality." (Photo: mjj)

By Michael J. Jordan · December 18, 2008

 

ASTANA, KAZAKHSTAN (JTA) — In a world where Israel can claim few Muslim friends, no one is more passionate about Kazakhstan than the Israeli envoy to this oil-rich nation.

 

While the nation jockeys to be a major energy producer, joining Caspian Sea neighbors Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan as a vital alternative to Middle East instability and Russian heavy-handedness, observers often cite the Central Asian nation as a moderate Muslim bridge to the Islamic world. That helps explain why Western allies typically downplay the unseemly side of Kazakh rule — repression of independent critics, persecution of political opposition, harassment of marginal religions. They instead accentuate the positives about this ex-Soviet republic.

 

Israel’s ambassador here, Ran Ichay, also tends to focus on the upside, listing several Kazakh achievements of recent years that he terms “world-class contributions.”

 

Kazakhs, for example, voluntarily dismantled their nuclear program, even as folks in the northeastern region of Semipalatinsk still suffer from having served as human guinea pigs for Soviet-era nuclear testing. And twice they have hosted the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, an interreligious forum they created that Ichay says is the rare gathering where Jews, Israelis and Iranians are spotted around the same table.

 

“Kazakhstan is very different from what we know in the Middle East,” he says from his modest office in central Astana, the capital city. “They use their religion as a bridge between cultures.”

 

Still, the elephant in the room remains oil and the worldwide worry over “energy security” that was underscored by Russia’s assault on Georgia in August. (more…)

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Dina Itkina, director of the Jewish community center in Astana. (Photo: mjj)

Dina Itkina, director of the Jewish community center in Astana. (Photo: mjj)

By Michael J. Jordan · December 18, 2008

 

ASTANA, KAZAKHSTAN (JTA) — For Dina Itkina, the number of times she has trekked hundreds of miles for a Jewish event are too many to count. But one time stands out in the mind of this young Jewish activist here — a journey to neighboring Uzbekistan.

 

Seven years ago, at the age of  17, Itkina began with a 30-hour train trip from her hometown, Kokchetav, south across the plains to Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty. There she met two dozen other young Jewish leaders from around the country,  including a pair who had spent more than two days aboard a train from the western Caspian Sea coast. Together they piled into another train for the 12-hour overnighter to the southern city of Shymkent. Then came a one-hour bus trip to the border, an hour walk across the border and another hour ride to Tashkent, the Uzbek capital.

 

After three days of conference, there was the grueling return home.

 

“And nobody cried,” says a laughing Itkina, now 24 and director of the Jewish community center in this capital city. “You have to live here to feel the distances. But this event was a new experience, new emotions, new friends. And a lot of fun.”

 

It’s not only Jewish youth who are immersed in Kazakhstan’s culture of overnight train travel, tolerating odysseys that might deter all but the hardiest Westerners. This is the way of life in Kazakhstan, a country comparable in size to Western Europe, four times the size of Texas. Its population of 15 million is clustered across vast, mostly empty swaths of inhospitable desert and prairie known as steppes.

(more…)

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Crusader: Bulgarian journalist Hristo Hristov has fought for more than a decade to uncover the truth about Georgi Markov's murder that took place in London 30 years ago. (Photo: mjj)

Crusader: Bulgarian journalist Hristo Hristov has fought for more than a decade to uncover the truth about Georgi Markov's murder that took place in London 30 years ago. (Photo: mjj)

The death of Bulgarian writer Georgi Markov in 1978 raises questions about Europe’s lingering ties to communism.

 

By Michael J. Jordan |

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the October 28, 2008 edition

 

SOFIA, BULGARIA – While Bulgarian émigré Georgi Markov walked over Waterloo Bridge in London on Sept. 7, 1978, a passerby bumped into the well-known critic of his native government. A stinging pain shot through Mr. Markov’s calf, and four days later he was dead.

 

Investigators initially thought an assassin, hired by the communist regime in Bulgaria, jabbed him with a poison-tipped umbrella. But later reports suggested a spring-loaded pen, probably KGB-designed, had fired a ricin-tipped pellet into his leg.

 

Today much of the Markov murder remains shrouded in mystery. The case, however, is just one of many unsolved mysteries spurring intense debate in Eastern Europe between critics and defenders of the communist system.

 

 

Though the days of Soviet control are but a distant memory, revelations about who was once a spy or informant continues to rock the region. Many communist-era officials remain in power and continue to hold onto a number of secrets about the past, not only to protect themselves and their allies, but the reputation of the former dictatorships. (more…)

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1968: Ladislav Bielik's image, on display exactly 40 years later in Bratislava, is a poignant symbol of Moscow's aggression. (Photo: mjj)

[This piece appeared Aug. 22, 2008, in the Christian Science Monitor.]

Ladislav Bielik’s iconic image of a Slovak baring his chest to the barrel of a Soviet tank is part of a commemorative exhibit 40 years ago to the day.

By Michael J. Jordan | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA - Before the 1989 photo of a Chinese man confronting tanks in Tiananmen Square, there was the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia captured by Ladislav Bielik’s iconic image of a protester in Bratislava baring his chest to the barrel of a Soviet tank – 40 years ago Thursday.

The moment is brought to life here in Slovakia’s capital, where Bielik’s sequential batch of 185 photos are featured in a photo exhibit on the same square where ordinary citizens confronted the Soviets that morning.

Bielik, whose office was just around the corner, shot them the morning of Aug. 21, only hours after tanks rolled in to snuff out a glimmer of democratic reform known as the Prague Spring.

“You can read a history book about what happened then, or someone will say ‘There were tanks here,’ but when you see these photos, you know it was real,” says student Tanya Takacova, born just before the 1989 collapse of communist Czechoslovakia.

While Bielik’s photos drive the Slovak narrative of that Soviet-led invasion, some cannot resist drawing broader parallels between Moscow’s aggression then and its recent invasion of Georgia.

“This is no longer 1968 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, when a great power invaded a small neighbor and overthrew its government,” said US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week in criticism of Moscow.

Radio Prague quoted one Czech man as saying, “Russia never changes…. They’re incapable of being free, so they don’t want anyone else to enjoy their freedom.” (more…)

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'I wanted to show that Kazakh history…is much deeper than we'd ever thought.' – Gulnara Sarsenova, cosmetic magnate and movie producer (Photo: mjj)

'I wanted to show that Kazakh history…is much deeper than we'd ever thought.' – Gulnara Sarsenova, cosmetic magnate and movie producer (Photo: mjj)

The Central Asian nation throws Borat a counterpunch.

 

By Michael J. Jordan |

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the May 8, 2008 edition

 

ALMATY, KAZAKHSTAN – If the satirical movie “Borat” spoofed an entire nation, then “Mongol” was a decent counterpunch, casting back 800 years to the glory of a world conqueror, and earning Kazakhstan its first nomination for a foreign-language Academy Award earlier this year.

 

But “Mongol” was more than a big-budget Genghis Khan biopic, says Gulnara Sarsenova, the perfume and cosmetics magnate who helped bankroll the $23 million production. It also aimed to bolster the self-respect of a traditionally nomadic people aggressively Russified during 70 years of Soviet domination.

 

“There’s a lack of awareness among Kazakhs of our rich and interesting past,” says the flamboyant CEO, who is from the Naiman clan of northeastern Kazakhstan. That’s the same clan of Borte, Khan’s empress, whose charms in the movie brought out the sensitive side of the Mongol pillager. “I wanted to show that Kazakh history goes much further, is much deeper, than we’d ever thought.”

 

As a co-producer of “Mongol,” Ms. Sarsenova is at the forefront of efforts to reconnect Kazakhs to their ancestors, especially through film. While “Mongol” – with its Russian director, international cast, and global audience – is still a rare, privately funded exception, more typical are the dozens of historical films for domestic consumption that state-run Kazakhfilm has churned out since independence in 1991. (more…)

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Seymur Alizadeh patrols the BTC pipeline near the village of Duzdag, Azerbaijan. (Photo: Yigal Schleifer)

Seymur Alizadeh patrols the BTC pipeline near the village of Duzdag, Azerbaijan. (Photo: Yigal Schleifer)

The $100 million effort stretches across 450 towns and is part of a growing push for corporate social responsibility. 

 

By Michael J. Jordan and Yigal Schleifer |

Correspondents of The Christian Science Monitor

from the March 12, 2008 edition

 

DUZDAG, AZERBAIJAN – Six days a week, Seymur Alizadeh and his chestnut-brown mare patrol the Azerbaijani countryside. Buried a few feet below is the prized Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline, which delivers nearly 1 million barrels of Caspian Sea crude to Western markets each day.

 

Mr. Alizadeh, one of many local villagers guarding the oil route, says, “I feel like a very important part in protecting this pipeline.” Hiring local horsemen is part of a larger effort by pipeline builder BP to create a massive neighborhood watch.

 

BP and other energy companies are under scrutiny for their relations with local communities worldwide for the cost, disruption, and even bloodshed their lucrative pipelines are responsible for. So in recent years they’ve honed a new formula: invest heavily in the affected communities and try to foster goodwill, neutralize controversy, and hopefully safeguard their multibillion-dollar investments.

 

“They have the spotlight on them to do something good in the societies in which they operate, and with the Internet communication revolution, you can very easily publicize something about them from any corner of the globe if they do not behave appropriately,” says Lars Gulbrandsen, a Norwegian researcher who has studied corporate social responsibility (CSR) in Azerbaijan and elsewhere. (more…)

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The capture of nuclear materials in Slovakia last week raises security questions about borderless travel.

 

By Michael J. Jordan |

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the December 4, 2007 edition

 

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA – The capture of over a pound of powderized uranium in Slovakia last week has served as a sharp reminder to Europe, though nuclear experts have cast doubt on the assertion by local law-enforcement officials that terrorists could have used it for a “dirty bomb.”

 

The incident comes just weeks before Slovakia, Hungary, and seven other recent European Union inductees – some of which are former Soviet states – join the passport-free Schengen zone on Dec. 21.

 

As the EU’s borderless travel area expands, the arrest has brought renewed attention to unsecured nuclear material from former Soviet states.

 

“We seem to be immune to understanding that this is worrisome, [saying] ‘Oh well, it’s not enough for a nuclear weapon, or radioactive enough for a dirty bomb,’” says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington.

 

“Enriched uranium at any level is a worry; even if low-enriched uranium, it should be a wake-up call of the danger that someone who might be covertly enriching to make a bomb’s worth of highly enriched uranium could get a hold of this as fresh feed to accelerate their enrichment efforts.”

(more…)

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The International Atomic Energy Agency complains that US and other nations are not contributing as promised. 

 

By Michael J. Jordan |

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the June 22, 2007 edition

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA — The world’s leading nuclear watchdog warned this week that it’s not getting the money to do its job.

 

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), given the task of monitoring the nuclear ambitions of Iran, North Korea, and others, has also been taxed of late by the so-called “nuclear renaissance.” As countries renew the push for nuclear energy, they expect the IAEA to help safeguard new power plants.

 

In a letter sent to the 144 IAEA member-states after budget negotiations stalled last week, director-general Mohammed ElBaradei wrote, “You could finance a less effective agency and we will tell you what that would mean – less than credible verification assurance, less than the best safety advice, a less than perfect security function.”

 

Yet, though the major powers voice fears of nuclear terrorism and nuclear accidents, financial support for the IAEA doesn’t necessarily follow, says Vitaly Fedchenko, a researcher with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in Sweden.

 

“There’s an expression in English: Put your money where your mouth is,” says Mr. Fedchenko. “If you’re saying the IAEA is important, OK, but do you really mean that by contributing to the agency? Arranging your spending priorities in a certain way is a political statement in itself.” (more…)

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By Michael J. Jordan |

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the May 15, 2007 edition

 

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA – Two years ago this week, Uzbekistan’s security forces opened fire on antigovernment demonstrators in the city of Andijan, killing 187 people. That’s the official number. The actual figure was likely hundreds more, say most observers.

 

With the anniversary of the “Andijan massacre,” one would expect Western journalists to flood into this ex-Soviet republic. They would be expected to write stories about how a predominantly Muslim nation in Central Asia that Washington had enlisted in its “War on Terror” had since clamped down on dissent.

 

They would likely note that Freedom House, the pro-democracy watchdog based in Washington, now ranks Uzbekistan as among “the worst of the worst” abusers of human rights and civil liberties in the world.

 

Instead, Uzbek President Islam Karimov has effectively gagged the media. Besides persecuting independent local journalists and blocking critical news websites, Tashkent has barred entry to most foreign correspondents.

 

“It’s easily explained: [Mr.] Karimov doesn’t want any foreign witness to what’s going on,” says Elsa Vidal, head of the Europe desk for the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders.

 

Yet, Uzbeks are puzzled – and upset – by this lack of foreign coverage. Revealing the depth of their isolation, one Uzbek journalist asked me at a recent videoconference to mark World Press Freedom Day, “Why are no foreign journalists in Uzbekistan? Not interested?” (more…)

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Lithuania: Daiva Malinauskiene, by a language trolley in Vilnius, got the idea after a trip to Spain five years ago, where she couldn’t communicate. (Photo: mjj)

Lithuania: Daiva Malinauskiene, by a language trolley in Vilnius, got the idea after a trip to Spain five years ago, where she couldn’t communicate. (Photo: mjj)

The ‘Learning by Moving’ project helps EU citizens learn the languages of their neighbors.

By Michael J. Jordan |

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the May 9, 2007 edition

 

On a visit to southern Spain five years ago, Lithuanian Daiva Malinauskiene encountered a typical traveler’s problem: no one could give her directions in a language she understood.

 

But rather than pass it off as an inevitable annoyance of travel within the European Union (EU), which has 23 official languages and 60 indigenous ones, she devised an unusual solution when she returned to Lithuania: the Learning by Moving project.

 

Today, on commuter-packed trolleys in the capital, Vilnius, the PA systems crackle with impromptu language lessons. “Is the post office far from here?” a voice asks cheerily, first in Lithuanian, then in English and Polish.

 

Passenger Ana Zagun spies the saddle slung over a plexiglass partition, pulls a brochure from its pocket, and follow along. “We’re in Europe now, so we must learn English,” says Ms. Zagun, who speaks Lithuanian, Polish, and Russian.

 

Launched last fall in this ex-Soviet republic, the project has since expanded to five other EU countries: Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania, and Malta. It’s one prong of a broader policy to promote multilingualism, as the 27-member Union struggles to cultivate a sense of “Europeanness” while respecting unique identities. (more…)

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A Lithuanian law serves as a litmus test for what punishments Europe will tolerate against former collaborators.

 

By Michael J. Jordan |

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the May 1, 2007 edition

 

VILNIUS, LITHUANIAWhen Kestutis Dziautas enrolled in Moscow’s KGB college in 1985, he wasn’t aware, he says, of the Soviet secret police’s role in executing and imprisoning hundreds of thousands of fellow Lithuanians decades earlier. Likewise, he says, he didn’t know that KGB agents were still the feared foot soldiers of a ruthless regime.

 

But neither his claim of naiveté, nor the fact that he spent only four months working for the KGB before the fall of communism, was enough to spare him: A 1999 law aimed at punishing and rooting out ex-KGB operatives like Mr. Dziautas banned them from a wide range of public- and private-sector jobs for 10 years.

 

So Dziautas and three comrades took their case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg – and won. In 2004 and 2005 verdicts, the court declared Lithuania’s “KGB Act” a violation of the European Convention of Human Rights, specifically the right to work.

 

“I didn’t kill anyone, I didn’t deport anyone, I didn’t commit genocide. I felt like a rabbit upon which they were experimenting, making an example out of me,” says Dziautas, who says he was relegated to fishing and picking mushrooms.

 

Now, Lithuania is under mounting pressure from the Council of Europe to amend its law or face sanctions when the Council’s Committee of Ministers reconvenes in October. The Lithuanian parliament is leery of how the issue, debated again in early April without resolution, may tarnish the reputation of one of the EU’s newer members.

 

Cases like Dziautas’s highlight the struggle Lithuania and others in Central and Eastern Europe face, years into the postcommunist transition: if and how to punish those who persecuted on behalf of a cruel dictatorship and how to make peace with the past and move forward. (more…)

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By Michael J. Jordan |

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the March 21, 2007 edition

 

VILNIUS, LITHUANIA – Simonas Gurevicius has serious shtick. Blue eyes gleaming, he talks fast and animatedly. His accent, inflection, and shoulder shrugs – like a young Jackie Mason – makes him a throwback to the “Borscht Belt” and the dozens of famed, Yiddish-influenced comics who honed their acts in the upstate New York resorts that once catered to Eastern European Jewish immigrants.

 

But Simonas is no comic and he’s never been in the Catskills. He’s a Yiddish-speaking Jew from Lithuania, the Baltic region of northeastern Europe.

 

“Have a seat there,” Simonas says in English, motioning a visitor to a chair. As the visitor bends to sit, he adds: “The chair’s broken.”

 

“And this, this is a nice guy,” he deadpans, introducing a young colleague. Beat. “But he’s got major psychological problems.”

 

Simonas’s corny shtick is no gimmick; its rhythm and accent ring with authenticity. He’s a rare breed: a young, native speaker of Yiddish, the historic language of Eastern European Jews. And his perseverance makes him something of a hero here.

 

“Simonas is the last of the Mohicans,” says DovidKatz, the Brooklyn-born director of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute. “He’s the last of his generation here to have learned Yiddish in the home.”

 

The Holocaust erased 5 million of the world’s 11 million Yiddish-speakers. In Lithuania, 220,000 of 250,000 Jews died. But Simonas and other Jews here in Vilnius – the cobblestoned cradle of Yiddish life and culture, or Yiddishkeit; a city Napoleon reportedly dubbed “the Jerusalem of the East” – are today working to revive the language. (more…)

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HIGH-TECH: Deimante Doksaite (l.) and Edita Pundziute (r.) update Lietuviams.com, a website they created to keep Lithuanian migrants connected to home. (Photo: mjj)

HIGH-TECH: Deimante Doksaite (l.) and Edita Pundziute (r.) update Lietuviams.com, a website they created to keep Lithuanian migrants connected to home. (Photo: mjj)

Eastern Europe wants them back.

 

By Michael J. Jordan |

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the January 10, 2007 edition

 

VILNIUS, LITHUANIAMuch ado was made in Paris several years ago about the symbolic “Polish plumber” who was coming to steal jobs from les français. Now, it’s Eastern Europeans who are lamenting the loss of not only plumbers, but all service workers.

 

“If you want some repairs in your apartment, you can’t find anyone,” says Rita Stankeviciute, a sportswriter in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital. “It’s ridiculous. Lines in the grocery stores are longer. When I used to need a taxi, it was always three minutes. Now it’s ‘In an hour.’”

 

As Western Europeans fret about a new wave of Eastern Europeans flooding their countries – this time from Romania and Bulgaria, the EU’s newest members – those nations have an opposite concern: how to bring those immigrants home.

 

For a small country like Lithuania, with a low birthrate but high rates of immigration, alcoholism, and suicide, the situation is particularly urgent. The former communist nation of 4 million has seen at least 400,000 people migrate west, whether to work construction in Dublin, pick strawberries in southern Spain, or conduct research in Scandinavia.

  

“We must invite them back,” says Zilvinas Beliauskas, director of the government- supported Returning Lithuanian Information Center. “We should consider them an integral part of the nation.”

(more…)

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Rosy and Frank Jordan in a recent photo with two of their grandchildren – Kende, 2, and Miksa, 4, the author’s sons. (Photo: mjj)

Rosy and Frank Jordan in a recent photo with two of their grandchildren – Kende, 2, and Miksa, 4, the author’s sons. (Photo: mjj)

By Michael J. Jordan · October 25, 2006

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA (JTA) — The first came to America with parents, delivered via U.S. Army transport plane. The other arrived alone, six months later, aboard an ocean liner. 

My mother and father were refugees from different lands. This week marks the 50th anniversary of the simultaneous Cold War events that spurred their journey to freedom. October 1956: The Hungarian Revolution. The Suez Canal Crisis.

 

“It was the most crucial month of the most crucial year, the most dramatic time in the entire history of the Cold War,” historian John Lukacs wrote a decade later in “A New History of the Cold War.”

 

As the world confronts a nuclear North Korea and nuclear-aspiring Iran, the 50-year anniversary reminds us of the world’s first nuclear showdown. Coming at the height of the nuclear-arms race, the Hungary-Suez entanglement sparked the first Soviet threat to attack the West with what Nikita Khrushchev called “rocket weapons.”

 

The American reluctance to intervene in Hungary — after encouraging Hungarians to rise up against their Stalinist oppressors — also was a turning point in U.S.-USSR relations, signaling to the Soviets that their grip on half of Europe would go unchallenged.

 

Meanwhile, the British-French maneuver against Soviet-friendly Egypt to reclaim the Suez Canal — in concert with Israel, but without U.S. support — almost shattered the NATO military alliance. With London and Paris ultimately forced to climb down, the Suez adventure drove the final nail in the British imperial coffin.

 

For me, October 1956 was a pivotal time in my parents’ teenage lives — though they would actually meet only a decade later, as newly minted U.S. citizens in Philadelphia. Dad was born and raised in Budapest; Mom in Alexandria, Egypt. (more…)

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Newly arrived Hungarian Jewish immigrants to the U.S. who fled their country due to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.  (Courtesy HIAS)

Newly arrived Hungarian Jewish immigrants to the U.S. who fled their country due to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. (Courtesy HIAS)

By Michael J. Jordan · October 25, 2006

 

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA (JTA) — The second half of the 20th century was marked by crises that sparked waves of Jewish flight and immigration — but it was rare for two such crises to happen simultaneously.

 

In late 1956 and early 1957, the Hungarian Revolution and the Suez Crisis in Egypt rattled their respective Jewish populations, disgorging about 20,000 Jews apiece. For those who fled, the anti-Jewish strain in each event was the final straw.

 

“Ask anybody who had to flee once: It’s just a matter of pure physics,” says Valery Bazarov, director of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society’s location and family history services, who bolted the Soviet Union with his family in 1988. “You have a scale: When the fear to stay is greater than the fear to leave, then you go. But it depends on your physical and spiritual mindset, how you interpret what you see and hear.”

 

For neither community was this the first wave of emigration: On the heels of a Holocaust that decimated their community, thousands of Hungarian Jews migrated to pre-state Palestine or to the West. Others didn’t have the means to leave or stayed with elderly relatives.

 

But thousands more — especially young Holocaust survivors grateful to the Soviets for liberating them — flocked to join Soviet-backed Communists who sought to ensure that fascism would never return. (more…)

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[The following article appeared March, 18, 2004, in JTA.]

By Michael J. Jordan

MINSK, Belarus — Grigory Reles has a lot to cry about.

Belarus’ greatest living Yiddish writer and last literary link to shtetl life here breaks into tears twice during a recent two-hour conversation.

The first comes when the nonagenarian fondly recalls his mother, Reyzl. His voice is soon choked with emotion, and Reles refuses to discuss her further.

It’s the second tearful episode that is more surprising. It comes while he recounts the 1930s and the fate of colleagues in the Jewish section of the vaunted Belarussian Writers Union.

The Minsk branch was decimated during Stalin’s Great Terror of 1935-38 — blood-drenched purges that claimed countless writers and poets of all ethnic groups among the thousands who died across the Soviet Union.

In Minsk, writers like Moshe Kulbak and Izzy Kharik fell victim. Reles’ memory is sometimes a bit hazy, and he often cups his right ear to hear better, but his voice is robust and animated. Especially when describing his former comrades.

“There were many great writers among them,” he says. “They wrote many classics that are now in the libraries of the world. They must not be forgotten.”

Chastened by the demise of his literary friends, Reles says he learned “to keep my nose out of politics. I never gave any reason to be disliked, never acted against the law. Nevertheless, there was awful persecution.”

Reles grew up in Chashniki, a northern shtetl of 10,000 souls and humble wooden homes that was almost purely Jewish. Even the few Russian families in town spoke Yiddish, he says.

(more…)

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[The following article appeared March 17, 2004, in JTA.]

By Michael J. Jordan

MINSK, Belarus — It’s not your ordinary Friday night gathering at the Campus, the hub of Jewish life here in the Belarussian capital.

The first night of Chanukah is coupled with the much-anticipated induction of young Rabbi Grisha Abramovich as the new spiritual head of Belarus’ Reform movement.

In the brightly lit multipurpose room at the Campus Jewish community center, nearly 200 mostly elderly Jews are decked out in their Friday night finery: Many women look as if they’ve had their hair freshly styled, and several men have pinned their war medals and other honorary insignia onto their jacket lapels.

As the Minsk-born Abramovich is sworn in from the stage with a prayer by a senior Reform rabbi from Israel, there is a pause for the audience to respond “Amen.” But the room falls silent; only two or three appear to mumble the affirmation.

The ceremony and this awkward moment speak volumes about the state of Jewish life in Belarus: enthusiastic renaissance of Jewish culture and society, but painstakingly difficult reconstruction of Jewish religion.

“It is easier to train people to provide social welfare services than it is to teach them values and traditions,” says Marina Fromer, the local representative of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which underwrites much of Jewish cultural, social and welfare services in Belarus.

That’s one main reason that all Campus activities are free — it brings Jews through the door. And they come back for more: The JDC claims a 90 percent rate of return visits.

Jewish culture — at once providing a form of entertainment and sense of belonging — is an easier lure than religiosity or spirituality, which must strike a deeper chord emotionally and demands commitment, says Sender Uritsky, the chief rabbi of Belarus.

After 70 years of Soviet-imposed atheism, persuading Jews to observe Jewish law and ritual “is like trying to change an introvert into an extrovert,” Uritsky says.

Belarussian Jews describe themselves as living in a Jewish void.

(more…)

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[The following article appeared March 10, 2004, in JTA.]

By Michael J. Jordan

MINSK, Belarus — Rabbi Sender Uritsky has a dream.

Virtually unattainable, even by his own calculations, but a dream nonetheless.

From a tungsten-lit office cluttered with religious texts, paperwork and dirty teacups, the Orthodox chief rabbi of Belarus wants to rebuild a “real Jewish community” — a geographic and spiritual enclave of Jews with shared values of how to live and rear their children — in a land where Jewish life once was as authentically Jewish as it got.

But the Jews of Belarus and elsewhere in the Soviet Union have become assimilated because of repression and intermarriage. Even now, some Jews only discover their religion when the once-hidden background of a parent or grandparent suddenly is revealed.

“During Soviet times, Jews were Jews in name only: Their passports said so,” says the friendly Uritsky, an Orthodox Jew born in Ukraine who has lived in Belarus for six years.

“Their attitude toward Jewish life today is they have no sense of being a member of a community, or of communal life. It’s impossible to order them to live a community life, so we have to educate them, to bring them closer to the Jewish values I believe in.”

To those well-versed in Jewish history, the idea of having to re-learn Judaism and Jewish life in a place like Belarus may be difficult to fathom.

(more…)

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[The following article was published March 4, 2004, in JTA.]

By Michael J. Jordan

MINSK, Belarus — The crammed bookshelves in Yakov Basin’s personal library form an unusual collection, a rogue’s gallery of all the anti-Semitic, conspiracy-fueling publications that Basin has plucked from Belarussian bookstores during the past decade.

He pulls one from the shelf to illustrate his point: “War According to Laws of Meanness.” Its thesis of “Jewish crimes” — aspiring to global domination, for example — mirrors the notorious forgery “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

Basin describes how on Nov. 29, 2000, Belarussian legislator Sergei Kostian distributed copies of the war book to colleagues on the floor of Parliament.

Basin, a Jewish leader and human rights activist, took the publisher to court. But the state-controlled judiciary in this ex-Soviet republic deemed the book “scientific” and “academic literature” and therefore not subject to charges of inciting ethnic hatred. Some 30,000 copies were published.

Such acts anger and frustrate some of Belarus’ estimated 70,000 Jews. But others, after decades of Soviet-era anti-Semitic policies, are resigned to a certain level of anti-Jewish provocations.

Jews are relieved that the country’s authoritarian ruler, Alexander Lukashenko, hasn’t adopted any of the anti-Semitic policies of the past or personally made any anti-Jewish pronouncements, Basin says.

But, he adds, Lukashenko also “has done nothing for us.”

Lukashenko sends mixed signals to the Jewish community.

(more…)

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