News & Propaganda: Back to School Edition

Friday, August 21, 2020

School started up again this week, bringing an end to a weird summer. Actually, were it not for the conditions surrounding my summer, I could say that it has been a good one. There are worse things one could be stuck doing than hiking, biking, and writing in Montana. 

Beautiful days in Montana

I'm teaching online this semester--an undergraduate seminar on memoir and biography, and a graduate methods class. Even though we're not in the same room together, I have to say that I felt pretty charged up to be working with students again. Teaching online is definitely not my favorite manner of instruction, but I think it's much better than the alternative right now. The sorts of things that I like doing in person--putting people into small groups, getting everyone to mix together and talk about their ideas--can't be done safely at present, and actually can be carried out pretty decently through Zoom, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed. 

Mainly, I just miss being around the university scene--bumping into friends, students, and colleagues at random spots around campus, hanging out in my office with people talking, that sort of thing. But it is great to be interacting with students again, even if it is in a digital format. 

Up here at the Borderlands Lodge, meanwhile, we've been receiving notifications of various developments taking place across the globe this week, so it seemed like a good idea to put together an N & P

So now that we've got the propaganda out of the way, how about some news?

Former USSR

A number of interesting things are happening in the former USSR these days. The big story, of course, has been the ongoing protests taking place in Belarus with respect to apparently stolen elections there. Belarus leader Aleksandr Lukashenko, who shares a rather fraught relationship with Vladimir Putin, had reportedly called for Putin's help in quelling the protests, something that has not yet been forthcoming and may never be. 

On his way out?

The difference between Belarus and, say, Ukraine or Georgia, is that the opposition to Moscow-backed leaders in the latter two countries was much more associated with a drive toward joining western associations--the EU and NATO, specifically. In Belarus, on the other hand, the opposition appears to be much more anti-Lukashenko than necessarily pro-EU. So long as Moscow doesn't feel that an opposition movement in government will lead to another EU or NATO member on its doorstep, the risk of getting involved in Belarus likely outweighs any perceived benefit of keeping Lukashenko in power. 

I wonder how the Belarus protests, and the response to them internationally, would be different had the elections in the US gone differently in 2016. While the administration in Washington has largely kept quiet about the protests, it seems quite likely that an HRC presidency would have likely put more pressure on Lukashenko, possibly with an eye toward further consolidating American interests within the boundaries of the ex-USSR (what I like to call the "not so great game"). 

The fact that this hasn't happened is an indication that, whatever the investment that Moscow made in the last US elections, it appears to have already paid off. 

Speaking of which, we'll keep an eye on how the US reacts now to news that Russian opposition figure Alexei Naval'nyi is in a coma after allegedly being poisoned...


One of the big stories out of Turkey this summer was the transformation of the Aya Sofya--which was first a church, then a mosque, and then a museum--back into a mosque. Naturally this development caused a lot of hand-wringing in some circles over the lost halcyon days of an allegedly more tolerant and liberal-minded time in Turkey. 

Well. Turkey's current government is certainly not very tolerant or liberal-minded, but neither was the regime that turned the Aya Sofya into a museum in the first place. If anything, I think, it should be the emulation of this 1930s-style kind of politics that we should consider the most troubling characteristic of the present administration, not so much the perceived direction (toward something more "religious" than "secular") that this group thinks it is taking Turkey. Turkey's present leaders are, after all, a product of Mustafa Kemal's secular republic. Where did they learn to act this way? 

If anything, news stories like this seem to be useful mainly as a means of distracting people in Turkey from...gee, what? 


This week also marked the 21st anniversary of the massive earthquake outside Istanbul that killed more than 30,000 people in 1999. I was there at the time, having just returned to Turkey after five months spent traveling through India and East Asia. The plan was to spend a week back in town, collect my things from storage, then head back to the US to start graduate school. 

Bad days in August of 1999

I remember the night pretty well. It was around three o'clock in the morning and I was sitting up talking with friends on their balcony. All of a sudden I heard the sound of my friends' large potted plant hitting the walls from the corner of the living room where it was situated. At first, I thought a mouse, bird, or some other animal had gotten inside the apartment and was caught up in the plant, but then the whole building started to sway. We were in a relatively old building, a sort of "row house" connected to the buildings on either side of it, and the noise created from the shifting of the buildings was truly stomach-churning for those of us on the fourth floor--a deep, intestinal-sounding rumbling grind that made me think, for a brief moment, that we all might soon die. 

One of the friends I was staying with began to seriously freak out. Somewhat counter-intuitively, her reaction had the effect of relaxing me, because all of us suddenly focused upon calming her down, which took our minds off the fact that, for almost a minute, we were in a building that was swaying and emitting noises which sounds as if they had come straight from the depths of hell.  

The earthquake knocked out power as far as the eye could see. For the first time after having lived in Istanbul for seven years, I saw a real collection of stars shining above me. 

For another week, I hung out at my friends' place, experiencing aftershocks several times a day and always wondering if we were going to get hit hard again. Most of the stores were closed at first, and we had no electricity, phone service, or running water. Within a couple of days, however, many shops re-opened and the water came back on. I already had tickets to fly back to the United States the following week, so didn't really need to do anything in that regard except re-confirm and come to terms with the fact that I was really leaving. 

I spent my remaining days in town saying goodbyes under the strangest of conditions.  

Are you a Turk across empires? Order a copy today, then get another one for your library.

More commentary, photos, and links can be found at the Borderlands Lounge.

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