N & P: David Halberstam Edition

Friday, October 16, 2020

As I've been writing a biography in recent years, I also read a lot of biographies. Many of these are more scholarly or academic-type volumes, but a lot have been trade-press works of varying quality. Especially with regard the latter, I pay particular attention to the writing and what you might call the "storytelling" aspect of the book. I pick biographies mainly based upon how interesting I find the subject, regardless of how closely connected they might be to my interests in the Turkic-Russian borderlands. This year I've read bios of Charles Schultz, Vladimir Mayakovsky, L. Frank Baum, Jim Henson, and Rudolph Nureyev, to name just a few. 

For the past couple of weeks I've been reading David Halberstam's book on Michael Jordan, which was first published over 20 years ago. I love Halberstam's writing, and have read probably eight or nine of his books over the years. Breaks of the Game is, of course, a classic, but others like War in a Time of Peace and The Best and the Brightest are also really impressive. 

In Playing for Keeps, Halberstam's book on Jordan, I found the organization of the writing--and the chronology of the book--particularly exceptional. It starts in Paris in 1997 and ends in Chicago one year later, but throughout its 32 chapters the book goes backward and forward constantly. Some might complain that Halberstam was "jumping around" too much, but not me. In fact, I'd say that this work was masterfully put together. It's a cliche to refer to a book as a "tapestry," but that's really the effect here. Whereas most biographies plod slowly forward, Playing for Keeps zooms in and out, hitting at different moments of Jordan's life and then circling back in time in a manner that kept me interested. The chronology of the book also had the effect of tying together Jordan's playing career in a much more coherent manner than simply telling the story from beginning to end. 

I'm not trying to write the kind of book that Halberstam would have written. As an academic and scholar, I've received too much training on specific areas of the world and developments in modern history to do that. Trying to say something bigger and important about an era, as opposed to talking about a single individual in a vacuum--or simply recounting the details of a person's life--will usually slow down a narrative to a certain extent. But still, it's so inspiring to read the books of such a beautiful writer. I actually shed a few tears when I got to the very end of Playing for Keeps this morning. 

One last thing--I couldn't help but notice how much the much-ballyhooed 10-part Michael Jordan document released this summer picks up on so many threads from Halberstam's book. I really liked the documentary, and it's one of the reasons why I ended up finally buying this book a few months ago. But still--I kind of think Halberstam should have gotten some credit here. Obviously, if different creative types are working on the same subject, there's bound to be a lot of overlap. But the insights of the documentary--I see a lot of them in Halberstam from more than 20 years back. 

David Halberstam died 13 years ago in a traffic accident at the age of 73. He had published 20 books, of which Playing for Keeps was one of his last. What a career that guy had. I wonder if anyone's ever considered writing a biography of him. 


Meanwhile in the Eurasian borderlands, the world continues to turn. Stories from the region which caught my eye this week include: 

Ex-USSR: Moldova

Election fever is sweeping Moldova, where people will head to the polls on November 1--what a crazy idea, voting on the weekend, huh? It seems to be fitting into a familiar pattern in post-Soviet space. 

As Balkan Insight reports

Once again offering Moldovans a stark choice between East and West, pro-Russian incumbent Igor Dodon and his pro-European challenger, Maia Sandu, are almost certain to enter a run-off on November 15.


But while opinion polls in 2016 correctly predicted a Dodon victory, this time Sandu enjoys a narrow advantage. 

The former Soviet republic, Europe’s poorest country, is almost evenly split between pursuing integration with Europe and remaining under Russia’s wing.

It's a competition that I have described in previous posts as "the not-so great game" between Russia and western institutions. We have already seen these politics play out in Georgia and Ukraine, with often disastrous consequences for people living in these countries. 

Indeed, I think it's the general lack of interest, among the present administration in Washington, D.C., in expanding US and western European influence into former Soviet space that makes the current US president more attractive to Moscow. It will be interesting to see what happens in Moldova if both they, and Americans, vote in a new president this fall. 


Kyrgyzstan: the Overlooked Revolution

In Kyrgyzstan, meanwhile, another revolution--albeit a largely unnoticed one--has taken place. For the third time in fifteen years, Kyrgyz have taken to the streets to oust their political leadership. Unlike the elections in Moldova, however, these events likely less connected to east-west rivalries in the territories of the former USSR, and are more an expression of domestic concerns. 

As The Guardian reports: 

Kyrgyzstan has been in crisis since the start of this month after allegations of vote-buying in parliamentary polls brought thousands to the streets of the capital, Bishkek. At least one person was killed and more than 1,000 injured in clashes between protesters and the police.

Protesters stormed some government buildings, while authorities deployed troops to Bishkek and imposed a curfew. Jeenbekov initially said he would stay on until fresh elections could be held, but later said he did not want “to go down in the history of Kyrgyzstan as a president who allowed bloodshed and shooting on its people”.

The crisis has worried Kyrgyzstan’s ally Russia, which has seen growing unrest in areas it traditionally considers its sphere of influence. Post-election protests are continuing in Belarus, along with deadly clashes in the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan.

As I remarked in a post last week, the events in Kyrgyzstan have been largely ignored. While it might be tempting to just write off these developments as a simple expression of "chaos," the messiness of Kyrgyz politics is, in some ways, a healthy contrast to the stability of the one-party dictatorships that are a feature of the rest of former Soviet Central Asia. 

Interestingly, the Turkish government has been taking a hard line against the revolution, making unsubstantiated claims that the protesters are from the so-called "FETÖ" organization. The AKP blames "FETÖ" for staging the coup attempt in Turkey six years ago. 

As the Hürriyet Daily Tattler reports:

One of the most important actors that have fueled riots in Kyrgyzstan is FETÖ and its network in the country, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on Oct. 15.

“When the treacherous coup in Turkey happened, I did emphasize that this terrorist organization has a strong establishment in Kyrgyzstan, and I did warn that when the day comes, it may harm the brother Kyrgyzstan. Today, our brothers in Kyrgyzstan saw this once again themselves,” he said at the opening ceremony of Ahmet Yesevi University’s academic year via video link.

He underlined that enhancing relations with Central Asian countries was a “national policy.”

Turkey has prioritized relations with Central Asia and other Asian countries with its Asia Anew initiative, Çavuşoğlu noted.

Yeah, right. Anyway, comments are still interesting because they do give some give some insight into Ankara's attitude toward Central Asia these days. 



Fighting continues between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, but there is evidence now that the war could be spreading. 

Namely, Baku has reportedly confirmed shelling Armenian positions inside Armenia--as opposed to Armenian-controlled Nagorno Karabakh. If true, this constitutes a serious escalation in the conflict. 

As Radio Free Europe reports: 

The extension of the fighting into Armenian territory is particularly significant as it could invoke defense obligations from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), of which Armenia is a member along with Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.

According to Article 4 of the CSTO treaty, “[in] case of aggression commission (an armed attack menacing safety, stability, territorial integrity, and sovereignty) to any of the member states, all the other member states at request of this member state shall immediately provide the latter with the necessary help, including military one.”

Putin on October 7 said that Russia's commitments to Armenia as part of the CSTO do not include the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, which is not an CSTO member.

“It is deeply regrettable that the hostilities continue, but they are not taking place on Armenian territory,” Putin said.

My sense is that Moscow, which has had generally good relations with both Baku and Yerevan, would like to see this conflict go away--they would put their energy into preventing the election of a pro-western government in Moldova, for example. 

If Russia somehow becomes caught up in this conflict, the ramifications would be huge. Turkey appears to be quite actively involved in assisting Baku. As a NATO member, Ankara would not only be risking the possibility of sliding into a conflict with Russia not just on their own, but with the rest of the alliance in tow. 

Of course, Moscow and Ankara have been in danger of stepping on one another's toes before--most notably in Syria, where the Turkish Army shot down a Russian jet fighter five years ago. So, it's not like the diplomats of these two countries have no experience in walking back bilateral crises. That being said, developments like these can often take on a life of their own. 

As we learned at the beginning of this year in Iran (remember then?), when everyone is sitting on a hair-trigger, people are more likely to die. 



Dozens of individuals in Turkey have died from drinking homemade booze this week. 

In the words of Balkan Insight:

In the past week, at least 45 people in Turkey have died after consuming illegally produced unregistered alcoholic beverages in Istanbul, Izmir, Mersin, Kirikkale and other towns and cities.

Authorities say another 50 people are in hospital intensive care units for the same reason.

Turkish police found out that the reason for deaths is that people were using ethyl alcohol-based hand disinfectants for making alcoholic beverages.

Under the rule of President Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, AKP, the price of alcoholic drinks has risen by a staggering 1,800 per cent in the last 18 years. 

Maybe it's just me, but when I read this story the first words out of my mouth were "1800%?" 


Bear News

Yesterday, I received an email from the university warning of a bear that was sighted close to campus. This happens every once in a while. Five years ago, Bozeman High School made the national news when a bear was found roaming the school's hallways

Clearly, the bears of Gallatin County are serious about completing their education. 

Other bear-related news stories from Montana this week include:


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 in the Borderlands Lounge.   

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