Preface by Alexander Mercouris
We publish this long article in full not just because intellectually speaking it is something of a tour de force but because it is packed with exceptional insights both about Russia and about the foreign policy of the US and the methods used by some of the supporters of that foreign policy.
Before commenting on some of the points made in the article we would make one warning:
There must be some doubt about the true extent of Putin’s familiarity with the three philosophers discussed in the article.
Contrary to his image in the West, Putin is a highly educated and well-read man who is known to read academic works of history and to like classical music.
Whether he has the time or the inclination to familiarise himself with the very complex and difficult material contained in the works of the three philosophers discussed in this article is another matter. More likely Putin knows these philosophers from summaries provided by his advisers rather than from personal study.
Putting that point aside, the article makes a valid and important point – the philosophers Putin endorses are genuine intellectual heavyweights whose ideas do not set out a program or blueprint for an aggressive, expansionist, ethnocentric, authoritarian, “messianic” Russia, as Western critics of Putin allege, but on the contrary do the diametric opposite.
As the article also says, the philosophers under discussion were highly regarded in the West until Putin endorsed them. At that moment – but not before – their ideas suddenly became “dangerous” and “sinister”.
This brings us to our next point. The article shows how cynically the ideas of the three philosophers are being misrepresented in order to prove the thesis of a dangerous, aggressive and authoritarian Russia.
This sort of misrepresentation is now no longer the exception but the rule.
As a general principle no quotation of Putin’s or of any other prominent Russian official or politician that appears in the Western media can be assumed to be true. Given the relentlessly hostile anti-Putin and anti-Russian agenda that now dominates Western commentary, any quotation is almost certain to be distorted either through mistranslation or by being taken out of context.
The situation is now so bad that even someone as senior as the former President of the European Commission will deliberately misquote words Putin told him in private conversation if he thinks he can get away with it. Recently it has become clear that some quotes attributed to Putin have actually been invented by his Western critics.
What this article shows is that this process now extends not just to living Russians like Putin, but to Russian intellectuals who are long dead. It seems the words of any Russian, living or dead, are now fair game for those in the West who want to convince others that Russia poses a threat to the West.
This is a very sinister development, which makes (and which is intended to make) an understanding with Russia all but impossible. Note Dr. Grenier’s astute comment about this:
“Critics say that Russia recently has become a nation filled with hate. But how are Russian citizens and President Putin himself to interpret the twisting (and what we have seen above is just the tip of the iceberg) of their own words and their most cherished traditions in such an apparently spiteful and even violent way?”
That is not however the worst of it.
Such a ruthlessly manipulative approach to the words and ideas of people long dead can be genuinely called Orwellian.
People who show such disrespect for truth are dangerous. By engaging in such cynical falsehoods they reveal where the real danger to world peace comes from. They also expose who is really responsible for the present disastrously bad state of relations between Russia and the West.
It also incidentally shows that anything people like this say simply cannot be relied upon since truth for them has no value save to the extent that it serves their political purpose. When they therefore say things like “the Russian army is invading Ukraine” there is no more reason to believe them than when they say people like Putin or Solovyov said things they did not in fact say.
Dr Grenier, the writer of this article, is clearly aware of this. One other way in which this article stands out is in its insight into the ideological and ultimately corrupt thinking of those behind current US foreign policy. Consider this quite brilliant summation at the end of the article with its implicit warning of the incipient totalitarianism of current US thinking:
“…….if America’s political ideal is as nearly perfect as can ever be achieved in this ‘fallen world,’ then the thing is to carry on and win, thereby bringing the perfect good (that’s us!) to everyone.
Why bother seriously familiarizing oneself with a competing system? Clearly Brooks and Co. made no such effort. It was enough for them to know that Russia’s political ideal significantly differs from America’s: therefore it is illegitimate, Q.E.D.
As Hannah Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism, ‘The curious logicality of all isms, their simple-minded trust in the salvation value of stubborn devotion without regard for specific, varying factors, already harbors the first germs of totalitarian contempt for reality.’
That America does not actually live up to its own ideals, as I have written here previously, changes nothing for the ideologue. After all, every further increase in America’s power brings closer the day when its actions (which are generally realist) and its speech (which is always democratic and idealist) can come into harmony. Then history can truly and finally come to an end.”
What started the new Cold War? According to the State Department, it was Russia’s illegal violation of Ukraine’s sovereign borders. The Kremlin, for its part, insists it was a U.S.-facilitated coup in Ukraine which destroyed the constitutional order there, causing chaos and dangers to Russian security to which Russia had no choice but to respond.
According to academic foreign policy “realists,” the cause was the imminent threat of Ukraine’s integration into an ever-expanding military pact dominated by the United States. According to George Friedman, president of Statfor, the private strategic intelligence firm, the Ukraine crisis itself is more effect than cause: the conflict started in 2013 when the United States decided Russia’s increasing power was becoming a threat.
And according to Kiev, Russian President Vladimir Putin created the whole crisis. He invented the threat of Ukrainian so-called “fascism” and was motivated throughout by a combination of imperial ambition coupled with a fear of democracy.
It is not my present goal to try to adjudicate among the above claims. Despite their obvious differences, they also all share a common trait: none provide any clear direction for how to get out of this mess. It’s time to approach it from a completely different angle.
When the first Cold War ended, Francis Fukuyama explained, more in sadness than in triumph, that the United States’ model of liberal democratic capitalism had won and that this was why “history” – the struggle to find the correct answer to the political question regarding the optimal form of society – had ended.
What had won, in fact, was a set of answers to such key questions of political life as the origin and purpose of the state; what it means to be human; what it is that all humans do, or should, strive for. The classic sources of the specifically American answers to these questions are well known: they are the sources of liberal political thought as such.
Here is another thing well known to the point of being cliché: since 2001, the end of history thesis has been repeatedly challenged by events. In point of fact, Fukuyama’s thesis cannot be challenged by mere events, because he never said that unpleasantness would cease to be part of the human experience. He said that humans were unlikely to come up with a more effective and attractive compromise solution to the key political questions than the rather dull set of answers that make up the liberal, democratic capitalist world.
To those who point out that ISIS has disproven his “end of history” thesis, Fukuyama could with good reason reply: “Well, if you find that sort of thing attractive, you may accept my congratulations.”
But I am writing neither to defend nor to attack Fukuyama. I am simply suggesting that we are doing ourselves no favor by ignoring all answers to the political question that differ from liberal orthodoxy. There may be in liberalism and democracy and capitalism much that is correct, but there is every reason to suspect that we have not yet discovered the final truth about either human beings or political man.
Fukuyama himself offered his own critique: his skepticism about the human material is what made him set his sights so low. It is not necessarily a criticism of Fukuyama to point out that there are many in the world today who aspire to something besides our world of comfortable autonomy and the possession of rights in the purely Lockean sense.
Among those who so aspire are many in the Slavic world, with its roots in Eastern Orthodox Christianity; or the Chinese sphere, with its Confucian heritage which is just beginning to awaken; and of course the Middle East. And that is just to name the groups the United States has identified as in dire need of a makeover.
Diversity and Liberalism
The West, and specifically the United States, has before it a fateful choice: should it seek a “live and let live” co-existence of the liberal and non-liberal nations of the world, or should it try to make the rest of the world liberal at gunpoint, and in that way prove that history really has finally ended? Should we make the world safe for diversity, or should we make the world uniform for the safety of the United States?
In the Middle East the choice has already been made. It is to be made liberal and democratic at gunpoint. The enormous difficulties this has presented has convinced the American party of war, which appears to be in the majority, that it is time to double down and try harder, not only in the Middle East, but now in the Slavic world as well.
This raises a crucial question about diversity and difference. What is it that makes a nation itself and not something else? Is it the presence of borders? Is it running one’s own elections using one’s own manpower? Clearly, it is neither of these things, nor anything like them.
To be one’s own nation, to continue to exist in fact, means exactly to continue to realize over time one’s national idea, that is to say, as Ernst Renan put it (Qu’est qu’une nation?, 1882, as quoted by Hannah Arendt) “to preserve worthily the undivided inheritance which has been handed down.”
That nations frequently borrow cultural content from others is undeniable, and often laudable. But it is crucially important, as American historian William Appleman Williams once noted, who makes the choice of those borrowings. Are they adapted freely from the inside, or are they forcefully imposed? The failure to understand this latter distinction is what keeps bringing about The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (also the title of Williams’s book).
When nations fully share the American liberal world view, these separate nations become, in a certain sense, no longer fully “separate.” This is by no means necessarily a bad thing. The nations of northern Europe do not suffer for the most part from their close alliance with the United States, including in the cultural sense.
But here’s the six trillion dollar question: is the United States willing to countenance the existence, on a permanent basis, of other great powers that do not accept liberal civilizational values as America defines them? I say other “great powers” because in the long run only a great power, or a protectorate of a great power, can assure its own continued existence.
The non-liberal status of Russia has been presented recently as a dire threat to the security of both America and the world. In support of this storyline, the Russian president has been associated with thinkers from Russia’s past who are, supposedly, the source of a fanaticism that justifies speaking of Vladimir Putin and Russia (the two are melded together in the endlessly-repeated “Putin’s Russia”) in the same breath as ISIS.
But the ideas of this non- or not-entirely-liberal Russia are by no means all dangerous. To the contrary, they offer a fruitful avenue for rethinking some of our most cherished assumptions about the nature of politics and the nature of the international order.
Then and Now
When communism was abandoned in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it became apparent to thoughtful Russians and outsiders alike that a new concept of the state, a new concept of man, and a new public philosophy would have to be created.It was then, and remains today, an open question whether the new Russian identity would end up being an import from the West, something from the native vault of pre-Communist philosophical thinking, or perhaps a combination of the two.
As might be expected from the country that brought the world Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, when it comes to philosophy, Russia has got a deep bench.In the months immediately following the February 2014 change of power in Kiev, and the resulting growing tension between Washington and Moscow, three Russian philosophers, only two of them widely known outside of Russia, came to be increasingly associated with the name of Vladimir Putin. The subsequent interpretation of these philosophers on the pages of several of America’s most influential newspapers deserves to be considered in detail.
Maria Snegovaya, a doctoral candidate in political science at Columbia University, initiated the discussion with a March 2, 2014 article in the Washington Post. Putin’s “pro-Soviet worldview,” Snegovaya wrote, is poorly understood:
“To get a grasp … one needs to check what Putin’s preferred readings are. Putin’s favorites include a bunch of Russian nationalist philosophers of early 20th century – Berdyaev, Solovyev, Ilyin — whom he often quotes in his public speeches. Moreover, recently the Kremlin has specifically assigned Russia’s regional governors to read the works by these philosophers during 2014 winter holidays. The main message of these authors is Russia’s messianic role in world history, preservation and restoration of Russia’s historical borders and Orthodoxy.”
Mark Galeotti, writing in Foreign Policy (“Putin’s Empire of the Mind,” April 21, 2014) also found fault with these same three philosophers. “These three, whom Putin often cites,” Galeotti writes, “exemplify and justify [Putin’s] belief in Russia’s singular place in history. They romanticize the necessity of obedience to the strong ruler — whether managing the boyars or defending the people from cultural corruption — and the role of the Orthodox Church in defending the Russian soul and ideal.”
Finally, David Brooks, writing for the New York Times (“Putin Can’t Stop,” March 3, 2014), likewise expressed alarm about the influence of Solovyov, Berdyaev and Il’in. “Putin doesn’t only quote these guys; he wants others to read them,” Brooks wrote. Three main ideas unify Solovyov, Il’in and Berdyaev’s work, Brooks wrote:
“The first is Russian exceptionalism: the idea that Russia has its own unique spiritual status and purpose. The second is devotion to the Orthodox faith. The third is belief in autocracy. Mashed together, these philosophers point to a Russia that is a quasi-theocratic nationalist autocracy destined to play a culminating role on the world stage.”
Under the influence of these “guys,” Brooks continues, “The tiger of quasi-religious nationalism, which Putin has been riding, may now take control. That would make it very hard for Putin to stop in this conflict where rational calculus would tell him to stop.” Brooks concludes that Russia can no longer be considered a “normal” regime and “a Huntingtonian conflict of civilizations with Russia” may be the result.
Analyzing the Analysts
What are we to make of these analyses, all of them published in authoritative U.S. periodicals?
One thing is certain. These assessments represent an enormous and surprising reversal in the viewpoint of educated opinion in the West, particularly as regards Solovyov and Berdyaev (with Il’in, as already noted, being much less well known).
Up until these articles in March-April of 2014, I do not recall reading a single negative assessment of either of these Russian thinkers, at least not among Western specialists, nor a single one accusing them of being hostile to the West, nor a single one suggesting that they are friendly to Russian chauvinism or nationalism.
In Russian Thought after Communism, James Scanlan, a leading Western expert on Russian thought, described Vladimir Solovyov (1853 – 1900) as “by common consent the greatest and most influential of all of Russia’s philosophical thinkers.” In a recent Cambridge University Press history of Russian philosophy, Randal Poole writes that “Solov’ev is widely regarded as Russia’s greatest philosopher.”
There are, it is true, a handful of dissenters from this nearly unanimous assessment of Solovyov. The contemporary Russian philosopher Sergei Khoruzhy considers Solovyov a very great philosopher, but a bit too western in orientation to deserve the title of greatest Russian thinker in the narrow sense.
Moreover, even scholars known to be generally hostile to things Russian, such as former Harvard professor Richard Pipes, nonetheless speak respectfully about Solovyov: “The Orthodox Church never found a common language with the educated because its conservative outlook made it pronouncedly anti-intellectual … One by one it pushed away from itself the country’s finest religious minds: the Slavophiles, Vladimir Soloviev, Leo Tolstoy and the laymen gathered in the early 1900s around the Religious Philosophical Society …” (Russia Under the Old Regime, 243.)
In short, Snegovaya’s misapprehension of Solovyov could hardly be more thorough. In what possible sense can Solovyov, who had no inkling of anything Soviet, be considered supportive of Putin’s alleged “pro-Soviet world view”? In point of fact, the writings of this supposedly “pro-Soviet” philosopher – exactly like those of Berdyaev and Il’in – were banished by Soviet censors.
How can Solovyov be described as a “nationalist,” when his magnum opus, The Justification of the Good (the book which Putin is said to have urged his governors to read), states precisely the opposite? It is hard to imagine a more absolute condemnation of national exceptionalism than that contained in Solovyov’s definitive work of ethics:
“It must be one or the other. Either we must renounce Christianity and monotheism in general, according to which ‘there is none good but one, that is, God,’ and recognize our nation as such to be the highest good that is, put it in the place of God — or we must admit that a people becomes good not in virtue of the simple fact of its particular nationality, but only in so far as it conforms to and participates in the absolute good.”
This same anti-nationalist theme runs through Solovyov’s entire corpus. He argued bitterly against the Slavophile nationalists of his day. To learn of Solovyov’s views on this subject, Snegovaya, who reads Russian, might have consulted the book State, Society, Governance, a scholarly volume of liberal social science co-published in 2013 by Mikhail Khodorkovsky (not known for his fondness for Putin). In this Russian-language compendium of essays by leading Russian liberal theorists, Solovyov is marshaled as an authoritative critic of Russian nationalism, including the nationalism occasionally voiced by Dostoevsky. [S. Nikolsky and M. Khodorkovsky, ed., Gosudrastvo. Obshchestvo. Upravlenie: Sbornik statei (Moskva, Alpina Pablisher: 2013)].
In the article by Prof. Sergei Nikolsky, Solovyov is quoted at length precisely as an authoritative critic of Dostoevsky’s disrespect for other faiths and nations and specifically for Europe. For the sake of balance, Nikolsky might have noted that elsewhere, for example in his “Three Speeches in Honor of Dostoevsky,” Solovyov praises Dostoevsky in the highest possible terms and specifically denies that his political ideal is nationalist.
It is worth noting that Nikolsky, in this same article, attacks Il’in for his too rosy views of Russian Czarist imperialism. Nikolsky probably has a point here.
Criticizing the Church
Finally, far from being a fanatical proponent of the Russian Orthodox Church, Solovyov harshly criticized the Russian Church, calling it “totally subservient to the secular power and destitute of all inner vitality.” As ringing endorsements go, this one sounds decidedly weak.And again, all this is well known. Many, including even such prominent theologians as Urs von Balthasar, believe Solovyov renounced Orthodoxy and became a Catholic, so warmly did Solovyov praise the Catholic Church.
Solovyov, the supposed conservative Orthodox zealot, praised the Catholic Church, among other reasons, for what he saw as it independence from nationalist temptations, and for its readiness to act in the world.
“The East [meaning Eastern Orthodoxy] prays; the West [meaning Roman Catholicism] prays and acts: which is right?” asks Solovyov rhetorically in his famous Russia and the Universal Church. Mixing with the world is good if it is the world that changes, Solovyov continues. Changes in what sense? In some respects, in the same sense as that advocated by Western progress.
What the French Revolution destroyed – treating men as things, chattel or slaves, deserved to be destroyed. But the French Revolution nonetheless did not institute justice, because justice is impossible without the truth, and first of all the truth about man, but the French Revolution “perceived in Man nothing but abstract individuality, a rational being destitute of all positive content.”
As a result, the “free sovereign individual,” Solovyov continues, “found himself doomed to be the defenseless victim of the absolute State or ‘nation.’ ”
It is impossible to reconcile the Solovyov we find in his actual writings with Snegovaya’s and Brooks’s portrait of a religious chauvinist and Russian nationalist, one with pro-Soviet tendencies to boot.
The reference to messianism, coming from Brooks, also demonstrates a striking lack of self-awareness. But that particular example of the kettle calling the pot black has already been ably handled by Charles Pierce (“Our Mr. Brooks and the Messianic Mr. Putin,” Esquire, March 4, 2014).
Philosopher of Freedom
Berdyaev (1874 – 1948) wrote a great deal, and on a number of subjects changed his mind, but in as much as it was Berdyaev’s The Philosophy of Inequality which Putin urged his governors read, it makes sense for us to start with that.
Do we find here a repository of ‘pro-Soviet’ views? Not even close. Instead, we find an emotionally-charged condemnation of everything the Soviet Union’s founders stood for (the book was written immediately after the 1917 Revolution and Berdyaev was full of outrage and grief).
Berdyaev spends much of the book berating the Bolshevik movement for its exaggerated exaltation of a particular political form. But in truth, Berdyaev insists, political forms are always secondary to the human spirit. Whether a person is kind or vicious, devoted to justice or its opposite, has little to do with whether someone is a monarchist or a democrat, a proponent of private property or a socialist.
Why specifically “the Philosophy of Inequality”? Not because the philosopher is indifferent to exploitation and injustice. And still less because he favored tyranny – he was to the contrary a tireless critic of despotism, which is the word he used to describe the Czarist order.
Berdyaev never completely abandoned his early interest in Marx, even after his conversion to Christianity around the turn of the century. He was by temperament a person more of the left than of the right, despite a lingering influence of Nietzsche.
What concerns Berdyaev is the inequality between what is higher or lower in the realm of spirit and culture. Berdyaev mostly approves of liberalism and finds in it something aristocratic or at any rate not revolutionary. By contrast, democracy and socialism, precisely because they have pretensions to fill all life with their content, can easily become false religions.
At times Berdyaev’s philosophy even overlaps with libertarianism, which likewise rejects any abuse of the freedom of the individual person for utilitarian ends.
Berdyaev’s religious views are difficult to characterize. He was a Christian, an existentialist and someone who believed in the absolute primacy of freedom, but not necessarily all three of these at once (they are not entirely compatible, but then Berdyaev was not always consistent). The writings of Dostoevsky were of enormous religious importance to him.
It is easy to misread Berdyaev because of his lack of system, and because he looks at the same concept from sometimes contradictory perspectives. Take for example Berdyaev’s paradoxical understanding of national uniqueness.
Dostoevsky, Berdyaev writes, “is a Russian genius; the Russian national character is stamped on all his creative work, and he reveals to the world the depths of the Russian soul. But this most Russian of Russians at the same time belongs to all of humanity, he is the most universal of all Russians.”
And the same can be said for Goethe and other national geniuses, who likewise are universal not by being more generic, but precisely by being more who they are; in the case of Goethe, by being specifically German.
Berdyaev’s perspective here is particularly helpful if we want a world made safe for both unity and diversity. A global civilization that would level all differences is ugly, while a messianism that would exalt one nation over others is evil. [N. Berdyaev, Sud’ba Rossii [The Fate of Russia], (Moskva: Eksmo-Press, 2001), p. 353 and 361]
Christianity as such, however, is messianic, because it affirms what it considers a universal truth, the truth of Christ. But this truth has no coercive power.
Until early 2014, the view that Solovyov and Berdyaev represent particularly humane and attractive alternatives for Russia was not, as far as I am aware, doubted by anyone, at least, not by anyone who gave the matter any thought.
In the time of perestroika, when Russian philosophy was finally being rediscovered inside Russia, the likely positive influence of these philosophers was warmly affirmed. Bill Keller, writing for the New York Times, praised the Soviet magazine Novy Mir for focusing attention on “the more Western-inclined 19th-century Russian thinkers such as Nikolai Nekrasov, Aleksandr Herzen, and the Christian philosophers Vladimir Solovyov and Nikolai Berdyaev.” [Emphasis mine]
These were the sort of thinkers, Keller emphasized, who would help encourage “a humane alternative to zealous Leninism and the darker Russian nationalism.” By publishing such writers, Keller continued, Novy Mir was demonstrating that it “occupies a key centrist position, attempting to reconcile the Westernizers and the Russian patriots on a common ground of tolerance and democratic ideals.”
The ‘Liberal Conservative’
The case of Ivan Il’in (1883-1954), whom Putin regularly quotes and whom Putin is known to particularly respect, is more complex. Some of Snegovaya’s suspicions in his case are indeed accurate. Il’in has a conservative temperament.
It is fair to call him a nationalist, though one concerned with Russia alone, and with no messianic ambitions. As will be seen below, Il’in was not against authoritarianism. Il’in was, however, complex and worthy of much more careful consideration.
The suggestion that Il’in is a source of that famous “pro-Soviet” stance is easily disposed of. The Cheka interrogators who arrested and interrogated Il’in six times between 1918 and 1922 would have been very surprised at such a characterization.
According to Prof. Iu. T. Lisitsa, who has reviewed the records on Il’in from the KGB archives, Il’in “even in the hands of the Cheka, under threat of execution … remained adamant, precise, and articulate in his opposition to the Bolshevik regime.” [From “The Complex Legacy of Ivan Il’in, Russian Thought after Communism, in James Scanlan, ed., Russian Thought After Communism: The Recovery of a Philosophical Tradition (Armonk, New York, M.E. Sharpe: 1994), 183.]
The “pro-Soviet” characterization also does not jive very well with the fact that Il’in, along with Berdyaev and a host of other leading Russian philosophers, was banished from the USSR in 1922 for their anti-Soviet “agitation.” Il’in’s literary corpus is said to include over 40 books and essays, some of them written in scholarly, technical language, so it is not an easy thing to characterize his worldview, but a good place to start is Il’in’s Our Tasks.
Not only is this a book which Putin likes to quote, it is also another of the books, along with Solovyov’s Justification of the Good and Berdyaev’s The Philosophy of Inequality, that Putin urged his governors to read.
The book Our Tasks is a compilation of journalistic essays written by Il’in between 1948 and 1954. Their overriding theme is the need to put an end to Soviet rule, defeat communism and plan for Russia’s restoration and recovery from the devastating physical, moral and political woes visited on Russia by the Soviet system.
It is difficult to imagine a more uncompromising condemnation of Soviet ideology and practice than this collection of Il’in’s essays. If anything, one might fault him for exaggerating the faults of the Soviet system. It must be remembered, though, that Il’in (who died in 1954) did not live to see the post-Stalin era, or even to hear of Khrushchev’s speech condemning Stalin (in 1956).
And yet Il’in was not only a critic of communism, he was also a critic of Russia’s past leaders when they were vicious (as in the case of Ivan IV) or incompetent, as in the case of Nicholas II. Like Berdyaev, Il’in was also, on occasion, bitingly critical of the Russian people, who he felt were politically immature and in need of a crash course in legal awareness.
After the fall of Soviet power, a fall he was sure would eventually take place, he was skeptical in the extreme that the character of the people living in Russia at that point would be capable of wise self-rule, which is why he urged, as a temporary expedient, a transition period of authoritarian government.
Here is how, in Our Tasks, Il’in described the character of the “Soviet man” that the future Russia would inherit: “The totalitarian system … imposes a number of unhealthy tendencies and habits … among which we may find the following: a willingness to inform on others (and knowingly falsely at that), pretense and lying, loss of the sense of personal dignity and the absence of a well-rooted patriotism, thinking in a slavish manner and by aping the thoughts of others, flattery combined with servility, constant fear.
“The fight to overcome these unhealthy habits will not be easy … It will require time, an honest and courageous self-awareness, a purifying repentance, the acquisition of new habits of independence and self-reliance, and, most importantly of all, a new national system of spiritual and intellectual education. [I. A. Il’in, Nashi Zadachi (Our Tasks), sobr. soch. (collected works), vol. 2 (Moskva, Russkaya Kniga: 1993), 23-24.]
Il’in was indeed deeply concerned about the danger of Russia’s disintegration and indeed was concerned about the defense of its borders, although, of course, not their restoration. To avoid such disintegration, Il’in urged Russians to not repeat what he considered the fatal mistake of the February Revolution – its premature push for full democracy.
In this, as in many other respects, Il’in’s policy recommendations overlap with those of Solzhenitsyn, who was profoundly influenced by Il’in. That Il’in is a major influence on Putin’s brand of “liberal conservatism” was noted already in 2012 by the Canadian scholar Paul Robinson.
Unlike Solovyov and Berdyaev, in the early years of perestroika Ivan Il’in was poorly known both inside and outside of Russia, although Il’in had been quite prominent during the years preceding and following the Russian Revolution, including while he was living in exile.
His fame early in the Twentieth Century stemmed largely from a celebrated academic study of Hegel’s writings, a work still lauded both in and outside of Russia as among the best ever produced.
Il’in burst onto the post-Soviet scene in 1991, when essays from Our Tasks were first published, including the prescient “What Does the Dismemberment of Russia Bode for the World?” In this essay, Il’in wrote that the rest of the world will, in its ignorance of the likely consequences, eagerly underwrite the breakup of Russia and will to this end provide lots of development assistance and ideological encouragement.
As a result, Il’in wrote, “The territory of Russia will boil with endless quarrels, clashes, and civil wars that will constantly escalate into worldwide clashes …” To avoid this fate, as mentioned earlier, Il’in urged for Russia a transition period of authoritarian rule.
This point is made emphatically by Philip Grier in his Complex Legacy of Ivan Il’in. Grier, it should be added, who is the former president of the American Hegel Society, is also the translator of Il’in’s two-volume analysis of Hegel published by Northwestern University Press in 2011.
Although Il’in quite plainly admired the United States and Switzerland for what he saw as their mature democratic self-rule, it is not clear that Il’in was confident that democracy was tailor-made for a nation and culture of the Russian type.
What is absolutely clear, however, is Il’in’s fervent devotion to rule of law and legal awareness, something that sets him apart from the Slavophiles whom he in other respects resembles.
A Russia, Liberal and Christian?
There are very important differences between these three thinkers. Nevertheless, all three writers considered freedom essential to human culture and the human spirit, though they differed in emphasis. Undoubtedly, then, the worldview of all three is irreducible to a liberal formula even if their views include important liberal or modern elements.
All three agreed with the liberal world that all humans, regardless of nation, religion, or any other difference, are equally endowed with infinite dignity. But for them it was not a throwaway phrase when they added that this dignity is conferred on humans by God, which means, among other things, that a right to be absolutely secure cannot trump someone else’s right not to be tortured (Il’in’s absolute prohibition against torture, or anything even coming close to torture, in the above-mentioned book is excellent and quite timely).
There has been no space here to attempt more than a brief introduction to these thinkers. But it should already be clear that the tradition we have just described offers, if we would only engage with it, an opportunity: a chance to form a partnership with a Russia that, though different from our present state of mind, shares much of our own past, and perhaps suggests some ways forward as we negotiate an increasingly dangerous world.
As his reading list recommendations strongly suggest, “Putin’s Russia” represents an attempt to reconnect with this tradition, however flawed that attempt may be. Take Putin’s famous speech (to the Federal Assembly) in April 2005. Although Western commentators have ad nauseum berated him for showing his true colors and displaying nostalgia for the Soviet order, in reality, as the entire text and the following excerpt makes clear, he did no such thing:
Putin said: “‘State power,’ wrote the great Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin, ‘has its own limits defined by the fact that it is authority that reaches people from outside… State power cannot oversee and dictate the creative states of the soul and mind, the inner states of love, freedom and goodwill. The state cannot demand from its citizens faith, prayer, love, goodness and conviction. It cannot regulate scientific, religious and artistic creation… It should not intervene in moral, family and daily private life, and only when extremely necessary should it impinge on people’s economic initiative and creativity.’”
Is it naïve to impute such idealism to Putin? Perhaps. But Putin is not in fact the issue, but Russia. We engage after all a country, not a single person in it, and the tradition we are describing has sufficient roots in the Russia that actually exists that, if we chose to engage with it, there would be the chance for an actual productive conversation, one capable of rebuilding trust and creating an order.
Critics say that Russia recently has become a nation filled with hate. But how are Russian citizens and President Putin himself to interpret the twisting (and what we have seen above is just the tip of the iceberg) of their own words and their most cherished traditions in such an apparently spiteful and even violent way?
Knowledgeable analysts have correctly noted that Russian nationalists such as Alexander Dugin consider the United States to be Russia’s implacable enemy. Representatives of this “Eurasianist” camp are waiting in the wings if Putin falls.
America’s efforts at “regime change” might even succeed at facilitating such a drastic change for the worse. And then, by means of that “curious logicality” of the American ideology, we will once again, with “stubborn devotion without regard for specific, varying factors,” have brought about yet another catastrophe.
A Brief Footnote on Ideology
For all the United States’ vaunted freedom, it exhibits surprisingly little freedom of maneuver when it comes to its foreign policy. Far from taking into consideration Russia’s vital security needs, to say nothing of Russia’s identity, U.S. ideologues have behaved as if both are either non-existent or fundamentally illegitimate. Such compulsive political behavior is the sure sign of ideological infection.
Brooks, Snegovaya and Galeotti apparently have all made use of the same basic logic when they examined the philosophical sources of Putin’s thinking. That logic went something like this: a) Washington considers Russia a problem, therefore, b) Vladimir Putin is a thug; and therefore, c) the Nineteen Century philosopher Vladimir Solovyov dreamed of restoring the Soviet Union to its former Christian glory and might.
Such sloppy thinking would not have happened were these three otherwise intelligent people not (one hopes temporarily) previously incapacitated by ideological blinders. Unfortunately, the same ideological thinking dominates nearly all of U.S. discourse vis-à-vis Russia, making a political settlement impossible.
After all, if America’s political ideal is as nearly perfect as can ever be achieved in this “fallen world,” then the thing is to carry on and win, thereby bringing the perfect good (that’s us!) to everyone.
Why bother seriously familiarizing oneself with a competing system? Clearly Brooks and Co. made no such effort. It was enough for them to know that Russia’s political ideal significantly differs from America’s: therefore it is illegitimate, Q.E.D.
As Hannah Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “The curious logicality of all isms, their simple-minded trust in the salvation value of stubborn devotion without regard for specific, varying factors, already harbors the first germs of totalitarian contempt for reality.”
That America does not actually live up to its own ideals, as I have written here previously, changes nothing for the ideologue. After all, every further increase in America’s power brings closer the day when its actions (which are generally realist) and its speech (which is always democratic and idealist) can come into harmony. Then history can truly and finally come to an end.
And yet, in light of the above review of an important part of the Russian tradition, there is something we are now in a much better position to point out: Russia has also taken the trouble to have ideals.
Paul Grenier is a former Russian simultaneous interpreter and a regular writer on political-philosophical issues. After advanced study in Russian affairs, international relations and geography at Columbia University, Paul Grenier worked on contract for the Pentagon, State Department and World Bank as a Russian interpreter, and at the Council on Economic Priorities, where he was a research director. He has written for the Huffington Post, Solidarity Hall, the Baltimore Sun, Godspy, and Second Spring, among other places, and his translations of Russian philosophy have appeared in the Catholic journal Communio.
History: El Argar, the great society that mysteriously vanished | Culture
El Argar, an early Bronze Age culture that was based within modern Spain, is one of the great enigmas of Spanish and world archaeology. After emerging in 2200 BC, it disappeared 650 years later. Experts debate that it collapsed in 1550 BC either because of the depletion of the natural resource that sustained it – which resulted in the population fleeing or dying of starvation — or because of a massive popular revolt against the ruling class.
The Argaric culture was “the first society divided into classes in the Iberian Peninsula” – as defined by the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) – and the creator of the world’s first Parliament. Following its demise, the civilization vanished from memory… until an archaeologist named Rogelio de Inchaurrandieta came across Argaric artefacts in 1869 and began to ask questions.
Inchaurrandieta exhibited his discovery at the International Archeology Congress in Copenhagen (1866-1912). He spoke of an unknown civilization from the Bronze Age that he had found on a steep hill in the municipality of Totana, in Spain’s Region of Murcia. He displayed gold and silver objects and spoke of a large, fortified city that lacked any type of connection with known historical societies. Nobody believed him.
But in 1877, the Belgian brothers Luis and Enrique Siret arrived in Murcia in search of mining prospects. They ended up confirming the existence of the unknown society, including what had been its large urban center, which extended 35,000 square kilometres through the southeast of the Iberian Peninsula. This site was methodically excavated: agricultural tools, precious metals and even the remains of princesses were preserved.
The study El Argar: The Formation of a Class Society, by archaeologists Vicente Lull, Rafael Micó, Roberto Risch and Cristina Rihuete Herrada from UAB, points out that El Argar “is one of the emblematic cultures of the early Bronze Age in Europe. The large settlements on its hills, the abundance of well-preserved [tombs] in the subsoil of the towns, as well as the quantity, variety and uniqueness of the artefacts, have since attracted the attention of numerous researchers.”
Vicente Lull, professor of Prehistory at the Autonomous University of Barcelona and one of the world’s most recognized experts on this society, admits that the Argaric “is in fashion.” “Specialists come from all over the world to take an interest in this unique civilization… it is unparalleled, with first-rate technological development, which left nothing in its wake, but advanced everything. It’s like searching for the lost civilization.”
Experts agree that the discovery of El Argar marked a break with respect to the preceding Copper Age, regarding technological development, economic relations, urban and territorial organization patterns and funerary rites.
The Sirets, at the end of the 19th century, excavated ten Argaric sites and opened more than a thousand tombs, resulting in the destruction of the human remains. However, they carefully drew everything they found.
“The culture of El Argar is the first [class-based] society in the Iberian Peninsula. The central settlements accumulated an important part of the production surpluses and the work force. The effects of said control are manifested in the normalization of ceramic and metallurgical products and in the restricted circulation and use, above all, of metallic products,” assert the experts from UAB.
But not all the inhabitants of these cities accumulated wealth to the same extent, as evidenced by the exhumed goods of the ruling class. In 1984, Vicente Lull and Jordi Estévez distinguished three social groups. The most powerful class – made up of 10 percent of the population – enjoyed “all the privileges and the richest trappings, including weapons such as halberds and swords.” 50 percent of individuals, meanwhile, were of modest means and had recognized social-political rights, while 40 percent of residents were condemned to servitude or slavery.
“One of the characteristics of this society is that it was closed in on itself. Its defenses not only served as protection, but also created a cloistered society dominated by an oppressive ruling class,” Lull notes. Such aristocratic oppression likely could have triggered the end of the civilization.
The end of El Argar gave way to the late-Bronze Age. The causes of the collapse of Argaric society seem to have been various socio-economic and ecological factors. Possibly, the overexploitation of the environment led to ecological degradation that made economic and social reproduction unfeasible. The end of El Argar is characterized by the depletion of natural resources, work tools and the workforce, the latter in the form of high infant mortality and more diseases. Perhaps this situation led to an unprecedented social explosion and complete disappearance of this civilization, as evidenced by the fact that many of the unearthed buildings show signs of having been burned on all four sides.
Following the destruction, there was complete silence, only broken by the permanence in Alicante and Granada of some small Argaric groups – populated by the fleeing ruling classes – that survived another century.
Of the hundreds of Argaric tombs studied, one stands out that archaeologists call the Princess of La Almoloya, a young woman who died in the year 1635 BC. She was buried at the head of a unique building with her linens, ceramics and thirty valuable objects made of gold, silver, amber and copper. Beneath her grave, the body of a man who had died years before was found.
About 100 kilometres from Pliego, in Antas – the economic and political center of El Argar – a building was found that included a large room, with benches and a podium. It could accommodate 50 people. The researchers assume that it was a kind of parliament, perhaps the first in the world.
“We will never know what was discussed there,” says Lull, “because the Argarics, despite their development, did not master writing. It’s a mystery about a mystery.”
Olivia Newton-John, the ‘Grease’ star who became a global icon | Culture
She always felt more comfortable as a singer than as an actress, but it was her role as Sandy in the musical Grease (1978) that made her a global icon. Olivia Newton-John died Monday at the age of 73 from breast cancer at her ranch in California. The news was confirmed by her husband.
In a statement posted on social media, her widower John Easterling said: “Dame Olivia Newton-John (73) passed away peacefully at her Ranch in Southern California this morning, surrounded by family and friends. We ask that everyone please respect the family’s privacy during this very difficult time.”
“Olivia has been a symbol of triumphs and hope for over 30 years sharing her journey with breast cancer. Her healing inspiration and pioneering experience with plant medicine continues with the Olivia Newton-John Foundation Fund, dedicated to researching plant medicine and cancer.”
Olivia Newton-John was the granddaughter of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Born, a Jew exiled to the United Kingdom from Nazi Germany. She was born in Cambridge, England, in 1948, and when she was only five years old, her family moved to Melbourne in Australia, where her father worked as a German teacher. She started out very young in the world of music, performing first with a group of schoolmates and then as a solo singer. At the age of 17, she won a talent contest on Australian television, which saw her move to the United Kingdom, where at 18 she recorded her first single.
While living in England, the singer was briefly performed with Pat Carroll. After separating (he had to return to Australia when his visa expired), she released her first album in 1971, If Not for You. The title paid tribute to a Bob Dylan song that had also been recorded by George Harrison.
Newton-John represented the United Kingdom at the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest, with the song Long Live Love, chosen by popular vote among six options. She came fourth, while ABBA won the contest with the song Waterloo.
The British-Australian actress is known worldwide for starring in the 1978 musical Grease, alongside John Travolta. Her role as Sandy catapulted her to fame with songs such as You’re the One that I Want, Summer Nights and Hopelessly Devoted to You. Newton-John was initially reluctant to accept the role that would make her career. She wasn’t sure she wanted to be an actress and also felt that, at 28 years of age, she wasn’t the best fit for a high school student.
Finally, after several screen tests and at the insistence of Travolta, who was 23 at the time, but already a star thanks to the movie Saturday Night Fever, she accepted. “I couldn’t have done the film if I hadn’t met John, because I wasn’t sure about doing it. He convinced me,” confessed Newton-John in an interview conducted in early 2019. The film script was changed slightly to account for the singer’s Australian accent.
The actress maintained a lifelong friendship with Travolta, who posted a message mourning her death on social media on Monday: “My dearest Olivia, you made our lives so much better. Your impact was incredible. I love you so much. We will see you down the road and we will all be together again. Yours from the first moment I saw you and forever! Your Danny, your John!” The two appeared in public for the last time in December 2019, dressed as their characters from Grease.
Grease was the highest-grossing film of the year of its release and its soundtrack, which is also the soundtrack of an entire generation, remained at the top of the charts for weeks. The actress was nominated for a Golden Globe and appeared at the Oscars ceremony the following year singing Hopelessly Devoted to You, which was nominated for Best Song.
Before Grease shot her to worldwide fame, Newton-John released the song Let Me Be There, which won her a Grammy for best female country vocal performance.
After Grease, she starred in films such as Xanadu and topped the charts with songs such as Physical, from 1981. The same-named album was the first to have a music video for each song. As a singer, she won four Grammy Awards, although she was never very popular with critics.
From 1984 to 1995, Newton-John was married to actor Matt Lattanzi, with whom she had a daughter, Chloe Rose. Her next partner, camera operator Patrick McDermott, who disappeared at sea in 2005. In 2008, she married tycoon John Easterling, the founder of Amazon Herb Company.
In 2019, Newton-John was diagnosed again with stage four breast cancer with metastases in the back. The actress, who had battled the disease in 1992 and in 2013, told the television show 60 Minutes Australia that she did not know how long she had left to live. “For me, psychologically, it’s better not to have any idea of what they expect or what the last person that has what you have lived, so I don’t, I don’t tune in,” she said.
Newton-John called on Australia to allow the use of marijuana for medicinal and palliative use, in line with California, where she lived. Her daughter has a cannabis farm in Oregon.
Her loved ones also recognize her fundraising work for cancer research. In one of her most famous campaigns, the singer auctioned off some of her personal clothes, including outfits she wore on Grease.
Justified: Generation Z doesn’t like Justin Timberlake anymore: the ‘new king of pop’ apologized too late | Culture
Twenty years ago, Rolling Stone magazine crowned Justin Timberlake (Memphis, Tennessee, 41 years old) “the new king of pop.” This summer, a video of the singer dancing at Washington’s Something in the Water festival accumulated millions of views on social networks, but not for the reasons he would like. Commenters called the star “creepy,” “hilarious” and “embarrassing.”. “Justin Timberlake still thinking he has any swag left while wearing those Old Navy khakis on stage,” jeered one Twitter user. “This is the height of gentrification,” wrote another. When did Justin Timberlake, once the biggest star on the planet, the world’s best pop dancer and the coolest man in the entertainment industry, become a pop culture piñata? Timberlake has been irritating public opinion for 20 years. Now, all the backlash is hitting him at once.
Timberlake released his first solo album, Justified, in 2002 at the age of 21. The promotional campaign coincided with his breakup with Britney Spears. He used the “Cry Me A River” music video, which featured a lookalike of the pop singer, to make it clear that she had cheated on him. Timberlake revealed on two different radio shows that he had had sexual relations with Spears, despite the fact that during their courtship both had proclaimed their intention to be virgins at marriage.
Timberlake continued talking about Spears over the years. In 2013, he referred to her in a Saturday Night Live sketch about his ancestors’ wishes for their descendents: “He’ll date a popular female singer. Publicly they’ll claim to be virgins, but privately, he’ll hit it.” At a 2007 concert, while Spears was in a rehabilitation center for her mental problems and addictions, he alluded to her more indirectly: he ended “Cry Me A River” singing the chorus of Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab.”
In 2004, Timberlake participated in the Super Bowl halftime show alongside Janet Jackson. At the end of the performance he uncovered her breast for 9/16 of a second before an audience of 143 million viewers. More than 200,000 viewers complained to CBS. In the midst of the Iraq war, the so-called Nipplegate incident occupied ample space in the conservative media, which fueled the controversy to the point of sinking Jackson’s career. Radio and television channels stopped broadcasting her, ABC canceled a movie about Lena Horne that she was going to star in and Disney World removed a statue of Mickey Mouse dressed as Jackson.
Timberlake, by contrast, suffered no consequences. The Grammys canceled Jackson’s planned appearance, but Timberlake did perform, winning two awards and using his speech to apologize. He didn’t mention his stage partner. At no time did Timberlake publicly defend, support or apologize to her. What he did do was criticize the singer’s interview with Oprah Winfrey, in which Jackson claimed to have felt betrayed by Timberlake. Many fans believe he insulted her on the song “Give It To Me:” “Could you speak up and stop the mumbling? I don’t think you’re getting clear. Sitting on the top it’s hard to hear you from way up here. I saw you trying to act cute on TV. Just let me clear the air. We missed you on the charts last week. Damn that’s right, you wasn’t there.” “Give It To Me” reached number one on the United States’ charts.
Timberlake’s album Future Sex/Love Sounds was the third best-selling album of 2006. Three of its songs went on to reach number one: “Sexyback,” “My Love” and “What Goes Around Comes Around,” which also attacks Spears.
His wedding to actress Jessica Biel in 2012 generated controversy. A video, orchestrated by one of his friends to be projected during the reception, was leaked in which several homeless people from Los Angeles congratulated Timberlake and expressed their regret at not being able to attend the event, which was held in Puglia (Italy) and cost six million euros. The friend in question paid €30 to each homeless person for their participation. That month, Shriners Children’s Hospital announced the end of its relationship with Timberlake.
The current of public opinion definitively turned against him until 2016. Grey’s Anatomy actor Jesse Williams gave a speech at the BET gala about the need to rebel against cultural appropriation: “we’re done watching and waiting while this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us, burying black people out of sight and out of mind while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment.” Timberlake reacted by tweeting “#inspired,” to which journalist Ernest Owens replied, “Does this mean you are going to stop appropriating our music and culture? And apologize to Janet.” “Oh, you sweet soul,” replied the singer. “The more you realize that we are the same, the more we can have a conversation. Bye.” Given the controversy, Timberlake deleted the tweet but insisted that “we are all one…one human race.”
That exchange sparked a media conversation about cultural appropriation and the well-intentioned passivity of white celebrities. Timberlake has built his career drawing on black aesthetics, musicians and culture. His sound has oscillated between R&B, hip hop, funk and soul, but for him, as Candance McDuffy wrote in Glamour, “black culture is a lucrative disguise that he can remove as soon as it ceases to benefit him.” Or as Luria Freeman summed it up in Vibe, “Justin owes his voice to the black community, but he remains silent.”
In early 2018, Timberlake released his fourth album, Man Of The Woods. He traded his image as a neo-Sinatra heartthrob for flannel, jeans, and fur coats, finding himself in the wilderness of the Wild West (the singer has a ranch in Montana). Criticism raged against the project. “Justin Timberlake relaunches his brand, now as a white man,” The Outline headlined. “Montanans laughed at the notion that a multimillion-dollar home at a private ski resort, filled with other non-Montanans, would evoke ‘the Wild West’; others suggested that he’d watched The Revenant or listened to Bon Iver once and co-opted the signifiers,” observed Anne Helen Petersen on Buzzfeed.
Critics saw Justin Timberlake’s reinvention as another disguise. “Justin Timberlake hasn’t suddenly reclaimed his white masculinity for the first time with Man of the Woods. It’s been with him all along. It’s just that now it’s become impossible to ignore,” wrote Constance Grady for Vox.
The night Justin Timberlake performed at the 2018 Super Bowl halftime show, becoming the first person to take that stage three times, #JusticeForJanet was a trending topic on Twitter. While Jackson’s career remained in shambles 14 years after Nipplegate, Timberlake returned to the scene in style. In addition, many fans considered Prince’s appearance in a giant hologram yet another jab by Timberlake at black culture and an act of disrespect towards Prince, who had stipulated that he did not wish to appear in holograms because he considered them demonic. The press considered it one of the least memorable intermissions of the Super Bowl.
At the beginning of last year, the documentary series The New York Times Presents devoted an episode to Britney Spears’ career and another to the collapse of Janet Jackson’s career after the Super Bowl. In both, perhaps the two most emblematic episodes of misogyny in 2000s pop culture, Timberlake played an antagonistic role. And in both he went unpunished. “Timberlake’s shine has worn off, leaving behind an uncomfortable tale of a man who enjoyed continued success at the expense of other people’s losses,” wrote journalist Chelsea McLaughlin.
Look, it took a scathing documentary to get Justin Timberlake to issue a “heartfelt apology” (likely drafted by his publicist) to Britney Spears & Janet Jackson. He spent nearly 20yrs benefiting from cultural appropriation & misogyny. He’s a jerk – and his apology comes too late.
— Elgin Charles (@ElginCharles) February 13, 2021
Last month, Rolling Stone, the same magazine that two decades ago proclaimed him the new king of pop, analyzed Timberlake’s viral dance in Washington. It blamed Generation Z for the singer’s new status. “Zoomers, particularly those on TikTok, are really good at making previously lauded white men seem remarkably uncool. This is a curse that has now befallen Justin Timberlake, the once pop prince.” But singer’s decline in popularity goes beyond social media run-ins. “The new reckoning around him feels like a cultural exorcism, a chance to use the boy band vessel to purge ourselves of the evils he now represents to many,” writes Maria Sherman at Slate.com. “Timberlake has become the perfect emblem of a bygone era that rewarded guys exactly like him—until it didn’t.”
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