38 percent of Russians show poor understanding of history

No less an authority than Alexander Solzhenitsyn understood that a considerable dissimilarity existed between Russia and the West. He lived in both, saw the good and bad in both and believed both had something to offer mankind.

What he wouldn’t have understood is that a sizeable percentage of Russians hold former Soviet dictator and mass murderer Joseph Stalin in high regard.

Russians have picked Stalin as the greatest figure in history, beating out President Vladimir Putin and poet Alexander Pushkin, according to a poll released today.

The poll, conducted in April by the Levada Centre, asked Russians to pick the greatest individuals of all time.

Stalin came out on top with 38 percent, while Putin shared second place on 34 percent with Pushkin, Russia’s beloved national poet.

Stalin’s predecessor Vladimir Lenin, Tsar Peter the Great and first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, came next in the list, with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in last place at 6 percent.

The list includes included just three foreigners: Napoleon Bonaparte, Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton.

Stalin is believed responsible for the deaths of as many as 25 million individuals, some executed during his political purges and many more dying in the Gulag, the vast prison camp systems, or through mass starvation such as the Holodomor.

Stalin was a monster on par with Hitler and Mao, and the fact that more than one-third of Russians consider him the greatest figure in history points out either great deficiencies in the Russian educational system, a voluntary myopia among many Russians regarding their past, or a combination of the two.

(Top: A cemetery for victims of the one of Stalin’s gulags in Vorkuta, in Russia’s Far North.)

Herpetophobes beware: Some snakes found to hunt in unison

Snakes, central characters in many a nightmare, may have just added to their bad reputations: Researchers have found that some of the slithering reptiles attack in packs.

Cuban boas hunt as a team to increase efficiency, providing evidence of the creature’s intelligence, a University of Tennessee scientist has found.

“Coordinated hunting requires higher behavioral complexity because each animal has to take other hunters’ actions into account,” said Vladimir Dinets, the study author and an assistant research professor in the school’s psychology department.

While increased food consumption is believed to be the main reason for the behavior, it’s also possible there is a social function linked to working together, according to RedOrbit.com.

Snakes have been observed to hunt together previously, but the amount of coordination was questionable, and Dinets’ research is the first scientific recording of such behavior.

A recent much-viewed video by the BBC’s Planet Earth showing a young iguana barely escaping a seemingly endless number of attacking snakes would seem to be evidence of the reptiles working toward the same goal, though necessarily in a coordinated effort.

The new research showed how individual snakes take into account the location of others.

The snakes Dinets studied were hunting fruit bats in Cuba. At dawn and dusk, they positioned themselves around the mouth of the cave in such a way as to increase the chances of catching prey.

“Snakes arriving to the hunting area were significantly more likely to position themselves in the part of the passage where other snakes were already present, forming a ‘fence’ across the passage and thus more effectively blocking the flight path of the prey, significantly increasing hunting efficiency,” an extract from the study explained.

The Cuban boa can reach 6 feet in length, which makes the fact that they hang upside down from the roofs of caves even more remarkable.

“After sunset and before dawn, some of the boas entered the passage that connected the roosting chamber with the entrance chamber, and hunted by suspending themselves from the ceiling and grabbing passing bats,” Dinets said.

Dinets observed that the positions taken up by the snakes lowered the chances of bats getting out of the cave. Brilliantly, those hanging positions also meant they behaved like the bats they were trying to catch, according to RedOrbit.com.

For the 2 percent of us that like snakes, this is fascinating; for everyone else, it’s more fodder for bad dreams.

How red poppies came to be given out on Memorial Day

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

– John McCrae

In Flanders Fields, among the most iconic war poems even penned, was written in May 1915 by Canadian physician and Lt. Col. John McCrae after he witnessed the death of his 22-year-old friend, Lt. Alexis Helmer, at the Second Battle of Ypres.

McCrae performed Helmer’s burial service himself, during which time he noted how poppies quickly grew around the graves of those who died at Ypres. The next day, he composed In Flanders Field while sitting in the back of an ambulance at a medical station outside Ypres.

McCrae’s references to the red poppies resulted in the remembrance poppy becoming one of the world’s most recognized symbols for soldiers lost in war.

McRae never got an opportunity to reap recognition for his poem.

In January 1918, while commanding a Canadian General Hospital at Boulogne in Northern France, McCrae died of pneumonia at age 45. He was buried with full honors in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at Wimereux, just north of Boulogne.

Helmer and McRae were two of approximately 67,000 Canadians who died in service during World War I. In all, some 39 percent of Canadians mobilized for war in the 1914-18 conflict were killed or wounded.

Proof of Turkish complicity in Armenian genocide revealed

Genocide stains the annals of the 20th century like a macabre decoration – from the Holocaust to Stalin’s forced starvation of Ukrainians to Pol Pot’s killing fields to slaughter in Rwanda.

The first official genocide of the last century began with the organized killing of Armenians by the then Ottoman Empire in 1915, an event that claimed as many as 1.5 million Armenians, or about 75 percent of all Armenians in what is today Turkey.

The liquidation – carried out under the cover of World War I – was implemented in two phases: the wholesale killing of the able-bodied males through massacre and forced labor, followed by the deportation of women, children, the elderly and the infirm on death marches to the Syrian desert in which victims were deprived of food and water, and subjected to robbery, rape and massacre.

Turkey, the successor to the Ottoman perpetrators, has long denied a state role in the killing of Armenians. Despite the testimony of thousands of Armenian survivors, it has resisted the word genocide, saying that the suffering of the Armenians occurred during the chaos of a world war in which Turkish Muslims faced hardship, too.

Turkey also claimed that the Armenians were traitors, and had been planning to join with Russia, then an enemy of the Ottoman Empire. That position is deeply ingrained in Turkish culture with a majority of Turks sharing the government’s position.

Recently, however, Taner Akcam, a Turkish historian at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., said he has discovered a “smoking gun” that implicates the Turks, an original telegram introduced as evidenced in the 1919-20 trials connected to the deaths of the Armenians, in an archive held by the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, according to the New York Times.

Akcam, who has studied the genocide for decades by piecing together documents from around the world to establish state complicity in the killings, said he hoped the evidence would remove “the last brick in the denialist wall.”

“The story begins in 1915 in an office in the Turkish city of Erzurum, when a high-level official of the Ottoman Empire punched out a telegram in secret code to a colleague in the field, asking for details about the deportations and killings of Armenians in eastern Anatolia, the easternmost part of contemporary Turkey,” according to the Times.

A deciphered copy of the telegram was used to help convict the official, Behaeddin Shakir, for planning the organized killing of Armenians in trials held shortly after the end of World War I.

Turkish officials attempted – successfully – to place blame during the trials on a small number of officials, rather than the deaths being correctly expressed as a statewide effort. Those found guilty were either in hiding or given light sentences.

Soon after the trial most of the original documents and sworn testimony disappeared, leaving researchers to rely mostly on summaries from the official Ottoman newspaper. Turkey has been able to deny the genocide partly because so many of the records of the court proceedings were destroyed or somehow vanished, leaving only historians’ accounts and journalists’ accounts, which could be dismissed as biased.

“What we were missing in Armenian genocide is the so-called smoking gun because all relevant documents were taken out from Ottoman archive or all these materials – telegrams, eyewitness accounts, they were all gone,” Akcam told National Public Radio. “We didn’t know whereabouts of all these documents. And mainly, the denial strategy was ‘show us the originals.’ So I discovered in a private archive this telegram.”

The telegram would likely have remained forever lost were it not for Akcam’s sleuthing.

As Turkish nationalists were about to seize the country in 1922, the Armenian leadership in Istanbul shipped 24 boxes of court records to England for safekeeping, according to the Times.

“The records were kept there by a bishop, then taken to France and, later, to Jerusalem. They have remained there since the 1930s, part of a huge archive that has mostly been inaccessible to scholars, for reasons that are not entirely clear,” the publication added. “Mr. Akcam said he had tried for years to gain access to the archive, with no luck.”

He did, though, find a photographic record of the Jerusalem archive in New York, held by the nephew of an Armenian monk, now dead, who was a survivor of the genocide.

“The telegram was written under Ottoman letterhead and coded in Arabic lettering; four-digit numbers denoted words. When Mr. Akcam compared it with the known Ottoman Interior Ministry codes from the time, found in an official archive in Istanbul, he found a match, raising the likelihood that many other telegrams used in the postwar trials could one day be verified in the same way,” the Times wrote.

For historians, the court cases were one piece of a mountain of evidence that emerged over the years – including reports in several languages from diplomats, missionaries and journalists who witnessed the events as they happened – that established the historical fact of the killings and qualified them as genocide.

While many countries, including France, Germany, Greece and the Vatican, have recognized what happened to the Armenians in 1915 as genocide, the United States has refrained from using that term, not wishing to alienate Turkey, a NATO ally and a partner in its fight against terrorism in the Middle East.

Akcam told NPR that the Turkish government must now develop new strategies to deny the Armenian genocide.

“They cannot deny as they have been denying over the years,” he said. “It is over now. There is no way to escape. They have to face this reality. This is a telegram with an Ottoman letterhead and we with the Ottoman coding system.”

(Top: Armenian mother kneeling beside her dead child near Aleppo, Syria, one of many who died crossing the Syrian desert during the Armenian genocide.) 

Evil invertebrate vs. good vertebrate: who you got?

The BBC has a report that the squeamish will find most disturbing: Invertebrates such as spiders and centipedes feasting on vertebrates, including birds, snakes and turtles.

Among incidents included in the story: A tarantula eating 15-inch snake that it had apparently subdued and killed last year in Brazil; a dragonfly catching a hummingbird in midair and eating it in 1977 in Canada; and Scolopendra centipedes, which regularly scales walls to either grab bats as they swoop past or pluck them from roosts while they sleep. The centipedes also eat birds, mice, lizards, frogs and snakes.

Even animal lovers can find this sort of behavior unnerving – after all, vertebrates typically eat invertebrates, not the other way around.

“Most of us are happy to watch vertebrates hunting vertebrates; if lions kill a giraffe, we might feel sadness but not revulsion, and we cheer when the baby iguana escapes the racer snakes. Similarly, if a vertebrate hunts an invertebrate, that seems normal: an early bird catching the worm is simply being enterprising,” according to the BBC. “But invertebrates eating vertebrates is another matter. We find ourselves horrified by crabs preying on baby turtles, wasps targeting nestling birds, or a giant centipede munching on a bat. Somehow it seems wrong, as if the natural order has been turned on its head – but why?”

The BBC surmises that the reason may be that we instinctively recognize that we are much more akin to other vertebrates than we are to invertebrates.

“We might not use the word “vertebrate,” but a dog is clearly more similar to us than a giant centipede,” it writes. “Not only does the dog have hair and the same number of limbs, it also behaves in understandable ways, displaying familiar emotions like happiness and anger.

“ … we cannot understand invertebrates in the same way that we understand dogs, lions or eagles,” the BBC added. “They are just too alien, their behavior too strange and their bodies too dissimilar. They do not have waggy tails and their eyes are never big and soulful.”

Or, as one of my daughter said when I asked why she didn’t like spiders: “Too many eyes, too many legs!”

If you’ve ever seen a frog swarmed over and stung to death by fire ants, or a lizard being stung repeatedly by a hornet, it does appear that things sometimes go amiss in the animal kingdom.

And while Scolopendra gigantea, also known as the Amazonian giant centipede, has yet to make its way to the US from South America, that’s one creepy-crawly I can foresee showing up in my nightmares.

(Top: I chose an image of a pug eating a sprinkled donut for this story because, well, the other photos, while interesting, would have undoubtedly upset lovers of baby turtles, small birds and other cute animals which happened to have fallen into the clutches of voracious invertebrates.)

Old-style church reminiscent of English country parish chapel

The Episcopal Church of the Nativity, located in small-town Union, SC, reminds one of a rural English parish church.

Built in Gothic Revival style, its cornerstone was laid in 1855 but construction was halted during the War Between the States. Featuring rusticated granite, the church was completed shortly after the war and features diagonal buttresses, steep gabled roofs and a Louis Tiffany stained glass chancel triplet window.

There is even a good-sized bell in its tower that can be rung from the ground by pulling on the old-fashioned rope that extends to the ground.

The church’s characteristics – its small size and “intimate relationship between the building and surrounding landscape, in particular – are said to derive from English parish-church architecture of the 1300s, which was a model for small churches built in the US in 1840s and 1850s, according to National Register records.

Stained glass window, Episcopal Church of the Nativity, Union, SC.

The English influence isn’t surprising given that two of the key individuals behind the construction of the Church of the Nativity were sisters Charlotte Poulton and Mary Poulton Dawkins, recently arrived in antebellum South Carolina from England.

The Tiffany triple window is behind the altar and features shades of green, gold, crimson, blue and purple. In the central bay of the window is the Good Shepherd, while Sts. John and Peter are shown in the right and left windows.

The church’s white Carrara marble font was carved by noted sculptor Hiram Powers and ordered by Mary Cantey Hampton, the wife of Revolutionary War hero Wade Hampton I, for Columbia’s Trinity Church. It proved too small and was given to the Church of the Nativity, according to National Register records.

Powers divided the font into three design units – the base, column shaft and font itself. All are octagonal and each is filled with carved sacred motifs.

The church cemetery contains the graves of many veterans, including one from the War of 1812, several Confederate soldiers, and some from World War I, World War II and the Korean War.

Among Confederates in the graveyard is William Munro, an infantry and artillery officer who was wounded at least four times but survived to go on to serve as a bank president and several terms in the state legislature following Reconstruction.

Also buried at the church is Pvt. Alpheus Cushman, a New Yorker who served with Co. B of the 7th US Cavalry Regiment. The 7th US Cavalry was among military units sent to Upstate South Carolina during Reconstruction following the declaration of martial law in response to Ku Klux Klan violence in the late 1860s and early 1870s.

Cushman, a farrier, was said to have fallen in love with a Union County girl, but grew ill, and his illness prevented him from marrying her, though it could also have been possible that the girl’s parents weren’t keen on their daughter being betrothed to a Yankee so soon after the war.

Whatever the case, Cushman is said to have taken his own life out of despair, on May 20, 1871.

After his death, the members of his company asked that they be allowed to give their compatriot a Christian burial. Locals agreed, but stipulated that they would choose the plot.

Cushman was not only buried in the far corner of the cemetery, but his grave was placed north-south, unlike typical Christian burials, and every other one at the Episcopal Church of the Nativity, which is east-west.

Of course, the 7th US Cavalry would gain notoriety a little more than five years later, when more than 260 members of the unit were wiped out at Little Bighorn.

Earth Hour: the Dogged Drive of Inane Intentions

We in the West are drowning in a cornucopia of ill-conceived special celebrations.

From National Bike to Work Day (May 19) to Global Forgiveness Day (Aug. 27) to International Peace Day (Sept. 21), there are a rash of events that the self-righteous have concocted in order to make themselves feel good, if not morally superior, to those around them.

These events are largely limited to the Western world because the rest of the globe is too busy trying to stay alive to be bothered with such claptrap.

This Saturday (8:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m. for those of you keeping score at home),  the annual self-congratulatory activity known as Earth Hour will be held under the guise of “United People to Save the Planet.”

Rather than list my many objections to this bit of imbecility, I’ll let you read the words of Canadian economist Ross McKitrick, who, in 2009, was asked by a journalist for his thoughts on the importance of Earth Hour:

I abhor Earth Hour. Abundant, cheap electricity has been the greatest source of human liberation in the 20th century. Every material social advance in the 20th century depended on the proliferation of inexpensive and reliable electricity.

Giving women the freedom to work outside the home depended on the availability of electrical appliances that free up time from domestic chores. Getting children out of menial labor and into schools depended on the same thing, as well as the ability to provide safe indoor lighting for reading.

Development and provision of modern health care without electricity is absolutely impossible. The expansion of our food supply, and the promotion of hygiene and nutrition, depended on being able to irrigate fields, cook and refrigerate foods, and have a steady indoor supply of hot water.

Many of the world’s poor suffer brutal environmental conditions in their own homes because of the necessity of cooking over indoor fires that burn twigs and dung. This causes local deforestation and the proliferation of smoke- and parasite-related lung diseases. Anyone who wants to see local conditions improve in the third world should realize the importance of access to cheap electricity from fossil-fuel based power generating stations. After all, that’s how the west developed.

The whole mentality around Earth Hour demonizes electricity. I cannot do that, instead I celebrate it and all that it has provided for humanity. Earth Hour celebrates ignorance, poverty and backwardness. By repudiating the greatest engine of liberation it becomes an hour devoted to anti-humanism. It encourages the sanctimonious gesture of turning off trivial appliances for a trivial amount of time, in deference to some ill-defined abstraction called “the Earth,” all the while hypocritically retaining the real benefits of continuous, reliable electricity.

People who see virtue in doing without electricity should shut off their refrigerator, stove, microwave, computer, water heater, lights, TV and all other appliances for a month, not an hour. And pop down to the cardiac unit at the hospital and shut the power off there too.

I don’t want to go back to nature. Travel to a zone hit by earthquakes, floods and hurricanes to see what it’s like to go back to nature. For humans, living in “nature” meant a short life span marked by violence, disease and ignorance. People who work for the end of poverty and relief from disease are fighting against nature. I hope they leave their lights on.

Here in Ontario, through the use of pollution control technology and advanced engineering, our air quality has dramatically improved since the 1960s, despite the expansion of industry and the power supply.

If, after all this, we are going to take the view that the remaining air emissions outweigh all the benefits of electricity, and that we ought to be shamed into sitting in darkness for an hour, like naughty children who have been caught doing something bad, then we are setting up unspoiled nature as an absolute, transcendent ideal that obliterates all other ethical and humane obligations.

No thanks. I like visiting nature but I don’t want to live there, and I refuse to accept the idea that civilization with all its tradeoffs is something to be ashamed of.

If I possessed that eloquence, I’d probably have more than half a dozen readers and wouldn’t be living in a van down by the river a much larger bank account.

No word on whether Earth Hour is just a giant charade cooked up by Big Candle to boost profits, but come Saturday evening I’ll be happily burning every old-fashioned 100-watt incandescent light bulb I can find.

(Top: One can only hope that the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at the University of Kentucky Children’s Hospital, which saves hundreds of newborns each year, won’t turn off its life-saving equipment this coming Saturday night for Earth Hour.)