All posts by Kevin C. Gustafson

Thoughts on a Recent Trip to Russia

Since I was young, perhaps 15 or 16, I have had an affinity for Russia. The wide area of the Earth on which it stretches, its vast diversity yet uniformity, its long, twisted, and tumultuous history spoke to a young radical demanded to be explored. When I first read about the Trans-Siberian Railroad I was captivated and longed to conduct trains along its thousands of kilometers of tracks through some of the world’s roughest and most beautiful terrain. It was the essence of adventure. Being young and seeking purpose and adventure together, it was a dream of mine.

It was not only the railroad that called me, but the political history. I was enamored with leaders, from Peter the Great to Vladimir Lenin, and I saw Russian history as an example of the dialectic meandering its way through the great expanse of that kingdom, empire, republic, socialist union, and federation. Its language, foreign and familiar, sounded just odd enough to be unique, but close enough to be conquerable. I longed for the day that I could say “zdryastivistye” and have it understood.

As any young socialist radical, the Russian revolution, with its propaganda, victory, and triumph over both bourgeois capitalism and fascism, was something out of a fantasy. Yet it was real, tangible, and able to be seen, to be felt, to be touched. I dreamt of the day I would be able to do so.

But as I grew older I learned more, read more, and came to realize the true meaning of the dialectic in that it doesn’t simply move freely and uniformly toward progress, but instead twists, turns, sinks, and swims when and where it can. The possibility of riding the train to Siberia and back receded further and further from possible, until disillusionment, financial inhibition, and local ambition cooled my red-hot desire. Still,  my interest in Russian history did not wane. So obsessed had I become with Russian history from 1900 to 2000 that I wore a Soviet Army jacket as my winter coat during long Minnesota winters. I took every class I could about the place, and wrote a thesis on its bureaucracy during those transformative years. For more than half my life Russia has been ever present, whether in my own dreams, my books, the news, or the butt of some “if you don’t like America you can move to…” joke. But during that whole time, I had never visited this land of obsession.

But in 2018, my wife, who was herself experiencing what I had nearly a decade and a half prior, found a chance to go and made the decision for me so I couldn’t say no. A dormant dream re-appeared and the opportunity had to be taken, so in March of that year, while Russia slowly emerged from its annual deep freeze and as it prepared to again “elect” its second longest serving modern leader after Joseph Stalin, we set forth to see the place for ourselves. It would change us both.

Arrival in Moscow and a Bucket List Checked Off

Moscow is 4,800 miles and 10 hours flying time from Washington D.C. where we currently live. Having flown internationally before, this was something for which I was well prepared and no surprises presented themselves, besides an Eight-part Russian TV series on Trotsky available on the little screens in the seats. Immigration was simple and it was there – at the passport counter in front of a beautiful young woman officer – where I first was able to utter the greeting for which I had waited 17 years to test. A small smile later, having given away my accent with my passport, that little book had a Russian Federation stamp and we were off to the capital city chosen by the Bolsheviks to avoid German capture, and therefore defeat, in the Great War they sought to end.

There is an express train from Sheremetyevo airport to Belarus train station (the stations in Russia are named for the destination they serve, making it quite easy to find your place and station) and a short ride later we stepped out of that beautiful station into the cold. As I placed my hood over my head, a sight I had longed to see for so long appeared. At the apex of the station a large hammer and sickle shown proudly and made me feel as though the last 25 years never happened.

We had planned to spend only one day in Moscow before venturing to St. Petersburg and then returning later. For the tourist and student of 20th century communism alike, one of the things that Moscow has the almost no other place has is the embalmed body of one of its greatest leaders still on display. Near the Kremlin wall in Red Square is Lenin’s mausoleum. This was, for me, a bucket list item: to see with my own eyes Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov alias Lenin.


To get to Lenin’s mausoleum we took the Metro from the train station. The Moscow metro is two things at once: the most efficient way to get from point a to point b, but also a site to see in and of itself. The 5 line, which follows the inner beltway encircling the city, is a marvel of Soviet engineering and art. The escalators zoom down and up, the walls, ceiling, and arches were all a canvass for Soviet artists. The trains arrive every 2 minutes or so, a far cry from the Metro in my own country’s capital city. Capitalism can’t win everything.

Carrying our large backpack full of clothes and supplies we stood in line to walk along the wall of the Kremlin which acts as a mass grave and memorial to communists the world over, from Americans like John Reed and Big Bill Haywood, to former Soviet leaders, such as Brezhnev and of course Stalin (on whose grave I would gladly dance but who had a spile of roses nearly 3 feet high). But the crown jewel – despite the wishes of the man himself – is Lenin who, unlike the others, is not under ground but encased in glass and looking better than he did the day he died almost a century ago.

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The guards at the mausoleum forced us through quickly, despite there being few people present, and so my time to reflect was short. But there I was, in a place I had dreamed I would someday be, without the time to savor it, and far from the idealism of my youth.Anyway, I smiled knowing that I had done something I had always wanted, and looked over at my wife, still brimming with such idealism, and we smiled at each other. Despite being born halfway across the world, we had found solidarity in something and we stood together looking at a man who had, in imperfect ways no doubt, lived the very ideas that hold us together and fan the flames of our love. It was, in short, a precious moment I will retain forever.

We walked out of the mausoleum and past more martyrs of a former corrupted system, and stepped towards the edifice of an even crueler past. St. Basil’s, imposing yet inviting, smaller then I had expected but just as colorful, was open to guests – both believers and not – having not been reconsecrated after the fall of the wall. We went inside and looked upon the icons of each chapel. However, not able to read Cyrillic, much less the old style don’t inscribed by devoted followers of centuries past, it got old fast.

As we exited, the GUM, a massive mall that makes up one side of the square welcomed us in from the cold and we sought some food. Exploring the place a bit, we sat dismayed, feeling as though this decadent place told all one needed to know about just how far the red star had dipped below the horizon. It made me wonder if it could ever rise again with some new dawn, but I haven’t lost the last shred of my idealism…not yet.


IMG_20180313_051118.jpgWe left the GUM and took the Metro to the hotel. Now a Hilton (of course) the building is one of the seven sisters, seven Stalinist era art deco skyscrapers which dot the Moscow skyline. The place we stayed had always been a hotel, designed to impress both foreign and internal dignitaries in a vain attempt to convince them that Soviet Russia was as advanced, luxurious, and prosperous as her friends and foes. She certainly had more of the latter than the former.

Petrograd/Leningrad/St. Petersburg

There is a Russian joke that it’s entirely possible a Russian was born in St. Petersburg, went to school in Petrograd, got married in Leningrad and died in St. Petersburg without ever having moved. The city with a ruler’s name sits atop the bones of centuries of common Russians. These poor souls were either pounded into the swamp to make the place, or murdered to maintain and overthrow regimes, or thrust into the meatgrinder of Nazi sieges.

We took a train to the old capital of the Empire and the scene of Ten Days That Shook the World and met our host at Moscow Station who gave us a map and directed us to the apartment we had secured. The metro in the old city was not as ornate as in the new capital, but it was as fast, and in no time we walked towards our building – a brutalist monstrosity that looked no different than several others on the block, all surrounding a little school placed in the middle of connected walking paths. The apartment was warm and cozy, and in a short while I was sound asleep, ready for the next days activities.

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Near our apartment was Victory Square, a large plaza set in Moscow street which paid homage with its Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad during the what we call World War II but Russians call the Great Patriotic War. I had seen the tall spire that marks the spot, but as we approached the monument, a chorus greeted us and sang a triumphal, yet somber tune as eternal flames swayed in the cold wind. Underneath was a museum with artifacts from the siege telling the heroic story of those years and reveling in the victory that would put it all to an end.

A bit energized, we walked down the street to the old House of Soviets, one of the few buildings that still has a statue of Lenin in front. We stood for a second in the cold, feeling a bit transported back to when you may hear the people call each other tavarish and hope to align reality with ideology. But alas, the time for that had ended, so we stood, the single admirers of the man still laying in his glass casket hundred of miles away.


The Metro took us downtown and as we stepped off we were greeted by the Kazan Cathedral with its rounded collonade and snow filled courtyard. Inside we saw an alter of gold and a line of former official atheists making crosses on their chest. From that scene we walked to the Admiralty Building and, having gotten slightly acclimated to the cold, sat on a bench and enjoyed sandwiches we made from bread and cheese bought from a small grocery near our apartment the night before.

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Unable to be missed was the gorgeous St. Issac’s Cathedral that would impress and awe even the most ardent atheist with its ornate imagery, massive dome, and symmetrical layout. Inside the church, also now a mere museum, under its exquisite dome were children engrossed in painting some small part of the church, to greater and lesser success. While we enjoyed artwork adorning the walls and ceiling that would rival Michelangelo, I couldn’t help wonder what similar talent was expressing itself on the floor underneath.

Just outside the church stands the Bronze Horseman, a tribute to the city’s founder and namesake, Peter the Great. But we couldn’t stay long as the wind blowing off the river slapped us with its cold and demanded that we move along and the buildings then offered us shelter from nature. That was until we approached the main square in front of the infamous Winter Palace. The square played host to the final breaths of so many souls, that I felt somewhat jealous as I saw mine condense as it passed out of my mouth and reach up towards to the top of the Alexander Column.

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We stepped inside the imperial palace-turned-museum and walked it’s halls admiring art from antiquity to modernity, from Tsarism to “managed democracy”, and being wowed by the extravagance of absolute monarchy. However, knowing what that extravagance ultimately bought, I couldn’t help but reminisce about what seeing that splendor must have meant to sailors, soldiers, peasants, and workers as they stormed it on that early October morning in 1917.

The final stop of the day was at the site of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II who was killed by anarchist grenades in a bid to make the regime feel a bit of the pain of the average Russian of the time. The church, neglected for decades, stood as a reminder of the attempted and failed forced atheism of Soviet rule. Though also not re-consecrated, the church of Christ the Savior on Spilled Blood is an ode to Putin’s revival of the old Russian church replete with black robed bearded men flinging incense in ridiculous ritual to an absent father, son, and ghost.


A full day of sightseeing behind us, we retired back to our little Soviet flat to re-energize for the next day which promised to also recharge our radical batteries. A stroll through the halls of Russian political history and a glimpse out of famous balcony windows would prove much more complex and contradictory, just the thing that would make old Marx smile.

With every intention of getting up early and visiting important sites on the other side of the river, we sleep well into the morning – emphasis on well. It wasn’t until late into the morning that we finally bundled up and left, but having become well acquainted with Russian metros, we knew just how to get where we wanted to be. Where we wanted to be was the museum of political history. Created soon after the revolution the museum, part of which is inside the Kschessinska Mansion, it races the history of modern Russia from the Decembrist revolt of 1825 to Putin’s New Year’s Eve speech, his first as president of the Russian Federation.

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We spent more time at this museum that we had intended. Partially because it took us nearly twenty minutes just to get our coats in coat check as a throng of prepubescent Russian school children cajoled and annoyed one another. Some things are the same everywhere. But the real reason was the sheer amount of amazing stories they told, the artifacts which brought it to life, and the honesty with which the information was delivered. There were acknowledgements of the achievements of Stalinism, but a reminder of the costs – in human lives and shattered hopes and dreams of a better future.

But for Alka it was something totally different. My first learning about Bolshevism and Russia’s revolutionary trajectory from 1905 on made Lenin and Trotsky, and Bolshevism itself, an ideal. Here, these people, men and women, had achieved this incredible thing under the harshest of circumstances and had really tried to build something amazing from the decay and indignity of tsarism only to find their project twisted and mangled by Stalin, Hitler, and the West. As I have learned more about this revolutionary past my admiration generally remains, but the veneration, hero-worship, and tendency to paper over the crimes of our idols, has waned. I can sit comfortably in judgment of Russian Bolshevism and its consequences. I think it has much to teach – not just in what revolutionaries should do, but also what they shouldn’t.

But Alka was in a different place. Not one where reason is chucked out the window in favor of ecstasy, but where real possibilities, and victories, so few and far between for modern leftism, are things to bathe in the glory of, to bespectacled stand in awe of what truly is possible. But facts seldom allow for this kind of exuberance, and the museum of political history in St. Petersburg Russia told the facts. It explained the brutality of revolution and counter-revolution. It spoke of the great leap forward Russia took in 1905 and 1917, and what those kinds of leaps demand in flesh, idealism, and indeed hope. I can’t speak for her, but I could see as we proceeded into Lenin’s room and the balcony on which he explained in April 1917, the need to stand firm, to not capitulate in the face of imminent victory, but also about the violence that steadfastness can produce and how little able, or willing, our comrades where to stop the worst excesses.


We kept going through the museum, and got to a great presentation about the haphazard, unforseen, and socially devastating the events of 1989-1993 were in Russia and the Warsaw Pact. Where finally a match between possibility and reality re-emerged, kept dormant in the cold conflict that when heated burned red hot in everywhere but where the fire remained stoked, it was snuffed out and mangled, left open for Vladimir Vladimirovich to step in and rule. Just a few days after our visit to the museum, he would seek to challenge Stalin as Russia’s longest serving modern leader in a farcical presidential election and indeed hoping for a grave behind Lenin with a rose pile just slightly higher than Comrade Joe.

It seems that every building in Russia has a cafe, and the museum didn’t disappoint, so we stopped in and talked about how we were feeling, about the demoralization and frustration with the whole 20th century socialist experience. How could they have let it happen like that? What were they thinking? Why did they do this? Why didn’t they do that? What the hell, man?! The dialectic demands these questions be asked and attempted to be answered. Left unanswered the unscrupulous, the kniving, the savvy can sneak in and usurp even the greatest of ideals.

Just a short trolley ride away is Finland station, where Lenin returned in April of 1917 to take the room in the mansion and to give speeches from its balcony. Out front of the station still stands a statue of Lenin, his hand still pointing out as if to say, “Don’t give up, you still have a world to win. Go forth and do your revolution!” On the way to the station we passed over a bridge next to the Aurora, the famous naval ship that signaled the start of the October revolution with a blank firing of its giant deck guns.


Less physically and more emotionally, the day was exhausting. After eating at an ISKON inspired vegetarian restaurant, we made our way back to the apartment to prepare for our train ride back to Moscow. We continued talking and trying to parse out what conclusion had come to us, and what one’s we had to reject. For the rest of the trip, these questions would linger and make each hammer and sickle, each tribute to Lenin (which are everywhere) bittersweet in a way they hadn’t been before then.

It was hard to sleep, but eventually my mind cooled enough to press pause, and when whatever  synapse has to fire to press play again did indeed fire, it was back to Moscow station, find the traincar, find the seat and retrace the same bit of track we had traveled just a few days, but an important few days, ago.

Back in the USS…er…Moscow

After a brief bite to eat when took a cab to our apartment in Moscow. Yet another small apartment in a giant apartment building set among countless other enormous structures, it was anything unique, but it was newer and nice. We put down our things and headed out to the famous Arbat street. There we had two goals, to pick up something from a local store for a Russian friend of ours and find some old Soviet stuff. I have been an avid collector of soviet kitsch, like banners, pins, hats, and the like. I figured no one would really want this stuff and we could get a deal. We stopped in a little shop and in a back room there was a small room, the size of a half bathroom, full of all kinds of the stuff I wanted. We spent far too long, and far too much buying things like medals, pins, hats, and banners. But hey, the guy needed some business and we were happy to give it.

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From Arbat street we took a cab, a ridiculously-expensive-for-no-good-reason cab, to the Fallen Monument Park, where old soviet statues went from public showcases of the builders of socialism, to the relics of a by-gone, and goodbye, era. The sun was dipping over the horizon but still hit the massive Peter the Great monument on its own island on the river, and the cold really started in earnest. We made quickly for the warm metro and back to Red Square.


By the time we emerged from down below the sun was gone and the area was lit by the nearby buildings. Behind us was the Russian white house – not presidential residence like the in the US – but their capitol building – the Duma. I am sure if I had looked closer and during they day I may have seen remnants of the damage caused by Russian tanks as the shelled the building during the 1993 crisis, but at night all scars are covered by repairs and lights – no harm no foul. Nearby the Duma is the gorgeous Bolshoi Theater. We took in the view of the opera house from across the street where the large monument to Karl Marx is buried. Having recently visited Marx’s grave in England, the monument in moscow is appropriately reminiscent. We snuck into the GUM quickly to escape the cold. It seemed clear that there is no better way to do so than to go to a Soviet themed bar and have some beer and vodka – so that is what we did. Having mastered the metro, we made our way back to the apartment and quickly dozed off before our last full day in Moscow.

For the final day in Moscow i had set plenty of time to visit what promised to be incredible – the sites of Vystavka Dostizheniy Narodnogo Khozyaystva -or VDNKh – a permanent general purpose trade show and amusement park. Namely we wanted to see the famous Worker and Kolkhoz Woman from the 1937 World Expo in Paris. The Stalinist-Art Deco-Socialist Realist Bronze sculpture sat opposite the Nazi Germany exhibit on the Eiffel Tower lawn, foreshadowing the horrific conflict memorialized underground in St. Petersburg.

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But the main event was the Memorial Museum of Cosmonauts. Though the Soviet Union lost the race to the moon – they won the space race. It is not a coincidence that when an American wants to go to the International Space Station, they ride a Russian rocket which is, for the most part, a variation of the rocket that sent so many of human space exploration firsts (satellite, animal, man, woman, two people, space walk, probe to moon, sample return from moon, venus, etc, etc). The Soviet Union and its former citizens have, like Americans, a lot for which to be ashamed of their nation, but not this. For this they should be, and are, quite proud. The displays in the museum champion the Soviet Union’s achievements in space. From the cute Lunokhod rover, to a full mockup of the main section of the Mir space station, I felt like a child in his favorite play-pen. I didn’t want to leave.  

But leave we eventually did, and made out way to Kiev Train Station, which promised views of Moscow’s modern downtown section which hosts some of Europe’s tallest skyscrapers. This claimed view was never to materialize, but a glimpse of the biggest seven sisters, Moscow State University, loomed large in the distance. We had yet to pick up souvenirs and such for our friends back home, and there just so happened to be a mall near Kiev Station, so we popped in. When we did we left Russia, with its particular architecture and history and entered american with is voracious consumerism and its cheap shoveling of useless commodities down everyone’s throat. Needless to say we were happy to leave.


We had only one more site to see. On an inconspicuous square in an unassuming part of Moscow stands a rocket man. Not the one spoken of in presidential tweets, but rather the world’s first rocket man – Yuri Gagarin. The modern monument its sleek and fashionable, and if it weren’t so cold, I would have liked to remain there and soak it in. But cold it was and how quickly I wanted to return to the warmth of Moscow Metro. We popped out again to frequent yet another vegetarian place, the tomato soup I got was less than savory, but the rice and vegetables did the trick.

That was it. Our plane left early the next morning, traveling against prevailing winds, threatened to be a noticeably longer trip than coming out. So we packed our bags, got ourselves situated and tried to get some sleep before we had to wake as the sun would rise. My mind activated by space travel, I had to will myself to sleep, but come it did. But without feeling as though I had much, I woke to the sound of an alarm telling me it was time to go. A final metro ride and an airport express train ride later, we returned to Terminal D of Sheremetyevo airport waiting for our flight.

On the way back I wrote the post, punctuated by my desire to finish the Trotsky show which was accurate to a point, but where creative license too easily became pure fiction. All in all, visiting Russia in March has its downsides, well downside, it is cold. Real cold. But at the same time, all the seminal events in Russian history happened in Winter – from defeating Napoleon, to the Decemberists, to 1905 and 1917. When we picture Russia we don’t picture kayaking in St. Petersburg, we think of freezing our ass off in some snow pile among onion domed churches and ultimately that exactly what we did. It was incredible.


Thoughts On A Recent Trip to India

The following are my thoughts and recollections of a recent trip with my wife to India. We made the trip because Alka’s sister recently gave birth to a daughter. We decided to take the opportunity to do some additional travel in Europe and India. These are my thoughts, pictures, and musings while doing so. I hope you enjoy it. – Kevin


Arrival in London
Landing in London – Just as I pictured it.

We set off for India via London. The flight was an overnight and I hoped to get some sleep in order to be well rested for a day of travel in London. It was not to happen. Instead I sat up all night, unable to get any rest. I also realized just as we got to the airport that I forgot my headphones, so I bought some crappy ones. A mostly sleepless flight listening to the History of Rome podcast and half-watching some bad movie Alka had on, was not the best way to begin. Once we arrived, a bit groggy and tired, I realized I had left my wallet on the plane, but was able to walk back and a flight attendant got it for me. I took a quick and much needed nap while we waited for Rudresh (I call him Rudy), Alka’s cousin/brother, who had locked himself out of the house. Outside the weather was just as I had assumed it would be: foggy and gray.

High Gate Cemetery
Entrance to London Cemetery, across the street from High Gate Cemetery

Rudy picked us up, and we went to our first destination: High Gate Cemetery. The fog was dissipating as the morning warmed and things became a little clearer. We walked by some graves of those who never saw the 20th century, but finally came across our raison d’être au le cemeterie: the grave of Karl Marx. His carved head was as big as his historical impact, but I learned it was not his original resting spot. As we walked to the real grave, I read aloud the same words Engels had upon the occasion of that first internment. In the cold and the fog it felt rather fitting. Seeing Karl’s original grave, far from the monument now commemorating his force majeure, put it clearly how he had died a man, but had become immortal in a way that necessitated the carving of his famous phrase about working people of all countries uniting into stone, just as it had into the rock of history. We still have nothing to lose but our chains.

Marx's Grave
Fists Up at Marx’s Grave

From the cemetery, we drove to the High Gate Underground Station. As we parked, Rudy lightly hit a car and we did the right thing by telling someone, but nothing ultimately came of it. Overall, it was so minor. We took the tube to Piccadilly Circus and saw the English Times Square. On the way we encountered a socialist student protest against growing tuition costs. Though buried, the man in High Gate Cemetery is still with us. We had some very delicious Indian food nearby and took too much time in conversation, but time well spent ultimately.

London Student Protest
Socialist Students Protesting in London

Next was the British Museum reading room, where we saw where the great man had worked on Das Kapital, well, almost. The floors of the place had been slated for repair, but as a UNESCO heritage site, the necessity for original replacement had caused the reading rooms to close indefinitely. All was not lost though as we were privy to exquisite examples of Greek and Roman art and culture and Egyptian mummification. The sculptures and elements of the Parthenon were at once beautiful and sad, showing both the height of human creativity as well as depths of human destruction, oppression, and imperialism.

British Museum
Reading Room Of British Museum – Where Marx Wrote Das Kapital

After the British Museum, we again went tubing to some famous sites including a scaffold-covered Big Ben and Parliament house, nearby Westminster Palace and Abbey. Took a glimpse of the Abbey, and took a walk onto London Bridge, recently famous for a recent terrorist attack using a car, an event now prevented by large concrete barriers, which would deter a car from causing damage, but also destroyed the pedestrian traffic. Cause and effect put into reality.

London Eye
Love and the London Eye
Big Ben
An Encased Big Ben

From the bridge we took the tube to the Tower of London and then to the Tower Bridge, both icons of British history and architecture. Underneath the bridge, Dead Man’s Hole reminded us of its less than savory past. By then, the clock forced us to end our tour. A last ride down below and we exited back out High Gate Station, and took the car to Heathrow. With another bag in tow, and a nearly lost boarding pass at security, we made it through in such time that we had yet to be assigned a gate for our flight. Forty minutes later, we were off to our next major capital city: Delhi, India.

Tower Bridge
Tower Bridge – London
Tower of London
Tower of London and Downtown


Indira Gandhi Int’l Airport

The flight to Delhi was frustrating in that I just could not sleep. Having not slept much in 24 hours and looking at a long first day of touring Delhi, I was quite upset at my predicament. The airport helped none; immigration took far longer than expected owing to a total lack of regard for the growing line of visitors once the noon hour had come. Still I got through, the free sim card offered by Indian tourism didn’t pan out (the “system was down” so they claimed), but we got a taxi and sped off through the smog to Nariana, Phase – 1, an industrial part of Delhi where we would find our nightly abode.

Auto Rickshaw
An Typical Auto Ride

Our hotel was nice enough, and I was able to get off my feet and into the horizontal, which by that time was all I wanted to do. After a small nap, we set out to meet Aparajita, the sister of a close friend and the impetus to a former trip to Toronto, as well as her mom, for some Indian/Asian fusion food. After a few failed cab calls, we finally got on the way, a bit later than we had hoped. The food was excellent as well as the conversation, and I first discovered the delicious Indian Bira beer. A very smooth trip home and we got back to the hotel. Within minutes of opening our room, I was fast asleep.

Since we had failed to see anything the first day in Delhi as planned, the second, punctuated by a 2:05 pm train to Agra (where one finds the famous Taj Mahal), meant that we had to find two day’s worth of sightseeing into one. I was a bit apprehensive about such a truncated time frame, but still we sallied forth and made the attempt. We asked our front desk clerk about the best way to get to Connaught Place, an area of concentric circles filled with shops, restaurants, and other vendors. He told us that the metro would be the quickest. With a quick auto-rickshaw ride (they just call them “autos”), we arrived at Sanjipur Metro station and after checking on the route, purchased a token and went on our way.

Delhi 4.jpg
Connaught Place

The Delhi metro was quite modern and efficient and reminded me of the London Underground. The Connaught Circle Station was awash with people as we had arrived just as rush hour began in earnest. We found the quickest exit and made our way above ground. To our surprise, the area above was quiet; few shops were open and the difference between the throng below and the desert above couldn’t have been more stark. A random man stopped us after he overheard our conversation about our first stop, Jantar Mantar, but implored that it, along with much else, it wouldn’t open for a few hours.

Jantar Mantar
Jantar Mantar

Dismayed and surprised, we decided to go forth and see what we could. When we arrived at the 18th century observatory it was, in fact, open and we went in to learn about the oddly, yet beautifully specifically, shaped buildings and how they used the position of Delhi and a little math, to be able to do precise astronomical measurements and calculate the exact time, solar distances and altitudes, and much more. There was conservation work being done on one of the buildings so we were able to see how they were actually constructed which was fascinating in itself.

Agrasen ki Baoli
Agrasen ki Baoli Step Well

Next we walked a short distance, to Agrasen ki Baoli a centuries old step well that provided citizens of Delhi with groundwater from which to aid in the construction of a growing empire, a Muslim one, as evidenced by the small mosque attached to the well. Though the earth provided the water, and the human mind and body created the well, it was apparently Allah who was given ultimate credit.

India Gate
India Gate

Down the road a bit, a short auto ride (the driver of which refused to take no for an answer after offering several times to play tour guide) led us to India gate. This Romanesque triumphal arch, dedicated to and memorializing the Indian soldiers who fought for its oppressive imperial overlords against other empires who similarly conscripted the least affluent or connected of its subjects and forced them to murder each other in the millions only to find themselves fighting again for those same empires a few decades later and only then mustering the strength and resolve enough to break free in order to fight and die for freedom rather than continued domination, stood in the smog.

Rashtrapati Bhavan

A few kilometers down a uniquely clean and manicured park and roadway, we found India’s executive and legislative branches. The Rashtrapati Bhavan is now the presidential residence and executive ministry building complex. Its grandeur and obvious European design begets its true origins, as seat of the British viceroy. The opulence seemed overdone for the lowly president of a republic, but fits perfectly for the overlord of a subjugated sub-continent. The parliament building, much less ornate and imperial, was a true symbol of liberal-democracy, a circle that moves in directions that never lead forward but simply spin a wheel of history only to find itself back right back to where it started.

It was about time to head to the train station for the trip to Agra, so we made our way to Connaught and found a little Italian restaurant that played jazz-ified covers of popular Western songs. I again had two delicious Biras and enjoyed some pizza. After using what we needed from the free Wi-Fi, we headed to the train station. On the way to Connaught, our auto had been slowed and redirected by a protest. Though we were unable to ascertain the exact grievance at the time, Alka was able to talk to a member of the protest march (he still carried his flag and placard) as we walked to the train station. We learned they were workers from all sectors who were marching and rallying to protest a lack of wage raises while prices continued to move upward. With a brief salutation of comradely solidarity, we entered the crowded station and began to make our way to the Platform 1, all the way to the back. Doing so we walked, with seemingly tens of thousands of others over train after train in order to reach ours. After some confusion because our tickets lacked seat numbers, we were directed to a car, stepped inside, found an open room and took it.

India Train
A Train in India

Thirty minutes later, the train slowly began our three-hour journey to the former capital of the Mughal Empire, one that had ruled India for centuries and still houses some of its most beautiful architecture, the crowning achievement being the Taj Mahal itself. The train provided the ideal sounds and movement to put one fast asleep, and the long seat provided the perfect place in which to rest. Indeed, after the fourth or fifth passing of landfills and slums, I was in sore need of reprieve from the rather constant reminder of the incessant need of some to make all the money they could, and the inability of so many others to access even a sliver of the wealth and power held so tightly in so few hands. It was everywhere, from the emperor who commissioned the Taj, to the current ruling class if business and political elite.

Train a stop
The site near a stop on a train to Agra


We departed the train in Agra and moved along with the mass of others towards the exit. Once there, the powerful smell and sight of unregulated capitalism hit us in the face and we were immediately accosted by every auto driver in sight – who rarely take no for an answer and have the horrible tendency of asking, repeatedly, after having been told no. By this time, I was well accustomed to the up-sell that nearly everyone attempts with those whose skin is lighter than theirs is. The assumption that all white people are made of money means that those who think they can get something unreasonable from them make every attempt to do so. By the 29th or so intrusion, I had enough of the nonsense and began responding to the offers with a cold disdain. For a moment I could understand or Orwell, serving as a British Imperial Officer in Burma, could have developed a disdain for the “others” around, though deep down maintained universalist principles of humanism.

Finally, we found a driver who would give a reasonable rate and we were off to our, sigh, imperialist hotel. Indeed, the hotel would have seemingly confirmed their suspicion as its name gave away everything one needed to know: the Grand Imperial Hotel. After making ourselves at home, I set the alarm for five am and headed for bed.

The Grand Imperial Hotel

I awoke before the alarm, at nearly 4 am, and waited a bit before waking Alka. By 5 she woke and by 6 or so we set off in the early morning fog/smog to the famous Taj Mahal, hoping to get there before the inevitable large crowds, and just as the sun began to rise in the sky. Our desire to beat the crowd was in vain, after several minutes in line, we finally made our way towards the modern wonder, and it did not fail to disappoint. Seeing just the top of the famous dome and minarets beyond the main gate served as a tease of what would be before us.

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Taj Gate

The Taj Muhal deserves ever accolade it has ever received. It is an absolute wonder. The bright white marble, where most everything else is red, glimmers in the light. Flaking the structure are two red buildings, which serve to frame the Taj, like an eternal photograph for all eyes. No camera is necessary there, though of course everyone made sure they were the center of attention in the selfies, not the object that quite obviously deserved it more.

Taj MuhalThe Taj Muhal

The area is surprisingly accessible, you can walk around the whole thing. It is, with no disrespect intended, surprisingly small, but it is large in style, and in finesse. Its slightly leaning minarets are perfectly shaped and formed and its inscriptions of inlaid black marble, though often ignored in particular are immediately noticed. Behind the Taj is the Yamuna River and in the fog a man was paddling his boat, a local ferry, across the river.

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The Local Ferry

As we walked to the left side mosque, through a corridor I saw a woman in a red dress and attempted to snap some pictures. It was a Brazilian couple, both of whom were gorgeous examples of human beings. Her red dress, even piercing in the red mosque, amazingly contrasted with white wonder that I had to snap others pictures. We spoke to them for a while, they asked me to take their picture, and then a group of Indian men asked to take selfies with her, something that tends to happen to white people in India, along with quite a bit of staring.

The Red Dress
The Red Dress

We walked through the building, and say the ornate tombs of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Maha. These aren’t the real tombs, I learned, those are actually in a room below where the visitors walk. It does not matter, the demand for quiet also isn’t necessary a everyone’s breath is a bit taken away. Somewhere in the fray and spectacle we lost the tag for our shoes (you have to take them off before entering) so we ended up having to remit a…er…fee to get them from the attendant. Money talks everywhere.

Agra Fort
Agra Fort

After the Taj, we took another auto to the other well-known monument nearby: the Agra fort. Home to the Moghul emperors but ransacked and disfigured by the British, the site bespoke if the grandeur and genius of these once foreign rulers and their penchant for opulence and architecture. As we walked the halls, we stood in wonder if what they had built nearly a 1000 years before our visit.

Akbars Tomb
Akbar’s Tomb Gate

We then visited Akbar’s tomb. The site, ransacked by Marastha Hindus angered by the actions of the leader’s grandson, had stripped it if its original beauty and left the north gate still in ruins. Still, the remains of the building are enough to marvel at the splendor of such a tomb, one designed by the man formerly interred there – only to be exhumed and incinerated by enemies he hadn’t made. The site, like many others we noticed, was also a place where young kids in Agra went to escape the prying eyes of conservative, helicopter parents and enjoy time together as young lovers do. Though the Taj is the dedication if love, it was Akbar’s tomb that provided the real venue for that emotion in its young and unrequited form.


We went to yet another tomb, a smaller but no less ornate structure that was said to be a bit of a practice run for the ultimate wonder. We got there just as a group of young schoolchildren had, and so the site was occupied by the young, smiling, laughing, playing tricks and testing boundaries and rules. It sat along the Yamuna, which was once a mighty torrent, but had been diverted, dammed and made into a sad, and dirty version of what used to be a major physical boundary.

Tired, we went back to the hotel, ate some dinner and got some well needed rest to get up for an early train back to Delhi the next morning.

Back to Delhi

 The difference between getting to the station a few days prior and getting out could not have been starker. Rather than a constant ask for business, instead I was met with a rather constant staring by those also waiting for a train. Walking near a group of people wrapped in blankets sleeping on the platform was a mother dog and her pup, searching for scraps and hoping for the kindness of their human counterparts, yet they found neither. Instead, like other humans in India they were met with cold indifference. A man once said you could judge a society by how it treated animals, his name: Gandhi.

Train Ride
Getting a history lesson on the way back from Agra

On the train, I was able to get a little sleep, which was welcomed, but poor preparation for what was to come. We got to the Delhi station among seemingly millions of others and had no way to find the exit. We followed the stream of people and walked into a scene of smog, sweat, capitalism, and human defecation. The smell, much less the racket, was overwhelming. We had to get out of there, but our search for the best route to the Delhi Metro was near impossible, and so we had to take the long way, unable to escape the disaster in front of us.

Finally, we managed to retreat from the horribleness and got below ground. It was as if we had gone to another place and time. The Metro, clean and relatively orderly, was a welcome change. That was, until my token failed to work and I had to wait an inordinate time to deal with a teller who couldn’t care less about my situation and security guards who (as with the rest of India) watched as the metal detector beeped and buzzed, and felt my pockets filled with what could be weapons, yet simply ushering me through with hurried and annoyed faces.

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Patterns on the Wall Cast by the Sun – Qutab Minar Complex

Again, I dealt with stares from several passengers until we finally got to our location: Dilli haat, an open-air market highlighting cottage industry commodities from across India. We had some South Indian food and watched an indigenous man paint intricate drawings upon textiles and decided one example was worth a purchase.

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Qutab Minar

From there we took an auto to Qutub Minar, a towering minaret that stood as the centerpiece of a 16th century Indian-Islamic site which featuring a Mosque, the Minar, a few tombs, and a Madrasa. The ruinous state of the complex evidenced its lack of use, and what preservation it received as a UNSECO heritage site was being befuddled by a genuine lack of care by the majority of residents. Young people climbed all over the site, disrespecting their own heritage, and the guards were more interested in gossiping or taking pictures of foreigners – only to afterwards ask for payment later – a tactic employed throughout India.

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Inscriptions on the Bottom of the Minar

The Minar itself was incredible and mostly well preserved, sadly owing to the efforts of the British before independence. There were small glimpses of what the site would have been in its heyday, but those days had long since passed and it was now speaking to the inability or lack of will the site so desperately needs. After a few hours there, we had grown hungry and decided to go to an area of town recommend to us by a local resident friend.

Hauz Khas
Enjoying Hauz Khas

Before we stopped for a bite, we checked out Hauz Khas, another Madrasa that had seemingly been converted by locals into a spot for young love to escape the prying eyes of those who would otherwise seek to impugn their personal integrity and young, yet surely deep and honest, love. Inside each archway were entwined bodies and conversation. Outside, more selfies…constant, unending selfies.

Hauz Khas
Sunset over the Old Madrasa

We decided to eat at a Nepali place and shared rice and noodle dishes. The restaurant was on the third floor of a building, the first two of which were other restaurants and bars. We heard a guy singing and playing an acoustic guitar the floor below, so after eating we decided to stop in. The bar had a balcony, so we enjoyed some people watching while sipping German wit beer and serenaded by a Hindi singer and an acoustic guitar. After a few beers, we decided to head back to the hotel to prepare for our very early flight to Bangalore to visit Alka’s family.


Driving into Bangalore

Bangalore is a city I have visited before, so I knew what to expect. The first thing I noticed was a marked improvement in the cleanliness of the city generally. To be clear, this is still a relative standard, as the city is far from litter-free, but still, the improvement was noticeable. Like Delhi, the traffic gives some idea as to just how big the city actually is. With over 8 million inhabitants, the roads, regardless of whether the traffic laws are obeyed or not, (which they are not) the street would still be clogged during peak hours. The airport is a bit far from where Alka’s parents live, so it took us a good hour and a half to finally reach the house on the 68th Cross, near Basham Circle, Rajajinagar, Bangalore. Nevertheless, when we did arrive we were greeted by the reason for our visit: little Vrinda.

Little Vrinda

Vrinda, which means, “Cluster of flowers; Virtue and strength’ is a happy baby. Whereas so many other Indian children are frightened and confused by the sight of a white guy with golden hair, Vrinda took a minute to adjust and then flashed a big smile. So too did she for the rest of the trip with very little prodding. Alka’s family was obviously smitten with the second daughters addition, though I must admit some confusion and disappointment at the lack of involvement of Indian fathers in the months after their baby’s birth, and how Mandakini’s husband had seemingly abided by that tradition and was, well, noticeably absent.

After gushing over the baby, I was greeted in a way I would be forced to become used to, “Eat, Eat.” So goes Indian hospitality, thought admittedly the culture is not alone in its insistence on food as the main form of hospitality. I am not adverse to Indian food, and as a vegetarian I find it quite catering, given that Alka’s family hail from the Lingayat caste tradition, which is almost exclusively vegetarian. It had just so happened that just the few days before some Lingayat activists had held a rally insisting that the government recognize them as a separate religion and therefore get special treatment and reservations under India’s affirmative action system. Politics in India is everywhere, and it is so mingled with religion one cannot tell where politics ends and religions begins.

We spent a few days in Bangalore, visiting friends and family, seeing babies, visiting ghettoized parts of the city where Hindu temples no longer dotted the road and calls to prayer grew much louder. A highlight of such visits was with socialist comrades from New Socialist Alternative, the Committee for a Workers International branch in Bangalore. These comrades had come from different traditions, at different times, but had become close friends and comrades in a joint struggle. Our few hours with them were among the best of the whole trip.

We ate a variety of foods (“Eat, eat”) in which I had to learn a most useful word in Kannada, the language spoken in the state of Karnataka – “Saaku, saaku” I would say – enough, enough. There appears to be an aversion to portion control in India, as evidences by the ever-growing bellies of its residents who have enough by way of money to afford huge amounts of food – yet they love to criticize the US for its obesity problem. Though it did seem that a lack of access to food was not an issue in India’s Silicon Valley.

 Eventually it was time to visit the city of Alka’s birth where members of her extended family, including her Ajji (Grandmother) reside. The Bangalore train station is not far from Alka’s parents’ house, so we booked a ticket (just 4 hours or so) and boarded the train early in the morning as to have enough time to spend with her family.



Sign at the Davanagere Train Station

It is on a train in India where you see those who live in poverty, as they do so quite close to the train tracks. As we passed both fast and slow, it was apparent just how many people had been left to their own devices. I want to take every free-market, deregulation-favoring ideologue to India and ask them if that is what they want, because that is what they would get. The frustration I often feel in India resurged as we passed these folks, whose government had totally left them behind and whose access to politics was all but impossible. Oh, how badly India needs a revolution.

Davengere 3.jpg

Davanagere is a “small town” by India’s standards – just 600,000 people. It has a somewhat haphazard city plan, by the auto drivers know enough to get you where you need to go. As we made our way to Alka’s family’s home, we did notice something interesting, an area of town named after a man you’d never find something named after in the US – Comrade Vladimir Lenin the leader of the Russian Revolution. When we had the chance we asked a local resident who had visited us in the states, one D.P Bhat, and he had told us that a local representative of the area had been elected from the Communist Party of India and had the chance to name a new development. Of course, he had to name it after one of the 20th century’s greatest revolutionaries.

Family Photo
Discussing how best to take the photo

We talked with Alka’s Ajji, Doddamma, and Doddappa (Aunt and Uncle) for a while. I say we, but really, it was Alka, as my Kannada is about as good as their English. Of course they did know “Eat, Eat” but since I was rather hungry, I did not mind. When we did visit D.P Bhat, he had a surprise for me: two pints of beer. He insisted that I drank them, which I didn’t mind, and he very much enjoyed watching me. I obliged him on the first and promised to take the second, not knowing that India’s trains forbade the use of alcohol, to which Alka reminded me with an air of disappointment.

Finally, Alka’s cousin Deepu and her husband came over, and we went to their house, a new build outside of town. The house was beautiful, and their two kids, adorable, smart, engaged and unafraid, gave hours of free entertainment, only to pass out either belly up to the bar or in Deepu’s arms. As the sun set, we prepared for yet another train ride, this time to the former capital city and seat of the former kingdom – Mysore. The town from which Alka gets her recognized last name.


Brindavan Gardens
Brindavan Gardens and KRS Dam

Mysore is a beautiful city, with a rich history, and still great importance in Karnataka. It houses a huge Dam, Krishna Raja Sagara, also popularly known as KRS, which was our first destination. Below the dam, the non-retaining side, are the Brindavan Gardens. These well-keep grounds were like much else in India, beautiful and general well maintained, but with the noticeably lapses in care and attention, which though not detracting enough from the whole thing to destroy its value, certainly diminished it. We had gotten to KRS so early that we had to wait for the gardens to open, and still almost no one was there when we finished. After buying some watermelon from the only vendor in operation, we noticed a single auto in the area and flagged it down.

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Brindavan Gardens

This auto was not all that different that the others, until we got inside, where it was all tricked out with colorful embroidery on the inside, and apparently a well-known driver, as nearly everyone waved in acknowledgment. He took us to the gate of the dam, but it wasn’t open due to security concerns. The Kaveri River had been the source of not only precious water, a growingly rare commodity in India, but also a dispute between two states – Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Apparently, the history of the Tamil tigers in Sri Lanka had bled over, and had made the dam a potential target for terrorists looking to make a literal and figurative hole in the whole dam thing.

Mysore Palace
Main Hall – Mysore Palace

He then took us in the direction of Mysore palace, the home and court of the Wadiyar dynasty who had facilitated and participated in the British Raj. The palace was a mix of east and west, having been re-built well into the British period, designed by white minds, but actually built by brown hands. The palace, like any other, bespoke the elegance, decadence, and opulence of imperial and monarchical wealth. Though undeniably magnificent, one with an aversion to all forms of tyranny as I have, cannot escape the wonder of what costs such a building represented in the lives, dignity, and treasure of all those who lived under Wadiyar boots. Stunning paintings that lined the wall gave an indication as to some of the spectacles that the Palace would have hosted in its time. By the time we had visited, the place had become the host of many, too many, selfies – something that was inescapable, even on the dirty streets nearby. It seems it isn’t the place you are at that must be photographed, but only you that need be framed. What a shameful thing this lack of shame has produced.

Karnataka Celebration Parade

We had some time to kill before leaving Mysore, but not enough to visit a temple that sat atop a nearby hill. In addition, I have to admit my lackluster affinity for Hindu temples. Perhaps it is my Christian childhood, or totally aversion to religion as an adult, but once you’ve seen one Hindu temple, you’ve seen the rest. Truly, the idols are no doubt far from the Greek or Roman I would have been more interested to see. Europhilia? Perhaps. Still. So we went to a park near the lake in the middle of town and spent some time among birds, trees, and playing children. After a brief stop of the mall to eat some Indian McDonalds – I was told this had the air of a delicacy in the area – and wasn’t half-bad – we returned to the train station and boarded the train back to Bangalore.

Back to Bangalore

When we got back to Bangalore, a canker sore I had nearly the whole trip finally began to heal, and so my overall mood improved. We had a few days of just visiting left, which was welcome after all the travelling. We had only two major things to do. First, I had a day where I meet with some students and professor at the National Law School, were we discussed their environmental law work and the conduct of legal research in India. Then I delivered a seminar talk on corruption in both India and the United States at the Institute of Social and Economic Change, something well attended and well received.

Hills of Karnataka
The Hills of Karnataka

Second, the day before we left we traveled out into the countryside of Karnataka and visited the grave of Alka’s grandmother. Alka had yet to see the area – she and her grandmother didn’t exactly see eye to eye, nor did they have the most positive relationship – but Alka’s dad had a (potentially unhealthy) closeness to his mother and it gave him some relief to take his daughter there. After a beautiful ride through the rocky hills of the state, we came back home to one last round of “Eat, Eat” and prepared for an early morning flight to London and then back home to D.C.

Alka’s Grandmother’s Grave

A Quick Stop in London

The Afghan Mountains

The most eventful part of the flight was travelling over and getting to see the beautiful Afghan Mountains. From the air we could see just how beautiful and dangerous they really were, and even got the chance to see Bagram Air Force Base, which both put in me in awe and gave me the creeps. We landed after sunset, so unlike the first time, our layover in London was overnight. This disallowed us from seeing much more of the sites. I walked slowly through the airport, owing to a dehydration-induced headache. Soon after we set off in the darkness for Rudy’s place in Brighton for some needed R&R, I passed out. I woke up just before arriving, nearly an hour nap. They did take us to a local restaurant where I enjoyed some genuinely western food for the first time in weeks, and we had a great conversation. We had thought to visit some areas that night, but both Alka and I were dead tired, and it took only a few minutes for both of us to get some six hours sleep before making the final trek home.

We arrived by 2:30 in the afternoon in D.C. A 40-minute cab ride later and a short elevator ride later, we were greeted at our door by the howling of excited kittens who finally saw their owners again. All was well, the house smelled great, and the bed sat inviting. We placed the bags down on the floor, enjoyed the welcome noises of the cats purr, and soon feel into a deep, jet-lagged sleep.


The Kurdish Referendum and the Kosovo Problem

Almost thirty years ago, the sound of MIG and Mirage fighter jets filled the air above Iraqi Kurdistan. A warm day in early March would mark the occasion of one of the modern era’s worst crimes. The jets, menacingly circling above began to drop familiar ordinances to locals including bombs and napalm. But as the whirling clap of helicopter rotor blades joined the cacophony, huge pillars of white, black, and yellow smoke towered above the town like roman columns ascending 150 feet in the air. Residents, first smelling the scent of sweet apples, found only poison around them. By the time night fell thousands were dead and tens of thousands would never fully recover. After that bloody Friday the name of the town, Halabaja, would carry a different meaning forever after.

Since the post-war imperialist division of the former Ottoman Empire, the Kurds have been the consummate losers. Under a commonly recognized definition of “nation”, Kurdistan can contend for the title.[1]  The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres between Britain and the new nation of Turkey that emerged from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire provided “a scheme of local autonomy for the predominantly Kurdish areas” and the right to petition for independence from turkey contained in Articles 62 – 64. However, the post treaty period would be marked by a reversal of policy due to, as Robert Olsen explains, British fears of French involvement in the northern part of any new autonomous or independent Kurdish territory. Thus, imperialism denied the Kurds the right to have a piece of the Asia Minor pie that had been cut.

2.gifDespite what imperial French or English planners put down on maps, Kurdistan has remained a nation, even if only in idea and desire, for thousands of years. In his famous Sharafnama Kurdish Emir and historian Sharafkhan Bitlisi outlined the borders of Kurdistan in 1797, that being from the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf and stretch on an even line to the end of Malatya and Marash. As well as defined borders, Kurdistan has a defined language. Kurdish (کوردی) is a unified tongue, it is part of the Northwestern Iranian language group with three dialect groups Northern, Central, and Southern, spoken by tens of millions of people in modern day Turkey-Iraq, and Syria. Interestingly, in most of Iraq and Iran it is written using an Arabic script, but in some northern areas of Iraq and in Turkey, Kurds use the Latin alphabet.


In the face of continued repression of their language and other identifying features of Kurdish culture, including forced assimilation campaigns that outlawed their language and customs, Kurdish people around the world have maintained rich traditions. These include epic poetry, or lawj (think the Iliad and The Odyssey in ancient Greece) and Woodie Guthrie-esque folk musicians, the Dengbej, who perform traditional Kurdish music – most iconic being the “stran” or song of mourning. Other aspects of identifiable Kurdish culture include rugs with floral and geometric designs as well as cirit, a traditional sport that involves throwing a javelin while mounted on horseback.

United and Divided

Given that Kurdistan fulfills the prerequisites for being a nation like any other, why do globes and world maps contain no mention or announcement of these people and this land? Generally, the reason is that the power in the area, usually kept in place by war and repression, has yet to tilt in their favor. However, recent events in Asia Minor are remaking the balance of power, with both positive and negative consequences for the Kurdish people.

Kurdistan, though still a nation, is not fully united. This, however, has less to do with internal Kurdish struggles and more to do with the struggles they have with the national authorities in the Sykes–Picot states in which Kurds live. In Turkey, the Kurds have waged and insurgency against the Turkish state since 1978. The main group in this insurgency is the PKK, or Kurdish Workers Party, whose unorthodox brand of socialism, advocated by imprisoned leader Abdullah Öcalan, guides the fight.

In Syria, repression of Kurds has kept dreams of independence quelled until fighting erupted in 2011. In the Rojava area of Syria, the Kurdish groups, organized under the People’s Protection Units (YPG) have fought a multi-front conflict against both ISIS (Daesh) and government troops under command of President Bashir Al-Assad. The success of the YPG campaign and its administration of the Rojava area during the conflict has given its independence dreams a foundation on which to stand. The Assad regime, which is not in danger of being toppled by the YPG, has made it clear it opposes a confederated state with Syrian Kurdistan having autonomy like its Iraqi cousin.

Two Kurdish Fighters Holding a Portrait of Abdullah Öcalan

In Iraq, the Kurdish dominated north had always been a sore spot for the federal government in Baghdad even before the regime of Saddam Hussein. As a result, Iraqi Kurdistan has had more autonomy and independence than any other Kurdish area. However, as aid and training of the Kurdish PUK and eventually Peshmerga fighting groups threatened the stability of federal control, the regime struck and the name Halabaja was etched into history. In September of 2017, another event marked another turning point in the larger Kurdistan movement: a referendum for independence.

The Referendum

On September 25, 2017 Iraqi Kurds went to the polls to vote on an independence referendum. The decision to take the vote reaches back to the tenure of Nouri Al-Maliki as Iraqi Prime Minister. Maliki, the Shia prime minister who watched as his sectarian and corrupt administration sowed the seeds for the eventual rise of Daesh in the western and northern areas of Iraq, had irritated the Kurdish leadership including Kurdish president Masoud Barzani who announced his intention to call a referendum in July of 2014, just a month after the first ISIS-led assaults which were famously characterized by the withdrawal of the American-trained and equipped Iraqi.

In place of that faltering army stepped in the Peshmerga, who, like their Syrian cousins, took the fight to Daesh, halted their advance, and began the long march to Mosul. In September of 2014, Maliki was replaced as prime minister by Haider al-Abadi. Abadi had, at least compared to Maliki, much more support in Iraqi Kurdistan and so the referendum was delayed, delayed again, and again delayed until the defeat of Iraqi Daesh in Mosul – a feat only accomplished two years after Maliki’s ouster.

The Kurdish authorities as well as the people were not naïve in what the referendum meant and the international pressure it created. The measure is non-binding, meaning that even a successful yes vote would not automatically mean a declaration of independence. A peaceful independence would also need buy in, not only from the central government in Baghdad, which has called the vote “unconstitutional”, but as well as at least tacit support from Turkey who, in response to the successful vote, threatened armed conflict and economic reactions.

However, an interesting development has come out of Syria where Reuters reported that Syrian diplomat Walid al-Moualem had not closed the door to negotiations with Syrian Kurds in Rojava for a post-conflict autonomy.

“This topic is open to negotiation and discussion and when we are done eliminating Daesh (Islamic State), we can sit with our Kurdish sons and reach an understanding on a formula for the future,”

-Walid al-Moualem, Syrian Diplomat.

The story was careful to note that Syrian Kurds say their aim is to preserve that autonomy as part of a decentralized Syria, and they do not aim to follow the path of Kurds in Iraq. Indeed, Moulem went on to reiterate the Syrian government’s opposition to the referendum and that the Syrian Kurds want only autonomy within a unified Syrian Arab Republic. While certainly limiting, the experience of Iraqi Kurdistan and its vote is surely in the minds of the Syrian leadership as it, along with the Kurdish YPG and allied Syrian Democratic Forces are currently engaged with Daesh around their capital of Raqqa in eastern Syria. Though the forces have not engaged one another with regularity, challenges remain in the fight around Deir al-Zor after an alleged Russian air attack on SDF forces in the area, something Moscow denies, may spoil the shaky alliance.

The Right of Self Determination

President Barzani has stated that the right of the Kurdish people to vote for independence is a human right afforded to all people’s under the notion of self-determination. US Congressman Trent Franks joined that sentiment and proposed legislation to that effect in congress.

After the Great Imperialist War of 1914-1918 where the Great Imperial Powers of Europe threw their military might at one another in a hopeless and useless menagerie of horror, President Woodrow Wilson, a man gifted in his ability to say one thing and do another, proposed as part of his famous 14 points the entrenchment of the notion of self-determination of peoples – something that had first come into legal parlance with the American Colonial Declaration of Independence. However, the great powers, shaken but not yet dissuaded of the folly of empire, did not enshrine this principle into the League of Nations. Instead, the League adopted a Mandate system contained in Article 22 of the League’s Charter, which solidified, rather than destroyed, the nature and notion of colonial rule. Instead, the mandate system gave imperialism an international body to enforce its rule. It was not until the failure of the League, and another bloody world war, that the idea would come back with a fervor.

Learning the mistakes of League, the new post-war international body – the United Nations – formally adopted the principles as a foundational aspect of the role of the UN. Indeed, Art. 1 (2) UN Charter states that it is one of the purposes of the UN to “develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace”. In Chapter Nine of the UN Charter on International Economic and Social Cooperation, Art. 55 lists several goals the organization should promote in the spheres of economics, education, culture, and human rights with a view, as is noted in the introductory clause, ‘to the creation of conditions of stability and well-being which are necessary for peaceful and friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples’.

The UN Charter also implicitly refers to the principle of self-determination in the part concerning colonies and other dependent territories. Art. 73 UN Charter affirms that:

“[m]embers of the United Nations which have or assume responsibilities for the administration of territories whose peoples have not yet attained a full measure of self-government recognize the principle that the interests of the inhabitants of these territories are paramount, and accept as a sacred trust the obligation to promote to the utmost, within the system of international peace and security established by the present Charter, the well-being of the inhabitants of these territories.”

While some scholars of international law may have suggested that, although incorporated into the foundational documents of the UN system, the right of self determination remained vauge and aspirational. This changed after the UN General Assembly vote unanimously in favor of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples (UNGA Res 1514 [1960]) which made the right to self-determination explicit. The international community continued this de-colonizing work by establishing self-determination as a human right with the adoption of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966) (‘ICESCR’) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) (‘ICCPR’). In both Covenants, Arts 1 (3) identically restate the right of all peoples to self-determination, as defined in the Declaration on Granting of Independence mentioned above, and call upon the “States Parties…, including those having responsibility for the administration of Non-Self-Governing and Trust Territories”, to promote and respect this right thus making it an obligation on states under International law.

As widely adopted and enforced international instruments, the human rights contained in both documents have risen to the level of a jus cogens norm in international law. This setting out of the right of self-determination as a fundamental human right on which almost all others rest, means that even states, few as they are, who are not party to these covenants, are still obliged to accept their contents. This means that the right to self-determination is a non-derogable right of all human beings.

This likely comes as a shock, as even the UN has stated its dismay with the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan. Abandoning this fundamental right and principle of the UN Security Council – a body made up of and always designed to give ultimate power to the Great Powers who have permanent membership and veto power on the Council – voiced concern about the referendum stating:

“The members of the Security Council expressed concern over the potentially destabilizing impact of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s plans to unilaterally hold a referendum next week.”

The UNSC, echoed by Secretary-General António Guterres, went further noting that:

“Council members expressed their continuing respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and unity of Iraq and urged all outstanding issues between the federal Government and the Kurdistan Regional Government to be resolved, in accordance with the provisions of the Iraqi Constitution, through structured dialogue and compromise supported by the international community.”

The Kosovo Problem

The underlying argument presented by the UN, as well as by Iraqi and Turkish authorities is that Iraqi Kurdistan is not a colony of Iraq, but a constituent and autonomous part of a federated Iraq and therefore it has no right to unilateral claims of independence. However, the International Court of Justice has already decided the issue of declarations of independence and found them to be lawful under international law.

The issue came before the ICJ when Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia. On February 17, 2008 the Assembly of Kosovo proposed, debated, and voted in favor of a unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia. Serbia then immediately asked the ICJ for an opinion. In the decision, the ICJ noted that Kosovo, under UN Resolution 1244 (1990), had not exceeded the authority given to the Kosovo Provisional Institutions of Self-Government under the Constitutional Framework (promulgated by UN Mission In Kosovo) because it was made not by that body, but by the “representatives of the people of Kosovo” outside their capacity as KPISG members.

The Court examined the right generally and found that during the second half of the twentieth century, “the international law of self-determination developed in such a way as to create a right to independence for the peoples of non-self-governing territories and peoples subject to alien subjugation, domination and exploitation” and that a “great many new States have come into existence as a result of the exercise of this right”. The Court observes that there were, however, also instances of declarations of independence outside this context and that “[t]he practice of States in these latter cases does not point to the emergence in international law of a new rule prohibiting the making of a declaration of independence in such cases”.  In short, declarations of independence, even those of autonomous regions in sovereign states, are legitimate under international law.

The ICJ decision on Kosovo Independence is a must read for those, including the UN Secretary-General, who are arguing against the Kurdish Referendum. While not a declaration of independence, the referendum is a legitimate exercise of power by the Kurdish people in Iraq. Yet so little support has been given for this process, legal as it may be. Contrast this with Kosovo, where the day after the declaration, eight nations formally recognized Kosovo, including the United States and Turkey. One can rather easily speculate why these nations, as well as the dozens who followed them in the weeks after the declaration would do so for Kosovors, but not for Kurds.

The reality here is that while the UN and Security Council may be worried about the destabilizing effects of this vote, the destabilization comes from the inability or unwillingness of the great powers and nearby nations to accept that the principle of self-determination is real, even when it doesn’t serve their interests. Sadly, this is yet another example of the hypocrisy of the powerful, where lip service is paid to principles when it serves the right interests, but when power, wealth, and prestige may be in jeopardy, principled positions no longer hold and Kissinger-esque realpolitik re-emerges as the real underlying dynamics of international relations.

[1] Blacks Law defines a nation thus: “A people, or aggregation of men, existing in the form of an organized jural society, usually inhabiting a distinct portion of the earth, speaking the same language, using the same customs, possessing historic continuity, and distinguished from other like groups by their racial origin and characteristics, and generally, but not necessarily, living under the same government and sovereignty.”

Vietnam: A Grand Canyon in the Moral Landscape

From the title alone, The Impossible War, one is given a preview of the moral content of Sam Harris’ most recent podcast. On it Harris discusses a new, and epic, 18-hour PBS documentary series with its producers, directors, and writers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick on a subject still sour and sore in the minds and hearts of millions of Americans: the Vietnam War. The war in Vietnam, unlike almost any other fought by US soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines has a murky and dark place in the public consciousness. Burns, Novick and Harris only make the waters more muddy and the place darker.


Americans are united in their distaste for the war. Indeed, as journalist Michael Tomasky, armed with decades of Gallup polls on Vietnam from the Library of Congress, noted in 2004:

“America is not — emphatically not — divided over Vietnam. … By overwhelming margins, Americans have always believed — and continue to believe — that the Vietnamese conflict was wrong. The first majority calling the war a mistake appeared in August 1968, after the Tet Offensive and Walter Cronkite’s famous anti-war editorial at the end of his newscast on the night of February 27 of that year.

After the war’s 1975 conclusion, Gallup has asked the question five times, in 1985, 1990, 1993, 1995, and 2000. And all five times — over that 15-year period that saw vast social change, the raging of the culture wars, and dramatic shifts to the right in American public opinion on several issues — respondents were consistent in calling the war a mistake by a margin of more than 2 to 1: by 74 percent to 22 percent in 1990, for example, and by 69 percent to 24 percent in 2000.”

 This is precisely the position taken by Burns, Novick, and Harris in the course of the podcast. The duo adopt the “journalistic” creed of “reporting both/all sides” to cover their ultimate conclusions. They subtly, yet consistently, posit that – as many Americans believe and are taught in public schools – the war in Vietnam was fought for either the right or at least understandable reasons. For some the US maintained generally positive intentions, but simply conducted in the wrong way, with the wrong set of assumptions, or with incomplete or misleading information. Harris’ melancholy-laden “critique” of the likes of Kissinger, Kennedy, McNamara, Nixon and Johnson also betrays his attempts to remain “neutral”.


The utter amazement that the host and guests display when reminiscing about the “mistakes,” “blunders,” and “irrational” decision-making also shows their hands to an audience that has, partially due to Harris rather constant insistence on the moral weight of – well – everything, seems to be wholly absent in this particular instance. This is ironic at best and morally despicable at worst. To discuss the Vietnam War without mentioning the moral hazard, if not the unadulterated horror it wrought, is to be a particularly suspect moral agent – the very thing Harris has not one qualm about when directed at immoral actors on the other end of American rifles. It is just this kind of moral obscurity that opens Harris up (usually unfairly, by using constructed, or mis, or abridged quotations) to critiques that he is a shill for American imperialism.

But let this be clear: Anyone who listens to Harris’ podcasts or reads his writing knows that he is not a racist or an Islamaphobe (whatever content that word does or does not have), or many of the other epithets and unfair names and labels that he is given by a stream of unscrupulous “journalists”, actors, and social media commentators alike. However, in this podcast Harris displays the moral vacuousness of liberalism, one that also animates his other judgments about the moral value of US military action. Harris’ lack of moral clarity and uniformity is exactly the thing Noam Chomsky tried to point out, albeit poorly, in their famous e-mail exchange. Given the context, it is understandable that Harris missed this critique, but is not ultimately justifiable.

But, as Chomsky has rightly said in print and in public, the Vietnam War is rather obviously one of the worst crimes perpetrated in the 20th century – a period that includes the Holocaust, the Holodomor, and the Cultural Revolution. This is not merely Chomskyian rhetoric. If one looks at the statistics of the war, the placement of the war on the list of the moral transgressions of the century is not mere bluster. In the podcast itself, Harris mentions how, even after deciding the war was unwinnable early on, many actors, namely McNamara and Johnson, stayed the course and sent tens of thousands of US soldiers to unnecessary and usually gruesome deaths. By 1975, some 58,220 US soldiers would lose their lives on the orders of commanders-in-chief who knew all along the futility of continued engagement. This is not a mistake; this shows a conscious disregard that a substantial and unjustifiable risk to life would occur and yet no change of course resulted. This is murder.


At the same time, the flippancy with which US planners dealt with the massive loss of life of the Vietnamese cannot simply be a mistake. R. J. Rummel’s 1997 mid-range estimate put the total deaths at around 2.45 million from 1954–75. The Vietnamese government figure adds an additional million lives lost.  Though the Geneva Conventions were in full force by 1954, much less 1963, the US government appears not to have taken nearly the necessary precautions at limiting civilian deaths, causing nearly a million civilian casualties. Furthermore, the sheer tonnage of bombs dropped on Vietnam is staggering at 2.5 Million tons. These are not bombs dropped by accident, and not always on military targets. Indeed, the Nixon intrigue regarding the 1968 peace talks, and the well-documented failure it produced, prolonged the war another 7 years, doubling its length and the total misery thereof. Again, these actions cannot constitute a blunder. Instead, it represents the purposeful, knowing, reckless, and/or negligent murder of millions of human beings.

But these costs, the most obvious an emotionally scarring, are not the major crime of the conflict. Indeed, the conflict itself is the crime. Two decades prior to the start of the war in southeast Asia, a world war had ended and a new field – International Criminal Law – had emerged and been codified in the Nuremberg Tribunal. It was during this trial that international criminal law had its true beginnings and found its “supreme international crime”: aggression. Aggression was found to be the crime of crimes because it was different from other war crimes in that it encompasses all the evil that follows.  Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, the US chief prosecutor of the Tribunal issued his warning that unless we apply the Nuremberg principles to ourselves, the tribunal is a farce. It should be noted that this crime of crimes was not added to the Rome Statutes of the International Criminal Court until 2010, when the rest of the Statutes went into effect in July of 2003. One can only assume that the US invasion of Iraq, a clear example of aggression which began in March of 2003 was the intervening factor in this delay.

The war in Vietnam, with all its costs was not a mistake; it was deliberate, intentional policy and by at least 1961, it was pure aggression. Yet these obvious moral transgressions are discussed in the podcast without moral condemnation, but rather confusion at how such decisions could have been made. Such questions only arise when one assumes the moral virtue of moral monsters, of which US leadership can almost uniformly be categorized. Yet Harris fails to get into this moral muck, instead laying aside his moral scruples to play advertiser for a piece of work that will, ultimately, be yet another thing that generates profits off those lives lost, weapons expended, and crimes committed. Vietnam war profiteering continues and amoral liberalism moves on unabated.


The fact that a moral philosopher fails to mention the most morally despicable thing done by a country with a list of despicable actions longer than any of its citizens would ever admit, understandably allows the listener to call into question the validity of the moral frame Harris has constructed generally, however logically unfair such a move may ultimately be. This is as frustrating as it is miserable, given that Harris’ moral landscape is a rather noble way of envisioning moral acts, intentions, and decisions. If only he would apply them to the grand canyon on the landscape that is the war in Vietnam.

It is also telling that so many Americans are aware of the immorality of the war, late as it may have come. As Michael Tomasky found:

 “[A] 1995 Gallup question even found a majority of 52 percent agreeing with the assertion that the war was ‘fundamentally wrong and immoral,’ as opposed to the 43 percent who called it a ‘well-intentioned mistake.’” [Emphasis Added]

Though not captured by Gallup, the immorality of the war, not just its mistakes or a “blundering effort to do good” as Anthony Lewis called them in 1975, was the real driver of the anti-war movement. If guided by the belief that American action in southeast asia was fundamentally legitimate, just conducted the wrong way, then there would have been no anti-war movement like the one that emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Instead, a concerted lobbying effort to retool and re-evaluate the means by which we fought a good war would have encouraged a mere change of tactics rather than a call for total withdraw. However, the justified moral reversion of a large swath of the American public led to the massive disruptions and protests that still define the period.


Importantly, it is this same righteous moral indignation against the war that would help to explain why US soldiers returning from Vietnam were mistreated – something Harris laments and happily claims the US civilian population has thankfully “gotten past”. Again showing the bias of American liberalism, Harris neglects to challenge this myth; despite it being convincingly dispelled by Vietnam-veteran and Sociology professor Jerry Lembcke in his 1998 book The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam.

All in all, Harris, Burns, and Novick do not for a moment fool those who are armed by even the slightest bit of knowledge of the actual costs and decisions regarding the engagement in and conduct of the wars in Southeast Asia. These wars (plural), importantly including Nixon’s illegal war in Cambodia which lit a spark the ignited a Khmer Rouge fire that would immolate millions, are easily lumped together and considered part of a series of mistakes but morally adept agents rather than pre-meditated and calculated crimes. The moral obfuscation of the podcast on these all-important matters leaves a slimy feeling in the stomach of those who have accepted the validity of Harris’ own arguments, only to see them rejected when American imperialism is the subject of the day and the guests have dollars to make.

It is a moral shame that the author of such a persuasive text on morality and another on the value of telling the truth does neither in this instance.