Sunshine Recorder

Link: Death of a Scientist

It was nearly dusk when Nikolai Vavilov and his companions returned to their hotel. Vavilov was a famous botanist and geneticist, the founder of the world’s largest seed bank, and the Soviet government had appointed him to head a scientific expedition to a part of the Ukraine. He and his colleagues had spent the day plant-hunting and were ill-prepared for what was about to happen. Outside the hotel, four NKVD agents approached the scientists and told Vavilov he was needed back in Moscow. Whether he believed them, we do not know; but he went with them in their car, and they drove him out of town towards Lvov. It was the last time his colleagues saw him alive.

We should bear in mind that none of this was especially unusual. Countless people were arrested by the OGPU/NKVD, and the tragic tale of arrest, interrogation and confession often began and ended in a similar way. Arrests could come about thanks to informers, careless remarks or anonymous tips, of course, but occasionally people were actually arrested for entirely random reasons. During Stalin’s purges, the NKVD branches had quotas on how many arrests they had to make. Exceeding the quotas was a good way to stay ahead, and so the NKVD would occasionally arrest and destroy people for no particular reason at all.

But Vavilov’s arrest was nonetheless unusual, because he had committed a surprising crime: rejecting Lamarckism. It seems strange that he should have been arrested for this, because the Soviet Union was ostensibly very pro-science. Certainly, many scientists were shipped off to Siberia because of their political views, but their fates were no different from those of many peasants, lawyers, officers, doctors, writers and so forth. In general Stalin et al. said they were highly supportive of science, that science was a Communist priority. Indeed, they believed that Marxism was itself a science, the “science of history”. And herein lay the problem; the dividing line between science and politics had been abolished. For Soviet biology this ultimately proved very dangerous.

(Source: sunrec)

Tomorrowland

Astana, the new capital of Kazakhstan, is brash and grandiose—and wildly attractive to young strivers seeking success.

The new capital of Kazakhstan does not lack for exotic buildings, some of them best described by irreverent local nicknames: the banana (a bright yellow office tower), seven barrels (a cluster of apartment towers), the cigarette lighter (the Ministry of Transport and Communications). But one such structure, a national monument called the Baiterek, does not lend itself to nicknames, for the simple reason that it looks like nothing else. Not on this planet, anyway.

Baiterek, which means “tall poplar tree” in Kazakh, is a 318-foot tower buttressed by an exoskeleton of white-painted steel. At the top is a gold-tinted glass sphere. According to the epigraph at its base, the monument represents the Kazakh myth of Samruk, a sacred bird that every year lays a golden egg—the sun—in the crown of an enormous tree of life. Its designer? None other than Nur­sultan Nazarbayev, the steelworker turned strongman who has run the country since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. He is said to have roughed out the original concept on a paper napkin.

Just as 18th-century tsar Peter the Great claimed a swampy patch of Baltic seacoast and stamped his brand on St. Petersburg—the national seat of power in imperial Russia—so, too, did Nazarbayev pick out a remote spot on which to plant the flag of a new Kazakhstan. Never mind that the previous capital, Almaty, is a temperate, pleasant city that few save the president wanted to leave. In late 1997 the government officially relocated to frigid, windswept Aqmola, 600 miles to the north, on the treeless steppe of Central Asia. The town was subsequently rechristened Astana—the Kazakh word for “capital”—a change that is commemorated every July 6 on Astana Day, which coincides with Nazarbayev’s birthday.

Rich in oil and other mineral resources, Kazakhstan has lavished billions on the new capital, inviting some of the world’s leading architects to showcase their work on the Left Bank of the Esil River, which separates the administrative “new city” from the older, mostly Soviet built district on the Right Bank. The results are eclectic, visually arresting, and not to everyone’s taste. But love it or hate it, Astana is here to stay, its population having swelled from 300,000 to more than 700,000 in a decade. Along the way, it has become a billboard for Kazakh nationalism and aspirations—a statement as much as a city.

Read more.

Link: Mikhail Gorbachev: Is the World Really Safer Without the Soviet Union?

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union twenty years ago, Western commentators have often celebrated it as though what disappeared from the world arena in December 1991 was the old Soviet Union, the USSR of Stalin and Brezhnev, rather than the reforming Soviet Union of perestroika. Moreover, discussion of its consequences has focused mostly on developments inside Russia. Equally important, however, have been the consequences for international relations, in particular lost alternatives for a truly new world order opened up by the end of the cold war. Following my election as general secretary of the Communist Party in March 1985, the Soviet leadership formulated a new foreign policy agenda. One of the key ideas of our reforms, or perestroika, was new political thinking, based on the recognition of the world’s interconnectedness and interdependence. The top priority was to avert the threat of nuclear war. Our immediate international goals included ending the nuclear arms race, reducing conventional armed forces, settling numerous regional conflicts involving the Soviet Union and the United States, and replacing the division of the European continent into hostile camps with what I called a common European home. […] What happened after the Soviet Union ended in 1991? Why were the opportunities to build what Pope John Paul II called a more stable, more just and more humane world order not realized? To answer this question we need to look back at the events associated with the breakup of the Soviet Union and the West’s reaction to it.

Link: Death of a Scientist

It was nearly dusk when Nikolai Vavilov and his companions returned to their hotel. Vavilov was a famous botanist and geneticist, the founder of the world’s largest seed bank, and the Soviet government had appointed him to head a scientific expedition to a part of the Ukraine. He and his colleagues had spent the day plant-hunting and were ill-prepared for what was about to happen. Outside the hotel, four NKVD agents approached the scientists and told Vavilov he was needed back in Moscow. Whether he believed them, we do not know; but he went with them in their car, and they drove him out of town towards Lvov. It was the last time his colleagues saw him alive. […] But Vavilov’s arrest was nonetheless unusual, because he had committed a surprising crime: rejecting Lamarckism. It seems strange that he should have been arrested for this, because the Soviet Union was ostensibly very pro-science. Certainly, many scientists were shipped off to Siberia because of their political views, but their fates were no different from those of many peasants, lawyers, officers, doctors, writers and so forth. In general Stalin et al. said they were highly supportive of science, that science was a Communist priority. Indeed, they believed that Marxism was itself a science, the “science of history”. And herein lay the problem; the dividing line between science and politics had been abolished. For Soviet biology this ultimately proved very dangerous.

Inside the Russian Short Wave Radio Enigma

Somewhere in Russia, a shortwave radio station transmits a buzzing sound nobody can decode.

From a lonely rusted tower in a forest north of Moscow, a mysterious shortwave radio station transmitted day and night. For at least the decade leading up to 1992, it broadcast almost nothing but beeps; after that, it switched to buzzes, generally between 21 and 34 per minute, each lasting roughly a second—a nasally foghorn blaring through a crackly ether. The signal was said to emanate from the grounds of a voyenni gorodok (mini military city) near the village of Povarovo, and very rarely, perhaps once every few weeks, the monotony was broken by a male voice reciting brief sequences of numbers and words, often strings of Russian names: “Anna, Nikolai, Ivan, Tatyana, Roman.” But the balance of the airtime was filled by a steady, almost maddening, series of inexplicable tones. Read more.