Friday, February 9, 2018

Burns Under Assault!

By Stephen Wilson

When it is someone's birthday you try to
make it as pleasant as possible for him
or her by offering greetings, cards ,
presents and best wishes. You certainly
don't insult, deride or denigrate a person
on his birthday. This is especially true if
he died over 200 years ago and it is the
centenary of his birthday on the 25th of
January ! For during this time and into
February , many Russians and Scots all
over the World honor the poet Robert Burns
by organizing traditional Burns Suppers in
his memory. At those gatherings, people
gather to hear his most popular poems
recited such as : 'Honest Poverty', 'Ye
Jacobites by name' and 'Toast to the
Haggis' where a haggis is carried in a
plate before a piper then the poem recited
and the haggis stabbed ! Guests gorge
themselves on portions of this dish and
drink glasses of whisky as well as dawn
kilts. The stiff, formal and respectable
atmosphere surrounding those well-dressed
and affluent guests often seems at odds
with a poet who struggled as a farmer in
back -breaking poverty ' and recited sharply
radical poems attacking money as 'a cursed
leaf ' where the poet declared :
'I see the children of affliction,
unaided by your cursed restriction
I see the oppressor's cruel smile,
Among his hapless victim' spoil' .

Burns appears to be popular in Russia
where suppers are organised in his honor.
The Caledonian Clubs, Saint Andrew's
society and many schools mark the
occasion. A parent of one of my students
even told me : "I'm going to a Robert Burns
Supper tonight. I have been to 5 such
events ! Burns popular here because he
was well translated into Russian."

Unfortunately, just a week ago , the
Guardian, and other British newspapers
started to savage the poet's reputation for
his alleged debauchery , drinking and
alleged abuse of women. Burns being
conveniently dead, could not respond to
those allegations or take those critics to
court for libel.

The articles attacking him are reminsicent
of a tabloid newspaper. I mean it is not
some article you would have expected in
the guardian ! For example,
one article declares : Was the Beloved poet
a Weinsteinian sex pest ?' One critic,
Stuart Kelly writes : 'Burns is a rascal, a bit
roguish, roister - doisterer . But here is
another r word - rapist .'The poet Liz
Lochead also joined the attack quoting a
letter of 1788, to a friend , where he
boasted about giving his pregnant girlfriend
Jean Armour, a 'thundering scalade ' where
she later responded with joy'. For Lochead,
this boast seems like a rape ! Some critics
go further and ask ; 'Why do we all raise a
glass to the boor bard of Scotland?'

Well maybe because he is such a great
poet with a real soul!

However, some sober academics think
those claims are not only over the top but
impossible to prove. Catherine Czeikawka
a Burns expert states : 'To label events
described in the letter as rape is to
oversimplify a relationship of great

The Russians I spoke to are perplexed and
astonished that people from 'the Me too'
campaign have decided to attack someone
who died over 200 years ago. Burns had a
daunting and difficult life. Why not let him
rest in peace ?

If you read the poems of Burns you will find
a rare and warm sensibility to women
which was seldom shared by other poets.
The poems indicate someone who highly
respected woman and worried about their
plight and felt immense guilt at not aiding
them enough. Burns might not have been
a saint or angel but he was no monster !
Those attacks on the poet are not new.
The first biography of Burns attacked
Burns for his alleged debauchery , drinking
and class hatred of the better off. If you buy
Robert Burns Selected Poems , in Penguin
books, in Moscow , you can read in the
foreword : 'His overwhelming popularity
was revealed strongly in the adulation
shown by his fellow countrymen , but
MacKenzie was also to praise him as 'a
Heaven taught ploughman '. Unfortunately,
this great acclaim went to Burns 's head
and he led a life of dissipation and
debauchery. '

The best answer to all those slurs is
the biography written by the German Hans
Hecht who wrote 'Robert Burns , the Man
and His work ' 1950 , William Hodge and
company , Limited . In this excellent
biography, Hecht mentions how Burns
helped reinstate the unfairly dismissed
school teacher James Clarke. Second
City Teacher published an article about
how Burn's defended teachers {See article
April 12, 2014 Burns Defends Teachers}.

The comparison to Hollywood producer
Harvey Weinstein is plain absurd. Whereas
Weinstein blacklisted promising actresses,
Burns was an implacable opponent of
blacklisting and abusing people of any
kind. And women were no exception!
Burns, by the way, is a highly under-
estimated poet where they don't even
teach him in Scottish and English schools.
Yet they teach him in Russian schools.
Burns appears to have found some sort of
refuge in Russia.


Sunday, January 21, 2018

Film Soviet-American Olympics '72

By Stephen Wilson

MOSCOW -- A recent Russian film, 'Going Vertical', launched
from Last December, about the Soviet Basketball
victory against the Americans in the Olympic
games of 1972, has proven an unprecedented
box office hit . In just less than a month it has
made an almost staggering 2 billion rubles.

Unfortunately the film has provoked embittered
controversy over its dubious depiction of
the major players' characters not to mention the
misleading performance of the players. Two
widows of the former team are even taking the
producer of the film to court.

Why has the film provoked so much controversy?
Perhaps because the film starts with the usual
absurd claim that ; 'The Film is based on real
events 'then goes on to show numerous invented
stories within stories with no relation to what
actually happened.

So what events is the film claiming to be based
on? The actual events of how the Soviet basketball team won against the United States at Munich is bizarre in itself ! It is such a great story that one wonders why on earth it needs either embellishing or over the top distortion in the first
place. At first, the American basketball team
presumed the match was over after they won by
one point ; 50 to 49. They even started jubilantly
celebrating. However, an indignant assistant
coach complained to the referee and judges that
the game was not finished as they had been
not granted : 'The Time out' they deserved.
Someone had made a poor job of the time
-keeping . So the judge ordered the game to
continue and during the last three seconds , to
the amazement and awe of all spectators the
Soviet team scored the winning points . They
won 51 to 50 ! The American coach and players
began angrily protesting that the Soviets should
not have been granted 'Time out' . While all this
arguing was going on the Soviet team retired
to their changing room and tensely waited for
the judges to make a final decision . The judge
decided to accept the Soviet team had won. But
the American basketball team have never
acknowledged they were defeated. They still
have not collected their silver medal!

The awarding game winning-points were scored by Ivan
Edeshkov passing the ball to Alexander Belov
who threw into net! it was all so sweepingly

The film is directed by Anton Megerdichev
and the coach played by Vladimir Mashkov. As a
film ,which stretches over two hours, it never
has a dull moment. This in itself it quite a rare
achievement. There are a lot of moving and
amusing scenes which captivate an audience.

The basic plot is that the Soviet coach
proclaims that the Soviet team can beat the
American basketball team . "We have to instill
in all our players that they can do the impossible
even if you don't believe in the impossible' he
retorts to the defeatist assistant coach who
always 'puts him down' by accusing him of
being reckless , mad and too ambitious . The
coach Vladimir Garanzhin states he will only
agree to direct the team if, "We use a new
American methodology to beat the Americans."

But Garanzhin is facing many huge problems.
He needs to save enough money to pay for
an operation to help his disabled son who is
on a wheelchair. Not only this . Most of the Soviet
officials conspire to sabotage Garanzhin's efforts
to win the games by threatening to withdraw from
the games under a false pretext. The players
are even threatened with potential legal action
for smuggling illicit items into the country such as
a Bible and an enormous amount of clothes.

The American Basketball coach is depicted as
a ruthless man who directs his players to beat
up and injure the Soviet players. Not all the
American players agree and retort: "I'm not
a wrestler but a basketball player " and "I have
done enough boxing for today." When the Russian
players protest against foul play, the judge
answers : "You have to understand that yes, they
are playing dirty but they are not breaking the
rules." This is the same Judge who at an earlier
game sending off a Russian player with a tut tut
tut scolding : "basketball is a gentlemen's game."
Yet at the end of the film, this same judge
allows Russia 'Time out' allowing them to win the
match at the Olympics!

The film has a great cast, witty dialogue and
a lot of tense moments. It is a moving film.
A young student of mine called Roman, told me
"It was a great film . After the Soviet team won
during the last three seconds everyone in the
cinema applauded."

So why has the film provoked such controversy?

The poet Pushkin once stated: 'The tale is a lie'.
in this case, the film is a lie as it claims to be
based on real events. The widow of Alexander
Belov,{ He died of a rare heart disease in 1978,}
stated: "The only thing true about this film is
the last three seconds . All the rest of the film
is just false." 

She stated that her late husband did not sleep around with other girls or suffer from any dizzy spells where he fainted during his time in the team. The Soviet doctors would
have disallowed him from playing as they had
very strict rules and were subject to many strict
medical tests. That the Soviet team would have
lost to a group of street youth over a bet also
appears ludicrous as "Sasha was a genius at
basketball." How the game was performed
on the film is highly misleading. The stunts
of leaping up in air and hurling the ball into the
air through the net was forbidden by the then
rules of basketball. 

"Whoever wrote this script has never watched a game of basketball or knows anything about the game ," declared
basketball player Alexander Ovchinnikov.

She also stated that there was no woman's
Olympic basketball team in 1972 as it had not
been founded.

How has the film director Anton Megerdichev
responded to those allegations ? He claims that
if they told the story as it actually happened it
would be so dull nobody would want to watch
the film. In other words 'Truth is more boring
than fiction!' He certainly would not agree with
the old cliche that 'Truth is more fascinating than
reality'. To be fair, he is not the only director to
present a film purporting to be based on true
events but blatantly false. Daniel Ogen, a
storyteller, told me that: "Hollywood has produced
more false legends about the American Indians
than the Indians themselves".

Does it matter? Do cinema goers really believe
this game was 'based on real events?' Well,
some gullible Russian school children under the
age of 12 do tend to tell me they believe the
events portrayed in wartime films are true even
when I point out some inaccuracies. Many war
veterans don't even attend war films because they
are inaccurate to the point of absurdity.

So what might be a solution to at least avoid
troubled court cases? Why not use a bit of
honesty and declare at the beginning of the film:
'This film is very loosely based on events and
is not the literary truth.' But such an honest
confession in the eyes of many producers and
film directors risks profits. But it would be better
not to make the old misleading claim that:
This film is based on real events'. More often
'The film is a lie'.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

HOD Meeting

House Of Delegates Meeting
By Jim Vail

The January, 2018 Chicago Teachers Union House of Delegates met Wednesday to discuss two resolutions and endorse six candidates for office.

VP Jesse Sharkey chaired the meeting because President Karen Lewis is still home recovering from a stroke. He said she is feeling better and they had spoken for two hours.

Sharkey said good riddance to former Chicago Public Schools chief Forrest Claypool who was brought in to destroy the union. He made his name in civic office as a union buster, having helped gut the unions in the Chicago Park District and the Chicago Transit Authority.

Did Claypool fulfill his duty in the schools? He was forced to resign like his predecessor, but not go to prison this time, but he did fire union activists like former Saucedo teacher Sarah Chamber, further the privatization of school services and threaten to layoff thousands of teachers and implement furlough days. Claypool believes in vouchers, Sharkey said, (so does CTU endorsed House Speaker Mike Madigan) and hung a picture of free market wacko Ayn Rand in his office.

What about new schools chief Janice Jackson?

"There are a number of ways she'll be better than Forrest Claypool," Sharkey told the delegates last week. "You don't go up by being the enemy of the system."

The first resolution passed was to support Black Lives Matter School Week of Feb. 5th. The first two or three teachers from CORE who spoke in favor were white, to show solidarity between white and black teachers for this resolution.

The resolves (what the union pledges to do if you hold its feet to the fire) include the CTU will participate in Black Lives Matter School Week to kick off Black History Month the week of Feb. 5, 2018, CTU will host events aligned to national demands for ending the pushout of Black teachers in our schools, restorative practices in schools and ending zero tolerance discipline, teaching Black and other histories and ethnic studies curriculum (important since this country has swung so hard right to eradicate the curriculum of minorities forged in the radical 60s), and encourage teachers to wear Black Lives Matter at School shirts to school that week and teach lessons about important Black topics.

The next important resolution passed was to Reclaim the Paraprofessional and School Related Personnel (PSRP) in CTU. The discussion about this centered on how CTU lost a lot of teacher aid positions when the jobs were reclassified to SECAs, and then moved to be under the SEIU union. Some teachers demanded the CTU leadership do more to ensure the many aids who have lost their jobs because of this. Sharkey said contract enforcement is the surest way to do this.

The CTU noted that after CPS created the new category of SECA (Special Education Classroom Assistant) outside of CTU membership (just like charter teachers), the number of SECAs, like charter schools, has been growing "astronomically" while CTU PSRPs have fallen greatly - a switch of 3,200 members from CTU to SEIU, and CPS is also reclassifying PSRP positions like early childhood coordinators into jobs not performed by CTU. The resolution resolves to explore ways to regain these lost positions and "CTU will aggressively accrete the thousands more CPS employees that are eligible for union membership in the Central Office, Network Offices, and School units of CPS into the CTU as part of re-carding in preparation for the 2018 Janus court decision." 

The upcoming Janus Supreme Court decision is expected to whack the unions again hard (how else to further the divide between the very rich and rest of us?) by not automatically collecting union dues, you can refuse to pay your union dues.  

The last item for action was endorsing the following names for office - Kwame Raoul for attorney general, Ram Villivalam for state senator, Theresa Mah for state senator, Kelly Cassidy for state rep, Mary Flowers for state rep and Bridget Degnen for Cook County Commissioner.

Yours truly as delegate of Hammond Elementary asked why wasn't Aaron Goldstein considered as a candidate for attorney general. Goldstein is a progressive who upset Ald. Dick Mell for 33rd Ward committeeman and has pledged to take on the banks, something the union has fought hard for when it was discovered Bank of America made millions off toxic loans to the city while closing many schools. The CTU said it was unanimous to endorse Raoul, part of the machine, who has received $100,000 from big tobacco, tens of thousands of dollars from big utilities (watch our rates continue to rise for electricity, water and gas!), voted for the pension bill to whack our pensions hard - everything CTU preaches against!

Exciting mayoral candidate and principal activist Troy LaRavier has endorsed Goldstein.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Board arrests teacher

By Stephen Wilson

A teacher who has been asked to leave by
School board officials peacefully walks out
when a marshal {school resource officer}
approaches her. When she enters the corridor
the officer pushes her against the wall and
even shouts : " You are arrested for resisting
a police officer " . Her comments : " What are
you doing ? " Why are you pushing me ? " fall
on deaf ears as she is handcuffed and led
away to the local police station. Where did
this actually happen ? No, not in Russia or
Mexico but at a school Board meeting in
Vermilion, Louisiana on the morning of 9th
January. The case has made International
headlines due to social networks which allow
a recorded film of those very events to be
watched on U-Tube.

The American School Board and their officials
were accused of not only using : 'Excessive
force' but violating the teachers right to freely
express an opinion under the First Amendment
of the American Constitution. However, a
representative of the Board went so far as
to defend the action of the marshal on the
grounds that a certain amount of decorum has
to be observed and that it was the teacher who
was out of order and preventing discussion.

But if you watch this video attentively what
surprises me and perhaps many of my Russian
friends is how ' excessively polite ' the teacher
Deyshia Hargrave behaved by some Russian
standards. She never swore or loudly raised her
voice and calmly left the room when a marshal
asked her to go. Hargrave was detained but
finally released and the prosecution publically
declared they would not press charges. However,
the damage has been done . Now many people
can point to this incident and claim : " There is
no real freedom of Speech in America ! The
Americans are just a bunch of self-righteous
hypocrites when they are always lecturing
Russians about how they should maintain
freedom of speech. Put your own house in order".

When council officials were facing much stronger
language and abuse from local people opposed
to their renovation program, Russians did not call
the police and arrest people but tactfully tried to
calm down the crowd . They even made an effort
to listen to grievances. If you watch this video
what strikes you is how the school board makes
so little contact with the audience and just appear
to speak among themselves. It is as if they
follow the line : 'The officials must decide while
the teachers must remain silent '. Or rather :
'Cadres decide everything !'

What was Deyshia Hargrave protesting about ?
The main point of issue was whether a top school
official's pay be raised. The School Board voted
by 5 to 3 to increase Payau's pay from 110,130
dollars a year to around 140,000 dollars thus
representing a 30,000 increase . Payau argued
he deserved it because he had done a great
job, raised the rating performance of schools
worked hard and had not a raise for 5 years.

Deyshia Hargrave disagreed ! School class
numbers had risen from 20 to 29 a teacher
and conditions for both teachers and students
had worsened. In fact , teachers at Vermilion
earn an average of 47,522 a year and have not
had a raise for ten years.

Debbie Meaux , the president of Louisiana
Teachers Association stated : " I think it should
not have happened at an open public forum. We
expect to be able to speak and have our opinion
heard" . The local teachers at Hargrave's school
are shocked by recent events and feel as if it is
an assault upon all teachers. They back their
teacher 100 percent.

Rosemarie Faye stated : " The teacher did
nothing wrong and kept with protocol. She waited
to be addressed . She was acknowledged , and
then spoke in a respectful way and wasn't out of

Deyshia Hargrave declared :"I'm appalled at
this and you should be too..... I'm hoping you
choose to speak out and don't let it become an

Friday, January 5, 2018

Woes of Russian Academics

How academic articles are a continuation of
wage cuts by other means
By Stephen Wilson

MOSCOW -- In order to boost the overall prestige and attain
and respectable ranking ; the Institute of Power
Engineering insists all English teachers must
write at least a minimum of 4 to 5 articles in
an academic journal a year . Should they fail
to win a prescribed number of minimum points
they will be punished by being offered less
hours and pushed out of work. That is you fail to
obtain a minimum assessment of above 11
points . How do you obtain those points ? You
are obliged to attend conferences, write articles
and perform some kind of serious research. The
problem with this is that it is all unpaid work and
not even explicitly stated in their contracts. In
fact, as far as Second City Teacher is concerned,
teachers don't have any rights or trade union
to defend themselves and can be dismissed for
even expressing a different opinion than their
officials. We previously interviewed teachers who
had been threatened with dismissal or unfairly
dismissed for simply taking sick leave guaranteed
by Russian labor legislation. Fortunately the
teacher Olga, who was unfairly fired, obtained
an alternative post. But she was fired in a
humiliating way in front of her colleagues thus
indicating not only illegal action but lack of basic
professional management skills.

I spoke to one teacher whose name has been
changed to Natasha. 

"I'm not sure I will be able to keep my job this year at the
institute," she told me. "I have not managed to get enough points and have had only one article published in a
Journal. If you fall below the threshold score you
will get only 1/7 or 1/8 of the normal workload
meaning it is just not worth your while continuing
to work . So people are not so much fired as
slowly sidelined ".

One of the basic grievances of teachers in both
schools and institutes is how academic
coordinators have the discretion to confer how
many hours a teacher is awarded. So if a
particular coordinator has a favorite teacher they
can offer the teacher more hours than other
teachers thus leading to tension in the office.

Where on earth can many overworked English
teachers find the time to do research or write
articles? Most of the English teachers have not
just one job but a few in order just to get by.
Another problem is that the teachers themselves
must pay for the articles to be published in
journals and not the institute . It is as if the
institute wants to have its cake and eat it!

The cost can be staggering. It ranges from a
minimum of 1000 rubles to 15,000 rubles for
one article in the most prestigious journals.
Very few people read those published articles.

I asked Natasha: "What if a teacher is very
good at teaching and can hardly afford to pay?"
Natasha answered: "Well yes, I know one
teacher who had to pay 15,000 rubles to get
one article published but she told me it was a
necessity so she could progress in her career
at another institute or university."

The result is teachers are being forced to accept
a pay cut to keep their jobs. In fact , being an
academic is an expensive burden that many
teachers could happily do without. Even if you
have a doctorate an academic journal won't
publish your article unless you pay them some
fabulous fee in a journal that is often obscure.

Maria Koroleva, an academic who works as a
linguist, had to struggle for years just to find
a post-graduate course and even then told me
she has to pay for a doctorate. And even if you
become an academic in America or Britain you
could find yourself on part time and short term
contracts. And those are the so called lucky
graduates who managed to find work in their
field in the first place. The rest are often working
in pubs and supermarkets .

Romantic ideas about working in idyllic
ivory towers shielded from acute problems of the
outside world is largely a myth. Instead,
universities reflect the problems of working in
other industries such as low pay, bad office
politics, overwork, insecure contracts,
threatened redundancies and lack of
empowerment. One may well ask: "Who needs
the prestige most of all: teachers or the Institute?"

I think most teachers would reply they simply
want to do their jobs well in peace without

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Russian Courts

By Stephen Wilson

MOSCOW -- "Only when you yourself get into trouble do you begin to understand how difficult life is for people, the injustice they can come up against . As long as your own life is fine, you turn you back on people suffering", philosophically mused the ex-minister of Economic Development Alexei Ulyukayev, who was sentenced to eight years in a harsh penal colony for allegedly accepting a 12 million dollar bribe from 'a key witness', who didn't even turn up in court for questioning. 

Ulyukayev had been arrested for accepting a basket sent to him which he assumed was a gift of wine and sausages. But it turned out to be full of money. All the evidence points to a crude and primitive set up sanctioned by the Russian government. Ulyukayev later warned his fellow officials that : "Anyone is three clicks away from being charged with corruption". The case has shocked even members of the establishment as it represents the first unprecedented case of a minister being arrested under spurious charges. But he is hardly the only high-profile figure facing absurd charges. The director of the Gogol center has been under house arrest on corruption charges and Yuri Dmitriyiv, a Gulag historian, is in detention following baseless charges of child pornography. 

The good news is that the latter is to be released this year on the 28th of January.

Anyone who faces serious charges in Russia is almost likely to be convicted. Russia has a 98% conviction rate. While Aleksei Ylyukayev sat in court he was seen reading a work by Kafka called: 'The Trial'. The novel seems an appropriate choice. The plot of the novel tells of how a banker called Joseph K is arrested on charges he never discovers and attempts to unravel how the justice system works or rather doesn't work but is instead chaotic and capricious. Anyone can be arrested on a whim. The court cases are even held in secret attics above houses. The judges are angry, rude and arrogant. It sounds so familiar!

As a result of this case, officials are now refusing to accept any gifts at all, never mind baskets! Despite a law which stipulates that officials can accept gifts if they don't exceed the price of 3000 rubles, nobody is in the festive mood to give or accept gifts from strangers.

Ulyukayev may have been overstating things, but he is largely correct to state most people in Russia are indifferent to the fate of those arrested unless they experience a similar predicament. If people understood the trauma of being suddenly arrested on inexplicable charges and being thrust into a crowded confined cell they would think less about calling for this or that person to be put in prison. This reality was starkly brought home to me while I was working with the homeless in the 1990's . I and Jim Vail recall speaking to a wrongly imprisoned homeless Korean translator. He had been arrested and charged with murder after being found within the vicinity of a corpse. He was later released after many months. Being homeless in Moscow, he just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I recall him telling us: "Conditions were so terrible in prison you would not wish that your worst enemy go through what I experienced." We also found that one of the husbands of a volunteer at the soup kitchen had been arrested on charges of terrorism because some strange package was near him.

Having heard so many cases such as those I began to understand why so many people walk past corpses and bags. If you, yourself find a dead body in Moscow, the police might ask: "What did you do to this person?"

There must be thousands of innocent prisoners in Russia awaiting a trial where they have no chance of justice. Those cases have risen rather than gone away despite nonsense about how we have more law and order in contrast to the wild 1990's.

How do many people remain indifferent to those cases? They often just live in their own world. When you raise such questions they complain: "You are spoiling my mood," and "The Law is the Law. There is nothing to be done about it" or the trite cliche "This is Russia". Actually, it is not just Russia but Britain and America. Like in Russia, people will plead guilty to breaking laws they never broke because they don't have the money or the time to appeal to a lawyer. But something in deed can be done about things. Mass demonstrations, petitions and letters of protests have been known to be effective. It is often frustrating and endless hard work, taking even years. But prisoners have been released! We just have to keep knocking on the door hard enough until it opens!