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Dear Friends,

The trial in absentia of Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and four associates started in Minsk last week. All five challenged 2020 election results they claim were rigged in order to keep Vladimir Putin’s ally Aleksandr Lukashenko in power. Tsikhanouskaya is accused of high treason, organizing mass disorder, creating an extremist group, inciting hatred, and plotting to seize power.

I was in Minsk a dozen years ago having dinner with journalists and NGO leaders in a restaurant’s private room; semi-private actually, as two KGB men sat at a table close to us. It’s hard to imagine that Belarus has become appreciably more repressive.

Two weeks ago, I was in Lithuania meeting with Belurusian journalists working for RFE/RL. They had just relocated to Vilnius, two and a half hours by car from Minsk — 20 miles from the border — in a small NATO country where the contrast between freedom and unfreedom is feeling a lot like West Berlin abutting communist East Berlin during the Cold War.

In Vilnius, I had dinner with a group that included award-winning journalist Aleh Hruzdzilovich and his wife Maryana. Aleh is a former political prisoner. RFE/RL is still fighting for the release of two colleagues in Belarus. Journalist Ihar Losik was arrested in June 2020 and sentenced to 15 years in a penal colony in December 2021. RFE/RL’s colleague Andrey Kuznechyk was arrested in November 2021 and is serving six years for his reporting. Grim becomes grimmer.

Russia’s War on Ukraine after a Year

We’re taking stock. February 24 will mark the first anniversary of Russia’s war on Ukraine. We’ll publish a symposium with voices from the region, including from Belarus. We’ve invited RFE/RL President Jamie Fly to comment on media freedom in Russia. We’ll include in our package an interview with Askold Krushelnycky, who’s been reporting from the trenches of eastern Ukraine over the past year.

We’ll also host by Zoom General (ret.) Philip Breedlove, General (ret.) Ben Hodges, and Admiral (ret.) Jamie Foggo, the first time these three of the Air Force, Army, and Navy have combined their experience in a single discussion (thanks to Iulia Joja for chairing the conversation and to Iulia’s “Eastern Front” podcast colleagues at AEI Giselle Donnelly and Dalibor Rohac for co-hosting the program).

We’re still of the view that Russia’s war on Ukraine changes things. Read (Opens in a new window) Andreas Umland on the stakes. Read our friend and my co-author Bill Kristol in The Bulwark here (Opens in a new window).

Read my conversation on Germany with Laure Mandeville in Le Figaro here (Opens in a new window). They take time, but paradigm shifts are afoot. Read Frank Fukuyama, just back from Tokyo, on Japan’s Zeitenwende (Opens in a new window). Frank, incidentally, is on Bill Kristol’s podcast (Opens in a new window) this week.

For important history, read (Opens in a new window) Joe Joffe on the work of the late, great historian Robert Conquest and his 1986 book — Harvest of Sorrow — that “curdles the mind … [and] sets the stage for our time by reaching back ninety years.” Though published a generation ago, Conquest’s work, writes Joe, “is as relevant (and heartbreaking) today as we watch Putin’s pitiless war against Ukrainian cities and civilians.”

An Otherwise Full Plate

— Yesterday, we hosted by Zoom Beverly Gage on her new biography of J. Edgar Hoover. One of the things that struck Michael Mandelbaum — who moderated — is Beverly’s portrayal of Hoover as an able, responsible administrator and civil servant. Frank has been writing for us (Opens in a new window) on the need for such competent individuals in government today (in contrast to political cronies).

— In February (date TBD), we host Melinda Haring and Olga Rudnieva for a salon discussion in Washington. Melinda and Olga will speak about their remarkable work with the Superhumans Center, a hospital and scalable project being created in the Lviv region that will provide prosthetics and reconstruction surgery.

— On February 3 at 12 noon ET, researcher Vera Mironova joins us by Zoom for a briefing on Russian-Iranian defense cooperation. Putin spoke to Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi twice within ten days in January; other recent, high-level bilateral meetings have apparently focused on drones, ballistic missiles, and Sukhoi fighter jets for Iran and enhanced intelligence cooperation between Moscow and Tehran.

— On February 9 at 12 noon ET, former senior Iraqi official Samir Sumaidaie joins us by Zoom to share his perspective on the demands from the Iranian people for political change in their country. American Purpose senior fellow Roya Hakakian has arranged the conversation and has kindly agreed to moderate.

We’ll have more on Iran and there’s a good deal still to commend.

Read Michael Mandelbaum on China (Opens in a new window) and the new book by Hal Brands and Michael Beckley (paradigm changes are afoot). Read Dalibor Rohac on new alliances (Opens in a new window) within Europe (Russia’s war on Ukraine changes things).

On reform in the United States, read Frank DiStefano’s review (Opens in a new window) of Timothy Shenk’s The Realigners. Join us on February 6 at 12 noon ET for a Zoom discussion with Katherine Gehl. Katherine advocates final-five voting, a preliminary round open to voters and candidates of all parties, with the top five finishers going into the general election, decided by rank-choice voting. Jim Glassman will moderate. Larry Diamond will serve as respondent.

Keep an eye out for David Lowe’s essay on how to fight the war of ideas plus discussions with Joanne Ackerman and Susan Brind Morrow on their new books. Details on both next week!

Music and Zeitenwenden

Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier premiered at the Dresden Opera on January 26, 1911. That was a time of turning points filled with opportunity — yet also, tragically, a period drenched in treachery and self-destruction. In the summer of 1911, Thomas Mann was at work on Death in Venice. Between 1911 and 1914, there were small wars, a land arms race to match naval races, Austro-Serbian military clashes (and Austro-Italian frictions over Albania), and a German-Russian crisis.

Der Rosenkavalier was a relief of sorts on the eve of World War I, a comedy in three acts from a composer whose life would become increasingly intertwined with politics. In 1933, Strauss would be appointed to the role of principal conductor of the Bayreuth Festival, a post he accepted after Arturo Toscanini resigned from the position in disgust over Nazi politics.

Strauss (1864–1949) made his accommodation with the regime to advance his career, to protect copyright and composers — he kept Mendelssohn on programs — and to minimize risk for his Jewish daughter-in-law. Strauss insisted on a Jewish librettist for another opera, Die schweigsame Frau — namely, author Stefan Zweig — a choice that led to his dismissal as president of the Reichsmusikkammer in 1935. Hitler and Goebbels refused to attend Die schweigsame Frau, which was cancelled after three performances and then banned by the National Socialists.

I’m reading Charles Youmans’ book on the quarter century friendship between Strauss and Gustav Mahler. The two argued over everything from budgets and opera scenery to alternative paths for the future of music.

I’m listening to Der Rosenkavalier, Die schweigsame Frau, and Friedenstag, a one-act opera set during the Thirty Years’ War, a thinly veiled critique of Nazi rule with themes of freedom and tyranny. Try this (Opens in a new window) from Der Rosenkavalier. Here’s (Opens in a new window) an excerpt from Friedenstag.

If you don’t know them, try Strauss’ tone poems. He wrote nine, or ten depending how you count; here’s (Opens in a new window) Macbeth.

My best,


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