Innovation Ecosystem/Opinion

On not choosing corruption as a way of life

We may all be living in the material world, but that should not stop us from drawing the line and standing up and saying no to lies, deceit and corruption in 2020, in the midst of a pandemic

Image courtesy of National Park Service

The view into the dormant volcanic crater at Haleakala National Park.

Courtesy of YouTube video of "Material Girl"

Living in the material world, as performed by Madonna.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 6/22/20
The choices we make about how we confront corruption in our everyday lives may yet save the 244-year-old democratic experiment of the United States.
How can we learn the skills of listening in 10 different ways as we prepare to enter a post-pandemic world, allowing diverse communities to participate in decision-making? Will Rhode Island and Providence move forward with plans to create a “bench by the side of the road” to honor the legacy of the descendants of slavery in the state? How do we incorporate the lessons learned from the recovery community into future plans for what it means to “recover” in the post-pandemic world? Will the news media break free of the starting gate and refuse to follow the scripted dialogue financed by corporate advertising and private equity firms?
One of the more painful consequences of the coronavirus pandemic is the difficulty in being able to say good-bye to loved ones in nursing homes and in hospitals, to honor their memories in public ceremonies and religious rituals. At Rhode Island Hospital, according to one of the physicians working there, there has been an effort underway to create a space where families can say good-bye to their loved ones, an option that has become controversial, because not everyone is allowed to participate.
All the charts and models and pronouncements do not capture the sadness and grief of our enormous death toll, more than 122,000 and counting, in the U.S. The virus is still with us, and it is not going away, regardless of any pronouncements and wishful thinking by President Trump and his acolytes.
One skill that we lack is learning how to say good-bye in public, in a ritual, when death may be sudden and unexpected and life is cut short. If the state wishes to pursue a strategy of reopening the economy, one of the rituals needed is a way of saying good-bye, publicly, where we can acknowledge our grief and, at the same time, talk about hope. It is not about “crushing COVID-19,” as if the disease were an app in our lives to be played online. It is about learning how to share our stories, to be human, as a way of practicing convergence and participating in an engaged community.

PROVIDENCE – Thirty-five years ago, I flew into Kiev from Leningrad on May 9, 1985, planning to meet up with two friends from Western Massachusetts, Richard and his wife, Annie, who were spending the year in what was then the Soviet Union, she working as a teacher at the American School in Moscow, and he painting embassies and foreign correspondents’ apartments – and making scads of money doing so. In the heart of the Soviet Union, decadent capitalism thrived.

Richard and I had become good friends when we played together on the same fast-pitch men’s softball league in Montague, Mass., with teams sponsored by the local small businesses, mainly bars, package stores, gas stations, and paper manufacturers, and our team, Chapin and Sadler, a school bus and heating oil firm.

On some summer evenings, Clarence Sadler, the team’s sponsor, would show up after the game with a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer on ice in a Styrofoam cooler when we played at the local Montague Center field, where left field ended with a hayfield and the backstop, made out of chicken-wire attached to rough-cut timbers, included a stenciled sign: “No horses or other vehicles allowed on the field.” Together, the players and Sadler would drink beer in the twilight, a fading ritual of small town life, swatting at the mosquitoes and arguing about the Red Sox and the Yankees.

Montague Center was a small town where peaceful co-existence thrived, despite severe cultural divisions – recent graduates from UMass Amherst mingled with the born-and-bred townies; the poet Adrienne Rich lived in red-brick colonial home just off the town green; No Nukes organizers from the Montague Farm, intent on putting nuclear power on trial, delivered milk in large gallon jugs from their Jersey cow; the Montague Grange still held once-a-month meetings replete with secret handshakes; and the Montague Inn out on Route 63 served draft beers for 50 cents a glass. “Corruption” was about being able to purchase a case of beer illegally on Sunday at the local store run by the Watroba family.

Kiev existed in a world far beyond the pale from the playing fields of Montague, where life often seemed to be as simple – or as difficult – as turning a double play.

When I arrived in Kiev, it was the day after the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, and Lenin Square in Kiev, adjacent to the hotel where I was staying, was still decked out in huge red banners from the festivities and parades, displaying political slogans in Russian, exhorting comrades to make Communism great again.

The night before, I had attended a fireworks celebration in Leningrad, now called St. Petersburg, in which the fireworks by American standards would be considered tame. But for the crowd assembled in the lingering twilight of an above-the-Arctic-Circle evening at a sprawling shipping yard, mostly young Russian families that all seemed to pushing prams with young children, it was a thrilling experience, with each explosion and display in the sky greeted with oohs and aaahs.

Earlier that day, I walked from my hotel, the Prybaltiskaya [now called the Park Inn and owned by Radisson] to the center of the city, and I witnessed ice chunks flowing down from Lake Ladoga into the Neva River and then to the Gulf of Finland, a centuries-old rite of spring, a recurring celebration of survival from the harshness of the Russian winter.

In a park along the riverbank I spotted three aging officers in military uniforms, each bedecked with medals and ribbons, hug and embrace each other, laughing and crying, apparent survivors of the 900-day siege of Leningrad during World War II, during which more than a million residents of the city had died, many having starved to death. What I witnessed, it appeared, was a private, authentic ceremony of survival from the brutality of war. All that was missing were shots of vodka.

In Kiev, [which is now written as Kyiv], having traveled on an early morning Aeroflot flight from Leningrad, I was transported by taxi from the airport to my hotel. After checking in, I looked to find something to eat at the hard currency bar.

Over the sound system in the bar, I heard a familiar tune, being played loudly. Madonna was singing [no doubt, from a pirated recording], and three young women, all Intourist guides in uniform, drinking their vodka and Pepsi [the Russian equivalent of rum and Coke], sang along, Karaoke style: “I’m living in the material world, and I am just a material girl.”

For those too young to remember the lyrics: “They can beg and they can plead/But they can’t see the light/That’s right/’Cause the boy with the cold hard cash/Is always Mister Right.” [See link below to YouTube video, “Material Girl.”]

Back in the USSR
After my return to the U.S. from my Russian excursion, when friends and colleagues asked about my adventures, I began by describing the three Intourist guides singing along to Madonna in the Kiev hard currency hotel bar, which set the stage for my depiction of the Soviet Union: It was a gangster-controlled society, I said, ruled by thugs, where unbridled corruption reigned supreme, in a perverse, dystopian capitalistic world.

My stories were often met with astonishment if not resistance. Washington Post columnist David Broder, during a dinner where he and I were both guests, could not abide by my observations about life in the U.S.S.R. as a corrupt, gangster-controlled society, where greed was good.

Broder turned red in the face and shouted at me, disrupting what was meant to be a cordial dinner, telling me I must be mistaken. Decades later, I admit that I am still puzzled by what had caused his outburst. What had made him so angry? What had been so galling about my stories?

Yes, it disrupted the dominant political narrative, as articulated by then President Ronald Reagan, with the U.S. portrayed as the vanguard of liberty battling against “the evil empire.” Reagan’s 1984 Presidential campaign ad, what to do when you encounter a bear in the woods, served as a political metaphor for Russia [See link below to YouTube video, “The Bear.”]

[Like Richard Nixon before him, Reagan had stumbled badly in his second term following his landslide victory in 1984, as the blatant corruption under girding his foreign policy was exposed, which included selling cocaine to finance the Contras' illegal war while. at the same time, trading weapons to Iran to release hostages.]

Corruption uber alles

Everywhere I had traveled during my three-week visit to the Soviet Union, I had encountered a corrupt, gangster society in ascendance [though some would argue that it had always been that way – from the days of the czar to Lenin to Stalin to Khrushchev to Brezhnev to Gorbachev, and now with Putin], where survival depended on street smarts and an ability to look the other way when encountering corrupt enterprises, often led by the apparatchiks of the Communist Party.

In the heart of the Soviet Union, I told folks when I returned to the U.S., an unbridled form of corrupt capitalism was running amo; a brutal form of rule by mobsters dominated.

In Odessa, in Kiev, in Tblisi, in Yerevan, and in Moscow, what I saw and experienced was something I had quickly recognized from my teen-age days living in northern New Jersey, in the suburbs outside of Newark, surrounded by a culture of corruption made infamous by the HBO series, “The Sopranos,” where everything had been for sale; everything could be bought; and seemingly everyone was on the take. Everyone else pretended not to notice. As poet Seamus Heaney wrote about the “troubles” in Ireland: “Whatever you say, say nothing.”

For example, in 1985, Americans working in the Soviet Union were allowed to purchase a used Mercedes in Finland or Sweden, import it into the country, then sell it for rubles on the above-ground sanctioned black market, change the rubles into dollars at double or triple the normal rate of exchange at the U.S. embassy, and then send the money back to the U.S., tax-free, as a perk of working in a “hardship” country. Everyone was in the loop. It was business as usual.

Translated, in the Soviet Union, a hardscrabble kleptocracy thrived, visible from the moment I first arrived on a flight from Frankfurt and had to wait to pass through customs in Leningrad, where some 30 returning “loyal party workers” were each being allowed to bring in a “boom box” of German manufacture, ahead of our line of waiting passengers.

Have you now, or have you ever been…
What has prompted me to write about my experiences in Kiev? What makes them relevant to our current world today in 2020, beset by a coronavirus pandemic? What were the underlying reasons why I decided to travel to the Soviet Union? All good questions.

In answer to the first question, the back-and-forth dialogue about corruption as part of the impeachment hearings conducted by the U.S. House of Representatives and then during the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump in the U.S. Senate reawakened a rush of memories, given that Kiev was serving as a central locale of much of the impeachment story, like the set of a poorly scripted movie.

In answer to the second and third questions, I had written a long, investigative report for Environmental Action magazine about the concerns voiced by a Soviet scientist, Leonid Rvachev, warning that the Soviet Union was attempting to use his mathematical modeling to predict how biological agents would be dispersed, “Averting Genetic Warfare.” Rvachev had written to numerous scientists in the West to head off what he feared would become the next arms race – genetically engineered biological weapons. I had hoped, in additional to traveling around the Soviet Union, that I might be able to meet with Rvavchev. [We communicated by phone in Moscow but were unable to meet; Rvachev was unable to receive clearance to meet with me.]

A fourth reason for writing the story is to talk about corruption. As much as our world has changed dramatically in the last four decades, what has not changed is how corruption – the “boys with the cold hard cash” – is still the dominant universal language of the Trump presidency and often the way business gets done and politics are practiced here in Rhode Island.

And, if I am being honest with myself, confronted with my own recent disability, struggling with a still undiagnosed health concern – something is disrupting the myelin in my spinal cord in my thoracic regions, reducing my leg strength, making it difficult to walk, I felt a pressing need to share some stories about how I chose to confront corruption in my life – or chose to walk away from it.

Same as it ever was: a brief history lesson
Few people I know are familiar with the history written by A. Anatoli Kuznetsov, Babi Yar: A document in the form of a novel, which told the sordid history behind the massacres by machine guns in a ravine call Babi Yar, perpetrated by the occupying German armed forces beginning in 1941, after they had captured the city that September.

The murders began first with a round up of all the Jews in Kiev, falsely blamed for the destruction of the city’s main boulevard, the Kreshchatik, which, in truth, had been blown up by a series of explosives placed and detonated by Soviet NKVD agents.

The Germans had occupied the city on Sept. 21, 1941; the explosions and burning of the Kreshchatick took place beginning on Sept. 24, 1941. With the ruins still smoldering, on Sept. 29, 1941, in one day, some 30,000 of the city’s Jews were rounded up and transported to the deep ravine, forced to strip naked and then herded into lines before machine guns, so when shot, they fell to their deaths into the ravine.

“All Yids living in the city of Kiev and its vicinity are to report by 8 o’clock in the morning of Monday, September 29, 1941, at the corner of Melnikovsky and Dokhturov Streets,” as Kuznetsov documented in his story, the words taken from leaflets that had flooded the city. “They are to take with them documents, money, valuable, as well as warm clothes, underwear,” read the order, which was printed Russian, Ukrainian, and German.”

The big lie was that the city’s Jews were going to be deported; however, the sounds of machine guns reverberated for days. Everyone knew they were being murdered, even if good citizens of Kiev pretended not to notice.

During the next two years, the slaughter at Babi Yar grew to include all those deemed enemies of the German occupation, after the Jews had been liquidated. As Kuznetsov wrote, “We could hear bursts of machine-gun fire at various intervals: ta-ta-ta, ta-ta. For two long years, I could hear them, day after day, and even now they still ring in my ears.”

In total, more than 100,000 people were liquidated at Babi Yar between 1941 and 1943, the bodies pushed into ravines, which were then later dug up and burned to destroy the evidence in advance of the Russian troops recapturing Kiev, leaving behind layers of human ash and bone.

Kuznetsov’s book, which begins, “This book contains nothing but the truth,” recounts the story of one of the only known Jewish survivors of the Babi Yar massacre, Dina Pronicheva, an actress with the Kiev Puppet Theater. Shot and badly wounded, she played dead atop a pile of corpses, and eventually managed to escape, years later sharing her story with Kuznetsov.

Kuznetsov, who with his Ukrainian mother had shared a home with his Ukrainian grandparents, kept a hidden diary, beginning at the age of 12, of the difficult years during the Nazi occupation, followed by the retaking of the city by Russian forces, and all the different ways in which his own survival was tied to a series of corrupt enterprises – including sausage making and illegal farming.

The book also served as a history lesson about the brutal tyranny that existed under Stalin’s rule, including detailing the forced starvation of millions of Kulaks who refused to give up their farmland.

Kuznetsov’s book concluded with a warning: “Let me emphasize again that I have not told about anything exceptional, but only about ordinary things that were part of a system; things that happened just yesterday, historically speaking, when people were exactly as they are today.”

Kuznetsov documented his story with published excerpts of accounts as written by newspapers that served as propaganda machines, first for the Soviet and then the Nazi regimes, as well as the wall posters used to disseminate the harsh decrees of the Nazi military commandant in Kiev.

Babi Yar was never much of a secret to anyone who lived in Kiev, where life was punctuated by the daily ta-ta-ta, ta-ta of the machine guns and later, by the oily smoke and stench that rose up when the bodies of those murdered were burned.

Even after the end of War World II and the defeat of Nazi Germany, the history of Babi Yar remained a hidden story, particularly after Stalin launched a government-inspired campaign of anti-Semitism in 1947 that lasted until his death in 1953.

Babi Yar no longer exists, Kuznetsov wrote in his book, adding: “In the opinion of some politicians, it never did exist.”

Today, the story of Babi Yar barely still exists in print; I managed to find a single copy, a hard-bound edition published in 1970, at the main branch of the Providence Public Library, including a paper slip that said: “This item is in poor condition.”

In my life
The headline on this story reads: “On not choosing corruption as a way of life.”
The story – my story – is about how we choose to respond to corruption in our lives, to act upon our knowledge of corrupt endeavors, or to stay silent.

I am not so stiff-necked as to say: I have not witnessed corrupt endeavors and, instead of speaking up, chose to walk away. Or, that as part my job, I had been asked to lie, to mislead and to distort in order to cover up the misdeeds of elected officials, publishers and CEOs, and done so.

In turn, I have also been punished – including being fired – for speaking out and standing up to bosses who were bullies in the workplace. So it goes.

There are always consequences to the choice we make and the willingness and the courage to stand up and say no. The temptation is to provide a litany of those stories, both good and bad, in my life.

To what purpose? Suffice it to say that we are, like the residents of Kiev during World War II, listening to the repeated sounds of the machine guns, ta-ta-ta, ta-ta, in Babi Yar, in this case taking the form of a barrage of distorted Tweets from President Trump. Can you hear it?

The evidence is overwhelming. But let me pivot to share a hopeful story about the value of convergence in our perilous world, and the importance of building and sustaining an engaged community.

It was one of the most amazing, outrageous, absurd coincidences in my life.

I was walking down the Sliding Sands Trail from 10,000-foot top of Haleakala National Park, descending into the dormant crater, heading towards its center, and the Park Ranger cabin in a spot known as Paliku.

Beneath my feet were volcanic sands, in a mostly barren landscape. The trail was an evolutionary one, stretching from rock and sand through a middle ground where mists lingered and yellow-orange poppies seem to bloom and decay with each new breath among the ohelo berry bushes, and then, as if passing through a life membrane, toward the sounds of birds, flitting back and forth above the pali, the crater’s edge, and the Kaupo Gap, where the crater had been eroded by the hot rush of lava hundreds of years before, and then, a descent into deepening green, ever richer in its brightness, toward the rain forests and streambeds which could turn into raging torrents in an instant if it rained, and finally, to the sea itself, a blue horizon stretching upward toward a lighter blue sky, until the clouds of mist would blanket me in swirls of moisture, the sunlight piercing through it to form intense rainbows, which always seemed to be waiting for me at the end of the path I was walking down.

My destination, the ranger cabin, was where my friend, Sandy, a park ranger, was on duty, and where I would be staying during my sojourn in Maui. We were friends; she had signed me in as a volunteer in the park, enabling me to wander about the crater on my own.

In those days, I never traveled with a camera, believing that it was important to remember the images I encountered without visual aids, that as a writer, it was a mental exercise for the brain to retain encounters with the natural world that could then be translated from synaptic pulses back into words, at will.

Of course, I was mistaken; the memories only come late at night, or very early in the morning, like now, awakening from dreams that I will are not remember, until the next time my unconscious takes me there, once again, past the silverswords, past the outcroppings of hardened lava, toward the most intense rainbows I have ever seen.

Descending the trail, at first, there is only the sound of my hiking boots scraping against sand and the sound of my own labored breaths as I struggled with the altitude, the sun’s heat, the ache of my calves which had spent too much time sitting in an office chair, punching down keys at the computer, and the sweat pouring down my face. My own sounds were enveloped in the silence around me, as if I were underwater, traveling alone on a path towards beauty, without any human, it seemed within miles. I was very aware of my own heart beating.

In years past, each time I had descended into the Haleakala crater, I found that I was entering a revelatory realm, because as I traveled down the path, I also traveled deep within my own thoughts, wide awake, talking to myself, and to my unconscious.

I was lost in my own thoughts, still unfogging my brain from the stresses of my job, when the distant sound of voices began to filter through the mist. Up ahead were three fellow travelers, two men and a woman, shouting and carrying on as if they were drunk and on the way to an Grateful Dead concert. I was annoyed, because they were disturbing my own sense of quietude, communing with nature. And, I realized, because we were alone together in the crater, we would soon be traveling side by side, as an unintended group, much like Chaucer’s pilgrims.

One of the men, very tall, was athletic and graceful in his stride. He wore a long, flowing caftan. His companions, showing the signs of fatigue and sunburn, were clearly companions who had been dragged along at his urging. I fell in with them, and listened as the tall man told his tale.

He had been a graduate student researcher at Stanford University, working on the genetic engineering code of tomatoes, in collaboration with his professor. He had uncovered important new understandings of the genes and how they worked, but his professor had taken full credit for the work, and negotiated a lucrative research contract with Monsanto. Worse, a lawsuit filed by some crazy environmentalists in Washington, D.C., had halted the work. So, he had left the university, gone to Maui, and was supporting himself by doing magic tricks for tourists at the large hotels on the island. And, practicing the art of meditation.

His companions could not have cared less about his story; they were busy sharing a joint made from buds of what was affectionately known as “Maui wowie” and asking, as impatient children often do on long trips, “When will we get there?”

But I was stunned. What was the line from the movie, “Casablanca?” Of all the dormant volcanic craters in all the world… It was Environmental Action, a national environmental group, where I was one of three editors of the magazine, which had decided to join with the lawsuit brought by Jeremy Rifkin and his Foundation of Economic Trends in 1983, challenging the tall man’s work with Monsanto on genetic engineering.

The tall man went on, railing against the stupidity of such people, who didn’t know what they were talking about, who didn’t understand that there was no risk. His angry words rose up and then fell down to the crater floor, which was silent and oblivious to his outrage.

Finally, after a bunch of un-huhs and reallys, I summoned the courage to tell him the truth. “It’s hard to believe,” I said, “but I’m one of the people responsible for stopping your work. My environmental group joined the lawsuit.”

The tall man was incredulous. His anger had been directed for months at some nameless, faceless group, far away, built into an incredible imagined force of darkness in his life, and now, walking down the Sliding Sands Trail, he was confronting one of the very people responsible for so much of what he perceived as his personal misery.

“Why? Why? How could you do such a thing?” he sputtered angrily.

I responded: “Look around you. What do you see?”

“I see incredible beauty,” he said.

“Beyond the beauty,” I answered, “is the legacy of that beauty being attacked by foreign species of plants and animals that were introduced here, which have disrupted the natural ecological balance of things. I pointed to the edge of the crater, where a fence was being built, funded by the Sierra Club, to try and contain feral goats that were eating all the crater’s vegetation. The fence, of course, was useless to prevent the spread of goats.

As I went through a litany of Maui’s diversity being diminished by the introduction of new foreign species, the tall man’s attitude seemed to shift. His anger dissipated, and after much discussion, he found himself agreeing with me. There were always unintended consequences when folks started to tinker with the balance of nature. Two hours later, when I left them at their destination, a small hiker’s cabin, the tall man hugged me, as if I were one of his new best friends.

I never saw him again. The lawsuit was tossed out, his former professor no doubt got rich and Monsanto has pursued its genetic-engineering regimen unimpeded, with a spate of disturbing questions about the unintended consequences.

[When I first wrote this in 2010], a recent news story by Reuters had described the growing doubts emerging around glyphosate, some 14 years after my 1986 encounter:

COLUMBIA, Missouri [Reuters] – Robert Kremer, a U.S. government microbiologist who studies Midwestern farm soil, has spent two decades analyzing the rich dirt that yields billions of bushels of food each year and helps the United States retain its title as breadbasket of the world.

Kremer’s lab is housed at the University of Missouri and is literally in the shadow of Monsanto Auditorium, named after the $11.8 billion-a-year agricultural giant Monsanto Co. [The company was acquired by Bayer in 2016 for $66 billion.]

[Then] based in Creve Coeur, Missouri, the company has accumulated vast wealth and power creating chemicals and genetically altered seeds for farmers worldwide.

But recent findings by Kremer and other agricultural scientists are raising fresh concerns about Monsanto’s products and the Washington agencies that oversee them. The same seeds and chemicals spread across millions of acres of U.S. farmland could be creating unforeseen problems in the plants and soil, this body of research shows.

Kremer, who works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service [ARS], is among a group of scientists who are turning up potential problems with glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup and the most widely used weed-killer in the world.

“This could be something quite big. We might be setting up a huge problem,” said Kremer, who expressed alarm that regulators were not paying enough attention to the potential risks from biotechnology on the farm, including his own research.”

Letting go
I have never managed to get back to the Haleakala crater. More than three decades later, now struggling to walk, the dream of returning and hiking down the Sliding Sands Trail is just that: a dream. Much like my desire to return to canoe the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota again.

But, sometimes, I wonder, what are the chances that I might perhaps meet up again with the tall man. What would he think now about Monsanto and his work?

The thread connecting Madonna and the material world, Kiev and blatant corruption, the recounting of the slaughter at Babi Yar and a descent into the Haleakala dormant volcano crater may seem tenuous at best.

Our own personal stories are our most valuable possession; sharing them is what makes us human. I remain an optimist, hopeful that we are on a path toward convergence, where conversation, serendipity and connectedness can overcome the forces of greed and corruption. Maybe.


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