Thursday, March 16, 2017

Count Forrest Gump of Finland

On our short trip to St. Petersburg last summer, my wife and I mostly stuck to the typical tourist spots as we wandered around that historic, sprawling city – with one exception, that is.

At my wife’s suggestion, we paid a visit to a cemetery a bit off the beaten path. Now and then, while on holiday, we somehow find ourselves in random graveyards, as ghoulish as that sounds, so this wasn’t so unusual for us.

In the case of this graveyard visit, however, we had a specific goal in mind.

The year before, a colleague of my wife’s had sought out a little-known cemetery while on a work trip to St. Petersburg. He was looking for one grave in particular, the final resting place of a Finnish nobleman with some historical connections to the part of Eastern Finland that my wife’s colleague (and my wife, for that matter) hail from.

This would be southern Savo, a beautiful and quiet part of Finland. Very, very quiet. Other than in the region’s principle town of Mikkeli (pop. just over 50,000), there’s not a lot of “bustling” going on there.

This is especially true in Ristiina, a tiny village south of Mikkeli where the man buried in St. Petersburg lived over 200 years ago, in a house that my wife’s colleague is helping to restore.

As sleepy and unassuming as the village is now, it would be hard to imagine the colorful life led by its former resident, including an unfortunate turn of events in vicinity of Mikkeli itself. 

Count Sprengtporten
Count Georg Magnus Sprengtporten was not a native of Savo. He had been born in 1740 in Borgå (Porvoo, in Finnish) on the southern coast of what was then the eastern part of the Kingdom of Sweden. I, for one, had never heard of him and had to search the Internet to pick up scattered details of his life. In some ways, I may have only scratched the surface, but I hope I got the basic facts right.

As a young Swedish aristocrat and army officer, Sprengtporten first made a name for himself in the Seven Years’ War, which American school kids will know as the “French and Indian War” -- if they know anything about it at all. In what was arguably the first truly “world war”, Sweden played only a small part, joining in on the side of France, Russia and Spain against a coalition of Britain, Prussia and Portugal, mainly to regain territory it had lost to Prussia earlier. Sprengtporten served with distinction in this unsuccessful attempt to reassert Swedish control on the southern Baltic coast.

A decade later, the Count helped his older half-brother Baron Jacob Magnus Sprengtporten in the surprise mutiny and (apparently) bloodless capture of the Sveaborg Fortress (Suomenlinna, in Finnish) off the coast of Helsinki, effectively seizing control of all of Finland as part of a plot to install a new king in Stockholm, Gustav III.

Under the new regime, Sprengtporten was then appointed as a prominent military leader in Savo, where he commanded a brigade and founded an early cadet school in, you guessed it, Ristiina -- in fact, in the house my wife’s colleague has helped to restore. (The school was later moved to Hamina and became Finland’s premier military school.)

Sprengtporten and his brother Jacob, meanwhile, became increasingly dissatisfied by how they had been treated by Gustav, and following a visit to St. Petersburg Georg began to feel more appreciated by the Russians.

Around this time, he also hired himself out in the service of France, where he came into contact with the ambassador from a newly independent nation on the east coast of North America. This elder statesman, a true renaissance man and creator of, among many other things, bifocal eye-glasses and pithy sayings, was of course Benjamin Franklin.

The Smolenka Lutheran Cemetery

Partly influenced by Franklin, Sprengtporten returned to Finland with the notion of splitting Finland off from the rest of the Swedish Kingdom. This led him to enter into an ill-fated conspiracy with the Swedish king’s brother, among other schemes aimed at bringing about some kind of Finnish autonomy.

The Count wasn’t the only one entertaining embryonic thoughts of independence. Officers in the Suomenlinna garrison were grumbling in secret among themselves about the new war that Gustav had started with Russia for purely political reason. At least some of those officers went on to clandestinely approach Russia, seeking an end to the fighting and perhaps support for Finnish independence, in what became known as the Anjala Conspiracy.

By that point, Sprengtporten had already switched sides. Enticed by Gustav’s cousin, Catherine the Great, the Count put himself at the service of the Russian Empress. When the war with Sweden broke out, he was sent to lead Russian troops in a campaign in what was to him familiar territory in Savo, not far from Ristiina.

In the Battle of Porrassalmi, Russian troops under Sprengtporten’s command marched from the south against Mikkeli, which was defended by a much smaller Swedish force. Despite this, the Russians were defeated and Sprengtporten was badly wounded.

Following the disaster at Porrassalmi, the Count lost the faith and favor of Catherine. Apparently thinking it wise to lay low for a time, he took up residence in Bohemia, in present-day Czech Republic, in the town of Teplice. There, he struck up a friendship with the librarian of a nearby castle, a man by the name of Casanova, who was (and is) better known for tending to something other than dusty books.

Sprengtporten's gravestone.

After Catherine’s death, Sprengtporten once again found himself in the employ of Russia, when the new emperor, Catherine’s estranged son Paul, sent him in 1800 to negotiate with Napoleon over the issue of Malta. Bonaparte had captured the island-nation, ruled by the Knights of Malta Catholic order, while on his way to conquer Egypt. Napoleon was determined to expel the defeated knights from the island, and Sprengtporten’s mission was to arrange for a large number of them to be granted refuge in St. Petersburg.

Following Tsar Paul’s assassination, Sprengtporten was again on the outs with Russian rulers for a number of years. He once more rose to some prominence in 1808 when he was appointed as Russia’s first Governor-General of Finland, after the new tsar, Alexander, won Finland from Sweden in the Napoleonic Wars. Sprengtporten held the position for only a year.

Benjamin Franklin, Casanova, Napoleon, plus various royalty – there’s almost a Forrest Gump vibe to Sprengtporten’s life. And now he’s buried, mostly forgotten, in a somewhat decrepit cemetery in St. Petersburg.

On my wife’s colleague’s visit to the cemetery, the location of the grave sadly eluded him. Still, his quest sparked my wife’s interest, so one afternoon we strolled from our hotel to the other, decidedly not touristy, side of Vasilievsky Island with a vague idea where the cemetery should be.

Following the very narrow and tranquil (you might even say, almost stagnant) Smolenka River we passed through a riverside park where groups of citizens were cooking on braziers and enjoying an early evening drink or two until we came to a bridge that crosses to Decemberists’ Island, directly opposite the heavily wooded Smolenka Lutheran Cemetery.

We really had no idea how we’d find the grave, but we were lucky in that at the cemetery entrance stood a large obviously new signboard listing the most notable of the people buried within. It was almost entirely in Cyrillic. We don’t speak Russia, but by searching for the right dates of birth and death we quickly located the correct bit of text:

(Georg Markus) (1740 – 1819)
Граф, генерал от инфантерии, первый русский генера губернатор-Финляндии.

участок 5

Which translates to...

Sprengtporten Egor Maksimovich
Count, general of the infantry, the first Russian general-governor of Finland.

Plot 5

It didn’t take long searching plot 5 to find a tall, stone monument in better shape than many of the surrounding, half-ruined gravestones. It was inscribed on one side in French “Ici repose la dépouille mortelle de George Magne Comte de Sprentporten”. Voilà!

There was a newly laid stone path to the grave, a sign that the grave has recently been spruced up thanks to money from Finland.

And that, of course, would be fitting for a Finnish Count whose remarkable twists and turns in life included even a spell in bucolic Ristiina.

"Ici repose..."

Sunday, March 5, 2017

The PR Presidency

A few days after Donald Trump’s inauguration, Sean Spicer was asked why his boss had not signed as many executive orders on Day One as he had promised to do during the campaign.

Spicer's answer: “If we put 'em all out on one day, they get lost in the ether, I think.”

In other words, what is more important than taking executive action is making a show out of taking executive action. If Donald Trump signs, say, ten documents on the same day and does one photo op about it, that is less useful for PR purposes than spreading out the signings over ten days, each with its own photo op.

Not very efficient in terms of getting things done, but at least that way you get the maximum amount of attention out of it.

The same thing is happening now with Trump’s revised travel ban. When the first one was stopped by a judge in Washington State, Trump darkly warned that any delay in implementing the ban would endanger Americans, since there was an "imminent" threat from the seven countries covered by the ban.

Now, the executive order for the new, improved travel ban order is apparently ready for signing, meaning that by the stroke of a pen, Trump can take action immediately against what he claims are dangerous people trying to enter the US.

The order was supposed to be signed on Wednesday, the day after Trump’s speech to Congress. But it was delayed reportedly because the White House didn’t want it to overshadow all the (relatively) positive coverage Trump has been getting from his surprisingly calm, adult-sounding speech on Tuesday night.

An unnamed official reportedly told CNN, "We want the (executive order) to have its own 'moment.'"

It seems that the threat to American is not nearly so “imminent” that the executive action designed to stop it can’t be put off a day or two, you know, to leverage the PR benefit to the hilt. For Trump, it seems appearances is what's really important. But, then again, that should come as no surprise to anyone. Trump, when it comes down to it, is all image and no substance. 

Related to this, I have a question that I have not seen covered by the media. The Trump travel ban is to be imposed only temporarily (just 90 days), not permanently. This is in order to give Trump time to find out “what’s going on” with immigration from dangerous countries.

My question: is the government actually doing anything to “find out what’s going on”?

I suspect the answer is "no". I think Donald Trump -- and his supporters -- simply liked the idea of a ban, whether it's actually needed or not. For appearance's sake, you might say. And that's all that really matters, isn't it?  

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Headscarves, Muslim and Otherwise

A conservative friend in the US recently shared a story on Facebook about a young chess player choosing to forego a chance to compete in this year's Women’s World Chess Championship in Iran. Nazí Paikidze-Barnes, a recent immigrant to the US, made this difficult decision mainly because of the requirement that she cover her head while in the country.

The point of my friend’s post was the notion that American feminists are not rallying to Paikidze-Barnes’ side because political correctness prevents them from criticizing Muslim customs.

A couple of days before that, a leftist friend in the US had shared a story on Facebook about Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s right-wing populist National Front party, refusing to wear a headscarf for a planned meeting with a leading Muslim cleric in Lebanon.

Similarly, the point of this friend’s post was the hypocrisy of liberal feminists’ for not applauding the feminist stance taken by Le Pen because, in this particular case, the stance was being taken by someone on the wrong end of the political spectrum.

Now, I can’t vouch for whether either of these points are valid. I don’t know what kind of response, if any, either of these events elicited from “feminists”. Perhaps my friends are correct in that these acts of female defiance were met by silence from advocates for women’s rights. In the case of Le Pen, I am aware of some skepticism on the left that her decision was a political stunt, though on the surface she was making what could be considered a feminist statement.

The whole question of whether foreign women should comply with local religious customs such as donning a headscarf seems to me to be a tricky one, though some folks are always ready with a knee-jerk reaction when the issues comes up.

It’s a delicate matter when outsiders comment on the practices of a religion. Or, let’s say, such comments are not always appreciated by the practitioners of the religion. Calling snake handlers "crazy" for handling snakes probably doesn’t make them want to embrace you. In many ways, it’s none of your concern what they do.

An exception in my mind, of course, is when actual violations of human rights are involved. Female genital mutilation, would be one example. And there are surely other, more subtle, cases of systematic human-rights transgressions against women made in the name of religion.

However, I’m not certain that being forced to wear a cloth over your head qualifies as one of these.

Like I say, it’s tricky. I might draw the line at a burka covering a woman’s entire face, since here in the West one requirement of an open and egalitarian society is the ability to look each person in the face on an equal basis. So, to my Western sensibilities, that seems different.

And as to whether Muslim women have a real choice in deciding to cover their hair or not, that is also tricky. I’ve heard many on TV profess that they freely choose to do so. Though you must wonder, within the confines of a religious community, how much free will there really is in such matters. Peer and family pressure isn’t easily ignored. Even so, maybe many Muslim women do genuinely take some kind of comfort in wearing the hijab. 

Still, as a completely secular person, I can completely understand how some women born outside that culture might, on principle, not agree to conform to a fundamentalist tradition.

A high-level manager in a company I used to work for was well-known (within the company, anyway) for refusing to make any business trips to Saudi Arabia if she had to wear a headscarf. Can’t blame her.

On the other hand, I can also see foreigners making small signs of respect and etiquette expected by their guests, though they may think these actions are completely silly.

I have removed my shoes when entering Hindu or Buddhist temples. On holiday, I have always taken off my hat when entering a Christian church, and made sure my sons did the same. This despite the fact that I am not a believer myself.

Last summer in St. Petersburg, my wife and I noticed that all the women approaching the grand Kazan Cathedral (a Christian church) had brought light scarves to cover their heads as they entered. You don’t see that in Finland. My wife didn’t have anything similar with her, so she fashioned a covering from a light sweater she happened to have along. It looked a bit funny, but it did the trick. Inside the crowded church, I believe I saw only one woman, rather elegant, without a scarf.

Likewise, in Venice a few years ago we weren’t allowed into the Basilica di San Marco until my wife and daughter, who were wearing shorts, covered their legs with light wrap-around skirts conveniently provided at the entrance.

There are similar strictures at the New Valamo Russian Orthodox monastery in Heinävesi, a popular destination for tourists. Well, for tourists in Eastern Finland, that is. Visitors are required to keep their knees and shoulders covered at all time. This applies to men as well.

Back in the 80s, when I tried to drive onto the campus of extremely conservative Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, we were allowed in only on the condition that my future wife, who again was wearing shorts, remained in the car. No exposed female knee flesh there! I wonder if it’s still the same.

Obviously, modesty in the name of piety is not associated only with Islam. Are these customs ridiculous? Yes, in a way. Do they do any harm to our personal dignity, beyond perhaps, in the case of women, to our fashion sense? Well, I guess that’s for each person to decide for him or herself. 

Albert Edelfelt's "Women Outside the Church at Ruokolahti" (1887).
Note all the headscarves. Lutheran headscarves. 

Friday, February 24, 2017

Facebook and Death

Last month, I was reminded what a very strange beast Facebook can be sometimes. As everyone knows, it can connect you to friends and family who are far, far away -- which can be a blessing when you live overseas from the place you were born. 

It also often connects you, in some sense, with the past in ways that would not have been possible even 15 years ago. It can bring you in touch with distant acquaintances and schoolmates you haven’t seen in ages, giving you a window into their lives, revealing more about them than you ever knew back when you actually hung out together or just saw them in the hallway between classes. 

For example, Facebook reminds you of the birthdays of long-unseen friends -- although that might be a bit of personal information you were not aware of back in the days when you sat next to each other in geography class.

In some cases, Facebook can also stop time, become a time capsule, make a friend ageless.

Every year about this time, Facebook reminds me to wish a happy birthday to my friend Tom, despite the fact that he died some years ago. It’s always a starling and somber notice.

And Tom is not the only one of the departed to be still listed as a Facebook friend of mine. But he was the first. I’m sure there will be more, sadly.

Tom and I had attended the same tiny junior college in the North Georgia mountains, Young Harris. In fact, he was a native son of the little town, just a village really, centered around the college that gave the its name. Tom was a few years older than me, however, and our paths never crossed there in the mountains.

Instead, I first met Tom at the University of Georgia in Athens in 1979, when we both attended an adult-education class (what in Finland would be called “työväenopisto kurssi”) in “Creative Writing”.

The weekly class consisted mostly of us students critiquing photocopies of each other’s early attempts at fiction, usually short stories. In many cases, they were probably not very good (speaking for myself here). Tom was one of the exceptions. The work that he shared with the group, chapters of a fantasy novel he was working on set in the Georgia mountains, stood out from the rest. I still have my copy of his typewritten manuscript hidden away somewhere in what my wife charitably calls my “archives”.

Those chapters Tom shared eventually grew into his first published book, “Windmaster’s Bane”, about a mountain teenager who was able to detect mystical realms of Irish fairies invisible to regular folk.

After I moved to Finland, Tom and I kept in touch through the occasional exchange of letters. Letters written on paper and enclosed in paper envelops. Old school. Or least, I think we did.

When I returned to Athens in 1987 to study journalism, we reconnected in person. By that point, Tom had published his novel, the first of some 18 books he eventually produced. He had a job working in the University of Georgia’s main library, in the Rare Books department, befitting a writer with a master’s in medieval literature. He was also still active, as he had been when I first met him, in the Society for Creative Anachronism (a legendary costume role-playing group), also befitting someone with a deep interest in medieval life.

We would get together now and then for lunch, often meeting first at his desk in the Rare Books department, one of the least-busy parts of the library (by a long shot) and ideal, as he pointed out, for someone seeking quiet and undisturbed time to work on his next novel.

When I moved back to Finland for good and started raising a family, Tom and I lost touch. Until late in 2008, that is, when he became my friend on Facebook. I had joined Facebook just a short time before, and it hadn’t yet become such a compulsive habit yet.

By that time, Tom had moved to Gainesville, halfway between my hometown and Athens, to take up a teaching position at the local university. We exchanged some messages before Christmas, and after the New Year discussed the drought that Georgia had been experiencing. We talked about Finland and travel. He asked about the typical models of cars here, as he was a big automobile enthusiast. I recall one of the first things he did after regular royalty checks for his books started coming in was to buy a vintage “hobby car” to restore and tinker around with.

I recall sending him a link to a video of Leningrad Cowboys, the wacky Finnish ensemble of musicians in pointy shoes and hairdos, performing with the Red Army Choir. Apparently, it was just his cup of tea.

He was interested in Finland in general and was one of few Americans I knew who had read Kalevala, as befitting a connoisseur of ancient myths. He mentioned he might visit Helsinki sometime, though not until after other upcoming trips he was planning to take to Ireland in a month or so, and later Japan.

Then, for a couple of weeks, silence. I wasn’t necessarily checking Facebook everyday back then, so I wasn’t sure what to make of that. In late March Tom re-emerged online, apologizing for his absence. It was clear something was up with his health.

Then he was offline again. A couple of weeks went by, then messages started appearing on Tom’s timeline from concerned friends. There was something about a hospital, without stating explicitly what was going on. Since Tom was only a few years older than me and as far as I knew healthy, I didn’t consider it could really be anything life-threatening. Optimistic, I know. 

A post appeared from a friend of Tom's in Georgia, informing that Tom would send personals messages to all his Facebook friends in the next few days. It was a desire that he was unable to fulfill. Two days later came the word on Tom’s Facebook page that he had passed into the “Undiscovered Country”. Tom died at the age of 57 from complications from a heart attack he suffered in January, about the time our Facebook correspondence suddenly dropped off. I hadn’t realized he’d had any health issues previously. It was deeply sad and shocking news.

Tom’s Facebook page lives on. Every year since I get the birthday notification on February 17th without fail. And every year on that date, a small online gathering of Tom’s friends posts their remembrances on his timeline. This year, I’m late in doing so. 

I wonder if Tom ever imagined how his memory would live on, not only in the fading thoughts and stories of friends, but also in the strangely permanent cyber world of social media, inside a sterile commercial Silicon Valley creation. 

I know that for many of us the question of what happens to our digital existence after we die is still unresolved. Who knows? Perhaps yearly online gatherings of surviving friends might be a legacy we can all look forward to. At least, for a while.   

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Trump World: The Electoral College Margin

One of the highlights of Donald Trump's bizarre press conference on February 16th was the fact that a reporter actually called Trump out on one of his favorite falsehoods. It was a very welcome turn of events.

Trump had claimed that he won the election by the biggest electoral college margin since Reagan (Trump got 306 electoral votes). This is a dead-easy thing to check. And it’s similar to the claim Trump made repeatedly soon after the election that he won by a “massive landslide”.

Obama got 365 electoral votes in 2008, and 332 four years later. Bill Clinton got even more. George H. W. Bush got 426.

FACT: All those numbers are bigger than 306.

When confronted by the reporter over this fact, Trump first countered that he meant the biggest electoral college win of any Republican president. 

FACT: George H.W. Bush, who followed Reagan, was a Republican president and his electoral college win was 120 higher than Trump’s.

When the reporter confronted Trump with this last point, his response was: “Well, no, I was told. I was given that information. I don’t know... Actually, I’ve seen that information around...”

So, my takeaway is that:

1) Trump isn’t responsible for what he says, since in this case “someone” gave that fake fact to him, or because he saw it “somewhere”.

2) If the “someone” feeding him this fake fact is a member of this staff, Trump should be pissed off because one of his comms team is making Trump look foolish by giving him fake facts that are easily disproved. That, to me, doesn’t sound like a well-tuned machine.

3) Alternatively, Trump knows it’s a fake fact and doesn’t care and is willing to say anything to fool this base and bolster his delusion that he won a great victory.

Of course, this dovetails perfectly with Trump's cavalier approach to the truth, as has been demonstrated over and over. It doesn't matter, of course, since his supporters don't care. And that is again a sign of what a weird world Trump has ushered in.