Category Archives: International

From Russia, Sans the Love

I watched with much hope and heartbreak on Sunday as Russian demonstrations took place in 99 cities and towns across the country despite the Kremlin declaring the protests unauthorized and illegal and Russian authorities urging people to stay away.

From Vladivostok in the far east to Kaliningrad in the west, tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets.

What really struck me were the baby faces of most of the protesters. These young people have never known any other leader except Putin and his regime, and they made their feelings extremely clear, at great peril to their lives. The actions of these young protesters were beyond courageous.

Sunday’s crowds were believed to be the largest anti-government protests since 2011 when fraud allegations in parliamentary elections sparked uprisings.

As you may or may not recall, Putin blamed then-Secretary Hillary Clinton for “inciting mass protests against his regime in late 2011 and early 2012.”

State-run news outlet Tass reported that 8,000 people had taken to the streets in Moscow, but human rights groups came up with their own numbers: Approximately 30,000 people demonstrated in Moscow, and up to 10,000 in Saint Petersburg alone.

To be clear, when the authorities in Russia urge their people to “stay away,” this is not a friendly request.

As a result of the anti-corruption protests, hundreds of demonstrators, including top Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny were arrested, and many beaten.

What does this mean for Navalny? The fact that in the past five months, eight prominent Russians are dead does not bode well for him.

And Putin? With approval ratings around 80%, it’s doubtful any significant threat will arise.

And yet, these poor kids demonstrated anyway.

Russian authorities have claimed that the official number of those arrested was 500 in total, but rights groups disputed that claim and said that between 700 to 1,000 individuals were detained in Moscow, at least 34 in Saint Petersburg, and between 80 and 100 in other cities. Putin’s strongmen also swept up scores of journalists attempting to cover the protests.

And the Trump administration? They were quiet for much of the day until Republican Senator from Nebraska Ben Sasse expressed outrage and said this: “The United States government cannot be silent about Russia’s crackdown on peaceful protesters.”

Sasse’s statement forced Mark Toner, the acting State Department spokesman, to finally make one of his own on Sunday evening  calling Russia’s action’s “an affront to core democratic values.”

But, not one peep or tweet from Trump, and the White House never issued a statement.

Where’s the outrage?

Oh, and as an aside, a U.S. intelligence report released in January blamed Russia for meddling in the 2016 presidential election, based in part as a result of Hillary Clinton’s remarks during the 2011 anti-government protests in Russia.  The report went on to state that the episode led to Putin’s campaign “to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.”

The email below was sent to me yesterday, 3/27/17, from a journalist friend of mine, who is on temporary assignment in Moscow.

Good day my friend,

As you know, for almost two months I have been in the Russian capital.

I have been soaking up the local scene and leading a nice, normal, and quiet, existence here, much like the one I left back in Canada.

I have been going back and forth to the institute which invited me here as a “researcher.”  But on Sunday a strange occurrence took place.

I am often referred to here as “an honourable outcast,” “friendly foreigner,” or “stranger.”

But like the locals, I tend to stroll in Gorky Park, to take in the first days of Spring, watch the kids and dogs play, much as I would if I were in New York’s Central Park or Les Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris.

I enjoy my weekend brunch routine at the “Garage” Museum of Contemporary Art of poached eggs and salmon, with a large cup of black American coffee.

And as you know, I try to conduct myself as a civilised, cultured, left-leaning Western intellectual, albeit a financially stressed “freelance” journalist with an edge, or flair for, international news reporting.

 After brunch and watching the affluent couples chat or flirt, or show off their new i-phones, I  took off for the metro, but one of the main lines was under ‘remont’ in Russian, meaning repair.

I thought this was odd and as it turned out, was actually a precursor to more bizarre events that took place this past Sunday afternoon in the Russian capital.

I ended up in the Arbat district on my way to the Lev Tolstoi Pub, where I usually go to hang out to think and write. It is a hip and struggling establishment popular with local expats, students, and artists.

When I arrived at the pub, I was shocked to realise it had been shut down. A Brit friend explained to me that it was probably because if they wanted to stay open, they had to pay a “pizzo,” or the “b-word” to remain in business.

This local spot apparently did not pay, and hence the harsh penalty imposed. I was rather livid, as the location is in a lovely courtyard and actually mentioned in the great Russian novel “War and Peace.”  

I then proceeded to the city centre where there were plenty of riot police, buses and vans circulating down the major boulevards. My reporter’s instincts told me there was “action” in the area.

As you know, I have experience with this type of activity as someone who was in Warsaw in 1981 under martial law and in Moscow in August of 1991 during the failed coup. I was also in Mexico City in 2012 when there were huge protests in support of an opposition candidate for the Mexican presidency, Lopez Obrador.   

I walked towards Pushkin Square, with the hunch that there might be activity on Tverskaya Street, a fashionable part of the central city core. And my hunch was right.

I  walked into a courtyard where there were plenty of Land Rovers and other fancy cars parked, as well as several beauty salons and spas; I assumed for the wealthy Russian ladies.

But in this courtyard, not far from a 1947 style apartment complex, there was a dingy dive called “X” on the third floor.

I climbed the stairs, opened the big black door,  and there inside the large loft sized space, were young fellows and gals in their 30’s watching a live stream feed of the massive protests going on in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Samara, and other cities.

I ordered a pale ale and talked to the local crowd. A young fellow told me how he thought it was time for a change in the upper circles of power and how the Russian economy was stagnating and inflation and the high cost of everything from food to heating were eating away at people’s savings.

He also informed me about the corruption allegations made by the recently arrested opposition leader. We all watched the protests, and I decided not to proceed further to Pushkin Square for several reasons.

I am from Canada, a country not well liked by the Russian government at this point in time. I am not yet officially accredited, and I don’t know when that will happen. Plus my visa is running out; I only have 35 days left, so I am in need of an extension hence my current fate depends on the whims of officialdom or a faceless bureaucracy.

But above all, according to the media reports, my journalist colleagues were being detained during the protests, so I stayed put and did not budge.

The young Russian and I talked for some length of time about Russia today while watching the street action on the screens. The Russian protesters are a generation which grew up in the post-Soviet post-communist era.

They are passionate, highly educated, and entrepreneurial.

They long for a “normal” or liberal democratic system, without the wild west corrupt and venal capitalism, we know well exists in the “west.”

Cheerio from Moscow


The Ancient City of Palmyra Post ISIS Destruction

Palmyra statues Before ISIS Destruction

Ancient places that for centuries stand proudly as proof of man’s ingenuity and determination are true wonders of the world.

The photos in my blog post are proof again, that what was once historically majestic can be destroyed in a moment. The once awe-inspiring Palmyra, a 2,000-year-old Unesco World Heritage site, contained some of the best-preserved Roman-era ruins in the world.

Below are before ISIS and after ISIS photos of Palmyra. A picture is indeed worth a thousand heartbreaking words.

Palmyra Citadel Before ISIS Destruction
Palmyra’s Citadel before ISIS

This photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows damage to the Palmyra citadel following fighting between Government forces and Islamic State group militants in Palmyra, Syria, Sunday, March 27, 2016. Syrian state media and an opposition monitoring group say government forces backed by Russian airstrikes have driven Islamic State fighters from the historic central town of Palmyra, held by the extremists since May. (SANA via AP)
Palmyra’s Citadel after ISIS

Palmyra The Temple of Bel - November 2004
Palmyra’s Temple of Bel before ISIS

Palmyra ISIS Blowing Up Palmyra
ISIS blowing up the Temple of Bel

Palmyra ISIS Blew up tomb of Mohammed Bin Ali
Palmyra’s Tomb of Mohammed Bin Ali before ISIS


Tomb of Mohammed Bin Ali after ISIS


A Proposal to Solve China’s Gender Imbalance: Share Wives

China Gender Imbalance
Translation: “Marry me!” (Cartoon:

In 2011, I wrote an article for titled “China’s Gender Imbalance” in which I described the possible long-term consequences of China’s one-child policy introduced in 1979.

The result of such draconian family planning? The selective abortion of girls, pressure to abort a pregnancy, and even forced hysterectomies.

I predicted that the large numbers of single Chinese men combined with the scarcity of available women would have future negative ramifications. My forebodings included damage to the mental and physical well-being of men who fail to marry, trafficking of girls to become prostitutes or brides in rural areas, an increase in sexually transmitted diseases, and overall social instability.

The Chinese Academy of Social Science estimates that by 2020, 30 million bachelors will be unable to find a wife in their own country. There are already “bachelor villages,” inhabited primarily by men, scattered across many of China’s poorer regions. The situation has gotten so bad that in some villages men are marrying their first cousins and even their sisters through deals made with relatives. The practice has become so common that some communities are referred to as “incest villages.”

Bottom line is that China’s overpowering preference for boys has put them in a real bind.

In order to negate the ticking bachelor bomb, China has decided to end its decades-long one-child policy. According to a recent statement from the Communist Party, couples will now be allowed to have two children. But that doesn’t solve China’s current  gender imbalance.

I would imagine that the wealthy Chinese man can just buy a spouse. Pay the “bride price” and obtain a wife. She’s chattel, and just another commodity like a car, land, or house.

But what’s a poor Chinese man to do?

Seems that Xie Zuoshi, an economics professor at the Zhejing University of Finance and Economics, has the solution—polyandry. One woman, multiple husbands.

Yes, Xie Zuoshi was quoted as saying poor men who cannot find wives should “bundle up to get one to share between themselves.”

Bundling up? Ew. Like, one husband isn’t enough? Sounds like one dysfunctional mess nest to me.

And why do men continue to prey on the poor, uneducated women?

Because they can.

Khalid al-Asaad the Man vs. Cecil the Lion. Where’s the Outrage?

The killing of Cecil the lion—in which a Minnesota dentist, Walter J. Palmer, lured him out of a Zimbabwe sanctuary, and then beheaded him—has incensed people all over the world.

Well, now it’s time for people all over the world to be outraged over the slaughtering and beheading of the eighty-three-year-old caretaker of Palmyra’s antiquities, and home to some of Syria’s greatest archaeological treasures.

palmyra B

After detaining the Syrian scholar for weeks, the jihadists dragged him to a public square on Tuesday and cut off his head in front of a crowd. His blood-soaked body was then suspended with red twine by his wrists and hung from a traffic light. The jihadists placed Mr. Asaad’s head on the ground between his feet, his glasses still resting on his face.

His body was then taken to Palmyra’s archaeological site and strapped from one of the ancient Roman columns. A white placard with red writing was affixed to Mr. Assad’s waist listing his alleged crimes, calling him an “apostate” and “the director of idolatry.” His corpse is still fastened to the Roman column, rotting in the sun.

Known as “Mr. Palmyra” by many who knew him, he had been interrogated unsuccessfully by militants for over a month regarding the location of the city’s hidden treasures. Mr. Asaad refused to give up the information, and died a grisly death, protecting the same history he had dedicated his life to exploring for over fifty years.

Syrian state antiquities chief Maamoun Abdulkarim had this to say about the bespectacled caretaker: “Just imagine that such a scholar who gave such memorable services to the place and to history would be beheaded… and his corpse still hanging from one of the ancient columns in the centre of a square in Palmyra. The continued presence of these criminals in this city is a curse and bad omen on Palmyra and every column and every archaeological piece in it.”

Before ISIS entered Palmyra, one of the Mideast’s most spectacular archaeological sites, museum workers hurriedly moved many of its most precious artifacts to safer parts of Syria. Some of the larger pieces left behind were destroyed by ISIS. In June, they blew up two ancient shrines in Palmyra that were not part of its Roman-era structures but which the militants regarded as pagan and sacrilegious.

The militants have not yet significantly damaged Palmyra’s ruins. It is believed that ISIS is using the 2,000-year-old Roman-era city at the town’s edge, for protection, assuming that the United States-led military coalition will not bomb a Unesco heritage site.

The world wept for Cecil the lion. Who will weep for Asaad the man?

ISIS Seizes Syrian City of Palmyra: One of the Most Important Cultural Centers of the Ancient World

Palmyra A

ISIS tore through the historic city of Palmyra on Wednesday, and by evening this pearl in the heart of the Syrian desert belonged to them.

When I read the headline this morning in The New York Times, I instantly recalled the article I wrote about Palmyra for—in 2004. You can read my full article from 2004 here: Palmyra: Ancient City in the Sand

The splendor and rich history of Palmyra, combined with my Syrian Christian heritage on my father’s side, was the driving force behind my writing the article in the first place.

What I didn’t know at the time I wrote about this ancient, long-abandoned Roman city, was that Palmyra sits among gas fields and a critical network of roads across Syria’s central desert. Gas fields and road networks are clearly much more valuable to ISIS than the crystal blue sulphurous spring water rising out of an underground channel that I wrote about.

What I do know is that ISIS has no respect for ancient sites, and they have been destroying them at a fairly fast clip. As they have swept across Syria and Iraq, ISIS has been adept at damaging and annihilating ancient sites and sculptures, condemning them as idolatry.

We already know that ISIS has no respect for human life, so destroying Palmyra would be the least of their crimes.

Irina Bokova, the Director-General of Unesco, the United Nations agency that works to protect historic sites had this to say: “I reiterate my appeal for an immediate cessation of hostilities at the site. I further call on the international community to do everything in its power to protect the affected civilian population and safeguard the unique cultural heritage of Palmyra. Finally, it is imperative that all parties respect international obligations to protect cultural heritage during conflict, by avoiding direct targeting, as well as use for military purposes.”