Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Fatherly advice from the Last Dictator (18 Nov 2008)

One of my favorite features of the Financial Times are the special sections devoted to relatively obscure regions that assess the politics and investment possibilities. Today's edition included a four-page section on Belarus, home to Europe's last dictator, Alexander Lukashenko. Yes, you can learn a great deal about the city of Grodno, and Belarus's dependence on Russia's gas, and its thriving tractor-building industry. But the only must-read is this interview with Lukashenko, in which he proudly, if ironically, seizes the "last dictator" mantle.
You are so lucky to have a chance to talk to the last dictator of Europe. You could only dream of meeting with the last dictator of Europe and see what kind of dictator he is. Touch him, sit at the same table with him. You only read this in books, but now you’ve seen it for real.
It's probably a stereotype I've absorbed from 1980s Cold War films, but this is exactly how I expect Eastern European dictators to sound, contemptuous of Western journalists to the point of mocking them to their faces. (It makes me want to reread the New Yorker article about the mad dictator Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan, the self-styled "father of all Turkmen," or this classic about chess-loving dictator Kirsan Ilyumzhinov of Kalmykia.) Lukashenko dismisses his political opponents ("if they come to power they wouldn’t know what to do ... They feel good being eternal oppositionists") and declares Belarusian elections "transparent without precedent" before dispensing this brilliant piece of parenting advice.
It is very important for a father to teach his son a real man’s life. And when [my youngest son] Kolya turned one year old, I took him by the hand and brought him to a steam room. Of course he complained and ran out. But now he is four years old, he can endure temperature differences from 100 degrees [Fahrenheit] in the steam room to 28 degrees in the swimming pool. Plus he endures ice baths. I taught my [two] elder sons to do that. We would cut a hole in ice on the river, dive into it, and then run along through the snow to the steam room.
No wonder my adult life has seemed so inauthentic and unreal -- it's been distinctly lacking in drastic temperature swings and ice baths.

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