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U-kraine Now and Then

Half drowned in the deluge of opinion pieces on the anniversary of the Ukraine invasion, I still clung stubbornly to my view of the bloody conflict as a civil war gone amok.

Back in the day, the U.S. Civil War was much bloodier, but international intervention was mainly undercover and not a daily media feast. England and France pretended neutrality. Russia, interestingly, was the single open supporter of the Union, if mainly to counter the dominance of the imperial British. For seven months Russia kept a dozen warships at the ready in New York and San Francisco.

Six thousand miles from Ukraine, it was storming, at last, in California. Around our table–fish stew again–were a few dear friends and neighbors. As rain rattled noisily down the dry gutters, talk ranged from the weather to cancel culture and the recent rush to rename buildings, institutions, countries. Someone suggested that the time was ripe for opening a new field of Grievance Studies. Everyone laughed. We didn’t approach the war right away, maybe assuming a consensus  favoring  Ukraine.

Not everyone remembered George Kennan, the  historian and diplomat. Twenty-five years ago he warned that “expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era, quite likely to inflame Russia’s nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies.” Politicians and generals are often deaf to the counsel of historians and diplomats. NATO went right on expanding.  And around our table and across our country, the plucky Zelensky and the indomitable Ukrainians had the most support.

What’s in a word:  U-kraine? In Slavic languages “u” is an adverb meaning “at” or “in”. And “Kraj” or Krajina” means a border region. Oukraina first appeared in 1187. Through the centuries, this Slavic term signified “borderlands,” often far from the territory of modern Ukraine.

Not so long ago, we elders had known today’s embattled land as THE Ukraine. “In the Borderland” does sound a bit vague for a sovereign nation. So in 1993, after the declaration of an independent Ukrainian state, officials removed the article “the,” presumably to lend the name of their country more formal dignity.

More than six months before Rusia’s “Special Operation in Ukraine,” Vladimir Putin published a 5,000-word article on the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians. Nobody at our table could remember its appearance, and I only happened on it by chance. But I did read it, every word, in the English translation thoughtfully supplied by the Kremlin.

Yes, Putin is hoping to restore the territory of the former Russian empire. But his account of imbricated Russian and Ukrainian history and culture basically follows more public histories.There is some cherry-picking and blurring of the conflicts in Chechnya and Georgia as well as the Holodomor famine–blaming the worst bits on the Bolsheviks. (Of course Putin may also have written the Wikipedia entries.) We could but don’t read elsewhere about ninth-century Varangian (Viking) prince Oleg, who sailed downriver to settle Kiev(Kyiv) and to found Mother Rus. Somewhere—not in Putin’s history—I also learned that the Black Sea port of Kherson, recently decimated, had been a Greek colony some 2500 years ago. So far Greece has not lodged any territorial claims on Ukraine or Russia.

More recent history:  after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, NATO negotiators agreed not to expand “one inch eastward”, according to recently declassified documents . Other agreements followed—Budapest, Minsk and Minsk II, etc. Since then, an even dozen Eastern European countries have been welcomed into NATO.

On various occasions, Vladimir Putin has found reason to protest against the NATO powers’ security risk to Russia. If Ukraine joined the West, and then Sweden and Finland,  the threat would be vastly increased. Then  in 2014 the Russophile Ukrainian leader was overthrown in the Orange Revolution, and Russia occupied Crimea, whose population was already 70 percent Russian. Two nominally independent regions, Donetsk and Luhansk, also majority Russian speakers, were absorbed into the Russian federation. No major international protests ensued. 

Fast forward to 2021 and Ukraine’s increasing lean westward. President Joe Biden, far from suggesting serious talks about Russian security issues, warned in every news cycle that Vladimir Putin was about to invade Ukraine.

At some point I decided to ask an old friend in Prague for his views on the new war. I could imagine him pacing up and down the room stroking his handsome beard. He sent me a judicious analysis, including a reminder of Munich and the failure to stop Hitler from taking over Czechoslovakia in 1938, and finishing with the Soviet putsch in Prague in 1968. Be it noted that Czech president-elect Petr Pavel was a NATO general and/but has a degree in international relations from King’s College London. Pavel professes to be for Ukraine but against war–a tricky position to maintain just now. 

Some years ago a young Polish couple, in the U.S. on fellowships, stayed for a term in our back cottage. The Polish government was just turning rightward, and the couple seemed a bit wary of political talk with their Berkeley landlords. But we were friends, went to the beach together, exchanged silly gifts, and they would walk down our driveway holding hands, her blonde hair swinging like a Disney princess.

Hungary accounts for a relatively short stretch of the Ukrainian border, while Poland shares 330 kilometers of it, but both have historically fraught relations with Russia. We have close Hungarian friends, have exchanged children some summers and followed, ruefully each other’s national politics. In his youth Viktor Orban was eloquently anti-Soviet. Now in power, he thrives on anti-migrant ad anti-semitic sentiments, most notably against George Soros, whose foundation subsidized Orban’s brief youthful interval at Oxford. Orban now deals amicably with Putin.

 The father of our secretary of state—-Antony Blinken, should you have forgotten—was U.S. ambassador to Hungary.  Secretary Blinken speaks fluent French, but not, alas, the present language of diplomacy. In his first official remarks he opened with warnings to China and Russia that the U.S. would stand firm on whatever position it chose. He continues to avoid any diplomatic cordiality.

Diplomacy comes from the ancient Greek diploma, which means “an object folded in two.” Folding a document, before there were envelopes, served to protect its privacy. The term came to apply to all official documents, such as those containing agreements between governments.  Five months of the Ukrainian war passed last year without any dialogue, folded or open, between Antony Blinken and Sergey Lavrov, his Russian counterpart. For millennia, another major diplomatic tool has been alliance by marriage. Alexander the Great married the Sogdian princess Roxana to subdue the angry and defeated Sogdians (an ancient Iranian people, trending now). And so on. Let’s say that Volodymyr Zelensky could become betrothed to Sergey Lavrov’s daughter, Ekaterina Vinokurova. True, they both have living spouses. But serial marriage has been widely practiced through the ages, seldom for such positive reasons as world peace. You read it here first.

While traditional diplomacy falters, countries far from Russia and Ukraine suffer from famine and joblessness. Some, like Syria, have their own punishing civil wars. No grain came out of Ukraine’ breadbasket for many months, and the energy supply was delayed or broken.  More than 200,000 casualties have been counted on both sides.. Hundreds of thousands of factories, schools, hospitals and homes have been bombed to the ground, not to mention roads, railways and ports. 

“What about postwar reconstruction?” wondered the economist at our table, rearranging mussel shells on his plate.

Following the billions of dollars the war has earned for NATO armaments industries, as well as windfall profits for oil producers, Ukraine’s postwar recovery will open another huge economic opportunity. After World War II the U.S. Marshall Plan provided some $150 billion in aid to the ravaged countries of Western Europe. Their reconstruction was a key investment in the financial recovery of the U.S. as well as an advertisement for capitalism against communism.

Early cost estimates for rebuilding Ukraine’s physical infrastructure range from $138 to $750 billions. Whether this money comes from Russian reparations, or from Ukraine’s steadfast allies, will not signify. It will be used to develop what the Ukrainian chamber of commerce describes as “the world’s largest construction site.”

And so will end—-somehow, sometime—another “civil” war.

People’s Park in August 2021: an Update


   People’s Park, Berkeley, August 24, 2021

From the street in front of my house I can see the encampment in People’s Park a block and a half away. The smoky haze does not hide a new red tent that appeared this morning, although the university campanile and its celebrity falcons are almost obscured behind the scrubby trees.

Fifty years ago, two blocks of old houses like my own were demolished for student dorms that were never built. In time the space became a parking lot, morphing into People’s Park, a famous forum for antiwar protests, drugs, and what remained of Sixties counterculture. Now the university hopes to build again on the site. Chancellor Carol Christ, a  popular and trusted administrator, proposes dormitory towers, “supportive housing” for selected homeless, and  recognition of the park’s significant past in the design of the project. University of California regents, park neighbors, and the advocates of a People’s Park historic district are weighing in, both in and out of court.


Tent camps are both the latest and the oldest response to California’s housing crisis. But colonies of new trailers intended for the unhoused have sat vacant, and tiny houses are expensive. Gavin Newsom’s optimistic program, Project Roomkey, placing vulnerable unhoused in vacant hotels and motels, was only tenable with federal support. What seem to be working, still and again, are these tent communities, whether scattered and scruffy or–not often–in neat grids, with  services.

Homelessness in this affluent society is hardly a new phenomenon.  What is new is the emergence of these encampments in city centers and at highway intersections, where their high visibility and persistence painfully signal, any way you look at it, a broken social contract. 

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In 1971, having just moved house, we went with friends to break up asphalt in People’s Park to plant trees.  Shortly thereafter, we marched against Nixon’s mining of harbors in Cambodia.  About then we were also recruited into Berkeley’s new architectural preservation group, too late to save the twenty-five houses levelled on Block 1875, People’s Park.  Of course we had no problem reconciling our protests for and against the Establishment:  we oozed righteousness on both counts. I ascended to be president of the Berkeley neighborhoods’ coalition, my husband led the preservationists.

Many of the demolished family homes in People’s Park had been re-purposed as rooming houses, and when our kids eventually emigrated to points east, we rented rooms to students. The university, receiving ever less funding from the state, was forced to raise ever higher tuition from ever more students. All kinds of housing were already scarce by the 1980s, no little thanks to the continuing NIMBY concerns of neighborhood groups and preservationists like us. The median home price in Berkeley had bloated 300 percent in less than a decade. The twenty-five houses on Block 1875, People’s Park, would today be worth well upwards of $50 million and could have housed hundreds of students.

While we were passively amassing real estate, I was writing about local soup kitchens and shelters as well as local literary matters. This soon led to fewer poetry readings and more time with homeless support groups and a food recycling network.  I wrote a novel, Soup of the Day, about homelessness in a gourmet culture, folding in feuding academics and a failing newspaper. While the novel is out of print, its themes remain relevant. I wrote a sequel unlikely to appear in our Cancel Culture–involving competing native American and Mexican land claims on a campus not unlike, as they say, the University of California, Berkeley.

Westward the Course of Empire, by Emmanuel Leutze, 1861 actual size 20′ x 30′

The founding myth of the University of California  describes eminent clergy shading their eyes as they gaze across the bay, quoting Bishop Berkeley: “Westward the course of empire….”  More recently, the University has been described as a group of entrepreneurs seeking a parking place.

In 1868, joking aside, the location of the new university campus vastly inflated the property values of four local investors. Francis Shattuck, William Hillegass, and their partners had divided a square mile of land just south of the projected campus, for which they had paid about $31 per acre. The loser in this deal was ultimately the holder of the Mexican land grant, Jose Domingo Peralta–not counting the few surviving natives, whose history is piously noted in historical plaques if not in property ownership records.

Francis Shattuck’s eventual heir was philanthropist Weston Havens, a childhood friend of the maiden lady who sold us her family home. When we moved in, he gifted us with sacks of fertilizer meant to sustain the viciously rampant Silver Moon rose over the driveway trellis. He wanted to soften the view of the four-story apartment building south of us. But in 1940 he built a radically modernist house on Panoramic Hill which he left to the university.  

Meanwhile, our clapboard manse on Hillegass was continuing to increase in  value as the Bay Area economy boomed. A century past the Gold Rush, there was the pulsating prosperity of Silicon Valley and its garage geniuses. And in California, especially, the rich grew richer, billion by billion, and the poor poorer, year by year, decade after decade.

As Henry George, 19th-century economist and social reformer, observed: . . . the tendency of what we call material progress is in nowise to improve the condition of the lowest class in the essentials of healthy, happy human life. George saw the root cause of inequality as wealth increasing through unearned land value, whether near the new transnational railroad lines or next to the projected campus of what would soon become the world’s top public university. Henry George’s solution, a single tax on land value, soon proved flawed, since land’s value also depends on its potential and its improvements. In 1880 George left the west coast to try out his progressive ideas in New York City. In the mayoral race, he finished well ahead of Republican Theodore Roosevelt, but lost narrowly to a Democratic candidate whose name I and many others have forgotten.                                                                                  *            *

Real estate profiteering, hard to regulate, remains a prime cause of homelessness. A group of homeless mothers in Oakland, California recently defeated eviction efforts by a major speculator and gave a boost to community land trusts

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While property tax remains the main source of funding public services. California voters have repeatedly rejected any tax increases, even on the fattest commercial and industrial property. As the state budget shrinks support for public schools and colleges, the University of California, already short of housing, raises tuition costs and expands enrollment to fund its programs. And hopes to build on the now-historic site of protests against our misguided wars. That there was never any protest in People’s Park against US policy in Afghanistan suggests that local historic memory may be on life support.

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