Politics & Policy

Oslo Journal, Part IX

Maria Alyokhina (left) and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot (Ryan Pierse/Getty)

Editor’s Note: The Oslo Freedom Forum took place in the week of October 19. OFF is the annual human-rights gathering in the Norwegian capital. Jay Nordlinger’s journal on the forum concludes today. The previous installments are found at the following links: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, and VIII.

The title of this next talk is arresting — and I mean no pun: “Greetings from Cell D-4.” The address is by Thulani Maseko, of Swaziland. He is not here, because he is confined in the aforementioned cell. His wife, Tanele Maseko, reads the address.

Earlier in this journal, I mentioned the Nobel lecture of Andrei Sakharov, read here in Oslo by his wife, Elena Bonner, back in 1975. Every once in a while, wives have to do that. Husbands too, I imagine. (I don’t have to imagine: I now think of Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s husband, Michael Aris. I believe he performed such services for her.)

And Swaziland sounds to me like a nasty kingdom.

‐A singer here is named Lizzie. She sings a song that goes, “Look away from my window, look away from my door.” I don’t think it’s the famous John Jacob Niles song. Inspired by? The Niles song goes, “Go ’way from my window, go ’way from my door. Go ’way, ’way, ’way from my bedside, and bother me no more.” There’s more where that came from. Wonderful song, in music and lyrics.

My favorite recording of it is by Marilyn Horne: here. Indeed, this is one of the best recordings of any song by anyone, ever.

‐There are three winners of the Václav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent. (This is the award given by the Oslo Freedom Forum.) Actually, the first winner is a joint winner: Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, of Pussy Riot.

Garry Kasparov, presenting the award, says that these young women did not merely engage in a “cheap prank.” Their protest was a powerful political act. And it was “an ideal example of creative dissent.”

Kasparov points out that Putin was ridiculed. And “dictators must be feared in order to survive. They cannot bear to be mocked.”

He agrees with Putin on something, he says: The Pussy Riot protest was not a trivial thing. “Vladimir Putin, with his animal-dictator’s instinct, immediately recognized the seriousness of the threat.” That’s why the women got almost two years in prison for a 40-second performance.

I believe the chess champion believes he understands the Russian leader. And I believe he does.

Accepting the award, Nadezhda and Maria say they are “big fans” of the late Havel. Nadezhda says that there are people in Russia more deserving of the award than she and Maria. “But we’re happy to be here” regardless. Maria chimes in, “Yeah.”

Then they trot off, delighted, idiosyncratic, and charming.

‐Also receiving the award is Dhondup Wangchen, the Tibetan filmmaker. Accepting it on his behalf is his wife, Lhamo Tso. Wangchen is trying to recover from six years as a guest in the PRC’s prison system. To have survived the experience, he must be very brave.

Onstage, Lhamo Tso mainly weeps in gratitude and bows. She manages to get out a few words, however.

She is “happy and privileged when I get to meet his supporters,” meaning her husband’s. And she regards the Havel award as being for “all the political prisoners and former political prisoners in Tibet.”

“Our dream,” she says, “is to be reunited” in San Francisco, where Lhamo Tso has been living with the couple’s four children.

I think of Chen Guangcheng, the Chinese legal activist (blind), who, when he ran, ran to the U.S. embassy in Beijing. Many, many people have run to U.S. embassies and American soil. If we fall in the world — and fall we must, apparently — where will they run? There will be somewhere, let’s hope . . .

And do Americans, on left and right, still want to be a country to which people feel they can run? This is a hugely important question.

‐The third winner of the Havel award is the “Standing Man,” Erdem Gunduz of Turkey. His remarks are brief and somewhat mysterious — they are Beckett-like, perhaps. They are all the more interesting in light of the broken (though valiant and charming) English in which they are given.

Gunduz recounts the story of Sisyphus, who kept having to push the boulder up the hill. “Maybe he’s happy because he’s employed,” says Gunduz. Then he exits the stage.

I think he means the Sisyphus story as a parable of democratic activism. Don’t know . . .

‐We are on our way to the Café Christiania, right across from the Storting, the Norwegian parliament. (Christiania, by the way, is what this city used to be called.) A Freedom Forum official says, “I understand that this café holds the biggest collection of Norwegian tchotchkes in the entire country. That’s something that ought to go in your journal.”

I agree.

‐Among the spreads at breakfast — jams, cheese — is chocolate. So, so civilized.

‐Taking a long walk on a drizzly morning, I think, “This looks like every Scandinavian autumn painting I’ve ever seen.”

‐I’m looking at a statue of Sonja Henie, the figure-skating star (1912-69). And I think of that exclamation from Car Talk: “Sonja Henie’s tutu!” This little statue, in a sense, is the Oslo equivalent of Copenhagen’s mermaid . . .

‐I’ve been observing Norwegian bathroom design for years — hang on, that doesn’t sound quite right. Anyway, I’ve been to this country many times, and have visited a few men’s rooms. (That doesn’t sound quite right either.) My point: They really know how to do bathroom design, these Norwegians. How many ways can man think of to turn on water?

‐Thor Halvorssen and his crew at the Oslo Freedom Forum have done a great and glorious thing in the world. I wish I could award them a prize.

Thanks for joining me, dear readers, and I’ll see you soon.


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