MOSCOW - With winter coming, and the end of this year's bicycling season, it is worth looking at Russian cities' relationship with two-wheel transportation. First of all, the number of people choosing to get around by bike has actually become noticeable. In response, Moscow's city government has started to think seriously for the first time about bike traffic, and how it might co-exist with automobile traffic.
I am among the people who bike, in Moscow as well as St. Petersburg. And I can tell you that neither city will become a bike mecca anytime in the near future. But last spring, I finally got completely fed up with cars.
Once upon a time, I was a car guy. I tried all the great ones: Maserati, Mercedes SLR, Bentley, Porsche. But now, before I even get behind the wheel, I start thinking about traffic jams and about how I’ll have to spend an hour looking for a parking spot. I think about how I’ll end up getting towed, or I’ll get pulled over by a cop. Driving has become a horror.
I’ve been biking in St. Petersburg for a while now. Biking in St. Petersburg isn’t bad, because the distances are short and the streets are narrow. Going from the bank to cafe to store to the gym takes half a day by car, but it’s a quick trip by bike. Young people in St. Petersburg are poorer, so their parents aren’t going to be buying them expensive cars. It’s nice to ride along the Neva in the evening.
But then I decided to get on the bike in Moscow. Here’s a couple of observations.
- 1. The air in Moscow is awful. I tried to get around this by buying an air-filtering mask. I’m not sure who the mask-makers used as a model, but the mask pinched my nose and fogged my glasses. The most important thing it accomplished was to make me look like a terrorist, which is not a way to make friends with local police.
- 2. The sidewalks are safer, but it’s impossible to go more than 10 kilometers an hour on them, and that’s when there’s no pedestrians. If you’re on the road, maybe 20 kilometers an hour. Of course, that’s a lot faster than cars move during rush hour.
- 3. Contrary to popular misconception, in my experience drivers treat cyclists like people, and they yield when they should. The problem is when cars are double- and triple-parked. You’re forced to swerve suddenly into traffic, a delicate task in a split second, except of course when traffic is backed up anyway.
4. Cyclists can stop anywhere they want, but they can’t leave their bikes anywhere. There is basically no bike parking in the city. Even worse is the worry that your bike will be stolen while you’re out. Out of five bikes I’ve had, three have been stolen. You can set your watch: don't leave a bike without a lock for more than one second, or a locked bike for more than a minute.
The biking season is ending in Russia. But the important part of that statement is not “is ending,” but “in Russia.” Snow and cold are annoying for bikers, but in Finland one can bike all year long, thanks to well-groomed roads. That’s not the case in Russia.
My point is that although there is hopeful chattering in bike forums in St. Petersburg, bikes are not going to become a serious alternative way to get around in any Russian city without some major changes.
To begin with, there are plenty of people in Russia who don’t even know how to ride a bike, including my wife. Secondly, biking won’t become any easier until members of our government start using two wheels to get around. The mayors of London and Paris get around by bike, but it’s impossible to imagine their counterparts in Moscow and St. Petersburg doing the same.
It’s more likely that bikes will continue to be a mode of transportation reserved for a few idiots like me.
That’s all. The bike season is over. You are all free to go.
A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.
BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.
Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.
The incident at the cemetery
They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."
There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.
It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.
The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.
The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender
Crimes against Jews are rising
Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.
Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.
Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.
And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?
Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously
This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.
Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.
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