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April 17 2012

Letters: The web's new world order

The British people fought wars and went through a great deal of civil strife to construct the form of democracy we currently have. Thus there is nothing wrong with our government seeking to ensure that within its national boundaries activity in cyberspace conforms with its laws. The alternative proposition, that the law of the internet is coterminous with the decisions of the US supreme court, is unacceptable everywhere except the US.

The internet of course is magical and wonderful. But we should not have to put up with all the bad stuff in order to benefit from the good. By failing to deal with significant levels of online crime, I'm afraid the high priests of the internet industry, of whom Sergey Brin is most certainly one, have created the situation of which he and they now complain (Web freedom under threat – Google founder, 16 April). It may not be too late to halt or reverse some of the processes Brin is anxious about, but time is running out and laissez-faire will not cut it.
John Carr
London

• I recently replaced a defunct mobile phone and, a week in, find that the new phone's default settings included backing up "application data, Wi-Fi passwords and other settings to Google servers". Is Mr Brin a suitably qualified glasshouse stone-thrower, or does the above sit uncomfortably with Google's previous sniffing for Wi-Fi networks while making photographic surveys?

Internet freedom must rely upon a sea of small providers rather than disproportionate control by nations or global corporations. I will be looking to remove other Google services from my phone.
Mike Brown
Newcastle upon Tyne

• "Internet freedom" is just a vehicle for transnational corporations such as Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook to impose their ideology of rightwing libertarianism on the world – strident capitalism, no taxes, no government, no community. They are a threat in the same way as Murdoch has proved to be, but for some reason we talk about them as if they were the post office or the library.
Dr Stephen Dorril
University of Huddersfield

• Ai Weiwei's comments on the power of the internet to achieve freedom (China's censorship can never defeat the internet, 16 April) remind me strongly of the prescience of your former Communist affairs correspondent Victor Zorza (died 1996). I recall the characteristic enthusiasm with which he told me, almost certainly as far back as the 1970s, that he was convinced that fledgling information technology would prove to be a death knell for totalitarian regimes. As your other articles demonstrate, however, this is not quite so straightforward a matter, given the partially successful attempts at censorship in today's authoritarian countries. But the general conclusion still holds, as Ai Weiwei suggests. Once the monopoly of information slips out of the hands of the rulers of such countries, political consequences are bound to follow sooner or later.
Peter Roland
Bognor Regis, West Sussex

• Russia's alarming restrictions on internet freedom, including the imprisonment of pro-democracy bloggers (Nervous Kremlin seeks to take back control, 16 April), are inconsistent with its membership of the UN Human Rights Council. When he first became president in 1999, Vladimir Putin promised to defend freedom of speech. When he returns to the post next month, Putin would do well to honour his word – and that of his country.
Hillel C Neuer
Executive director, UN Watch, Geneva

• Re your editorial (14 April), New South Wales police have set up a social media community engagement project called Eyewatch. Each of our 80 local area commands has a Facebook page. Each day, police publish local crime issues and crime prevention tips. We are now formulating neighbourhood watch closed Facebook groups across the state so communities can be in touch with police whenever they want to. Our pages have attracted 93,000 fans and over 30m page impressions. Crime is being solved; communities and police are working together to identify problems and create community solutions. This programme – applying the Peelian principles to the 21st century – could be easily adopted in the UK.
Chief Inspector Josh Maxwell
Manager, Project Eyewatch


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January 09 2012

The designer skin he lives in

Young Russians no longer pay homage to him, but the Bolshevik leader 'lives on' in a carefully choreographed show of solemnity inside a Moscow mausoleum. But for how long?

In Moscow at this time every year the debate resumes about what to do with Lenin's body, which, contrary to the Bolshevik's wishes to be buried next to his mother, has lain in state in Red Square since his death on 21 January 1924. Last year, Prime Minister Putin held an online poll in which 70% of participants felt his body should be buried. That result yielded no decision either way (no doubt because it was not the one Putin had hoped for). Nevertheless, when I found myself in Moscow just before Christmas, I seized the opportunity to pay Lenin a visit while I still could. What I encountered was part reliquary, part freak show – and an impressive work of experience design, as stage-managed as anything in the London Dungeon.

The experience begins with a procession along the wall of the Kremlin from a set of metal detectors at the very entrance to Red Square. In Soviet times, a 100m-long queue was a permanent fixture. Today, the queue has disappeared but its infrastructure – a chain cordon – remains, as I discovered the hard way. Not seeing the way in, I stepped over the chain and soon met with a policewoman charging at me and blowing her whistle. Finally inside the mausoleum (having been sent back to the top of Red Square) I was respectfully stomping the snow off my shoes when I was violently shushed by a guard. All of this is part of the choreographed solemnity that includes the prohibition of hats, cameras, talking, hands in pockets and lingering. Because, despite the morbid voyeurism of wanting to see the body of a man who died 88 years ago, this is not a freak show; it's a piece of political theatre.

The mausoleum itself was designed by Alexey Shchusev in 1929 to replace a temporary wooden one he'd erected within days of Lenin's death. Made of marble and granite, it is a series of concentric cubes resembling a step pyramid. Shchusev shared the suprematist Kazimir Malevich's belief that the cube symbolised eternity. Since his masters, known as "the immortalisation commission", were using the latest technology to make Lenin last forever, his tomb was to be a kind of Mecca. And not withstanding the irony of a secular political system creating its own saint, there is something of Mecca about it, processing around the body the way Muslim pilgrims process around the cuboid Ka'aba.

Or at least there should be. But I found myself alone inside the chamber – alone, that is, except for two guards and Lenin himself – and not so much processing as gawping. It is one of the most impressive rooms I've ever entered, though this is only partly down to the architecture. The black granite floor and walls, with their red marble lightning motif, communicate such density you feel like you're at the heart of a mountain. But most of the impact comes from what is inside this container: the bizarre sight of this embalmed body lying there like a bald Snow White in a black double-breasted suit and polka-dot tie.

The atmosphere is one of incredulity. Is that waxy thing Lenin at all, and if it is, how is he in such good condition? Only a blackened fingernail hints at the deterioration of an actual body. As to whether he is real or fake, the answer is of course both. For as solid as the architecture is, it is merely a stage set. The real architecture of this would-be religious experience is the framework of chemicals that keeps Lenin's skin firm. The scaffolding in the cells of his face is a solution made up of potassium acetate, glycerol and alcohol, in which he is routinely bathed. All that marble and granite is merely compensating for the frailty of Lenin's mortal body.

Similarly, whatever the atmosphere in the chamber, the only thing that matters is inside the glass sarcophagus. Designed by Nikolai Tomsky, the purveyor of socialist realist statues to public squares across the Soviet Union, it echoes the ziggurat shape of the tomb. But more importantly, it conceals the machinery that regulates the climate around the body to 16 degrees and 80% humidity – just as in a shopping mall, the air conditioning is more important than the architecture.

The same team that looks after Lenin has reportedly been embalming North Korea's Kim Jong-il, continuing a fine communist tradition that has included Stalin (briefly), Mao and Ho Chi Minh. The motives of the communist ideologues in preserving Lenin as their prophet in perpetuity are clear. What this pickled body has to do with modern Russia is less so. The younger generation no longer pays homage to it. Boris Yeltsin wanted to bury it, but Putin had no wish to dispose of this pseudo-religious relic. In fact, just as he has sanctioned the continued fortifying of Lenin's skin, Putin has created his own cult of the body. He has made a show of his judo skills and posed topless for the cameras. In contrast to the semi-real Lenin, Putin is the "muzhik", or the "real" man. But is he? Rumours abound that Putin's expressionless face and smooth skin are down to Botox and plastic surgery. It's almost as though the more outmoded a politician becomes, the more artifice is required to keep him fresh.


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November 06 2011

Vladimir Putin and the painted skulls

Art historian Paul Koudounaris asked permission to photograph skulls at Mount Athos in Greece. And it seems he was not the first to make that request

California-based art historian Paul Koudou-naris admits he is "a bit macabre". He has spent three years touring ancient ossuaries, documenting seldom-seen artworks crafted from human bones.

His journey led him to Mount Athos in Greece. "Every Orthodox country has a monastery there," he says. "They paint the skulls to identify the bones of monks raised to sainthood. The Russian monks on Athos are the Rembrandts of skull-painting. I dearly wanted to photograph those skulls."

So Koudounaris asked if he could. "It was like going to see the Wizard of Oz. I was on my knees before this old abbot who looked like Rasputin." The answer was no: nothing personal, but he had to comply with God's wishes.

As he turned to leave, the abbot told him that another man had once come with the same request. His name? Vladimir Putin. "He visited the monastery, and even gave them $1m for repairs," says Koudounaris. "Putin asked if he might take some photos of the skulls, but they told him no." Then the abbot offered something more: "If it makes you feel better, frankly you are a much better photographer than Putin."


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July 06 2011

Power: portraits of world leaders by Platon – in pictures

Gallery: Photographer Platon's new collection of images, Power, provides glimpses of what lies behind world leaders' carefully constructed auras



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