Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Now That's What I Call Art!

A painting by Russian artist Oleg Khvostov. H/t to Ben Sawyer for the photo.

If I should ever be so lucky to get to that stage, a book cover perhaps?

Friday, December 23, 2011

Václav Havel (1936-2011)

In the news, Communist Czechoslovakia's foremost dissident, first post-1989 president, and the first president of the Czech Republic, Václav Havel passed away this past week.

I don't have much to add to what has been said or written, other than to underline again how important he was to the dissident cause, providing a moral voice and then actual leadership. He was, if I may loosely paraphrase Joe Biden, "a B.F.D."

However, what I really want to post about is what I found on my return to Moscow on Tuesday evening. I may not have mentioned it before, but the Czech Republic's embassy is literally right around the corner from my apartment building. I pass it about half the time I leave, as it is one one of the two main routes to the Metro I take.

This is the wall in front of the embassy, I took this picture on Wednesday evening.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Kyiv, Pt. 10 - Bykivnia


Not a word or place well-known to the average American, but certainly of significance in this part of the world, and not only Ukraine. The Great Terror (1937-1938) represents only the height of the period, spanning, more than a decade from the late 1920s until 1953, of the most repressive practices of Stalin's rule of the Soviet Union. Bykivnia, the mass grave in which victims from the city of Kyiv, the Soviet Union's third largest, were buried, cannot tell the stories of those who are buried there, but the site does convey a sense of the tragedy of the period.
This is the entrance to the site, along a main highway leaving the city on the Left (Western) Bank of the Dnipro.

There are plans to build a larger, permanent memorial with a museum, church, and other structures. But for now, it's a few modest but powerful memorials.
Most of the trees don't have any names, only these cloth markers with a traditional Ukrainian pattern.

A few also have these red and white ones, left in honor of the numerous Polish victims.

Needless to say, it's a very fraught subject. I don't think I can possibly explain it all, but I hope these pictures convey a sense of how people here are constructing a historical memory about the period.

С днём рождения! or: Happy Birthday!

You may well have been subjected to my preaching about the cuteness of Cheburashka, a Soviet-era cartoon character. If you're interested, check it out on Youtube.

However, that's not the point of today's post. Instead, Cheburashka's crocodile sidekick, Gena, will provide the entertainment by singing Happy Birthday to Kim:

Transliterated text:                                                   My (loose) translation:
Pust begut neuklyuzhe peshekhody po luzham,       Let the pedestrians run clumsily through the puddles,
A voda po asfal’tu rekoi.                                                          And the water – as a river over the pavement.
I ne yasno prokhizhim v etot den nepogozhii,             To the passers-by it is unclear, on this rainy day,
Pochemu ya vesyelyi takoi.                                                    Why I am so happy.
A ya igrayu na garmoshke u prokhozhikh na vidu.   But I’m playing the accordion, for all the passers-by to see
K sozhalenyu den rozhdenya,                                             It’s unfortunate that birthdays,
Tol’ko raz v rodu.                                                                        Are only once a year.
Priletit vdruk volshebnik v golubom vertolyete,         Suddenly a wizard arrives in a pale blue helicopter,
I besplatno pokazhet kino.                                                     And shows a film for free.
S dnyem rozhdenia pozdravit,                                            He wishes me a happy birthday,
I naverno ostavit mne v podarok pyatsot eskimo.       And probably leaves me a present of 500 “Eskimos.”*
A ya igrayu na garmoshke u prokhozhikh na vidu.
K sozhalenyu den rozhdenya,
Tol’ko raz v rodu.
K sozhalenyu den rozhdenya,
Tol’ko raz v rodu.
* Soviet for “ice-cream sandwich.”

Russian text: 
Пусть бегут неуклюже пешеходы по лужам,
А вода по асфальту рекой.
И не ясно прохожим в этот день непогожий,
Почему я веселый такой.

А я играю на гармошке у прохожих на виду.

К сожаленью день рожденья,
Только раз в году.

Прилетит вдруг волшебник в голубом вертолете.

И бесплатно покажет кино.
С днем рожденья поздравит,
И наверно оставит мне в подарок пятьсот эскимо.

А я играю на гармошке у прохожих на виду.

К сожаленью день рожденья,
Только раз в году.
К сожаленью день рожденья,
Только раз в году.


Sunday, December 18, 2011

Kyiv, Pt. 9

I took a walk on Sunday afternoon in one of the nearby neighborhoods. I've been meaning to post a few pictures I took mostly of architecture and lighting, but this week got away from me very quickly. Here goes, sans narrative.

This picture and the two subsequent ones are of the House of the Chimeras.

For orientation, the building at the bottom of this steep hill is the Besarabs'kiy market.

Kyiv Visa Adventure Madness

Now that there is an end in sight, I should explain how I ended up in Kyiv in the first place.

When I arrived in Russia back in September, I had a visa good for 90 days. While there, I planned to get a student visa from a university through the program that is sponsoring my research. Since I was switching from a tourist visa to a student visa, I would have to leave the country. However, this didn't seem like a big deal: any city with a Russian consulate would work and I have a scattering of friends and family in Europe. I chose Kyiv because it was close and, also, now that I look back, I remember thinking, "If I were to get stuck there, at least I could do some research in the mean time."

That was an uncharacteristic bit of prudence, perhaps.

I submitted all of the paperwork to the program back in early-mid October. They were to deliver it to the university, and promised that the invitation would be done on November 15. No problem, that leaves plenty of time. The invitation is the first step: it's an officially signed and sealed document that proves that there is an organization in Russia that is sponsoring your trip and that your entry has been cleared with the government. For a student visa, it takes up to a month. For tourist visas - somewhat less.

In any event, I went along thinking that everything was okay. I even bought a plane ticket: a Ukrainian airline was having a sale in early November and so I bought a round-trip ticket to Kiev. And then I got worried, thinking: "I've not heard anything about my invitation, maybe I should email them."

After a couple of days, I heard back that they needed a new photocopy of my passport and that the prognosis was "hope" that it would be ready on the 15th.

The 15th came and went, but I had no invitation. Little did I know that this was just the first of many frustrations. Although I admit that I feared something like this was possible. I canceled my plane ticket and get most of the money back. Again, no big deal.

The next question was when the invitation wwould be ready, and whether it would be ready before November 29, the day my visa ran out. It wasn't. I left on a train to Kiev on the 28th. I had no invitation, only a promise that it will be in the mail in a day or two. And, that once I have it, it will only take one day to process it at the embassy in Kyiv.

I arrived in Kyiv and got settled in with at my friend's place. Since my travel plans had changed, it turned out that he was leaving town the afternoon that I arrived and wasn't going to be back until the following Monday. In the meantime, he generously put me in contact with some of his friends and acquaintances here, so I was not left completely to my own devices.

This is just the first of many examples of my good luck amidst all of these frustrations. I am enormously grateful to everyone in Kyiv, American and Ukrainian, who have made me feel very welcome.

I arrived in Kyiv on Tuesday, November 29th. On Thursday, December 1st, I got an email from the program director. My invitation was done and the university was to mail it that day. Great! I started checking the mail on the following Monday. Nothing. Wednesday rolled around, I'd been in Kyiv over a week already, and I started to get paranoid. What went wrong? I checked all the emails I had sent and received, discovering that I had relayed the address with the incorrect apartment number. I'm usually extremely careful about things like this, afraid that just this sort of thing will happen, but apparently this time around - that was not so much the case.

I talked to the people in that other apartment, and they agreed to leave anything that comes with the doorman downstairs. I checked with him once, twice a day for several days.

It turns out that this was in vain because, by the time I figured out the problem with the address, the package with the invitation had not even been sent. It finally arrived on Monday, the following week, my fourteenth day in Kyiv. I was told it was ready and mailed on December 1. It was actually mailed on December 9th, and arrived on December 12th. When it finally did, DHL contacted me via email, so I was able to correct the address and have it delivered to me in the right apartment number, not the one I had sent them. One crisis averted.

*       *        *

Okay, cool, invitation has arrived. Easy from here, right? Well, yes and no. From a time standpoint, it only took a few more days. But, as it always seems to go, struggles ensued. First, the invitation stipulated that the visa could only be good beginning on Tuesday, December 20th. So regardless, I will have spent three full weeks in Kyiv.

Second, when I actually went to submit everything, another adventure ensued:

I searched the website for the Russian embassy, found the address, and went there on Tuesday morning. It was a bit out of the way, but I thought, "Whatever, I'm going. I will get this done. I got this." I walked up, told the guards what I needed to do. They looked at me confusedly. This is not good. They called someone on the phone in their little booth. "You need to go to the consulate."

"?" I think. There was nothing about a separate consulate that I saw on the website, but okay.

"It's at no. 8 Kutuzov street."

So I hop on the subway, get across town and go in. I get all my paperwork in order, and then . . . I sit. . . . For an hour and a half. Talking to an Irish guy who was also waiting for a visa. Finally, 1 pm comes. They are closing for their lunch break, so they are rushing to get the last of us taken care of. Irish guy goes in first. Comes back out a minute or two later: "New rules. Can't get it here. I have to go back to Dublin."

"Uh, oh," I think. "What about me?"

I go in. I hand my documents to the woman. "Okay, everything is here," she says. "It will be two weeks."

"Wait," I say, "the university assured me you could process it in one day."

The rules had, in fact, changed. They can only do that for Americans who have a residency permit for Ukraine, i.e. those staying more than 90 days. I, as a tourist staying fewer, don't have one. So I make my best "I'm desperate and sad" face and explain to her that I've been waiting for weeks, and I've just come today because the invitation only arrived yesterday even though they promised it to me weeks ago and so on. And in that special way that only Russia works, all she needed to do it according to some other set of rules was verbal approval from someone else. And so she walked around the corner and got approval from the consul to give it to me in three days, as long as I pay the fee for the expedited service: $250. Okay, no big deal. It would normally cost at least $150. A little sanity is worth a hundred bucks.

American. Dollars. Cash.

Also no problem, I think to myself. I'll just need to find an ATM. In Moscow, this is not hard: most of the major banks' have ATMs in the center of the city that offer the option of drawing dollars, euros, or rubles. And failing that, there's the option of taking out hryvny and going to one of the numerous currency exchanges.

Well, this is not exactly so easy in Ukraine, as it turns out. In the course of more than two hours, including trips to other parts of the city and at least five different banks or currency exchanges, I discover the following: within the last few weeks, a new anti-money laundering law has come into effect. No drawing dollars from the ATM. And you can only change hryvny into dollars with a Ukrainian passport. But no one told me that straight out, I only pieced it together slowly, after several attempts to solve the problem.

In the end, I went back to the consulate, begged them to give me until the following morning to come up with the money: clearly, the woman at the kassa understood that this was a new thing. She didn't have to help me, because she could have made me go back to the beginning of the line and through the whole process again. And also have put off receiving the visa a day or two more. But she liked me, or so she said: "I looked at you and thought, This is a chelovek.'" And so she let me bring the money the following morning, which I did, after a Ukrainian friend helped out by changing the money for me.

After that, everything went fine. I picked the visa up a couple of days later and I'm on a plane back to Moscow on Tuesday. UUUra!

*       *        *

Again, Kyiv is fun. I've been incredibly lucky in the last couple of weeks. I've met new people, made some friends, had some productive days of work. On the other hand, if I had known how this would all work out, i.e. how much time I had, I might have gone to some other places, including L'viv, Odessa, or Chernobyl.

But I guess that means I have to come back again some time soon!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Kyiv, Pt. 8

Nothing too profound here, but I submit that Ukraine has some of the most beautiful bills I've ever seen. By way of reference, $1 buys about 8 hryvnia, [actually, you should say 8 hryven', but that's a grammar lesson for another day] and its buying power in Kyiv is about on par with that as well. For example, breakfast at McDonalds will cost you 30-35 hr., or about 4 bucks, and an espresso about 20-25 hr., or about $2.50-$3.

And now, pictures:
This one has Taras Shevchenko, the 19th c. national poet and namesake of at least
half of the objects and organizations in this city < / hyperbole>

The reverse of Shevchenko.

This one is Ivan Mazepa, an early 18th c. political leader.

And finally, Bohdan Khmelnytsky, a 17th c. Ukrainian Cossack hetman.
By the way, there are also 50 hr., 20 hr., 2, hr., and 1 hr. notes, as well as coins for the fractions of a hryven.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Post-election Fallout

I'm not in Moscow, or even in Russia, so my ability to comment on today's protests is limited by a lack of first-hand knowledge. However, I gather from news, blogs, friends' social networking sites and so on, there are significant, peaceful protests calling for a rerun of the elections. Official figures for Moscow alone are 25,000, while organizers suggest twice that many. A large event occurred in Petersburg and events, difficult to tell of what size, have been reported in many other cities. A safe, conservative estimate is that 100,000 Russian citizens - probably many more - were in the street today.

Most reports suggest this is the largest political event in the country since the early 1990s.

This official response has been to a) allow the protests to happen and b) to paint the protesters, as with those who reported election violations, as tools of foreign governments, especially the United States.

Hopefully this is a story that will be continued.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Kyiv, Pt. 7

Soviet kitsch, especially for the 1950s and 1960s, is a "thing" here, and a growing one. I see more and more restaurants and cafes with this kind of decor, often accompanied by a particular kind of synthetic "Soviet" cuisine found in the ubiquitous stolovaia.

But, given the nature of my research, this is too awesome for words:
Khrushchev. Complete with corn, Cuban flag, and compote.

When we went in to have dinner last night, I didn't even notice the corn stalks at left. But there they are!
Also: the food was delicious!

Kyiv, Pt. 6

This one is for you, dad: it's for sale!

Some back-story, for any readers out there outside my immediate family: my parents are remodeling an old house and it is, after a number of years, nearing completion.

I, for one, am terribly afraid my dad won't find anything else to do with his time.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Kyiv, Pt. 5

 This weekend I've had some time to take a walk or two around town. I've visited some important monuments, but also seen some stuff that made me laugh, or at least smile.

First, the serious: on Saturday, I took the metro a couple of stops from the center to find the memorial to the victims of Babyn Yar. This is the site where the Nazis murdered more than 30,000 residents of the city, mostly Jews, in late September 1941. Throughout the period of the occupation, the site continued to be used for political executions, and many thousands more died. It is the first site associated with the Holocaust that I can remember visiting and, not surprisingly, it was sobering.

Today, during the course of my walk, I was on one of the central streets of the city, and stopped at this memorial and display about the Holodomor.The short version of what is a difficult and politically contentious event: in 1932 and 1933, mass famine killed more than a million people, and perhaps many times more, in the parts of today's Ukraine that were then part of the Soviet Union.

There has been much debate about the extent of the famine, its causes, the role of Stalin and the Soviet state, and much more. I'm not an expert, so I'm not going to weigh in on the issue. However, it is definitely worth reading into.

Suffice it to say, history in the city of Kyiv is a pretty intense subject.

On a lighter note: spectacular bridge-construction fail.

That yellow structure? Yeah, that's an enormous crane on a barge that was part of the construction of a bridge across part of the Dnipro. Then it capsized. And apparently they don't have another crane big enough to rescue this one.

Finally, "Yellow Submarine" is apparently a restaurant specializing in hotdogs. Their advertising? Pictures of famous people . . . eating hotdogs!

Friday, December 02, 2011

Kyiv, Pt. 4

Kyiv has a big event coming up next spring. The country is, along with Poland, to host the final rounds of the Euro 2012 championship - and the final itself will be in Kyiv. Euro 2012 is the competition for Europe's soccer national teams, held every four years, alternating with the World Cup. It has a similar format, with round-robin play in groups, and then a single elimination tournament to follow. It has a huge following both within Europe and beyond, so it will be interesting to see how Kyiv and Ukraine are able to showcase themselves in the coming months.

Stay tuned!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Kyiv, Pt. 3

One thing Kyiv and Moscow have in common? Advertisements for Lipton tea - with Pierce Brosnan.

I submit, without comment, this concert poster.

Kyiv, Pt. 2

While I did not plan it this way, today's post has turned into a little bit of a photo-essay of my walk around Kiev.

This was not the plan because I had actually intended to go to the archive where the Communist Party records are available. Unfortunately, they were closed for a regularly scheduled maintenance day. So instead I played tourist.

The archive is about two metro stops from the center of the city. The metro here is insanely cheap: a ride - represented by a little blue plastic token about the size of an American nickel - is 2 hr., or about 25 cents. By comparison, in Moscow, a ride costs anywhere from 3-5 times that, depending on how many you buy at once. All this is to say that money was not the reason I decided to walk the distance back to the center. Along the way, I passed rows of Soviet-era housing blocs that sprung up in the post-World War II period.

After about 20-25 minutes' walk, I arrived in the center of the city, at Bessarab'ski market, the city's central food market. Since I was planning a good bit more walking, I didn't buy anything, but I did check it out and do plan to go back to pick up some fresh fruits and vegetables, not to mention some Ukrainian sausages.

After that, I walked up the Boulevard Shevchenko, where this picture was taken. While not a whole lot survived the war, the streets that did are quite pleasant. It's hard to beat a walk along a tree-lined boulevard on a brisk winter day.

On the recommendation of my friend with whom I'm staying, I stopped after a couple of blocks to check out "The Museum of the Ukrainian People's Republic." It's only one room, but it's surprisingly thorough in covering the events between February 1917 and 1921 in Ukraine and Kyiv. During these years there was an attempt to establish an independent Ukrainian state. The Rada, its governing body during the early stages, sat in this building, which today is houses a number of teachers' organizations, as well as this one-room museum. I would need innumerable blog posts to explain the complexity of the period, but to suffice it to say it was a violent, multi-sided, and messy affair which the Bolsheviks won only with great difficulty.

A little further up the street, Kyiv's opera house. Tonight's feature: Turandot.

Kyiv's history is a long one, reaching back before 1000 AD, when it was a major point on trade routes between northern lands and the Byzantine Empire to the south, as well as in contact with various cultures of the steppes to the east.

This is, of course, a problem, when those steppe peoples - like Batu Khan and his Mongols in 1240 - show up and burn the joint to the ground. One of the few structures to survive from that period - although it has been rebuilt and renovated along the way - is the Golden Gate. For those of you who remember my posts from Vladimir, this is the ur-Golden Gate that inspired that one.

These two pictures are of a central square, the last place I went on my walk today. If you remember footage of the Orange Revolution of 2004, this might look familiar, as the rallies that led to a rerun of the presidential election of that year took place in this square, Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square. In the above picture, there are two of the postwar buildings that line the western side of the square (there are several more not pictured, of similar style) and a statue of the Archangel Michael, the city's protector. In the lower picture, the other side of the square. For reference, the apartment where I am staying is just beyond the large building in the center, which is a hotel.

And finally, for fun, coffee trucks! These are apparently a relatively recent innovation, but a good one. It's a teeny-tiny pickup truck-style car; an espresso bar on wheels. Cappuccino for 10 hr. ($1.25) in a paper cup to go? Yes, please! And pretty good too!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Kyiv, Pt.1

Thanks to visa regulations, I had to flee the country. Well, no, not exactly. But my old visa expired today and so I have to leave Russia in order to get my new, fancy student visa. As a result, I'm in Kiev for a couple of days.

I like Kiev, or rather, Kyiv, a lot. Kiev is a transliteration of the Russian Киев while Kyiv is a transliteration of the Ukrainian Киïв. Russian is nearly universal in Kyiv and, as my Ukrainian is limited to a few words and phrases, it's the language I use the most. However, I will defer in this case to the Ukrainian. So if I lapse and call it Kiev, call me out!

I hope to post a little more about it over the next couple of days. Thus I presume to name this post "Kyiv Pt. 1" even though there is, as of now, no part 2.

But for now, I have a couple of pictures to whet your appetites.

This picture is along one side of Khreshchatyk, a main thoroughfare of central Kyiv. Note that I took this at about 5:00 pm local time. Daylight savings time? Yikes!

The major political news in Ukraine in recent months has been the criminal charges against former prime minister Iuliia Timoshenko, ostensibly for some of her actions as PM. More on this later.
Also, I hope to post later this week about Thanksgiving, po moskovskii!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

This Week from the Archives, Pt. IV [or, White Dog, Russian-style]

Working in the archives is a lot like having a big puzzle to put together. Unfortunately, the end result is not at all clear. You don't have a dissertation for which you have to fill in the pieces.

So when you find a document that screams, "Hey you! This is important!" it is pretty exciting.

I found one of these the other day: a summary report on a conversation that Khrushchev had with a group of five senior agricultural officials a few weeks after launching this whole corn-planting scheme. It's only twelve type-written pages long, but there are at least five separate passages that offer fodder [no pun intended] for analysis.

Plus, there's humor. One of Khrushchev's constant refrains was that corn solved two problems: It provided grain, which was great, but the plant itself could also be chopped and used as fodder for livestock.

In this conversation, he related his amusement that that it might have a third use: One of his minions, Shevchenko, had gone to his, Khrushchev's, native village in the Kursk region to investigate their progress on planting corn, which they had begun a year or two before at his recommendation. The reports were good. Perhaps too good. Khrushchev explained:

There is so much silage there now that they feed it to cows, sheep, horses, hogs, and they've even tried to distill samogon [bootleg liquor] from it, but it hasn't turned out yet. As you can see, it even solves a third problem. True, they might be thrown in jail, these innovators, but they are convinced that they can make samogon.
There you have it: white dog, Russian-style.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Morality, "po komsomol'skii"

I've been thinking a little more about the list of questions I referred to in this earlier post. One of the other dominant themes of the list were questions of personal conduct and morality. The questions entailed issues of love, friendship, and the individual's duty to society. These were issues that were covered in the course of Komsomol activities. 

From memory, the list included questions from the superficial ("Is it "uncultured" for a woman to wear lipstick or paint her fingernails?") to the probing (Which is more important, love or duty? Is it possible to love more than one person?)

This and related topics is something that an increasing number of historians have examined for various points in the Soviet period, especially for the 1950s and early 1960s, when Khrushchev's reforms and plans to "construct a communist society" engendered earnest discussions about the proper conduct of individuals who were to lead the way. The membership, presumed to be future communists, had to be educated in how to lead an exemplary life.

This made me begin to think about similar questions in our society. Clearly, American society has no centralized authority that attempts to establish guidelines. Although some might argue that Hollywood tries. For many, a church or other religious authority establishes certain priorities and guidelines. But not for all.

Is it society that sets the norms? Or is it we who, through the aggregate of our individual actions, set the norms of society? Are we individualists? Or do we just selfishly do what we want and find justification anywhere we can?

I tend to think that neither - that we are "rugged individualists" or selfish - tells the whole story. It seems more likely that it is a combination of these and several other options. Individuals and the built-up weight of cultural tradition contribute, but also popular culture in the form of music, literature, and film.

In any event, I think it's interesting - and necessary - to stop for a moment and consider what principles guide our lives. I've occasionally said that I try to act "the way my mother raised me." But what exactly does that mean?

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Century of the Self

Since the archives are only open so long every day, I have some time to read and relax in other ways. On the recommendation of a friend, I recently watched a four-part documentary on the role of Freudian psychology in shaping society, especially American society, in the twentieth century. The director's name is Adam Curtis, and it originally aired on the BBC in 2002.

Wikipedia: The Century of the Self

YouTube: The Century of the Self

The film's argument is provocative, and is certainly food for thought. There are a couple of more posts on this subject germinating, but more on those later.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

This Week from the Archives III

Today I was searching through the files of the Komsomol (Young Communist League) Central Committee's Department of Agitation and Propaganda. Lectures were a major part of this department's activities, but what interested me is the list compiled of common audience questions for the year 1955.

The historian in me thinks about how these questions are more likely reflective of the fears of the bureaucrats compiling the list than they are an accurate reflection of the actual questions and interests of the average Soviet young person.

And then there's the part of me that had a little laugh out loud in the archive.

"Why does the Soviet Union not demand that the United States return Alaska?"

"Was Jesus Christ the first communist?"

Good question.

Also, I'm trying to imagine how a Soviet propagandist might answer to such an audience.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

November 4, Day of National Unity; or, Why I Can't Go to the Archives Tomrrow

Yes, I am going to be the kind of nerd who uses a citation in a blog post. I might as well do it up front:

Chester Dunning, Russia's First Civil War: The Time of Troubles and the Founding of the Romanov Dynasty (University Park: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001).

Okay. Now that that is out of the way, onward.

Why, you ask, a citation for an academic book about "Russia's first civil war"? It all begins with a holiday: tomorrow, Friday, 4 November, is Russia's День народного единство, or "Day of national unity." If it sounds a little wooden, well, that's because it is. Holidays take time to wear off some of their rough edges and build up traditions. Celebration of this Imperial-era holiday was re-initiated only in 2005 as a way to avoid celebrating the October Revolution, traditionally celebrated with parades on November 7. Thus, the "Day of people's unity" is still in "like-new" condition. Even Russians have no idea what to do with it. A survey cited here suggests that only 23% of Russians actually know what the holiday is for. And that's an improvement.

The history behind it, as the above book suggests, goes back to the days of Muscovy and the establishment of the Romanov Dynasty, which ruled Russia from 1613 to 1917. As with many events in Russian history, it all began with Ivan Groznyi (or "the Terrible," if you will). On his death in 1584, he left behind two sons: Feodor, of limited intelligence, and Dmitrii, a young boy. The elder son reigned for several years, but did not rule. Ruling was the responsibility of his brother-in-law, Boris Gudonov, a nobleman and favorite of Ivan's later years. In addition to the privilege of ruling, he also had the privilege of being hated by many of the boyar (the highest level of Muscovite nobility) families for various reasons of blood, honor, and whatever other reasons rich people hate each other.

You know, in their free time when they are not enserfing peasants. More on that later.

Also, it probably didn't help that Boris got is start in Ivan's proto-secret police.

To make a long story short, Dmitrii Ivanovich mysteriously died in the course of an epileptic fit. (Who let the kid play with a knife? Sounds fishy.) And then Feodor Ivanovich died, childless. Suddenly, all-too-conveniently, Boris is presented with the opportunity to not only rule, but to reign. And so, the Rurikid dynasty having died out, Boris ascended the throne in 1598. And everybody lived happily ever after.

What? Wait. . . this just in: no they didn't.

Actually, for want of a better term, everything went to hell in a hand basket. The subsequent period lasted from 1598, when Boris ascended the throne until 1613, when the boyars got together in a great council and elected one of their own number, Mikhail Romanov, to rule as tsar', autocrat, and all that, etc.

In Russian, it is called "Смутное время," usually rendered in English as the "Time of Troubles." And troubles there were. First on Boris's plate was a young pretender, claiming to be Dmitrii Ivanovich (remember his suspicious death?) but most likely an errant monk of one sort or another. While Boris proclaimed his innocence all along, it's fairly likely that the original Dmitrii was murdered at his orders. Karma will get you like that. In any case, this "Dmitrii" showed up at the head of an army of Poles. Now, that may not sound that scary now, but in the 16th century, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was a powerhouse. It was bad news for Boris. He bowed out (i.e., he was killed) in 1605.

No news on how Natasha fared. [Now that I have my Rocky and Bullwinkle reference out of the way, moving on.]

And this wasn't even the only "false-Dmitrii." Once the first one took the throne and then got himself killed, there were at least a couple of more. After killing this first Dmitrii, the boyar Vasilii Shuiskii seized the throne. And the Swedes got involved. Again, doesn't sound all that frightening, what with their social-democracy and cheap but functional furniture, but in the 16th and 17th centuries, you didn't want to be on their bad side.

And the bad things didn't end there. More invasions, more pretenders, resistance from various Muscovite magnates. I won't bore you with all of the details. Also, it;s because I can't remember them all and I don't have Dunning's book at hand. Hence the citation. The main argument is that the "hooray for national unity" narrative conceals as much as it reveals. For example, the standard narrative downplays the fact that many Russians, from common soldiers to boyars, worked with the foreign invaders and there was just as much conflict among insiders as outsiders: hence "Russia's First Civil War."

What's important is that Russian society was profoundly altered in the process, as its military, political, social, and economic structures could not go back to the way they had been under Ivan. Many peasants, fed up after years of Ivan's increased taxes and curtailment of their traditional freedoms, decided get to out of dodge, fleeing to the south and west and joining nascent Cossack bands. Or to the north and east in to sparsely settled lands of Siberia and the north. Those that stayed behind, they ended up as serfs: The exact moment of transition from semi-free peasant to serfs (which they would remain, in hereditary servitude, until 1861) is debatable, the social chaos of the Time of Troubles certainly didn't help.

So, to make a long story short, the cycle of chaos, war, famine, disease, and violence did not end until 1612. The traditional narrative has it that some well-intentioned folks, led by a nobleman Dmitrii Pozharskii and a merchant from Nizhnyi Novgorod Kuzma Minin got everyone together and threw the Poles and their allies out of Moscow. The final battle took place (new style) from November 3-6. Hence the November 4 holiday. Also, they have that nifty statue in Red Square.

And I can't go to the archive tomorrow. Thanks, guys, for the guilt-free day off. And that other stuff, too.

Elections, Coming to a Russia near You

An election poster update, this one from outside M. Frunzenskaia, for the liberal "Яблоко" - yes, that means "apple" - party.

The picture is of its leader, Iavlinskii, and the slogan says "Russia requires change! We will return hope to you. Come to the elections, vote for APPLE."

This was the first party-oriented material I've seen. Then, yesterday, I saw a poster (which I did not manage to snap a picture of) for the LDPR.

Most. Misleading. Party. Name. Ever.

Suffice it to say the incongruity of the slogan "Russia for Russians" and "Liberal Democratic Party of Russia" never dawned on them.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

This Week from the Archives, Pt. II

Alcohol and collective farmers. Hilarity ensues. (Or not, depending on your perspective.)

Excerpts from the village newspaper of L. collective farm, S. region.

25 September 1957
Collective farmers Kh - - -, Mu - - -, Mo - - -, and the driver Le- - - stole 158 kilos of sunflower seeds from the collective farm. After selling them to some un-named third party, what do you imagine they did with the money?

"Пропойка." They went on a drinking binge, what else?

And for their troubles they were referred to the district prosecutor's office.

But then again, they weren't as bad as the guy who lost his job because, a couple of months earlier while driving drunk, he crashed a Moskvich belonging to the collective farm.

Local newspapers are way more fun! Or at least less predictable.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Have reusable grocery bag . . .

. . . will travel. To Moscow. Just thought it would be fun to show the bags I got from Weaver St. Co-op in action on the far side of the world.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Burning Questions

(Source: http://www.rususa.com/news/news.asp-nid-44520)

For some reason, the sign at right struck me enough that I stopped to snap a mobile-phone picture. The one above is a classic from the Russian Civil War. "Have you volunteered?"

And then there is the burning question of today's Russia: "Have you paid your mobile phone bill?"


A friend of mine here won a contest for the best recipe using pumpkins and, as a result, came into possession of a huge stack of them. To resolve the conundrum, she invited friends and fed us dishes made from pumpkin. Delicious! To make a long story short, I was nominated, as the American in the room, to supervise the carving of a jack o' lantern. Voilá!

Friday, October 21, 2011

This Week from the Archives

“The Council of Ministers of the RSFSR and Gosplan [State Planning Agency] of the RSFSR reported that to decrease the plan for procurements of popping corn for 1964 is not recommended because the existing level of production does not satisfy the population's demand for foods prepared from these varieties of corn.”

The Soviet people demanded more popcorn! That is all.

Thursday, October 20, 2011


The film, Zviagintsev's Elena, about which I wrote briefly a few posts back, has stayed on my mind, so I've decided to try to explain it more thoroughly.

I said before that it was not entertaining per se, but instead thought-provoking and troubling. Despite its quotidian subject matter, or perhaps because of it, I found it disturbing. Each major character lives a life with which the viewer can easily identify. That said, they are real in some way, rather than being types or stereotypes. Each, in order to "just get by" is compromised or, rather, has made some choice which compromises them: Each chooses depend on someone else out of a sense of either helplessness - or entitlement. They exploit their relationships, and the power imbalances within them, to achieve what they want, rather than working to achieve a balance that is mutually beneficial and supportive.

The central characters are Vladimir, a wealthy businessman of some sort, somewhat past 60, and his wife, Elena, somewhat younger. They met when he was a patient in a hospital, appendicitis if I remember correctly, and she - a nurse. They have been together for approximately ten years, married for a rather shorter time, and each has a child--now an adult--from a previous marriage.

As I was watching the film, I considered that perhaps Katya, Vladimir's daughter, was the potential exception, the character who, despite superficial appearances, defies to the above characterization. Now I'm certain that it fits her as well. She plays her father expertly, as only daddy's girl can. At the same time, there's a something in her expression, speech, and body language that suggests that she despises him for the very thing that gives their relationship any footing at all, his unquestioning provision of anything material she requests. She despises him in a way, I think, a person can only despise one to whom they owe a debt. Thus Katya's compromise; she craves independence from her stern but doting father, but she depends on his money--and the expectation of his inheritance.

However, we also see her relationship to Elena, her ostensible step-mother. Elena feels acutely Katya's haughty sense of superiority based on class, education, wealth, and status. Katya is rude and dismissive, and Elena returns the favor by denouncing her to her father as a spoiled brat, to whom he has never denied anything.

Concomitantly, Elena's relationship with Vladimir is another compromise. Whatever the conditions and nature of their relationship in the past, it is now a sort of dystopian sort of world-turned-inside-out. He needs (or rather, has) not a wife, but a maid, cook, and nurse. They have a sexual relationship, but there is little warmth between them. In fact, the film's first line of dialogue sets the tone. Him, to her, over the breakfast that she prepares him daily: "The oats are good." Each of those aforementioned roles she plays while occupying her own modest bedroom at the other end of their otherwise opulent apartment in a posh Moscow neighborhood. Her material needs are met, but it is very clear that her emotional ones are anything but fulfilled.

Vladimir, on the other hand, retains all power, not the least of which are control over finances and the right to a wandering philanderer's eye, evidenced by his ogling of a woman in the gym just moments before the heart attack that, after some twenty-five or thirty minutes of growing tension and sparse and therefore effective movie-score strings, sets the plot in motion.

Thus he has made his choices: he has made her dependent on him financially, while being dependent on her to care for him both before, and most certainly after, the heart attack incapacitates him. He has also made his choices. Moreover, he professes that he refuses to help her son out of "tough love" toward Sergei, regardless of his willingness to provide anything for Katya. Eventually, he contemplates reserving not half of, but his entire estate for Katya in a petulant attempt to keep her son and his family away from his wealth. 

And then there is the son himself, Sergei. And his own wife, son, baby, and, as we learn, a third child soon-to-be. They are as close as Zviagintsev comes to allowing himself stereotypes. However, as far as I am aware, Russian film has thus far little portrayed their type and so it has somehow avoided becoming trite, cliched. They are, in an attempt to place them in American terms, urban white trash.

Early in the film, we watch Elena leave the marbled halls of the tower in which she is caged. She collects her modest state pension and journeys far beyond the edges of Moscow to the post-industrial wasteland in the shadow of a power plant where their apartment is situated. She delivers the stash of rubles (and a bag of groceries bought on Vladimir's dime) into the hands of Sasha, who pockets a little for cheap beer and gives the rest to his wife for the provision of food. This portrays their poverty, the class divide between the Vladimir and his wife, and the physical decay of the post-Soviet Russian reality for those beyond Moscow's glitter and glam. It also serves to demonstrate Sergei's helpless but entitled dependence on troubled, even desperate, yet comfortable Elena.

But they want more from Vladimir, whom they hardly know, and who cannot tolerate the thought of helping "others." What Sergei and his tragically overstretched wife want is for the elder son--Sasha--to avoid military service (to be avoided at any cost in Russia, given the living conditions and hazing by most accounts rampant) by gaining entry into higher education.

The young man is aimless, probably blamelessly, given the socio-economic conditions of the post-industrial wasteland that surrounds their apartment block. His way out - gaining access to higher education on his own merit - he closes by avoiding study in favor ofss, probably blamelessly, given the socio-economic conditions of the post-industrial wasteland that surrounds their apartment block. His way out - gaining access to higher education on his own merit - he closes by avoiding study in favor of first person shooter games and petty brawling between his clique of friends and its neighboring counterparts. Thus it will take money to buy his way, by hook or by crook, into a university or college.

The wife is, although a minor character, more sympathetic than any. She attempts to maintain order, culture, and decorum in the face of a slobbish husband and a surly teenage son, but she manages neither exercise her considerable authority in the family to encourage Sergei to do anything but drink beer and get her pregnant, nor to induce Sasha into taking his education seriously.

Without giving too much away, Elena takes drastic action to secure the grandson's admission and a substantially more comfortable existence for her son, daughter-in-law, and their 2.3 children. That leads, of course, to the ultimate question: Are her actions moral, the 'right thing to do'? Is everything, including harm to a man who is in many regards reprehensible, permissible to secure the material needs of those who are dependent on you?

We are, as the audience, expected to see her as the protagonist. But are we to be sympathetic? In a Hollywood multiplex block-hit cine-buster, there would be clear good guys and clear bad guys. But here, the point is finer. In fact, I think it sits on the point of a pin. Is blood thicker than water, or whatever makes up the bond that holds Elena and Vladimir together?

To be honest, I think I could sympathize more with her if her actions toward him were in revenge for the apparent emotional abusiveness of their relationship, rather than in pursuit of the money.

At bottom, the conflict is about money. But where does that get them? Vladimir had it, but was he a good person? A happy person? And Katya? She has it, but is she happy? And as for lacking it, Sasha, the lump that he is, has a certain childish joie de vivre, despite the poverty and chaos around him.

On the one hand, money as the motivating force for the plot disappoints, for it seems such a hackneyed, trite way for an artist to create a conflict for his tale. And yet, there is something true in that struggle, which seems to consume us all. And this, with a nod toward another film I've seen recently, honors Hemingway's dictum that an artist's work is good because it is true. This is not a commentary on Russia's upper crust, although theirs is the pursuit of money. It is not a condemnation even of Russian society, but rather of all of us. You might grandly say, of our entire civilization.

And that brings me to a final point: Chekhov. I'll bet you didn't see that coming. This film has more than a little something of Chekhov within. As I was watching, I thought of this Chekhov short story. Chekhov is esteemed - rightly so, in my humble opinion - by many, especially beyond Russia, because there is something universal in his stories. His stories, in a way that those of most other great Russian writers do not, works in translation. He created the believable, the typical, but not with stereotypes. His stories place the reader in situations in which something universal resonates. These situations, lacking an author-imposed apparatus of moral judgment, leave it to the reader, to us, to decide who - if anyone - is good, who is bad, and to whom. All while turning the spotlight on the day-to-day tragedies of which human folly are made.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Anglophone University Power?

I don't generally give a lot of credence to university ranking systems. I would argue that, past a certain point, the name on the walls--and the diploma--is less important than the quality of the people within those walls.

With that in mind, I read in one of the Moscow foreign language newspapers an article lamenting the state not only of Russian universities, but of continental Europe as a whole.

"The Decline of Europe" 

The source, of course, was a series of rankings released by a firm called Quacquarelli Symonds, or QS.


Moscow State University came in at 112 and St. Petersburg - 251. The article continues, suggesting that there are historical reasons for the low placement of universities in the former state socialist countries of Eastern Europe, evidenced by the fact that the Charles University in Prague is the only other one in the top 300.

However, it also laments that the countries of Western Europe don't, in the opinion of this ranking system, stack up well either.

My translation, which is, of course, rough:

"We can put this [the low ranking of universities in continental Europe] on the account of the supernatural force of the the American power. Effectively, beyond the celebrated schools of the Harvard sort, the humbler ones such as the University of North Carolina overshadow Europe like a mountain over the mouse." [I may have missed the exact sense of that, I'm not familiar with the idiom.]

The conclusion that the article reaches is that American universities--and by extension those of the Anglophone world--hold their advantage in sciences, humanities, and social sciences thanks to the position of English as the language of international learning, itself a product of American power.

It's something to think about, but also makes me apprehensive. We in America have built a system of education that, while imperfect, functions very well. And that system is under threat by savage budget cuts from the state governments that support it and increasing pressure to find sources of funding in the non-profit and private sector. The young and the talented come from all over the world to learn and contribute to this system, but can this system continue to function as it has, in light of this budget squeeze, post-9/11 visa regulations, and a host of other pressures?

Monday, October 17, 2011


So Russia has elections coming up in a little over a month, for the State Duma, the federal parliament. But, other than a few posters, you would hardly know it from the streets of Moscow. In fact, the only evidence I have seen is a few posters: this first one isn't even for a party, it simply says: "December 4, elections for the State Duma of the Russian Federation. For life, for people."

But even the election posters for United Russia are a little hard to come by: the only ones I've seen were for the local party branch in Moscow's Lefortovo district.

I guess it should be said that Russia--like most countries not called the US--doesn't have a tradition of near constant electioneering. I will be curious to see the elections become more and more visible over the next six weeks - if they do.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Russian Film Recommendation

I'm slowly settling into a normal routine in Moscow. One of the things that I hope to make a part of that is going to see good movies. A friend of mine introduced me to a great theater that shows Russian films, but also foreign films without dubbing. It's a little thing, but it makes all the difference and they are often hard to find.

Today I went and watched Elena. I don't want to give anything away, but I recommend it. I will say that it is not light entertainment; it's a difficult film, to say the least. It challenges the viewer to consider the moral position of each and every main character. There is much that is Russian, but also, I think, something universal in the story. It's also quite beautiful and technically brilliant.

Wikipedia in English

Wikipedia in Russian

It has also been well received internationally, so you folks out there might have a chance to see it.

Hollywood Reporter Review

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Some cooking pics . . .

I've made a couple of forays into the kitchen in the last few days. First, dissatisfied with the stock available in the local supermarket, I decided to make my own.

Then, there is the question of what to do with the stock. The answer: coq au vin. I followed Julia, so it was easy. Render the bacon fat, brown the chicken. Flambé. (Whoa, the flames didn't go that high last time!) In goes the stock and wine. Saute your mushrooms on the side. Brown braise the onions. Put it all on a platter. Then reduce the remaining sauce. Serve with parsley potatoes. Yum. With enough leftovers to feed me for the rest of the week.