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.