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!