Thursday, March 31, 2005

And now it's sunny, and feels as if it was snowing yesterday, or a week ago - not three hours ago and then half an hour ago again...



Just after sunset yesterday, I heard what sounded like singing outside. I looked out of the window and saw a couple dozen people gathered on the roof of the synagogue across the street. It was a wedding, with a chuppah, candles, prayers and, finally, some really cheerful whistling as everyone walked back indoors from the snow-covered roof.

Watching it from the balcony was very moving: I was sharing in somebody's joy without having been invited - in a way, it was like watching a theater play. The air around me smelled incredibly tasty, and, very briefly, I wished I had been invited to the celebration...



In the apartment building right next to the synagogue, I saw people coming over to their windows, looking out to see what's going on some ten meters away from them, on the roof... At some point, two kids walked away from the crowd around the chuppah and stood by the fenced-off edge of the roof, looking into those windows...

It's snowing so heavily right now it's not even sad anymore, it's funny. March 31...

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Moscow...

At a new deli nearby they are selling lamb from NEW ZEALAND... "Yes, there's no lamb in Russia," they told me...

A sweet and beautiful vegetable vendor at the market nearby is from Daghestan; her name is Serenada...

Eighteen imbeciles at the Livadia Town Council have voted in favor of going ahead with the installation of Zurab Tsereteli's monument to Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill in Livadia.



The freaks plan to have the monument installed in one of Livadia's parks by May 9, the 60th anniversary of the victory in WWII. Just nine days later, on May 18, Crimean Tatars will be marking the 61st anniversary of the deportations, ordered by Stalin in 1944.

Here's part of a story re-published at the site of the Crimean Communist leader, Leonid Grach:

Livadiya deputies and residents of the town think that the monument to the "Big Three" will become one of the popular tourist destinations of not just Livadia but of Crimea as a whole.

Leonid Grach, leader of the Crimean Communists and a people's deputy of Ukraine, was present at the the Town Council session. He admitted that certain Crimean Tatar politicians have already spoken against installation of the monument, one of whose characters is Stalin. But they, according to [Grach], should respect the feelings of the Crimeans.

"We aren't yelling that the monument to dissident Pyotr Grigorenko erected without permission by the majlis (the illegal Crimean Tatar "parliament" - the editors' note) in the center of Simferopol should be torn down. We respect the feelings of those who initiated its installation - so let them respect our feelings," said Grach.


***

Here's more on the deportations of the Crimean Tatars, from the International Committee for Crimea.

Here's more info on Pyotr Grigorenko: his bio and his 1968 address to the Crimean Tatars.

And here's more on the contemporary Stalin monument mania, from my previous entries: here and here.

From Registan.net (thank you, Nathan and Laurence):

- Elnura Osmonalieva's translation of Akayev's bullshit Radio Ekho Moskvy interview;

and

- an op-ed on Kyrgyzstan in the New York Times, by University of Alaska Professor Elinor Burkett

***

Ms. Burkett argues that while Georgians and Ukrainians protested against corruption and a rigged election, people in Kyrgyzstan "were venting their frustration over the grim economic situation." At one point, she calls what happened in Bishkek a "so-called revolution."

Back in November, I remember feeling very reluctant to call our own situation a revolution, orange or whatever, primarily because the word brings to mind the bloodshed and futility of 1917. 'Revolution' is a fearsome word. We were spared (thank God and our wonderful people) - but it proved to be much tougher for the Kyrgyz: 15 or 20 people lost their lives and all that looting occurred. And it could've been much worse.

Still, revolution is defined as 'the overthrow of one government and its replacement with another' - and "a so-called velvet revolution" would have been a better way to describe the one in Kyrgyzstan.

As for the reasons and motivations, I'm sure that the degrees of poverty in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan differ, somewhat, but it's poverty nevertheless, and it's closely connected with the corruption in the government and with the ruling folks' belief that once they get on top, they can do whatever they want, fearing no consequences. This is why Ms. Burkett's analysis seems superficial to me, and a bit too abstract:

Look at the facts. In Georgia, President Eduard Shevardnadze was swept out of power when thousands of organized protesters surged into the Parliament and demanded an end to corruption. In Kyrgyzstan, Mr. Akayev's 15-year reign was endedby a motley crowd of 20,000 who began the day in Bishkek's Ala-Too Square chanting "Akayev is dirt," then moved on to loot not only the main government building - called the White House - but also supermarkets, Internet cafes, the wholesale food market, beauty salons and A.T.M.'s.

Likewise, Ukrainians rebelled against a rigged election that threatened to install Moscow's favorite in the presidency; but the Kyrgyz mobs that seized the provincial capitals of Osh and Jalalabad before moving on Bishkek weren't demonstrating against the flawed parliamentary elections in February and March. Rather, they were venting their frustration over the grim economic situation of a nation dependent on foreign exchange coming largely from a single gold mine and two foreign military bases, one Russian and one American.


Ms. Burkett makes totally valid points about Kyrgyzstan's new leadership - they all have too much history in both the Soviet and Akayev's past, and they do not necessarily agree with each other on everything.

But I don't think the Kyrgyz should be either more pessimistic or more optimistic about the future than we, Ukrainians, or the Georgians are: our new leaders haven't descended from heaven, either. And the way the Kyrgyz seem to fit into "the paradigm du jour" is this: just like Georgians and Ukrainians, they have shown their leaders - both old and new - that they're capable of dissent, and that it's safer not to try their patience for too long. And, hopefully, something good will eventually come out of it all.

I was looking through the Guardian's archive on Kyrgyzstan and found this piece about Jonny Bealby, a travel writer and founder of Wild Frontiers, a travel agency.

Among many other things, Bealby runs horse trips in Kyrgyzstan, and owns a "little house" in the Hindu Kush, Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province, "a fascinating culture populated by incredibly passionate and interesting people."

I'm timid and lazy and that's the main reason why Istanbul has been our only travel destination in the past five years (also, because Istanbul is absolutely amazing, of course, and because I'm scared of long flights, and because of how easy it is to get a Turkish visa...) - anyway, I still dream of going to Armenia, and Bosnia, and Central Asia, and Pakistan, and Israel, and Italy, and maybe someplace else I forget - and the Wild Frontiers site has made me crave travel even more, and I was beginning to feel pretty depressed, knowing full well that I'm not going anywhere anytime soon, but then I found some totally breathtaking pictures on the site and now I feel better, as if I've traveled already...

Here're the links to the photo galleries of my dream destinations (and there are more here):

- Pakistan

- Central Asia (with quite a few pictures of Kyrgyzstan)

- Georgia

The pictures are truly awesome and I'm so glad I've found them!

The New York Times is promoting two of their religion-related stories in a very sweet, conceptual way:



One piece is about yesterday's pathetic court ruling in the case against Sakharov Center; the other is about folks in the U.S. "wearing their beliefs on their chests."

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

A Kyrgyz woman, Fatima, a supermarket owner and a victim of the looting, on ORT: "This was done by the hungry ones to those of us who work hard."

***

Askar Akayev on ORT:

His voice and intonations are those of a somewhat feeble man, even though he looks okay; his hands aren't exactly shaking but he does have a little problem keeping them still and definitely holds the armchair more forcefully than he needs to. But who wouldn't be nervous in a shameful situation like Akayev's? At least he doesn't have to live in a tent - the interior in the room they're interviewing him in is pretty fancy.

He's saying almost exactly the same things that he said on Radio Ekho Moskvy a few hours ago - sometimes verbatim. All this molodchiki rhetoric.

Q. The opposition has been calling you a dictotor.

A. Well, the recent events have shown what kind of a dictator I am.

He's denying some of those looted stores in Bishkek belong to his family...

No matter where I am, I'll be trying to help my country, my people, to overcome the difficulties...

Russian scientific circles - huge moral support, very grateful to them...

Q. "Green" danger - is the threat of Islamic fundamentalism real?

A. There were external influences - the revolution has even been called "tulip." Financing of democratic institutions from abroad have turned into the unconstitutional overthrow of the regime... Hizb ut-Tahrir is coming into play, too... [blah blah... he wouldn't have mentioned it if they hadn't asked...]

[Deputy editor-in-chief of Rossiyskaya Gazeta was also in the studio - they got hold of Akayev first...]

***

That's it.

Total crap.

Kulov and Bakieyev aren't legitimate and cannot guarantee my immunity and safety. Only the parliament and its head can give me those guarantees. If they give them to me, I'll definitely return and help them, I'm very concerned about the stability and the future of Kyrgyzstan.

...The new power will soon become vulnerable - in a year, the opposition will emerge and will threaten them...

Q. What's your advice to you colleagues, all Central Asian plus Putin?

A. Our democracy is weak and can't defend itself. Colleagues should defend democratic gains, with weapons, if necessary...

Questions from the audience online: Does Akayev see the mistakes in his policies? Does he think it was wrong to have his children rule the country?

A. Russian wisdom - the one who doesn't work, doesn't make mistakes [???]. There were many mistakes, but I'm convinced the country was moving in the right direction...

[Should've been either "the one who doesn't work, doesn't eat" - or "the one who doesn't take risks, doesn't drink champagne"]

[Blah-blah-blah... He's talking of all the wonderful, democratic reforms, wonderful economy, people's lives getting better...]

President's children cannot choose their own political way - for example, the Kennedies in the States, the Bushes...

Question from NTV: Kulov says they're not gonna nationalize your property. In your declaration it says that the only thing you own is an old car. Is that true?

A. I don't remember what's written in the declaration... If you believe the myths, then half of Moscow belongs to Akayev, palaces in Moscow, in Turkey, half the world...

There haven't been any external intrusions...

...I order not to use force and that allowed the opposition to seize power.

...Even in a nightmare I couldn't imagine that those molodchiki, the criminal elements brought by the radical opposition, would then be directed to do the looting. I was shocked when I saw it.

...If I had known this would happen, I would've declared state of emergency. But I couldn't imagine, it's unbelievable that people would start looting...

...I was categorically against using force and my last order, right before I left, to the minister of internal affairs was under no circumstances to use force... A civil war could have started...

Q. Many questions from Bishkek online. Does Radio Ekho Moskvy broadcast there?

A. Yes, of course, it's one of the most popular stations there.

[A question from someone whose last name is Bekbolotov - but not Ilyas.]

Akayev promises not to run for president yet another time. Declares his love for the constitution.

Q. Dialogue with the opposition?

A. The only legitimate body now is the parliament. It's head, elected yesterday, has always been my opponent, at all the previous elections. I'm ready to have a dialogue with him. [I didn't catch the name, sorry.]

...Executive branch is illegitimate now. Anti-constitutional overthrow...

Q. Were the emails from you authentic?

A. Yes, I confirm the authenticity. I had no access to other media and the computer is always with me. I did write those two letters.

Can you spontaneously gather 10,000 well-prepared molodchiki? It was, of course, a well-prepared action.

They've brought people in huge numbers from the provinces... Not a single resident of Bishkek was there during the storming, all were from the regions...

The opposition ordered physical execution of the president...

The family - wife, grandchildren - were at the dacha; the children were at the parliament.

He's talking of how the demonstration on March 24 was supposed to be peaceful, but intead it turned into a storming... It looked like a battle to him, a battle in which one side - thousands of molodchiki brought by the opposition - definitely had an advantage... I saw how they were beating up the police, humiliating them...Then my security service demanded that I leave the building...

[The host called it Akayev's "return from Kirgizia" - not his flight...]

From the beginning, the opposition was planning to seize power, not peaceful demonstrations or negotiations, like it was in Kiev or Tbilisi...

Our ADSL is down so I'm back to the dial-up for a while... It sucks.

***

Askar Akayev will be on Ekho Moskvy in a few minutes, by phone. Online questions from the audience are here (in Russian) - LOTS of questions...

***

It's already started.

Akayev's in the Moscow region, he says. He's grateful to Putin for the invitation.

Q. How to address you - the president or ex-president?

A. I'm still the only legitimately elected president, until [Oct. something] and I haven't announced my resignation yet.

[...]

A. I don't see any reasons now to resign.

Very sunny in Moscow and -11 C. March 29...

Mishah says the weather woman on Ekho Moskvy emitted a few hysterical laughs as she was reading tonight's forecast for the Moscow region: -19 C...

Monday, March 28, 2005

Radio Ekho Moskvy just spoke with Yuri Samodurov on the phone, and he said that part of the reason the court had only imposed fines on them was Amnesty International's decision to declare the defendants "political prisoners" if they were given prison sentences.

A little more on the case on Amnesty International USA's Take Action page...

Tagansky Court has found two organizers of the exhibition on religion guilty of inciting religious animosity: Yuri Samodurov, director of the Sakharov Center, and Lyudmila Vasilovskaya, the Center's employee, would have to pay a fine of 100,000 rubles each (approx. $3,700). Their lawyers are going to appeal the decision; Russian Orthodox Church considers the ruling just. (via Radio Ekho Moskvy, in Russian)

I'm sort of catching up on Kyrgyzstan, reading Chingiz Aytmatov again, his 1966 short novel called Farewell, Gulsary! (Proshchay, Gulsary!), life stories of an old man and an old horse.

A very interesting story, very sad. Aytmatov used to be a veterinarian before he became a writer, so the way he writes about animals is amazing: in the novel I read last year, The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years, there was a camel, and some of the stuff about the relations between the camel and his master were making me laugh out loud; in The Place of the Skull, which I didn't finish because of the Orange Revolution, there were wolves; and Gulsary (translated as 'Yellow Flower') is a horse. There are plenty of people in Aytmatov's works, too, of course - plenty of life, plenty of history.

Aytmatov, currently an ambassador in Brussels, spoke out on the events in Kyrgyzstan, calling it a "real revolution" and saying that Akayev's regime has fallen because of the "all-embracing corruption" in Kyrgyzstan (via Komsomolka, in Russian).

Lenta.ru, however, cites a reproachful comment from Fergana.ru news agency (in Russian) - "Where were you before, Chingiz Torekulovich?":

...the most well-known Kyrgyz of the planet, father of the country's minister of foreign affairs, and simply a person enjoying immense authority among the population of the whole post-Soviet space, was silent during the past few days when the situation began to develop in the south of Kyrgyzstan.

Kurmanbek Bakiyev, Kyrgyzstan's acting president, has three brothers, according to Kommersant:

- Marat: director of the Courts Department of the Justice Ministry;

- Jusup: president of the Ecology and Emergencies Ministry's Republican Fund;

- Janysh: a police colonel, formerly head of something roughly translated as the Internal Affairs Ministry's Chief Department of Transportation Internal Affairs...

Sunday, March 27, 2005

The pictures load so quickly now... What a pleasure...

***

This guy is way cool - Banksy (via Wooster Collective)

Oh, one more thing: several people on that show - none of them Limonov - said "Putina - v otstavku!" (Putin - resign!)

Just finished listening to a very interesting discussion on Radio Ekho Moskvy about the controversy over the Sakharov Center exhibition on religion.

At one point, a man whose name I missed was speaking about how so many of those who submitted complaints about the exhibition had not actually seen it - and how it reminded him of how, back in the 1940s, the masses were declaring they hadn't read Boris Pasternak but condemned him nevertheless.

Then there was a phone call from the audience, which went something like this: Could you please explain why Eduard Limonov calls himself a National Bolshevik - he sounds like a totally normal person, and yet...

And I suddenly realized that the man I'd just heard was Eduard Limonov. And he did sound like a totally normal person.

His answer was too ambiguous - like, the name of his party is some kind of a secret that would be revealed in five years or so...

No, but really, why does he call himself a National Bolshevik?

***

Here's some more on this exhibition ordeal:

- From a RFE/RL 2004 story:

Now, a trial in Moscow is focusing the spotlight on the issue of religious freedom, Russian ethnicity, and the role of the state. The case pits the prosecutor's office against three human rights activists charged with inciting religious and ethnic hatred for organizing a modern-art exhibition entitled "Caution, Religion."

The exhibition, hosted by the Andrei Sakharov Museum and Social Center, featured 42 artworks by 42 artists -- some of them controversial but all intended to provoke discussion about the role of religion in modern society, according to the curators. One work featured Jesus's face drawn on a Coca-Cola logo next to the words "This is My Blood."

Just four days after the exhibition opened last year, six vandals destroyed several of the pieces, smearing on the museum's walls graffiti that accused Sakharov museum workers of being "Orthodox haters." The museum sued the men but lost the case.

"The trial reflects the legal right of the state to conduct its religious policy and it may well serve as a lesson to those people who are fostering tensions in the religious affairs of our country."

Now, prosecutors have turned the tables by charging Sakharov center Director Yurii Samodurov, exhibition organizer Lyudmila Vasilovskaya and artist Anna Mikhalchuk Article 282 of the Russian Criminal Code. The article punishes actions that "incite ethnic, racial or religious hatred."

The prosecutor, speaking at the trial opening yesterday, said the exhibition had "insulted and humiliated the national dignity of a great number of believers." The three could face five years' imprisonment if found guilty.


- And a lot more info on the Sakharov Centers site (in Russian) - tomorrow, the verdict will be announced by Moscow's Tagansky Court...

Oh, and this ADSL thing must've been the reason the phone didn't work a few days ago...

Our elevator sometimes smells of old women, pretty suffocating, and sometimes of expensive perfume. This says a lot about the building: it's full of ancient, Soviet-looking babushkas - but one of our friends once sighted a pretty well-known persona with a Georgian last name here. Either way, the elevator looks like it's never been peed in.

"Summer time" is here - 7:15 pm and still very, very sunny... Hard to believe winter may soon be over - but this is one the signs!!!

***

We now have internet connection through ADSL/Wi-Fi Router - thanks to dearest Mishah! The speed is amazing, it's also much cheaper than buying those dial-up connection cards - and I can move around now without having to disconnect first... It totally rocks!!!!!!!!!

Saturday, March 26, 2005

The way they kept announcing this documentary for two days, I thought there'd be a lot more of it... But it's already over.

Nothing special, but - no sympathy to Akayev whatsoever, and not judgmental towards the people, just a little bit of scepticism about the new leaders - they've all been one thing or other in Akayev's entourage...

"...Roza Otunbayeva, charismatic and pleasant as Nino Burjanadze in Georgia and Yulia Tymoshenko in Ukraine..."

Yeltsin once said Kyrgyzstan was slightly ahead of Russia, democracy-wise...

Kuchma, Nazarbayev and Akayev are singing one of the best-known Ukrainian folk songs - Ty zh mene pidmanula... - Kuchma looks the drunkest, disgusting, and Akayev looks most sober of the three...

First, the Kyrgyz wanted Chingiz Aytmatov, a renowned writer and currently the ambassador to the Benelux countries, to be their president. But he recommended Akayev, then merely a talented mathematician...

...an orphanage with children resembling skeletons, eating like dogs... horrible.

...a prostitute in Bishkek makes $5 an hour and, if she's lucky, she can make $15 in one night... they are being taught how to use condoms by some NGO women...

A documentary on Akayev's Kyrgyzstan on NTV right now: "...but Akayev turned out to be no warrior: he fled - or, to be more exact, left like an Englishman, without a good-bye..."

"...underfed soldiers were sent to suppress the rebellion in this hungry land..."

Yesterday, the parliament voted for the budget. Here's part of the Reuters piece (via Terry at Notes From Kiev):

Ukraine's PM scores victory as budget passed
By Olena Horodetska

KIEV, March 25 (Reuters) - Ukraine's government scored a big victory on Friday in its drive to impose reforms when parliament approved, with no dissenters, a revised 2005 budget praised by Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko as a "breakthrough for every citizen."

[...]

Tymoshenko, 44, clearly had her eye on a March 2006 parliamentary election, pointing to provisions for higher wages and pensions and substantial benefits for orphans, mothers and the handicapped.

"This will be a breakthrough for every Ukrainian. By boosting purchasing power, we will support every sector of the economy," she told the chamber in an emotional address minutes before the vote.

Later, a beaming Tymoshenko told reporters: "I am overwhelmed by emotions. This is not only a victory for the government. We can now see how a new presidential and parliamentary team was born. It can produce results for every citizen."

A total of 376 deputies in the 450-seat chamber -- the others abstained -- backed the draft, which cuts the deficit to about 1.56 percent of gross domestic product from 2.2 percent previously.

Revenues were set at 108.5 billion hryvnias ($20.5 billion), with spending at 115.3 billion.


***

Terry also has an entry on Tymoshenko's looks (it's brief so I'll quote it in full here - thank you, Terry!)

On questions of Yulia Timoshenko's hair.

The Timoshenko look is nothing, if not calculated. Her hair was naturally brunette and worn down until 2002. A "honey tint like Julia" can now cost up to USD 200 at a top Kiev beauty salon. The Timoshenko braid, modelled on Ukrainian peasant tradition and made famous during the Orange Revolution, is quite real. The braid scored her a typical coup in 2003, after parliament detractors accused her of wearing a hairpiece.

MP Timoshenko was ready for them, letting her hair down during rebuttal. The move proved her opponents liars and what's more placed her image atop evening newscasts and on front pages of newspapers the next morning. "Like any woman, I try to look attractive in my own way," Timoshenko told Ukrainska Pravda magazine, adding, "I think people sometimes make too much of my outfits."

It's +6C here - warm! - but cloudy...

And this blog is 2 YEARS OLD!!!!!!!!!

Happy Birthday, Blog!

Headlines should be banned. Well, some of them.

I woke up, opened Gazeta.ru and saw this:

Yushchenko Has Refused to Come to Moscow for Victory Day Celebrations

Immediately, I imagined all the stink and bullshit from certain Russian media that we'd be supposed to live through in the next month and a half. But then I read the piece:

Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko intends to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Victory in the Great Patriotic War on May 9 in Ukraine.

"I'll feel uncomfortable if the war veterans gather in Kyiv and I'll be standing at a podium elsewhere. I think it'll be easy for President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin and other colleagues to understand," he said [...].

At the same time, Yushchenko noted that he intends to visit Moscow on May 8.


And Ukrainska Pravda has one more quote from Yushchenko on this:

I'm planning to go (to Moscow) on May 8, to express my respect for the veterans and presidents who'll be in Moscow.

A huge thanks to Lyndon at Scraps of Moscow for finding the link to a Bishkek LiveJournal (in Russian)!

A huge thanks to Bolshoi Gorod, too!

I think parts of her LJ were quoted by NTV during their 10 pm newscast, and I tried to find it, but LJ is such a maze - plus I was in the middle of googling for Ilyas...

Thanks!

Ilyas is probably the only Kyrgyz I used to know, so I've been thinking about him quite a lot in the past few days.

***

We met on the plane to Washington, D.C., at the very end of August 1993. Both Ilyas and I - as well as about a dozen other students from the former Soviet Union - were on our way to U.S. universities for a year-long exchange program funded by the U.S. government and administered by American Councils, a U.S.-based educational exchanges NGO.

I was 19, very nervous and heartbroken, with no idea of how I was going to survive a year without my parents and other loved ones. And I was out of cigarettes.

Ilyas was the only smoker in our group, and I spent the whole flight to D.C. bumming cigarettes from him (yes, at that time smoking was still allowed). We chatted at the back of the plane: he was older than me and looked quite mature; it took me a while to memorize his name (by analogy with the Russian name 'Ilya'); I was studying to be an ESL teacher and he had just graduated with a degree in translation.

In D.C., we walked around with our group for a while, but it was so unbearably hot and some of the guys in the group were so silly that I don't really remember much about this walk, except for the dress and the shoes I was wearing. We returned to the hotel and went to dinner: I ordered pasta and everyone else ordered pizza - I do remember that because no one was aware that the right thing would have been to order a few slices, and they all ended up with enormous, totally unconquerable dishes in front of them, which was very funny.

After dinner, I went to the room Ilyas was sharing with another boy, and we sat there till very, very late, drinking really delicious Kyrgyz balsam that Ilyas had brought with him. It was really the two of us, because Ilyas' roommate - a boy with longish, curly, blond hair and eccentric, round, glasses - was lying in bed, covered with a huge blanket up to his nose, suffering from stomach problems mixed with the beginning of a culture shock. He whined for a while about wanting to go back home already and then fell asleep.

I remember asking Ilyas a stupidest question, one I'm still ashamed of: I apologized first, in advance, and warned him that he would probably be mad at me, but - "How do you guys tell each other apart? How do you know who's Kyrgyz and who's Chinese and stuff like that?" Ilyas laughed, not offended or anything, and that was such a relief to me that I don't remember whether he then answered my question or not. (Four years later, I confronted my dearest Malaysian Chinese friend with the same question, and she replied she had no idea how to tell "themselves" apart, except that whenever she saw a heavily made-up and dressed-up Asian woman on campus, she knew that was a Korean.)

Ilyas and I spent part of that night sitting in front of the window, looking at the moon - it seemed so much higher up than the moon back home - and at the apartment building across the street. There, in one of the apartments, was a man who, we suspected, was on the verge of committing a suicide: he kept pacing back and forth, to the window and away from it, sitting down, then jumping up and pacing restlessly again. At some point, we started making up stupid stories about the guy, imitating the Soviet-time propaganda: like, how this evil capitalist society was driving people nuts. That was our first night in the States and we were kidding, of course.

When we finished up the wonderful Kyrgyz drink, I went back to my room, which I must have been sharing with someone from the group, only I don't remember that person at all, somehow.

In the morning, Ilyas said good-bye and left for Austin, Texas. I was the only person in the group who didn't have to fly that day - I was taking a train to New Brunswick, New Jersey.

***

I probably remembered Ilyas all these years - 12 years - because he was really nice, not because he was the only Kyrgyz I've known. So today I decided to google for his name.

I didn't know his last name. So I entered his first name, and the year 1993, and the words 'Kyrgyz' and 'Texas.'

Here's what I've found:

EurasiaNet.org

KYRGYZSTAN DAILY DIGEST

KYRGYZ NEWS - 8 FEBRUARY 2001, THURSDAY

[...]

6. PRESIDENTIAL INTERPRETER BECOMES PRESS SECRETARY. President Askar Akayev appointed on 7 February Ilyas Bekbolotov his press secretary. Bekbolotov, 29, graduated from the foreign languages department of the National University in 1993. Then he studied at the Texas University in the US in 1994 and at the Central European University in Hungary in 1996. Since 1996, he worked at the presidential administration and served as presidential interpreter sometimes. He speaks Kyrgyz, English, Russian.

[...]


Amazing, huh?

I'm not 100 percent sure that this is the Ilyas I've known - but I doubt I'm wrong. Still, I wish I remembered his last name.

I haven't been able to find a picture of him - though it wouldn't be of any use anyway, because it's been 12 years and, moreover, the light-blue shirt he was wearing on the plane is, for some reason, something I remember best about his appearance.

Other things I've found about Ilyas Bekbolotov:

- Before becoming Akayev's press secretary, he worked for some USAID project and also translated for the World Bank in Kyrgyzstan;

- On Nov. 21, 2002, Akayev made him head of the protocol service of the presidential administration - whatever that means;

- A media monitoring organization that now seems to be extinct wrote this about him in 2002:

According to the local analysts, as the press secretary, I. Bekbolotov was known for one of the most loyal attitudes toward the independent press in Kyrgyzstan.


- A site called Nomad mentions Ilyas in the text about Kyrgyzstan's political clans (in Russian).

According to this text, Ilyas is the nephew of Misir Ashyrkulov, Akayev's longtime friend and former head of Kyrgyzstan’s Security Council.

Here's more on Misir Ashyrkulov, from a June 1, 2004, article by Leila Saralaeva of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting:

Opinion is divided about whether the apparent defection to the opposition of a leading ally of President Askar Akaev is a blow to his regime, or a clever move to subvert his political enemies.

The May 20 announcement that Misir Ashirkulov, the head of Kyrgyzstan’s Security Council, was to lead the Civic Union for Fair Elections left many confused about the future of the opposition-led group – and about the motives of a man regarded as a close friend as well as political ally of the president.

Akaev dismissed Ashirkulov from the Security Council four days later. [...]

The coalition was launched on May 20 by six leading opposition politicians together with Ashirkulov. They included four opposition party leaders – Omurbek Tekebaev of the Ata Meken Socialist Party, Emil Aliev, acting head of the Ar Namys party whose head Felix Kulov is in jail, Melis Eshimkanov of the El party, Almazbek Atambaev of the Social Democrats, and leading parliamentarians Adakhan Madumarov and Marat Sultanov.

[...]

For the moment, the emerging political grouping has not put itself forward as a coalition that will field candidates in next year’s parliamentary and presidential elections. Instead, it says it wants to put in place mechanisms to try to ensure the elections are fair, that the authorities do not try to rig the vote, and that there is no violence.

[...]

Many are puzzled why Ashirkulov – a man with such solid ties to the regime - should suddenly choose to identify himself with opposition politicians who bear little love for the president.

As political analyst Abdylda Syrgakov wrote in the newspaper Obschestvenny Rating, “Putting Misir Ashirkulov in the same team as Ar Namys – whose leader ended up in jail through the efforts of the then National Security Service head Ashirkulov – is politically Jesuitical in the extreme.”

Now 58, Ashirkulov has been friends with Akaev for 40 of those years, since both were students in Leningrad, now St Petersburg. But he became a political heavyweight only in the late Nineties, appointed minister of security in 1998 after serving as deputy minister since the previous year. He was then put in charge of the presidential administration before becoming head of the Security Council in 2001.

In autumn 2002, he survived an assassination attempt, serious enough that he still has 18 grenade fragments in his body. A man said to have thrown the grenade is about to go on trial, and Ashirkulov has said that while he is certain the right person has been arrested, the attack was orchestrated by someone else.

[...]

“It was my own personal initiative,” he told IWPR. “Just like civil society, the authorities are interested in ensuring that the parliamentary and presidential elections proceed in a transparent and fair manner, in line with the constitution and election law. And no rose or velvet revolutions.”

Opposition activitists are deeply divided over Ashirkulov’s move and the motives behind it.

Those involved in the coalition are in favour, and believe the former security chief has burnt his bridges with the government.

Moya Stolitsa Novosti’s chief political editor Rina Prizhivoit sees Ashirkulov’s dismissal as “punishment for cooperating with people whom Askar Akaev deeply dislikes”. “With one stroke of the pen he rehabilitated Ashirkulov in the eyes of those who saw him as someone sent to infiltrate the enemy camp,” she said. “It’s now beyond doubt that the Civic Union is not the creation of the [Kyrgyz presidential] White House political technologists.”

Others are not so sure, with some critics picking up on Ashirkulov’s comment about warding off a Georgian-style “rose revolution” as a sign that the authorities want to control or neutralise the “fair elections” movement. That leads them to conclude that his defection to the opposition was orchestrated by the president’s camp.

[...]

Human rights activist Tursunbek Akunov agrees, but goes even further, suggesting that the real end-game is about preparing the way for a presidential succession. Akaev, who has led the Kyrgyzstan since independence, has repeatedly said he will not stand for re-election in 2005, and Akunov believes that either Ashirkulov is himself the anointed successor, and will use the Civic Union to promote a separate political profile, or else that he has been charged with preparing the ground for some other candidate.

[...]

Ishenbay Kadyrbekov, a parliamentary deputy who has declared himself as a presidential candidate, sees ambiguities on all sides.

“I wouldn’t rule out that it is a multi-move gambit by the president,” he said. “It is quite possible that both sides know about it – each getting some advantage from it. The opposition gets to show that there is disarray in the presidential camp that people are defecting from it and that’s bad for the president – so they tolerate Ashirkulov’s presence.

“For his part, the president find its useful to know what the opposition is planning, so that he can take preventive action.”

IWPR has learned that Ashirkulov is currently out of the country. According to Eshimkanov, he left because he was concerned about his “personal safety”.


Go figure, is all I can say, as usual.

***

I wanted to title this entry "A Kyrgyz in My Closet" (similarly to an earlier one, "A 'Jesus Look-Alike' in My Closet" - which I have removed on request from someone whose request is totally justified), but then I realized that Ilyas doesn't really belong in my "closet" department: he doesn't qualify - because I've known him for no more than 24 hours, nor does he fit in there - all that's going on in Kyrgyzstan is no joke, obviously.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Stuff on Akayev and The Family at compromat.ru (in Russian) - some of it pretty interesting and pretty helpful in filling in some of the gaps.

NTV is showing pictures and reading texts from LiveJournal - about the looting of Bishkek...

Rain and wind in Bishkek; no signs of strictly-enforced curfew - just fewer people out, and police and citizens patrol the streets.

Bakiyev, in an interview to ORT, says the Russian military base will definitely stay, and the American one is likely to stay as well.

Bakiyev is a former prime minister, married to a Russian.

Enough of this armchair pseudo-journalism: here're the links to the photos and text from Bishkek, by Elnura Osmonalieva, 23, posted at Thinking-East.net and Registan.net.

Minsk has been quite messy today as well: the opposition tried to hold a rally, demanding Lukashenko's resignation and the release of political prisoners, and marking an anniversary of the creation of the People's Republic of Belarus in 1918. Riot police was quick to act against the protestors and many people are reported to have been arrested.

NTV can't establish connection with Bishkek - Osokin, the host, says it may either be due to some kind of a hurricane, or to the mess taking place in the city. Sounds way too weird.

Oh! They've just got the connection back. "Aha," said Osokin as he heard the voice of Vadim Fefilov, the reporter in Bishkek. Fefilov said there had indeed been a storm there. All's clear by the store where some shooting was reported earlier.

According to Gazeta.ru, Bakiyev, the acting president, denies that the curfew has been announced.

I'm not Yevhen Marchuk's fan - but he does have a point here (interview in Ukraina Kriminalnaya, in Russian, via Abdymok):

SBU and Kuchma do deserve some credit for the fact that the revolution ended without a single scratch on anyone's face. However, the main reasons were the calmness of the people and their awareness of their own strength. The organizers of the protests had conducted serious work on preventing confrontations. They were using important psychological tricks - children's songs, for example, that were broadcast publicly. I know that a serious group of psychologists worked there - it's rather difficult to keep such a huge number of people from aggression for too long.

Curfew from 6 pm to 6 am... I really sympathize with the people stuck in Bishkek.

Shooting has been reported near some store - between law enforcement guys and the looters.

Akayev has left Kazakhstan but no one knows yet where he's headed. Maybe to Russia? Will he be able to land in Moscow? It's snowing so hard right now...

Curfew has been introduced in Bishkek (via Gazeta.ru via Reuters).

Everything is moving really fast in Kyrgyzstan: government posts are being distributed; presidential election is set for June; the police is back to work in Bishkek; streets and stores are being cleaned up; people are getting together to prevent further looting; but they are also stocking up on food; prices in Bishkek have gone up 10 percent; NTV reports 15 people dead; only God knows where Akayev is, though Putin (speaking from Armenia) says he wouldn't mind receiving him in Russia; Osh, the province where it all started, is peaceful, people are praying and dancing.

Andrei Kolesnikov, one of Kommersant's most noticeable writers, is also one of the most prolific ones out there. According to Ukrainska Pravda, a presentation of his new book about the Orange Revolution will take place in Kyiv this coming Tuesday.

[...] To be more precise, the book, according to Kolesnikov himself, is about the confrontation between Yushchenko and Putin, the confrontation the current Ukrainian president walked out as the winner of.

The book is called "The First Ukrainian: Frontline Notes" and 30,000 copies have been printed, which is considered quite a lot. Part of it is being printed in Ukraine, another part - in Russia.

Kolesnikov says that "Moscow booksellers are actually confused - they fear acquiring the book for sale, even though they're quite eager to."

[...]

"The book is comprised of the stories published in the Kommersant in the past five years - but it's a coherent narration about Ukraine's struggle for independence - from Russia. And how it has won," Kolesnikov told Ukrainska Pravda.


Ukrainska Pravda also has two excerpts from the book (in Russian): from an interview with Yushchenko, on how he decided to run for president, and on the poisoning.

I am, of course, following the events in Kyrgyzstan, but I can't claim much understanding of the situation.

Watching it all on the Russian TV is tricky - especially when one's familiar with their pathetic coverage of the Orange Revolution.

Still, I was pleased to see them interview a very nice protestor yesterday, someone I wouldn't mind standing next to at a rally: he was saying they weren't intending to resort to violence and would just stand there peacefully until Akayev flees.

Another thing that caught my eye was footage of the storming of the presidential palace: how lost one of the protestors looked, a middle-aged man, he was looking around, turning around without going anywhere, as everyone else rushed past him, and he seemed to have no idea what to do next and what he was doing in there in the first place. That was moving - I immediately imagined something like this happening in Kyiv and me somehow getting in the midst of it - I'd be totally lost and indecisive, too.

But then all this looting started, and five people are reported dead, and over 300 injured, and two Russian camera crews got attacked as they were filming the looters, and it just doesn't look good - and again I'm reminded of Ukraine, of how we were expecting something like this to happen, but it never did, thank God, and how we were all prepared for the curfew - some psychologically, others more practically - but again, it never happened... All thanks to our wonderful people.

As for the geopolitics of it all, I don't know much but it seems that Akayev's stakes were much higher: housing both a Russian and a U.S. military base in a pretty volatile region is a different type of balancing act than what Kuchma ever had to subject himself to.

These are some of the reminders that life outside winter exists:

March 25th and snowing... We haven't had a single day resembling spring here yet. Five yellow tulips and 19 yellow narcissuses on the table in front of me look completely out of place. I bought them two days ago, to bewitch spring into showing up, but it doesn't seem to work.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

I'm watching/listening to a TV "duel" between two Russian "political technologists" on NTV: Gleb Pavlovskiy vs Stanislav Belkovskiy. Belkovskiy - who, unlike Pavlovskiy, didn't believe Yanukovych had any chances to become president of Ukraine - says that the current Russian leadership has no more than two years left and then they're gonna be swept away.

At the very same time, I'm reading Natalya Gevorkyan's latest column in Gazeta.ru (in Russian) - and here's one of the paragraphs closer to the end:

I personally think that the threat to Kremlin isn't in the fact that in the countries close to us historically people have gone out into the streets and brought to power those who they wanted - and not those who their former leaders, supported by Moscow, wanted. The danger is in those two years separating the recent revolutions from the upcoming Russian election. It's all very simple. If the new people who came to power in the countries of the now almost extinct CIS manage to prove in the next two years that they are more efficient than their predeccessors, that the reforms really work in their countries, that the economy is developing, that democracy really exists, that the mass media are really free, that the judicial system really works, that officials deserving punishment are indeed being punished, that the citizens are really safe and socially secure - then the result may indeed turn lethal for the current leadership of Russia. Countries that have not just liberated themselves from "Moscow's hand" but are developing successfully - this is the reality capable of disturbing Kremlin's heavily PRed sleep.

A few more backlog notes from our last week's visit to Kyiv :

- Our Moscow friends were coming over and asked us to book a nice hotel room for them. One of the hotels at Andriyivsky Uzviz charges nearly $200 a night for a tiny little room, clean and not remindful of the Soviet Union, but nothing really special still.

With the Eurovision contest approaching, the contrast between Kyiv and Istanbul is getting more and more alarming: in Istanbul, you literally stumble over all those little and decently priced hotels, while in Kyiv a cheaper alternative would most likely be an ugly room with ugly furniture in an ugly Soviet hotel with ugly Soviet-style service. Or a rented apartment.

- A large, bearded man approached me just off Khreshchatyk during my Saturday walk and asked me if I spoke English. When I said I did, he thanked God and produced a payphone card from his pocket. I thought he needed help in making a phone call, so I offered him to use my cell phone, because I didn't really remember how to use those cards anymore plus I was feeling too lazy and cold to walk around with him looking for a payphone. But he interrupted me and said in a slightly accented English that he needed me to buy this card from him for 5 hryvnias ($1) or so, because he'd lost all his money the day before and hadn't eaten since then: if he managed to sell the card, he'd be then able to buy himself some kefir and stuff like that, he said.

I felt uneasy for a moment: it reminded me of how stupid I was to have lost all that money to a Bengali bastard on the day of the third round of the election. But this man was asking for 5 hryvnias, not 200, and I could survive that.

I asked him where he was from and what had happened and he replied - in a very whining voice, which was poignant, considering his size and manliness - that he was a journalist from Austria and that he'd lost all his money together with the keys from an apartment he was sharing here with a BBC journalist friend. He did look like a bum a bit, a foreign bum, so I kind of believed his story. I asked for the friend's name - Mike Whitlock or something: I haven't heard it before so maybe I got it wrong. I asked if he knew his way around Kyiv and he told me he used to work for some Western airline and knew Ukraine like his own palm, including Kyiv, and because of that it was even more ironic that such a terrible thing had happened to him here.

At some point, he looked like he was beginning to cry, so I quickly gave him 6 hryvnias. He thanked God and me profusely, turned around and went off in the direction of the food store.

- My Yushchenko Administration friend (formerly known as "my Kuchma Administration friend") is complaining his ass off about his new boss.

My friend didn't lose his job, as he had expected, with Yushchenko's victory, but his former boss obviously did. The new guy, according to my friend, is highly unprofessional, treats him like shit, criticizes the old system but offers few ideas on how to improve things, never gives my friend credit for his work but often steals his ideas and presents them as his own.

I'm no insider there, so it is as easy for me to suspect that my friend is exaggerating as it is to believe that, after all, not everyone on Yushchenko's team is worth the time and the health of the people who spent a month freezing at Maidan. But my friend was so upset and pissed that I couldn't help but talk some stuff over with him.

My main suggestion was for my friend to catch this new guy doing something outrageously unprofessional and then confront him with one simple truth: the guy should be aware that even though my friend isn't drawing negative conclusions about all those who came on board with Yushchenko on the basis of one particular person's lack of qualification, such inadequate behavior may eventually tarnish the reputations of others, unjustly. Which wouldn't be a good thing at all.

At the end of this part of our conversation, my friend said: "This is one of the reasons I love you so much, Neeka: because you always come up with very sober ideas." And I laughed so hard: I took it as a huge compliment because at that very moment I was finishing up my fifth beer.

- A Moscow friend who used to teasingly - and annoyingly - call me a banderovka every time I mentioned something totally apolitical but somehow related to Ukraine (like, the weather in Kyiv), had beer with us at a Kyiv bar frequented by Stepan Bandera's grandson. I told him about it and he shrugged and looked just slightly uncomforable for an instant (though, in general, he was enjoying Kyiv and this particular bar immensely). Minutes after our friend left, Stephen Bandera, the grandson, showed up - and I was introduced to him as a banderivka currently living in Moscow!

Came home last night to find the phone line silent; couldn't get online and, for about half an hour, felt as if all the oxygen was suddenly gone; then I calmed down and ended up enjoying this forced isolation.

Besides reviving my very private Dear Diary (more or less dormant since late August 2004, the time I revived this blog), I also finished reading a really interesting book, Hearing Birds Fly: A Nomadic Year in Mongolia, by Louisa Waugh.

Mongolia is a lot more obscure than Ukraine, and I know only one person who visited it briefly, and the book is about the most obscure and remote area of Mongolia, the village of Tsengel in the Bayan-Olgii province, populated mainly by the Mongol Kazakhs and the Tuvans. A very intimate and honest account of an extremely tough, year-long expat experience; when I read the last page, I felt quite brokenhearted - as if I myself had befriended all the people mentioned in the book and then had to part with them for good.

Interestingly, Louisa Waugh had been in Sarajevo, researching the city's literary scene, shortly before I suddenly got an urge to go there: here's her piece in the Guardian on her Sarajevo encounters.

Back to the phone situation: at around 8 am today, I heard a single ring of our phone, and then, ten minutes later, another one. Two guys came to repair it around noon, but the problem had been long gone by then. (Why it took them almost 18 hours to show up is another story - this is how things work here. Also, I still have no idea what the problem was - but who cares when everything's fine again...)

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

I ran into Yanukovych supporters during my walk in Lipki this past Saturday, and I really wanted to write about it sooner but was too lazy/busy until now.

There were no more than 50 of them, most middle-aged but a few young ones as well, all waiting for Putin, who was staying nearby during his one-day visit to Ukraine. I noticed them from quite a distance, because of the flags they were waving: one Ukrainian blue-and-yellow, one Russian white-blue-and-red and a few blue-and-white with Yanukovych's 2004 campaign logo and without it. No orange whatsoever, which is quite eye-catching these days. But somehow, I wasn't surprised to see this crowd, not at all.

Despite the wind and the freezing cold, I started photographing them. I was walking back and forth a few meters away from them (not circling around, you see, because they stood face to face with half a dozen indifferent cops, and going in front of the crowd meant crossing the police line no one was supposed to cross). I really regretted there were so few of them packed so close together - I couldn't mix with them and remain anonymous, and I wasn't in a chatty mood right then. Anyway, most of the pictures I was getting were really boring, and when two guys started sort of posing for me, all my energy went into smiling back at them and I kept missing the best moments by a fraction of a second.

I was preparing to leave when an anemic-looking, middle-aged woman came up to me and demanded to know who I was and why I was taking pictures. That was something I didn't expect. She repeated her questions several times, in a rather hostile way, before I managed to say something like, 'What difference does it make?"

It wasn't just this surprise factor that made me mute for a while, though - it was also this deja vu thing: suddenly, I felt like I was back in St. Pete, at that babushkas protest back in January, and not in Kyiv. It was there, in St. Pete, that they were paranoid and kept asking me who I was, as if I were some paparazza spying on their private lives. It had been quite shocking to experience this kind of attitude in St. Pete, after two months of the wonderful exposure to the wonderful orange crowd - and it was as shocking to experience it here in Kyiv, some three months after the Orange Revolution.

The pale woman was determined to either scare me away or force me to confess my identity. She was soon joined by four or five of her friends, all bloodless except for one who looked like a Soviet bartender, fat and wearing at least three tons of the most ridiculous makeup. Our conversation went something like this:

- Who are you? Why are you taking pictures here?

- It's none of your business.

- Who are you?

- A tourist.

- A tourist? Where from? What country?

- Do you want me to show you my passport? It's none of your business.

- Who is she? What's your color? You can't photograph here.

- Yes, I can. I can take pictures of anything and anyone I want to in the street. And especially when it's a rally like yours.

- No, you can't. I don't want you to photograph me.

- Okay, I won't take pictures of you.

- Me, too. I don't want to be photographed.

- Wonderful. I'm not going to include a picture of you in my tourist photo album, either.

This sounded so idiotic that this other woman who didn't want to be photographed smiled a barely noticeable smile and then walked away.

- Why are you hanging around here?

- Do you mind?

- Yes, we do!

- And what are you all doing here?

- We're waiting for President Putin.

- Oh yeah? And what are you gonna tell him?

- We'll tell him that we love him, and that we love Russia, and that we want to be together with Russia, and that we do not want NATO here!

The bartender woman was yelling all this at me, and I was smiling and nodding, and then another woman told her to shut up and stop wasting all her energy on me, and soon they all walked away to a nearby cafe to get warm. The men who'd been sort of posing for me earlier told me not to pay attention and to continue taking pictures if I wanted to. One had a Yanukovych campaign kerchief around his neck, the other was holding a little Yanukovych flag in his hand.

I took a couple more pictures and then went away to get warm myself. Over coffee, I was thinking, among other things, of the irony of this encounter: I told them I was a tourist because it was the easiest way to avoid a pointless political argument, and I did feel like a tourist at that moment, even though I've spent most of my life in Lipki, could walk with my eyes closed there and have always felt most comfortable and most relaxed there.

I returned to the mini-rally half an hour later and noticed that, first, the aggressive women hadn't come back yet, and, second, that a TV crew had appeared. Those who remained chanted the following for the camera: YULIA - OUT! YUSHCHENKO - OUT! UKRAINE AND RUSSIA TOGETHER! PUTIN - YES, NATO - NO!



***

And here's Andrei Kolesnikov's take on the same crowd (his whole text in the Kommersant (in Russian) is worth reading but I'm too sleepy to translate it... And God, the picture of Yushchenko next to Putin is hideous... the way his skin looks is too sad and scary...):

Some ten minutes before Putin and his entourage reached the residence, a group of 30 demonstrators showed up by the barriers set up to cordon off the street. "Yanukovych-2004" was written on their yellow-blue flags. [Actually, those flags were white-blue, not yellow-blue, the Ukrainian national colors.] These people must have been still in the midst of the Ukrainian presidential election.

- Russian? - they asked me. It was useless to deny it.

- God! - They were shining. - He is from Moscow! One of us!

And, interrupting each other, they started telling me how cruelly the new government was treating them, how it refused to agree that Ukraine needed the fourth round of the election. But the government didn't want the fourth round, thus admitting its weakness and the fact that their candidate, Victor Yanukovych, would have won in the fourth round automatically. And if not in the fourth, then definitely in the fifth.

- We wanted to greet Putin, but they sent us away from Maidan to the Mariinsky Palace, telling us that he was going to be there. But there's no one there! They lied to us! We've been fooled again!

Finally, they asked me the main question: could I help them with a flag? They had only one Russian flag for all of them. And they were aware that they had fewer chances for victory with one flag than with two.

At some point, I realized I couldn't bear listening to them anymore. I left but they did manage to hand me their most precious possession as a good-bye gift: a photo of Victor Yanukovych giving autographs. I couldn't reject this gift, even though later I would reproach myself for this fit of weakness. I should have let them keep the photo. They need it more than I do.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Our first impression of Kyiv this time was: "Oh my God, it's so warm here!" and "They should do something about those ugly, huge, black snow piles lying around everywhere..."

On Friday, it was warm but gloomy - and then it got unbearably cold, snowy and windy on Saturday.

As for the snow, no city is too pretty this time of the year, in between seasons, mezhsezonye, but there's also lots of garbage everywhere except Khreshchatyk, and the city mayor's office seems to be on vacation - or on strike.

Friends who live very far from the city center complained the garbage hadn't been taken away in two weeks. What really pissed me off was a makeshift parking lot that has appeared on the square in front of St. Sophia's Cathedral - the cars are parked in three rows, separated by the enormous, dirty snow piles, in front of the relatively new "elite" building there. It used to be so cool to ride a bike there, and just walk through the square, admiring the bell tower and the cathedral, but now all you see are the fucking cars. Real estate is said to be extremely overpriced there - and I can't believe they don't have some kind of underground parking there or something. But it does look like Mayor Omelchenko is waiting to be replaced by someone else and isn't bothering too much to make the city look pretty.

The picture below was taken in Lipki, one of the best neighborhoods in Kyiv, right behind Hotel Kyiv and within a three-minute walk from the Parliament (a full-size photo is here - though I do realize this isn't a sight anyone would want to spend time looking at...):

I'm back from our Kyiv vacation - it was terribly cold Saturday, but otherwise everything was great.

I've started posting some pictures here - but it was too freezing, so I don't have many.

More later.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

I've just realized that the Evil Trains text on the 3 A.M. Magazine site no longer has the pictures that used to be there. So here they are:


(Commuter train in Yaremche, the Carpathian Mountains)



(Bus in Yaremche)


(Me pretending to work in a makeshift office on a train from Uzhhorod, and me pretending to relax after work in Lviv - six years ago...)

In a comment below, Elya writes that it's only 12 hours from Cologne to Uzhhorod by train!!!...

The reason it got me so agitated is because Uzhhorod's one of my favorite places in Ukraine - but it's 19 hours or something from Kyiv... Moreover, I had my worst train experience on my way there back in 1999 - train #237, car #8, I still remember that!.. - cockroaches... It's been six years so, though, and maybe they've killed them all by now... I wrote about the experience in Evil Trains - here...

Anyway, Uzhhorod is a wonderful town, we used to go there a lot in the Soviet times, for kids' tennis tournaments, mainly in winter, so when I got there at the beginning of May 1999, I was pleasantly shocked to discover that Uzhhorod was as breathtaking as Kyiv then: that's the time when sakuras are in bloom there...

We were staying at a really cozy, tiny hotel near the Market, called Atlant or something. I wonder if it's still there.

And Uzhhorod has one of the most charmingly named little streets I've ever seen, somewhere uphill from the Market: vulytsya Dayboz'ka - translated roughly as God-Willing Street, or Inshaallah Street!

***

Elya and everyone - thank you so much for your comments and warm wishes - and all the very best to you, too!

We're going to Kyiv tomorrow (today, tonight, whatever it is) - just for three days, till Sunday. It's time to get used to being in Moscow - only a night on a train away from Kyiv, not 24 hours as it was with St. Pete. No need to wait the whole of three months that we're allowed to stay here without registration anymore, before going home for a visit. And no need to stay in Kyiv for as long as Mishah would survive without me. Life is getting better! I can't wait!

Today (yesterday) was four years since I quit my U.S. NGO job, which had taken me all over Ukraine and which I sort of miss every now and then. I wish it hadn't been so exhausting most of the time - I would've had a lot more wonderful notes now.

Here's one, from the end of 1999:

At the hotel in Chernivtsi, [my colleague] went looking for an iron in the morning and came back really pissed: a young floor maid refused to open the door to a room in which they stored their ancient, broken-down iron - because she had just painted her nails and they hadn't dried yet.


And here's another one, from Sept. 29, 1999, on the eve of that year's presidential election/Kuchma's re-election:

Donetsk, a cab to the train station - signs seen along the way, most of them stretched up high from one side of the street to the other, some posted at bus stops:

- Donbass for Kuchma, Kuchma for Donbass!

- Love Ukraine and treasure its stability. (L. Kuchma)

- Let the land of Donbass bloom! Happiness and good will to you, Ukraine! (L. Kuchma)

- Donbass supports Kuchma, Kuchma supports Donbass.

- Leonid Kuchma - our president, our president - Leonid Kuchma!

- State support to Donbass! (L. Kuchma)

- To Ukraine's revival - through unity and consensus! (L. Kuchma)

- Social security and support to the veterans! (L. Kuchma)

- Together let's revive Ukraine and Donbass! (L. Kuchma)

Blogger was down most of the day today (yesterday) and at some point I began to worry it was my computer's fault. They seem to have fixed it now.

***

Here's a picture I took by the House of Photography today - I was passing by, decided to go in, but it was closed because they were getting ready for a new exhibition. Seeing this graffiti on the wall - Sick and the City - made my day, though (full-size is here):

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Connard's back from Argentina and is complaining about Kyiv's tap water.

As I may have bitched about before, the water in this city really sucks. It's not even close to potable. Besides being riddled with bacteria, there's tons of particles and debris in it. Pipes (not drainage pipes either) frequently clog just from the crap that's in the water and you have to clean them out regularly. It's not very rare when I'll turn a faucet on and the water will run brown for a couple of minutes before it turns relatively clear.


I couldn't resist leaving a comment: compared to St. Pete, Kyiv's water is perfect.

And Moscow's water is perfect, too. One perfect thing about water in Kyiv and Moscow is that it doesn't smell: no smell at all compared to St. Pete's water.

Here's a picture I took at our St. Pete apartment Sept. 25, 2003:

My parents got robbed Feb. 23, and I kept meaning to write about it but with all the Kravchenko and Maskhadov news, it was really hard to focus on something personal.

I call my parents once or twice a week (the phone bills are enormous but nowhere near as bad as when I lived in the States). So after mama and I had spent about an hour chatting the morning of Feb. 23, she quickly got dressed and ran out to Bessarabka Market to pick up that really good cottage cheese (tvorog) that one village woman brings her every Wednesday. Since the market is across the street, mama got back home pretty soon, within half an hour or so.

There are two locks on our door; the upper one kept getting stuck for over a year and I kept telling my parents to change it - because it looked suspicious, as if someone had been trying to break in, and it was also a pain in the ass to use it, especially when in a hurry. But in our family, things are never done quickly.

First, mama found the lower lock unlocked - she thought that maybe my father was already home. Then she realized that the upper one was totally messed up and she knew right away what had happened. She should have locked the lower lock, thus preventing the robbers from getting out - in case they were still inside - and then she should've called the police. But she couldn't think too clearly that very instant, so she opened the door and went in.

Two guys dressed in black were in my room, shuffling through the bookshelves, and, within seconds, they started moving towards the door, past my mama, hiding their faces. One was short, the other tall, both quite athletic but skinny. She didn't see their faces, but met the eyes of one of the guys.

"They were like two black cats, swift, making no sound as they rushed away," she told me.

She stepped aside, shocked, mesmerized, and they didn't touch her. Seconds after they were gone, she recovered and ran after them downstairs, yelling, "Thieves! Thieves!"

But she stopped after one flight of stairs, realizing that she was on her own with the two of them and that they'd be waiting for her by the exit and would make her shut up somehow, would do anything to prevent her from running after them all the way to Khreshchatik, screaming and all. So she turned and went back to the apartment.

The first thing she checked for were the cats, our two precious black cats. They were okay. Kosya Koskin, the blind one, loves to greet the guests, so he was sitting in the middle of the room, probably thinking that we were having a party. The young cat, Nur, was hiding.

After locating the cats, mama decided to see if anything had been stolen: her watch was gone, her cell phone, papa's cheap digital camera and a broken video camera, and a tiny amount of family gold - a couple of beautiful, old Orthodox crosses, mama's wedding ring, and a 1900 golden 5-ruble coin with Tsar Nickolay II on it, our only treasure in the Soviet times, which my grandmother gave mama for her 30th birthday and my mama gave me on mine last year. And the money: cash that was laid aside to pay for the remont that we're in the middle of right now - cash for remodelling the bathroom, something my mother had been planning to accomplish since last October, but kept getting interrupted, first by the Orange Revolution, then by flu...

The remont aspect is my favorite in this story: I almost sympathize with the robbers. They must've spent quite a while observing mama's daily routine (except for Wednesdays, she goes to another market, by metro, and is never back home so soon); they must've spent quite a while fiddling with the upper lock; they must've decided to rob our place because we'd just installed two new plastic windows, and they must've been imagining our place to be orderly and well-packed.

And boy, were they in for a huge disappointment! The mess in our apartment is unbelievable right now. There are mounds of stuff stored in my parent's room and as much lying around in my room, most of it waiting to be thrown away, old and useless. All the books gradually being moved from the hallway and my room into my parents' room... I don't have the energy to describe what it looks like right now - but the robbers must've thought they weren't the first ones to attempt robbing our place...

Seriously, though, it's good that we had all that cash lying in the open - they didn't have problems finding it and they left with no hard feelings. Otherwise, God forbid, they could've hurt mama. It's also good that she didn't see their faces.

Mama did call the police, the police arrived, asked lots of questions that mama didn't know the answers to (like, how much does your cell phone cost, etc.), and no one really expects them to solve the case, not because it's not that big of a deal but because this is how things work in this part of the world.

I was very shocked by it all. My parents are shocked, too. But it's good that it ended well. It's good that the guys were probably professional thieves, for whom it's a matter of honor not to hurt anyone, especially a woman. God, I'm so glad the assholes didn't touch my mother.

I'm tired of politics, news and other such things. Here's something else (thanks for the link, Jane!):



That's me - a South Park me (via South Park Create-A-Character).

Monday, March 14, 2005

While the Ukrainian clowns are in Moscow, the Russian oligarchs are in Kyiv...

Natalya Vitrenko said this (in Russian) in Moscow today:

Russian business should understand that if politicians fail to secure the common economic space, it [Russian business] is doomed in Ukraine, it'll be thrown out of there.


Yushchenko, also today, spent nearly two hours with representatives of major Russian companies in Kyiv. Here's Gazeta.ru's take on the meaning of today's meeting (in Russian):

Having invited the Russian oligarchs to Ukraine on the eve of Vladimir Putin's visit, [Yushchenko] is making it clear that he intends to discuss the issue of the guarantees for the Russian investments directly, and not through his Russian colleague. He is making it clear that the issues of business development in Ukraine have to be considered in Kyiv, not in the Kremlin.

Natalya Vitrenko's press conference is taking place right now at Interfax here in Moscow; Yanukovych visited last week; Korchynsky did, too, according to Obozrevatel... Jesus.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

A nice - and relevant - piece on football and Saadi el-Qaddafi, the son of the Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi, in the New York Times:

"Always, my father looks at things in a political way," Mr. Qaddafi lamented, adding that his father did not understand fans. "They aren't political, and I've told him I don't want any of that stuff. Every day I'm with him, I explain to him the mentality of the fans, how it helps young people, how it's like breath for youth."

In 1996, he became president of Libya's soccer association with the intent of building up a semiprofessional league. He paid for premium players to go to Libya and hired one of the world's best coaches, Carlos Bilardo, who led Argentina to victory in the 1986 World Cup, for Libya's national team. He continued cajoling his father to ease the rules that ban professional sports in the country.

His success has been one of the least heralded changes in Libyan society, but one that made a huge difference in many people's lives. Soccer matches between the 14 teams of Libya's national soccer league are now wildly popular, providing the most regular entertainment available for idle young men who might otherwise look in less salubrious places for excitement.


And - irrelevant but still nice - this:

He has an idea for a movie about Hannibal, the legendary military commander of ancient Carthage, that would be filmed in Libya. But when Mr. Qaddafi approached Harvey Weinstein, the Miramax boss, at a film festival in Venice late last year, Mr. Weinstein cut him off, telling him curtly that if he wanted to do movies with Miramax, Libya would have to recognize Israel first. "The first touch was a very hot touch," said Mr. Qaddafi, laughing quietly about his brief brush with Hollywood. "I didn't have time to breathe."


***

On a different note, Grozny's Terek has just lost to Moscow's CSKA, 0:3...

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Ukraine's billionaires are out of the closet, at last.

#258 - Rinat Akhmetov, 38 - $2.4 billion

#507 - Victor Pinchuk, 44 - $1.3 billion

#620 - Serhiy Taruta, 50 - $1 billion

According to Forbes.com, we've got three and Russia's got 27...

Wonderful Lviv photos from Molcha - all 60 of them.

I don't remember how I found them - just followed a link somewhere, then another, and then ended up there.

At first, I saw too many things that reminded me of St. Pete - but then I managed to sense a smell, and it was Lviv's smell, totally different from the smell of St. Pete - because Lviv is a totally different world.

I can't wait to go there again - it's been nearly three years...

Peter Byrne at Abdymok, Robert Mayer at Publius Pundit and Daniel Berczik at Bloggledygook have joined efforts in telling about one of the less known "tapegate" cases - Borys Feldman's story:

This is but one such story from the reign of Leonid Kuchma. As the Gongadze case gets more and more attention - primarily here in the States because of its sensational details - it is important that the world knows about what has happened to people like Borys Feldman, a man Peter Byrne calls a "modest survivor of the Kuchma regime."

According to Obozrevatel (in Russian), NTV has decided not to air a documentary on the investigation of Gongadze's murder today (Saturday), after receiving an order from the Kremlin to avoid this topic.

One of the people interviewed for the documentary, Yevgeniy Lauer, editor in chief of the Internet news site "Tribuna," allegedly spoke of Russia's involvement in Gongadze's case.

***

It looks like NTV has replaced the Gongadze documentary with the one on Russian porn industry:

Extreme life of Russian porn actors: exhausting filming sessions and unprotected sex. And the majority of actors are family people. Is it easy to fulfill your marital responsibilities after a work like this? Why men in the porn business are paid less than women? [...]

Friday, March 11, 2005

NTV 10 pm news just had a story on the Interim Government of the Republic of Texas, based in Overton, Texas.

The Republic of Texas is not an organization, a social club, a fraternity, a militia, a terrorist group, or a political party.  The Republic of Texas is an independent nation comprised of Texans or Texians.

The Republic of Texas is a constitutional republic; a government with very limited national powers.  The nation is currently in transition as we begin to move toward independence.


I've just started reading a book by Bashir Dalgat (1870-1934), "Pervobytnaya religiya chechentsev i ingushey" ("Ancient Religion of the Chechens and the Ingush"). One of the first works by the author was an 1892 translation into Russian of 12 folk songs in the Dargwa (Dargin), one of the languages spoken in Daghestan.

Here's one of these songs, which I wish I could listen to - not read in translation and then translate awkwardly myself. In the song, a young woman who just learned of her fiance's death, addresses the grave-diggers:

Do not dig a grave for my friend: I'll lay him into a silver coffin; but if you do make the grave, do not throw earth into it: I'll fill it with precious stones instead; and if you do throw the earth, do not put up a gravestone: I will stand facing the South in its place; but if you do erect the gravestone, then don't read the burial prayers: I'll sing love songs instead.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005



The fan site of a Russian Premier League football team FC Terek Grozny launched a wonderful little service on its forum on Jan. 23: "Photo of Grozny on Request." Here's the translation (from Russian) of the details provided by one of the site's admins, Solid:

Dear users,

We'd like to let you know that at our site we're now trying out a service called "Photo of Grozny on Request." In this thread, you may leave your requests for photos of specific places in Grozny (street, neighborhood, house, school, offices, etc.), and our representatives will photograph the location and post a picture here.

Please understand that the requests will not be fulfilled right away (from one to seven days, and possibly longer). At present, only one person will be working on it (Virus), and he does not always have the time or opportunity to visit the requested locations.

Please, only one request from the same person per week. The service is free. Requests will be accepted only from the registered users.


One more person - nicknamed DiNaMiT - very soon agreed to join Virus in finding and photographing the Chechen capital's sites. So far, only two people have sent in their requests.

The first one came five days ago, on March 4, from Boris:

I'd really like to see what happened to my native house and backyard. Pervomayskaya #83. It's near School #7. There were two 9-storeyed buildings there, one was long, the other shorter and with two entrances. The short one is #83. Thank you very much in advance.


It took them one day to get the picture (follow the link to view the photo full-size):



And here's Boris' reply:

You can't imagine how grateful I am to you. I was happy to see that the building is intact. My dearest childhood memories are connected with this building and with Grozny in general. A huge thanks to you! I'm glad there are people like you who are ready to help us - we miss our native city and the favorite places in it so much!


The second person, Yanchik, a female, must have had two requests but I've only found one:

Solid, you remember my request, and here's one more, at Staryye Promysly there was a plot #69 and I basically spent my childhood there, and I'd really love to have a look at what became of it.....I haven't seen it in like 20 years.....if you have questions about its whereabouts, knock on my icq and I'll explain....thanks in advance


Here're two photos from what must be the first location - a view of Yanchik's building and a view from one of the balconies in her building (follow the links to view the originals):





And Yanchik's thank you note, typed in a large, red font:

well what can I say...huge thanks to you guys...I feel like I've visited home...oy, no words only emotions.....anyway, huge RESPECT to you people.....thank you....and a special thanks to solid for having once given me a link to your forum.....

Solid, and to you also here's a huge thanks from my parents...they were totally delighted

A really depressing piece in the New York Times on a woman who might have been Maggie Fitzgerald's prototype: Far From Hollywood, a Boxer Whose Dreams Died in the Ring...

For a brief period in the late 90's, the injuries that left Ms. Dallam near death were notorious in the boxing world. Even today, when proponents of the sport talk about its safety, they are quick to say that Ms. Dallam is the only female boxer in America to have suffered anything similar to what happens to Maggie Fitzgerald, the boxer played by Hilary Swank in the film.

Stephanie Dallam, a nurse who has been her sister's prime companion and chief caregiver, said her family believed that F. X. Toole, the author of the short story that was the basis for the movie, must have heard or read about Katie and used her as the seed for his tale. "There are just too many similarities," Stephanie said of the story, published four years after Katie's injuries.

They are quick to add that they are not accusing Mr. Toole, who died in 2002, of stealing anything from Katie, merely suggesting that he used her life as the starting point.

From Gazeta.ru, in Russian:

Finally, Maskhadov's death has been confirmed and eagerly commented on by the current Chechen government, which has enough representatives who used to be Maskhadov's underground comrades. Ramzan Kadyrov was satisfied more than others and joked willingly about what happened.

"This is a present to all the women of Chechnya for March 8th," Kadyrov said about the dead Maskhadov.

"With all responsibilty I declare," continued Kadyrov, "that a similar fate awaits Shamil Basayev in the nearest future. We'll exhibit him in the center of Grozny for everyone to view."

"It is symbolic that our president Akhmat-Haji Kadyrov died as a hero on a men's holiday, the Victory Day," said the republics minister of internal affairs Ruslan Alkhanov, as if continuing [Ramzan] Kadyrov's thought. "And this so-called president of Ichkeria found his death in a damp cellar on the International Women's Day. There's nothing to add to this."


Those people are sick beyond hope. And they must have been as sick when they were fighting on the other side, alongside Maskhadov and against the Russians, a relatively short time ago.

I feel very sorry for those women of Chechnya, and for their kids: it's very sad that they aren't likely to get a sensitive human being for a leader anytime soon.

***

Here's one of the versions, from the same Gazeta.ru piece:

Many people have been talking in the past few hours about [Ramzan] Kadyrov's role in the liquidation of Maskhadov. On one of the rebels' sites, for example, some sources are being quoted as saying that Maskhadov was killed a few days ago by Kadyrov's people. But, according to those sources, Kadyrov didn't want to assume responsibility [for the killing], fearing revenge, and that's why the success was ascribed to the federal forces.


***

The reason we were given so many chances yesterday to admire Maskhadov's corpse on TV is probably because the rumors of his death have been circulating for too long: on and off since 1995.

Kommersant lists nine instances (in Russian, and I'm too sick of it to translate) of either such rumors or the actual attacks on Maskhadov witnessed by others.