Sunday, June 19, 2005

I've been too lazy to write - or even too lazy to think up things to write about - and now we're going away on vacation till the beginning of July.

I'm afraid I won't have too many chances to blog from where we're going to be - a place called Assos, on Turkey's Aegean coast. We'll pass through Istanbul - but I'm always so wonderfully busy there taking pictures that I can't promise to write anything in those couple of days, either.

I have a backlog of Kyiv photos, and a bunch of nice Moscow ones, but I just can't bring myself to sort through them - must be because I've been waiting for the summer for so long, and now it's here, and I really need to enjoy every minute of it before it's gone again...

All the very, very best to you all!

Friday, June 17, 2005

A nice summary of the economic and political situation in Ukraine in the Economist - The Viktor and Yulia Show:

[...] Parliamentary elections next March are exacerbating tendencies to populism. Under a reform agreed last December, some powers are due to shift from president to parliament and prime minister, though this change may yet be repudiated. After the elections, will the president and—if she is still in office—Ms Timoshenko learn from their mistakes and vindicate the orange revolution? Both remain popular. And Ukrainians have learnt to be patient. But Mr Yushchenko must be steelier if he is to overcome the corrupt, fractious pathologies of Ukrainian politics.


Ha. Last year, they all thought we were patient, too. Then it turned out we'd somehow learned to be impatient. Look where they are now: their wealth, of course, hasn't diminished to become comparable to ours, but they aren't getting richer, either. The other guys are.

If certain things continue to develop as they do now, I'll probably vote against all next year (unless they again manage to invent an alternative as hideous and promising as Yanukovych was last year).

***

An amusing part of the Economist piece is that first they report that "[t]he new government's critics, unlike the old one's, happily give their names to journalists," and then they go on quoting three of those "critics" anonymously:

[...] When asked if the new regime is as corrupt as the old, one Donetsk businessman says: “not yet, but it will be soon.”

[...]

There have been sins of commission too, especially on economic policy. “They've been screwing up,” comments one western diplomat in Kiev.

[...]

And Mr Yushchenko should not be blamed for some of Ukraine's most intractable problems. The biggest, as in most post-Soviet countries, is corruption. Some businessmen say things are improving, albeit confusingly. “Six months ago I knew who, when, how much,” says one Russian visitor to Donetsk. “Now I don't.” [...]

Thursday, June 16, 2005

I've been reading Masha Gessen on and off for the past few days, so here are some links:

- In Granta 88: Mothers, Masha's writes about living with a hereditary breast cancer gene - Mutations - heartbreaking, enlightening, wonderfully written... Masha hopes this text would become "the kernel of a new book."

- Masha's current book - Ester and Ruzya : How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler's War and Stalin's Peace - has been reviewed in a number of publications - including the New York Times back in March.

- Since I can't find this book sold anywhere in this part of the world, I can't say a word about it - but there's always Masha's amazing Granta text about her grandmothers, which I've already linked to at least three times here and also forwarded to countless friends - My Grandmother, The Censor. I hope the book is as good as this excerpt, and even if it isn't, I still can't wait to read it.

Had an eye exam yesterday - need new glasses badly, not because the old ones are too weak now, but because they look awful, too old and scratched, and I'm too lazy to go looking for the new ones, hate the process.

Anyway, the doctor exclaimed at one point: "The color of your eyes! They're like some expensive contact lenses!"

And I'm still so pleased I've decided to share it here.

Quite a consolation for someone with lousy glasses.

(My eyes are greenish-gray or grayish-green, with a little bit of yellowish at the edges, according to Mishah.)

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Not my idea of the morning reading, but the New York Times has a nice story about Chernobyl tours - New Sight in Chernobyl's Dead Zone: Tourists, by C. J. Chivers. The story's nice in a very chilling kind of way, if you ask me...

[...] The men stepped past discarded gas-mask filters to the entrance of a ghostly kindergarten. They fanned out with cameras, to work.

Much was as the children and their teachers had left it 19 years ago. Tiny shoes littered the classroom floor. Dolls and wooden blocks remained on shelves. Soviet slogans exhorted children to study, to exercise, to prepare for a life of work.

Much had also changed. Now there is rot, broken windows, rusting bed frames and paint falling away in great blisters and peels. And now there are tourists, participating in what may be the strangest vacation excursion available in the former Soviet space: the packaged tour of the Chernobyl exclusion zone, scene of the worst civilian disaster of the nuclear age. [...]


I'd rather watch Stalker for the tenth time than go on one of these tours...

[...] So there are rules, which Yuriy Tatarchuk, a government interpreter who served as the Finns' guide, listed.

Don't stray. Stay on concrete and asphalt, where exposure risks are lower than on soil. Don't touch anything. (This one proved impossible. Tours involve climbing cluttered staircases and stepping through debris. Handholds are inevitable.)

No matter its inconveniences or potential for medical worry, the zone possesses the allure of the forbidden and a promise of rare, personal insights into history. Its popularity as a destination is increasing. Few tourists came in 2002, the year it opened for such visits, according to Marina Polyakova, of Chernobylinterinform. In 2004 about 870 arrived, she said, a pace tourists are matching this year.

Tourists cannot wander the zone on their own. One-day group excursions cost $200 to $400, including transportation and a meal. [...]


Some part of me is very curious, very tempted to try to remember what it all looked like then - all the Soviet "decorations" that Chernobyl has more or less preserved... For now, however, photos from the Zone taken by other people seem to be enough... Chivers' piece is accompanied with some good ones - and there's also a pretty big revelation buried midway through the text:

[...] One group came for a hoax. About two years ago, Mr. Tatarchuk said, a Ukrainian woman booked a tour, wore a leather biker jacket and posed for pictures. Soon there appeared a Web site in which the woman, using the name Elena, claimed that she had been given an unlimited pass by her father, a nuclear physicist and Chernobyl researcher ("Thank you, Daddy!" she wrote) and now roamed the ruins at will on her Kawasaki Big Ninja.

The site, www.kiddofspeed.com, billed as a tale "where one can ride with no stoplights, no police, no danger to hit some cage or some dog," was a sensation, duping uncountable viewers before being discredited.

The Finns said they had seen the Web site, and hoped their planned site would be as popular. [...]


Still, her pictures were very powerful - and I never really stopped to read the text...

Via Blogchik, found this really dumb New York Times story on Brighton Beach "Runglish" - Russian in One Ear, English in Another, and a 3rd Tongue in Between, by Alan Feuer (the updated version's titled For the Thirsty Runglish Speaker: Try an Ized Cyawfeh - it contains a few minor corrections).

First of all, seeing the way some of the Russian words have been transliterated, I wouldn't really trust the guy who wrote the piece: 'khartoshka' (replaced with 'kartoshka' in the second draft), 'morashenoyeh' (changed for 'morozhenoye')...

One gorgeous mistake somehow went unnoticed in both drafts:

[...] To some, however, Runglish is no joke at all but an indication of the slow demise of Russian culture.

"When the kids turn 18, 19 years old, we tell them, 'Stop speaking English. Speak more Russian,' " said Alex Kondov, owner of the Varichnaya Restaurant on Brighton Second Street.

Standing next to him, his friend, Vladimir Robu, chipped in: "It is tradition and family. We try to keep the culture alive from home." [...]


Must have been such a joyous occasion for these two chaps to be quoted in the Times - saying something really important, not some bullshit about Russian nesting dolls or caviar, no, but talking about their efforts to rescue the great Russian culture and the great Russian language... I can almost see them anxiously looking for their quotes - and gasping, horrified, because how can you 'keep the culture alive' when those silly Americans can't even get a restaurant's name right?.. It's Varenichnaya, not Varichnaya, for fuck's sake, a place where they serve vareniki - that's pierogi, or pirogi, or pirohi, or whatever you call them in that Polglish tongue of yours...



Certain linguistic confusion on the author's part isn't all there is to this Brighton Beach linguistic mess story. If I knew nothing of the Soviet history, I'd think all these Runglish-speakers Mr. Feuer's writing about have just landed in the United States (I'd also think they're ethnic Russians, not Jews, but that's a different matter):

[...] A change in language tends to follow immigration as closely as a headache tends to follow too much drink. Linguistic scholars speak of Spanglish and its related tongues, Frangle (French combined with English) and Ingrish (English mixed with L-less Japanese.)

Now, on the streets of Brighton Beach, people have begun to speak in a different hybrid tongue. They use something known as Runglish - a Russian-English blend in which the "Cross-Bronx Expressway" might come off as the "Cress Bonx Exprezvey" or "appointments" as "appointmyenti." [...]


In fact, these people began to speak the way they do a few decades ago, which makes Mr. Feuer's piece a couple generations late.

It's so sad to think of how easy it is to drain a wonderful subject of all its depth. Each immigrant family - Russian, Soviet, Jewish, or whatever you prefer to call them - has enough stories to fill a novel or two. So many of those now living in Brooklyn were leaving their home countries - and everyone and everything there - for good, with no hope (and, often, no desire) to ever return: not your average Peace Corps experience, is it?..

I do think Runglish is amusing and often amazing. My favorite example comes from the East Village Ukrainian Diaspora-speak - so it's not Runglish but Ukrainglish: "Nasliceaite meni, bud' laska, desyat' pieceykiv kovbasky." - "Could you slice some sausage for me? Ten pieces, please?"

And I wish Mr. Feuer treated the subject lightly, with humor and no moralizing.

But the final part of the story is simply scary:

"People say the Russians have learned English," said Pat Singer, president and founder of the Brighton Neighborhood Association, which sits in a cluttered storefront on Brighton Beach Avenue. "But I think they're going the opposite way."

Ms. Singer's grandparents came from Odessa in 1910. It is her contention that today's Russian immigrants are - linguistically speaking - a far-too-sheltered bunch.

"This group that comes here now has Russian newsletters, Russian radio, Russian TV stations," she explained. "They might as well have stayed in Russia since they created Russia here."

Other immigrants, she said have learned to speak English just fine. But not the Russians, Ms. Singer said.

"The Russian community has been here 30 years. You'd think they'd all speak English by now."

Part of the problem, Ms. Singer said, is that while English is taught as a second language in the city's public schools, there is a lack of English training for adults.

"The kids - you wouldn't even know they weren't American born," she said, "until they get on the phone to their mothers to say they're coming home late."


Ms. Singer must have waited 30 years for a New York Times reporter to show up by her "cluttered storefront on Brighton Beach Avenue." I doubt she's ever been outside her neighborhood - because then she wouldn't be so naive to think that all immigrants but the Russians "have learned to speak English just fine." Jesus.

Ms. Singer lacks historical perspective, too. Her grandparents must have fled the pogroms in 1910 - but most of her neighbors ended up in the States because of a subtler type of oppression, and it wasn't 'Russia' that they created on Brighton Beach, it was the Soviet Union without the Communists.

And this is what Brighton Beach still looks like, in a way - a sort of a museum, a weird imitation of Odessa of the 1970s and 1980s, a really moving place if one knows what to look for. A terrible place, often. Definitely not what Russia or Ukraine are today. And absolutely not as distant from the rest of the United States as it may seem...

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Ironically, a bunch of Israeli students who oppose Sharon's disengagement plan turned Tel Aviv orange this past Sunday.

By handing out orange ribbons and tying them on the cars, they were protesting against the planned August 15 withdrawal of the Gaza Strip and West Bank Jewish settlements.

According to the Christian Science Monitor (Orange revolt? Settlers see spectrum of support), "orange is the color of the Gaza settlement council's flag."

[...] The demonstration Sunday against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement initiative came just days after the country's Supreme Court ruled the pullout was legal.

[...]

Noting that the West Bank and Gaza remain under military occupation, the Supreme Court justices ruled Israel's security concerns override claims by residents that their human rights are being violated. The court also rejected settler claims that a decision to evacuate settlements is unconstitutional without a public referendum.

The ruling wasn't a surprise, and settler spokesmen were quick to brush off the implications of the defeat.

"The Supreme Court isn't an expression of the public sentiment,'' says Kobi Bronstein, a spokesman for Gaza settler council. "The orange ribbons say everything. The public is stronger than politics." [...]


***

Here're two relevant excerpts from Karen Alkalai-Gut's wonderful diaryk, the Tel Aviv Journal:

June 9, 2005

[...] In the mean time the disengagement business is tearing us all apart - from within. No one can be easy about it, even though it was declared legal today by the high courts. And who can be indifferent to the sight of children urged on to disobedience by adults - so similar in principle to the sights on the other side of 4 years ago. How we teach them law and order and then teach them that our desires are greater than law. Then we teach them that God is in charge of these desires, that we ourselves are being urged on - like the children - but by a higher being...

[...]

June 11, 2005

[...] I made the mistake of running my errands yesterday in an orange shirt. People who didn't know me in the supermarket asked me if i was a demonstrating settler.That was fun.

[...]

A June 9 Kyiv Post editorial is very good - it's about racism and anti-Semitism, and how no one seems to be paying attention:

... a disgusting incident that occurred here in Kyiv on June 3.

That was the day on which David Duke, the former head of the Ku Klux Klan and a racist demagogue back in the U.S., showed up here to attend a pseudo-academic conference at the capital’s Interregional Academy of Personnel Management. The theme of the conference was “Dialogue of Civilizations: Zionism as the Biggest Threat to Contemporary Civilization.”

How charming. Reports indicate that the conference included calls for the deportation of Ukraine’s Jews. Official representatives of Middle East countries hostile to Israel were reportedly present at the event. So was Levko Lukyanenko, a Rada deputy from the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc.

It’s sad enough that Palestinian and Syrian representatives should, in their peoples’ troubles, resort to consorting with the likes of Duke, who’s a pariah back in the States – one of the most repellent semi-celebrities extremist politics have lately vomited up. It’s even sadder and weirder that Lukyanenko should consort with him, or that a deputy in the Rada of the “new” Ukraine should feel comfortable at such a disgusting “conference” in the first place.

[...]

To be honest, it’s hard to tell how persistent an ally of Tymoshenko or President Viktor Yushchenko has to be in his misbehavior before his leaders decide it’s worth disciplining him. Ukraine’s new leaders are, by our standards, a little too easygoing when it comes to punishing the nonsense perpetrated by their underlings.

[...]

Now it’s Tymoshenko’s turn to exercise leadership. There is no ambiguity on this matter: Lukyanenko willingly participated in a disgusting orgy of racism and hatred. In any other responsible country, he would already be a pariah. If Tymoshenko does not eject him from the Tymoshenko Bloc, observers will be free to draw their own conclusions about how far Ukraine really has come, and how different its new leaders are from the last pack. A country in which a politician is allowed to move with impunity from discussing Jewish evil with a fringe-right lunatic to taking his place at the table with the prime minister is one that doesn’t deserve to “join the West,” and never will. It’s a country that deserves derision. [...]


Levko Lukyanenko (b. 1928) is a former dissident and yet another member of Yulia Tymoshenko's bloc to be dangerously out of his mind...

***

I've spent some time browsing Duke's site as well as skimming through some papers at MAUP's site (MAUP is the Inter-regional Academy of Personnel Management and its president, Shchokin, organized the conference) - these people earn their living in one of the most pathetic ways, and the best way to deal with them is to ignore them.

"Don't touch shit and it's not gonna stink" - this local wisdom is very relevant in this case.

Steven Lee Myers has a story in the Saturday's New York Times about a teen from St. Pete who's trying to dodge the draft - In Russia, a Young Man's Dream Is Dodging the Draft.

It'd take a few books - and/or a bunch of close friends with first-hand experience - to make an outsider feel what our army's really like, and that's why the piece seems somewhat sketchy, and it reads a bit like a pamphlet... though, of course, it's got tons more authenticity than many army stories I've seen on Russian TV in the past few years...

[...] Fyodor, 17, soft-spoken and athletic, is embarking on a rite of passage for young men in today's Russia: dodging the draft.

The experience shapes almost everything about his present life. He is entering manhood with a desire to go to college, despite having no concrete academic goal, or, failing that, to convince the authorities - and at times, it seems, himself - that he is sick.

"It would be better," he said, "if the army were made up of people who wanted to serve."

In theory, all Russian men 18 to 27 are required to serve two years in the military. In practice, roughly 90 percent avoid it. Most do so by taking advantage of different kinds of deferments, including one for going to college, or by failing the physical fitness exam.

Either supposedly can be obtained for a bribe - something Fyodor is neither inclined nor, evidently, able to pay.

"They say you serve your motherland - you defend it," he said. "Well, it is a difficult question. You have to live here a while to understand it." [...]


I especially like the very end of the story, the ambiguity of it:

His plans for the future are equally vague. After college, he said he would like to become a master of wushu, teaching it to others. Wushu, he said, has taught him a basic philosophy.

"The best warrior," he said, "knows that the best thing is to avoid a fight."


***

The New York Times story has reminded me of something I wanted to write about ever since I returned from Kyiv.

On the way back, one of my compartment-mates was Natasha, a heavy, 44-year-old Kyiv woman, looking well beyond her age, a mother of three boys. The oldest of her sons graduated from college with a degree in history - and then, unexpectedly, volunteered to spend nine months serving in the army. Natasha and her husband tried to talk him out of it but he wanted to be like his friends, most of whom had served.

(The way I understand/remember it, you either take military classes while at college and then become exempt from active duty, or you skip the classes, or fail them, and then serve a shortened term (almost wrote 'sentence') - nine months instead of a year and a half, I guess... Or, if you're an idiot, you get kicked out of college, as one of my dear friends did, and then serve the full term... Many colleges do not offer military classes at all, so you find yourself in the army right after graduation - unless you have two or more kids by that time...)

Anyway, Natasha's son, who's now 23, was sent to serve with the 'internal troops' based in Kyiv. (Again, I'm not an expert here at all, I'll have to wait for Mishah to wake up to offer a better description of what Natasha's boy got himself into - all I know is that they wear what looks like ordinary gray police uniform, and when the Soviet Union began to collapse in the late 1980s, these 'internal troops' boys from all over the country were sent to places like Abkhazia and Azerbaijan, supposedly to keep order. Mishah served in Abkhazia, in between the two wars, and his twin brother was in Azerbaijan - but that's a totally different story...)

Ukraine is a peaceful country, thank God, so all Natasha had to worry about at first was the quality of the food her son was getting.

But then the Orange Revolution began.

Everyone in Kyiv was very tense then, fearing that Kuchma would send in the troops - and Natasha was very tense, too, but for a different reason: her son was with those troops. His unit had the orders to guard the Central Election Commission building, a spot calmer than the presidential administration, but still quite a challenge for a loving mother. She spent a month or so visiting her son's base, sometimes as often as three times a day, checking if his unit was resting or on duty, worrying about her son being hurt or hurting somebody...

I told Natasha that this was something that had never occurred to me at that time: that all the police boys had mothers worrying themselves to death somewhere... Natasha's "angle" made me even happier about the way the orange crowd treated the cops - Police are with the people! and Go and get warm, and we'll stand here for you!..

She said they all kept asking her son whether he'd shoot at the people if ordered to, and he tried really hard to avoid answering - which probably meant he wouldn't have obeyed such an order, although to admit it openly must be equal to becoming a deserter...

He told his family that he saw the riot police (OMON) practicing at their base - beating the hell out of one another all day long. Those guys had been brought in from outside Kyiv, and they occupied the barracks of the 'internal troops' boys who, temporarily, were relocated to the gym and other such spaces.

Natasha's second son is approaching the draft age, too, now, and she's begging him to study well, then go to college and avoid the army. He tells her not to worry - their oldest brother is serving for the three of them, he tells Natasha.

Natasha has always wanted to have a daughter - that's part of the reason she has three sons: she kept trying... Right now, she told me, her oldest son is mature enough for her to hope for a granddaughter...

This past Saturday, the New York Times had an interesting story about Turkey and the EU - Turks, Nervous About European Prospects, Turn to U.S. - which ended this way:

[...] Saban Disli, deputy chairman for foreign affairs in the ruling Justice and Development Party, said Europe should not try to project a decision of 10 years from now by looking at Turkey today. "Who knows?" he said, "Maybe in 10 years' time, it will be Turkey who holds a referendum to see if Turks still want to become a part of the E.U."


The Kyiv Post, ten days earlier, had a nice editorial on Ukraine and the EU - France's no - and Ukraine - which had a similar conclusion:

The fact is that Ukraine, famously situated on the borders of empires, is well-situated to form intelligent, self-interested relationships with various other countries. It ought to use the independence it so recently achieved to do so. Sometimes this will mean cultivating relationships with Brussels and the other capitals of the West; other times it will necessitate working closely with Russia, a country with which Ukraine is thoroughly intertwined, and will be for the foreseeable future. Still other times it will mean pairing up with other post-Soviet countries, such as its fellow GUUAM members, with whom supposedly “European” Ukraine shares deeper cultural ties than it does with, say, France or Spain.

George Washington famously warned the young American republic against “entangling alliances.” Now that even Europeans are showing signs of not being happy with the EU, Ukraine should beware of embracing such alliances, too.


Sounds like common sense - if only common sense was the same for everyone.

(A colleague once gave me this wonderful example illustrating how wrong we may be when we think of common sense as something monolithic: in this part of the world, when stopped by the traffic police, many would consider it common sense to swiftly get out of the car and walk towards the cop - in order to appear respectful; in the States, common sense in this situation is the opposite - you have to stay in the car until the cop approaches you himself, or he'll shoot you...)

Two situations in which elections and voting are mentioned in Girl, 20:

p. 146

[...] I picked up the Sunday Times magazine section and started reading about poverty and oppression in British Honduras. Vivienne was reading on with equal attention, for after a few moments she said,

'Doug, what's a ...? I can't even pronounce it. Something about...'

I dropped Honduras and went over to her. My more direct route being blocked by her breakfast tray and the chair it rested on, I made my approach via my side of the bed. Our shoulders touched.

'Where?'

'Here.'

She was holding the paper in a rather awkward position, low down and close to her, so that I had to lean some way across to get a view of the paragraph she was pointing to. As I did so, I noticed at close range, but in adequate focus, that the front of the bed-jacket had fallen apart and that a nipple was protruding from inside the Norma-style nightdress.

'A psephologist is a man who knows about elections,' I said, stumbling a little over the last word and taking off my glasses.

'Oh, darling...'

The remainder of the day passed pleasantly enough. [...]


p. 148

[...] Come the first week of September she can vote - not a right I can see her exercising much, admittedly - and she can marry who she likes,' he said, pouring me more champagne with a casual and yet intent air. [...]

Monday, June 13, 2005

I'm reading Kingsley Amis' Girl, 20 that I bought at one of the used book stores near us. On either Bolshaya or Malaya Nikitskaya, there's a place that sells all kinds of antiques, in addition to the books, and I love going there because of the suprise factor: every once in a while someone leaves a nice - and cheap - volume, could be anything, and it's such a pleasure to unearth it from beneath dozens of trash mysteries and romance books... Even when I leave the store empty-handed, I'm happy, because of all the adrenaline that the expectation is giving me.

Anyway, here's a new word I've just learned - related to my previous entry:

psephology - the statistical and sociological study of elections
(from Greek psephos: pebble, vote - from the ancient Greeks' custom of voting with pebbles)

In December, it'll be ten years since I took my GRE test - and somehow words like this still make me shudder...

City council election campaign is in full swing in Bashkortostan's capital Ufa: the vote is scheduled for June 26, and a scandal spectacular enough to be featured on nationwide TV has already broken out. (I watched it on either ORT or RTR a week or so ago, and then, this past Friday, NTV announced the story belatedly, too - but ended up never airing it, for some reason.)

Anyway, some 780,000 of Ufa's eligible voters received this leaflet in their mailboxes during the weekend of June 3-4:



Among other things, the voters were being warned - in bold type and, allegedly, by the head of Ufa's Election Committee, no less - that if they failed to show up at the polling stations and cast their votes on June 26, they'd be fined 3,000 rubles (approx. $100). They'd have two months to pay the fine.

The TV story I was watching had this elderly woman in it - an average Ufa resident, I assume - who stood by her mailbox, holding a piece of paper and lamenting about the absurdity of the message it carried: how was she supposed to pay them 3,000 rubles when her monthly pension was only 2,000 rubles (approx. $70)?!

She didn't look like she realized there was no way anyone could force her to vote if she herself didn't feel like it.

If I were doing this story, I'd probably go searching for some ordinary citizen aware of how this election thing was supposed to work - to sort of show the other side's view as well as just out of curiosity.

Maybe the state-run channel's crew did try to find someone knowledgeable in Ufa but failed - or perhaps they didn't even bother.

After the elderly woman segment, they quoted the Election Committee's staff issuing disclaimers - and then, of all things, they interviewed a uniformed cop sitting at his desk in his study. The cop was stating the obvious: it is every citizen's right, not duty, to vote in all kinds of elections, and the information the leaflets contain is nonsense.

Maybe the journalists figured that no one was going to believe the truth about the election unless it was presented by someone with what's perceived as the real authority in this part of the world - a uniformed cop, of course, not a college student...

***

The punchline of this story, however, is that many Ufa residents first learned about the upcoming city council election from these fake leaflets - even though the competition seems to be pretty tough: 197 candidates for 35 seats!..

***

Another punchline is that, according to the Ufa edition of Komsomolskaya Pravda (in Russian), Bashkortostan had a really, really high turnout in the March 2004 presidential election: 89.9 percent.

Believe it or not, but in five regions of the republic Vladimir Putin received over 99 percent of the votes, in 14 regions he got 98 percent and in eleven - less than 90 percent... Overall, 91.79 percent of Bashkortostan's voters - or 2,366,046 people - gave their votes for Putin!..

Three or four days ago, I was in the middle of writing something when the computer started acting up. Mishah took it as a sign of something being wrong with the hard disk - and he was right. Luckily, the following day, he managed to copy most of the contents before the computer died completely.

The hard disk has now been replaced and I hope to get back to writing soon.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

According to Gazeta.ru (in Russian), something's brewing in Daghestan, something not good.

Watching the news from there has been a little like following the situation in Iraq - the spirit of it if not the scale: people are getting killed regularly - and after a while this seems like the norm; there's nothing you can really do about it - but at least you don't have to live there...

After Dawood Magomedov, a law enforcement official, was shot dead in Daghestan's capital Makhachkala yesterday, public discontent turned more evident:

"People are standing at his [Magomedov's] funeral, cursing Daghestan's leadership," said [Jamaluddin] Gamzatov, representative of the Khasavyurt administration, in a Gazeta.ru interview.

According to him, "it smells like a riot" in Makhachkala.

"There's a great many people here enraged because someone is getting killed every day," said Gamzatov.


There've also been unconfirmed reports of extra troops being moved into Daghestan.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

I've just realized that the only trace of politics in the previous post is this: the subway exchange of niceties occurred less than a month after the horrible Moscow subway explosion...

So, for some reason, I'm feeling really lazy about writing now...

Here's another little recycle from my Dear Diary - March 2004, when we still lived in St. Pete but I was in Moscow helping a friend cover Putin's re-election. The note has nothing to do with politics, though - it's about Moscow and one of those very rare instances of "the kindness of strangers":

A young cop is napping in a crowded subway car. At one of the stops, however, he gets up from his seat and offers it to an elderly man who has just entered the car.

"No, no, no," protests the elderly man, waving his hands and all. "Please don't get up! You must've worked all night, you must be very tired - you need to rest!"

But the young cop insists, and the elderly man sits down eventually.

Monday, June 06, 2005

I wrote this in my Dear Diary on August 26, 2004, when we still lived in St. Pete, and I kept thinking about it ever since they started reading Khodorkovsky's sentence last month:

That prison on the way to Komarovo/Zelenogorsk, right by the railway – I keep looking at it when I'm on the train.

Normally, cemeteries put me in this mood – when I’m totally horrified and want to stay as far as possible from the place where so many poor people lie dead. In prison, they are alive, crammed together in terrible conditions, barred and fenced and barbed-wired off from the rest of us.

But not from our noises. Every other minute a train passes by so close to where they are, a train full of free people. And those whose cells are on the upper floors can even see these trains.

Someone said it’s a women’s prison – and one evening, I even noticed that one of the upper-floor windows had this cozy red light on, a womanly thing. But today I saw an amazing scene while inside the moving train, and now I'm almost sure it's a men's prison.

I didn't pay attention until it was too late, unfortunately, and there was no way I could take a picture. Two young women, tall, slender, good-looking in that boring local way - totally stunning if you're some poor "mail-order" Western guy, but way too made-up if you're not – they were on the relatively wide sand/gravel path separating the tracks; the red brick prison fence was maybe five or six meters away from them. With their feet, they were writing this on the sand strip: 'Misha I Love You' – no punctuation, almost no spaces between the first three words – must be hard to be a calligrapher in such circumstances. The letters were huge – so that this Misha guy could see the message from his cell window.

I was wondering what he was in for – a robbery or maybe he killed someone in a drunk driving accident (I thought of the latter on my way back from Zelenogorsk, when the marshrutka driver was speeding like crazy – speeding past all those memorial wreaths on the trees, marking spots where someone died in a crash)...

I was reminded of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, of all people: he's also a Misha - and there are lots more of them in Russian jails...

And it also reminded me of the Soviet-style maternity hospitals – how all those happy new fathers crowd outside, with no way to get in, greeting their wives and newborns from down below, scribbling stuff like 'Sveta, I Love You!' on the ground, in huge letters, with chalk or paint, so that it stays there forever...


***

Alex(ei) of the Russian Dilettante's Weblog has three wonderful entries on how Khodorkovsky's case isn't the only one worth paying attention to here in Russia:

- From the legal front;

- The right to defend ourselves;

- Mikhail Khodorkovsky is not the only political prisoner in Russia.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

The International Herald Tribune has a lovely follow-up on France's sorry vote against the EU constitution - Thomas Fuller examines the French and their fear of Polish plumbers:

WARSAW--Visitors driving through the outskirts of Warsaw could be forgiven for thinking they were in France.

The shopping centers that ring the capital are dominated by giant French retail chains like Auchan, Carrefour, Go Sport, Leroy Merlin, Castorama and E. Leclerc.

The stores tell the larger story of what happened to the Polish economy over the past decade: banks and companies were swallowed up by West European companies so thoroughly that today in the construction industry, for example, there are no major companies - those that handle big contracts, as opposed to subcontractors - owned by Poles, according to the Polish Chamber of the Building Industry.

Poland accepted this because it was a condition of joining the European Union, specifically the principle of the free movement of "goods, persons, services and capital."

But are France and other countries in Western Europe living up to their side of the bargain? What about the free movement of people? For some Poles this was the troubling subtext to France's rejection of Europe's proposed constitution on Sunday.

Only Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands and Sweden have allowed Poles to work in their countries since Poland joined the EU in May 2004.

Zbigniew Bachman, the director of the Polish Chamber of the Building Industry, says foreigners are profiting handsomely from their domination of the market - and the profits are going back to France, Spain or Germany. Yet French voters are famously up in arms about Polish plumbers coming to fix French pipes at cut rates.

"We believe that if Poland is now a member of the EU, it is like being a province in a larger country," Bachman said. "It is obvious that rich regions will suck people away from poorer areas."

The message to West Europeans these days from Poland may be this: Beware of the backlash from the east. You have gobbled up entire industries, and for the European Union to truly work, you will have to give something in return.

[...]

Friday, June 03, 2005

PRI's The World is doing a three-part series on pro-democracy movements in this part of the world, and Andrew Sussman covers the situation in Russia.

It's a very good piece, with a sobering conclusion:

The fact is democracy has always been a loaded term in contemporary Russia, but perhaps now more than ever.


The pictures that accompany the transcript are mine - from the Victory Day Stalinist freak show, from the pro-Khodorkovsky rally in front of the courthouse, and from the Nashi get-together.

(Daniel, thanks for letting me know!)

Thursday, June 02, 2005

I did hear about it but never paid too much attention: there are at least two youth movements called Pora! in Russia and each one has been reported to claim to be more authentic and viable than the other, more capable of bringing down Putin's regime.

Tonight, I've noticed this picture on someone's LiveJournal - from a rally in front of the courthouse where Khodorkovsky's sentence was being read for the past two weeks:



Needless to say, the orange Pora! flag in the middle of the picture reminded me of Yushchenko's Nasha Ukraina logo:



Back in January, I translated an interview with the guy who had designed all the orange stuff for Yushchenko - Dima Maksymenko. I doubt he now works for the aspiring Russian revolutionaries; I'm sure their logo is an imitation. Or is it plagiarism? Either way, how can one take them seriously? Them or them? Why can't they unite? Or at least pretend to unite?


Pora! Movement


Pora! A Russian Youth Movement

***

Not that I can really tell the two Ukrainian Pora! movements apart, not that I really care about it... All I know is that first these guys managed to get us all out into the street and then, after it was all over and Yanukovych was history, they decided to split...


"Yellow" Pora


"Black" Pora!

I don't even know for sure which one of the two Pora!'s decided to turn into yet another of Ukraine's 126 political parties - but Roman Zvarych wouldn't let them... The "Yellow" one, I guess - I saw these anti-Zvarych stickers on every fence in the center of Kyiv during my recent visit home:


Time to Understand / Watch Out for Zvarych! / HE'S LYING

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

According to Ukrainska Pravda (in Ukrainian), Ukraine's minister of foreign affairs Borys Tarasyuk refuses to make an official statement on yesterday's sentencing of Mikhail Khodorkovsky until he obtains a statement from Ukraine's Ministry of Justice confirming that the verdict has been "a violation of human rights."

Ukraine's minister of justice Roman Zvarych, however, doesn't think it's up to him and his people "to evaluate other countries' court decisions."

[Zvarych] said Ukraine's ministry of foreign affairs could make a statement on human rights violations present in Khodorkovsky's case court verdict. "But I don't consider it useful politically because Ukraine is not interested in aggravating the relationship with Russia," said Zvarych.

When journalists pointed out to [the minister of foreign affairs] Tarasyuk that in the United States the statement on Khodorkovsky had been issued by a foreign politics body (the U.S. Department of State), he said: "So what? Are we supposed to do everything the way they do it in America because of that?"


(It never hurts to be careful, especially when dealing with Russia - and no one knows it better than those we keep electing to run Ukraine.)

***

It's unimaginably scary to suddenly find myself agreeing with Russia's chief Communist Gennady Zyuganov - but this is what happened to me yesterday when I was watching NTV's 10 pm news... Here's Zyuganov's quote, from a RIA Novosti story:

Leader of the Russian Communist party Gennady Zyuganov described the nine-year sentence to Khodorkovsky and his business associate Platon Lebedev as "a public whipping."

"We witnessed an ordinary case of flogging. Though the entire period of privatization in this country faced disastrous law violations, a scapegoat, with whom above all someone wants to square accounts, was found," Zyuganov told journalists on Tuesday.

"Our lawyers say that everything in terms of law and procedure that can be violated was violated," said the Communist leader.

Kommersant, a Russian daily, has launched its pilot Ukrainian issue today.

Among other things, there's a story (in Russian) on how Ihor Strembitsky, the guy who won a Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, publicly refused to meet with Oksana Bilozir, one of the tackiest women in the world who also happens to be Ukraine's culture and tourism minister:

Oksana Bilozir, Ukraine's culture and tourism minister, is getting ready for a meeting with film director Ihor Strembitsky today. Strembitsky's film Podorozhni (Putniki/Wayfarers) won a Palme d'Or du Court Métrage at the Cannes Film Festival. However, the meeting may not take place - Mr. Strembitsky does not want to see the minister. The Cannes laureate spoke about his reasons for making this decision this past Saturday, at a news conference at the Cinema House, where the national première of [Podorozhni], which is [Strembitsky's] course work at the National Karpenko-Karyi University, took place.

In fact, the national première of Podorozhni took place on May 25 in the director's native village of Paryshcha (Nadvirnyansky district of Ivano-Frankivsk region), where Ihor Strembitsky and his wife Natalka Kononchuk, who had authored the screenplay, were treated like family. A memorial plate appeared on the wall of the school Mr. Strembitsky attended, and the desk he used to sit at acquired a Cannes plate. The village club's movie showing equipment has long been out of order, and that's why the film director arrived with his own DVD player and a disk with Podorozhni. The club was stuffed with people - they came to watch a film (on a TV screen placed on the stage) that had made their 32-year-old co-villager famous. It took 30 minutes to show a ten-minute film: Podorozhni was screened three times to allow those in the back rows to get a better view by rotating closer to the screen.

[...]

The man who had triumphed at the Cannes did not accept the invitation of minister of culture Oksana Bilozir to meet with him on May 31. Ihor Strembitsky's public refusal to "have his picture taken next to the minister of tourism" is, in a way, a counter-refusal. First, the ministry of culture did not react to the request of Natalka Kononchuk, the author of the screenplay, to fund their journey to the Cannes. After not hearing back from the ministry, Natalka Kononchuk went to the Studio 1+1's general producer Volodymyr Oseledchyk and the TV channel's honorary president Oleksandr Rodnyansky: eventually, they covered all the Cannes Film Festival-related expenses for the Podorozhni creators.


That's a good, healthy attitude, if you ask me. Strembitsky owes nothing to Bilozir, and she has no right to take any credit whatsoever for his hard-won success. I'm glad he had the guts to say this out loud and in front of many people.

***

Here's a little bit more on Strembitsky's documentary from the Cannes Film Festival website:

Synopsis

Oh lulla-lullaby, How I want to sleep, So I'll put my head, On the white bed, Maybe I will fall asleep... Film about childhood that never returns, about dreams that can't come true and about madness as a kind of happiness or grief.


I hope to have more on it when I see the film myself (I haven't yet).


Photo: AFP

***

And here's an anticlimactic news report on Oksana Bilozir from May 17, 2005 (posted in a Russian/Ukrainian-language anti-Bilozir community at LiveJournal.com):

Ukraine's president Victor Yushchenko signed an order for Oksana Bilozir to resign from her post of the minister of culture and arts of Ukraine. [...]

[...] With another order, the president appointed Bilozir Ukraine's minister of culture and tourism.


(The English translation of Bilozir's Cabinet of Ministers bio says she's still Minister of Culture and Arts, while the Ukrainian-language version has already been updated - she's indeed our Minister of Culture and Tourism...)

Found this totally awesome site yesterday - PostSecret - through this New York Times review - Bless Me, Blog, for I've Sinned:

[...] Some secrets cannot be separated from the cards they're on. One sad little postcard has a lineup of seven 3-cent stamps, each with a picture of a Conestoga wagon on it, plus one 2-cent stamp of a locomotive: "I found these stamps as a child, and I have been waiting all my life to have someone to send them to. I never did have someone." [...]


Here's this card: