A few weeks ago, I was in a trolley on the way downtown. As we approached a stop just outside the Garden Ring, an elderly but very slim and fit-looking man appeared out of nowhere right in front the trolley, causing our driver, a woman, to hit the brakes abruptly and curse loudly. He got in at the stop, and she spewed some of her wrath at him while he was looking for his wallet. "You like extreme, don't you?" she was saying. "You're crossing the street like this, all the while thinking, 'Will she hit me or not?' Right? Is that what you were thinking of?" To which he very calmly replied: "Thinking? What's there to think about? There was nothing but pure calculation." It's still making me smile, the way he said it and then moved past the turnstile inside the trolley. He looked very much like Nikolai Drozdov, one of the sweetest TV people in the world, who's been doing a nature show - "V mire zhivotnykh" - since I was a little kid. I wonder if it was him indeed, and whether the driver woman recognized him and mentioned "extreme" because of that: Drozdov, in 2003, took part in Survivor show ("Posledniy geroi") - I rooted for him then, but he didn't win...
Wednesday, January 31, 2007
My dear friend Sasha (aka Alex Kleimenov) spent a weekend in Ternopil and sent me this lovely picture taken at a department store there:
© Alex Kleimenov
There's Yushchenko's portrait, and Taras Shevchenko's, and Ivan Franko's - and then there's this triptych, and I recognize only one man, Stepan Bandera, but Sasha writes me that the two others are "major UPA leaders" as well.
"Across the aisle," Sasha also writes, "they were selling kitchen utensils."
A very tasty image - thank you, Sash.
Tuesday, January 30, 2007
I didn't make it to Gogol Bordello's performance yesterday - for a number of reasons (my laziness is just one of them). Really regret it.
(Regret it even more after I've found these bloggers' photos from the concert: here and here. What an idiot I am...)
I'm reading these two extremely long pieces on Putin's Russia now: one by Michael Specter in the New Yorker, and the other by Perry Anderson in London Review of Books.
If I ever manage to finish them, I hope to share a few thoughts here. Maybe not.
A few weeks ago, Marta woke up during our walk at Novodevichiy Monastery. Normally, she sleeps from the moment we get outside till, sometimes, an hour after we're back in. But this time, she was either feeling too hot (it was before the winter finally made it here), or she was disturbed by me singing Santa Lucia (I was in a very good mood then and had just read a story by Ray Bradbury, in which someone was singing Santa Lucia, too). Anyway, I had to cut our walk short and was on the way home - and Marta was having a screaming fit until we reached the little open-air market where there were enough distractions for her to calm down. Her sobs, however, had made an old, tall, sloppily-dressed woman accompany us for a while. First, she shook her keys - big, old-fashioned ones, attached to a thick metal ring - in front of Marta, thinking that the sound would cheer her up. It didn't work, but I thanked her. Then, out of the blue, she started telling me about her son: that he used to have a millionaire wife (millionersha), but he dumped her (and all her cars and apartments) for a younger girl who was now three months pregnant. The rich one couldn't have kids, the old woman said with disgust; all she had were three cats. Of the young and pregnant one, she spoke with the same disgust - possibly, because the girl was poor. I said something about kids being such a blessing, regardless of who their mothers are, and hurried away from the old bitch.
A month or so ago, I was on my way to the subway station near us to meet a friend, when I saw an old woman, with a walking cane and wearing valenki, trying to cross the street. It was slippery and windy as hell then, so I decided to help her, thinking it'd only be a few meters, but she wrapped her arm around mine and, slowly, very slowly, we walked together for two blocks. She must've felt so grateful she decided to share what she probably thought was an invaluable tip: a birth control trick, not for the faint-hearted. After intercourse, she told me, take a pee into a banochka, a glass can, and then pour some of it inside you; works really well, she said. We also talked about those goddamn drivers who'd drive over you the moment you turn away, and about the corrupt Moscow police who come over to the elderly people's apartments and burn their legs with laser, to intimidate them into re-writing their wills and leaving their apartments to some evil strangers. It was a fun experience, and it's good that my friend was late, too, because otherwise she'd have had to wait for me in the cold for, like, 20 minutes...
Sunday, January 28, 2007
Wednesday, January 24, 2007
It's gotten really cold here at last, and I'm hibernating, and so I've started yet another pseudo-blog thing: no thoughts attached.
Lazy, I'll be posting quotes from the stuff I read there - nothing but quotes (and links, if there are any).
I've just finished this piece on Iraq (London Review of Books, November 2006): surreal beyond belief - and nearly every paragraph in it seems quoteworthy...
American military spending on Iraq is now approaching $8 billion a month. Accounting for inflation, this is half as much again as the average monthly cost of the Vietnam War; the total spent so far has long surpassed the cost of the entire Apollo space programme. Three and a half months of occupation costs the equivalent of Iraq’s estimated oil revenues for the current financial year. We now know, thanks to the leaked report of James Baker’s Iraq Study Group, that if US troops withdrew, they would in all probability be redeployed to neighbouring countries, increasing the already massive expenditure and inevitably threatening new arenas of conflict. Here’s an unimaginable alternative. If the US army left the region, and if the money was instead handed out to every Iraqi man, woman and child, they would each receive more than $300 a month.
The State Department is unforthcoming about the real cost of the corporate armies operating in Iraq: the mercenaries, or ‘private security contractors’, who guard US officials and international contractors ensuring that Coalition forces are free to fight insurgents. The GAO estimated last year that there were more than 25,000 of these ‘contractors’, significantly outnumbering British troops. A former squaddie, kitted out with dark glasses, automatic pistol, rifle, body armour and radio, working for a construction team, can earn at least $12,000 a month. A former special forces NCO protecting a Coalition official or construction firm boss can make more than twice that. The State Department says the cost of security makes up 16 to 22 per cent of the overall outlay on big reconstruction projects, but this may be an underestimate.
Before 1991, Iraq had one of the best health services in the Middle East. Baghdad’s doctors and nurses provided care often comparable to that of their counterparts in Tel Aviv or Cairo. A decade of sanctions scuppered that: by 2002 the Health Ministry budget had been reduced by 90 per cent. According to both the UN and the World Bank, the health system needed $1.6 billion just to resume normal operation. The CPA set aside less than a quarter of that.
A new children’s hospital in Basra was to be a showcase for American generosity. It was a joint venture of Bechtel and Project Hope, one of Laura Bush’s favourite charities, overseen by USAID. Congressional Democrats questioned whether Iraq needed a state of the art 94-bed paediatric unit when existing hospitals were in dire need of basic repairs and medical supplies. The contract was signed anyway: $50 million was set aside for construction and $30 million for supplies and training. The project was to be finished by 31 December 2005. This June, the embassy finally ordered work to stop: $150 million had been spent, and Bechtel estimated that a further $98 million would be needed.
As a centre of oil smuggling, the British-occupied area around Basra is rivalled only by the Niger delta. More than 1600 fishing boats in Basra spirit away 15 million litres of oil a month. Basra is now the most corrupt city in Iraq. Everyone has been accused of smuggling: the Iranian-funded Shia militias, criminal syndicates, the mayor, the Baghdad Oil Ministry.
Monday, January 22, 2007
Saturday, January 20, 2007
Thursday, January 18, 2007
Tuesday, January 16, 2007
Here's an ordinary-looking children's playground somewhere near Sportivnaya subway station:
And here's the bench up close:
The writing on it says that a certain Djavat, an [ethnic] Georgian (gruzin), is a khach and a blackassed jerk. There's more, but it's irrelevant, so I won't bother translating it.
The relevant part is that Djavat doesn't sound like a Georgian name to me, but rather like an Azeri or a Turkish one - so it probably means that gruzin is used as a slur here, not as an indicator of ethnicity. Must be a new trend. If this is so, then this use of gruzin is similar to the use of "blackass" and khach. In Armenian, khach means "cross" (and Armenia was the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as state religion, in 301) - but this word in Russia is by now an established ethnic slur, used for people from the Caucasus, regardless of whether they are Georgian, Armenian or Azeri.
Back in the Soviet times, it wasn't so complicated - there was nothing but zhidy, kikes, then. Or so it seems now.
(I apologize if this entry has made someone sick: it sure does make me sick to be writing about it like this.)
One more photo from our Sunday's walk - the fire department on Prechistenka:
The upper part of the mural is about the 1853 fire at the Bolshoi Theater; the lower part is about the 1977 fire at Hotel Rossiya. (For a bigger copy, see here.)
Monday, January 15, 2007
Prechistenka on Sunday, around 4 PM.
This may seem like a boring picture - no action, no nothing. No cars. Right, and this is what's truly extraordinary about it: Moscow sometimes looks like this on weekends - and, as Mishah said, this is probably how it used to be a long, long time ago, before it turned into a huge and seemingly neverending traffic jam.
We took a trolley to the center today, with Marta in a stroller, and had a wonderful walk through all the little streets between Ostozhenka and Prechistenka. Marta slept through it all, as usual.
One of the weirdest places in central Moscow: the backyard of a music school on Prechistenka. There must've been stables there before, but now people live in these buildings - and there are probably a couple of artists' studios there as well.
Reminds me of Odessa a lot.
And of the spooky place where I lived in Iowa City during my first year there - Black's Gaslight Village on Brown St.
I almost posted this, but then wandered off to find some photo of Gaslight Village or a story about it. Very few mentions, unfortunately, and no photos.
Found the Black Angel, however - here. I'm probably one of those few people who've never seen it up close.
Here's what the woman who took the picture wrote:
I too had many nocturnal visits to the Black Angel. It was just one of those things you had to experience, like Black's Gas Light Village, or Gabe's oasis. Those kind of memories are part of what made my Iowa City adventure so wonderful.
The Oakland Cemetery, where the Black Angel stands, is located at the end of Brown St.: I got lost on my way home one night in February 1997 and realized in the morning that I'd been walking in circles a block or so away from the cemetery, blissfully unaware of it. Another time, also late at night, my Gaslight Village neighbor was giving me driving lessons at some cemetery, and it could've been the Oakland Cemetery, but honestly, I've no idea.
Anyway, here's another photo that I've taken today at that weird place on Prechistenka - I wasn't planning to post it because it's out of focus, but after running into the Black Angel of Iowa City, I have to post what looks like the Yellow Angel of Moscow:
Here's a cute link: Haunted Iowa City. Both the Gaslight Village and the Black Angel are on the map used by The Third Eye Over Iowa Ghost Hunters Club.
Sunday, January 14, 2007
Giustino of Itching for Eestimaa writes:
[...] Every Russian person that finds themselves the victim of Russophobia and Western mistrust today owes a great deal of their position to Mr. Djugashvili. His government killed millions, and yet very few of the war criminals in it were ever held accountable for their crimes. And so, 60 years after it was erected, some Estonians find accountability in an old bronze statue. [...]
This reads totally okay when I do it quickly, but when I pause, all kinds of thoughts start entering my head.
- Something's terribly wrong with this premise: Russians suffering from Russophobia should blame Stalin, a Georgian, for it. It's almost funny, isn't it, considering the recent gruzinophobia in Moscow...
- The Russian in me is somewhat bewildered.
My great-grandfather Andrei Khokhlov moved from Moscow to Kyiv at the beginning of the 20th century. He was a hair-dresser. An ethnic Russian, as far as we know (my father told me once there was some Greek blood in us somewhere, but he didn't know the details).
My grandfather Sergei Khokhlov (my father's father, who died in 1969, five years before I was born) made quite a career at Ukraine's ministry of construction.
His sisters were architects - one lived in Kyiv, the other in Moscow, and the third in St. Petersburg.
Sergei's wife, my father's mother, was from a Russian village located somewhere near the Ukrainian border. She was ethnic Russian, too - without any doubts.
Her younger brother, Pavlusha, was drafted into the army around the time the shameful Soviet-Finnish War started - and he was taken POW pretty soon, somewhere in Estonia.
After he was released, they sent him to the camps, and later exiled him to Central Asia.
Pavlusha's father followed his son in exile and died and is buried there.
My father used to visit Pavlusha and his family (and his grandfather's grave) every time he went to Tashkent for a tennis tournament. Pavlusha was married to a woman who, judging by the way their daughters looked, must have had some Uzbek blood in her - but again, we don't know the details.
Here's a picture of Pavlusha's daughters and his son - my aunts and uncle:
I've never met any of them, but discovered this photo when I was 14 or so and had an instant crush on this breathtakingly beautiful man who somehow happened to be my uncle - I used to feel so lucky about it.
We don't keep in touch with this branch of the family: last time I heard, they were living somewhere in Russia.
There are many details I'm too lazy to write about now, and there are many details I don't remember. The only one who does is my father, but, in his present condition, he won't be able to share any of it with me. It really hurts to realize this: that in addition to my father, I'm losing bits of family history, forever.
Anyway, what am I trying to say?
There's enough Russian in me, I guess, to feel "Russophobia and Western mistrust" - and yet I never do. It must be because there's enough Ukrainian in me, too. And only God knows what else and how much of it. Which doesn't make me any less Russian, of course. Which probably means that this whole Russophobia thing has way too many loopholes in it.
I ran into an LJ entry about "pox parties" yesterday. Crazy.
I can't believe there are people out there (both in the States and here) who'd voluntarily expose their unvaccinated kids to chickenpox - instead of, say, exposing them to some fresh air for a few more hours...
A piece on Ukrainian and Russian adoptions in the New York Times (also, photos and a video that have made me cry)...
[...] the chaotic system of adoption in Ukraine was growing more chaotic.
The director of Ukraine’s new Department for Adoptions resigned, leaving the fate of the nation’s 90,000 orphans in limbo. A new application process required foreign families to quickly update security clearances and other time-sensitive information. Prospective parents anxiously scanned the State Department’s Web site and bulletins from the embassy in Kiev for clarification of rules and rumors.
Ukraine and Russia place formidable obstacles in the path of parents, among them inaccurate information about children’s availability and health status. Multiple families can wind up competing for the same child. And children themselves know they are auditioning for what the industry calls their “forever families.” Then there is an entrenched system of favors — requests for cash or gifts from facilitators, translators, judges and others who handle the mechanics of adoption overseas.
Conditions in both countries have grown so unsettled, some agencies have suspended hosting programs, and the debate is growing about the ratio of risk to reward. Do the many success stories for older orphans make up for the heartbreak when adoption is thwarted?
In countries like Ukraine, it is all but impossible to manage expectations. Adoption authorities insist that families cannot request children who spent time in their homes, but rather must come to Kiev, by invitation, look at pictures and go to orphanages to meet the children offered to them.
In that two-year span, visas to children from Ukraine fell to 460, from 723. Russia’s visas dropped to 3,706, from 5,865.
Friday, January 12, 2007
During our walk at Novodevichiy Monastery today, a spinsterish-looking woman came up to me and asked if I knew where Naprudnaya (Over-the-Pond) Tower was. I said I didn't, then tried to guess: I did know which direction the pond was, and there were only two or three towers to choose from there. Then I asked her why she was looking for it. She hesitated with the answer, but I thought that she hadn't heard the question and asked again. She told me, somewhat too seriously, out of shyness perhaps, that they say if you made a wish and touched the wall of that tower, the wish would come true.
She asked around some more and I did some thinking, too, and it turned out you had to walk outside the monastery to come close to the tower, and we went down to the pond together - and since I felt a little bit like an intruder, awkward, I decided to be the first one to do the silly ritual, to make the woman feel more at ease: I stepped away from the stroller and into the mud, and put my palms on the cold white wall, and stood there for half a minute or so, thinking frantically of a wish to make, ending up with two instead of one, laughing at myself all the while.
I walked away without saying good-bye to the woman - because it seemed like a polite thing to do in that context.
The pond still has some ice on it - enough to hold various kinds of garbage on the surface: bricks, for example, that must've been thrown into the lake by kids.
Naprudnaya Tower is on the right:
Tuesday, January 09, 2007
Everyone's linking to this BBC piece on Kyiv's real estate, so I'll do, too:
Yet Kiev is now believed to be the most expensive city in Eastern Europe in which to buy a home.
Prices increased by 10-25% in just the final two months of 2006.
The cost of apartments has already overtaken some EU cities like Amsterdam.
"Kiev has experienced such a property boom. I bought a flat three years ago for $30,000, and now its worth up to $200,000."
"In my experience the most expensive places cost $25,000 per square metre," says Parker and Obolensky's Ruslan Suchkoe.
"That's not a joke. Apartments of this price are about 100 to 300 square meters in size."
Such a valuation would put the top of the market at around $7.5m.
But despite the building frenzy, Ukraine remains one of the poorest countries in Europe.
The cheapest one-bedroom flat in Kiev costs in the region of $100,000- far beyond the reach of most people in a city where the average salary is about $200 a month.
I hope they do a piece on Kyiv's Lexus boom next.
Here's what's being built right outside our window at Besarabka:
Monday, January 08, 2007
Our neighbors must've been doing Christmas cleaning today: they got rid of a bunch of books, placing them by the window at the smoking place in the hallway.
Mishah picked up Yulian Semyonov's Seventeen Moments of Spring, on which the legendary Soviet-time film is based (somehow, I always assumed it was a bookless film).
I took something Soviet about the Spanish Civil War (signed by the author, some obscure but high-ranked military guy) - and a few rather old English textbooks, among them a two-volume "Advanced English," published in 1947 in Moscow, in excellent condition, a treasure.
Here's the beggining of the text about London (p. 219, vol. 2):
London, the stronghold of British imperialism and the vital centre of the United Kingdom, was built up gradually in the course of many centuries.
And, closer to the end of the text, something that I knew would be there:
In a somewhat quieter section nearby is the British Museum and its splendid libarry [sic], where Marx, and later Lenin, came to study and write. Marx' London home in Dean Street and the house where Lenin lived in Regent's Square are both within walking distance of the place.
If you think the textbooks that we used 40 years later were much different, you're wrong: for the most part, they were as sickening. No wonder I preferred to study the lyrics of Madonna's songs instead. And Sinead O'Connor's. And lots of really silly pop songs.
"Hazard" by Richard Marx - I heard it on the radio today and was telling Mishah that this song might seem worthless now, but all those years ago, it wasn't all that obvious that "man with a badge" (who "came knocking next morning") was a cop - to figure it out was quite a language exercise.
And the very first song for me was the Beatles' "When I'm 64" - taught to us here in Moscow in 1986: God bless the teacher, Irina Vitalyevna (Makarova, I guess, but I may be wrong) for her creative approach.
And there was also the BBC Russian Service, sometimes jammed, sometimes not, with Seva Novgorodtsev (he's on Nostalgiya TV channel now, by the way), and they also had a show where they presented English-language songs line by line, translating them, and I still remember a tiny bit of a Chicago song they dissected (Chicago the band):
After all of these years
I'm still trying to shake it
Doing much better
They say that it just takes time
But deep in the night it's an endless flight
I can't get you out of my mind...
It was my beautiful music teacher, Lena, who inspired me to listen to BBC - she was studying English that way herself then, getting ready for emigration to the States... She also tried to get me to listen to Joan Baez, but I was too scatterbrained for that at the time... (Thank you again, Lenochka!)
And now everything's so easy: there's the internet, and a thousand different textbooks at every store...
Sunday, January 07, 2007
Saturday, January 06, 2007
Wednesday, January 03, 2007
A bit of shameless self-promotion: little by little, I've been assembling my old pieces in one place, a pseudo-blog place called Filed Away: pre-blog stuff, mostly.
I've posted only five texts there so far - and tonight, it's my July 2003 story about a train ride from Kyiv to St. Pete, via Belarus. I re-read it and really, really loved it. I can't write like this anymore, I'm afraid, but Mishah says I can, so I'll wait and see, and won't despair, not yet.
It's here now. (The online journal that ran it first, Newtopia Magazine, is no longer there - it's been three and a half years...)
Tuesday, January 02, 2007
A baby-shower card:
I received this card in early September 2005, some three months before Marta's birth. Among other things, my dear friend wrote: "I guess this isn't the most appropriate baby-shower card! Oops! Though motherhood feels like this in the middle of the night sometimes..."
(Thank you, Julinka, and happy New Year!)
A few hours after I posted the previous entry, when it was still Jan. 1, Marta made her two real first steps!!!!!!!!!
Then she did it three times more!
Mishah was there, stretching his arms towards her, asking her to "tip-top" to him - so she did have enough motivation. And she looked very proud of herself, too!
I'm so happy!
Monday, January 01, 2007
Happy New Year, dear all!
Z Novym Rokom/S Novym Godom from the three of us here in Moscow!
Both Mishah and I managed to catch a cold last week, so it was a rather sneezy celebration, but we still loved it. Watched Ironiya Sud'by, ili S Legkim Parom - ha-ha, if you skip it for a couple of New Years, you'd feel like you're seeing it for the first time, almost (for more on the film and other New Year's traditions in Russia, please see this entry at Snowsquare). We also watched Moskva Slezam Ne Verit yesterday; it won an Oscar in 1980 - has anyone else felt what I feel about it: that this film is so like a Soviet version of Sex and the City?..
Marta stayed up till around 1 am and ate as much of that sweet Tatar thing - cham-cham? - as she wanted. In general now, she acts as if she's jetlagged - goes to bed and wakes up really late. But Mishah's vacation is over, so we'll all have to switch back to a less relaxed schedule beginning tomorrow... I think Marta's overexcited from all the things she's got to explore here (just like I am) and from her new ability to crawl anywhere she wants (in Kyiv, mainly because of the cats and the mess they cause, we didn't allow her to get out of our room).
Here's our picture from yesterday:
And here's a New Year's video that Mishah insisted on making: Putin's address was on nearly every Russian channel, and we kept clicking until we reached the new favorite of mine, Nostalgia, and they had Brezhnev there, greeting the Soviet citizens with a really strong Ukrainian accent that I had no idea he had - and such a transition, from multi-Putin to Brezhnev, was funny as hell...