Thursday, December 29, 2005

Movie Review!

Last night, under an inexplicable spell that paralyzed our will to press the red button, my wife and I watched an undescribably silly movie with Whoopi Goldberg becoming Santa Claus. I mean, not stupid in a funny way but just silly. Good-heartedly and non-offensively yet overwhelmingly silly. And imbecile enough to keep us wondering how it would all end.
What makes blogs possible?

The Economist, in "Shock to the System," Dec. 24, 2005:
EDF [Electricité de France] employees work shorter hours, enjoy longer holidays and get more special benefits than workers in any other French company. A bestselling book about how to do almost nothing at work entitled "Bonjour Paresse" ("Hello Laziness") was written by Corinne Maier, an EDF employee. The difficulties of reforming the company are, arguably, reflected by the fact that although Ms Maier was subjected to a disciplinary hearing, she kept her job as an economic adviser on how to make EDF more efficient.
I say, keep it up and let them foot the bill.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

An unprejudiced plague

It is no news that Genghis Khan was tolerant of all religions. Neither is it news that Hitler was a vegetarian. Let us now look at two of the numerous principalities that emerged when mightier Mongol empires had disintegrated and were ruled by Genghis' real or pretended descendants: the khanates of Kazan (1438--1556) and Crimea. We will find less tolerance in those Muslim states, although their rulers cared much less about religion than Ottoman sultans. What we find, though, is that those khanates were major suppliers of Slavic slaves to Ottomans -- slaves that Kazan and Crimean horsemen captured in frequent raids into Russian and Ukrainian lands.

I've been going through Essays on the History of the Kazan Khanate by Mikhail G. Khudyakov (1894--1936). The book was first published in the 1920s, when the Bolsheviks were big on minority empowerment and "anti-imperialism". Thus Khudyakov can't be accused of a pro-Moscow bias. Regarding Russian captives in the Kazan khanate, he writes:
On August 17 [1551] representatives of the Russian government suggested that the khan begin freeing the captives. The Khan sent out police offcers, ordered to gather all the captives onhis premises and announced they were free. That day, 2700 people were freed. According to the Russian government's rolls... 60,000 slaves were to be set free in the Kazan Khanate.
Khudyakov estimates the population of Kazan at 30,000 to 40,000 at its peak.

The Crimeans were keen on avenging the demise of Kazan (Moscow took over the Kazan Khanate in 1556); they succeeded in 1572. Khudyakov notes:
According to contemporary accounts, in Moscow and its surroundings alone, up to 800,000 people died; 150,000 were taken away as captives [read slaves]. The total population loss had to be above one million -- and Ivan Vasilyevich's [Grozny's] domain had hardly counted 10 million subjects. The devastated areas were ancient and the most cultured; it was not for nothing that Muscovites, for long afterwards, counted years beginning with the Tatar destruction, as in the 19th century time would be counted from "the year 1812" [Napoleon's capture of Moscow].

Monday, December 26, 2005

Under the black mountain

When Arnold Schwarzenegger campaigned for governorship in California, bloggers inquired into the origin of his name. The most convincing opinion was, I remember, that the name should be parsed "schwarzen+egger" and taken to mean something like "black ploughman" or "black harrower." (Arnold's key rival was Lt.Gov. Bustamante -- according to a popular etymology, a "breast man.") Case closed, seemingly.

Oddly, I got back to this after listening to Birgit Nilsson singing Richard Strauss' simpler-than-expected, touching early songs. The author of Allerseelen (Wie einst im Mai) was a Tyrolese nobleman called Hermann von Gilm zu Rosenegg (or Ritter zu Rosenegg). So there had to be a place called Rosenegg somewhere in Tyrol. Indeed, there is a hotel in St. Johann, Tyrol, called Hotel Schloss Rosenegg ("castle Rosenegg") -- a renovated castle built, the owners claim, in 1187.

Well, if there is a Rosenegg, chances are there is a Schwartzenegg somewhere close. There's one in Switzerland, not far from Bern. There's a Schwarzenegg "ski hut" in the Soerenberg area where they serve Salat Mimosa, a name certainly familiar to those who have frequented cheap eateries in Russia. At last, I found a convincing enough explanation from a German-speaking forum contributor:
In this case the colour black refers to "egg" which is an (old) Alpine term for peak, therefore the first Schwarzenegger lived (and probably had a farm) below a (relatively) dark pointed mountain called "Schwarzenegg".
Easy, huh?
M.L. & B.M.

The 20th century produced two outstanding Russian scholars of the same name, Gasparov. Mikhail L. Gasparov, the linguist, translator and literary scholar, died in Moscow last month. Boris M. Gasparov, a culturologist if I may call him so, teaches at Berkeley. I have recently read one of the latter's excellent articles on Bulgakov -- a surprisingly convincing one, given by skepticism for literary and "cultural" studies. This is what The Moscow Times has to say about B.M.Gasparov:
Trained in linguistics, literature, semiotics and music, actively engaged throughout the 1970s with the circle of independent-minded cultural historians and semioticians around Yury Lotman at Tartu University, Estonia, he brought to the University of California at Berkeley and then to Columbia University a breadth of knowledge and scholarly styles unmatched in American Slavic studies since the days of the legendary structural linguist Roman Jakobson.
(On a side note, there was nothing specifically Estonian to the Tartu school -- the Baltic republics simply enjoyed a degree of scholarly freedom under the Soviets, in contrast to Russia proper.)

Then comes the best part:
For 20 years, Gasparov's studies of Alexander Pushkin, Russian and pan-European Romanticism, historical linguistics and cultural semiotics have helped create in the United States an alternative, non-Marxist model of cultural studies -- one closer to that luminescent Russian academic discipline, "culturology." Kulturologiya, especially as Lotman practiced it, is a speculative human science anchored firmly in empirical data and unburdened by strident politics. Most importantly, it is governed by that warm, mobile, creative understanding of "code" -- not a Morse code, not a password, but a flexible mechanism for interrelating the common denominators of a given culture -- that marks the best Russian thought about the humanities.
In other words, a scholar should prefer common sense to Marxist clichés? Surprise, surprise!

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Christmas greetings, treasured readers

Geniune Christmas weather in Moscow, -10C and snowing. Perfectly charming.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Give me your cure, your greenhouse gases

Actually, the Institute of Physics didn't predict the 2m tons of emissions, as Scott Burgess shows. Never mind. Alok Jha's message soars above this nitpicking:
During the eating marathon of Christmas day, spare a thought for the effects of the over-consumption on the Earth. While we make merry and indulge in too much turkey, mince pies and wine, our planet has to live with the hangover of extra greenhouse gases.
As the Russian joke goes, "Do you suffer from sexual pathologies? --No, I enjoy them!" We all know global warming is good for Northern countries, especially for Russia and Canada. Besides, St. Petersburg, the poison spring of political evilness, may get washed off. Party on, Britannia!
On a more positive note, Christmas shopping seems to have its up side. As a nation, we burnt 134,100m calories Christmas shopping last year - enough exercise to burn off 725m mince pies.
Right but running around shops makes you breathe harder, see? And that means more CO2! That only demonstrates the wisdom of my breath-measurement approach (see below).
Breathe, dear, while you can

Among the books I read as a child of school age, there was a certain one by a Soviet author titled In Template's Country (V strane Trafareta). It was intended as an allegory of a capitalist country's miserable existence (otherwise, why would it have been allowed?) but came out as an allegory of the Soviet Union's uniformity and dullardy. What else can you expect of a book that depicts a land governed by a ruler called Template (or Stencil, Pattern, Mold, etc.: Trafaret) who insists that all buildings in his fief are built to standard design templates? (Of course Soviet apartment buildings were copies of Western, Corbusierian concrete hives for the poor, but these Western prototypes came to define and dominate Russian, rather than European cities.)

Template employed three chief inspectors, two of whom, I still remember, were called Wordcatcher (Slovolov) and Breathmeasurer (Dykhomer). The first was a censor mostly while the second was to make sure people did not breathe too deeply. (The symbolical significance of this might be that breathing deep is associated with freedom.) Breathmeasurer ended up being disloyal... But Alok Jha, The Guardian's science correspondent, seems to be suggesting that Breathmeasurer move to Britain, for
Festive Britons will release almost 2m tonnes of extra carbon dioxide over the Christmas holidays, according to a new survey.
It's not just their oxygen-wasting lungs that are to blame:
Scientists at the Institute of Physics calculated the extra energy used in roasting the perfect turkey, driving to see the relatives, watching television and opening the door to carol singers to work out the potential impact of a merry Christmas on climate change.
But as it seems terribly hard to prevent people from seeing their relatives and opening doors to carollers, the right remedy is to equip them with breath-measuring devices. Those will be easy to bundle with ID cards.

(Via The Daily Ablution by way of February 30.)
Snow bliss

The weather in Moscow has been positively delightful for three days or so -- snow, snow everywhere, and a light frost (-5C or so). Ah, just like in childhood. See the photo at Scraps of Moscow.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Boris Godunov and the Time of Troubles, 2012--2016

By way of an epigraph, a confession from a Russian music forum:
Fidelio... The singers poured beer on each other... or threw beer cans -- I don't remember which and don't want to recall. Act II began with Florestan lying on a tavern table under a naked Rubensian woman... Where was it? In Germany, the motherland of perverted stagings.
It is sometimes said that Mussorgsky got closer to realizing Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk concept than Wagner himself, and if so, it would be unfair if the Russian's operas were exempt from the treatment accorded in the past thirty years to the German's music-dramas, as well as simpler operas by Verdi, Bizet and others. Yet while it is enough to read descriptions of Peter Konwitschny's productions to rate them D-, Dmitry Chernyakov's work is only controversial, that is, the jury is still out.

This time, Chernyakov was invited to do a Boris Godunov for Berlin State Opera, with Daniel Barenboim conducting and René Pape singing Boris. If your read Russian, you'll find interesting chat and links on this page. For now, I'll just link to a Kommersant review with pictures. No naked boyars in sight.

Early reports suggest Pape was an excellent Boris.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

My problem with Schnittke

J. Cassian discusses Norman Lebrecht's recent dismissal of Mozart as a "progenitor of Muzak." (A.C. Douglas recommends that the critic up his meds.) "Mozart, it is safe to say, failed to take music one step forward," according to Norman L. -- no kidding! -- and thus is not entitled to greatness.

Lebrecht's musings on Prokofiev and Stalin, on Mel Gibson, on Riccardo Muti, etc. vary from uninformed to idiotic but stay within the mainstream of modern liberal Anglo-American thought, shallow as it is. His attack on Mozart is so extraordinary it almost makes him sound deep.

Among the events advertised on Lebrecht's site, we can find this:
Norman Lebrecht chairs pre-concert forum at Wigmore Hall, London, on the music of Alfred Schnittke.
I'd be far more comfortable if Lebrecht hated Schnittke with the same intensity he now does Mozart. As is clear from his published conversations, Schnittke (in his mature years) was a serious thinker, conservative and traditionalist to a major degree, not a playful deconstructive primate, nor a cultural Marxist. (Schnittke's poor health kept high the chance of his dying any day for years.) Asked which composer was his most favorite, he named Mozart. But why do the types that profess to love Schnittke tend to be more like Lebrecht than like Schnittke in his ripe years?

Monday, December 19, 2005

Milano Inter as an HC

I do watch TV at times; I even watch sports. In summer, it's Formula One; in winter, biathlon. This weekend, I turned the box on to see Sweden and Russia playing ice hockey. "Spengler Cup," said the caption. Well, I thought, perhaps hockey -- especially hockey-watching -- does exemplify the West's decline, but wouldn't soccer be more representative? Here's the real story:
The Spengler Cup is the oldest European tournament for club teams. The Cup was donated by Dr. Carl Spengler of Davos, Switzerland in 1923 with the understanding that Germany and Austria would be able to represent themselves internationally with the best club teams. (At the time, those country's national teams were banned from official International Ice Hockey Federation competitions in the wake of World War I).

The Spengler Cup is played every year in Davos, Switzerland between Christmas and New Year's Eve. Five teams participate in the tournament, with a select team from Canada usually included. (Canada first competed at the Spengler Cup in 1984). The Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League were the first North American professional team to compete at the tournament when they took part in 1996 and finished fourth.

After a round-robin series, the top two teams meet in the final game.
Did you say 1923? Just a year after Oswald S. had completed Part II of the Untergang. We desperately need a Huntington Cup. Canadians take note.

Thursday, December 15, 2005


-- The elusive Lithuania

-- Twist, turn and shake with awe

-- Bill Gates next to Mayakovsky in Moscow.
Please place comments here

BlogSpot comments to posts on this page are not working again; I have tried to enable them but they are still off. Starting from this post, BlogSpot comments should be working again. Readers are welcome to post comments to uncommentable posts below.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Two months in a wrong country, continued

Marquis de Custine visited Russia in 1839, nearly at the acme of Nicholas I's reign, at the foothold of the 1840s -- a decade which came to be described (even by some moderate and conservative thinkers like (the great historian) Sergei M. Soloviev) as stiflingly unfavorable for independent thought in Russia. Neither Nicholas' predecessor and brother, Alexander I, nor his successor and son, Alexander II, earned the same reputation.

-- Custine mostly observed the life of the court, hence, of a rather thin and unrepresentative slice of Russian society. He also caught a few glimpses of imperial bureaucracy at work. Custine relied mainly on anecdotal evidence in his notes on the life of the Russian peasantry and on Russian history.

-- Custine's literary method. Far-fetched, sweeping generalizations (based, one would suspect, on flimsy evidence) are chased by other, no less sweeping ones contradicting those reached earlier. As the author takes care to explain, this is essential to his writing, and, indeed, we are not dealing with a careless, undisciplined mind.

-- Some of Custine's characterizations just can't be right. There is no way Russian men en masse had Greek profiles and Russian women were, by contrast, nothing to be admired. There is no way the Finns native to the vicinity of St. Petersburg were "dirty", flat-faced savages who knew no family ties, nor were they descendants of Scythians -- you might think you were reading a Greek historian.

-- The political context motivating Custine. French legitimists harbored certain hopes for Russian interference. Those letters from a fellow royalist were to shatter the Russophilic half-hopes: look, says Custine, what your treasured Russia really is. If Custine indeed had this message in mind from the beginning, so should we, re-reading his letters.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Q&A with a Byzantine scholar

Razib interviews Byzantine scholar Warren Treadgold. One of the best Q&As I've seen for ages. Comments not bad either.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Good news from Kyiv/Kiev

Fellow blogger Veronica (Neeka) Khokhlova gave birth to her first baby, Marta, on Dec. 1. At the age of 4 hours and 20 minutes, Marta strikingly resembled a picture of my own little offspring at the much later age of four days!

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

John Cassian is back, and here's one of his, ahem, favorite Thinkers talking.

"Darwinism implies that the only eternal life we have is in the recycling of our atoms. I find that comforting." That's George Monbiot, straight out of Chekhov or Dostoevsky or Turgenev: Russian 19th century fiction must be packed with characters consoling themselves with atomic recycling until some silly incident of fate, or severe depression, kills them at a blooming age. As Ostap Bender remarked (if you don't know who OB is, do find out), "There's no God. It's a medical fact."

And, as Nikolai Oleynikov wrote in 1934 in a weird, painful and great poem, a poor cockroach in vivisectors' hands
would not be afraid of death
If he knew there was a soul.
Science has, however, proven
That the soul does not exist,
And that bones and lard and liver --
All the things that form the soul --
Are, in fact, articulations --
Nothing but -- and then, connections.
It is hopeless to resist
Arguments of science.

So the cockroach, clasping hands,
Has prepared to suffer.
Not only the coleopterous martyr of science but respectable bloggers, Deogolwulf for one, disagree that "out of his eyes a red, red rose" would be an encouraging prospect should "my" replace "his."

Now jokes aside, Darwinism does not imply anything about eternal life unless Darwinism is extended to dimensions of a philosophy, like Freudism or Marxism. Let us hope that credit for the quoted snippet goes to a Guardian editor.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

A brief diversion into what some think is politics

The Dec. 4 election to the Moscow City Duma was mostly a farce but its outcome may let Mayor Luzhkov stay in office rather than yield to a Putin appointee. Don't repeat "corruption": "to steal the Luzhkov way," as you would put it, is human. I'll take any human in flesh and blood over the St.Petersburg pack of pale homunculi that are running things here.

Back to your native marshes, you ghosts!

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Two months in a wrong country

Back in 1831, a young French gentleman took a boat to New York, planning to study American penal institutions. He spent nine months in the States of North America, met people from various walks of life and in due course published two volumes of what an encyclopedia of American life. Several years after Tocqueville's American journey, an older French aristocrat stayed in Russia for two months and produced another influential book. I am talking about Astolphe de Custine and his Russia in 1839. George Kennan found it prophetic; Theodore Dalrymple based a book on it; Alexandr Sokurov (the film director) centered The Russian Ark around a Custine-like figure.

Russia in 1839 was banned under Nicholas I, ensuring that every Russian with enough French would read it. Critical analyses followed (oh, the pleasure of criticizing a banned book!), and those familiar with the history of 19th century Russia will probably find plenty of anecdotes passing as facts and fiction passing as truth in Custine's book. Custine's ideological opponents might even want to compare his collection of letters not to Tocqueville's writings but to Knut Hamsun's.

This said, Custine -- from his first letter home -- comes out as character I can't help liking...

The real ones

As you might have heard, 39 young men and women are on trial in Moscow for having, non-violently in essence, seized a presidential administration office in central Moscow last December. They are charged with no less than "organizing mass riots" and face sentences of 3 to 5 years. Most or all are members of the eccentric National Bolshevik party.

Their silly and destructive ideology aside (it'll pass with youth), these young ladies and gentlemen are the true cream of our youth. As if in a mirror image, Russia's government and government-controlled industries are increasingly dominated by degenerate, spineless, dysgenic creatures.