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Archive for April, 2007

My mind is filled with bovine demons

Friday, April 27th, 2007

Somewhere deep in my unconscious lurk two demons. Black and white bovine spirits haunt me. Visions of their wedding are burned into dark corners of my mind. Remnants from my first visit to Paris.

It was supposed to be a showing of the original silent era Phantom of the Opera movie, but somewhere, something went horribly wrong. Not speaking enough French to interact with the teller my girlfriend and I purchased two tickets to the evening show at a theater near Les Halles. The poster for the Phantom informed us that there would be a live pianist accompanying the film using the original accompanying score.

When we entered the theater the lights were up but the piano music already filled the room. We found seats near the aisle close to the door, near the back. The theater was full and soon the lights went down.

In the beginning we thought there was a free short film before the main show. Black and white Russian words filled frame after frame — with French translations. Then scenes of a farm, Russian peasants working hard to eek a living from the land.

After 10 minutes we wondered if perhaps we had made a mistake. The theater only had one screen and the tickets did not have the movie name printed on them. After 30 minutes we decide that we must have made a mistake. By now the peasants had received a gift from the communist party: a tractor. And a cow. Soon the nightmare began.

The peasants went to the authorities again this time they were after a bull. When they returned to their village they held a party. Soon the screen was filled with the image of the lowly village cow, a gift to the collective from the central authorities, draped in flowers.

Cut to an image of the bull with bells and flowers hanging from his horns. He turns his head.

Cut to the cow, she sees the bull.

Cut to the bull as he begins walking.

Now the cow is walking.

The bull begins to run.

The cow is running.

Faster

Faster

…and we’re running for the door.

Outside the theater we found the important detail we overlooked in our enthusiasm for the silent Phantom… the show dates were still a few weeks away. We left before our film was over and without knowing the name. But with memories of a bovine wedding that still haunt my dreams.

So I have decided to exercise these demons. After years of wondering what movie I walked out of I have embraced the wonders of the internet and discovered that the movie is called “The General Line” or “Генеральная линия” in Russian [imdb.com]. It was even released in the US under the title “The Old and the New” in 1930, interesting for a Soviet Propaganda film. Turns out it is by Sergei Eisenstein [wikipedia.org] who apparently is a good director, he has several films released by the Criterion Collection [criterion.com]. A bit more hunting lead me to the Yahoo store of International Historical Films [ihffilm.com]…

I await my package with sweaty palms…

Moscow, Russia — March/April 2007

Monday, April 23rd, 2007

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What can I say about Moscow that I have not already said [confusion.cc]? Well I really only had a few days to look around, the rest of my time was spent working. The main attraction, the must see, was Saint Basil’s CathedralRed Square [wikipedia.org] and the Kremlin [wikipedia.org]. These sites are the first things that come to mind when one things of Moscow, or indeed of Russia.

The first stop was the Kremlin, no bags allowed so only take the camera lenses you think you will really use. Ah… the once (an future?) beating heart of communism and home of the Tsars. Of the 5 churches or cathedrals on my ticket 4 were open the day I visited — the fifth seemed to be under renovation. Unfortunately you cannot take photos inside any of them. A pity as they are beautiful. Covered floor to ceiling with portraits of saints and martyrs in vivid or faded colors. Giant iconostases [wikipedia.org] gleaming in gold and silver. In the Cathedral of the Archangel [wikipedia.org] I listened to a quartet sing classical Russian Orthodox hymns, I should have picked up the CD.

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Outside the walls of the Kremlin is of course Red Square. It’s easy to imagine the giant square echoing with the stomping of the Red Army’s soldiers and the rumbling of it’s missile trucks as they pass [wikipedia.org]. It’s a strange feeling standing in front of Lenin’s Mausoleum where Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev and the other leaders of the Communist Party surveyed Red Army during the Cold War. I was in middle school when the Berlin Wall fell and Gorbachev’s glasnost [wikipedia.org] and perestroika took hold so I guess I am in the last generation to see the Soviet Union as the Cold War foe and standing at it’s heart was surreal.

One of the things I remember most about the last year of the USSR is a political cartoon in an insert to my 8th grade year book showing a Russian babushka lady picking up the last potato in an otherwise empty grocery store and wondering why she waited in line for days. One of the symbols of that era forms the eastern side of Red Square: The GUM department store or State Universal Store [wikipedia.org] was, according to my Lonely Planet guide, once the epitome of all that the political cartoon in my year book was poking fun at. However today the long lines and empty shelves of this gigantic Victorian building build between 1890 and 1893 are long gone. The windows of the Moscow St. Pancas are filled with Louis Louis Vuitton and other brand names. Capitalism has won…

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Much more famous than the GUM however are the colorful onion domes of Saint Basil’s Cathedral, more properly called the Cathedral of Intercession of the Virgin on the Moat. The Cathedral dominates the psyche when one thinks of Russia, at least for me, more so than any other one thing. The inside of the cathedral is a bit of a let down, the rooms are all small and sparse. A few iconostases reside in the larger halls and some icons in other rooms but the inside is no match for the colorful and exuberant outside. Saint Basil’s is without doubt the one thing I wanted a good photo of. And I am disappointed with those that I took, perhaps one day I will travel back. Hopefully in the summer.

After a day in and around Red Square I spent a day at the Izmaylovo or Vernisazh Market just near my hotel (which by the way was massive with 5 buildings, I was in Alpha, and was build for the 1980’s Olympics). This market is somewhat of a tourist trap and is not a locals market, though there were a number of Russians there most of the real shoppers were tourists and the goods on sale are typical tourist goods: matryoshka dolls [wikipedia.org], Lenin and Stalin watches, Soviet Army uniforms, and the like — and a lot of old antiques. All that aside it was a fun day and I got a lot of presents of others; including a 20 piece matryoshka doll for home.

The rest of my weekend wanderings in Moscow are not worth writing about. Most of my weekday time was spent in the low rise semi-industrial outskirts of the city dominated by sullen communist era boxes of apartment buildings.

Authoritarian Tendencies

Saturday, April 21st, 2007

[Chinese] officials have been studying anti-corruption agencies elsewhere, notably in Hong Kong and Singapore, which rate highly in regional league tables of clean government. Singapore’s authoritarian tendencies and Hong Kong’s lack of democracy make them, for some Chinese officials, especially appealing models.

From Corruption in China: Not the Best Way to Clean Up [economist.com] in the Economist. (Subscription required)

Deportee

Saturday, April 7th, 2007

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Proof of my status as a Deportee from Russia. At least the return flight was on the house!

Beggs behind the Iron Curtain

Thursday, April 5th, 2007

(note: this was written while I was in Russia, I am back to Singapore now, but I had no internet access in Russia to post this)

I was supposed to be in Russia on Monday, March 26th. I left Haifa, Israel on Sunday the 25th at 10:30 in the morning. After a few hours on the road and the customary long and in-depth security check that is Ben Gorion airport I boarded a 6 hour flight to Moscow aboard Transaero (thinking as I did, “I hope this is not the newest incarnation of some crash prone communist airline”, my feeling not made better by the fact that the 737 didn’t have a single TV… not even in Business class — when was the last time you flew on a Boeing plane without a TV?)

I made it to Moscow fine… it was making it through immigration that things took a not so nice turn. It reminded me of the Fellowship of the Ring when Gandalf tells the Balrog: “You cannot pass!” Only this sounded more like “Neit!” Seems my visa was not valid… Now considering that this visa was issued by the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv last week it would be reasonable to wonder what could possibly be wrong with the shinny new Russian Visa. Well… The visa was issues for April 3rd to April 26th, and of course Sunday was March 25th!

After spending a few hours getting the details settled and trying to find a way to fix this problem I paid my 2000 Rubble fine for trying to enter the country with an invalid visa and was escorted up to a sort of no-mans-land that is between the domestic arrivals and the transit lounge. Being about 20 feet on a side and having 10 or 15 communist era refugee chairs this kingdom of mine was a far cry from the lush lands Tom Hanks roamed in The Terminal — and there was a disturbing lack of Catherine Zeta Jones like companions.

After waiting 14 hours overnight in my over sized sanitarium cell I was escorted through the transit lounge and onto a return flight to Tel Aviv.

I spent the next night and day recovering (read eating and sleeping) from my almost-but-not-quite trip to Moscow while my visa was fixed and a new flight and hotel were booked. So late on Tuesday night I headed back to the airport and back aboard a Transaero plane for my second try at entering Russia.

And I’m in. No sweat this time.

My hotel is on the outskirts of Moscow far from the familiar sights of Red Square and the Kremlin, parts that might look familiar if you remember the end of the Bourne Identity or if you watched the Russian film Night Watch. The parts of Moscow I rode through looks every bit like the post-communism drunken capitalist war zone I heard horror stories of when I was a teen.

Miles and miles of low rise communist housing, steam pipes running along the sidewalks and over the roads. Everything has the same brown mud coating. That’s the communist backdrop against witch is set rampant capitalism; more billboards per mile than I’ve ever seen, expensive European cars clogging the roads (along side Soviet era duct tape and paper ‘cars’) Ads for high ends consumer electronics abound, the latest high end mobile phones and laptops are particularly common.

Of particular fun is the fact that after having passed through immigration and having a filled out and stamped exit card to return to them when I leave I still have to ‘register’ within three days of arrival. This is so when some cop or military type stops me and says ‘papers?’ I can show them that I am actually here legally and that I am registered. Why? I guess it’s a hold over from soviet days. Paranoid KGB types want to know what hotel all the foreigners are in but don’t have all the hotels wired to a central database yet.

And for those who are keeping score I have seen no cow weddings since I arrived