sitting on the edge of the sandbox, biting my tongue

October 17, 2013

In the Future, Everybody Will Be a Dissident for 15 Minutes

Filed under: politics, Soviet Union — Tags: , , , — edge of the sandbox @ 5:13 pm

UPDATE: Many thanks to professor Jacobson for linking.

Buried behind the headlines about the peons opting out of Obamacare and the Capitol Hill Republicans caving in re government slim-down, there is this: Bill Ayers is releasing a new autobiography subtitled Confessions of an American Dissident (via Insty).

I might be a bit old-fashioned, but when I was growing up, the word “dissident” had a very different meaning.  Dissidents were moral giants, they were our heroes; non-violent people — writers, scientists, thinkers — who stood up to the Soviet regime, for human rights and freedom, did so knowing that there was going to be hell to pay, and bravely endured the subsequent prosecution.  They wrote banned books and essays, and maybe talked to the Western media; what they didn’t do was fly planes into skyscrapers — or kill people in any other manner.  For speaking truth to power our dissidents were punished by the regime.  Andrei Sakharov, once a leading Soviet physicist and the father of the Soviet H-bomb, was banished to the provincial town of Gorky (the so-called “internal exile”), Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Vladimir Voinovich and many others were stripped of citizenship, Joseph Brodsky was exiled as well — after being torture in mental hospital, and Natan Sharansky endured 13 years of forced labor camp and torture.

Americans are expected to be opinionated.  Everyone is a “dissident” when his guy doesn’t win the White House, which is about every 4-12 years (to construct a more convincing “dissident” persona, left-leaning Americans are advised to register as more exotic Greens or Socialist, in which case their guy never wins).  I’m frightened by Obamacare, does it make me a dissident?  Of course not.  I’m with the majority of Americans who don’t worry about expressing their negative opinion about the healthcare overhaul to various pollsters.  When everyone is a “dissident”, no one is a dissident, even those who hate the country and everything it stands for.  They are simply Americans exercising their First Amendment rights.

I don’t know when and how it happened, but some Americans caught the dissident fever.  I met my first American “dissident” in Berkeley.  He was a grad student substitute teaching an introductory US history class at the time Second Gulf War began.  He was a painfully uncharismatic man (“painfully” because the contrast between him and the professor Litwack, a skillful propagandist he was filling in for, was stark) with a predictable worldview, thanks to which he already had a tenure track job lined up in another California four-year college.  On the occasion of the war, he took the entire class hour to explain to 800 or so students his opposition.  The little lecture of his was straight our of NYT editorial page, except that in conclusion, he said that in the Soviet Union, you know, they had their Perestroika, so now he wants one here.  He probably didn’t know that Reagan and Thatcher inspired us, and he probably chose not to know that the real dissidents (Yelena Bonner, Nathan Sharansky, Vasily Aksenov, Vaclav Havel) were in agreement with W.  From what I understand, the grad student’s position was not affected by the actual substance of the dissident’s ideas as much as the aesthetics of revolutionary change.  A Velvet Revolution-type of revolution, in his case.

At the time, the American media developed a habit of calling Bin Laden a “Saudi dissident” because in his view the Saudi royal family was insufficiently repressive.  Well, originally the word “dissident” was applied to those involved in religious disputes, so at least there is some sort of rationale there.  But still, in the light of recent history, maybe journalists could hit Webster’s to find a different was to describe the terrorist.

American “dissidents” got their “velvet revolution” in the persona of our First Black President, TM.  Only it was kind of a boring type of change, no universal struggle of good and evil that we in Easter Europe lived through.  American Progressives voted for a black dude with a radical chic name.  Next thing you know the black dude moves to curb our liberties and expand federal bureaucracies, all the while embarrassing our country abroad.  Meantime Lech Walesa endorsed Mitt Romney for President.

Now Obamster’s mentor is hurrying up to cash in on the Presidential connection while the former is still in office.  He thinks he’s a “dissident”.  The brat hates America, all right, and he had a brush up with the law, for, among other things, blowing up his GF.  Morally and politically Billy Ayers occupies the space somewhere between Sakharov and Bin Laden, but firmly on Bin Laden’s side.

September 24, 2013

Russian Claims to “Exceptionalism” in Brief

Filed under: politics, Russia, Soviet Union — Tags: , , — edge of the sandbox @ 9:44 pm

Having recently caught the largest pike in the world, Russia’s “President” Vladimir Putin felt emboldened to write an New York Times op-ed.  Either that or he ate Barack Obama for breakfast.
In that op-ed of his, Vlad the Shirtless insisted that American exceptionalism as “dangerous”.  I’m sure the main reason Putin focused on American exceptionalism is because he was addressing America’s own wishy-washy elites.  Still, lets not forget taht Russia has it’s own wanna-be exceptionalism issues. Check out this from The Primary Chronicles, the manuscript, compiled in 1113 in Kiev, widely recognized as the first attempt at Russian history:

Invitation to the Rus’

860-862 (6368-6370) [The four tribes who had been forced to pay tribute to the Varangians--Chuds, Slavs, Merians, and Krivichians] drove the Varangians back beyond the sea, refused to pay them further tribute, and set out to govern themselves. But there was no law among them, and tribe rose against tribe. Discord thus ensued among them, and they began to war one against the other. They said to themselves, “Let us seek a prince who may rule over us, and judge us according to custom [po nravu]“. Thus they went overseas to the Varangians, to the Rus. These particular Varangians were known as Rus’, just as some are called Swedes, and others Normans and Angles, and still others Gotlanders, for they were thus named. The Chuds, the Slavs, the Krivichians and the Ves then said to the Rus, “Our land is great and rich, but there is no order in it. Come reign as princes, rule over us”. Three brothers, with their kinfolk, were selected. They brought with them all the Rus’ and migrated. The oldest, Rurik, located himself in Novgorod; the second, Sineus, in Beloozero; and the third, Truvor, in Izborsk. From these Varangians, the Russian land received its name [prozvalas’ Russkaia zemlia]. Thus those who live in Novgorod are descended from the Varangian tribe, but earlier they were Slavs. Within two years, Sineus and his brother Truvor died. Rurik gathered sole authority into his own hands, parceling out cities to his own men, Polotsk to one, Rostov to another, and to another Beloozero. The Varangians in these cities are colonists, but the first settlers in Novgorod were Slavs; in Polotsk, Krivichians; in Beloozero, Ves; in Rostov, Merians; and in Murom, Muromians. Rurik had dominion over all these folk. Two of Rurik’s men [Askold and Dir] who were not of his tribe but were warriors [boyare] sought permission to go to Tsar’grad [Constantinople] with their tribe. They thus sailed down the Dnepr, and in the course of their journey they saw a small city on a hill. They asked, “Whose town is this? ” The inhabitants answered, “There were three brothers, Kii, Shchek and Khoriv, who built this burg, but they have since died. We who are their descendants dwell here and pay tribute to the Khazars [ID]“. Askold and Dir remained in this city, and after gathering together many Varangians, they established their dominion over the country of the Polianians. Rurik ruled in Novgorod. [Bold is mine, --ed.]

“Don’t thread on me” this isn’t.

I don’t think there is anything exceptional about this kind of history, and, to be fair, a republican government existed in Novgorod in the middle ages.  Novgorod was eventually swallowed by Moscow, whose then Prince Ivan the Terrible went on to call himself a tzar, the name derived from Latin Cesar.  After the fall of Constantinople into the hands of the Ottomans, Russians took to thinking of themselves as the third Rome.  C. 1520 Russian monk Philotheus wrote: “Two Romes have fallen, but the third stands, and a fourth there will not be.” Not exactly a match for American exceptionalism, but, clearly, Russian rulers thought of themselves as very special people.

Having conquered the Republic of Novgorod in 1478, Moscovy went on to expend its empire which become the world’s largest a few centuries later, occupying half of Europe and stretching all the way to the Pacific.  Russiana wasn’t exactly bringing civilization to Lithuanians or freedom to the cossacks of Zaporozhian Sich.  The 19th century Russian populist socialist Alexander Herzen called his native land “prison of the peoples”.

The Bolsheviks toppled Romanovs and undermined Orthodox Christianity, but the dream of empire remained.  Moscow became the sight of the Third International, a communist organization dedicated to fight:

by all available means, including armed force, for the overthrow of the international bourgeoisie and for the creation of an international Soviet republic as a transition stage to the complete abolition of the State.

The 1943 Soviet national anthem proclaimed that “Great Russia had assembled the unshakable union of the free republics” (a reference to the 15 “republics” of the Soviet Union), while the Soviet coat of arms superimposed hammer and cycle over the globe.  In a 1941 musical comedy “The Swineheard and the Shepard”, a young woman from Ukraine meets a young man from Georgia at an agricultural expo in Moscow.  They fall in love and coyly serenade each other: “I will never forget a friend if I met him in Moscow”.

“Proletariat of all countries, unite!” is written in languages of every republic, with the Russian version, naturally, at the center

In 1939 Stalin and Hitler divided Central Europe, and after the end of World War II, Stalin created a “buffer zone” well into Germany.  In 1979 The Politburo marched its troupes into Afghanistan, and a few years later Ronald Reagan referred to Russia as an “evil empire”. I remember my 90′s travel guide warning against attempting to communicate with Czechs in German.  Well, just try Russian.

Anyhow, I can see how annoying it is, from Russia’s perspective, to watch the US, a reluctant Third Rome.  I can see how frustrating, too, to observe Barack Obama, a bumbling fool fed on the ideology crafted somewhere in Lubyanka, and to think “We lost the Cold War — to THEM?”  Putin wants to restore Russia to its former glory, which is quite a task.  The US might be in decline, but so is Russia, and so is every other geo-political entity on this planet.  In any event, we are in his way.

September 14, 2013

In Honor of Conception Day in Russia: 70 Years of Combatting Demographic Decline

Filed under: Russia, Soviet Union — Tags: , , — edge of the sandbox @ 9:42 am

Glory to the Mother Heroine! by the seminal Russian poster artist Nina Vatolina.  It was created at some point in late 1940′s or 1950′s.  Lest a giddy feminist be deceived by the heroine’s androgynous glory (the face, the shoulders, the arms), this is not a work of art designed to subvert patriarchy: This mythic mother’s eldest sons are already a soldier and a sailor

This iconic Mother Heroine is an artifact of the decade following WWII.  Over 25 million Soviets died in that war, and after the Allied victory, the birth rate was stagnant.  Those worker bees had to come from somewhere.  In 1944 the honorary title of Mother Heroine was established by the Supreme Soviets.  Mothers with 10 or more children were awarded a medal and state pensions.

In the 70′s and 80′s, when I was growing up, documentaries about such mothers were on TV from time to time.  My thought was that, of course, in a country as large as ours somebody is going to have 10 kids.  But in my grandma’s opinion if such mother heroines existed at all, they were alcoholics who had kids to qualify for pensions and then turned around and neglected them.  No reasonable woman, she said, would have more than two in this day and age.  And to many families two kids were a luxury.  Mother Heroine was a target of sarcasm.

The worker bee situation

The chart above indicates that the current uptake in birth coincides with peak fertility years of those born during the modest uptake of the 1980′s.  A more careful study will show that babies are most plentiful in Muslim regions, and that the European part of the country is practically barren.

Much had been said about the post-Soviet demographic collapse, but it was a comparable plunge in the 1960′s that took the country to low fertility levels.  At some point in the late 1950′s Russia’s subjects decided to stop bringing new life into this world (I’m sure it can be somehow attributed to homosexual propaganda corrupting minors), and that attitude has proven to have remarkable staying power.  It’s not all doom and gloom, though.  This post-Soviet hot mama is infinitely more pleasant than the handsome Slavic Fraulein of the 1950′s.

Your country needs your heroic achievements. Every minute 3 new people are born in Russia

As you can see, a Russian women look particularly fetching after birthing triplets.  Unlike the post-war mother heroine, this girl next door does not appear to have a particularly broad neck and shoulders.  I suspect the advertizes couldn’t determine what kind of arms she’s supposed to have, so they obscured them with babies.  She didn’t gain too much fat in her middle, but her breasts are nothing if not appealing.  The viewer can see the seam on her bra pointing right to the nipple area.  Although she looks ostensibly European, an Asian chick could project themselves into this unassuming babe.

She’s less ambitious than the Stalinist prototype (three, not ten children), but less of a comrade, too.  Unlike her Stalinist predecessor, she radiates no knowledge of moral certitudes.  After the whole Soviet fiasco, Russians grew weary of moral certitudes — unless they get to lecture somebody in a New York Times op-ed.  One can see this new incarnation of Mother Russia put her children to bed, and then brush her luscious hair and join a group of close friends for vodka and pickles.  Unlike Vatolina, the ad agency that produced this poster didn’t set out to create a seminal work of art; their ambition is to be relatable to women and attractive to men.  But outside of Russia their natility propaganda is laughable.

September 7, 2013

Shame and Loathing in Kharkov

Filed under: education, Soviet Union — Tags: , , , — edge of the sandbox @ 3:30 pm

This Monday was Labor Day in the US, but our number one geo-political enemy celebrated the Day of Knowledge.  Before the Soviet Union croaked and it became necessary to spruce up the old Soviet holidays, the occasion wasn’t known as the Day of Knowledge.  It was simply September 1, the first day of the new school year, celebrated on the first weekday of September.  It was, and it still is, a huge deal for the entire country.  The high point of the day is the quaintly sexist assembly during which the tallest and the strongest Senior boy carries the cutest littlest first grade girl on his shoulder in front of fellow schoolmates, parents and teachers lined up around the perimeter of the school yard, and the girl, outfitted in holiday uniform and giant white bows, rings a bell.

Somewhere in Russia in 2011. Imagine perfect childhood

There is much to say about this holiday, which, on balance, was not bad, and I’ll post about it one day.  What got me reminiscing is an Instapundit link to an essay on culture shock by a student from India.  This is how he chose to start:

  • Nobody talks about grades here.
  • Everyone is highly private about their accomplishments and failures. Someone’s performance in any field is their performance alone. This is different compared to India where people flaunt their riches and share their accomplishments with everybody else.
Of all things American he singled out that, and oh, how I understand him.  When I was growing up in Kharkov, Soviet Union, we had no notion of grade privacy.  It’s not just that inquiring about a classmate’s grades wasn’t bad form, we didn’t’ need to.  Our grades were announced in front of the whole class or posted next to our names in a hallway.  Students who did well were often praised in front of the collective, while those at the bottom were shamed.
All teachers, including the nice ones, discussed our grades — such was the custom; most shamed students, and some did so with gusto.  I recall my 8th grade Russian lit teacher taking entire class hour to belittle a student for using words and expressions she didn’t understand.  The girl survived the humiliation, and, being a happily average girl, kept pulling average grades through high school.  The teacher, I’m pretty sure, was KGB because a) somebody in our school had to be KGB and b) her husband was a general, and they spent several years in Cuba.
(Not all abuse in my school was strictly emotional.  Most of the spanking went to troubled kids, about which I didn’t feel particularly bad then, and don’t feel particularly bad now, even though I realize in a long term this kind of discipline was probably useless.  But once my elementary school teacher hit a quiet, lonely girl for not following directions.  That episode remained ingrained in my mind because I didn’t understand why the teacher hurt her.  In retrospect I realize that the girl was autistic, and the teacher, who had 37 of us in her classroom, lost her temper.)
Before the onset of puberty, shaming discouraged failure in certain cases and prompted many middle of the road students to improve their grades.  What kid wants to be called a “fool” and a “cretin” in front of his friends?  Even those of us who were pretty sure we wouldn’t be singled out, set trembling as our elementary school teacher, a stunningly attractive woman with hourglass body, announced test marks.  Now she’s going through the bundle of 5′s (out of 5, that is), and now 4′s, and then 3′s.  We’d rather hear a 4 than a 3.
An unintended effect of shaming was discouragement of achievement.  Once we grew up a bit and got more introspective, we started talking of rather having a 2, the failing grade, than a 3.  A 2 looks like we didn’t care, but 3 made it seem like we tried, but didn’t get very far.
And think of it from the perspective of the student who regularly flunks a tests: he, a 7-year-old son of an alcoholic mother and no known dad, already resigned himself to be the whipping post of the teacher whom he hates, fears and admires at the same time.  But as soon as she’s done with him, some smarty pants kid, the one who gets a yummy sandwich out of his briefcase every afternoon at lunchtime, gets praise.  What, he thinks he’s better than everyone else?  Guess what, the delinquent also needs an outlet.
I, for one, allied myself with not too bright girls who were on good terms with the hooligans, and allowed them to copy my tests just so that they could put in a good word for me.  I also made sure to get a few 4′s each quarter.
In grade school, we were already well on our way of embracing mediocrity, disliking being both on top and on the bottom.  It’s not just that the Soviet economic system disincentivized achievement, and political system punished it, the entire culture was driven by envy and at odds with anything or anybody who dares to be extraordinary.
Add to it the ethnic dimension.  Not all Jews were nerds and there was no shortage of uber-brainy Russians or Ukrainians, but often, and stereotypically, the kid with exemplary grades had dark curls and sad eyes and his tormenters were Slavs.  And even if an otlichnik (a straight A student) was not himself a yid, at least not to his knowledge, it was no guarantee that racial epithets won’t fly when the hooligans give him what was coming.  Any questions about  the Soviet brain drain?
There is much not to like about American schools, particularly the insidious self-respect movement that treats students as fragile little things who need to be showered with praise.  Well, at least I can reasonably expect that teachers will respect my children’s humanity.

April 23, 2013

Ill-Mannered Women Seldom Make History

Filed under: feminism, politics, Soviet Union — Tags: , , , , , — edge of the sandbox @ 11:34 am

I came out of my parenting funk last week to learn that Margaret Thatcher, one of the greatest champions of freedom in our era, had passed away. Chihuahuas were barking mad, of course, but as Mark Steyn tells us, Lady Thatcher was the kind who’d savor the fury:

Mrs. Thatcher would have enjoyed all this. Her former speechwriter John O’Sullivan recalls how, some years after leaving office, she arrived to address a small group at an English seaside resort to be greeted by enraged lefties chanting “Thatcher Thatcher Thatcher! Fascist fascist fascist!” She turned to her aide and cooed, “Oh, doesn’t it make you feel nostalgic?” She was said to be delighted to hear that a concession stand at last year’s Trades Union Congress was doing a brisk business in “Thatcher Death Party Packs,” almost a quarter-century after her departure from office.

The finger!  The finger!

The whiniest of all chihuahuas Morrissey opposes Thatcher on animal welfare grounds or some such. He certainly aged… but the good news is that he’s still alive. Who knew?  Morrissey was one of those entertainers who were big in the West, but gained virtually no traction in the Soviet Union.  We preferred classic rock and heavy metal.

And here is another quote from the infinitely quotable late Prime Minister:

“I always cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding,” she once said, “Because I think, well, if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left.”

“They” certainly lost a lot of arguments.  Steyn summed up the legacy of Lady Thatcher’s domestic policies:

Thatcherite denationalization was the first thing Eastern Europe did after throwing off its Communist shackles — although the fact that recovering Soviet client states found such a natural twelve-step program at Westminster testifies to how far gone Britain was. She was the most consequential woman on the world stage since Catherine the Great, and Britain’s most important peacetime prime minister. In 1979, Britain was not at war, but as much as in 1940 faced an existential threat.

Mrs. Thatcher saved her country — and then went on to save a shriveling “free world,” and what was left of its credibility. The Falklands were an itsy bitsy colonial afterthought on the fringe of the map, costly to win and hold, easy to shrug off — as so much had already been shrugged off. After Vietnam, the Shah, Cuban troops in Africa, Communist annexation of real estate from Cambodia to Afghanistan to Grenada, nobody in Moscow or anywhere else expected a Western nation to go to war and wage it to win. Jimmy Carter, a ditherer who belatedly dispatched the helicopters to Iran only to have them crash in the desert and sit by as cocky mullahs poked the corpses of U.S. servicemen on TV, embodied the “leader of the free world” as a smiling eunuch. Why in 1983 should the toothless arthritic British lion prove any more formidable? [Emphasis mine, -- ed.]

My grade school years coincided with Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as Prime Minister and Ronald Reagan’s Presidency.  The Soviet media vilified both of them ferociously, but to our family they were friends.  We had family members who were trying to leave the Soviet Union, and we appreciated the unwavering support both Thatcher and Reagan expressed for Soviet dissidents and refusniks.

Regardless of family background, my generation loved action flicks and coveted blue jeans and bootleg rock music.  But it was up to the political leaders to explain the value of freedom.  Back in the 80s, Western leaderships projected optimism and confidence.  They showed us why capitalism was successful, and why it was worth imitating.  Maggie, Ronny and rock-n-roll were the picture of the West that I grew up with.

Maggie’s opinion was valued.  My grandma, who always got her news from the Russian Services of the BBC and the Voice of America, was heartened when the BBC broadcasted the Iron Lady’s opinion of Gorbachev: he was the man she can do business with.  That was the seal of approval Eastern Europe craved.

The Iron Lady is greeted by Moscowites in 1987 at the beginning of Gorbachev’s short tenure

Here is Oleg Atbashian — who is a couple of years older than me and has a more mature recollection of that period — on listening to Maggie on shortwave radio (click on the link for a cool poster).  He tuned in for rock-n-roll and stayed for politics:

 One night — it had to be late 1982, when Margaret Thatcher was running for her first re-election — my shortwave radio caught a BBC broadcast of the Iron Lady’s campaign speech.

[...]
Listening to Thatcher speak confirmed everything the Soviet media was reporting about her, and more. In a deep, powerful voice, she accused her socialist opponents of destroying the British economy through nationalization and presented the proof of how privatizing it again was bringing the economy back to life. The free markets worked as expected, making Britain strong again. The diseased socialist welfare state had to go, to be replaced by a healthy competitive society.

To the average consumer of the Soviet state-run media, that didn’t make any sense. When exactly had Britain become a socialist welfare state? That part never passed the Soviet media filter.

[...]

The next logical question would be this: if Great Britain wasn’t yet as socialist as the Soviet Union, then didn’t it mean that whatever freedom, prosperity, and working economy it had left were directly related to having less socialism? And if less socialism meant a freer, more productive, and more prosperous nation, then wouldn’t it be beneficial to have as little socialism as possible? Or perhaps — here’s a scary thought — to just get rid of socialism altogether? [Emphasis mine, --ed.]

My readers are welcome to dispute me, but I prefer Maggie to Ronny.  For one, the Iron Lady’s task of privatization was infinitely greater than anything Ronald Reagan had to face.  For another, I’m absolutely in awe of her speaking style.  Reagan was a great orator, full of passion, insights and spontaneity.  But Thatcher, ooow, her zingers were deadly.

I think it’s instructive that while the left talks incessantly about female empowerment, the actual great female leaders are conservative.  In part it’s because feminism is a false idol.  A non-Y-chromosomed Western politician too attached to the sisterhood is limiting herself.  The work of female emancipation now entails such all-important projects like providing already cheap birth control for free.  A woman with a vision, like Margaret Thatcher, has to have greater goals in mind.  Plus, if the story of Sarah Palin teaches us anything about the women’s movement, it’s that we, women, can be nasty and envious.

Since the second wave feminists taught women that personal is political, which really means that nothing is personal.  One’s choice of occupation, of clothing, of, notoriously, coital position, belongs to the sisterhood.  Feminism is a way of life, and as far as lifestyle advise goes, this one is highly questionable.  Per feminist bumper sticker wisdom, “Well-behaved women seldom make history”.  A now middle-aged death rocker we know has that one on her car.  There are plenty of obediently ridiculous women in the feminist movement, from raging grannies in pink to slut walks.  Is it worth it?

I’m sure it’s all very convenient in short term given how young ladies have all the rationale to party, but I pity the “girls” who will not, in a matter of year or two, grow to regret their participation.  The Ukrainian group Femen is selective high-end international version of slut walks.  I have to give it to them, they know how to get their egos massaged.  Occasionally, their protests have a kind of logic to it.  If one has to remove her bra for a cause, flash islamists.  Ultimately, though, they are dead-enders (via Leslie Lofties) destined to be a footnote to history.  If they get an honorable mention in history books, students struggling to figure out the narrative will wonder if they really need to know about partially naked women who once grabbed headlines.

Margaret Thatcher will get an entire chapter. I’m not sure she was “well-behaved”, certainly not by the standards of the socialist Left, but she was a lady, and as such she commanded attention and respect.  When the Meryl Streep film came out in 2011, Margaret Thatcher’s personal style became a popular topic of discussion, which is a bit silly.  It’s the women’s movement that’s about style, and the more outrageous, the better.  Morrissey is about style.  The Iron Lady was about substance.

Iconic Maggie, cheerful on the day she was elected, 4 May 1979.  Power, optimism, substance

A side note:  Margaret Thatcher had her twins when she was 28 — early by today’s standards.  She slowly developed her career and went on to be the most powerful woman in the world.  Had she waited another ten years to start her family, she’d spent her 40s carrying for young children, not moving up the Tory political ladder.  There is a lesson there.

And, oh, look how slender this mother of twins was — because she gave birth in her 20s?

March 26, 2013

Next Year in Jerusalem

Filed under: music, Soviet Union — Tags: , , , — edge of the sandbox @ 9:52 pm

Gorod(City) was one of my favorite Russian underground songs.  It’s simple, serene and mysterious, and I fell in love with it when I first heard it, in my early teens.  That version was performed by a group called Aquarium, and most Russians still attribute the authorship to the lead singer Boris Grebenshchikov (nicknamed BG).  I don’t think he still claims it, but at some point he probably did.

Appropriately enough, Gorod’s origin is shrouded by mystery.  In the late 80s a girlfriend of mine told me that BG stole it from some singer songwriter, altering the lyrics.  She said that the original version used quotes from the Bible which BG bastardized.  I knew about the accusations of plagiarism when I was getting married, fifteen years later, but I loved the song so much, I chose the Aquarim version of the song for the father-daughter dance.  I didn’t know where to find the original, plus, plagiarism or not, I loved BG’s execution, which always took me back to my teens — it’s very Soviet Union in the 80s.

Zeev Heizel did a thorough investigation of the origin of the song, and concluded that the melody was created by an amateur Russian lute player Vladimir Vavilov in the late 1960s, and that it was inspired by Italian Renaissance composer Francesco da Milano.  Poet Anri Volohonsky wrote the lyrics in 1972, and Aquarium recorded their hit in the 80s.

English translation of the Aquarium version is following:

Under the blue sky
Is a city of gold
With translucent gates
And a bright star
And in that city is a garden
Of grass and flowers
Animals of unseen beauty
Stroll there
One is a lion with a mane of fire
Another is an ox with stupendous eyes
With them is the golden celestial eagle
Whose look of light is unforgettable

But in the blue sky
Shines a star
She is yours oh my angel
She is yours forever
One who loves is beloved
One who shines is a saint
Let the star lead you
To the miraculous garden
To meet the lion with a mane of fire
And the ox with stupendous eyes
With them is the golden celestial eagle
Whose look of light is unforgettable

Ever since my bff told me that the lyrics were based on Biblical verses, I thought that the song was about Jerusalem.  And maybe the text was based on the scriptures, only in the original version the city was not “under”, but “over” the blue sky, the heavenly Jerusalem.  Anyhow, I think it’s appropriate to celebrate Passover with the Hebrew version of Gorod, with a very thick Russian accent, performed by Zeev Heizel:

Happy Passover and happy Easter to my Christian friends.

February 28, 2013

Van Cliburn, RIP

Filed under: music, Soviet Union — Tags: , — edge of the sandbox @ 10:15 pm

Americans might have given him a ticker-tape parade, and he was a rock star the world over, but I suspect Van Cliburn was best loved in Russia.  High-minded Russians love classical music, and they all (absolutely every single one of them!) fell in love with Cliburn in 1958 when the musician won the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow.  The iron curtain lifted a bit, and a refined Texan with a wild head of hair wowed the country with his masterful execution of Russian Romantic composers.  The way his fingertips touched the piano, one would believe that he spent his formative years committing to memory Pushkin’s and Yesenin’s verses and playing in the snow besides birch trees.  Vanya Cliburn!

And please note, Cliburn was not a creation of any kind of centralized system designed to nurture virtuoso musicians.  He was just a guy who loved music and who came from a family that loved music.  The Soviets, on the other hand, scouted out talented children.  Turns out, classical music can strive in the culture of individualism.

If Cliburn’s performance showed the nation that America had a soul, American Exhibition in Sokolniki Park, Moscow the following year offered something different.  Two million Russians attended the installation that featured the wonders of the day-to-day capitalist existence.  Had Americans with their Coca-Cola and dishwashers lost track of what’s important in life?  After Van Cliburn there was no way to convincingly argue that the United States were too materialistic.

Van Cliburn’s entry in the Tchaikovsky competition was one of the iconic moments of Khrushchev’s Thaw of the 1950-60′s, a period of relative freedom following the death of Stalin.  My parents’ generation that came of age during the Thaw absolutely idolized the pianist.

Van Cliburn passed away yesterday at the age of 78.  Please enjoy the recording of his extraordinary performance in Moscow, one of the few hopeful moments in Soviet history:

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