Saturday, March 17, 2007

Blog fatigue

It seems that on many of the blogs I usually read, there is something that looks like a blog fatigue. There are by far not as many entries as there were some time ago, and for example Bureau Belgrado seems to have given up completely - regardless of their award last year.

I wonder what causes this. The change of seasons? Or is there something else?

Wednesday, February 28, 2007


The last few days the whole city was turning red and white. In the Netherlands that would usually mean that some soccer team is playing an important match. Not on the Balkans (Bulgaria, Moldova, Romania). Here it is a pagan tradition related to the transformation from winter to spring. It is called Martenitsa in Bulgaria, and Mărţişor in Romania and Moldova. Friends give each other red and white dolls, bracelets or other tokens in red (sun, or Mars) and white (snow or peace) on 1 March.

The colours signify the fight between the snow and the sun. The transition from winter to spring. The tokens are meant to give luck and healh to the people wearing them.

Interestingly enough Sofia saw its first snow this season on 27 February. And it instantly disappeared. The temperature was rising above 10 degrees again today, the sun already seems to have won even before Martenitsa started.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Away, but feels like home

When I was flying to Sofia this morning, I read the following sentence in the inflight magazine: Човекът е човек, когато е на път, or a man is only a man when he is travelling. So travelling it is. I had never been here before, but somehow it seems all too familiar. The langauge, the customs, the way people react. Feels like many places I've been to recently. But still, it's the little differences.

I hope I'll be able to tell when I leave again from here in some days!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

(in)famous Dutch: who killed Pushkin?

According to the official version Alexander Pushkin was mortally wounded and died after he fought a duel with Georges d'Anthès, 170 years ago last week. Georges d'Anthès, aristocrat, was the protégée, fosterson and later heir of the Dutch ambassador Baron Van Heeckeren, after which he would call himself Georges-Charles de Heeckeren d'Anthès.

Both the relationship between the Baron and his protégée and the reasons for the duel, have caused gossip. Last week Komsomolskaya Pravda quoted recent research into the matter. It says that the alleged reason for the duel, a meeting between d'Anthès and Pushkin's wife took place only after d'Anthès married the poet's sister-in-law.

The article suggests that instead a gay intrigue involving d'Anthès, Van Heeckeren and others led to the poet's death.

(thanks to Coen)

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Russian Pride

(This entry is not about Moscow Pride - although that might also deserve attention in the blogosphere - but about the pride of the Russians.)

Yesterday an article appeared, in which 75% of Russians are quoted to find that Russia has its own way and almost 50% see the EU as a threat. Interesting quotes such as “benefits come from the West, but the Truth lives in Russia” are found there.

Another interesting finding is that “although it has been possible for Russians to go abroad for fifteen years, 42% of Russians would say The Netherlands and Holland are different countries”. Funny question to ask, it seems the investigators who made the survey had no access to Wikipedia.

The article explains Russian self-centeredness from long isolation. Themes pretty much confirmed in my 1909 guide book. It has an article on National Pride (Nationalstolz). That article makes a distinction between the higher social classes (said not to have a strong national pride) and the ordinary Russian (said to believe the Russians were blessed by God more than other peoples.) The latter group even believed that the Saints spoke Russian, and the book warns the Germans not to discuss the national origin of the national patron Saint Nicholas with ordinary farmers. Interestingly enough the book claims that St. Nicholas was an Italian. Wonder where they got that from. It even warns to stay away from discussions about the military or politics. Talking too much about that might have lead to being considered a spy a hundred years ago!

The article points to another article about Slavophilism, the movement thought to believe that Western civilisation was shaped around three themes: the Catholic church, ancient Roman culture and invasionist politics. The Russian peoples however submitted voluntarily to their overlords, the Varangians. This created a harmony between the different classes in society, the church and the Tsar. This harmony was destabilised by Peter the Great, who introduced Western ideas about nobility. The true Russian spirit was said to have survived amongst the commoners. They were the representatives of the true Russian spirit, as passed down from generation to generation. The spirit consists of spiritualism, trust in the government and obedience.

It would be interesting to see if the features described above made the Russians susceptible to Socialism. There should be at least some studies. I did not find much online, although my searches did yield some other interesting facts.

UPDATE: see what I mean?

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

1909: Street Life

Try to imagine. A Russian city a hundred years ago. Streets are quiet – according to Western European standards. All that can be heard is the sound of shouting people: drivers asking passers-by to be careful, street vendors praising their wares. When reading these things, it seems close, but yet so far away. Time gone by.

The street vendors are still around today. But on the squares they generally no longer praise their wares – or at least not shouting. The products are the same, but some of the products mentioned are still exotic to the Western eye: pies, bliny, mushrooms. Some others are more common: ice cream, citrus fruits, flowers and newspapers. One category of vendors did not survive the changes made during the Russian Revolution: Tatars selling second hand clothes (interestingly enough they would praise them as "khalat").

Too bad they did not use Edison’s phonograph for recording the street sounds on Khreschatyk (picture left, source: around the turn of the twentieth century.

Das Leben und Treiben in den russischen Großstädten ist wenig lebhaft. Das Straßenbild bekommt nur Bewegung durch die sehr rasch fahrenden Droschken und Equipagen. Die Droschkenkutscher warnen die Vorübergehenden durch den Ruf берегись! Im Sommer sieht man auf den Strassen Verkäufer von Gefrorenem und Kwas die ihre Kübel und Glaskrüge auf dem Kopfe tragen. Die Eisverkäufer rufen ihre Ware laut aus: мороженое! Eine Eigentümlichkeit Rußlands bilden die wandernden Pastenbäcker, mit Pirogen und Bliny’. Zitronen- und Apfelsinenhändler sind in den Hauptstädten besonders häufig. Weit ertönt ihr Ruf: апельсины, лимоны хорошіе! In den Höfen erscheinen Blumenhändler, deren цвѣты, цвѣточки! lautet. Häufig hört man auch den Ruf грибы, грибочки! Händler mit alten Kleidern, die in Rußland meist Tataren sind, rufen халаты! In den Nachmittagsstunden laufen die Zeitungsträger die Straßen entlang und suchen einer dem andern zuvorzukommen. Laut ertönen ihre verschiedenartigen Rufe, mit denen sie die Käufer anzulocken suchen.

(Straßenrufe, Langenscheidts Land und Leute in Rußland, see here.)

UPDATE: this entry uses archaic Russian spelling. If you see a box, look here.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Russia in 1909

A couple of years ago, I bought an interesting book: Langenscheidts Land und Leute in Rußland. It describes the Russian Empire just before it collapsed. It is a topical dictionary published in 1909 in Berlin by Langenscheidt. The book has articles on various aspects of Russian society: Land and People; State, Government and Rule of Law; Holidays; Religion; Spiritual Life; Agriculture; Nature and Cities; Social Affairs; The Russian; Transportation and other topics.

By far the chapters that describe the Russian soul are my favourite. The book is certainly not free from bias, but probably that is what makes it more interesting. It describes the Russians as seen through the eyes of contemporary Western Europeans. And it appears to be quite accurate in doing so.

I will try to share some of the chapters here with you. One problem is the language. It’s in German.

(on the painting: Marc Chagall, Russian Wedding (1909) - Sammlung Emil Bührle)

Sunday, January 21, 2007

It's finally there!

UPDATE: once more Old News

Funny things with pictures

Long before the introduction of Photoshop twenty years ago this year, the Soviets - and even some Russians before them - knew their way around pictures.

Probably the most infamous must have been the way Stalin dealt with is political opponents. According to the way he saw them, he would have them removed from the pictures where they appeared. Best known is the way he dealt with Trotsky.

And there was much to do at the time of World War II. Probably Yevgeny Khaldei can be considered as the master of his time. Both in staging and in manipulation. Coen already wrote about this on the occasion of Victory Day last year. Of course it was realistic - yet unheard of that Soviet soldiers would loot their Nazi victims and wear multiple wristwatches on the famous Reichstag picture. The picture itself was already staged, but in order for it to express the true spirit of Soviet Victory, some airbrushing needed to be done consequently.

One fine example of nice things that can result from tricking images, is the work of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, available in digital high quality at the Library of Congress. He portrayed Tsarist Russia in full colour between 1909 and the Revolution. He took images using colour filters for red, green and blue. The negatives of these images allowed for reconstruction of the true colours almost a century later. This process produced some remarkable images of the “lost world”, like the portrait of the Minister of the Interior under the Emir of Bukhara that can be seen at the top of this story, taken before 1915.

And sometimes pictures have the power to portray that reality can be bizarre too.

The picture on the left is Cathedral of the Dormition at Kiev Pechersk Lavra before it got demolished during World War II. The picture on the right was taken by me in 2001, shortly after the reconstruction. It seems the architects who undertook the reconstruction did not have pre-WWII footage of the Cathedral. As can be clearly seen, the cathedral was not symmetric before the war, but it is now!

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Famous Dutch: Civil Type

After his first trip to The Netherlands in 1697 and in an attempt to open the window to Europe in St. Petersburg, Peter the Great took home many influences from The Netherlands. He studied ship building in Zaandam and he took home a large assortment of human and animal fetuses with anatomical deficiencies, bought from the Dutch physician Frederick Ruysch and exposed at the Kunstkamera. But he also wanted to bring Russian science and society closer to Europe.

One of Peter's reforms, was that of typography. He ordered for a new type to be designed. It is called Civil Type, after its non-clerical use, and is still in use today. It was ordered with typographers from Amsterdam and introduced in 1708. So next year, it will be the 300th anniversary of the modern Russian typography.

The Association Typographique Internationale (ATypI) voiced its support for a world-wide campaign in commemoration of the typographic reform of Czar Peter the Great in 2008.

UPDATE: It seems for the latest reform of Russian typography they did not need the Dutch. Volapuk encoding as used in SMS can look like this: Xai Hat! skazu bcem 4to 9 ne npudy. Dabai bctpet cy6 7ve4era.9 lav tebya ;-)

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Stolen Shevchenko case partly solved

Last week Halten police (Canada) arrested a suspect of a somewhat bizarre theft.

In 1951 a statue to the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko was placed in Toronto. It commemorated the 60th anniversary of Ukrainian settlement in Canada and their historic contribution to the economic, cultural, social and political life of this country.

Late December 2006 the statue disappaered from its marble pedestal. On 2 January Bill Harasym, president of the Taras H. Shevchenko Museum and Memorial Park Foundation, already speculated about the motives: "It looks like it was pulled down and to me it smacks of crooks out to make a dollar and melt the bronze down." And indeed the head of the poet appeared at Thomson Metals & Disposal in Burlington.

Meanwhile the foundation's president still has hope that the torso is found and the statue put back together: "I sincerely hope that it's in some kind of condition that it could be reconstituted. Then I would start to believe in miracles," he adds.

The statue is believed to contain 13,000 euro worth of scrap copper.

UPDATE: in 1988 the poor lads in Toronto also already lost their Shevchenko Museum to arson. The Park and Monument remain to this day as a reminder of our heritage, they write. I suppose now the Park remains...

Kyiv is booming

Ready to make a fast buck? Then head for the Kyiv real estate market before it's too late.

Recent reports show an increase by 10-25% in just the final two months of 2006 for residential property and a year to year increase of 28% to 5520 euro (per square meter) in 2006 for commercial property.

Here's how to. But beware, there are more people out there waiting for the fast buck!

(Thanks, Jeroen!)

It's the oil, Stupid!

About one year after the last big dispute that terrified Europe, the Russian bear shows its teeth again. The current victim is little brother Belarus.

It all began last year, when the Russian state-controlled Gazprom announced that Belarus was to pay "market prices" for the gas it imports from Russia. Tough negotiations started - with both sides threatening to stop the transit of gas from Russia to the EU - a compromise was reached just in time.

But that was not all. Yesterday Russia stopped the export of oil to the West based on allegations that Belarus was illegally keeping some oil itself. Russia did so without informing its European buyers, who were not amused.

In Soviet times and roughly the first decade after the break-up, Russia was not overcharging its neighbours. Since the beginning of 2006 we know that Russia uses the height of energy prices for geo-strategic purposes. Infamous defectors to the West, such as Georgia and Ukraine, were the first ones to bleed over this issue. But what did Belarus do wrong to lose the favour of Russia?

In the eyes of the West, Belarus president Lukashenko is Europe's last dictator, a title he earned right after the fall of Milošević in Serbia. But what is wrong from the Russian point of view? Both countries even constitute a Union together. The treaty was signed 10 years ago, but the coming into force goes very slowly. Both parties are complaining that the creation of that state is overdue. And turning it around: what is a Union State worth if the constituents cannot even reach an agreement on energy?

And what about the people? Well, luckily it will not freeze this week in Belarus. The forecast for this week (+5 degrees C) lies more than 10 degrees above the climate average of -7. And otherwise they can always order nice and warm corporate slippers in Moscow. Like the fancy Gazprom ones to the left.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Russian fourth branch

Russian scientist and editor Vladislav Inozemtsev cautiously describes the Russian fourth branch in an article that appeared last week.

Not a very optimistic story: You would think that with this massive apparatus at the state’s disposal it would be possible to ensure strict observance of the law and provide people with effective protection of their lives and property. But statistics indicate that this is not the case at all, Inozemtsev writes. A bit further he adds: Russia has now become something of a security economy that is only able to extract raw materials from the earth and guard the system created for their distribution.

The author seems not very sure about the long term economic viability of the oligarchic police state in its current form. I suppose the system is likely to survive the 2008 presidential election, though.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Gallows humor

Of course the first sick jokes and images appeared soon after the old tyrant was executed: Sadam hung up, Saddam & The Gallows, and (the much older) death by hanging, etc., etc., etc.

But of course nothing beats South Park.