Saturday, September 30, 2006

New Russians

Secrets of the Moscow Millionaires' Club

Short article on the UK Independent about Lena Lenina's new book Multimillionaires. Apparently the book is based upon Ms. Lenina's time spent among the wealthy "New Russians". Everyone who has any familiarity with Russia or Russian friends has heard stories or jokes about the wealthy in Russia and how they spend their money. This book reportedly offers a few of the details of that lifestyle.
The author, Lena Lenina, says that any oligarch worth his caviar owns a minimum of seven cars, employs a staff of 16, owns a yacht at least 170ft in length, a private jet that costs a minimum of £19m, and maintains a deep slush fund for bribing government officials. One apparently confided to her that he had to bribe a circle of corrupt politicians with "more than 1,000 cars and several hundred flats".

An oligarch spends about £535 every day merely on keeping his favourite mistress in the style to which she is accustomed, according to Ms Lenina. She will be given a sports car (the Audi TT is apparently a favourite) and a £200,000 pied-à-terre in central Moscow. Second-string lovers do less well, having only £2,700 a month spent on them.

The writer argues that many of Russia's wealthy businessmen have lost their nouveau-riche tastes and become far more sophisticated. While what she calls "provincials" may still plump for a Ferrari, Lamborghini or Maserati, Russia's urban rich prefer the anonymity of chauffeur-driven Mercedes, BMWs and Audis and spend an average of £425,000 a year on buying such vehicles. An oligarch's home, she says, is a display of raw wealth: his primary residence is a Moscow penthouse complete with a pool and winter garden and a price tag of up to £5m.
For those interested in such stories, perhaps there are more revealing details contained within the book. Otherwise, it sounds like more idol gossip regarding how extravagantly many wealthy Russians choose to spend their money.

Live Journal

As if I really need something else to write about - I've recently started a Live Journal. I have enough friends and associates on livejournal, that I finally broke down and created a new account.

It won't be the same content as here on Blogger. I plan to keep it as an informal journal - with more daily happenings in my personal life, and amusing content that I really don't feel is so appropriate for this blog. I also plan to use Russian more there - hopefully I won't make too many big mistakes in language.

Some Old Habits Die Hard

In Russia, Psychiatry Is Again a Tool Against Dissent

Ugly story in the Washington Post regarding Marina Trutko of Dubna. Dubna is the well known home of the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research and historically is a city of physicists and scientists, located north of Moscow. Ms. Trutko is apparently a former nuclear scientist herself, turned public advocate. Trutko works as a "public defender" and despite her lack of law degree is reportedly well versed in Russian law. Trutko began to face problems with local court authorities approximately 4 years ago in the city of Dmitrov due to a conflict with a local judge.
Trutko asserted that the judge displayed bias against her client in a property dispute, and she moved to have the judge withdrawn. She also complained that the judge was not wearing her robe as required and that the Russian flag was improperly displayed. The judge, who later left the bench and could not be reached for comment, alleged that Trutko said, "Look at that fat pig sitting up there," according to legal papers.

Prosecutors opened a criminal case against Trutko on charges of contempt of court. In July 2003, the court ordered Trutko to undergo an involuntary psychiatric evaluation. Psychiatrists at the hospital said she was uncooperative, illogical and displayed emotional reactions that were "not adequate" -- a common phrase here for mental illness.
If she acted this way in the United States, a very similar thing might have happened - she would have been found in contempt of court and possibly imprisoned, at least short-term. In the US, her DEFENDER would have likely sought for her to be proven mentally ill, to get her out of responsibility for her actions. Also, it should be noted that in the US, it would be unlikely that she could practice law without a degree and certainly would have passed bar exams.

The Independent Psychiatric Association in Russia questioned the conclusions that Trutko was not mentally fit - citing that she has a "not ordinary personality" but noting her obvious intelligence and believing that treatment for mental illness was necessary. You might think this should be the end of it - she reportedly made some ugly comments in court, criminal charges were opened against her, some psychiatric evaluation was ordered, and diverging opinions regarding her mental state were found. It is from this point forward, however, where the situation diverged from how such matters might be handled here in the US.

In April 2004, after leaving a hearing on her case in Moscow, Trutko was detained by investigators and taken to the Serbsky Institute. It was a Friday evening when she was admitted and there was no expert commission available to evaluate her, Trutko said. Human rights groups protested her detention and threatened legal action. Trutko said she was released the following Tuesday morning without having undergone any formal examination by psychiatrists.

But the institute issued a six-page evaluation that said she suffered from a "paranoid personality disorder." The condition manifested itself in her "subjectivity," her "tendencies to verbal aggression," her "suspicious" personality and her "inability to understand the peculiarities of interpersonal relations and communication," medical records show.

The report recommended that she undergo forced hospitalization and treatment.

In September 2004, a Moscow court approved that approach. But the authorities, for reasons that remain unclear, did not act on the order until they stormed Trutko's apartment earlier this year.
Trutko has subsequently been released, but claims that her career has essentially been ruined, which was likely the point of the persecution she experienced. From all that I read and here, such cases in Russia are less a result of systemic prosecution of dissidents - than the abuses of a corrupt court system and local authorities. Parallels would include the Vladimir Rakhmankov case, where he was most recently arrested for calling Putin a phallic symbol of Russia (фаллический символ России).
As further noted by Peter Finn in the Washington Post article:
The Independent Psychiatric Association, however, says that the number of activists being wrongfully hospitalized in mental facilities totals dozens of cases in recent years and is increasing. Doctors and the courts are complicit with investigators who insist on a forced psychiatric evaluation or treatment, it says. Activists have also documented an increase of family or business disputes in which wrongful hospitalization provides an opening to seize a person's property, Vinogradova said.

Most of the targeted activists are not affiliated with major human rights groups. Rather, like Trutko, they are stubborn gadflies who are involved in long-running feuds with local authorities. Their sometimes intemperate complaints against authorities are used to open criminal investigations for slander. This allows authorities to seek hospitalization. Unlike Soviet dissidents, these activists are put away for relatively short periods of a week to several months.

A Sister Becomes a Hilton

Stalin Skyscraper Will Morph Into a Hilton

Nope, nothing to do with Paris Hilton or her sister. One of the "Seven Sisters" is about to become a Hilton hotel. Leningradskaya (Ленинградская) Hotel recently entered an agreement with Hilton International. It will make the soon-to-be-renovated Leningradskaya Hotel the first Hilton in Moscow (up to 12 are planned). Hilton is one of the last major hotel chains to make its way into Moscow, having botched up several other deals in the past.
Stephane Meyrat, associate director at Colliers International, said the hotel would probably ask for $250 to $280 per night, but its proximity to three railway stations was not ideal. The hotel is located near Kazansky, Yaroslavsky and Leningradsky stations. Meyrat also said Hilton probably would have preferred to have secured a management contract, allowing the company to operate the hotel, rather than the franchising contract. "But Hilton has been under pressure to show something," he said.

Collini said Hilton's impetus to move into Russia was prompted by the unification of Hilton Group, which had run the brand's North American hotels, and Hilton International, which oversaw operations in the rest of the world. "It's been the platform for aggressive development plans," he said.

Hilton's further plans for Russia include up to 12 hotels in Moscow, six in St. Petersburg and at least one in every city with more than 300,000 people in the next three to five years, Collini said.

Hilton is the last international heavyweight to enter Russia, and it is all but certain to find success in a city with a severe shortage of hotel rooms. "The interiors of the hotel are practically exotic," said Marina Usenko, senior vice president at Jones Lang LaSalle Hotels in Moscow. "There's a certain spirit there. It's almost urban chic." She noted that Hilton's franchise acquisition of the Leningradskaya followed three failed attempts to enter the market.
I'm not sure why the location near Komsomolskaya Square isn't considered "ideal" - perhaps it isn't close enough to Red Square and the Kremlin? I should find this to be a great location for my own future trips in Russia, however.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

If not Putin, Then Who?

РИА Новости - Аналитика и комментарии - Четыре очевидных кандидата в президенты. Рейтинги (Analysis and Commentary - Four Obvious Candidates for President - Ratings)

Putin's popularity within Russia aside, there is the simple fact that in two years time, he will be stepping aside and a new candidate will elected president of the Russian Federation. In some respects, it is a rather unprecedented event in Russia political history - a popular president resigning at the end of his term and an election to be held with no incumbent. For it to occur in this fashion, would go a long way towards proving to the world that Russia is a democracy with freely elected leaders. Perhaps Russians have no doubt of this, but old cold-war rhetoric flows freely in the West regarding Putin's so-called "dictatorship of law" (диктатура закона).

Andrei Kolesnikov (Андрей Колесников) of RIA Novosti has an opinion column from last week that discusses the likely candidates and where they stand now. He cites four meaningful candidates for the presidency at this time:
  • Dmitri Medvedev (Дмитрий Медведев)
  • Vladimir Zhirinovski (Владимир Жириновский)
  • Gennadi Zyuganov (Геннадий Зюганов)
  • Sergei Ivanov (Сергей Иванов)
Not much to choose from.

According to Kolesnikov, if the elections were held tomorrow without Putin as a candidate, each candidate would receive about 22% to 16% of the popular vote (based on Levada Center polls). I would expect that Zhirinovski and Zyuganov are unelectable candidates unless there is some drastic change in the Russian political climates. Zhirinovski retains some degree of popularity, while also being largely an outrageous comic figure in Russian politics. When I mention Zhirinovski to Katja, for example, she will typically roll her eyes and say "oh what did he say/do now?"

Zyuganov, being the head of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation is mostly a fringe candidate with little appeal to mainstream Russians. Ivanov seems to be a rather "old-school" Soviet in his thinking. Examples would included his campaign to rename Volgograd to Stalingrad, or his reported cover-ups in the Andrei Sychov case. Despite his supposed closeness to Putin, his popularity is reportedly low - even among the generals that he commands.

This leaves us with the most popular figure from the Levada Center poll and the candidate that many point to as Putin's likely successor - Dmitri Medvedev. The first deputy Prime Minister and Gazprom board member would seem to embody much of the qualities of the new Russian Federation. He is young, educated, well-spoken and even occasionally brash (which I think doesn't hurt in Russian politics).

Much of this will develop more clearly in the coming year, as election campaigns begin to form. Putin is likely to nominate someone as the successor for president as well. Medvedev has been often cited as the possible heir apparent, and like considering candidates for the next Pope, there has been much discussion of this topic already in other forums and news articles. Considering the possible candidates, Medvedev would seem to offer the smoothest transition within the government of the Russian Federation. Considering the other possible candidates and directions the Russian government could take, his candidacy would seem to ensure stability for the still young Federation.
9/28 - Additional article from Regnum states that the CEC didn't entirely reject a presidential 3rd term, only the wording of the particle referendum they were to review:
Experts of Russia’s Central Election Commission have decided on impossibility of holding a referendum on the third presidential term only in the wording proposed by the initiative group from South Ossetia: “Do you agree that one and the same person cannot occupy the post of the Russian president for more than two terms?”. The Central Election Commission examined the initiative and found out that some articles in the Constitution repeat the sentence proposed to the referendum, but it contradicts with some other articles. Thus, the constitution as the supreme law does not to be confirmed. So, a formal occasion was used for rejection of the initiative, complexity of wording.

A referendum on changing constitutional norms is theoretically possible, however, bad wording let down the initiators of such a referendum from South Ossetia, Central Election Chairman Alexander Veshnyakov has provided such explanation on the CEC decision, Vesti.ru reports. Today’s resolution of the Central Election Commission will be sent to Russia’s regions, where it will be examined and, possibly, new referendum initiatives will appear. Veshnyakov adds that “it is theoretically possible in other wording,” although “some experts have another point of view: it is inadmissible to put for referendum constitutional amendments.”

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Hit with the Ban-Hammer

The hateful little troll who goes by the moniker "La Russphobe" has been officially banned from this forum.

For the time being, this means I am moderating comments, so it might take a few hours or a day for users comments to appear. I apologize for any problems this might cause readers. I just don't see any reason to tolerate her rudeness any longer. It seems manners are something of a one-way street with this rather heinous individual.

It is unfortunate, but there is only so much insults and name-calling I can tolerate. I've engaged this person too much already, and I'm just not going to let such nonsense continue here. Her behavior is beyond childish. To date, she's been banned from at least 3 other forums, so it isn't exactly as though this is an unprecedented response to her defacement.

Russia Drops to 62nd in World Competitiveness Ranking

US drops drops to 6th in world competitiveness ranking, Russia drops to 62nd - Reuters

News article from Reuters regarding the 2006 World Economic Forum's "Global Competitiveness Rankings". The World Economic Forum is an "independent international organization committed to improving the state of the world by engaging leaders in partnerships to shape global, regional and industry agendas."
The United States fell to sixth place in the World Economic Forum's 2006 global competitiveness rankings, ceding the top place to Switzerland, as macroeconomic concerns eroded prospects for the world's largest economy.

... The Forum said Washington's huge defense and homeland security spending commitments, plans for further tax cuts and long-term potential costs from health care and pensions were creating worrisome fiscal strains.

"With a low savings rate, record-high current account deficits and a worsening of the U.S. net debtor position, there is a non-negligible risk to both the country's overall competitiveness and, given the relative size of the U.S. economy, the future of the global economy," it said.

Switzerland was deemed the most competitive economy in 2006, followed by Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Singapore. After the United States, which had topped the 2005 index, Japan, Germany, the Netherlands and Britain rounded out the top 10.

The Geneva-based group Forum said that Switzerland's well developed infrastructure, plentiful scientific research and intellectual property safeguards helped vault the small Alpine country into the index's leading position.

As in Switzerland, it said high-ranking Nordic countries benefited from strong institutions and excellent education and training, but said they lagged in labor market flexibility.

Russia slipped nine places for a 62nd-place ranking this year, largely due to private sector misgivings about the independence of the country's judiciary, according to the report based on surveys of more than 11,000 business leaders worldwide.

"Legal redress is Russia is neither expeditious, transparent nor inexpensive, unlike in the world's most competitive economies," it said. "Partly because of this, the property rights regime is extremely poor and worsening."
Also from the World Economic Forum's website, we have this explanation of what this Global Competitiveness Index means:
"The process of growth is complex. The Global Competitiveness Index is an attempt to capture this complexity by modelling growth as a complicated combination of factors that matter differently for different countries." ~ Xavier Sala-í-Martin, Professor, Economics Department, Columbia University
The WEForum goes on to say elsewhere, this ranking is a forecast for economic growth potential. Most of the members that you see quoted on their webpage and in articles are economists (despite their lofty announcements about who they are and what they do).

What the WEForum is saying, we might already know in other forms. The US is in debt as George W. Bush continues to spend like a drunken sailor, and this weighs heavily on our economic future.

Russia - despite a 7.5% GDP growth thus far in 2006 and the optimistic pronouncements of
Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin - has some issues to work on also. In truth, it has taken Russia all of 16 years to approach the GDP levels of 1990, and a large measure of that growth is in oil production. Russia's GDP is projected to grow by 28.9% in the period from 2004 to 2007. I should note that it is unclear if these figures are corrected for inflation. It would be a mistake to say that all of this growth is due to oil - but certainly outside of the growth in oil prices and production, the economic picture for Russia is much less rosy. Oil revenues are currently 75% of the Russians governments revenues, and are anticipated to remain approximately 50% for the forseeable future.

Despite the economic success that Russia has seen, according to a Levada opinion poll, some 47% of Russians believe that a financial crisis is likely to happen THIS YEAR. This is a persistent belief and worry among Russian citizens despite the Stabilization Fund of $64.7 billion as of September 1st and despite a generally favorable economic forecast. And it is easy to see where the average Russian might have cause to worry, when 69% of Russians reported in the same Levada poll that they have no savings (interesting to note that only 9% of Russians reported that the US dollar is the most secure currency for their savings - a big change from even 5 or 10 years ago).

Russia to Cut Natural Gas Sales to the U.S.?

Russia to Cut Natural Gas Sales to the U.S.?

Via Russian Herald via UPI via a Vedomosti article - unnamed Moscow sources are reporting that Russia may decide to ship more natural gas to Europe, rather than export liquified natural gas to the U.S. per a prior agreement. It is probably nothing more than rumor at this point, given the nature of the news article and the far-off dates involved. Theoretically, this move would be in retaliation for perceived affronts from the U.S. against Russian interests.
Specifically, Moscow will sell a substantial amount of natural gas from its giant Shtokman field in the Barents Sea to Europe instead of the United States, as previously announced, Vedomosti reported.

Among reasons cited for the switch is perceived U.S. intransigence on conditions for Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization and Washington's decision to sanction arms export agency Rosoboronexport and on aircraft maker Sukhoi for their close ties to Iran.

'The (United States) could not have expected that Moscow would not notice the Rosoboronexport and Sukhoi issues,' the paper quoted an anonymous Kremlin source as saying.

'Now it can be said that delivery to Europe and the United States from this source will probably occur on a basis of parity,' Vedomosti quoted another source as saying.

Shtokman is the world's largest natural gas field and is expected to begin production in 2010.
It should be said that the move - if it ever occurs - makes purely economic sense, simply due to pipelines, proximity to markets, and demand. The United States currently imports less than 16% of its natural gas and has relatively abundant natural resources in that regard. Europe is far more dependent upon gas and petroleum imports than the U.S. It is also a much more friendly (even eager) trading partner, with relatively few restrictions on doing business with Russian companies. This particular area of trade isn't of current interest to the U.S. government.

There may be a point in the future, where U.S. businesses will truly pressure our government to open up trading restrictions or to affect policy changes between the United States and Russia. Certainly, Boeing has some causes for concern with U.S. policies towards the Russian Federation and how it might affect both future aircraft sales and access to Russian titanium. However, that day has not yet arrived and the U.S. seems content to allow European and Asian businesses to take the lead in both investment and trade with Russia. Natural gas imports are unlikely to be the tipping point issue.
Some additional quotes via RIA Novosti on the Vedomosti article:
Steven Dashevsky, head of research with the Aton brokerage, said the move was politically motivated. The Russian authorities linked U.S. companies' participation in the Shtokman project with Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization, he said.

Another reason for the move might be the fear that Gazprom will not have enough gas to meet growing European demand, and Europe is far more important to the gas giant than America is, said Maxim Shein, head of research with Broker Credit Service.
Putin's statement has an element of bargaining with the United States in it, said Boris Shmelev, head of the Center of Comparative Political Studies at the Institute of Economics of the Russian Academy of Sciences. "Russia is trying to get political dividends out of its energy projects, and this is a way for Putin to demonstrate his freedom of maneuver in relations with different Western countries," he said.


Another article on this topic from the Times:
A US State Department official told The Times: “We understand that Gazprom (the Russian oil giant) is still considering the selection of partner companies to develop the Shtokman gasfield in the Barents Sea, and we hope that the Russian Government and Gazprom will choose partner companies in accordance with the technological and commercial goals of the project.”

Anger is mounting over continuing American resistance to Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organisation and a decision by the US State Department in August to impose sanctions on two Russian arms companies, Rosoboronexport and Sukhoi, for their alleged supply of arms to Iran. The hardening stance in Washington could rebound on American companies — notably Boeing, which imports titanium from Russia and has a project with Sukhoi to develop a civil jet aircraft.

Meanwhile, Chevron and Conoco are each angling to be selected as one of three partners to Gazprom in developing Shtokman. Costing more than $20 billion (£10.5 billion), the huge development will take place within floating pack ice in the Arctic Circle, beyond the reach of helicopters.

The Russian President indicated that the proposal that Shtokman gas be shipped to Europe had come from Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor. “Gazprom is reviewing this possibility,” Mr Putin said. “Such a decision might be made in the very near future.”

That could boost the fortunes of three European energy firms that are competing for a piece of Shtokman — Norsk Hydro and Statoil, of Norway, and Total, of France.

NewsFlash - Bolsheviks Invade Finance Building; No One Was Killed

The story that really wasn't quite a story.

This unregistered, unplanned invasion/demonstration in the Russian Finance Ministry in Moscow by a group that considers itself the "National Bolshevik Party" met with little resistance and perhaps even less interest. Approximately 12 people invaded the building. RIA Novosti has a photo journal of the happenings, showing the members chained together to prevent their removal and using flags and flares to attract attention.

Thankfully, no one was seriously hurt. A security guard was reportedly injured during the event.

You can believe if this happened at some government building in Washington D.C., some Marine guard would have unloaded a few rounds into one of these kids. Even more true considering this group calls itself "Bolsheviks" and uses a mixed pseudo-nazi/communist flag.


This National Bolshevik Party is protesting lost individual bank monies - monies lost by Russian citizens in the 1990s. They believe that the government should make reparation payments to Russian citizens before repaying foreign debts. Given the number of years and change in the economy since that time, I doubt this is a message that finds many interested listeners in Russia.

Also from the photo album:
Earlier, a Moscow court handed down a guilty verdict to a group of National Bolshevik Party members, led by the controversial writer Eduard Limonov, charged with attempting to seize power and organize a mass disturbance. Thirty-nine NBP activists were arrested December 14, 2004 when they broke into the presidential staff's visitors' room to protest President Vladimir Putin's political reforms. In June 2005, a Moscow court banned the organization, saying it violated the law on political parties by calling itself a "party" without being officially registered. The Supreme Court's appeals chamber overturned the ruling in August. But the Prosecutor General challenged the decision with the Supreme Court Presidium, and a panel of Supreme Court justices then ordered a retrial.
These kids were arrested for their trespass of a government building, of course. So despite everything you might have heard, the rule of law does still prevail in Russia and protestors are not being oppressed everywhere.

At least not more oppressed than they are here in the good ole' US of A.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Russia by bicycle - Russian Sightseeing the Hard Way


Russia by bicycle

I am inviting everyone to visit the homepage of Herman Veldhuizen, intrepid Norwegian bicyclist.
Herman has made and chronicled two bicycle trips in Russia. His first trip was a 20-day trip in 2004 from Helsinki to Kazan. Having said that he would definitely do such a trip in Russia again, he put his money where his mouth is and made a second 30-day trip in 2005 from Perm to Ukhta (via Syktyvkar).

His homepage contains a diary and pictures of his travel, including his route maps and recommendations for others who might try the same. Herman apparently camped out for much of the trip and attempted to stay away from larger cities and high-traffic roads. Despite warnings he received from friends, he found everyone quite friendly, generous, and receptive to him along his travels (this includes invites to banya and drinking along the trip). I have to say I have found the same - much more simple human kindness within Russia - than coldness.



Herman made the trip via his fully-loaded Avaghon bicycle with steel frame. He apparently chose steel to facilitate any necessary repairs along the trip (welding steel is much easier than other materials - perhaps this goes without saying). Herman provides a good list of equipment, links, and recommendations for others, including the following:
* It is safer than you think in Russia! But like anywhere else in the world you want to be carefull in the big cities, especially St Petersburg and Moscow. Some area's in the south (Caucasus e.g.) are also to be avoided. Travel with an open mind, and you will be pleasantly surprised.
* During the summer you need a net over your head and preferably two layers of clothing to protect yourself against insects when putting up your tent.
* I found some reports on tick born diseases in Russia, but I didn't see any ticks myself. See e.g. http://www.veloplus.ru/eco/kle1.htm. Ticks prefer places with shadow, so these places are to be avoided. When camping I always try to find the spot which gets the most sunshine.
* There are russian web sites with usefull information also. Searching on "велосипед" will give you a lot of hits. I am using a free online translater web site to pick up the main points of russian text fragments. E.g. http://world.altavista.com/tr
* If you don't want to cycle alone, then why not sign up for an organized tour organized by Russian Cycle Touring Club.
* Electricity : 220V. Europe style sockets.
* It is difficult to find a hotel everynight, unless you want to stay in the populated areas and cycle from city to city. I would not leave my tent and sleeping bag at home.
There are many more photos from his trips, I've included just a few below to give you a taste.

Excellent Roads!


Northern Urals in the Komi Republic.


Just released from prison - time to drink!


Famous Putinka vodka


View of Syktyvkar from his hotel room.


Life is good!


Dead Russian Composer Personality Test

Maybe many of you have already stumbled upon this website in the past, but I thought it was worth pointing out. Doppelgriff Press "the internet home of author and composer J.C. Lozos" hosts the Dead Russian Composer Personality Test - a short test that matches your personality with that of a dead Russian composer. It is an amusing little test, that at worst will teach you something (or make you curious) about Russian classical composers.

As it turns out I am Dmitri Shastakovich (Дмитрий Дмитриевич Шостакович) - a comparison I actually don't mind. He was OCD apparently - I could be OCD if I was more committed. And his birthday is, after all, only a few days after mine (different years - I'm not THAT old!).

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Vladimir Arkhipov (Владимир Архипов) and his Museum of Handmade Objects

Vladimir Arkhipov and Museum of Handmade Objects

Dr. Vladimir Arkhipov, a self-taught artist, has formed a photographic collection of "functional folk art" - handcrafted items with utilitarian purposes. Originally presented as exhibitions around the world, he has collected his photos in a "Museum of Handmade Objects" (Народный музей самодельной вещи). According to Cultcorp.ru, the museum is located at 5 Vozdvizhenka Ulitsa in Moscow (ул. Воздвиженка, дом 5 - Метро: «Библиотека им. Ленина», «Арбатская», «Александровский сад».

"Only socially responsible art … in which people become not just spectators but immediate participants, authors and heroes is acceptable. Not heroes as in banal soap opera plots, but heroes of their own histories, histories that have unique illustrations – the self-production of everyday things."

Since the early 1990s, Vladimir Arkhipov has been travelling around Russia and its borders, visiting cities and provinces to seek out and gather together what presently amounts to a thousand or so objects from the homes of ordinary people. The vast project is not merely a play on the amateur anthropological collection however, but gives expression to the artist’s fascination with a particular phenomena of modern culture that is often forgotten in today’s voracious consumerist society: the hand-making of everyday objects.

Every item that makes up ‘Post-Folk Archive’ or ‘Museum of the Handmade Object’ has been crafted, constructed or assembled from whole or fragments of other objects to form strange but functional contraptions – watering cans, baskets, pitchforks, ladders and go-carts. The artist describes these items as "unintentional folklore" or "everyday folk creation in its contemporary form", explaining that the objects have been made "by specific people under specific circumstances" and are "united by the one and same aesthetic – the aesthetic of a compromise between individual possibilities and needs, which is based on ethical choice".

In this scenario, rather than locating a cohesive ethnocultural or national identity, "the supposed single history of the country comes apart", as Arkhipov puts it, and is "measured not by event".

Soviet Propaganda Posters from "English Russia" Blog

English Russia seems to have found their niche, becoming increasingly visual, with small commentary. Today they present the first of three parts showing old Soviet proganda posters regarding the USA. Whomever the poster is at English Russia, they certainly know how to come up with visually-interesting content.


Very large collection, showing a clear opinion regarding the USA playing with nuclear bombs, controlling Europe, destroying children and schools, and extracting oil/blood from the Middle East - generally threatening the world. Based on Levada opinion polls of Russians in the past year, this point of view is still prevelant within Russia today. I'll leave it to the reader to decide if this is a justified point of view or not.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Gorbachev: "I should have been as tough as Putin"

"I should have been as tough as Putin"

Gorbachev is out promoting his ongoing book "In the Politburo of the Soviet Communist Party". Apparently he has been working on the book for 2 years. Its publication seems to be a strategy to revise history and make himself more relevant. At the very least, he wants to distance himself from Yeltsin, if not actually throw Yeltsin under the bus for the economic collapse that was to come in the 90s.
Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said on Tuesday he supported tough measures taken by Russian President Vladimir Putin and wished he had adopted them. Gorbachev, whose political reforms led to the collapse of the communist empire, said he should have squashed the challenge from Boris Yeltsin, his arch-rival and subsequently first Russian president, by sending him into diplomatic exile. And he said separatist outbreaks that plagued his last years in power should have been crushed by taking their leaders to court.

"I have reviewed my values and made conclusions," Interfax news agency quoted the father of perestroika as saying during presentation of a new book "In the Politburo of the Soviet Communist Party". "I now support Putin as far as resorting to tough measures to maintain stability is concerned," he said.

"Yeltsin should have been sent away to a diplomatic post," he added. "Separatists should have been hit -- I mean confronted with criminal responsibility rather than attacked with machineguns."

Putin has described the collapse of the Soviet Union as "one of the greatest geo-political catastrophes of the 20th century".
As has been discussed elsewhere, Gorbachev has concerns about his legacy in Russian history and seems to be working very hard to explain or distance himself from the collapse of the CCCP. However, with economic recovery ongoing in Russia, it strikes me that fewer and fewer Russians care about what happened in the past and are looking towards the future.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Shell's Sakhalin Oilfield Permit Annulled by Russia

Bloomberg.com: Shell's Oilfield Permit Annulled by Russia

It had been discussed and hinted at for weeks and months, but it finally happened. The Russian Natural Resources Ministry and Environmental Department Rosprirodnadzor have revoked the permit authorizing Royal Dutch Shell's oil and gas development in Sakhalin. Waiting in the wings is the possibility of revoking Exxon Mobil and Total SA operating permits as well.
'It's symptomatic of the Russian industry to take control of key assets at as low a cost as possible,' said Craig Pennington, global leader of energy research at Schroders Plc in London. 'It's all part of the bargaining for assets up for grabs in Sakhalin-2.'

The Natural Resources Ministry in May urged Shell, Exxon and Total to cede more control of their ventures to Russian companies. Gazprom is in talks with Shell about swapping assets to acquire a stake in Sakhalin-2.

'We act in strict conformity with the PSA and Russian legislation and expect the Russian Federation to honor the PSA,' Ivan Chernyakhovsky, Sakhalin Energy spokesman, said before the decision. He declined to comment on the ministry's cancellation of the permit.

The ministry in May also told BP Plc's Russian venture, OAO TNK-BP holding, it must reach an accord with state-run OAO Gazprom to revive an $18 billion Siberian natural-gas venture. Gazprom is in talks to buy the 50 percent of TNK-BP that BP doesn't own, Vedomosti reported today, citing Gazprom officials.
If a nation wishes to manage and exploit its natural resources via state run operations, it is its right to do so. Certainly many other countries do this and it can be generally to the benefit of citizens in poorer nations (at least in theory).

However, to authorize private corporations to explore and develop oil and gas resources, and then pull those permits when they refuse to give in to apparent blackmail efforts by the government to gain a larger piece of the pie - is strictly amateur-hour criminal behavior. It unfortunately simply reinforces the impression of the Russian Federation as a shakey business partner and an undesirable place for foreign investment and development. Their inability to resolve the project issues by some other means calls into question the ability of foreign firms to develop petroleum reserves in Russia.

Now, my understanding of these contracts is that the Russian government would eventually get some percentage of the oil and gas reserves. The oil majors involved spend the money up front, get to recoup that development cost once production starts, and only then have to give over a percentage to the Russian government. So if $10 billion is spent to develop Sakhalin-2, the Russian government doesn't get its slice until after that cost is recovered by Royal Dutch Shell.

However, recently costs for Sakhalin-2 have been projected to have doubled to $20 billion. This is undoubtedly the underlying reason for the Russian government concern and desire to pull the permits on the project. This is the money game that is being played, and no doubt the Russian government is suspicous of cost overages and project accounting. On a project that size, they certainly should be suspicious. From the Dow Jones newswire report last week:
Russia's Minister of Natural Resources, Yuri Trutnev, said last week that enhanced environmental scrutiny of Sakhalin Energy is part of Russia's efforts " to defend its interests" after Shell announced that the cost of the project would nearly double to $20 billion.

The project is being developed through a special deal approved by Parliament known as a production-sharing agreement under which, in lieu of taxes, Russia takes part of the oil and gas produced once the investors' costs are covered. Doubling the cost of the project would mean Russia would have to wait longer to see its share of the profits.

Mitvol said his agency also expects a Russian court to hear a suit this week, brought by Rosprirodnadzor, which is aimed at canceling the permit. But Mitvol said the Ministry doesn't need a court decision to withdraw its approval.
Exxon's Sakhalin-1 project also recently had its budget increased from $17 billion to $12.8 billion, but because it has partnered at least in part with Rosneft, it appears to have escaped having the plug pulled ... so far. But continued cost overages are likely to have a similar response by the Russian government as the Royal Dutch Shell project.

If it were any other country, I would expect the final costs and the governments cut to be resolved fairly quickly so that the project can move forward. However, we are talking about the Russian government here - a government that seems to almost relish its reputation for unpredictability.
Additional Headlines Regarding Sakhalin

9/19 - Ecologists Accuse Sakhalin Energy of Barbarous Methods of an Oil Recovery- Ecological groups in Russia accuse Sakhalin Energy of harassing whales and churning up rivers, interfering with fish spawning. I think a bear also shit in the woods without a permit, but my translation may be imperfect.

9/20 - Japan Slams Russia over Sakhalin-2 Suspension
In Tokyo, Shinzo Abe, who is expected next week to become prime minister of Japan, slammed Russia for suspending the Sakhalin II natural gas project, which is 45 percent owned by Japanese trade companies, saying that it would "damage relations between Russia and Japan."

The difficulties put in jeopardy contracts with Japan, South Korea and the United States on supplies of liquefied natural gas, which are due to go into effect in 2008. Two Japanese-backed companies - Mitsui Sakhalin Development (25%) and Mitsubishi-controlled Diamond Gas Sakhalin (20%) - are major shareholders in Sakhalin Energy.

Russian Minister Trutnev met Monday with Yasuo Saito, Japan's ambassador to Russia, and explained why his ministry had decided to backtrack on an environmental study into one of the country's biggest energy projects. The minister handed photographs ostensibly showing violations of environmental regulations during the project implementation.

"Recommendations were given three years ago, but they have still not been fulfilled," Trutnev said. "It could be argued that they have been implemented in part, but I want to remind you that we cannot preserve nature by half."
I could go on a lengthy rant about the whole idea of preserving nature, and man's role within nature. Suffice to say, I've never understood the idea that everything mankind does is unnatural or that there is any place on the globe that isn't affected by man's presence - particularly as we are part of nature to begin with. I'm all for conserving land, resources, wildlife - but the nature of such conversations and the language that is used, just really chafes my ass.

9/20 - Russia demands "compromises" on Halted Shell Oil Project
"Compromises must be sought on Sakhalin-2," Economic and Trade Minister German Gref said Tuesday, quoted by RIA Novosti news agency, referring to a 20-billion-dollar (15.8-billion-euro) oil and gas project off Russia's Pacific Coast.

"We cannot support all the proposals from investors connected to rising costs. It seems to me that they haven't been thoroughly worked out -- there's still more to work on," Gref said. Russia has strongly objected to Shell doubling its initial cost estimate of 10 billion dollars (7.9 billion euros) for developing Sakhalin-2 to 20 billion dollars. Russia said the cost overruns would deprive the state of billions of dollars in shared revenue it expects from the project.
9/20 - Gazprom would aid early Sakhalin-2 start - Want to bet that Ambassador Alexander Losyukov has a vested interest?
Russia's ambassador to Japan said on Wednesday that Royal Dutch Shell's $20 billion (10.6 billion pound) oil and gas Sakhalin-2 project, which hit new environmental hurdles this week, could start operating early -- if Gazprom joined it.

Seeking to quell fears over late-stage objections to the project, which is due to supply large amount of natural gas to Japan from 2008, Ambassador Alexander Losyukov said Sakhalin-2 would move ahead and that he expected Shell to complete talks over selling a (20%) stake to state gas giant Gazprom by year's end.

He said Gazprom was a state-run company and if a state-run company joined the project it may be able to operate earlier. Losyukov ... said about half of 60 environmental violations remained unresolved.
9/20 - No reason to stop Sakhalin II until new survey - I think I've seen this before on TV. It's a shakedown called "good cop - bad cop".
"I do not see any reason to suspend the implementation of the [Sakhalin II] project until a revision of the feasibility study is complete," deputy economics minister Kirill Androsov said. "The state will conduct a new assessment, and the government will decide whether to include or exclude additional expenses in the revised feasibility study," Androsov said.
9/20 - Russia Criticized for Withdrawing Sakhalin Oil Permit
“It’s a strong sign that all the P.S.A. oil fields could be taken and given to the state,” said Konstantin V. Remchukov, the former member of Parliament. “They are dreaming up reasons” to renegotiate, he said.

On Tuesday, the economy minister, German O. Gref, said Russia would not cancel the deals, but he criticized cost overruns at the Shell project. Still, any revision of terms on the projects could have far-reaching consequences by positioning Russian state companies, rather than Western oil producers, as the beneficiaries of the strong energy market in the Pacific Rim.

“Times have changed in Russia,” Oleg V. Mitvol, deputy director of Rosprirodnadzor, the agency that revoked Shell’s license, said at a news conference here. “We want international investment, but we don’t want to be made into a banana republic.”

Журнал "Америка Illustrated"

Журнал "Америка Illustrated"

For those Russians interested in reading about life in America, I offer you Америка Illustrated.
This magazine is the historical counterpart to Russian Life magazine. Originally the two magazines were each sponsored in the USA and CCCP by the governments of the other, as a bilateral cultural exchange. This agreement continued in various forms until the early '90s. Similarly to Russian Life, since 1994, Америка Illustrated has operated as an independently published Russian language magazine.

I believe this existence of this magazine should silence those outspoken and misguided critics, who feel that Russia is too xenophobic to have a magazine devoted strictly to American life and culture. Of course, you could point to many other nations in this regard as well - does Canada or Italy have an "American Life" magazine? But yes, Russia is a big enough nation to encompass many tastes and opinions - including a magazine devoted to the USA.

Given the vast export of American culture in the form of magazines, music, movies, restaurants, and businesses already into Russia - I'm personally surprised any Russian would have the taste for more!

I should also point out that I was only able to find this magazine via the excellent Yandex search engine.

Maps New and Old

Digital Moscow at Mos2.ru

Maybe this makes me an engineering geek, but this website is WICKED. Works rather like a Google Earth application (actually probably is based upon that) with maps of Moscow. Information for each region is available with a click of the mouse. You can zoom in on the map down to the street and building level. Photographs and comments are available for each region of Moscow.



You could waste lots of time just playing with this map, looking up landmarks and places you've been ... or places you've yet to visit.

Старые карты Москвы

If you are interested in historic maps of Old Mos
cow, Stariye Karti Moskvi (Old Maps of Moscow) is a good place to start. Contains scores of ancient maps of the city of Moscow, with a history discussion of each era and the changes in the city.

There is also Старинные карты России и Украины (Old Maps of Russia and Ukraine) which has a CD with over 600 ancient map images. Eight large color images are provided as samples.

WWII German Soldier Photographs of the Russian Front (Великой войны)


Summit Photographics has a collection of approximately 2,500 photographs (mostly black and white) by German soldiers on the Russian Front. The images are contained within two albums on Webshots - Album One is located here and Album Two is located here.


There are also albums of German soldiers at the Russian front relics, including photo album covers and soldiers death cards. The images are copyrighted, but hopefully these few low-quality screen captures fall within the realm of "fair use", as the Accidental Russophile seeks only to promote these historical images. I should warn those that browse the collection, that not all of the images are as relatively innocent as these shown - it was a brutal and bloody war and this is reflected in many of the images, which I decided not to post.
Another interesting website, with photos made by correspondents on the Russian side of the war, is located on the Voice of Russia website. These images are far more graphic and horrific than those compiled by the German soldiers above. The photographs are still images from thousands of meters of film that were recorded and used, at least in part, in the documentary
"The Defeat of the Nazi Troops near Moscow", released in February 1942.


Sunday, September 17, 2006

Congressman Charles H. Taylor Develops Ties With Russia


Congressman Develops Ties With Russia

Interesting story over the weekend about Representative Charles H. Taylor (R-NC), an eighth-term Member of Congress, representing the 11th district of North Carolina. Rep. Taylor is an apparent avid Russophile and business man, with various businesses and banks in the US and Russia. According to the article, he is also known for his hiring of Russian business managers.
Starting in the mid-1990s, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, Taylor financed a series of construction projects in and around Ivanovo. The industrial city of 430,000 is about 150 miles northeast of Moscow.

In the late 1990s, Taylor was a major player in the Russian Leadership Program, a congressionally funded legislative exchange with Russia's Duma. In 2003, he purchased the Bank of Ivanovo.

Taylor has an obvious passion for Russia and its history. When a Russian business magazine asked him this year why he hired Russian managers for his bank, he responded, '(If) you read Pushkin and learn the history of Russia, you understand how to do business in Russia better than when listening to foreign managers.'

Last year, Taylor secured $100,000 in federal money for the International Trade and Small Business Institute. It brings foreign students to the U.S. to study at seven colleges and universities in western North Carolina. This year, the federal budget for the 2007 budget year contained a $1 million earmark for the program. Taylor has said the program is also funded by the colleges involved and by private donations.
Unfortunately, not discussed in this article is that Rep. Taylor is also a suspected crook - errrr - "Ethically Challenged Individual". Apparently, there is evidence that he has been involved with fraud and money laundering. Among other things ...

One of Rep. Taylor's outside business interests is the Blue Ridge Savings and Loan, an Asheville, North Carolina bank he founded, chairs and holds a majority interest.

In 2001, Hayes C. Martin, the former president of Blue Ridge, pled guilty to bank fraud for making a series of loans to Rep. Taylor's long-time friend and supporter, Charles Cagle. According to news reports based on court testimony and an FBI interview with Mr. Martin, Rep. Taylor had extensive knowledge about, and was involved in the making of, the loans to Mr. Cagle. Mr. Martin testified that when the FBI began to investigate the Cagle loans, Rep. Taylor ordered the removal of an employee who was suspected of cooperating with federal investigators. Mr. Martin further testified that he spent a fair amount of his time "helping Charles Taylor to skirt issues with the Office of Thrift Supervision."

Beginning in the mid-1990s, Financial Guaranty Corp., the holding company for Blue Ridge Savings and Loan, ... chaired and owned by Rep. Tayor, made a series of loans to Russian companies with interest rates as high as 60%. While active in pushing Congress to support a western-style home mortgage program in Russia, Rep. Taylor bought an 80% stake in a Russian bank in Ivanovo, making it the first American-owned bank in Russia. Rep. Taylor also founded a Russian investment company called Columbus, which appears to work in concert with the Commercial Bank of Ivanovo. Columbus was formed to overcome some of the restrictions of Russian banking law and expand the kind of investments Rep. Taylor could make in Russia.

House Rules prohibit Members from receiving any compensation, the receipt of which is due to their official position. By taking taxpayer-funded trips to Russia to explore and advance his personal business interests, Rep. Taylor may have violated this rule, as well as rules prohibiting conflicts of interest.
Rep. Taylor is also known for repeated calls for changes in USA visa laws and trade laws, as regards the Russian Federation. Fortunately, Rep. Taylor's interest in Russian culture appears genuine. Unfortunately, he appears to have the ethics of many of the Tom Delay and Newt Gingrich cronies.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Andrei Kozlov Murdered - Убийство по лицензии первого зампреда ЦБ Андрея Козлова


With the recent apparent contract killing of Andrei Kozlov - a respected (if disliked) first deputy chairman of the Central Bank - Russia has returned to the 1990s. In those years, killing of anti-corruption officials was more common. It is a horrible development when someone who appears to be a legitimate caretaker of Russia rules of law is quickly and brutally murdered on the streets. From the Reuters news article:
His murder plunged Russia's financial establishment into shock. With his department closing banks at the rate of two or three a week, Kozlov had no shortage of enemies and his colleagues said he had paid the ultimate price for his zeal.

"He was at the cutting edge of the battle against financial crime. He was a very brave and honest man and through his activity he repeatedly encroached on the interests of unprincipled financiers," Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin said in a tribute.

Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, leading a minute's silence at a cabinet meeting, said Kozlov's death was a great loss.

Anatoly Chubais, chief executive of Russia's electricity monopoly, described the murder as an "impudent challenge" to Russia's political class. "The response of the authorities must be tough, prompt and pitiless," he said.

Russia has about 1,200 banks. Many of them are tiny outfits with little capital and banking experts say allegations of malpractice are common.

"They assassinated Kozlov because he withdrew bank licenses. It is horrible that these attacks still happen in Russia. The government must find the killers," Vladislav Reznik, chairman of the State Duma (parliament)'s financial committee, told Reuters.
Further commentary from RIA Novosti (opinion column):
Andrei Kozlov was not well liked in the banking community, although his high level of professionalism was generally acknowledged. One Central Bank colleague of his recalled that during the summer crisis of 2004, when several banks had their licenses withdrawn, a caged goat was driven in an open Gazel van before the windows of the Moscow City branch of the Central Bank (not even where Kozlov's office was situated) - giving a clear hint [Kozlov's name calls to mind a goat in Russian] to the functionary who spoiled the lives of many an unscrupulous banker. But deep down everybody understood: the Central Bank, through Andrei Kozlov, was only laying down the ground rules. Perhaps they were rough-edged, but Russia's banking system needed to be civilized, purged of crime, and made stable and transparent. In effect everything was being done for the good of the ordinary client and customer.

Specialists say that nearly half the requests for opening criminal cases against money laundering came from the Bank of Russia, with the rest furnished by the Federal Financial Monitoring Service. And someone got his revenge.
One of the most discouraging things about this murder is its reminder that life can be very cheap in Russia. For all the decency that I have seen in people in my travels in Russia, there is also a dark side, all too well known by Russians.

The outcome of the Kozlov murder is likely to be minimal. Financial markets will remain intact. Someone may be arrested and even tried for the murder. But that person will only be the one who pulled the trigger and not the real parties responsible for such injustices.

Real criminals have no fear of being touched in Russia. And while there will be shock and sadness over Kozlov's murder - will there be the anger or determination to do anything about it?

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Mushroom Picking in the Komi Republic (Республика Коми)

My friend, Irisha of Syktyvkar, recently sent me photographs of her parents mushroom picking in the woods outside her city. The Komi Republic is known for its extensive forests, including the largest virgin forests remaining in Europe. Irisha says the best mushrooms are found in the white moss carpeted pine forests, such as shown in these photographs.


These mushrooms look quite tasty, I wish we had something comparable here. The whole thing reminds me of picking fiddleheads in the woods in Vermont with my grandparents (also quite tasty when fresh). Irisha says these are belyi grib (white mushroom). It isn't white as you can see, but the name is because it is white inside and it doesn't change color when it is cut. Other variety of mushrooms might change color (become darker or blue or red) on the place where you cut them.

I should also mention that Irisha was particularly concerned that I didn't think her parents always dressed like this - these clothes are for mushroom picking only! Fashion and being well-dressed are certainly more important in Russia than here in the US.

Katya's family also is quite fond of mushroom picking, we might have some photos of their prized finds someday. However, Katya really doesn't enjoy going into the woods at all and seems to be one of those people that mosquitoes and other biting insects really love!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Check out English Russia

English Russia

Most of you probably already have seen this blog, titled "English Russia ... just because something cool happens daily on 1/6 of the Earth surface." It is a very visual and humorous view of daily events and life in Russia.

If it is your only view of Russia, you probably would think that life is rather crazy, reckless, and decadent there. But if you realize that is it like an "America's Funniest Home Videos" version of Russia, you should find it a rather enjoyable website.

I'm not sure who is creating English Russia, but its hits have taken off massively in the past month. Given the writing style, it is obviously a native Russian speaker. I also notice there are the usual assortment of Russian detractors, who jump on anyone who portrays anything Russian in a perceived negative light. Still, I think this is a website well worth visiting, if you haven't found it yet. Even Katja thinks it is funny.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Shout out to "Away Awhile"


Brian's Travel Journal - Away Awhile

If you've ever wanted to travel the world, consider the story of Brian and read his online journal titled "Away Awhile". He departed to Asia in May 2002 and has been traveling the world, almost non-stop since that time. He returned home to the US in August 2006. That's almost 4-1/2 years of vagabond existence. He took a very minimal approach to his travels, which I immediately admire. He started writing about his travels in an online journal, before blogs really hit big.
He passed through Russia via the trans-Siberian railroad and spent a little time in Rostov Veliky. It was actually while searching for information on Rostov V. last year that I found his journal.

I've had it bookmarked under my blog roll for a while now, but as he just finished his travels, I thought I should do a quick shout out and recommendation.


Quick Tip on Watching Russian DVDs in the USA

Maybe some of you already know this, but I have discovered that Netflix has a rather large and growing selection of foreign films. You can find the Russian section here. I already have a queue of about 30 DVDs. At $9.95 a month, it is a good way to expand your Russian film collection (not that I would advocate ripping copies of DVDs, ahem). There are also some Russian DVD clubs (such as MoscowFlix) which work similarly to Netflix - we selected Netflix because its collection actually appeared more interesting (so says Katja).

Because of Netflix, I recently watched Mimino. I can't say I really enjoyed as much as many of the reviews. I wish that I did, it was very highly rated. Katja liked it very much; I felt like it was a story meant to discourage ambitions. She is annoyed with me for this point of view, which I suppose is typically American. To some degree, it is likely something that only someone from or highly attuned to Soviet/Russian culture could appreciate.

Also, I recently acquired a region free DVD player. The Philips DVP642 DivX-Certified Progressive-Scan DVD, which comes with a quick hack to make it region free. You should be able to get this for $50 or less. I highly recommend it to anyone who is searching for a way to play their foreign DVDs. A link to acquiring this is provided below (consumer whore that I am).

Unbearable Lightness of Not Blogging

So, just what the heck have I been doing since July 21st? Some of this hiatus was a needed mental break. Some of it was procrastination (I've continued to find and read articles like crazy - I just haven't completed the writing part of that troika). Some of it was that I have just been plain ole' busy.

What things have I been doing, these last weeks?
  • Moved into a new apartment. The first week of August, Katja and I left the renovated old mill building in Exeter and moved into a larger (albeit less historic) apartment in Portsmouth. As Katja has been at the apartment during the day, she did most of the packing/unpacking and cleaning. Me, I get to do the heavy lifting.
  • Field engineer on a construction project in Lynn, Massachusetts. Originally my company was only going to put me on the project site for the first week of construction, but that changed and I was out of the office for roughly 6 weeks, working about 50-55 hours a week.
  • Procrastinating. Ever put something off for so long, that you even become nervous or anxious about completing it? I was a little bit like that. I have a list of articles that I researched and started, but never completed. Topics range from the 15th anniversary of the coup, Levada polls regarding Russian's persistent belief in economic collapse, NHL vs. Russian hockey contracts, Lay's potato chips in Russia, Vodka Train tours, how to make the perfect blini, and on and on. I'm sure to revisit these someday (sure I will - just like that Rostov Veliky article I've not completed).
  • Trip to Vermont. Little did you know that besides Russian culture, I also have a bit of a genealogy hobby. I can actually trace my Shedd family lineage in an unbroken line back to 1360 England and John de Schedde. Daniel Shed of Finchingfield, England, my g. g. g. g. g. g. g. g. g. grandfather arrived in the area of Quincy, Massachusetts about 1645. Of my grandparents, I can trace two other family names back to the 1700s (the Jones family name I can only take back to about 1840, but what do you expect with a family name like Jones). Anyway - one of my more notable ancestors was Abel Shedd ( g. g. g. grandfather) of Albany, Vermont. He was a farmer and US Civil War Sharpshooter. I had purchased a historic map of the region last year, showing where his old farm was located. When I showed this to my father, he knew the exact location of this farm, as HIS father and grandfather used to take him hunting in that area when he was a boy. But he was never told WHY they went to that area - turns out it used to be the old Shedd family farm. From that we were able to locate Abel's grave, along with some other family members. I spent a weekend taking my kids and Katja up to Albany, Vermont to see the area where the farm was, and to visit some other still living relatives in Vermont.
  • Doctors Appointments. Katja has had a series of medical issues that we've had to deal with. I took her to 5 doctor's appointments in August (she isn't driving here yet). Nothing too terrible, but she had to contend with various ultrasounds and eatings of radioactive oatmeal. She is impressed with the hospitals here for their newness and cleanliness - if not so impressed with the range of diagnoses and the tendency to prescribe pills. Katja pops Russian pills like there is no tomorrow (she brought a huge stash of things like Mezim with her), but is loathe to take any American pills. Go figure.
  • Job Hunting. I've been sending my resume around to various firms, considering taking a position in Russia. My education and work are related, at least in part, with construction and the oil industry. However, I don't have oil drilling and construction experience, which is really a different animal from the geotechnical and environmental drilling that I do. There are geotechnical engineers in support of oil construction of pipelines and other things, but those jobs are a bit scarce and my experience doesn't fit 100%. Still, I have been looking and applying. I sent my resume to Parsons in regards to a hazardous waste engineer position on an environmental cleanup project in Russia as well (actually disposal of chemical weapons if you can believe that). Also applied for two geotechnical positions related to the gold mining industry in Kyrgyzstan (I have friends in Bishkek, remember). Nothing has come out of it, just considering some of the different options. I spent most of my teenage years as an expat living in Germany, so I was weighing options for becoming an expat in Russia. It is a long-shot.
  • Fantasy Baseball / Fantasy Football. One season is entering playoffs and the other is just beginning. I don't get as into this as I used to, but still wasted some time preparing, trading, drafting teams. I am crushing everyone in my baseball league this year. Also, along these lines I was ...
  • Witnessing the SPECTACULAR Collapse of the Boston Red Sox. Wow. Was this team really in first place? For a team with a history of failure in August - this was one of the most stunning stupendous stupefying failures I have ever been witness. It is a bit like a car wreck, you know you shouldn't stare, but GAWD! Besides the lack of deadline trade (thanks Theo), the injuries to key starters, and the failures of starting pitchers who shall go nameless (cough cough joshbeckett cough cough) - throw in their 22 year old rookie starting pitcher being diagnosed with cancer (!). Maybe the BoSox sold their souls to the devil to win in 2004 and this is Satan's payback. Also sports related there was ...
  • Patriots Training Camp. Whooo Hooo! Just as the Red Sox start to suck, you have the Patriots starting another season.
That is about everything. It really isn't that much, now that I look at it. But it kept me occupied enough to take a mental vacation from writing about all things Russia. I apologize to anyone who was wondering what I was off doing. I'll be making more steady postings, life has settled down, and besides Katja is out of town until the 20th, visiting friends in Arizona.

September 11, 2001 - 5 Years and Counting


September 11, 2001 attacks (12 сентября 2001)

Unfortunate timing for me to come back, after about a 6 or 7 week hiatus. But I couldn't let the 5 year anniversary of the September 11 attacks pass without at least a few words.

Just as with the JFK assassination, 9/11 will be remembered as a great tragedy in American history. "Where were you when the towers fell?" is already cliche. I remember those first moments quite clearly, the phone call at a little before 9 am from a friend, reporting that the news said an airplane flew into one of the World Trade Center buildings. I was sitting at this very same desk, and was reluctant to believe what was being reported in the next 30 minutes. Working at an engineering firm, there were pensive and quiet conversations among us - as events unfolded - speculating how long the towers would stand ... if they would stand.

5 years later it is easy to wonder if the US is really any better off. Certainly, the United States stature and reputation is tarnished as a result of our policies. I say "our policies" because, like it or not, this country voted George Bush into office not once, but twice (conspiracy theories regarding stolen elections aside). All of our anger, our bigotry, our ignorance of the world, and even our child-like belief in "America" as an ideal, are channeled through Bush and our US government leaders. They create policies, laws, speeches, and sound bites designed to catch our ears and echo our thoughts and sentiments. I disagree with most of these policies - probably many readers of this blog do as well - but let's not kid ourselves into believing that disagreement is representative of most Americans. Having traveled the world in my lifetime, everywhere from Hawaii to New York to Frankfurt to Moscow to Bishkek, I am left with the inescapable conclusion that we Americans are fanatics. Maybe we are the "good guy" fanatics - I certainly hope so and that history continues to prove this idea.

Rebuilding is underway on ground zero - it seems a bit morbid to my mind, but at least the footprints of the two towers will remain as a memorial to the events of that day. Recent opinion polls seem to center upon the concept of America being "safer" today than it was 5 years ago. I'm not even sure what this means. I never felt unsafe as a result of 9/11. I've never hesitated to get upon a plane or travel since that date. I grew up as an Army Brat in West Germany in the 1970s and '80s, where the daily prospect of terrorism was considered normal in a way that Americans can't begin to imagine. Widespread and small-scale terror is fortunately not the modus operandi of Al Qaeda.

To conclude this rambling post, I refer readers to the rather good Wikipedia article on the September 11, 2001 attacks. What information isn't contained directly on that page, is likely linked to somewhere in that article. I'll have more to write regarding where I have been a little later today.