Thursday, December 27, 2007

Bishkek Press Club Annual Awards

The Bishkek Press Club is holding their annual awards ceremony on January 4, 2008. Among the award-winners is photojournalist/blogger Elena Skochilo, who will receive an award for "Most Interesting Perspective" for her photojournalism work in 2007.

Congratulations to Elena for her award and here's hoping for more achievements in 2008!

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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Putin Announced as Time Magazine's "Man of the Year"

Perhaps not-so-surprising announcement regarding Time Magazine naming Vladimir Putin as their "Man of the Year" for 2007. Reuters has the story of one of the more negative sounding pronouncements of "Man of the Year" in recent memory.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was named Time magazine's "Person of the Year" for 2007 on Wednesday for bringing his country "roaring back to the table of world power."

"He's not a good guy, but he's done extraordinary things," said Time managing editor Richard Stengel, who announced Putin's selection on NBC's "Today Show."

"He's a new tsar of Russia and he's dangerous in the sense that he doesn't care about civil liberties; he doesn't care about free speech; he cares about stability. But stability is what Russia needed and that's why Russians adore him."
Not a good guy? What, like he beats up old ladies and kicks dogs? I find the statement that he "doesn't care about civil liberties" a bit odd also - I think Putin's perspective is likely quite different, more of a first-things first approach. As much as our press would like to hand-wring about it, I think most Russians aren't feeling their civil liberties being squashed any more than Americans do.

Personally, these aren't the items or policies for which I would first criticize Putin. Then again, I also think that he gets too much credit for an economic recovery that actually started at the end of Boris Yeltsin's time.

There is always something to be said for being in the right place at the right time. Putin deserves the most credit for simply having clear ideas on asserting Russia's influence on the international stage, now that the nation has resurgent economic prowess.

To commemerate the occasion, I'm sharing the following Putin cut-out figure. Now you too can have a little Putin, Man of the Year, watching over your desk!

When completed, the figure will look like this:

Variations on the theme can be found here.

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Monday, December 17, 2007

Putin Ready to Be Medvedev's Prime Minister

Like Batman and Robin, Bush and Cheney, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Sancho Panza and Don Quixote, Festus and Marshal Dillon, Burns and Allen, chocolate and peanut butter, and, well you get the idea. Medvedev and Putin are part of a team.
"If Russian citizens express their confidence in Dmitry Medvedev and elect him as the country's president, I will be ready to head the government," Putin told a congress of his United Russia party held near Moscow's Red Square.

"(We) shouldn't be ashamed or afraid of transferring the key powers of the country, the destiny of Russia to the hands of such a man," he added.
Of course, the real reason that Putin nominated Medvedev has nothing to do with all the speculated political intrigues and loyalties.

The real reason is Medvedev is the only man in the Kremlin shorter than Putin.

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Hey - Doesn't Bush Have a Beer Named After Him?

Seems to be a really successful President of the Russian Federation, you need a vodka named after you!

I can hear the slogan now - "It takes a big man to make a pure vodka..."

Interesting side bar: whenever I see Putin walk, I can't help but think of George Jefferson. Really more like a one-armed George Jefferson - he only swings his left arm.

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Monday, December 10, 2007

Preved, Medved!

Well ... ain't that a kick in the pants. Turns out the man Putin wants to succeed him is the guy we were all talking about a year ago. All these machinations, promotions of Ivanov, analysts timing the minutes Medvedev and Ivanov appear on television, and other speculations were merely to throw us off the scent.

Dmitry Medvedev is the man.

So what does this mean? I very much doubt it will affect any change in the direction of Russia, Inc. In fact, Medvedev's strong business experience and persona lend itself to Russia as the emerging corporate state, a nation that is run like a business. Most analysts tend to cast Medvedev as a liberal - I think this is a mistake. He simply isn't the sort of Russian man who shoots his mouth off to show what a real man he truly is. He's another sort. I also disagree with analysts such as Yevgeny Volk of the Heritage Foundation, who says
"The choice of Medvedev...reflects Putin's desire to have the most obedient figure. Putin views Medvedev as a subordinate on whose loyalty he can count."
Putin has no need for a trained dog. Subordinate seems like an inappropriate word here. Trust in politics is a fleeting thing. It seems unlikely that Medvedev will conduct his business any differently now than he has in the past. And business would seem to be the most appropriate word - this will be business as usual for Russia, Inc.

But, alas, I am afraid the days of juicy quotes like they should keep their booger-noses out of our business or You must obey the law, always, not only when they grab you by your special place or He raped 10 women. I never expected it from him. He surprised all of us. We envy him or We’ll follow terrorists everywhere. We will corner the bandits in the toilet and wipe them out. Medvedev won't lend himself to the easy, knee-jerk, "He's a fascist" kind of blogging. He doesn't appear to be so vain as to appear shirtless for photos while fishing with some prince. He is unlikely to kiss children on the belly.

In short, the man is a professional.

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Sunday, December 02, 2007

Reluctant Democracy?

Spiegel Online has an long and interesting article titled Portrait of a Reluctant Democracy. On the eve of the carefully orchestrated Duma elections, Spiegel provides a sort of cross-section of opinions and the political times in Russia. Their case study involves a series of cities across Russia, and by god, for once it doesn't include Moscow. Ivanovo, Magnitogorsk, Tyumen, Bedime, and Vladivostok are chosen as representative of the successes and failures of Putin's tenure as President of the Russian Federation.

Some of the more interesting tidbits from the article:

Vladimir Ryzhkov (whose Republican Party was dissolved in May by the Russian Supreme Court and after 14 years will no longer be part of the Russian Duma): "This is not an election, it's a farce." Ryzhkov states that the controlled multi-party system that is being formed in Russia reminds him of the former East Germany.

Boris Nemzov, a leading candidate of the "pro-business" SPS (but that protesters characterize as "Party of the Oligarchs") is asked by a reporter if he could imagine cooperating with the dominant United Russia party.

"If you mix a kilo of cranberries with a kilo of shit," Nemzov replies, "you get two kilos of shit."

There's the spirit of pragmatism and compromise upon which successful democracy's are built! Nemzov's SPS party is deemed unlikely to meet the minimum 7% for inclusion in the new Duma.

Another telling moment:
Nemzov says, to an audience at Ivonovo's "Silver City" shopping center: "Do you want me to tell you what the cleanest spot in the country is? The ass of the president! That's because someone is kissing it from morning to night."

Three female students giggle. A furious-looking soldier turns red in the face. Putin is his idol. An agitated pensioner calls out: "You stole our pensions in the '90s, you thieves!"

Nemzov is prepared for these accusations. He pats the angry pensioner on the back and responds to the attack with numbers: "When I was the energy minister, the price of oil was only $17. Nevertheless, Boris Yeltsin spent 7.5% of the national budget on pensions. The Putin administration spends only 4.2% on pensions."

And didn't Gazprom, the state-controlled energy giant, pay $13 billion for Abramovich's shares in the oil company Sibneft? Thirteen billion dollars, says Nemzov, is more than the government spends on its "national projects,"
much-touted programs devoted to healthcare and building low-income housing. "In other words," says Nemzov, "the most important national project for Mr. Putin is the oligarch Abramovich."

Ever since the arrest of oil billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2003, Nemzov tells his guests, everyone who hopes to do business in peace knows "where they have to leave their money" -- with United Russia.
In Magnitogorsk, almost 90% of the city's tax revenues are derived from the steel mill Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Combine (MMK) owned by Viktor Rashnikov and operated by Andrei Morozov. Morozov and MMK have somewhat reluctantly decided to support United Russia. This support is not without its detractors among the workers in the city.
When it came out that the mill's managers would support United Russia, critics in Magnitogorsk began parodying the party's Russian name, Yedinaya Rossiya, calling it "Yedim Rossiyu," or "We eat Russia."

"They have learned nothing from history," complains Gennady Grabaryev, a local opposition politician. [..] He sees a group of aging MMK veterans demonstrating on the square behind the city hall. Mariya Lyssenko holds a placard: "United Russia's members of parliament have cheated the MMK pensioners." She and her husband worked at the MMK for a combined 106 years, only to be pressured by
management, following the privatization of the combine, to sell their shares at rock-bottom prices. Lyssenko and her husband were told it was their duty to save the plant from an outside takeover.

Lyssenko, whose shares would be worth €120,000 today, must now make ends meet on a monthly pension of about €100. According to a Russian proverb -- "Nye poyman, nye vor" -- those who are not caught are not thieves.
And yet in other regions of Russia, such as the booming city of Tyumen, travel agency entrepeneur Natalya Mironova, flatly remarks regarding United Russia:
"Why should we vote for anything else? We're doing very well here."

[..] Born during the Soviet era in the city of Asbest, {W. Shedd notes: Russian for asbestos, which should give you a clue what they mine there} an industrial hell west of Tyumen, Mironova worked as an English teacher in the 1980s and moonlighted as a tour guide for Intourist,
the state-owned travel agency. The economy stagnated, while private business ownership was forbidden. "Not in my wildest dreams would I have thought that I would establish my own company one day," says Mironova.
Update: Reuters reports that early results show that United Russia is winning approximately 63% of the voting.

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Thursday, November 29, 2007


I apologize for doing so little serious writing lately on this blog. Since my 2-week+ case of pneumonia, I've been playing catch-up at work.

I have three large articles that I'm trying to clean up and post to the blog. I promise something more interesting in the next few days and that momentum should carry into next week and through the holidays.

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Monday, November 26, 2007

Putin: Mein Plan

I have some larger articles in the works for this week, but wanted to pass along this image from volodymir_k, via a conversation with Megan Case.

Along this line, there is something weirdly insecure about a President who enjoys 60% to 70% approval ratings in his country, pointing the finger at other nation's ghostly support of political fringe candidates in Russia.

Is he really so out of touch with reality as to suggest that a "color revolution" might be in the works in Russia?

The Presidentially election isn't until March, but Dr. Case (inside joke) observes that Russians are already suffering election fatigue from Plan Putina.

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

American Pizza Success in Siberia

Nice little Reuters story about American mini-garch Eric Shogren, owner of the New York Pizza chain (30 restaurants, $15 million in sales in 2005, and going strong) and various other business interests in Novosibirsk. Eric Shogren went into business in 1996 in Novosibirsk, with a modest investment of $150,000. Shogren tells a story of great success in the face of skeptics and the economic crash of the late 90s. These days his biggest headache seems to be a shortage of cheese - he needs over 20 metric tons of cheese a month for his pizza chain.
"I'm out here selling Russians pizza left and right. I've got people packed in my bar every night dancing to Chuck Berry music, and there's people going 'Do you think this'll work?'," said Shogren, grinning. "Some people see things that work in reality and wonder if they would work in theory."

Shogren says you should never underestimate Russian's dislike of spicy foods and their love of potatoes. Since arriving in 1996, Shogren has also opened a live music bar, a fine dining restaurant, a diner and a bakery, and he now employs 1,500 people in Russia's third largest city, 3,200 kilometers (2,000 miles) east of Moscow.

"We should have known that people here are the same as they are anywhere else. They just want good, normal stuff," he said. "When I first started in '96, I had to bring almost all the ingredients I used from the West," he said. "Now almost everything I use is from Novosibirsk or from Russia. My cheese supplier just called me and said 'My God, we're not going to have any cheese for the next six months, Moscow's got all the cheese."'

To provide an adequate supply of pizza cheese he now plans the most ambitious of his commercial ventures by building a 3,200-head dairy operation on the outskirts of Novosibirsk.

"At the very moment when the Russian economy is so hot, and the consumer class – the middle class as everyone calls it – is so vibrant, the internal industries are still kind of crumbling, and some of them haven't been reformed yet," he said.

For the cheese, Shogren will grow his own feed, import Dutch cattle, install equipment from Wisconsin and count on continued Russian economic growth.

"It's happening, the processes are
working. What I always tell people here is that it's working maybe faster than we expected it to."
Never underestimate Russians dislike of spicy foods - I couldn't have said it better myself. I would add, never dislike their disdain for vinegar either.

Reportedly, Shogren's proposed 3,200-head dairy will be the largest modern dairy in Russia. Difficult to tell what success he is having with this dairy, as Fortune magazine reports that he broke ground on the project in 2004, with a planned opening in 2006. However, this 2007 story implies the project hasn't yet been completed.

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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Of Gorbachev, Louis Vuitton, and Litvinenko

Some rumors started circulating among a few blogs several days ago, regarding a hidden message in Gorbachev's photo sessions with Annie Liebovitz, used as advertising for Louis Vuitton. In the images, Gorbachev is passing some remaining portion of the Berlin Wall while riding in a limosine with a Louis Vuitton bag.

It seems some sharp-eyed individual took a closer look at the magazines that Gorbachev is carrying in his Louis Vuitton bag. The New York Times and a few other newspapers picked up on it yesterday, calling it "subversive text."

And lo and behold, what did their wondering eyes see? Perhaps a secret message?

The headline on the magazine says (approximately) in Russian: "Litvinenko's murder: They wanted to give up the suspect for $7,000." Was it some secret message being passed from Gorbachev to the Western world? What information did he know and why was it in the Louis Vuitton images?

Alas - it turns out to be all quite ordinary. It seems that Miss Liebovitz just purchased some magazines to fill the bag from some local store. At the time of the photo shoot, the Litvinenko murder was still making headlines. The Guardian Unlimited reports that the issue in question is simply the May 28 edition of New Times. The New Times article alleges that its reporters were approached by Russian secret agents offering to give them the location of Andrei Lugovoi in exchange for $7,000.

So, unfortunately, a possibly juicy tidbit turns out to be just a dead-end. However, given the location of the bag and magazine, you might have thought that Gorbachev would notice the headline and shuffle the magazines for something else to be in the image. Then again, he might not have even known how much of the bag or the magazine might be revealed in the final photos.

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Monday, November 05, 2007

"We're against everything. We're patriots"

Spiegel Online has a story today about the neo-Nazi National Unity Day march in Moscow at Kutosovsky Prospect yesterday. An estimated 2,000 people participated in the march and rally. The Spiegel article attempts to capture the stupidity and shallowness of the Russian neo-Nazi movement, and to explain the Kremlin and other government officials apparent tolerance of far-right nationalism, as contrasted with complete intolerance of the liberal left.

This was the 3rd annual such march in Moscow. While last years march resulted in many arrests, this year Moscow police issued a march permit for a relatively low-traffic area of the city.

The march included the cowboy hat wearing Preston Wiginton, a white supremacist from Texas. Wiginton spoke to the crowd, cheering "Glory to Russia," with the audience responding "white power" back to him in English.

Hey, so there is something we Americans and Russians have in common. Racist bigots. Hurray.
"Russia for Russians!" the demonstrators shouted in unison, followed by slogans such as "For a Slavic, Russian nation!" or "Slavic, Russian, Powerful!" The demonstrators stretched out their arms in the Hitler salute between slogans. Their loud shouts of "Slavic Russia!" were followed by the sound of drum rolls.

"We are opposed to the immigration of Caucasians and Asians to Russia. Our people must remain pure. Russia belongs to us," 32-year-old Andrey Bukov explains. The trained media expert says he has been "serving" in the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI) for four years. He waves its white, yellow and black flag, which features a symbol resembling a swastika.

Nineteen-year-old Sergei carries the red flag of his
group -- the "Slavic Union" -- tied around his shoulders. "We Russians are part of the white race," he says. "The blacks -- the Caucasians, the Chechens, the Dagestani -- should stay away," says the Muscovite, a student at the Finance Academy.
If the use of the word Caucasians in the negative sounds unfamiliar to the less traveled American readers, it is because while we use the word Caucasian to indicate anyone of white race, Russians (and many Europeans) use the word to indicate people from the Caucasus Mountains. Again, for the unfamiliar - many Russians perceive such people to be non-white.

The utter brilliance of the marchers is demonstrated further into the Spiegel article, by a short interview with Olga and Darya:
Pensioner Monika Nikolayeva [says] "When it comes to our children, there is not even enough money to send them to university in Russia." That is why she believes it is good that young people take to the streets and protest. "Young girls in particular only get limited education!"

The young girls she means are technical university students like Olga and Darya, who are marching beneath the flags. "We're against everything. We're patriots," rants 18-year-old Olga. She and her 19-year-old friend have traveled to Moscow from Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia to attend the demonstration. Asked what they are demonstrating against, she is at a loss for a moment. Then she stutters: "Against the anti-Russian policy in the world -- I can't say it any more clearly."
Further analysis in the article is provided by Andreas Umland, "an expert in comparative fascism studies who specializes in Russia." Mr. Umland believes that these neo-nazi's are welcome bogeymen by the Kremlin, that their existence justifies strong-armed tactics by the government, with the increased use of extremism laws and other crack-downs on civil liberties. Of course, the Kremlin and law enforcement officials seem loathe to use those laws and measures against the ultra-nationalist bogeymen, preferring instead to crack the heads and knuckles of any organized liberal parties and individuals who dare fault or make a joke about Putin.

From the Associated Press article on the event:
"This is just an outbreak of national identity feelings, which is noticeable worldwide, and it has affected Russia too," said Vyacheslav Postavnin, deputy director of the Federal Migration Service, the Interfax news agency reported.

In the first Russian March in 2005, thousands marched through central Moscow, some shouting "Heil Hitler." The march horrified many Muscovites, and the following year it was blocked by police.

"The first Russian March was unexpected good luck, the second one was about overcoming the resistance of the authorities, and the third one is already a new Russian tradition," said Konstantin Krylov of the nationalist Russian Social Movement.
I encourage you to read the rest of the article for additional details and observations by Simone Schlindwein.

Other marches on National Unity Day included the Yabloko party rally against fascism and xenophobia. The pro-Kremlin Nashi youth group assembled a "peace quilt" from the contributions of thousands of young people across Russia.

Sean's Russia Blog discusses how National Unity Day has actually served to highlight Russia's fractured and disunited nature. Neo-Nazi marches certainly add an exclamation point to his discussion.

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Friday, November 02, 2007

Most Beautiful Bottom in the World Competition

What you goin' do with all that junk?
All that junk inside your trunk?
I'ma get, get, get, get, you drunk,
Get you love drunk off my hump.

Sloggi International, makers of fine, fine underwear recently sponsored a "Most Beautiful Bottom in the World" or World Backside Championships competition. And yes, my writing and commenting on it is pandering to the masses.

Probably sexist too.

Hell, it isn't even a Russia or former Soviet Union topic.

But it's fun, so I'm rolling with it.

Approximately 15,000 people entered photos of themselves for the competition on Sloggi's website, which drew over five million people (aka perverts). 130,000 people registered to vote for their favorites. From that bottomless field, 42 finalists from 26 countries were selected for the final competition in Munich, Germany. It was a Bum-Off!

The winner's original entry is posted to the right. Clever how she works the laptop in there as a nod to the obsessive computer geeks who will be drooling over her image and click, click, clicking to vote for her. Marketing saavy, we call that.

The winners were 19-year old Kristina Dimitrova of Bulgaria and 24-year old Andrei Andrei of Romania. They each recieve a 10,000 euro 1st prize, a modeling contract with Sloggi, and insurance for their prized possession.
Katja and I evaluated the finalists photos last night. We're wishing she had entered (as a Russian, of course). We think she could have took her. Dimitrova would be going down, y'all!

No, I'm not going to submit photographic evidence to support my claim. I'll just say - men follow her around in the supermarket, and leave it at that.

For the record, neither of us were that impressed with Andrei Andrei. Not that I was checking him out (ahem).

Reuters Video of the Event.

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Thursday, November 01, 2007

Putin Grows a Heart?

Well, in Whoville they say that the Grinch's small heart grew three sizes that day.

Earlier this week, Vladimir Putin did something even more unexpected than kissing a boy on the belly. Even more daring than fishing without a shirt. Even more sensitive than remarks about the Israeli President.

He honored those murdered during Stalin's purges.

Reuters has the story of his appearance and comments at Butovo, a facility near Moscow where tens of thousands were murdered under Stalin's Operational Order No. 00447.
The victims included priests and royalists but also huge numbers of people who were simply caught up in an indiscriminate spiral of killing. This year Russia marks the 70th anniversary of the bloodiest period of the purges.

Putin attended a memorial service with Patriarch Alexiy II, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, after passing a field criss-crossed with mass graves.

"We know very well that 1937 was the peak of the purges but this year was well prepared by years of cruelty," Putin said beside a mass grave after laying flowers at a memorial.

Putin said such tragedies "happen when ostensibly attractive but empty ideas are put above fundamental values, values of human life, of rights and freedom."

"Hundreds of thousands, millions of people were killed and sent to camps, shot and tortured," he said. "These were people with their own ideas which they were unafraid of speaking out about. They were the cream of the nation."

In an appeal for national unity, Putin said: "To develop the country and choose the right path, we need political debates and even battles but to make this process creative they should not be conducted outside the cultural framework," Putin said
When I read such quotes, I can't help but wonder - does Putin see those who speak out in opposition of his own government and corruption of police and public officials, as the "cream of the nation"?

Would he say that Kirill Formanchuk is the "cream of the nation"?

Would he say that Anna Politkovskaya is a member of this "cream of the nation?"

And what exactly is meant by - to make this process creative they should not be conducted outside the cultural framework? Who defines the cultural framework - the government, or the people of the nation? Is Putin suggesting that if Russians culturally prefer to discuss politics around the kitchen table, that is where such discussions should remain?

Of course, nothing is happening now in Russia on the scale of the murders under Stalin. But, when it suits the government or public officials, citizens are still oppressed, beaten, or even murdered when they speak in opposition. The devices of suppression are still the same, even if they are not resulting in the murder of tens of millions. Perhaps this is the cultural framework he references. Speak out in Russia if you wish, but be prepared to have your ass kicked if someone doesn't like what you have to say.

And despite his successes for Russia, I don't see Putin or his government doing a damn thing to change that.

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Saturday, October 20, 2007


I haven't been wimping out on writing - just caught a nasty case of pneumonia while on my Texas trip. Sleep and antibiotics are all I have time for right now.

Hope to be making a recovery in the next few days.

PS ~ You would be right to wonder if my pneumonia was a result of crazed drunken debauchery while in Texas for the Patriots vs. Cowboys football game. After all, you get four Shedd men together in one place and all sorts of wild things might happen.

Alas, no. I, as well as my brothers, were well behaved throughout the weekend. We had a few beers and likely ate too much, but generally behaved in a civilized fashion. So I can't blame my pneumonia on a weakened immune system due to drunken binge drinking.

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

Hey, Where You Been?

Seems I was quiet the last two plus weeks - just goes to show that time flies when you're having fun.

Work and home have been hectic recently and I've not had much of a chance to post on the blog. Never fear, I'll soon be back in the swing of things.

We drove Sergei and Natalia to JFK airport on Saturday October 6th for their return flight home. Their month long vacation went rather well, they seemed impressed with our region of the United States. Without a doubt, we gave them the full cultural program (although, sadly we were unable to attend a Boston Red Sox game and had to settle for televised version). There will be more postings on that topic. At least, I hope there will be. Надежда умирает последней. I know that Odnoetazhnaya Amerika has been silent since the first posting. That was largely a result of us doing so many things, Natalia's nervousness about writing, and sorting through what pictures and events were worth discussing. We've been discussing Katja taking over that blog, allowing her to talk about her parents trips and life in general in the U.S. from a Russian perspective. I may also provide some commentary, but I'm hoping to mostly leave it in their hands.

I'll say this - a big part of their trip was spent on shopping. Yes, my Capitalist Pig Bretheren, we have excellent shopping in the United States. Prices, selection, and quality were impressive and Sergei and Natalia deliberately arrived with empty suitcases. Well, at least they were empty after they distributed their gifts. Thank you again for the bottles of vodka (milk-filtered) and the stainless steel shashlyk skewer set. They returned home with two full suitcases and a very large duffle bag stuffed to the maximum. Items purchased varied widely from wet suits, jeans, purses, target air pistols, coats, and cooking gadgets. Everything purchased with $100 bills, of course.

This weekend I am flying to Dallas, Texas for the Patriots vs. Cowboys game. If it isn't clear, I'm cheering for the Patriots. It will be the first time in 15 years that all three of my brothers and I will be together in one place. (Yep, 4 sons. No daughters. I'll offer your condolences to my mother.) It took a football game to make this happen. We're hoping next year we might be able to do the same in Foxboro, Massachusetts. Time will tell.

I'll provide some more posts tonight and tomorrow morning before I leave. I'm bringing along my laptop and if I can get a decent internet connection I'll do some posting on the road as well. I depart on Friday and return on Monday, so likely I'll have some free time at the airport on both days.

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Monday, September 24, 2007

The Puff Pastry Opposition

David Remnick of The New Yorker has a god-awful lengthy 12-page article on Garry Kasparov titled "The Tsar's Opponent". Apparently it isn't cool to compare Putin to Stalin anymore - he's a Tsar. I've seen a steady increase in these references in the past month or so.

Anyway, the article is pretty much standard issue diatribe against Putin, with plenty of no-brainer references to the K.G.B/F.S.B., siloviki, oligarchs, and perceived thievery by the government. How strange is it for American capitalists to now be accusing the Russian government of exploitation and thievery of profits? There are also references to how, due to the chaos of the 90's, the word demokratia is now dermokratia or “shit-ocracy.”

It bothers me with all the substantive criticism that could be aimed at Putin and his government, the best most Western news columnists can come up with is the lame K.G.B./spy angle and equating him to a dictator. I suppose it won't be anytime soon that Western writers will begin to simple take a measure of the man as a politician and count his successes and failures.

This article, thankfully, doesn't make a realistic case for Kasparov's chances. Not so thankfully, they attribute this to the Kremlin control of the news media and squashing of all opposition. Obligatory references to Kasparov as being half Armenian and half Jewish not exactly an ideal ethnic mix for a politician in a country with deep currents of anti-Caucasian and anti-Semitic feeling.Kasparov is made out to be some sort of idealistic hero or perhaps a Don Quixote figure, who just happens to be 44 years old and living with his mom. Imagine how that would play for a presidential candidate in the U.S.

He also doesn't demonstrate a single political idea in this article. He's just presented in some vague way as being pro-democracy.

The part of the article I found most truthful was the conclusion, where Remnick decides to talk with - you know, an actual Russian with no political agenda. Someone who might vote. Someone who isn't involved with Russian politics and either an opponent of Putin or friend of Kasparov. What an interesting article this could have been if Remnick had chosen to do that all along.

From Alexander Pachulia, deputy director of the October Chess Club Moscow:

"Usually, chess people are not very attached to their regular careers. They are almost uninterested in anything other than chess. If we didn’t close up at ten, people would play until ten in the morning and die of hunger right in their chair."

Like several other denizens of the club, Pachulia acknowledged Kasparov’s genius as a player but was cool to him as a person and as a politician. "I rooted for Kasparov against Karpov in the eighties because of Kasparov’s anti-Communism and Karpov stood for Soviet power," Pachulia went on. "But now we live in a different world. We need to be more assertive in the world. If NATO includes Ukraine and Georgia and other states on our border developing so-called democracy, that tells us that you" — the United States — "are putting arms on our borders. Democracy! Nonsense!"

Pachulia, like the majority of Russians, would prefer to see Putin remain President for at least another four years. To elect anyone else, he said, even one of Putin’s handpicked protégés, would be a risk that the country could ill afford. "Russia is gigantic and needs a strong hand," he said. Kasparov’s politics and language were too foreign, and it made the players at the club dubious not only about his capacities as a politician but even about his loyalty to the Russian state. "The West needs someone to run Russia for them, someone to order around as their instrument, and they want to do that with Garry Kasparov," Pachulia said. "The West is worried about the strength of Vladimir Putin."

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Italian

The Italian (Итальянец) by director Andrei Kravchuk (Андрей Кравчук) is one of the best and most overlooked Russian films of recent years. Overshadowed by other Russian films of 2005, such as the heavily advertised 9th Company (9 РОТА), this modest movie accomplishes great things through its understated drama, unexpected turns, and sincerity. The film is cited as having been insprired by true events, and Kravchuk takes these factual details and spins a modern-day Dickensian tale. Combined with a brilliant performance by young Kolya Spiridonov (Коля Спиридонов) as Vanya Solntsev, he's crafted a real gem of a film.

The official website describes the movie as follows:
A childless, affluent couple from Italy comes to a provincial Russian children’s home to find a child for adoption. The orphanage is a harsh place, run by two rival internal factions. Alongside the official, adult administration, Alongside the official, adult administration, run by a corrupt headmaster (played by Yuri Itskov) with the help of greedy adoption broker Madam (Maria Kuznetsova), there is a shadow children’s gang operating out of the institution’s boiler room.

When the Italian couple singles out six-year-old ragamuffin Vanya Solntsev (Kolya Spiridonov) as their prospective choice, the other orphans give Vanya a new nickname: The Italian. They envy Vanya, imagining that he is destined for a life of ease in sunny Italy. But seeing that the older children must resort to stealing or prostitution in order to survive, plucky little Vanya has other plans. He decides to track down his birth mother, teaching himself to read in order to learn her address from his personal file locked in the home’s office. After stealing his records, Vanya sneaks out of the orphanage and boards a commuter train headed for the city, with the orphanage staff and police in close pursuit. Fearing that Vanya will make them lose a very lucrative adoption deal, the orphanage headmaster joins forces with Madam to find the runaway child by any means necessary.
Untold is this synopsis is what I consider one of the films most important moments - why young Vanya decides to find his mother. Perhaps it is every orphans secret hope, that they may be returned to their family, as if their time in an orphanage were all just a bad dream. What raises this possibility in Vanya's mind is the return of the mother of one of the most recently adopted orphans.

After the young woman is pushed out the door of the orphanage, Vanya walks over to talk with her on a bench while she waits for a bus. She is crying and has questions about her son, the baby she gave up some years before. She says that she knows now that he is all that she had in this life and she never should have given him up, that she made a terrible mistake.

The next day we learn that she was hit by a train, an apparent suicide. This idea, that Vanya's mother made a mistake, and that she actually might need him changes his course and sets him on determined journey to find her. Along his journey, he faces many obstacles and unexpected help from those who recognize his dream can not be dismissed.

In a sense, The Italian is a patriotic film. It doesn't depict life in Russia as being easy. In fact, it is dirty, cold, and cruel and the orphans grow up at a remarkably young age. However, it suggests that Russians should take care of their own and that no one can love you more than your own flesh and blood.

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

Suzy Sells Spaceships by the Seashore

Suzy's Russian Space Blog has posted an entry on the Russian Space Program's Mars-500 simulation. The simulation is designed to test problems and long-term crowded space/deprivation conditions for a period of over 500 days, such as what would be undertaken by cosmonauts on a real Mars Mission. Spiegel likens it to a "Big Brother" experiment.

Today the North Pole! Tomorrow, Mars!

Suzy provides all the interesting details in a fashion that I simply couldn't, including the involvement of Russian cosmonaut Sergei Ryazanskii, who is divorced as a result of the experiment. I get the impression he's a well-known Russki hunk from Suzy's reaction.

The most interesting Russian-touch to the living environment is the wooden paneled living quarters, to provide a homey-feel. Rather like living in a banya, without the steam. Suzy is quick to point out wood would not be viable in a space capsule due to fire in the high oxygen environment.

Actually, they have Supercritical Wet Oxidation, so maybe steam is a possibility after all ....
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Tasty Mango

If you're interested in learning Russian or some other language, Mango might be worth a try.

Advantages? It's free.

And it's also free.

Mango is in beta version currently and the sign-up is very easy. There are 100 Russian lessons with literally thousands of slides and sound files.

Languages include Mandarin Chinese, Greek, and even Pig Latin. Troductioninay otay Igpay Atinlay. See how it just rolls off the tongue?

Even the language-challenged should be able to master that.
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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

A Few Blogs of Interest

I've recently been expanding my blogroll, trying to include some not only russo-centric blogs but other topics and writing that I find interesting. I have a few moments this morning, so I've decided to provide some links to some of the most interesting.

First up is Trey Ratcliff's Stuck in Customs photography/travel blog. Most of Trey's images appear to be HDR, as well as (I presume) some other processes which provide a painting-like effect.

Trey is also the owner/founder of John Galt Games, a video gaming company. I'm not sure what Ayn Rand has to do with video games, but hey - that's his business.

Next up is Dr. R. J. Hillhouse's The Spy Who Billed Me blog (subtitled "Outsourcing the War on Terror"). From Dr. Hillhouse's glowing mini-autobiography:
The Wall Street Journal has called RJ Hillhouse's life "exotic" and The New York Times found her writing "equally daring." Hillhouse has run Cuban rum between East and West Berlin, smuggled jewels from the Soviet Union and slipped through some of the world’s tightest borders. From Uzbekistan to Romania, she's been followed, held at gunpoint and interrogated. Foreign governments, among others, have solicited her for recruitment as a spy. (They failed.) The St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote that “she's truly like James Bond and Indiana Jones all rolled into one."

A former professor and Fulbright fellow, Hillhouse is fluent in several languages. She studied in Central and Eastern Europe for over six years at various institutions including Moscow State University, Moscow Finance Institute, Humboldt University of Berlin, Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen (Germany) and Babes-Bolyai University (Cluj, Romania). She eared her undergraduate degree from Washington University in St. Louis and her MA in Russian and East European Studies as well as her Ph.D. in political science from the University of Michigan. She has published in major academic journals and has lectured at major institutions including Harvard, Stanford and the Smithsonian.

Her widely-acclaimed debut novel, Rift Zone, was selected as one of the best books of 2004 by the American Booksellers Association. Her next novel, Outsourced, is about the turf wars between the CIA and the Pentagon and the privatization of military and espionage. It will be published by Forge books in May 2007.
For Russian topics, we also have the rather intellectual (although apparently anonymous) Russian Film Blog. Along with that, I should point out the Russian Movie Database, which I list under Russian Items of Interest. It is simply an excellent resource for locating and purchasing Russian films.

Among personal blogs, I've included Swedish student/bombshell (her words) Josefina's A Russia of My Own blog ("Ambition mixed with vodka gets me up in the morning"). Josefina exhibits a stream-of-conciousness writing style in a fashion only a philology student could employ when discussing her exploits and worries while living and studying in Ekaterinburg .

Lastly, the very well-written and interesting Moscow Through Brown Eyes blog by Buster PH.D Candidate. Inciteful and political, while observing the Moscow scene, I find this blog a very worthwhile stop.

This reminds me - I am curious how others keep track of their favorite blogs online. I've been using some combination of My Yahoo and Technorati to stay on top of various blogs and feeds, with mixed results. If someone has a suggestion for a great RSS reader or other method to stay on top of topics from their favorite blogs, I'm all ears.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Thawing Mammoth Dung and Global Warming

Moscow Times has an article on Sergei Zimov of Russian Academy of Sciences' Northeast Science Station in Cherskii, Russia. His studies of the permafrost and climate change in Northeastern Russia for the past 30 years lead him to believe that warming Arctic temperatures are unlocking a Pandora's box of - ancient mammoth dung.
Sergei Zimov bends down, picks up a handful of mud and holds it up to his nose. It smells like a cow patty, but he knows better. "It smells like mammoth dung," he says.

For millennia, layers of animal waste and other organic matter left behind by the creatures that used to roam the Arctic tundra have been sealed inside the frozen permafrost. Now, climate change is thawing the permafrost and lifting this prehistoric ooze from suspended animation.

But Zimov, chief scientist at the Russian Academy of Sciences' North Eastern Scientific station ... believes that as this organic matter becomes exposed to the air, it will accelerate global warming faster than even some of the most pessimistic forecasts.

"This will lead to a type of global warming that will be impossible to stop," he said.

When the organic matter left behind by mammoths and other wildlife is exposed to the air by the thawing permafrost, his theory goes, microbes that have been dormant for thousands of years spring back into action. They emit carbon dioxide as a byproduct and -- even more damaging in terms of its impact on the climate -- methane gas.

"The deposits of organic matter in these soils are so gigantic that they dwarf global oil reserves," Zimov said. U.S. government statistics show mankind emits about 7 billion tons of carbon per year.

"Permafrost areas hold 500 billion tons of carbon, which can quickly turn into greenhouse gases," Zimov said. "If you don't stop emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere ... the Kyoto Protocol will seem like childish prattle."

"There's quite a bit of truth in it," said Julian Murton, member of the International Permafrost Association. "The methane and carbon dioxide levels will increase as a result of permafrost degradation."

A United Nations report in June said there was yet no sign of widespread melting of permafrost that could stoke global warming but noted the potential threat. "Permafrost stores a lot of carbon, with upper permafrost layers estimated to contain more organic carbon than is currently contained in the atmosphere," the report said. "Permafrost thawing results in the release of this carbon in the form of greenhouse gases, which will have a positive feedback effect to global warming."

... Places that five or 10 years ago were empty tundra are now dotted with lakes -- a result of thawing permafrost. These "thermokarst" lakes bubble with methane, over 20 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

The permafrost thaw affects those rare outposts where humans have settled. In Chersky, a town of 3,000 people, apartment blocks have cracks running through their walls as the earth beneath them subsides. Many have been demolished because they were no longer safe.

So few people live in or visit this wilderness that the changing landscape on its own is unlikely to worry people on the other side of the world. But Zimov warned that people everywhere should take notice, because within a few years, the effect of the permafrost melting in Siberia will have a direct impact on their lives.

"Siberia's landscape is changing," he said. "But in the end, local problems of the north will inevitably turn into the problems of Russia's south, the Amazon region or Holland."
Pretty much a doomsday scenario when you are talking about over 500 billion tons of manure (ok - organic detritus) defrosting. Actually a little bit of quick math indicates that the quantity of permafrost is likely even much greater than that, the 500 billion tons figure refers only to the carbon that could be potentially released to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

Of course, I am left wondering how it is that all this methane has not been in the atmosphere all along, from periods when Siberia was not under permafrost. What mechanisms absorb or reduce methane in nature? Because for a long, long time before man was around, untold billions of pounds of manure were ... deposited ... in nature.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

Lugovoi for President

In a further development of the Litvinenko murder and the farce that surrounds it, Andrei Lugovoi is running for parliament and possibly the Presidency of the Russian Federation.

Sure. Anyone who dresses so sharp should be president. And Alexander Pichushkin can be his Prime Minister. Vladimir Zhirinovsky for foreign minister, perhaps. He'd be a real hit around the world.

Of course, this is all about parliamentary politics and showmanship as Zhirinovsky and the LDPR are using Lugovoi in hopes of garnering enough votes to get above the 7% vote limit to be included as part of parliament. The same sorts of people that ask Lugovoi for an autograph might be persuaded to vote LDPR.

Then again, they likely already vote for crazy Zhirinovsky and his circle.

Update: Today, we have Lugovoi disavowing that he would like to be president, and citing Vladimir Volfovich Zhirinovsky as having all the credentials for the job.

Uh huh.

From Zhirinovsky's gaping hole, we also have the following:
Minutes later Zhirinovsky -- known for his flamboyant and sometimes violent rhetoric -- flew into a temper when a Western journalist mentioned the murder of Litvinenko.

"Britain, you keep the whole world soaked in blood, the whole world will hate you," yelled Zhirinovsky, who is also a deputy speaker of the Duma lower house of Russia's parliament.

Zhirinovsky said London could not prosecute Lugovoy because Britain itself was providing a safe haven for Kremlin opponents such as tycoon Boris Berezovsky. "You cover cheats, extremists and criminals," he said.

"You are all accomplices, all of you are similar bandits and criminals, your whole government, together with your Queen," he said, adding his party was "most loved by ordinary Russians" and would score a fifth of all seats in the next Duma.

He blamed Britain for backing Bolsheviks during the 1917 Russian revolution, financing Chechen rebels and opening the second front too late during World War Two.

"Half of your embassy should be thrown out of Moscow," he barked at the reporter representing a U.S. media outlet. "They are not diplomats, all of them are spies ... You in Britain are good-for-nothing, you only plundered Europe."

He said if parties like his win in the election, "new Russia will be alright, all will be calm and quiet."

"Britain will disappear under the water one day," he said. "And it will serve you right ... Even your sheep die every day and every hour due to your sickening British policies."

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