Thursday, November 29, 2007

Apology

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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