poemless. a slap in the face of public taste.

August 27, 2009


Filed under: Culture: Russia — poemless @ 4:59 PM
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Photo by Milena Botova/Sony Pictures Classics.

I finally got around to seeing Nikita Mikhalkov’s film, 12. Released in 2007, it only recently became available in the U.S. through Netflix. I’ve been climbing the walls in anticipation. 12 is Mikhalkov’s remake of the American play/film, Twelve Angry Men. Set in Russia, the jurors decide the fate of a Chechen boy accused of murder. It is VERY GOOD and you should see it. Go watch it and come back and finish reading this, ok?



For those of you who are neither film buffs nor interested in Russia (how do I know you? why are you here?), Nikita Mikhalkov is the director of the Oscar-winning 1994 film, Burnt by the Sun. If you haven’t seen Burnt by the Sun, I recommend it too. It’s stunningly beautiful, simultaneously sentimental yet critical about the Stalin era, a real gem of a film. You might remember that he carried his little daughter on his shoulders when he accepted the award. It was beyond adorable and we were all still feeling so good about ourselves after the recent collapse of the USSR. Those were the days… I suspect if it were released for the first time today, in the current political climate, it would have a radically different interpretation and reception than it received in 1994.

Mikhalkov gets a whole lot of heat. I’m not entirely convinced he doesn’t deserve some of it, given the amazing amount of hype he also drums up. Almost immediately after the success of Burnt By the Sun, it became fashionable to criticize his films for their sleek Hollywood aesthetics and patriotic agendas. The director himself has elicited charges of self-promotion, both in response to his films, which are vehicles for his own celebrity, and also for his role in the Russian film industry, which is a petri dish for egomania in its own right. It’s difficult to deny that he doesn’t mind being the center of attention, but it is more difficult to explain why he shouldn’t be. More recently his vocal support of one Vladimir V. Putin has garnered a lot of attention. It doesn’t bother me, but some people kinda consider him an ambitious sycophant. Some people lack the capacity for nuance, and possibly a heart. (more…)

August 24, 2009

Odds & Ends: Wild Kingdom Edition

Filed under: Odds & Ends — poemless @ 4:55 PM
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Contents: Putin’s zoophilia, Moscow’s hobo dogs, Nazi Pooh bears and Zombies. And other gems.

It’s quite difficult to write a proper Odds & Ends these days. Ames got himself into a mess of money trouble and had to flee Moscow, leaving me eXile-less. MosNews has been unable to report anything but “hosting suspended for non-payment” for weeks. Capitalism has not been kind to the news of the perverse. Russians need to learn from America how to continue doing things they really can’t afford to do. I get the suspicion that they are taking this market economy idea too literally. It’s kabuki, people. Have you turned on the news recently? There is no money left here. I read the FDIC is broke. You don’t see Americans up and leaving to look for work in Canada to pay off their mortgages, do you? No. They’re gonna sit in their big fat houses in front of their big fat tvs until someone comes to drag them out kicking and screaming. They’re hedging their bets, assuming the people who get paid to drag people out of their homes kicking and screaming are also recently laid off and sitting in their big fat houses in front of their big fat tvs until someone comes to drag them out. Anyway, power-mad Capitalism has shut down the interesting journamalism in Moscow. The only insanity I can report on is American public policy, and that’s not funny ha-ha insane, that’s Alzheimer’s insane. Horrific, sad, embarrassing, makes you just want it to be over with soon so they’re out of their misery insane. So I’m avoiding U.S. news like I used to avoid grandma’s phone calls. Vovka at least is still romping around without half his clothes, but I can’t report on that every week. Unless the other half are shed, I can’t justify this behavior as “news.” He does seem to be flying through the Handbook of Bizarre Antics for Elected Officials at lightning speed, so I do look forward to the day when he gets to this entry. I wonder if it will be in Berlusconi’s bed…

And yet, August is upon us. What a morose bloody month it’s been. Even Russia Today’s supermodelanchors can’t pretend to be quirky and oblivious this week. People think the Russian news is all shiny happy neo-Soviets propaganda all the time. It’s not. It’s the airshow was a big effing failure, the whole entire effing North Caucasus has gone South Central L.A. on militant Islam and a whole entire effing dam collapsed and killed so many people that even the Prime Minster refuses to be “It sunk” snarky about it. Outside of Russia, it is famine, natural disasters, economic crisis and, to top it all off, even Obama is unpopular. He’s so unpopular people are coming to town halls armed. That’s how terrible everything is. Things weren’t even this terrible at the height of the Bush regime. That is what the news tells me. And there’s a new holiday to celebrate the twin evils of Nazism and Stalinism. When I say “Merkel is not appeasing anyone. The President of Ukraine has a 4% approval rating. Things weren’t even that terrible at the height of the Bush regime,” the news tells me, “Molotov–Ribbentrop,” like some fucking parrot with a history degree. Not because they have any idea what the hell it means in today’s geo-political climate. But because it’s a big word and they want you to know they know it. This explains why each time I read “Molotov–Ribbentrop” in the news, I hear it being said by the voice of Ricky Gervais’ character on The Office. It also explains why there wasn’t such hoopla on the anniversary of the Munich agreement…

Ack. All too depressing! Let’s talk about something else! (more…)

August 18, 2009

dreaming, tripping and reading through the Caucasus.

Contents: Gory Gori, Грозный Grozny and the Ecstasy of War.

I haven’t slept well for the past few nights. Thunderstorms, fighter jets breaking the sound barrier, a fickle cat and the fate of the public option have kept me awake. I finally managed to fall into a proper sleep (I think leaving Chopin on repeat all night helped) and had a bizarre dream. I was on an Amtrak with my little brother, Dmitry Medvedev, Anne Nivat and some strangers. The scene had an ominous feel, like when those tv people who were Lost got on that plane to return to that Island. But instead of a mysterious island where nothing makes sense, we were going to S. Ossetia. I didn’t have my papers in order, but Medvedev laughed like Santa Claus and told me it didn’t matter. When we returned, I had no memory about the place, and no stamps in my passport. But I was told I had been there. Nivat showed me photos of our trip. And yet I remembered nothing. It was like my memory of it had been wiped perfectly clean. I felt like I had accidentally stumbled into a Michel Gondry film. With a soundtrack by Chopin.

I should not watch the news before bed. Or at least not France24. Or at least not this:

I. A Video.

A few reactions:

1. I expect a one-sided story from the American mass media. I don’t think I ever did recover from the US reporting of the war last year. I was mortified. Not by war. We’ve been at war every day for over half a decade. It’s just no longer practical to be outraged by the killing of innocent civilians. (I am, but I’m not a very practical person.) I was mortified by the narrative. And it’s a damn shame, because if the coverage had been a little more nuanced, I’d probably be a lot more mad at Russia, which was the point of that coverage, right? It still frustrates and baffles, but no longer shocks. Except when the French do it. I have higher standards for the French. On the other hand, they had the good excuse that the Russian/S. Ossetian forces wont allow them to cross into S. Ossetia to see what’s up over there. I remember that being an issue during the war too. Reporters being unable to verify that Georgia had bombed Tskhinvali because Russian troops weren’t allowing them down the road.

Nevertheless, isn’t it the job of a professional reporter to attempt to confirm hearsay? Or do we live in a world where what people believe is true is deemed more important than what is actually true? The people of Gori say they have heard that Russia is gearing up for another war. Georgian soldiers with their Russian Kalashnikovs are shown training. The cognitive dissonance is makin’ me crazy. And has anyone yet provided us with a semi-believable reason why Russia would want to launch all out war on Georgia proper? That would benefit them how, exactly? Now, how could getting people to believe it benefit Georgia? Precisely. Thank you for participating in today’s logic excessive. A pony for you all.

2. A free two-bedroom house with a flat screen tv for Georgian refugees of last year’s war. They complain it is mediocre. Just what kind of palaces were what inhabiting in South Ossetia? I know Americans facing foreclosure who would snap up one of those homes with a flat screen tv in a second. Maybe in return for our military industrial generosity, Georgia can give Americans some free houses too.

For those of you who protest, “But they are very very little houses, poemless!” there is a short story by Tolstoy I recommend.

3. The old farmer fellow, Vassily, in the hat, is just brilliant. The war last year destroyed his crop. He lost 2/3 of his harvest. He goes on about Ossetians shooting in the fields, making it difficult for him to work. He weeps like a child. But you don’t see him demanding compensation for his losses. His lament? “If only they Soviet Union had never ended!” There was peace then. And bonuses. “Now we have freedom. We are free, with empty pockets.” Now he is praying to God for help. Well, to God and the President, but if it is peace he is after, I think he might have more luck with God. And I say that as an atheist. A God-fearing Georgian whose farm was ripped up by Russian tanks longs for the good old days of the USSR. Put that in your ideological pipe and smoke it. (more…)

August 13, 2009

literary dish: Kurkov, Surkov and Booking through Thursday.

Filed under: Culture: Russia — poemless @ 4:55 PM
Tags: , , ,

Page Six, for bookworms and Russia watchers.

The Good Angel of Death.

Aleks at SRB has alerted me to the fact that Andrey Kurkov’s Dobryĭ angel smerti is FINALLY out in English translation. Emphasis on “English.” The Good angel of death appears to currently be available only in Great Britain, England, or the UK. However, my library in the States has it on order, so you may want to check your library in a month or so. If your library is the kind that normally carries such things. If it isn’t, it should be. There is a library board election in your future.

For those who have not yet been introduced to the fine, fine prose of Kurkov, well, that’s just terribly tragic. You should read the novella, Death and the penguin, about a simple fellow who writes obituaries and has a penguin. The plot involves the mafia and all types of dark, thrilling intrigues, but it’s really about the relationship between this oblivious man and his observant charge, Misha the penguin. Unbearably charming and existentialist. And well written. Do not read The President’s Last Love. It is ambitious. And long. And just doesn’t work. Though it does contain a brilliant scene in which President Putin holds an international summit in a swimming pool.

If you are wondering, I generally don’t read books in Russian unless I am paid to do so. And if you are still wondering, Kurkov is Ukrainian but he writes in Russian.

From the BBC:

The new book by the Ukrainian author of ‘Death and the Penguin’ is a psychedelic Slavic romp through the deserts of Kazakhstan in search of the Ukrainian national spirit. Andrey joins us from Kiev to talk about The Good Angel of Death.

Click to listen to an interview with Andrey Kurkov here. It’s a bit after 8:00.

Close to Zero.

Word on the street is that Vladislav Surkov (first deputy Chief of Staff to Medvedev) has written a novel. This is not so surprising, given his creative temperament. He went to drama school and has written lyrics for the goth band Agata Kristi. He is credited with penning the “Sovereign Democracy” doctrine, which is the Russian policy of not letting idiots in places like America tell them how to run their country. People say he created Russia’s “managed democracy” and presides over the Putin youth cult “Nashi.” In short, if there is some complaint being lodged against Russia by the American or British press, Surkov has been accused of being the evil mastermind behind whatever it is we’re all upset about. I might be one of the few people who really admire the man. Also, he is very attractive. Whether or not he in fact is the author of this new “gangsta fiction” monograph remains a mystery. (more…)

August 12, 2009

what not to read. what not to wear. vampires!

I previously posted a diatribe about my blog being a place dedicated to the free exchange of ideas and words and about world peace and political theory and blah, blah, blah… So, if you are here for that, great! Don’t go! However, that will not be on the menu tonight. This evening’s menu is dessert only.

What not to read.

From time to time, I am prone to be intensely shallow. Maybe I am afraid of becoming too librarian. Maybe it is an evolutionary adaptation to ensure that I can navigate mundane social situations. Maybe I am trying not to become what a friend called “a literary bore.” So I watch re-runs of old Sex and the City episodes, the ones with Baryshnikov. Or I check out a book entitled, He’s just not that into you. “Oh, girl, no you did not!” Oh, yes. I did. Don’t worry – I am the one who has to live with that on my permanent Chicago Public Library record for all the NSA to know. It stings. What was I thinking?! I was thinking, the books currently on my nightstand are The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus, Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War and Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago and maybe it’s time for something silly. I was thinking, I need something I can pretend to read while I get a tan. I was thinking, the reviews of the movie were kind of good, and I really like Drew Barrymore. I do just adore her. I was thinking, “it is by the writers of Sex and the City and whe-he-ell, if they are brilliant enough to write for Baryshnikov…” I thought. Ok – I wasn’t thinking. Which was part of the point. Sometimes I need to not be thinking. So I read things like Vogue, or He’s just not that into you.

People say such things are bad for your self esteem. Whenever women do shallow shit is bad for their self-esteem. Or a sign of bad self-esteem. Or something. I am not certain, but I don’t think men are given lectures on their self-esteem when they read Playboy or watch the game on tv. Can any of the men in the house tell me if anyone has ever warned them that they cannot possibly live up to the expectations placed upon them by professional sports celebrities or Maxim, so they should walk away and go cultivate their inner gods by doing arts and crafts or something? I like the expectations placed on me by Vogue. In fact, I look around and am hardly worried that people are placing too much import on their appearance. Would you like to know what is truly bad for my self esteem? Not terrible relationship books with hot pink dust jackets. When I read crap like this, I exhale a sigh or relief upon the realization that I am already *far* better off than most people. Or the people reading it. And the people who wrote it. If you can call it writing. The whole point of that horrid little book, if it had a point and can be called a book, was that women should stop wasting time on people who belittle them because, even if they end up alone forever, and they will, it will be good for their self-confidence to ignore idiots. It was supposed to be empowering. And it was. I finished it and thought, “I should stop wasting time on crap writers who belittle women because, even if I end up a literary bore forever, and I will, it will be good for my self-confidence to ignore these idiots.” So I guess it worked, in some perverse way.

No, what really makes me question my worth is … Žižek. I know he has some brilliant point, but can’t for the life of me figure out what it is, exactly. There are people out there who claim to understand him, and I believe them. I also know that some of my problem with Zizek is that I’m removed from academia where theory has a language all its own. But it makes me feel like an idiot. I am not used to reading things and not easily comprehending them. That’s meant to be one of the very few things I can be relied upon to do: be literate. If I can’t do that – I am fucked. So fucked is how I feel when I read Zizek. And yet I don’t see any interventions in the offing to wrench the horrible habit of reading pop-philosophy from my routine, in order that I should stop feeling bad about myself and fly off into the sunset like a happy butterfly finally free of her cocoon. Nope.

What not to wear.

What the hell was I talking about? Oh, yes, dessert. Mmmm… (more…)

August 7, 2009

i answer your questions. or, ladies and gentlemen, an act of shameless desperation.

Filed under: Culture: Russia,Meta — poemless @ 1:59 PM

Mr. Sublime Oblivion, a.k.a. Da Russophile, a.k.a. Anatoly has inquired to ask if adding my blog to his blogroll with make him as cool as Sean & I. (I deny being in Sean’s league of coolness.) The answer is a resounding “YES!” It will make you rock star cool if you add me to your blogroll. Maybe you cannot afford a pair of cowboy boots in this economy. Adding me to a blogroll is free! Also, if you take a look over to the right, you will see my blogroll. If you are on it, and do not add me to your blogroll, not only will you be destined for supreme uncoolness, you will make me a sad and bitter girl. And you don’t want me to be sad and bitter. Because I am also a writer. And sad and bitter writers tend to pose a danger to society and themselves. Or they become cult-like famous and draw readership away from more talented, emotionally stable writers, like yourselves. Or they are just profoundly annoying. Know what I mean?

Oh, and if you look and find you are not on my blogroll, let me know.

Also, while you are thinking about acknowledging me in your blogroll, you may also be wondering what else you can do to be cool. You can do what Lyndon at Scraps of Moscow did and refer to this blog in a post on your own. And we all know how cool Lyndon is!

If you have done all that and are still not content with your level of personal cool, … eh, you’re on your own after that. Sorry kids.

Spasibo bolshoe, y’all. (more…)

August 6, 2009

diary of a political ninja.

Contents: No, actually, this is what democracy looks like ; In which I chat with Putin’s media strategist after a game of Wii bowling ; The scale of cool ; Oops! Someone forgets their shirt again.

Act I. Managing Democracy.

I devoted my entire weekend to learning how to run a political campaign (political ninja school) and getting tipsy with the future leaders of America. I now have all the mad skillz to run a winning grassroots candidate in … uh, Oregon. Or somewhere else there is grass. Maybe. Chicago? No one has yet figured out how to run a winning grassroots candidate in an area where we don’t have things like multiple parties, meaningful general elections or finance laws. Or grass. For that I think I would need to attend a United Russia political ninja school. But I am glad I now know what I know, and I believe every American should know it too. Because there are still many otherwise intelligent folks out there who are under the impression that democracy is just a noble principle or ideology. Like honesty, generosity and responsibility. They tell you in Sunday school to be it, you are it, you go to heaven. Period. People don’t seem to realize that democracy is in fact a micro-managed process which may or may not be noble and, unfortunately, is possibly more effective the less noble it is. This is why Republicans win. This is also why people who have never seen a voter file, walked a precinct or quite conceivably have never even seen the inside of a polling place on election day will eagerly get on tv to tell you there is no democracy in Russia. I, however, hear stories of voter intimidation, ballot purges and dirty campaigns and eagerly tell you there is democracy in Russia. Because if there were not, they would not need to do this shit, people. It’s like physics: you can’t see the gravity, only the rotten apple that falls from the tree. If you are purging your challengers from the ballot, it means 1) there are citizens willing to challenge you, 2) there is a process by which they can attempt that and 3) there are people who will vote for them.

I was not taught how to axe people off ballots last weekend. Chicagoans already know how to do that. Just ask Barack. Still, I bet a United Russia or Nashi ninja school would have classes like, “Advanced ballot purging,” or “What to do when your opponent runs an organized crime syndicate,” which would be more applicable to my local situation. They also had a “love oasis” at the Nashi camp, which would have been useful last weekend. Ooof. There is nothing more depressing than a pack of politicos with no social lives at a bar on a Saturday night. “We’ve been talking politics all day. The only thing left to talk about is sex and religion.” And we’re not religious. So we behave like 14 yr. old boys. On booze.

Anyway. I bet UR trainings aren’t terribly different from ours. I bet we all use the same mind-numbing, numbers-crunching spreadsheets and math calculations, the only difference being that in the “vote goal” column, UR figures for 72% instead of 52%. Hard to argue with their “aim for the moon” mentality. US Democrats are taught to have low expectations for persuadable voters. Round down. Remember that these people voted for Bush. Knock another 401 registered voters off that column. It’s all about the numbers. I bet most campaigns are lost because of bad math. You know who is really good at math? [Insert dramatic pause…] The Russians! This is my new counter-argument for the racists who assert that Russia is “genetically predisposed” toward political dictatorship. It’s in their DNA, they say. Well you know what else appears to be in the their DNA? Serious math skills, that’s what. Between that and their “genetic predisposition” for being absolute propaganda fiends and their “inherited” willingness to subject themselves to just about anything, regardless how insane, Russia would seem to be “genetically predisposed” to be the model nation for democracy! Putin should technically never have to steal or fake an election with this repertoire. Assuming he is managing his campaigns the same way we manage ours…

And I do. Because both Russia and my little progressive grassroots organization hired the same political strategist. (more…)

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