Friday, 30 May 2014

Novy Arbat - back in the USSR

Given all the media talk of recreating the USSR, here is a picture of Kalinin Prospekt (now Novy Arbat) in downtown Moscow - with the building lights  displaying the letters CCCP(pronouced es es es er) - USSR. I love the layout of this street and the architecture, although some of the buildings are starting to look a bit shabby.  Here is a collection of photos of Novy Arbat:

Friday, 23 May 2014

25 Years Ago - Socialist Property Exappropriated

I'm not sure at what point I thought it would be a good idea to smuggle goods out of the Soviet Union, but my stomach told me exactly when I realised it was a really bad idea - at the point I handed over my luggage and went through security at Leningrad's Pulkovskaya airport.  Feeling sick to the pit of my stomach, I really wished that I hadn't attempted to smuggle a Soviet Army and Soviet Navy belt buckle inside a tea caddy - in a tea caddy not unlike the one I described in an earlier post:  

I had long wanted a Red Army belt buckle, and could have bought one from any one of the many black marketeers on the streets of Moscow and Leningrad on a number of occasions; but I had always passed up those opportunities on the basis that it was illegal to export them from the Soviet Union. I had also been told that the buckles were made from gun metal and would therefore set off the metal detectors at the airport - so you couldn't wear one as a belt and conceal the buckle with your jumper.   After buying some Russian tea which came in a metal tea caddy, I hit upon the idea of emptying the tea into a plastic bag and replacing the contents of the caddy with a belt buckle - brilliant!  I could now purchase my long coveted Red Army belt buckle; hell, why not go daft and get a Soviet Navy belt as well? 

So, with much trepidation I queued at the check-in knowing I had foolishly stashed not one but two belt buckles in an empty tin hidden in my suitcase.  It was not until the pilot announced we had left Soviet airspace did my arse stop twitching. Despite my relief the usual cheer which greeted such an announcement still pissed me off though.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Greatest catastrophe of 20th century

...was the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin said this once apparently. No he didn't you idiots (and I don't mean you, readers!). What he actually said was the collapse of the Soviet Union was the "greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century".  The omission of "geopolitcal" alters the meaning and context of what he said; in this context, the word "greatest" means "largest in geographic area".

It's a line frequently trotted out in the Western media and top US politicians, more so since the Ukraine crisis has unfolded. The Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk even uttered this tripe the other day.

We certainly seemed to have returned to a Cold War footing - especially on the propaganda front. Back in the eighties, I remember Mikhail Gorbachev making a speech about Afghanistan which was taken out of context and widely misquoted. He said something along the lines of "imperialism has turned Afghanistan into a bleeding wound"; he was laying the blame squarely at the door of the Americans and their support of the Mujhadeen in opposing the Soviet occupation. But this was shortened, taken out of context and presented as an admission that "Afghanistan has become a bleeding wound".  It was not what the Soviets wanted either the world or it's own people to believe was happening in Afghanistan, and it completely changed the meaning of what he had said.  Even so, this was seen as a frank admission that things were not quite as they seemed in Afghanistan or a tacit acknowledgement that the Soviet Union was mired in its own "Vietnam". After all, "glasnost" - openness  - was the policy of the day.

Similarly, Putin's statement is often misused. It's interpreted that he somehow bemoans the loss of the Soviet Empire, the loss of Russia's power & status in the world, and his current actions can be explained by his desire to restore Soviet borders for the Russian federation, or to recreate the Soviet Union, or even to return to communism. Of course, his KGB background is often mentioned when propagating this nonsense.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the separation of the territory of 15 Soviet republics into newly independent countries was accompanied by economic hardship, hyperinflation, collapse of social protection, rise in organised crime, unemployment, brain drain, and complete economic dislocation (the Soviet Union was a centrally planned economy with all sectors, infrastructure and transport links very much interconnected and interrelated. The Soviet Union's vast geographically distance economy was controlled, albeit imperfectly, by banks of supercomputers whirring away on Prospekt Marx in downtown Moscow - home to the state planning body Gosplan (the building now houses the State Duma a Russia's parliament).

The system wasn't working effectively in many areas, but the breakup of the Soviet Union destroyed the planning system and fractured industry and infrastructure - eg how do you run a railway if your trains have been commandeered by newly independent countries, who owns the tracks, who owns the trains, who marshals the train service?

The period was also accompanied by considerable political upheaval  as new institutions state power structures had to be developed very rapidly and often from scratch:  legislature, executive, parliament, political parties, legal framework, other levers of power and democratic institutions- simultaneously across the vast territory of the former USSR.  Yelstin's power struggle with the Russian parliament which ended with the army shelling the White House - the building housing the Russian Parliament - is a prime example of the consequences of the the political collapse: political stalemate resolved in violent and fatal fashion.  But in some former republics, the power struggles were more violent in character, with some verging on civil war.  Edvard Schevardnadze, first President of Georgia, felt the harsh reality of the geopolitical catastrophe, following the collapse of the USSR, when he was holed up in a bunker during a Georgia's civil war in the early nineties - As the former foreign secretary of the second most powerful country in the world and, at the time, President of Georgia,  he must have thought "where did it all go wrong?" as the shells rained down around him in that bunker.

I think that in Putin's view, the geopolitical catastrophe is a historical fact - it has occurred, it can't be undone.  It may be possible or expedient even to right some "historical wrongs", but I don't think there is any appetite, desire, motivation to restore the borders of the Soviet Union.  Politically, he has presented himself as the only alternative to the wild Nineties - an antidote to the Yeltsin era, and has been successful in restoring the prestige (domestically at least), stability and power of the Russian state.   The collapse of the USSR, influences his approach to building power structures in order to control the levers of the economy and the state; he has resurrected many Soviet symbols, including the Soviet National Anthem (same music - different words), but restoring the USSR is not on his radar.  For example, Belarus - the bankrupt, corrupt, dictatorship of the former Soviet republic Belorussia would love to join Russia; it has courted Russia for many years, and Putin/Russia  has consistently rejected their advances.  In the Baltic countries, Latvia and Lithuania in particular, the sizable Russian speaking population has been discriminated against, repressed, deprived of rights for 20 odd years without any attempt by the Russian state to annex part of that territory on the pretext of protecting the rights of ethnic Russians.

The thing is, US politicians should know all this.  Fiona Hill of the US Brookings Institution has often challenged this red herring in her books and lectures (Putin's view that the Soviet Union collapse was a tragedy).  Both Fiona and this respected institution have been advising the US Government at the highest levels for years on Russian affairs, so it is inconceivable that US politicians don't know that they are spouting disingenuous crap.

New Cold War May Emerge in Ukraine Crisis, Medvedev Says | Johnsons Russia List

New Cold War May Emerge in Ukraine Crisis, Medvedev Says | Johnsons Russia List

Russia is being pulled into a new Cold War with the U.S. and its allies, who are using economic warfare reminiscent of the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Hotel Moscow, Stolichnaya Vodka Label

Hotel Moscow - rebuilt version. 
Following my post last week about the redesign of the Stolichnaya Vodka label, I though I would post a few pictures of the Hotel Moscow.  As I mentioned, this hotel was demolished and rebuilt to the same design - a process which is common in Moscow as described in my post of  this post highlights the dubious practice of preserving the architectural heritage by creating facsimiles of original buildings (with lucrative contracts for demolition and reconstruction awarded in the process.

Hotel Moscow in January 1993.  
The Moscow hotel was built in the 1930s and is situated on Manezh Sqaure (its original name before being renamed in 1967 "50th Anniversary of the October Revolution" square.  60th Anniversary.  Stalin approved two separate designs  for the side blocks, the architects were not sure which design to use, so the hotel was constructed using both designs, thereby giving the hotel a clumsy, ill-proportioned facade.   As you can see in the above photograph from 1993, the square was not pedestrianised as it is now.  There was a vast expanse of tarmac in front of the hotel, which was flanked by two busy roads making it accessible only by a pedestrian tunnel.  In the 1990, the whole area was pedestrianised (except for the road in front of the Hotel National at the bottom of Tversakaya available for vehicles).  A large,multi-level underground shopping centre was created here with fountains, gardens restaurants and bars on the exterior - running the length of Alexander Gardens (Alexandrovsky Sad)

Manezh Square May2002. 

July 2003 - Before demolition commences. 

July 2003 - Before demolition commences. 

Taras Schevchenko - Ukrainian poet

Me and Taras Schevchenko
Born 9 Match 1814, Taras Schevchenko was a Ukrainian poet, writer, artist, public and political figure, as well as folklorist and ethnographer.

Shevchenko dreamed of a Ukraine that would be free of the stifling rule and censorship of the Russian Tsarist Imperial government. Some of Shevchenko's works were also censored by the Soviet Union. Shevchenko was not only a national poet of Ukraine he was also a universal poet. He defended the rights of all peoples to freedom, of human dignity, of women, of Jews, and stressed the importance of education, tradition and heritage. In addition, the renaissance of the Ukrainian language since 1991 is a tribute to Shevchenko's role as the founder of the modern literary Ukrainian language.

Here is his statue which stands in front of the Ukraine Hotel in Moscow.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Stolichnaya Vodka Label redesigned

I spotted a bottle of Stolichnaya in my local supermarket and I noticed that the label has been redesigned. The building  depicted on the bottle is The hotel Moscow in Moscow, on Manezh Square just off Red Square. Now I know the original Hotel Moscow at this location has been demolished and a replica built in its place, but I'm pretty sure they used the exact same design and dimensions - they didn't make it narrower.   The image on the "Stoli" label looks nothing like the Hotel Moscow now - it looks more like the Vermont hotel in Newcastle. 

Stoli?! I hate Stolichanaya being called Stoli! although, I do admit that find it marginally more acceptable than an incorrect pronunciation of Stolichnaya where the stress is placed on the second last syllable - stolichn-EYE-ya. The correct pronunciation is with the stress on the "i" as in stalEECHnaya (forgive my ignorance of pronunciation notation). But I am willing to let that that go as well. I do, however, become apoplectic with rage when someone, say a bartender, corrects MY pronunciation. LISTEN - IT'S stalEECHnaya, a feminine adjective from stalEETsa (stolitsa) the Russian feminine noun for "capital"!