The Strangest Stamp You’re Likely To See For a While, Maybe Ever

Because I was so busy today, I naturally took time out to watch a couple of episodes of Vintage Space, a series I happened across a few months ago. It’s always interesting. One installment I watched today, “Only Three People Have Died in Space,” was about the ill-fated Soyuz 11 mission.

The three would be the unfortunate Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev, who died in space when their capsule depressurized suddenly just before re-entry. The spacecraft’s automated system then returned the dead crew to Earth.

I remember hearing about that. I was paying close attention to space news by 1971, even though I was 10. As usual with Soviet missions, and especially ones that didn’t go well, the information was a little vague at the time. I’ve read about it since, but it was good to hear host Amy Shira Teitel offer more detail about the accident.

Interesting to realize that for someone her age, just over 30, all of the early programs are purely history, without a memory component. I’m really glad I remember Apollo.

Toward the end of the segment, she discusses a set of stamps issued soon after the mission by Equatorial Guinea — certainly printed elsewhere for that nation — honoring Soyuz 11. That’s where things got strange.

One of the stamps, as seen above, gruesomely depicts the dead crew. “It is one of the strangest depictions of fallen heroes on a stamp that I have ever seen,” Teitel says. I’ll go further: it’s one of the strangest stamps I’ve ever seen.

Mid-January Debris

Never mind what the Rossetti poem says, the bleak midwinter is about now, in mid-January, which is bleak, and which is smack in the middle of meteorological winter.

Dogs don’t mind, though. They’re already wearing coats.

One more pic from Mexico, a statue on Paseo de la Reforma.

“El Angel de la Seguridad Social,” a bronze by Jorge Marin, erected in 2013.

As gob.mx says, “Como parte de las actividades conmemorativas por el 70 Aniversario de la fundación del Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social (IMSS),” the Mexican Social Security Institute. That’s the branch of the Mexican government in charge of public pensions and public health, established in 1943.

My brother Jay got me a Suprematist tea cup and saucer for Christmas.

On the bottom, something unusual: Imperial Porcelain – 1744 – St. Petersburg – Made in Russia. I’d probably have to look high and low around my house to find anything else made in Russia, and even then there might not be anything else.

Frida, No. Leon, Si.

“This is for the birds,” I said.

There was context for it, but first the setting: we were on the sidewalk on Calle Londres in the Coyoacan neighborhood of Mexico City early in the afternoon of December 29, just outside the Museo Frida Kahlo.

Curiously, besides a street named after London in the area, there were also calles Bruselas, Madrid, Viena, Berlin, and Paris: European capitals. Unlike the part of the Zona Rosa where our hotel was, which had streets named after European cities, capitals and non-capitals: Londres and Berlin (again), but also Roma, Liverpool, Marsella, Hamburgo, Napoles, Oslo.

Coyoacan is a pleasant walking neighborhood, sporting mature trees, sidewalks in reasonably good shape — with not as much pedestrian traffic as in other parts of town we frequented — and large, colorful houses. After a while you do notice that some of the larger houses are essentially walled compounds with iron-bar accents and hard-to-see entrances. Ah well, así es la vida in the big city, if you’re well-to-do.

The most famous compound is the Casa Azul at Londres 247, and blue it is. A deep blue. Like a lot of people, we wanted to visit Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s house. A whole lot of other people, as it turned out. After we got there, we waited a few minutes in one line, only to discover that was the line for people who already had tickets. So we then joined the equally long line to buy tickets.

We’d been advised to buy tickets ahead of time. We ignored that advice. After a few minutes standing in the non-moving ticket-buying line, and with the knowledge that we’d have to stand in another such line eventually, I said waiting was for the birds. Everyone else agreed. No go on Museo Frida Kahlo.

I’m sure the Casa Azul is an excellent museum, but I suspect the real reason for the overcrowding is the movie Frida, which came out in 2002. Her artistic reputation had already been rising, such that Diego Rivera is now her husband, rather than Frida Kahlo being his wife, but I believe the movie kicked it into high gear, the way Nashville has overcrowded the Bluebird Cafe.

Luckily, we had another nearby destination in mind anyway: the Casa de Leon Trotsky. Who could resist that? Not only were Frida and Diego part of the story, it’s got international intrigue, murderous foreign operatives, adultery, a gun battle led by another famous artist, genuine communists and communist plots, and — the crowning event, you might say, an axe murder!

Clearly, Trotsky needs the Hollywood treatment (besides this) if the museum wants to get people in the door, you know, the sort of people who never really heard of that guy Trotsky until they saw that movie about him. Then again, crowds would have drained the fun out of the experience. The Trotsky House wasn’t deserted by any means. A fair number of people were there. But we didn’t have to wait for tickets and crowds didn’t get in the way of free movement around the place, with one exception.

Casa de Leon Trotsky, I’m delighted to report, is quite red on the outside. The present-day complex includes what must have been the building next door at one time, which you enter through and which now has exhibits devoted to the Bolshevik leader. From there, visitors go to a small but very pleasant courtyard with an assortment of plants, walking paths and a few benches.

I don’t know how well tended the garden was in Trotsky’s time, though he did raise chickens and rabbits there. But I do know there was one feature Trotsky never saw himself.
Namely, Trotsky’s grave, where his and Natalia Sedova’s ashes are interred (she died in 1962). Naturally, I couldn’t resist the joke: it’s commie plot. I think I heard that one as long ago as high school, only it was about Stalin’s grave (Lenin and Mao and Ho, strictly speaking, have no graves).

Behind the grave site is the house itself and an attached guard house, for all the good it did Trotsky. The first floor of the guard house has a few more exhibits, including photos of Trotsky at various ages and other family members, as well as a family tree. For all of Stalin’s efforts to murder Trotsky’s offspring too, the revolutionary has quite a few living descendants, including in Mexico, the United States and Russia.

The axe wasn’t on display anywhere. That’s because it isn’t even in Mexico.

The house is fairly modest and solidly built, with thick walls and bullet holes on the outside of one of the walls, purportedly left by the unsuccessful May 1940 attempt on Trotsky’s life led by David Alfaro Siqueiros. We saw some of Siqueiros’ murals later, as one does in Mexico City. That Stalinist episode of attempted murder hasn’t seemed to have harmed his reputation as an artist.

Trotsky had reason to be security-conscious, and the compound reflects it. Besides the guardhouse, which includes a guard tower, the entire residence is surrounded by thick walls. Its doors are heavy and, at least going into Trotsky’s study, re-enforced with iron. I didn’t see any steel window shutters or barbed wire, but I read these were part of the security too. None of that stopped a determined NKVD agent with an ice axe.

The study itself is supposedly the way Trotsky left it: a large desk, a lamp, chairs, papers and books, a Dictaphone, a small bed on which to rest (see the picture here). The floor, I noticed, is painted red. It was here that moving around was a little constrained, since you can only stand in a small part of the room, like in most house museums, and visitors want to see the study most of all. I know I did.

The current setup at Trotsky’s House includes a small cafe next to the guardhouse. We had a light lunch al fresco there, cheese crepes for me, and some of the best orange juice I’ve had in a long time. All in all, a bourgeois sort of meal. I expect the waiter was paid for his efforts and presumably the museum made a modest amount, which it probably needs to keep the lights on.

The museum also features a small gift shop at the entrance, heavy on socialist books and portraits of Trotsky for sale and light on tourist gimcracks, though I bought some postcards there. I doubt that the organization is using any of its budget to foment worldwide socialist revolution.

Adios, November

Three yawning months of meteorological winter ahead. That’s what counts for winter: December, January and February. Never mind what anyone says about the solstice. But at least no heavy snow or ice is forecast for now.

Back again to posting around December 10.

What did we do to deserve this sunset? A late November event, as seen from our deck.
On Thanksgiving, the girls and I watched Airplane! on demand. What is it about that movie and its rapid-fire, throw the jokes against the wall to see if they’re funny structure? I’ve watched it a number of times since I saw it when it was new, and it’s funny every time.

Unlike another movie I paid good money to see in 1980: The Hollywood Knights. That was a mistake. So much so that sometime afterward I invented my own personal scale of movie quality: The Hollywood Knights Scale, from zero to some unspecified large number, zero being the worst.

The Hollywood Knights comes in at exactly 0 on my idiosyncratic scale. I’ve seen some bad movies in my time, but that ranking is still valid as far as I’m concerned (though I’d have to put, say, Patch Adams at 0.1).

Not familiar with The Hollywood Knights? Wiki gives a pretty good summation: “The ensuing antics include, among other things, a sexual encounter involving premature ejaculation, a punch bowl being spiked with urine, an initiation ceremony involving four pledges who are left in Watts wearing nothing but the car tires they are left to carry, a cheerleader who forgets to put on her underwear before performing at a pep rally, several impromptu drag races, and the lead character of Newbaum Turk (Robert Wuhl) wearing a majordomo outfit and singing a version of ‘Volare’ accompanied by the sounds of flatulence. Mooning also plays a prominent role in the film…”

None of those things necessarily make the movie unfunny. After all, Airplane! includes jokes about drug abuse, pederasty, oral sex, a sick child, and African-American dialect. There are ridiculous visual gags, such as Ted Striker’s drinking problem or pouring lights on the runway. Punning is rampant (don’t call me Shirley). Yet it all works as a comedy. The writing, directing, acting, timing and entire conceit as a spoof of more serious movies are vastly better than anything The Hollywood Knights did.

Speaking of odd things in movies, this is a still from Animal Crackers.

That’s supposed to be part of an outdoor patio of a lavish home on Long Island. The characters, who are not really that important in the scheme of the comedy, are the wealthy homeowner’s daughter and her honest but poor boyfriend. What caught my eye was that structure behind them.

According to the imdb, the uncredited art director for the firm was the German-born Ernst Fegté, who was working in Hollywood by 1925, and who had a busy career. Now what, I can imagine him thinking, would a wealthy Long Island socialite want for her patio? Something — modern.

The movie was made in 1930. Here’s something else from exactly then, a cover of Radio Listener magazine that I saw at the early Soviet art exhibit at the Art Institute last weekend.

It’s a Peakaboo Stalin. Lenin figured in a fair number of the works, but Stalin was only an up-and-coming character during most of the period. A little like Fonzie, though — pretty soon he’s going to take over the show.

One more thing, and naught to do with movies or the Soviet Union. I took Lilly back to UIUC on Sunday, and en route arranged to take a picture of this roadside attraction in Kankakee. Almost literally roadside, since it’s best seen from I-57.
“28 feet tall, Abe stands in front of a heavy equipment rental lot, and holds signs that promote whatever its owner feels strongly about at the moment,” says Roadside America.

I’ve seen him with a sign, but for the moment he holds none. Just as well, I figure. A sign in Honest Abe’s hands is gilding the lily.

Revoliutsiia! Demonstratsiia! Soviet Art Put to the Test

After lunch at Shake Shack on Michigan Ave. on Saturday — crowded, but not impossible — we wandered over to the Art Institute. Been a while since we’d been there. I was particularly keen to see Revoliutsiia! Demonstratsiia! Soviet Art Put to the Test.

Mounted, I’m sure, to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the revolution. Just inside the entrance to the exhibit was the “Lenin Wall.” Lots of Lenin, including a small statue.

Besides that, the exhibit featured paintings, posters, prints, drawings, photos, magazines, film, agitprop ephemera, porcelain, figurines, life-size reconstructions of early Soviet display objects or spaces commissioned especially for the exhibition, and more.

I was glad to see the Suprematist porcelain collection (I. I. Rozhdestvenskaia).
That’s because I used to have a Suprematist-style cup and saucer. Actually, I still have the saucer, but the cup broke long ago.

Remarkably, there was such a thing as Soviet advertising. Or an equivalent. At least early on (1923).
That’s a preliminary design for a Mosselprom building advertisement for cooking oil by Aleksandr Rodchenko, the Constructivist.

The cover of Produce! magazine (Mechislav Dobrokovskii, Sept. 1929).
And the cover of a magazine called Atheist at the Workbench, Jan. 1923 (Dmitrii Moor).
The theme of that cover is “We got rid of the tsars on Earth, let’s deal with the ones in Heaven.”

This is a model of the never-finished Palace of the Soviets in Moscow, whose partly completed structure was cannibalized for raw materials to fight the Nazis. That’s Lenin on top.
Here’s one of a series of 36 small posters extolling gender equality and increased industrial production (1931). All of them pictured women doing one kind of socialist labor or another, and graphs whose trends were always upward.
If there had been a collection of postcards in the gift shop based on these posters, at a reasonable price, I would have bought it. Or a Suprematist tea cup. But no.

St. Andrew Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral & The Holodomor Memorial

Last week I was near St. Andrew Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral (of the of the Kyiv Patriarchate in the USA and Canada) in Bloomingdale, Ill., so I stopped by for a look. It wasn’t part of Open House Chicago, but I’d read about the place a while back and realized it’s fairly close to where I live.

St. Andrew Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral Being the middle of the week, the church itself was closed, as suburban churches often are. Still, a committee of holy men greets you above the door. At least, that’s what it looks like to me.
St. Andrew Ukrainian Orthodox CathedralIt reminded me a little of the artwork depicting Vladimir’s baptism of the Kievan Rus over the entrance of Sts. Volodymyr and Olha Ukrainian Catholic Church in Chicago, which we saw a few years ago.

 Sts. Volodymyr and Olha Ukrainian Catholic ChurchBut only a little. It doesn’t much look like any baptism is going on at St. Andrew, so I assume it depicts something else.

More than the church, I came to see the memorial to the victims of the 1932-33 Ukrainian famine, which is on the church’s grounds, near its cemetery. The Holodomor, as it’s called, when Stalin starved untold millions of people to death.

Holodomor Memorial IllinoisHolodomor Memorial IllinoisThe plaque’s a little worn — it’s been out in the elements since the memorial was erected in 1993 — but it says, in English: In memory of over seven million victims of the great famine artificially created in Ukraine by the Moscow-Communist regime.

Holodomor Memorial Illinois

Much too somber a note on which to end, so I looked around for some comic relief about Stalin, and found this, attributed to Romanian writer Panait Istrati, who visited the Soviet Union in the late 1920s, just as Stalin had consolidated his dictatorship: “All right, I can see the broken eggs. Now where’s this omelette of yours?”

Kyoeido Import Store, 1992

It occurs to me that if I lived in Japan now as a fairly youthful expat, instead of 25 years ago, I probably could order anything I wanted on Amazon or Alibaba, maybe, though I don’t know how much purchase the latter site has in Japan. It would be expensive, of course, but what isn’t in Japan?

Those online retailers might be one of the marvels of the age, but essential to the experience of being an expatiate is going out and finding things you need or want, by design or chance, using scraps of information from native and non-native sources (gaijin lore, I used to call the latter). Or so I believe. Amazon and Alibaba aside, the hunt for consumer goods among non-Japanese in Japan must also be facilitated by smartphones these days. It must be a wholly different experience, and I’m not persuaded it’s a better one.

I thought of all this looking at bits of letters I wrote in early 1992.

Feb. 1
I went to Kyoeido import store yesterday, a place I discovered by chance about a year ago. It’s a wonderful place. You never know what they’re going to have. Yesterday I notice a bottle of Egri Bikavér in a bin of ¥1000 wines. Good value, that.

[To save a trip to the wine-speak in Wiki: Egri Bikavér, in English Bull’s Blood, “is a red blend produced in Eger. It is the true essence of the red wines of Eger, a terroir wine, which carries the flavour of the soils of local production sites, the mezzo-climate unique to the region and the traditions and mores of local residents, from the selection of varieties to choosing the period and method of grape processing and mellowing.”

I discovered the wine when I lived in Nashville. I probably bought it for the first time because of the novelty of a vintage from still-behind-the-Iron-Curtain Hungary.]

I asked the shopkeeper if he always had Bull’s Blood on hand. Actually I said, “Here, in this place, this thing is always here?” in my rudimentary Japanese. I didn’t fully understand the answer, but caught enough to know that wine imports from Hungary are an iffy proposition. He showed me a second bottle that I hadn’t seen, and I bought that too.

Feb. 20
Like a fool, I went to Kyoeido today. I always drop more money there than I intend. I saw a big stack of big jam jars, maybe containing half a kilo each. On closer inspection, the jam turned out to be from Russia, though labeled from the CIS. (That still sounds like a microchip manufacturer.)

The jam sure was cheap. I had to wonder what was wrong with it. In the end, I bought a slightly more expensive, smaller jar of Bulgarian jam instead, which is reputed to be good, and maybe not too radioactive.

Rasputin in America

Early in the morning on Thanksgiving, I dreamed about a TV sitcom, Rasputin in America, that I either was watching or had created. Considering that it was my dream, both are fitting. The Mad Monk, updated to the 21st century but with the same wild eyes and hair (but no beard, oddly), runs afoul of the authorities in Putin’s Russia and comes to America to live with relatives. Namely, Valerie Bertinelli. Hilarity ensues.

It was only a dream, but no worse than a lot of sitcom conceits. Ms. Bertinelli was either Rasputin’s aunt or his niece. The thing about her is that while the actress might be in her 50s now, she’s also always in her teens, at least in the sitcom universe.

I was also reminded of Ivan the Terrible. Not the tsar or the Eisenstein movie, but a TV show I expect almost no one remembers. It came to mind after the dream. I hadn’t thought of it in many years, but I did see it.

The show was a summertime replacement that didn’t catch on. Here’s part of the Wiki description of it: “Ivan the Terrible is an American sitcom that aired on CBS for five episodes during 1976… Set in Moscow, the sitcom starred Lou Jacobi as a Russian hotel waiter named Ivan Petrovsky, and the day-to-day misadventures of Ivan’s family and their Cuban exchange student boarder, all of whom live in a cramped, one-bedroom apartment… Harvey Korman appeared as a Soviet bureaucrat in an uncredited cameo at the close of each episode.”

St. Petersburg 1994

After Moscow comes St. Petersburg. Of course it does. We spent the last days of our Russian visas in St. Petersburg after taking an overnight train between the cities, and after hearing stories about how thieves would pump knockout gas into our train cars and proceed to rob us naked. Somehow that didn’t happen.

If the Russians had been less prickly about extending tourist visas, we might have spent a few more days in the country, spending some of the hard currency we had that they wanted. But no.

StPete94.1It was a balmy October day when we boarded the Aurora. The vessel survived the Battle of Tsushima and later of course had her part to play in the October Revolution. Since the mid-Soviet period, Aurora has been a museum ship.

StPete2Also balmy outside the Hermitage. Much spectacle on the exterior, many fine works of art inside, but dank and crummy amenities, especially the bathrooms.

The Kremlin 1994

You can’t very well go to Moscow and not pose with St. Basil’s and the clock tower (Spasskaya Tower) of the Kremlin. Pedants might point out that Moscow’s Kremlin is only one of a number of kremlins in Russia, but I say common usage re-enforced by years of Cold War reportage means that the one in the capital of the Russian Federation is The Kremlin.

RedSquare94This was probably the afternoon of the first full today we were in Moscow. Note the clock puts the time at 3:15; in late September at that latitude, the sun would have been edging down pretty low by then.

It would not have been our first visit to Red Square. We arrived in Moscow in the afternoon, and Yuriko and I and most of the other people we’d traveled with on the Trans-Siberian went to the same guest house. Early in the evening, most of us met up again with two goals in mind: to go to Red Square because it’s Red Square, and to find something to eat. I remember our group — about a dozen people — walking down one of the thoroughfares that takes one to Red Square, turning a corner, and seeing it all at once. A place I’d heard about all my life, and there it was.

We ogled Red Square a while, but then got down to the business of finding food. The group settled on the Moscow McDonald’s, said to be the largest in the world at the time, and the only McDonald’s I’ve ever been to that had bouncers.

Moscow, Sept 1994There were some English lads, a couple of Australians, a Swiss woman, a Dutch couple and I don’t know who else or remember any names. I was the only American and Yuriko the only Japanese.

I didn’t appreciate the enormity of the Kremlin until we went in for a look the next day. Not everything was accessible, but I know we visited a number of palaces and churches (or maybe church-museums), such as the Cathedral of the Annunciation. Cathedral of the AnnunciationWe got a closer look at the clock tower, still featuring its red star. But within sight of the fluttering Russian tricolor.Clock TowerSpeaking of enormity, there was also the Tsar Cannon.

TsarCannonAnd the Tsar Bell.

Tsar BellJust outside the walls is Lenin’s Mausoleum, which we visited, and then the Kremlin Wall Necropolis. The likes of Stalin and various old bolshies were easy to pick out, since they were marked by busts. I didn’t see John Reed’s plaque, though I knew he was there. I didn’t know until later that some of Bill Haywood’s ashes are there (and some are near the Haymarket monument in suburban Chicago).