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).

Worth Only the Paper They’re Printed On

Missed the green dye in the Chicago River on Monday, though of course plenty of pictures have been posted elsewhere. It’s a curious custom. Mostly the river looks like this in the colder months.

Downtown Chicago 2013

I’ve been transferring images from one place to another — from a very old computer to a somewhat old computer — and looked at some of the files for the first time in a while. I didn’t remember, for instance, that I’d scanned my Biafran one-pound note.

BiafraquidI bought it sometime in the late 1970s, and I know I didn’t pay very much for it. Biafra might have failed as a secessionist movement, but apparently they produced a lot of worthless banknotes during their try.

Then there’s this:

HypermarkWeimar Republic hyperinflation currency, to the tune of 10,000 marks, dated January 19, 1922. Scanned slightly askew, but never mind. I bought four or five of these notes, in crisp condition, for $1 in 2001.

One more. The theme tonight, it turns out, is nearly worthless banknotes — not only as collectibles, but pretty much from day one.

rubleThis is a 1,000 rubles. Or was. Dated 1993, plucked out of circulation by me in 1994. During the two weeks we were in the Russian Federation, the value of the ruble against the dollar varied a lot. I seem to remember it being about 2,000 rubles to the dollar — or was it 3,000? I think it was both, at one time or another. This was small change in any case.

The currency has been redenominated since then. Wiki, for what it’s worth, says “the ruble was redenominated on 1 January 1998, with one new ruble equaling 1000 old rubles. The redenomination was a purely psychological step that did not solve the fundamental economic problems faced by the Russian economy…  and the currency was devalued in August 1998 following the 1998 Russian financial crisis. The ruble lost 70% of its value against the U.S. dollar in the six months following this financial crisis.

“By calculating the product of all six redenominations, it is seen that a pre-1921 ruble is equal to 2×1016 current rubles.” About 20 quadrillion to one, that is. Good thing they’ve been redenominating. Even Zimbabwe doesn’t have a currency that small, I think.


Despite Everything, Spectacle

It’s a little unusual these days when we sit down to watch the same thing at the same time on TV, but it happened on Friday, when we saw a fair amount of NBC’s chopped up, dumbed down coverage of the opening ceremony of the Olympics. Despite the coverage, there was no denying the spectacle of the thing. Tsar Vladimir wanted spectacle, so there was spectacle, and hang the cost.

Spectacle is nothing new for Russia. It’s the country that gave us the Potemkin village, after all. (Spectacle, pseudo-spectacle, what’s the difference, as long as the tsar is pleased?) And who can forget those May Day parades with their ICBMs on wheels? That pleased the red tsars.

Note some of these pictures from the Sporting News, especially the shots of unfinished or poorly built Sochi toilets. Funny to see in photos, not so funny to find in your hotel room. Just carping by Westerners, no doubt. We have spectacle to put on, don’t bother Russia about plumbing details! It reminds me of the Hermitage. A spectacular building indeed, with a spectacular art collection. But – at least when I was there in 1994 – dank, crummy, hard-to-find bathrooms.

Why did NBC leave this out? It was part of the pre-ceremony festivities, but easy to include, since everything was on tape anyway. Maybe it was considered too surreal for mainstream tastes.

I enjoyed the Parade of Nations, especially the athletes walking over maps of their nations, projected somehow or other onto the floor of the stadium. Now that’s a great special effect. Glad to see minuscule Euro-nations in the Games, too — Andorra, Liechtenstein, even tiny San Marino (but it turns out that country’s been in the Winter Games since 1976). No one from the Vatican City, but I guess it would be hard to scare up an Olympic-class athlete from its 800-odd residents.

Also glad to see Togo in the parade. Go Togo! I cheer the sporting aspirations of Togo. One athlete, Alessia Afi Dipol, will be competing in two events for the country, women’s giant slalom and women’s slalom, while another athlete, Mathilde-Amivi Petitjean, will compete in the women’s 10 km classic cross-country skiing event.

Since Friday, I haven’t watched any of the coverage. For one thing, I’m not that excited about winter sports, but I also know how NBC will cover the Games: first, figure skating. Then some more figure skating. After that, a little speed skating, and hockey (if Team USA is in the medal rounds), and then some highlights from figure skating, even though that event is over, plus interviews with Team USA figure skaters, complete with more highlights of the event. With occasional coverage of death-defying sports, such as luge and skeleton, but not without constant yackety-yak commentary.

The Amber Room

Ed tells me that the inside of Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood  “is… seriously over the top. I like the Russian Orthodox for its restraint, and there is none whatsoever in that church.”

Must be all those mosaics. Maybe the Russians were trying to outdo Byzantine churches – taking that whole Third Rome idea seriously, at least when it comes to adorning sacred spaces. On the other hand, I’ve read that there might be more square feet of mosaics decorating the Cathedral of St. Louis than even the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood, and as far as I know no one’s claiming St. Louis as a new iteration of Rome.

The inside of Spilled Blood is just another thing I missed, not because I didn’t visit a certain place, but because I didn’t visit a certain place at the right time. That happens a lot; it has to, if you go anywhere at all. Some things, you want to miss – far better to visit St. Petersburg in 1994 than 1944, for instance. But I’m not thinking of anything quite so dramatic. Not long ago, I read about the reconstruction of the Amber Room, which is near St. Petersburg, and which wasn’t finished until 2003, meaning I missed that too.

It’s quite a story, the Amber Room. The Smithsonian says that the original room, whose construction started in 1701, ultimately “covered about 180 square feet and glowed with six tons of amber and other semi-precious stones. The amber panels were backed with gold leaf, and historians estimate that, at the time, the room was worth $142 million in today’s dollars. Over time, the Amber Room was used as a private meditation chamber for Czarina Elizabeth, a gathering room for Catherine the Great and a trophy space for amber connoisseur Alexander II.

“A gift to Peter the Great in 1716 celebrating peace between Russia and Prussia, the room’s fate became anything but peaceful: Nazis looted it during World War II, and in the final months of the war, the amber panels, which had been packed away in crates, disappeared.” (The whole article is here.)

Burned in a bombing? Buried in an unrecoverable place? Put at the bottom of the Baltic Sea by torpedoes? There are a number of ideas about what happened to the original, but nothing conclusive. Nothing like a good mystery involving treasure.