Monday, January 31, 2005

Andrew Sullivan on the Iraq Election

From - Daily Dish:

TO SUM UP: Two years ago, the West liberated Iraq. But yesterday, the Iraqis liberated themselves.

A HUGE SUCCESS: The latest indicators suggest a turnout of something like 60 percent. We'll have to wait for precise numbers and ethnic/regional breakdowns. But if I stick to my pre-election criteria for success, this election blows it away: '45 percent turnout for Kurds and Shia, 25 percent turnout for the Sunnis, under 200 murdered.' Even my more optimistic predictions of a while back do not look so out of bounds. But the numbers don't account for the psychological impact. There is no disguising that this is a huge victory for the Iraqi people - and, despite everything, for Bush and Blair. Yes, we shouldn't get carried away. We don't know yet who was elected, or what they'll do, or how they'll be more successful at controlling the insurgency. There are many questions ahead. And I don't mean to minimize them. But I'm struck by some of the paradoxes of all this. We're too close to events to see them clearly. But the timing of this strikes me as fortuitous. Why? Because by the time of the elections, the insurgents had been able to show themselves as a real threat to the democratic experiment and to reveal their true colors - enemies of democracy, Jihadist fanatics and Baathist thugs. The election was in part a referendum on these forces. And they lost - big time. Their entire credibility as somehow representing a genuine nationalist resistance has been scotched. If the election had happened earlier - say a year sooner - it might not have registered the same impact, because the insurgency would not have been so strong or so defined...

Novodevichy Cemetery

Yesterday we went to visit the Novodevichy Convent and Cemetery, final resting place of notable Russians from the Soviet era and before.

There's nothing quite like it in the USA, maybe it is comparable to Highgate Cemetery in London. David Oistrakh, Kruschev, Ilyushin, Tupolev, Glazunov, Prokofiev, Gogol, Stanislavsky, and Chekhov like close together in what really is a very small brick yard behind the convent where Peter the Great imprisoned his sister, Regent Sofia, for her entire life.

The cemetery is especially pretty in the snow, the sculptures and busts decorating the tombs like real works of art. My favorite grave was that of Anton Chekhov, small, beautiful, graceful, just like his writing. There are some striking tombstones, such as a Soviet military leader remembered forever with telephone in hand, a composer memorialized by music running around his grave in cast iron, and a young television journalist's memorial. His craggy tomb, made out of angled granite blocks in the constructivist style, featured photos of the deceased reporting from Nicaragua and Afghanistan among other hot spots.

In the convent grounds one can find a hero of Russia's battle war with Napoleon, dramatized in Tolstoy's War and Peace, General Davydov. His likeness stares out from a bust atop the plinth on his grave.

There were a couple of nice exhibits in the museum buildings, one of missionary work by Russian orthodox priests in the Far East, including China and Japan. Even something about the Metropolitan for America, who returned to become a major church figure in Moscow. Until seeing the exhibit, I didn't realize that the Russian Orthodox church had any missionaries...

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Roger L. Simon on the Iraq Election

Roger L. Simon: Mystery Novelist and Screenwriter describes American television coverage of the Iraqi election, interesting reading, especially since we see less of this story over here in Russia...

Coppola Gets His Russian Oscar

Last night I saw Francis again. This time I watched from bed as he received his "Golden Eagle," Russia's Academy Award. It was well past midnight, and for some reason, I hadn't been invited to the ceremony held on a converted soundstage at Mosfilm Studios. Since it was minus 12 degrees and snowing heavily, I'm not insulted. Bed was warmer and more convenient.

Like the Oscars, the seemingly endless Golden Eagle show ran way past midnight and had a lot of ads. It wasn't as tacky as Hollywood, and not as exciting--considering the Oscars are boring to begin with.

There were tributes to old troupers, honorary awards, sentimentality, a rapper instead of Robin Williams and a rock band that seemed to be called "Uma Thurman" (is this legal? Uma, call your agent!) playing theme songs of nominated films. The role that used to be played by Jack Valenti was taken by Nikita Mihailov, the famous Russian film director. In addition to heading the Russian Academy, he sort of hosted the show, and appeared with a clipboard at various moments to hurry the presenters along, to sing a song with a Caucasian chorus in tribute to an old actor, and to fuss at Francis when he forgot his stage directions. Mihalov's stage act at the Golden Eagle ceremony sort of reminded me of the fussy bureaucrat's in Eldar Ryazanov's Carnival Night.

For those of our readers who follow Russian cinema news, the winner for best picture was "72 Meters," a dramatization of the Kursk submarine disaster that looked a little like "The Perfect Storm" meets "Titanic." The other big winner, sweeping the other appeared to "Svoi," a WWII melodrama. Best actor prize went to a Russian version of Leonardo de Caprio, named Bezrukov.

Surprisingly, considering Sofia Coppola had worked on the picture, Bill Murray's "Lost in Translation" lost the best foreign film prize to Mel Gibson's "The Passion of Christ." When "The Passion" was announced, they cut to Francis for a reaction shot. He looked a little cross.

As the show dragged on, the cameras cut to Francis for other reaction shots. At one point it looked like he was leaning over talking to someone, looking at his watch, and asking, "How much longer is this going to go on?"

Francis had to wait for Italian composer Ennico Morricone, who won his own a special award--the Italian composer did the score for "72 Meters" and presented a prize for best sound recording. Morricone's speech was tearful, noting that he had been afraid that his plane wouldn't make it to landing because of the blizzard in Moscow, and he was happy to have made it alive to the ceremony. That seemed heartfelt, since the snow is very heavy here right now, it's the third day.

Francis also had to wait for some TV awards, including best TV mini-series, as well as best TV series, two different categories (in the USA, we keep TV and movies separate).

After hours had gone by, Francis at last made his way to the stage to get his own Golden Eagle. Channel One showed a montage of clips from his films, beginning with the Ride of the Valkyries montage from Apocalypse Now. Seeing it on Russian TV, the famous "Kuleshov Effect" kicked in to reveal Francis' message: that Americans are Nazis.

No wonder the Russians liked it!

Then some clips from Rumblefish, incomprehensible, and Godfathers I & II. Those evil Americans again! A country run by the Mafia.

Uh, oh, I'm beginning to see why the transition to capitalism here may have gotten mixed up.

Of course, when Francis was introduced, it was officially all about his artistry. Francis buttoned his jacket, straightened his coat, and proceeded to the stage. He was wearing a bow tie, which was a nice touch. Then he gave a short speech in which he got his good friend Nikita Mihalov's name wrong (the translator fixed it), paid tribute to the Soviet Union as well as Russia, and personally thanked Vladimir Putin (the translator skipped those items, just saying thank you to the Russian Academy).

Indeed, Francis had a personal audience with Putin, who congratulated Francis on winning the Golden Eagle--before Francis had received it. So maybe Francis knew what he was doing.

Francis told Putin he looked younger in person, and congratulated him on his speech at Auschwitz. Putin in turn complimented Francis on his show-biz family (perhaps Putin thinks Coppola heads a Russian-style "clan"?) and basically asked Francis to make movies in Russia.

Very flattering Francis, I'm sure, despite the sting of Mel Gibson beating out your daughter Sofia.

Still, one wonders, would Francis warmly thank President Nixon for his "Godfather" Oscar? After all, Patton, which Francis wrote, was Nixon's favorite movie.

Somehow, Francis, I don't think so...

Friday, January 28, 2005

Theo van Gogh Murder Trial Begins

Thanks to a tip from Roger L. Simon, I found DutchReport: Murder trial Theo van Gogh. It has pretty complete coverage of the case:

"Today was the first pro-forma trial day of Mohammed Bouyeri, the terrorist who slaughtered Theo van Gogh on 2 November. This high profile trial was held in Amsterdam Osdorp in the extra secure court..."

My Night At The Bolshoi With Francis Ford Coppola

Just got home from seeing Glazunov's ballet "Raymonda" at the Bolshoi Theatre with Francis Ford Coppola... Well, actually he was sitting in a box next to the stage with his entourage, and we were sitting in the back of the theatre. But still, as we were both in the same opera house, at the same performance, I think I can honestly say that tonight I was at the Bolshoi Ballet with Francis Ford Coppola.

He looked just like he did on television last night. And I got a good look at him, too--though unfortunately, I didn't rent the famous Bolshoi binoculars from the lady in the cloakroom. Too bad that I didn't run into him in the lobby during intermission. It is a shame, because I remembered that both Coppola and myself are UCLA Film School Alumni, and that maybe if I had a chance to mention the "old school tie", perhaps he might have agreed to come to talk to my American Studies class, after all? Then again, maybe not.

Francis--I'm told that his friends call Coppola that--seemed to enjoy the ballet. He stayed for all three acts, the last of which dispensed with plot altogether. He didn't fall asleep, even though the first act was a little slow. The plot is something about the Crusades, that "Clash of Civilizations" that people around these parts seem to remember, especially because the Catholic knights pillaged Christian Constantinople, which is one reason Moscow became what they call the Third Rome. (Rome itself, being Catholic, doesn't count).

Anyway, the ballet Raymonda was about a triangle between the French Crusader knight Jean de Brienne, the Saracen Abderame, and Raymonda. Actually, I think Abderame seemed more attractive, but he was killed in a duel.

The second act reminded me of Uabekistan. Mark Peretokin, the powerful dancer playing a very dynamic Abderame wore a costume that looked like it came from Amir Timur's official Tashkent wardrobe. The Bolshoi set was straight from a 1960's Ptushko movie, some of the choreography was a little stilted, and Raymonda as played by Bolshoi prima ballerina Nadezhda Gracheva (herself a native of Kazakhstan, she had some vocal supporters in the audience) seemed a bit butch and stilted. At least compared to some dancers we saw a couple of years back at the Mariansky Theatre in St. Petersburg, who really were breathtakingly graceful. I wish I could have seen Raymonda danced by Anastassia Volochkova, who was let go in a famous scandal over her extra weight. I've only seen the dazzling Anastassia on quiz shows and talk shows, never dancing (she does look pleasingly plump on TV, but the camera adds 10 pounds, they say).

Anyhow, there was plenty of leaping around at the Bolshoi tonight. Ruslan Skvortsov's Jean de Brienne was a good Russian male dancer, and the music was pleasant. I'm sure Francis, sitting practially in the dancer's laps, had fun.

The Bolshoi is really big, as its name indicates. It was built in 1856, during the time of serfdom. The former Tsar's box has a hammer and sickle displayed prominently (there was one over the top tier of Coppola's box, too). The proscenium curtain also features woven hammers and sickles, red stars, and the letters CCCP (USSR in Cyrillic). In fact, the atmosphere remains quite Soviet. The buffet had the crummy quality of pre-capitalist Russia--especially compared to the charming Novaya Opera buffet, it was expensive, and overall, the performance lacked some zest and charm. Maybe if they invested in some new decorations and lost the Soviet symbols, it might liven up the joint.

Still, the Bolshoi is the Bolshoi, and it was a night to remember, especially since we shared it with Francis--along with a couple of thousand other people.

BTW, Francis is still getting his wish for Russian winter. Here in Moscow it is now ten below, and snow, snow, snow...

Hollywood North

Yesterday, Russian television broadcast Francis Ford Coppola's arrival at Moscow's Demedovo Airport. His small orange private jet came in during our latest blizzard. The temperature was -16 degrees celsius, wind gusts of 20 mph, snow blowing everywhere. Coppola's flight looked like a tiny orange dot in a blur of white. He gave a press conference, announced that it was his lifelong dream to experience Russian Winter. Well, his dream has come true. Coppola is in town for some sort of Russian film award. I guess he'll be too busy to come speak to my American culture class. But everyone certainly knows The Godfather. In Tashkent, too. That is the image of America--Al Capone, Don Corleone, etc. Probably inspiration for the Russian mafia. Sometimes I wish Coppola would make a flm about Rudy Giuliani, to show the other side of the coin.

On Wednesday I took the Mosfilm Studio Tour. It's not quite like the Universal Tour in Hollywood. One of the mothers of the schoolchildren in the group to which I was attached had been to Universal and thought that Hollywood was better. I don't know, I enjoyed Moscow more. But they are certainly different. There are no rides at Mosfilm. Only history. And Mosfilm, like Hollywood studios after the 1948 consent decree, mostly rents out its studios and lot to independent producers. It seemed busy. They shoot 100 movies and TV shows a year.

Of course, this being Russia, the Mosfilm tour not open to tourists, unless they make special arrangements for a minimum group of 20. You can't just show up and get a ticket. Secondly, it's not in English. Thirdly, there is no trolley, you have walk around a studio back lot the size of the Vatican in sub-zero cold trudging across snow (luckily it was brilliant sunshine that day, and as Pushkin said, "Cold and sunny--wonderful!"). But the price is right: 50 roubles, about 2 dollars.

Well, if you can't get a ticket, how did I do it?

That is one of the interesting things about being in Russia, at least for an American. Since many things that we take for granted seem to be impossible, there is a special satisfaction in achieving anyting.

I took the Mosfilm tour due to the kindness of a stranger named Alina. She didn't know me, we had never met, yet she took pity on a visiting American. When I called the studio tour number, to inquire in my fractured beginner's Russian, after a few moments of mutual incomprehension, the tour office transferred my call to an English speaking person. She turned out to be a wonderful, kind woman, the chief editor of the script department. She didn't know that I had my MFA and PhD in Film/TV studies, that we read Pudovkin and Eisenstein's theories of montage at UCLA Film School, that Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera was part of our curriculum for documentaries, that the entire Soviet agitprop operation, the claim that "cinema was the most important art," as Lenin purportedly said, that the rolling movie theatres in specially converted railway cars were highlights of our movie history courses. Or that I had worked as a student intern on the lot at Columbia Pictures and Warner Brothers studios. (Warner's my favorite Hollywood Studio, because of Bogart's Casablanca, and the ghost of Ronald Reagan on their back lot) None of that, of course. Thank goodness! As Don Rumsfeld might say...

Probably because I seemed like a clueless childlike American, this kind stranger made some calls and got back to me (imagine any Hollywood executive doing that for a stranger, say from Russia, on the phone?). I could join a tour for schoolchildren on Wednesday. Meet at the cinema museum...

It was just terrific. Of course, even with permission, it wasn't that easy to get in. Like Hollywood, there is a front gate with a lot of security. Evereyone has to get a pass, even the actors. We watched as Russian film stars lined up a tiny windows to get in to work. My Russian teacher, who was acting as my translator, recognized some of them. "Oh, look at him, he always plays criminals. Doesn't he look like a criminal? Frightening!" Of course I still don't know who. But I can say that Russian film stars sort of look and dress like Hollywood actors. They even walk and carry themselves the same ay, the same blow-dried hair,too

Going with third graders was great. They oohed and ahhed at the cars, sleighs, and model boats and planes in the cinema museum. The special effects display, after a dancing skeleton, had a scene from Ptushko's version of Ruslan and Ludmilla. Two dolls suspended in mid-air--Ruslan about to cut off the evil wizard Chernomor's beard. And the third graders recited aloud the verse from Pushkin's poem, in unison. Their teacher beamed with pride! Maladets!

We saw lots of props and one real item--the tandem bicycle belonging to Lenin and Krupskaya. Why and how it got to Mosfilm, I still don't know. But it was interesting to imagine Lenin and his romantic companion riding on a bicycle built for two. Something very different. The kids loved the old Nazi motorcycles and jeeps, and the 1941 BMW, brought back from Germany as war booty. A lot of them cruised the streets of Moscow after the war, apparently, part of Russia's reverse Marshall Plan.

On the back lot, there was a complete 19th Century Moscow--like the Old New York set on 20th Century Fox's back lot, from Hello Dolly!. But this one was different, for a movie about Terrorism in the 19th century called "A Rider Named Death" based on the Russian novel of the same name.

And for its outdoor sets, Mosfilm doesn't use false fronts painted to look like stone, brick, or whatever. As Ludmilla, our excellent tour guide, pointed out, at Mosfilm Studios they make the sets completely out real materials--real stone streets, real concrete buildings--and when we went on to the set for "Wolf Killer" a blockbuster set in pre-Christian "Rites of Spring" days, there was an entire Russian village constructed of wooden logs, real giant logs. It took 2 1/2 months to put together. Of course, now they need to shoot a few sequels. Big, heavy, giant sets. Very Russian. Perhaps they do look more real on camera than our flimsy false fronts...

Highlight was the make-up department, where the kids got to meet a make-up artists and be photographed in latex masks. They oohed and aahed. And what was piled on the make-up table? A number of bloody human heads, veins and arteries dangling, eyes staring with death's horrible gaze. The tour guide picked up a latex human hand. On another table were piled bloody stumps of arms and legs. Moms took pictures of their kids holding some heads. We all laughed (the make-up artist was wearing a mask, a cross somewhere a monkey and a space-alien). Outside was a display of wigs in a glass case from the film "A History of Poisoning."

Beyond that, past the case with the 4 Mosfilm Oscars, the Silver Bears, the Golden Lions, the Palme D'Ors and other festival awards (cutest one looked like a glass Penguin, maybe a souvenir of the Antarctica Film Festival?), down a long corridor, towards the production korpus, was a case with an artificial eternal flame containing photos of the dozens of Mosfilm employees killed in World War II.

Past this display was Alina's office. She was, as in a movie script, a beautiful blonde, with kind eyes and a nice smile. I thanked her for perhaps the most interesting and thought-provoking studio tour I had ever taken. It was true.

BTW, did you know that Eisenstein reportedly wanted to defect to America, that he travelled to Hollywood in order to do so, that he only returned to Russia because Stalin was holding his mother hostage?

That pile of severed heads on the Mosfilm make-up room table sticks in one's mind...

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Moscow Modern Art Biennale Opens

The Art Newspaper reports that Moscow's answer to the Venice biennale has begun, like everything else that happens, with the support of Putin's government. According to Sophia Kishovsky's account, the reason is p.r.:

"The Russian government apparently also has a real interest in the biennale, underscoring its political significance as an image booster for Russia, which has been slammed for backsliding into Soviet ways...Mr Backstein said he had had difficulties in persuading the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum's formidable director, Irina Antonova, of the necessity of the biennial, but convinced her by arguing that support for this kind of art fully accords with the Russian concept of intelligentnost or 'culturedness.' Mrs Antonova's most (unintentionally) conceptual exhibition hitherto had been a large show of Gina Lollobrigida's sculptures in 2003."

Modern art was banned by Stalin and modern artists were shot or sent to the Gulag. There is only one modern art museum in Moscow, a personal project of the controversial sculptor Zurab Tsereteli, who based it on his personal collection and included many of his own sculptures, including a giant Jesus and memorials to Anna Ahmatova and Vladimir Vysotsky, among others.

I went there the other day, a couple of days after visiting the stark and depressing Sakharov Memorial Museum, with its rows of KGB files and maps of the Gulag, a few weeks after visiting the Meyerhold house museum, where Meyerhold was actually arrested and killed on Stalin's orders.

So, while I find some American modern art museums off-putting, and American contemporary art not too appealing, strangely I discovered my trip to the Moscow Museum of Modern Art to be deeply moving, and would recommend it to anyone coming to Moscow.

Russia Commemorates 60th Anniversary of Auschwitz Liberation

And according to the Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS, Russia's chief rabbi, Beryl Lazar, will present Putin with a medal to commemorate the event, which will be held tomorrow at the former death-camp:

"'Soviet soldiers played the most important part in liberating the prisoners of Auschwitz. We will always remember how they saved our brothers,' Rabbi Lazar stressed.The 60th anniversary of the Auschwitz liberation on January 27 is not just an important date for Jews, he said. 'If we remember what happened, we can prevent the repetition of the merciless elimination of not only Jews, but others as well,' Rabbi Lazar said. Rabbi Lazar also compared the Nazi's with terrorists. 'Terrorists want to conquer the whole world just like the Nazis. They also eliminate anyone who disagrees with them, twisting any ideology to hide their own agendas,' Rabbi Lazar said."

This event is part of this year's continuing celebration in Russia of the 60th anniversary of the 1945 Allied victory over the Nazis. The festivities began with Novi God re-enactments of the battle of Moscow. There are WWII-era posters up in our local Hermitage park, and several other celebrations are planned.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Mapplethorpe at the Moscow House of Photography

Just when you think the Wicked Witch is dead, here she comes again.

The Guggenheim Foundation is sponsoring Robert Mapplethorpe and the Classical Tradition: Photographs and Mannerist Prints at the Moscow House of Photography. It's all over The Moscow Times, "Afisha" magazine, and other media. The usual pathetic attempt to show his work in tandem with the great masters to claim he is a great artist, something other than a society photographer, fashion magazine hack, and celebrity pornographer. I thought we left Mapplethorpe behind in the 1990s...

Looking at the photos in this latest Mapplethorpe show, I could not help but think of the tortured suspects in American and English prisons seen in newspaper photos--the same men in dog collars, men tied up, men being sexually abused in strange positions. Perhaps there is some link, somewhere, between the intellectual climate that creates a market for Mapplethorpe (he died a multi-millionaire) and one that permits torture of helpless prisoners.

A better title for the Moscow House of Photography exhibit might be: "Robert Mapplethorpe: Inspiration for Abu Gharib?"

BBC Interview: Kanan Makiya

Heard a very interesting interview with Kanan Makiya on theBBC World Service yesterday morning. The hostess was hostile, quoting Edward Said's attacks, grilling Makiya about his ties to "Volfovitz", apparently trying to get Makiya to confess that his support for the Iraq war was wrong. He didn't give an inch, and didn't get upset (I might have lost some of my cool under her relentless grilling, I think), and in the end had a chance to explain the purpose of his Iraq Memory Foundation. It's well worth listening to at this link (could only find the audio, not a transcript)--especially for Makiya's analysis of how backing the Palestinian cause hurt Arab societies--something he realized after 10 years of his own work on behalf of the Palestinians!

Saturday, January 22, 2005

John Lewis Gaddis on George Bush's Second Term

Writing in Foreign Affairs, John Lewis Gaddis has some thoughtful advice for US Foreign Policy during George Bush's coming four years as President:

Second terms in the White House open the way for second thoughts. They provide the least awkward moment at which to replace or reshuffle key advisers. They lessen, although nothing can remove, the influence of domestic political considerations, since re-elected presidents have no next election to worry about. They enhance authority, as allies and adversaries learn--whether with hope or despair--with whom they will have to deal for the next four years. If there is ever a time for an administration to evaluate its own performance, this is it.

George W. Bush has much to evaluate: he has presided over the most sweeping redesign of U.S. grand strategy since the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The basis for Bush's grand strategy, like Roosevelt's, comes from the shock of surprise attack and will not change. None of F.D.R.'s successors, Democrat or Republican, could escape the lesson he drew from the events of December 7, 1941: that distance alone no longer protected Americans from assaults at the hands of hostile states. Neither Bush nor his successors, whatever their party, can ignore what the events of September 11, 2001, made clear: that deterrence against states affords insufficient protection from attacks by gangs, which can now inflict the kind of damage only states fighting wars used to be able to achieve.

In that sense, the course for Bush's second term remains that of his first one: the restoration of security in a suddenly more dangerous world. Setting a course, however, is only a starting point for strategies: experience always reshapes them as they evolve. Bush has been rethinking his strategy for some time now, despite his reluctance during the campaign to admit mistakes. With a renewed and strengthened electoral mandate, he will find it easier to make midcourse corrections. The best way to predict their extent is to compare what his administration intended with what it has so far accomplished. The differences suggest where changes will--or at least should--take place.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Leon Aron on Vladimir Putin

Leon Aron has some choice words on Putin's choices:

But the Kremlin's authoritarian project--while deplorable in its own right--carries even greater risks than commonly appreciated. Although officially justified as necessary to 'strengthen' state and society, these policies in fact are likely to do the very opposite, destabilizing Russia's politics, economy, and national security. In evaluating the current situation, some leading analysts in Moscow privately spoke last fall of a 'GKchP-2 scenario,' a reference to the unsuccessful August 1991 hardliner putsch, whose perpetrators sought to prevent the breakup of the Soviet Union but instead brought about its speedy collapse.

The cumulative effect of Putin's re-centralization has been to raise the center of political gravity to the very top at precisely the time when the Russian state will need every available ounce of stability and maneuverability to absorb severe shocks and navigate sharp turns. The regime's course is made even more perilous by its efforts to remove or obscure the road signs of societal feedback, which Russia's increasingly emaciated democratic politics and constrained media are less and less capable of providing.

I think the "Babushka revolution" is evidence that the authoritarian path Putin seems to be following has a dangerous element of cutting off too much needed feedback, as Aron suggests...

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Russia's "Babushka Revolution"

The Turkish Press calls it the "Babushka Revolution." We discovered it shortly after returning to Moscow--a series of protests, sit-ins, and complaints by pensioners outraged that Vladimir Putin was cutting their free transportation on public transit and other benefits, replacing them with a lump-sum not sufficient to even buy metro tickets, some 200 roubles a month (a little more than $6.00). This would be akin to ending Social Security benefits and senior citizen discounts in the USA and replacing them with a lump sum.

The Communist Party immediately took advantage of this, organizing mass rallies, shutting down traffic on the main road to Moscow airport, Nevsky Prospect in St. Petersburg, etc. Putin backed down somewhat at a press conference, but that it happened at all shows a lack of the intelligence that Putin is famous for.

Russian "Babushkas" are all over the television, the most dominant figures in media, portrayed as pushy, determined, and fearless. I wouldn't want to mess with them, myself...

Ann Coulter on the CBS Rathergate Coverup

Ann Coulter is in fine form about the CBS report on (it helps that she's a lawyer). Some excerpts:

Dan Rather and his crack investigative producer Mary Mapes are still not admitting the documents were fakes. Of course, Dan Rather is still not admitting Kerry lost the election...

Proving once again how useless 'moderate Republicans' are, The CBS Report -- co-authored by moderate Republican Dick Thornburgh -- found no evidence of political bias at CBS.

This isn't a lack of "rigor" in fact-checking, as the CBS report suggests. It's a total absence of fact-checking. CBS found somebody who told the story they wanted told — and they ran with it, wholly disregarding the facts.

If Fox News had come out with a defamatory story about Kerry based on forged documents, liberals would be demanding we cut power to the place. (Fortunately, the real documents on Kerry were enough to do the trick). But the outside investigators hired by CBS could find no political agenda at CBS.

By contrast, the report did not hesitate to accuse the bloggers who exposed the truth about the documents of having 'a conservative agenda.' As with liberal attacks on Fox's 'fair and balanced' motto, it is now simply taken for granted that 'conservative bias' means 'the truth.'

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Roger L. Simon on Prince Harry's Nazi Fancy Dress

MOSCOW--Roger L. Simon: Mystery Novelist and Screenwriter has some interesting thoughts on the British Royal Family's latest embarrassment. We were in England when Prince Harry's Nazi costume photo came out in the Sun with the headline "Heil Harry". The BBC soon had Professor David Cesarani (full disclosure, I met him many years ago when researching my film "Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die?") on the air to explain that it was Rommel's Afrika Corps costume, not an SS outfit, so not that bad. Interesting and true to an extent, but still...

Here's what Simon says:
I think, until quite recently, I was one of those Jews who leaned to not making a fuss when young idiots like Prince Harry displayed an insensitivity (putting it mildly) to my co-religionists. No more. The epidemic is spreading again and I can only nod my head when tabloids like the Daily News refer to him as "Heil Harry." It's time for the Royal Family, everyone's favorite tourist attraction, to go.

The British have changed Royal Families before, from Tudor to Orange to Windsor. Pretty clear the Windsors have reached the end of the line, I agree with Simon. Perhaps the English might start posting "Help Wanted" ads for new royals on

This Nazi Harry thing is symptomatic of the problem with England: now a apparently nation of lager louts, football hooligans and Royal Nazi dress-up party boys, it seems.

The same day the Prince Harry story broke, the Daily Mail had a photo layout of middle-class lads and lassies dead drunk on their faces or vomiting like the star of "Team America World Police." And a big profile of the latest show at the Royal Court Theatre--an exhibitionist who invited men from the audience to peform a live sex act with him in Sloane Square on opening night, then went out and did it in front of the remains of the audience. The writer pointed out that the Royal Court theatre has a big government subsidy from the Arts Council, and National Lottery, so it was British Taxpayer's Dollars At Work. We went through this kind of thing in the USA in the 1990s--how stale, stupid, and pathetic.

Plus the big TV show is "Desperate Housewives." Yuck.

The only redeeming sign was a poster announcing that Trafalgar Square would become Red Square on January 15th, with a Russian Winter Festival. We flew back to Moscow that day, back in a country that at least still takes culture seriously. On the TV news we watched Ken Livingstone and the Russian Army Chorus (formerly the Red Army Chorus), singing national songs. All the TV channels carried it here, and all the Russian anchors seemed very proud...


Thursday, January 13, 2005

Something Nice About England

All right, I've complained enough about the crap culture here, (didn't even mention that last week's Time Out's cover had a pull quote from Dustin Hoffman about rigging 'an exploding fartbag'). But there are some good things, at last, to talk about.

First, is The Original London Walks.

I took one the day before yesterday of Sherlock Holmes' London. The tour group was composed of about a half-dozen Americans and a couple of Russians, who were fans of the Russian Sherlock Holmes tv series. Our tour guide was a wonderful old trouper, a British actress between jobs--she most recently played Hecuba on tour--who was perfectly costumed in a cape, Mary Poppins-type cap, with capacious handbag and umbrella. At various points we'd stop and she's sing a song from Gilbert and Sullivan, or recite a text from a Sherlock Holmes story. We even saw photos of the "fairies" that fooled Arthur Conan Doyle into thinking they were scientific proof--the author was not exactly a Sherlock himself.

The guide even was wearing a silk scarf from Uzbekistan, in the national Ikat design, that her husband had brought her as a souvenir. A nice touch, as it was a Tashkent connection. So, if you are in London, and you see 'Corinna' listed as a guide for a London Walk--run, don't walk to take the tour.

The next day my wife and I took the London Walk through 'Little Venice.' Also led by a British Actress, more pop culture than the other tour, with Paul McCartney's flat, and other showbiz sites along the canal. Sort of Beverly Hills on the A40 Motorway: Michael Flatley, a Pink Floyd musician, Princess Di's brother, etc. Homes 3 million to 12 million pounds, next to council flats, behind Paddington station. Highlight was beautifully restored St. Mary's Church, Paddington, where John Donne preached his first sermon, Sarah Simmons is buried, and Emma Hamilton of Lord Nelson fame wanted to be entombed. Unfortunately, she never made it back to England, though she did get a memorial fresco on the church hall. Also well worth while.

Then to the National Portrait Gallery, which has a terrific underground coffee shop and bookstore where the coal cellars used to be, and a great exhibit of famous English people including my friend Colonel Burnaby, author of A Ride to Khiva, the Uzbek connection again. And Emma Hamilton, of course.

After that, the National Gallery, simply magnificent these days, chock full, open till 9 pm on Wednesday nights -- and the food in the little cafe next to the National Portrait Gallery is excellent, we had supper there, cheese plate and pate. Bookstore didn't have too much on American art, was looking for Robert Hughes' American Visions to take back to Moscow for my class, the clerks didn't know who Robert Hughes was, and never heard of the book, which is surprising considering it was a BBC series. The BBC hasn't put out a video or DVD, which is a shame.

Finally, we ended up at RC Sheriff's Journey's End, now playing in the West End. It was a good solid production of a good solid show, very serious, no crap, thankfully. Acting not great, but it has been running two years. One slight problem is that Blackadder's sendup of WWI genre undercut the evening a little, we kept waiting for Rowan Atkinson to pop up and say 'Hello, Darling!'. But of course Sheriff came long before WWI was a laughing matter, and the play is really worth seeing. The nicest part was the groups of English schoolchildren in their uniforms waiting for buses on the pavement outside afterwards--and there were a lot of Britishers in the audience, which is a nice experience.

So, it seems England is not all Jerry Springer, after all.

BTW, our tour guide told us that the Original London Walks company is owned by an American...

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

The CBS Rathergate Coverup

Just caught Glenn Reynold's links on Instapundit to the CBS Rathergate report, and although the lawyers don't think it is too bad because of the damning details, to this reader, two major points -- (1)that the report fails to find a political agenda and (2) fails to find that Dan Rather's documents were forgeries -- indicate to me that it is still part of a continuing coverup.

Thinking of going back to Moscow to teach about America, where we say we have honest media and not propaganda, makes me even more upset that this sort of eyewash would even be accepted by the critics as a good faith effort. Only a report that admitted there was a political agenda and the documents were forgeries could possibly be acceptable to a reasonable person.

I hope this is not the end of this story...

Monday, January 10, 2005

What's Wrong With These People (continued)

Trying to find some books to take back to Moscow for my American studies course led me to a tour of London bookstores: Waterstone's , Border's (yes, Borders is big here), and Foyle's. It was a little disappointing, too.

Years ago, the big Dillon's near the British Museum was something really special for an American. Now, the people at the information desk didn't know who Piers Paul Read was when I asked for his book...

The American studies and media studies sections were just filled with Hate Bush, Hate American crap. Chomsky piled everywhere.

And the same at the other bookstores. At Foyle's I asked if the publishers paid for Chomsky to be at the checkout counters on the 2nd floor. Oh, no, she answered. It just sells better there. The problem is that Chomsky is absolute crap, and that like Jerry Springer, the British seem to have embraced it with a passion.

So, except for Alistair Cooke, practically nothing decent to take back. Instead, we got some history books--Foyle's is the least bad of the bookstores, the most old-fashioned and they did have Piers Paul Read on the Knights Templar.

Another symptom of Crappy England: The Sunday Times published an interview with a Porno actress. Charming. The Thunderer become The Wanker, it seems...

Still there are some good things. After a lunch at Brown's near Leicester Square, we walked across the footbridge to the South Bank, and after declining to pay 35 pounds for a ticket to Alan Bennett's "The History Boys" (we bought a copy of the play in the bookstore for 8 pounds), had a cafe latte at the National Film Theatre bar, since the movie tickets cost 8 pounds each, a bit stiff for us Yanks--then took a double decker bus home, using our unlimited travel card. This is a real pleasure, just hop on and off buses and tubes anywhere, really makes sightseeing easy, and each time you save 1 pound 20 pence it is a little bit of heaven.

The papers have forgotten the BBC controversy and the Tsunami for a grisly New Year's murder in Cambridge, the suspect just committed suicide, and a Tony Blair-Gordon Brown confrontation, something that was in the paper a year ago when we were last here. At least some things don't change.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

What's Wrong With These People?

Culture shock in London. Especially after Moscow.

The big news seems here to be that the BBC broadcast Jerry Springer: The Opera last night. It is a West End musical starring David Soul (Starsky and Hutch) that contains some 300 swear words and depicts Jesus Christ wearing a diaper and as "a bit gay."

This is the kind of camp stuff that was going on the in USA in the 1990s that almost led to the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts. Now the BBC has gotten some 40,000 protest letters and the Conservatives want to punish the network.

The whole thing seems pretty stupid in a world after 9/11. Radio Four had an interview with David Soul and a Christian critic, and there was a time warp quality. Don't we have more important issues facing us right now than Jerry Springer? (Is he still on the air?) Plus the Christian was saying the BBC should do good, high-quality stuff and the American tv actor was saying the BBC should air crap. How embarrassing! American TV can air crap, but if the BBC has any justification for its existence at all, it is that it shows good TV.

The tube is full of advertisements threatening people that they will be fined 1000 pounds if they don't pay their BBC licence fee. Sitting on the train, you stare at a poster saying something like 'We have a database of every television license in England' and the TV police will track you down if you don't pay up.

I interviewed Michael Grade, now head of the BBC, when I did my Masterpiece Theatre book--he produced some wonderful British classic costume dramas for the Mobil Corporation. Now, as George Bush the First used to say, his BBC is in 'deep doo-doo'. No wonder people are mad--they can go to jail here if they don't pay the BBC for Jerry Springer.

No wonder, that London seems paradoxically crappy. There's still the charming English historical stuff, but contemporary British culture seems to be pure 'rubbish,' to use an old-fashioned English term.

We didn't see the Jerry Springer BBC TV special because last night we went to the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Romeo and Juliet at the Albery Theatre in Leicester Square.

Not much better. We walked out at halftime. The best thing about it was the nice old West End theatre. Juliet was a poor man's Gwyneth Paltrow, Romeo noone at all. The production was of the dreadful Shakespeare's Bawdy codpiece-grabbing smutty school that is all too widely spread in the US. Leering and bellowing. Yuck.

Perhaps this reflects a past power struggle at the RSC. A couple of years ago we saw some terrific productions in the Barbican. Then it was announced they were shutting down due to some sort of god-knows-what British intrigue and financial problems. They were completely closed in London for a long time. We eagerly awaited the RSC London reopening. Because we were there on the last night in The Pit, when the RSC actors cried and recited Prospero's speech from The Tempest about revels being ended. It was fantastic, memorable, theatrical, emotional. Brilliant.

That was then. Now, the RSC seems to have reinvented itself, almost the Jerry Springer Shakespeare Company.

The capper to our lousy night at half of Romeo and Juliet was seeing the homeless people camping out in the subway tunnels leading to Charing Cross tube station. The scene reminded us of New York City before Mayor Giuliani.

What's wrong with these people?

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Inside the Middle Temple

LONDON, January 8--Our sightseeing began with lunch in the Middle Temple, one of the four Inns of Court that make up the London bar--scene of Rumpole of the Bailey and Dicken's novels like Barnaby Rudge. After lunching with two British barristers (without wigs, disappointed that we weren't potential clients I suspect), thanks to some American legal friends, we trekked over to the Temple Church, located in the Inner Temple--where the Paschal Lamb turns into the Crusader's Horse. Buried within were Crusader Knights Templar. They rented out their headquarters to lawyers centuries ago to make some money to support themselves. The crusaders are gone, the lawyers remain. Half of the signatures on the American Declaration of Independence were by Middle Temple members, including John Hancock. So there is a historical link between Crusaders, English law, and the existence of America. Bin Laden's anti-American rhetoric about Crusaders and Jews has some sort of historical roots, that all of Bush's pro-Muslim chatter can't erase. After the Nazi Blitz (Hitler was allied with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, of course), the American Bar Association paid to reconstruct the Middle Temple hall from the splinters remaining. The photos on the wall show a pile of rubble at the end of WW II. Incredibly, it looks like the original today. Will be buying Piers Paul Read's book on the the Knights Templar, spotted at Waterstone's...

Also worth noting, Alistair Cooke's "Letters from America" collection is number two on Waterstone's bestseller list. Even after his death, it seems Alistair Cooke still can put out a best-seller. I interviewed Cooke for my book on Masterpiece Theatre, and he really was a remarkable storyteller and sophisticated in every way. I hope the book gets some play in the USA.

Friday, January 07, 2005

The Sharansky Plan

An excellent interview with Nathan Sharansky in Middle East Quarterly. His discussion of the Jackson-Vanik amendment is to the point, after living in Russia for a few weeks, what he says seems very true...

Tuesday, January 04, 2005


A shameless plug for a relative's book: My cousin Daniel Kalla's new thriller about terrorists spreading killer diseases is coming out in February, at a bookstore near you. He's a real-life ER doctor, so knows his germs... Posted by Hello

The Snow Maiden

No Novi God is complete without seeing Rimsky-Korsakov's opera, "The Snow Maiden" and so we did, last night, at the Novaya Opera (Moscow's answer to New York's City Opera) in Hermitage Park. It was a lovely show, romantic story, all about how love melts the Snow Maiden's frozen heart of ice (she is the daughter of Grandfather Frost and Spring), how she suffers for love, teased by the shepherd boy Lel, and finally dies for passion when she kisses the noble Mizguir. There were a few technical glitches, a ball symbolizing the Snow Maiden's heart rolled off the stage into the orchestra pit, some fabric icicles fell onto the set, and there was a a loud crash at one point, but the troupers kept singing away, and the lovely score and singing more than made up for the problems. If you ever come to Moscow, the Novaya Opera is highly recommended, plus the lady at the ticket office is very nice, tickets are inexpensive, and the auditorium, foyer and bar are just delightfully designed with waterfalls, bells, and a real live Novi God tree.

BTW Taking a clue from the Russians, we are taking our own Novi God vacation to London for a few days, so there might be a break in blogging for the next week or so...

Monday, January 03, 2005

Carnival Night

When I asked my students what movies they watched at Novi God, they named two. The first was "Irony of Fate." (scroll down)

The same director, Eldar Ryazanov, made their second favorite film, which was broadcast on Russian television yesterday—the 1958 musical comedy "Carnival Night."

Released in 1958, "Carnival Night" reflects a post-Stalin thaw during the 1950s, and like "Irony of Fate" pits human warmth—love, romance, beauty, charm, humor, entertainment of all kinds—against an inhuman and rigid bureaucracy, in this case represented by the pompous and clueless commissar in charge of a Dom Kultury (community cultural center) responsible for staging a New Year’s carnival show. But the commissar wants jazz musicians replaced by pensioners, ballerinas to cover their legs, a lecture on whether their is life on Mars instead of a comedy act, and so forth.

Of course hilarity ensues, in best MGM musical fashion. The commissar is tricked numerous times by the rest of the gang, who put on their show despite his attempts to stop it. They get the better of him in every way, to the point that the commissar appears after the film’s final credits to announce to the audience: "I am not responsible for anything that you may have seen on screen."

"Carnival Night" reflects the hopeful side of the Russian soul: romantic, charming, and beautiful. Now wonder it is shown every New Year. Indeed, I recognized one of the musical numbers, "5 Minutes to Midnight" from the Novi God variety TV special that preceded Putin’s televised address—at 5 minutes to midnight.

The themes of "Carnival Night" are timeless and universal.

Two other holiday favorites seem to be "The Three Musketeers" and "Sherlock Holmes." The French adventures are running in some kind of marathon on a number of channels in Russian and dubbed versions, serials, and musicals. "Sherlock Holmes" is on DTV, sponsored by Ahmad tea, which gives you “a taste of London.” The ads show a London couple playing a grand piano duet, then pausing for a cup of tea before glancing at Big Ben to check the time, and then romantically at one another, a rather Russian perspective on tea-drinking rituals in Britain.

Meanwhile, outside, our local Hermitage park, which contains the Hermitage theatre where Chekhov’s "The Seagull" was performed, has put up two ice-skating rinks. The Russians just fence in a snowy area, then flatten the snow into ice with scrapers. Result: one can ice skate along paths through the park, and sit on benches as skaters dance around you. Absolutely charming.

We saw this sort of scene on TV in the Novi God film "Pokrovsky Gate". A Moscow communal apartment is demolished to make way for a high-rise, and the film shows what life was like in the old Moscow. All the colorful characters who lived in the apartment, their romances, and their conflicts. One scene, set at Novi God, featured ice-skaters around a couple of characters on a park bench. Another had hospital patients dancing on crutches! Not quite Ryazanov, but not a bad imitation.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

A Sober New Year in Moscow

News of a Russian bus accident in the Baltic states on New Year's eve, killing ten children, added to an already solemn undertone to this year's Novi God festivities in Russia, still in shock from terrorist attacks, the loss of the Ukraine, and the tsunami that swept through tourist resorts.

President Putin, in his annual New Years Message, made an oblique reference to the Beslan tragedy, in his otherwise optimistic statement from the Kremlin--a ritual that is some sort of cross between our own State of the Union speech and a New Year's toast. It was broadcast after hours of lively vaudeville shows featuring drag acts, singers, and comedians. Abruptly the party ends, and immediately there was Putin, dressed in a dark overcoat, standing outside the Kremlin palace, clocktower over his shoulder. Five minutes to midnight. The breath forms frosty clouds as he speaks to wish the nation a happy New Year. Then the Russian anthem, and fireworks begin in Red Square. They lasted until 3 am at various locations around town. No one got up very early on January 1st, 2005 in Moscow.

Interestingly, the first television channel broadcast a retrospective of past New Year's addresses, beginning with Brezhnev. From Brezhnev to Gorbachev, they looked very Soviet, formal, sitting behind a desk. An interviewer said that nobody listed to anything but "S'novim Godim!."

Then, the clips from the Yeltsin era were completely different. In fact, the first favorable coverage -- really any coverage -- of Yeltsin that I've seen on TV (Stalin, by contrast, is everywhere). He was relaxed, joking the the camera crew, demanding a glass of champagne for the rehearsal of his New Year's toast. It looked like everyone was having fun...

Then came Putin, standing outside in the cold, not drinking, not smiling, projecting a sober concern for the country and its future.

This year, for the first time, alcohol was banned at Red Square's outdoor New Year's celebration.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Troika Ride, Novi God, 2005, Moscow (photo by Nancy Strickland) Posted by Hello