Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Russian happiness?

Happy endings are not popular here, as a cursory acquaintance with Russian literature will tell you. Seriously, try it - any Russian novel. No one yet has been able to name me a single book with a happy ending in the "normal" style - boy marries girl/kills dragon/makes fortune/saves world, with the important proviso that no main goody ends up dead. If you are ever kidnapped and forced at gunpoint to predict the plot of Russian films you might want to use the following plot-prediction method: What is the ultimate nightmarish scenario for these people? Is there a couple? - one of them will end up married to someone else and the other one will die. Is there anyone around who could possibly commit suicide? - they will.

Maybe that was a slight exaggeration (but only a slight one). But seriously, I don't think the term "happy ending" exists here. In conversation Russians seem to use the English phrase (and in a slightly scornful tone). As you can imagine, this causes havoc in Disney films. In Beauty and the Beast, for example, instead of the boy-who-used-to-be-a-tea-cup asking if Belle and the Beast will live "happily ever after", he asks if they will live "happily for a long time", which isn't at all the same thing. Since he appears to be about three, a "long time" could be six months before they are both guillotined in the revolution.

Do different countries have different ideas about what constitutes happiness, or any other emotion? Possibly because I am more frightened of death than anyone I have ever met, the mere mention of anyone I like dying ruins a story for me. Thus the traditional Russian fairytale ending, "they lived long and happily together and died on the same day" is a total write-off, because all I can envisage is the fear and misery of the ninety-year-old Prince Charming and Princess Pea-pod as they succumb to heart-attacks or cancer. Or, to take another example, do comedies have to be happy? Or even funny? The first play I ever saw in Moscow was The Seagull (Чайка - Chaika). Being a heathen, I didn't know the plot, but the play bill assured me it was a "comedy in four acts". So I was a bit surprised when Konstantin shot himself and Nina appeared to have gone insane after being abandoned by Trigorin and the death of her child. Hilarious. And lest anyone think it was just Chekhov who had a few strange ideas about happiness (and even some Russians have thought this a bit - Chekhov was furious about the first production of Three Sisters, because he thought it was happy and everyone else thought it was a tragedy), there were other writers who had similar ideas. Griboedov's "comedy" Woe from Wit (Горе от ума - Gore ot uma), for example, involves almost no comedic situations, and all of the characters end up miserable. Perhaps the difference is in the UK "comedy" mostly also implies "happy", but in Russia they are more into black comedy, i.e. the situation is just so appalling you have to laugh or you'll cry.

So what does this tell you about happiness? I think of happiness as bright and sparkling, but when I try to define it, I can't seem to get the words right. But I am pretty sure that whatever my definition would be, it is different from the prevailing view here. I am currently reading a book that tries to explain the Russian "soul" to foreigners (Какие мы русские? - А.В. Сергеева). The books talks about the connection between happiness and unhappiness (which appears to at least partly come from Orthodox Christianity). Happiness, in this reading, is more about peace than joy, and is a reward for having undergone suffering, which purifies your character. Joy is something ephemeral and not particularly important - the important thing is that life goes on regardless (unless you throw yourself under a train, of course). And maybe this is why Russians are scornful of "happy endings", because to them they are not only trite, but have also missed a deeper philosophical point about what happiness means. Thankfully, I am not a philosopher (because this is the quickest route to insanity), but I think this is a bit harsh - children's happiness is uncomplicated, but is considered by lots of people to be especially pure.

Anyway, this kind of thinking may itself cause a predilection towards unhappiness. According to the book, almost 50% of Russians consider themselves unhappy, compared with only 1% of English people (although I find this latter number very hard to believe). Life is obviously materially tougher in Russia than in England, but there are countries poorer than Russia which are significantly happier.

[In all seriousness, though, if you can think of any happy Russian novels, let me know. I lack all sophisticated artistic feeling, so I much prefer happy things, but I am beginning to think I have read most happy great works of literature in the world.]

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Fools and roads

Russia, Gogol may have said, has two misfortunes: fools and roads. If Gogol didn't say it, Pushkin did, or possibly Karamzin (a 19th century historian) - the point is, somehow or other this has come to be a famous saying. The fools issue is a given in all countries. I don't know if you've met any people, but if you have you will know that most people think most other people are morons. This has been a constant in society for a long time - read Pliny or Marcus Aurelius or Cicero (but only the last one if you are prepared to have your idealistic vision of the man smashed to pieces and trampled into the dust). I am sure there must have been an ancient Egyptian hieroglyph for "idiot". You could probably work out what it was by seeing which hieroglyph is the most common.

The roads thing is more interesting. It's not clear from the saying whether the problem is that the roads exist, that their condition isn't good, or that they don't exist at all. Google would suggest the latter two - search for "Russian roads" and you'll see all sorts of horror pictures of cars trapped in window-height mud after a rain storm. However, judging by some of the comments alongside them, at least some of these pictures are either not of where they say they are of, or were taken a long time ago and the situation has improved since them.

Maybe I am being incredibly naive, but I just don't believe this can be a regular occurrence. Locals would be too smart to get themselves into this situation, and if the roads were normally this bad people would just drive off-road like in Mongolia. Photo from www.ssqq.com
When I was travelling the Trans-siberian last summer there were long stretches of the railtrack that went alongside what looked to me like a perfectly fine road - tarmac/gravel and everything. I also met an English guy in Ulan-Ude who had driven there from London - not in one of those transformer-like monsters with giant wheels, but in a normal car - and he said the roads had been fine. The only time I personally ended up driving on an appalling/non-existent road was between Irkutsk and the shores of Lake Baikal to get a boat to Olkhon Island. In some places there was a mud track, but it was very uneven and often disappeared altogether. The whole journey took five hours to go 250km, and along the way we passed overturned trucks and cars that had misjudged the steepness of the camber (it was very steep at times) or the depth of a pothole. But on the way back from Olkhon island a week later the same mashrutka went along a normal gravelled road! So either the Russians are super road-builders extraordinaire or the first mashrutka driver was on crack and took us a needlessly bad way. Maybe he just hated his suspension and wanted it to suffer. It's possible that further north, or in more remote locations the roads are very bad, but I haven't been there so I can't say.

I'll admit that around Moscow some of the road surfaces could do with replacing. There are some alarming pot holes on roads along which people drive pretty fast. There is also a problem with the capacity of the roads - the main route between Moscow and St Petersburg is currently a single lane in each direction for most of the way, which is clearly ridiculous (although there is a new toll road being built currently, the first parts of which will open next year), and in Moscow the traffic jams are worse than I can possibly describe. Although Russia spends a larger percentage of its GDP on roads than the US does, as pointed out by President Obama in his 2011 State of the Union address, it's a much bigger country and it is starting out from a much less roady position. Russia has a paved road network less than 10% of the size of the US's, and only 5% of its total road network is considered to be "good quality". Investment spending collapsed after the fall of the Soviet Union and only recovered to the world average in 2007, and since then the financial crisis has caused infrastructure spending plans to be chucked out the window. Plus, when the government does spend, they get very few miles of road for their money - this article from the Telegraph estimated road building is six times more expensive in Russia than in the US or the EU.

Another problem is that too many people act like fools on the roads. Partly this is because you can buy a driving license here without having to do any kind of training or test (illegally, obviously). What happens next depends on what kind of a lunatic you are. If you are a misanthropic lunatic, you will drive around in your car and possibly kill someone. If you are just an idiotic lunatic you will be too concerned about killing someone to do this, so you will not drive, and will instead just have wasted the money you spent on bribing everyone to get the license in the first place. 

I have also seen some pretty spectacularly bad driving on the roads - either collectively or individually. In St Petersburg I saw a car reverse at high speed straight down a main road, although for various reasons I think he may have been trying to get away from the police, in which case he was successful so...well done. In Moscow cars frequently drive up the tram tracks to try and bypass the traffic, which at times has the lovely side effect of preventing the trams from moving, which creates gridlock at intersections when aided by the Manhattan-like compulsion of all drivers to enter a box junction even if the exit is blocked (and unlike Manhattan, this is technically forbidden because in Russia, as in the UK, all junctions are box junctions). I spent half an hour on a tram once whilst it tried to turn left from a main road to a minor one. Drivers were so desperate to get across the intersection that all rules - including sticking to your own side of the road - were abandoned as people tried to weave their way through the traffic.

Finally, there is a big problem in Moscow regarding the use of sirens. These are given out to help people bypass traffic jams, officially only to members of the Duma etc, and officially only for use in emergencies (like trying to get to a vote), but in practice there are people who don't need them who have them, and some of the people who do need them use them whenever they feel like going shopping rather than only for official government business. Cars displaying sirens have been involved in fatal accidents because to get to their important business they drive up the wrong side of the road and speed like crazy. Naturally they are not prosecuted for these accidents, which has tended to annoy normal people. So nowadays when everyone has to stop to let one of these VIPs through you can hear people beeping their horns and remarking sarcastically about the "servants of the people" who are zooming by. It must be super-annoying for Muscovites, but I love these types of comments, because it sounds so much like something people would say in Britain about our MPs, and I like to think that British people and Russian people have an awful lot in common.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

*@!$@!! Russian swear words

I have an unfortunate tendency, when very upset, to want to lapse into nineteenth-century English. I am not sure how people nowadays are expected to react when their sister runs off with some unsuitable man or when someone insults them, but I just want to throw my gloves on the floor and tell the offender my second will be round in the morning. There is something in the back of my mind, though, that tells me I should be swearing at the person instead.

Swearing at people is best avoided in foreign languages, even apart from the obvious rudeness, since swearing is all about attitude, which is much harder to pull off with a funny accent. Plus you really need to understand a lot about the nuances of the words to use them properly, otherwise we are back to sounding silly or just odd rather than threatening. The upside of all this is that it is also very difficult to be insulted in a foreign language. Even if you technically know the words are very rude, you don't FEEL that they are rude, and hence it is almost impossible to take offense.

Russian swear words, it turns out, are much "stronger" than British swear words, in the sense that you can't actually use them on TV, radio or in print, whereas I think you are allowed to swear as much as you like after nine o'clock in the evening in the UK. There are two groups of Russian swear words: one set that are pretty bad but are in fact usable, although not in polite company, in front of children etc, and one set that are much stronger and are basically not usable if you are an educated person (this group of words is called мат (mat)). There are four basic words in this group, but if four words is not enough there are basically limitless variations - you can add prefixes or suffixes or combine them with other words. Four words should be four times as many as you need though - Dostoevsky wrote that a Russian could express the entire range of his feelings with one word of мат. But I guess people like to be creative. A quick Google search will take you to this site, which lists an unbelievable 1700 words or expressions you shouldn't use. Or this Russian language tutorial site, which hilariously has a lesson on Russian swear words between discussions on meeting people and shopping.

There is a long history of intolerance of the use of мат. Catherine the Great issued a special proclamation banning all use of one of the words. Under the Soviets you could end up with a fifteen day jail sentence for using мат, and even today public use of these words is punishable by a fine and possible arrest (although in practice this is rarely enforced). According to a 2003 article in the New Yorker, the prejudice against these words came in with Christianity in the 10th century. The theory is that these words, which are all to do with sex, were previously part of a pagan fertility cult the Christian missionaries were trying to stamp out. They apparently still sound, to Russian ears, fairly blasphemous (and Russians are overall more religious than people in the UK so this matters more). For example, one of the most basic formulae implies that the mother of the person you are talking to slept with the devil. On the other hand, Pushkin, Lermontov, Turgenev and Chekov all used мат in their writing, and it shows up in a lot of folk tales. Some people feel that while it can be rude, it isn't necessarily - it can just be expressive. That article in the New Yorker referred to it as "more of a philosophy than a language", indicating everything from power dynamics to sincerity, with the real meaning of the words heavily dependent on intonation and context and thus almost impossible to translate. I don't think you'd find anyone saying that about British swear words. Or maybe I just don't know enough about them.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Policeman on a train

Generally speaking, Russian policeman (or militiamen, or whatever) are supposed to be scary. The first time I came to Russia, for work, the head of the office in Moscow told me that if I saw the police I should walk very quickly in the opposite direction. He even thought it necessary to give me his phone number in case I got into trouble. Clearly, Moscow was a dangerous place.

Except of course, the policemen I spoke to on that visit, after ignoring his advice (unintentionally - I just forgot), were very helpful, laughed at my feeble attempts at Russian and generally didn't try to steal all my money (or in fact any of my money). Still, if you read the guidebooks, they still tell you never to show a policeman your real passport (in case they take it off you), and to pretend to call your embassy if they start asking too many questions.

So when I got on the train to St Petersburg a week ago, and found myself in a compartment with two militia people, I wasn't very amused. The younger one (in his mid-20s) launched into a long speech about something or other, of which I understood absolutely nothing, and told him so. He smiled and said, "it's alright, you don't have to do anything", and then, since it was by now obvious that I was a foreigner, we started on the normal topics of conversation. After a while he inevitably asked me what I was doing in the country. Unfortunately my face unconsciously twists in some peculiar way whenever anyone asks me about real life, and he thought he had offended me. He held up his hands and said, "no, no, I'm not asking officially, I was just interested", and since I hadn't meant to evade the question in the first place, I of course explained. We talked some more about home and abroad, life etc etc, and I actually felt kind of sorry for him. He wasn't from anywhere near Moscow, and he got sent round the country to wherever, so he must have been miles away from everyone he knew. He told me that he had learnt English years ago in school, but he had never been able to practice it because no foreigners came to his home town. And then he plucked at his uniform and said, "and now foreigners won't approach me because of this". To which the only response is yes, that would do it. We carried on talking and eventually his boss said they had to go and do some work, and they both left the compartment.

After half an hour or so, the younger one came back and opened up his laptop. I was reading a book, but periodically I could hear American voices emanating from his computer, saying things like, "enemy forces sighted" and "fire". So when his boss reappeared and they both went out to do some more work, obviously I looked at his computer to see what the hell he was doing. And guess what it was? Some US video game where you go round shooting baddies - Call of Duty 2 or something.

It's somehow comforting to think that so many 20-something year old guys around the world are the same. No matter what their job, they really want to be playing video games and shooting bad guys.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Hummus is how much? The cost of living

Today I did my weekly food shop, got back, looked at the receipt and thought, holy crap! I just spent £4.50 on hummus! I don't know how it is possible that hummus is so expensive - maybe there was an unspecial offer. Before I came to Russia I assumed that food would be cheaper than in the UK, but this has not turned out to be the case. Specifically, anything I eat appears to be expensive.

Of course, I don't have to eat hummus. But it does take a while, when you move to a new country/new living situation, to work out what you are now going to live on. You have to go round the shops, pick up the food, examine it from all sides, and consider the all-important question, can I cook this in my current kitchen? For me, this has generally meant on one ring. Technically when I lived in New York I had an oven for a couple of years, but I was short of bookshelves at the time so I had to fill the oven with books, which made turning it on difficult. Currently I subsist almost entirely on risotto, which I can cook in one pan and requires a minimum of excess water. This is important because everything has to be done with bottled water so it is a huge waste of water to boil anything. At the end of the month I will have another problem, as my room mate is going back to Japan, taking her fridge with her. No more cereal for me.

In Russia there is a lack of several important (to me) food items, including tins. There is very little tinned food in the supermarkets near me, and instead they go in for dried food in a big way. This means no tinned soup, no tinned chickpeas or butter beans (well, they have imported tinned butter beans in Елисеевский (Yeliseyevsky), the Moscow equivalent of Harrods food hall, but at more than £1 per tin, it's just not worth it). I am too lazy to soak beans overnight, and dried soup is not as good as tinned soup. These aren't the only deficits: Russia, along with the entire non-UK world, is yet to discover the delights of salt and vinegar hula hoops, neither are they alive to the wonders of orange squash, although you can get the strange French mint squash in Ашан (Ashan - a French supermarket chain). One the other hand, they have better bread than we do, especially dark rye bread, which is hard to get hold of in the UK, and Armenian bread, which is a bit like a tortilla. There is also something called творог (tvorog), which is like cottage cheese only less liquid, which is wonderful stuff. The honey here is better, and they sell пряники (lebkuchen) all year round, which is an improvement on trying to eat a year's supply at Christmas, my usual custom. Plus they have a lot more types of cured meat. In terms of fruit and vegetables, you can get most things, just possibly not when you want them. Either that, or the supermarkets near me need to fire whoever does their buying. One week they will purchase an enormous quantity of red peppers, which will proceed to slowly rot over the next few weeks, without them getting any more in. Likewise with broccoli - sometimes loads, then none for a month. Prices for some fresh foods vary from week to week, sometimes by as much as 25%, for no discernible reason.

A few (currently) strangely expensive foods here (using Ocado as a comparison): hummus (£4.58 vs 99p for 200g), squash (£5.16 vs £3.20 for a litre, using lemon syrup as squash), cauliflower heads (£1.46 vs £1.05), broccoli heads (£1.32 vs £1.20), Activia yoghurt 4-pack (£2.10 vs £1.84), cottage cheese 340g (£1.65 vs 95p). Rye bread is much cheaper (50p vs £1.60 per loaf), as is risotto rice (£1.11 vs £2.24 for 900g), and orange juice (79p vs £1.20 for 1 litre). Overall I spend about the same amount on food here as I did in when I was a student in the UK.

The trouble with this is the difference in wages. The average (median) annual wage in Russia in 2011 was £4,200 ($6,875), vs £20,800 ($33,385) in the UK (2010) and £16,425 ($26,364) in the US (2010). Even assuming the median wage in Russia is actually higher due to the white/black income thing, food must take up a much higher percentage of a family's income than in the US/UK. As this article indicates, for 10% of the population it takes up 100% of their income, and 53% of the population only have enough money for food, utilities and clothing. Something like buying your own apartment is only possible for 1% of the population. To buy a one-bedroom flat in Moscow would require the average Muscovite (who already earns more than most Russians) to save 100% of their income for 12 years!

[Of course, in the UK unless you're really rich you have to pay tax on income, and in Russia, well, multiple people have told me no one in their right mind pays their taxes. Theoretically income tax is 13%, but you can get around this by having a difference between your white income and black income.Your white income is your official income on which you have to pay tax. The company you work for will often set this really really low, and then just pay you the rest (your black/grey income) on the side. However, if one day you suddenly need a much larger official income, for example if you want to get a visa to visit Europe or the States, your firm will just print you out a new piece of paper saying you now earn shed loads of money.]

As newspapers in the UK are constantly telling us, the most expensive thing in life is children. The Guardian reported this year that the cost for raising one child to adulthood is now £218,000, a number that cannot possibly be true, because it would mean most of the population would be unable to afford any children at all. [In fact, if you look at how they calculate these numbers it becomes clear that the people who write for the Guardian are quite odd, since this total includes more than £62,000 on childcare and babysitting and their list of "essentials" includes buying the child a car.] In Russia, however, it must be legitimately difficult for parents to afford to raise more than one child, given the high cost of essentials that are actually essential. This is why you get situations like the tour guide I had in Krasnoyarsk, who had an undergraduate degree in Physics, a PhD in Political Science and had to work three jobs to support his one son. He wasn't even doing this on his own - his wife also worked, as a lecturer in Mathematics at the university. These were highly educated, professional people - if they had to work this hard just to support one child, what hope does anyone else have? Maybe this is why Russia has such a big demographics problem.

Note on source for median wage: Rosstat (Russian source for statistics) didn't provide median, only mean from what I could see, so I averaged the mean wages for the 5th and 6th decile of workers. Not perfect obviously, but I think the underlying point still stands. I was surprised about the difference in median wage between the US and the UK as well, but I think this is correct. The mean US wage is of course higher than the mean UK wage, but wealth is more unevenly distributed. And the tax rate might be lower in the US, I can't remember, and this is wage not income, which might also make a difference. Exchange rates used as average over period. 

Saturday, 9 June 2012

End of term and accents

Yesterday was the last day of the summer term at the language school I attend, so the last week or so has been taken up with farewells. It is not the last day for me, since I am staying on until September at least, but most of the university students are leaving. We had another talent show type thing, which was marginally less embarrassing than the one at Christmas, but rather more depressing, because it did underline how bad most of us still are at Russian. According to the US State Department, it should take a native English speaker around 2,300 hours (1,100 hours of classes and the rest self-study) of study to reach competency in Russian, whatever that means. I think so far I am at around 850, so I am not even half way there yet. Must work harder. Presumably the number of required hours is higher for Japanese/Korean/Chinese people, who form the majority of the student body. Since a lot of them basically didn't know any Russian at all when they got here, a year isn't really that long.

Even with 2,300 hours I don't expect I'll get the accent right, which is another problem. British people, so presumably Americans as well, mainly have problems with soft sounds in Russian, i.e. we tend to pronounce щ like ш, and don't say things like счастье (shactiye - happiness) and любовь (lubov - love) correctly, or anything else that involves soft signs (ь), i.e. almost every single verb. I have now watched over 60 hours of my Russian soap opera Poor Nastya (Бедная Настя), and the word любовь comes up a lot (it is a melodrama), and every time I try to copy the way the actors say it, but I still can't get it right. People from Belarus have the same problem according to my teacher, so I guess maybe British people and Belarussians sound similar when speaking Russian?

Speaking of accents, I started watching a different soap opera last week, because I already know the only people I like in Бедная Настя are going to end up unhappy, and it really disturbs me when people I like are unhappy, even fictional people (perhaps especially fictional people, since in reality the possibility of future happiness always exists, whereas in fiction being unhappy at the end of a book is final). This one is called Грехи Отцов (Grekhi Otsov - Sins of the Fathers) and the main attraction of it is that it has most of the same actors as Бедная Настя, including the people I like, so I am hoping they will end up happy this time round. Anyway, the point of all this burble is that they have a couple of American characters (played by Russians), who have to do American accents in Russian, which is really strange to listen to. It's obvious, I suppose, that actors from every country must have to do foreign accents, I just hadn't really thought about it before. It would be really interesting to know how they describe different accents to Russians in theatre school - what does an American/French/English accent sound like to a Russian person? And do they bother trying to distinguish a New York American accent from a Texan American accent?

Lots of native English-speaking people like foreign accents, especially French, Italian and Spanish ones, but apparently these accents don't sound so great when you are speaking Russian. My teacher said French accents sound especially bad, which is a new and totally bizarre concept to me, since almost everyone loves French accents in the UK. The best foreign accents to have are from the Baltic republics, which are pleasant to listen to. Maybe like Irish accents sound to the English?

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Cold water and Moscow summers

In the eternal search for the perfect hot water pipe, the Moscow authorities are tireless. So unrelenting is their spirit, that rather than accept second-best they "repair" and "improve" the system every summer. Of course, this has the minor (to them) side effect of cutting off hot water to parts of Moscow for ten days at a time. This happens in rotation round the city, starting after the May holidays (so around May 11th or so), and continuing until August 31st. Naturally, no process runs absolutely smoothly, so when they have upgraded the water pipes for your area, it is almost inevitable that there will be some sort of mishap in the newly repaired part, which will result in the water being turned off again.

Today was the first day without hot water in my area. Notices went up yesterday, and I actually read them due to the masses of red underlining below the words. Normally I don't read notices because if I read everything that got stuck up in the общежитие (hostel), I would never get anything done.

So what are my choices? The first, obviously, is to suck it up and take cold showers. This is possible, although it should be noted that cold water in Moscow is not like normal cold water. It's a lot colder. However, if we keep the windows shut at night to make the room an unbearable sauna, I will probably want an ice-cold shower in the morning. I'll still have to psych myself up, have a countdown etc etc, but I have spent summers without hot water before. The second option, which is what a lot of people do, is to heat water in massive pots on the stove, and then throw it over yourself with a thing called a ковш (kovsh), which is like a ladle only bigger. This option is pretty much a non-starter for me. Firstly, I don't own a massive pot, and I don't think the electric rings in the shared kitchen could take the weight if I bought one. Secondly, everyone else on my floor would hate me for hogging the electric rings. And thirdly, at the moment the electric rings are broken anyway.

On the bright side, in three years we are promised that this will only happen for three days a summer, and a few years after that, not at all. A decade or so ago, everyone used to have to go a month without hot water, and it has gradually been coming down ever since. I know the systems were created in the 1950s, and I understand that they now need updating, but I don't understand why they don't just do the whole thing in one go instead of a little bit every year. Unless of course, they are not really doing any updating at all, but instead have some nefarious purpose. Which is totally fine, I just wish they would be honest about it.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Choosing the right tree for your city

Let's say someone has come along and bombed the city you live in to hell, and an insane dictator has tasked you with rebuilding it. Eager to not be shot in front of your children, you want to do a good job, so you decide for the sake of general greenery to plant a whole bunch of trees pretty much anywhere there is space. What kind of trees are you going to choose?

If your answer is, "why the hell does that matter? Just give me some trees that grow fast so I can keep my head", congratulations, you have saved your life, but condemned your grandchildren's generation to extreme attacks of hay fever. This is basically what the Moscow town planners did after WWII, and then results can be summed up in one word: пух (pookh). This stuff is currently descending on Moscow like a biblical plague. It can get through locked doors and windows. It defies all attempts to catch it, which makes people look like demented cats scrabbling at ghosts in the air. I have spent the last several weeks looking for a tree with a massive ball of cotton wool stuck on top of it, which is what I imagine the poplar trees that produce this stuff must look like. Apparently no one at the time when they were planted knew that this is what these trees do, which just goes to show what happens when you terrify biologists so much they are afraid to tell you the truth. Poplar trees, incidentally, along with birches, are incredibly popular with Russian writers. I am yet to read a work of literature entirely lacking in both.

In other pollen-related news, another type of tree planted in large numbers around Moscow made the newspapers a couple of weeks ago, when a massive cloud of its pollen approached the city. It apparently looked like a cloud of green smog, and some people thought it was either Armaggedon or from a fire in a chemical factory.

However, according to yet another set of reports (I spend way too much time reading the news), we only have to wait 20 years or so and all these trees will be dead, thus ending the пух's reign of terror. The Moscow authorities are so efficient at picking up dead leaves (and this is true, in the autumn there are marauding bands of men with rakes sweeping up everything in sight) that the trees are beginning to lack in essential nutrients provided by the composting effect of the dead leaves, and will start to die off in a few years. At which point maybe they can plant some cherry blossom trees like in Japan.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Victory Day (День Победы) - Part 2

Everyone assured me that it never, EVER rained on Victory Day, that the government took steps to ensure that the Sun shone, and that any other outcome was totally impossible. So naturally, when I woke up on Victory Day and it was raining, I was unsurprised. But the rain didn't last long, and in the afternoon I wandered down to Victory Park, where huge numbers of people had gathered under the watchful eyes of equally huge numbers of police. It was a good opportunity to play spot-the-different-types-of-police, of which there are many, but I don't know all of their names. The ones who wear grey camouflage outfits had formed a continuous line along the edge of the road around a kilometre long, and then there were mounted police, police surrounding all the fountains (and there are a lot of fountains), police separating the area in front of the stage into sections and manning the barricades, and then a whole lot more police to make sure everyone went through the metal detectors and had their bags searched. All of this seemed to me to be completely pointless, since no one appeared to be the slightest bit inclined to make trouble.

If you don't know Victory Park, it basically is a very long walkway with fountains on either side leading up to a massive obelisk with a woman and two cherubs stuck on top. Along the centre of the walkway are stones that represent each year of the fighting (starting in 1941). And on each stone, but especially on the first, which was the most terrible part of the war for Russia, people had left flowers.

1941 stone
1941 stone
This is remarkable when you consider that many of those flowers were laid down individually - many people brought a small number of flowers and either put them on these memorials or gave them to one of the veterans who were walking around the park wearing their medals. This was extremely touching - most of the veterans were carrying armfuls of flowers. And of course, the financial services industry wanted to express its thanks too:

Advert for Sberbank. It says, "Thank you for the victory!"
There were food stands along the edges of the park, and under the obelisk a stage had been constructed, from which performers recited war poetry and sang old songs about the war. Everyone in the crowd appeared to know the words, but like people the world over were reluctant to be seen to be getting too into anything in public and so only half-heartedly joined in. People waved Russian or USSR flags, some of the veterans danced with each other, and huge television screens showed footage of the war and the first victory celebrations in Moscow, 67 years ago. Note Stalin's cameo in the video.


video

After a few of hours of old songs I needed a change of scenery, so we headed off to the main building of Moscow State University to wait for the fireworks, which were due to start at ten. Most of the people in the city appeared to have had the same idea, and as a result when we all got out of the metro at Боробьёвы горы (borobyovy gori) no one could be bothered to walk up the path because that was the long way round and all the best spots would have been gone, so we all tried to climb the incredibly steep hill instead. It was so steep that this could only be done by forming a human chain and dragging up people after you, which is what happened. It was really bizarre - the hillside was swarming with people holding onto trees trunks to stop themselves falling whilst offering their hands to the people below. It was also really, really fun. I don't get to climb up muddy hills nearly enough anymore. When people got to the top everyone cheered, and then, since all the roads had been shut, we meandered down to the river and waited for the fireworks. Many people decided now was a good time for a sandwich, and Subway probably made more money that evening than they normally do in a month.

Waiting for the fireworks to begin
Fireworks, one of my favourite things about life
I ended up right next to where the fireworks were launched from (the top of a ski jump), and I think they have more powerful fireworks in Russia, because they were much, much louder than I am used to. When the rockets took off, you could feel the ground shake under you.

Walking back towards the main building. It looks like something Batman would perch on, but I like it
There were probably 15 minutes of fireworks, and then we all walked back to the subway. The path had so many bottles strewn on it I kept kicking them at people accidentally, but although by this time all the police had disappeared, everyone was happy-and-peaceful drunk, rather than violent-and-angry drunk. It was a really great holiday - we should really think about importing it into the UK. Not necessarily the whole war thing, but a four-day weekend with outdoor concerts, fairs and fireworks at the beginning of May would be nice.

Finally, here is a link to a very touching Soviet film (with English subtitles) about a young soldier in the war - Баллада о солдате (Ballade o soldate - ballad of a soldier) made in 1959. It is worth watching just to get an impression of the total confusion in Russia during the war. Even if the hero had survived, how on earth would he have found the girl? [This isn't a spoiler because a) it's a Russian film so there is a 99% chance the hero will die, b) it's a war film, so that percentage rises to 100%, and c) they tell you in the first minute of the film that he doesn't make it.] Normal society was so broken-down, and the movement of people around the country so large-scale, that they never would have found each other again.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Electronic dictionaries

No one would call America a small, insignificant country (at least not to its face), so why don't the manufacturers of electronic dictionaries make products with the base language as English? Almost every single Japanese, Korean or Chinese person at my school (i.e. 60% of the entire student population) has an electronic dictionary. I was in Media Markt (an electronics store) yesterday, and I even overheard one employee telling another that if a Japanese person comes in to send them straight to the electronic dictionaries, since that's all they ever buy.

I don't remember electronic dictionaries as working very well, but that was when I was twelve, which is like the age of the dinosaurs in electronic-dictionary terms. The Casio Ex-word versions the Japanese use now are fantastic. Not only do they include Japanese-Russian-English dictionaries, complete with conjugations, usage examples etc, but also monolingual dictionaries in Russian and Japanese, an encyclopaedia in Japanese, grammar textbooks in Russian and Japanese, and they have audio recordings of all the words so you can hear how they should be pronounced. Pretty cool, right? Having one massively reduces the time spent looking up words, and since they are really small, they are perfect for people who want to exercise in the gym rather than carrying around dictionaries the size of a couple of bricks.

Naturally I wanted to buy one, preferably a Russian-English-German-Spanish one, since then my dictionary buying days would be forever at an end, but I was prepared to accept Russian-English. Unfortunately Casio's UK/US websites don't even mention the things, because they don't produce them for English-speaking people. If I wanted one where the base language was German, or French, or Italian, Spanish, Russian, Japanese or seemingly any other language known to man, I could buy one, but not for English. You might think I could buy the one built for Russians learning English, and I might end up doing that, but it is far from ideal. For a start, you can't click through to see the conjugation of a verb you have looked up in English, you have to look it up again in Russian. Secondly, there is only audio for English words, not for Russian ones, and thirdly, the thing includes ten monolingual English dictionaries and only one Russian monolingual one, and no Russian grammar. I didn't even know that you could have ten different monolingual English dictionaries - doesn't that just mean the first nine were missing out words? It even contains 100 works of world literature in English, and the texts of famous English speeches. Even though it doesn't exactly take up space, I would still have to pay for all that rubbish, when I only actually want two out of seventeen volumes on the machine (or three if you count the encyclopaedia in Russian). Since these things cost £250, it means that only £45 of that would be useful to me.

I feel very aggrieved.