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.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Victory Day (День Победы) - Part 1

As you may know, Hitler lost World War II. This result is celebrated every year in Russia on May 9th, and Wednesday was Victory Day +67 years in the Great Patriotic War. So Happy Victory Day for Wednesday. If you are thinking, "That was a really long time ago - they need to get over it," I advise you not to voice those thoughts to a Russian - it is a really big deal here. Thousands of people turned out for the parade down Тверская (Tverskaya), and all over town people were wearing orange-and-black striped ribbons, which is the symbol of victory (it represents the Order of Saint George, the patron saint of Russia). Russians mark this day because the Soviet Union lost around 25 million people in the war. If the total number of people killed in the war was 60 million (usual estimates 50-70 million), this means over 40% of the dead were Soviet citizens. 14% of the entire population of the USSR was killed, compared with less than 1% of the UK population and 0.3% of the US population (although some countries lost almost as high a percentage, amongst them Greece and the Baltic Republics, and Poland lost an even higher percentage of its people). In some towns taken by the Germans, literally every single inhabitant died. Over one and a half million people starved to death in St Petersburg. The Soviet Union sacrificed possibly more than any other country to defeat Hitler, and they don't think that the rest of the world appreciates that enough. 

One the other hand, it is slightly weird to see banners around Moscow proclaiming "USSR Victory", or hear the defeat of Hitler described as "a gift we gave the whole world" - victory in WWII was kind-of a joint effort. Once, when we were discussing what foreigners think about Russia in my English conversation class, one of the women came out with the statement that "British people think that there have only been three people to rule Russia well - Peter I, Catherine II and Stalin." I almost choked on my biscuit. Apart from the fact that I doubt most British people have even heard of either Peter I or Catherine II, let alone hold considered opinions about their leaderships skills, I am pretty much certain that people in the UK don't, in general, have a favourable opinion of Stalin. When I explained this, as tactfully as I could, she responded with, "But Stalin won WWII". So maybe there is just a general lack of appreciation amongst all the old Allied powers about what the others did.

Regardless of the historical rights and wrongs, in mood the day is a lot like Independence day in the States, with a bit of Memorial day thrown in. People give speeches about how great the country is, and there are concerts and fireworks displays.

It all starts with a huge military parade, 1.5km long, with 14,000 soldiers and 100 units of heavy equipment. It was invitation-only - at least in Red Square, and we were advised to stay away from the whole thing, as the centre of town is currently hell, what with all the soldiers, police, barriers everywhere and the protests going on. I was in the centre on Sunday (for the final parade rehearsal), and Monday (to generally wander around), and it took an age to get anywhere. Every street you started down turned out to be blocked at the end, and if you think walking past policemen makes you feel guilty, try walking past large groups of soldiers. I had the permanent feeling I was about to be arrested and/or shot.

The final rehearsal on Sunday should have been just like the parade, only with a lower probability of being crushed by swarms of people. The noise was incredible, as was the clouds of black smoke these things give off as they move. I suppose being environmentally friendly isn't a priority for tanks.

Everyone getting bored waiting for the rehearsal to begin. We were two hours early, so it was a long wait.

Tanks

Despite having a Master's with a focus on Strategic Studies, I know nothing about military equipment. Some sort of amoured vehicle?

Big missiles

Very big missiles, normally with nuclear payloads according to the people standing behind me, who said they needed them to shoot at the US. They were joking (I hope)
One of the helicopters that flew overhead in formation. The flag weighs 1.8 tonnes
This was only the second military parade of my life - the first being last November, also in Moscow. That one was to commemorate 70 years since the parade of 1941, and used only equipment from that time. Tanks were an awful lot smaller then.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Russian buildings are falling down...

I love old buildings. If I ever manage to scrape together enough money to buy a house, I want it to be an old one, which I will then fill with old furniture and sit around drinking tea out of an old cup whilst listening to old music. So I find it fairly distressing that many of the older buildings in Moscow, and in Russia more generally, are in an appalling state of repair. As I've said before, it's not like they have that many to start off with. Yes, Russia would be the ideal place to have one of those annoying property shows where an obnoxious, over-privileged family moan about the difficulties of restoring a old house whilst complaining that there is nowhere to put the horses. If someone actually made a programme like that in Russia, I might even watch it.

Why are these buildings falling down? Russia is not a poor country, so if the government wanted to, they must have the money to repair them. Many of the buildings are right in the centre of cities, so apart from being historically valuable in themselves, they are sitting on incredibly valuable land. It's also interesting that the delapidated buildings are not evenly spread across the towns and cities I have visited. Last summer I started in Vladivostock and over the course of six weeks or so, made the trip to Moscow, stopping off in various places along the way. Vladivostock, Irkutsk, Tobolsk, Kazan and Moscow contained an awful lot of buildings in dire need of repair. Khabarovsk, Ulan Ude, Krasnoyarsk, Yekaterinburg and Nizhny Novgorod not so much. Maybe it would be possible to create a corruption or incompetence index for local governors based on the number of buildings falling down on their patch.

Vladivostock. Doesn't look too bad until you realise there is a plant growing out of the roof and the decoration around the windows is starting to fall off.
I didn't really take that many photos of buildings falling down in Vladivostock, partly because I didn't know that it was going to become a major theme of the journey, and partly because it seemed somehow rude when I had just arrived in the country. In hindsight, however, Vladivostock was a total disaster zone. The roads looked like an earthquake had just passed through - great chunks of tarmac were jutting out at different levels at the edges of the roads, buildings had been half torn down and then abandoned, and if you arrived by sea, like I did, your first view of the city was this:

 
Exactly. After having said all that, you probably won't believe that I really liked Vladivostock, but I did. It has so much potential, and I want to be the mayor.

Irkutsk. There were still people living in this building.
Irkutsk - "the Paris of Siberia" had large areas filled with beautiful old houses. Unfortunately, many of them looked pretty much exactly like this one, where the building has started sinking into the earth, and not just the window frames, but the actual walls had started to decay. Some houses had sunk so much it was no longer possible to open the doors on the ground floor. Even without this, the difficulty with Russia is that the climate is so extreme that buildings need constant upkeep. In Moscow, where the winter is milder than Siberia, they had to get busy repainting all the fences once the snow melted. A coat of paint only lasts a year. Unfortunately they chose to paint the ones near me in bright pink and violet stripes, but that's another story.

Tobolsk. Right at the bottom of the hill on which the Kremlin perches.

Tobolsk.

Tobolsk. The funny thing is the plaque on the corner says the building is an architectural monument.



A word of advice: don't go to Tobolsk. Yes, I know the guide book says that there is a beautiful old town there, but in fact it has been almost entirely demolished and replaced with empty apartment blocks, leaving only a few ruins half-sunk into the ground and covered with netting. There is a Kremlin, but you can get into just one of the buildings, and the only person in town is a mad old bone carver who carves things from the mammoth tusks he finds lying around the place. He used to work in a beautiful old building, but then it fell down and he had to move round the corner to one almost as decrepit, but not remotely beautiful. He is really friendly though, and he'll let you have a go at carving bones if you ask nicely.

Kazan. On the high street.

Also on Kazan high street.

Kazan high street is a bit of a disaster, no? These buildings have already reached the point of no return.
Aah, Kazan. A place that according to the guidebook is extremely rich due to its oil wealth, but when you get there you find that this somehow doesn't fit with the fact that half the buildings are falling down and the toilets in the cathedral where the Virgin of Kazan icon is held are just holes in a raised platform, with the waste falling straight onto the ground below. The last picture is of what used to be the grandest hotel in the city. How did they let it get into such a state?

Suzdal. This is a painting on the inside wall of a church, but it is so degraded you can't even made out what it is anymore.

A nunnery in Suzdal.
I've mentioned Suzdal before, and it really does have that trapped-in-time feeling. The churches are stunningly beautiful, the air is clean, the streets are quiet. It is basically paradise. Except for the fact that you get the impression that your grandchildren won't be able to see it like this. There is a fine line between slightly faded in a melancholic-for-past-glories kind of way, and just run down, and some buildings in Suzdal have gone straight over that line and not looked back. Part of the problem in Suzdal is that so many of the buildings are churches, and the Russian church must already have a list a mile long of buildings that need repairing. Judging by what I have read about the position of the Orthodox church under Communism, it must have been both financial and politically very difficult to do any repair work on churches in the USSR, so they are probably now playing 70-year catch-up.

And this is all before we even get to Moscow. All of the following pictures are within two blocks of the Kremlin. You can't see much in the photographs, but under the netting the buildings look pretty much like the picture of the hotel in Kazan - only the brick structure of the building is left without any of the beautiful mouldings.

This building is just behind Театральная (Teatralnaya) metro station. Right next to Red Square.

You might think the netting means they are repairing it, but judging from the amount of rubbish that has built up inside the netting, I don't think anyone goes in there much.

The church on the far left? That is on Red Square.

A block down from ГУМ (GUM - big shopping mall)

This is over the other side, nearer Christ the Saviour cathedral.
It's difficult to know whether things have got better or worse, as I wasn't in Russia in the 1990s. Possibly they are improving. My grad school WMD professor had, in a previous life, negotiated nuclear weapon reduction agreements with the USSR. He travelled frequently to Moscow in the 1980s and 1990s, and he said at that time chunks of masonry used to regularly fall off buildings. I think that is much rarer now.

Anyway, it's not as if other countries have always taken good care of their historic buildings. Just look at London, which over the years has employed some of the most criminally stupid town planners known to man. And if you read what Charles Dickens had to say in Pictures from Italy, his account of his travels in the country, you realise that a large number of the monuments he saw were falling down. He describes how a particular cathedral was "odorous with the rotting of Correggio's frescoes in the Cupola". I'm pretty sure that wouldn't be the case now. So maybe Russia is like Italy 150 years ago, and 150 years in the future, all of these places will be sparkling. It's just a pity for me that I won't be here to see them.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

What happened to all the stately homes?

It's easy to imagine, when walking around parts of Moscow, that the entire city was founded by some sort of crazed builder cerca 1950. There are a lot of identically run-down apartment blocks that were originally put up as short-term solutions to the accommodation shortage, but which have somehow managed to limp on into the modern day, despite the fact that everyone is continually expecting them to fall down. One day they will, and everyone will have the satisfaction of telling their friends, "I told you so."

Residential block, Moscow:
Not architecture's finest hour. Photo from amazing-architecture.com
In reality, however, Moscow is at least 850 years old, and probably older. Unfortunately, there is almost nothing left that is actually old, because people invading Russia have a nasty habit of burning the place to the ground (I'm looking at you, Golden Horde and Crimean Tatars), and if it looks like they might forget, the locals do if for them (see Napoleon). However, the French left 200 years ago, which gave the local aristocrats about a hundred years to get down to the serious business of building stately homes before they were all massacred by the Communists. So what happened to all the stately homes?

A lot of them are still here.


Просмотреть Усадьбы на карте большего размера

Map created by nataturka.ru

I know - that is a lot of stately homes. And they turn up in the most surprising places. For example, every day when I get the tram to school, the route is basically down one street and turn right, but at one point the tram tracks take a massive detour round a big red building.

This is the good half of the building. Has a bit of graffiti and blocked up windows, but otherwise intact.

Definitely some sort of gate.
The building itself is semi-derelict. On the other side to the photo, it is bounded by an overgrown garden and most of the windows are smashed in. But it definitely looks like it was once some kind of gate house. And if you walk down to the road, the picture is even clearer.


So what was it the gate house to? Well, through the trees on the other side of the road you can make out some sort of big house, but I'm pretty sure they don't want visitors. Partly because there is a sign saying Institute of Theoretical and Experimental Physics, which is the kind of thing people like to keep secret, and partly because if I jump up and down by the fence surrounding it I can just about see what is on the other side - two more fences. Three fences in a row is generally a keep out sign (although my friend says that if you go round the side there is a place where the fences are broken and you can climb through). Until I summon up the courage to do that, according to Google, this is what I am missing out on:

Photo from mosgid.ru




Изображение
Photo from uzaok.ru
Not too bad, right? I should have been a Russian physicist.

The estate is called Черёмушки (Cheryomushki - this is still the name of the tram stop there), and although the origin of the name is not definitively known, the most common story is that it comes from the word черемухи (cheremukhi - bush cherry), which supposedly used to grow here. This may be complete rubbish, however, and there are other stories, even other plants, that could have given the estate its name (including черемошка - cheremoshka - wild garlic). Although you do have to think, would anyone really have named their estate "wild garlic"?

Anyway, when I was trying to find out the history of the place I read possibly the most boring essay ever written since the beginning of the world, which I will now summarise for you: in the last four to five hundred years, not much happened here. Legend has it that the manor was originally owned by Boris Gudanov, and it then passed through a series of families, none of whom appear to have spent much time in the place, because they were all so rich that they had multiple estates. A couple of them were hanged by their feet and then thrown off buildings, probably when someone realised that, as a method of execution, hanging someone by their feet is exceedingly slow. The only other interesting person to have owned the estate was Duchess Anastasia Golitsyn, who was a favourite of Peter the Great, was at one point arrested for treason, and ended her days being a clown for the Empress, whom she used to make laugh by crawling around on her stomach picking up gold coins. From this we learn that she had no pride, and the Empress was a sadist. 

Eventually the estate was bought by the Yakunchikov family, who renovated it in 1909 to look like it does today, although the red building the tram goes round is actually older, from the end of the 18th century. After the revolution the place was nationalised, the house stripped and its contents sent to Moscow. Yankunchikov did survive though - he emigrated in the early 1920s, so if he has any descendents, they are probably now members of the Assembly of the Russian Nobility (there really is one - their webpage is here). According to some people, Trotsky lived in a very aristocratic style in the house from 1918-1922, complete with servants etc, but I couldn't find anything that would corroborate this. The estate became a collective farm, then a rest house, then a training centre for military vets, and then after the war it housed the omnious-sounding Laboratory No. 3, which later became the Institute of Theoretical and Experimental Physics.

Схема усадьбы Черемушки
This is what the estate used to look like. To the bottom right is the gatehouse the trams now go round. Photo from testan.rugor.ru
Unfortunately, in the mean time, the area around the main buildings changed from the above picture to a collection of hideously ugly apartment buildings, one of the first regions in Moscow to experiment with the sort of low-cost, no-soul housing developments than later became common. At the time, however, the government was very proud of it. They even commissioned Shostakovich to write an operetta about the place in 1958.

This type of apartment block is, thankfully, out of fashion. But it did manage to provide the plot for the Russian version of It's a Wonderful Life (in that it's happy and shown at Christmas) - Ирония Судьбы (Ironia Sudbi - the Irony of Fate). In this film, the hero gets incredibly drunk and ends up getting on a plane to St Petersburg by mistake. He is still drunk when he gets there, but because in Soviet times there was not much variation in street names between cities, and no variation at all between apartment blocks, he manages to get a taxi to "his" apartment and even unlock "his" front door and fall asleep in the place without realising that he is, in fact, in completely the wrong city. The real owner of the apartment then comes home and hilarity ensues. They eventually fall in love and by the end of the film it looks like they will live happily ever after. Of course, they made a sequel twenty years later in which it transpired that in fact they hadn't got married and instead had spent the time being miserable.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

The prosody of Russian poetry

The guy who lives next door to me likes love songs by 90s US boybands. I know this because he sings along to them at high volume late at night or absurdly early on Sunday mornings, mispronouncing half the words. Occasionally this is loud enough to wake me up, at which point I lie for a while in bed, debating the merits of turning the other cheek and why it is that I am still capable of getting so angry at things like this. Eventually I yell "замолчи" (zamolchi - shut up) and then "shut up", since English is the international language of shouting. If this doesn't work I jump out of bed and bash the wall several times with my fists, which isn't recommended, since the building is alarmingly flimsy and every time I do things start falling from the ceiling. By this point I am normally laughing and he usually shuts up, so everything is ok.

In my more awake moments, I think I should be more considerate of his attempts at karaoke, since the way he feels about the Backstreet Boys is probably the way I feel about Russian poetry. He loves the way the lyrics sound, and I think the prosody of Russian is beautiful. Listening to Russians recite poetry, or really just speak Russian at all, is like listening to a song. It's one of the things that attracted me to Russian in the first place. One the other hand, since my accent is not terribly good, I'm sure I would cause Russians exquisite pain if I were to recite poetry at them. At Christmas my school had a "talent show" of the type I abhor, where overly-jolly administrators bully participants into ritually humiliating themselves in front of an embarrassed audience. A couple of people decided to recite Pushkin, so I watched the Russian teachers to see how they would react. Several of them spent the time wincing whilst rubbing their eyes, and one had her head in her hands. Russian is only beautiful when spoken by Russians, I guess. Or maybe they just feel the same way I do about talent shows.

Anyway, I don't think you need to be able to understand the words to appreciate the sound [in fact, since one of the parts of the brain that responds to rhythm and is involved in emotional reactions to music is the cerebellum, a part of the brain we share with, for example, reptiles, there is a possibility that crocodiles would also like Russian poetry].

So here are two of my favourite Russian poems, one by Lermontov, and one by Pushkin. They are both fairly short, which makes them easier for me to remember. Learning poetry is a good way to learn vocabulary, since everything is easier if it rhymes. Plus then you have something to recite at tram stops to save yourself from death-by-boredom whilst waiting for your tram to show up. Translations into English obviously not done by me.

Lermontov - Парус

  Парус by ayearinmoscow

Белеет парус одинокой
В тумане моря голубом!...
Что ищет он в стране далёкой?
Что кинул он в краю родном?...

Играют волны - ветер свищет,
И мачта гнётся и скрыпит...
Увы, он счастия не ищет
И не от счастия бежит!

Под ним струя светлей лазури,
Над ним луч солнца золотой...
А он, мятежный, просит бури,
Как будто в бурях есть покой!

A single sail is passing, white
In blue and oceanic haze.
What does it seek in foreign seas?
Why has it left its native bays?

The waves are playing. Wind is wailing
Against the bending, creaking mast.
Oh no, it seeks no happy future
And does not flee a happy past.

The azure waves roll out beneath it,
The solar gold above it glows,
And yet this rebel begs for storms
As if a storm could hold repose.


Pushkin - Я вас любил

  Я вас любил by ayearinmoscow

Я вас любил: любовь ещё, быть может,
В душе моей угасла не совсем;
Но пусть она вас больше не тревожит;
Я не хочу печалить вас ничем.
Я вас любил безмолвно, безнадежно,
То робостью, то ревностью томим;
Я вас любил так искренно, так нежно,
Как дай вам Бог любимой быть другим.

I loved you; even now I must confess,
Some embers of my love their fire retain;
But do not let it cause you more distress,
I do not want to sadden you again.
Hopeless and tonguetied, yet I loved you dearly
With pangs the jealous and the timid know;
So tenderly I love you, so sincerely,
I pray God grant another love you so.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

How to find a Moscow address

On my first day in Moscow I was told to go five stops on the tram from where I lived to find the school. The trouble was, once you got off the tram it was impossible to find out the names of the streets, because most of them didn't have signs, and the numbering system appeared to have been put together by someone who couldn't count. Without a map or internet on my phone, I was reduced to asking random passers-by:

Me: Excuse me. You don't happen to know, by any chance, where no. 24/35 K-- street is, do you? (polite questions in Russian are generally phrased as negatives, so rather than "could you tell me" it would be "couldn't you tell me" etc)
Local: There are a lot of streets round here with that name, so really, it could be anywhere.
Me: Oh.

Actually, as is almost always the case, the girl I stopped was incredible nice, and stayed with me whilst we asked a series of other people, none of whom knew either. After I'd recruited four people to my cause, we eventually found someone who had heard of the school. Guess where it was? Right across the street from where I was standing, of course. Ho hum. Sometimes I forget that I am supposed to be smarter than the average bear.

The reason I got confused is that Moscow uses a different method of building numbering from the UK. There is a similar system in Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia), where I once spent three increasingly frustrating hours trying to find a hotel, despite the fact that there are only two roads in the entire city. The problem, of course, is that there aren't REALLY only two roads in Ulaanbaatar, it's just that there are only two roads on the map (because these are the ones with names). To use a Moscow example, the address of my school is 24/35 K-- street. It is on a street corner, so it has two numbers, one for each road. BUT there are five other buildings which are also 24/35 K-- street, and most of them have multiple entrances. Even within one entrance there are often multiple businesses. Obviously, not all six buildings can be on the corner of two roads - they together cover an area roughly the size of a city block. So there are small roads criss-crossing the interior of this block. These, however, are not counted as roads and are not named on maps.

This system has two results. Firstly, distances between numbers on streets are much longer than you think. If you are at no. 27 and you need number 37, this is likely to be quite a walk, not just five houses down. Secondly, if you want to find an address, you need to know the street name and number, the building number, which entrance you need, and then the number of the apartment or business. Basically an address will not do - you need a description of how to find the place. Or alternatively Google maps, which knows everything.

Anyway, I am off to Tokyo for a wedding tomorrow, so I won't be updating for a few days. Moscow weather has finally caught up with the rest of the world, decided to skip spring entirely and go straight into summer. A couple of weeks ago the temperature jumped 15 degrees in one night, and has been 20 degrees or so every day since. Since this is almost exactly the same as the temperature in Tokyo at the moment, this is ideal for me.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Tricking your brain into learning vocabulary

I like grammar. This may put me in the minority, but I think there's something fascinating about understanding how sentences work, and the ways you can twist and play with words and word order to emphasise different things. I love learning a new grammatical construct and then feeling that there is now a whole new group of thoughts I can express.

What I don't love is learning vocabulary - mainly because it can never, ever end. There are always more words to know, and as soon as you learn them, you will forget the old ones. I used to try and learn vocabulary in lists, but this is no good at all, because my brain outsmarts me and remembers the words in sequence rather than each one separately connected with a meaning. Thus I can tell you the Russian word for "prophetic", but only if you've just asked me to translate "to whine", because these words happened to come up in the same lesson at school. Clearly a non-starter.

Possibly the rest of the world has known this for years, but I came across a programme that temporarily gave me the lead in the arms race between me and my brain, by randomly asking me words from a list I have inputted. It then remembers which ones you got wrong and asks you them more frequently in the future compared with the words you got right. It also automatically assumes you will forget words after some time, so it repeats everything every month or so. In case anyone else would find it useful, it is called ProVoc, and you can download it for free here.

Of course, in the medium term my brain found a way of getting round this. It now appears to operate on a group basis instead of sequentially. So it now knows the word for "prophetic" only if we have been previously discussing words from the Chekov story Дама с собачкой (Dama s Sabachkoi - Woman with small dog).