Friday, December 27, 2013

The Curious Russian Afterlife of Steven Seagal

Long, long ago – for about 15 minutes – Steven Seagal was a big deal in Hollywood. His movie “Under Siege” made a lot of money. But that was pretty much it. Next came a string of big-budget flops followed by a lengthy and ongoing twilight spent in straight-to-video purgatory.
As for me, I don’t think I’ve ever made it all the way through a Seagal film. His stiff, tubby frame, extreme humorlessness and mystic posturing make it impossible for me to suspend disbelief. Here in the US he serves as a punch line, part of the flotsam and jetsam of trash culture. Steven Seagal – that’s the washed up ‘90s action movie guy who peddles an aftershave lotion named “Scent of Action,” right?

Indeed, Seagal has sunk so low that a few years ago he starred in an awful reality show named “Steven Seagal: Lawman,” which followed the bloated actor around Louisiana as he helped cops solve crimes. Seagal claimed to be some kind of reserve policeman. In one episode he drove a tank into the wall of a man’s home who was suspected of raising roosters for cockfighting. Soon afterward a member of Seagal’s SWAT team shot the fellow’s dog. A lawsuit ensued.
That wasn’t Seagal’s only bout of legal trouble in recent years. Shortly before the tank incident, he was accused of tricking female personal assistants into becoming his “sex slaves”,

Is it Time for a Ladder on Everest?

Once upon a time the world was full of wondrous mysteries and terrifying unknowns. Marco Polo could get away with claiming he had met dog-faced men on his travels because hardly anybody in Europe had ever been outside their home village. Now of course things are different; our planet is well mapped out, tourists are pretty much everywhere, and if you don’t have the money to visit exotic places you can always watch a travel show on TV.
Take Mt. Everest for instance. For millennia it was considered unconquerable, and then 60 years ago two chaps conquered it. Since then it’s been a free-for-all atop that formerly formidable peak. No, really – apparently so many people are scuttling up Everest that there are now traffic jams. According to The Guardian, 520 people have already been to the top this year, while on the 19th May 150 people reached the last 3,000 feet at more or less the same time, causing lengthy delays. Climbers were lining up for the summit as if they were waiting to buy stamps at the Post Office.
Since it’s now so congested at the top, the government of Nepal has come up with a brilliant idea: install a ladder at the trickiest bit to hurry the tourists along.
Naturally this is a controversial idea as some of the tourists think that this is cheating. But of course the tourists are already cheating. It’s not as if they run up the mountain in an anorak and a pair of ordinary shoes; on the contrary they bring masses of kit. The commercial exploitation of Everest has never been a case of man vs. nature but rather one of man + expensive technical gear vs. nature. Why not add a ladder?

Bad Cars and Porn Stars, or: A Few Words About Ladas

I first learned about the legendary Soviet Lada car in the mid-‘80s, when the cash-strapped USSR started exporting the notorious rust buckets to capitalist Europe in the hope of scraping together some hard currency. My friend Neil’s mum bought one, and since she worked as a teacher at my school, we all stared at this exotic vehicle in the car park. Cunningly, Neil told us it was a very special vehicle: a bit like a BMW, only better.

A few weeks later and Ladas had already become infamous for their rubbish quality, and were the butt of a thousand corny jokes from Saturday teatime TV comedians. But Neil escaped ridicule by being prepared well in advance with a gigantic lie. Clever boy; I wonder what he’s doing now… 

In fact, during this period lots of countries from the Eastern bloc were exporting bad cars to the UK. The Yugoslavian Yugo and Czechoslovakian Skoda had reputations similar to that of the Lada, whereas the Polish Polonez had such a low profile that you could buy it and not suffer instant ridicule. It was just as bad as the others, though: I knew a guy who bought one and it broke down all the time. The East German Trabant was a byword for the depths of Eastern European automobile awfulness; lots of lazy TV producers and travel writers still wheel them out for cheap laffs even to this day. I don’t think they were ever exported abroad, however – at least, not to Britain.
But with the demise of the Eastern bloc, bad Eastern European cars largely melted away from the popular consciousness. Some Germans bought Skoda and the Czech car became un-rubbish. Yugoslavia disintegrated, and that was it for the Yugo. The Polonez and Trabant went to the great scrap heap in the sky. As for the Lada…

A Cascade of Trouble: Life in Obama's Second Term

Here in the US it’s been an interesting week, as scandals have been sprouting like mushrooms after rain. Indeed, even the American news media is taking an interest, which is striking given the customarily friendly or even servile attitude many journalists have toward the ruling party (last week a cable news host asked for Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren’s autograph on air, for instance). But with so many scandals erupting at once we are spoiled for choice, and not all of them will gain traction. Let’s break them down one by one and assess their chances of giving US President Barack Obama a nasty headache.

Disney World-gate
On Tuesday the New York Post reported that chic Manhattanites are paying handicapped people lots of money to pretend to be family members so that they can skip the lines at Disney World.

Printed Guns: Probably Not the Next Big Thing

I was vaguely aware that there were such things as 3D printers. I had skimmed a few tech blogs about the coming revolution in manufacturing etc., but I didn’t really care. I still felt burned from 20 years ago, when Virtual Reality headsets came out and the British science fiction author JG Ballard suggested that now anything was possible and one day we would all be able to shoot JFK in the head.

In fact, VR meant stumbling about in a badly rendered digital landscape with a bucket on your head.
It turns out that 3-D printing is different, that maybe it is something useful – even dangerous. This weekend, for instance, somebody downloaded and printed out a handgun, which he then successfully fired on a shooting range not far from where I live in Texas. On Monday, the blueprints for the gun – named The Liberator – were posted online for free and downloaded 50,000 times.
Naturally, I went to the Defense Distributed website to download it myself,

Why Dictators Should Be Wary of Certain Animals

The US comedian WC Fields famously said never to work with animals and children. I suspect President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov of Turkmenistan may have been thinking something similar earlier this week, when a horse sent him sailing through the air in a stadium packed full of his terrified subjects – I mean, loyal citizens.

Well, maybe.  According to a former US ambassador whose assessment was made public on Wikileaks, Berdymukhamedov is not the sharpest tool in the box. So perhaps he was just thinking – “Hey, where did that horse go?” And yet consider the danger: In a matter of seconds he could have been rendered a quadriplegic like Christopher Reeve, the actor who played Superman but ended his days in a wheelchair. As it is, Berdymukhamedov revealed to his people that he is not the all-wise munificent god man of propaganda, but rather a tubby 55-year-old geezer who’s not very good at riding a horse. Hell, those six other guys in the race were probably letting him win.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Of Robots and Presidents

There are 13 “presidential libraries” in the US. These are grandiose shrines that contain the papers and records of every president since Herbert Hoover. Tomorrow the library dedicated to George W. Bush will open in Dallas and all living presidents will be there to celebrate – rather like one of those episodes of Doctor Who where the current incarnation meets with his past selves to foil a Dalek invasion.

The Other Koresh

This Friday, April 19, will mark the 20th anniversary of the fire that brought an end to the Waco siege, after a 50-day-long standoff between David Koresh, his followers and the FBI. Seventy-six people died in the inferno, and the name “Koresh” is forever infamous as a result. What most people don’t know is that a century earlier, there was another Koresh – also American and just as messianic, if less randy.
Cyrus Teed was born in 1839 in New York State. This was a time of great religious ferment in America, and utopians, prophets and saviors roamed the land, founding sects and communes and awaiting the arrival of paradise on Earth. Teed, an army medic by training, was fascinated by these groups and in 1873 paid his first visit to the Harmonists, a communist sect awaiting the return of Christ. The Harmonists were interesting, but he joined another group – the Shakers.

The Shakers were a big deal in the 1870s, and during Teed’s time there were 58 settlements dotted across the United States. Founded by a female Christ, who went by the name of Mother Ann, the Shakers were not only communists, but also celibate, with a tendency to release sexual tension during sacred worship by trembling, shaking, writhing and jumping up and down. 

Explaining the Margaret Thatcher Death Parties

So, the other day Margaret Thatcher died and street parties broke out across the UK.
If there are any outsiders left who still think of the British as aloof and reserved, this might seem shocking, but I always knew it was going to happen. “Mrs. Thatcher,” as she was then known, was in power for most of my childhood and a chunk of my adolescence, and even as a wee lad I heard a great deal of vitriol aimed at “Maggie.”
Growing up in Scotland, it was impossible to avoid. She managed to alienate almost the entire country, not just because the mines and steelworks and shipyards shut down, or because she took away my free milk, but also because of the high-handed way she treated Scots. For instance, she tested the unpopular poll tax in Scotland a full year before applying it to the rest of the UK. I went to a comic convention in Glasgow in 1990 and still remember Judge Dredd’s Scottish scriptwriter angrily instructing us all to refuse to pay up.

That’s what

Are White Supremacists on the Rampage in Texas?

I had been in the US for five years before I encountered my first white supremacist. It happened outside a gas station on a rural back road in Texas, next to a used tire lot that I suspected was a front for skullduggery. We didn’t exchange any words; we just walked past each other, scowling. How did I know he was a white supremacist if we didn’t talk? The “White Power” tattoo on his gut was a dead giveaway.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Boris Berezovsky: Game Over

I arrived in Russia in 1997, when Boris Berezovsky’s influence was at its height. The year before, he had managed to get Boris Yeltsin reelected, and we need not think too hard about how or why that was achieved. In those days Berezovsky was often in Chechnya, and I couldn’t keep up with how much stuff he owned. Then Putin became president, and shortly afterwards the “Godfather of the Kremlin” was out.

Sometime later I read a vehemently anti-Putin editorial in a major British newspaper, before such things were commonplace. Who wrote this? I wondered. And then I saw the byline:
Boris Berezovsky.
I was stunned. Hadn’t the editor done a quick web search before paying this “Russian businessman” to write his screed?
Evidently not, although I now understand that serial failure to grasp that not every opponent of Putin is a brave Solzhenitsyn is characteristic of the UK and US media.  Last year, for instance, I watched a documentary on Khodorkovsky, and the filmmaker was baffled when Russians expressed contempt for the fallen billionaire.

On the Bolshoi Acid attack

For somebody who’s not remotely interested in ballet, I’ve watched a lot of ballet. I acquired my experience by accident, after getting to know a Moscow bank executive in the early 2000s. He had a box close to the stage at his permanent disposal, and offered me free access. Figuring I might as well see what this jumping about in tutus lark was about I went very often, for a year or so.
I can’t recall much of what I saw now, and probably remember the weird ones better than the good ones. “Spartacus”- that turgid old Soviet warhorse- made me laugh when the legionaries pranced across the stage. Then there was a ballet called “Legend of Love”, a strange Azeri effort based on a story by Nazim Hikmet that I enjoyed more than “Swan Lake”, though the music was nowhere near as memorable.

Iran is Not Very Good at Image Management

So anyway, apparently the Mullahs of Iran are not scary theocrats after all. They’re actually tender petals with exquisitely sensitive feelings. In fact, I hear they silently weep into their beards when nobody is looking.

No, really: according to The Guardian, the regime has just hired a French lawyer named Isabelle Coutant-Peyre to take the directors and producers of Hollywood to court for something they call “Iranophobia.” Speaking this Monday at the intriguingly titled “The Hoax of Hollywood” conference, Coutant-Peyre said: "I'll be defending Iran against films that have been made by Hollywood to distort the country's image, such as ‘Argo.’"

Don't Tear Down This Wall

he Berlin Wall was a powerful symbol for me of the rottenness of Marxist regimes as I grew up in the 1980s. After all, no country in the capitalist West ever built a wall to keep its inhabitants from escaping. Thus when I first visited the city in the late 1990s, one of the first things I did was visit the East Side Gallery of graffiti art, sprayed on a surviving stretch of the Wall.

Who Are the Hair Police?

This week,, a website run by Hong Kong’s Phoenix TV network, reported that there are 28 officially acceptable haircuts in North Korea – 10 styles for men and 18 for women. Unsurprisingly, the styles are pretty conservative – dye jobs are out; nothing spiky is permitted (nothing too long either, even on women) and definitely NO MOHAWKS.
Looking at the styles, however, I think the figure 28 may be an exaggeration. For instance, female cuts 13 and 17 look almost identical, while the first four male cuts look like the same style photographed from different angles.

I Rather Like the Taste of Horseflesh, Actually

So I’ve been following the horsemeat scandal in Europe for a week or two now. It spreads wider and wider, drawing in abattoirs in Romania, meat processors in France and now the factories of food titan Nestle. I’ve been particularly struck by the shrill, hysterical tone of a lot of the coverage, especially in the UK, where the scandal first emerged. There’s a deep sense of moral outrage in the reporting, as if some terrible violation of human norms has just taken place.
And yet, British as I am, I just can’t muster any outrage myself. Yes, it’s very cheeky to mislabel a product and intentionally mislead consumers. I’d even agree that it’s wrong. But try as I may to find some sense of horror in my soul at the thought of eating Black Beauty, well, sorry. It just ain’t there.

Of Ex-Popes, Politicians and Pensioner Rock Stars

This Monday Pope Benedict XVI surprised the world by resigning, making him the first pope to do so in 600 years. The media was immediately abuzz with countless instant articles on the legacy of “God’s Rottweiler.” Most of it was written by non-Catholics, none of whom have a dog in the fight, but that didn’t stop them from rambling on.
A non-Catholic myself, my response was nonetheless admiration: the Pope knew when to call it a day. As a spiritual leader of 1.2 billion people, it must be difficult to get up in the morning and deal with all that responsibility when you’re geriatric and sickly. I can barely be bothered with it myself, and I’m 47 years younger than Benedict and a spiritual leader of nobody. But power has a strong allure, and very few people surrender it willingly.

The Tower of Babble

The other day I was filling up my car at a gas station, when all of a sudden I heard a weird, squeaky voice coming from somewhere close behind me. Unnerved, I looked around. First left, then right, but I couldn’t see anybody. It was bizarre: as though I had a talking cricket on my shoulder.
Listening more closely, I realized the cricket was chatting about Lindsay Lohan and a terrible dress she had worn to a premiere. I was being haunted by the ghost of a microscopic E! channel talking head.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Of Iranian Space Monkeys and Other Real Life Space Invaders

“Space,” as 70s prog-rock legends Hawkwind once told us, “is deep”. But that’s not all, for as Yuri Gagarin also informed us, it can be a disappointing place for religious believers. You see, the first cosmonaut apparently took a peek out of the porthole while he was in orbit to see if the Deity was floating about. When he didn’t see an old man with a white beard anywhere nearby he allegedly declared: “I don’t see any God up here.”

Friday, April 5, 2013

Andrei Platonov: The Good Stalinist

As a fan of Soviet literature one of my great frustrations is the lack of good writing from a pro-Stalin perspective. There is no shortage of books about the evils of Stalin and the system he created- Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov and Bulgakov all spring to mind- but what about those writers who actually believed in his vision for the USSR?  

After all, even today many Russians view Stalin with a mixture of awe and terror, or simply awe. As for me, I think he was a vile individual, yet I would still like to know what it feels like to believe in that living god. Of course many authors in the 30s and 40s wrote books praising Stalin but they were mostly if not all rotten: monotonous, simplistic, shallow and dishonest. 

Celebrity Death Match: Andrei Tarkovsky vs. Lindsey Lohan

Last Saturday I felt a bit ill and so decided to retire to my chambers early, to watch a bit of TV and drink tea. Immediately however I faced a problem: the old tube TV in my bedroom isn’t connected to cable and I didn’t have the life force to drive down to the grocery store and rent a movie from the dispenser next to the entrance. There was nothing to watch.

Dang, I thought, what am I supposed to do now? Read a book? Ridiculous! But at that moment I spotted a black DVD case in the corner of the room. And suddenly it all came back to me: yes, the

Why French Tax Exile Gerard Depardieu is My Hero

I’m not a fan of class warfare, so when I heard recently that Gerard Depardieu had lost his rag at the prospect of being taxed 75% on his earnings, I sympathized. It’s a ridiculously high rate that will only affect those people who can most easily avoid it anyway. In short, it’s unfair and stupid. Even so, when I discovered that Depardieu was thinking of renouncing his citizenship and becoming Belgian I wondered if that wasn’t a bit drastic. Yes, he’d save money, but… Belgium?

Obviously I wasn’t the only one thinking this as last week Vladimir Putin offered Depardieu Russian citizenship. The actor promptly accepted and I watched the celebrations on TV. There was Depardieu having dinner with Putin, Depardieu partying in Mordovia- he was having a great time: GLORY TO THE 13% TAX RATE, VODKA AND PRETTY GIRLS!

In Praise of Courtesy

Recently I was talking to a man who expects the Messiah to return this April. About halfway into our chat he thanked me for being “courteous.” This struck me as a strange thing to say, since I had asked for the interview. Evidently he was accustomed to journalists adopting a condescending or mocking tone.
That’s not an approach I approve of, and not just because it’s ineffective. I like to think I am a fairly polite individual. This is not down to any innate moral virtue, but because, when I was a child, my parents instilled in me near-Victorian codes of public behavior. If I were on a bus and a grown-up arrived, I had to surrender my seat; if adults were in the room I had to sit quietly; and if I were strolling on the sidewalk with a lady then it was my duty to walk on the outside lest she be spattered with mud from a passing car.

2012: The Year's Most Uplifting Moments

As everybody knows, the media doesn’t make its money by telling everybody what’s right in the world. Throughout the year we have been fed a steady diet of scandal, disaster, tragedy and horror. But as Lou Reed once sang: it’s easy enough to tell what is wrong, but that’s not what I want to hear all night long. So as 2012 draws to a close, I’d like to focus on five of the year’s uplifting events, to inspire us for the year ahead.

1.    George Lucas sold the Star Wars franchise

I’m not one of those types who whines that “George Lucas murdered my childhood” with his atrocious Star Wars prequels. Indeed, the older I get the more irritated I become with man-boys of my generation who can’t let go of the things they enjoyed as 7 year-olds. But even so, The Phantom Menace really was appalling, and I’ve blotted out my memories of the other two films. What shocked me most however was to watch as a formerly talented man systematically negated every correct decision he had made a few decades earlier. It was depressing to see such an anti-mojo at work. Could that happen to me? I wondered. Could I lose all judgment? Thus we may rejoice that Lucas flogged his franchise to Disney, and be happy for him that he realized he didn’t have it in him anymore (however he may justify the sale personally). May we all gain that level of insight, may George Lucas enjoy his $4 billion and may the new films be at least mediocre. 

2012, The Apocalypse And My Five Favorite Prophets

Apparently the world is going to end this week. That’s what the Mayans said anyway, though I’ve heard this might be a misinterpretation. Hey, Mr Editor- should I even write this column, since I might not live long enough to get paid?
Oh, alright then.

I’ve long been fascinated by The End. In fact I once spent a year reading exclusively about the Apocalypse, and my head was duly filled with the wonderful and terrifying visions of countless prophets and messiahs. Some of these fellows were dangerous, most were not. After a while I developed a fondness for certain seers. Here are some of my favorites.

Work As If You Lived In The Early Days Of A Better Nation

Work: it consumes vast amounts of our time, and each one of us must come to some kind of accommodation with it early on in life. If we have too much work we complain, if we don’t have enough, then we starve, or rot from the inside out. It’s a tricky thing.  

For a long time, I was against work. When I graduated at the age of 22 I had successfully managed to avoid doing very much of it since my degree was in English Literature, a subject any half-intelligent person can succeed in with a gift for improvisation and blather. The downside was that I was unqualified for anything profitable. Still, that wasn’t a problem as my goal remained work avoidance.

Kim Jong-un, The Sexy Dictator

The last couple of years have been very eventful for dictator-watchers. After a series of geriatric regimes collapsed in 2011, we are now seeing the tentative green shoots of an authoritarian recovery. For instance, in Egypt Mohammed Morsi is currently staging a coup. We will need to wait and see how all that plays out, but- pace the US state department and countless naïve Western journalists- it was entirely predictable.

The Metaphysics of Consumerism

Earlier this week while driving through Austin I saw an intriguing sign by the side of the road. It read “UNDERGROUND: Metaphysical VW repair.” “VW” stands for Volkswagen of course, and a grizzled old hippy with a long grey beard was standing in front of a shabby garage, waiting for battered old camper vans to pull up that he might lay his healing hands upon them. Just down the street was a strip joint, a run-down motel, a Korean shopping center and the bar where Janis Joplin was discovered forty odd years ago. Yes: I was on the funky side of town, where poor folk, hippy burnouts and middle class boys and girls who are temporarily slumming it while harboring dreams of becoming famous artists do their groovy thing, man.

But, I wondered, what might this “metaphysical VW repair” entail? Would the grizzled hippy strip naked and join hands with other naked hippies in a love circle around a crippled VW bug, chanting mantras until it was fixed? Were homeopathic herbs involved? Would they read from The Avesta, the holy book of the Zoroastrians? Would the hippy wave a selenite crystal over the engine, thus imbuing the injured mechanism with cosmic energy?

Texas Independence Now!

As you may have noticed, following the reelection of Barack Obama, many Americans got a bit upset. In fact they were so upset that they did what people do nowadays when they feel angry - they went on the Internet and moaned about it.

But these were not ordinary whinges, oh no. You see, the US government has a pointless website called “We the people” where anyone can go and pretend to interact with the authorities. In this corner of cyberspace ordinary citizens create petitions that will be completely ignored, as is the custom of advanced democracies all over the world.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

On Russian Balconies

On a recent visit to Istanbul I stayed in an apartment looking out on the Bosphorus. Every morning I’d get up and see the sun sparkling on the surface of the water as birds circled languidly overhead. At night it was even better, as the thumping techno from the pleasure boats and the call of the Muezzin intermingled. It was very different from my usual mode of accommodation when I travel: cheap hotels, dirt, and the lingering possibility of sudden, violent death.
In many ways it was the culmination of a quest that began years ago in my hometown of Dunfermline in Scotland. Over there, you don’t see too many balconies. It’s too windy and wet. Yet I remember one house that had a huge balcony on the second floor. I used to walk past, wishing I lived there. I didn’t care that it was useless, that if I sat up there the wind would probably pick me up and drop me in the North Sea. I only saw the ideal of open living, close to the sky.

Important News You Might Have missed

As I write this, the US election is still underway. Though it’s the closest race the country has seen in 76 years, I feel confident in predicting that the winner will be a multi-millionaire Harvard law grad who was raised by white people, who spent some of his youth abroad, and who has spent decades in a church that many people consider strange. On top of that, he will be backed by massively powerful vested interests, and he will not close Guantanamo Bay or stop dispatching drones to annihilate Pakistanis.

Election 2012: Is it over yet?

In Texas, there’s never any doubt as to who will win a big election: Republicans. Indeed, in Williamson County where I live, a man can drive for miles before he spots an Obama sign in a front yard. Democrats are out there, but they are so greatly outnumbered that only truly bold souls- such as my neighbor- publicly advertise their support for Barack Obama and the grinning clown he chose as his VP.

A World Without Heroes

Many years ago, it was not considered strange for an unmarried bachelor to occupy his idle hours taking photographs of scantily clad little girls. In fact it was a favorite pastime of Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, who died without any scandal attached to his name. Could he have gotten away with that nowadays? I don’t think so.

How to Become an International Celebrity Protestor

This week I was wandering around my local supermarket when I spotted something very unusual for Central Texas. A young woman was wearing a shocking pink T-shirt that read FREE PUSSY RIOT. Wow, I thought, they’re megastars now! And yet, although I more or less agreed with the sentiment on the T-shirt, I did wonder why these young women receive so much attention, when their protest was so asinine, and there are so many more causes in the world deserving of attention.

For instance, that little girl who got shot in the head in Afghanistan earlier this week- where are the T-shirts demanding justice for her? Nowhere. Or what about Mali, overrun by radical Islamists who are busy destroying ancient Sufi shrines? When is Paul McCartney going to tell them to stop? Never. And then there’s Nato member Turkey, which imprisons more journalists than any other country in the world: when is Sean Penn going to speak up for them? He isn’t.

Mysteries of the Aninal Kingdom

Humans – we think we know it all. There we go, traveling all over the planet, measuring things, taking pictures of things, analyzing the DNA of things, and – as we saw in last week’s column – we’ve even started recording the temperature on Mars for no good reason. But how much do we really understand about our world, our universe? Consider animals for instance. They’re all around us, eating, sleeping and pooping, but what do they really want? When you look closely at our four legged “friends” you’ll see some very mysterious behavior indeed.

Mars 2012: The Hunt for Microbes

Space: it’s not very interesting, is it? Well, alright I suppose that if you like rocks and dust and gas burning in a void it’s absolutely fascinating. But I must confess that ever since I discovered at age 8 that there are neither aliens nor robots nor warring space empires out there I’ve found it difficult to muster much enthusiasm for the cosmos.

Free Speech and Stating the Obvious

It’s very difficult for outsiders to grasp what’s going on in a foreign country, even when it’s in the headlines a lot. I saw this when I lived in Moscow. Every day I’d read something in the UK or US press and be appalled at the trite, superficial and generally awful level of analysis of Russia on offer.

DAS IST NICHT GUT! Latvian Nostalgia for the Waffen-SS Death Machine

I don’t know about you, but I don’t like Nazis very much. Call me crazy, but all that Judenhass, genocide, invading other people’s countries, war and Thousand Year Reich stuff- it’s just not for me. It’s kind of, you know- evil.

Now Latvians on the other hand, they’re a different kettle of fish. They’re totally nuts for Nazis! No, really! It’s incredible! Is it the black leather and the skulls? The uniforms? The cool salute? The goose stepping? The death camps? It’s difficult to say, but one thing’s for sure, in Latvia the Swastika never goes out of style!

From Istanbul to Moscow

Recently I spent a couple of weeks in Istanbul and I was struck by the many parallels between Turkey and Russia. For instance: Turkish rugs. Turks like to put them on the floor, Russians hang them on their walls. But people in both countries dig the oriental style.

It’s not just carpet tastes that are similar. Both countries begin on the periphery of Europe and stretch eastwards into Asia; and in Russia and Turkey alike Islam and Orthodoxy have rubbed shoulders for many centuries.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Lessons of the Heart from a Secret Policeman

When I lived in Moscow I regularly frequented an antique shop on Malaya Nikitskaya Street that had a small selection of English books. A lot of the stuff was awful, but they had a good selection of volumes from “Progress”, the USSR’s foreign language publishing house. Progress specialized in works by soviet authors and bad translations of the Russian classics. My favorite Progress book however (which I found in the shop) was Words from the Wise, a selection of Russian and Soviet quotations.

Some of the words within are wise, others are banal while many are flat-out lies. My favorite quotes however come from Felix Dzerzhinsky, the Polish Bolshevik who founded the Cheka, embraced Lenin’s policy of terror and established Russia’s first concentration camps. A bad man? Certainly. But he knew the human heart. 

The Unbearable Awfulness of the 2012 Election Campaign

When the Republican race for the presidential candidacy started I thought it would be fun to write a series of columns tracking the 2012 election campaign race from its beginnings to its conclusion this November. I’d poke fun at fatuous press dribbling, the evasions and misrepresentations of the candidates, etc. That ended when I realized that the whole Republican race was a freak show beyond parody, consisting of nothing but gimps, lepers and glue-sniffers.

Well, it wasn’t that bad but you get my gist. There was Newt Gingrich, talking about Outer Space; Rick Perry, high as a kite on painkillers; Herman Cain, and his ladies; Rick Santorum, wanting to puke over JFK; Michele Bachman doing her low budget Sarah Palin schtick; a few other nonentities; and of course- Ron Paul. All Mitt Romney had to do was stand there, smile and do nothing to remind people he was a Mormon. He won easily. There was no point writing about it.

Russia's Curious Passion for Subterranean Depths

Recently an Islamic sect in Kazan made intentional headlines when police discovered that its members had dug a series of tunnels and cells beneath their compound. Apparently they wanted to hide from the sinful world above and not only that, but their leader thought it a good idea that babies born in the stygian depths should remain there. As a result, some of the children had never felt the sunlight on their faces. Precise details of what was going on are yet to emerge, but as I watched the story on the news I wondered- just what is it with Russia, sects and going underground?

Here in Texas for instance we have no shortage of sects, but when a cult leader decides it’s time to cut himself and his followers off from the rest of society he just finds a big field or ranch in the middle of nowhere and moves there. In Russia too, there is no shortage of open space and remote zones, but sect leaders seem to have a taste for the bowels of the earth.

On Jumping the Shark

One of my favorite American idioms is “jumping the shark”, which refers to the moment when something that was good becomes rubbish. It derives from an episode of the popular US sitcom “Happy Days”, in which The Fonz, a character who was supposed to be the very epitome of cool, jumped over a shark on water skis. Why? Well, the writers had run out of ideas and wanted to revitalize the show. Instead, the image of The Fonz in swimming trunks and leather jacket suspended in mid-air over a shark became crystallized in the popular consciousness as the moment when the series lost all justification for its existence, beginning a slow decline that lasted a further five years until merciful cancellation.