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.