Monday, 14 June 2010

Reaping Stalin's whirlwind

A very quick post before I go to watch the football. Today, The Economist has an excellent article on the background to the violence in Kyrgyzstan. Stalin drew borders between the then-Soviet republics in central Asia, which were set in stone after they gained independence, ratcheting up ethnic tension. I don't know whether this is a case of the borders being simply arbitrary, like the imperial-era one that give Egypt a perfect right-angle in the middle of the Sahara, or whether this was intentional.

Soviet leaders had a record of gerrymandering borders to split up populations and hinder national sentiment, while Stalin deported vast numbers of people to central Asia on the basis of ethnic ancestry. As a result, Uzbekistan's national football team has the star striker Alexander Geynrikh - the Russian transliteration of the German Heinrich, after the Volga Germans were sent east in 1942. Khrushchev gave the mostly-ethnically-Russian Crimea to Ukraine in the 1960s to dilute Ukrainian national sentiment, with the result of rows over naval bases and linguistic divides that continue to this day, sometimes violently.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Russian Music Wednesdays #3 - Yanka Dyagileva

This week's RMW choice is Yanka Dyagileva, a troubled talent from the depths of Siberia. Her style was a folk-influenced punk with soaring vocals, dark lyrics and some veiled attacks on Soviet Communism (she also featured in the more openly critical band Civil Defence). She often fell victim to bouts of depression, especially after her close friend Alexander Bashlachev committed suicide in 1988. On May 9, 1991, as the Soviet Union fell apart, she went for a walk along a river near her rural home, and was found drowned eight days later, aged 25. Shortly before her death, she had recorded a four-song EP "Styd i Sram" (Shame and Disgrace), which ends with the song "Pridet Voda" (The Water's Coming).

Dyagileva never produced a professional album, working in improvised studios and performing in friends' flats. Her music only became nationally popular after her death, despite scratchy recordings being the only ones available. The song featured here is "Gori-gori yasno" (Burn-burn brightly) from the album Anhedonia. Lyrics in Russian here, my translation underneath. If you want to hear an electric recording, this one is excellent.

You don’t chase, you won’t understand, you didn’t chase, you didn’t steal,
Without work you won’t knock out your teeth, won’t sell, won’t fuck...
This song you won’t stifle, won’t kill,
This song you won’t stifle, won’t kill.

The house is burning – the wanker doesn’t see
The house is burning – the wanker doesn’t know
That it was born into the world with the wanker
Too to answer to the wanker

Burn-burn bright, so it doesn’t go out,
Burn-burn bright, so it doesn’t go out!

On the road I hung about, mud diluted with tears:
They tore up a new skirt, yes they shut up her mouth.
Hail the great working people,
The invincible, mighty people!

The house is burning – the wanker doesn’t see it,
He got drunk and started a fight,
He won’t understand who
Called whom a wanker first

Burn-burn bright, so it doesn’t go out,
Burn-burn bright, so it doesn’t go out!

Flow, song, in the open, fly across the chimney pipes,
The little mouths and feet of the black house on the beautiful ground.
The sweet sun laughs with a loud red laugh,
Burn-burn bright, so it doesn’t go out!

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Squeezing lungs and inhaling fluff

A couple of photos from last week in Russia:

First up, here is one of the more extreme anti-smoking adverts I've seen in Russia. Two hands squeezing a lung (or sponge) so that tar (or muddy water) drips into a beaker to give a clear example of What Will Happen To You If You Smoke. They really do the lung-squeezing thing, by the way - a mate of mine had it as a summer job, and it was rubbish.

And here, thanks to a picture from the excellent Secret Moscow, is what the locals call the city's "summer snow". This is pukh (literally, "fluff"), the pollen from the poplar trees that can be found all over the city. It gets in your eyes, nose, mouth and pretty much any other exposed orifice, and, if you're even mildly ticklish, is a complete pain. Walking around the city during the two-week pukh storm gave me a vague idea of what hayfever sufferers must go through every summer. Poor bastards.

And finally, here's a timely and sanguine reminder of the industry I'm trying to get into, thanks to the Onion.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

A taste of things to come

I've been a bit busy recently, so I thought I'd give the blog a bit more structure with a taste of what's coming up in the two weeks before I head to Siberia. This has the useful side-effect of forcing me to actually write the bloody things.

- A terrifying chat with a football hooligan

- Trespassing in an old, abandoned football stadium

- Crippling bureaucracy and corruption

- The frankly ridiculous pollen count

If you're wondering what happened to Russian Music Wednesday no.3, the answer is that I've decided to make it fortnightly because quite a few of the acts I want to feature aren't as mainstream and I'll need to translate the lyrics myself.

The Cherry Orchard

Applying for work at Fest, the award-winning Edinburgh Fringe magazine mostly run by former staff of the The Student, they had the dashed cheek to ask for three sample reviews. I only had two published ones lying around, so I had to write up this gem quickly (I had actually been to the play, and it was amazing). The reason I had no time is that my old section editor Hannah Carr had demanded I ride the longest escalator in the world and give her a quote about it. It was basically just like one you get in M&S but longer and with more flirting Russians. Anyway, here's the review:

The Cherry Orchard

Chekhov Theatre Festival, Lenkom Theatre, Moscow, May 31, 2010

Unpublished (just for you, you lucky people)

The cliched criticism levelled at Chekhov's plays, and Russian drama in general, is that nothing bloody well happens. But even the most dogged champion of this approach will have to agree that the Lenkom's production of The Cherry Orchard is the most riveting, risque, even sexy, two hours of nothing happening that you will ever see.

The text blossoms, treating Chekhov's sympathetic portrayal of misunderstanding, relationships breaking down and a society in flux with full respect for its myriad of subtle meanings. This is helped by the liberal sprinkling of stardust in the cast, which contains four actors with the honour of 'People's Artist of Russia' - in effect, officially mandated national treasures. And they shine. 84-year-old Leonid Bronevoi is particularly outstanding in the role of Feers, the ancient butler who symbolises the aristocracy's slide into irrelevance with his out-of-touch mumblings about decade past. Bronevoi inhabits the role with a genuine pathos and a fine sense of comic timing.

It can be easy to forget that Chekhov intended his plays to comedies, and this is sometimes lost in favour of a po-faced inherent-sadness-of-the-human-condition portrayal. Here, director Alexander Zakharov reminds his audience that Chekhov can be hilarious. The German governess brought back by aristocratic lead Lyubov from her time in Paris is a groteque figure dressed like a can-can dancer, there to distract the rich from the realities of life. Recognising the humour in this figure and playing to it has the added bonus of allowing the audience to empathise with the characters - their amusement amuses us too.

And then there's the sex. The relationship between Lyubov and brash young businessmen Lopakhin is given a whole new meaning as she breaks her boredom with explicit fantasies of him, the old firting with the news. It's heady stuff.

While the Lenkom production could be a bit more polished, especially in the slightly sagging second act, this is Chekhov on fine form. It will also be a fine tonic for anyone who saw the festival-opening production of Three Sisters, where half the audience left at the interval after director Frank Kastorf attempted to "break down the structure of meaning" by having every line delivered in voices like pneumatic drills. Highly recommended.