Mildly Malevolent

"So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information." --George Orwell

"Anbody can make history. Only a great man can write it."--Oscar Wilde

contact info:

ecohn-at-uchicago-dot-edu

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Saturday, August 30, 2003

There isn't a lot to report from Russia today, I'm afraid. I'd planned to go to the Izmailovskii Market sometime this afternoon, but it's been rainy today. I may well go try to do some library research. For now, though, I'm working on my Fulbright essay in the interent salon. Working conditions aren't ideal, but they're as good as they're going to be, I think.


Some articles of interest:

  • Here's yet another call for a museum to the victims of Communism. Conservatives periodically propose something along these lines (kind of like the Holocaust Museum), but their history is always flawed and one-sided. The mindset of these people can perhaps be best summed up by the following paragraph:

    But there’s a problem with the project’s funding. Project Director Jay Katzen says that although initial plans called for the museum to be funded entirely with private donations, the challenges of private fund raising has led the group to seek public dollars. Katzen says he’s secured a pledge from Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., to match a taxpayer dollar for each dollar raised privately. I find it almost obscene to build a monument to the evils of state coercion with money coerced by the state from its citizens. A memorial to communism that's in any way funded with taxpayer dollars would stand devoid of any real moral value at all.

    Even if you leave aside the moral problems with, say, trying to compare the number of victims of Communism and the Holocaust and ignore the questionable (or overly simplistic) vision of history promoted by the museum's supporters, that one paragraph explains why this whole project is a little outlandish. (via The History News Network)
  • Germans have now begun to discuss the war-time bombing of their cities by the U.S.
  • Charlotte Bronte left a novel unfinished, with only 19 pages written. That left a golden opportunity for someone else to finish it.
  • Capitalists have begun to sell Soviet poster art. It's fun stuff--I might bring a poster or two home with me.
  • Here's another profile of Evelyn Waugh. My favorite paragraph:

    He did cultivate an ogreish image, enlivening his days with comic feuds and insults. And, true, he was once rude to Edmund Wilson. At a London dinner party, Wilson announced that his collection of stories, ''Memoirs of Hecate County,'' had been turned down by British publishers on the grounds of obscenity, whereupon Waugh gravely advised him that Cairo was a good place to publish pornography. But his greatest lack of mercy was toward himself. Graham Greene, who knew firsthand the despair Waugh struggled with, deemed him a saint. (Of course, given Greene's rather heterodox brand of Catholicism, that might just mean a drunk who still goes to Mass.)

    I'll be reading Brideshead Revisited in whatever spare moments I have in Ivanovo.
  • Ian Buruma discusses how to talk about Israel.
  • The Washington Post profiles the compiler of the first comprehensive Kurdish-English dictionary. (via Language Hat)
  • Once again, Rumsfeld and Rice get their history wrong.


Friday, August 29, 2003

Sometimes I think that the research gods are angry with me. Today I went to the outskirts of Moscow, to visit the branch of the Lenin Library located at Khimki. I had a reasonably productive afternoon browsing in Russian dissertations and looking at the catalogue for the library's newspaper holdings, but I wasn't able to get access to the newspaper I most wanted to see. (I have a citation for an article in a Soviet film newspaper that discusses the case of a famous director disciplined by his local party organization for rudeness.) I spent a long time discussing access to the newspaper with a really nice Russian woman who was almost impossible to understand: I'm not sure whether the communication difficulty came from her strong accent or from her lack of three front teeth. (Russian dental care, I think it's fair to say, has left something to be desired over the years.) In any case, I should be able to see the paper sometime before I leave the country. My afternoon wasn't badly spent, exactly, but I'm not sure the trip all the way out to Khimkhi was the best use of my time, under the circumstances.

The library itself is an interesting site. It's a massive brick building located just outside the Moscow city limits. The front of the library is surrounded by a kind of market, filled with kiosks and people selling vegetables; the front lawn is almost completely unkept; the area is full of shaggy-looking stray dogs. What's more, there's no main entrance--you just walk around the building, along a sort of makeshift path, until you get to an entrance at the building's rear. Given the size of the building, I expected a large-scale entrance, but the door was more-or-less like the door to any old building. Russian research institutions never cease to surprise me.


Can you tell that I've just bought a discount card for the internet cafe? This will probably increase my posting somewhat, though increased access to archives will almost certainly bring it right back down again.


Will Baude recently wrote about the costs and benefits of subway car doors that automatically reopen when they close on commuters. (This was a response to my post on the Moscow metro.) Will's post, in turn, reminded me of an old idea of mine: Subway doors, I've been known to argue, should be programmed to open automatically when they run into someone, but should be armed with spikes sharp enough to make it dangerous to jump onto a subway car at the last minute. (The system would be designed so that the doors would open after coming into contact with you, but not without drawing blood. The minimum cost for delaying your fellow commuters would be a nasty cut.)

My reasoning is simple. Back when I worked in Boston, I'd often get on a subway car, only to have the doors open and close three or four times as people rushed to get on. (This invariably happened when I was in a big hurry; I haven't noticed this problem in Chicago, but that might just be because I don't ride the subway during rush hour.) Everything would be simpler, I'd argue, if commuters knew that they'e be risking grave injury if they were caught in the subway doors. (This information would be posted widely, so that no one would accidentally be dismembered by a subway car.) As it is, I find it annoying when too many people try to slip onto a subway car, but if I knew that the person who'd just leapt onto the car was in such a hurry that he'd be willing to risk losing his arm, I wouldn't mind in the slightest.

This isn't an argument based on economic costs and benefits. Instead, it combines two goals--it's based on my feeling that commuters would be psychologically better off if people weren't always leaping onto subway cars and delaying them, but it still allows people in a huge rush to get onto a subway car if they need to. In short, it combines the best of both worlds. The entertainingly gruesome signs advertising the subway's dangerous spiked doors would be an added bonus.


Here's an interesting American Prospect Online article about how some conservative Christians are using their faith to argue for higher taxes. The article rubbed me the wrong way a little--it seemed overwritten and its tone bugged me--but it covers an interesting topic.

I suspect that this trend--and related trends--will grow in the years ahead. When I worked at The American Prospect, I almost wrote an article about how certain religious conservatives are joining up with Ralpd Nader-led organizations to fight commercialism in the public schools. These phenomena are definitely worth watching, and may well become more prominent in coming years, though I have doubts about exactly how far they'll go.


I was bad yesterday. No, I wasn't horrible--I didn't go around kicking puppies, stealing candy from small children, or sneaking into the stacks of major research libraries to hide books in random locations where they could never be found again. Instead, I decided to go see Pirates of the Caribbean in Russian. There are worse things to do, I know--it's not as if I need to spend every moment I have in a library or an archive--but I still felt a bit guilty. Nevertheless, I considered my trip to the movies a reward for a relatively successful day, and I like to think that I'm entitled to a little relaxation.

Here are the reasons I had to be happy yesterday afternoon:

  • I arranged to meet with a Russian historian to talk about my research. Last year, I was unable to reach her during my visit to Moscow; this year, I succeeded in contacting her on my first try. If I'm lucky, this historian will write me a letter of support for my Fulbright application, and she'll definitely have some useful advice for me.
  • I contacted the archives in Ivanovo, where I'll be doing research for a week in September, and learned that I don't need to make any arrangments with the archives before I arrive. That makes my life much easier.
  • I called the "inexpensive hotel" in Ivanovo that was listed in my guidebook, and found out its minimum cost per night: $4!! I may end up paying more than that, and the hotel may be a seedy, cockroach-infected den of iniquity, but it's nice to know that I'll be able to make my trip to Ivanovo under budget. (Besides, what's a trip to Russia without a visit to a seedy hotel?)

Ivanovo, for those of you who don't know, is an industrial city located about 200 miles northwest of Moscow. It's famous for two things: its textile industry and its women. The city produces around 20% of the country's cloth; there has been a large gender imbalance there at various points in the past, so the city earned a reputation as a "city of brides" where a man could come to look for a wife. Even today, women from Ivanovo are said to have a reputation for aggressiveness, though I suspect that this rumor is nonsense.

In any case, I decided to go to an early-evening showing of Pirates last night. I enjoyed it thoroughly. My Russian was good enough for me to understand essentially everything, though I missed certain parts of the dialogue. (Besides, I don't mind not knowing the Russian for "avast ye!"--if you can't repeat a phrase with a straight face in English, then the words aren't worth knowing in Russian.) Two things bothered me about the movie, however:

  • The Russian distributors of the movie insisted on translating the main character's name, from "Jack Sparrow" to "Jack Vorobei." (Actually, I suppose, that would be "Dzek Vorobei," but it sounded just like Jack.) Every other name in the movie remained in English, which gave Jack Sparrow's name an anomalous feel; moreover, I object in principle to translating the names of characters in books and movies. The significance of the name "Sparrow" was trivial to the movie's plot, so I don't see what Russian viewers gained from a translation. Moreover, the story was set in an English-speaking locale, so it seems truer to the story to give the characters English-language names. Translating the names of characters usually strikes me as simplistic and simple-minded (though I can think of a handful of possible exceptions to this rule), and this instance seemed especially odd.
  • The Russian for pearl is zhemchuzhina, something I didn't know until I saw posters for the movie. As a geeky Soviet history grad student, I know the name Zhemchuzhina best as the surname of Molotov's wife--Polina Zhemchuzhina. (She was a cool person, who ran the cosmetics and fisheries industries at various times and was eventually tried as a Zionist spy.) It always confused me, then, to hear someone in the movie say "Give me [the] Zhemchuzhina," since I couldn't help but wonder what Molotov would think of that!

I may expand on this theme later, since there's lots more to say about the translation of character names. Suffice it to say that this was only a minor flaw in the film, and that I thoroughly enjoyed hearing the Russian Captain Barbossa adding an extra "arr!" sound to each syllable of the name "Turner."

Thursday, August 28, 2003

I find it sort of interesting that many of the people I've talked to in Russia have home internet access, but no one--as far as I know--has an answering machine in either their home or their office. My life would be mildly easier if they did.


Archivists can be very sneaky. I don't think I'll elaborate here.

Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Robert Fulford discusses Georgi Dimitrov in The National Post. (via Arts and Letters Daily)


Christopher Hitchens discusses Edward Said in the latest Atlantic. I have mixed feelings about both writers (Said: neutral-to-positive with some major criticisms; Hitchens: neutral-to-fairly-negative, with some signficant positive feelings mixed in), and don't find the article very enlightening.

In any case, the ubiquity of Christopher Hitchens in the popular press seems like one of the surest signs that we could use some fresh, intelligent voices out there; I'm told, by people who know better than I do, that Said isn't even all that prominent a figure in Middle Eastern historiography these days. (He's someone read more frequently in undergrad classes than in graduate seminars.) Which makes me wonder why this article was ever published...


I've reached a milestone in my quest for (temporary) Russian acculturation. Whenever I hear someone speaking Russian in the United States, I tend to have the same reaction: first a flash of recognition (based, I think, on my recognizing the rhythm and intonation of the speech as Russian) and then a moment of confirmation (when I hear Russian words and recognize for sure what language the person in question is speaking.) This all takes place over a second or two, in which I think "Wow! He's speaking Russian!"

I very quickly got used to overhearing Russian speech when I arrived in Moscow this weekend, but this morning I took the next step toward linguistic acculturation. As I was riding the metro downtown, I overheard some people speaking, recognized the intonation pattern of their speech as American, picked up a couple words of English, and thought "Wow! They're Americans!" You know your trip is going well language-wise when it sounds strange and surprising to overhear one of your compatriots speaking English.

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Random articles that have caught my eye:

It's been a slightly frustrating day in terms of getting into archives. More happily, I've now been to yet another "literary club" (this one less cleverly hidden than the first, I'm glad to report); tomorrow I expect to spend some time at the State Historical Library, and I'll try to convince the people at RGANI to let me register to work there with only a xerox of my passport (rather than the actual passport, which is being registered at the main state archive until Friday or Monday.) Wish me luck...

A random thought: my visits to literaturnye kluby always feel a little bit like visits to speakeasies, given the obscurity of each club's location. Of course, the security is a little lower, and the clubs sell books rather than booze, but you get the idea...


A word to the wise: the Moscow metro is fantastic, but when the doors on its subway cars start to close on you, they don't always open up again immediately (like on American subway cars.) I learned this the hard way this afternoon, as my slightly bruised hand could tell you. Luckily, a friendly guy with a beard helped me maneuver my backpack into the car through the crack in the door before he muttered something about "American tourists."

I find it oddly fascinating to see what books Russians are reading on the metro. So far today, I've seen people reading Tolstoi, Dostoevskii, Tolkien, Solzhenitsyn, and Sienkiewicz. Someone else was reading a trashy romance novel, and a bunch of people were reading books I couldn't readily identify without acting creepy or overly friendly. What this selection of books tells us about the literary habits of the Russian people is left as an exercise to the reader.


It's a good thing that I'm beginning to get the documentation I need to get into the archives, since I think I might be turning into a Russian mall rat. (Actually, thinking about it, I'm a little large to be a rat: perhaps I'm a mall capybara?) I spend far too much of my time these days in a large mall located just off Red Square, though I'd much rather be in archives or libraries.

The mall was built by Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov--a local potentate who can perhaps be best described as a more powerful Muscovite version of Chicago's first Mayor Daley. The mall cost $350 million to build: it's adorned with fake Italian marble and filled with statues by Luzhkov's favorite sculptor, Zarub Tsereteli. The top of the mall is like a map of the northern hemisphere, distinguishing Moscow from other world capitals with a model Kremlin. Luzhkov hoped to show the world that Russia, too, was Western and cosmpolitan. What he really showed the world was that gaudiness isn't confined to America and Western Europe.

I've spent most of my time in the mall in a 24-hour internet cafe (where you pay roughly $2 an hour for service.) Yesterday, when I was tired and wanted something else to do, I wandered over to the movie theater and saw the new Lara Croft movie in Russian. (It was pretty bad: worth watching only if you're sick, or if it's being shown in a foreign language you're trying to learn. My favorite part involved these monsters that looked like fast-moving killer undead tree sloths. Maybe I'd know what they were supposed to be called if I had understood the Russian a little better, but I prefer to think of them my own way.) I've been known to grab dinner at the food court (which has everything from Sbarro's to Georgian cuisine) and to wander the mall's corridors watching all the rich Russians. The mall is loaded with silly stores I wouldn't be seen dead in, most prominently "The World of Barbie" (which does sell a handful of toys that aren't Barbie dolls.)

But my favorite experience at the mall is now a thing of the past. Last year, when you went to the movies, you had a choice between two types of ticket: "economy class" and "business class." (I couldn't resist the chance to see "Resident Evil," in Russian, in business class.) Now there's just one price for everyone, though the ticket seller still decides which seat you get. Perhaps I'll go to another theater next time... My trip won't be complete until I've seen Pirates of the Caribbean in Russian, after all.


Sometimes just living in a foreign country can help you to understand its history a little better. According to one of the traditional stories of the 1930s, Russians used to listen for signs of their impending arrest each night as they lay in bed, often ready with a suitcase should the NKVD arrive for them. They could hear anyone entering or leaving their building--and would heave a sigh of relief if a night-time noise turned out to be, say, a neighbor returning home late in the evening.

I live in an old apartment building this summer. I can't say with certainty that it predates World War II, though I strongly suspect that it does; I don't know how it compares with other 1930s-era apartments in terms of wall thickness, but I'd guess that it's fairly typical. In any case, I'm a fairly sound sleeper these days, but I'm always waking up when my neighbors come home or when someone closes a door downstairs. I feel like I have a sense of most of the comings and goings in my building at night. I'm sure that, if I were waiting for the police to come for me, I'd be terrified after nightfall. In a trivial way, I guess I can now say that I understand the 1930s a little better.

Monday, August 25, 2003

The New York Times asks a question I've asked before (I'm too lazy to find the link): do dictators always have bad taste? I just had time to skip this (a minute left in the internet cafe...), but I was amused!


Shopping in Russia is always an adventure. I'm exaggerating slightly, but I've always found shopping for books and food to be an unusual experience over here.

One of my main activities the last two days has been book-shopping, a fun activity that I can get mostly out of the way before my work in the archives begins. I began by visiting several stores I knew from my visit last year; this afternoon I visited a "literary club" that two grad students in my program discovered earlier in the summer. Searching for books, I've found, is very different in Russia and America.

Most Russian bookstores, in my experience, are very different from their American counterparts. The most typical of the bookshops I've visited in Russia seem far better than American stores in certain categories: literature (in general), foreign literature (in particular), reference books (like dictionaries), and a handful of other topics. If you want a book by a contemporary writer, the selection will be at least as good in a Russian store as in an American store. If you want a foreign book--say, a classic novel by an author who's neither Russian nor American--you'll almost certainly do better in a Russian store. What impresses me most, however, is the selection in Russian literature. My favorite example comes from last summer, when I was looking for a copy of Vladimir Nabokov's translation of Alice in Wonderland; I asked a clerk for help, only to discover that the book wasn't in either of the sections I'd expected (foreign lit or children's lit), but was in a special section of books by Nabokov. (The clerk also told me that another translation of Alice in Wonderland--I can't remember which one--was better.) I can't imagine an American bookstore with, say, a William Faulkner section.

Things get more complicated when you want books in an academic discipline--say, history. American bookstores, I would argue, are substantially better than Russian stores at giving their customers a wide selection of history books that appeal to the average reader without being too sensational or too academic. (To be fair, this probably says as much about Russian publishers as it says about Russian bookstores.) Most Russian bookstores, in my experience, have a wide array of sensational and mediocre books on history. They have fewer readable, interesting books for the educated public. They have a substantial number of document collections and volumes intended for academics--good, solid books that no one is likely to want to pick up and read. These books are interesting and important, but they don't stay in print all that long--you have to buy them within a year of their publication, or they'll often (but not always) become unavailable. (The same is true for historical monographs.) Then again, you'll have no trouble finding books on, say, the secret Masonic plot to dominate Soviet history. The world needs more books like that.

Yesterday I went to two bookstores that could be described as Russian counterparts to Borders or Barnes and Noble. I picked up a handful of interesting books--mostly document collections. This morning I went to a more specialized store, a bookshop located near one of Moscow's main archives and run by an academic publisher, and bought another good document collection. My most interesting experience, however, came this afternoon, when I visited a "book club" two friends of mine had recommended. The store was located in a small, rundown house next to a seemingly abandoned church; the neighborhood was full of stray dogs, with several poor-looking men lurking around. (I think they may have come to beg near the church; suffice it to say that I wouldn't have wanted to spend much time in the area late at night.) No one in the area seemed to know exactly where the store was: one man told me that he lived in the area and was sure there was no bookstore anywhere nearby, and several other people seemed equally puzzled. I even walked past the store at least once without realizing what I was doing. I eventually asked someone who seemed to work in one of the buildings associated with the church (I think it was a center for adolescents with psychological issues) and was told where to go. (The store was located in a ramshackle shack, with no sign advertising the book club's presence until you'd gone in the front door.) When I went inside, I found what was easily the best selection of books on Soviet history that I've ever seen. But I can't imagine someone finding the store by chance--to get there, you have to know where it is. Even when you know roughly where it is, you have to wander past such sites as the Moscow museum of water to get there, and you have to ignore the advice of people who tell you the store isn't really there.

Shopping for food can be equally interesting. In my experience, there are three main types of food store in Russia. The first is the most traditional: you walk in, walk up to a counter, point to the food you want to buy, and find out how much it costs. Then you walk to the cash register, pay the required amount, bring a receipt back to the counter, and pick up the food you want. You repeat this as many times as necessary--say, once for meat, once for bread, and once for vegetables. Since (like all good Americans) I'm lazy and used to better service, I've tried to stay away from these types of store.

The second type of store is the "Western-style supermarket." (I use quotation marks because these stores aren't exactly "western-style," for reasons I'll describe below.) These stores carry all the standard foods, without using the annoying multiple-counter system described in the paragraph above. They carry Western brands of food (often at exorbitant prices), including both American and European foods. These stores usually aren't terribly large (the one I frequented last summer was somewhere between Harper Foods and the 53rd Street Co-op in size, if you live in Hyde Park), but they carry most of what you need. But they also sell other things--like toys (the Lego selection last summer was surprisingly impressive), jewelry, vases, and perfume. My favorite part was the book selection: you could buy not only cookbooks, trashy romance novels, and thrillers, but more substantial fare--like Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and the complete works of the historian Karamzin.

The food store near where I live this summer seems like a bizarre hybrid of the first two. The store is small--probably slightly larger than Harper Foods in square feet. Nearly all the food is behind a circular counter that takes up most of the space in the store, with several different departments. I'd hoped to buy a bunch of different groceries this morning, but couldn't find everything I wanted. Instead, I bought a loaf of bread from one department and some juice from another. Luckily, I could buy each food directly--I didn't need to pay at a central cash register and bring a receipt to each department. That's something to be grateful for!


A deep, profound question whose answer I can't even begin to contemplate: why is the Sbarro's in Moscow really busy every time I walk by? (No, tourists aren't the predominant clientele.) Does bad American food have a special cachet in Russia?


Christopher Hitchens reviews the memoirs of Eric Hobsbawm. Unfortunately, I don't have enough time to comment.

Another interesting book review discusses London's underworld during World War II.

Sunday, August 24, 2003

I'm now in Moscow, killing a few minutes in an internet cafe before I wander off in search of books and food (two of life's greatest necessities.) I'll write about my Moscow experiences sometime later (either this afternoon or tomorrow), but at the moment I'll just link to this silly little article on Harry Potter and liberal politics. I'm always tempted to link to Potter-related articles, as you probably know by now, and though I was unimpressed by this one, it was one of the first articles I've seen that tried to associate Harry Potter with liberal politics. (Libertarians and conservatives often try to talk about the politics of the Potter universe, but this is the first article on Potter politics written by a liberal that I've seen.)

In general, I think articles like this are silly. Rowling has admitted to being a liberal (or leftist, or something); she even named her daughter after Jessica Mitford. I generally think it's silly to read any politics into the series, since good children's writing is generally based on principles that transcend party-line disputes; at the same time, I can understand why sensible conservatives might want to defend the books from Christian right-wingers who love to denounce them. Someday, when I'm not out of the country, I may discuss in greater depth why it's usually silly to read politics into children's literature, but for now I have better things to do.