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

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Saturday, September 13, 2003

My initial impressions of Ivanovo were fairly negative: back on Monday, if you'd asked me to describe the city in two words, I'd have chosen "muddy" and "Soviet." I still don't claim that Ivanovo is the loveliest city on the face of the earth (there's often an unpleasant industrial-type smell hanging around, for example), but I came to like the city well enough. (It probably helped that the weather improved and that my archival work went decently.) Here, in random order, are some of my thoughts and impressions of the city.

Ivanovo is probably the most Soviet place I've ever been--the only other contender, in fact, is East Berlin under Communism. The city's Soviet feel was evident in its architecture, its monuments, its general monotony, and even its street names. The center of the city, after all, is bounded by streets named for Lenin, Marx, and Engels; other important streets were named for the Red Army and August 10 (the date of an enormous pre-revolution strike of Ivanovo textile workers); still other streets are named for lesser-known local Bolsheviks and the Paris Commune. I'm not sure if the Soviet-style street names are evidence of the region's political conservatism, of the city's relative lack of money, or of an interest in local history, but they were striking nonetheless.

I was also struck by the many ugly memorials on the downtown Ploshchad' Revoliutsii (the Square of the Revolution), which included a plaque commemorating the August 10 strike, a couple odd-looking memorials to workers, and an enscription of a Lenin quote covering the side of a building. Later on, I was amused to see an insurance company advertisement built on top of an old Soviet memorial of some kind, which suggests that some of the old Soviet decor of the city is now gone. (I think the ad was built on an old memorial, anyway: perhaps the insurance company just had Stalinist or monumentalist aspirations. One never knows for sure.)

On my first day, I tried to visit the memorial museum to Mikhail Frunze--a Bolshevik active in Ivanovo history, who's best known in the West today (to the extent he's known at all) as the man after whom Kyrgyzstan's capital was once named. The museum, unfortunately, was closed. I was somewhat amused at the building it was housed in, however: when you went in the front door, you had a choice between going upstairs to the museum, right to a bacteriological laboratory, or straight ahead to a decontamination room. The decontamination room was presumably intended for the lab, but I can imagine anti-Communists who'd like to go there after learning about the life of Mikhail Frunze.

The city, in general, struck me as an odd cross between the urban and the rural. Most of the city looked like I'd imagine a standard Soviet industrial center: lots of nondescript cement buildings and people hurrying around on buses and streetcars. (I was never in the vicinity of the textile mills.) When I walked to the main archive building, however, I found that the road was often poorly paved and that there was frequently no sidewalk. (Given the fairly heavy rain, this made the area extremely muddy and unpleasant.) The streets were lined with houses that looked very rural--to say that they were wooden wouldn't give you their full flavor, but to say that they were made of logs would be slightly inaccurate. In any case, the center of the city looked almost like a slightly poorer, slightly more industrial section of Moscow, while the outskirts seemed muddier, less developed, and more rural. What's more, even the city center was filled with people selling mushrooms and squash, which made Ivanovo's juxtaposition of the urban and the rural even more striking.

My work in the archives was fairly successful. I was unable to read files from the local control commission for reasons of privacy, but I found mountains of statistics. With more time, I think I could have both reconstructed statistics for the number of Communists expelled from the party during each year of my period and the reasons for their expulsion, and also come up with a list of the number of people in each of the province's regions who had been censured by the party. My trip was definitely successful as a scouting mission, though it would have been nice to visit an archive where I could read control commission files.

Beyond that, I don't have a lot to say about Ivanovo. The city was too small for an internet cafe, but had internet access in the post office; there were no Western fast food chains, but there was a chain called MakMaster that looked like a Russian McDonald's (except that it sold alcohol, shawerma, and shashlyk); I learned that Baskin Robbins isn't quite as good in Russia as it is in the U.S. (and doesn't even have any crazy Russian flavors of ice cream!) My evenings were a little dull, but my days were productive enough, and I can easily imagine returning to Ivanovo for a month to do more research.

When I left for Ivanovo last weekend, I learned something that surprised me: Russian trains have a better record of punctuality than their counterparts in Western Europe, and generally leave on time to the minute. This isn't because Vladimir Putin, like Benito Mussolini, is a fascist dictator who makes the trains run on time--I don't think Fascist Italy was even all that successful in this respect. Instead, people in the know (and Isabel Allende's favorite guidebook to Russia) explain this surprising fact in two ways: train crews are paid less if they arrive late, and schedules are padded to make punctuality fairly easy. The first of these policies strikes me as a very good idea, but the second seems rather questionable. Such is transportation in Russia.

In any case, my two overnight train trips were quite pleasant. On each trip, I travelled in a four-bed compartment: I would have felt claustrophobic if each bed had been taken, but I travelled alone on one trip and with one other traveller on the other. The beds themselves were reasonably comfortable (though slightly narrow), especially since you could use a mattress, sheets, and a pillow for less than a dollar. I arrived in Ivanovo at 5:15 in the morning and quickly made my way to my hotel.

The hotel itself was surprisingly comfortable. The $4 rooms were sold out, and I found out that the $8 rooms didn't come with bathrooms, so I paid $13 a night for a spacious, sunny, and comfortable room. The room was probably nicer than my apartment in Moscow (though it didn't have a kitchen), and I had very little to complain about. Here, however, are the three problems, quirks, or issues that I had with my accomodations:

  • There was no hot water in the hotel, or in my part of Ivanovo generally. I somehow managed to survive, but--given the speed of my morning showers--I may have won a reputation with the archive staff as "the smelly American." Worse things have been known to happen, I suppose.
  • The lock on my door seemed unusually hard to use. To be fair, I'm not necessarily adept at using American locks--let's just say that all my childhood dreams of becoming a locksmith were shattered at an early age--but this lock seemed especially troublesome. It took me half an hour to unlock my door the first time I wanted to leave the hotel, and the cleaning staff twice had to help me get into my room. I felt like a clueless American, which--in fact--I was.
  • In Russian hotels--or at least in this Russian hotel--you pay for your room by the 24-hour period. Hence, because I arrived at 5:25 in the morning on Monday, my check-out time on Friday was 5:25 a.m. Luckily, I was able to pay a pro-rated rate to stay in the hotel until 9:00 last night, but I still found this arrangement a little odd. Then again, under the American system I would have paid for five days and had to leave the hotel at noon, whereas this system allowed me to pay for 4.5 days and leave when I wanted to.

I'm feeling a bit drained from my trip, so I may spice up this entry later on, and I'll certainly describe the rest of my trip in more detail.

Last night, as I was waiting to leave for the Ivanovo train station, I killed some time by watching Russian TV. The highlight of my evening was a show that looked like the Russian equivalent of "Wheel of Fortune." The rules were slightly different; the answers were consistently shorter; the prizes included guinea pigs, model airplanes, and jars of honey; and--best of all--the contestants periodically burst into song. The excitement never dies on Russian television, it seems!

One of these days, I'll formulate my theory on the inverse relationship between the quality of an American movie shown on Russian TV and the quality of its dubbing. The dubbing in Rat Race was impeccable, for instance: each character's voice was dubbed by a different actor, and the English-language voices were completely removed from the recording. (The Russian actor playing Rowan Atkinson's part even sounded vaguely plausible in the role.) I've seen similarly excellent dubbing for movies I didn't recognize at all. Last year, however, I found that the dubbing on the Star Wars movies was atrocious: you could still hear the English underneath the Russian dubbing (which was really distracting), and the voices sounded all wrong. (Darth Vader sounded suspiciously like a Russian Alec Guiness, for example.) The only redeeming quality of the Russian-dubbed Star Wars was that I learned how to say "The force will be with you always" in Russian.

I'll be here in the Okhotnyi Riad internet cafe for the next few hours, catching up on email, writing the next sections of my Fulbright essay, and describing my experiences in Ivanovo to my faithful readers.

Update: I have more evidence, pro and con, related to my theory on the dubbing of American movies on Russian TV. Pro: the dubbing on last night's showing of Pearl Harbor was excellent. (The Russian Ben Affleck even managed an appropriately oafish tone at key moments!) Con: the dubbing of an atrocious movie involving Kirstie Alley and the Olsen twins was mediocre. (Each character had a different voice, but none were especially lively, and the English was audible underneath.) On balance, I think last night's evidence hurts my theory (though the excellent dubbing of the low-quality Pearl Harbor is definitely a point in its favor.) A more reasonable theory, I think, is that relatively recent movies are often better dubbed than their older counterparts, but this theory isn't nearly as much fun.

Friday, September 12, 2003

As readers of this blog know, I'm unusually interested in the books one can find for sale in Russia. As I left the archives this afternoon (just after finishing my regional archival work), I came across a stand selling books along one of Ivanovo's main streets, Prospekt Lenina. Among the authors whose books were for sale were Robertson Davies, Jean Genet, and Simone de Beauvoir. This wasn't a particularly obvious location for such a book sale--we weren't near the university, for instance; instead, the books were being sold on a random downtown street corner in a regional industrial center. I can't help but wonder: would it be possible to find a Robertson Davies book for sale on a random street corner in his home country of Canada?

Lest you think I've turned into an embarassing romantic and Russophile ("Wow! Russians read books! How cultured!"), I should amend a comment I made earlier: I've now seen as many people reading Nora Roberts as Fyodor Dostoevskii on the Moscow metro. I don't claim that all Russian are super-literate members of the intelligentsia, but I do believe that American and Russian attitudes toward books--and toward literature--are often very different.

Other cool stuff:

  • Timothy Garton Ash discusses George Orwell.
  • Does anyone else think that Arts and Letters Daily came up with an odd description of Edward Teller's career and political leanings: "Edward Teller, who built the H-bomb, but felt that the atomic attack on Japanese cities had been a mistake, is dead at age 95." (That almost makes him sound like Andrei Sakharov!) See Teller's New York Times obituary for more. (Am I wrong, or did Hungarians play a disproportionate role in the American nuclear program?)
  • Robert Goddard: not exactly a modest man. As Gregg Easterbrook points out, his ego soared even higher than his rockets.
  • David Plotz describes the myths of September 11. (I know, I know: too much of my content is coming from AL Daily today. That will change soon.)
  • The Guardian reviews Spirited Away, which has just opened in British theaters. An excerpt:

    This remarkable film - finally released here two years after it was made - first entranced European audiences at the Berlin film festival. It is available in two versions: the Japanese original with subtitles, or, if you really want, dubbed with American voices. To those who prefer a dubbed version, I can only say that like screwtop wine, it might turn out to be all right. But why compromise the pleasure of this film with an error of taste as silly as that? Spirited Away is fast and funny; it's weird and wonderful. Mostly wonderful.

    Spirited Away is now available on DVD: if you haven't seen it, rent it.
  • Does time fly? This book on Einstein and Poincare sounds cool.
  • From The Moscow Times: more on verbs of motion. Why did "Big Bush" come to Moscow? Would St. Petersburg vote for a horse for governor?
  • Fred Kaplan has an intelligent--if depressing--article on how George W. Bush blew a historic opportunity after September 11.

Tonight I leave for Moscow. I'll describe my visit to Ivanovo sometime this weekend.

Update: Virginia Postrel has a brief comment on the number of brilliant Hungarian physicists.

Thursday, September 11, 2003

I was briefly able to check my University of Chicago email here in the Ivanovo post office, but I just lost my connection. Since I plan to stick around and see if I can get the connection back, I might as well give you some fun language-related links:

  • France isn't the only country that cares about the introduction of English words into its national language--just look at Germany. (I'd link to some related articles in my archives, but I'm too lazy...)
  • Language hat posts excerpts of a New Yorker article on Russian swearing. I wish I were near a newstand that sold The New Yorker these days. (Read the comments too.)

In other news, Clive James has written a delightful defense of snarky book reviews. His conclusion:

When you say a man writes badly, you are trying to hurt him. When you say it in words better than his, you have succeeded. It would be better to admit this fact, and admit that all adverse reviews are snarks to some degree, than to indulge the sentimental wish that malice might be debarred from the literary world. The literary world is where it belongs. When Dr. Johnson longed for his enemy to publish a book, it was because he wasn't allowed to hit him with an ax. Civilization tames human passions, but it can't eliminate them. Hunt the snark and you will find it everywhere.

I need to read more James--I love his poem about remaindered books, for example. (Daniel Drezner makes some comments on bad reviews and academia, also linking to the James article.)

In still other news, I've been pretty busy in the Ivanovo archives. I couldn't see the files I most wanted to look at (from the local party control commission), since they included confidential information on the personal lives of (possibly) living people. I've still been able to find lots of good statistics and some interesting hints of behind-the-scenes issues at play in expulsions from the party, however. (Some local and city party committees seemed to think that the oblast--or provincial committee--was too lenient on Communists they'd voted to expel.) It's been fun. Working in a provincial archive is very pleasant--especially when the head of the reading room decides that you've been working too long and brings you tea and cookies. Tomorrow morning I'll finish up with some last files at the former party archive, meet with the director of the main Ivanovo archive after lunch, and then get ready for a 10:15 train back to Moscow.

Tuesday, September 09, 2003

Greetings! Ivanovo, it seems, does have a place with internet access; unfortunately, I can't seem to get access to my uchicago email. For now, though, here are a handful of comments about what I've been doing to update the people I'd be emailing if I could:

  • My research in the archives has been moderately successful. My meeting with a historian at Ivanovo State University was a success.
  • Overnight train travel in Russia is surprisingly pleasant. My hotel is nicer than I expected (though I'm paying more than $8 a day.) My part of Ivanovo doesn't have hot water at the moment, which is unfortunate. I'll survive somehow, I'm sure.
  • I now understand why there are so many places advertising boot repair in Russia.

More later, though perhaps not until I get back to Moscow.

Sunday, September 07, 2003

The next time I post on this blog, the odds are very high that the following things will have happened:

  • I will have survived two overnight-train trips, one from Moscow to Ivanovo and the other from Ivanovo to Moscow.
  • I will have survived my first overnight stay in a cheap Russian hotel. (Current cost estimate: $8 a night.)
  • I will have conducted archival research as the Ivanovo branch of the state archives.
  • I will have finished reading Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh, and Stalinist Values, by David Hoffmann.
  • I will have met with a local historian in Ivanovo.

It's conceivable that I'll find a good internet cafe in Ivanovo, or that I'll have troubles in the archives and come back early. It's most likely, however, that I'll be back in Moscow on Saturday.

Right now I'm just about finished with the first draft of my Fulbright essay--well, most of it, anyway. I'll need to add a few pages about my archival experience, the archives I plan to work in, the contacts I've made in Russia, and my plans to share my research findings with others, but that should be fairly straightforward. I'm being tormented at the moment, since the cafe section of the internet salon where I'm working is showing the Russian version of The Two Towers at the moment, and I feel a strong urge to go watch...

I have little to say beyond that, except that I've learned an important lesson: Russian handwriting can be very hard to read. You'd think that you'd be careful to write neatly and legibly if you were a former party functionary writing to Nikita Khrushchev for help lifting a party censure. You'd be wrong to think so, however, as I learned to my chagrin on Friday.