Thursday, November 29, 2007

Quick Russia

Parliamentary elections are coming up this weekend this Sunday in Russia. It is widely predicted to essentially be the death of the Russian opposition with only Putin party and the Communists making it into parliament (it is hard to really call the communists an opposition party, not because they are so supportive of Putin, but because they are so far from an alternative being a mainly populist party supported by a dwindling population of pensioners). I will get to that in a second, but first...

Why it's time for the annual millionaire faire in Moscow. Need a new private jet? How about a diamond studded cellphone? No? Well maybe you you'd be more interested in a new luxury sedan with ostrich leather tires to make your thirty car garage a little more interesting?

Yes, Russian had 53 billionaires worth a total of $282 billion and 103,000 millionaires who are worth $670 billion. Th evast majority of which live in Moscow. Yes, the oil and gas businesses are booming and times are good...for sum. Any sort of ridiculous luxury items make me angry (makes watching tv or anything about Sourthern California difficult), but these sorts of showing of wealth when so much of Russia's population lives in poverty. It is sad not only because so much wealth is concentrated in the hands of so few, but because the extreme concentration of wealth in once city detracts from the development of infrastructure in other cities. Moscow is quite pleasant, and yet with few exceptions the difference between the infrastructure in Moscow and any other Russian city is shocking (as the saying goes, Moscow isn't Russia, yet oh so many Westerners take it to be).*

As mentioned above Sunday is the parliamentary election day in Russia. Though Putin isn't up for re-election the campaign is being run as if he was. To be fair, even Russians know that the Duma is little more than a rubber stamp, so in that sense I suppose it is natural that Putin takes central stage, since people know he is pulling the strings anyway. The slogans have been things like "Putin's plan - Russia's victory" (Putin's never mentioned having a plan), [place the name of you city here] is voting for Putin, and "I believe in Russia, I believe in myself."

Ironically the election ads have been very similar to the opening sequence a Russian remake of Little Britain, contrasting text of Russia's greatness with images of quite the opposite. The election rhetoric, however, places a strong emphasis on fate, Russia's re-emerging greatness, and the importance on unity above all else. Sadly, it is all very Soviet rhetoric and whether intentionally or not says quite about Russia and many Russians insecurity, and Russian culture's intolerance towards any sort of difference (intellectual, political, ethnic).

I'm including this picture because Putin looks like a pimp

Also, remember when I said Georgia was acting like Russia by trying to blame someone else for all its problems? Well perhaps concerned that Georgia was going to take away it title of "most likely to blame whoever they are mad at for whatever is pissing them off" (my favorite is still by far Russia saying Georgia fired the missile into a Gerogia village, not Russia), Putin blamed the US for discrediting the upcoming Russian election by discouraging election monitors to go to Russia...though Russia denied the OSCE's election observers visas.

So who is the Russian opposition? There are a number of parties. The more experienced opposition politicians have by and large grown jaded and are not making as big as push as in the past. Key figures from the Soviet past have reemerged to fight what they see as Russia's sliding back into its old Soviet ways. One of those is Garry Kasparov, a famous Soviet chess player, who says he will campaign for the presidency and has been arrested multiple times trying opposing the government's refusal to allow his peaceful protests (sadly, in Russia neo-nazis are oftne allowed to march where democratic paty's demanding more freedom having their protests violently broken up). Gorbachev too has returned to politics albeit with less outward conflict with Putin.

The figure who interests me the most is, partially because I have been reading his work, is Vladimir Bukovsky. One of the most famous Soviet dissident, Bukovsky (pictured above) spent decades in prison, Siberian exile, and solitary confinement for his activism in demanding multi-party democracy and greater individual freedom. A remarkable individual from a society that tended to produce few of them and tried to break those it did. Bukovksy returned to Russia seeing in current events the restoration of much of the Soviet Union's political culture. He will also be running for the president.

Bukovsky is an impressive figure, but in today Russia he is all but irrelevant. No one care's about the past. The sad thing is that it wasn't people like Bukovsky who led Russia right after the collapse of the Soviet Union. You had that in Czech Republic with Václav Havel. These were people who wanted a different Russia and believed democracy did not just mean more than one lkind of sausage in the supermarket. Instead, since the collapse of the Soviet Union Russia has been led by people not only by individuals who were deeply ingrained in the Soviet system ( Yeltsin), but who saw little fault in it (Putin). Is it any wonder then that there has been a turn back to unity coercing culture of the Soviet Union? Is it even surprising the party the will win an absolute majority on Sunday is called "United" Russia?

* On a slightly tangential note it is interesting to compare with New York. Modern Russia is often compared with the Robber Baron days of the US. In those days too you had an obscene juxtaposition of wealth of poverty, on the head the super rich came from across the country to build their supper mansions (it's a bit later but think about the Midwestern millionaires in the Great Gatsby), and on the other you had the slums of recently arrived immigrant with absolutelyu nothing.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Plan B

The Reckoning is Upon Us.

Not really, but law school exams are on the horizon, which are the stress equivalent of the horn of plenty. I had a good exchange with another law student about how these first year courses are probably the most important despite being classes you are the least interested in. I did some legal reading a few weeks ago on topic that really interested me (the stuff my international law post was based on) and was amazed how much easier and enjoyable it was to read (i.e. I had forgotten it can actually be fun doing work when it interests you.

Anyway, it is times like these that I like to have a plan B. I stumbled upon my current one over the weekend. As you may or may not know/care about a masters in Eastern European/Russian Studies is something I would very much like to acquire at some point. It isn't a degree terribly helpful to employment unless you already have a relevant work experience or a more career oriented degree. It's a factor making the taking on the $80,000 worth of debt a little hard to swallow.

Well the Free University of Berlin has an Eastern European Studies Masters program. With the former Russian presence in Berlin the Russian course offering are quite good, in addition to courses on law in various Eastern European countries, Russian political history and cultural history, and Georgian language classes! Perhaps the best elements are that I could write the masters thesis in English (fine with the classes being in German and doing classwork in German, but if I need to try and say something new in a long-ass thesis I have a better chance of doing it English), and it would only cost 260 euro a year!

I am not saying I am going to do it, but it nice to have a fallback plan you really like. I liked Berlin, it is pretty comfortable for me and I have studied at the university before /know a lot of the faculty. It isn't the same quality of an American program, but I wouldn't have to stack up any debt. Huzzah for alternatives!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Subway Gymnastics

I had a bit of a bizarre subway moment today. I was heading back to Brooklyn from my Russian class in the Bronx (second to last stop on the 4!) doing my constitutional law reading when to street performers got on.

They had their stuff way too together to be beggars: they pried the subway doors back open for a woman (pretty much guaranteeing she would give them money) and had their own boom box.

Then one of them starts doing some break dance moves on the subway floor.

This is where is started to become a bit like a Felini dream sequence as I was running on fourish hours of sleep.

The two of them took terms doing front handsprings down the length of the subway car, dodging polls and people's belongings. They then formed a human ring and rolled back across the the subway car. It was by far the most amazing subway act I have seen.

Then they collected money and sat down and one of them talked about what he was taking for his back pain.

Friday, November 23, 2007

On Coming Home

Oz was probably more fun

Home for Thanksgiving for the first time in three year. It is a bit of an odd time as I have to study like crazy for law school exams and randomly clear out of the house for showings (parents selling the house so probably the last Thanksgiving here as well).

Coming home is always rather strange, a big part of it are the elements of stepping back into the past. That can both be figurative, living under the same roof and my parents and bother, and more literal: staying in my room with the posters that haven't changed since 1998 (when is the next No Doubt album is coming out?) and wearning sweaters and t-shirts dating back to high school, but were never popular enough to become worn and be thrown out.

It's like a personal time warp.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Russian Ramblings

Pictured above is the Solovetsky monastery in Russia. The monastery is a UNESCO world heritage site and is located on its own island in northern Russia (think very isolate and extremely cool). Perfect place for a gulag right? Yes, yes it was. Once of the most famous and terrible as well.
Above is Lubyanka Square on October 30th, the memorial day for victims of the gulag. The building in the background is the KGB headquarters and the monument for the victims is a stone brought from the Solovetsky monastery.
Same day. Outside of Moscow in Butovo. Thousands were taken there and short during the purges. Putin taking part of the memorial service. He looks bored doesn't he?

I was sort of amazed Putin even attended considering how he glorifies the Soviet Union. It is one of the great oddities Russian politics that the Russian president can be mourning the brutally murdered victims of the Soviet machine, and presiding over soldiers dresses in Soviet uniforms the next.

Perhaps it is naive to think either one genuine. Still it amazes me that even with so many reminders even the most brutal figures of the Soviet period. About half of Russians think Stalin did more good than harm (in the words of my Russian teaches this past summer "he kept order and life was good") and the figure has been growing over the past decade. The really peculiar element is that almost all Russian families were touched by the purges (another teacher bragged about her father having died in a famous prison and then later about her own party membership).

Still it seems to me that the treatment of the past seems an important indication of a country's future. The Kremlin recently released an approved history text glorifying the Soviet Union and playing down its short comings. I am hesitant to get on the bad wagon that Russia is turning back into what it was as I think it is a dangerous over simplification. Still, I think there is dangerous trend of playing down the importance of the individual whether it was the sacrifice of the individual in the gulag for the supposed common good, or further stigmatization of political opposition and any distinguishing elements of the individual (ethniciy, religion sexuality).

Anyway, if you are still interested this video is quite enlightening especially if you are American.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Stupid Post

Emperor tamarin (above). The BBC taught me it was named after German Emperor Wilhelm II (below).

It's because they both wear suits.

On International Law

I am exhausted, but finally finished my memo and finally have time to bring up what I wanted to yesterday.

In constitutional law we had probably the most stimulating class of the semester, which was too bad because I think most people were so busy with their memos they never go to do the reading.

For whatever reason con law starts to put most people to sleep about half through. Probably because I am a big picture kind of guy I stay pretty engaged the whole time (not true for all of my classes admittedly).

This time were talking about the legal battles involving the detainees at Guantanamo bay and the relevant legal precedent from the Civil War and World War II. Very relevant stuff.

One of the cases cited the Geneva Conventions. This really interested me as the direct application of international law in US courts is something I have been wondering about for a long time. I had asked professors about it before, but they always became very uncomfortable and didn't really want to talk about it.

In one of the cases plaintiff directly cited a breech in US obligations under the Geneva conventions as grounds for releasing an "enemy combatant." It was quick to reinforce it with US legislation, but the point is the same. On appeal, the Supreme Court avoided the question of whether US citizens could sue the US government for violations of the Geneva Conventions like it was the plague (just like my professors had). The lower court said a citizen could not, but the Supreme Court refused to deal with the issue.

All of this made me realize two things: 1. The really doesn't like to US international law in it s courts, if it uses it at all it uses elements worked into later US legislation 2. Most of my professors feel very out of their element when it comes to international law. Just made me realize why I am not always on the same page with my profs.

Personally, I think international law the US has owned up to should be grounds for suit in US court. I don't see things like the Geneva Conventions being much more than symbolic otherwise. If the US signs a treaty giving individual rights they should be able to sue if they think those rights are being violated.

Also, I liked this cartoon:

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Going Slightly Mad

To this tune.

I am writing a memo, and it is sort of like hell. For every previous memo I have had nearly as many comments on my memo as text and now it should at least theoretically be done properly. It won't be. It just means I spend loads of time worrying I haven't been thorough enough in one section and haven't realized the complexity of another. It should be sharp analysis, but it is also legal writing so despite some interesting material so it is fairly dull.

I would like to say I have big hopes for this one, but I don't. Don't get me wrong, I am trying to do the best I can and I am sure I will get it all at some point, but for now I know I don't have the knack for it and though I have some specific things to work on, I sadly know I cannot trust myself. Sadly no one else has stepped up to take over. So it will be a long cumbersome process with little reward expected (yeah?). Still almost everyone from my class was int he library so that was comforting.

Aside from that it was a lovely weekend. Thursday night bad the Kilmer bad poetry competition up a Columbia and I got to go and read one of Edward's poems, which went over quite well, and see people I haven't seen in over a year. It was like going back to all the good parts of college.

Then on Friday I got to see my host parents from England. Very pleasant conversation, though it was strange to think my time in England was almost six years ago. Also the people at Columbia looked really young which was another bout of old-fellingness.

Doesn't bother me much though.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Just a bit of Art

Really can't put any thought into words today, so let's try something with a bit of art.

Above is Potsdamer Platz by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Not sure if I remember all of the details, but I am going to tell them the way I remember them since that is how I like them best.

It's an expressionist painting. Love expressionism, always felt like impressionism was trying to develop a new technique for depicting reality to break away from the stiltedness of realism. Expressionism, was trying to come up with a way to depict emotions, both what was going on within people and the way places felt. Much more interesting I think.

Potsdamer Platz is a square in Berlin. A big center of commotion and nightlife before WWII it was bombed into oblivion and left a field until the late 90s when it was made into Berlin's equivalent of Time Square (granted on a smaller scale, but hey, it is Europe!).

In the early 1900s prostitutes gathered there wearing war widow's black veils to identify themselves. And that is what is going on here, with the would-be patrons encircling them. Still captures a lot of the night time feel the now prostitute-less Potsdamer Plotz today actually.

I suppose what I like about it is that it is trying to depict the moment without being bound by reality. Streets, limbs, and buildings are bent to provide all the desired angles. Really none of the characters seems to be sympathetic. The women seem to not even with their rigid stances, and the men look like emerging wolves.

I have a large print of it, but it didn't seem quit right for the kitchen.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Deep Down, We all Just Want a Man Like Putin

This morning I was watching a video on the New York Times about the Baltic Republic. The people interviewed were saying that the Wes needs to fear Russia more. It reminded me of a song I wanted to find a while ago. It is called "I want a man like Putin," it is an actual Russian pop song from a few years ago. Enjoy!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

I know I tend to be pissy to begin with, but...

I am picky about my languages. I don't like it when I am abroad and people who have just discovered I am American then say I have a strong American accent. I don't I have a strong American accent. No one would think I am English (though I could pass for a while after my year in Brighton), and I have an American accent, but it is not a strong one and it is not a regional one (neither Midwestern, New York or Long Guyland).

Since studying in Austria I have had a few Germans try and convince me I have an Austrian accent. This requires some back story. When I was in Austria my classmates would laugh at me for pronouncing Austrian colloquialisms in too German a fashion. My Austrian German teacher told me I was in Austria and needed to speak more like an Austrian. Austrians thought I was German. Germans thought I was German. No one thought I was Austrian and as Austrians are none too fond of Germans, I often got the cold shoulder because of this. Fine, whatever. Really don't care. Fast forward to recent events when Germans have been trying to convince me I have an Austrian accent (granted one person only said it after I mentioned I had lived in Vienna, but other people have really meant it). Basically these events make me understand why the Austrians hate the Germans so much(besides World War II). Austrians find Germans to be pretentious.

When I was in Moscow a German said to a good Austrian friend of mine "wow, you speak pretty good German." This is along the lines of an English person telling an American "wow, you speak pretty good English." Anyway, my Austrian friend did not take to kindly to it especially as the implication was that the German did not expect Austrians to speak anything but hick German. Germans can also found Austrian German to be cute, which is why a few people have told me I should keep my "Austrian accent." But I am not cute. I do not do cute.

I should close with some parallel for French or Russian, but I don't really have one. After having an African French teacher and listening to a lot of Congolese rap I thought I might have picked up a bit of an African accent, but I am pretty sure my existing American accent was strong enough to overpower that.In terms of Russian, I had teachers who tried to blame mistakes I made on the Russian they speak in Central Asia, which was mainly just racist. Though in Kazakh my accent was apparently perfect which is probably a reason why I don't want to continue with it (so I can just go on thinking I could always speak my few Kazakh phrases without an accent).

All of this is pretty much a moot point though as my language are going to shit. I don't speak any of them long enough these days to get back into the linguistic rhythm.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Georgia, what the hell man?

Okay, so I that that suffices as an introduction. Pictured are events from the the past two days in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital.

About four years ago the peaceful Rose Revolution kicked out the party in power that had been cooking the votes to stay there. Those protests were on these streets. Mikheil Saakashvili, a Columbia Law educated politician, led on the protesters as they occupied state building. The then president agreed to leave office and Saakashvili was then elected president.

I found it all pretty moving, all the more so because there was the unity of political will afterwards to enact real change; not the case in Ukraine. Fast forward to today. There are popular protests against the president, about 50,000 people on the streets. They are not really a unified front, but represent frustration with the current government from across the political spectrum (yes there are a good number of crazies). What does Saakashvili do? After talking about how Georgia is a democracy now and how there is the right to protest, he says the protests are all Russia's doing, and after declaring a state of emergency has water cannons turned on the protesters and has tear gas fired into the crowds. He also has government special forces raid the state run television network, taking it off the air, holding guns to journalists heads, and smashing their phones. Saakashvili basically used the force that was not used on him. I don't know that I am so hopeful for Georgia anymore.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Happy October Revolution!

So today marks the anniversary of the October Revolution, and where do they still celebrate it you ask? Why in Belarus of course. Somehow it seems appropriate that there is that much snow in Minsk already.

I don't really have much to say about the October Revolution, on the whole not such a big fan, but then again as much as I like the architecture I am not sure how much of a fan I would have been in living in Imperial Russia either.

Still it is definitely this sort of stuff that make people think of Belarus as a living museum of the Soviet Union.

But then again they were marching for it in Moscow too:

Russia is so very strange. It is odd for me that the same soldiers can be marching in Imperial Russian uniforms (based on the Prussian ones) one day and then in Bolshevik uniforms the next. The coats look warm though (this is the sort of perceptive analysis you would expect from Eastern European Regional Studies Major after all).

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Back to Basics

I am having a down day. I am sick and I don't know how sick (i.e. how far behind schedule I will end up being). I also had one minor incident that suddenly made me look at a lot of problems that I had been fine with with less positive light. Isn't it annoying when that happens?

Anywho, I am starting improv again! My new class starts this Saturday and I am really looking forward to it. Improv is my main form of artistic expression and the discipline has shaped a lot of the way I tell stories and look at any sort of performance (films, stories, theater, and so on).

It will be the first time in a long time in a while I have done improv. In Vienna I went to a place that did pick-up improv classes. It was on Monday nights so the timing wasn't too good. I liked it, it was fun to do improv in German again, but it wasn't geared towards any sort of a performance and it was usually just a succession of exercises that weren't really building on one another (having led rehearsal I am critical about this stuff). That sort of thing can be fine, usually when the people are cool/good enough that it does not matter, but the performers weren't too hot, and there were different people each time so it was hard to get to know people.

So now I am back in New York, my Mecca of improv. I have seen a lot of good improv being back, but without the performing something has still been missing.

I don't know. I am sure I will be rusty, but I am just ready to perform again. I really love the creativity, the group effort, and the sharpness of it all.

I will let you know how it goes.

Update: I suppose this will teach me to count my chickens before they are hatched, my improv class has been delayed till December (boo!). This happened with the last class I tried to sign up for too, which ended being canceled. Grrr. Despite, this my mood is quite good today.

Monday, November 05, 2007

New Caldeonia

So since Alexia is going off about some of her obsessions with obscure areas, I thought I would go off about one of mine as well.

Pictured above is Nouméa, New Caledonia. New Caledonia is a former French penal colony off the coast of Australia (The English started using Australia as a penal colony and France literally said "well two can play at this game" and stared their own). New Caledonia is a still a part of France, though it had its own money, quasi-citizenship, and is not part of the E.U. The native Kanaks are the largest ethnic group, though they are not a majority, followed by Europeans and other ethnic groups from all over Asian.

Also, New Caledonia is beautiful! As evidence I offer this website.

I really wanted to, and still sort of do, go and spend a year in New Caledonia teaching English, hanging out on the beach and working on my French (the program is for Aussies and Kiwis, but i was told they might make an exception).

It is remote and the population is quite small (about 200,000 people in total), but it seems like a really fascinating place.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Small Things in Life

I am a little bit obsessed with Belgium. First of all it is beautiful. Second of all their French makes more sense than French French (even if the Belgian joke is the equivalent of the Polish joke here), and I want to learn Flemish. Also I love their mussels and, this is actually probably the most important part, they make my favorite beer and chocolate. I kind've really want to live in Belgium at some point.

Anyway, today is a boring day as I have a lot of work and have been writing a memo in the library. Then along came an e-mail from the International Law Society about a summer internship in Brussels. This was right after I had had the first Belgian chocolate I had had in a long time.

I have done nothing towards applying, and may very well not get it, but it really perked me up. It would be a really good thing to do and I am pretty sure I would even get paid. Recently I have been doing a lot of random searches for summer work, and I have been pleasantly surprised by the number of things I have found that genuinely interest me (some element of internationalism and/or cool location). It is just nice.

Friday, November 02, 2007

So Cool!

Stealing this picture from the New York times. So that there in the picture is a real convertible and pop corn machine? What is it you ask? -cricket- Um....what is it I asked when I was looking at the pciture? It is a drive in consisting of one vintage care on the lower east side. The car seats up to six people and you book if for a film. They are moving through them chronologically (though simultaneously thematically, which is pretty cool) and it is done in a store they completely reinvents itself every few months (not a section of the store, but then entire think, the only linking element is that it is the store that changes every few months).

I know this is sort of an example of urbanites engaging suburban/rural -entalism, but dammit, I didn't grow up in a city and never got to a drive through. I really want to go. It is really dorky, but also amazing! If anyone who reads this want to go let me know because I am trying to put a group together.

Man, this is really the stuff about New York I love: the sort of crazy randomness (also exemplified by the now annual giant pillow fight, which I will go to now that I am back by golly).

Also, it was nice to be back in a place where Halloween is celebrated properly. Yes I know other places have holidays like Halloween and our Halloween is only for their clubs, but I love walking around New York with people in costume, especially when so many of them are clever or funny. And on that note I suppose I will end with a list of Halloween costume observations:

Fuzzy Tiger suits were in for guys this year (a little creepy when the have beards)
A guy was dressed as white trash, mainly wearing a white trash bad, it was awesome
Geisha was in, though mainly men seemed to be doing it
Lots of pirates, many Johnny Depps (both pirates and Fear and Loathing)
And girls continue to dress and slutily as possible and wear fuzzy ears and call is a "costume"

What was also funny is how many different people thought I was (and asked me if I was unsolicited) in my Mozart costume from last year, which was never really a Mozart costume, but seemed appropriate when I was in Austria:

George Washington - I got a lot of these, mainly from hobos that were really eager to hang out with me for some reason (and I had been worried about being mistaken as a slave owner)

Thomas Jefferson - Same reasoning I supposed, slightly more esoteric personality

Beethoven - sure, why not?

Mozart- I got this one when another Mozart was around actually

Hitler - just kidding

Liberachi - Got that one from a group of subway workers, I think it is my favorite.