Brian Micklethwait's Blog
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- Michael Jennings talking about Russia this Friday
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Category archive: Russia
The speaker I had previously arranged had to cancel, hence the delay in me telling the world about it, but … my speaker at my last Friday of the Month meeting on April 25th, i.e. this coming Friday, will be my good friend (and frequent commenter here) Michael Jennings, talking about Russia. Russia is lways an important topic of discussion, but it is of course now also a particularly timely and newsworthy one.
Here is what Michael has just emailed me about what he will be talking about.
On the 21st of last month, I arrived in Moscow. This was my first trip to Russia. That this was my first trip to Russia was somewhat curious. I have been a frequent traveller for twenty five years and a compulsive one for the last ten years, and throughout that time I would have always put Russia in the top few countries that I wanted to visit, and yet I never did.
This was not, however, remotely, my first trip to the lands of the former Soviet Union. I had previously been to Latvia and Estonia (twice). I had previously been to Ukraine (five times). I had previously been to Moldova (twice). I had previously been to Georgia (four times). I had previously been to Armenia (twice). The former Warsaw Pact countries further west than that, I have been to many times - around 20 times in the case of Poland, half a dozen times to Romania, and multiple times to all the others.
My reasons for visiting these countries have always been private. I go where my curiosity takes me. I go where my financial resources can take me. And I go where other, bureaucratic and practical obstacles are relatively easy.
What factors led to my choice of destinations? Well, two practical factors. One was the ease or difficulty of obtaining a visa. The other was the ease, of difficulty of physically travelling there. The rise of discount airlines was a key factor in all of this, also. Their presence in markets not only makes it easier and cheaper to get there, but is at least an indicator in how open to the west the country is trying to be.
Going east, there has long been a psychological boundary between places looking east to Moscow and places looking west to, well, no particular city or place, but western Europe in general. The business with the visas and discount airlines has made it easy to go up to that boundary, if you will, as it moves around. At times, it has allowed me to go over that boundary, sometimes to slightly hairy places such as Transnistria and Abkhazia - breakaway regions of Moldova and Georgia respectively. More commonly, though, what I mean by this is the drabber regions of Ukraine or Moldova.
However, it was time to bite the bullet, and go completely to the other side. So, Moscow. As it happened, the wall appeared to be permeable. The western discount airlines have started flying to Russia, at least in a small way. The visa process was baroque and Soviet, but the customer service was with a smile. I had Russian contacts who were happy to catch up for a beer in one of the many English pubs in Moscow and St Petersburg. Even when they worked for the Russian government, they were happy to talk pretty frankly about what was going on.
And yet, in the couple of weeks before I arrived, Russia had been asserting its power over Crimea. On the day I arrived, (according to Russia, at least) Russia formally annexed Crimea. (I got to see a lovely fireworks display over the Moskva river in the evening.) The places I could go on a discount airline without a visa retreated that day, possibly for the first time since 1991.
And that was the overall impression I got of Moscow and St Petersburg. There is a feel of modern cities in both places, but certain things are askew. And certain things are absent. (Soviet style customer service still exists in many places. But in others it doesn’t.) Middle class life feels like middle class life in many places, although if you are poorer, I suspect life is very different. On Friday I will describe some of this, and if I am bold I will try to draw some conclusions.
Excellent. And to Michael, my gratitude for having got me out of a small bind with what will, I am sure, be an excellent talk at rather short notice. Not that the short notice will affect its quality. If it is as good as the talk he gave at my home last year about globalisation, all those who attend this Friday will be much educated and much entertained.
I’m guessing that the mood of the meeting will be a lot like this Samizdata QotD from Michael Totten. But that’s only a guess.
There are some spectacular pictures now up at English Russia, taken from the air over the Russian Far East, i.e. Vladivostock and surrounding parts.
Here is a good one (scroll down at page 3 of the posting):
What’s good about that is that it shows how roads stop fires. On the right, fire! On the left, the other side of the road, no fire.
Other pictures in the set include several of two rather spectacular bridges in Vladivostock, of which this snap is my favourite (scroll down at page 2):
That is the bridge over the Golden Horn Bay. The other and bigger Vladivostock bridge joins Vladivoskock to Russkiy Island. See this Guardian report. This map, if you reduce its size and go north a bit, shows where both the bridges are.
Tonight on BBC4 they just showed a programme about Carl Faberge, blingster to the Czars.
I learned a lot. Next up, a show done by Jonathan Meades, about Brutalist architecture. He’s for it.
This seems an appropriate juxtaposition, and I am recording both. The insanely ornate and extravagant trinkets unleashed by Faberge, and all the other riche and nouveau riche junk that flooded into the world in and around 1900, had a direct cause-and-effect relationship with the anti-ornamental puritanism of architectural brutalism. Many, including me, some of the time, react to Faberge eggs not just with indifference but with aggressive hatred.
I also beheld Brutalist architecture for most of the last half century with even greater loathing. This loathing is only now abating, as the buildings themselves start to diminish in number.
That building used to adorn the roundabout on the other side of the river from Parliament. It is now no more. I photographed it. Then, I photographed its demolition. I did not mourn its passing.
Meades is now, as promised, rhapsodising about Brutalism. Why, he asks, does architecture have to be nice? He is likening it to Victorian architectural oddities of earlier times.
What he misses, or is missing so far, is that Brutalism’s aesthetic aggression went hand in hand with huge collectivist power grabs. Brutalism was the architectural face of state centralism. For me, Meades makes a big distinction between “Brutalism” and regular modern. I don’t really see this. Both went hand in hand, I’d say.
Meades’ injunction that people should not hate Brutalism is rather like expecting conquered Europeans not to be such philistines about the obviously beautiful design of Junkers 87s or Tiger Tanks. Ah, correction. Now he is acknowledging quite explicitly the roots of Brutalism in second world war concrete bunkers, most notably those constructed by the Nazis. “Forget” that the Nazis built these things, says Meades. But I suspect that the Brutalists actually liked the very quality that made the Nazis do this kind of thing. Nazis conquered twee old Europe. Brutalism assaulted the twee architecture of post-war Europe, the Europe that is still awash with Fabergerie. There is a deep affinity here.
The show is still going as I post this, and is in any case only part one of two. This was live blogging.
Here are an extraordinarily large number of photos of the Airbus A380, showing off at a Russian air show.
Here is one of my favourites, in the photoing-planes-from-above-and-yet-also-from-the-ground genre, that the A380 so likes to encourage, when showing off at air shows, the point being that for such a big airplane, this is a bit surprising:
I could be wrong, but somehow I don’t think a slogan like that – “Own the sky” - would be used in the primmer, prissier West, now so much more environmentally hesitant about jet airplanes. Not environmentally hesitant enough to actually stop flying them and flying in them, you understand, but environmentally hesitant enough for everyone to pretend they feel bad about it.
I got a very similar shot of the A380 when it performed the same kind of dance routine at Farnborough, in the summer of 2010:
No mention of anyone owning the sky then, there.
Another difference you can see there - see planely, you might say - is the difference a better camera makes. Happily my 2010 camera is not the one I use now, which is rather better.
I just watched a tv show about hydrogen bombs. One of the things I never, until now, got around to finding out about was how hydrogen bombs work. What I had not realised was that hydrogen bombs include atom bombs inside them, to trigger the “hydrogen” bit.
Basically, they sick a stash of other stuff next to an atom bomb. When the atom bomb goes off, it turns the other stuff into an explosion that is even more spectacular than the original atom bomb explosion. I did not know this. Now I do. Tremble, world. Well no, I still couldn’t make a hydrogen bomb. But I now understand a bit better how others make them.
The funniest moment was when a bloke said that there comes a time when shoving more and more stuff next to the atom bomb to make a bigger and bigger hydrogen bomb stops being worth doing, because the blast is just so huge it disappears out of the earth’s atmosphere. This means, he said, that a bomb this big, when compared to a slightly smaller one, “does no good”.
You can just hear those bomber pilots, setting out for Dresden in 1945, saying: “Come on guys, let’s go do some more good.”
My attention has been drawn to some excellent photos by Michal Nuniewicz.
I, of course, particularly like this one:
A classic, in the genre recently referred to here.
Sub-genre: group selfie. An important sub-classification, I think.
And the first thing I photoed yesterday was newspaper headlines, about Britain’s Envy-of-the-World NHS. Those first three were literally the first three snaps I took yesterday, and the last one was photoed later, at London Bridge Station, more about which later, I hope.
Read, and be amazed:
I honestly cannot remember a day when Britain’s NHS has ever, ever had a worsE press than it had yesterday. (The same stories had been all over the telly on Wednesday evening also.)
I hope to write at greater length at Samizdata about these dramas, connecting it to my Alpha Graphs stuff, but promise nothing
The basic idea being that a nationalised industry collapses not when it merely starts deteriorating, but only when it is deteriorating so fast that a switch to the free market, although horrible, would be no worse even in the short run. And of course massively better in the long run. But it’s the short run that matters because it is during that short run that you or your elderly loved one dies, through being left out in a corridor or some such horror.
Libertarians are prone to assume that things like the NHS are untouchable, merely because people continue to swear by them when they are getting only somewhat worse. Brainwashed fools! They will never see sense! But they are seeing sense. And then suddenly, to the amazement of libertarians, they do suddenly see sense. Actually, just a bit more sense, along with the sense they had already been seeing.
See also: collapse of the USSR.
The NHS has a bit of a way to go before it folds, because people are still at the stage, as you can tell from these headlines, of thinking that sacking the Boss and installing a New Boss would turn things around. But, any year now ...
When you want to write a big old piece about Something Important, it’s not a bad idea for a blogger to rip out a little piece about it in the meantime, in a single figure number of minutes. That at least gets the meme out there and gives it a chance to propagate, even if a bigger piece at Samizdata would do that better.
Whenever, of a Friday, I go looking for cat news, there is always plenty.
Pride of place today goes to the news that the New York shooter loved his two cats. But, it is now argued, by some different scientists to the scientists who argued the opposite, that he can’t have caught brain cancer from his cats, because that doesn’t happen. Good to know. But, you might be driven by your cats to commit suicide. How about murder?
On the other hand, Cats that pester for food could be suffering from psychological condition. Yes. They’re cats.
News of a cat that is making itself useful: Cat opens new excavator plant in Texas. That must have been something to see. What did the cat say? Did it just chuck a champagne bottle against the side of the excavator plant? Is there video of this?
Next up, the encouraging news that M12 Cat 6A connector system delivers signal integrity up to 10Gbps.
And, in Israel, new born and very rare (apparently) sand kittens, like this one:
I actually don’t think the one on the right is very good. The cat connection is imposed, not explained.
Kyrgyzstan cemetery and awesome frogs
Soviet health and safety posters
Let us now trash infamous men
Digger and chain
James Waterton on a very smart very dumb Russian
Soviet space leftovers
The cats from out of town that cleared out the rats during the siege of Leningrad
Unravelling the puzzle – and making it into a movie
David Farrer photos
They aren’t complete idiots all the time
“Who are you going to sell it to if we don’t buy it?”
I’d be cheering
Outstanding and numerous aerial photos of St Petersburg
Sounding like a different country
Celebrating a victory
Meltdown in Russia … and New Zealand
Russian weirdness for the Anglos
Friends of Slava
Billion Monkeys photo their own demo!
Amazing map of amazing new Moscow bridge
Shame you can’t do this kind of thing here
New Moscow road bridge
Other people’s photos (4): Kitten on man’s head