Thursday, March 30, 2006

Ukraine Elections: Who Kharkov Voted For

During last weekend's parliamentary election, Victor Yanukovich's Party of Regions won the majority of votes in Kharkiv -- a little more than 51 percent, according to The Central Election Commission (the website offers English or Ukrainian webpages, but not those in Russian, which earlier this month was made the official second language in Kharkov Oblast).

Overall, Yanukovich got 32 percent of the vote, including roughly three-quarters of the vote in Lugansk and Donetsk, the two most eastern of Ukraine's regions. Yanukovich's party was followed by the Yulia Timoshenko Bloc (22 percent, 12 in Kharkov) and Victor Yushennko's Our Ukraine party (14, 5 percent in Kharkov).

The Communists, fifth nationwide, came in fourth in Kharkov, with 4.56 percent of the vote. The Socialists, who sell themselves as Swedish socialists, placed fourth nationwide with almost six percent of the vote, but were only the seventh most popular party in Kharkov. Suppose this is no town for Swedes.

The Green Party didn't even get one percent of the vote north of Kiev, in the region that includes Chornobyl. But maybe that speaks more for the need for coalition than anything else. There were 45 parties on the ballot, including three other environmental parties and The Party of Putin's Politics, the last of which got .12 percent of the vote (those voters, I suspect, who don't think Yanukovich leans toward Moscow quite enough -- voters who'd rather just jump right into President Putin's lap).

Almost two percent of voters took advantage of a box that allows people to "vote against all."

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A week ago Monday, I awoke to snow, fat white flakes that were relentless and depressing, speaking as they did to a post-Soviet weather cycle run amok, permanent revolution replaced by permanent winter. But then, inexplicably, a little after noon, the clouds parted and the sun appeared – the stuff of religious calendars, the stuff of May or June or July, with only the sound of a harp missing in the background – and like that the line was drawn and spring had arrived.

It’s been ten days without snow, and with the temperature now not falling below freezing, the white stuff that for so long was piled up along the sidewalks has thawed and melted and trickled away, with the pace of this process accelerated by the ladies who sweep the roads in the summer and throw sand in the winter and chip the ice to pieces in the spring. (What do they do in the fall? Sweep the leaves.)

Last Wednesday, writing as usual in the morning, I found myself pulled away from the keyboard around 10:30, drawn by the sun and the blue skies to the street outside. I walked for two hours, easily and freely, sticking to the sides of the street that got the sun all day, leaving winter for the shadows on the other side. Such a pleasure to be able to walk with sure feet, to be able to look up and around, to gaze absent-mindedly at this or that, the writer’s natural pose, without the threat of hitting a slick patch of black ice and tumbling, ass over ankles, in front of a sure-footed babushka. It had been months since I had wandered aimlessly. When it’s minus thirty, you think only in trips that start from Point A and end at Point B, the shortest distance a straight line.

But now it was different. The young ladies were already wearing short skirts and wide-gauged fish-net stockings. Outside the metro stations, people were willing to stand around and drink a slow beer, to mention Lukashenko’s name and discuss a quick point of politics. At McDonald’s, the one restaurant in town where I don’t feel uncomfortable eating alone, people sat at the tables outside, some of them enjoying the season’s first ice cream. The women no longer went about in jackets so thick with insulation they looked like walking rolls of carpet. White jackets appeared, bright scarves designed more for fashion than warmth. Spring shoes. Umbrellas (it's not summer). Men with jackets unzipped. Such optimism, such changes.

In olden times, there were celebrations that heralded the approach of spring. People got crazy on honey mead and ran into the fields, throwing clothes from their bodies, frolicking, fornicating, running to the hills and singing the death of winter. In California, the Indians may have done something like this. But I don’t think they got carried away. In Ukraine, up here away from the warming bubble of the Black Sea, I think people emptied the drinking barrel and warmed themselves en masse in ways that had nothing to do with the fireplace. They must’ve been crazy with joy – after three or four months of freezing, of staying close to hearth and home, at last they could brave the outdoors.

I see something of that in the people today. I spoke to an Australian yesterday who said he spent $200 on the internet during the coldest month of the winter, when it never got warmer than -10 below. To keep warm, he had to stay in bed, wearing three or four layers of clothes, huddled under his blankets, even the computer's warming purr a needed defense. But now he and everyone else is out and about, doing the plotting that comes with spring. Let’s go here, let’s do that, do you want to meet an American coming into town today to see about a mail-order bride?

Winter is dead. Long live spring.

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The Novel

Since the first of the year, I've been chin-deep in writing, thanks in part to the shipment of index cards I received from my parents. These cards, something I took for granted in the states, are unavailable in Ukraine and Russia, and without any, I found myself unable to collect all the various scattered fragments from my novel and organize something like a polished draft (call it a mental block, or procrastination and fear of failure). Now I'm rolling, at the halfway point of my novel, I believe, and am even utilizing the colored cards on top of the standard white ones to differentiate between past and present story-lines.

Now if only my lap-top will hold up. I've been using Mozilla's latest browser because it says it includes anti-virus software (yes?) and I was unable to renew my old service from Ukraine. I don't know. Maybe I don't have any anti-virus software, and my computer, like a British sailor of old cast adrift without any limes, is now parched and weak, gums bleeding, completely lacking in Vitamin C. Blue screen, an inability to shut-down, sudden and unexplainable glitches -- I get it all, but am backing up everyday.

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Sunday, March 26, 2006

Cold War, Take Two?

The New York Times today says Russia may have shared plans of the US invasion of Iraq with Iraqi leaders in Baghdad.

The information came from Iraqi documents captured by American forces after the invasion. Those documents, Pentagon officials said Friday, indicated that information obtained by a Russian source from the United States Central Command had been passed to Baghdad.

While some of the information proved accurate — including that American ground forces coming from Kuwait would pass through the Karbala area — a key fact was wrong. The incursion from Kuwait was not a diversionary force but the main focus of the attack.

It's possible this was a part of a disinformation campaign, but I fail to understand why US officials would allow this story to remain a subject of uncertainty, when, if proven false, it could only embarass and infuriate the Russians. Senator Edward Kennedy, for one, has already suggested a possible boycott of the upcoming G8 summit in St. Petersburg.

A Russian spokesmen rejected reports of the leak as "absolutely nonsense," saying the Pentagon only wants to get Russia "to press Iran more actively to curb its nuclear program."

In other news, 30 beheaded bodies were found in Iraq this weekend, and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Fox News viewers that it was "entirely possible" that the US could bring home a significant number of troops within the year. She then pointed to the window and said, "Oh look, a bluebird! And right behind it? A pretty rainbow!"

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Election Day

Others are better equipped to report on today's parliamentary elections. As of this writing, though, it appears Victor Yanukovitch's Party of Regions is in the lead, with roughly the same amount of the vote given to the leaders of the Orange Revolution, President Victor Yushenko and Yulia Timoshenko. Timoshenko had served as Yushenko's Prime Minister until late last summer, when Yushenko fired her. Politics being what it is, her support -- and more importantly the support of her voters -- then went elsewhere.


While walking down Sumskaya Street this afternoon, I had intended to point out a building to a friend. About two weeks ago, I'd noticed that pictures of Yanukovitch had gone up in the many panes of its many windows -- maybe forty or fifty smiling pictures of the Donbass-based politician, the same smiling face looking down on Kharkov's main shopping district. But today they were gone. All election ads have to be removed two days before the polling begins. That, without a doubt, is the best election law I've ever heard of.


During the run-up to the election, Yanukovitch's Party of Regions was by far the most visible group in the city, but somehow Yulia Tymoshenko's white tents and banners, though the last to appear, were somehow more conspicuous. She preached her message in Ukrainian. Yanukovitch and the others did not, though as the lady selling piroshky across from Yanukovitch's tent makes change in Rubles, it's Ukrainian that seems less the national language around here than Russian.

Me, I've tried to stay out of the fray since Day One, when I realized the political ramifications of the reusable shopping bag I'd brought with me from the states: a small, orange mesh bag. I used it once, feeling uncomfortable carrying it out on the street. I imagined people staring. Looking. Feared someone would come up behind me and knock me and all my mayonnaise to the ground.

But then three nights before the election, when I go into the big supermarket, I can't avoid the color. There at the check-stand, along with free copies of Yushenko's Our Ukraine Party newspaper, were orange plastic bags bearing his revolutionary slogan: Tak! The bagger used them without even asking. And if that had happened in America, if on the eve of election the bagger had said, "Bush or Kerry?" instead of "Paper or Plastic?" ... oh, as Bellow's Herzog might have said, someone would've been getting a letter.

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Minsk Saturday

The news story arrived Saturday, showing President Lukashenko's willingness to use the iron fist that wasn't employed in Ukraine during the Orange Revolution.

Riot police dispersed a fresh challenge to President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko on Saturday, blocking thousands of antigovernment demonstrators from reaching the central square in the capital and later arresting a top opposition leader ...

The turnout on Saturday in the face of police violence suggested that the opposition had far more support than Mr. Lukashenko had conceded in his derisive public remarks.

The protesters, who have modeled their effort in part after freedom movements against Communist or post-Soviet governments in Poland, Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine and elsewhere, were young and old, men and women. They called loudly for a new way of life, free of state repression and with integration with the West, which Mr. Lukashenko loathes.

With even critics of the current Belarussian regime saying President Lukashenko could have been re-elected if the election had been "free and fair," if only based on his rural support, I do wonder what a new election would do. To make the election free and fair, the country needs a free press (on BBC Sunday, an election monitor said this was the main reason the election wasn't "free and fair": the opposition couldn't get its message out). A free press doesn't appear overnight. And when Lukashenko's three challengers split 17 percent of the vote, with one of these candidates preaching a platform similar to the president's, I do wonder what the cost of a national election would be. At least elsewhere, national elections are extremely expensive. If that's the price of winning a free press, it would be worth it. Right now, I can't see any other goal. It wouldn't be a popular revolution, or a democratic revolution, if a group, however vocal and urban, seized power with less than 50 percent of the vote. The votes of the majority were miscounted in Ukraine in 2004. TO have a similar situation in Belarus, either the votes were mistallied on a much larger scale, or people felt afraid to voice their true opinion in the polling stations. Those overseeing the election, 500 people from 38 countires, say:

The vote count proved highly problematic, with observers assessing it negatively in a large number of counts witnessed. In a number of instances, the results were completed in pencil, and the majority of observers were prevented from standing close enough to see the marks on the ballot.

Over 30 per cent of voters cast their ballot during five days of early voting. Lack of security provisions for the ballot box increased the possibility of fraud. The mission also received a number of reports that managers and directors pressured staff to vote early.

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Friday, March 24, 2006

A Climate of Fear

Now it's a news story -- Belarus protest ends in police action -- and now I don't find it on the NY Time's front webpage. Go figure.

The reporter Chivers again says the election was "rigged," which is a word I take to mean ballots were incorrectly counted, but again his only defense of this word is somewhat vague:

International observers have said the vote was neither free nor fair. The United States has condemned both Mr. Lukashenko and the election and called for a new vote, saying the campaign was conducted by a dictator in a climate of fear.

"Climate of fear." Where do I remember that? Before the War in Iraq, in those final few days, I remember the White House trotting out every possible scenario of doom and gloom, even one that had Saddam, always Saddam, flying model airplanes or some such nonsense over Florida from Cuba or some silly thing, all this so he could dump anthrax or Weapons of Mass Destruction on an unsuspecting populace of retirees and tax payers. Model airplanes, people. That's what got us banging the drums in the March to Baghdad. And Rummy still hasn't even found one little remote-controled plane he can show the American people.

The thing that never made sense to me is, we won't as a nation be told by anyone else what we're going to do. We will act unilaterally. We won't let anyone tell us what to do. But when explaining this unilateral action, especially after no WMDs are found, the insurgency flares and everything is going so wrong, the first thing we will say is, Well, our intelligence may have been flawed (never wrong, just flawed), but remember, this was the same intelligence the Germans had, and the French, and the British. So, to recap: we'll go it alone, but when things go wrong, we'll blame your intelligence. If you're about personal responsibility, I wonder how you overlook that. All you will find in DC these days is the logic of a thirteen year-old boy who wants to explain away his mistakes, no matter the holes in logic.


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Thursday, March 23, 2006

More Belarus, Bad Journalism

It seems the NY Times and the BBC, the two places where I've been getting most of my news on the situation in Belarus, had scheduled a revolution into their editorial calendar, and so they're going to provide one to their readers no matter what. I don't agree with the front-page coverage the Times is giving the ongoing protest in Minsk, which currently boasts about 300 people in the main public square. It's coverage that describes people expecting something to happen, not events actually happening. It is a forecast, not news. And it's appearing every day on the front page.

In today's dispatch, you'll find is this paragraph, which the reporter, C.J. Chivers, apparently believes isn't third-rate journalism:

Since a rigged presidential election on March 19, the capital of Belarus has seen a protest like none in 12 years of President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko's autocratic grip.

"Rigged" is not defined in the story, and a support of the word "autocratic" must be gleaned from the threat of bloodshed that has not yet come.

At any moment, the demonstrators said, they expected the police to rush forward, beat them with clubs and drag them off to the detention cells. And then their protest would end in blood.

Chivers tries to further justify the relevance for this news story with a quote from Aleksandr Milinkevich, the opposition leader:

To the extent that this is a revolution, Mr. Milinkevich often says, it is a revolution not on the streets but in the mind.

So this is a story about bloodshed that's about to happen, and a revolution that's located in the mind. "The nation of Belarus revolted against their autocratic leader today, though because it was a revolution of the mind, everyone stayed home and telepathically protested from there."

Something tells me the editors of the New York Times, that grand old lady of print, that tired woman in need of the rest home, wouldn't allow a news story about 300 American protestors to be inflated into an imminent White House crack-down and a revolution of the mind. Nor would they allow "rigged" and "autocrat" to be so easily bandied around if they referred to American politics, though certainly some word argue that those words could just as easily be applied to current political events.

He stood in the darkness, shifting his weight from one cold foot to the other, waiting for whatever comes next.

I'll be waiting for the news too. Until then, I'll be reading something else in my paper.

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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Last Dictator

Like many Americans -- strike that, most Americans -- I'm good at buying into the echo chamber. Let Senator John McCain call Belarus' Aleksandr Lukashenko "the last dictator in Europe," let the talking heads repeat that phrase a thousand times on CNN and Fox, let it go into every newspaper description of the man that follows, and I will likely say, whenever talking about the Belarussian President, "You know, the last dictator in Europe."

But more and more of late, I've found myself -- dear god help me -- siding with Lukashenko. I don't know enough to voice an opinion on the matter. That should be stated upfront, if only to give me room to scream into the wind. But let's look at the criticism of the recent election, which has been viewed as undemocratic by the United States and the EU, both of whom would like to see a new ballot go before the Belarussian people. What are their problems with Belarus?

* Lukashenko controls the press. The opposition can't get its message out. Meanwhile, Ralph Nadar can't get invited to a presidential debate to save the life of a passing motorist in a Corvair. Same in California. A couple elections back, the Green Party wasn't invited to any of the debates between incumbent Gray Davis or his Republican challenger. Democracy starts and stops with preserving the status quo in America. Meanwhile, the right and the left move toward the middle, trying to shout the joys of democracy from the head of the same pin.

* Lukashenko opened the polls for five days prior to the Sunday balloting, making it difficult for election observers to verify the sanctity of the ballot. How is this any different than absentee ballots in America? And when people in Ohio, at least the poor sections of the state, complain of difficulties voting, some of them burdensome enough to make them walk away without casting a ballot, perhaps America should be looking at ways to make voting easier. God knows we're already moving in the direction of making voter fraud easier. By which I mean, dear god why, when your laptop crashes every other day, do you want to make Thomas Jefferson roll over in his grave by telling me there are reasons to use electronic voting machines?

In parts of Iowa, people voting straight Democrat on their last presidential ballot got their votes automatically tallied for the Libertarians. I like the Libertarians. I wish the party well. But there has to be another way.

Here you'll find almost 4,000 more votes in Ohio incorrectly counted for President Bush.

The list goes on. Over a thousand glitches. And all of this would be only frustrating if the CEO of Diebold, the largest manufacturer of voting machines in America, didn't say, prior to Election 2004, that he was "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the President." As we say here, oy-yoi-yoi.

* But hey, Lukashenko, that dictator, he cracks down on dissent. Opposition activists are being arrested and given prison sentences, just for protesting in the name of Democracy. This might explain the dwindling number of protestors in Minsk (they've fallen from 10,000 election night, to a couple hundred today (though if a couple thousand people walking the streets suggests there's a desire for revolution, don't all the protests against the War in Iraq and Bush's policies suggest revolutionary fever is wild in America too?)).

Lukashenko needs to allow opposition newspapers to exist. He needs to foster a society that allows free speech and gives media opportunities to his opponents. But President Bush, you are not one to speak about the glories of a free press. You have trampled on the press at every turn, closing doors, saying you'd rather talk to the people directly, and insisting, in recent days, that the good things in Iraq need to be reported, as if that's how the news, you silly man, ever works. When Florida's vote was deadlocked in Election 2000, should we have all clapped ourselves on the back because 49 other states got through the election just fine? Was it needless agitating to fret over Florida? Should we have just looked the other way? Focused on the positive? Good is judged on the depths of its failures, not the highs of its successes. You don't build a house without doors or windows and then stand back and say, "But gee golly gee, that's a beauty of a roof!"

Oh. Fish in a barrel with this man. During President Bush's reign of error, we've seen the use of "free-speech" zones, not exactly the type of thing to encourage dissent. I go to The American Conservative for support here, if only to show how even conservatives wonder how anyone can support this guy:

A recent St. Petersburg Times editorial noted, “At a Bush rally at Legends Field in 2001, three demonstrators—two of whom were grandmothers—were arrested for holding up small handwritten protest signs outside the designated (free speech) zone. And last year, seven protesters were arrested when Bush came to a rally at the USF Sun Dome. They had refused to be cordoned off into a protest zone hundreds of yards from the entrance to the Dome.” One of the arrested protesters was a 62-year-old man holding up a sign, “War is good business. Invest your sons.” The seven were charged with trespassing, “obstructing without violence and disorderly conduct.”

And lest you cry "Liberal!" in a crowded room (proving perhaps that you are partisan to the very last, unable to criticize any sitting President of your own party, regardless of his crimes and misdemeanors), The American Conservative continues:

"... federal attacks on freedom of speech should raise grave concerns to anyone worried about the First Amendment or about how a future liberal Democratic president such as Hillary Clinton might exploit the precedents that Bush is setting."

Used to be President Nixon had to look out his limo window and see all the people lining the streets protesting his policies. Now President Bush has eliminated all that, perhaps because a blow to his morale and self-esteem might be considered aiding the terrorists and therefore a threat to our national security.

I don't know. I'll call for a new election in Belarus. But you'll have to give me one in America too.

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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The WBC & The Evil Empire

They're playing a World Cup-style tournament over in the Americas and Asia, the World Baseball Classic. With only sixteen teams, it's not yet worldly (the Italians are comprised almost entirely of Italian-Americans) and it's certainly not yet a classic, but all the same it's the first thing that's made me really miss ESPN.

What do I miss? Comments like this from Team Canada Coach Ernie Whitt, describing his club's feelings after almost losing to South Africa, the weakest team in the tournament, on Monday:

"We felt we were kicked in the stomach last night playing South Africa," Whitt said.

Why do I miss something so banal? Because in the same NY Times article detailing Canada's 8-6 victory over the US on Tuesday -- a big upset -- Team USA Coach Buck Martinez describes his club's reaction by saying:

"It's a very quiet clubhouse," Martinez said after the game. "Guys feel like they got kicked in the stomach."

It reminds me of the Presidential debates, circa 2000, when the only guy with anything different to say wasn't invited on stage.

This is why I went back to baseball after the strike. I need something simple and warm, an intellectual cup of cocoa. "How you feeling?" "Like I just got kicked in the stomach." "Boy howdy, you and me both."

I'm so pleased with the NY Times' reporting, I might even starting going there regularly for my sports news (or my sport news as the BBC World would have it). ESPN only had one kicked-in-the-stomach reference, showing it cares nothing for words and the deeper meaning of things. Though their story on the game did include this reference:

The World Baseball Classic -- (Commissioner Bud) Selig's baby -- could lead to some wonderful marketing opportunities and global talent development down the road. But before Beijing produces a shortstop with Yao Ming-caliber appeal or Yankees T-shirts become the rage in Moscow, life goes on as usual here in the states.

Thing is, I see so much Yankees merchandise over here it makes me sick. You go to Barabashova Market, where you can get anything and everything at one of the hundreds of little stalls and stands, and there are all sorts of NY Yankee caps for sale -- the pull-down kind you wear in the winter. I wouldn't invoke President Reagan's rhetoric and call this The Evil Empire, but you can't find any other baseball merchandise over here. No Sox caps, no Giants shirts. Just Yankees gear.

I miss baseball.

(An excerpt from Reagan's Evil Empire Speech before going: "Regimes planted by bayonets do not take root." For those who remember.)

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Women's Day

I remember the first time I drank Peet's Coffee. It was in San Francisco, in a newish shopping center between Portrero Hill and The Mission, sometime between 2000 and 2001. I ordered it black and sweetened it with sugar. Small, medium, large. Does it matter the size? I drank it and off I went. I never had coffee that strong, may not have slept for three days, and as soon as it wore off I went back for more.

Before coming to Ukraine, I worried about the coffee situation. The Iron Curtain had become the Instant Coffee Curtain, I was told. So I brought with me two pounds of Peet's Coffee, French Roast, wondering (foolishly, it turned out) if I'd be able to find the tools needed to facilitate my addiction: a grinder and a French press.

Today, to recognize Women's Day, I gave some of this coffee (and some chrysanthemums) to my tutor, who favors coffee to tea. Her daughter cooked it for us in the Turkish fashion -- the grinds staining the side of my cup and floating to the surface, reminding me of my grandmother's coffee in Norway. Very good -- but very strong, I cautioned. As I write this, at 10:30 in the evening, I wonder if my tutor has managed to fall asleep. Very tasty, she'd said. But also, very strong. We'll see. Peet's Coffee has been released to Ukraine.

For those who don't know (and I didn't before coming here)the history of Women's Day dates back to 1910, when:

The Socialist International, meeting in Copenhagen, established a Women's Day, international in character, to honour the movement for women's rights and to assist in achieving universal suffrage for women. The proposal was greeted with unanimous approval by the conference of over 100 women from 17 countries, which included the first three women elected to the Finnish parliament. No fixed date was selected for the observance.

The holiday is big over here, dating back to its observance during the years of the Soviet Union. Every major Metro stop in Kharkov has a flower stand just about, and on Women's Day they're stocked with three or four times the number of flowers and corsages. My tutor had received roses and tulips before getting my flowers, and her daughter was all dressed up and entertaining guests when I came over for my thrice-weekly lesson. Others I know measure the day in text messages -- and if one woman got sixteen, I'm sure every other woman in the country got four, or seven, or twelve or twenty-two. Just trying to send a text-message today was hard. Many times, my message wouldn't go through. The only other time I've had that trouble was New Year's, when I couldn't send a message to an uncle in Norway after receiving one from him. Only by the next day did the system settle down enough to get my SMS through.

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Monday, March 06, 2006

The Snowman

Hollywood has been kind to the Snowman. There is Frosty, of course, America's wisest and most famous Snowman, and then countless other more anonymous creations, the most recent of these being built, for the most part, during a romantic movie's montage. Here, you'll see scenes of great joy, young lovers and powdery white snow, the sun hanging high the sky, red cheeks and white teeth, snowball fights and out of breath kisses.

But when you actually live in the snow, you realize the Snowman is in fact a bit of an evil creature, luring you out onto the frozen tundra, there beneath the bare, leafless branches and the quickly darkening skies -- the stuff of Igmar Bergman, not movies made for Christmas Eve. When you actually live in the snow, you see yellow snow, the work of men or dogs, you can neither say nor wish to know. And so when asked to make a Snowman these past few weeks, I looked for any way out. We have to go to the philharmonic, I said, it's getting dark, we really don't know how safe it is -- today's clean looking snow only hides yesterday's lifted leg. You sure you want to go through with this?

But no more. On Sunday it happened -- completely unexpected, while we were walking between Points A and B. "This snow looks good, doesn't it?" The snow had lacked moisture the day before, that certain something that allows it to collect and roll up into a nice ball. But after a night of fresh snow, I had to admit that what lay on the ground looked promising. So we got to it and built this man you see in the picture, a guy who stands all of about one-foot two soaking wet (and frozen into snow). I can't take the credit. I provided the kopecks for the eyes and stuck a nub of a branch into his face for a nose, but other than that, this Snowman was made by Russian hands.

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Sunday, March 05, 2006

Pancake Week

When I went to visit my language tutor on Wednesday (see below), I made my usual left from the front door, toward the sitting room, only to be turned back around and shown to a seat in the kitchen. Here, I was served two thick bliny, one of which I ate with sour cream, the other with homemade jam. It was the first day of spring and, I learned, time to celebrate maslenitsa -- the week-long Orthodox version of the Roman Catholic Carnival.

Raisa Dmitrievna told me the holiday dates back to pre-Christian times, when people cooked bliny, or pancakes, as a way to celebrate the end of winter and the approach of spring. The round, gold pancake is the same shape and color of the sun, she said. I looked out the window, where a wall of white was coming down. It had been snowing for a day and wasn't scheduled to let up any through the writing of this on Sunday. Some first day of spring, I thought. My tutor must've seen this on my face. She said the weather followed the old calendar. It'd start warming up on the fourteenth, she said.

This weekend, someone else told me that Maslenitsa is the last chance for people to have much fun, because it represents the last week before the onset of the Great Lent -- or fast.

From the wikipedia:

During the Lent itself meat, fish, dairy products and eggs will be forbidden. Furthermore, the Lent also excludes parties, secular music, dancing and other distractions from the spiritual life. Thus, Maslenitsa represents the last chance to meet with the worldly delights.

Today on Svobody Square, President Victor Yushenko's Our Ukraine party was on display, handing out free bliny to all comers (picture above). I think political parties must rent out the square -- the Greens were there on Friday night (less expensive, I'm sure, than the last day of Maslenitsa Week).

After seeing plenty of people eating a complimentary bliny, and then kids getting pony rides and walking around with free balloons, I was reminded of that great American political tradition, the parking lot hot-dog give-away. "My name's Jim Williams and I'm running for mayor. Can I get you a hot dog? How you take that? Extra mustard? Yeah, that's what I like to hear. Have you a Pepsi. Vote for me. I'm pro-jobs and anti-crime."

The political rhetoric is really heating up around here -- or at least the visibility of the approaching parliamentary elections, which are at the end of the month. Billboards, TV spots, the rallies on Svobody Square -- it should be quite a spectacle, though sadly one I won't be able to watch backstage. I had meant to monitor the elections (an offer was made to people connected in some way with the Department of State, the monitoring to be done by a European NGO) but I forgot to get my request in by Friday. I've been writing a lot. Maybe I'll just stumble around town looking for flash riots or protests, the first hint of revolution, men arguing or drunk, women selling potatoes and carrots and panty-hose, because life doesn't stop just for this -- I don't know, I'll think of something.

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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

My Russian Teacher

I couldn’t ask for a better language instructor than Raisa Dmitrievna. She taught Russian to foreign students at Kharkov National University and co-authored the textbook I'm using. It's a new experience for me. Many of her students were Arabic, so I often find myself reading exercises like this: "My name is Achmed. I am from Lebanon. My grandparents live in the village." Sometimes, I imagine this as a kind of post-9/11 sensitivity training seminar, wherein I learn that Arabic people are no different than me. Then I suffer a setback and hear a familiar voice in my ear: “My name is Achmed. I am Evil Doer. I come from an Evil Place. I am on the internets now. It can be Evil too.”

I met Raisa Dmitrievna through a Peace Corps Volunteer who has since left town and have since been seeing her three times a week for about two hours a day. At least in my presence, she has never spoken more than two words in English in a row (she maxed out with "Buckingham Palace" a few weeks ago). And becuase I still have trouble getting many Russian words to peacefully assemble together, we often have to reach for a third language to understand each other: French. "'D'accord?'" she might say. "You know 'd'accord?'" "Agreed?" "Da, 'agreed!'" I know even less French than Russian, so when I'm not writing, I'm doing my homework for Raisa Dmitrievna.

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