It all started this morning around, I think it was, 5:45 a. m. Pack! Pack! Pack! I say to myself, “Those were gun shots.”
The neighborhood has been a clusterfuck since. Two major LA thoroughfares closed. The dreaded Fairfax-San Vicente-Olympic junction has been closed about a mile in each directions. Now the news crews are here and probably will be well into the night. It’s headline news, baby.
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By Sean — 13 years ago
So I promised to tell about my trip to Ryazan. Ryazan is a Russian provincial town located about a three hour train ride south from Moscow. I left on a Monday morning on the [7:15] train. The ticket cost about $10. The train ride was quite pleasant. I spent most of my time staring out the window because I’ve never seen what Russia looks like outside of Moscow. Peppered between Moscow and Ryazan are small towns and villages. By villages I literally mean villages. Some seemed to only consist of several houses. There were no paved roads, and thanks to the recent rains full of mud. Some of these villages looked like they haven’t changed in over 100 years.
I was greeted in Ryazan by Pavel Tribunskii, a scholar Stephen Frank knows from Ryazan (Stephen is one my dissertation advisors at UCLA). Pavel is a really great guy. He is a young historian who teaches at a Ryazan art school for high students. He set everything up for me—a place to stay, access to the archives, and even gave me a quick tour around town to show me where all the libraries were. The only thing he asked for in exchange is to speak to his students, and even better do so in English! Pavel felt that this would be good for them since many of them are learning English and get few chances to listen to native speakers, much less Americans from Hollywood.
The family I stayed with, the Uskovs, were the nicest people ever! Sasha, the father, is a foreman at a local factory that makes building materials. Nadia, the mother, teaches chemistry at the local secondary school and institute, and Irina, their daughter, studies English at the local pedagogical institute. They were all very welcoming. In fact, Nadia wouldn’t stop feeding me. Not being hungry didn’t seem to register in her mind (but neither did me not being in a relationship for over 13 years and not married as well as Heather and I not wanting children. This last one seemed completely unacceptable, even though I explained that we have a dog and that was enough.). With the three dinners I had there, Sasha broke out a bottle of vodka which we both drank dry. The funniest part was that Nadia would scold him for “forcing” me to drink, but then would suggest that we have another drink! They were all interested in America and what it is like to live there and in LA in particular. I think we hit all the topics from economics, politics, war, history culture, relationships, employment, education . . . Irina spoke English really well and I tried to only speak to her in English to give her some practice.
Work in the local archive also went really, really well. When I arrived at the State archive for the Ryazan Oblast (GARO), which is also the former archive of the Communist Party, I was greeted by a very small old woman named Elena Mikhailovna. When I showed her my letter from UCLA asking to work in the archive, she promptly read it to a friend. She was also excited about my interest in the Komsomol, as long as I told a ‘positive’ history of the organization. She was very friendly to the point that at one o’clock she would escort me to the cafeteria (it seems that every archive has a cafeteria where you can purchase a hot luck for about a buck and a half.), made sure I got my food, showed me to a place to sit, got me silverware, and then told me to return at 2 o’clock.
Elena was also very interested in the United States and asked similar questions as the Uskovs. However, she had a few, how should I say, interesting questions. My second day there she asked if I had any ‘black’ in me, that is was I full white person or were some of my relatives ‘mixed’. Now this was about the strangest question I’ve ever been asked. Especially since by American racial standards, there is no question: I am white. But I guess Russians have a different measure of whiteness. I assured her that I was indeed a ‘full’ white, if anything to put her racialism at ease.
Another interesting moment was when Elena told me that she didn’t like people from Ryazan, though she’d been living there for like 40 years. When I asked why, she said that Ryazantsy were ‘stupid’. She was from Tver where the people are ‘intelligent’. Whatever. As I discovered the week before, people have some identity issues with this intelligent thing.
But I should say a bit about Ryazan itself. The apartment I stayed was really comfortable even though the street it was on was pretty muddy from the rain. Ryazan is a pretty dirty city in the winter, though Sasha assured me in the spring and summer it was quite beautiful. I assumed that the winter, with the bare trees, mud, and stagnant water (I should say that Moscow doesn’t drain very well either), is not a good representation of Ryazan. In addition to the mud, there are about three military schools in the city, so young guys in military getups are everywhere.
To get to the archive I had to take these minivans (marshruty) which cost about 7 rubles (or $.25). According to Pavel, these were the only efficient transportation because the bus system really sucked. Let me tell you, the marshruty are not the pinnacle of auto safety. All the regular minivan seats are torn out and instead welded in their place other seats. About 15 people can fit in a marshruty. Three in the front, including the driver, and 12 in the back. But I should point out that there are only 10 seats in the back. The driver will pick to two extra people, who have to crouch/stand until someone gets off. My initial fears about riding in them (seatbelts do not exist) was dispelled about a few rides. I can’t imagine what these are like after a snow and the road is slippery.
Ryazan is also a good example of uneven capitalist development. That is, parts of it are quickly modernizing and have all the things you would find here in Moscow. At the same time, you have some building that look 100 years old. Sometimes the new buildings are right next to the old ones, as with this new hotel they were building around the corner from the archive. Ryazan is a very old city, perhaps over 600 years old. The Kremlin looks very beautiful from the outside.
All in all, I look forward to spending two months there. . .
Oh, one last thing, it the first snow in Moscow was yesterday. Yeah!Post Views: 141
By Sean — 8 years ago
It has been a long haul and I’m slowly crawling out of my hole.
For those who don’t already know, I filed my dissertation, We Shall Refashion Life on Earth! The Political Culture of the Communist Youth League, 1918-1928, on Monday. The process of filing was a bureaucratic nightmare in and of itself. Back and forth between UCLA’s Murphy Hall because my middle name, “Christopher” (which I never use, but I somehow put down when I registered at UCLA), was not on the the dissertation. Then two trips to the library to get it checked over by the dissertation lady. What a thankless job that must be! A quite unpleasant, though somewhat charming, woman sits in a small office surrounded by dissertations, goes through each and every page to make sure the margins and typeface are correct. I was told she busts out a ruler but this must be an urban myth. I made a few slip ups and had to go back to the History Department to repair them, then go back to her to get her signature on the appropriate form. Then it was back to Murphy to get my “Certificate of Completion.” It was a journey that started at 10:30, and should have been over by noon at the latest, but ended at 2:30. The last time I experienced this many bureaucratic entanglements was paying for photocopies from the Komsomol archive and dealing with my health insurance provider. But what am I really whining about? After all, at the end of this red-tapist’s wet dream was a PhD. Still, the 1968 slogan “Humanity won’t be happy till the last capitalist is hung with the guts of the last bureaucrat” had renewed relevance.
So what now? Well back to blogging is an immediate goal. I have a lot of catching up to do in the world of Russia, and sadly, as I peruse the hundreds of news stories I’ve neglected over the past several weeks, I am reminded once again how much of the reporting is a rerun of the shame shit over and over again. Will Putin run for President in 2012? Will Medvedev? Who’s really in charge of Russia? Are US-Russia relations hot? Cold? Do they exist? Does Medvedev really like hobnobbing with Obama? Was dropping the missile shield a concession or appeasement, or just the US facing reality? Who really started last year’s war? Georgia? Russia? A pox on both houses! Iran? Is Russia an abettor to who my wife’s grandmother calls the “Second Hitler”*? Or are they on the side of the “good guys” i.e. the West? The specter of Stalin.** Back in vogue or never left the room? What to make of Medvedev’s stinging critique in his manifesto “Forward Russia!”? Does he mean business or was it just yet another empty gesture? Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan are looking like more of a mess everyday. Oh, and by the way, it kinda sucks to be a journalist (please feel free to substitute “human rights activist” or “oppositionist”) in Russia. Um, like, duh?
It is not like these issues aren’t important. They are. It’s just that when you’ve read one, you’ve read it all. There has to be some expectation of new knowledge, or at least a fresh way of looking at it. Sometimes I wonder if journos have a keyword database of ten topics that are randomly spirited to their Blackberries. A word like “Putin” appears and the article flows accordingly. The names change but the narratives always stay the same.
Now, don’t ask me how this rehashing of narratives can be avoided. Its ideological hold is so strong that even its most aware, dogged opponents (of which I include myself) can’t help but be pulled into its vortex. Events in Russia certainly don’t help. But the news filter is so thick and the categories of thought so rigid, that what’s really going on there is impossible to pinpoint. At most, we, who watch and write about the place, are only able to dance around the periphery of truth in an everlasting rendition of the hokey-pokey. Much of our thought about Russia is governed by a silent watchman akin to what Michel Foucault called a “regime of truth.” This regime is backed by a whole host of apparatuses, economic, cultural and political forces, “scientific” knowledge, categories, and rhetorics that are all deployed by a long list of christened “experts.” All of this makes anyone’s attempt to think about Russia otherwise a poster child of deviance: Putin apologist, Kremlin shill, FSB agent, etc. (See the great Anatoly Karlin’s blog for a full list of said deviants.) It is this power over knowledge, or in Foucault’s terms power-knowledge nexus, that engulfs us. It is the reason why I think everyone, Russophile and Russophobe (two categories which already delimit thought), are ultimately engaged in an orientalist project.
As I enter into a new era of intellectual exploration, armed with a degree that is equally revered and vilified, perhaps I can add a few new steps to the hokey-pokey. Perhaps I can inch a bit closer to the truth lurking behind the mystifications that govern the discourse about Russia. It is this modest task that serves as my manifesto.
Lastly, everyone, and I do mean everyone, should read Claudia Verhoeven’s The Odd Man Karakozov: Imperial Russia, Modernity, and the Birth of Terrorism. I’m about half way through it and it is hands down one of the best books I’ve read in a while.
Oh, and Anna Applebaum has really gone over to the side of lunacy. Whereas before she was merely an intermittent visitor.
*I wonder who was the first post-Hitler Hitler. A friend swears that it was Sadat.
**Another friend recently sent me the best Stalin quote ever. Unfortunately, I can’t reveal it all, because, well, it’s an academic thang. Anyway this tidbit should suffice. Stalin on Party appointments based on personal connections in Transcaucasia in 1931:
“If you pick people that way, then they will fuck you up. It’s no good. They will just fuck you up. It’s a chieftain system, totally without a Bolshevik approach to picking people…. But they do it otherwise: who is their friend, who supports them. Everybody says, “we have no disagreements; why fight?” It’s a gang.”
Makes you wonder how different this is from political appointments anywhere.Post Views: 144