Welcome!

Dear Readers:

Welcome to Awful Avalanche, here is my blog concept and what I do:

I scan online newspapers from Russian-language press, in search of interesting stories and political topics.  These are stories which Russians themselves are reading and commenting upon.

I translate or at least summarize into English the content therein.

My target audience:  Russophiles, or anybody else who is interested.

I pick stories and analysis which interest me, generally from the following categories (this might evolve):

  • Breaking News,
  • Celebrity Gossip
  • True Crime,
  • Cat Fighting,
  • Human Interest Stories,
  • maybe even some Cute Animal Stories too!

Sincerely yours,

yalensis

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Eugene Onegin: Tchaikovsky Conquers the Met – Part II

Dear Readers:

Today’s post will conclude my review of the Metropolitan Opera Saturday matinee production of “Eugene Onegin” by Tchaikovsky. Which I watched in an American IMAX movie theater in Live HD streaming, a way of distributing culture to the masses, of which I wholly approve.  While eating popcorn.  And the theater was packed, by the way, in case you are wondering.  And not just with little old ladies or white-haired Russian emigres.  There were even tons of younger people there — which gives me hope!  Because, like Whitney Houston said, the young people are the future!

Without scene changes, all we have is a wall and a giant clock!

Tchaikovsky’s opera is in three Acts, with two intermissions.  Within each act there are some quick scene changes, and thank goodness for that — otherwise, we would be forced to endure a minimalistic all-purpose set with nothing but a long purple bench and a giant clock on the wall symbolizing the passage of time — and yes, I’m talking about YOU, unsuccessful staging and butchery of Verdi’s La Traviata!  Putting aside that monstrosity, the nice thing about “Live in HD” are the bennies that we, as a movie theater audience, get.  While audiences at the actual Met are sitting and buzzing to each other aimlessly, we, in the movie theater world, get to peek behind the scenes while the stage hands are quickly changing the scenery and spreading the styrofoam snow to make the Onegin set look more like a restaging of Dr. Zhivago!

So, what constitutes a good opera?  I mean, in addition to the great voices.  Where we left off in Part I of this review, I was approaching the sometimes uncomfortable topic of the physical appearance of opera singers.  This becomes an issue sometimes when one is attempting to recruit, with missionary zeal, new converts to the world of Grand Opera.

Issues of Age, Gender, Size

Some newbies seem to expect that opera singers should be cast in the same way as actors in a Hollywood movie. For example, in the movie version, Tatiana would be portrayed by Emma Watson.   During the first intermission, I overheard a lady in the lobby of the movie theater asking her daughter: “Do you like it?” The daughter replied, in a pure American accent: “I don’t like the girl playing Tatiana. She’s too fat, and too old.”

The Larina women: Olga (left) and Tatiana (right), with Nanny in the background

Now Anna Netrebko is 45 years old, and in truth, she has put on a lot of weight in recent years, especially after pushing out her baby. That happens to women, so I am told. In addition, the lifestyle of an opera singer is not always conducive to exercise and proper nutrition.   One need only be reminded of Luciano Pavarotti, one of the greatest tenors of all time, who struggled for many years with a serious weight problem.  Although Latvian mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča, whom I can’t wait to see as Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier, in a couple of weeks, manages to stay in shape by running marathons. Garanča is the exception, though. Long hours in the studio, travels from city to city, meals eaten at erratic times, you get the picture… Physically, many opera singers just seem to let themselves go. On the flip side, if they maintain their vocal training, their voices actually get better with age. Netrebko’s voice has never been better than it is now. Some connoisseurs claim that after she bore her son, Tiago, Anna’s voice became stronger and “fruitier”. Indeed, she was in perfect form in this performance, with her voice ranging seamlessly from the “high parts” in Act I, to the lower registers in Act III. I’ll say more on those low notes later…

Peter Mattei as the anti-hero Onegin

And speaking of physicality… On the male side of the ledger, Swedish baritone Peter Mattei is a lot older than the “26 years” Onegin laments as his advanced age in Act III. “So many years have flown by, ” Evgeny mourns while roaming restlessly the ballroom of the Gremin mansion. The audience chuckles. Of course, in Pushkin’s time, you were an old codger by the age of 30! Mattei is in his 50’s now, but in his physical appearance and mannerisms, I swear that he is exactly the way I always pictured Onegin, just subtract 30 years in your mind.

And speaking of old men, I couldn’t get enough of Štefan Kocán, the glorious Slovak bass who sang the role of General (Prince) Gremin. Kocán doesn’t exactly fit the physical description of Pushkin’s character, either. Pushkin describes Tatiana’s husband as a “fat general” («Кто? толстый этот генерал Tatiana whispers in disbelief, when her future hubby is pointed out to her), whereas Kocán is not fat at all, he is wiry, not to mention younger than Mattei — Kocán is only 44!

Bass Štefan Kocán

Tchaikovsky gives General Gremin one and only one job to perform: To sing his show-stopping aria “Любви все возрасты покорны” (“All Ages Are Susceptible to Love”), in which the uxorious “fat old general” belts out his love for Tatiana Larina. The bass gets no second chance: he either lives or dies on stage, depending on his rendering of this one piece. And one of the nice things about watching opera in a version recorded for the movie theater, is that you get camera angles and close-ups of the singers. One could see Kocán up close, the beads of sweat on his brow, his lips, his teeth, his larynx, his glottis, as his years and decades of solid training guided him through this show-stopper. With virtuosity nailing those treacherous low notes of the final “молодость” (“Molodost” – “youth”) as the aria faded away, one could see a smile break out on the singer’s face. He knew that he had stuck his landing. After a too-lengthy (possibly stunned) pause, the audience suddenly erupted in wild applause and shouts of “Bravo!”

Alas, I could not find on youtube a video of Kocán singing this aria. I did find this one for you, Dear Readers, featuring legendary Russian bass-baritone Dmitry Hvorostovsky.  The entire aria takes around 6 minutes to get through, this youtube version has been edited to give us only the “highlights” – ha ha!  But be sure to listen, at 3:23 minutes in, as Hvorostovsky nails those low notes – there is nothing more glorious in this world than a great baritone!

 

The aria, by the way, is all Tchaikovsky. In Pushkin’s poem the General has very little to say, he just follows his wife around like an accessory. Although Tchaikovsky did use the first line of (Chapter 8, verse XXIX), which is just the poet’s own musings and not the soliloquy of Tatiana’s husband, and which actually contradicts the point made by Gremin in the opera. Namely, Pushkin is just making a trivial point about love being more fervid to youth:

XXIX

Любви все возрасты покорны;
Но юным, девственным сердцам
Ее порывы благотворны,
Как бури вешние полям:
В дожде страстей они свежеют,
И обновляются, и зреют —
И жизнь могущая дает
И пышный цвет и сладкий плод.

whereas Tchaikovsky is making a more mature point, namely, that even an elderly old dog such as General Gremin, with his grey head and battle scars, is capable of falling in love. Preferably with a younger trophy wife.  And when he hammers in this point, it’s almost like he is warning the newcomer Onegin:  “Stay away from my wife, you young whippersnapper!”

Onegin: “Now that I’m into you, you should be into me!”

So, what does sociopath Onegin do?   He attempts to break Gremin’s heart by stealing his wife.  At the first available opportunity, Onegin writes a love letter to Tatiana and demands to see her in private.  After she agrees, reluctantly, to the tête-à-tête, he begs her to run away with him.  Damn the consequences!  Tatiana rightfully refuses:  “I still love you,” she admits to Onegin [why??], “but I will remain faithful to my husband.”

Onegin = Chatsky?

Earlier I mentioned Pushkin’s homages to Griboedov, and that it is more than fair to compare the character of Onegin with Grib’s hero, Chatsky.  Pushkin himself makes a direct comparison when he says of Onegin’s return to St. Petersburg:

Он возвратился и попал,
Как Чацкий, с корабля на бал.

(“He returned [from exile] and went, like Chatsky, directly from the ship to the ball.”)

Chatsky and Sonia

In his operatic version, Tchaikovsky puts these words into Onegin’s own mouth, when asked, in the Gremin ballroom, how long he has been back in the capital.  Unfortunately, the English subtitles on the screen did not translate this quote in full, omitting the words “like Chatsky”.  I guess that’s okay — if you’re Russian, you’ll hear the words and understand them; if you’re not Russian, then you probably wouldn’t know who Chatsky is, anyhow.

Of course, in reality, Onegin is nothing like Chatsky.  Both men are cynical Freemasons, but Chatsky at least had some principles, he would not have gone near Sonia had he known that she was in love with another man; nor would he have attempted to seduce her away from her husband, were she married already.

Nor is Tatiana anything like Sonia:  Sonia is just an empty-headed teenager, filled with unexplained venom; whereas Tatiana is a serious intellectual, not having a mean bone in her body, a person who thinks everything through carefully.

“Loved One Man, Married Another”

Which raises the issue of Russian women in general, and whether Pushkin’s poem is “feminist” in its political slant.  Feminism being a loaded word nowadays; but in a sense most of Russian literature is about the “woman question”.  And Grand Opera, as an art form, is also mostly about women, about their loves, their passions, and their sufferings, set against the background of epic events.

 

Pushkin’s poem has rightfully been called an “encyclopedia of Russian society” of its time, and Pushkin, while focusing mostly on the Angst of the landowning class, from time to time gives us a glimpse into the lives of the other 98% of the Russian population.  Pushkin/Tchaikovsky hand a nice jam to Tatiana’s Nanny who, for all intents and purposes, is a house slave, not unlike Scarlett O’Hara’s “Mammy” only with white skin:

В эти лета
Мы не слыхали про любовь;
А то бы согнала со света
Меня покойница свекровь. —
«Да как же ты венчалась, няня?»
— Так, видно, бог велел. Мой Ваня
Моложе был меня, мой свет,
А было мне тринадцать лет.
Недели две ходила сваха
К моей родне, и наконец
Благословил меня отец.
Я горько плакала со страха,
Мне с плачем косу расплели
Да с пеньем в церковь повели.

(“In those days we never heard about love.  My deceased mother-in-law would have driven me off the face of the earth, if she had been able to….  It was God’s will that I be married.  My Vanya was younger than me, and I was only 13 at the time!  For two weeks the matchmaker came to my family, and my father finally gave his blessing.  I wept bitterly from fear.  They unbraided my hair and led me, singing, to the church…”)

Elena Zaremba (left) as Mrs. Larina, counseling her daughter Olga.

Some quick metrics:  Of the 4 major female characters in the story, only one (=Olga) is to marry for love (putatively).  Nanny was forced to marry as a girl, but ended up loving her husband Vanya anyhow, so she was lucky.  Mrs. Larina (sung by Elena Zaremba) loved one man, as she narrates to Tatiana, but married another (=Tatiana’s dad), yet still found happiness in domesticity and the routines of daily life.  Tatiana followed the path of her mom, falling in love with Eugene Onegin, but marrying General Gremin instead.  Zaremba herself pointed out this irony, during one of the intermissions, in her interview with the show’s lovely and vivacious hostess, Renée Fleming.

Which brings us back to the final mystery:  Does Tatiana truly love Onegin by the end of the story?  All of us can remember teenage crushes which didn’t survive the light of day; if we saw that person now, we would duck our heads and cross to the other side of the street.  And yet, in her final rebuff to Onegin, Tatiana reiterates that she does indeed still love him.  Is Tanya tossing Eugene a bone to keep him on a leash?  Or just sticking it to him, like, twisting in the knife?  You know what they say about a woman scorned — she will never forgive!  God knows, an entire student dissertation could be written on this theme (and probably has).  For what it’s worth:  I believe that Tatiana, while enjoying her brief moment of revenge, would not have said something like that if she didn’t mean it.  Hence, we should take her words at face value.  Her love was real, but now it’s literally too late to do anything about it.  Both parties must accept reality and move on.

During her intermission-interview, Anna Netrebko confided to Fleming that she finds the third act the toughest to sing, because it’s in the lower part of the soprano register.  (And she herself is more comfortable with the higher notes.)  This is where Netrebko’s training and her “fruitier” voice served her well.  But why did Tchaikovsky write all these low notes for Act III?  I already mentioned General Gremin sinking to the growly end of the register while pronouncing the word molodost – which means “youth”.  Normally one would associate “youth” with high notes.  Well, it’s the contrast, see:  Everybody is older and more mature now.  Those earlier times, with Lensky — Lensky was young, and a high tenor, and now he’s dead.  And now everybody is either a baritone, a bass-baritone, or approaching a mezzo-soprano.  This is what happens to everybody with age, and the passing of time.

With or without a giant clock on the wall to remind us of our past unrequited loves, all those terrible mistakes we have made, and the general futility of our wishes and hopes…

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Eugene Onegin: Tchaikovsky Conquers the Met – Part I

Dear Readers:

This is my review of the Metropolitan Opera Saturday matinee production of “Eugene Onegin” by Tchaikovsky.  I watched/heard, alas, not in the actual theater at Lincoln Center in New York City, but, second-best choice, in an IMAX movie theater in a small American town, sometimes known as “the armpit of the Northeast corridor”.

Spoiler alert:  This production is excellent.  If you want to go see it … well, I think you’re out of luck, because I believe that was the last performance of the season.

Anyhow, the show came together like a perfect blend:  The orchestra playing Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous music; orchestra conductor the amazingly expressive and curly-headed Robin Ticciati; a top-notch cast of international-class singers, headed by Anna Netrebko as Tatiana and Peter Mattei as the titular character (I love that word titular!); a “traditional” stage setting with “traditional” costumes (thank God they didn’t try something experimental, like setting the Larin estate on a World War II minesweeper in the Pacific Ocean, for example); an excellent dance troupe — this is Tchaikovsky, after all — Ticciati pointed out during his intermission-interview, that Tchaikovsky’s music is always balletic in its intent.

Conductor Robin Ticciati: Feels every note as exquisitely pleasurable pain, like Saint Teresa feels every poke of Christ’s spear.

The Story

Let us briefly review the story upon which this opera is based, for the benefit of non-Russian opera lovers who didn’t necessarily grow up reading the story in school, as most Russian children do.  Alexander Pushkin  (1799-1837) wrote his “novel in verse” over the course of his adult life but never completely finished this masterpiece.  For many generations, readers have marvelled at the deceptive simplicity of Pushkin’s language, and at the elegant symmetry of the story itself.  In which irony follows irony, and reaction follows action as precisely as in Newtonian physics.

Composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky composed, in 1878, his opera in three acts, based on Pushkin’s story.  Tchaikovsky organized the libretto himself and used Pushkin’s actual verses wherever possible, and yet at times made some subtle changes to their context and meaning.  For example, in Tchaikovsky’s version, the famous words of the opening stanza (“Мой дядя самых честных правил, Когда не в шутку занемог“) are spoken/sung by Onegin when he first meets Tatiana, as the newcomer thinks to impress the country girl with his adolescent cynicism.

As the opening stanza indicates, the young man Onegin arrives in this godforsaken Russian countryside, distant from the metropolis, when his uncle falls ill.  Apparently Eugene is to inherit his uncle’s country estate, but at a heavy price:  He is forced to live out in the boondocks, and to wait on his sick uncle hand and foot.  While waiting for Uncle to die, Onegin meets and befriends his neighbor, Vladimir Lensky, a youth of the same age as Eugene, perhaps slightly younger.  Lensky grew up in these parts –  as a boy he played with the neighbor-girl, Olga Larina, and the two young people were intended, by their parents, to be married when they came of age.  This part of the backstory is very reminiscent of elements of Alexander Griboedov’s play, “Woe From Wit“, namely the childhood friendship and puppy love of Chatsky and Sonia.  Pushkin was highly beholden to Griboedov also for the image of his hero, and especially how he is perceived by society.  There are other homages as well, which I shall mention later.

Onegin has the opportunity to meet his neighbors when Lensky brings him over to the Larin estate for the harvest celebration. That’s the one where the serfs polish the rutabagas and put on a rowdy “Parasha” dance for their masters.  Bookworm Tatiana, the older of the two Larina sisters, can barely raise her head from her romantic novel, to watch the antics of the peasants.  But then she spots the stranger from afar as Lensky rides up with Onegin, and she knows instantly:  “He is the one!”  Onegin is the one whom she must marry.   She falls in love instantly, and blindly with the mysterious stranger.

There is a subtle indication that Onegin could possibly love Tatiana back, if he had allowed his feelings to develop:  He says to Lensky, “You like the younger sister (Olga)?  That’s surprising, I would have gone for the older one (Tatiana).”

That night, in a fever of passion, Tatiana writes her fateful love letter to the stranger and sends it off to him via peasant-mail.  The very next day, Onegin returns to the Larin estate and has a frank conversation with Tatiana.  If he were a cad, he could have easily seduced the girl by promising her love and marriage.  He could have tossed her right onto her bed and had his way with her.  Instead, he behaves rather honorably, in my opinion.  He returns the letter intact, thus sparing her honor; and he tells her, kindly but clearly, almost in a fatherly manner, that he is just not into her.  Or rather, it’s not her.  It’s him.  She’s perfect.  If he was going to marry anybody, it would be her.  But he’s not interested in love and marriage right now.  Blah blah blah.

Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with what Onegin did.  It’s what professional psychologists tell people to do when turning down unwanted proposals:  Be kind and respectful of the other person’s feelings, but don’t lead them on.  Be frank, be clear, don’t leave any room for fruitless hope, give them a chance to move on.  However, both Pushkin, and every Russian schoolchild since that time, has hated on Onegin for crushing Tatiana’s spirit so ruthlessly.  Tatiana herself, as expected, feels a deep humiliation, not just at her rejection, but at the way it was delivered, in the form of a patronizing sermon.

After that unfortunate incident, Onegin should probably steer clear of the Larin estate.  But no…  Lensky convinces him to go back one more time, because the Larins give the best parties.  There is to be a ball that night, and Lensky has his dance card all filled up:  Dance #1:  Olga.  Dance #2:  Olga.  Dance #3:  Olga…. (etc etc).  Onegin goes, under duress.  He finds that he is not popular among the local gentry.  This is where Tchaikovsky inserts even more homages to Griboedov:  Just as Chatsky was rejected by the guests at Sonia’s mansion, so too these locals gossip among themselves about the stranger:  “He is a Freemason!  He is a no-goodnik!”

Disgusted with the provincialism and ignorance of the local yokels, Onegin decides on a cruel prank to punish his friend Lensky for bringing him there.  Turning on his oily Byronic charm, Onegin embarks on a planned seduction of Olga on the dance floor.  Flirtatious airhead Olga is receptive and dances the night away with the handsome stranger, while Lensky sits in the corner fuming in ineffectual rage.  Lensky’s Othello-level jealousy leads to the inevitable duel.  Onegin being the better shot, Lensky is just toast in spectacles.

And by the way, Pushkin’s attitude about sweet girls like Olga and their putative “constancy” was not dissimilar from that of Mozart’s.  Jumping ahead in the story:  After Lensky’s death, according to Pushkin, Olga rather quickly finds a new mate and forms a successful marriage.  (Tchaikovsky left this bit out of his opera.)  Hence, Lensky’s fantasy of the constant girl weeping at his grave was just that:  a fantasy.  Olga had bigger fish to fry:  She needed to get married.

In Pushkin’s story, Onegin was forced to leave Dodge in a hurry, with the gendarmes on his tracks, after killing Lensky.  He spends an undetermined number of years roaming around Europe.  While he is gone, Tatiana gains access to Onegin’s estate, the friendly serfs show her around, she sees Onegin’s room and all his accessories.  Examining his stuff, she comes to realize what an immature poseur he is, a Byron wannabe.  And yet in spite of that, she still loves him.  Because, see, her love is actually a real thing, not just a girlish crush.

Tatiana marries well.

Russian readers know, of course, how the story ends.  With sublime irony and retribution.  Tatiana grows up, marries an elderly General who is in favor at the Tsar’s court.  Tatiana moves to Petersburg and hosts a lavish mansion.  Unbeknownst to her, her husband is an old friend of Onegin’s family.  Hence, Onegin gets an invite to the mansion, once he returns from exile.  There he encounters Tatiana again, can’t believe it’s her, the skinny country bumpkin has grown into a beautiful worldly woman; and now he falls madly in love with her.  Then everything happens in a mirror-like symmetry:  Onegin sends Tatiana a love letter.  She meets with him and rejects him back, using some of his own words.  Moral of the story, actually 2 morals:

  1. If a girl says she loves you, then just grab her and toss her onto the bed like Christian Grey, the rougher the better; and
  2. A woman will never forget a rejection, even if she lives to be 100 years old!

The Death Of A Poet

Returning to our Met production:

In the supporting role of Lensky, rising young Russian tenor Alexey Dolgov ruled the famous stage at Lincoln Center!  Dolgov has the perfect look, and the perfect voice for this role.  He portrayed a studious and neurotic Lensky, constantly adjusting his glasses,  a mostly sympathetic character, but revealing a flash of something unpleasant in his jealousy and possessiveness.

In Pushkin’s poem, Lensky is a bit of a joke, with his doggerel verses and social ineptness.  He is only a rhymester who thinks that he is a poet.  Most famous example being his pathos-ridden couplet:

Russian tenor Alexey Dolgov

“Сердечный друг, желанный друг,
Приди, приди: я твой супруг!..”

(“My darling friend, my dearest lovey,
Come to me, I’ll be your hubby!”)

In Tchaikovsky’s rendering, through the magic of music, Lensky’s doggerel is transformed into poetry:  As Lensky pours out his heart, while awaiting Onegin’s arrival to the duel scene the audience keenly feels the young man’s pain and then mourns his untimely demise, at the hands of his empty and cynical friend.

If Dolgov looks the part of Lensky, this brings us to a possible uncomfortable topic in opera:  When singers don’t physically look the part they are they are portraying.  Newbies to opera don’t always get this fact:  That opera singers are selected for their voices, more than for their looks.  Oh, it’s great when the two coincide, but that isn’t always possible.

[to be continued]

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Sakhnin Recants (Sort of) – Part IV

Dear Readers:

Today finishing off this interview, in Komsomolskaya Pravda, with Russian political dissident Alexei Sakhnin.  Alexei’s interlocutor is reporter Darya Aslamova who met with Sakhnin in a pub in Stockholm, Sweden.  Sakhnin had just finished recounting his rise and fall within the Swedish establishment.  As an anti-Putin dissident who had fled from Russia rather than face arrests after the Bolotnaya riots, Sakhnin was more than welcome in Sweden.  However, in his greenness, he didn’t realize, at the time, that like every Russian dissident since the time of Prince Kurbsky, emigration extracts an ideological price.

Prince Kurbsky offers his fealty to King Sigismund.

In 1564 Kurbsky became the first official Russian political emigre by defecting from Russia, whilst blowing raspberries back out his ass in the general direction of the tyrant, Ivan the Awesome.  In return for asylum in the West, Kurbsky was expected to support the geopolitical goals of his hosts:  the Livonians, Poles, or whoever the heck those people were, wearing those great dog-cone ruffs around their necks!  Anyhow, the template was set in stone and the rules have never changed since then.  Sakhinin, being young and naive, just didn’t understand how the game works.  Sakhnin, as a communist (with a little “c”) and a leader of a small communist fringe party, opposed the Putin government from a principled position — i.e., the Russian government is bourgeois, capitalist, serves the interests of the oligarchs, yada yada.  He thought the Swedes would respect his sincerity.  But in Sweden, it isn’t enough to be anti-Putin; and even the most sincere political beliefs will only buy you a shot of whiskey, not much more.

Darya Aslamova reporting from the Donbass war zone.

The Swedish establishment, in truth, didn’t care a fig about Sakhnin’s “leftism” and would not have held that against him, necessarily.  However, they did expect him to follow the Westie Party Line in every single molecular detail.  Like, he was supposed to be pro-Maidan, pro-Ukrainian Nationalist, anti-Donbass, anti-Crimean Reunification, etc.  There was a long laundry list of things he was supposed to be pro- and anti- and he would have been expected to write op-eds on these issues for the Swedish press, all the time supporting the “official” view.  This would have made him a successful political emigre just as, if truth be told, Prince Kurbsky ultimately was.

Where we left off in the interview, Darya, like a blunt little brat, pointed out Sakhnin’s obvious failure to “blend into” Swedish society: “Then you are screwed, my friend!” And Sakhnin was forced to agree with that assessment:  He can’t stay in Sweden, where he has been branded as a “GRU agent” for telling the truth about the Ukrainian nationalists; nor can he return to Russia without possibly facing jail time for his participation in the Bolotnaya riots.



Darya:  Now, I actually understand Poles.  We (Russians) and Poles have shared several centuries of mutual contempt and war.  And with all of that, I can sit at a table with Poles, drink a glass of vodka and sing Russian songs together.  But the Swedes?  They have a lot of explaining to do.  They assisted Hitler, despite their so-called neutrality.  They carried out military tasks for Germany, they provided Germany with raw materials, ores and metals.  While Russian was running rivers of blood in the struggle against fascism, the Swedes were growing fat on their neutrality, and then bragged to everyone about their supposed “economic miracle”!  And who paid the price?

Swedish Home Guard in World War II – ready for German invasion.

Alexei:  The grandfather of the current (Swedish) king wrote inspirational letters to Hitler.  Rah Rah, march on your Holy Crusade against the Jew-Bolsheviks.  The Swedish bourgeoisie always looked (favorably) upon Germany, and sent military convoys there.  (After the war) painful public discussions were held on the theme, why did we support Hitler?  During the war, the government of National Unity, which  was headed by the Social-Democrats (!) – compiled lists of Swedish communists.  Around 4000 communists were interned in camps.  And this was a supposedly neutral country, not a party to the conflict!  They even carried out trainings, to prepare for a German invasion.

Darya:  I get all of that.  But why such hatred for Russia?

Alexei:  At the beginning of the 19th century, Russia took Finland away from Sweden.  This is a tabu subject for discussion within Sweden, but the wound is still sore.  During the Soviet-Finland war, the Swedes had a slogan:  “Finland is our business.”

Darya:  But in any case, after World War II, Sweden took to socialism, more than any other Western country.  It would seem like the USSR should get some credit for that.

Alexei:  True.  The Social-Democrats came into the government, the Swedes won the right to deep social reforms, but, paradoxically Sweden became even more anti-Soviet than the American conservatives.  During the Cold War, Sweden became the most “leftist” country both in its social structure and ideology, but at the same time redeemed itself with the harshest and most principled anti-communism.  The local Communist party were a constant threat in the elections, and they had a powerful secret weapon:  the USSR.

Darya:  So, did the Swedes actually spot our submarines?  I have a new acquaintance here who declaimed, with foam on her lips, how her grandma had seen the stern of one our submarines (popping out of the water).  So I ask her:  How did she recognize it?  Was it waving the red flag above the waves?  Russian loudspeaker blaring?  An inscription:  “USSR” on the side?  No, she replied.  But it looked different from the Swedish submarines.  My grandma knows her submarines.

Spoofing Swedish sub hysteria

Alexei:  Yeah, they’ve been spotting our submarines since the 1980’s.  This is the third time that they claim to have found one, but then a careful analysis shows that the boat doesn’t really exist.  Some source in the naval service will declare that he will find the submarine.  Then the media hysteria starts.  One newspaper published a photo of a fisherman who allegedly signals to the Russian sub from the shore.  And he turned out to be an ordinary pensioner who lives in his summer cottage and fishes.  So he’s browsing the newspapers and sees the headline:  “The Russians are here!”  And he sees his own photo, standing on the shore in his raincoat.  The poor guy almost had an embolism.  He runs into the editorial office of the newspaper, they send him away.  He runs to the police to file a complaint:  “I’m a normal law-abiding guy…”  The case faded away, but left its mark.

[Darya and Alexei finally leave the pub and catch a smoke out on the chilly street corner.]

Danish-Norwegian writer Aksel Sandemose, with twin daughters.

Alexei (in quiet, wistful voice):  I’m homesick here, Darya.  In Scandinavia, the totalitarian mentality is very widespread.  Have you heard about the Law of Jante?  They had a writer named Aksel Sandemose, he wrote a book called En flykting krysser sitt spor (A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks), which introduced the Jante Law.  The story takes place in the fictional town of Jante, where people live under a series of laws which do not recognize a person’s right to have a personality or any individuality.  These are the laws:  Don’t think that you’re special; don’t think that you’re smarter and better than the rest of us; don’t laugh at us (in other words, self-irony is excluded as well!); don’t think that you have anything to teach the rest of us.  And the final law is just precious:  Possibly we know a thing or two about you!

Darya (quietly, after a moment of silence):  So, have you found any work here?

Alexei:  My career is over.  I am no longer to be a journalist.  [Smirking]:  But I have found some proletarian-type work.  I clean up and cook in a refugee center.  They don’t pay much.  I feel sorry for these African guys.  They are not going to find any friends, or a job, or a girlfriend here.

Alexei Sakhnin: Wants to come home!

Darya:  What about you?  Are you going to stay here and clean toilets for the migrants?

Alexei [looking Darya straight in the eye]:  I am going to return to Russia no matter what.  I live and breathe Russia every minute of the day.

Darya:  Will you return even if you have to go to jail?

Alexei:  I’m ready to pay, if they find me guilty.  So, please write that in your article about me:  I want to come home!

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Sakhnin Recants (Sort of) – Part III

Dear Readers:

Please excuse the interruption of one day in our continuing saga of Alexei Sakhnin.  I had important work to do:  I was busy posting fan fiction in the comment section over on Mark Chapman’s blog, (long story), hence the delay.  But never fear:  Today we pick up exactly where we left off, in Alexei’s whiskey-soaked interview with Darya Aslamova, in a Swedish pub.

Is Sakhnin a Cossack from the future?

Sakhnin was in the middle of recounting to Darya his rapid rise and equally rapid fall within Swedish society and media.  When he was a refugee and political victim of the “Putin regime”, then he was a good guy to the Swedes.  But when he visited the Ukraine and reported on what he saw there, he instantly became a political enemy, an “agent of the GRU”,  and a “sent Cossack”.  That “sent Cossack” thing, by the way (Russian «Засланные казачки». Самозванцы из будущего – I had to google it, “Dispatched Cossacks – Pretenders from the Future”, something like that…) is a reference to some Russian sci-fi/fantasy book that I haven’t read.  It sounds like bullshit to me, but what do I know – I admitted I haven’t read it.   The author is Herman Romanov, who is a best-selling author within this type of genre.  According to the blurb, this book seems to be something in the genre of ALT-History, a re-fighting of the Russian Civil War, using some sort of time travel to send Cossacks back from the future to fight on behalf of Kolchak, Vrangel, and the other White commanders.  Or something like that…

Anyhow, the important point here is not the novel itself, but that Sakhnin was compared to these fictional characters in the Swedish press.  When he “betrayed” his new mentors by reporting accurately out of the Ukraine.  Reporting that the new Nationalist government over there, so adored by Westies and touted as “Democratic” and espousing “European values”, were actually a bunch of fascist street thugs who had violently clawed their way into power.



Darya: “Now you’re screwed!  To the Russian government you are a betrayer of the Motherland, whereas in Sweden you’re an agent of the bloody KGB!”

Swedish NATO shill Martin Kragh

Sakhnin:  Pretty much.  And it’s even worse than that.  A certain Russian adventurist Egor Putilov approached me for an interview.  Putilov’s goal in life is to be more Swedish than the Swedes.  He has certain very specific tasks:  to publish every kind of dirt against Russia.  I tell him:  We’re the “Left Front”, we fought against the oligarchy and the liberals who made a deal with the oligarchy.  He asks me:  So why did you support Crimea [reunification/annexation]?  (And this is what I tell him):  We do not support Putin.  But we always supported the right of nations to self-determination, and we had no intention of reneging on this position, whether to please Putin, or to please Putin’s opponents.  As a result (of this interview) there appears (in the Swedish press) some bullshit concerning some GRU General Anton Surikov who supposedly curates us.  There follows after that an entire 50-page essay in the Journal of Strategic Studies penned by a certain Martin Kragh (he’s the dude who lobbies for Sweden’s entry into NATO), which is all about how the Russian propaganda machine operates in Sweden.  And in that article, he calls ME an agent of the GRU!  [yalensis:  The journal is behind a paywall, so I can’t be sure but I think the article in question might be this one].  Next, an organization called “Friends of the Maidan” (yes, there is such an animal) starts to send complaints about me to the Immigration Service, to the newspapers, to the local leftist political party.  In one single moment, my “human rights activists” froze me out.  I was no longer needed by them.  Add to all this the traditional Swedish paranoia.

[to be continued]

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Sakhnin Recants (Sort of) – Part II

Dear Readers:

The “Snow Revolution” aka the “White Ribbon” Revolution

Continuing this story from the Komsomolka, it comprises an interview — taking place over glasses of whiskey in a Stockholm pub — between reporter Darya Aslamova and fugitive Russian dissident Alexei Sakhnin.

Recall the backstory:  The so-called “Bolotnaya” protests in Russia (2011-2013) were organized by the American State Department, in an attempt to overthrow the Putin government in Russia.  Some idiot in Barack Obama’s State Department chose a white ribbon as the symbol of this particular color revolution; and another idiot picked the name the “Snow Revolution”.  The revolution was supposed to topple Putin from the Presidency (replacing him with an American puppet, somebody like Alexei Navalny); and was also supposed to replace the majority United Russia political party in the Russian parliament with a coalition government more obedient to American foreign policy.

Alexei Sakhnin addressing the crowd of protesters

The method chosen to overthrow the Russian government was violent street protest, allegedly against official corruption and falsified elections.  The anti-government protesters formed a motley coalition spanning the entire Russian political spectrum, from right-wing nationalists/fascists to the liberal bourgeois parties, and even a few so-called “Radical Left” elements.  Of which Sakhnin’s party, the Left Front, was one.  (Giving these guys the benefit of the doubt, probably they didn’t realize that this whole shebang was being paid for by the Americans; or if they did know, then they decided that the end justifies the means.)

Bolotnaya was never a real threat to Putin, the Americans were literally insane if they ever believed they could overthrow the Russian government in this manner.  However, out on the streets it was a big deal, things got hot and heavy, there was a lot of violence and disorderly conduct.  Thanks to this, the inevitable post-protest repressions were more than just the usual “3 days in the slammer” type of slap on the wrist.  When Sakhnin witnessed his friends being arrested, he panicked and fled to Sweden.  Sweden being a traditional enemy of Russia, not to mention conveniently close.  There, despite his attention-grabbing efforts, Sakhnin was mostly ignored until a respectable Swedish newspaper bought his anti-Putin op-ed.  After that, he became the toast of the town, with a reputation as one of the few good Russians, a “good Ivan” as the Swedes say.  We pick up our story here.

Darya:  “So, you became part of the political mainstream?”

Reporter Darya Aslamova: a hot red-head

Sakhnin:  “I did.  As long as I continued to write anti-Putin stuff, then everything was great.  I was one of the good guys, who says the right things.  And then Ukraine happened.  I had friends in Odessa, there were members of the local chapter of Left Front, they called their faction Borotba.  So I phone them and ask:  Why aren’t you guys out on the Maidan?  And they reply:  Are you NUTS?  The people on the Maidan are running around trying to find Jews to kill.  After this I contacted a Swedish newspaper and proposed that they send me to Ukraine with press credentials.  They agreed.  This was the first actual critical reporting out of Ukraine.  I reported from Kiev, Kharkov and Odessa.  I wrote about what I witnessed.  People in camouflage roaming the streets.  All the ultra-right symbology.  The Right Sektor was truly in charge, everywhere.

Businessman Mark Gordienko, dressed in Right Sektor livery

“I arrived in Odessa already after the events of 2 May, when people were burned alive on Kulikovo Field.  In my capacity as a [credentialed] Swedish journalist I went to visit businessman Mark Gordienko.  Who, after the revolution, was collecting money from other businessmen in the name of war and patriotism.  There was a tank right outside his house!  And a table covered with automatic weapons.  Musclemen in masks were busy unloading the weapons.  We sit down and drink a cognac.  I ask him:  Are you aware that everybody in Odessa hates people like you, they call you a junta?  What do you mean everybody? he responds.  Who are these everybody?  Everybody, I affirm.  The young waitress girl, the old lady we rented our apartment from, the taxi drivers…  Gordienko:  They are nobodies.  I to him:  If you say things like that in Europe, then no newspaper will give you the time of day.  Gordienko replies:  Europe is an old whore.  With all her blathering about human rights, she would hand us over to Putin.  I persist:  All the same, there are many people in Odessa who don’t agree with you.  How do you plan to live in the same city with these people?  And here he shows his true colors:  We have, he says, a proposed compromise for those who don’t agree with us:  If they want to go on blathering about the so-called junta, then let them do it in secret, quietly, in whispers, in the toilet!  But if they come out into the streets, then we will shoot them.  After this interview, I returned [to Sweden] and wrote my piece about ordinary fascism in the Ukraine.  I wrote that the Crimea issue should be resolved by the 2 million people who live there.  That this is their right.”

Darya:  “And after that you stopped being a good guy?”

Sakhnin:  “I did.  I actually believed that there was freedom of opinion in the West.  And all of a sudden there appeared, in a small but well-respected Swedish newspaper, a 6-column article claiming that Left Front were Dispatched Cossacks; that we were created by Mr. Surkov in order to manipulate the masses; and that I, Alexei Sakhnin, was a high-ranking agent of the Putin regime.  I wrote a protest letter to the local media-ombudsman (there is such a person, he is responsible for disputes in the press), and I won my case, but this didn’t seem to matter to anyone…”

[to be continued]

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Sakhnin Recants (Sort of) – Part I

Dear Readers:

This story in the Komsomolka was written by Darya Aslamova.  Over drinks Darya had a “frank conversation” with Russian Dissident Alexei Sakhnin, who had fled to Sweden at the height of the “Bolotnaya” protests.  Those demonstrations in the Moscow streets featured a motley Popular Front of Lefties, Righties, and everybody in between, who desire to drive Russian President Vladimir Putin out of office.  Sakhnin was one of the militants on the so-called “Lefty” end of the scale.  And yet these so-called Leftists, who consider themselves to be Marxist-Leninists (sort of) apparently never actually read Lenin’s polemical works;  otherwise they might have thought twice about linking arms with fascists, Navalnyites, bourgeois liberals, CIA agents, and various other flotsam and jetsam!

Stockholm, Sweden

At that time, within the popular front movement, Alexei was the coordinator for the “Left Front” political party.  When he saw that all his friends were being arrested by the authorities, he panicked, fled, and requested asylum in Sweden.

A few years have passed, and a few rivers have flowed into the sea since those heady Bolotnaya times.  Our intrepid journalist Darya took a trip to Stockholm to meet with Alexei, to see how he is getting along nowadays.  In the evening, she writes, all the Swedish bars are packed to the gills, she and Alexei had to try three pubs before they were finally able to find a place to sit down and chat.  Whew!  Darya quickly orders whiskey for two.  Alexei hurriedly adds an order for a beer chaser.  “Wow, look at you!” Darya laughs.  “Polishing it off!”

Alexei (center) with Left Front comrades

“Out of joy,” Alexei replies, “that I finally get to sit down and talk with a Russian person again.”

“When I arrived here,” Alexei begins, “I was in a state of hysteria.  I immediately wrote 500 letters to politicians, journalists and human rights activists.  Most of them never responded.  After 4 months had passed, I wrote an article claiming that none of the Bolotnaya political prisoners would ever be released, and a respected local newspaper here, Dagens Nyheter, purchased the article.  And the next day my telephone started to ring off the hook.  It was the same people to whom I had written letters before, and who never responded.  And they all said the same thing:  I just found your letter, it inadvertently got lost in my spam filter, let’s get together and meet…”

In short, after his breakthrough with the newspaper article, Sakhnin acquired an instant reputation among the Swedish political elite as a “good Ivan Ivanych”.

“In other words, the newspaper confirmed your respectability?” Darya hints.

Alexei had to learn something about Swedish politics.

“Can you imagine?  There is an infinite level of conformity.  Sweden is probably the last remaining country where the broad masses still believe their own mainstream media.  (In Russia) even the most zombified people can sniff out propaganda.  But in Sweden, if a person opens a newspaper and reads that in Russia there live humans with the heads of dogs, then he will believe that it is precisely so.  This is simply a geographical fact.  Although… Later I came to learn that even in Sweden there are some silent masses whom the local media simply detest.  When I finished my (Swedish) language course, I started to learn Swedish history.  This was in a type of night school where you also encounter Swedes who never graduated from school.  People from the bottom of the heap.  And it is these people who, with a deep secret loathing, hate the local press.  Why? (…)  In Sweden the expression ‘ordinary people’ sounds bad — these are cattle, the unwashed mob.  A huge number of people fall out of the public discourse.  Nobody includes them, or talks to them.  I recall how, in the last election the party Swedish Democrats came in third.  Next day I open the newspaper and there are black banners, as if the country is in mourning.  As in ‘Yesterday 750,000  Swedes voted for this scum.’  I was astonished:  Is this democracy?  And if I were one of these 750,000 voters, then what kind of emotions am I supposed to have? (…)”

Next:  In Sweden, Alexei evolves from “Good Guy” to “Cossack Agent”

[to be continued]

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Chemistry and Life: What Did Trump’s Press Secretary Lie About? – Part II

Dear Readers:

Today finishing this piece from Politnavigator, written by Alexander Rostovtsev.  The author handily exposed American hypocrisy, when Trump’s minion Sean Spicer (a) lied about Assad using chemical weapons against his own people; and (b) compared Assad unfavorably with Hitler.  Rostovtsev went on to detail American crimes against humanity in Korea and especially Vietnam, where the American Military-Industrial Complex, featuring Dow Chemical especially, ravaged a foreign land and people with Agent Orange.

Vietnam then…

Next the author goes on to talk Napalm.  Everybody knows that winged phrase “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”  It comes from Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 anti-war movie Apocalypse Now.  The words are pronounced by the aptly-named Colonel Bill Kilgore, portrayed by actor Robert Duvall.  The full quote:  “I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed, for 12 hours. When it was all over, I walked up. We didn’t find one of ’em, not one stinkin’ dink body. The smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smelled like….
[sniffing, pondering victory. Someday this war’s gonna end…
[suddenly walks off]

Vietnam Today: “Yay, we won!”

The war ended, but not the way Colonel Kilgore intended:  The Vietnamese won.  It was the Vietnamese people who got to smell that sweet scent of Victory; and it was the Colonel Kilgores who were forced to escape on helicopters and return to their own continent, defeated and embittered.

In spite of America’s clear superiority in the sphere of chemical warfare and their unremitting use of napalm to burn people alive, America lost the war.  To this day, American war hawks blame the domestic anti-war movement for their bitter loss.  American anti-war militants did contribute something to the outcome, they did help to open the American people’s eyes to the truth of this grossly unjust and imperialist war, that is a fact.  But mostly it was the Vietnamese army, which won on its own battlefield.  The Vietnamese people just couldn’t be broken.  Neither by Agent Orange, nor even by Napalm.

Vietnam Today: The real smell of Victory…

Napalm is a gelatinous form of benzine.  The Americans and their South Vietnamese compradore allies employed napalm widely, and thickly, throughout all of the Vietnamese countryside.  Primarily against enemy troops (= Viet Cong), but had no moral qualms about using it against peaceful civilians as well.  Domestically speaking, back in those days, America was not yet a totalitarian society, there was still a mass media that was independent from the government.  A segment of that media was militantly anti-war.  Thanks to this, photos of innocent Vietnamese children being burned alive, were disseminated to the public.  The little naked girl in the iconic photo (she had to tear off her clothes because they were on fire) became a symbol of American barbarism.  The public outcry shook the entire world.  International pressure eventually forced the U.S. and other nations to adopt, in 1980, an International Convention, which forbids the use of napalm near populated villages.  True to form, the Americans never accepted any guilt or responsibility for the action depicted in the photo, instead blaming their puppet South Vietnamese air force.  Still, they signed the Convention.

Phan today: Still undergoing skin grafts

Ironically, the little Napalm Girl herself, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, grew up, rejected Communism, and defected to Canada, a nation which had employed a small contingent of troops during the imperialist war against her native country.  Phan’s political beliefs belong to her and should not be second-guessed.  She apparently spends her life performing good works and running charities on behalf of war victims (from various wars) suffering from burns.  To this day Phan is still receiving medical treatment and skin grafts for that terrible thing that happened to her when she was nine.

The Case Of Bradley/Chelsea Manning

Next we move along to more recent times.  Bradley Edward Manning, a young American soldier, was looking at 100 years in prison.  What was his crime?  He had handed over to Wikileaks a packet of documents proving that the Americans, during their invasion of Iraq, had employed chemical weapons not only against the Iraqi army, but also against peaceful civilians.

Bradley Manning: courageous whistle-blower

Thanks to Manning, the American public learned that their troops, during the storming of Fallujah, had used a chemical weapon called White Phosphorus.  This substance is extremely dangerous and harmful.  It has a very high temperature of combustion and the fire is almost impossible to put out, once it gets going.  White Phosphorus, once it gets on human flesh, cannot be quenched with water.  It does not need oxygen from the air:  It will suck oxygen directly from the human body, and keep on burning.  Nonetheless, peoples instinct, when being burned, is to jump in the water.  The active ingredient is Organic Acid Anhydride.  When water is added, it forms Phosphoric Acid, the type of substance which is used as an anti-corrosive on automobile chassis.  The Americans developed this particular weapon back in Vietnam — see, everything goes back to Vietnam, that was the template!  Mines containing White Phosphorus were given the code-name Willy-Peter.  Americans continue to use Willy-Peter on the battlefield, as do their allies, such as the Israelis, for example against Palestinians.  In more recent years, America’s newest compradore government, the Nationalist/Banderite one in the Ukraine, was accused of using Willy-Peter against residents of the town of Slavyansk.

In addition to White Phosphorus, the Americans also employed tear gas in Fallujah.  This may not seem like such a big deal; except that an international convention signed in 1997, forbids the use of tear gas on the battlefield.  It is only allowed to be used in police-type situations.

Rostovtsev goes on to explain the necessity of this ban:  Out in the open, like in street demonstrations, tear gas is not so bad, because it dissipates quickly in the open air.  War is different:  civilians tend to hole up in their basements, or hide in water pipes and other closed spaces.  When tear gas gets inside these closed environments, it can be deadly, especially for children, old people, the sickly, and those already wounded.  People start coughing, their lungs burn, the torment can drive some to run out into the open:  Straight into artillery fire.  Others stay enclosed and cough themselves to death, dying in torment.

А судьи кто?

It goes without saying that none of these international norms or conventions, all of them based on historical experiences and sound principles, ever stopped the Americans from doing exactly as they please on the battlefield.  As Rostovtsev concludes his expose, he takes one more shot at American hypocrites such as Sean Spicer, who pose as winged cherubims while accusing others of doing exactly what they have done, and continue to do.

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