Friday, March 28, 2014

Perplexed




This story broke in Lithuania shortly after the petition was made available, and now it is gaining much wider circulation.  Seems the government is calling on Russia's cultural elite to back its annexation of Crimea, an action not seen since Soviet times.  Many leading cultural figures signed the petition, some out of patriotism, like Valery Gergiev who considers the Ukraine "an essential part of our cultural space."   Others out of fear of reprisals. Boris Akunin (pictured above) stands out as one of those who refused to sign the petition,

“It’s just that under Stalin, if a prominent cultural figure dared to protest he’d be shot; under Brezhnev he’d be imprisoned; now he just risks losing state donations and having to travel economy class — but this often proves enough.  It’s a fascinating sight to watch people make this moral choice.”

When hearing of the petition, Lithuania's leading theater director, Eimuntas NekroŇ°ius, and favorite of Russian theaters, cancelled a production in Moscow.  He is famous for his reinterpretations of Shakespeare and has often worked with well known Russian actors on stage.  It is really a shame to see this political divide splitting the cultural arts, as this has been one of the truly great interchanges between Russia and the world.

The worst part about the petition is that it appears to have been inflated much like the referendum in the Crimea, with several names printed without permission and at least one of those listed no longer alive.  A very sad case of history repeating itself.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Fantasy and Construction



I was pleased to find what appears to be a reprint of Catherine Cooke's AD profile of Yakov Chernikhov, one of the leading avant-garde architects of the early Soviet era.  Like many of these architects, his ideas remain largely on paper as the rise of Soviet realism in the 1930s had little room for these "futurists," with their ideas being absorbed by European schools like the Bauhaus in Weimer Germany.  The Architectural Design Profile is pretty hard to find these days and fetches a collector's price, but the Dom book is readily available.

I don't talk much about architecture in this blog, but it was a major component of the early Soviet period, with architects like El Lissitzky working with Mayakovsky on For the Voice, a pamphlet that evocatively captured the era.  Here is a wonderful short animation feature based on the book.  Lissitzky would eventually have a profound influence on European modern movements, particularly in his use of the "proun."


Chernikhov did get at least one project built - this water tower for the Red Nail Maker's Factory in St. Petersburg.  Like so many of the projects from that era it was constructed in reinforced concrete and has managed to weather the test of time.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Crimea



As Russians try to rewrite what they see as a historical wrong, I find myself digging into the history of Crimea.  Orlando Figes has written two books on Crimea, including this history in 2010.

It was in 1954 that Khrushchev decided to attach Crimea to the Soviet state of Ukraine, primarily so it would benefit from a new hydro-electric dam.  I suppose at the time Khrushchev never imagined Ukraine becoming an independent state.  Neither did many Russians, especially those who lived in Crimea.

As far as history goes, it depends on how far back you want to go.  For centuries this was a Greek enclave, before being annexed by Catherine the Great in the late 18th century.  It became bitterly fought over by the Russian and Ottoman empires in the 19th century, culminating in the Crimean War in the 1850s.

I suppose from the point of view of history, Khrushchev's "gift" couldn't have been more ill-timed, coming 100 years after the start of the Crimean War.  The Greeks had all left.  The only indigenous people remaining were Crimean Tatars.  The vast majority of the population was Russian, which now found itself under the Ukraine SSR.

Another stroke of bad luck came when the Soviet Union melted down and Ukraine became an independent state.  Yeltsin formally relinquished Russian interest in the region with the Partition Treaty of 1997, but Crimean Russians pressed for and got a semi-autonomous state with its own parliament, essentially giving it home rule.  While any attempt at secession would have to be approved by the Ukrainian government, this hasn't stopped the home parliament from putting forward a referendum on March 16 which would seek return to Russia.

This isn't much different than what we saw with South Ossetia and Abkhazia back in 2008, although these two breakaway Georgian republics sought independence, not re-annexation.  Russian Crimeans can't really stake a claim to a separate identity as Ossetians and Abkhazians can, so I suppose from their point of view it makes sense to be back within the Russian fold.

What has everyone up in arms over this crisis is the way it is being handled.  We saw the peaceful split of the Czech Republic and Slovakia over ethnic differences not that long ago.  We also saw the much more violent disintegration of Yugoslavia, which no one wants to repeat.  What is to stop other principally Russian territories inside the Ukraine from similarly seeking re-annexation into Russia, leaving Western Ukraine a  rump state?

This kind of de-evolution of government is usually not very healthy.  Better to form a federation like Switzerland did, uniting ethnic Germans, Italians and Swiss, than trying to split states, especially when there is so much overlap as there is in the Ukraine.  It seems we still tend to look at countries in terms of political maps, making them easier to divide and rule.