Monday, February 25, 2008

The New Cold War

I read an article awhile back by a British journalist about recent relations with Russia that I thought was worth posting here. Russia is still Ukraine's largest trading partner, yet tensions over Ukraine's possible membership in NATO and Russian natural gas prices are increasing. I've noticed that, at least where we live, people don't have many nice things to say about our neighbor to the North.
Recently, monuments in our city that commemorate Soviet expansion have been repeatedly defaced and vandalized. The most notable one made the local paper with a picture of a monument spray painted over with the words "Glory to Ukraine". From what I understand, Russia is being viewed less as a big brother and more as a bully by a lot of Ukrainians.

The following article gives some perspective on how some in the West are beginning to view Russia. I'm interested to hear people's thoughts on this so please feel free to comment.

From The Times
February 5, 2008

Why kowtow to brutal, cynical Russia?

We have a new Cold War and we're losing it. The West must stand up to the Kremlin now

Edward Lucas

Sixty years ago the Berlin Airlift highlighted the menace of Stalin's Kremlin. Forty years ago Soviet tanks crushed both the Prague Spring and any remaining illusions about the Kremlin's grip on the captive nations. Twenty years ago we began dropping our guard, as totalitarianism withered under Mikhail Gorbachev. Now it is time to acknowledge the inconvenient truth. Russia is back: rich, powerful and hostile. Partnership is giving way to rivalry, with increasingly threatening overtones. The new Cold War has begun - but just as in the 1940s, we are alarmingly slow to notice it.

The loudest alarm signal is Russia's predictable yet mystifying presidential election on March 2. Predictable because everyone knows who will win: Dmitri Medvedev, Vladimir Putin's polite, lawyerly sidekick; mystifying because the meaning of that victory is so unclear. Will Mr Medvedev be a mere figurehead? Will he stand down and allow Mr Putin to return? What does his stint running Russia's energy giant, Gazprom, one of the world's most corrupt, incompetent and sinister companies, tell us about his plans for the future? What does his rise mean for the clans of crooks and spooks whose murky feuds have increased so sharply in past months? Once a dead art, Kremlinology is now a lively and useful discipline.

Politics in Russia is a matter of life and death. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man, is on prison hunger strike in protest against the ill-treatment of his aide Vasily Aleksanyan. Mr Aleksanyan is confined in a filthy mould-infested cell because he refuses to sign a bogus confession incriminating Mr Khodorkovsky. His judicial torture, including denial of medical care, which has blinded him, has been condemned by the European Court of Human Rights. It reads like something from Dostoyevsky, not a factual account of prison conditions in supposedly one of the world's top eight industrialised democracies.

That doesn't bother most Russians. Mr Putin is wildly popular; so is Mr Medvedev. Mr Khodorkovsky and other former “oligarchs” are seen as despicable emblems of the 1990s, a decade in which Russians feel they were swindled at home and humiliated abroad. Mr Putin has brought both stability and pride. For now, democracy has failed: most Russians say they agree that the media should be controlled and that the opposition should not be allowed to contend for power.

Those feelings are complex. They are partly the result of the state-controlled media's propaganda. They also truly represent tragic misunderstandings and missed opportunities in the Yeltsin years, when oil prices were low and Russian governments struggled with crippling foreign debts. Mr Putin has been lucky - with oil at nearly $100 a barrel, Russia is bound to prosper. Yet he too is a product of the 1990s, an unemployed ex-spy who became a top official in the Yeltsin Kremlin. His denunciations of that era neglect to mention its strengths: press freedom, and also economic reforms such as privatisation and price liberalisation from which Russia has hugely benefited.

Communism has gone, but in its place has come “sovereign democracy”, a potent cocktail of self-righteousness, nationalism and xenophobia that fuels the Kremlin's power grab abroad. In the “swing states” of Eastern Europe - Bulgaria, Latvia and Moldova - we are already losing the new Cold War. We have avoided catastrophe in Serbia by a hair's breadth. The great engines of EU and Nato expansion, which brought half a continent into our orbit after the collapse of communism, have stalled.

But it is not just “faraway countries of which we know nothing” that are at stake. Russia plays divide and rule with the West, ruthlessly using our democratic politics and open economies to undermine us. It has brazenly hired Gerhard Schröder, the former German chancellor, to promote its biggest energy project, Nord Stream. This is a hugely expensive and strategically vital gas pipeline on the Baltic seabed that will bypass Poland and deliver gas straight to Germany. Like a rich and powerful man who becomes pathetically dependent on heroin, Germany is mainlining on Russian energy. The new pipeline hooks up addict and pusher directly. Instead of urgently diversifying away from gas and to other suppliers, the Netherlands, Italy and Austria are following the same path.

Russia has cowed and muzzled the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, supposedly the Continent's main democracy-promoting and election-monitoring body. It has nobbled the Council of Europe, a talking shop that is supposed to be the custodian of human rights. The British Conservatives, in bizarre alliance with Mr Putin's United Russia party, came within a whisker of electing a former KGB man and Kremlin propagandist, Mikhail Margelov, to the presidency. At its summit in Bucharest in April, Nato's European members are all set to kowtow to Kremlin pressure and give a cold shoulder to Georgia's bid to move towards membership. The EU can not even summon the willpower to liberalise its internal energy markets, let alone counter the Kremlin's ruthless use of cheap energy deals and lucrative pipelines.

Our biggest weakness is money. During the old Cold War, doing business with the Soviet Union was a rare and highly suspicious activity. Now bankers, lawyers, consultants and spin-doctors (and even, it is whispered, politicians) flock to take 30 silver roubles for services rendered, even when they are privately disgusted by the source. Until that changes, we have little chance of resisting the Kremlin - and even less of persuading ordinary Russians that their corrupt, cynical, brutal and incompetent rulers are harbingers of disaster, not triumph.

Edward Lucas is author of The New Cold War: how the Kremlin menaces both Russia and the West

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Tiger on a Leash

I had my camera with me this time when we came across the same tiger we saw a few days ago. It was on a short leash tied to a bus. Again I was amazed that had we wanted to, we could have strolled right up to her. The pictures didn't come out as clear as I would have liked, but at least you can see what I'm talking about.

Please take note, apparently tigers aren't very fond of flash photography or the little green light on my camera. She became a little agitated as I snapped my last photo of the evening. Edna said she was just meowing, but I wisely chose not to test the breaking point of her leash.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

What We Don't Have in America #11

#11 The Prevalence of the Murse (a.k.a. Man-Purse)

I snapped this picture while Edna and I were in Kyiv today to pick up her new passport. I wanted a picture of the Ukrainian restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but I noticed the prime example of a murse that I had captured and knew I needed to write a post about it. Now, you can find a murse or mag (a.k.a. Man-Bag) in the U.S., but they're way more popular and socially acceptable for the average man to tote around here in Ukraine.

Murses come in a wide selection of styles and colors. For the sleek style of a businessman, they come in varying shiny leather finishes in a compact clutch version. I once saw a well dressed businessman waiting outside a hotel sporting a fancy clutch model complete with rhinestones on the latch. My first thought was, "Yep, I know the feeling. I can't count the times Edna has left me holding her purse outside of a store while she ran in to look at something". I was starting to feel sorry for him until three of his male companions emerged from the hotel all carrying similar clutches.

Murses also come in more sporting versions made of rugged nylon material with handy outer pockets for your cell phone. I happen to have a camera case that bears a striking resemblance to a murse. So much so, that when I attended a cultural event, two different people asked me if I had remembered to bring my camera even though I was carrying it in its case around my neck. I have to admit that it is pretty handy for carrying bus money and loose change, but for now I'm still going to refer to it as a camera case rather than my man-bag.

For the record, they're still more manly than a fanny-pack.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

What We Don't Have in America #10

#10 JEK (ДЖЕК)

Cleaning up after trash collection

Jek (Джек) is the name for the people who are in charge of building maintenance and grounds keeping around the building. Most of them are older women who are usually built pretty sturdy because of the hard work they do. I'm sure there are some somewhere, but I've never seen a man doing any of the work these women do. They look pretty tough and a little scary which prompts some of the kids to refer to them as Zhakh (Жах) which means "horror". Some of the small children are even teased that the Zhakh people live under the stairs or in the rooms where they collect the trash that comes down from the trash chutes.

Weed Whackers
Cutting grass the old fashion way in summer

I can't really say that we have something like this in America. There are janitorial services and yard care services, but I can't think of anything that comes close to these dedicated group of hard working women.

Lions and Tigers and Bears...Oh My!

Today, Edna and I saw something that I'm almost sure you would never see in America. If you did, most people would run and call the police. We were headed to meet with our friend Fedir when Edna turned to me and asked, "Is that a tiger rolling in the snow over there?" Sure enough, it was. It seemed to be playing and entertaining itself. No one else seemed to be paying any attention to it, so being the brave animal lovers that we are, we walked over to it. We could see that it was tethered to a fence post by a small rope. We asked the man standing nearby if we could look at the tiger. He said we could take pictures if we wanted, but just not to get our faces too close because she might scratch us. The man showed us how she liked to play with him and was even play biting his arm. At one point one of her claws punctured his glove so he stopped playing so rough with her and had her lay on her back while he scratched her belly. I was so mad I didn't have my camera with me.

The female tiger was absolutely beautiful and it was an amazing sight to see her playing in the fresh snow like any other pet animal. It turns out she was part of the advanced party of a circus that was setting up nearby. Like I said, you'd probably never see an uncaged tiger on the street anywhere in America. She was friendly and playful, but I'm glad she didn't maul us, because how would we explain that we were attacked by a tiger that was playing on the street in Ukraine?

Friday, February 15, 2008

What We Don't Have in America #9

#9 Crumbling Steps

These are the steps that lead up to our apartment building. Even when they aren't covered in ice they can be extremely treacherous. They continue to erode away day by day to the point where they have become more of a bumpy ramp than steps. So why am I doing a blog about crumbling concrete steps? It's not that there aren't any broken steps in America, but I came from a city where a raised crack in the sidewalk could be grounds for a lawsuit. If a tree root happened to begin lifting up the sidewalk it wouldn't be unusual for the city to paint the offending bulge a bright orange or yellow and possibly post a sign that says something like, "Caution! Tripping Hazard!". That is of course until the city can get a crew out to grind down the offending sidewalk crack or edge that is posing a grave threat to public safety.

I have to laugh every time I watch a woman in stiletto heels struggle down the steps holding on to the flimsy rail for dear life (that's only after I've successfully navigated the very same steps of death myself). I laugh only because I can imagine the very same steps being in California with a line of people at the top preparing to take a "fall" so they could sue whoever allowed this menace to society to remain in existence. I won't even mention that this walkway makes no accommodations for the handicapped, but that's a whole 'nother story. The fact is that hundreds of people use these steps and I bet not one of them has ever thought about a lawsuit. I'm not really sure if that is a good thing or a bad thing, because like it or not lawsuits are probably why you won't see crumbling steps like this in America. Personally, I don't really mind the crumbling steps, they still work (sort of).

Another thing you'll most likely never see in America is a tree branch sticking out of a manhole to warn drivers and pedestrians of the impending danger left by the missing manhole cover. Those of you who live here in Ukraine know exactly what I'm talking about.

What We Don't Have in America #8

#8 Cheburashka (Russian: Чебурашка)

"Cheburashka is a character in children's literature, from a 1965 story by the Russian writer Eduard Uspensky. He is also the protagonist (voiced by Klara Rumyanova) of the animated film series by Soyuzmultfilm studio, the first episode of which was made in 1969.

According to the story, Cheburashka is a funny little animal, unknown to science, who lives in the tropical forest. He accidentally gets into a crate of oranges, eats his fill, and falls asleep. Cheburashka is not a personal name; it is a species name invented by the puzzled director of the shop where he is found. The salesman takes the animal out and sits him on the table, but his paws are numb after the long time spent in the crate, and he tumbles down ("cheburakhnulsya" (чебурахнулся), a Russian colloquialism, "tumbled" in English) from the table onto the chair and then from the chair, where he could not sit, for the same reason, onto the floor. The director of the shop, who witnesses the scene, called him Cheburashka. Words with this root were archaic in Russian; Uspensky gave them a new lease on life. (The 19th-century Explanatory Dictionary of the Living Great Russian language of Vladimir Dal gives the meaning of "cheburashka" as another name for the vanka-vstanka tumbling toy.)

Cheburashka has a bear-like body and large round ears and is about the size of a 5-year-old child; the gender of the creature is most likely male. In the tale, he hangs around with a friendly crocodile Gena, who wears a hat and a coat, walks on his hind legs and plays an accordion. He works in a zoo as a crocodile. Gena's favorite songs are "Birthdays Happen Only Once a Year" and "Blue Wagon".

In the cartoon, Cheburashka and Gena have their adventures made more difficult by a character named "Старуха Шапокляк" (Old Lady Shapoklyak, from French Chapeau-Claque, a kind of top hat). Shapoklyak is a mischievous but charming old lady. She is tall and thin, wears a hat and a dark-colored dress, and carries around a sidekick rat-like creature — "Lariska" — in her purse to help her play pranks on people. The chorus of her theme song contains her motto, "One won't ever get famous for good deeds".

Cheburashka was chosen as an official mascot for the Russian Olympic Team for the 2004 Summer Olympics in Greece. Cheburashka dolls were also seen with members of the Russian team in 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. He is also one of the few Russian animation characters to be a subject of numerous Russian jokes and riddles.

The word "Cheburashka" is also used in a figurative sense to name objects that somehow resemble the creature (such as an An-72 aircraft which, when seen from the front, resembles the character's head) or are just as nice as it is (e.g. it's a jargon name for a small bottle of lemonade - from brand name "Cheburashka").

Cheburashka is now a staple of Russian cartoons, and there are several licensed products on the market, such as children's anecdotal books and stuffed toys."

An-72 aircraft, nicknamed Cheburashka

Joshua first heard of Cheburashka when he saw the cartoons on TV. The cartoons are in Russian but have Ukrainian subtitles which help us non-Russian speaking adults follow along better. Joshua seems to understand either language enough to get by. Cheburashka is often the subject of children's artwork at school according to Joshua. He also tells us that kids with big ears end up being teased with the name Cheburashka too. I guess Cheburashka would be the closest thing to a Russian equivalent of Curious George. Anyway, we love Cheburashka and in Joshua's words, "He's a little cutie".

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

What We Don't Have in America #7

#7 Marshrutka (Маршрутка)

A marshrutka, or marshrutneh taxi as they are known, is something between a bus and a van. The best translation would probably be shuttle bus. They drive specific routes throughout the city according to the number they display. There are also special ones that travel between cities. Unlike a bus, you can flag one down pretty much anywhere you see them and they'll let you out anywhere you ask along their route. They are more expensive than the buses, travel to more areas within the city, and usually get you there a little faster than the bus can. People will often sit down before getting their money out to pay and then pass it to the front for the driver to make change and then pass it back to them through the sea of people. The scary part is watching the driver make change while he's weaving in and out of congested traffic at a relatively dangerous speed.

The main reason we try to avoid them and take the bus is that they are usually packed. The seats seem to always be full which means we end up standing most of the time. Just because a driver's marshrutka is full doesn't mean he won't stop for more passengers. He will often yell back and tell the rear passengers to squeeze in tighter. In the heat of the summer this can make for an unpleasant ride at best. In the winter time, heavy jackets and clothing create an even tighter fit. The running joke is that if you asked a marshrutka driver how many people he can fit in his marshrutka, the answer would always be "one more". The real trick is trying to get a family of four off the marshrutka when you're buried twenty-five people deep.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

What We Don't Have in America #6

#6 Bags of Milk

Milk here (and in various other countries) comes in bags as well as boxes and 1 liter bottles. They have the Tetra-Pak boxes of milk in the U.S., but not the bags. I first encountered Tetra-Pak boxed milk in the Army. It has a long shelf life and doesn't require refrigeration just like the Tetra-Pak bags. No one in the Army really liked the stuff because it has a strange taste to it due to the way it's processed.

They also sell fresh milk in bags, but the problem is that it rarely is fresh. We've learned not to buy fresh milk when the weather is warm because it's usually bad (bloated bags are a bad sign). There doesn't seem to be a huge priority to keep milk refrigerated before you buy it here. Even when "fresh" milk hasn't spoiled, it often has a funky taste to it. Unlike dairy cows in the U.S., there isn't the same consistency in what the cows eat so the flavor of the milk suffers. I've also heard that the way the milk is handled can affect its flavor too. You can buy whole unpasteurized milk from the little babusyas who sell the milk from their cows by the market.

All this being said, we usually stick to the boxed milk or the Tetra-Pak bags. I think it's interesting to note that bags are sold by weight not volume. They are normally 900 grams or 1 kg (.45 lbs) which usually works out to be about a liter. I have to admit that bags can be handy to carry as you can slip them into the pockets of your jacket for the walk home. It takes about 3.8 bags to make a gallon, so I can't imagine buying milk by the gallon when you have to carry it home. In the U.S. we usually bought two gallons at a time, sometimes three. Those days are long gone.

One thing that I really like is sour cream in a bag. It seems to keep better and is easier to dispense into your borshch. Ice cream also comes in a bag, but I'm still undecided as to how I feel about that. So far I haven't found any chocolate milk in a bag, so if anyone sees any please let me know.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Saying Goodbye to Baba Hanya

Some time early Sunday morning, Baba Hanya passed away after a short illness. Today we held a funeral for her in the village of Kozhenykiy where she lived. No one knows for sure how old she was. Even Baba Hanya wasn't sure what year she was born in. She only knew that she was in her 70's and her family was too poor to keep track of things like when their children were born. They were more concerned with keeping track of how many of their children survived according to what we were told.

Babya Hanya was our friend Maria's great aunt on her mother's side. We first met her last summer when she was in the hospital. Later we helped harvest her and her brother Serhiy's potatoes. Baba Hanya was so sweet to us and the boys really liked her. We were looking forward to helping her out again this Spring.

Outside Baba Hanya's Home
Preaching a short message outside of Baba Hanya's home

Edna and I took a bus to Kozhenykiy with Maria's sister Nastia this morning to help prepare for the funeral. We began in Baba Hanya's house where we prepared a room so that friends and neighbors could view her. We began the service when the pastor from our church arrived along with two other pastors from Kyiv. I was blessed to be able to say a few words about Baba Hanya and her family after we took her out of the house where people were gathering before the procession to the cemetery.

On the way to the cemetery
Walking to the cemetery

We carried Baba Hanya a short distance down the dirt road leading away from her home. We placed her on a flatbed truck that carried her the remaining mile or so up the hill to the cemetery. The women carried the flowers and funeral decorations ahead of the truck along with a portrait of Baba Hanya. I was surprised that even some of the more frail looking older women seemed to have no trouble trekking up the hill. Ukrainian babusyas (grandmas) are known for being tough and today I realized how harsh village life has made "being tough" a necessity for survival. They certainly have my respect.

Baba Hanya's Funeral

Baba Hanya's Funeral

One of the pastors from our sister church in Kyiv concluded the funeral at the cemetery and Baba Hanya's simple wooden casket adorned with fabric was lowered into the ground. In turn we each placed three handfuls of dirt into the grave before it was filled in. We then walked back to Baba Hanya's house to share a traditional multi-course meal together. This turned out to be an excellent opportunity for evangelism. Many of Baba Hanya's friends and neighbors eagerly listened to what the pastors had to say and joined them in prayer as we celebrated the hope of eternal life rather than mourn a death. Edna said it best when she mentioned to me that Baba Hanya's death may well have saved a life today as souls were won for Christ.

Nastia holding a portrait of Baba Hanya
Nastia holding a portrait of Baba Hanya