Amidst tirelessly attempting to complete the readings of the fifty-some books for my cultural history PhD minor, my collection (!) grew. In the past couple of months, I've been: reading all about the boundaries of commodification (apparently - a negative term!) and the evils of capitalism (!) that most scholars emphasize in a sustained ideological assault on my brain; memorizing disturbing amounts of information about 19th century sewing machines and farming equipment; finding out all about American coffins, managerial patterns, and female working class fashions in the early 20th century; most of all - learning that I apparently have the obligation to spend my hard-earned dollars using my social conscience (read: fitting the left definition of morality). Strangely, all these texts did not preclude me from desiring more Ryuks. Fusing Marx and Freud, scholars call it "commodity fetishism". So, my apparently immoral purchase of this doll doesn't save rainforests, cure AIDS, or ban sweatshops. But, his carnivorous grin sure is cute!
Ryuk is a God of Death from a popular manga-turned anime-turned movie-turned endless merchandise Death Note. My only miniscule feeling of guilt comes from the seeming incompatibility of my age and such a childish interest. Of course, this interest speaks to the sheer success of Japanese cross-platform media production and cross-border marketing. Interestingly, the mighty resource, Wikipedia, suggests that the notion of a God of Death, as loosely referenced in Death Note, actually came to Japan from the West in the 19th century. And, here I am, consuming this God of Death in the West through a Japanese lens. Remember those evils of globalist capitalism in all their multivalent glory! (More specifically, "hypercapitalism" via the web, according to those aforementioned scholars.)
I've never considered myself a collector, despite owning hundreds of (largely heavy metal) CDs. The closest I've come to this coveted status is the multiple Orthodox and Catholic miniature icon reproductions, which happen to sit on my other bookshelf. (I am way ahead of you: I don't consider myself a book collector either, despite certain noticeable patterns!) Or, perhaps, my Russian tin soldiers qualify. In contrast to the icons and the soldiers, I've actively sought out Ryuk. My strategy even included transparent gift hints (including this one)!
Stranger yet, I've never been interested in other anime-related media. Sure, like any aware film fan, I enjoy a Japanese comedy or two: some would say that I have a curious sense of humor when it comes to over-the-top splatterific gore as administered by a huggable drill bra (!) in Machine Girl. But that's where it ends. I swear.
So, what is it about this God of Death that leaves me wanting to "collect them all"? His wobbly yellow eyes? His insatiable appetite for..........red apples? Perhaps, the fur around his neck subliminally reminds me of those fashionable twenty thousand shirtwaist worker women who went on strike in New York in 1909-1910, as my readings tell me.
I didn't even recognize him until he began speaking, shaved face and all. He seems to really dislike publicity photos and has a Baudrillard-like attitude toward the media. The presenters greedily emphasized that Travels in Hyperreality predated Simulacra and Simulation. I wasn't surprised, considering how the latter is academically privileged over the former across the board.
Attending a lecture by Umberto Eco has been on my "top ten things to do before I die" list ever since I was introduced to his work in 1998. A decade later, I had purchased and consumed all of his fiction, read a large bulk of his cultural criticism, starting from his republished PhD thesis on medieval aesthetics, and took a crack at some of his strictly academic work in the field of semiotics.
Even my teenage days of standing in line in subzero midwestern temperatures to get concert tickets and be "rokken-like-dokken" couldn't match my literary fandom in this case. I changed my schedule and worked two full shifts with an hour of sleep in between in order to attend this event. Then I withstood the strategic, repeated bag-kicking and foot-stomping attack by an angry old lady, who evidently wanted our seats.
During this round table discussion, Eco focused on some of his more recent essays from the Turning Back the Clock collection. His talk included issues of technology: degrading from Vista to XP and politics: using 19th century methods to solve 21st century concerns. He took multiple jabs at Berlusconi and urged for a bilateral solution to the problem of migration and ethnic replacement in Europe.
The most surprising part of the lecture was not this scholar's runaway beard, but rather his demeanor. Beyond the level of cosmopolitan erudition, one of the most stand-out aspects of Eco's fiction is his subtle, clever sense of humor. I wasn't expecting it to translate well into the live environment with spontaneous audience questions. After all, some of my other literary favorites like Zoschenko and Iskander are also funny men. Yet, at least according to the Soviet rumor mill, they are publicly known to have unpleasant, dreary personalities. Charming and quick-witted, this Italian academic destroyed my expecations by having the audience laughing out loud throughout the entire lecture.
In the true, but inadvertent spirit of turning back the clock, I recycled an old illustration of mine to make Eco a thank-you postcard. I took away some hair, but the token beard stayed!
When I saw this little guy, he reminded me of my favorite tank. Just like the Soviet T34, he looks crude, sturdy, and is about to (hopefully!) consume that technologically advanced fly.
*If you thought that I was feeling totally zen as a result of not only taking, but also posting a nature-lovin', tree-huggin', water bottle-recyclin' photograph of a frog, I trust that my tank analogy totally destroyed your initial assumption.
It's been several months since I've even looked at this blog, and my never-updated personal website has been down inexplicably for two weeks. (Web hosting money well spent! And there I was thinking of redesigning it.) I'm amidst transcribing a lengthy interview regarding the unofficial Soviet rock (unfortunately, not metal specifically) music publications for one of my multiple jobs in the pre-"dissertating" stage. Stalinist shock-worker style.
I have an irreconcilable attitude toward being swept into Russia's irreconcilable history by the mere fact of having been born at the USSR's epicenter nearly twenty-eight years ago. Nonetheless, I've always admired the 30s Stakhanovite shock workers, despite having read many a book on Stalinist economics by "free" and Gulag laborers alike. And, it is not so much the peculiar brand of an ambitious work ethic than is motivating, but rather the fact that it fits my lifestyle.
The only way I can maintain the crazy train (not the Ozzy kind) pace that I've signed myself up for is by subscribing to the udarnik technique. So, whereas a normal PhD student would spread the work over a few days, with sleep and socializing-with-other-humans breaks in between, I am going to do this entire job in one go. By choice and no longer by choice.
Whereas the man who mined one hundred and two tonnes of coal in five hours and forty-five minutes may inspire me to do the same via Microsoft Word, the strange reason I came back to the blog has to do with Sex Machineguns. With the help of the Google translator, I've been reading Anchang's blog for the past week (naturally, during my well earned Stakhanovite breaks). Presumably as a result of the automated translator's limitations and my cliched perception, some of the entries sound like haikus. What I really enjoy about his blog (apart from the multiple photos of objects great and small that carry a heavy metal significance), is the fact that this Japanese rock celebrity manages to keep things succinct, frequent, entertaining, sufficiently personal, yet private at the same time (as his status would require). I'm neither succinct, Japanese, nor a celebrity (phew!), but perhaps the South-East Asian rockstar public diary is just what I need to balance out Alexey Stakhanov.
I feel genuine revulsion toward functioning Moscow cemeteries. They resemble bleeding chunks of meat torn off the living. Black striped buses arrive; they speak too quietly there and cry too loudly, while the choir prelude wails four times a day in the crematorium assembly line, and a formal lady in a mourning dress instructs with a set voice, “Approach one by one, say your goodbyes”.
If by accident and out of sheer curiosity you had ended up at Nikolo-Arkhangelskoe, Vostryakovskoe, or Khovanskoe cemeteries, get out of there and do not look back – or else you will be frightened by the endless wasteyards reaching the horizon, embedded with grey and black rocks; you will suffocate from the distinct greasy air, go deaf from the ringing silence, and you will want to live eternally, to live at any cost, only to avoid turning into a pile of ashes among the maggots of the columbarium or disintegrating into proteins, fats, and carbons under the flowerbed zero seven measuring one point eight.
New cemeteries will explain nothing to you about life and death; they will only baffle, frighten, and confuse you. To hell with them, let them chomp with their granite-concrete jaws behind the perimeter highway, while we better head to Zemlyanoy town, to Old Don Cemetery, for, in my opinion, no other place in all of our beautiful and mysterious city is more beautiful and mysterious.
Old Don Cemetery is completely unlike the contemporary giants of the funeral industry: the latter are paved with asphalt, while here the paths are covered with leaves; the latter are filled with dust-covered grass, while here mountain ash and pussy willow grow; a concrete slab inscribed, “Natalie, dearest daughter, why did you abandon us?” lies in the latter, while here an angel stands holding an open book, where it reads, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted”.
Only you must not wander to New Don Cemetery by mistake, which is located nearby, behind the red cogged wall. It will lure you with the onion domes of the church, but it is a wolf in sheep’s skin – renovated Crematorium #1. And in front of the gates you will be met by smiling Sergey Andreevich Muromtsev, the chairman of the First State Duma. Do not believe this happy prince, who, like a little bee, absorbed all the honey of the short-lived Russian Europeanism with his life (1850-1910) and quietly passed away prior to the arrival of troubles, perhaps fully convinced of the Russian parliament’s victory and of gradually accumulating pleasant neighbors – private-docents and defense attorneys. Alas – he is instead surrounded entirely by the Stalin prize laureates, communist brigadiers, aeronauts, and honored constructors of the RSFSR. Time will pass, and their tombstones with sputniks, compasses, and stars will also turn into historic exoticism. Only not for my generation.
You and I must to go further, into the other gates, crowned with a tall bell tower. Moscow that I love is buried there. Buried, but not dead.
The very first time I felt that she is alive was in the early days of my youth, when I worked in a quiet institution, located close to the Don monastery, and I visited the ancient graves with my colleagues for the purpose of drinking the poor-tasting, but strong wine “Agdam”. We made the habit of sitting on a wooden bench across from the dusty bas-relief with Saint Sergey Radonezhskiy, Peresvet and Oslyaba (he is still there, never returning to the wall of the restored Church of Christ the Savior), snacking on the sweet monastery apples to complement this Azeri hemlock, and the conversation inconceivably flowed from the last album by the band Sparks (or what else did we all listen to back in the day?) to Saltychikha and from super rifle jeans to Chaadaev.
Petr Yakovlich rested not too far away from the coveted bench. His grave informed his descendents of the one fact only about the man, who would have been Brutus in Rome and Pericles in Athens, “Ended his life on April 14, 1856” – and this caused us to speculate.
And as for Saltychikha, time saved neither a single word, nor a single letter on her tombstone. Moscow landowner Dariya Nikolaevna Saltykova, who tortured one hundred serfs to death – really existed – this is the only fact that the grave confirmed. But it is impossible to define monsters; the content of their soul is dark and mystifying, and the most appropriate testament to a monster — an unspoken truth, which looks like a bare grey obelisk, whose silhouette is reminiscent of an aspen spike, impaled into the ground.
Five feet away from the final resting place of the Russian contemporary of Marquis de Sade, a peculiar stone tree, which looks like a snag-covered cross, grows out of the ground – a masonic symbol to the memory of lieutenant Baskakov, who died in the year 1794. No additional information is provided – a pity.
The inscriptions and the awkward poems on the gravestones – a fascinating, completely non-monotonous reading. This is nothing less than an attempt to materialize and eternalize emotion, and, in fact, not an unsuccessful attempt – those who mourn are long gone, but their mourning remains: “Here rests a young man and a servant of God Nikolai. God summoned him from this world and its troubles to paradise.”
(From his inconsolable parents to the honorable citizen Nikolai Grachev.)
Or an entirely clumsy verse, but all the more piercing:
“Let these beloved remains rest in the bowels of the earth, Let the soul soar in skies so blue, But I remain here in tears for you”.
(It is already impossible to discern who dedicated this and to whom.)
Yet my favorite epitaph, gracing the tombstone of princess Shakhovskaya, is not touching, but vengeful: “Passed away as a result of doctor Snegirev’s surgery”.
Where are you, doctor Snegirev? Is your grave still around? Doubtful, I say. Yet here, at the Old Don Cemetery, you are still remembered, even if not in a good way.
Twenty years ago, when I came here almost every day, very few people visited this overgrown, half-forgotten cemetery. Only the connoisseurs of Moscow history would bring guests of the capital here in order to give them a taste of the most important cemetery sight – a black bronze Christ, extended full-height in the niche of the monastery wall. Even back then the flowers never ran out at the feet of the Savior, while I was never partial to this testament to the Russian moderne – it is too delicate and bon-ton.
I am guilty – I do not like sightseeing. Evidently, due to the fact that these sights are too polished by the gaze, and because everything is already known about them, no mystery remains. One can locate a certain number of the acclaimed names on the Don graveyard signs: historian Klyuchevskiy, poet Maykov, architect Beauvais, Cossack Ilovayskiy XII, but the absolute majority of the local deceased did not make themselves well-known in any shape or form. The famed and celebrated were buried in St. Petersburg in that day and age, while this was Moscow, a province. The flamboyance of the individual tombstones must not mislead you – this is a testament to the wealth, not the success in life. God knows how many failed careers and insatiable ambitions are buried at the Old Don’s. You glance at all this peeling heraldry and half-erased titles and recall the Danish king Erik the Memorable, whose resonant nickname remains, yet history somehow did not remember the reasons why his contemporaries considered him so memorable.
No one needs my elect few except for me. Their names did not resonate, while they lived, and when they died, nothing of theirs except for a stone on a grave remains in this world. Miss Ekaterina Beznosova, 72 years of age, who died in 1823 in the eighth hour after midnight and state advisor Gavriil Stepanovich Karnovich, who always led an exemplary, truly Christian life, mystifies me with the riddle of his vanished existence. This sentiment is most succinctly expressed in Igor Burdonov’s haiku “A Little-Known Fact”: They all died – People, who lived in the Russian state In August of the year 1864.
They truly did die – those who fasted, made visits, read “Provincial Moscow News”, and disparaged the cunning Disraeli. Yet I feel consumed by an acute and therefore an unmistakable feeling that they are somewhere near, that it is possible to reach them; only I do not know how to catch the time that slipped away, how to grasp the edge of a mystery.
And this very edge is so near – one more try, and you can seize it, it seems. An elbow is close…
I compose novels about the XIX century, attempting to put into them the most important concept – the sensation of time slipping away. I inhabit my invented Russia with characters, whose names and last names are somewhat frequently borrowed from the Old Don tombstones. I do not know myself what I am trying to achieve by doing so – either pull those, who are no longer here, out of their graves, or to sneak into their lives myself.