25 December 2009

You've been randomly selected...

No, I did not become the lucky recipient of a million dollars through Nigerian email spam. However, a young Nigerian's failed attempt at terrorism on a Northwest flight to Detroit seems rather timely today.

A reasonably frequent flyer, I've gone through many expected inconveniences of modern-day air travel, including baggage lost for days and baggage lost for weeks, eight-hour delays, full baggage searches, and canceled flights. This year, I've even gotten used to having my temperature taken by genderless swine flu-chasers in white biohazard suits.

When going through security, I seal my "liquids and gels" in advance, remove my jacket and shoes, and take out my laptop -- all to be placed in separate bins, naturally. Yesterday, I did not trigger any alarms, and neither did my carry-on. Yet, I got selected for a random security check without cause.

The latter is somewhere between a mild pat-down one gets when actually setting off a metal detector and a full-blown strip search. It's a polite spit in the face. A bit of public embarrassment, a mild abuse of authority, but with a cherry of political correctness on top. After all, airport security seems to "respect my feelings as a woman and a human", as a certain musician once said.

So, my personal Bestower of Safety (female, of course) even inquired if I "had any body part that hurt", before proceeding to thoroughly determine that I, in fact, did not hide any weapons of mass destruction in my bra. And, I'm not quite sure what pulling my jeans' waist so far away from my body so as to reveal the pattern on my underwear had to do with terrorism prevention. But, maybe I simply lack the intellectual capacity necessary to grasp the mysteries of airport security rituals, so I politely complied.

In the end, all I wanted to know was the selection criteria. "Every fourth female", said this shining example of professionalism and asked, "So, are we cool, yo"? I haven't seen my family in six months and had a flight to catch, "Yes, but rather inappropriate".

Not a contradiction.

Best of all, I paid $54.33 for this masochistic present to self: $45.00 (!) of my airfare went to Canada Airport Improvement Fee, and $9.33 -- to Air Travellers Security Charge (ATSC). The latter certainly seems like money well spent on stopping islamofascists in North America.

Merry Christmas!

16 December 2009

"...Soviet bastards have destroyed Russia"

Despite being absolutely fed up with graduate school, I somehow still enjoy the subject of early Soviet print culture. One of the reasons for my resilience (!) is the fact that I occasionally come across gems like the following:

“In your journal you mock the Tsarist ministers and the Tsar in such a way that you show your stupidity. You have done nothing in the past ten years to show your intelligence. What good, and for whom, has the Soviet power brought? Industry has dropped to nothing. Unemployment has increased by 100%. We workers were never without fish in Astrakhan’, and now we don’t see it anymore. Where did the fish go, dear comrades? Where is the gold of Russia? All the workers know that Soviet bastards have destroyed Russia. You show in your journal that the Tsar’s ministers drank a lot, but at least they were doing their job. Now everyone drinks and steals and does nothing. Everywhere they sit in other peoples’ places...Dear comrades, you should learn from the bourgeoisie, not mock them...I ask you to print this letter in your magazine. It is of greater interest than all your caricatures. Our Moscow workers will read it with pleasure.” (Astrakhan’ workers, a letter to Gudok newspaper, Apr-1927)

(Jennifer Clibbon, The Soviet Press and Grass-roots Organization: The Rabkor Movement, NEP to the First Five-Year Plan (PhD thesis, University of Toronto manuscripts, 1993). Emphasis -- mine.)

This letter shouldn't come as a surprise to other "junior scholars" (pardon the pretentiousness) in modern Russian history. However, I think it is important to demonstrate things like this to my fellow alternative right-wingers, as it shows dissent amongst the lower social echelons within the first years of the Bolshevik regime.

10 December 2009

Russia for Russians?

The slogan "Russia for Russians" is normally associated with political groups, which the media describes as extreme right-wing and xenophobic. After all, by the virtue of being an empire, Russia is multiethnic, and my being Russo-Georgian is a case in point. Yet, unlike most contemporary European inverted societies with an imperial heritage, Russia is officially guided by the majority-based Slavic traditions and a broader European culture, by and large.

In other words, it's still okay to say "Merry Christmas!" in public.

The results of the most recent 20-23-Nov-2009 study conducted by the independent Levada center and published in Gazeta.ru, are somewhat telling about Russian citizens' stance on this subject. 32% of Russians, indeed, associate the slogan with fascism. 36%, however, believe that the government should "reasonably" adhere to this idea. 18% support it in its entirety -- this number is up 3% since last October.

Sociologists argue that, in the very least, fewer and fewer people ignore this issue: 9% of respondents were not interested in the question, in comparison to 12% last year, while 5% were undecided, in contrast to 6% in the same period. Specific questions provide a better picture, yet: 61% of Russian citizens believes that the government must "limit the migrant flow" -- up 9% from the previous year. The number of those who negatively view migrants from the former USSR also rose by 4% this year.

At the same time, it is important to note that in October 2008, only 25% considered "Russia for Russians" fascistic, as compared to this year's 32%. The latter is up a whopping 14% since 2003. Likewise, the number of reasonable supporters -- 36% -- is down from 42%.

Overall, human rights activists describe these latest statistics as generally healthy social polarization, because the question had become the focus of an open public discussion.

Even so, the data may be read in another way too. The total number of citizens, who support the dominant culture in the Russian Federation, is 54%. This unquestionable majority substantially exceeds those opposed to "Russia for Russians" or, at least, its negative connotation. Without a doubt, this majority has been affected by a number of factors, including the widely promoted Putin-Medvedev demographic program, news reports about the losing battle to hold onto the Russian Far East or the Islamification of Western Europe, and simply witnessing the rising number of Central Asian guest workers on city streets.

And, in contrast to the majorities of the West, this 54% likely won't stay silent.

05 December 2009

Slaughtering a (ManBear)Pig

I don't watch much television.

Most of the time, it constitutes background noise as I cook or perform other tasks that don't require excessive cranial prowess. With anywhere between one and three jobs and my doctorate-in-progress, I've perfected the art of multitasking and should consider doing infomercials on the subject (speaking of television). Work out while listening to Japanese language mp3s? You've got it. No wonder I wake up severely sleep-deprived with a high-pitched voice in my head repeating, "Hidoi kao shiteru!" -- "I look awful!".

Russian television I do miss, however. Having lived in Moscow for nearly three months this autumn, I've experienced real journalism and political talk shows to die for. These simply don't exist in North America.

Amusing, isn't it? Every few months yet another independent (as opposed to independent-thinking) international organization releases a study, in which it basically describes the Russian media as terrible government lackeys. Lackeys or not, Russian state channels are nearly virginal when it comes to the North American style of political correctness. As a result, these channels broadcast The Great Global Warming Swindle, openly and frequently discuss the Islamification of Europe, inverted Western societies, dropping European birth rates, and the death of the West in general.

In fact, the release of yet another statistical accusation targeting the Russian media a few days ago made me smirk in light of the painfully missing coverage of Climategate in North America. Evidently, the waste of millions taxpayer dollars is not important enough a story for, uhhh, independent "liberal" media to cover, but a bicycle-powered "green" (get it?!?!?) Christmas tree for the upcoming Copenhagen ManBearPig summit -- is!

31 October 2009

The Hunt for Red October (the chocolate factory)

Back in my Art History days, many advanced graduate students focused on the Italian Renaissance not only because of their strange penchant for Michelangelo's meaty, gender-neutral sybils, but also because they got to conduct research in a warm, sunny place.

The artillery of snowflakes that persistently bombarded my eyelashes on the way to Red October (Krasny Oktyabr' / Красный Октябрь) reminded me of the fact that I could've made more climate-friendly choices too. At the same time, a tour of a chocolate factory, the scent of which filled my nostrills as soon as I left Krasnosel'skaya station, was much more in tune with Halloween pop culture than the handful of pitiful "gothic" events advertised around town.

Moscow simply hasn't been sufficiently Westernized for a proper celebration of Samhain. The Slavic variant thereof -- Christmas Eve -- only seems to be remembered at antique exhibitions and sales (which I've been profusely attending, for some reason) with many overpriced porcelain statuettes of Vakula riding the Devil. I even briefly considered an all-night walk with Bulgakov's house (a more cultured version of a zombie walk, in my book!) starting at 1 am sharp, but I normally expect Woland to play lighhearted pranks on me, not potentially cause pneumonia at below-freezing temperatures.

That made the chocolate factory a solid compromise. Would one of the loud, annoying visitors get sucked into the machinery and turn into human filling? Or, would the cute Shishkin-painted bear family from the century-old Mishka Kosolapy chocolate brand SUDDENLY! leave the wrappers and turn into giant blood-thirsty beasts? Oh, the possibilities...

That...and, uh, a little thing called a doctoral dissertation. Hunting for Red October is not an exaggerated statement. During this research trip, I've been able to easily obtain a number of sources, the existence of which I couldn't even fathom. By contrast, I've been having a difficult time piecing together the type of information that should have been readily available.

The latter includes various details about well-known chocolate brands, which anyone writing on consumer culture in 1920s Russia should not avoid, even those foolish enough not to be occasional chocoholics. And, since I often pretentiously walk around the house failing to sing Buck-Tick, "Ahhh, ahhh, ahhh, give me チョコレート (chokoreeeto)!!!", you know where I stand.

The long road to Red October started by freezing at the unheated federal economic archive and the state archive of the Russian Federation, continued onto various exhibitions, like the fabulous packaging museum, and involved creatively gaining extended access to the art fund of the former Leninka, digging through the Moscow city archive, and, of course, many a busy signal on the other end of the phone line. I certainly didn't anticipate that wearing lab rat gear, tasting half-manufactured chocolate, and observing tired-looking women with forearms that look like they just gave cows a pregnancy test would result in obtaining useful information. Only in Russia?

The chocolate and cocoa museum at Red October features the story of chocolate beginning with its discovery and focuses on Russia's long-established, albeit reinvented brands: Krasny Oktyabr', Babaevsky, and Rot Front. Krasny Oktyabr', for instance, was originally created by one of the many German Badasses who significantly contributed to Russian culture (Empress Sophie Friederike Auguste Badass being my favorite). Ferdinand Theodor von Einem (Эйнемъ) first opened a candy shop on Arbat street in 1851, then expanded into an Einem Partnership factory, which was nationalized shortly after the 1917 Bolshevik takeover and renamed to its current manifestation. Some remnats of that early Soviet period demonstrate a move away from pseudo-Victorian pre-revolutionary imagery toward Communist experimentation like this Red Army Star caramel, not to mention all the famous branding for the large overarching state trust Mosselprom created by Mayakovsky and Rodchenko. Exhibits from the later period include items commemorating everything from space dogs Belka and Strelka to a number of Communist Party Congresses, undoubtedly sweeter than the originals.

Mosselprom's chocolate sales girl

The museum gave me a few information gems that I could not find anywhere else, now coming to a dissertation chapter near you. And, perhaps, next time I could combine this softer, tastier, academically friendly side of Halloween with a zombie walk through the factory. Although, I don't think that flying bits of gelatin wounds are all that hygenic, even if they're crafted with as much love as Red October chocolate.

23 October 2009

A long-distance relationship

Lately, more and more people have been asking me for directions. Shocking myself but not thinking twice, I've been able to give them accurately, in most cases.

An uncultured sea of outsiders from the periphery moves to the center in an attempt to conquer it. It's no different here. Cartographic proficiency is not expected. Yet, I once was the real deal -- a rooted Muscovite, as Russians say, born and raised. I suppose this means that I'm now passing for that real deal once again.

Fifteen years after leaving for good.

The ladies of Moscow

Perhaps it's the fact that I've (temporarily!) dropped the socially necessary, yet occasionally uncomfortable, often dishonest, and certainly ill-fitting North American how-are-you-I'm-well-thanks-how-are-you? facial expression. And, maybe it's my ever-present high heels, which I wear in Canada too. In fact, I pride myself on perfecting stiletto hopping over puddles and cracks in the pavement. Only now I walk faster and more from-the-hip, as women should (and as womyn-historians say we shouldn't). These heels have even contributed to Moscow-style fitness, involving endless self-imposed escalator stair climbs, skillfully maneuvering -- laptop-over-shoulder -- around, uh, less fit ladies on the breathless way up.

@ one of my many "offices" / caffeination stations in Moscow

And I've become a regular in smoking sections at caffeination stations too, not because I don't start feeling rather nauseated after a half hour, but because there's no difference in air quality in non-smoking sections. The latter is combined with fearlessly, carelessly jaywalking across the road, too many grocery bags in hand -- only to end up on the white line as reckless Muscovite drivers pass me by in both directions at twice the speed limit.

I've always idealized Moscow as my city. A living city, it grows organically with a great mishmash of architectural styles and people, and yet is so quintessentially representative of the Russian Empire. In fact, large urban centers I liked well beyond their tourist attractions reminded me of Moscow in some way -- Rome's chaos, noise level, and bad drivers, and Tokyo's sheer human mass in proper black suits -- they are alive too.

At the same time, my recent memories of my city also involved playing tourist: two vacations three years apart. Theaters, dining, museums -- leisure, even if active, is too euphemized to represent life. Careful! This third visit -- another three years later -- gave me just what I wished for. Packed subways, rude clerks who refuse to exchange slightly folded dollar bills, endless rain, angry underpaid public employees, and, yes, general chaos, noise level, and bad drivers too, of course.

Toronto is too rotten to be forgiven for such failures even to a small degree, while my first North American home (mine and Winnie the Pooh's, to be more exact), Winnipeg, is simply too suburban. Yet, somehow Moscow manages to get away with everything. It's like Any and All of Your Boyfriends who always seem to fail at perfection. Or, like a puppy, who jumped onto your brand new couch with dirty paws (or worse), but, unlike Any and All of Your Boyfriends, doesn't know any better.

Though, perhaps, Moscow's been considerate of me as well, and that is why I've been able to practice extreme jaywalking, and that is why I've been fitting in.

Just as I'm about to leave again.

11 October 2009

A small case of mistaken identity

I diligently spent my Saturday at the former Lenin Library -- now the Russian State Library -- still fondly referred to as "Leninka". Until my laptop battery ran out, that is. Some of the government-funded research institutions I've been visiting are ill-equipped for contemporary technological uses. At others, grim archivists respond with one word -- "crisis" -- to my futile question about recharging, evidently in reference to saving on utilities under uncertain economic conditions.

As I headed to stand in line for an extremely overpriced cappuccino (to do my part in alleviating the said crisis!) in central Moscow, I began encountering various signs of patriotism. First, I saw a number of thin, nonchalantly chain-smoking youth donning military-styled caps, wrapped in giant white-blue-and-red flags. Then -- a couple of excited fashionable ladies with smaller flags as well as a group of emo teenagers in scarves with the same color scheme.

Perhaps it was the advertisement for Edinaya Rossiya party in white-blue-and-red that led me to link all this activity to today's Moscow City Duma elections. The campaign banner covered an entire side of a building where New and Old Arbat split, as late afternoon sun rays flooded its leader's -- Putin's larger-than-life photograph with divine light.

"Could all the people I just saw be part of the status quo-supporting Nashi movement that I've read about? Am I witnessing urban political activism in action?"

Further, I passed by two athletic males in dark bomber jackets, their military pants tucked into combat boots, and, later yet, a non-descript adolescent with a sun wheel awkwardly drawn onto his brown faux-leather bag with a black permanent marker.

"Are these extreme right-wing nationalists? Will I be able to photograph something curious?"


"Will they kick my ass if I do?"

It was not until I successfully consumed the somewhat-botched-but-still-overpriced cappuccino and got onto the subway, as my laptop bag attempted to travel by itself pulled by the human deluge, that I (embarrassingly!) discovered the actual reason for all this commotion.

They were all simply going to a soccer match.

07 October 2009

A_typical blogger

My unimaginative stereotype of a blogger has always been one of a scrawny über-geek, sitting alone in a dimly lit cafe, scarf-over-neck, and attempting to sound, uh, all Nietzschean-and-shit. However, I don't quite fit this image, if only because I'm neither scrawny, nor a regular blogger. But, at the moment, I am actually writing from a coffee shop for the first time ever. And, I'm wearing something close to...argyle (although, my cleavage somewhat makes up for it!).

Giant statues of Nietzsche are kind of hard-to-come-by in Moscow, so I've uploaded his sort-of-BFF, Dostoevsky. Although, I've never seen him without birds, as if he deemed himself St. Francis!

This momentary weakness is a result of consecutively dealing with more (poorly alliterated) bureaucratic bullshit at a certain federal archive and then a certain major library here in Moscow than usual. No, I'm not referring to the lack of heat at freezing temperatures outside, arbitrary schedules, smoking indoors, damaged and missing files, malfunctioning machinery, three-hour subway commutes, and the like.

Since my arrival from North America, I've been faithfully visiting these facilities every weekday -- with an occasional Saturday spent at the library and many an evening consumed by tweaking all my simultaneously translated notes. So, I've largely gotten accustomed to all the joys of attempting to contribute to the capital-H History of my Motherland, even if merely in a dissertation format.

The characters inhabiting all the various federal archives would make an odd fairytale. One woman with a well-kept mullet is not a benign closet retro-rocker, but is more like an evil stepmother (who masquerades as a benign closet retro-rocker). By contrast, another woman in large, thick glasses and an even larger MuMu threw me off with her moustache and thick, opaque, yellow fingernails of a deadman. She turned out to be helpful and polite, much like the Fairy Godmother.

I am not about to compare myself to Cinderella-of-the-archives (despite "outstereotyping" my own stereotype today) -- not because I resemble GI Joe's Baroness much more instead, but, rather, because there are so many other characters who won't fit in either.

What to make of the excessively talkative storage staff member, eager to inform me of her husband's drinking problems, her daughter's "tramp stamp" tattoo, her fried-bleached-blonde-perm technique, and her vacation from twenty-five years ago? And what of the militia security guard? He looks like an inept, underweight and giant-moustached movie cop, diligently compares my pass to my passport letter-by-letter, and loudly complains about "the Jews stealing all the heat in the building".

My research is about to take me to a number of municipal archives. I'm sure that their characters will be just as colorful. Although, perhaps I should wait until the city turns the heat on: doubling-my-socks-to-avoid-pneumonia doesn't mix well with high heels.

04 October 2009

Sans titre

I've been living in my birth-town, Moscow, for over a month. Yet, I've been unable to produce one measly travelogue.

Of course, I've been blogging elsewhere (albeit, very infrequently) in general, and, the amount of time I spend in front of the computer screen in my regular life due to work and dissertation research turns me off the idea. More important, my other trips abroad, whether to the Old World or the Orient, have been rigorous, but leisurely.

By contrast, neither the smoke-filled stairwells, rusty 1950s elevators, and the lack of heat in various storage facilities of the federal archives of the Russian Federation, nor the daily multi-hour commutes in sardine can-packed subway trains, while being regularly smacked by my laptop bag and impatient travellers alike, feels all that...well....leisurely.

And yet, this megalopolis, in which Starbucks is 3x as expensive as in North America, but which the Old Arbat pigeon polulation can somehow afford, deserves a few raw blog-style sketches. Besides, I plan to revist Patriarshy ponds soon, and I'd rather not anger the mysterious foreigner, who's undoubtedly been back people-watching since his last stay -- at least once or twice.

21 June 2009

Cell phone exorcism

"Your phone is possessed", concluded a customer service agent at the first of the the two wireless Provider store locations I visited yesterday evening. She held my old Razr, as the digits "6...6...6" appeared on the screen.

Evidently, my phone was dialing the number of the beast.

By itself.


The device had been very adamant about reaching its Master all day, any time I opened it, which is how I reluctantly ended up at that store.

At first, I thought it was a wireless glitch: the Provider's other services are not exactly reliable. I tried calling tech support, but failed: getting through the automated options, as the Crazr stubbornly dialed "666", was impossible.

I recharged the device.


I replaced the battery.

The sixes were resilient.

More amused than irritated, I decided to send a text message describing the "LOLz" to a fellow fan of heavy metal thunder and, consequenty, all things diabolical. However, the combination of my typing attempt and the phone's satanic dialing resulted in the word "porn". I probably would have even permitted the device to continue its Bulgakovite pursuit, but undermining my token SMS eloquence with juvenile vulgarity was one "6" too many!

The agent struggled, as the Razr fought for life, refusing to be turned off and continually accessing the web as well as the camera. Eventually triumphant, she (the agent, not the Razr) recommended that I take it to a central store and submit it for repair.

There, a second Provider employee was equally perplexed, "I have never seen anything like this, and I have no idea what could be causing it".

"Not 'what', but 'who'!", I bit my tongue and whipped out a credit card.

And, even though I did not encounter a mysterious Germanic foreigner or a rotten-green Japanese lady from Miike's One Missed Call, I suspiciously glance at my new phone more often than usual.

14 June 2009

Playing with firecrackers

One of the main reasons for my visit to Japan was Buck-Tick.

This firecracker of a band had kept me both sane and entertained during the gruelling studies for my comprehensive PhD examinations, blasted motivating exercise tunes, and provided me with mellow wind-down music after late evenings at work. Recently, I've successfully completed that hellish academic rite of passage, improved my abs of steel, and even gotten back into traditional drawing. And, now that our misguided and intrusive local government forced all businesses to charge for plastic bags, the Memento Mori tour bag has become quite handy.

Is there anything Buck-Tick can't do?

I started this blog a week ago, edited it almost daily, but could not bring myself to publish it. Why has it taken me so long to pin down a brief record of a simple concert experience? Perfectionism? Laziness? A genetic Russo-Kartvelian susceptibility to be overwhelmed by Japan's exoticism, perhaps, not unlike Boris Akunin?

I have been listening to rock music since childhood, and, after exploring many dozens of bands, I'd like to think that I’ve developed a fairly discerning taste. With it, however, it has become progressively more difficult to find something new and worthwhile. Not too long ago (!) I discovered Bee-Tee's twenty-five years of material – the necessary critical mass, which pushed me to visit Japan.

A definitive sign of musical worth – the kind of worth that evades description!

If I were to tally up all the costs associated with concert tickets, air and train fare, accommodations, and, of course, merchandise, then this trip becomes the most expensive band-focused endeavor I've ever undertaken, even trumping last year's United Metal Maniacs in Germany. And, I'd do it again in a drumbeat.

I must've entered my late 20s in an entirely socially unacceptable way.

The 17.v.2009 Kumamoto concert and 24.v.2009 Hiroshima performance were polar opposites. A week apart, the former dumped stormy rain water onto my no longer painstakingly straightened hair, while the latter had not a cloud in the sky. Kein Problem: my curls, curves, and an "American Nightmare" dress made me stand out beyond being the only white woman in the audience in Kumamoto. (I was the only white woman at the Hiroshima concert too, but I opted for more modest black.)

Getting there was tougher than my ab workouts: a direct, twelve-hour trip to Narita; frantic luggage storage; a bus to Haneda; a domestic flight, and, of course, substantial sleep deprivation. I don't know if Sakurai likes Poe, but surprisingly huge, menacing black ravens seemed to follow me around Kumamoto. In addition to palm tree-bending storm and my first Buck-Tick concert, this southern city introduced me to endless mall arcades and a famous castle.

Having climbed the Alpine Salzburg fortress last year, I entered this castle with a smirk, but exited in awe. Despite the meticulously landscaped grounds, it was not difficult to imagine them covered in excessive flora, making the edifice seem even more impenetrable, as it had once been during the days of the Satsuma rebellion.

I was (willingly!) "double-scalped" for the 17.v fan club tickets months in advance by FDJP.com, a steep, but reliable purchasing service. So, I got to see the concert up close from the 7th row and shamelessly waltzed my Western booty to the front whenever the strict, but compact-sized bouncers were not looking.

I suppose, being a North American fan, I should also be particularly impressed by my unexpectedly superb guitar-pick-grabbing skills. After all, Buck-Tick Zone claims that obtaining autographs and the like from the band is extremely rare.

Getting to the Hiroshima concert involved a different kind of dedication: a 5-hour train ride on two Shinkansen from Tokyo; a mad rush to eat and a madder rush to leave my things and freshen up at the hotel prior to check-in time; a regional train on the JR West Sanyo line (thanks, Wikipedia station listings!); and wandering through Hatsukaichi suburbia with every environmentalist's worst nightmare - multiple Google map pages in at least two languages.

There, a broken Anglo-Japanese request for directions at a local 7-11 led to a friendly couple giving me a ride directly to the Sakura Pia venue. Afterward, a random fellow BT fan, Chiaki, led me all the way to the JR station through near-total darkness, despite the language barrier. Finally, unfolding the map turned into more courteous direction-giving during next morning's brief sight-seeing venture. Every time. A-Bomb-Dome-City truly became the most welcoming place in my Japanese experience. Even local turtles resembled the camaraderie between three tank drivers from a famous enemy - Soviet - WWII song.

In contrast to Kumamoto, I bought the Hiroshima tickets from Lawson late and on a whim and, as a result, sat far back. This time, I was able to take in The Spectacle in its entirety: Imai's token rhythmic stomping, the "Memento Mori" nightmarish video sequence, Sakurai's theatrical limp with a cane – worthy of timeless, unholy Woland transplanted to an equally timeless, holy Mount Misen...

The most surprising aspect of live Buck-Tick was not Acchan's newly grown facial hair, unfortunately reminiscent of Johnny Depp. (Johnny is no match for the Most Stunning Man in the World!) Rather, it was the fact that the band played almost the entire new album consecutively, with the exception of leaving "Galaxy" for one of the two encores and playing the perfect blend of rock and dance – "Baby, I Want You" – instead. Again, my rocker seniority did not save me from utter confusion. At least, while the set was identical in both cases, the encores differed. For example, "Romance" in Kumamoto was replaced by "Alice in Wonder Underground" in Hiroshima.

Any band that can make me, a seasoned metalhead, who avoids clubs like communism, get up, do the "hippy-hippy-shake", and dance my heels off for two hours non-stop, has earned my money and respect. Oh, and, above all – the motivation to engage in rigorous air miles collecting in order to attempt this insanity all over again.

01 June 2009

Japan Rock-out Tour!

For a seasoned rock fan, I attend very few shows. In fact, prior to my recent trip, the last one involved Iron Maiden in Montreal just about a year ago. Embarrassing, no? I have good reasons for this near-lack of rocking out, however.

Considering that this past year involved many an-80-hour week with my job(s) and my seemingly (?!) misguided decision to pursue a PhD, I've decided to reward myself with a visit to Japan. The latter was also geared toward getting my strong interest in that country's pop culture (music and film) out of my system. Alas, the opposite had occurred!

Three shows, three cities (Kumamoto and Hiroshima in the southwest and Morioka in the northeast), two bands (Buck-Tick and Sex Machineguns) in one week (!): Japan had the effect of viagra in my rock world! I shopped for records and visited the tiny, hole-in-the-wall, and all the more quaint metal bar, Godz, in Tokyo, the following week. Twice. On both counts.

Veteran J-rockers Buck-Tick deserve their own blog entry. So, I proceed with the second band, which I lovingly call "'Sexy' Machineguns".


In light of Anchang's unfortunate tendency to replace band members, including the last stellar lineup with Panther, I decided to catch these mainstream power/thrash/speed/glam, comical, "shrederrific", and generally over-the-top metallers prior to any more drastic changes.

Picking a fairly little (300,000) town of Morioka in a northern Iwate prefecture was geared toward seeing the "Sexies" in an intimate setting - second row of a small, smoke-filled club, towering over the majority of fans. There was another unplanned benefit. Not only war Morioka gorgeous - with its rock-splitting cherry tree and castle park, but the Shizukuishi resort area and lake Goshoko were both pristine and almost people-free this time of the year.

The ticket was purchased at Lawson (a convenience store chain) prior to the trip, and seating was all-floor. I am unsure whether my being the only Westerner among the fans helped me push to the front without any problems. The band only played a couple of songs from their latest, Cameron, like the single Hitozuma Killer. So, I got to enjoy all the expected "hits", including total rockers like Aijin 28 and German Power. When he played the latter, Anchang, as cartoon-cute as ever, pronounced "Russian power" with a thick accent. I was tempted to point the finger at myself. "Come on...Canada kara kimashita! Roshiajin desu! Be impressed!", I mentally repeated carefully memorized lines.

The stage show was both highly entertaining and bizarre. All the members wore matching band jerseys and performed tricks throughout – well-choreographed and perfectly in sync. These larger-than-life moves, popularized in the 1980s, looked odd, yet dedicated on a small club stage. Anchang's solos both impressed with their technical virtuosity (more than anticipated!) and flashy visuals.

Sex Machineguns also had the tendency to play multiple songs in a row, then talk. A lot. Too much! Especially the rather aggressive, tiny Shingo ☆ with his all-too-silly blond spikes, which soon fell apart from sweat. Based on the band members' and fans' laughter, I'm sure these intermissions were very entertaining. I, on the other hand, knowing only a few polite words and numbers in Japanese, stood "looking like a ram staring at a new gate", as we, Roshiajin, say. A complete idiot, in other words. So, when Anchang described the fiasco with EMI Music Japan, I was very proud of myself.

While my lack of linguistic prowess was expected, the metal etiquette was not. First, just as the band performed in sync, so did the fans. They often chanted and gestured "Sex Machineguns". In sync. Yes, apparently, there is a pseudo-sign language gesture for the band's name. Second, specific parts of specific songs led to other (specific!) kind of gestures. Again, in sync. They occasionally headbanged too - from side to side only - no windmilling action there! I sure do hope that my traditional fist-pumping, horn-throwing, and full-on head-banging did not translate into, "This band sucks!", because I enjoyed the performance immensely!

Finally, the lack of scene insignia at a mainstream concert did not surprise me, nor did all the school girls in summer dresses. But, a grandmother with cotton balls instead of ear plugs?! This grandmother turned out to be better prepared than I was: I experienced ringing and muffled hearing for days after the show, despite my vast rocking experience. I am now very curious as to what the metal etiquette at underground shows is like.

Tokyo metal bar, Godz

Yasuyuki of Abigail / Barbatos / Cut Throat / Tiger Junkies / (live) Sigh fame (and sporting a very stylish BASTARDATOR shirt), graciously introduced me to the Tokyo metal bar, Godz, in Shinjuku. The latter operates from 7 pm to 5 am, has a decent record collection, and a giant TV screen. The drinks, however, are expensive. And, North Americans not used to smoke-filled environments, like me, will suffer!

As soon as I walked into this bar, I was impressed by the fact that many of its patrons looked like regular business people. The music selection, unfortunately, featured poor mainstream bands: Yasuyuki commented that it gets more underground as the night progresses. The choices seemed to have been indicative of the regulars and the bartender. One exceptional patron in a sharp gray suit and with even sharper cheekbones exhibited good taste with a Faith No More request. We, the fatigued representatives of kvlt, left prior to hearing our own, and thus did not get to "stoooop the chemical invaaaaaaasion!"

Visiting central Tokyo a few days later, I snuck into Godz again for one drink. This time, the bar met me with old school thrash blasting through the speakers and the new Iron Maiden documentary, Flight 666, lighting up the screen. So, I got to reminisce about last year's Toronto concert and my tortured article on "Rime"!

07 March 2009

Memento mori: a canine obituary

Varg, the German shepherd, was my living-vicariously-through-someone-else pet-from-distance after the Big Move to Toronto. Fulfilling the sensibilities of a teenage metalhead, Varg, the discarded and unwanted shelter dog, was adopted and named after a controversial Scandinavian musician. When his canine namesake first met me and let me live, I knew it was love at first sight. (The latter concept is always possible with dogs and never - with people.)

Today Varg journeyed to Valhalla, where, I hope, he can now carry beautiful valkyries on his back. He may not have been a real wolf, but he was more than worthy.

Varg, the German shepherd (not the musician), was very militant (like the musician)...with raccoons and alpha-male pit bulls. Yet, at the same time, he was incredibly gentle with a certain small, but fierce dachshund. (...That is, after the infamous introductory paw-flip that sent the said dachshund up into the air and made him spin a full 360. Varg just didn't recognize his German Volk right away.)

The historian in me wonders whether (post-)industrial advancement, which, in part, completely sanitized death, has damaged our ability to deal with it. Having frequent, direct, and normalized contact with death, our European predecessors practiced memento mori. I, on the other hand, will just have to settle for listening to Buck-Tick's album with the same title and allow that band's dark humor make me feel a little less rotten. Deo volente.

"Varg-bit-hard". R.I.P., Varg.

15 January 2009

Putin's pro-natalism meets format television

Close to the end of his second term, the now-former president Vladimir Putin publicly began to emphasize the severity of the demographic crisis in the Russian Federation. The media often describes Putin as the man who had brought short-term stability to that country through oil and gas revenue. Journalists also argue that his main goal is to reclaim the so-called great power status for Russia within the international arena. Yet, as Putin himself had announced, the state's efforts may only be sustained by a healthy population growth. (See my May-06 blog No Children. No Future.)

Instead, the opposite is true. After the collapse of the USSR, millions of ethnic Russians remained in the former Soviet republics - from the Baltic to Kazakhstan. More important, Russia's death rate (in part - a result of alcohol-, tobacco-, and pollution-related factors) significantly exceeds its birth rate. Combined with a Gastarbeiter-migrant flood from the former non-Slavic Soviet territories and beyond, the state became rather alarmed (its seeming lack of effort to repatriate those ethnic Russians notwithstanding).

It is not uncommon for the modern government to be actively involved in promoting pro-natalism, most overtly in an immediate postwar setting. (See Mary Louise Roberts' article "The Dead and the Unborn: French Pronatalism and the Abortion Law of 1920", for example.) A new state may also require a growing population to physically sustain its industry and mentally uphold its ideals. (See David Hoffman's Stalinist Values: The Cultural Norms of Soviet Modernity, 1917-1941 about state advocacy of strong, patriarchal families in the 1930s.) What, then, was Putin's solution to the Russian demographic crisis?

Most immediately, the now-former president's pro-natalist program involved various types of financial benefits granted to new and future mothers. While critics scoffed at the program's long-term effects, there was a spike in the Russian birth rate last year. Less obviously, the state has been attempting to construct and promote a new Russian identity through various means, including the consolidation of history teaching in schools. (One has to consider that from the mid-1930s and until 1991, Soviet schools taught a curious blend of ethnocultural patriotism and dialectic materialism. By contrast, many texts published in the 1990s went too far in the opposite direction.) Most recently, a plethora of blockbuster films regarding accepted patriotic subjects, including Alexander Nevsky and the Polish invasion of Moscow in 1612, has been released.

Yet, I wondered whether the state would use mass cultural methodology to address the subject of children more directly. And, it did!

While post-Soviet Russian television had borrowed much from its North American counterpart, including the proliferation of reality content, it also exhibits certain differences. For example, one of the most popular types of content to broadcast is a series, which is essentially an extended film with no possibility of a sequel. This format ranges from as few as four to as many as sixteen episodes. Expectedly, all such series are driven by plot and advertising alike. Here, Russia's "serious" film actors and A-list celebrities frequently play major roles. So, their star power combined with exciting, unrealistic plots, is capable of attracting a wide audience.

One such four-part series is Atonement - Starting All Over. Marta. (Искупление - Начать сначала. Марта.) - an over-the-top, sappy "chick-flick". Maria Poroshina (known to the North American audiences through her role in Night Watch and Day Watch) plays Marta. An attractive, successful forty-something, this woman evaluates her life: she recalls that success did not come easily: abandoned by her husband, she spent years in poverty. One of the ways in which she had earned money was through...........surrogate motherhood. Not once. Not twice. THREE TIMES: repopulating the early post-communist Russia one surrogate baby at a time.

Throughout the series, Marta and her best friend debate the pros and cons of being a surrogate mother and have endless discussions about the biological gift of motherhood and the joy of raising children. She searches for the three that she had once carried to term for other parents and tries to have a baby of her own. Most important, Marta reconnects with the prince charming from her past, who uses martial art skills (!) he evidently picked up in Soviet-era Afghanistan (!) to teach the bad guys a lesson or two (or THREE?!). The ending is, of course, very happy.

This particularly terrible example of Russian format television was created by a Russo-Ukrainian production and distribution company, Star Media. One of its major partners is Russia's most prominent state-owned television, the First Channel. The connection between such exaggerated case of pro-natalism is not only conceivable but also - likely.

Whether this type of mass cultural propaganda ends up contributing to the aversion of a demographic catastrophe remains to be seen. I just hope that the Russian state's next effort involves a better screen play.