Georgia still suffering from Soviet occupation

August 25, 2006

Just a quick note from the front lines of wannabe-Europa today; I thought I’d point out two of the brighter lines between Europe (and by this I mean “civilization”) and the Former Soviet Union. Consideration of the difference between Europe and Asia will be addressed at a later date (Europe: stinky cheese and good booze; Asia: eating bugs and masturbating to tentacle-porn). And I’m not talking about borderline (or, more appropriately, basket) cases like Azerbaijan that hold themselves out as “europeanizing” but when asked to explain any generally backwards facet of their life, they attribute it to their “Asian mentality.” Like the Japanese or the Koreans, who also can’t come to work on time… Oh, wait, that was… NOT those Asians.

No, I’m talking about places like Georgia, which like to think of themselves as part of Europe. I mean, if Romania and Albania can aspie, why not Georgia? And I’ll admit, they’re close. So close. But that Soviet influence lingers. Like that little kid who got molested by his uncle, .. wait, bad metaphor. Anyway, post-Soviet states.

1) Stamps. People, people, people. Europeans do not use stamps. Americans do not use stamps. This is worse than phone syndrome (everyone in the former Soviet states with any power over any other poor post-Soviet fucker has a telephone; the number of telephones increases as does the power over others. So you’ll get folks with five or six phones on their desk, four of which are visibly connected to exactly nothing). Enough with the stamps, already. We’re laughing at you. You might as well have t-shirts that say “I was molested by Moscow for 70 years and all I got was electrification and these stupid stamps.” Enough already. Nobody wants to see the scar tissue on your ass.

The Georigan customs have, at the time of this writing, been sitting on an item of neither particular value nor significance – a laptop battery – that I had sent here through DHL. Now setting aside whether local DHL folks should or should not given a sewer-rat enema (apparently anyone who knows anything is on vacation, and they’ve left the owner’s girlfriend at the desk – she’s easy on the eyes, but knows nothing and refuses to pick up the phone; the Germans are known for their efficiency, but their minions not so much) for not saying that my battery had entered the country but was held up at customs, the question is: why won’t customs release the laptop battery?

It’s got no stamp. This is a new regulation, apparently (r-i-i-i-i-i-i-ght); apparently any item that meets some requirement (what requirement? Hint: when you talk to two customs guys and get two answers, that means: neither of them knows shit, except that there’s money in your pocket that they wish were in theirs) you need the original stamp from the sender. This is getting unfucked, but wow, what an easy hurdle to overcome: if a country doesn’t use stamps, don’t require stamps to be present.

And please, no bullshit about Georgia being independent and allowed to make any laws they want. This is a reality check. If there is no stamp in the originating country, demanding a stamp makes you look stupid. Especially when the originating country is the U.S.A., and your main office is at the airport – at the end of George W. Bush Avenue. With a big picture of the U.S. president looking at you. You need to have a heightened sentivity to which end of the leash you’re on.

2) Bad service. This is true everywhere. In “civilized” places like New York, folks even pay a premium for this shit. However, in the former Soviet Union, it’s not an affectation like Paris Hilton’s little suppository dog or anorexia. It’s just a sign that you’ve got the post-Soviet mentality that is as sure a sign of blunt anal trauma as a prolapsed rectum: if nobody can fire you, why should you do your job?

In Baku, I used to go to two restaurants all the time: one called Star Turk, and one called Paul’s. I didn’t go to Star because their Turkish food was better than anyone else’s (though it was), but because the waitresses knew that I would give ‘em 15% as a tip, and conducted themselves accordingly – I got damned good service, and they knew that was why I came back. Smart folks. Paul’s was German food under German ownership, and while the guys who ran the place were awfully nice, I mean, imagine working for a German and being a slacker. Anyway, both good places; anywhere else in Baku, if you’re not there to get drunk or to make fun of the Azeris who aspire to be Turks (go Caliban!), you might as well not go.

However, in Tbilisi, there’s a bar and restaurant called Paradise Lost that suffers from the same problem, partway. It’s the best bar in Tbilisi if you’re into lounging: the beer’s kind of cheap, and the place is lit perfectly. The decor is props from Georgian films, so it looks like Applebee’s, only more interesting, if you’re a xenophile (and if you weren’t, why would you be in Tbilisi?) So: great bar. And they’ve got a kitchen. Breed’s Rule #23: It is always better to eat in a bar than to drink in a restaurant.

The problem is that the service sucks. I mean, it’s embarrassing. For everyone. Went for dinner accidentally once, and on purpose (don’t ask) the second time. Second time, not only did the food generally suck a dog’s ass ’til it bled, they didn’t figure out that they didn’t have what we ordered until 45 minutes after we ordered it, I shit you not. I did have fun getting the waitress to help me understand the process that the whole evening went along, and why she thought charging us for things that we didn’t get – that were, in fact, nowhere to be found in the restaurant – made sense to her. To say nothing of the tip.

Anyway, Paradise Lost. Don’t go, ever. You’ll only encourage the Soviets to stay.


I piss on the Faroe Islands from a great height

August 17, 2006

It was up on the screen at the end of my block; the beer truck was parked and in full operation, and thousands men, women, and children cheered on the Georgian National football team as they played the Faroe Islands team in first round of the UEFA Cup qualifiers. Did Georgia win? In a big way. Nicely done Sakartvelo.

As far as I know, I was the only person to actively wish for the defeat of the Faroe Islands team for no other reason than it’s associated with the Faroe Islands. The Faroe Islands can kiss my narrow (more or less) white ass.

Why? Well, here’s the thing: the Faroes are to Denmark what, let’s say, Puerto Rico is to the U.S., but where P.R. is a fantastic place (except for a few minor issues, like Vieques and the late Filiberto Ojeda Rios) that has great climate, great food, and amazing scenery. The Faroe Islands are a bunch of rocks in the North Sea between Scotland, Norway, and Iceland. They belong to Denmark, kind of – if you’re interested in Faroese politics, your priorities are your own, I guess. Anyway.

Faroese eat puffins.

Faroese eat dolphins.
Now, you may say: but wait, these are traditional foods for these people! Fie on you for not being more sensitive to the glorious traditions of the noble Faroese!

Fuck them. Right in their ears. In my peoples’ traditions (which are many and various), things to be eaten on a regular basis ranged from unleavened bread to other people. Big deal. As an example, the Israelites believed some crazy backwards shit. In the Bible, it says that a woman is unclean for a week after the Communists have invaded the summer house until, on the eighth day, she brought two turtles and two pigeons to the temple. They would then set a turtle and a pigeon on fire. (If you meet Bible-thumpers who believe in the absolute truth of The Word, ask them how they handle this issue.)

But I digress. Point is, I eat very little unleavened bread, and no long pig at all. We move past our traditions, or we become sophisticated enough to embrace them symbolically – e.g. the wine and wafer, the lamb shank, whatever. But why the hell would you eat a puffin? It’s a seabird that eats fish, like a cormorant; they taste shitty, so we don’t eat them. Eat damn fish, you dumb bastards. Especially if you belong to Denmark – why not eat canned hams? Or cheese, carved into a puffin-y shape? Plenty of food out there that isn’t puffin.

And don’t get me started on the dolphins.

If all the Faroese were to starve to death in order that the puffins were to be preserved, that would suit me fine. I prize human life – certainly my own – but let’s face it, we’re a weed species able to grow anywhere (e.g. the Faroe Islands) and drive out other, more valuable species (e.g. the puffins). You may say, but puffins don’t have any intrinsic value per se; which is fair enough. But do people? Who kill and eat puffins? Hell no. Puffin populations are declining; human populations are not. If the Faroese want to be respected, they should stop acting like weasels and aspire to be like the Danes. Consume fish, consume canned ham, cheese, Tuborg, milk.

Sure, it costs more than puffins. And the Faroese whine about how poor they are. So fix your problem, Faroese whiners. I always say, If life gives you poor, make pornography. Eating puffins is the reason why your damn football team sucks so bad. The Danes are currently ranked 30 places above the Faroes. Coincidence? Only if you’re stupid.

GO DENMARK!

GO GEORGIA! Of course, now they have to play Italy, France, and the indomitable Ukraine – none of which have puffin as their traditional food. Sigh.


I stand corrected

August 17, 2006

I was, it seems, wrong. My position on irony in the former Soviet Union had been that it was so little talked about, or employed because the alleged people who live in the ruins of the wonder of the U.S.S.R. (crowing like roosters from their dunghills about the wonders of industrialization and electrification that Koba, the greatest genius of all times and places, brought to them, even as their children die of a cornucopia of cancers and malnutrition – O, that PCBs and cotton were edible) inhabit a world of contradictory facts that generate irony as a fish inhabits water. They’ve replaced the old Mr. Big Pants statues of the heroes of Soviet socialism with a variety of representational art more in keeping with the times:

  1. In Baku, bazoghlan Heydar Aliyev, who offers his salute to the National Bank from the center of a football field of imported Italian marble as he turns his back on the concert hall that bears his name (which no less an artiste than Coolio has graced): the man whose dynastic importance was such that his death preceded his death by between a week to ten days – primarily so that ministers, and more importantly the Armenians, could weigh in with their approval.
  2. In Tashkent, where Lenin stood, is a statue of Amir Timur, the Uzbek national hero. Rather than adopt any of the other great men (or women, though I can’t think of any off the top of my head) that populate Uzbek history – poets, astronomers, whatever – the Uzbeks chose the most bloodthirsty and savage human being that ever shat between two shoes. Given Uzbek history, that’s saying something. Though I don’t know that he ever boiled folks – just put them to the sword.
  3. Turkmenbashi. And more Turkmenbashi. And the Rukh Nama. Res ipsa loquitur.

But you don’t see folks writing about sociopolitical life with irony. Despair, sure; indignation, sure; there are even apologists for whatever regimes seem to be our bastards of the moment (Reno Harnish’s ears are burning) whose commentary could be taken as irony. But really appreciating irony is like buying $300 pre-torn jeans. You have to have a lot of Maslow’s other needs satisfied. I didn’t think the former Soviets had it in them. I was wrong.

NO! you cry. Yes, yes. I read the Novoe Vremya column by Ilya Milshtein of August 4, 2006, called “An indulgence for a Lame Duck. The subtitle alerted me – it’s not subtle, but that’s okay, my Russian isn’t all that good. And article with the caption “Calls for a third term will tell history that Chechnya loved Putin” cannot but lead a reader to ask, What the fuck?

The gravamen of the article is in this paragraph (translation by Elena Leonova):

The parliament of Chechnya recently interrupted its summer recess for a special meeting in Grozny, held to consider only one question: Putin and his prospective third term. The Chechen parliament voted in favor of submitting a bill to the Duma: on amending the Constitution so as to change the permitted period in office for the president. [...] After all, it’s already obvious that the people of Russia would vote in favor of a third term for the light of their lives.

Right on, Ilya! It’s great stuff; the Chechens are going to vote for Vova Putin because, well, not liking Putin in not the key to the celebrated Caucasian longevity. The Ossetians did the same thing, even after Beslan – for the same reason. But what the hell; who gives a shit about politics, you say, where’s the irony, son?

[T]he consolidated voice of Chechen society, as expressed in the Chechen parliament’s resolution, will make it clear to the future that Putin was respected and loved in Chechnya – so much, in fact, that Chechnya insisted on a third term for him in 2008. Beslan? Tanks and mortars firing on a building full of children? But you saw how sincerely [bootlickingly pro-Kremlin United Russia party member and Beslan native] Valery Gizoyev was calling for Putin to stay on for a third term. And it doesn’t matter how the parliament was elected, or to what extent [Gizoyev] expresses the general opinion of North Ossetian residents. Only one thing matters: after the war, and after Beslan, the Chechens and Ossetians spoke out in support of Putin. It’s as if the Kosovar Albanians has voted for Slobodan Milosevic after the war. Would any Hague Tribunal have dared to make him stand trial then?

Good question. Henry Kissinger is still running around free, so my guess is: Putin will get to rock a few KFC commercials. Anyway. Were I wearing a hat (God damn John Kennedy’s head of hair for killing the hat), I’d take it off. I hope that Milshtein never achieves the prominence as the other Hebrews that have been cleansed from Russian media. This is the good stuff.

Hey, so two other things: First,what product would Ilham Aliyev be the celebrity spokesmodel for? I’m thinking a beyond-the-grave poster with Ilham and Heydar Baba, with one saying “Great taste,” and the other, “Less filling.” Second, what if Ann Coulter is being ironic? That’s my new working theory. I love Ann Coulter now. She’s got cool roots, too.


I am exposed as a smug pimp

July 30, 2006

So I finally feel comfortable, kind of, talking about the second day of soap opera shooting. It was good, but unfortunately I think I may have exceeded my mandate as a man-date.

Shooting was late because of technical difficulties. Apparently the venue (Night Office, the trendy joint to hang at if you want to differentiate yourself from all the 18-year-olds without money) had exactly enough power to supply the sound system, but not enough to do that and to run the klieg lights as well. So the power kept going out, and shooting started (for me, anyway) about 4 hours late.

I was going to have pictures, but they got screwed in translation. Maybe later.
As I arrived, there were a bunch of guys sitting at the bar, and getting filmed drinking beer and talking. Over and over again. The fellows were only actors for the day; one guy was actually an Assistant Director. The actor has some family problem, and so the AD got put in his place. The guy’s not an actor, but he was supposed to play a drunk guy – so, he figured, I’m at a bar, I have a solution to my acting problem. Not, perhaps, the most elegant solution, but effective. We will see more of this technique used later in the post.

A word about Marina, the line producer. When the power goes out, or anything else goes wrong, she gets to fix it. She’s about 5’2″, and kicks ass. Honestly, she is as efficient as the day is long, and a born problem solver. To see her in action – especially in the Caucasus – is quite wonderful. She imparts energy to everyone around her, and makes them as vested in solving the problem as she is. Of course, it is still the Caucasus, so this only lasts about 30 seconds before that vim is sapped out of them (does one sap vim? ebb? What the hell is the etymology of vim?), but she’s like a hummingbird, or an Aussie sheepdog. But at this point, it’s been a long day, and so she gave the word that the beer needed to be flowing on set.

I should mention that whatever brain surgeon was detailed to go get the beer got this Ukrainian stuff that I keep around the house in 2L bottles; it’s fortified to 8%. The cast was drinking it like it was Coors Light. They made me feel young again.

So anyway, at this point it’s about 2 p.m.: time for lunch, which was khachapuri and lobiani and salad. And beer. The superiority of the Georgian lunch confirmed, we sat on the grass by the roadway and chatted. Nobody asked me the standard questions (Is life in America good? How much money do people earn? How much does a kilo of mutton cost?); we talked about whether Robbie Williams was gay (the word for the concept of gaydar made them laugh like hell, especially as “Gaydar” is the given name of the late founder of the Aliyev dynasty in neighboring Azerbaijan), about who the hell can afford heroin these days; and so forth. Then we had some more beer. And then there was a minor traffic accident in front of us – a 5-ton truck dropped anchor in front of us, because the driver noticed that one of his rear wheels was wobbling in an untoward fashion. This young elitniy Georgian was following too close in his Mercedes and rear-ended him. Both gentlemen got out and began to remonstrate with each other.

There’s a They Might Be Giants song called “Purple Toupee” that goes: “Chinese people were fighting in the park / We tried to help them fight / no none appreciated that.” Well, the production crew jumped out and did just that, pointing out the damage to the rear of the nearly indestructible Kamaz, and asking this greasy banty rooster of a Benz owner if he was going to stand for this sort of impudence. The police showed up, and all was tranquil. And it was time to start shooting again.

The next thing that got shot was an establishing shot of the disco side of the nightclub. So lots of extras got up and danced to techno. Loud, bad techno – I mean, I mostly don’t like techno, but this was the kind of techno you could only like if you had ingested copious amounts of mood-altering whatnots, or if your need to self-identify as hip outweighed any sort of aesthetic survival instinct you might natively possess. Georgians take great (and understandable) pride in their native ability to dance and sing; to hear this musical chyme smeared on one’s inner ear and watch the children of a proud people writhe as if snakebit made me shudder and reach for my drink.

So. Apparently, the idea was this: Shoot some music and dancing, and then have the footage of the dancing (which would be synced to music that was not actually playing, as the volume was dropped to zero after about 5 seconds, making the writhing youth even more heartbreaking a spectacle) to intercut with other scenes. The next scene would be the one I was in, and what would happen would be this.

  1. The gangster’s wife (Remember Alice?) pulls out her cigarettes and lipstick, does her lips, inserts a cigarette, and searches through her purse for a lighter.
  2. Into the frame comes a lighter, clutched in a hand, and arm, that (as the camera pans up) terminates in my grinning mug.
  3. I then sit down, chit-chat, and ask her to dance.
  4. At which point, we dance.

Now, those of you who know me know that I don’t dance. When I do dance, I am uniformly (a) drunk, and (b) looking like a frenetic bonobo. There is only ever music I like on. I am no kinda dancer.

So I go over to the director and explain my problem. Huh, he says; this is not an insoluble issue. I should sit down with them. I do so; he says something in Georgian to the AD who heads out. The director, producer, and I all chat for a couple of minutes. The topic of conversation is how much Americans drink, and how much it takes to get us drunk. Shortly (and I should have seen this coming), the AD returns with a bottle of vodka. Anywhere you are in this part of the world, you’re never more than a brisk 2-minute walk from strong drink.

So we do shots. It’s the old, much-loved game of tag-teaming the American. I put away a half-dozen stout shots, call it 500ml. And then the director asks me what I think of Nat King Cole? A Nat King Cole-vintage joke pops into my mind (“Who’s got the chocolate nuts?”) but I say, yeah, I like him fine. Good, says the director, because you’re gonna dance to “Unforgettable.” It’s a slow dance; I’m glad you told me you don’t dance well, because this will make you look much better.

Ah, hell.

So I do a couple of takes picking up the young lady, and the director says, you should come check it out – you look good. I walked over craned my neck around a gaggle of prduction crew, and my God, I looked like I was trying to do an impression of an Albainan used car salesman doing an Iceberg Slim, recruiting young prostitutes off the bus.

“That’s the look we want,” said the director. “You look like the reason we shouldn’t let our wives go to discos alone. Some American like you.”

Anyway, so that’s nearly all the longer the prep for my 15 minutes is going to last – although there has been fallout already, as the guy who develops my film apparently develops the still photography from the set, and he says that it was cool to see me leering out at him from the eight-by-tens.


Traffic news, old porn news, and a modest proposal

July 28, 2006

First item:

There’s a site run out of Georgia – jobs.ge –  that has job information for individuals residing in the country. It’s a good site, both technically and with respect to content. I peruse it occasionally, in order to find out what the working classes are doing. Today I saw this. It sounds like a pretty good opportunity for those young Georgians who are interested in getting into animation services – providing

“… a stimulus to the mental, physical, and emotional life of people in a given area which moves them to undertake a wider range of experiences through which they find a higher degree of self-realization, self expression, and awareness of belonging to a community which they can influence.”

This is the part where I give my Beavis chuckle.

I had a friend in Uzbekistan who went to Turkey to do much the same thing: he got work in the hospitality industry (ahem, a travel agency, no, really), and was going to be making good money, and was given much the same job description as is in the first part of this ad. He got there, and what happened? First, the job was not as advertised… nothing too unpleasant, but the pay was next to nothing, living conditions were squalid (that’s a fun one to say), and so forth. Plus, his passport was taken from him when he got there – ostensibly so that his employer could work on his visa – and not returned. He got out of the deal, but it was a pretty educational experience for him. And for me, too, I confess – I’d always thought that Uzbeks only got trafficked to be, um, “maids.”

Anyway, have fun in the animation and dancing industry. Send me a card.

Item two:

How did I not know about this? Johnson’s Russia list let me down. The eXile let me down. I had to hear about it on the set of the soap opera. God bless the Asian Sex Gazette (though there’s a Moscow Times article that’s good as well). The ASG article is sheer genius; if you think that your employer may not want you clicking onto the site, here are the salient points:

  • The main actors in the film have the same first names and bear a striking resemblance to Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko and Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili.
  • The article said that the producer had to abandon plans to invite Russian porn star Elena Berkova to play Yulia Timoshenko as the actress’ relatives in Ukraine had been receiving threats.
  • Georgia’s president Saakashvili is played by an Armenian (can he bring the necessary savoir faire to the role?).
  • Ukraine and Georgia have both protested against Mitrofanov’s project, and Ukrainian media has spread a rumor that a gay porn film featuring look-alikes of Russian President Vladimir Putin and former Ukrainian PM Viktor Yanukovich is being made as a result (no further data available on this).
  • Mr. Mitrofanov faces an uphill battle for acceptance in the artistic pornography arena.

There’s an artistic pornography arena? Okay, here’s an idea: “Gladiator,” only in that kind of arena. Wait, no, that’s a bad idea. Actually I think they already did that one.

Anyway. The director is Russian parliamentarian Aleksei Mitrofanov. He’s a member of the LDPR – that’d be Zhirinovsky’s LDPR, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. Mitrofanov dismissed all the criticism as groundless. He told the media that

“‘Yulia’ is a film that will take foreign relations to new heights – literally and figuratively. “Political erotics are a new genre that I have discovered,” he said. “The film is about politics. It makes a political statement, they don’t just [have sex].”

Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight. I think this sort of statement has already been made. We call it “satire,” though. It’s kind of funny; in America, they have pornographers that encourage freedom and democracy, this seems to be the LDPR version.

Finally:

I think that the EU and US donors should seriously consider requesting proposals to help get the pornography – whoops, sorry, the political erotics industry in CIS countries (and former CIS countries, and soon-to-be-former CIS countries) on its feet. Training in screenplay writing, production, and so forth, as well as promotion and sales, would be easy enough; and then, my God, imagine the possibilities.

  1. It would help vitalize political culture to a degree that previous democracy and governance grants have not.
  2. It would allow cross-border exchanges between and among groups that have frozen conflicts (e.g. Armenians and Azeris, Georgians and Abkhaz) in safe spaces.
  3. It would help vitalize the technology and communications sectors of the economy, given that folks would want to disseminate this political message over the Internet.
  4. It would increase general awareness of the peoples, cultures, and practices to be found in an area about which Europeans and North Americans are largely ignorant.
  5. It would increase tourism (come on, the NYT’s Frugal Traveler keyed in on the scantily-clad ladies of Issyk-Kul, although see Comment #26).

… I could go on. But really, where’s the downside? I don’t see it, honestly. I mean, here’s you have an industry that promotes democracy, culture, the economy, health – pick the sector to target. Mitrofanov may be onto something.


In which I am shocked, shocked

July 27, 2006

… brought to you today from Azerbaijan, what a shocker.

About a year and a half ago – March 2nd, 2005 – Elmar Huseynov was shot in his podyezd (actually, that’s kind of a funny blunder – he was shot twice in the head while exiting the stairwell of his building, which in Russian is called the podyezd, but for all you amateur Russian-speaking pornographers, I’m giving you a great starting place for the title of your next work). It was old school Russian style, which means 1990s and after, or reminiscent of any gangland killing. It was neat, it was discreet, it was very professional.

Now, in Azerbaijan, as in many of the CIS countries, I think it’s fair to say that professionalism is still very much not the order of the day in the private sector (even, or especially, in the criminal sector – see, e.g. Bayart, Ellis, and Hibou) and the government is actively and efficiently engaged in nothing at all, even stealing from its own citizens, or anyone else who comes close.

With one exception: the competent organs (again with the freebies for the amateur pornographers). This turn of phrase (in Russian it doesn’t sound as dumb) was developed in the former Soviet Union to describe the various KGB-type organizations who performed the duties of Santa Claus in an atheist country – you gotta have someone who sees you when you’re sleeping et cetera. Even now, they’re known for being the people who seem to be able to, let’s say, find an address (because they always want to know where to send the party invitation), or do anything else, when they’re properly motivated. These guys still take pride in their uniforms, and in their jobs, and they tend to live in quiet neighborhoods, and have plumbing that works.

So anyway. Last March, when Elmar got popped, there was a general outcry, and calls for a serious investigation. A representative of the international Helsinki human rights committee in Azerbaijan characterized the killing as “terrorism against the press,” but don’t they always? Reno Harnish, the former U.S. Ambassador and a great friend of freedom and democracy, described Huseynov as “a courageous and talented journalist who contributed greatly to promoting civic dialogue.” He didn’t have much to say before that about Elmar, of course – their opinions on thing such as corruption, politics, and the various antics of the Presidential administration were, shall we say, at variance – and nothing afterwards. Even when other opposition journalists were kidnapped and thumped on.
But then a funny thing happened. I used to live around the corner from the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Baku, and one day, about a week later, there were extra guards around the building. What the hell, I said; I love a good purge. Well, what had happened was that there had been a kidnapping and extortion ring around Baku. This is not news. In the Caucasus, kidnapping and extortion are as much a part of the national character as anything else: ass fat, cheese, pork shashlik, goofy hats, whatever. The problem was that the kidnappers grabbed the wife of a bank president.

When you rob an Azerbaijani bank president of his lady, that’s serious business. Not because he’s gonna pull a Harrison Ford on you. If he does, you’re probably okay. It’s because guaranteed, that bank president has access to the competent organs – and everyone is going to do what they have to in order to see that things are set right. And so the competent organs shook the pillars of heaven, and the ringleader of the kidnappers fell down: Haji “Two Schwas” Mammadov.

Who was also the head of the Criminal Investigations Department.

Well, there was a general outcry – most of it was on the order of “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” – but things soon settled down and all was well. Until yesterday.

Because at the beginning of this month, the kidnappers went on trial; and yesterday, Haji  Two Schwas said, oh yeah, by the way – I got two bombshells for you. First, it was I who rubbed out Elmar Hueynov. And second, I did it at the behest of ex-Economic Development Minister Farhad Aliyev. This is a guy who had previously claimed that his life was in danger because of his struggle against monopolies in Azerbaijan. The biggest monopoly in Azerbaijan? That’d be oil. And shortly after he got fired (why the hell don’t these morons bail out of their countries as soon as they get canned? Don’t they read the papers?) both Aliyev and his brother, president of the Azpetrol oil company, were arrested under suspicion of preparing a coup against the government.

Is all this a coincidence? Maybe… I mean, the idea that a given Minister would be asking a known thug to whack out a journalist who’d written rude and unkind things about the Minister doesn’t strain my credulity much. Although you’d think the Minister would have more respect for chain of command and go to the Minister of Internal Affairs. Anyway, Haji seems like your go-to guy if you wanted someone put down.
But on the other hand, the idea that the Azerbaijani government just wants to throw as much shit as possible at Farhad Aliyev in the hopes that some of it will stick seems to make sense, too. And they could have offered to let Haji get a milder sentence (as conditions in prisons can be highly variable – someone like Felix Kulov can attest to this – and the inmates pretty much run the show anyway. Or they could have taken a page from the Uzbek playbook  and offered him the opportunity to avoid disfigurement et cetera.

It will be interesting to see how all this shakes out. I kind of wondered why the Azerbaijani government was prolonging the magic on this one; but what the hell, it’s fun to watch so far.


Notable additions to the canon

July 26, 2006

I am not functionally literate, but there are people who are; this will be of interest to them.

Like most folks who have kicked around the Wild East, I thought that the essential foreign (i.e., non-native) authors for a picture of Soviet history in the region were mostly English and Scots: Fitzroy MacLean, Peter Hopkirk, F. M. Bailey, and so forth. Find a Lonely Peanut bibliography, wade through it – mostly gripping tales of derring-do written by the scions of the Empire upon which the sun never set (primarily, as my Irish uncle tells me, because even God doesn’t trust the English in the dark).

What I didn’t know, because I am ignorant, is that in 1932, a group of blacks went to the Soviet Union to make a film depicting the plight of most blacks living in the United States at the time. The film was never made, but Langston Hughes was given the opportunity to travel extensively through the Soviet Union and to the Soviet controlled regions in Central Asia. And Hughes was the kind of writer for whom writing was not simply something he did – writing was what he was. He wrote a book that was published in 1934 about his travels; only one edition was ever published. However, Now it’s been reprinted, and this is the occasion for some excitement here at Breed HQ.

I have to get a copy of this. Why? I’m glad you asked.

First, I like Hughes’ prose (though not his poetry all that much). Second, when Hughes came over to the Union, I’d bet he had the same visions of sugarplums dancing in his head that John Scott had, given Hughes’ politics of the time (which were in line with the Party, though he wasn’t a member). But Scott’s account is nevertheless an extremely interesting historical document. I’m guessing Hughes’ is at least as much so.

But – and this is the third thing, which really makes me want to pick up this book – the editor (about whom more anon) notes that:

“[b]ased on documents available at Yale University, Langston Hughes seems to have wished for large changes to be made to the text – these were not made and the book was published as it is re-printed. However, Hughes’ corrections have been annotated in the text by the editor as endnotes so that the reader can also see what sections Hughes wished to change.”

… which, potentially, makes the whole thing well worth the price of admission. Here’s a good writer, a keen observer, who had a keen sense of the social problems in America at the time. He goes to the socialist paradise or Central Asia. What the hell does he see there? The bad years were still ahead (and Hughes signed a statement in 1938 supporting the purges, so who knows how he would have come down on them), and nobody was suffering but the kulaks…

So the story is going to be one told by an Orwell or a Shaw. And the editor (I’m getting to him, just wait) coyly notes: “This work represents an interesting example of the optimism by American liberals for the Soviet Union that was abruptly cancelled as the Stalinist purges gradually gained strength.” So, I’m guessing that the reason only one edition was ever published is in the endnotes.

So. As a book to contrast with what the perfidious Albionese were writing, or as a dowsing rod to find authorial intent that may be manifest in the text, to be placed in a context of liberation and the materialist dialectic (of which I expect there will be just a little bit of the former, and hopeful none at all of the latter), or just to read some good writing about an fascinating area in a fascinating era, I think it’ll be a while before I see something that interests me more.

The editor is Dr. David Mikosz, who has been a long time resident of Central Asia. Although he has worked on a variety of development projects, he still retains his intellectual curiosity. He’s written for a wide variety of electronic and print publications on things Central Asian, on themes as disparate as comparative internet access to electoral politics. He’s got a gift for finding things like this, and I owe him six beers of his choice for bringing this book back into the world.

Here’s the blurb:

PUBL.- A Negro Looks at Soviet Central Asia, Langston
Hughes, reprinted, edited and annotated by David
Mikosz

A Negro Looks at Soviet Central Asia, by Langston
Hughes, edited by David Mikosz
Al Salam Printhouse, Bishkek, 2006, 66 pp., $5 or 200
Kyrgyz sum + shipping
ISBN: 9967-23-555-1

Number of pages: 66
Cover: Softback, ISBN: 9967-23-555-1
To order:  david.mikosz@gmail.com

This is the first reprint of a book that was published
once in 1934 in the Soviet Union. 1,500 copies were
printed and sold at a price of 60 kopeks.  The
material came from a trip to Uzbekistan and
Turkmenistan by Langston Hughes in 1931.  The original
printed version has been scanned and typeset as close
as possible to the original text (as found in the
Leningrad State Library).  Based on documents
available at Yale University, Langston Hughes seems to
have wished for large changes to be made to the text –
these were not made and the book was published as it
is re-printed. However, Hughes’ corrections have been
annotated in the text by the editor as endnotes so
that the reader can also see what sections Hughes
wished to change.

This work represents an interesting example of the
optimism by American liberals for the Soviet Union
that was abruptly cancelled as the Stalinist purges
gradually gained strength.  After several years of
searching various libraries in Central Asia, the
editor was unable to find the book in Central Asia and
the only copy thus far located is in the Leningrad
Library.  This book is being republished with no
commentary and in the interest of making this document
more widely known.

For information on how to receive this book, please
write to: david.mikosz@gmail.com


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