Soviet Space

“O Lord! What an honor! What an undeserved mercy: I know the Russian alphabet!” (Sergei Dovlatov)

In Soviet Russia the beautiful things were beautiful. All in all, the art of Socialist Realism was not necessarily worse than the “free” art of the West. Take a look at this: Rare & Beautiful Vintage Visions of the Future. Not much is written there at all, but i nearly cried at every Russian word that i read. Yes – clever, talented and inspired people lived in the Soviet Union.

Chuckle

I took a bus from Jerusalem to Haifa for the first time in three years.

A couple of cute teen age American Haredi girls were standing in the aisle, chuckling. After a few moments i understood why: There was one free seat next to a guy. Now, the awkward problem: None of them would sit there, ‘cuz their Haredi education doesn’t allow them to sit next to men. I wouldn’t sit there, ‘cuz my Soviet Russian education doesn’t allow me to sit when there’s a woman standing.

So the seat remained empty.

Signify

Art. Lebedev did it again: Короче. The title means “Shorter”.

You don’t need to know Russian to understand what he says there. The road sign at the first picture says:

DRIVER! FASTEN YOUR SEATBELTS AND TURN ON THE DRIVING BEAM OF THE HEADLAMPS

The second picture says:

— Lights and seat belt!

Lebedev doesn’t just say that road signs should be shorter. He emphasizes the use of proper typography, which is not just nice, but practical too. In books the dash introduces direct speech, so when the driver sees it, he feels that someone is actually speaking to him and makes him want to do something in response. Proper use of capital and small letters instead of all-capitals makes the sign more easily readable, which is crucially important, ‘cuz you don’t want to make driving harder.

Lebedev doesn’t say much about the exclamation mark, but as a linguist i’d like to add that it is there because it has to be there, because a sentence that starts with a dash just has to end with something. It’s similar to the -es in the sentence “He goes to the bar”: textbooks say that the -es means “third person singular”, but in fact the He is the sign of “third person singular”, and the -es is there simply because the sentence “He go to the bar” would not be considered proper English by most people.

In the USA almost all road signs are just written in English in very short and standard sentences: “SPEED LIMIT”, “STOP”, “FOOD”. It’s not as beautiful as Lebedev’s proposal, but i do think that it is rather practical, because the driver doesn’t need to learn a hundred or so pictograms, like it is in most countries. It has one drawback: The driver has to know English.

Made Me Cry – Misha

Moscow 1980 – Farewell, Misha (Flash)

In Soviet Russia the good things were very good.

In Soviet Russia the big things were BIG.

Yesterday i saw a child walking with a big colorful balloon and imagined him flying to the sky. And it reminded me of Misha – the mascot of 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow.

Very few of the people who grew up in the Soviet Union won’t at least shed a tear when seeing the finishing ceremony of that olympiad. Its high point was “saying goodbye to Misha”, as he was released into the sky holding onto colorful balloons to the sounds of a sad farewell song. Everybody in Russia remembers the song. More than this, this is The Great Unifying Moment of post-Stalin Russia, comparable to 9/11 and Kennedy assassination.

So watch this movie. Don’t miss Misha himself shedding a tear at 0:47.

If this movie doesn’t make you cry, then you’ll never really understand anything about Russia.


Here’s the song. Lyrics – Nikolai Dobronravov, music – Aleksandra Pakhmutova. My translation is lousy, but i tried to make it rhyme; improvements are welcome. Website of the authors with links to music files is here: До свиданья, Москва.

На трибунах становится тише…
Тает быстрое время чудес.
До свиданья, наш ласковый Миша,
Возвращайся в свой сказочный лес.
Не грусти, улыбнись на прощанье,
Вспоминай эти дни, вспоминай…
Пожелай исполненья желаний,
Новой встречи нам всем пожелай.

Пожелаем друг другу успеха,
И добра, и любви без конца…
Олимпийское звонкое эхо
Остаётся в стихах и в сердцах.
До свиданья, Москва, до свиданья!
Олимпийская сказка, прощай!
Пожелай исполненья желаний,
Новой встречи друзьям пожелай.

припев:
Расстаются друзья.
Остаётся в сердце нежность…
Будем песню беречь.
До свиданья, до новых встреч.

The stadium stands are getting quiet…
Time of miracles is melting away.
Farewell to you, our tender Misha,
Go back home to your wood of fairy tales.
Don’t be sad, give a smile before the parting,
And recall these good days, please recall…
Wish us all the fulfillment of wishes,
Wish a new meeting soon to us all.

So let’s wish lots of luck to each other,
Let’s wish kindness and love with no end,
Bright and clear echo of the Olympics
Will forever be cherished and sang.
Farewell to you, Moscow, farewell,
Farewell, the Olympic fairy tale,
Wish us all the fulfillment of wishes,
Wish a new meeting soon to us all.

chorus:
Friends are coming apart,
Tenderness stays in the heart…
We shall cherish the song.
Farewell, we shall meet again.

Puten!!

Vladimir Mayakovsky, the most famous poet of the Russian revolution, a rare case of an artist who had talent in addition to strong political beliefs, wrote this poem in 1914:

Послушайте!
Ведь, если звезды зажигают –
Значит – это кому-нибудь нужно?
Значит – кто-то хочет, чтобы они были?
Значит – кто-то называет эти плевочки
жемчужиной?

Translation:

Listen!
After all, if someone lights up the stars –
Then – someone needs it?
Then – someone wants them to be?
Then – someone calls those gobs of spit
A pearl?

I read Vladimir Putin’s interview, where he says that it is a “true tragedy” that he is “the only true democrat in the world” and that “since Gandhi had died, there’s no-one to speak to.”

Now i’m not saying that it is especially stupid or wrong; There’s a lot of hypocrisy in the European and the American version of “democracy”, and Putin stings them nicely, accusing the US of alleged torture in Guantanamo and very rightly accusing the EU of double standards in the issues of Kosovo and Transnistria.

Still, it makes me feel uncomfortable. So the only thing i could really think of when i read it was: “After all, if the president of the largest country in the world talks bloody crap, then – someone needs it?”

If you read Russian, see also this story on Vladimir Vladimirovich™ (if you haven’t already).

Reality – 9 May

9th of May poster, courtesy of Mr. Arcadi Gaydamak

Hebrew: Keeping the heritage

Russian: Thanks for your valiant feat

These signs were put all around Jerusalem by Mr. Arcadi Gaydamak. Remember him? This time he is organizing a parade of The Great Patriotic War veterans, which the municipality of Jerusalem allegedly tried to cancel.

Gaydamak has money, so the design of these signs is very good. The writing is in Hebrew – throughout the whole city i’ve seen only one in Russian. There’s an Israeli flag too. But what is that Yellow-Black stripe? And the flowers? And what heritage is the sign talking about?

Every year as the 9th of May comes Soviet-born Israelis are shocked to find out that nobody knows what happened on the 9th of May, let alone celebrates it.

On that day the Soviets, with a little help from from the Western Allies, kicked the German Fascists’ ass – at least that’s what they taught us in Soviet schools. In the USSR “The Great Patriotic War” was usually said instead of “The Second World War”, “German Fascists” was usually said instead of “Nazis”, “Soviets” was mixed up with “Russians” in various ways, and the role of the Western Allies is a matter of heated discussion, but the main thing always remained – the 9th of May is День Победы, the Victory Day. Many countries have their national holidays in the form of an Independence Day, but Russia needs no independence from no-one (although there is some ridiculous “Independence Day” in Russia since 1992, but few people take it seriously.) USSR and Russia’s greatest national holiday, one with which the people really identify is the Victory Day. The concept of Victory was pretty strong in the USSR; it was especially convenient to talk about The Great Victory over the German Fascists, ‘cuz hey – the whole wide world agrees that the German Fascists were the bad guys.

In Israel few people know what happened on the 9th of May. So they don’t understand what is that “heritage”.

The Yellow-Black stripe is Ribbon of Saint George, attached to the Cross of Saint George award in the Russian Empire, canceled after the October Revolution and restored in The Great Patriotic War under the name “The Order of Glory”. Now it is called George’s Ribbon again and is becoming a semi-official symbol of the Victory Day in Russia, like the Israeli flags on cars on Israel’s Independence Day. Together with the flowers it looks very much like a Soviet greeting card for – you guessed it – 9th of May.

There’s also a linguistic curiosity: In Hebrew the date is written as “9 מאי” – literally “9 May”, while it should have been “9 במאי” – literally “9 in/of May”. But in Russian there’s no preposition, but a case ending – “9 Мая”. I wonder what exactly were they thinking. I’m quite sure that it’s not just a silly mistake – there must be a sensible reason for that.