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  • Originally published 07/28/2013

    Threatened avant-garde gem needs … slippers?

    Just steps away from the matryoshka-strewn Old Arbat, where tacky trinkets offer a shallow slice of Russian culture to go, an object of genuine cultural significance is on the brink of destruction.Builders are at work on a multifunctional center with three levels of underground parking, in the process, experts say, endangering a celebrated gem of the Russian avant-garde.The Melnikov House on Krivoarbatsky Pereulok is utterly original. Formed from two intersecting cylinders with over 60 diamond-shaped windows, the house eschews typical horizontal space in favor of a steady spiral upwards: from basic needs on the ground floor, to sleeping and living rooms on the second, to creation in the form of a lofty, radiant studio on the third.Built as a model for mass housing in 1929, the house soon became a refuge for its pioneering designer, Konstantin Melnikov, when Stalinism's conservative turn in the early '30s left the architect unable to teach or practice his craft. Yet even now the unique structure still has an uncertain future....

  • Originally published 07/23/2013

    Cultural heritage activists warn against the destruction of Russian monuments

    Cultural heritage activists in Moscow, St Petersburg and across the rest of Russia are warning that a string of important architectural monuments are falling prey to a dangerous combination of Soviet-style brutality and capitalist greed, and might soon be irrevocably lost.Landmarks such as the Bolkonsky House, which inspired scenes in Leo Tolstoy’s novels, and a seminal 1850s roundhouse railway depot that inspired similar depots in Europe and the US are hanging by a thread, they say, or have, for all practical purposes, been destroyed.Their warning calls also underscore a growing activism, or at least a sense of an active preservationist community linked by social networking resources such as Facebook.When Yevgeny Sosedov—a 25-year-old preservationist who has been battling for years to save Arkhangelskoye, the Yusupov family estate—recently raced to save an historic avenue of linden trees nearby, he was surprised by the intensity of the reaction....

  • Originally published 07/09/2013

    Peter Savodnik: Moscow Is No Place for a Defector

    Peter Savodnik is a journalist in Washington, D.C. His book, The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union, will be published in November by Basic Books.Edward Snowden may not have realized it as he fled Hong Kong last month, but he was about to become part of a tradition that predates Internet metadata collection, or Wikileaks, or the National Security Agency itself: He was an American dissident heading for Russia.Now, as he nears his third week in consular limbo, the man who leaked word of the NSA’s Prism program must be feeling a tad dismayed by his reception, which has not exactly been warm or cold but somewhere, weirdly, in between. If he’d read up on the history of other Americans who wound up under the dubious protection of the Kremlin, he might not be so surprised. Whether seeking exile in a Soviet socialist paradise or merely hoping that Vladimir Putin’s hostility to Washington means you’ll be able to fly on toward Ecuador in peace, the history of Americans fleeing to Moscow is a long and unhappy one.

  • Originally published 10/25/2013

    Unpacking the Arab Uprisings (Part 2)

    Figuring out the cause of the uprising is different from why it's perpetuated. I return to this blog after a break, with delight. I would like to continue the unpacking I started in the first post (here) by addressing a methodological point about the question causality. We need to separate the question of causality into two parts, in the Syrian and other cases: 1) What caused the uprising? And 2) What perpetuates the uprising? The answers are different. The first deals primarily with local factors and the second with a combination of factors tilting towards external ones. Even in dealing with the first question of causes, we must separate the structural from the circumstantial, by separating between the large structural reservoir of causes that built over time and the immediate causes that instigated social mobilization on a large scale. Syria, is a good case here. Herein, I will address the question of structural causes. The question of what instigated the uprising is less complex, and merits a detailed treatment once more information is available, though the facts are not too controversial. Inspired by the Tunisian and Egyptian experiences just one to two months prior, the narrative of the young kids who called for the regime’s fall on the walls of their school in Der`a constituted the first flame that ignited the heap of hay accumulating for decades. Surely, the local strongmen’s brutal response guaranteed the wider mobilization there at first, but it was bound to happen after a few such dissenting attempts. The same incident, if it had occurred one year prior, would have fizzled out within days, if not less. However, the regional domino effect and the continuing collective focus on the broader context gave that incident prominence while changing the calculus of individuals vis-à-vis the risk and potential success of taking to the streets en mass, especially in the more rural areas and small towns. The rest is bloody history. The set of structural causes that I would like to highlight, beyond the constant factor of repression, relate to political-economic factors that have engulfed Syria since 1986, when the regime effectively began shifting its social and political alliances from labor to business. Namely, I am referring to the growing relationship in the past few decades between the political and economic elite in Syria, and its continued policy implications for nearly twenty-five years. This new nexus of power pervades most global political economies but produces deleterious effects to the extent that the context allows. In many developing countries, including Syria, it is associated with the protracted process related to the unraveling of the state-centered economy, which also constitutes the rolling back of redistributive policies on which the masses increasingly relied in the absence of economic growth. I must caution in the same breath against the emphasis on such factors as singular causes for the uprisings, in Syria or elsewhere. Instead, I address this factor as a central one, not the only, one. Thus, this cannot be a comprehensive account of structural causes. Politically, the new nexus of power between the political and economic elite in Syria seems to have buttressed authoritarian rule in Syria over the past two decades, whether or not other factors contributed to this outcome. This is not simply a function of “support” for the status quo by beneficiary elites, for this is the norm nearly everywhere. It is also a form of legitimation of a changing status quo because the corollary of this particular nexus of power involves various forms of “liberalization” or state retreat: this includes a “budding,” “growing,” or seemingly “vibrant” civil society that may be considered a sign of political “opening;” a “freer” economic environment in which the state gives up its monopoly over some sectors of the economy; and a large “private” sector that purportedly grows at the expense of the state-run “public” sector, giving way to a broader dispersion of resources with economically democratizing effects. Though these outcomes are pleasing to some external actors (including that amorphous conception, “the international community”), they are not felt in any positive manner by the overwhelming majority of the population, who must fend for themselves as public provisions, jobs, and welfare dwindle. Quite the contrary, the majority of the Syrian people have seen their fortunes decline with the deepening of this alliance between state and big business since the mid 1980s.

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