Understanding Russia

As an almost life-long Russophile — despite not remotely having any roots or personal connections to the country or its people — I have always been fascinated by Russian culture, society, history, and politics. For better or worse, few nations have had so much presence and influence on the world stage, and while my love of all things Russia certainly does not include its government or foreign policy, I recognize the importance of better understanding this still relevant — some say resurgent — global power.

Over at Foreign Affairs (one of my favorite international relations journals),  explores Russia’s long history of trying to achieve greatness, defined “by soaring ambitions that have exceeded the country’s capabilities”. It is equal parts tragedy and glory, with every victory coming at great cost (the defeat of Napoleon and Nazi Germany), and every instance of power and global status being tenuous (the perennial political and economic stagnation of the Soviet period throughout the Cold War).

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The 30th Anniversary of the Mir Space Station

Despite my love for all things space and history, it almost eluded me that last Saturday, February 20, was the 30th anniversary of the launching of Mir, humanity’s first continuously inhabited space station, and until recently the longest-lasting. In its heyday — which remarkably persisted for far longer than originally intended — Mir was the epitome of human ingenuity, curiosity, and perseverance. As Vice’s Motherboard column recounts, the venerable Russian space station was the unlikely watershed for humanity’s exploration of the stars.

This station outlived the Soviet regime that conceived and bore it, and died in the shadow of its successor and beneficiary, the International Space Station. It was home to 104 astronauts during its 15 year lifespan, and completed its projected mission duration three times over. It was a pivotal stepping stone in human spaceflight, a technological and geopolitical bridge between millennia, and an enduring symbol of peace on Earth and off it.

It was also a notorious dump that reeked of mould, mites, and astronaut BO. British astronaut Helen Sharman, who visited the station in 1991, recalled that “the lights kept going out because it had developed so many electrical problems”. British-American astronaut Michael Foale, who lived on Mir during for four months in 1997, said it was “a bit like a frat house, but more organized and better looked after.”

Like some of the most beloved fictional spaceships—the Millennium Falcon, Battlestar Galactica, or Serenity, for instance—Mir was simultaneously regarded as a resilient survivor and a derelict piece of junk.

Some skeptics were even less forgiving in their judgment of Mir’s repeated flirtations with catastrophe, calling the station a “lemon”, a “time bomb”, and even a “death trap”.

Among the numerous incidents mentioned in the article (and well worth reading for yourself) were three collisions, one of which led to the permanent, functional loss of an entire block; a massive fire hot enough to burn through metal, which persisted for fifteen minutes and blanketing the station in smoky debris; and basketball-sized globs of dirty water laden with microbes, which were floating freely around the station.

All this plus a host of other smaller threats, such as computer glitches, power outages, coolant leaks, corrosive mold, and still more.

Needless to say, Mir would hardly have seemed to be such a promising benchmark for human progress in space. Yet the station’s ability to endure all these never-before-faced challenges — due in no small part to the resourcefulness, courage, and tenacity of its cosmonauts — is precisely what makes it such an incredible step for our species.

Indeed, the scruffy nature of Mir has become one of its most defining—and endearing—qualities in retrospect. It is legitimately astonishing that nobody was killed or seriously injured on this accident-prone ragamuffin of a station, when you consider the all the wild cards that were in play. If astronauts had died, of course, we would construct a very different legacy around its tenure in space, tempered by that grim reality.

But because Mir managed to lackadaisically extricate itself out of every scrape it got into like some spacefaring Bugs Bunny, it’s now remembered as a plucky trailblazer that always beat the odds rather than the “death trap” some considered it to be at the time. We love lucky heroes, and Mir hit that archetype out of the park.

To add to that, Mir was a phenomenal success for the global spaceflight community despite all of its problems. Thousands of experiments were conducted during its stint in orbit, revealing valuable insights about the biomedical, technological, and political challenges of operating a long-term base in space.

Unsurprisingly, Mir would prove to be the ultimate testing ground for generations of spacefarers, subsequently producing some of the most experienced and accomplished cosmonauts in the world.

Valeri Vladimirovich Polyakov still maintains the record for the longest single spaceflight, having spent 437 consecutive days and 18 hours at the station from 1994 to 1995. While Polyakov did report mood fluctuations when he arrived at Mir and when he returned to Earth, he has not suffered any long term health effects as a consequence of his time in space.

Mir cosmonauts also hold down the second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth places on the single spaceflight leaderboard (fun fact: Polyakov comes in at both first and sixth place). To put that into perspective, the ISS One Year Crew, comprised of American astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Korniyenko, is expected to arrive home next month after 342 days in orbit. But that achievement will only nudge them into fourth place behind the insane spaceflight records left by Mir cosmonauts.

Given all this, it is little wonder that Mir laid the technological groundwork for its spiritual successor, the International Space Station, for which the Russians have continued to play a leading role, from its construction to the supply of materials and staff.

But in addition to its technical legacy, Mir pioneered the idealism that has always, to some degree, imbued space exploration. It was the crucible in which international collaboration could be achieved, even in the midst of the Cold War.

This intent on behalf of the Soviets—then later, the Russians—to use the space station as a symbol of humanity’s noblest qualities was embedded right into the mission’s name. The Russian space program has always had a particular knack for coming up with concise yet semantically potent names for its programs from Sputnik, meaning “fellow traveler”, to Soyuz, meaning “union”.

Likewise, the word “mir” in Russian can be translated as “peace”, “world”, or “village”, and it apparently has many subtler historical shades as well. NASA astronaut Frank Culbertson, who managed the Shuttle-Mir program, laid out some of them in his 1996 essay on Mir, entitled “What’s in a Name?”

This was more than just propaganda: Mir would come to live up to its namesake by hosting several joint missions with the United States and various other nations. Thus the plucky, ramshackle marvel of human ingenuity (if not stubbornness) would prove that the divided nations of the world — for practical reasons as much as idealistic ones — can and would come together to achieve great things in space.

As Mir’s thirtieth birthday passes, here is hoping that its legacy can continue to spur the human race into pooling its resources, technology, and know-how into the next great endeavor of our species’ history. Given recent geopolitical events, it seems like an unlikely prospect; but if it could pulled off during the tense decades of the Cold War, whose to say we cannot transcend current Earthly squabbles once more?

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Art of Bus Stops

The Soviet regime might have been repressive and stultifying in a lot of areas, but one place where it exercised a considerable amount of boldness and innovation is public infrastructure — including the humble bus stop.

Source: Foreign Policy / Christopher Herwig

Source: Foreign Policy / Christopher Herwig

The photos were taken by Canadian photographer Christopher Herwig, who has spent over a decade travelling through most of the former Soviet Union to document these neglected architectural marvels. You can see a larger version of each photo by clicking here.

With their unusual colors, shapes, and themes, these otherwise functional structures look more like art installments than bus stops. As Foreign Policy explains:

The Soviet Union ascribed an outsized importance to public transportation. Buses, trains, and metro lines were a sign of progress; they were also a powerful symbol of connection and unity, as the Politburo worked to build a communist society throughout 15 ethnically diverse republics that covered a landmass stretching from the Baltic Sea to the shores of the Pacific. Perhaps the most famous legacy of this Soviet fixation on transport is the Moscow Metro system, with its glittering chandeliers and its elaborate murals depicting scenes of proletariat glory. But Moscow was dressed up in order to be shown off — to serve as a demonstration of socialist power and might for visiting foreign dignitaries. Most citizens lived outside the capital, and for them, buses were the predominant means of transportation, accounting for nearly 44 percent of traffic throughout the country by the mid-1980s. What makes the extravagant, eye-catching nature of the common Soviet roadside bus stop all the more surprising is that these were often tucked away in hidden corners of the empire, far from the eyes of foreigners.

Soviet architecture is best known for its overpowering conformity and functionality: The term conjures up images of rows of low-slung buildings and mass-produced apartment blocks. These bus stops, however, were an unlikely outlet for creative expression. Local artists were given unprecedented freedom to experiment with design, color, and material. Many of the designs were commissioned at the local level, which allowed for artists and architects to reflect the character and history of their individual republics. What came about was thousands of unique creations, covering a range of shapes and sizes.

Artists still worked within the confines of Soviet art, employing communist imagery of peasants in wheat fields and relying on austere, minimalist structures. But the more flamboyant bus stops reimagined this aesthetic, twisting standard outlines and incorporating local elements into their design. For instance, a bus stop modeled after the Silk Road-era Arystan Bab mausoleum in Aralsk, Kazakhstan sports a minaret and crescent moon, while one in the Black Sea coastal town of Gagra takes the shape of a breaking wave, decorated with purple mosaic tiles.

These are just some of the amazing examples from Herwig’s collection. You can find more in his newly published “Soviet Bus Stops“.

To Understand Russia, Read Its Literature

If you are both a Russophile and lover of literature, you will appreciate James Stavridis’ piece for Foreign Policy,  which recommends several Russian books across the last 150 years that offer a look into the nation’s soul, psyche, and condition. Whether or not you care to learn more about this enigmatic — and still highly consequential culture — the following literary works are well worth considering for their value alone.

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol

It is the blackest of black humor, a story in which a mysterious businessman moves through the Russian countryside “buying up souls” (i.e., taking away a tax burden from the estate owners). It is an absurdist construct, and the novel functions as a satiric portrait of the dysfunctional Russian landowner society that eventually fell in the 1917 revolution. It tells us that Russians see the world as somewhat absurd and contradictory, and hardly a place where overarching humanist value systems triumph. For a nation whose leader struts around the world stage without a shirt on, plays with a pet Siberian tiger, and flies in a motorized mini-plane chasing white storks, there is a certain appeal to the absurd. It is a novel that evokes the most skeptical and cynical in the human condition and appropriately ends abruptly in mid-sentence — a signal of the inability to predict a coherent future.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

…shows us how the Russians think about their ability to fight, and illuminates the deep patriotism that fuels today’s nationalist tendencies. Tolstoy makes clear the largest landmass under national sovereignty in the world is literally unconquerable, even by the brilliance of Napoleon. Moscow might burn, but the Russian military will never give up. Tolstoy also debunks the 19th-century theory of world events once-called “the great man” approach, arguing instead that events are driven by the collision of thousands of small events coming together. And when it comes to leaders, Russians throw the cosmic dice: One time they get an Ivan the Terrible, the next a Peter the Great. They know that eventually the dice will roll again, and a new leader will emerge. The bad news is that what comes after Putin may be even worse, given the growing xenophobia and ultra-nationalism. As we look at Putin’s dominance, we should remember that the dice will roll again. The Russians do.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (my personal favorite)

…a tale that captures the Russian sensibility perfectly: A deeply troubled protagonist chooses to kill, but then is haunted by guilt and — encouraged by the good people around him — eventually confesses. He is then purified and ultimately achieves redemption. The central character, Raskolnikov, is a largely sympathetic figure, full of tragic contradictions, who strays into a brutal crime but is redeemed through punishment and faith. While it is hard to see Putin as a Raskolnikov, perhaps there is a touch of that pattern of redemption in the life and times of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oligarch turned political opposition leader, who was jailed and then finally released. The next chapter of his journey will be an interesting one. Russians have a deep belief in their own goodness and justness, recognizing mistakes will be made along the road to righteousness. They believe in both crime and punishment in a very literal sense.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Think the Russians will crack under sanctions? [The] protagonist, a convict in a Siberian gulag, finds a hundred ways to scrape through the day, dealing with the petty corruption, laughing at the predicaments, occasionally reveling in the harsh conditions of his imprisonment, and powerfully exhibiting the ability to overcome adversity. Like Denisovich, Russians will find an ironic pleasure in overcoming the pain of sanctions, and we should not put too much faith in our ability to break their will through imposing economic hardships.

One Soldier’s War by Arkady Babchenko.

It’s a foot soldier’s memoir set in Chechnya during the height of the war there in the 1990s waged by the Russian conscript military against the rebellious population. This is counterinsurgency turned upside down — the Russians aren’t trying to win the hearts and minds; they are quite content with putting a bullet into each. The book is a good view into the mind of any conscripted force sent to Ukraine — which explains why it is the Spetsnaz special forces, not regular troops, who are operating across the border. There is much to learn here about the Russian military’s operational approach: The Russians have learned from their mistakes in Chechnya and in Afghanistan, and the new so-called hybrid war is full of lessons they took away. In Ukraine, the use of social media, strategic communications, humanitarian convoys, insurgent techniques, and cyber dominance all come from the Chechnya experience.

Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart

…To understand the view of the Russian émigré, the brilliant Russian-American novelist … captures the post-Soviet space better than any book of nonfiction. Set in Moscow and a thinly disguised Azerbaijan (a former republic of the USSR, in case you forgot), it serves up a portrait of Russian “capitalism” with a huge dose of black humor. It echoes Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, a magical realist novel written in the 1930s, in its evocation of the Russians’ ability to exist quite happily in a world where everything is half a beat off the music.

While these represent a mere fraction of the vast body of Russian literature out there (indeed, the country is the fourth-largest publisher of books in the world), they are a great way to understand what shapes one of history’s most significant civilizations. The literature, art, and creative expression of any culture can go a long way in helping us bridge the gap between different languages, perspectives, and conditions.

How Russia Saved The World

England provided the time, America provided the money, and Russia provided the blood.

Today is Victory Day (also known as the Ninth of May), which commemorates the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany and the subsequent end of the Second World War in Europe. The holiday is still celebrated in most former Soviet republics, especially Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia, which bore the brunt of the conflict. Among Russians in particular, the Eastern Front of the conflict remains known as the Great Patriotic War.

Given the currently frigid relations between Russia and the West, it is sadly likely that this immense contribution to ending history’s biggest war will remain largely downplayed, if at all acknowledged. Granted, it would not be the first time that geopolitical factors and mutual suspicion interfered with the historical narrative: the Cold War that followed almost immediately after made crediting our then-rival untenable, while the vast global influence of U.S. media, from comics to film, allowed it to have the prevailing word on of how the war transpired (e.g. with Americans taking center-stage).

Setting aside the intrinsic value of knowing the historical facts, this lack of acknowledgement is all the more jarring given the horrifically high cost of victory. As The Washington Post highlights:

The Red Army was “the main engine of Nazism’s destruction,” writes British historian and journalist Max Hastings in “Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945.” The Soviet Union paid the harshest price: though the numbers are not exact, an estimated 26 million Soviet citizens died during World War II, including as many as 11 million soldiers. At the same time, the Germans suffered three-quarters of their wartime losses fighting the Red Army.

“It was the Western Allies’ extreme good fortune that the Russians, and not themselves, paid almost the entire ‘butcher’s bill’ for [defeating Nazi Germany], accepting 95 per cent of the military casualties of the three major powers of the Grand Alliance,” writes Hastings. [By one calculation, for every single American soldier killed fighting the Germans, 80 Soviet soldiers died doing the same.]

The epic battles that eventually rolled back the Nazi advance — the brutal winter siege of Stalingrad, the clash of thousands of armored vehicles at Kursk (the biggest tank battle in history) — had no parallel on the western front, where the Nazis committed fewer military assets. The savagery on display was also of a different degree than that experienced further west.

Indeed, the Eastern Front was by far the largest and bloodiest theatre of WWII, and in fact was the deadliest conflict in human history, claiming the lives of over 30 million people — at least half of whom were civilians. The USSR lost at least 9 million soldiers — a third of them in Axis captivity — and just as many civilians, if not more. Some sources suggest that as many as 17 to 27 million Soviet citizens were killed, while others have calculated that perhaps as many as 20 million Soviet civilians lost their lives.

By comparison, the United States lost over a quarter of a million men for the entire war, and fewer than a 3,000 civilians, while the Germans lost 5 million troops on the Eastern Front (and perhaps another one to two million civilians when the Russians invaded). So many young men were killed that the USSR’s population was nearly 50 million less than it should have been, given the families that these men would’ve had. To this day, many former Soviet states have an imbalance between men and women, having not fully recovered from the scale of dead men.

This is a scale of carnage and death that is difficult to grasp. Think of all the pain and suffering caused by loss of several thousand troops in Iraq and Afghanistan (to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans). Now amplify that anguish by several million, with nearly 20% of some countries wiped out (namely Belarus, Ukraine, Russia and Poland). The human mind simply can’t process that level of death. How the Soviets managed to move on and rebuild is beyond me.

And while the Soviet Union came out of the war victorious, was economically and structurally devastated. Much of the combat took place in or around densely populated areas, and the brutal actions of both sides contributed to massive loss destruction. The property damage inflicted on the USSR by the Axis invasion was estimated at a cost 679 billion rubles, probably a trillion or more dollars by today’s standards. The siege of a single city, Leningrad, claimed 1.2 million lives, while the fight over another city, Stalingrad, cost a similar number of lives, and was by some accounts the single largest battle in history — not to mention a turning point in the entire war.

In all, the combined damage consisted of complete or partial destruction of 1,710 cities and towns, 70,000 villages/hamlets, 2,508 church buildings, 31,850 industrial establishments, 40,000 miles of railroad, 4100 railroad stations, 40,000 hospitals, 84,000 schools, and 43,000 public libraries. Over 20 million sheep, goats, horses, and other cattle were also slaughtered or driven off. Western Russia, as well Ukraine and Belarus, still bear signs of this devastation (in some cases, fragments of bone and metal have been dug up, though that also happens in Western Europe occasionally).

There is no denying that this sacrifice was instrumental in winning the war. The Russians were dealing with around 85 percent of Axis forces, and German armed forces suffered anywhere from 80 to 93 percent of its military deaths in the Eastern Front. If the USSR had capitulated, Allied forces would have had to contend with a lot more resistance. The war would have been far bloodier and more drawn out. The Russians nearly bled themselves dry in our place.

But this wasn’t merely the result of bravery and stereotypical Russian resoluteness (though those were certainly factors). The markedly brutal nature of warfare on the Eastern Front was the result of the often willful disregard for human life by both sides: Hitler and Stalin each used terror and mass murder to further their aims, and had no qualms about leading millions to their deaths in the name of victory. This included victimizing their own troops and civilians, through mass deportation, threats of execution for cowardice, and human wave attacks.

And keep in mind that all this is in addition to atrocities carried out by the Nazis, including routine massacres of civilians and the brick-by-brick destruction of entire communities (and their inhabitants). There was simply no parallel to this on the Western Front. According to Time:

By measure of manpower, duration, territorial reach and casualties, the Eastern Front was as much as four times the scale of the conflict on the Western Front that opened with the Normandy invasion.

The fact is, as monstrous as Stalin was, and as brutal as the Soviets tended to be (before, during, and after the war), we arguably needed that kind of viciousness on our side in order to win. To put it crudely, Soviet Russia was the bad cop in the war. It took playing Hitler at his own cruel game to put a stop to him, and only the USSR was willing and able to do so. Such is the nature of war. The horror and destruction of the Eastern Front proves exemplifies, in the most extreme example, the fact that most conflicts are hardly black-and-white, nor are they matters of honor and glory. It’s simply about winning in whatever way you can, period. There’s no romanticizing that, although we can certainly do so for the average Soviet soldier who was mixed up in all this, and fought valiantly to the end.

All this stands in contrast to the Allied experience. We Americans would remember the conflict very different, simply because our conduct and memory of the war was much cleaner – we were a democracy fighting a conventional conflict against a fraction of the enemy’s forces. We weren’t occupied and invaded (for the most part). We didn’t need to even consider, much less implement, wanton and self-destructive tactics (nor could we, given the vast differences in the ethics of our political and military leadership).

I am in no way denigrating the U.S. contribution to the war effort (nor that of other Allied members), especially considering that America helped prop up the USSR during the earlier stages of the way until it could recover its own industrial output.  Moreover, the U.S. did much of the heavy lifting in the Asian theatre — although the Russians, not to mention the Chinese, played a much underrated role in that effort as well (indeed, the latter’s costly resistance to the Japanese, as outlined here, was instrumental to the Pacific Theater).

I am simply noting the obvious fact that World War II could not have been won without the Soviet Union, at least not without investing far more of our own blood, money, and time. It’s very unfortunate that few people outside of Russia seem to realize that – as if the sacrifice itself was not horrific enough, it’s barely even acknowledged.

So while the Russians, as well as other Europeans, celebrate their hard-fought victory over Nazi oppression, there is a level of somberness that underlies all that glory that we can barely relate with. They will keep on romanticizing of course, as humans are wont to do. And indeed, the typical soldier deserves it. But we mustn’t forget just how messy and gray most of these conflicts tend to be. With all that said, my heart goes out to the tens of millions of men, women, and even children who fought and died in the single most horrific conflict in human history.

Ten Post-Soviet Films to Watch

In a previous post, I touched on the Soviet Union’s and Russia’s rich history of producing ingenious science fiction films, in both the technical and conceptual sense. That legacy lives on to this day, and not just in Russia or within this one genre. Here are ten award-winning films from across the former Soviet Union, ranging from tiny Estonia to expansive Kazakhstan.

Leviathan (Andrei Zvyagintsev, Russia, 2014)

Winner of the best screenplay award in Cannes this year, this immaculately crafted drama works on multiple levels. Superficially, it centres on a stubborn man’s refusal to sell his family home, located on a prime real estate spot near the Barents Sea. But it’s also a coolly devastating indictment of corruption that permeates every level of Russian society, from local government to the Orthodox church. Lush cinematography, top-notch acting and a propulsive pace are added bonuses.

Maidan (Sergei Loznitsa, Ukraine, 2014)

Sergei Loznitsa, a director born in Belarus but raised in the Ukraine (who now mostly lives in Germany), raced back to Kiev last December to record the extraordinary events unfolding in Independence Square, ground zero for the so-called Euromaidan wave of civil unrest that became a revolution. The result is an extraordinary, courageous work of documentary-making, austere yet emotive, which records soup distribution and riots alike with the same steady, unblinking gaze.

Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus (Madeleine Sackler, Belarus, 2013)

A bit of a cheat this one, because the director is American, but then again, they don’t make a lot of films these days in Belarus – arguably the most oppressive regime of all the former Soviet republics. Documenting the valiant efforts of an underground Minsk-based theatre company to continue making dissident plays despite arrests and police brutality, the film was made from footage smuggled out of the country at great personal risk to all involved.

Harmony Lessons (Emir Baigazin, Kazakhstan, 2013)

Kazakhstan may be the butt of jokes in Borat, but the relatively wealthy republic has one of the strongest film industries among the ex-Soviet states, and this is one of its best films of recent years. Made with formalist precision in every way, this story about a lone wolf of a boy being bullied at school evolves into a devastating dissection of crime and punishment, alienation, power and our complex relationship with animals.

In Bloom (Nana Ekvtimishvili, Georgia, 2013)

Georgia has long been a breeding ground for cinematic talent, from auteurs such as Sergei Parajanov and Otar Isseliani but there’s a new generation coming through now who show immense talent, including Nana Ekvtimishvili. Her film In Bloom, co-directed by Simon Gross, revolves around the charged relationship between two 13-year-old girls who come from very different but equally unhappy homes. The intimate drama intersects satisfyingly with its early 1990s setting.

The Light Thief (Aktan Arym Kubat, Kyrgyzstan, 2010)

Aktan Arym Kubat writes, directs and stars in this poignant, frequently humorous story about an electrician who illegally siphons off power from a local wind farm to keep everything going in his rural small town. Meanwhile, the corrupt mayor is plotting to sell the town’s land off to the Chinese. The political message is palpable but not overstated, leaving room for charming slice-of-life interludes, such as a cracking scene depicting the local horseback sport of goat-grabbing.

The Hostage (Laila Pakalnina, Latvia, 2006)

Prolific Latvian director Laila Pakalnina is an original – a natural surrealist whose quirky, humorous, highly stylised docs, shorts and features couldn’t be mistaken for the work of anyone else. Hostage is one of her more accessible, but no less peculiar efforts. It is the tale of a plane hijacker who lands in Riga, takes a young boy hostage and demands $30m (£17.9m), a CD-Rom to help them learn about Latvia and local chocolate. In its own weird way, the film is a love letter to Pakalnina’s homeland.

Before Flying Back to Earth (Arūnas Matelis, Lithuania, 2005)

Inspired by the fortitude and kindness he saw when his own child fell ill with leukaemia, director Arūnas Matelis returned to the oncology ward at the top paediatric hospital in Vilnius to record the experiences of patients and staff who confront death there every day. On paper this might sound mawkish and offputting, but it’s a remarkably unsentimental film told with a vérité matter-of-factness and an endearing lightness of touch.

Revolution of Pigs (Jaak Kilmi, Estonia, 2004)

This ebullient, youthful comedy-drama tracks a bunch of Estonian teenagers in the 1980s who plot a mini revolution at their yearly socialist summer camp, described by Variety as Meatballs meets Lindsay Anderson’s If…., with a big dollop of Soviet kitsch. It’s cracking, bawdy fun that grows progressively darker as we get to know the various characters – standard-issue teen-movie types who just want to get laid and who fear getting shipped out to the war in Afghanistan when they grow up. Plus ça change.

Koktebel (Boris Khlebnikov and Alexei Popogrebsky, Russia, 2003)

This was the first feature for both its two co-directors. They’ve both gone on to have interesting careers that built on the promise of this luminous work, which was somewhat overshadowed the year it premiered by Andrei Zvyagintsev’s similarly themed The Return. A road movie about a homeless father and son travelling on foot from Moscow to the Crimea, it’s a beautiful study of parent-child dynamics that recalls Terrence Malick in its painterly elegance.

Source: The Guardian

Seven Soviet Sci-Fi Films To See

Russia and Soviet filmmakers have long been among the innovative and pioneering in the world, producing groundbreaking advances in cinematography, editing, film theory, and more. So perhaps it is no surprise that the combination of its cinematic prowess with its equally accomplished scientific vision would lead to some amazing films

From developing the genre of mockumentaries, to inspiring Star Wars, here are seven Soviet-era science fiction films you should consider watching (Courtesy of The Guardianwhere you can see the video clips and image stills).

Aelita (1924)
Dir: Yakov Protazanov

Based on Tolstoy’s novel of the same name, Aelita is considered a classic not only of Soviet filmmaking, but of world cinema. It tells the story of an engineer, Los, who creates a spacecraft capable of flying to Mars.

Los sets out for the Red Planet in the company of Gusev, a Red Army soldier, and a sleuth called Kravtsov. On Mars, the trio encounters an alien humanoid civilisation. While Gusev plots a revolution, a love affair blossoms between Los and Aelita, the daughter of the Martian leader.

The novel is regarded as an original work of fiction with strong topical resonances. Alluding to the real-life rocket engine developer Iuzef Dominikovich, the book also features an ideological dimension,referencing the trans-humanist teachings of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky.

Cosmic Voyage (1935)
Dir: Vasily Zhuravlev

Initial attempts at a moon landing end in failure. A rabbit launched into space perishes en route. A second rocket, this time with a cat on board, vanishes without a trace. The third, manned by a small party of scientists, proves a success. Finally, the moon is colonised by the USSR. And on the way back, they even find the cat, long presumed dead, alive and well.

This naive Soviet pop sci-fi flick makes for impressive viewing even today, and for good reason. It is this very film that gave rise to the now standard practice of employing real-life scientists as on-set consultants (with Christopher Nolan’sInterstellar being a recent example ).

The scientific aspects of Cosmic Voyage were supervised by none other than Soviet rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who created 30 technical drawings of the spacecraft for the film.

Meteorites, The Universe, Road to the Stars, Planet of Tempests, The Moon, et al. (1947 – 1970)
Dir: Pavel Klushantsev

A fan of the Soviet documentary-meets-sci-fi genre, it was director Pavel Klushantsev who pioneered this hybrid, combining elements of pure documentary with live action fantasy .

His films juxtapose talking heads documentary and laboratory footage with carefully choreographed scenes set on alien-inhabited planets. Klushantsev’s Planet of Tempests made such an impression on US filmmakers that it ended up spawning two American adaptations. The first of these, Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet, was produced in 1965 by Roger Corman; the second, actually an adapted version of Corman’s film, was directed by Peter Bogdanovich and released in 1968 under the title Voyage to the Planet of the Prehistoric Women.

According to a story that sometimes does the rounds in film circles, George Lucas, who regarded Klushantsev as the godfather of Star Wars, desperately wanted to meet the Soviet director, but ultimately the two sci-fi pioneers never crossed paths.

Solaris (1972)
Dir: Andrey Tarkovsky

Tarkovsky’s film tells the story of Kris Kelvin, a psychologist who has travelled to the space station Solaris to evaluate whether the scientific mission being conducted there should continue. The scientists on board the station have been driven to the verge of madness, and soon Kelvin finds himself haunted by a manifestation of his beloved, who had committed suicide back on earth.

Needless to say, no overview of the Soviet sci-fi tradition would be complete without mention of Tarkovsky and his films Solaris and Stalker, both classifiable, to some extent, as science fiction. Like the rest of Tarkovsky’s filmography, these two works have received extensive analysis .Coming on the heels of the shelvedAndrei Rublev, long withheld from release by the Soviet government, Solaris enjoyed such a degree of success that Tarkovsky was effectively given carte blanche for any future projects.

American director Steven Soderbergh remade Solaris in 2002, with George Clooney as Kelvin . However, Soderbergh’s Solaris lacks the artistic and conceptual power of the original.

Pilot Pirx’s Inquest (1978)
Dir: Marek Piestrak

This joint Soviet-Polish production revolves around a mission to Saturn. A big corporation succeeds in creating humanoid robots and, paying no heed to the skeptics, decides to put them into mass production. A crew of robots and humans – headed by a captain named Pirx – is sent out into space to launch two satellites into Saturn’s rings. True to the finest traditions of the genre, things don’t go quite to plan.

Even today, this film feels contemporary – and all because its Polish director,Marek Piestrak, strived to achieve maximum realism. Costumes and models were devised on the basis of existing American and Soviet prototypes. It’s electronic soundtrack, written by progressive Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, also feels very contemporary, and was an influence on The Prodigy’s Smack My Bitch Up.

Per Astra ad Aspera (1981)
Dir: Richard Viktorov/Nikolai Viktorov

The action of this film, whose Latin title translates as Through the Thorns to the Stars, is based on a screenplay by cult Soviet sci-fi writer Kir Bulychev and is set in deep space . A reconnaissance craft – named Pushkin in homage to Russia’s greatest poet – encounters a derelict starship. Inside is a humanoid woman with the inhuman abilities of teleportation and telekinesis.

Richard Viktorov directed the original 1981 version of this film. He died soon afterwards in 1983 and Viktorov’s son, Nikolai , released a new version in 2001, having remastered the sound and special effects and shortened the running time by cutting several set pieces laced with Soviet ideology.

Hard to be God (2013)
Dir: Aleksei German Sr

On a planet mired in its own Middle Age, chaos, darkness and degradation reign. The situation is carefully monitored from Earth, and when it finally appears that a renaissance is imminent, Don Rumata Estorski is sent to the planet to investigate. He must remain a detached observer of events, but witnessing rabble-rousing and lawlessness amongst the local inhabitants, he breaks his neutrality and interferes in the process of an alien civilisation.

Thirty Fun Facts About Russia

Business Insider has compiled a list of some interesting facts about Russia that are sure to delight fellow russophiles.

Some of my personal favorites:

  • Russian doesn’t need a subject and a verb to complete a sentence. Therefore “Dog.” or “Was walking.” are both complete sentences
  • Russians use the same word to say “get healthier” and “get fatter.”
  • One super-popular Russian meal — called “holodets” — contains meat suspended in salted gelatin.
  • Russians don’t put eyes on smileys when typing. They are ) or ))))) but never : ) The more parentheses you add, the more you like something.
  • Legend has it that Russians chose Christianity over Islam back in 988 AD in part because they didn’t want to give up alcohol.
  • There are no Russian words for “fun” or “privacy”.
  • Under the Soviet Union, the distribution of Beatles albums was forbidden by the government, so some medical students would burn Beatles songs onto old X-rays.

America And The Booming Global Arms Trade

Like every other industry in the 21st century, weapons manufacturing has become increasingly globalized, especially in a world of rising powers and subsequent anxieties about security, rivalry, and terrorism. Al Jazeera reports on the latest study by the well respected Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which found that the arms trade has never been stronger:

SIPRI researchers Pieter D. Wezeman and Siemon T. Wezeman found that the “volume of international transfers of major weapons” between 2010 and 2014 was 16 percent higher than it had been in the prior four years.

The United States was the biggest exporter during that period, ahead of Russia and China. American weaponry accounted for 31 percent of all exports between 2010 and 2014, the study states.

“It is by far the largest exporter, and its exports are definitely increasing,” Siemon Wezeman told Al Jazeera. “It’s gaining on the main competitors. There are a number of reasons for that, of course. A very important one is that a number of markets where the U.S. is normally quite strong are gaining again, especially the Middle East.”

Perhaps it is unsurprising that the world’s wealthiest and most powerful nation would play a major role in the global weapons trade. Having far and above the largest and most technologically advanced military has helped cultivate and sustain a well-developed domestic sector for researching and producing all sorts of weapons of war, which can then seek more markets and profits abroad (especially as the U.S. has an interest in propping up particular states for geopolitical reasons).

Courtesy of SIPRI

Sure enough, the world’s former superpower — and some would say re-emerging global power — is not that far behind in supplying the world with weapons. Most of the remaining exporters are also major powers, although a few (namely Italy, Spain, and Ukraine) reflect the presence of one or two companies, rather than any international power projection.

As for the main drivers of this industry:

Middle Eastern states such as the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel accounted for about one-third of American exports. But American weapons manufacturers also shipped a significant chunk of their output to Asia and Oceania, in particular Korea and Australia. Wezeman also cited India as a “new market for the U.S.,” and a source of growth.

India, in fact, has dramatically increased importation of foreign arms, bringing in 140 percent more weaponry between 2010 and 2014 than it had between 2005 and 2009. The country now leads in arms imports, followed by Saudi Arabia, China, and the United Arab Emirates.

And if you think Americans’ declining interest in propping up an ever-more expensive and bloated military will help things, on the contrary: private sector manufacturers are only more likely to make up the difference for fewer domestic purchases abroad:

“The USA has long seen arms exports as a major foreign policy and security tool, but in recent years exports are increasingly needed to help the U.S. arms industry maintain production levels at a time of decreasing U.S. military expenditure,” said Fleurant in a statement accompanying the SIPRI report.

According to Wezeman, the United States government has an interest in maintaining those production levels because some of the revenue from exports goes into research and development.

“Without exports, the U.S. arms industry would survive,” he said. “It’s just that for the U.S. government, R&D would become more expensive because nobody’s sharing the burden with them.”

The export market for American arms manufacturers will likely grow “from 5 to 10 percent of their total output to 25 or 30 percent, maybe more,” he said.

Below is a graph showing the 65-year trend in major weapons transfers internationally.

SIPRI