Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk

Why is history so important? Because it helps us to understand better our present, realize the deep reasons of recent events and make more accurate forecasts regarding consequences they may have. Why do we learn nothing from history? Well, perhaps because we keep ourselves too alienated, too distant from the events that happened in the past and forget that history is nothing but a sum of decisions and actions made by individuals.

by Peter Hopkirk is one of those rare books that turn boring academic, historical reading into a breathtaking, thrilling, and eye-opening experience. Peter Hopkirk shows a century of confrontation between Great Britain and Russia in Asian regions through the lives and fates of people involved into the Great Game. There is no abstract “Britain” or “Russia” or “Persia” in the book, but there are people of flesh and blood, with their motives, wills and ambitions. The book is written like a very good thriller. You see the grandiose chess game developing in the map of Asia and suddenly understand that it is not all over yet. The geographical names mentioned in the book are the same as those you might read in the morning news. Places of the strongest political tension in the modern world are the same that were in the 19th century. Kabul, just to mention one. “I wish our politicians would have read it before we went into Afghanistan and Iraq” one reader wrote in his review, and this is the thought you can’t get rid of throughout the book.

In early 19th century, Asia was not explored by Europeans well enough. The maps of Afghanistan, Tibet and surroundings were very approximate with many white spots on them. Europeans also lacked information about multiple tribes and nationalities that lived in the rocky and deserted area. Any pieces of information about landscapes, aboriginal people and their attitudes toward strangers were priceless those days. Great Britain needed to know everything about the lands that laid between India and Russia, Britain’s major competitor in this area. Young (many players of the Great Game were just 20 or a bit older) men volunteered for research expeditions to Asian countries and gained valuable information, sometimes at price of their health and lives.

Along with the heroism of Asian pioneers, Peter Hopkirk draws the meanness and unscrupulousness of politicians – both Russian and British. Though the author does not give moral appraisals, providing readers with the facts, it is impossible to stay calm and objective when reading about the decisions that were motivated with the greediness and/or stupidity and/or ignorance and cost a thousand innocent lives. What a miserable fate to be a pawn in the Great Game of superpowers!

It is particularly interesting to read about cross-cultural conflicts that developed in Asia, where British, Asian and Russian ways of thinking and ways of acting clashed. Although The Great Game covers the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, it it has a message for contemporary audiences. We think that the world is changing so fast, but in fact many things have not been changed for ages. Any modern problems the world faces today are rooted in the Great Game. At least, it is useful to know the rules…

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

How to Survive the Cold

While politicians are deep into discussion on global warming, many countries are facing unusually cold weather. My friends from Asia, Europe and America have complained about chilling wind, cold and snow. Here in Siberia, this winter is cold too. During the first decade of the January, we had temperatures below -30C/-22F. This is quite normal for Western Siberia, but this winter, the cold period has lasted unusually long. However, people here have developed efficient survival strategies to cope with cold. Most Siberians stay active and live their normal lives when the temperatures are abnormally low. The rules on how to dress up are simple, but they work pretty well. Here you go:

More doesn’t always mean better. You do not have to dress up in onion-like manner to keep warm, but you have to select your cold weather clothes carefully. Speaking physics-wise, your clothes should help you to keep an air layer between you and the outside, and absorb sweat. Air does not conduct heat, while liquid (sweat) does. First, select natural fabric only – cotton and wool are the best. Synthetic fibers do not keep the warmth of your body and got stunning cold when contact with the outer air. Select natural fabrics for your underwear too. Nylon/Lycra pantyhose looks great, but girls are at high risk of exposure to their legs while wearing it when the temperature is below zero (btw, scientists say that the risk of cellulite increases when legs are permanently being over-cooled). Your hands would thank you if you buy wool gloves/mittens for them. Do not forget to protect the throat with the scarf and/or high fur collar.

The slogan “I’d rather go naked than wear fur” doesn’t work in -40C. Nothing will protect your better from cold than long fur coat. Well, the second option is a parka. The longer your coat is the better. A fur hat is perfect for cold and windy weather. You may use a knitted wool hat too, but you should select a thick one. Fur boots keep warm very good, but genuine Russian winter footwear is valenki (in Siberia, we call them “pee´myh”). Nowadays, People in cities do not wear valenki, because this is a “peasant fashion”, however, I wore valenki throughout my childhood and was very happy.

Do not wear tight clothes or shoes. Blood should circulate loosely, otherwise, you will get cold very quickly. Winter shoes should be one size bigger than your regular shoes.

Merino wool is known and popular all across the world. In Siberia, however, dog wool is number one choice because it is warmer and softer than merino. Please, don’t think that there are thousands of shaved dogs in Siberia. We comb dog hair to get the thinnest underfur. It is widely believed that dog wool may heal rheumatism, arthritis and many other diseases.

A regular Siberian winter suit is: polo-neck sweater, jacket and skirt/trousers made of felt/wool, wool pantyhose for ladies and long underwear made of cotton for men, warm but thin socks, high boots, long fur coat/parka, fur hat, scarf, mittens. This is enough to feel fine even when it is so cold that your breathing turns into ice dust at the moment you breath out.

Carl Dressed for Minus 15 Degrees Celsius
Photo by carlfbagge

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Russian Winter Holidays, 2 New Years Included

Winter holidays in Russia officially last 10 days, from December 31st to January 10th. In the Soviet Union, it was an exclusive privilege of children to have a 10 day long winter break. In the early 1990s, Orthodox Christmas (January 7th) became an official holiday in Russia (the Russian Church uses the traditional Julian Calendar, under which December 25th falls on January 7th as measured by the standard Gregorian Calendar). This caused some inconveniences: people celebrated New Year’s eve on December 31st, had some break (normally, two days), got back to work on January 3rd and then had another break from January 6th to January 7th. Add Saturdays and Sundays that may fall on the first 7 days of the year, and you’ll see how few working days are left. So for the last few years, Russians have enjoyed uninterrupted holidays that end when children get back to their classes.

In fact, the festive mood spreads around offices and enterprises about one week before the New Year. When the West celebrates Christmas, Russian companies organize New Year’s parties, so you can hardly catch managers at the office and in the right mood to discuss your business during the last week of the year. I try to have all my projects completed, phone calls done and problems solved before December 24th.

The last informal holiday in the New Year’s set of feasts is the Old New Year on January 14th. Russians have two New Years within two weeks for the same reason the Orthodox Christmas lags behind for 14 days.The Gregorian calendar (the one you most likely use) was adopted in Russia quite late, in 1918. For a long time, many important dates and holidays had two notices – “old style” and “new style”. So the Old New Year is just a start of the year by the Julian calendar.

The Old New Year is a working day, but many people in Russia have kind of a New Year’s eve on January 14th. This is a less formal and more private event and the Old New Year’s parties are more relaxing. As Wikipedia notes, “for many this is a nostalgic family holiday ending the New Year holiday cycle with traditional large meals, singing and celebratory drinking”. TV channels often repeat their New Year programming this day, so people may watch their favorite shows and movies one more time.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

New Year’s Holiday in Russia

New Year is one of the most important holidays in Russia. I bet every family in Russia stays awake at least until 1 am at night on New Year’s Eve, watching TV, eating delicious things and drinking champagne (and/or something else, but champagne is a must).

New Year vs Christmas

The Soviet Union was officially an atheistic country, where religious holidays were prohibited. In many families the tradition of celebrating Christmas was lost after the Revolution of 1917. However, the need for bright, magical winter holiday remained, and soon Christmas was replaced by New Year. Most Christmas attributes were transferred to the New Year holiday, like the decorated coniferous tree, gifts, heavy dinner, lights, garlands, and firecrackers. Until now the New Year’s holiday is more popular and widely celebrated than Christmas in Russia.

The New Year Tree

Families with kids normally decorate a New Year’s tree. Artificial trees are still not so popular in Russia (well, at least, in Siberia) because, first, many fir farms in Russia plant trees specially for the New Year, and second, artificial trees have no scent. The smell of fir for me is a symbol of the holiday since my early childhood, and without this magical scent the New Year is sort of defective. The most popular tree trimming decorations are baubles of various colors, tinsel, electric light garlands and a star on the top. When I was a kid, little toy bears, birds, glass icicles and snow-men toys were also widely used, but during last ten years, I cannot find such toys in supermarkets and stores. Maybe, this is because Russian industry stopped producing native glass New Year toys, and most toys are imported ones. By the way, we do not use ribbons in Russia for decoration.

New Year Tree Many cities and towns manage to decorate an open-air New Year’s Tree. In places like Siberia, where winters are cold enough, the entire snow towns rise at the main squares with the New Year’s tree in the center. Places that are not so lucky, put large inflatable dolls of Ded Moroz, Snegurochka and snowmen.

New Year’s Characters

The central character of the New Year holiday is Ded Moroz. His name could be literally translated as Grandfather Frost. He plays a role similar to that of Santa, i.e. brings presents to children, but he does it in person, during the new year’s parties for kids that are organized in every day-care center and school. However, these presents (mostly sweets) are not so important. A child finds his or her main present laying under the New Year’s tree early in the morning on January 1st. Ded Moroz wears a heel-long fur coat and a semi-round fur hat. Unlike Santa Claus, he walks with a long magical staff, does not say “Ho, ho, ho,” and drives troika. or just walks. Snegurochka or ‘Snow Maiden,’ is a granddaughter of Ded Moroz. She is kind and beautiful, with long blond hair. Often the New Year’s fairy-tales and shows have a plot developed around the same situation: naive Snegurochka has got into troubles and a protagonist rescue her with the help of spectators.

The Dinner

There are no traditional New Year dishes in modern Russia, however, since the Soviet times, the Russian salad is somewhat mandatory. In Russia and the CIS it is called Olivier in honor of Lucien Olivie, a chef who invented the recipe. However, the modern Olivier has nothing in common with the dish that was so popular in Moscow of the 1860s. Butterbrots with caviar, salmon fish, sausages are very common, I believe, for all Russia’s provinces. The main dish can be fried chicken (the whole chicken or parts), pork, beef – actually, everything. In the Soviet Unions the smell of tangerines was one of the things associated with New Year. The reason is that there were standard New Year gifts for kids that included chocolate (natural dark chocolate only, no substitutes), candies, one big apple and tangerines and/or oranges. Those gifts smelled like heaven and the dominant note was, of course, the tangerine.

As I said above, champagne is a special New Year’s beverage. That doesn’t mean that this is the only popular alcohol for the New Year party. Actually, people drink everything during the party, but right at midnight, families and friends gather around the table, stand up and clink glasses of champagne wishing each other a healthy, happy and prosperous new year.

Happy New Year!