Posts Tagged 'ivan the terrible'

Existential Panic World Tour Part 10: Kazan

I’m in Yoshkar-ola in deepest darkest Russia. We took off for Russia from Frankfurt on Thursday. When we boarded our plane bound for Kazan, capital of Tartarstan, but were airily informed that the Kazan airport was mysteriously closed and that we might have to land in Perm at the base of the Ural mountains. That’s a bit like boarding a plane bound for Detroit and having it land in St. Louis. Fortunately, about 30 minutes before we did land we were told that the Kazan airport had re-opened. As we descended, my first impression of Russia was that it looked like a massive unrelenting expanse of Ohio. This place is crushingly, overwhelming flat. The horizon seems to exert a strange gravity upon the architecture which no matter how tall seems squat and insignificant in comparison with the flatness of the land.

We were met at Kazan by some one named Sveltlana. Through her job, my mother has made a number of connections throughout the country. Most feel a certain degree of obligation to her, after all, it was her job to recruit Russian scholars and once in Bowling Green Ohio acquaint them to American life by finding them an apartment, securing grant money etc. Thus Sveltlana, a kind, well-meaning but naive person, met us at the airport and arranged for us to stay at the home of a Russian family for the night.

Though the Soviet Union collapsed in 1992, Russia remains an empire of sorts. Within its vast expanses lies numerous “autonomous republics.” where specific ethnic groups reside. The most famous and troubled one is Chechnya. Fortunately, Tartarstan and the Mari-El Republic (where Yoshkar-Ola is) is less eager to spurn Russian control and start a bloody guerrilla war. Nonetheless, I found people, particularly in Tartarstan, were much more eager to identify themselves as Tartars than as Russians. The identification is with one’s ethnicity rather than with one’s nationality.

The next day we walked around the center of Kazan see the sights. Unfortunately, it were was a fierce wind along with some snow. Before I left the States, we packed several boxes full of winter clothes to Prague. The boxes, of course, did actually arrive until the day after my mother and I left for here. Fortunately I had enough sense to buy a $6 thick wool sweater in Nepal along with a $9 “North Face” jacket that was probably lovingly crafted by slave labor in Northern India. Kazan seemed to be in the midst of a building frenzy. Much of the construction seems to be directed towards undoing what the Soviets did, like reconstructing churches that were either actively destroyed by the Communists or through willful neglect. They are even reconstructing a large Mosque that was burned to the ground by Ivan the Terrible. I was somewhat disappointed with Kazan because a) most of the sights were in the process of reconstruction and b) in all of Tartarstan I saw nary a fishstick.

The next day, Andrey–mom’s primary contact here in Yoshka-Ola–picked us up in a shiny black Russia car, the kind you see KGB agents drive in the movies. To further the image, he was wearing a black leather trench coat. Andrey is a massive individual, with a thick ZZ Top style beard, a large gut and hands the size of hub caps. He looks like, if the situation required it, he could strangle a horse.

This afternoon I’m supposed to go to a Russia Banya with him as my mother continues her research. A Banya is a Russia spa, which I’m told entails lots of Vodka, birch branches, saunas and lots of nudity. Stay tuned…

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Existential Panic World Tour Part 2: Kathmandu!

A movie poster in Kathmandu

Man, this country is nuts. Yesterday I was privileged to see a cobra charmer; a corpse ready for the funeral pyre; errant cows; weird holy men with painted faces, unkempt hair and loin clothes; Tibetan monks; women in saris and more stupas than you can shake a stick at, but I have yet to lay eyes on a single traffic light nor I’m glad to discover a McDonald’s. There are at least six or seven sites where the average tourist can log into the net within a block of here, but most streets here aren’t paved and I’ve seen more half naked crying children standing in rubbish heaps than I care to see.

I’ve been guided by a “college student” conveniently, or suspiciously named, Mr. Nepal. He has boundless energy and knowledge about Nepal and has a contagious smile. Yesterday, we went from one end of Kathmandu to the other seeing dozens of temple complexes, each more stunning than the next. By the end of the day, I simply wanted to sit in a quiet room and detox from sensory overload.

Today, it rained most of the day, so at my behest we went to see an Indian film. It started off as a standard Dirty Harry style rip-off, but quickly became a deeply weird film-going experience. The movie began with a montage of the chiseled-featured good guys where aviator glasses and the Indian flag. Yes, these lads were honest, virtuous, and had David Hasslehoff haircuts–all the things that India, apparently, looks to for a hero. The villain, conversely, was a Sherrif Lobo look-a-like hell-bent on doing everything that made India weak–corrupting officials, buying elections, killing, raping and of course wearing really tacky jewelry. The guy who played the villain, by the way, apparently was a devotee of the Eisenstein school of acting–I haven’t seen a more campy performance since Ivan the Terrible Part 2. Anyway, the leading good guy gets predictably suspended when he shoots a criminal in the groin (who bored a striking resemblance to G. Gordon Liddy). The crook/victim was running for office and his platform apparently entailed beating up orphans and circus performers. From there the plot splits into a dozen different directions. Will the other chiseled face good guy get the girl? Will the leading good guy get his job back and get another girl? Will the villain ever stop sniveling? To make matters more confusing, the “plot” will suddenly cease and an elaborate music and dance number will kick in. Out of nowhere a dozen backup dancers pop out of nowhere and begin shaking their busoms in a manner frighteningly reminiscent of Pat Benatar’s “Love is a Battlefield” (That video scared me as a child.) In one sequence, the girlfriend starts singing on an isolated beach and out from a drainage pipe, I guess, comes the Benatar dozen. What really struck me about these sequences is that there is absolutely no coherence between one shot and the next. One moment girlfriend is rolling in the sand with her back-up, the next she’s in a completely different outfit embracing her beau. Is this an avant garde deconstruction of cinematic space? Is this some convention I’m unfamiliar with? Or is this simply really bad filmmaking? The film ends with the evil villain literally nailing the good guy to a cross and then setting it alight. For one spine-tingling moment I thought that the hero would actually snuff. According to the film, Jesus simply didn’t want it enough, because our hero managed to push over the cross, rips his impaled hands from the wood and proceeds to kick the shit out of seven or eight armed baddies. I was hoping they’d break into song at that point, but sadly they didn’t.

What was interesting about this film was the audience, who applauded when the hero suddenly saves an orphan from getting its head kicked in. I’m not sure if it’s a certain innocence from cliche at work or simply applauding is more a part of Nepali culture.

Over and out.


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