27 November 2007


While no cult of personality is quite as much fun as the cult of Lenin, I'll admit that the later (but shorter-lived) cult of Stalin is pretty interesting too.

And so, an email caught my attention announcing the launch of Stalinka, the University of Pittsburg's "digital library of Staliniana." Pretty interesting stuff, including a searchable database of over 500 photographs, paintings, and posters of Iosef Vissarionovich.

Here is the press release describing the project:

The University of Pittsburgh team and Helena Goscilo take pleasure in announcing the expansion of their STALINKA, a comprehensive digital library of Staliniana for educational purposes.

STALINKA is a scholarly-referenced digital library comprising representations of Stalin in various genres: portraits, paintings, sculptures, posters, political cartoons, propaganda leaflets, photographs, newspaper graphics, and material objects. The website assembles images from major European and American museums, photographic archives, artists, and private collections, including the Tret'iakov Gallery in Moscow, the Archive of the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation (ROSIZO), the Museum for Contemporary History in Moscow, the Russian State Library, the TASS Photographic Archives, the Central Museum of the Great Patriotic War, the Bakhmeteff Archive of Russian & East European Culture, The Museum of Russian Art, The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, and the private art and photograph collections of Vitalii Komar and Aleksandr Melamid, Leonid Sokov, and Artem Zadikian.

The collection provides visuals of historical artifacts from the Revolutionary, Stalinist, post-socialist, and Second World War periods. The recently expanded collection may be accessed at:


We welcome anyone and everyone to the site, but emphasize that (1) all the images are copyrighted and may not be disseminated or used outside the classroom without permission; (2) we are not empowered to give that permission, which must be sought from the pertinent entity or individual identified in the metadata on the site. We also welcome all scholarly input and feedback. Please note that the DRL middleware for the site is currently being upgraded and diacritics for the recent Polish political cartoons temporarily have been replaced with simpler characters.

02 October 2007

Putin's Plan

Ok, I'm breaking my usual rules twice in as many weeks. But when you get interesting news like this, it's hard to resist. By now everyone is aware that "Putin's Plan" has been (at least partially) revealed: Putin will head up the United Russia party list in the December 2007 Duma Elections and will likely be appointed Prime Minister by his successor, who is assumed to be the current Prime Minister, Zubkov.

Lyndon at Scraps of Moscow relayed an interesting analysis from an expert on a panel he attended in his post on the subject:

In any event, it's amazing how quickly the March 2008 presidential elections have come to seem irrelevant. Today I attended a panel discussion which was not focused on the presidential succession question, but the news had to be discussed. One of the participants, a leading scholar of Russian politics visiting from Moscow, suggested that this must have been the first discussion in DC of the new reality of Russian politics. She noted that all of the discussion about successors could be forgotten, and that the power will be in the Prime Minister's office once Putin moves there.

According to her, Putin has been building a parallel power structure for some time and will use it to suck the air out of the vertical of power which was one of the main accomplishments of his time in office. Putin will inevitably have to undermine the presidency if he wishes to remain preeminent on the Russian political scene.

I would disagree with this analysis on a couple of points. While the immediate question seems to be settled on the surface(understanding, of course, that he could always change his mind), there is much that remains unsettled both in the immediate term and in the long term. Yes, it seems as if the Medvedev vs. Ivanov question is resolved, as neither one seems to fit comfortably into "Putin's Plan." Zubkov, on the other hand, is a perfect fit as an aging bureaucrat who is known to be loyal to Putin. That said, it's interesting to note that at the end of the day, Putin could not trust either of the men whom he had supposedly been grooming. To be specific, he could not trust that either Ivanov or Medvedev would perform the role he intended them to perform and allow him to perform his desired role once he leaves office. In other words, by engineering his "plan" around a technocrat and his future position as Prime Minister, Putin's moves suggest that both potential heirs were still too independent for Putin's tastes.

But does this really settle the question? Are all the interesting questions and mysteries really put to rest? Between now and March 2008, it is possible that they are. The script has been revealed, and it is likely that it will be followed more or less according to the director's wishes.

However, the long-term implications of "Putin's Plan" have yet to be understood. In the first place, while Zubkov is assumed to be a pliable Putin loyalist, did not Yeltsin & Berezovsky not assume the same of Putin? While an independent Zubkov would no doubt face much greater hurdles to asserting his own power than did Putin in his early days as president, it's possible that he could. And while the probability of success would be low for Zubkov in such a scenario, in the very least it would produce some political fireworks: the constitutionally-elected president exercising his power to dismiss the prime minister, but the PM refuses to leave because he's the one with the informal power. All of a sudden Russia starts to look like Ukraine.... This is not to say that this will happen, or is even very likely. But it is possible, and it is an unknown.

The other assertion of Lyndon's panelist that I disagree with is the assumption that Putin will suck institutional power from the vertical he built and rebuild it in the Prime Minister's office. While this is possible, it doesn't serve Putin's longer-term interests if he seeks a return to the presidency in 2012 (or sooner, should Zubkov resign before then). Putin's challenge will be to maintain the formal institutions ("institutions" in political science jargon means "rules") as they are now while maximizing his power through informal institutions in the meantime. Thus, unless he envisions a permanent transformation of the Russian political system and its formal institutions whereby the president becomes a figurehead, he will not have an incentive to totally undermine the presidency if he has long time horizons.

Furthermore, it is important to ask whether the significance of his announcement lies in the possibility of him becoming Prime Minister, or whether the significance lies in his position (symbolic or formal) at the head of the United Russia party. If major political decisions can only be taken with the approval of the head of the Party who can deliver votes in the Duma, it may matter less who is the Prime Minister. Or, this may be the beginning of a tradition whereby the head of United Russia is always made Prime Minister. In either case, it is important to keep an eye on Putin's relationship with United Russia, as I have a feeling that is where his new power base will be located.

Ultimately, the biggest unknowns and the most consequential issues for the long term are the major institutional questions being shaped today. Political stability is brought by the iterated functioning of institutions (or rules), whether formal or informal. Democracies are stable because every X number of years the president or prime minister is selected according to rules which have been followed during that and previous iterations. And the most stable authoritarian regimes over time are those that have institutionalized the procedure for succession of leaders and have followed the same rules of succession repeatedly. Political instability, on the other hand, is brought about by a constant changing of the rules, or by actors refusing to follow the rules.

Thus, "Putin's Plan," while perhaps serving his immediate interest in maintaining power, might not be the optimal plan for the future survival and success of the regime, be it authoritarian or democratic. If Russia truly were a democratic country, then democracy would be stabilized by repeated elections whereby candidates are elected in contested, free, and fair elections. But Russia has yet to experience a "normal" transition of power, so the current institutional upheaval in the very least delays any kind of institutional stabilization.

Similarly, a non or partially-democratic Russia would be stabilized by iterated successions according to a common set of rules. It is possible that this is the beginning of such a process of institution building and that Putin has thought this far ahead. Nevertheless, Putin's shifting back and forth between offices would undermine the institutional stability of the regime in the long run. Assuming Putin intends to return to the presidency in 2012, then the 2008 "model" would be discarded and a new set of 2012 rules would be established. Similarly, power would once again return to the presidency. 2020 would then potentially bring a similar problem In other words, if power is shifting from the presidency to the premiership and back every 4-8 years, the overal institutional (and by extension political) stability of the regime is undermined.

As such, it is in the regime's long-term interest to institutionalize power within the presidency and amend the consititution to allow presidents to serve as long as they wish. The other option is to insitutionalize power in the office of the Prime Minister or the head of the United Russia party and keep it there. Shifting power back and forth is not good for stable authoritarian regimes. Now, note that I'm not advocating either of these options as normatively desirable - on the contrary, I'd like to see Russia hold open, democratic presidential elections, and I'm in favor of term limits. But my point is that from the perspective of the long-term survival of regime itself, it is better to establish rules and follow them.

Put another way, it is better for power to be institutionalized in the office rather than in the individual, even in an authoritarian regime. That way, when the individual dies the regime survives. But in order to have repeated successions, the incumbents must leave office (whether horizontally or vertically is less important) on a regular basis. His youth and vigor thus suggest that a "healthy" locus of power in the office rather than the person is unlikely as long as Putin is alive and well. Similarly, extreme personal authority amassed by a single individual is risky because nobody is allowed to develop the same kind of authority while the leader is alive. At the time of the leader's death, then, no successors have the political authority to rule that the predecessor did (think Stalin). While the regime might not be threatened, it will likely be stabilized.

And so, it turns out that "Putin's Plan" may not really be "Russia's Victory," even as Putin defines it. But at the end of the day, this is all speculation because - surprise surprise - we still don't really know where Russia is going and why it's going there...

24 September 2007

The Sound of Marching Boots...

It takes a lot to bring me out of semi-retirement. Especially considering that I have far more important things to do, like writing a dissertation. (OK, in the big picture I realize that my dissertation isn't all that important). It takes even more to get me to write about current Russian events, but when this story passed across my desk this morning it sent chills so far down my spine that I could not help noting it on the blog.

The story came from the September 24, 2007 edition of the Moscow Times and can be found (at least temporarily) here. The headline announces, "Nashi Brigades to Enforce Public Order." I won't get into the background and history of Nashi, as there are others who have already done that quite well. You might want to check out Sean's Russia Blog, which has some outstanding coverage of Russian youth organizations.

The pro-Kremlin youth organization, Nashi ("Ours"), has recently begun organizing volunteer patrol brigades to help "enforce public order." While some might argue that this is simply a large-scale form of the "neighborhood watch," there is plenty of evidence to suggest that something more sinister is lurking below the surface. Or at least the potential for something sinister.

Consider the following choice quotes from Nashi activists which appeared in the Moscow Times article:

*"'In December, volunteers will head out on their own to patrol the streets and help Moscow police to control the situation,' Nashi said in a statement posted on its web site."

*"We are taking a civic-minded position," Lobkov said outside the library. "We don't know what the opposition will plan, so we have to be ready."

*[The opposition movement "Other Russia"] plans to hold a Dissenters' March in central Moscow on Oct. 7 and hopes to attract 5,000. "It's no secret" that the Nashi patrols will be mobilized for the opposition rally, Lobkov said. Asked separately what specific threats the patrols would head off, teenage Nashi activists Svetlana, Yegor and Anastasia gave identical answers. "The opposition wants to destabilize Russia," each of them answered.

*A city law on the patrols allows volunteers to "take physical action" if a lawbreaker is "actively disobedient" or resists. The law allows force as a last resort and "within the boundaries of the right to necessary defense." Lobkov, however, said Nashi activists would not use physical force, a position echoed by city police spokeswoman Alevtina Belousova.

*"We will carry out appropriate countermeasures should our opponents take to the streets" said television personality Ivan Demidov, a leader of Young Guard, the youth wing of the pro-Kremlin party United Russia.

Perhaps most disturbing about these quotes and the movement they represent is the fact that these activists view opposition - any opposition - as destabilizing. Opposition to the Kremlin, they believe, is a threat to the state and to Russia. Their desire is not to tolerate competition in the "marketplace of ideas" that is characteristic of a liberal democratic society, but rather to control the spread of ideas which contradict their own. In other words, they are engaging in a policy of containment. Opposition to the Kremlin is a threat which must be contained. The disturbing part of all of this, of course, is the fact that under a functioning democracy opposition is viewed as not only desirable but absolutely necessary. A democracy without opposition is not much of a democracy at all! That opposition should be viewed as an evil threat which must be contained speaks volumes of the Nashistis' understanding of democracy and politics in general.

Disturbing as this might be, it has even greater implications for the future of Russia's political development. One key characteristic of any democratic regime is the presence of multiple centers of political power. In other words, a variety of institutions, organizations, and structures that operate independently to exert political power. This might include the traditional "checks and balances" of the American system, but it extends to other realms outside the traditional three brances of government (Executive, Legislative, and Judicial). For example, civic organizations can influence the political process, as can political parties, regional and local leaders, the media, even business people. Like it or not, lobbyists too are independent centers that exert influence on the political system and thus weild some form of political power.

The point of all of this is that under democracy there is a plurality of actors who can affect the political process. One of the defining characteristics of Putin's Russia, on the other hand, has been the gradual reduction in the number of politically influential spheres. One by one the independent centers of political power have had their wings clipped by a strengthening Kremlin. The president selects members of the Federation Council and governors. The elimination of single-member districts from the Duma electoral system make it literally impossible for independent politicians to serve in the Duma. The raising of the representation barrier in Duma elections from 5% to 7% has reduced the number of parties that are represented in the Duma. The marshalling of state resources for the benefit of United Russia has both weakened opposition parties while making the Duma itself a pliant extension of the Kremilin's arm. Independent nationwide media has come under government control while big business and the oligarchs who run them have been taught a valuable lesson by the example of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. NGOs and civil society organizations have been burdened by complicated re-registration procedures while sometimes facing the threat of being branded an "extremist organization" subject to liquidation. In short, there are fewer and fewer actors that can exert any sort of political influence, let alone serve as a viable opposition.

As independent political centers are reduced, ordinary citizens are left with fewer and fewer means by which they can make their views known and influence the politics of their country. There comes a point at which their views can be expressed in the only place left open and unregulated: the streets. Thus, rallies, demonstrations, and protests are the last stand for those who wish to influence the politics of an authoritarianizing regime. It is no coincidence that as Putin's Russia has become more autocratic we've seen an increase in the number, frequency, and intensity of political protests. Nothing else can capture the attention of the regime, and it is now clear that the Kremlin's attention has been captured.

It is also clear now why Nashi and its Kremlin backers are so fearful of opposition and see the need to enforce order: public protests are the last means by which their power and control are threatened, and it is a threat which - like the Duma, the Federation Council, political parties, independent media, civic organizations, and oligarchs - must be contained. Russia's leaders have stated on several occasions that an "Orange Revolution" will not take place in Russia. Nashi's activists seem determined to make sure of it.

And so, come this fall, the Nashisti will take to the streets in massive numbers to "carry out appropriate countermeasures" against the fifth column of Russian society, the democratic opposition. What is frightening is the language Nashi is using - this is the language of battle, the language of warfare. Though they deny that they will use physical force, they are permitted by law to use force if an individual is actively disobedient. Thus, any refusal to comply with a Nashi activist's instructions could be construed as active disobedience and worthy of physical force. While they may claim that no force will be used, this is hardly a credible claim from an organization that casts its mission on the streets in the language of violence. In the heat of "battle" do we really expect the Nashi brigades to maintain the discipline to refrain from using physical force? Certainly not. Nor can we expect oversight or justice for those who are injured at the hands of a Nashi activist "maintaining order." Can one really imagine the police taking the word of an opposition protester over that of a Nashi patriot?

And so, we have many new sounds to look forward to this fall in Russia: the sounds of boots marching in step, the sounds of skulls cracking on pavement, and perhaps most troubling, the sound of the final nail being pounded into the coffin of public protest and democratic opposition.

05 September 2007

Comrade Lenin is Always With Us

Lest anyone think that I have disappeared from the face of the earth completely since returning to the United States, I am pleased to present what I hope is evidence to the contrary. Unfortunately, this evidence also proves that I've done very little productive work since my repatriation. However, I hope those of you still reading enjoy the fruits of my labor:

Behold, the online gallery of the entire Lenin bust collection. Bet you didn't know there were so many out there!

Thanks to the "no Lenins in the bedroom" rule (her rule, not mine), they are confined to the "Lenin Room" which also doubles as a study and triples as a guest room. For better or worse, nobody yet seems willing to stay with us as a guest. As if there's something weird about sleeping under the watchful gaze of 37 pairs of Lenin eyes...

Oh, and I suppose the "Lenin Room" also serves as the "pickle room," as it seems to be a suitable place for the 16 pounds of Russian dill pickles I'm fermenting at the moment. But more on that later...

25 July 2007

New Horizons

Well, that day is finally here. I'm going home today. Or at least I think I'm going home today. When leaving Russia I have a policy of never making definitive declarations until the plane has lifted off. But to be on the safe side, I never celebrate until the plane touches down on American soil. After all, it's better not to get your hopes up in case Russia decides to have one of her "moments" right at the time you think you are leaving.

I'm too deeply embedded in my experience here to be able to reflect on it properly at the moment. Besides, I haven't finished packing the Lenins either. So reflections will have to wait a bit.

Of course, this brings up the question of the future of this blog. On the one hand, the blog isn't much without Russia's participation. She has provided all the material, while I simply relay it to a (semi) captivated audience. I somehow doubt that "My Life" from a sleepy college town will be quite so intriguing as dogs that ride the metro. Or pickles. I suppose I could convert to Russia punditism and comment on more contemporary political issues, but there are plenty of people doing that already. Plus, I have a dissertation to get writing.

But not to despair. I do still have a few stories waiting in reserve and I hope to put them on (digital) paper eventually. For example, I never got around to writing about the vendors on Arbat that assault you with "fyuh khats from reeel minks!" ("fur hats from real mink," except it's really muskrat, not mink). Or the guillotine doors of metro cars that put the French Revolution to shame. And the metro turnstile barrier that almost preemtively took the life of my unborn child (if you've been to Moscow, you know what I mean). Oh, plus there's Russia's magically soft roads - so soft and cushy that cab drivers insist that seatbelts are unnecessary.

But even better than these memories from the past is the promise of future stories. It turns out that (for better or for worse) I've received funding to do research for about 6 months next year in Ukraine and Belarus. So, starting in April 2008 Darkness at Noon will begin broadcasting live from Kiev and Minsk. If the Ukrainians and Belarussians are anything like their wacky Russian bretheren, there are sure to be some good stories coming down the line...

In the meantime, check back here occasionally, as I'm sure I'll have some stories about the wonderful process of obtaining a visa to Belarus. Eh, how hard can it be?

In closing, let me just thank all of you who have been dedicated (and semi-dedicated) readers over the past several months. While I don't seek out trouble, there are more than a few occasions when I pushed my boundaries and went a little farther than I'm used to so that I would have something to write for you. I have no doubt that I'm a better person for it and my experiences were that much richer for it. So thanks for prodding me into dark corners and sharing the adventures that come of it.

Oh, and I'd also like to thank all the people who arrive here via Google looking for "Lenins n Things." You have inflated my counter statistics beyond my wildest dreams. I hope you found what you were looking for.

До скорого,

12 July 2007

Some Lenins I've Known

I thought it would be a good idea to sift through 7 years-worth of photos I've taken in Russia and her neighbors and put up an album of some of the best Lenin statues I've photographed. Some of the photos pre-date digital cameras and are a little old/grainy looking, but you get the picture (pun intended?) So here they are...

Finland Station, St. Petersburg:

From this angle, Lenin gives you a thumbs-up: "Hey, isn't revolution GREAT?!!"

Lenin with entourage at Oktyabrskaya Square, Moscow:

Lenin guarding the grounds at VDNKh:

He looks lost in thought. Probably thinking about getting a tasty shaurma from one of the nearby vendors:

Lenin at Sergiev Pasad, paradoxically former seat of the Russian Orthodox Church:

This Lenin stood next to the old Gorbushka, back when it was a sprawling outdoor bazaar. Someone has spray painted "John Lennon" on the base. I've never been able to find this Lenin again, though it probably doesn't help that I've never tried:

Inside the Central Armed Forces Museum in Moscow. As this one is marble, it would be VERY expensive to ship home, I think:

At the outdoor sculplture park next to the New Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow:

Inside the WWII museum in Minsk:

Also in Minsk:

Lenin pointing at Japan from Vladivostok: "Hey! Does that sushi stuff come with mayonnaise?"

In Volgograd (Stalingrad), Lenin says, "See how nice it is now that we've rebuilt our city?"

The largest bust of Lenin in the world, located in Ulan Ude. I'll confess that this is not my picture. When I was there, it was the middle of the night, it was December, I was sick, and only halfway through my trip on the Trans-Siberian. Needless to say, my own photos didn't turn out very good...

Tambov: Reverend Lenin says, "Can I get an AMEN!"

In Lipetsk, Comrade Lenin doesn't say much. There's hardly any traffic through Lenin Square (recently renamed Cathedral Square because there's a, um, cathedral there). I think he gets lonely.

In Nizhny Novgorod, Lenin says, "Look at the wonderful shopping mall they've built next to me. Maybe I was wrong about this whole 'capitalism is evil thing...'"

For the most comprehensive archive of Lenin monuments in Russia, the former Soviet Union, and around the world, take a look at monulent.ru (in Russian), which has Lenin monuments organized by city. Bet you never knew there were so many!

07 July 2007

Petersburg White Nights

Here's a few more pictures from my recent trip to St. Petersburg. These were taken between 11:00 pm and 1:00 am. For someone who grew up in a place where 9:00 is the latest the sun ever sets in the summer, seeing it still light out at midnight is a bizarre experience.

The event I photographed was a concert and outdoor party thrown for the city's high school graduates, who had graduated that day. As you can see from the photos, there were hordes of kids everywhere. Nevsky Prospect was closed from Gostiniy Dvor all the way down to the river, and people were constantly streaming towards the Winter Palace.

I finally bailed at 1:00, partly because I was tired and partcly because it looked like things could easily get out of hand. People were starting to get drunk, rowdy, and pushy, and there were a few moments where someone smaller than I would have had a hard time holding their own against the pulsing crowd.

As I walked back up Nevsky Prospect, the masses continued to flow toward the concert. The street was full of broken glass - as people finished their beers, they would set the bottle on the side of the road. Sooner or later someone would trip over it or deliberately kick it and it would shatter on the pavement. Some of the ornamental iron bollards along Nevsky were ripped out of their foundations, often prying up the pavement stones with them.

To the credit of the St. Petersburg municipal services, by 9:00 the next morning the entire length of the street was spotless - all the glass had been removed and all the bollards and chains had been restored to their original positions (though some were tilting a bit precariously).

In any case, that's enough from me. Here are the pictures:

Guest appearance by St. Petersburg governor (and potential Putin dark-horse successor?) Valentina Matvienko:

This is my favorite photo: two lines (there's another one on the right that's not pictured) of OMON officers guarding..... an extension cord.

03 July 2007

Soviet Jokes

In looking for the Lenin triple-wide joke, I came across the following site that is loaded with tons of classic Soviet-era jokes (translated into English), organized by theme. This should keep you all busy (and laughing) for at least a few days...

Laughing Under the Covers


(PS - the above cartoon is the Pulizer-prize winning work of Jim Borgman...)

Moscow Through Her Eyes

The Mrs. arrives in Moscow tomorrow. After not having seen her for several months now, I'm nearly going insane with anticipation, but luckily I have some pickles and beet salad to comfort me for the next few hours.

Though this is my fifth stint in Russia, this will be her first time over here. I'll confess, while Russia has always been a major part of my life, it's been a surprisingly small part of our relationship. While there was less of a boundary while we were dating in college, now Russia tends to get filed under "work," and is thus not something we spend a lot of time discussing at home in the evenings. After all, we have other mutual interests and hobbies, and we each have our own individual interests. Russia happens to be one of mine, in addition to being my career.

I also think that my fascination (bordering on obsession) with Russia has always seemed to her as one of my eccentricities, something she doesn't question but is patiently tolerant of even if she doesn't understand it. When we first met there were two Lenins, and I'm sure they raised an eyebrow. By the time we got married, there were 14, and by then they had just become part of the scenery. Now that there are 36 Lenins, I'm not sure what her reaction will be. Actually, I do know: she'll laugh at them (or me?), shake her head a few times, and then propose that we rearrange the Lenins to act out a fighting scene or something. "But they're all friends!" I protested the last time she suggested this...

Needless to say, I'm looking forward to seeing her in Russia. And I don't just mean seeing her, I mean seeing her experience Russia. I want to see how she reacts to the "other woman" in my life (Mother Russia), the woman who has kept us apart for the last several months and made me smell perpetually of garlic. I want to see what Russia looks like through my best friend's eyes since I know it will look entirely different than how I see it.

To be honest, I secretly want her to fall in love with Russia too. Maybe not as head-over-heels as I did (although I won't protest if she wants to start her own Soviet statuary collection), but enough so that it's not so foreign to her anymore. It reminds me of the Soviet-era joke stating that newlyweds needed a triple-wide bed because "Lenin is always with us." In our case, Russia is always with us, and while the Mrs. laid down the law when we moved in together ("No Lenins in the bedroom" were her exact words), I'm hoping that Russia will become a bigger part of our lives together.

And I suppose what I'm really hoping for is that some of my "eccentricities" will be explained when she sees the place that created them...

So, I hope you'll forgive me if I'm lax about posting during the next couple of weeks, as we'll be wandering all over Moscow, St. Petersburg, and possibly even Ulyanovsk (birthplace of Lenin and home to the Lenin memorial museum and complex!!!) discovering ourselves and the mysterious woman called "Rossiya."

02 July 2007

Something has happened to me...

Yesterday I moved out of my lodgings with Host Family and into a fabulous and enormous apartment for my remaining month in Moscow.

This has been coming for some time. Host family had informed me upon my arrival in January that their beloved son (who lives in America and is clearly their favorite child based on the way they talk about him) would be visiting for an unspecified amount of time in July. Thus, I was to find another place to live so that he could stay with Mom & Dad.

I'll spare you the details of how it all came about, but I'm essentially housesitting for an American in a beautiful western-remont apartment. After 6 months in my little room with my divan, computer, and books, I literally don't know what to do with myself here. I often get lost going from the bedroom to the kitchen, and by the time I open the fridge I've forgotten what I came for.

The kitchen is perhaps the best part of the outfit. As an amateur (but pretty darn good) chef, I've spent the last 6 months dreaming about the day when I would be liberated from my chains and could perform my usual culinary acrobatics once again in the kitchen. But mostly I was dreaming about the day when I could kiss instant mashed potatoes, undercooked kotlety, and dill goodbye.

The kitchen in my new apartment has everything I could ask for: razor-sharp German knives, beautiful French enameled cast-iron cookware, and a stove whose burners emit such a vigorous "WHOOSH!" upon lighting that my eyebrows flinch every time. At last, here is a canvas upon which I can paint my masterpieces of sauces, sides, and sautes!

Then why in God's name was the first thing I prepared yesterday PICKLES? That's right, I ran out to the nearest outdoor market and bought a kilogram of cucumbers, a forest's-worth of dill, and enough garlic to ward off every bad Dracula movie they've ever made. You see, host Mom had given me her "secret" recipe for lightly-salted pickles, and it is the only thing I've been able to think about since.

It doesn't stop there. This morning when I woke up, I bypassed the Corn Flakes in the cupboard and went straight for the kasha. Same stuff that's been set in front of me for six months, and on my first day of freedom it's the only thing that sounds good for breakfast. So I boil kasha for the first time, and it's wonderful! (I am proud to say that my kasha is better than host Mom's, which was always over-salted and overly mushy).

But wait, there's more! I just whipped up a batch of that shockingly pink salad that consists of grated beets, mayonnaise, and garlic. And my God, it's good!

And did I mention the salmon that's salting and curing in the fridge too?

What's happening to me? I thought maybe it was a one-time deal and that yesterday I had simply woken up on the Russian side of the bed (by which I mean the divan). But today it happened again: when I went to the western-style supermarket I found myself bypassing all the imported stuff and loading my cart with that nondescript Russian cheese, the plastic-cased sosiski (hot dogs), sushki, and a bottle of kvas for good measure.

I'm embarrassed to admit that the fridge now smells pretty much like it did back at host family's place, minus the really funky odors. But the powerful scent of dill, garlic, and beets fills the air and wafts through the kitchen every time I open the refrigerator door. I probably shouldn't be admitting this publicly, as the apartment owner is a regular reader of this blog, but I suppose they'll find out soon enough anyway. Sorry, A! I'll be sure to leave the pickle recipe for you as a peace offering!

I'm not really sure how to account for the dramatic shift in my tastes. After all, it was not long ago that I was berating Russian food and declaring that I could reasonably stand Russian food about once a year. One friend recently suggested that perhaps it was a case of culinary Stockholm syndrome, the condition whereby a hostage becomes emotionally attached to his captors. Suffice it to say that I've become emotionally attached to my pickles, kasha, and beet salad.

In fact, I think this is simply part of a larger phenomenon that has been developing inside of me for the last couple of months. I can honestly say that for the last couple of months here, I haven't just been surviving, which is how it felt during those first few dark, cold, lonely months. Rather, I feel like I've really been thriving here. Moscow has become comfortable, it has become welcoming, it has become home. Of course, Moscow hasn't become anything it wasn't already. The real change has been within myself as I stopped fighting the current and started swimming with it.

Of course, this transformation has partly been a change in attitude - things that once irritated me and occasionally even infuriated me now get brushed casually aside with the incredibly useful umbrella explanation, "well, that's Russia." And I can even laugh about some of these things now too. But perhaps equally important, I can give it right back now. When some 50 year-old pre-babushka tries to slip laterally into the line at the ticket window, I can sternly point behind me and tell her that THAT's the back of the line, and that we've all been waiting for a long time. In the past I would have just let her cut and fumed at her uncivil behavior. Similarly, I can argue with the woman selling tickets at the museum who insists on charging me the adult foreigner price despite the fact that I have a student ID card from a Russian university. Of course, she still gets her way, but at least I get some satisfaction by telling her she's the only cashier in Moscow who doesn't understand that foreigners can be students at Russian universities.

I think the root of this newfound acceptance of Russia and all her quirks is linguistic. After months languishing on a plateau, my Russian language abilities suddenly spiked upwards, making everything that much easier here. And so it's not just that I've learned to go with the flow and follow the current, but I've been given a paddle and can actually steer where I want.

And so, Russia has started to feel normal. It has started to feel right. Maybe this is a sign that it's time to go home, or maybe this is a reason to be sad: I'm finally hitting my stride, just a month before I'm due to leave. I find I'm having a harder and harder time coming up with things to write about, which is probably why my postings have dropped off a bit lately. That which was once foreign and worthy of satirical jest is just a part of normal life now, part of my life now. It is as if the barrier between the Self and the Other has started to dissolve, becoming equally a part of who I am.

But enough of all this philosophical mumbo jumbo. I have pickles to check on!

28 June 2007

Defenders of Leningrad

Now that I'm home in Moscow, I thought I'd post some photos of my recent trip to St. Petersburg. While the "White Nights" photos will be coming shortly, I'll start with some shots of the Monument to the Defenders of Leningrad, one of the most moving war memorials I've found in the former USSR.

22 June 2007

Where I've been...

In case anyone was wondering about the reduced frequency of the blog lately, I've been playing tour guide to visitors for the last week. We're heading to St. Petersburg for a few days, which should hopefully produce some beautiful pictures and some good stories.

До скорого,

16 June 2007

Russian Banking Crisis

No, don't worry, they haven't devalued the ruble again. This one is about my own personal banking crisis of the last week.

It's been a good three months since my last major crisis - the visa debacle of March/April (part 1, part 2, part 3) . And as anyone who has spent time in Russia knows, three months is far too great an interval between personal crises. Thus, I was overdue for something.

But for some reason Russia wasn't cooperating - everything was going quite smoothly. Too smoothly. Doesn't she know she has a responsibility to fulfill? Doesn't she know that I have a responsibility to fulfill? Doesn't she know that I have a vast (ok, maybe that's overstating it) readership that derives the greatest of pleasures from my misfortunes?

And so, it was time to precipitate my own crisis. I don't do these things for myself, since they only bring me heartache, sleepless nights, and an even further receded hairline. I do these things for you, dear readers, so that when you log on during your lunch break in your cushy office you have something entertaining to accompany your turkey & avocado sandwich with baby spinach and herb aioli. I suffer for you, readers!

Actually to be honest, it was an accident, a stupid accident, and no matter how much I love my readers, I would have rather not gone through the experience. But rather than hide my own stupidity, I figure the least I can do is share this as a warning to fellow travelers and as a source of amusement for your turkey sandwich.

So here it is: I left my ATM card in the machine at one of the busiest train stations in Moscow. It was one of those damned machines that gives you your money before returning the card. Not that that's an excuse. My real excuse was that I was in a hurry to get cash for train tickets and ran out of there without grabbing my card or even thinking about it. The kicker is that it was a day and a half before I realized I had lost my card, and when I did the world before my eyes broke into a thousand shards of glass and I watched the pieces fall in slow motion to the ground.

Oh *&$#@. I'm screwed.

The friend whom I was on my way to meet reassured me: "Oh, that happened to us in Vietnam... We left the card in the machine just in time to watch it get sucked back in." Apparently as a security feature, ATMs ingest forgotten cards so that they don't go wandering off with the next customer...

"We called the bank," she said, and they told us that someone would be going out to the machine on Monday to get the card. When we told them we were leaving on Sunday, they said they'd send someone out on Friday and we could get the card at the airport on our way out!" A glimmer of hope from this story raised my spirits, though I had overlooked one minor detail: this was Russia I was dealing with.

I made a b-line for the station. Nobody had turned in the card to the police or the station manager, though I will say that the woman manning the security cameras was very friendly, even sifting through video footage to get clues. Alas, there were none to be had. Finally I returned to the accursed machine and found the customer service number.

After describing my problem with particular eloquence and fluency (apparently my Russian has improved drastically in the last few weeks, or maye it's just stimulated by panic), the woman on the other end of the line assured me that the machine had taken possession of my card and that it was located in the machine at that very moment.

"But unfortunately the machine will only be opened and serviced on the 15th of this month" (this was about a week away). Not looking forward to scratching by for a week on my emergency reserve, I asked if there were any way to expedite the process. After all, this is Russia, a major industrialized nation, not some little communist hangout in Southeast Asia!

She gave me a phone number of the Moscow branch office that would handle it and said I could inquire whether I could get my card sooner.

I called that day, a Saturday (which, unlike in America, is a working day for banks). No answer. I called on Sunday. No answer. I called on Monday. No answer. You see, Tuesday was a national holiday, which means that everyone took Monday off as well. So it wouldn't be until Wednesday that I could actually get through to them, by which time I would be in Yaroslavl for research.

At last Wednesday arrived, and standing on the banks of the Volga I called the number.

Call 1:
"I'm sorry, we don't have it here. Try calling this number, they should know when it will be available."

Call 2, new number:
"No, you need to call this number"

Call 3, new number:
[Disinterestedly and totally unconcerned by my plight]: "No, we don't have it. You should call back in another week to see if it comes in."

"I don't think you understand. I'm a foreigner and I need my card now, I need money. Is there anyone I can talk to about getting it sooner?"

She put me on hold and ten minutes later I hung up in frustration, having been ignored and abandoned.

I called the central customer service number again in despair. My card was somewhere in Moscow but nobody was willing to say when or where it would be liberated and repatriated. To their credit, the customer service people were exceptionally polite and helpful (based on the area code, I determined they're located in St. Petersburg, adding another reason for me to love that city and its residents).

"Yes, I understand everything. Let's check the records... Ah, it seems your card has already been retreived and is located at the central Moscow branch on X street for you to collect. Be sure to bring your passport, and call us if you have any other problems." At last, some light at the end of the tunnel!

Just to be safe, I called the branch and told them that they had my card.

"No, it's not here."

"What do you mean it's not there? I just spoke to your customer service office and they said it's been removed from the machine and taken to your office."

"Well, it's not here. Call back in a couple of days."

By this point I'm furious, as I'm sick of being brushed off by lethargic employees who have no desire to lift a finger beyond their little workspace. My anger and newfound Russian fluency come together all of a sudden in a sort of yin & yang moment and I let loose on the woman:

"Listen, I'm a foreigner and I'm leaving the country in three days." That was a lie, but being honest and nice wasn't getting me anywhere. "I just called your customer service department and they told me that the card has been retreived and that YOU have it at your office. And now you're telling me that you don't have it. So please, tell me, where's my card?"

"Sometimes it takes a couple of days for the technician to deliver the cards that have been left in machines."

Now I'm downright hostile. "Do you mean to tell me that my ATM card is wandering around Moscow right now in the pocket of some technician and that MAYBE it will show up in a couple of days? That's unacceptable. Listen, I need to know right now, WHERE'S MY CARD?"

I hear her call out to a coworker, "Hey, Masha, do you have a card for a last name X?.....You do?" A couple of seconds later, "Yes, it's here. You can come pick it up."

I was too releived and overjoyed to give the woman the tongue-lashing she deserved. If it had been with Masha all along, why didn't she bother to get up and ask her when I first called? At the same time, I felt a little guilty: I had been harsh, I had been brusque, and I had lied. These are all things I rarely do. But this latest incident just proved in my mind again that in this place that's sometimes the only way to get things done, the only way to get someone to take you seriously.

So while I was a little ashamed that I had become "like them," I was also more than a little proud of myself, as I had found the persistence to get the job done and finally had the language skills to back it up. Had this happened a few months ago, I'm sure I would have meekly called back in a few days, surviving on bad kotlety and mashed potatoes in the meantime because I couldn't afford better food.

And yes, the story has a happy ending. I could have put your fears to rest at the beginning, but what would be the fun in that? I went to the Moscow branch yesterday and liberated my card, where it was held in a box with literally hundreds of other abandoned ATM cards.

"I guess this sort of thing happens a lot," I said to the man rummaging through cards.

"Yes, people do this all the time."

Huh. For something that happens all the time, you'd think they'd be a little better equipped to handle these situations...

12 June 2007

Knock it off!

Returning once again to the theme of Moscow fashion, I've been particularly amused lately by the name-brand knockoffs that still appear on the streets. The most commonly seen knockoffs remain pirated athletic wear - adidas, puma, and the like - that can be found comfortably draped on every track-suited thick-necked man in town.

But wait, you say! This is the New Moscow! Isn't it possible that Russians have traded in the knockoffs of the 90s for the real thing now that they're rolling in oil money? No, it's not. Here's why: the real adidas is expensive. I just checked on the adidas website where I see that their cheapest track pants are $50 and the matching track top is $60. Now let's return to Moscow. If some Muscovite has $110 to burn on casual clothes, is he going to buy a track suit that looks just like the $20 Chinese knock-off that everyone else is wearing? No, he's going to spend it on something that's going to make him stand out and get the attention of the devushkas! Another way of putting this is that the people wearing the "adidas" track suits around Moscow don't exactly carry themselves like they dropped a hundred bucks on their outfit.

Oh, and the other sign that the track suit is a knockoff is the fact that the brand name may often be misspelled. So regardless of how he carries himself in his slick nylon suit, if it says "addidas" or (my favorite) "adibas," you know he's just faking it.

Recently it would seem that knockoff producers are setting their sights even higher: one can now find all sorts of Dolce & Gabbana wear all over the place. When I was in Tambov, I saw a young lady wearing a partially see-through top that was made out of rayon or something synthetic (I'll confess I don't know my fibers very well). It was the color of red and brown's unfortunate love child, and was made all the more hideous by what was painted on the front. There, running across the chest from shoulder to waist like a sash were the words "dolce & gabbana" repeated over and over again in gold paint. You heard me, gold paint. Had he been able to see this wretched creation, Signore Dolce would have died instantly from shock, while Signore Gabanna would have simply rocked back and forth in the corner muttering to himself as he softly beat his head against the wall.

Problems with logos extend beyond clothing as well. I once was face-to-face with a black leather briefcase that bore and attractive metal medallion resembling a clock on the side of the bag. The clock's numbers were written in Roman numerals, and I followed them around the circle without issue until I reached the number 9, which had been rendered as VIIII rather than the proper IX. Moscow may be the Third Rome, but she evidently didn't take to Rome's numbering system...

Sometimes if you're lucky knockoff goods will contain a catchy slogan to increase the item's appeal to consumers. In this regard, quality is apparently a highly valued attribute of knockoffs. I once saw a Reebok gym bag on the metro that had the following slogan painted on the side: "Feel the high quality of the materials." Indeed, I did want to feel the high quality of the materials after reading this reassuring slogan, though I feared that if I reached out and caressed the bag belonging to the heavyset man with a sparkly gold smile he might take it the wrong way. I kept my hands to myself.

Since then I've seen other articles extolling the virtues of the materials and workmanship that went into producing them: "sewn from the best cloths," "the quality is the number 1." Such statements make perfect logical sense. In the first place, it is understandable that one might be concerned about the quality of cheap knockoff items. Thus, consumers are reassured that though it's not really a name brand, its quality meets or even exceeds that of the real thing. After all, how can there be two number ones? If the bag I'm holding in my hands says "the quality is the number 1" then that means that mine is the best. I can buy with confidence.

Secondly, such slogans increase efficiency. Rather than having to test every zipper and button, poke around inside and out and waste time pawing through the bag, consumers can simply make an immediate purchase knowing that theirs is "the best."

Finally, displaying such articles in public through daily use demonstrates that the user is a discerning person with class and good taste. For only the best will do!

Sometimes the slogans appearing on garments impart superlative qualities to the wearers as well. I recently saw a young man on the Metro escalator wearing a striped polo-style shirt. On the back painted in large fancy script letters were the following words: "In the pursuit of excellence." I wanted to go up to that young man, slap him on the back, and congratulate him on his noble pursuit. Perhaps if all Russians pursued excellence as he did, this would be a better place. But I didn't approach him, as I thought he might take it the wrong way. Instead, I was satisfied with the thought that I, by following behind him on the escalator, was in the pursuit of the pursuit of excellence. That's almost as good, right?

Of course, sometimes the slogans just don't make any sense. Today on the Metro I saw a man wearing a rather odd shirt. It was made of a white linen-type material that looked like it had been tie-dyed with gray dye. And the bottom of the shirt and the ends of the sleeves were dyed a watery red, as if the guy had been wading in blood up to his waist. Dye or not, I wasn't going to be approaching him no matter how high the quality of the materials!

I saw the back of his shirt first. There, in gothic-style black letters it said, "Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to." In fact, this is from a quote by Oscar Wilde, the entirety of which reads, "Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months." Apparently the producers of the shirt were behind schedule, as they simply could not spare another six months...

By Wilde's standards this was a VERY fashionable (read: ugly) shirt, and I do hope the wearer takes Wilde's advice to heart and disposes of it within the six month window. And maybe he could throw away his sleek black little "murse" (man-purse) while he's at it.

As if that weren't enough, he eventually turned around to reveal the front of his shirt, which simply stated "Very Smart."

Somehow I doubt that...

08 June 2007

Wrong Address - Return to Sender

I've been a little irritated lately by the fact that there is a shortage of proper forms of address in Russia (or rather, there is a shortage of such things in Russian, regardless of where you're speaking it. I had the same problem when speaking Russian in California, for example).

Russian simply doesn't have very good or commonly used equivalents for Mr., Mrs., sir, ma'am, etc, and that makes life in Russia difficult for a polite person like me.

My current state of irritability was brought about by an episode last weekend at the megamart Auchan, Russia's version of Wal Mart. Actually, it's France's version of Wal Mart, as the Frenchies managed to beat the Emperor Walton's Evil Empire to Moscow. Napoleon would be so proud! Had it turned out otherwise, I can picture the following scene:

President Reagan: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this Wal (Mart)"

But that's beside the point. I had secured an invitation and a ride to this suburban mega consumer wonderland, as I thought it would be a good cultural experience - a chance to see the world of suburban middle class Moscow. In fact, it felt as if I had stepped right into middle America, except they don't sell live sturgeon in Arkansas. Nor have I ever seen foie gras for sale at Wal Mart, but I guess certain excentricities are to be expected when it comes to a French retailer.

Having wandered the aisles for an hour dragging my jaw on the floor the whole time and having nearly died laughing as I watched the Russians in the TV section enthralled by 50-cent's music video of "P.I.M.P" playing on every T.V., my good friend Nature called and I was compelled to answer the call.

Not finding a statue of Dostoevsky, I set off in search of the bathroom. I spotted it on the other side of the cash registers and did what one always does back home: I made a b-line for the bathroom, found the checkout aisle with the skinniest people, and proceded to squeeze through.

"Man (мужчина/muzhchina)....Man!" the cashier barked at me. Actually, it was more of a bored, whiney growl, as it's a three-syllable word in Russian and she took much delight in stretching out each syllable with more than a touch of condescention.

"You can't go through here."

Even the skinny people I was trying to pass had a look of shock and horror on their faces, which seemed to say, "how dare someone go through the checkout line without buying something! Our checkout line!"

"But I have to use the bathroom," I pleaded as I pointed to the door which was only a few steps away.

"You have to go down past the first cash register and through security first." [yes, there's security at Russo-Franco Wal Mart]

Now, when I said that this was Russia's version of Wal Mart, what I meant was this is three times the size of even the superest of Super Walmarts, as everything in Russia is, well, bigger. There are literally about 100 checkout stations at Auchan, and I was somewhere around 75. I set out on my epic journey to cashier number 1, briefly contemplating buying some snacks for the long trip to the bathroom that lay ahead of me. But then I would just be able to go through the checkout line and straight to the bathroom, rendering the snacks unnecessary. No, I would have to endure the trek without provisions or equipment.

A couple of weeks later I rounded cashier 1, passed through security, and hiked back up to the bathroom where I finally found peace. But I was still irritated at having been addressed so brusquely as "Man." I realized, of course, that it wasn't the woman's fault (though she could have just let me go through to the bathroom), but rather Russian language's fault. As I mentioned in the opening, there's just no good way to address someone politely in Russian.

Along with "man," you often hear people use "young man" (молодой человек/molodoi chelovek), which I suppose is better. But what do you do if the person isn't so young? After all, would I really address someone as "young man" who is a good 10-15 years older than me?

There's a similar problem when addressing women. The quite common address, "girl" (young woman, девушка/devushka) is really the only way to get the attention of the bored waitress who is half-heartedly flirting with the bartender and who couldn't care less about the fact that you have your soup but no spoon. It's taken me a long time to shout out "devushka" at a waitress, as it's always felt quite impolite. [Come to think of it, this is about the hundredth time I've talked about me being too polite on this blog. I'm beginning to realize that maybe I'm not too polite in general, just too polite for Russia]. In any case, I've finally gotten used to it, sort of, and will wield it when absolutely necessary.

But again, what do I say if the woman is clearly not a devushka anymore? After all, would you really call a 40-year old Russian a "young woman" anymore?

There are, of course a few other options. There is the somewhat archaic and underused господин/госпожа (gospodin/gospozha), which translate to Mr. and Mrs. But I haven't heard anyone use them except the 95-year old babushka next door who refers to me as "Gospodin R."

Then there is the even more archaic сударь/сударыня (sudar/sudarynia, sir/madam), which is utterly obsolete.

On top of these you have a bunch of bastardized cognates that get thrown around (especially in the presence of westerners), suich as сэр (sir) and мистер (mister). These I just find irritating, as I get easily annoyed by souvenir vendors on the Arbat shouting at me, "meester, meester, you buy, good price!"

And so, the problem remains: there is no standard polite way to address people in Russian.

I suppose a return to the Soviet-era practice of referring to people as "citizen" and "citizeness" might work, although since citizenship, immigration, and nationality are a touchy subject these days, maybe it's best to leave these ones in the closet.

No, it seems perfectly clear to me that there is only one viable way around this conundrum:

Bring back the comrade.

I say this in all seriousness. Sure, the word товарищ (tovarishch) carried some ideological and historical baggage at one time, but seriously, does anyone really believe that communism is going to return? And besides, if they brought back the red flag for the army and the old hymn for the state, why not the old "comrade" for the people? It's not like the Russian government is all that keen on de-Sovietization and grappling with its past, after all. So what harm would it do?

In fact, I think it would do a lot of good. First, you have a form of address that can be used directly: "Comrade, could you please bring the bill?" And yet the same word can also be used to refer to someone indirectly: "Allow me to introduce you to Comrade Ivanov."

Additionally, in the spirit of political correctness and gener equality, it breaks down gender barriers by being a gender-neutral form of address, appropriate for men and women. Thus, in one fell swoop we've got a word to cover Mr., Mrs., Ms., Sir, and Madam. And it also comes in handy during those embarassing moments when the gender of one's interlocutor is ambiguous. I have in mind the androgynous teenager with the long hair and delicate fingers on the metro as well as the he-she bear whose gender is unclear but whose appetite is not.

Let's also not forget that tovarishch is a real Russian word that real Russians already know. None of this silly importning of english cognates, which I find to be especially irritating. Russian is a rich language, why do you insist on cheap western imports (of words) for which Russian already has an alternative?

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, maybe if everybody thought of everybody else as their "comrade," this would be a more pleasant and polite place. In short, it would be a more comradely place.

And so, I hereby propose that those of us who are in Russia or are using Russian on a regular basis begin the movement to return "comrade" to the daily lexicon for it can only bring joy, peace, love, and equality.

Who's with me, Comrades?

03 June 2007

Picturing the Collapse

Not long ago I mentioned a hapless soul who was brought to my blog searching for a "photo of the collapse of the Soviet Union," which raised the question of what that iconic photo might be, as the collapse itself really took place over the course of several months (even years). After digging around on the web and getting suggestions and submissions from others, here are several candidates that seem to best capture "the collapse." And additional submissions that I've missed are, of course, welcome!

First, on Lyndon's suggestion, we have a trio of photos depicting Chernobyl, the Soviet exodus from Afghanistan, and bread lines. In Lyndon's honor, the bread line photo was supposedly taken in Chisinau:

Next, recognizing the importance that nationalist mobilization and protests played in bringing down the Soviet system, we have a photo of the human chain across the Baltics in 1989, followed by one of the riots in Yerevan in 1988.

Next, there are the many notable images surrounding the August 1991 coup. The first is the memorable image of the coup plotters, visibly shaken (and shaking) appearing on television:

At the barricades in Moscow and St. Petersburg:

Then, of course, we have the famous photos of Yeltsin at the White House:

This one was sent to me by Andy at Siberian Light:

The triumphant toppling of Dzerzhinsky's statue in front of the Lubyanka (which, as it turns out, had a little help from a crane from the U.S. Embassy):

And of course, there are the the somewhat sad images of Gorbachev's return to Moscow:

Soon after it was apparent that there was a new man calling the shots in Moscow:

And eventually it was that man who met with the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus in this villa at Belovezh to formally dissolve the Soviet Union:

...All of which led to the Soviet hammer and sickle being lowerd from the Kremlin for the last time on December 25, 1991:

I still don't think I could pick just one that truly encapsulates "the collapse," though I think the Baltic chain is my sentimental favorite.

And in honor of the democratic ideals of that time, I suppose we should have a little online poll: which image do you think best captures the collapse of the Soviet Union?