Archive for December, 2014

Deep Sheep

December 26, 2014

Rather than spend a whole lot of time commenting about 2014’s ongoing Christmas hacking war (Microsoft/ Sony vs. Rosneft/ Transneft), I think it’s best to move on and look ahead to our next major holiday: the Chinese New Year.  Sure, there’s a solar New Year less than one week away, but that’s just a lame excuse for glitter and litter in New York’s Times Square … and Kim Jong-un‘s annual New Year’s message (which might be kinda fun this year).  Instead, in February the Year of the Horse will be coming to its fore-ordained conclusion, so the Year of the Sheep/Ram/Goat is right around the corner in the next pasture. The portents are already available for those who know where to look … in Reno, Nevada (of all places).

Vince Thomas has come up with a new use for his family-owned goat herding business, “Goat Grazers.” Thomas is launching a new program on Friday to use his 40 goats to help recycle Christmas trees. “They’ll eat the pine needles and leave nothing but the branches.  I did a lot of research, and it’s OK for the goats,” Thomas said. “With cattle and some other animals, [pine needles] can cause miscarriages. But for goats, it’s a natural de-wormer, and pine is very high in vitamin C, so it’s healthy for them.”


For what it’s worth, Taoist ascetics in the Tang Dynasty era believed that a diet of pine needles would permit them to fly through the air and attain immortality.  But I digress:

Thomas got tired of watching people discard the trees in landfills or dump them on public property, where they became a fire danger. “It was amazing to see how many Christmas trees people would just toss out there [in the desert],” he said. “Because we’re in the desert, they don’t decompose, they just get drier and drier and it really becomes a serious fire hazard.”




Fleurs du Mur

December 14, 2014

A few days ago I was in such a hurry to post last week’s photo of Comrade Bear visiting the Hermitage Museum that I neglected to perform one of my favorite fundamental analytical exercises: an examination and explication of background imagery that often tells a story worth ten thousand words or so.  At the time, I briefly wondered “who are those 18th century gentlemen whose portraits grace that seagreen wall behind the charming hostess and her guest?” It seemed a mere passing thought swept away in the rush to blog about imagined cyberwar.


But the question nagged at the corners of my mind for several hours, and despite an initial reflex that dismissed this kind of research task as too difficult, I finally found a way to identify first one, then another of the portrait subjects. It was even more satisfying to discover the cultural/historical baggage associated with them.  It’s probably not an accident that Comrade Bear’s photo op was staged at this particular location, but it’s also unlikely that he fully grasped the historical allusions –the backstory– suggested by these portraits.

First, the painting on the left.  It’s a portrait of Prince Nikolai Borisovich Yusupov (1750-1831), a cosmopolitan aesthete who “spoke five languages and corresponded with Voltaire.


Nikolai Yusupov was a Russian nobleman and art collector, the eldest son of Prince Boris Grigorievich Yusupov. He served as Director of Imperial Theatres (1791-1796) under a series of Czars, including Catherine the Great, Paul I and Alexander I. He later served as director of the Hermitage (in 1797).

A patron of the arts and a keen traveler, Yusupov spoke five languages and traveled widely throughout Europe. During his journeys he purchased a large collection of art for the Czars, acting as a middleman between the Czars and European artists.  Yusupov collected for himself as well as collecting for the Czars, and his personal art collection became one of Europe’s richest, including over 600 paintings, sculptures, works of applied art, more than 20,000 books and numerous porcelain objects.

Just the kind of semi-official entrepreneur for which Russia is known even today!  Imagine: plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.  After the 1917 revolution, much of the Yusupov art collection ended up in the hands of the Soviet state … and eventually in the Hermitage itself.  But in some ways, the origins of the House of Yusupov are even more interesting and resonant than its downfall:

In the 14th century one of Tamerlane’s greatest Tatar strategists settled on the North shores of the Black Sea, establishing the Nogai Horde and laying the foundations for the Crimean Khanate. In the 15th century, Khan Yusuf became the head of the Nogai Horde and allied himself with Czar Ivan the Terrible.  In the 17th century, Khan Yusuf’s descendant, Abdul Mirza, converted from Islam to Orthodox Christianity under the name of Dmitry.  After the conversion, Czar Feodor I bestowed upon him the title of Prince Yusupov.  Dimitry’s son, Prince Grigori Dmitrievich Yusupov (1676-1730) was a friend of Peter the Great, became General in Chief and Minister of Defense, and organized construction of the Russian Navy.

Get the picture? The House of Yusupov [Yusuf] was founded by Crimean Tatars who helped make Russia the great nation it has become.  And whose descendants were essentially the original curators of the Hermitage art collections. Kinda ironic that Comrade Bear’s Crimean “patriot nationalists” are now engaged in wholesale expropriation (theft) of Tatar property and business holdings in newly-occupied Crimea.

Now, the painting on the right.  It’s a youthful portrait of Czar Peter III (b. 1728 – d. 1762), the husband and predecessor of Catherine the Great (he lasted only six months on the throne).  He was the son of Anna Petrovna, daughter of Peter I and Catherine I of Russia.


When Peter succeeded to the Russian throne in 1762 (after 20 years as Crown Prince), he withdrew Russian forces from the Seven Years’ War and concluded a peace treaty with Prussia. He gave up Russian conquests in Prussia and offered to make an alliance with Frederick II of Prussia. Russia thus switched from an enemy of Prussia to an ally. This dramatically shifted the balance of power in Europe.

During his 186-day period of government, Peter III issued 220 new laws which he had developed and elaborated during his many years as crown prince.  He proclaimed religious freedom.  He fought corruption in government, established public litigation and abolished the secret police — a repressive organization started under his grandfather Peter I.  Some historians claim that Peter III intended to expose the czarist police  as betrayer of the state for its mercilessness and torture methods.

He established the first state bank in Russia, rejected the nobility’s monopoly on trade and encouraged mercantilism by increasing grain exports. One of his most popular reforms was the manifesto of February 1762 that exempted the nobility from obligatory state and military service and gave them freedom to travel abroad.  Peter’s short reign also addressed serfdom law and the status of serfs within Russia. For the first time, the killing of a peasant by a landowner became an act punishable by law.

However, this being Russia, things didn’t turn out so well. After six months Peter III was overthrown and assassinated at the instigation of his wife Catherine.  She embarked on a protracted, expensive and ultimately successful public relations campaign to conceal the brutality of her autocratic rule behind a facade of Enlightenment culture and erudition.  That’s why she’s Catherine the Great and why we have a Hermitage Museum today.  The rest became history.  All of which can be considered object lessons for Comrade Bear.  If only he’d get the picture.

Swift Riposte

December 13, 2014

Lunghu wishes to apologize to any European air travelers who were recently inconvenienced by the mysterious failure of air traffic control systems in Britain.  Not that he’s in any way responsible under tort law, but because his previous post neglected to state what should have been obvious and inevitable: that Russia would retaliate for the brazen insult to Comrade Bear‘s manhood orchestrated by British Museum executives.  Revenge, it would seem, isn’t always a dish best served cold:

An unprecedented computer systems failure touched off [Friday’s] mayhem that caused delays and canceled flights for thousands of passengers, the U.K.-based NATS air traffic management company said Saturday.  The computer failure made it impossible for controllers to access data regarding individual flight plans, and many planes were prevented from taking off.


NATS said the problems at its control center in Swanwick occurred as more workstations were being brought on line to deal with an increase in traffic.  “The number of workstations in use versus [those] in standby fluctuates with the demands of the traffic being controlled.  In this instance a transition between the two states caused a failure in the system which has not been seen before.”


Sunday 7 December:  250th anniversary of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.  Lunghu publishes an insolent blogpost about Britain’s loan to the exhibit.

Monday 8 December:  Hermitage Museum is closed every Monday.

Tuesday 9 December:  Comrade Bear visits the Hermitage Museum for a photo op with the principal curator. But not with Ilissos.


Friday 12 December:  British air traffic control computer systems crash during a load-balancing “state transition.”


As far as Lunghu is concerned, the principal question remaining open is whether Russian hackers did this themselves or outsourced the job to North Koreans, perhaps as a partial swap for the splendid work performed by Russian technical specialists at Sony Corporation earlier this year.  Either way, it’s likely that another shoe will drop —somewhere, sometime soon.


Tales of Brave Ilissos

December 7, 2014

Late last week, the Greek government took a brief break from its usual pastime (running budget deficits) to launch a bitter tirade against the world’s original bourgeois imperialists:

The British Museum [secretly shipped] one of the world’s most hotly disputed artistic masterpieces to Russia for a loan on Friday, causing an outcry in Greece, which says the priceless 2,500-year-old statue was looted from Athens and must be returned.  It was the first time any of the Elgin marbles had left Britain since arriving two centuries ago.  The decision was not announced until the statue –a headless, reclining nude sculpture of the river god Ilissos— was already safely in Saint Petersburg, where it goes on display as part of an exhibition to mark the Hermitage’s 250th anniversary.

Greek anger has been intensified by the fact that this ain’t just any old Elgin Marble torn from the Parthenon’s western pediment:

The Ilissos is a river in Athens, Greece. The stream drains the western slopes of Mount Hymettus, and originates from multiple converging seasonal creeks. During antiquity, it ran outside the defensive walls of Athens: the river was one of the borders of the ancient walls. Its banks were grassy and shaded by plane trees, and were considered idyllic; they were the favored haunts of Socrates for his walks and teaching.  Ilissos was also a demi-god, the son of Poseidon and Demeter, and was worshiped in a sanctuary on the Ardittos Hill.

In response, the British Museum’s director offered some bland, all-too-predictable platitudes.

“This is the first time ever that the people of Russia have been able to see this great moment of European art and European thought.  A huge new public can engage with the great achievements of ancient Greece. People who will never be able to come to Athens or to London will now here in Russia understand something of the great achievements of Greek civilization.”

“The British Museum [is] the most generous lender [of art] in the world, making a reality of the Enlightenment ideal that the greatest things in the world should be seen and studied, shared and enjoyed by as many people in as many countries as possible.”

Not everyone in Britain agrees:

David Hill, chairman of the International Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures, said the loan to Russia was “highly provocative” and a “very rude gesture.”

Right you are, Dave … but not for the reasons you think.  In my view, the nation being rudely provoked is not merely Greece –it’s Russia.  Why?  Because multiple cultural subtexts are silently flowing beneath the rippling surface of Britain’s seemingly magnanimous gesture.  Instead of engaging in open conflict with Comrade Bear, perfidious per-Phidias Albion has chosen to make art, not war.

1. Achieving EU consensus on intensified sanctions against Russia depends upon persuading Germany to act against its own economic interests.  Looted art is a “wedge issue” that Germans understand only too well: as the Nazis did unto Western Europe during WWII, so the Soviets did unto defeated Germany. Thousands of German artworks traveled East at the end of the war, and many are in the collections of the Hermitage Museum.  They’re never coming back.  Britain’s art loan to Russia is intended to remind Berlin of its darkest hours.

2. It’s also an attempt to damage Russia’s relations with Greece and Turkey, two countries that Comrade Bear needs to keep somewhat neutral in the Black Sea/Balkan region as he prepares to ingest Ukraine.  Will the Greeks request that Russia “return” the sculpture to Athens?  Would the Hermitage comply despite its contract with the British Museum? Lawyers are already sharpening their pens.

3. Lastly, the loan of Ilissos to the Hermitage should be understood as a personal insult directed at Comrade Bear himself.  Of all the Parthenon marbles available for loan, the British Museum trick (or bribe) the Russians into accepting a buff –but headless– reclining male nude.  This is a sculpture that, for almost two centuries, has been ogled by successive generations of effete, limp-wristed, tea-sipping British public school aesthetes (if you know what I mean).  The limeys are practically daring Comrade Bear to show up in his own hometown museum for a photo op with Ilissos.  Priceless.


Somehow I get the feeling that there’s gonna be a new director of the Hermitage Museum sometime next year.