Sunday, October 28, 2012

Scenes of Mongkok (2)

Mainland tourists with their loot.

Mobile phone promotion.

Local snacks.

A scavenger.

A beggar with a story.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Scenes of Mongkok (1)

A local craftsman.

Promoting justice.

A tired tourist.

Asking for directions.

Checking identity.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Russian (actually Tashkent) fugitive

A muscular man in jeans and a t-shirt stood next to the sink in a toilet, in the Moscow International Airport.  He had a smirk on his face.  Next to him, an even bigger man in a black leather jacket grunted.  T-shirt shrugged, and held up his hands - wet, and held by handcuffs.  He seemed to be saying, “Look, I cannot dry my hands with these handcuffs on.” Black Leather Jacket grunted again, pulled a paper towel from the dispenser and handed it to T-shirt.  A shorter and smaller guy, with a Band-Aid on his right cheek stood facing them, watched as T-shirt wiped his hands.

The trio walked out of the toilet.  Black Leather Jacket ushered T-shirt into departure gate number 4.  

Band-Aid stopped short outside the gate.  Black Leather Jacket and T-shirt bypassed the people waiting in line, and disappeared into the walkway leading to the place. The monitor indicated that the plane at gate 4 would depart for Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan.   Uzbekistan is a country in central Asia, close to Xinjiang of China and to the north of Afghanistan.  Alexander the Great reached here.  It became prosperous when the Silk Route passed through here.  It was conquered by the Arabs in the 8th century and became Islamic.  It was conquered by Genghis Khan in the 13th century.  Later Timur ruled a great empire from here starting in the late 14th century.  It was absorbed into the Soviet Union in the 1920s, and declared independence in 1991.  It had a chequered and violent history.  

According to a retired policeman that we were traveling with, T-shirt was most likely a fugitive from Uzbekistan.  And Black Leather Jacket a policeman from Uzbekistan who was taking T-shirt back to Uzbekistan for trial.  Band-Aid was either a Russian policeman, or T-shirt’s accomplice.  I was in the toilet and later outside gate 4, but was too nervous to take a photograph of them.  All I got was a photo of the gate, and the monitor.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


 Here are some of the people I saw in Russia.  Not all of them are actually Russians.  In fact, some of them are most likely foreign tourists, or migrant workers.

A babushka (grandmother, old lady) selling Russian dolls on the road side.

Young women wearing very high heels.  At least I think those are very high, at least 5 inches.  There are lots and lots of them.

Cassock-wearing Orthodox clerics at the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius monastery in Zagorsk, said to be the spiritual capital of the Russia Orthodox Church.

Workers renovating the facade of Putin’s office in the Kremlin.

A man drinking on the streets of Moscow.

Tourists admiring the Moscow underground station, or just trying to find their way.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Statues of Russia

Who are the people immortalized as statues in Russia?  Or, more accurately, whose statues are allowed to remain standing in Russia these days?   This is, of course, not an exhaustive list, but I found at least the following.

There was a statue of Peter the Great (1672-1725), as a horseman, in St. Petersburg.  He turned Russia into a huge empire.  He tried to turn a medieval Russia into a modern European power.  He was the founder of St. Petersburg, on the Baltic Sea, and moved the Russian capital over there, so that it is more accessible from Europe.  The snake that tries to bite the heel of his horse symbolizes his enemies.

A statue of Karl Marx (1818-1883) stood in Moscow, a couple of streets away from the Kremlin.  In his time, his analysis of the inhuman condition of factory labour led to the development of the theory of dialectic of class struggle - the conflict between the class of wealthy factory owners and the exploited class of factory labourers. He predicted it will lead inevitably to socialism and eventually, communism. He is widely considered the spiritual godfather of the Soviet Union, and Communist China.

“The man selling hats”, actually Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924), stood in a square in St. Petersburg.  He was the leader of the October Revolution in 1917, which overthrew the monarchy in Russia, and brought the Communist into power.  He was widely considered the father of the Soviet Union.

A statue of Georgy Zhukov (1898-1974) stood right outside the Kremlin, much closer to the Kremlin than Marx.  He was told by Stalin to save Leningrad (St. Petersburg) from the German army in the Second World War, and Leningrad did not fall, despite a 900 day siege.  He also led the successful defense of Moscow and Stalingrad.  Later, he led the Red Army to the conquer of Berlin.

A pair of a male and female workers holding up a hammer and a sickle stood in Moscow. The plight of the workers inspired Marx, and gave rise to Socialism and Communism, which is supposed to liberate the workers from exploitation by the wealthy factory owners.

Now that Communism has long triumphed in mainland China, it should have become a paradise for workers.  Why is it that workers are still being exploited by wealthy factory owners in mainland China, much more so than in Capitalist economies?  Doesn't that mean that Communism has failed to liberate the workers from exploitation?  In that case, why do some people still insist on Communism?  Perhaps it isn't really for the benefit for the workers, but rather it is for the benefit of the owners and the people in power?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Workers of Moscow

From Moscow, we went to Zagorsk, to visit the great monastery, the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius. On the way, we passed by Korolyov City (or Korolev), an industrial city known as the cradle of Soviet space exploration.  It was named after Sergi Korolev, the lead engineer for the Soviet space program in the Space Race between the Soviet Union and the United States. It was said that it was a very secretive place in the Soviet Era.  Taxi drivers would not dare to stop in the area even if their taxis were having trouble.

Between Moscow and Korolyov City there was a stretch of the road where a lot of men were standing by the side of the road.  It could be Yaroslavskoye Shosse, or Prospekt Mira, but I could not be sure.  Apparently they were migrant workers from outside Moscow, who came to Moscow to look for work.  By the looks of them, they could be from the republics in Central Asia.

In post-Soviet Moscow, the burgeoning real estate market has made Moscow one of the most expensive cities in the world.  The earning power of the wealthy Muscovites grew significantly, widening the gap between the city’s rich and poor.  Ethnic tension is rising, and there are frequent crashes between the police and migrant workers.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Pussy Riot Cathedral

The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour is a landmark in Moscow with a rich history.  The Pussy Riot trial, however, has propelled it (and Pussy Riot) onto the world-wide stage.  I have never heard of Pussy Riot or the church until early this year.  It is a feminist punk-rock band.  On February 12, 2012, 5 members of the band staged a performance, without prior permission, in the cathedral.  They urged Mary, mother of Christ, to get rid of the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.  They were kicked out after less than a minute, arrested and are being prosecuted for insults at believers and churchmen.  The Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia condemned Pussy Riot’s actions as blasphemous.  The band claimed that they were targeting Putin, not the church.

The Russian Orthodox church, like other religious establishments, were suppressed by the Communists in the days of the Soviet Union.  Many people found strength and hope in the church.  Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, in contrast, the church has prospered.

The history of the cathedral reflects the history of the church.  Napoleon invaded Russia and laid a siege against Moscow; but he was forced to retreat before he could capture Moscow.  Tsar Alexander I wanted to build a church to honor Christ, whom he believed to have saved Russia.  The church was eventually built on this site by his brother and successor Nicholas I, between 1839 and 1860, long before there were Communists.

In the 1930s the cathedral was demolished by the Communist Soviet Union, and the site was turned into the world’s largest open air swimming pool.  In 1990, in post-Soviet Union Russia, the Russian Orthodox Church received permission to rebuild the church, and the church was completed in 2000.  Before I went to Moscow in August, I tried to locate the church on a map I found on the Internet.  At the location where the church is supposed to be, it was still marked as a swimming pool.

Another map, presumably newer, clearly marked the cathedral.  It is very close to the Kremlin.

It is ironic that the church, which used to be suppressed but proved a bulwark against a totalitarian government, is again prosperous but so friendly with another autocratic government.  It seems, as history has demonstrated so many times, it is not so healthy for the sake of sanity of the church, to be too comfortable and powerful.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The KGB’s Lubyanka

The Lubyanka was one of the first landmarks I recognized in Moscow.  It was an elegant building.  It was also the headquarters of the KGB - the secret police of the Soviet Union - and its prison.

The KGB, formerly the Cheka, was established to protect the Communist (Bolshevik) regime after the October Revolution in 1917.   Leon Trotsky, one of Stalin’s arch enemies, was deported from the USSR in 1929, and assassinated in Mexico in 1940. In the Great Purge of the Communist Party in 1936-38, it was estimated that a million people, 1% of the adults in the USSR, perished.

Approximately 14 million people passed through the Gulag labor camps, many of them in Siberia. An estimated 1 million died in the labor camps.  The oppression and survival in the labor camps have been fictionalized and documented in books such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago.

The KGB also played important roles in the suppression of the Hungarian Uprising in 1956, and the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Canaletto’s perspective

The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg is one of the largest and oldest museums in the world.  It was founded by Catherine the Great in 1764 and occupies 6 buildings, including the famous Winter Palace.

It houses many great paintings, including Reception of the French Ambassador in Venice, by the Venetian painter Canaletto (1697 - 1768).  Many people like to check out a famous trick of perspective applied in the painting - the painting appears to change as the viewer move from one side to the other. 

Looking at the painting from the right, Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace) dominates the painting, taking up more than one half of the painting.  As the viewer moves gradually to the left, the palace seems to get smaller and smaller.  Finally, as one looks at the painting from the left, the palace shrinks down to only about one-third of the painting, while the boats on the left seem most prominent.

This is due to the now well-known effect of perspective - objects further away from us appear to be smaller.  When the viewer is on the right side, the palace is closest to the viewer, hence it appears the largest.  And the opposite is true when the viewer is one the left.  At the time when the painting was make, it was still a novel idea and not popularly understood.

I wish I could have spent more time in the museum.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Catherine Palace

If you are super rich like Empress Catherine I of Russia (1684-1727), then you can use expensive oil paintings as wall paper.  Actually I have no idea whether these paintings in the Catherine Palace in Pushkin, southeast of St. Petersburg, were really famous.  But they did look expensive.  Catherine I was the second wife of Emperor Peter I (The Great, 1672-1725), who fought many wars and transformed Russia into a major European power.

It was said that Catherine was Polish or Lithuanian, and very beautiful.  Her father was a peasant, serf, gravedigger or handyman, depending on whom you believe.  She married a Swedish soldier, then became the mistress, or maid, of the governor of Estonia, then the lover of Prince Alexander Menshikov, who gave her to Peter as a mistress.  Later Peter married her, and she bore him 12 children.  

It was said that she was a great help to her husband in his military campaigns, at one point using her jewels to bribe the Turkish Grand Vizier (prime minister) Baltaci into allowing the Russian army to retreat, thus saving Peter and his empire.  After Peter died, she ruled as empress until she died.  A great story.

Lots of people line up to see the palace named after her, the summer residence of the Tsars, built in the Rococo style.  I was more interested in the many quaint old desks in the palace.