Saturday, August 28, 2010

Šiauliai: Hill Of Crosses

In the early 19th century, on a hill in the north of Lithuania outside of the town of Šiauliai (pronounced shau-lay), a simple act of faith was transformed into a defiant protest. People started placing crosses in memory of departed loved ones. During the 1831 Uprising against the Russian Empire, rebels would disappear and in place of a grave a cross would be erected to commemorate family members who had perished.

Over time it grew to include crucifixes and icons from anyone who wished for a simple blessing or good luck like obtaining high marks in school exams. They multiplied like grain, sprouting from the bald hill until they grew into a forest. When the Soviets occupied Lithuania from 1944-1990, they recognized the hill as a threat and tried banning people from placing anything here.

Under the cover of darkness, people kept coming. Then the Soviets attempted to bulldoze the hill, flatten it into plain of nothing, but the people returned to put up more. When the Soviets disappeared, the crosses flourished again and now it’s a booming forest called Kryžių Kalnas in Lithuanian or "Hill of Crosses", attracting people like us from all over the world.

Most are from Catholics (Pope John Paul II visited in 1993), but we saw a few Jewish Stars of David, and even an advert from a car dealership.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Moomin World: Pleasuredome of Innocence

Every once in a while a body needs something light to refresh itself, something not too taxing or demanding. After weeks of being immersed in Stalin's purges and pogroms, Putin's fatal indiscretions and brooding Russian existentialism, it was time for the kind of change that not even vodka can offer. When Yuko and I arrived in Helsinki we took a trip to the land of plushy trolls and bucolic innocence - Moomin World (Muumimaailma in Finnish). It's a magical place that sweeps you up into its stately pleasuredome the moment you enter its gates and rolls you back out on a whiff candyfloss a few hours later.

It's all based on the novels and comics that Tove Jansson originated back in the 1940s. The Moomins have since become an international sensation - they're very popular in Japan - and are scheduled to be turned into a film, "Moomins and the Comet Chase".
Moomin World is in Naantali, a small seaside town about 45 minutes outside of Turku. The Moomins live on their own tiny island in a bay linked by a bridge to the mainland. It's not immediately accessible or that well advertised, which is how it should be with these types of folks...

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Canadians Abroad: Prague

Yuko and I just spent 5 days in Prague kicking down the cobblestones and skipping the light fandango with an old friend I haven't seen in at least 15 years and maybe even as long as 25. And I've got Facebook to thank for it. If not for this magical matchmaker of the ethersphere I wouldn't have met up with Steve, his Czech partner, Tslata, and their beautiful baby boy, Elvis.

Since Yuko and I finished traveling across Russia about 2 weeks ago, we've been making it up as we go along. "Finland? Sure! Lithuania? Of course!" When we found ourselves in Kraków in southern Poland, we decided to head west. Neither of us had ever been to Prague and I thought it would be a cool place to spend my birthday and hey! - maybe I could meet up with Steve. We reconnected just last winter and have kept in touch via FB ever since. It was weird enough experiencing a cyber-reunion, but were we ready to take the next step - full, frontal, face-to-face communication?! What would I wear? One problem - due to our whimsical travel schedule, I literally gave Steve a day's notice. It turned out to be good timing - he passed on his contact info and we were ready to rock!

We've all been there before - the dreaded reunions with people we haven't seen in ages...I mean, we were basically children the last time we "knew" each other and who's to say what might transpire? It turned out to be a blast. Steve is an excellent guy, a geniune gent. He's been living in Prague for a few years now, painting these beautiful canvasses, falling in love and...oh yeah, having a baby. If not for him, I never would have played the ultra-cool Red Room ("Wild Mountain Thyme", "Men Who Drank Canada Dry", "All Day Eggs"), seen the sun set from Letna Park, met Ilan or got an insider's perspective on life in one of the world's most remarkable cities. So here's to Steve, Zlata, Elvis and Ilan...long may you run.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Majestic: Reubens At The Hermitage

There it is - served up on Dvortsovaya square like a huge mint birthday cake floating on the Neva River. The Hermitage is Russia’s Louvre and like its French compadre, it would take days, if not weeks, to see all 3 million works of art within its hallowed halls. The former Winter Palace for Tsars and Tsarinas, it's St. Petersburg’s most recognizable landmark and one of its greatest pains in the ass. For years the city was desperate to fund its restoration and protect its spoils. It eventually found support from the world’s well funded international family of galleries.

I spent the most time inside the incredible Peter Paul Reubens room. More like a chapel, the room is the size of a bowling alley and is painted in bright orange/umber.

Some of Reuben’s finest works such as Venus Disarming Mars are on display and you can feel his power and presence radiating from the canvasses the moment you step into the room.

The one that caught my eye was Christ just before being crucified - Crown of Thorns (Ecce Homo). His shoulders and chest are smeared with the grime from a soldier’s grip and on his head rests a particularly sharp crown of thorns. A crimson satin sheet surrounds his body, while his arms are bound behind him pushing his naked torso forward so it resembles the powerful and erotic poses of a wounded St. Sebastian. It’s as though he’s stepped right out of a Derek Jarman film.

But the painting’s sublime expression resides in Christ’s eyes. Despite the humiliation and pain he's already endured they still retain a human majesty of tender proportions. He’s transcended his suffering and defeated his tormentors by offering them his forgiveness. It’s a perfect synthesis of the sacred and profane and unlike other works on the same theme, Reubens' Christ is utterly human.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Tsars & Saints: History Redux

The more things change...

The city of Yekaterinburg was known as Sverdlovsk from 1924 to 1991 after Yakov Sverdlov, a close confident of Lenin, a leader of the Communist Revolution....

...and the man responsible for ordering the massacre of Tsar Nicholas II and his his family on the night of July 16/17 1918.

Today the huge, ornate Church on the Blood, finished in 2003, stands at the very spot where the Romanov’s were executed. In 1981, the Russian Orthodox Church abroad recognized the family as saints - Nicholas, also known as "Bloody Nicholas" because of Bloody Sunday and the anti-Semitic pogroms that took place during his reign, is now worshiped as "Saint Nicholas the Passion-Bearer". A few blocks away a statue of Sverdlov still stands, a testament to the schizophrenia that makes up modern Russia.

After the Romanov family was executed in the basement of Ipatiev House the guards collected the bodies and drove them about 20 kilometers outside of the city to a forested plot near the village of Ganina Yama. The soldiers didn’t have a clue as to what to do to dispose of them so they tried to burn them, but stopped when they realized it would takes hours, if not days, to complete the work. Instead, they hacked up the remains and dumped them down a mine shaft.

Some remains were eventually discovered in a place known by locals as "Pig's Meadow." The Orthodox Church declared the area hallowed ground and in 2001 built the Monastery of the Holy Tsarist Passion-Bearers, a series of beautiful chapels and memorials in honor of the family.

It's been absolutely surreal traveling across Russia this summer - history is as malleable as putty and once grand narratives are reduced to fairytales or in this case, a despot is transfigured into a saint. At least in Canada we try to separate and have made referendums a national sport...

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Anna Politkovskaya: Voice For Truth

"We are hurtling back into a Soviet abyss, into an information vacuum that spells death from our own ignorance. All we have left is the internet, where information is still freely available. For the rest, if you want to go on working as a journalist, it's total servility to Putin. Otherwise, it can be death, the bullet, poison, or trial - whatever our special services, Putin's guard dogs, see fit." - Anna Politkovskaya, 2004
Russia has come a long way in twenty years...and it still has much further to go. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, "Russia is the fourth-deadliest country in the world for journalists, and the ninth worst in solving those crimes." One crime that remains unsolved is the murder of Anna Politkovskaya.

Last photo of Anna Politkovskaya taken outside her Moscow apartment
Anna told the truth and died for it. She was shot in the middle of the forehead, the "controlling shot" as the special forces call it here in Russia. She crossed too many of Putin's red lines by unflinchingly reporting on the Chechen war in the Novaya Gazeta newspaper. Along the way she was beaten, poisoned and had her life threatened numerous times. Then on October 7, 2006, Putin received a bloody gift for his 54th birthday - Anna was assassinated. She was 48. As she wrote during the Beslan hostage crisis in 2004:
"Official lies continue. The media promote official views. They call it "taking a state-friendly position", meaning a position of approval of Vladimir Putin's actions. The media don't have a critical word to say about him. The same applies to the president's personal friends, who happen to be the heads of FSB, the defence ministry and the interior ministry."
Yuko and I took the metro out to Anna's grave at the Troyekurovskoye Cemetery to pay our respects. After twenty minutes we arrived at the Slavyansky Bulvar station and hopped into a cab for the rest of the way. When we arrived we asked a man in charge where she was buried. He knew exactly who she was and seemed determined that we find her, offering long, detailed directions in Russian. We did our best to cipher the route, but needed to ask a woman along the way. She directed us in the general area and Yuko finally found it looking quite differently from photos we'd seen. Anna's photo was there, but the wooden cross was replaced with a cement stone carved in the image of a blank page blasted with five bullet holes.

Very powerful. At the precise moment we arrived the sky began to rain and a drop splashed on Anna's photo. Someone had left an Italian bio, Anna è Viva by Andrea Riscassi, an Italian journalist. It had been signed by a few others and we added our names and “Thank you for your life.”

I pulled some weeds away from the grave and found that I was shaking a bit. Now Anna seemed alive in death, exerting an influence I never anticipated. I took Yuko's hand and offered a little prayer and a "sayonara" before running back to our cab. I felt compelled to come here and was grateful for the chance to pay my respects to a genuine Russian hero.

I feel as Swiss director Eric Bergkraut says in this trailer to his 2008 documentary, Letter To Anna:
"Would anything have surprised you about what happened after your assassination? Maybe the fact that so many people from around the world are moved by your destiny? They haven't forgotten. And they want to know the truth. Just as you did."