Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

14 Jul 2001, 8:19 a.m.

The Intersection of Doom...and Death

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2001 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

A lot of very eclectic material in today's entry. The title refers to the intersection near my university (university may not actually be mine), Herzen Pedagogical something-or-other in St. Petersburg, Russia. This intersection has no lanes, no apparent traffic signs or lights, and lots of cars and vans and tour buses whizzing by. I'm thinking that Kazanskaya Ulitsa would be Doom, and the little minor street right behind Kazanskaya Sobor (Kazan Cathedral) would be Death.

You mentioned that the only times you've ever read something in second person was in text adventure games and in A Canticle for Liebowitz. I was rather impressed by the second-person chapters in Dave Barry in Cyberspace.
Also, it turns out that you and I are starting trips on the same day. You leave for Utah on the 18th, which is the same day that I leave for the island of Solovki. Uh, Mom, Dad, other readers, you should know that I'll be gone till Monday, and I am pretty sure that there are no Internet connections on this island that was once a monastery and then was a Stalinist gulag. I'll try to call. Just Mom and Dad. Not you, if you're anyone else. Well, maybe my sister.

I do not think that they will sing to me.
In one of my Russian classes, possibly grammar or literature or current events, we translated in a casual, offhanded manner, davaite syezdim as "Let's go," which now reminds me of that other entry about Nachalo and On y va, but which back then reminded me of the line from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot. "Let us go, then, you and I..."

That, then, reminded me of an incident with my "uncle" N.S.L. Bhatta, an Indian poet. He had picked up my mother and me in his car when we visited him in India.

"So, what are you doing these days, Uncle?
"I just finished translating Iliad."
"Wow, that sounds like a big project! Was it from the original Greek?"
"He wrote in English."

And it turned out that he had said "Eliot," not "Iliad," and we had a good laugh.

Reading material.
So I finished We a while back, and enjoyed it, and recommend it. I do recommend that you read it a bit more chunkily than I did, though -- I read a few pages each night for about a week, and I think I should have just read it in a few hourlong sessions instead. (Yes, I am avoiding the perhaps inevitable compare-and-contrast with other dystopias. I may be just staving it off.)

I finished The Nine Hundred Days by Harrison Salisbury a few days ago. That's on the subject of the siege of Leningrad during the Second World War, a.k.a. The Great Patriotic War for the Fatherland. It's quite good, if very concentrated on the first few years of the blockade. There are maybe twenty chapters on the first year, and then the next two years are, say, two chapters total. And Salisbury is generally quite good about remaining unschlocky, which is why I was so surprised to read the occasional lines such as, "the Germans had on their sides Generals Cold, Fatigue, and Hunger." It sort of reminded me of my earlier complaint about Caleb Carr's The Angel of Death and the ending of each chapter with some melodramatic sting.

As well, I felt a tinge of disturbance at Salisbury's "Only Leningraders would do [x]" sentences. For example, there were Leningraders who kept feeding their pets a few morsels, and did not abandon or kill them. Perhaps it's not just Leningraders who would do that, or not.

But at least the schlock and stereotyping prepared me for my latest book. Last night, I finished my very first book by [my Aunt] Agatha Christie, Dumb Witness. It has Hercule Poirot.

"Yes, the curry may be of some significance, perhaps."

I mean, come on! And I realized that I prefer "mysteries" in which I have all the facts at my disposal early on. I shouldn't have to know obscure poisons, or Victorian etiquette. I further mention that one Sherlock Holmes story in which it's a lot easier to guess the twist if you live in the modern USA and only think of one thing when you see the letters KKK.

Speaking of Sherlock Holmes, Christie gives Doyle a nod in the first few chapters of Dumb Witness. The assistant-type, Hastings, who speaks in the first person, speaks with Poirot, and Poirot calls Hastings "Watson"! I was confused for a moment. Was "Watson" just the nom de rigeur or something for these superfluous narrator-assistants in mysteries? But no, it was a little joke.

Why do Poirot and Holmes keep Hastings and Watson around, anyway? The twenty-first century answer: to provide a premise for slash fan fiction. Because there aren't enough premises for slash fan fiction writers already, you see.

Acrobatics of the Mind.
I see "WC" (water closet) and think "W3C."

The graffiti "2KIT" on the steps of Kazan Cathedral remind me of 2 Legit 2 Quit (M.C. Hammer as an AOL chatroom fiend?), which reminds me that in the former USSR, it's Hammer [and Sickle] time, which leads me to conclude that I Can't Stop Referencing!

Notes from Swan Lake:
"What is this juice? It's not cranberry..." "They have a lot of weird berries here. We just got some at my house. There are these really weird green fuzzy ones, and you wouldn't think it to look at them, but they're the best." [sip] "It's ... Russianberry."

The swans in the background -- not the ballerinas who were swans according to the plot, but the setpiece props that actually anatomically resembled swans -- moved on a little rail or something along the back of the stage. I wondered if I would get a prize if I shot one.

When the guy in black, the Evil Enchanter, came onstage, I whispered, "Oh no! It's Alexander Lebed!" See, lebed is the Russian word for swan, and Alexander Lebed is a kinda scary Russian politician, and never mind.

There was sort of a flamenco touch to these dancers in Spanish-looking costumes and their theme during some big scene. I thought that was pretty interesting. I imagine that composers have expressed political sentiments by associating evil characters with the musical motifs of certain cultures and nations.

The cafe in this theater, which was rather run-down and definitely not the Mariinskii, played American music and had a cardboard cutout of the Spice Girls. All five, all together.

My Russian mommy feeds me really well. [I Can't Stop Using Iambic Pentameter.] This morning she gave me some sort of ice-cream dessert. I was halfway through the thing before I realized it was cheesecake. Cheesecake! Covered in chocolate! At 9:30 in the morning! She's fattening me up to make sure I can get through the cold, harsh, Northern California winter.

I've had French fries at some point each day yesterday and today. Here, you have to order the ketchup separately.

Things I see.
I see solitary men carrying objects that can only be called purses. Here, the law says you have to carry some sort of ID with you at all times. But passports fit in pockets in most men's clothing. What's going on here?

I saw graffiti that said "FACK" today. This is a "Collect All Five Wrong Vowels" contest, I guess -- a peer of mine said she took a picture of some scrawled "FECK."

In the past week, I have seen (presumably) Russian men who looked almost exactly (in most cases) like Ben Affleck (see previous entry), Rudy Giuliani, Charles Manson, and Alan Alda.

Originally published by Sumana Harihareswara at

Mix-'n'-Match Matroshcki

Sat Jul 14th, 2001 at 09:16:43 AM PST

We had a presentation the other day regarding matroschki dolls. Yes, the ones with nested dolls inside. As opposed to Intel Inside. Anyway, the tourist traps here in St. Petersburg are infested with vendors selling cheap knockoffs. Sometimes they feature babushki, sometimes politicians, sometimes sports team members. Wouldn't it be great to have a mix-and-match matroschki? Say, inside the babushki is a ninja, then a Brezhnev, then Kobe Bryant, then Ricky Martin, then a Teletubby, then Nixon, then Cal Ripken, Jr....

I just want the ninja inside the matroshki.

By the way, I bought -- for a ruble -- a piece of gum labeled, "Fruit Flavoured Ricky Martin." Not a word about gum. And a picture of Ricky.

  1. I can buy Ricky Martin on the open market!
  2. Is Ricky Martin ever not fruit-flavoured?

Oh, and it turns out that you can't just add "skii" to the end of a word to try to make it an adjective. My Russian mom laughed at me for trying "gidskaya kniga" (guidebook?) and "marionetskii teatr" (puppet theater?) this morning.

Originally published by Sumana Harihareswara at

Moscow: Part II

Sat Jul 14th, 2001 at 09:28:41 AM PST

Part II of my Moscow odyssey. Part I was here.

Day Three: Sunday.
Some stuff, first, that I had forgotten to mention previously.

First: on Friday night, in Moscovsky Vokzal, belying all the very progressive and enlightened thoughts I've been having about race in this 80% white country, I approached a group of Indians -- familiar faces, what? -- and found out that they identified themselves as Russians, which made me feel like a boor for asking where they were from.

Also: it's a bit of a Russian tradition -- in Moscow, at least -- to see the sights, especially Red Square, on your wedding day. So there were lots of brides about. I liked it. I love feeling festive. I even wished one of them good luck.

Moreover: I was near one of the many metro entrances/underground passageways on Saturday afternoon when I said, "What's that violin music?" I peeked in, and ten people on violins and other string instruments were playing. Not badly, either. Lots of people were watching, and I took a picture, and I was happy. The San Francisco subways can just roll over and die; they can't even compete now. There are no chamber orchestras on BART.

At some point this weekend, I realized that I am a lot darker than I used to be. I am pretty sure that before-and-after pictures will show me a milk chocolate in early June and dark chocolate, kind of like Shweta, in mid-August. I should probably use more sunblock.

So. Sunday. I copied down a bunch of stuff from Kate's Lonely Planet guidebook. (Lonely Planet is the Google of guidebooks to the ACTR kids. There's just no contest.) Netcafes, restaurants, places to go. It may have been that morning, or the next one, that I saw, dubbed in Russian, the prom scene episode from Beverly Hills, 90210. And it was dubbed quite well, too. I could have sworn Brenda was saying, "Konyeshna" (of course), to the question of "shall we get our pictures now?" Also, the previous day, on some channel that never again appeared on our TV, I saw a test pattern and listened to "Walk Like an Egyptian" as I surveyed the Moscow skyline from my hotel window. Very apropo.

We breakfasted to no one's delight, really, on some porridge-and-milk that only vaguely resembled my idea of kasha. I actually like kasha, the way my host mom prepares it, where it's kind of like plain brown rice with butter. Anyway, we headed out for a tour of the Moscow metro system -- ony five interesting stations out of about eighty. I made conversation with our guide on the way to the first stop, and she complimented me on my Russian! Goodness.

I thought of a Kodak ad that features some comically non-native-language-speaking tourists in, I think, Italy. They ask for directions and eventually get where they need to go so that they can get a picture of themselves at some emotionally significant spot (I'm simplifying the ad). Maybe part of what I dislike about tourism is the way it objectifies the place and the people you are viewing. Ray Bradbury talks about this in some short story of his. I can't recall the name.

There are lots and lots of statues in Moscow. My goodness. It's generally noted that Prince Vladimir rejected Islam for his country because of its alcohol restriction. Maybe it was also because Russians can't stand not making representations of the human form. Also, they need lots of public meeting places. "I'll meet you by the bust of [minor bureaucrat who played politics well]." "Wait, maybe it would be easier to see each other at the statue of [obligingly patriotic agitprop hack]."

I wasn't feeling particularly awed during some of the excursion. Maybe I just ran out of awe too early on in Russia, I thought.

Then I saw Mendeleevskaya. I took quite a few pictures of Mendeleevskaya. I am very happy that there is a major metro station in Moscow named after Mendeleev, and also that the chandeliers are shaped like models of molecules. Crystal-formation-looking things. John groused that they didn't look enough like authentic, scientifically valid molecular formations. Don't look the Bronze Horseman in the mouth, John.

A few of us failed completely to find the cemetery attached to the Novodevichye Convent (the entrance was far away from the convent entrance, and the rest of the people went back the next day to look at famous people's graves). But the convent was very pretty and peaceful. I actually saw a nun, dressed in all black, scurrying along to do...whatever it is that Russian Orthodox nuns do. How different our worlds are!

On the way to a restaurant from the convent, as we gradually gave up on seeking the cemetery, we came upon THE CUTEST THING I HAVE EVER SEEN. EVER. There is a park next to the convent, with trees and a stream. I saw some little bronze ducks that immediately reminded me of Make Way for Ducklings. And I was right! Ten years ago, Barbara Bush (First Lady B.B.) presented this thingie to the children of the USSR from the kids of the USA, in honor of the classic work by Robert McCloskey. And I sat on the big mommy duck and had my pic taken. And then, as I rested on a bench, I saw a little kid of five or so come over with her gramma, and she played with those ducks for half an hour, and set the bar for any future cuteness display I may ever witness. She "fed" things to the duck, she created interactions between some stuffed animal and the ducks, she just embodied cuteness. Oh, and she used (of course) really simple Russian, so I could understand her. E.g., "There!" Yeah, that was the highlight of my day, and possibly of my entire trip to Russia, in terms of cuteness.

From a good lunch at Guriya, a Georgian restaurant on Komsomolskaya Prospekt:
TO DO: Figure out how I feel about alcohol.

On the way back to the metro, I finally realized that Sprite ads that say, "Don't believe ads," are an example of the Liar's Paradox.

To what extent do advertisements and signs in general assume that the viewer already knows the city? That question kept coming up -- as Caleb Carr wrote, "like the only hummable melody in a difficult, nightmarish opera," or something like that. Well, it wasn't nightmarish. Neither was it "like a splinter in your brain, driving you mad," as in The Matrix. It just kept coming up.

Later that day, I remembered Michael Crichton's Travels, a very good book. I especially remembered the chapter involving the Dyaks and the Something-Kundalkiki Gorge. It's a chapter about missing what's right under your nose.

After the restaurant was Gorky Park, which I just viewed from the outside. Today it hardly seems a place of skulking, of Cold War intrigue. Today it just looks like a circus.

The perehod, or underground passageway, to the other side of the street, was chock-full of people selling paintings. Somehow I liked that better, seeing the walls full of art and viewing them as a consumer, trying to figure out what I liked and what would be worth my coin, rather than gawking touristically from one "masterpiece" to the next and feeling some sort of obligation to like everything.

There was a sculpture garden, and then there was rain, and then back at the hotel, there was dubbed X-Files ("Malder"), and I made some joke about the tsar of wishful thinking.

I'll write more about Sunday night in a bit.

Originally published by Sumana Harihareswara at