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Sochi, Russia

Sochi, Russia

The 2014 Winter Olympics will be held in Sochi, Russia which is a city on the Black Sea near the Georgia border.   The games will be the first winter games to feature medals competitions in “Slopestyle” snowboard and skiing as well as snowboard parallel slalom.

Parallel Snowboard Slalom

Parallel Snowboard Slalom

Of course the real competitions have already been held: namely the insane International competition to host the Olympics (which came down to a choice between Sochi, Salzburg, and Pyeongchang) and, more importantly, the competition to choose the official Olympic mascots.   You will no doubt recall that the 2012 summer Olympics mascots were “Wenlock and Mandeville”, two cyclopean alien robot monsters.

Wenlock and Mandeville

Wenlock and Mandeville (sigh)

In an attempt to end up with less appalling mascots, Russia turned to the time honored Russian solution of…democracy (?).  Wow! The world really is changing.  A list of vetted candidates was drawn up and submitted to the public for consideration.  Some of the shortlisted design ideas included Matryoshka dolls, Dolphins, Bullfinches, snow leopards, hares, bears, a tiny anthropomorphized sun, and Ded Moroz (the Russian “Father Frost” who acts as Santa).

The shortlist of 2014 Olympic mascot candidates

The shortlist of 2014 Olympic mascot candidates

Zoich, the counter culture mascot of the 2014 Olympics

Zoich, the counter culture mascot of the 2014 Olympics

Zoich, the anti-establishment furry crowned toad (who was modeled after Futurama’s hypnotoad) was quietly omitted from the final list of candidates as was Ded Moroz, when it was discovered that, if he won, he would become the intellectual property of the International Olympic Committee.

Sorry Ded, you must belong to the children of Russia

Sorry Ded, you already belong to the children of Russia

A telephone voting competition was held between the final mascot candidates and the three winners (the snow leopard, hare, and bear) became the official Olympic mascots.  Unfortunately the election was tainted with scandal when Russia’s elected leader and perennial strongman, Vladimir Putin announced that his favorite candidate was the snow leopard.  Subsequent to this proclamation, an immense number of phonecalls were immediately tallied for the snow leopard, which has led to charges of vote-rigging (so maybe the world hasn’t changed so much after all).

The winners

The winners

The designer of the 1980 Moscow Games mascot Misha (a bear which nobody saw because of the U.S. boycott) has accused the designer of the Sochi bear mascot of plagiarizing his bear expression.  Certain political groups have also darkly hinted that the bear was chosen because it resembles the mascot of the United Russia political party (which is the dominant force in Russian politics).

The Sochi 2014 mascot bear, Misha, the 1980 mascot bear, and the United Russia bear

The Sochi 2014 mascot bear, Misha, the 1980 mascot bear, and the United Russia bear

So it seems only the snow hare and the Paralympic mascots (a snowflake girl and fireboy) are untainted by controversy.  I dislike admitting it, but to my eye, Putin was right and the snow leopard, although not native to Sochi, is the most compelling figure.  They are all pretty cute, so maybe this whole democracy thing actually works (despite the ghastly results we have been getting lately in America).

Better than Congress!

Better than Congress by a lot!

The Barclays Center as seen from above (against the larger NY cityscape)

I hope my non-New York audience will bear with me through this post.  Even though it concerns contemporary Brooklyn (my home), it also touches on larger topics.  Today is the grand opening of the much-anticipated Barclays Center, a multi-purpose indoor sporting/concert venue, which lies at the center of a five billion dollar restoration/remake of the Vanderbilt Train Yards at Atlantic Avenue (where Ebbets Field once stood and where most of the city’s trains meet at a huge terminal).  The devilish development work which went into creating the complex took a decade or longer and required lots of high finance deals and acrimonious court cases (which, in turn, involved crushing and annexing lots of little guys via eminent domain).   The final structure involves an unholy business alliance between billionaire developer, Bruce Ratner; Russian oligarch and kleptocrat,Mikhail Prokhorov; British investment bank, Barclays PLC; hip-hop mogul, rapper, and accused stabber, Jay-Z; and, of course, New York’s hapless taxpayers who got foisted with big portions of the tab.  The stadium will be the home arena for the boringly-named Brooklyn Nets (a basketball franchise), the stage for mega concerts by the likes of Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, & Jay-Z, as well as the sight of large scale attractions like the circus, Disney-on-ice, and professional boxing.

Looking at the above paragraph, one might be somewhat inclined to disparage the project (or, indeed, to despair of humanity), but we are not here for that: instead this post is meant as aesthetic contemplation of the architecture of Barclays Center and of the changing directions of megacities at large.

The Finished Barclays Center

A timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus)

The arena was designed by architectural firm Ellerbe Becket and features three bands of pre-weathered (i.e. rusted) steel plates latticed together around a futuristic glass curtain wall.  Apparently the juxtaposition of glass and rusted steel was meant to evoke Brooklyn’s famous brownstone townhouses, but the effect is more jarring than traditional.  So far critical reaction has been mixed, with local critics comparing the building to a giant coiled rattlesnake.  As the building took shape, it made me think of a science-fiction movie where the heroes crash on a supposedly deserted planet—and then discover monstrous corroded alien ruins of a shape so sinister that it foreshadows horrible events to come.  However when I walked by the finished building last night it struck me that the building actually does look like a timber rattlesnake—and I like rattlesnakes (though not in a way that makes me want to be close to them).  The sinuous curves and non-euclidean light projections gave a futuristic impression.  The employees of Modells sporting store were working overtime stripping the store’s featureless onyx mannequins naked so that they could be dressed in all-black “Nets” gear. The proud blue and white space eagle of Barclays glowed on its tri-lobed bizarro-shield. For the first time since the recession began so many years ago, I felt like Brooklyn was stepping into a prosperous (albeit authoritarian) future.

Still scene from “Bladerunner” (1982)

I have heard from concert-promoters (who were allowed early access) that the inside is stunning.  Although there are many extra boxes–and super-boxes–for the extremely well-healed, the space is said to put other similarly sized venues to shame.  The line-up of sports events and acts, though tawdry, will undoubtedly create huge business (probably surpassing that of Madison Square Garden).  Urban life is meant to be flashy, fast-paced, and busy with different people from different places who like different things.  If one loved beauty, quiet, and meaning, one would move to the country.

Gradiva’s Fourth Wall (Diana Al Hadid, 2011, steel, polymer gypsum, wood, fiberglass, paint)

Cities should be bigger than life—that is why lots of people come here.  I prefer the idea of a growing & dynamic Brooklyn to a changeless 1950s concrete jungle (which is what the railyards were) or, goodness help us, a dying city returning to wasteland, like Detroit.  Cities which are dynamic and changing require big bold risks, like the Empire State Building in the 1930s or the Centre Pompidou in the 1980s.  I am happy to see that Brooklyn is taking such chances–even if it does mean some toes get stepped on or a few giant space rattlesnakes get built.

I foresee a great shining future for the Barclays Center, although you might not see me there anytime soon.  Also be very careful crossing the street near the monstrous thing.  The one element preserved from the fifties was a disregard for the lives of people not rich enough to travel by car.

Białowieża Forest

Long ago Eastern Europe was covered by vast virgin forests.  Almost all of these woodlands have long ago been cut down to make way for agriculture, roads, or towns, but in the northeast corner of Poland one of these ancient forests still survives.

Until late in the 14th century, Białowieża forest located at the junction of the Baltic Sea watershed and the Black Sea watershed was a primeval forest so thick that travelers could pass through the region only by river. Even in the fifteenth century roads and bridges were rare in the ancient woodlands of eastern Poland and the human population remained sparse to non-existent.  Because the lands were so empty of people but full of animals, the kings of Poland adopted Białowieża forest as a royal game preserve.  The Polish monarchy also used the forest as a wilderness retreat: it was in the dark fastness of his forest hunting lodge that King Władysław holed up to escape the Black Death.

Hunters returing to Białowieża Hill (1820, print)

The region remained a pristine royal forest until the partition of Poland delivered the forest to Russian hands.  Even the Russian tsars were beguiled by Białowieża forest, for it was one of the last wild preserves for the largest land animal in Europe, the mighty wisent.  In 1801 Tsar Alexander I was moved by the plight of wisent herds (which had swiftly dwindled due to poaching). The tsar reintroduced a hunting ban and hired a small number of peasants as game rangers.  Alexander II reinstated the ban in 1860 and in 1888 the tsars assumed direct ownership of the entire forest.

Great Gray Owl

During World War I the forest fell under German control and, from 1915 to 1918, the occupying army rushed to cut down Białowieża’s timber and hunt down all remaining wildlife. But even the Germans had their hands full during those tumultuous years and they lost World War I before they could despoil the entire forest.  Białowieża came under Soviet control and during Stalin’s era, all Polish inhabitants were “deported to remote parts of the Soviet Union” and replaced by Soviet forest workers.  When German troops again retook Białowieża in World War II, the Soviet forest workers in turn disappeared. Hermann Göring harbored ambitious plans to create the world’s biggest hunting reserve at Białowieża, but, in the end, the Nazis predictably used the remote location as a grave for resistance fighters.  When the Germans retreated they destroyed the ancient hunting lodges of the Polish throne, but they did not destroy the forest itself. After the war the forest was divided between Poland and the Belarusian State of the Soviet Union. Both regions became protected wilderness areas.

The brickwork Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas on the outskirts of Białowieża

Because of this history, Białowieża Primeval Forest is now the last remaining primary deciduous and mixed forest of the European lowlands.  The land is a refuge for pine, beech, alder, spruce, and towering oaks which have never known the axe. Just as the forest lies in the place where two watersheds meet, it also straddles the boreal and temperate zone: plants and animals from south and north live wild in the park.

The World Heritage Convention website enumerates the many wildlife species which currently live in the forest writing, “these wilderness areas are inhabited by European bison, a species reintroduced into the park in 1929, elk, stag, roe deer, wild boar, lynx, wolf, fox, marten, badger, otter, ermine, beaver and numerous bats. It is also a showplace reserve for tarpan (Polish wild forest horse). The avifauna includes corncrake, white-tailed eagle, white stork, peregrine falcon and eagle owl.”

A Wisent Flees into Bialowieza Forest

Wisent (Bison bonasus)

The magnificent American Bison (Bison bison) was very nearly exterminated by hunters, soldiers, and politicians, but the bison did not come nearly as close to extinction as its closest relative, the wisent (Bison bonasus).  Wisents are the largest native land animal in Europe today; an average wisent measures 1.8 to 2.2 m (6 to 7 ft) tall, and weighs up to 1000 kg (more than a ton). Although similar to American bison, the wisent is slightly smaller with larger horns and a hairier tail.  Whereas bison graze grass, wisents browse the forest–and the two animals therefore have different postures and necks. Wisents once roamed Eurasia from England to far eastwards of the Volga River where they were hunted by Caspian Tigers and Asiatic Lions.  The wisent herds also ranged north as far as northern Sweden and south to Italy.

Cave painting of a Wisent (from Altamira, Spain, from the Palaeolithic Age ca. 21,000 BC to 13,000 BC)

In prehistoric times, wisents were a mainstay of European megafauna and beautiful cave paintings (among the first known artistic achievements of humankind) often portray the mighty creatures, but, as humanity burgeoned in Europe, the wisent declined.  Starting in Gaul in the 8th century, whole populations of the shaggy giants gradually disappeared.  The creature vanished from northern Sweden in the 11th century, and then from England in the 12th. Tiny herds survived in the Ardennes forest and the Vosges Mountains until Frenchmen finished off these remnants in the 15th century.

A Wisent Hunt Depicted on a Hungarian Stamp

The wisents’ best friends turned out to be the kings of Poland, devoted big game hunters who proclaimed a death sentence on anyone poaching the mighty ruminants within the kingdom. Sadly though, the Polish Crown suffered…setbacks in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Although the Russian tsars (who seized the Eastern forests of Poland) tried to keep the last herds of wisent alive, by the twentieth century, the animals survived only in zoos, the remote Caucasus, and in the primeval depths of Poland’s Białowieża Forest.  The ancient trees of Białowieża (and the animals living under them) remained largely untouched until World War I, when the region was captured by Germans, who built a railroad and timber mills there.  Within four years the remaining herd of 600 wisents was slaughtered.  When the Germans left only 9 of the beasts remained and the last of this tiny herd was killed in 1919 (probably by Soviet poachers).  The last wild wisent was slaughtered less than a decade later in the Western Caucasus, where a few hardy individuals had somehow managed to survive.

In the late twenties only about 50 wisents remained alive, all of which lived in various zoos. Fortunately an early pioneer of wildlife conservation stepped in to save the dying species.  Heinz Heck, the director of the Munich Zoo, established the first studbook for non-domestic animals and organized a groundbreaking breeding program to bring the wisent back from the brink (Heck was a determined and far-sighted man who also tried to personally resurrect several species of extinct megafauna—but we’ll deal with that quixotic quest another time).  Thanks to Heck’s ongoing efforts, captured populations of wisents started to grow and the animals were reintroduced into Białowieża in 1951.  The reintroduced wisents burgeoned and the forest is now home to more than 800 European bison. Wisents have also been reintroduced to protected parks in Russia (including the western Caucasus) and herds can now be found in Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Latvia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, and Spain.  Germany and the Netherlands hope to reintroduce the animal in the near future—perhaps someday the wisent will find its way back to Scandinavia, France, and even Great Britain.

Wisent herd in Caucasian mountains (Photo by Sergej Trepet)

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