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I have conflicted feelings about Ai Weiwei (arguably China’s most renowned contemporary artist). On one hand his work can be undeniably powerful. He and I went to the same art school (The dear old Art Students’ League of New York) and he is fearless: it takes true courage to stand as a gadfly to the world’s most powerful authoritarian state. Yet, on the other hand, his work partakes obsessively of Warhol’s solipsistic narcissism. Ai exemplifies the toxic studio system which has erased handicraft mastery from art (although, arguably, that very point is a big part of his work) and he has so blurred the lines between art and politics that I wonder if he is not a Chinese politician rather than a Chinese artist. I realize as I write this, that all of these “counter” points could be construed in his favor (and they are certainly the larger part of the reason he has found such immense international success). So my ambiguous feelings about Ai Weiwei probably have to do with my ambiguous feelings about art and politics: which are twin disciplines in a way which is not readily apparent at first. We will explore that kinship and tension later this year as we ask what the purpose of art is anyway (and what the purpose of politics is too—other than to aggrandize a bunch of hypocritical elites).
But, for today, I want to uncritically praise Ai Weiwei because I love the new series he has produced.
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Longtime readers know my love of Chinese porcelain—especially the justly famous cobalt glaze blue-and-white ware which was created in the Yuan Dynasty but flowered into its greatest glory during the Ming Dynasty. Ai Weiwei has used the techniques and style of Ming blue-and-white porcelain to produce a majestic series which exemplifies timeless beauty of the form yet with fully contemporary subjects. The resulting pieces are masterworks. They underline tricky questions about China, art, power, individuals, society, and coercion throughout the ages.
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Naturally they are produced by unknown artisans whom Ai Weiwei enslaved and exploited. But that dynamic also undergirded original Ming ceramic masterpieces (which were made by unknown artisans). Additionally, everything is made that way today. Look around your computer (and AT your computer) unless you are reading this in the far future or are an eccentric potentate, it was all made in a Chinese sweatshop. And the work, with its themes of refugees, escape, conflict, and striving, has a pathos and a human element absent from the courtly dragons, serene pine, and magical peaches of the originals.
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It is amazing stuff. Maybe he can redeem himself in my eyes for smashing a Han urn as a publicity stunt (although I am sure that where he is now laughing atop a pile of money as art curators genuflect before him, my good esteem may not be at the forefront of his concerns)

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There is nothing that Ferrebeekeeper loves more than an enormously ornate 18th century edifice—unless it is a touching story of unification and healing!  This story has all of those things—but it also drives straight through one of the darkest episodes of twentieth century history.

This is the Dresden Frauenkirche, one of the two great churches of Dresden.  The Frauenkirche is Dresden’s great Protestant church: the Catholic church–the Hofkirche of Dresden—has its own history (though it could be argued that both churches form a larger story of faith and schism in Germany especially since Dresden is part of Saxony, which was Martin Luther’s diocese).   At any rate the Frauenkirche was designed by Dresden’s city architect, George Bähr and built between 1726 and 1743.  The defining feature of the church was its 96 meter tall stone dome.  The 12,000-ton sandstone dome rested on eight slender supports, and yet was famous for its solid resilience and strength.  During the 7 Years War, Prussian cannonballs bounced harmlessly off the sandstone dome like acorns bouncing off of a church bell.

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Unfortunately, the 20th century saw the advent of more terrible weapons than cannons (and more terrifying German leaders than Frederick the Great). In the final stages of World War II, the Frauenkirche was destroyed by the 1945 Allied fire bombings which burned down Dresden (and killed 25,000 of its citizens). All that was left was a pile of rubble and melancholy broken walls which looked for all the world like a Friedrich painting. The Cold War also took its toll on Germany and Soviet hegemonic aggression prevented the nation from uniting and fully rebuilding.  East Germany was unable to fulfill its potential or govern itself (on the opposite side of the Cold War, the United States was and is the dearest friend and ally of Germany…although maybe it is best not to look too closely into the circumstances of that firebombing or ask a lot of questions about our own recent embrace of the crazed strongman theory of misgovernment).

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So, for half a century the Frauenkirche was a nightmarish burnt fragment—an ever-present revenant reminding the people of Saxony of the terrible destruction of the war.   It became a locus of the German peace movement (and a site for passive resistance to the East German government). Then, in the nineties, circumstances in Germany changed very quickly.  Reunification brought forth a project to rebuild the Frauenkirche.  The original church was destroyed, but the original blueprints were not.  In 1992 construction began on the new Frauenkirche.   In an effort to recreate the church as thoroughly as possible, chemists tested burnt remnants, historians pored over ancient receipts, archivists collected endless photos and artworks, and the citizens of Dresden saved pfennigs in order to pay for the undertaking.  About 3800 stones from the original church were recovered and used.  The old stones have a patina of age…and they were darkened by the fire.

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The project was finished in 2005 (ahead of schedule) and today the Frauenkirche looks almost exactly the same as it did in 1744 or 1944, except the smattering of original stones give it a speckled appearance like a magnificent baroque toad.  Touchingly, the golden cross at the apex of the tower was funded officially by “the British people and the House of Windsor” and wrought by a British goldsmith whose father was a pilot in the bombing.

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If you have ever tried to fix or restore anything, you will recognize that this is a monumental accomplishment which indicates the proficiency and excellence of German manufacture (not that anyone had any doubts anyway). Even more importantly, the story is a reminder to everyone that reunification, rebirth, and rebuilding to Golden Age glory are entirely possible.  The full story of the church however also remains to remind us of the horror of war and the tragic history of mistakes which caused so much devastation.

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I have been deeply dissatisfied by contemporary events…so much so that I am going to look away from our time and gaze back through classical antiquity to the Peloponnesian War…but bear with me. Some say there are lessons in history which pertain to current world. The definitive story of the Peloponnesian War is told by Thucydides, an Athenian general who took part in the proceedings and had the grace to explain why he wrote his history (and what he thought his biases were). Thucydides’ great work is arguably the first real work of history but it is also the first great work of political science. The way that leaders manipulated people and events and news turned out to have strange consequences that the protagonists did not foresee (but, in hindsight, clearly should have).
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The war is the story of a fading power being supplanted by a rival. The fading power, Athens, had unrivaled naval supremacy, but the upstart power, Sparta, had an enormous ever-victorious army. Athens had a league of close allies, the Delian league who supported them and were a great source of their strength (a fact not always appreciated by the proud Athenians). Many American theorists of the Cold War found these principal characters disturbingly familiar—a broad-minded yet imperialistic democracy versus an autocracy where all aspects of life were controlled by the state. Even the style of the nations seemed familiar—a nation based on wealth and trade and webs of friendship (and superior naval technology and prowess) versus a thuggish nation which ham-fistedly squashed its rivals into submission and dominated the battlefield through numbers and pure aggression.

Enough backstory. Let’s get to the central point. At the moral heart of the book is the story of the Siege of Melos.
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Melos (which should be familiar to sculpture fans as the discovery place of the Venus de Milo) was a small yet prosperous island originally colonized by Dorian people, who shared cultural heritage with the Spartans. Despite this cultural background, the Melians remained neutral in the war, until one day the Athenians showed up demanding punitive monetary tribute and other concessions. The Melians argued that they were neutral and Athens was in the wrong. Surely the Spartans (or perhaps the gods) would come to the rescue of Melos if the Athenians abused their military supremacy for a very slight monetary/strategic gain. The Athenians, who had lost some of their famed thoughtfulness through the exigencies of war and political struggle responded by laying siege to Melos. When starvation forced the little city state to surrender, the Athenians executed all of the adult men and took the Melian women and children as slaves. Afterwards, the island was repopulated entirely by Athenian colonists.
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This…lapse…shocked the people of Athens (Euripides’ agonizing “Trojan Women” which came out shortly afterwards is a story of the writer’s own time clothed in a story about a bygone age). The brazen, terrible behavior also shocked the allies of Athens. Perhaps that was actually the point: to remind recalcitrant allies that the Athenians were strong enough to be brutal and act for naked self-interest.
But, despite the ostentatious show of naked power, the conquest of Melos did not help Athens very much. In a world where Athens and Sparta seemed increasingly alike, the old alliances broke apart. Also, Athens was not as good at autocracy or thuggery as the Spartans (who, by the way, DID show up to avenge Melos and kill off the Athenian colonists). Back in Attica, things got worse and worse. The story of the first great democracy became an increasingly dark tale of venal & selfish leaders—demagogues—who were replaced willy-nilly by the fickle mob. Factions fought each other more vehemently than they fought the Spartans.

When China…uh, I mean Sparta! finally won the war it behaved with much greater leniency and restraint than the Athenians showed the Melians. The Spartans installed a crooked counsel of oligarchs (who had maybe been pushing Spartan interests there at the end). The Greek golden age was over.
Political scientists tend to think the Melian story illustrates the principal of “might makes right” (I left out the famous back-and-forth dialogue, which you should definitely read about on your own). Yet perhaps there are larger lessons to the larger story.
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Thoughtful citizens might extrapolate that a nation is only as powerful as its allies and its leaders of the moment…and friendship and admiration can be easily squandered for very little gain. Throughout secondary school I was always taught that democracy is clearly superior in every way to every other system. Thucydides’ history reminds us that there are dark perils inherent within the very nature of group rule. Our classically minded founders knew this story and thought about it a great deal. It is unclear whether today’s legislators (or citizens) have given as much heed to the lessons of how Athens abandoned its principles and treated its friends like underlings and split into antagonistic factions and was swiftly broken to bits like a vase bumped off a plinth.
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Protesilaus is a figure from Greek mythology.  As one of the suitors of Helen of Troy, he was party to the binding alliance between Greek warrior-kings which pulled them all into the Trojan War when she was stolen by Paris.  Protesilaus was a king in Thessaly (long a rumored haunt of wild magic, and sorcery run amuck).  He brought forty ships full of warriors to the campaign…but there was a problem which nearly foundered the entire Greek effort before it even got started: a dark prophecy stated that the first Greek warrior to leave the boats would also be the first Greek warrior to die in the war.  When the war fleet reached the beaches of Troy, nobody wanted to set foot upon Trojan land and incur the prophesied doom.  So all the fearless warriors set quaking in their boats.

Finally, Protesilaus had enough of this pusillanimous behavior and he leaped to shore (even though he was newly married and had much to live for).  Sure enough, in accordance with binding laws of war narrative, he was killed by the Trojan hero Hector during the first foray of the war—and the prophecy was thus fulfilled (although it should be noted that Protesilaus killed four men before dying at the hands of the greatest Trojan hero—so he went down as a fighter).

Laodamia voor het schilderij van Protesilaus (Pieter Serwouters naar David Vinckboons,1626, engraving)

Laodamia voor het schilderij van Protesilaus (Pieter Serwouters naar David Vinckboons,1626, engraving)

When his widow Laodamia heard about this, she went mad with grief.  Since the two were newlyweds when the war broke out, their love was in its first flower and burned hot and wild. The Gods admired the bravery of Protesilaus and they took pity on his distraught widow.  For half an hour, the hero was allowed to return from the underworld to the mortal world to give a more thorough farewell to his wife. Unfortunately (but perhaps not surprisingly) Protesilaus’ brief return from death—followed by a permanent return to the land of the dead–unhinged Laodamia completely.  She commissioned a beautiful lifelike sculpture of her dead husband and proceeded to treat it as though it were him.

Her father, baffled as to how to proceed in the face of these terrible happenings, decided to destroy the statue by casting it into a raging fire, but Laodamia could not be parted from her husband a third time and she leapt into the blaze and was burned away.  His traumatized subjects built a lavish tomb for him and nymphs planted elms upon it.  According to the poetry of antiquity, these trees grew to be the tallest in the world, yet when their tops were high enough to come into eyesight of Troy, the leaves died back and withered away (for the bitterness and sorrow of the dead hero remained even when he and his wife were gone).

Sarcophagus with scenes of Protesilaus and Laodamia (Roman, second century AD, marble)

Sarcophagus with scenes of Protesilaus and Laodamia (Roman, second century AD, marble)

In the business world it is considered terrible to be the first person to do something truly bold and new.  Business leaders pay lip-service to innovators, but, in truth, business schools teach that ideas should be tried out by others first.  Wang got nowhere, while the wily Steve Jobs took the best parts of his ideas and made an empire. There is a race to be second.  The world’s leaders know not to be brave, but to be sly and calculating.  This is prudent counsel (and has been so since before there were stories of the Trojan War), but I wonder if the world might not have more innovation and invention, if the first movers were not punished so brutally.

USS Maine Monument designed by Harold Van Buren Magonigle and carved by Attilio Piccirilli

USS Maine Monument (designed by Harold Van Buren Magonigle and carved by Attilio Piccirilli, 1913, marble)

Here is an image of my favorite war memorial sculpture in New York City (which has no lack of amazing memorial sculptures from conflicts throughout American history). This is a memorial to the 260 American sailors who perished in 1898 when the battleship Maine unexpectedly exploded. When the battleship blew up, it was located in the harbor of Havana, Cuba, and the event quickly became a casus belli for the Spanish-American War (a lop-sided conflict which announced the U.S. as a great world power). The events surrounding the destruction of the Maine–and the attendant yellow journalism, which led to war–are complicated and controversial: you can read about them elsewhere (although, frankly, it seems likely the battleship exploded because of an accident rather than due to Spanish perfidy). Today we are concentrating on Attilio Picarelli’s glorious sculpture, which was placed in Central Park at the Columbus Circle entrance in 1913. It is a triumphant celebration of American imperial might, but it is also a poignant evocation of the sodier’s forced estrangement from his family (which sometimes lasts forever–as in the case of the sailors of the Maine).

The Front of the Monument: The Antebellum State of Mind:  Courage Awaiting

The Front of the Monument: “The Antebellum State of Mind: Courage Awaiting”

The monument takes the form of a classical trireme-style warship made of marble with a huge cenotaph in the middle. Atop the cenotaph is a gilded figure of Columbia–a pre Uncle Sam allegorical figure who represents America. All eyes tend to focus on the triumphant Columbia, who is riding in a seashell chariot drawn by three hippocampi (she is reputedly cast from metal from the actual cannons of the Maine, which were raised from the watery depths after the Spanish War was won), however it is the figures near the base which are finer artworks. In the front of the statue, Justice stretches out her arms in a plea for vengeance for the murdered seamen as the nation starts out for war. At her feet, a beautiful mother holds a disconsolate child (left at home by a soldier father or perhaps orphaned outright?). A muscular nude man (who represents the soldier) is forced to turn away from her. At the ships prow a beautiful youth holds a victory wreathe. On the right side of the statue is a half slumbering old sea god which looks like Proteus (and represents the Pacific Ocean). On the left side is an Athenian warrior reclining, whose warlike trappings are at odds with his serene pose and distant expression: he represents the Atlantic Ocean. At the back of the statue is a group of figures titled “The Post-Bellum Idea: Justice Receiving Back the Sword Entrusted to War”. The statue is engraved with the names of the men who died when the Maine sank.

The left side of the Monument: an allegorical figure of the Atlantic Ocean

The left side of the Monument: an allegorical figure of the Atlantic Ocean

The stone figures are carved with unusual skill and grace which is so often absent in American civic statues. Their faces are solemn and beautiful and every line is simultaneously forceful and yet delicate. Although it takes time to tease out the allegorical meanings of the groupings, there is no mistaking the grave solemnity of the figures.

The back of the monument: "The Post-Bellum Idea: Justice Receiving Back the Sword Entrusted to War."

The back of the monument: “The Post-Bellum Idea: Justice Receiving Back the Sword Entrusted to War.”

AfricaAngola

We have bogged down somewhat in our trip across Sub-Saharan Africa. After starting in Madagascar, crossing the channel to Mozambique, winding our way through Malawi, Tanzania, and Zambia, we got lost in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It’s time we resume the trip and push on west to Angola. Like The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola is tremendously rich in mineral wealth (plus the Angolan people are notable for their great physical beauty!), but also like the Congo, Angola has suffered greatly from exploitation, greed, and long decades of bitter war. First there was war between the Portuguese colonialists and those who sought a free Angola. When the struggle for independence ended in 1975, the “liberators” fought a brutal war with each other over who would control and exploit the populace. This war became a proxy war for the Soviet Union and the United States. After the Soviet Union fell, the Angolan civil war became entangled in the greater Congolese war of the 1990s.

Flag of Angola

Flag of Angola

As you can tell, despite all of its beauty, wealth, and magnificence, Angola has been a sad and divided land for the last four decades. Yet, of course there is much more to the country than just fighting (and I’ll describe some of its culture and biodiversity next week), but I am going to finish this introduction to Angola with the story of its rather horrible flag. Naturally this story involves another fight! The flag of Angola, as you can clearly see, represents its long status as the puppet of the Soviet bloc. The red represents the endless blood which must be spilled to make a perfect communist state and the black represents the people of Angola. The broken gear represents unfulfilled aspirations of industry. The machete speaks for itself. Finally, the gold star represents Angolan obeisance to Soviet ideals (indeed the shattered gear and the genocidaire’s machete are meant to evoke the hammer and sickle). This flag was the flag of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, the dominant faction of the three factions during the long internecine civil war.

 

Proposed Flag of Angola (2003)

Proposed Flag of Angola (2003)

When the war ended in 2002 and Angola finally began to try to repair the terrible damages done to its citizens, its infrastructure, and its society, some people looked askance at the flag. In 2003, the Parliament’s Constitutional Commission of the National Assembly gently recommended the adoption of a new “more optimistic” flag which features brighter colors and a solar design based on ancient petroglyphs. Unfortunately, the resolution was not taken up, so Angola maintains its violent, scary, and anachronistic national colors–although there is no disputing that the flag is visually and historically interesting (and not a little bad-ass).

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Regular readers will have noticed that Ferrebeekeeper’s epic east to west progression across Africa has stalled. We started on the microcontinent of Madagascar, traveled across the straight to Mozambique, moved up the rift valley through Malawi and Tanzania and then cut west onto the lush plains of Zambia. Now we stand at a dramatic crossroads.

The Kalahari Desert of Botswana

The Kalahari Desert of Botswana

To the south is the sparsely populated desert nation of Botswana. It is arguably Africa’s most stable democracy and it contains vast arid wildernesses where the San hunt the arid scrub but nature otherwise holds rule. In fact the Chobe National Park has the world’s largest population of elephants although I hesitate to even write it, lest poachers hear. Yet when poachers show up with their helicopters, machine guns, and poisons, Botswana captures them, tries them in a fair court, and locks them up. It is a well-run country with an educated populace (although it is struggling with the terrible scourge of HIV).

Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo, Home of the Endangered Mountain Gorilla

Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo, Home of the Endangered Mountain Gorilla

To the north lies an entirely opposite nation—the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a terribly run nation with a history steeped in bloodshed and horror. Whereas Botswana is an empty desert, the Congo is a vast brooding rainforest filled with hundreds of different ethnic groups. The Congo is the second largest nation in Africa by area. It is rich in mineral and natural resources. It has unprecedented amazing biodiversity. Yet it was the sight of the most terrible war of the second half of the twentieth century—a war which left terrible scars in the hearts of the Congolese people (and ushered five million people into an early grave). Even today, shadows of the war lie everywhere on the land, and beneath them are older shadows and scars from the most brutal colonial regime of Africa, and beneath those lie even more ancient hatreds and hurts…but I digress.

Flag of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Flag of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Since we are traveling via thought on the internet, I say we head north into the Congo. In fact let’s spend this whole week there among jungles that have never known the axe and in the company of bonobos, okapi, and pygmies, the Congo’s original human inhabitants. In the spirit of this trip, I will start Congo week by describing the flag of the Democratic Republic of Congo which is a sky blue field with a red diagonal stripe with gold edges. In the upper left corner is a yellow five pointed star. According to Wikipedia “The red symbolized the people’s blood; the yellow symbolized prosperity; the blue symbolized hope; and the star represented unity.” Perhaps a more realistic flag would be totally red with an exploded star and all of the yellow locked away in some hidden Swiss bank account. Yet cognoscenti say that for all of its troubles past and present The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the most beautiful places of Earth. Its people are creative, diverse, and resilient. Hoist up the blue flag of hope, say a prayer upon the star of unity, and come traveling the Congo River. There are wonders and horrors in the offing as we spend some time in one of the world’s most amazing places.

camp for internally displaced residents in the Democratic Republic of Congo

camp for internally displaced residents in the Democratic Republic of Congo

 

Tanzania

Tanzania…oh my goodness is that pretty…

In past weeks this blog has been slowly traveling on a meandering path through sub-Saharan Africa, concentrating especially on the flags of these lands.  We started in Madagascar, moved across the channel to Mozambique, visited Malawi (on the edge of its great lake) and today we travel further north to Tanzania. Tanzania is a beautiful land of mountains, rain forests, lakes, vast arable fields, and beaches. Africa’s tallest mountain, Mount Kilimanjaro, can be found in the north of Tanzania. The country is bounded by three of the great rift lakes of Africa (Lake Malawi, Lake Tanganyika, and Lake Victoria). To the east lies the Indian Ocean and the Zanzibar archipelago stretches out into the sea.

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The mainland portion of Tanzania was originally known as Tanganyika. It was a German colony until after World War I when control shifted to the British. Tanganyika had an easy transition away from British colonial control to independence in 1961. The islands of Zanzibar however had a much darker and sadder history—they were the center of the great Swahili-Arab slave trade until the British navy shut the wicked industry down. Even then the Sultanate of Zanzibar continued slave trading on the sly until Britain finally annexed it after a 38 minute long war! Zanzibar obtained independence from the British in 1964, after which the newly liberated citizens committed genocide against the Arabs and Indian Moslems who had so long dominated the islands. After this murderous rampage, the islands of Zanzibar turned away from the Arab world and joined together with Tanganyika to form Tanzania in 1964 (although Zanzibar remains semi-autonomous).

The Flag of Tanzania

The Flag of Tanzania

The flag of Tanzania is likewise a combination of the earlier (and oddly similar) flags of Zanzibar and Tanganyika. When the two standards merged into one Zanzibar’s blue field joined Tanganyika’s green one. The main difference was the central black stripe which moved from horizontal to diagonal (although it kept Tanganyika’s narrow yellow stripes around it.  The colors are symbolic—although the symbolic meanings are not hard to guess. The green stands for the fields and forests. The blue represents lakes, rivers, and the ocean. The gold bands represent wealth and, most importantly, the black band represents the Tanzanian people. It’s a pretty flag for a pretty land…but I can never remember it at all. Whenever I look at the flags of the world, it is one of the few I always get wrong. Maybe now that I have written a miniature essay about it, the flag of Tanzania will henceforth stick in my head.

The Flag of Tanganyika

The Flag of Tanganyika

The Flag of Zanzibar

The Flag of Zanzibar

Say what you like about Putin and the Russians, but these are the best balloons ever!

Say what you like about Putin and the Russians, but these are the best balloons ever!

The Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia have commenced! Now I love the Olympics in all their forms, but, sadly, I have no strengths at winter sports (unless you count hilariously falling down on icy surfaces as a strength—in which case I am the comic equal of any silent movie star).  Because of my lack of knowledge about sliding down icy mountains on sticks, I have been trying to find something to write about the Sochi games which does not involve winter sports.

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Fortunately the history of Sochi is quite interesting (albeit somewhat dark).  After being a contested territory during the Russo-Turkish War (1828–1829), the Crimean War of 1853–1856, and the long-lasting Russian Circassian War of 1817–1864, the Sochi area was somewhat…denuded of local population.  In 1866, the Tsar’s government pronounced a decree was promoting relocation and colonization of Russians to Sochi.  But what would these peasant farmers do for a living in the strange semi-tropical mountains by the Black Sea Coast?

Tea Plantations of Sochi

Tea Plantations of Sochi

The solution arrived in the early 1900s when a Ukrainian peasant farmer named Judas Antonovich Koshman introduced a new strain of tea to Sochi.  Tea was then the most popular (non-alcoholic) beverage in Russia, but its cost was prohibitively high.  A series of tea plantations had been planted in the Sochi area during the 1870s and 1880s but they had all failed because of the cold (or they produced bitter disappointing harvests).  Koshman’s tea, however, was different: the plants were more tolerant of the cold and they had a rich unique flavor which appealed to the Russian palate.  And thus the great tea plantations of the Black Sea came into being.  Throughout the tumult of World War I, the Soviet Revolution, Stalinism, World War II, the Cold War, and the painful birth of modern Russia, the tea has grown along the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains in scenes reminiscent of Assam.  Krasnodar tea is one of the world’s northernmost varieties of tea.  It is said to have a pleasant fragrance and an appealing tart flavor.  It also contains a very high level of caffeine so that Russian tea parties stay lively and awake around the Samovar!

Family Portrait (T. Myagkov)

Family Portrait (T. Myagkov)

The Purple Heart Medal

The Purple Heart Medal

The Purple Heart is a military award given to United State soldiers who are injured or killed in combat.  Since April 1917 the medal has been awarded in the name of the President of the United States to men and women of the armed forces (and, for a brief period, to civilians who were injured in meritorious action with the enemy).  The Purple Heart medal is indeed a purple heart with a profile relief statue of George Washington.  Above his head is the coat of arms of the Washington family (who were descended from British nobles) which consists of red and white bars beneath three red stars with holes in them.  The medal hangs from a purple ribbon with silver-white edges—which is also what the service ribbon for the Purple Heart looks like.

The Purple Heart Service Medal

The Purple Heart Service Medal

In 1945, the United States military was planning an all-out amphibious assault on Japan.  Military planners reckoned that this campaign would lead to an unprecedented number of casualties, so the Pentagon ordered 500,000 purple hearts to give to the troops injured or killed. However, thanks to hard-working scientists, the physical nature of the universe, and President Truman’s uncompromising orders, the assault on Japan became unnecessary.  In all succeeding years (and throughout all subsequent wars), total American casualties have never approached this number, so Purple Heart awards given out today are practically antiques.

The Badge of Military Merit

The Badge of Military Merit

The Purple Heart is an incredibly distinctive looking award with a unique name and a powerful, unusual color.  What is the meaning behind the color of the medal?  The color and shape of the medal were conceived by no less a person than George Washington himself in the midst of the Revolutionary War.  Washington wanted to award common soldiers who had committed deeds of unusual merit and he commanded that such soldiers be honored with the Badge of Military Merit, a purple heart shaped patch sewn onto their uniform.  The Badge of Military Merit is generally viewed as the first military award of the United States Armed Services, but, most unfortunately we do not know what exactly the enigmatic Washington was thinking when he chose the color (although the meaning of the shape, at least, seems obvious).  Perhaps the general associated purple with the noble qualities of sacrifice, valor, and courage which the badge was meant to embody.  Whatever the case, Purple Hearts bear a unique personal connection to George Washington, the foremost of the fathers of the nation.

An artist's interpretation of George Washington awarding the first Badges of Military Merit at Newburgh in 1783

An artist’s interpretation of George Washington awarding the first Badges of Military Merit at Newburgh in 1783

 

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