Sunday, 20 October 2013

Glorious Taxi Driver Face-Off!

I've recently returned from a short trip to South Korea, having attended a friend's wedding in his home port city of Busan, bringing my Asian travel log to an astounding two trips (the first being Shanghai a few Decembers ago). Disregarding the fact I barely experienced China the last time and how short this trip to Korea was, we're still on the Internet and I am still clearly capable of passing sweeping judgments on entire nations. Unfortunately, this is mostly meant to be about Russia, so... hum... what do these two countries have in common? Taxis. Boy are there a lot of taxis.
And no they aren't as much fun as this.
One thing about South Korean society is - and feel free to correct me on this because this is based on second-hand knowledge - that there's apparently a sort of quasi-institutionally forced retirement, wherein anyone over the age of 62 with a normal job (whatever that is) is immediately pensioned off whether they want to or not. Unfortunately, as you might expect, the pension is - to coin a phrase an old flatmate used to say frequently in a thick Catalan accent - "nothing to write home about". Subsequently, a lot of elderly South Koreans either start up their own storefronts selling just about anything and everything or - as commonly seen in a lot of Russian towns that aren't Moscow - become taxi drivers. However, in the latter case this isn't restricted to the elderly; my own pet theory is that the surprisingly large number of taxi companies in places such as Ekaterinburg has more to do with, as with many things in Russia, the post-soviet collapse of various industries i.e. for those reading in Glasgow "there's nae jobs, pally".

In one respect I'm kind of glad I was woefully unprepared for this trip - at least with Barcelona and Buenos Aires I put in some time learning the lingo - because there is a lot of what could be called information "noise" the moment you get off the plane in Seoul’s Incheon Airport.
...whereas Barcelona was flat out gay the moment you get off the plane
Seriously, bar perhaps pavements, there is so much crap plastered over any available surface on the streets of the Korean capital which completely ignore the concept of negative space maybe because it's wasting potential revenue. Forgive the bad lighting on the following picture taken with an iPhone (click to enlarge) but hopefully you get the idea.
Regardless, with enough badly-translated Eng-uh-rish signs, free wifi, menus with pictures on them, and an above average level of education among locals means that most ignorant foreigners such as myself can eventually brute force their way to their destination without starving to death. I'm hesitant to continue this entry as it seems we're on a bit of a low note, something I try to avoid in posting anything on the Internet, but there was a surprising point during my two weeks off where I was actually missing the chaos of Moscow. Why?

To use a video game analogy, imagine mixing some awful user-created Duke Nukem 3D level and at the same time hitting the "random terrain" button from Sim City 2000's map generator. With the former, assets tend to be thrown in haphazardly. Comparing that to Korea, we see that most businesses will pretty much display all their wares right up front. At the same time poor design rears its head in various ways like common conveniences such as waste bins being completely absent on the streets. Astute followers of my instagram feed will notice that, yes, there are waste bins to be found in places such as train stations, but even then they're rare and geared towards recycling.

The reason for this is that the Korean government developed a new garbage disposal system back in 1995, aimed at curbing waste. Lifting a quote from the previous link:
The new system was found to have decreased the nation's waste by almost 20 percent in a decade, according to the Ministry of Environment. The amount of garbage per person fell to 0.95 kilograms per day last year in Korea, meeting the standards of developed countries. The figure was 2.3 kilograms per person per day in 1994, when South Korea had loose regulations on waste management.
Makes sense, given the hyper-industrious tendencies of the nation, but then another problem emerged and maybe this official amount of garbage per person per day is, well, garbage. How was the new level of waste accounted for? Only by the amounts that are picked up by municipal services from designated areas? That's not a good metric. It's fine and dandy introducing recycling, but given the amount of vending machines, fast food and 7-11s strewn across Seoul, you're probably already guessing what a deficit in waste cans leads to

I should probably post a picture of those weird vending machines you always hear about? Here's one in a park.

And usually a garbage can would be planted beside them, but nope
The garbage issue doesn't just affect the streets either.
Seoul city faced further criticism from citizens in 2005 for abolishing 780 trashcans in 263 subway stations. The city removed all the trashcans on the platforms, only leaving the ones near the ticket windows.
So not exactly something I'd consider ideal, and in comparison to Russia, I've never had much trouble disposing of waste here.

At the same time, continuing Sim City 2000's random terrain idea, The train ride from Seoul to Busan showed me that Korean geography is pretty wild. Roads in both Seoul and Busan seem to nod towards Gaudi’s design philosophy and abhor straight lines. An answer to the question as to why the terrain hadn't been completely leveled for the sake of straight roads and uniformity escaped me, but it did make me wonder how much a challenge civil engineers face in South Korea. In addition, buildings are - how to put it? - "tiny big" or maybe "big tiny".
Tiny cars for big kids can, however, be purchased in Busan
Of all things, the tower blocks of Seoul immediately reminded me of one art class from secondary school. We were asked to draw the outside of a house with a certain number of floors specifically with large windows and a front door. Essentially the point to the prepubescent mass of blazer-wearing oiks was to demonstrate the first-time error of poorly-established scale, in that despite seeming okay from the outside, windows are not the whole "floor" and putting them too close together vertically implies that - if you inhabited this imaginary house on A3-sized paper - you'd be hunched over most of the time because each floor was only about a meter high due to how close you'd packed the windows on top of one another. Although I didn’t suffer from any lower back problems anywhere during my time in Korea, aside from having to periodically duck here and there (I'm only about 5' 9" in real life) to avoid whacking my head off signs and trinkets hanging from shop windows and the roofs of food stalls, from the outside, most "large" buildings at the same time look extremely dinky here in Korea. It's a hard visual effect to express with words, but it's certainly there.

Were I an architect, I might be able to explain things better. It's not oppressive, really, it's just that the skyline from what I've seen is as if someone had previously choked on some colorless Lego bricks covered with the Korean alphabet and then barfed the contents onto a mountainous landscape. Busan was especially indistinct and didn’t seem to follow any “grand plan”, and as such may contribute to the point I’m (eventually) getting to. At least to Moscow's credit, despite its atrocious drivers and quality of roads, several "stalinka" skyscrapers dominate the center’s landscape and, depending on where you are within the city, you can usually orientate yourself accordingly within the range of some prominent landmark such as the Soviet gothic high-rises as well as various ring roads, metro stations and main thoroughfares. This is also seen in places like London, which actually has legal requirements limiting the building of any construction that may potentially obscure the view of St. Paul’s Cathedral for instance - something known as "protected view".

Back in Korea, yes, there are certain landmarks I could have probably relied on – certainly in Seoul. Parks and statues dedicated to various glorious (they’re always glorious) military figures are dotted around the city. 
South Korean admirals enjoy being surrounded by skyscrapers in Busan too
Instead I made the foolish error of having the exact address of certain places typed in Korean to show to the drivers who are all equipped with advanced GPS devices that, again with the “information noise” point, stop short of literally screaming all sorts of real-time info to the driver such as adhering to speed limits, camera locations, traffic density etc.

Consequently, if you recall that the automatic retirement age mentioned earlier, the overwhelming majority of drivers I encountered in both Busan and Seoul were pretty much unable to make full use of their devices. By full use I mean “physically inputting the address into a device primarily designed to direct you to your location of choice”.

So, of course, hijinks ensued. The following is a bastardized transcript of a conversation I had in Busan with some taxi drivers. As context, the day before I had already taxied up and down Busan, a port city which is long and narrow much like Volgograd, and my vague awareness knew that we had to go north get on to the main coastal “Interchange” highway for about 10 kilometers. By the way, I had already hailed down two drivers prior to this conversation. The first said he wasn't going that direction because he wanted to go home and eat. The second stared blankly, crossed his arms as if to flatly say “No”. Joy.

(Third taxi pulls up)
Me: I need to go here [zooming in showing address on phone in largest font possible].
Taxi driver 3: [stares blankly through reading glasses]
Me: [sitting down, shutting door] Haeundae-gu, yeah? [pointing to navigator and to phone]

(I believe “-gu” means “area” or “district”, which Busan is split up into a number of and is where I was roughly going)

Taxi driver 3: …Call friend.
Me: [not sure whether it was a question or a demand] Umm… Can I use your phone?
Taxi driver 3: Uhh… English! Call friend!
Me: Err…

(Taxi driver begins driving south)

Me: Look [pointing to address]. Haeundae-gu, yeah?
Taxi driver 3: I call friend! English! [starts using his phone]
Me: What?

(After a minute or so of conversation with “friend”, and me beginning to quietly fume knowing full well we should have turned around by now, taxi driver comes to a halt by non-descript bus stop.)

Taxi driver 3: Friend!
Me: [silent rage building] Look, can I use phone?
Taxi driver 3: Here! Friend! [taps on shoulder]

(As it transpires my taxi driver had called another taxi driver who he claimed could speak English, we both get out and I get into another taxi)

Me: [opening door] ...English?
Taxi driver 4: Japanese?
Me: ...

(Taxi driver 3 drives off, having successfully driven me half a kilometer in the wrong direction, I set about going through same rigmarole of showing address on phone in largest font possible and then try a different tactic)

Me: Can I use your phone? Your phone. Please [mimicking with hands]. Call friend? He speaks Korean.
Taxi driver 4: Uh… [hands phone over]
Me: It’s okay. [start to dial in international code for Korea which is +82]
Taxi driver 4: [sees number that isn’t something he’s used to] No no no!
Me: [impatient] Seriously, it’s fine! Korea number!

(Taxi driver 4 returns to fruitless task of attempting to input exact address into hyper-advanced screaming navigation device)

Me: Just a minute please. [phone rings]

(We sit, motionless, already sat in the wrong area. My friend’s phone is, of course, engaged, but I persist.)

Friend: [eventually answering the phone in Korean] Hello?
Me: [already frustrated] Kostya, it’s me.
Friend: Oh hey! Can I call you back? I’m at the beach with some ladies.
Me: [on the verge of snapping] No you fucking can’t! This isn't my phone, it belongs to the taxi driver and it’ll take just a few seconds for you to tell him where to go, alright?
Friend: Uh… okay.
Me: [exasperated] Thank you!
Taxi driver 4: [speaks to friend for about a minute, nodding and tone of voice indicate that “oh it’s that way”, hands phone back to me]
Friend: Okay he’s going to take you to the Haeundae Grand Hotel, I’ll see you in the lobby in ten minutes. *click*
Me: Okay but it’s going to take a lot longer than ten minutes.

(Unfortunately, Kostya didn’t catch that last part as he had already hung up leading to more confusion at the hotel, but the main debacle ended here and we set off on a forty-minute journey through rush hour traffic to probably the largest hotel in Busan, which sits right on the waterfront and is impossible to miss in spite of all the other factors I've already mentioned.)

Taxi driver 3’s claims weren't complete bullshit, the “friend” he called did speak a handful of English words, but they were mostly Anglicized Korean words like “kim chi” and “Kim Jong-il”.

Also, don’t get me wrong, my trip to Korea wasn't bad at all. The people I met were all extremely welcoming. Shops, hotels and restaurants are more than happy to serve foreigners (unlike another country I might have mentioned several times). The quality of seafood and produce is outstanding and not overpriced either. Wandering through parks past groups of schoolchildren usually led to dreadfully cute cries of "hello!" from the kids. Aside from the taxi issue, I can't recall a single moment where I was particularly uncomfortable even after the culture shock wore off. The wedding itself was wonderful and I couldn't be more proud of Hong for finally tying the knot.

To cut a long story short, South Korea is well worth visiting and I barely scratched the surface of what there is to do. War nerds will surely get a kick out of checking out the De-Militarized Zone, something I failed to see, but I did see Busan's Korean War memorial on top of a very steep hill.

All I'm saying is that, when you're in Korea, it might be better to use the subway.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

About Last Night...

So last night was the first time I performed a tango dance in front of a crowd of people. Admittedly, just friends and students from the school were in attendance, but still. Enjoy. The song is Francisco Canaro's waltz "Corazon de Oro", which translates as "Heart of Gold" (I think).

Saturday, 11 May 2013

No Pain, No Gain Pt. 2

There is an expression in Russian - Какая муха тебя укусила (ka-kaya moo-kha tib-ya oo-koo-seal-ah) - which literally translates as "What bug bit you?" but means something closer to "what's the matter with you? or "what bit you on the ass?".

I wish I knew what had sunk its fangs into me while I was walking around the Moscow Country Club's golf course one evening last summer, because it surely couldn't have been an insect, or букашка (bu-kash-ka). One potential suspect is the слепень (sleh-pen) or horsefly.

Go away
Getting bitten by a horsefly isn't pleasant. I last encountered these assholes back in Sarapul, my friend's Siberian home town, several years ago. Unlike a mosquito (комар - koh-marr), which just sort of stings a moment after it's long since buggered off, you can actually feel (well I certainly did) these arrogant bastards digging into your flesh. A victim's vengeance can be swift, however, as they don't fly very fast.

Nonetheless, it didn't seem as though a horsefly was the culprit, because I ended up feverish that night. A couple of days later I had to go to the doctor's for antibiotics (антибиотики anti-biotiki) as my right hand (правая рука - prah-va-ya roo-ka) ended up swollen to the point where my knuckles were no longer visible. So yeah, don't go anywhere near Russian nature.

Also contributing to last summer's countryside hijinx was a trip out to a place called Ruza. It's roughly a hundred kilometers west of Moscow, and you have to grab a train out to the small town of Tuchkova first before getting a taxi the rest of the way.

Once at Ruza, the local kids summer camp, or лагерь (lah-ger), was hosting a tango marathon called "El Huracan".

There some other bloodsuckers decided to feast solely on my feet, which is exactly what you want when you're dancing for three days straight. Regardless, the three days I spent there were marvelous and exactly the kind of weekend I needed. If it's not clear from the previous video, the dancing was all outdoors in a marquee at this summer camp.

But not content to limit my injuries to mere insect bites, I managed to screw up my left shoulder (левое плечо - leh-vo-ye pleh-cho) briefly. Way back in 2003, I did a magnificent job of yanking my left arm out of its socket (вывих плеча - vy-vikh pleh-cha) with the help of a cartwheeling pratfall on a dry ski slope. For those who live in countries with snow, this is what a dry ski slope looks like.

Dry ski slopes are a series of hard plastic spikes arranged in a diamond lattice with water sprayed on top, letting you (barely) slide over them. They are also the most miserable things you'll ever see and nothing like proper snow (снег - snyeg). 

Since that time, like Mr. Pringle said, once you pop, you can't stop, because dislocations don't work the same way as broken bones do. In most cases when a bone (кость - kost') is broken, it grows back stronger, but dislocations don't get that Wolverine luxury. The glenohumeral joint is not load-bearing, which makes it inherently unstable. Get yourself into the right position like, I dunno, tumbling face forward downhill after tripping over a slalom pole and breaking your fall with your left arm, and ta-dah! Your muscles in that arm are now screaming in agony and you're not allowed any morphine until the x-ray is done. To top it all off your muscles are now weaker, increasing the chances of it happening again next time you decide to windmill your arms about.

I did eventually get surgery, leaving me with an awesome scar, followed by months of physiotherapy not unlike in the previous post. Of course, in my idiocy I ended up popping my arm out again a few years later.

Since then there's been one or two close calls - at tango class of course - but nothing requiring a trip to the hospital with me screaming like a girl. As much fun as it is, I think I'll stop talking about my medical ailments for now.

I'm on instagram nowadays. I don't post anything artsy. Mostly posters for shitty bands who - as mentioned in the U2 concert post a while ago - can only make money nowadays by touring countries who for some baffling reason still have some misplaced nostalgia in them. 
Go on  - name ONE of their songs, and no googling
Failing that it's pictures of my neighbor's sweet ride.

Periodically I end up leaving my umbrella hanging on the handlebars while I unlock the front door and then forget to pick it up again. To date, the umbrella (зонтик - zon-tick) has still not been stolen away from me those nights I've forgotten about it, which only goes to show how bad ass his bike is.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Let's Dance

Not me, I'm afraid.

In light of International Tango Day, I was interviewed (again) over the phone by Voice of Russia about Moscow's tango scene. Click the following link to listen to me prattle on for about fifteen minutes.

And as is tradition, take a listen to Zum by Osvaldo Pugliese.

Friday, 9 November 2012

No Pain, No Gain Pt. 1

In a paradoxical twist of fate, or “ирония судьбы” (ee-roniya sood-bee lit. "irony of fate"), my physical problems that I made mention of last post have likely arisen from tango classes, but coincidentally the terminology used in tango is extremely useful for explaining your problems to Russian doctors. So how about another long overdue language lesson?

First up – although this took place last year and isn't all that exciting – I was having problems with my muscle (мышца – myshtsa) in my calf (голень – goh-len’) or икра  (i-kra). Officially, it should be икроножная мышца (ikronozhnaya myshtsa) - although to be even more accurate the calf muscle is actually made up of three different muscles, and therein lay the problem.

My technique in the way I was stepping – in tango one of the key elements is a толчковый шаг (tolch-kovy shag), a “pushing” or “thrusting” step (derived from толчок – tol-chok) – was slightly off. Ideally, you are meant to propel yourself forward using your thighs (бедро – bed-roh, which for some reason I keep getting mixed up with ведро – ved-roh – which is “bucket”).

For whatever reason I was using my heel muscles more than my thighs, stemming perhaps from not wanting to stand on my partner's feet (столкнуться - stawlk-noot-sya) as I moved forward. The proper technique involves making sure you stand on the inside part of your feet, which is referred to as внутренняя часть стопы (v-noo-trenyaya chast’ stop-iy), and that you have открытые стопы (otkrytiye stop-iy – open feet), and that your heels are together (пятки вместе – pyatki vmes-tye). If you’re lucky, after a few weeks you’ll have blisters (волдыры – vol-dyr-ee, though rarely used in speech) on your big toes (большие пальцы ног – bol-shiye paltsy nog) that will later become calluses (мозоли – maw-zawl-i).

As a result, muscles in my right calf were getting used more than they should and, if I understood the physiotherapist (физиотерапевт – fizio-terra-peft) correctly, the way those muscles met led to spasms (спазм) because of a build up of lactic acid or whatever. This manifested itself when I was suddenly struck by a painful cramp walking around the center of Moscow one summer day. Being a big girl, I instantly thought I had a torn muscle, or разорванная (razorvannaya) мышца.

Thankfully it turned out there was no injury and I was prescribed some stretches (вытягивание – vy-tyag-ivan-iye), that ointment stuff back in a previous post, and a few massage (массаж massazhsessions during which the physio poured paraffin wax over the affected area. 

Not pictured: my foot
The second thing to give me grief was my back (спина - spi-na) for similar reasons, although of course my instant conclusion was that I had slipped a disc and would be forever crippled. Ironically, probably much to the joy of my parents who had berated me for slouching, the MRI (магнитно-резонансная томография magnito-rezonansnaya tomografia, or just MRT) revealed that my back was, in fact, almost completely straight (прямая - pri-maya) as a result of a year's worth of constant dancing.

The issue lay in the fact that along the length of your spine (позвоночник - poh-zvo-noch-nik) there are a whole bunch of muscles connected to the vertebrae. Now ideally the muscles in the lumbar region before meeting the rib cage (грудная клетка - grood-naya klet-ka) should only flex back and forward, while the turning stuff is done further up. Somehow I was breaking that rule and twisting the muscles that should not. So, of course, back to the doctor to get a referral for the physio.

It only dawned on me later at the medical center I use that the reason their physiotherapy department has the slightly odd title of травматология (trav-ma-to-log-i-ya - traumatology) is because it's a warning. The main word in травматология is trauma. Mood music and soothing wax were no longer going to cut it.

Not quite there yet
The words "massage" and "therapy" in this context are misnomers; those two are meant to evoke the idea of relaxation. In my first stint at traumatology I was held face down while an unsympathetic small woman jammed her elbow (локоть - law-kawt) into my backside. My wails did nothing; "Yes, I know, just a little bit more," as she pressed harder down on the back of my thigh for another ten minutes. And then more stretches. 

This time round they involved me mostly lying on the floor thrusting my hips into the air while another small woman demanded I keep sticking my ass up higher and my head tilted forward. "Look at belly!" she commanded in broken English while making me hold an exercise ball with my arms and legs.

The Catch-22 here is that, while an hour's worth of such exercises every day might seem torturous and make you look like a prat, the thing is that, even though they hurt if you do them, your back or leg will still hurt if you don't. The upshot is that you keep up with the former in the hope that it will eventually not hurt any more.

Those three months of dry humping an exercise mat do eventually result in a happy ending - but unfortunately it's a slow one with no fanfare. The reward comes gradually, like when you sit back up after spending the past five minutes making your pelvis (таз - tazz) and chest point opposite directions for the umpteenth time to find that, hold on, that one thing in that bit there doesn't feel off any more. And then once you've fixed yourself all up, you go and do something stupid like crack one of your toes off a metal chair leg...

Next time: the dangers of the Russian countryside and the secret to seducing women. 

Monday, 27 August 2012

Venturing Down the Pussy Riot Rabbit Hole

I should preface by noting that my word is not law. My only resources are basically what I can find on the Internet, which isn’t a guarantee that the following is completely accurate. The use of links to Wikipedia is more often for the benefit of English readers with no knowledge of the Russian language, rather than posting the Russian-only links. The various pieces of information I’ve gathered ultimately all seem to point in the same direction and hopefully give the narrative I've teased out of them a vague semblance of veracity. By all means I invite readers to point out any inaccuracies.

Secondly, this entry is not a debate of the symbolic merits (or lack thereof) of five women causing a ruckus in a Moscow cathedral for a couple of minutes, or the state of equality and liberty in post-Soviet Russian society. There are plenty of other staffers out there far more capable of tackling such topics, some of whom will be referenced.

Finally, apologies for the months-long period of silence; I know that some folk out there have actually asked me why there haven’t been any updates in a while, for which I’m touched. This is down to being plagued by physical problems, dragged into bureaucracy, and just being plain busy. Sitting down for a couple of hours to write something was very low down on the list of priorities over the past few months.

But I’m back now, so are we good to go?


A friend wrote the following to me approximately around the time when three members of Pussy Riot – (seen from left to right at the top) Yekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alyokhina, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova – were staring down a judge in a Moscow courthouse:

Can you, like, provide a good explanation of what's going on? Swedish media is making them look like these fearless freedom-fighters, with noble causes, fighting Sauron himself. And that just seems way too simple.

Truth be told I had wanted to avoid the topic of Pussy Riot altogether. I am neither for nor against the group’s activities, but as I’ve delved into the history of the characters involved, I find myself becoming less and less sympathetic towards their supposed plight.

In response to the question, I suggested reading this marvelous piece written by Mark Ames to start with, because the man has an amazing ability of frequently pointing out how often the West is utterly ignorant or misinformed when it comes to everything Russia. The presentation of his remarks – certainly during his tenure at the Exile (NSFW) – may come off as extreme or solely designed to shock, but there are very few North Americans out there with as deep a knowledge of Russia out there as he. Ignoring him is ill-advised.

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The Exile was a freely distributed expat newspaper in Moscow for about 15 years that got shut down in 2008 and, if you read the Ames article above, it was partly because of one of the members of Pussy Riot. Despite appearances of a rag and the fact it was littered with adverts for strip clubs – which was an extremely smart move on their part, because every other free English-language newspaper like The Moscow Times, The Moscow News, or Element, seem to not understand that these are an ad revenue goldmine – it was one of the most well-written periodicals I've ever had the pleasure of reading. The Exile was essentially one big contrarian editorial with a libertarian satirical slant that was well ahead of the curve, and ridiculously funny to boot.

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Getting back to the question, the "fearless freedom-fighters" line immediately stood out for me. I find it increasingly absurd – and extremely worrying – that almost no one in the West has bothered to take a closer look into who these three "innocent", "progressive", "intelligent", and "every-other-adjective-the-Guardian-can-come-out-with" "girls" actually are. The deeper I’ve looked into this affair, the more it seems that they are anything but. Another friend wrote:

I have some friends dislocating their arms trying to pat themselves on the backs about supporting Pussy Riot, and yet like you say, most of us have never heard of before and have no easy way of gaining vital context.
That single sentence does a good job of capturing my attitude towards this entire farce. The longer the Pussy Riot debacle was drawn out, the more I was reminded of the pretentious Kony 2012/Make Kony Famous campaign and the initial reaction it generated. Remember that?

Then recall how only one person (a second-year politics student!) bothered to look into the Invisible Children bunch for slightly longer than the time it took to watch their 30 minutes of obnoxious YouTube garbage and revealed them to be significantly less-than-legit? And then just a week or so later public opinion turned against them and the Internet started calling the filmmakers everything under the sun, leading to director Jason Russell losing his mind and exposing himself on a San Diego street?

Well, I'm getting the same vibe from the Pussy Riot case. But with this entry by no means am I even attempting to be the guy that outed Invisible Children as a bunch of ne’er-do-wells lacking transparency over how they spent donations – nor do I even want to be. My motivation for finally approaching this affair is that (among other things) I am concerned that folk around me have jumped on the Pussy Riot bandwagon without even questioning the group's origins, as if to suggest that this is just another case of the good underdog vs. the evil establishment – one that lets us neatly fall into two camps, and the mere idea of proposing anything to the contrary is absolutely horrifying.

With that in mind, shall we meet the three “young” ladies who have just received a two-year sentence for an act of hooliganism?

First up is Maria Alyokhina, 24, mother to a five-year-old son.

Together with Samutsevich and Tolokonnikova, the three allegedly formed Pussy Riot in September 2011 to supposedly fight against the "Putin junta". Alyokhina is the so-called "Writer" of the trio due to her studies at the Institute of Journalism and Creative Writing. Her background is in humanitarian voluntary work, as well as a spell at Greenpeace Russia getting anti-logging petitions – a grand total of about 4,600 signatures – to send to Medvedev back in 2008. Before she was arrested she was in her fourth year of journo studies. Allegedly Alyokhina is a vegan and ended up reportedly malnourished in prison because she was not being fed appropriately by the authorities.

[edit: The following was not Alyokhina's doing, but is instead attributed to one of the individuals involved in Voina's museum orgy who shall remain unnamed. Details of some of the actions by Voina, which are not worksafe, from 2006-2012 in English can be found by clicking here] It has been claimed that in 2010, Alyokhina allegedly released an infamous video of herself masturbating in a St. Petersburg grocery store with a frozen chicken (just an article, not the video in question), which was subsequently stolen from the supermarket, but this is misattributed and deemed just another part of a smear campaign against the three.

Next we have Yekaterina Samutsevich, the so-called “Artist” and oldest of the trio at 29.

She graduated at the top of her class at the Rodchenko School of Photography. During her student years she got acquainted with Tolokonnikova, roughly around 2008, when Samutsevich was seen clutching onto the back of a Moscow train with art activist group Voina founders Natalya Sokol and Oleg Vorotnikov in June of that year.

In that instance the three refused to pay for the train, as apparently tickets are for the self-centered urban population blind to society's ills hidden in plain sight (or maybe they were just cheapskates). Strangely enough, students in Russia get enormous discounts on public transport and occasionally free entry into museums and the like.

Despite being relatively quiet during the trial, Samutsevich’s previous actions dictate otherwise. As part of the Moscow “faction” of Voina – a group that we will come back to in detail later – in July 2010 Samutsevich allegedly released 3000 live Madagascan giant cockroaches in the corridors of a Moscow courthouse, although there are claims that she didn’t succeed and that the police confiscated them at the court’s entrance.

(My Russian friend had one of these in his student halls for some reason. If you rub one on its back, it makes a creepy hissing sound.)

This insect-infestation move by Samutsevich was because a couple of curators were on trial for organizing the "Forbidden Art-2006" exhibition, which came under scrutiny in March 2007 when a Christian organization filed a lawsuit against them for purportedly defacing religious symbols and fueling national hatred. Said exhibition featured images of Mickey Mouse as Jesus...

…and Lenin on the cross.

Ironically, the very same courthouse that Samutsevich tried to infest with cockroaches is the one that recently handed down a verdict on the three. Samutsevich also took part in "Operation: Kiss Garbage" («Лобзай мусора» Lob-zai moo-sore-ah) where female members of the so-called Moscow faction of Voina in February 2011 went running around the Moscow metro kissing young female police school students seemingly in protest of Medvedev's impending police reform.

Last and by no means least is Nadezhda “the Philosopher” Tolokonnikova

Twenty-two year old Nadya (short for Nadezhda; other examples of such diminutives of Russian names are Dima for Dmitry, and Vova for Vladimir) is if not the apparent leader of the three women behind the glass, then certainly the most well known to the international public. Part of the reason for this is that her slightly hardier makeup-less sisters-in-arms don’t contrast well in split screens against tough guy Putin on TVs. Roll out the frail, gentle, allegedly hunger-struck brunette brave enough to stand up to the establishment fist-in-the-air instead.

A lot has been said about her, but there’s plenty more. Some of you by now probably know that she is, in fact, a permanent resident of Canada and even holds an Ontario health card.

This is due to the fact that her husband Pyotr Verzilov is a Canadian citizen. What some people might not know is that Nadya is not even from Moscow. She’s originally from Norilsk, Northern Siberia, which is mostly known for being freezing cold nine months of the year and incredibly polluted due to extensive nickel ore mining (some of you might have heard of “Norilsk Nickel” in connection with billionaire oligarch Oleg Deripaska’s business ventures).

About the most publicized factoid about Tolokonnikova is her participation in a group sex orgy at a Moscow Museum of Biology in April of 2008 when she was a heavily pregnant 17-year-old.

Pictured to the right is husband Verzilov desperately trying to stimulate his censored-out limp self into life. Nadya gave birth about four days later. When Nadya’s mother saw the video, she threw her daughter out of the house, while other group members faced disciplinary measures from their respective universities. The crass incident was orchestrated by the aforementioned group Voina (meaning “war”), and this is where things start to get particularly intricate.

To fully understand Tolokonnikova, and consequently Pussy Riot, we need to take a closer look at Voina - especially considering an absolutely damning interview about Tolokonnikova and her husband with the group by Russian philosopher Vadim Rudnev from October 2011.

Voina was formed in the fall of 2005 by Oleg Vorotnikov…

…and Natalia Sokol.

Its alumni are made up of students from the Rodchenko School of Photography and Moscow State University (MGU) among others. The latter is one of Russia’s answers to the Ivy League, and at the time of Tolokonnikova’s arrest, Nadya was in her fourth year in MGU’s philosophy faculty.

The group is known for hit-and-run performance art actions. Some of them are vaguely amusing, like childishly spray-painting a massive phallus on a St. Petersburg bridge in 2010 (called “Dick Captured by KGB”) that couldn’t be taken down for several hours because the boats have to get through.

As a result of such actions, Vorotnikov and Sokol are now in hiding from the police. The former was actually put on an international arrest warrant back in 2011 for his “Palace Revolution” where he helped overturn several police cars in St. Petersburg. In the period of 2008-2009, Tolokonnikova and Verzilov became primary figures in Voina.

Following the orgy stunt and being kicked out of house and home, Tolokonnikova spent the summer of 2008 living in an unheated garage with her husband alongside Vorotnikov and Sokol

From this point on Nadya’s story becomes intriguing. In the interview with Voina’s Oleg Vorotnikov, Leonid Nikolayev, Natalia Sokol and Alexei Plutser-Sarno, the “progressive”, “intelligent”, “innocent” Tolokonnikova and her Canadian husband are accused by the four of being bumbling idiots, as well as thieves and liars who betrayed the group on numerous occasions.

These unflattering remarks don’t just lie in simple “ideological differences” between the artists. Over the course of their two years in Voina, Nadya and Pyotr seemingly pursued self-interests at the expense of the rest of the group. According to Plutser-Sarno, “[Tolokonnikova and Verzilov] didn’t suggest a single idea for an action. They never did creative work. They were occupied with self-promotion.”

One particular instance that draws the group’s ire is a September 2008 action in a Moscow megastore that the couple was involved in, wherein the fake execution of a gay man and a migrant worker was staged.

While the above photos taken by Reuters photographer Tom Peter show Nadya and Pyotr as the brains behind the action, an excerpt from the interview states otherwise:

Alexei Plutser-Sarno: Let’s take a look at how one of the Voina actions, say, Decembrists Commemoration, was planned. Brainstorming started with Natalia’s idea to stage something horrifying with a lethal outcome in the end. Oleg suggested the whole group should hang themselves in public.

Oleg Vorotnikov: Plut (Alexei Plutser-Sarno’s nickname) said then that the effect would be more dramatic if we’d be hangmen – not “suicide” victims. Koza (Natalia’s nickname) and I agreed. Plut told us that it would be great to dedicate this action to Decembrists and suggested a slogan “No one gives a fuck about Pestel!”

Yana Sarna: Pyotr Verzilov didn’t participate in this creative work. As usual, he came to the action to show off in front of the photo cameras. As usual, he drew supermarket security by his silly behavior and nearly ruined the action.

Oleg Vorotnikov: Nadya Tolokonnikova was told to go up the ladder, attach a loop around the neck of one of the “victims”.

                          Well, she went up the ladder all right, but she completely forgot about the loop. That’s why one part of the photo shoot failed. Usually we tried not to give her two tasks at a time, but that time we hoped that she could handle it. Apart from that, all she could do was march in front of the cameras with a “revolutionist-like” face.

Yana Sarna: After the action in various interviews Pyotr and Nadya called themselves the authors of this action, as well as leaders and ideologists of the group. They always plagiarize and take the credit for other people’s works. But you know, an apprentice can’t take credit for his teacher’s masterpieces even though he helped him to mix colours and handed him brushes.

Natalia Sokol: Four activists were arrested within this action. Plut and Vor (Oleg Vorotnikov’s nickname) went to liberate them from the police office in the supermarket. Among them there were two photographers. Plut secretly managed to take away all the memory cards with photo documentation.

Alexei Plutser-Sarno: Pyotr and Nadya disappeared from the place immediately. They didn’t help anyone.

A “split” in the group came in December 2009 – or, as claimed by Vorotnikov et al, Pyotr and Nadya were unanimously expelled from Voina. In November of the same year, Tolokonnikova and Verzilov were meant to go down to Kiev to help Ukrainian artist-activist Alexander Volodarsky organize an action outside the houses of Ukrainian parliament. [edit: Volodarsky actually disputes the following accusation in a blog post, and that he's sick of being "a bargaining chip" between the two camps] The plan was to strip naked and simulate public sex by the walls of government, but…

Oleg Vorotnikov: Pyotr ratted out Volodarsky to the cops and informed us about it with joy and satisfaction.
                            He tried to convince Koza and me that it’d be a good PR move for the Voina Group. He is so immoral that he didn’t even understand why we were so outraged by his words. He said to us: “Are you insane! It’s such a good opportunity and an incredible PR move for us. I’ve already given a dozen of interviews!”

In another LiveJournal entry, written by Plutser and titled Alexander Volodarsky: “Pyotr Verzilov Fucked Us All and Betrayed and Robbed Me” (in Russian but NSFW) - a statement that Volodarsky refutes - the incident resulted in Alexander getting six weeks in pre-trial detention, followed by three months in a labor camp. As if it weren’t enough that the couple supposedly fed Volodarsky to the Kiev cops, as the title of the LJ entry suggests, Nadya and Pyotr also stole Volodarsky’s belongings and money.

The group was not amused by the couple’s move. To mask the fact that they had been unceremoniously booted out, Pyotr reportedly spread a rumour that the group had in fact split into “two” Voinas: the "real" rabble-rousing Voina i.e. Vorotnikov, Sokol, Plutser, etc. and the Moscow “fraction” of Voina – or, as Plutser refers to them, “Verzilov and his girlfriends”.

Adding insult to the injuries of Voina, Pyotr then broke into one of the group’s secret storages, stealing banners and various materials from the group’s actions over the years before traveling around Europe exhibiting the works in various galleries, taking credit for activities he had no hand in. Because most of the group members were either in prison or in hiding from the authorities, they couldn’t approach the various gallery owners over the false representation. Furthermore, according to the group, just a few months following the expulsion, Pyotr and Nadya pulled off another far more damaging theft:

Oleg Vorotnikov: In May 2010, Pyotr Verzilov and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova broke into our storage and stole the whole Voina archive: banners, my personal library, original video footage of the actions, disks with various info, our music library, equipment, including amplifiers, loud speakers, DVD-players, projectors etc. They stole my desk top with all the info on Voina. They denied the fact of burglary, but a bit later their friend Katya asked us to take some of the stolen stuff from her balcony – things that Pyotr and Nady left there as useless.

Natalia Sokol: I caught Peter once when he was downloading all the data, including a Voina photo archive from my laptop. He didn’t return anything and insisted he didn’t do anything. Later I realized that his theft was much more extensive than I thought before. For example, he also got all my usernames and passwords to various websites. He changed passwords to several Flickr accounts, where I uploaded photos of Voina actions. In happened in January 2009. Now I don’t have any access to them.

Furthering the group’s accusation that the two are nothing more than a pair of plagiarists, Plutser noted that the cockroach incident that Pussy Riot convict Samutsevich tried to pull off in 2010 had been discussed the previous year at a meeting.

Alexei Plutser-Sarno: Peter stole the idea of the “Cockroach court” action from Oleg. The idea of using insects, such as cockroaches or bees, was discussed at the group meeting in 2009, when Peter was still in the group.

At the “Cockroach court” action Peter didn’t manage to get the cockroaches inside the courtroom. But he lied about it to journalists. You won’t be able to find any pics or video of this co-called action as they don’t exist – cockroaches were confiscated by the court security at the entrance.

Natalia Sokol: Pyotr tried to compensate this total failure by his usual clownery, posing and lying to the cameras in front of the court.

Oleg Vorotnikov: There is only one glamorous pic of this action – a naked Nadya lying with cockroaches on her breasts. That’s not Voina style. That’s a disgrace. Pyotr simulates protest and counts on gutter press.

To top it all off for Vorotnikov & co. the whole time Nadya and Pyotr were claiming to be leaders of Voina.

Alexei Plutser-Sarno: Our slogan, “Anyone can make actions!” is still alive. But if Oleg, Natalia and Leonid make new risky actions, Pyotr and Nadya only use this slogan as a cover to steal our ideas and make feeble copycat actions.

Leonid Nikolayev: When they try to do their own actions it turns out to be a complete disaster. Take for instance, their latest shallow action in which they hugged cops and fed them with chicken. Previously, they once again discredited Voina’s name by frenching young female police school students in the Moscow metro.

Alexei Plutser-Sarno: Their actions are a mere clownery that has nothing to do with heroic art of the Voina Group.

Ultimately, Vorotnikov is not happy with Tolokonnikova’s husband:

Oleg Vorotnikov: Verzilov is a liar, a thief, a police provoker and dexterous deceiver.

I’m going to have to resist regurgitating the rest of the Voina interview – which, if you didn’t click on the link earlier, you can read here – as this lengthy post needs to come to a close.

In conclusion it should probably be noted that the people involved in Voina and Pussy Riot mostly come from more or less privileged middle-class backgrounds. The majority of people featured here both in Voina and Pussy Riot all studied at some of Russia's most prestigious institutions. None of them were poor or found wanting until they decided to abandon home comforts and resort to a romantic lifestyle of digging out clothes from the trash, squatting in garages, and shoplifting.

...Or maybe it's not important who or what the members of Pussy Riot are, and maybe this post is ultimately worthless in the grand scheme of things. But it should be important, because unless Tolokonnikova & friends had suddenly changed their ways in the short time since the split from the original Voina, then they didn't jump around in front a church altar for the good of society - they did it for themselves.

Update: I highly recommend reading the following two links written on British lawyer Alexander Mercouris' blog.

Long but extremely thorough and well worth a read. Unfortunately, some folk have already made their mind up about the case.