Russia

Posted by Ellen

At the extreme Pacific end of Russia, north of China and Korea and Japan, the volcanoes of the Kamchatka Peninsula are erupting again.

This is nothing new; the 29 volcanoes of Kamchatka’s mountainous spine—10 percent of the world’s active volcanoes—have erupted prodigiously and often for at least the last two million years.

Since October, three of them have been seriously erupting, spewing ash 32,000 feet into the sky and devastating their surroundings with earthquakes, lava flows, mudslides, and pyroclastic catastrophe. Shown here is last week’s eruption of Shiveluch, the northernmost of the currently active volcanoes. This picture is thermal imagery from satellite sensors; the hottest areas are shown as white, with progressively less hot regions appearing as gradations of yellow through orange to red.

Shiveluch had a lava dome near its peak—a rocky bulge inflated by molten magma underground. This thermal image tells us that the dome has now burst; the white splotch at the mountain peak shows extremely hot lava exposed at the surface. The rock that used to overlie the lava dome would have been pulverized in the eruption and sent skyward as ash or down the mountainside as a pyroclastic flow, a fiery nightmare of lava, ash, rock, mud, and poisonous gases.

The image also shows a large pool of hot lava that has collected at the bottom of the mountain, beginning to cool off around the edges. Undoubtedly, forest land in this valley has been devastated, but because the Shiveluch region is virtually uninhabited, damage associated with human activity is expected to be very low.

However, planes traveling between Alaska and Korea or Japan often fly just east of Kamchatka. The dust plumes from Shiveluch and the other two currently active volcanoes have sometimes been large enough to pose a potential risk to aviation.

This video from last October, when the level of activity was not yet as intense, shows both the ash clouds rising and the lava descending from Shiveluch:

Posted by Ellen

They Didn't Expect Him, by Ilya Serin, 1883. A revolutionary returns home unexpectedly from political exile, setting up a cinematic sort of family scene.

The man's mother rises to greet him. The little girl, his younger child, seems a little frightened; perhaps he has been gone so long that she doesn't recognize him. The boy, a little older, looks thrilled. The man's wife, sitting at the piano near the door, is startled and confused; perhaps she had given him up for lost. Perhaps too, she has been angry about his political obsessions that left the family abandoned for so long. The servants are watchful, eager to see what happens next.

The man himself looks haggard and unsure of himself. His return is not triumphant; perhaps it's not anything at all like what he might have imagined while he was away. Can he pick up the pieces of his old life? Will his wife welcome him back? What about his political and intellectual life, which had led to his exile? What does he do now?

Posted by Ellen

During last year's Republican convention, when Sarah Palin was first introduced to the world outside Alaska, many Americans in the lower forty-eight or forty-nine began to google her name obsessively, desperate to find out who on earth she was. Political bloggers in Alaska rose to the challenge, and some of them developed loyal followings from far outside Alaska, even after Sarah Palin stepped offstage and went off tiptoeing through the tulips.

Among the best and most successful of the Alaska bloggers is a woman who calls herself Mudflats. Grateful readers of her work--Mudpuppies--recently presented her with a handmade quilt celebrating the world she has written about online. Each quilt square is centered on a pair of boots, the better for traipsing through the muck of politics. This "I can see Russia from my airspace!" square memorializes one of Palin's more notorious stupidities from the 2008 campaign.

Mudflats continue to blog, bringing humor and enthusiasm to discussions of life in Alaska and politics in Washington or wherever. She speaks up especially for the downtrodden, for people we tend to overlook or shove aside, perhaps because they live in villages at the furthest extremes of the Alaskan bush, where nobody but Mudflats bothers to see the tough times in their airspace.

Posted by Ellen

Ivan Shishkin painted this field of ripened rye in 1878. The grain is so tall it almost hides a couple of people way in the distance, on the road near the middle of the picture. I'm pretty sure that they are hunters; there are two dead birds at the edge of the field in the foreground, and a big flock of birds still in the sky.

I love this painting. I might not have fallen for it so completely if I'd noticed the dead birds first, but it's too late now. I love how simple it is: field, trees, road--something we might see any time we go out into the country. Not a specially scenic spot. But the trees are super trees, bigger and more dramatic than ordinary trees. The crop in the field is golden, bursting-ripe. The road reels us in, winding mysteriously. They say Shishkin painted this way to celebrate the bounty of Russian nature. He knew what he was doing.

Posted by Ellen

Those amongst us who are not artists nonetheless feel we know a thing or two about art and artists. We "know" that artistic vision and style are intensely personal, that "art by committee" is doomed to fail. But see here, "Morning in a Pine Forest," painted in 1886 by Russian artists Ivan Shishkin and Konstantin Savitsky.

Shishkin and Savitsky were both accomplished painters and well-regarded at the time. Shishkin was known for sweeping landscapes that portrayed the Russian countryside in loving detail. Savitsky painted sentimental tableaux, often of historical scenes. They both signed this painting, and for years it was assumed that the forest was by Shishkin and the bears by Savitsky.

But archivists eventually discovered preliminary sketches for the work done by both men, and it became clear that each of them contributed to both the background and the bears. Meanwhile, for unknown reasons, the first owner of the painting ordered that Savitsky's signature be removed from the canvas.

Whatever. It's a nice picture.

Posted by Ellen

For another entry in our occasional series on post-Soviet public art, consider this monument, erected in 2007 in Moscow, thonoring the Nobel-prize-winning author Mikhail Sholokhov.

There must be something about the situation of this monument that makes it difficult to photograph the whole thing at once. I've settled here for a picture that shows barely more than half of it--missing off to the right is most of a stone pedestal supporting a rowboat carrying a bronze statue of Sholokhov himself. That's the bow of the boat and the curve of Sholokhov's back at the right edge of the photo. He is just sitting in the boat, not rowing.

The boat and the swimming horses are not directly from any of his novels, I'm told. Note that there are two groups of horses, both apparently trying to swim upstream but veering off in slightly different directions. One group is reddish in color, the other whitish. This has all been described as a metaphor for the Russian Revolution, in which Sholokhov fought as a 13-year-old boy on the side of the reds. His most famous novel, And Quiet Flows the Don, looks at life among the Cossacks of his native Rostov-on-Don region of Russia in the years leading up to World War I and the Russian Civil War and revolution. If the river is representing time or history, it is surely significant that Sholokhov is facing bacward in the boat.

The monument is the work of a committee: artist Alexander Rukavishnikor, architect Igor Voskresensky, and sculptors Iulian and Philip Rukavishnikov.

Sholokhov is something of a Soviet success story. Although the revolution ended his formal schooling at the age of 13 and he suppored himself in the early 1920s as a stevedore, he decided to become a writer and took advantage of writers' seminars offered for workers.. His mother, a Ukrainian, was illiterate until late in life, when she decided to learn to write letters to her son.

Perhaps the greatest feud of Soviet literary history involved Sholokhov and Aleksandr Solzhenitzsyn, who despised one another. Sholokhov wrote a scathing review of Solzhenitzsyn's work, and Solzhenitzsyn accused Sholokhov of plagiarism. Many Moscow residents dislike the monument intensely--Sholokhov had nothing to do with Moscow, they say, and should not be memorialized in the city--certainly not on the street named Gogol Boulevard, The underlying issue seems to be that he's a Soviet author, and these latter days are a problematic time for monuments to Soviet authors.