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Tag Archives: Russian

Скоро кончится лето – Кино

Almaty, Kazakhstan 

I’m writing my dissertation, that’s why I’ve been so proficient in procrastinating. But it’s crunch time, so I promise this will be my last post until I’m done with my academic writing.

When Viktor Tsoi died at 28 in a car accident in Latvia, the Baltic country had just declared its independence from the USSR. It was June of 1990, a time of change, or “перемен” as Tsoi would have sung it if he had lived to see it. A truly Soviet character, Tsoi was a Korean-Russian with some roots in Kazakhstan’s former sleepy capital of Kyzylorda (his father was born there). A profoundly uneasy artist, who even sounded dark when he sung his less-than-happy songs with his band, Kino.

Every 21st of June, the former Soviet youth celebrates its own Christmas. The birthday of Tsoi revives the Soviet rock scene from Almaty to St. Petersburg. Even a street artist was able to get away with painting a mural in his honor in Almaty, avoiding the ever strict Kazakh police. But I digress. I conducted a very quick analysis of the lyrics sung in the most famous songs by Kino. As I casually listened to the words used, it became clear that the choice made by Tsoi in the 80s was more original than many other songs that usually play in my iTunes.

A mural for Viktor Tsoi - Almaty (Arbat) 2014

A mural for Viktor Tsoi – Almaty (Arbat) 2014

Next to very Soviet words like звезда (star), война (war), земля (land), вперёд (forward), город (city), there are several ones related to natural phenomena – солнце (sun), трава (grass), снег (snow), огонь (fire). Other recurrent words reference the body: кровь (blood) and глаза (eyes). The choice of verbs is also interesting: молчить (to be silent), спать (to sleep), встать (to wake/stand up), остаться (to stay/be left). One very peculiar word that comes up often is брод (ford, “a shallow place in a river or stream allowing one to walk or drive across” tells me the dictionary).

Often, Kino’s songs address uncomfortable situations that disturb the “normal” living experience. When Tsoi talks about being stuck in either an Elektrichka (“Suburban Electric Train”) or on a Trolleibus going East, you can feel the problems that the singer was facing within. You won’t find любовь (love) or сердце (heart), except in their un-romantic meanings. “Love” is used in the locution я не люблю to say “I don’t like”, whereas “heart” is more often the source of pain than excitement.

There is so much sub-text in Kino’s songs that I should dedicate a month to it, not 30 minutes. But time flies, so I’d better go back to my dissertation, listening to Tsoi’s tunes, of course.

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New adventures

Tallinn, Estonia

Getting to a country where you have no clue about the local language is tough. Buying food is tough: what exactly am I buying? I just figured out how the announcements on the bus work. I get names and streets confused all the time, I can’t pronounce anything correctly. It has never happened to me before (maybe in Paris… Yes, I’m being sarcastic). It is also absolutely my fault, because the lack of time impeded me to get a grasp of this difficult language.

Now, in the streets of Tallinn, I hear more Russian than many here admit. Right now, a lady is saying да и нет on the phone.

The modern European feeling is mixed with the Soviet-era apartment blocks and the cute and medieval old town.

Clean and tourist-friendly, this small capital city could teach a lot to many West European cities. Its long summer days are about to start and humidity has allowed the flowers to bloom.

My part-time job will be the first of the new adventures. Some activities are still ongoing, like the preparation of a co-authored book chapter, a long paper, and 4 presentations about them.

These are going to be, again, very busy months. And the blog activity will be the first to suffer. Also because the e-magazines with which I am collaborating (The Hidden Transcript and VostokCable) would probably prefer that I devoted my time to writing for them.

Education in Motion

on BART, between SFO and Oakland.

During the past year and a half I’ve been looking for something to do with my life – and not only mine – after graduating from my Master degree in Italy. Willing to keep studying and having enjoyed the US research environment, I decided to try applying – again – for a PhD program here. However, my previous and recent experience with the standard way of assessing applications, left me with a sour taste, again.

During my NEET (not in education, employment, or training) period, I kept enjoying the beauty of studying through libraries, where I entered thanks to my old IDs. It sure feels good to be involved in reading academic texts without the pressure of the exam. I had a project in my sleeve, so I just explored more and more the world of energy and tried to gain knowledge in fields where I lacked one. Freedom to read also gave me the possibility of reading novels and more political texts. Meanwhile, I struggled to earn a minimum for my subsistence, which I barely managed in such a bureaucratized world.

I concentrated my interest in a few projects that allowed me to be eclectic in my future path: the issue of hydrocarbons in the Arctic, the Bulgarian nuclear energy sector, the struggle for power and gas between the Kremlin and Gazprom, and the relevance of energy in diplomatic cooperation in the Caspian region. These might sound boring to many, but to me they spark interest and excitement. They are also deeply rooted in recent history, but they keep their impact in contemporary daily news. As I sit through conferences more and more frequently, I realize that what’s intriguing to some could be irrelevant to others.

Without much illusion of succeeding, thanks to the last drop of self-esteem that was left in me, I found the energy to apply for a very interesting Erasmus Mundus program. Erasmus Mundus was recently set up to link “Erasmus” countries – that have their university systems already interconnected through student, staff, and faculty exchanges – and third countries in the extended neighborhood of Europe, such as the Middle East, the Caucasus, Central Asia, etc. The program to which I submitted my application was a new one, coordinated by the University of Glasgow: the International Master in Russian and Central and Eastern European Studies (IMRCEES). The program had already existed for a few years, but this was the first year that the consortium obtained EU funds for it. Glasgow is in fact teamed up with a few other institutions from Poland, Estonia, Hungary, Finland, and Kazakhstan. As soon as I read Kazakhstan I became interested. I laid out my plan and submitted the many documents needed for the contextual application to the program and to the scholarship. A couple of months later, when my expectations for further education had vanished, I received a letter that confirmed my admission to the program. I shook my head: I had to change plans again, but this time it would have been more fun!

So I packed my luggage and tried my best to give and get a Glasgow impression by participating in the annual conference of my future department. I went there during my crazy May, just before my trip back to the US, on which I embarked with a very different motivation compared to the previous ones. This is my last stay in this beautiful and strange country for a while and I am going to use it as a trampoline for my next English-language adventure.

My first stop will be Scotland in September. There I will spend one academic year, trying to learn Russian one more time, carefully engaging with my professors on matters that my experience has told me a lot about, and enjoying the Tropical weather. One of the previous resolutions is clearly false, I’ll let you guess which one while I go to the store to buy a raincoat.

The next summer is going to be full of travels and surprises, as my plan is to go to Azerbaijan for research, but I might have to stop in Estonia first, for additional academic reasons. Anyway it goes, the 2013 summer term will be short, as I will continue my eastbound ride to Kazakhstan, to the former and prospective capital city of Almaty, which is supposed to re-gain its status in 2017. I will spend another academic year there before completing yet another thesis, in order to gain yet another Master degree. What will this lead to? There’s no use in asking, as my future keeps changing weekly.

The Challenge of Languages

Giarre, Italy

This post was clearly inspired by the blog series by Calvin, an American friend of mine, whose first goal is to deconstruct, analyze, and confront challenges for twenty-somethings in particular era we are living these days. His series has been going on for quite some time now (it all started on January 9, 2012) and I’m sure it’s becoming a challenge in itself.

There are many challenges life has put before me in the past years of being a “twenty-something”. Love, houses, exams and graduations, travels, money, friendship, family matters, jobs… the internet! … are only the major among many tough issues I’ve had to cope with. The feeling of being an unsettled individual is one of the most pleasant challenges I face every day.

However, as I approach a new academic experience that will bring me to study in the Post-Soviet area, I have to greet, once again, the challenge of languages. The reason I use the “Post-Soviet” term to refer to Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan – the countries where I will end up living – is because they share a basic knowledge of the Russian language, which was the Soviet language for nearly sixty years. Stalin’s program of “carpet” Russification in the non-Russian Soviet Republics was felt, of course, as an imposition from abroad. The colonial attitude by Moscow towards its fellow Soviet neighbors during the Cold War helped the development of anti-Russian sentiments in the periphery.  In the last days of 1991, the Soviet Republics all of a sudden realized they were independent. Interestingly, their leadership still remained very “Soviet” inside.

Despite regrets, arguments, clashes with drunken Yeltsin, and confusion over what to do, “former Soviet” leaders transformed themselves into “newly independent” leaders. Most of them were seasoned politicians and they could seize the opportunity given by the political and socio-economic uncertainty to use their chamaleon powers and root their legitimacy in  a nationalistic rhetoric. The countries I will be visiting have been the most stable, US-friendly, and economically growing among the Post-Soviet subjects. The Aliyevs in Azerbaijan have established a quasi-hereditary monarchy (even though they like to be called “President”) and Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan enjoys the same popularity as the Pope among Catholics. In both countries, since the last days of the USSR, the nationalistic trend has gone back to the Turkic tradition. On the one hand, they strive to appear as Western as possible in order to attract foreign investments, but on the other hand, the ancient tradition is recovered by laws and day-to-day social(-ly imposed) changes.

The major reflection of these nationalistic changes is evident in the language. Russian has been downgraded as the “accompanying language” to the official one, which, in many cases is just one variety of the many dialects that the inhabitants spoke before the Tsarist and Soviet invasions. This long historical context serves as a background for my personal challenge with languages for the next few years. Here, you might find handy another set of background information.

I learned to master the Spanish language through my year in Granada as an exchange student. Then I turned my eyes to Russian, which I needed for my studies. However, having lived in Russia for less than a full week, I could never get beyond the elementary-to-intermediate swing. Then came my journey to the United States, where I did take Russian, but I started writing and speaking everything that was processed in my brain through English words. While good on the English-language side, my Russian bent spoiled. What’s to be done now? I will investigate more and more Russian-language documents as my research will still be centered on energy issues in the Caspian, but at the same time I will be living in countries where the usage of Russian is withering away.

My experience in Washington has taught me that Kazakhs are still reliant on Russian, especially for their diplomatic and political speeches and jokes. Yet, again, nationalism is kicking in: one very nice Kazakh diplomat invited me to their embassy on 16th Street, kindly answered to my questions in English, and then showed me the room with the display of traditional garment and weaponry used by Kazakh tribes “back then”, as he uttered walking me to the door. Nevertheless, I think my research experience is going to be smooth if I get back on the books and prepare myself in the Russian language.

The real challenge comes with the language for my daily interactions. I want to be able to live in these countries, even though my experience will surely be restricted to a few months, because of the structure of the program. For this reason, today I browsed a few YouTube videos with introductory courses for the Kazakh language. I will dedicate a few hours per week to a serious study of this language, which draws from many different linguistic roots (Arabic, Mongol, Greek…) and developed from many different dialects, all of which were hybernated during Stalin’s imposition of Russian. I’m sure I won’t be able to deal with the Azeri idiom as well, but my journey to Baku is still uncertain and will surely be shorter than my stay in Almaty.

Yet, as an unsettled being, I maintain a feeling of uncertainty about learning languages I might stop using sooner than expected. The challenge will therefore be to “enjoy it while it lasts”. Like many challenges faced by erratic twenty-somethings.