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  • Michael Krakovskiy 12:32 am on June 27, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Alexander Pushkin, Armand-Emmanuel de Vignerot, , , City Hall building, , , electricity meters, , , , Pushkin monument, Russia, sadistic gym teacher, ,   

    Odessa Close Up 

    I own a few quality Canon lenses, but 100-400 zoom lens is my favorite. 100-400 is heavy and it needs to be swapped in for something more reasonable often because it only catches a small part of the overall picture. Yes, extreme closeup is a cheesy trick: every object starts looking more significant than it already is when the focus is on it and the background disappears in a soft blur known as “bokeh“. But more often than not I do want to get rid of the clutter and take a closer look at something, to intensely focus on one thing. Sometimes looking at an object zoomed in at 400 you find something new – like a ghostly outline of the old company name hiding behind a new neon sign or a joke left in by the sculptor or notice what is going on on the tops of skyscrapers.

    100-400 seems to add a strange, otherworldly glow to things – the glow that I associate with memory.

    Here’s a series of closeup photos of my hometown, Odessa. Beware, if you are from there this might cause some serious nostalgia.

    The postal boxes were repainted a few times, but are still pretty much the same.

    A core sample is the best demonstration for watermelons

    But you have to trust the merchant’s sign that the grapes from Tairovo are sweet!sweet!

    The dish of my childhood – a tomato salad with tomatoes that taste like tomatoes.

    The building in the background is gone, but the old horse chestnut (which is probably a few hundred years old) is still around

    Here’s what you do with the leaves of acacia: you rip them off in one motion and hold them tight in your fist. Then you let go in an upward motion and try to catch as many as you can. Then you play age old game of loves me-loves me not with the remaining leaves. Well, at least that what I remember.

    Kitteh, as neglected as the city itself voices her complaint.

    A pigeon walks around in fallen acacia flowers in front of my hildhood home. I gathered a bunch of these flowers. They still smell like the city that I lost.

    These flowers in the park are still the same.

    A terrible piece of tile grafitti sprung on a refined and sophisticated building by its new owners is now covered in even cruder grafitti. Soon the slate will be wiped clean. The act of tiled vandalism always amazed me when I saw it as a kid – it was one of the first hints as to what happened in 1919.

    The staircase that leads to the sea at 13th Station of the Big Fountain. If you were brave, you could ride it down, but it lead to more sprains, scrapes, ruined pants and mis. injuries than I care to remember. Yet few kids could pass by the opportunity to ride it down.

    Seemingly indestructable electrical poles are surprisingly free of ads, but they must have carried more of them than many newspapers.

    Pushkin’s fish is still spitting into the fountain basin full of coins left by tourists.

    Corn on the cob at the beach is as spectacular as ever

    A remnant of a communal flat: after the Soviets kicked out and mostly shot the old tenants, what is known in New York as a “classic 5“, a spacious one family apartment became a 5 family apartment. The communal spirit was not complete though – all 5 bells would have been connected to separate electricity meters.

    These sturdy cast iron garbage urns might be pre-revolutionary in origin. They always reminded me of the Pushkin monument and the drinking fountain in the park (which I’ll cover further down).

    Mercury from the City Hall building stares blankly

    The iron fence of the old synagogue reminds me the fence in front of a church on 5th Avenue.

    This is where I would jump off almost every time when visiting the park

    Bullheads!

    The laurel crown of Odessa’s beloved founder, Armand-Emmanuel de Vignerot du Plessis, Duc de Richelieu, looked like a kangol-style hat to me when I was little. I guess it still does.

    Poor old lion dragged from somebody’s pre-revolutionary dacha to “the old Odessa corner”. I sat on this beast many a time for a photo, and so did probably millions of locals and tourists.

    They still use homemade brooms – I’m sure these are superior to synthetic-bristled ones. At the very least they must be cheaper.

    Wild grapes are in every other courtyard. They are extremely sour when green, but rarely survive into maturity.

    This Atlas always amused me because unlike other classical atlases he wore a working man’s belt. He is in a very bad way.

    This lion appears on dozens of buildings. I guess it was on sale two centuries ago.

    It’s pretty hard to destroy ironwork.

    I bet Alexander Pushkin tied his horses to this thing. Or something. It was good for jumping on and off it.

    These trashcans were all over the place when I was a kid – I only found one in the back of a courtyard.

    I bet this kid with a cournucopia (or just a bouquet) of flowers had a wingwang at some point.

    A piece of Soviet sculptural impotence is still memorable to me for some reason. I think it’s supposed to sybolize basketball. Or the last drop of patience or something.

    The crown of one of the last remaining cast iron ad pillars

    There were a few of these things all over the city. As a kid I was told that these were for sampling gas – I remember trying to smell it at some point.

    The entrance to the park – a place to meet after school.

    A park bench

    When I was crawling around the park as a toddler this fountain used to work. It always reminded me the Pushkin monument – it might have been cast by the same company. I still have memories of my father raising me up so I could take a drink.

    Our sadistic gym teacher made us do pull-ups on these bars.

    This is another place where no self-respecting child would walk on the ground instead of skipping on the parapet

    This lamp has seen better times

    Some people say these wells were operational at some point, others say that they were simply ornaments dragged from elsewhere where they were operational. In any case, these are reminders of the time when Odessa’s major source of water was roof-collected rain and the Fountains.

    A lamp of the Soviet vintage

    A horrible Soviet-era mosaic that is nevertheless burnt into my childhood memory

    The soccer stadium lights always made me sad for some reason

     
  • Michael Krakovskiy 3:05 am on October 10, 2008 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: book author, , , Ilya Miloslavskiy, Miloslavsky, , Nikolai Tolstoy-Miloslavsky, , royal physician, Russia, , , ,   

    Best Nickname Ever 

    When I was in school, I always considered History to be one of the easiest subjects, and also one of the most boring ones. Most teachers that I had concentrated on having us memorize facts and dates, and did not really try to make History interesting. I did have a couple of good History teachers in college, one of whom won a Pulitzer prize. Another made me regret not having the time to get a proper classical education.

    In any case, the biggest problem I have with history books is that everything in them is sanitized. I like my historical works HBO-style, with all the filth intact, like in Deadwood and Rome.

    Let me give you an example. I was reading “The Tolstoys: Twenty Four Generations of Russian History” by Nikolai Tolstoy-Miloslavsky. The Tolstoy family were always very important in Russian history. They seem to possess some talents that seem to be passed on genetically. These talents seem to fall into three categories: writing, politics, and to the lesser extent art. From founding the fist Russian secret police, through writing dozens of world-changing books, to revolutionizing Russian web design, Tolstoys left a deep mark. By reading this book I understood how much this one family line changed Russia and the world.

    But what I found the most enjoyable was not that, but a little episode about Ilya Miloslavskiy, the book author’s illustrious ancestor. Boyar Miloslavskiy was sort of an olde tyme oligarch. In 1600s he headed all of Russia’s most important (and profitable) ministries, Military, Medical, Treasury, etc. He was a man of limitless appetites, and stole amazing amount of money. Miloslavsky’s boss, tzar Alexei was not bothered as much by stealing, as he was by amoral behavior.

    Tolstoy quotes Dr. Collins, a royal physician and apparently Miloslavsky’s employee:

    “at last perceiving Eliah too kind to some of his Tartar and Polish slaves, he urged him (being and old Widdower) either to marry or refrain the Court. For the Russians highly extoll marriage, partly to people their Territories, and partly to prevent Sodomy and Buggery, to which they are naturally inclined, nor is it punished there with Death. A lusty Fellow about eight years since being at this beastly sport with a Cow, cry’d to one that saw him ‘Ne Mishchay, do not interrupt me; and now he is known by no other name over all Muscovy, than ‘Ne Mishchay’ “.

     
  • Michael Krakovskiy 2:48 am on August 27, 2008 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , , Robert Heinlen, Russia,   

    Deadprogrammer Visits Odessa : Part II : Balconies and Yards 

    When I think about Odessa, I often remember the title of Robert Heinlen’s novel, “The Door into Summer“. Odessa is a summer city. If I were to pick one word to describe it in the summer, it would be sun-dappled.

    The soil in Odessa is pretty bad, and there aren’t any local sources of fresh water. Because of that there are only three types of trees that thrive there: acacia, sycamore (locally known as “shameless” trees because they shed their bark), and horse chestnut. Acacia is one of the symbols of Odessa, and horse chestnut is that of Kiev. These trees are thriving in Odessa, and many hundred year old specimens provide a lot of shade.

    The tree shade and the bright sun bathe everything in these spots of light, like in Renoir’s La Moulin de la Galette.

    Here’s a very old acacia on the corner of the street where I grew up. Notice the parking sign: in Odessa the sidewalks are so wide that cars can be parked on them. Also, they are now selling melons out of cages that are locked for the night. Acacia blossoms cover all the sidewalks and produce and intoxicating aroma.

    As I mentioned before, Odessa was built on the grand scale and by the best architects. Even the lesser buildings are very decorated. Atlases were very popular.

    Apparently the current location of Odessa used to be under the Black sea, and the bedrock consists of a somewhat soft yellow sedimentary rock formed out of shells of sea creatures. It’s a type of limestone, I guess. This rock turned out to be a perfect building material: cheap and abundant, soft enough to cut and carve, but durable enough to build with, not too heavy, very good for thermal and sound isolation. So many buildings were built this stone that the quarries below the city formed a humongous labyrinth known as “catacombs“. It was used by contraband smugglers and WWII guerrilla fighters. It would have been super easy to build a subway in Odessa, but somehow it never happened.

    There are two architectural features of the old limestone buildings that became very important in the Odessa way of life: balconies and courtyards. Just like the wide sidewalks, these are the artifacts of the town mostly built in 1800s, in the era of horse buggies, no air conditioning, and gas light. Balconies provided a breath of fresh air, and internal courtyards let architects let in light into all apartments.

    Some balconies are very charming, with cast iron railings and pleasing shapes and aging gracefully.

    Some did not survive and were replaced by ugly shitboxes.

    Some are unsafe Frankenstein monsters.

    Some are huge, with fancy statues, and in horrible state of disrepair.

    Some are maintained.

    Some are elegant, curved around gorgeous bay windows. Notice the hanging laundry.

    Some instead of laundry are draped in grapevines.

    I have no idea how these grapevines survive: they grow in the street, are peed on by dogs and are never watered.

    Some of the most gorgeous buildings with the most awesome balconies are in such state of disrepair, that in New York they would have been immediately boarded up, but yet there are people living there…

    These old buildings are what New York realtors are referring to as “pre-war”: they have very tall ceilings, big rooms, parquet floors, fireplaces, and other bourgeoisie niceties. After the revolution most of these apartments where turned into communal flats: instead of a single family with help, now 5-7 families were crammed into it. The process kind of reversed itself in the 90s, with rich people buying out communal dwellers, but some still remain: here’s a picture of the doorbells on one door. You can visit a site about communal living in Russia. Interestingly enough, despite the Marxist spirit, in communal apartments even the doorbells were hooked up to separate electric meters, and the excessive use of a lightbulb in bathroom was a major point of contention.

    These buildings are old: many have horse hitches out front:

    Once you tied your horse down, you enter the building through a gate.

    Sometimes the gate is old and beautiful.

    Sometimes it was replaced by a horrible modern monstrosity painted with signs like “angry dog” and “there’s no toilet here”.

    Sometimes it’s missing altogether.

    The gate leads you through a passageway. What will you find in that passageway?

    A bunch of semi-destroyed soviet-era mailboxes. I am not sure if they are still in use. Here’s one of the better preserved specimen.

    The passageway, a utility space, often has interesting ceilings, which are almost always mostly ruined.

    Some are less ornate though.

    Often there are very cool windows within the passageways.

    The passageway will lead you into the yard. There will be entrances to apartments, parked cars, laundry.

    Here’s something that used to be very common, but is actually a rarity now: drying plastic bags.

    Some more cars and a kid riding a bike.

    Grapevines, cats, old cars.

    Restored all cars and walls that are in bad need of restoration.

    Sleeping dogs and more drying laundry.

    A non-functioning fountain.

    A little garden. This one used to be my grandmother’s.

    A granny reading a newspaper.

    Peeling walls: I distinctly remember this particular wall from my childhood, it used to look exactly the same. It’s a testament to the quality of work of the old builders that with next to zero maintenance these buildings survive.

    A seemingly functional pigeon coop.

    An old tree. These old trees move move in the wind in a very hypnotic manner. Being so tall, they can be used to forecast the size of waves in the sea by the speed at which the tops of them move.

    A decorative drinking well. I’m not sure, but it kind of looks like it could have been a real well once.

    A woman feeding cats who will tell you to stop taking stupid pictures like the dumbass that you are and go and do something productive.

    Walls with WWII bullet holes. Odessa is one of the few cities granted the designation of hero city for valiant resistance. When the Germans and Romanians entered the city there was a lot of executions.

    A sad, sad sight: an ad for apartments in a newly constructed building.

    Deadprogrammer visits Odessa : Part I : Introduction

     
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