Two big things happening tomorrow

Within DC, the Watergate Hotel, just now slipping from the hands of Monument Realty, goes up for auction tomorrow. I am placing my bets on the Jumeirah group, who are richer than Croesus and even crazier. One has to be at least bold enough to assume the debt and cost of renovations necessary to bring the building into operations. Although the building is structurally fine, the constant need for interior renovations and building system upgrades led Monument into a period of severe financial hardship when their backers went bankrupt.

Outside of DC, Joe Biden is in Ukraine. After the niceties of Obama’s visit to the Kremlin two weeks ago, Biden may be going over to reassure the shaken administration that the US is still an ally. On the other hand, the alleged “reset” of Russo-American relations and the tanking of the pro-wetern Ukrainian coalition would mean that his meeting with Yulia Timoshenko and Viktor Yuschenko could be both tense and unsatisfying. On Wednesday, the Vice President will be in Sakartvelo Georgia to speak to the parliament. Again, this meeting is a cautious attempt to maintain relations between the US and Russia’s prime enemies. Unlike the Baltic States and the Balkans, these countries are unstable and still sucsceptible to major influence. It will be interesting to watch the developments.

N.B. – Please do not refer to Ukraine as “The Ukraine,” as that implies that Kyiv is just some Russian border town. Украина literally means “hinterland” or “borderland,” but generally had its connotation set with a capital letter by the 18th Century. Only under the later Tsars and Soviets did the government take advantage of the lack of articles in Ukrainian to insist to western observers that the “Little Russians” did not deserve independence; it’s right there in the name, “our borderland.” If you’re under 30, you probably don’t make this mistake, but it still creeps into the news every once and a while to irritate sticklers like me.

The Metronomicon


A Russian artist and ad man named Alexei Andreev has been publishing some distinctly surreal photography recently regarding the Moscow Sankt-Peterburg Metro. Mostly, it hints at the perpetual creepiness of a dark subway and the complex relationship one always has with it. As much as it’s preternatural eeriness, it also reflects daily life a lot more than most architectural photography of the subway. The whole collection deserves a look, but not before a late night Metro ride.

Russia still outrageously dangerous

Today, checking up on the general doings of Russia, I came across three interesting articles about very different automobile collisions. Russia, I just learned, is the worst country in terms of per capita automobile fatalities. This situation has some historical roots in Stalinist city planning that called for large highways with few pedestrian crosswalks, but automobile fatalities weren’t really a problem when only 2% of the country could own a car. Now, when there are something like 2.5 million drivers in Moscow (still, only 16% of inhabitants), the roads get clogged, noisy, and deadly. According to the article, there were 236 fatalities per million Russians, nearly twice the United States’ 136 deaths per million. Calculating the death rate based on automobile use, 900 motorists die per year per million automobiles or motorcycles on the road in the Russian Federation. The United States isn’t even close.

The term many people seem to use to describe contemporary Russia is dikaya, meaning “wild,” as in The Wild West. Dikiy kapitalizm, dikie nochi, dikie voditeli. Russian drivers are notoriously bad, impatient, and unprepared. But it’s not just lax licensing and bad drivers, the roads themselves are terrible, most designed for puttery small cars like the Lada and if not, then just poorly maintained. Moreover, the speed limit on all streets within Moscow is 60kph, around 38mph, but in reality, nobody drives the limit. 

The government has enabled the newfound love for motorcars, looking to the Interstate Highway System for inspiration. In Moscow alone, the Federal Government has spent hundreds of billions of dollars to expand the road network, including building a twelve lane freeway on the already massive Leningradsky Prospekt, right up to the center of the city, and putting tunnels under multiple plazas on Tverskaya Street. I lived off Leningradsky Prospekt for a while, near its intersection with the Third Ring road, and crossing either road was a slow and onerous process that sometimes required me to use graffitti-covered and patently unsafe pedestrian overpasses. And incidentally, one part of the Third Ring is a leaky tunnel that causes cars, moving at freeway speeds, to aquaplane in the summer and slide on black ice in the winter, resulting in a spectacularly morbid video and many severe injuries. 

The second article, a real gut punch, is one that has become familiar to pro-pedestrian bloggers. On may 13th, a driver named Roman Zhirov killed a visibly pregnant woman named Yelena Shumm, who was walking in a crosswalk with the right signal. Her death is a tragedy in itself, but not quite the horrible act of malfeasance that it has since become. Soon afterward, the police got the license place of the car and located the owner of the blue Forester seen speeding away from the scene, but have yet to file charges. You see, Mr. Zhirov is a member of the Internal Affairs Division of the police.

The State Prosecutor’s office has apparently begun some investigation into that unit, but so far, nothing. Unsurprisingly, the story has been picked up by the news media in Moscow, thanks in part to the murdered woman’s husband, Alexei, who has started a very depressing livejournal. Take a look at the google translation if you don’t speak Russian. 

I can’t much end on such a miserable note, but I can’t find much related to счастливое водительство that is very happy at all. Still, at least only broken bones resulted from the high profile collision between a jaywalker and a motorcycling rock star that happened two days ago. That’s still not great, but at least the reporters in those blog posts use the active voice to describe the motorists’ actions.

Lone man in a United Russia

In what has to be the bravest damn thing done by a Russian politician in a while, a Russian council member blatantly elected by fraud has denounced his election and resigned. The Washington Post and NTV report that Anton Chumachenko, alarmingly close in age to me, discovered that he had won an election, and rather quickly sent a letter protesting the victory, pretty much shocking the entire country, as well as many abroad, who have come to expect very little from his party, the ruling United Russia

Of course, he is some jerk kid who was running to represent a backwater district of St. Petersburg (think ANC 4a), but it can’t be emphasized enough how exciting this whole event is. He was running against not only other United Russia candidates, but also against a Yabloko candidate and a few indies who were opposed to the gigantic Marine Façade project on Vasilievsky Island. The project, meant to be the equivalent of Moskva-Citi in Moscow, or La Defense in Paris is probably too dense, considering it won’t get transit for years and also includes a gargantuan highway. But that was not his issue; he was just looking to represent his area and took the easy route of joining the safest party. 

So I can’t be shaken from my cynicism completely. This is a guy who formerly was a member of the Young Guard of United Russia, so is either a shrewd opportunist soon to be obliterated or someone who is swiftly being disabused of belief in his political allies. I can’t be sure, but it’s not a bad thing to hope for this. The election in his raion garnered an unusual 35% electoral turnout, a 250% increase from the last election. The world will be hearing more about him for sure.

For a better project on Vasilievsky Island, have a look at Norman Foster’s humane combination of sculptural modernism, regionalism, and preservation at New Holland Island, originally designed by Vallin, the architect of the Little Hermitage. 

Russia at Europe’s gates for a different reason

Russia’s mind-bogglingly bad fiscal policy has finally come to a pitiful and humbling end: it has to borrow money from Europe. FT, the Post and others are reporting that Russia may issue $5B of eurobonds to cover some of its economic interventions as it tries to save its troubled corporations. The increasingly resented government has proudly – and aggressively – exploited high oil and gas prices to grow large exchange and gold reserves as a means of independence, a strategy that worked for some time.

But or the past six months, the Medvedev/Putin administration has not only been propped up the crashing currency with state reserves, but also raised pensions without raising taxes, all for the sake of national pride and presumably out of fear of broader unrest in the country, where a sizable percentage of the graying populace relies on pensions to eat. At the same time, the Central Banks is trying to avoid inflationary spending such as in the United States, Russian media are quick to point out. And it’s a fair point: rainy days are really what the reserve was made for. But Russia has crafted for its people a proud name, one that comes with a fragile ego, and any appearance of dependency causes a nationalist panic.

Like the delirious Russian economy of last year, the political image is mostly froth. There simply isn’t much behind Russia’s strength outside of oil and cash, so the administration will be looking for other ways of throwing its weight around. Just as las summer’s exercises with Venezuela signaled a sudden weakness brought about by crashing oil prices and January’s dispute with Ukraine over transmission was gambit to shake up Europe and get a little cash on the side, I think the international community can expect some bad behavior in spite of any sworn overcharges restarts in foreign policy. 

And a note to today’s Tea Party protesters: If you think you’re being “punished for success,” at least you haven’t been sent to a Siberian labor camp for merely looking successful enough to be a political threat.

Undestructable (transit edition)

Constant source of amusement and possible conceptual art project English Russia has posted some pictures of ancient trolleys from what appears to be Abkhazia and Georgia. The trolleys are model Skoda-9Tr, produced between 1961 and 1982, but apparently they’re still running. They’re not luxurious at all, but they get you where you need to go. In Vladimir, I noticed a clear class difference between the people who rode the trolleys (the poor, pensioners, kids) and those who rode the private bus lines, since they did cost an extra 5 rubles for the luxury of a secondhand German bus. This had a lot to do with the fact that the elderly and students get free passes, but those who could did try to get away from the constant breakdowns. 

Classic post-soviet grunge
Classic post-soviet grunge.

Skoda continues to make trolleys, in addition to DC’s new streetcars. Perhaps Fenty could get a few vintage 9TRs for a trial line in Anacostia. They’re low cost, durable, and disposable. There’s no way this can go wrong; if they get anyone to ride them, they’ll be a smashing success.