Friday, May 25, 2007

Hedgehog in the Fog (Ёжик в тумане)

For the film buffs among my readers, here's something to make up for my last post: the award-winning Yozhik v tumane (1975), directed by Yuriy Norshteyn, and based on a story by Sergei Grigoryevich Kozlov. As a foreign researcher in Russia, sometimes I feel a lot like this little hedgehog...

Monday, May 21, 2007

Tide: Safe for Fabrics, Dangerous for Russian Women

Um... anyone care to explain this to me?

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Can you hear me now?

I know I'm a graduate student and that I'm working towards a PhD. I know that I'm supposed to be thinking about big questions, writing papers on important problems, and tackling projects that take years of careful study and difficult research. But truth be told, I would much rather write about the little things. Like this ad that I stumbled across for the Russian mobile phone service company МТС (Mobile TeleService):

Allow me to provide some translation and commentary. The commercial opens with a hand sweeping over a bookshelf and pulling out a collection of poems by the late 19th / early 20th century Russian symbolist, Aleksandr Blok. The next shot reveals the man who picked out the book and is now speaking to someone on a mobile phone. The man says, "I'll dictate, you take this down," and then proceeds to read Blok's rather well-known 1912 poem, "Night, Street, Lamp, Drugstore".

As he reads, the words of the poem appear in white letters and drift out of the apartment window, wandering across Moscow. Here's the original text with my translation:

Ночь, улица, фонарь, аптека,
Бессмысленный и тусклый свет.
Живи еще хоть четверть века -
Все будет так. Исхода нет.

Умрешь - начнешь опять сначала
И повторится все, как встарь:
Ночь, ледяная рябь канала,
Аптека, улица, фонарь.
Night, street, lamp, drugstore.
Meaningless and dull light.
Live on for another quarter century -
All will be as such. No outcome.

You'll die - start again from the beginning
And everything will repeat, as long ago.
Night, a canal's icy ripples,
Drugstore, street, lamp.

We watch as the text of the poem sails up into the window of a classroom, and it's at this point that the ad's "punchline" emerges. We see a student copying down the poem as he listens through a cellphone headset. An announcer explains, "We're doing everything so that not one word is lost," as the cheating student finishes, stands up triumphantly, and hides his cellphone headset. The ad concludes with the company's slogan, "МТС: People Talk."

Considering the esteemed position of Russian poetry and poets here, I was more than a little surprised to see a cellphone company advertising--even in jest--that their network's clarity and fidelity is so good that it could help students from having to learn the great Russian poems of the past by heart. (It would be a bit like T-Mobile running an ad in which they say, "Thanks to our advanced network, you kids will never need to memorize another Robert Frost poem ever again!")

The second thing that stood out to me was the ad's soundtrack, which is a so-called "sound-alike" imitation of The Verve's "Bittersweet Symphony." The song used in the commercial is nearly identical to the original in rhythm, structure, and instrumentation, but dissimilar enough to avoid the cost of licensing the song. The choice to use a sound-alike of "Bittersweet Symphony" is, if not ironic, certainly noteworthy, since that song in particular is famous for violating copyright laws by using a longer-than-approved sample of an orchestral recording of the Rolling Stones' "The Last Time." And "The Last Time," in turn, is said to be an uncredited adaptation of a gospel song by the Staples Sisters. All of this for an ad about how the sonic fidelity of a cellphone company's network is so good that it can be used to copy a poem word for word and cheat the system.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007


I just spent the last couple of hours trying to write a blog entry concerning all the ways in which the world seems to be going totally bonkers on me these days. But I realized, somewhere around the 20th paragraph, that this really isn't the forum for such a rant.

Suffice it to say that this week there really is nothing important to report from Moscow. I think I burned through the bulk of my enthusiasm in my first couple of weeks here, and now I find myself frustrated with my inability to communicate fluently and wondering how I make the best use of my remaining time in Moscow.