Saturday, December 27, 2008


I study a kind of music that is variously labeled "authorial song", "bard(ic) song", and/or "guitar poetry depending on the context and the person doing the labeling.  Usually I just call it "бардовская песня (bardovskaya pesnya)" because that combination of words seems to generate the least confusion in conversations with people about the music in which I'm interested.  Somehow I never once considered abbreviating any of these names for the topic of my research.

An acquaintance here in Moscow recently gave me a book that describes itself as a "Russian-English Cultural Dictionary."  She thought that perhaps this handy guide would help me acculturate.  I thanked her, flipped open the cover, and was immediately confronted by a one-paragraph definition of authorial song on page 17:

АВТОРСКАЯ ПЕСНЯ ж (бардовская песня) bard song.  A special musical-poetic genre that appeared in the USSR in the 1950s and has developed ever since.  B.s. is a socio-cultural phenomenon especially typical of the Soviet period...

B. s.?  Wait a second... what are you calling b.s.?

B. s. has its own 'sacred places': the Vostok Club in St. Petersberg (founded in 1961) and the Grushin Festival in Samara (since 1968). Their purpose has been to popularize b.s. in the best traditions.
This certainly isn't the first time I've worried that I might be writing my dissertation about b.s..  I just wasn't expecting a reference book to say so.

Wise Words

Whether I achieve the secondary purpose of my journey—to escape the deadly melancholy of the Christmas season—remains to be seen.
Walter Benjamin, Moscow Diary, 20 December

Friday, December 26, 2008


Merry Christmas to me.  I'm told that these shoes make me look more Russian...

Monday, December 22, 2008

Get Real

It's been a few weeks since I posted anything to this blog, and for my own sake as much as yours, gentle reader, I should summarize what's been happening since my last entry.

I should mention, by the way, that I haven't been avoiding my blogging responsibilities by choice. Things were going just wonderfully here, and I was all set to write a big blog entry about how I had somehow dodged all the small pitfalls that other anthropologists complain of when they begin their fieldwork.  What luck! 

But then, a little over a week ago, without any warning whatsoever, my brand new laptop died. Remember that laptop that I was sent by a certain company as a replacement for the machine that they lost failed to repair over the course of a month? Yeah. I'm not kidding either. This company's flagship machine--loaded with their state-of-the-art technology--, this beautiful baby computer suffered the microelectronic equivalent of SIDS after just one month.

To be clear, we're not talking about some minor inconvenience like, say, a hard drive failure, or a screen that stops working. This is more like a bad motherboard. I've talked with the company's tech support staff via e-mail and long-distance/Skype/conference-call, and after describing the computer's symptoms they replied that it sounded like a serious hardware failure and asked if I could please send it in for repair... from Russia... at my expense.


So there I was, an academic in Moscow without a computer (which for 21st century scholars is kind of like being a drug addict without a fix). But I realized that most anthropologists don't have the luxury of computers and gadgets in their fieldsites, so why was I complaining? Who was I to wimper about a stupid computer when I've got the things that really matter: a roof over my head, a great research project, and my health?

And of course, as soon as I felt thankful for these things, I saw them each crumple before my eyes. The apartment in which I'm living suffered a minor flood when the upstairs neighbors left the water running in their bathroom tub, filling the air with vapour that smells suspiciously like the twelve inches or so of late Soviet-era flooring, insulation, dirt, dust, and mold that you might find between two levels of an apartment building in Moscow.  No big deal, I thought.  I mean, after all, the same sort of thing happened to me in my apartment not long ago in the states.  This stuff happens. And then a couple of days later, I started to feel as though a sheet of fabric softener had somehow been stuffed down my windpipe without my notice. At first I didn't think much about it, but after about 24 hours I was coughing violently and feeling as if my sinuses were attempting to escape their captivity behind my face through my eye sockets. Naturally, my optimism about my research began to take a tumble at this point as well.

That was about a week ago.  Things are a bit better now: I've got a new computer (thanks to ridiculously generous support from two readers of this blog who will go unnamed); I was able to get all my notes off of the old machine's hard drive; I'll be sending my old computer back home with an American I met recently; my health is improving thanks to lots of Russian soup; and as for my research, well, it's at least interesting.

After all, how can you NOT find this interesting?

This is a spot on the Old Arbat, a fairly famous Moscow street and tourist destination.  It's not insignificant as cultural real estate.  The Arbat is a great place to take a stroll.  There are some lovely buildings, there are no cars, you'll find artists and musicians and performers everywhere... And here we have, on the right, a statue dedicated to Bulat Okudzhava, one of the pioneers (if you'll excuse the term) of Russian bardic song.  And on the left, standing only a few feet from the revered Mr. Okudzhava, is a large cow.  Not just any cow, actually: this is the mascot (or the mas-cow?... the Mos-cow?...) for a chain of restaurants called "Mu-Mu".

I can't quite explain how well this image represents my impression of contemporary Moscow.  It's not just that the ridiculous and sublime live side by side -- that could be said about the world in general.  Nor is it just that the artifacts of the Soviet past and the post-Soviet present stand side by side.   It's something more about how the past and present don't seem to be able to take one another seriously, despite genuine efforts to the contrary.  This goes beyond nostalgia or irony.  This is... this is...

This is a statue of a cow standing next to a statue of Bulat Okudzhava.  

I feel like at this point, a real ethnographer would know how to read such an image. I don't.  But I'm hoping that since I'm experiencing some of the problems that real ethnographers encounter, perhaps soon I'll begin to think like one as well.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

One Week

One week.  I've been here one week.  Since I've managed to accomplish more or less all I could have hoped to accomplish in my first seven days, I suppose that this bodes well for the next fifty one weeks of real honest-to-goodness ethnographci field research to come.  On the other hand, every day I am reminded that my Russian is nowhere near adequate to the task of capturing a shred of nuance about anything, and that I am playing the socioculturally equivalent role of a character from some bad sci-fi about an interdimensional traveler who has just made the jump from life with only three physical dimensions to live with five dimensions within the same universe.  This is a long and confusing way of saying that this time in Moscow, I'm haunted by the strange feeling that everything is the same and yet everything is different.

The same: my favorite foods and places are still here; my everyday survival Russian is slowly coming back to me and seems to be serving me well enough that I don't get too many weird looks when I ask people for directions or talk to store clerks; and Moscow is still a wonderfully busy, strangely beautiful and intimidating place.

Different: I've arrived at a time when one cannot turn on a radio, open a newspaper, or walk five paces without encountering the word "кризис (crisis)"; the sky is grey grey grey all the time; and for some reason people seem to understand the theme of my research even though I feel more detached from my project than ever.  

There's a lot that could be said about all of this... but I've got work to do.  

More to come...