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Memoirs of a Russian submariner

Posted in Books, Reading, Russian, War by Alex L. on January 22, 2012

Book coverIn high school English class, I was taught about the three general types of conflict that one may encounter in literature: Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Man, and Man vs. Self. Memoirs from combatants of the Second World War are often as exciting to read as literature because all three types of conflict figure into them on a grand scale. But there is a fourth type of conflict that we didn’t learn about in class but which, particularly for the men and women of the Soviet armed forces, added that extra dimension of drama: Man vs. Machine.

The nation that brought the world Lada and Zhiguli cars–which asked of their owners to spend nearly every weekend under their jacked-up chassis salving their ever-irritated metal bowels–produced submarines during WWII that would never quite pass muster in an American or German shipyard. This run-down state of submersible machinery can be fully appreciated by reading Victor Korzh’s memoir, Red Star Under the Baltic: A Soviet Submariner in WWII.

As the chief engineer aboard these subs, Korzh knew every nut and bolt and describes their mechanical failures with the technical detail befitting a master. But the inability of Soviet designers and shipyards to perfect submarine design is no stain on the reputation of the Russian sailor. On the contrary, the Russian submariners’ ability to not only survive but also sink many German merchantmen in the unforgiving seas of the Baltic is a testament to their boldness and technical ingenuity. (more…)

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Manhattan first impressions

Posted in Cities, Just for Fun by Alex L. on January 11, 2012

Image courtesy of Ed Yourdon and accessed on WikipediaFAIRWAY MARKET on the Upper West Side is like an open-air market trapped under a roof. Located on a busy commercial street, the entrance to the store is flanked by open fruit and vegetable stands over a large faded awning which reminded me of street vendors in Thailand.

Inside, there is a scramble of activity. A general checkout line stretches from the cashier stands far back into the dairy products aisle. Lines are everywhere—to the seafood stand, the deli, the aisle with the cooking oils—but they are all rapidly moving forward.

Men in suits coming back from work squeeze through the narrow space between shelves to get around other shoppers: young women with strollers, older ladies in puffy black coats with fur collars, hipsters sampling different flavors of olive oil, a gray-browed man pounding an air piano with one hand as he listens to an iPod.

Two employees hidden in a nook are busy servicing a separate line of customers wanting to get coffee. They take orders, scoop pungent black beans from barrels, sprinkle them into grinding machines, pack the resulting powder into paper packets, and give it to the customers. The nook is heavy with the sweaty scent of crushed beans. Ahead of them is an even larger nook whose three walls are resplendent with fine cheeses.

Two men—one on a ladder—empty a wooden cart onto an unreachably tall pyramid of oranges. It has a sculpted shape formed by perfect layers—like bricks—of fruit, but I notice that the men aren’t forming the newly-plumped oranges into the pyramid themselves. Does this mass of fruit just take on its own shape? (more…)

Love of art in the Siege of Leningrad

Posted in Academia, Art, Russian, War by Alex L. on January 7, 2012

"In the Abstract" header

This first of a series of posts, called “In the Abstract”, are ideas for topics for new history books. Sometimes historians, I think, shoot themselves in the foot by framing their research projects in an uninteresting way. Others, though, do this masterfully and create history books that are engaging, relevant, insightful, and bring the characters and world of another age to life not only for the academic community but for the general public too. Often the path of success or failure begins in the choice of topic. In an effort to sharpen my skills in framing historical topics, I welcome your criticism and comments of my imaginary abstract.

ART is frequently seen as flourish to life for those that can afford leisurely activities. Love of art is something that supposedly dies in people when other, more basic, human needs are not being met. But to a select group of Russian writers, poets, artists, and musicians that lived in Leningrad during the siege of 1941-44 by the German army, the drive to produce new creative work did not vanish. Amid the base struggle for survival in that city under blockade, with starvation, violence, death, cannibalism, terror, and inhumanity permeating their existence, many artists in Leningrad later wrote that they experienced the strongest artistic drive of their lives. There has not been a book in English devoted to their stories. A book about the individuals, meeting places, and creative works that these artists produced (among them Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7–the “Leningrad Symphony”) under the most unpromising circumstances would be a testament to the basic importance of creativity in human life.

History off the press (December ’11 edition)

Posted in African, Books, Christianity, Russian, War by Alex L. on January 3, 2012

New history books header, December 2011

Below is a survey of books that were published in the past month or so and look to me like interesting reads (note: I have not actually read these books, and these are previews not reviews).

Africa

Book coverI’m currently reading William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and one of among many striking things about Nazi Germany is how easily a multitude of religious leaders in that country kowtowed to Hitler’s religious decrees (which needless to say were staggering in their impiety—replacing the Bible in pulpits with Mein Kampf, for instance). Religions like Christianity derive their power from writing and oratory. But if those mesmerizing words are not backed by deeds when the going gets rough (i.e. when the Gestapo will kill you if you continue practicing authentic Christianity) then such sermonizing appears in hindsight like idle chatter.

That’s why I can’t help but admire a guy like Sam Childers. After he converted to Christianity, he traded a life of drugs, motorcycle gangs, and chasing women in America to become a machine-gun armed protector of orphans and other destitute children in violence-ravaged Sudan. That’s some tough, in-your-face Christianity and not of the “Have you heard the Good Word? Here, take a pamphlet” variety. Childers has published a memoir of his experiences. (more…)

“Song of a Fighter Pilot”

Posted in European, Music, Poetry, War by Alex L. on January 2, 2012

Ace Alexander Pokryshkin and his fellow pilotsVladimir Vysotsky wrote such evocative songs about World War II that it’s impossible to tell that he himself didn’t serve in that conflict. His verse on the theme of friendship is especially amazing.

Because of songs like his and the Russian culture of my upbringing, the symbolism of World War II (or, as the Russians call it, The Great Patriotic War) has stayed with me as a kind of arch-metaphor for the human condition.

I was listening today to one of my favorite songs by Vysotsky called Pesnya lyotchika-istrebitelya: “Song of a Fighter Pilot”. It is one of the greatest poems about friendship that I have ever read, and I decided to translate it into English. My translations skills are limited, but though my version inevitably may have errors, I have done my best to convey both the meaning and the flow of the song. The original, like most Russian poems and songs, has a rhyme scheme.

The song is about two Russian fighter pilots in World War II that find themselves embroiled in a losing battle with a larger German fighter formation. You can listen to the original song on YouTube and read the lyrics in Russian here.

Song of a Fighter Pilot

By Vladimir Vysotsky
(Translated by Alex L.) 

Eight of them and two of us. Our prospects before battle
Aren’t bright, but we’ve committed to the fight.
Seryozha!* Hold on, it’s looking dim,
But we we have to get an edge in the game. (more…)