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Saturday, July 23, 2016

A Great Russian Museum In St. Petersburg That Most Tourists Never Hear About

People go to St. Petersburg to see the Hermitage and while they're there they go see St. Isaac's Cathedral, Church of the Savior of Spilled Blood, the Russian Museum, Kazan Cathedral, maybe Peterhof and Tsarskoye Selo. I spent two full days at the Hermitage; it's a total winner and I regret not having spent a few more days there and each of the site I just mentioned was great and totally worthwhile. But some of the things I liked most aren't on most of the "best of" lists. If you enjoy looking at contemporary art, the Erarta contemporary art museum and galleries was totally worth the trip over to Vasilievsky Island, for example.

I was lucky though because a friend with whom I share an intense interest in history had just been to Russia a couple of months before I went and he recommended one of the most wonderful off-the-beaten-track tourist attractions in St. Petersburg, the Museum of Political History. I guess it's not for everyone but it was certainly a highlight of my trip to Russia. The museum, which helps you understand the country's political history from the mid-1700's through today, is extremely successful in its mission and shockingly transparent, objective and unbiased. Housed in two co-joined mansions with great historical significance themselves, the museum is a treasure trove of Russian historical artifacts. This was Lenin's office and that was the balcony he inspired the revolution from. That was in an incredible 1906 art nouveau mansion originally built for prima ballerina Mathilda Kshesinskaya, a mistress of Nicholas II before he became tsar and a decade later seized by the Bolsheviks and made into their headquarters. The other mansion was the home of Vassily Brandt, one of the richest merchants in the country.

It was worth hiring a guide-- which cost next to nothing-- to take us through the museum and point out some of the highlights and help put them into context. I would say 90% of what she told us we would not have gotten without her.

There is a ton of information on the Soviet Union of course-- plenty of fascinating Stalin era exhibitions-- but great stuff on Catherine the Great, Rasputin, both World Wars, the tsars, the revolution as well. I would definitely go back for another day in this place.

Mathilda Kshesinskaya's mansion

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Role Of The Military In Turkish Politics Is About To Change... Drastically

There's virtually no part of Turkey I haven't visited since I was first there in 1969. I fell in love with the country, the people, the food, the history, the culture... when I was 21 and have been back over a dozen times, not just to the normal places people visit, like Istanbul, Ankara, Cappadocia, Izmir, Antalya and Bodrum, but also less-visited cities like Erdine, Trabzon, Sinop, Samsun, Kirikkale, Ezurum and Konya. On that very first trip, I drove in my VW van from one end of the country-- entering at the Bulgarian border-- all the way across Anatolia to Dogubayazit and on into Iran. Lately I may camp out at the Four Seasons Sultanahmet or the Ciragan Palace but back in those days I literally camped out, parking my van in front of some friendly family's home and sleeping in it while my passengers slept inside. I was very much an "on the ground" traveler, and my experiences were all the richer for it. (Funny what happened when you have no money.) I certainly got to know Turks more intimately and deeply than one usually does when staying at a Four Seasons.

These days, Roland and I have gotten so used to Istanbul that it does't seem odd at all for him to declare he wants to fly to Istanbul so he can do some shopping at the Grand Bazaar, the world's oldest or at least longest-lasting mall, built when Christopher Columbus was 4 years old. But it's not the same as when I was living for 2 weeks with a family in Kirikkale and they had a meal prepared for us every single time we would walk into the house. When a Turkish guy whistled at one of my passengers, a beautiful Danish girl, our host was so mortified and humiliated that he pulled out a knife and went after the whistler. Two years later when I drove back through Turkey from India, I brought them a whole set of hand-craved furniture.) Recently I was in Azerbaijan on a vacation and people were shocked I could speak so much of their language which is, basically, Turkish. The point of all this is that when I tell you that Turks have told me for 4 and a half decades that they expect the military to protect the country from political excesses, I didn't just read it in a book.

The attempted coup Friday was a bungled mess, from start to [quick] finish-- possibly even staged by Erdogan himself. From a Western perspective it had no legitimacy whatsoever-- couple: bad. Many Turks don't necessarily agree (although, significantly all the political parties, even the ones who loathe Erdogan the most, denounced the coup attempt). Right from the beginning, when soldiers were shutting down the Istanbul bridges, talking [air] heads on U.S. TV all got it wrong, seeing it through the prism of Western experience and mostly unaware that the role of the Turkish military to specifically protect a secular, non-tyrannical society is enshrined not just in Turkish tradition but in the country's foundational documents. The military takes very seriously their role as guardian of Kemal Atatürk's legacy. It didn't work out and most everyone is cheering. But this has enabled an authoritarian megalomaniac and would-be tyrant to move forward with his plans for subjugating his political rivals and transforming Turkish politics drastically.
[W]hile the bid to overthrow a democratically elected leader elicited widespread international opprobrium, many analysts fear that Erdogan will come away from the botched coup more emboldened than ever to impose his will on the country and ruthlessly root out his perceived enemies-- actions he already alluded to on Saturday.

“What is being perpetrated is a rebellion and a treason,” Erdogan told reporters at Istanbul Ataturk Airport in the wee hours of the morning. “They will pay a heavy price for their treason to Turkey.”

As of early Saturday, the number of arrested military personnel has already risen to an astonishing 2,839 people, including high-ranking officers-- and that figure is expected to keep growing. According to Turkey’s prime minister, 161 people were killed and 1,440 injured in the failed uprising. The military chief of staff, Gen. Hulusi Akar, was rescued after forces liberated him from an air base outside of Ankara. The prime minister, Binali Yildirim, has summoned lawmakers for an emergency meeting Saturday.

Though the exact rationale for the coup effort remains unclear, the Turkish military has long viewed itself as the guardian of Turkey’s secular and moderate institutions, the touchstones of the modern Turkish republic. But over the last decade, Erdogan has chipped away at those institutions by silencing dissent, expanding his grip on the judiciary, and chiseling away at the freedom of the press. Many Turkey watchers fear that Friday’s failed coup attempt will push Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies into overdrive.

“There certainly will be blood,” Andrew Bowen, a Washington-based Middle East expert and and columnist at al Arabiya, told Foreign Policy. “Erdogan will move swiftly and ruthlessly after his perceived enemies.”

If the Turkish president views his survival as a mandate to assert greater control over the country, he’ll likely start with his long-running plan to rewrite the constitution to create an executive presidency that will give him greater power at the expense of the legislature and the prime minister.

“He could arguably make the case that it wasn’t Turkey’s democratic institutions that saved Turkey’s democracy, but him,” Bowen added. “His supporters have survived this experience and arguably have been more emboldened from this experience, giving him a stronger mandate.”

That’s troubling to a number of observers who have grimaced at the dramatic changes Erdogan has brought to Turkey in recent years.

After his bloody crackdown on Gezi Park protesters in 2013, public protest has become a heroic endeavor in and of itself. Under Erdogan’s rule, hundreds of journalists have been fired from major newspapers and magazines; several are behind bars. A 2016 report from Freedom House gave Turkey a “downward arrow” for the “intense harassment of opposition members and media outlets by the government and its supporters.”

As for Turkey’s legal system, a 2015  Human Rights Watch report warned that the government “has taken unprecedented steps to exert executive control over Turkey’s judiciary, to muzzle social media, increase media and internet censorship, and prosecute journalists.”

Although Turkey’s opposition parties took a principled stand against the coup, many of them will continue to face persecution under Erdogan, especially groups like the pro-Kurdish rights party HDP, which has opposed his pursuit of an executive presidency. Kurdish civilians have literally been caught in the crossfire, suffering curfews and worse as Erdogan has intensified his military campaign against the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a terrorist outfit.

The other question is what happens to the military. The group behind the coup called themselves the “Peace at Home Council,” a phrase coined by the founder of the country, Kemal Ataturk. After seizing television stations, the plotters quickly found themselves in a wider confrontation with crowds of loyalists and government supporters.

The bloated arrest list suggests Erdogan will oversee a significant shake-up of the army, even though he was careful to note that the attempted coup was not a reflection on the entire service.

“Turkish Armed Forces was not involved in the coup attempt in its entirety,” he said Saturday. “It was conducted by a clique within the armed forces and received a well-deserved response from our nation.”

Erdogan laid blame for the rebellion squarely on Fethullah Gülen, a reclusive Muslim cleric based in the United States whom Turkish officials routinely blame for fomenting unrest and dissent. But the government has not yet provided evidence of Gülen’s involvement, and the cleric denied any link to the uprising. In a statement, he condemned “in the strongest terms, the attempted military coup in Turkey.” Yet, according to the BBC, 2,745 judges have already been fired due to alleged connections to Gulen.

Still, Erdogan has long been suspicious, and by some accounts, paranoid, about the threat posed by the military. Friday’s botched coup attempt will only fan those fears.

“The coup attempt sought to turn Erdogan into a Morsi,” tweeted Hassan Hassan, a fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “He’s now poised to become a Putin.”

So far all Trump has said about Turkey is that it was all Hillary's fault. If you're expecting Herr Trumpf to start singing Erdogan's praises, you might have to wait a while. He hates Trump and two weeks ago demanded the name "Trump" be removed" from Trump Towers Istanbul. In a discussion of Islamophobia, Erdogan told a Chamber of Commerce type meeting that Trump "has no tolerance for Muslims living in the US. And on top of that they used a brand in [Istanbul] with his name. The ones who put that brand on their building should immediately remove it. That was Turkish billionaire Aydın Doğan he was calling out. It's not unlike what I saw happening more organically in Baku last month where a powerful and criminal Azerbaijani billionaire screwed himself by branding his new (now-closed down) glitzy tower with Trump's toxic name.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Follow-up: NYC to D.C. and back in under 22 hours

It's like you need binoculars -- to see from one end of the Russell Senate Office Building to the other. And it's not as if the subsequently added Dirksen and Hart Senate Office Buildings are exactly petite.

by Ken

Yesterday's trip to Washington was a resounding success -- and never mind that the famous 3am train out of NYC's Penn Station left more than half an hour late, and chugged into D.C.'s Union Station a full hour and half late. "Mechanical problems" is all we were told the first time as well as the two subsequent times that the Train That Didn't Seem Like It Could went into hibernation. What me worry? After all, I had a three-hour cushion built into my schedule, even if in truth I never really imagined having half of it eaten up.

On the plus side, however, the thunderstorms that the forecasters had insisted were planned for the area were apparently called off, if not the 90-plus temps under those unexpectedly beautiful blue skies. Not a drop of rain was encountered until, on the cheap-bus trip back (at something like a third of the advance-purchase senior fare for the train trip down) at about the latitude of the Lincoln Tunnel we drove into a deluge.

There's so much I'd love to talk about, but I don't want to try readers' patience, so let me just say that with so much time to fill than I'd planned for before Francis Morrone's "Monumental Washington in the 1930s and 1940s")walking tour for the National Civic Art Society, the reason for the trip, which turned out to be one of the best I've done with Francis, which is saying a lot -- my goodness, the seemingly effortless command of so many different kinds of riveting material! Anyway, the trip was indeed accomplished in under 22 hours door to door (heading out at 1:25am and trudging back in about 11:15pm).

With so much less time than I'd imagined for pre-tour wandering, I just headed south from Union Station, after taking in its brackets to the west (the handsome old post office that now serves as the National Postal Museum) and east (the vaguely modern Federal Judiciary Center named for one of my heroes, the late Justice Thurgood Marshall). Meaning that I got to see, up close and personal, such sights as the cluster of Senate office buildings, starting -- in my ass-backwards route -- with Hart and only later, after strolling around the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress (not just the original, resplendent Jefferson building but the across-the-streets Adams and Madison), catching up with Dirksen and (gasp!) the palatial Russell (opened in 1909 and named for slimy Georgia Sen. Richard Russell in 1972). You almost need binoculars to see from one end of it to the other. Yikes!

Even though I've ridden past a lot of official D.C. buildings, I was still taken back -- taking them in at leisure on foot -- by the sheer scale of them. No wonder people who find their way to Washington with some kind of official title go kind of nuts! Of course, as Francis Morrone would point out later on our tour of the museums built in the '30s and '40s along the Constitution Avenue side of the Mall as well as the vast complex of government buildings that began taking shape at the same time in what became known as the Federal Triangle, across Constitution Avenue, that since buildings in Washington couldn't be built tall, in order to provide any decent amount of working space you had to build big, footprint-wise.

Still, I wasn't prepared for the megatastic size of the Supreme Court digs. I was thinking, you know, so you need nine suites, each containing a decent enough office for the boss, plus room for desks and files for the clerks. In actuality, though, it looks like you could provide office space for all the judges in the Americas and still have room for amenities like a video viewing space and maybe a nice rec room with Ping-Pong tables.

Can Justice Clarence come out and play? You can't begin to imagine from this view -- from all the way up top of the Capitol dome -- just how ginormous the Supreme Court building is.

While I was outside the Supreme Court palace, once I found the entrance (imagine my surprise to discover that the grandiloquent side I encountered first on my backwards route, facing 2nd Street N.E., is the back!), I had to fight the urge to shout out something like "Can Justice Clarence come out and play?" Yes, I know that on a Saturday morning in July you wouldn't expect to find a Supreme Court justice at the office, but I was thinking that Justice Clarence can never get too early a start preparing all those questions he'll be asking in next term's oral arguments.

Friday, July 08, 2016

So I'm D.C.-bound -- all I have to do is catch my 3am train

The great John Russell Pope's National Archives Building (1931-35), one of the landmarks mentioned in Francis Morrone's description for tomorrow's "Monumental Washington in the 1930s and 1940s" tour for the National Civic Art Society

by Ken

As long-time DWT readers may recall, Howie is my oldest friend in terms of continuous service -- dating back to the 9th grade at the James Madison HS Annex on the top floor of a public school way the hell on the other side of Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn. Long-time readers will also have heard more than once from both of us about our 9th-grade English teacher, Mr. Fulmer, one of the great influences on both our lives. Mr.Fulmer was wont to say pithy things like "In a thousand years we'll all be dead, and all that will matter is our record of truth and beauty," or to point out helpfully, whenever a hapless student would say unthinkingly, "I think that . . . .," that "That's not thinking."

Now you may think, especially if you're not conversant with the math that includes our ages, that 9th-grade isn't going back all that far as friendships go. Certainly not among the kids I encountered growing up, when my family seemed to move every couple of years (if not oftener), either within cities or, a couple of times, from city to city, so that every couple of years (if not oftener) I found myself standing alone on the playground of a new school among kids who'd been going to school together their whole lives.

Still, from this vantage point of antiquity, a continuous friendship dating back to the 9th grade and Mr. Fulmer counts for something. Warning: You don't want to get him started on our 10th-grade English teacher, Miss Kliegman, who still comes up fairly regularly in our conversations. And so maybe it's not entirely beside the point that you encounter us both, all these years later, in the act of shoving words around.

Our more obvious connection, which long-time readers will also have noted, is political and worldviewish. For all our differences, I am still regularly startled by how similarly we respond to Stuff That Happens Out There in the World -- the way our attention tends to be caught by the same events and our responses tend to be so similar.

Possibly factoring into the above (or possibly not) is that Howie is the only friend I've ever had who's as geography- and map-obsessed as I am. Again, our geographical, er, styles are different. He's the one who, as he has chronicled here a number of times, set out one summer for the Pacific island kingdom of Tonga. No, he didn't get there, but for a high school kid getting across our native continent was no small deal. Not to mention that you would never in a lifetime find me doing any "setting out for" of that sort.

And again, long-time readers will have glimpsed that difference in our recorded travel adventures. Howie is the one who, with his grueling health crisis still clearly visible in the rear-view mirror, planned and executed a several-weeks' expedition to Russia with a side swing to Azerbaijan. (I wish you could have heard the hair-raising stories of just the adventures in visa-hunting he and especially his friend and frequent travel companion Roland underwent for this trip.)

Whereas my traveling is done mostly via armchair -- most happily in the happy company of Michael Palin on DVD. And, of course, the urban gadding that has become my latter-years evening and weekend preoccupation -- most always in day-trip form, and almost invariably within the geographic boundaries of NYC.

Which is a prelude to explaining why I'm not tackling one of my customary "serious" blog topics (that's right, the depredations of Next Food Network Star will have to await another occasion) today, as I prepare for a journey that will respect my "day trip" boundary but not the geographic one. 'Cause I'm busting out of the Greater NYC area -- all the way to Our Nation's Capital. And I'm doing it on a 3am train out of Penn Station. (Shudder.)

True, the impetus is local-ish. Which is to say that one of my most cherished walking-tour leaders, Francis Morrone, mentioned not long ago during a Municipal Art Society tour that he was going to be doing a tour in Washington on July 9. He didn't say any more, and I didn't ask, but after letting the thing percolate in my head awhile, I finally decided to try to track it down online, and track it down I did -- to the final event in a series, "Classical Architecture, Classical Values," offered by the National Civic Art Society:
Tour V, Saturday July 9

V. Monumental Washington in the 1930s and 1940s. Classicism in the era of Modernism.

We will explore works from the 1930s and 1940s--when the Modern Movement was in the ascendant--by such architects as Arthur Brown Jr., York and Sawyer, William Adams Delano, Milton Medary, and especially John Russell Pope (National Gallery, National Archives, Jefferson Memorial), with a big tip of the hat to the relatively unsung Otto Eggers and Daniel Higgins. Along the way we'll note other things, including, for context, later works by I.M.Pei and Partners and Pei Cobb Freed. Please note that this is an outdoor tour only. We'll leave the glorious interiors en route for another day.

The tour meets at 10 AM at the intersection of Constitution Ave. NW and 6th St. NW.
Again, it took me a bit of time to process this information, and discover that I had a conflict with a Brooklyn Brainery event I'd already registered for, "Blintzes, Malaysian Peanut Pancakes, and the Many Faces of Crepes" with Jonathan Soma (half of the great Masters of Social Gastronomy team, with Sarah Lohman; they have a slew of interesting-looking events planned for July and August), part of Soma's BB Summer of Pancakes series. However, as I'm a bit embarrassed to note, I quickly recalled that Brooklyn Brainery, in addition to offering interesting programs at eye-catchingly low prices, actually allows you to cancel events, and I did just that. (I just checked, and tomorrow's class is sold out, so maybe the Brooklyn Brainery folks aren't as naive as we might think, allowing registrants to cancel with enough advance notice. I'm delighted to see that my ruthlessly abandoned slot hasn't gone to waste! And I've still got my place on the 19th for Soma's "Going All-in on American Pancakes," which I see is also sold out. I don't plan on canceling that one.)

From there the details fell into place in rapid order. I had no trouble booking my spot for Francis's tour.(I guess the D.C. folks don't know about him. In NYC, that tour would probably have been sold out within days of being announced), for a measly 15 smackers. Of course adding in carfare hiked the total trip cost a bit: $74.80 (advance-purchase senior fare) for a train down, then a mere $23 for one of those cheap-cheap Chinatown-bassd buses back in the evening. I've taken the cheap-cheap bus before, and would have done so for the trip down if there's been a bus that would enable me to get to the tour meeting point by 10am, but there wasn't -- not even close.

And even the Amtrak scheduling was tricky. There's a 6am train that's scheduled to arrive in Union Station at 9:30am, and judging by the map, that should leave me enough time to make my tour -- that is, assuming I have such faith in Amtrak's on-time performance. Not to mention the consideration that I only theoretically know how to get from my Point A to Point B, and I would spend every second of every minute today all the way through boarding and then all the way on train obsessing over the time. So I swallowed hard and instead of booking the 6am train pulled the trigger for the 3am one, due into Union Station at 6:30am. Meaning that, once I'm on the train, nothing short of a derailment (a possibility one can't ever entirely discount) should prevent me from making the rendezvous with Francis. (Who, incidentally, has no idea that I'll be there. I've done at least one MAS tour with him since I made all these plans, and thought I would find a way to drop it into conversation, but I didn't. It should at least be interesting to note his response to seeing me amidst the tour group.

So today, in addition to planning everything around the 3am train departure, I'm occupied with finishing my research and resource planning, including printing up all sorts of Google maps, including locations of local ATMs of my bank and gym branches that my membership card should get me into. (In addition to not wanting to skip a day at the gym, I'm inclined to have some possible indoor activities in my arsenal. Not at all to my surprise, thunderstorms are predicted for tomorrow.) I thought I could piggyback some serious apartment decluttering in the form of a frantic hunt for my buried D.C. street atlas and aging Time Out guide, but wouldn't you know, I found both of them almost as soon as I started looking. Of all the luck!)

So you'll see why I don't have time today to prattle on about, say, the Supreme Court, or the wide-screen version of Gilmore Girls I'm now a mere two episodes away from finishing on UP. What's more, I"ve got another crossing-state-lines day trip planned for next month, built around an event my college alumni people have planned at Connecticut's Mystic Seaport, which I've heard about much of my life but have never visited. Highlighting the festivities, one of our distinguished English professors will be offering a presentation on "The Myth and Legend of Moby Dick," so part of my adventure will be finally reading Moby-Dick. (Yes, I was supposed to have read an abridged version -- in, I think, Miss Kliegman's 10th-grade English class. But there are a lot of things I was supposed to have read that I haven't.)

[For a follow-up, see below.]

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Visiting Azerbaijan-- Some Basics

See the dancing cave drawing over my head?

Two of my favorite congressmen advised me on my trip to Azerbaijan-- and one did even more than that, which I'll explain in a moment. The other congressman urged me to visit a statue in Baku of the current president's father, the former president (dictator), Heydar Aliyev. Statues of human beings are rare in Muslim-majority countries to begin with; it's something the religion proscribes, but Azerbaijan is a very secular country and there are statues of admired people all over. This particular one of Papa Aliyev depicts him sitting with one leg crossed and the sole of his shoe partially showing. Showing the sole of a shoe is generally perceived as an insult because the feet are often seen as unclean and shoes are always removed before entering a mosque or a home. My congressional friend told me he had asked his guide at the time if the statue was somewhat offensive to the Muslim population? The guide said yes, that was the point, to show that Azerbaijan's government is secular even though over 90% of the population is Muslim. Blunt-- but dictatorial oligarchs can be that way-- and often are.

Heydar Aliyev shows the soles of his shoe

The other congressman urged me to go see Gobustan (prehistoric caves, a nearby museum and, in the same region, Azerbaijan's famous mud volcanoes), the ancient Zoroastrian Atashgah Fire Temple in Surakhani, and Yanar Dag (the burning mountainside). We went to all of them and it was a much better use of time than just hanging around Baku (or Moscow).

Gobustan is about 40 miles southwest of Baku and we hired a taxi to take us there. The whole area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, primarily because of its easily-accessible caves with their rock art engravings showing life in prehistoric times, some dating back 40,000 years.

Azerbaijan has hundreds of mud volcanoes and I have a feeling the few dozen we saw might not have been the most impressive ones. They were hard to get to-- no paved roads-- and not really erupting, more like bubbling and burping out mud. Every twenty years or so one of them really explodes shooting fire and mud hundreds of feet into the air. So far, this wasn't one of those years. But we did get to climb around the hillocks and Roland dipped his hands into the bubbling mud.

The Atashgah Fire Temple is very close to Baku, a site dated as far back as 730 AD but destroyed and rebuilt several times since. What we saw was a pentagonal complex from the 17th century, which has a courtyard surrounded by cells for pilgrims and monks and a fire alter structure in the middle. It's the principal Zoroastrian site of pre-Islamic Azerbaijan and the guide I hired made sure to tell me that famous Zoroastrians included Indira Gandhi, Freddie Mercury, Zubin Mehta and Meher Baba.

Yanar Dag was kind of a dud. It's a not especially impressive natural gas fire that burns eternally on the side of a hill and I was mixing it up in my mind with a similar but bigger phenomenum in Derweze, Turkmenistan, on the other side of the Caspian Sea, east of Azerbaijan, called the Gates of Hell.

Not many American tourists go to Azerbaijan. We nearly didn't ourselves. But our trip to Russia looked like we had planned on too many days in Moscow-- even with a trip to the Golden Ring towns of Vladimir and Suzdal-- so we decided on a side trip to Baku. It's not very far by plane and Azerbaijan has a good airline with new, well-maintained planes and it's relatively inexpensive-- both the plane flights and everything in the city itself. But it isn't easy to get to because of the visa situation. You have to have a visa and Azerbaijan inadvertantly-- I think inadvertently-- makes it difficult by channeling would-be tourists to Travisa, a private company/middleman that "helps" travelers get visas. Except they don't. They just charge a inordinate amount of money and get in the way, making it more difficult to get the visas. I had a nightmare experience with them once before-- when I was forced to use them for an Indian visa-- and I would never voluntarily use them.

When you want a Russian visa, you have no choice any longer except to go through one of these "helpful" contractors, Invisa Logistics Service (ILS), although scammers like Travisa are happy to charge you for sending your application on to ILS. When you apply for an Azerbaijani visa, there is a strong implication that there is a similar mandate and that you must go through Travisa, an implication that Travisa doesn't discourage. When I tried getting my Azerbaijani visa through Travisa, nothing worked and lots of time was wasted. They also kept trying to get me to give them money with the warning that if I couldn't get the visa for any reason-- which looked likely judging by their jaw-dropping incompetence-- they still kept the money. Excuses ranged from their online application doesn't work with Apple computers to I can't use their in-office computer-- after they asked me to drive to their office to do just that-- because they couldn't give me the pass code for their WiFi network because of "security." I decided to give up and go to Georgia or Armenia instead when someone who overheard my conversation with the unhelpful staffer who was guaranteeing I couldn't go to Azerbaijan, told me to just go to the Azerbaijan consulate in L.A. and that it would be faster and cheaper. And it was. And easy as pie. That's your free tip of the day. Get your visa directly from the Azerbaijan consulate and skip the Travisa horror show.

Roland, meanwhile, had his passport tied up in the regular Travisa hell-- weeks and weeks of complete nonsense and wasted time. Like, two weeks wasted on "you have to change the name of your hotel from the Leningrad Hotel to the St. Petersburg Hotel." But the name of the hotel is the Leningrad Hotel. It doesn't matter. You can't get a visa if you write you're going to a hotel named for Lenin. His application and passport went back and forth across the country three times before we realized there was no way he could get the Russian visa done in time to also get the Azerbaijani visa. That's where it's helpful to have a good congressman. For a civilian it's impossible-- in takes a minimum of 10days-- but for a congressman asking for a constituent... it takes a few hours. Roland got his visa just hours before he departed and off we went... to a country with the good sense to not patronize a glitzy, gaudy new Trump Tower that was forced to close down in less than a week due to lack of business.

There's a mosque between my hotel and the funicular

Friday, July 01, 2016

Where Not To Eat In Moscow

I never ate at New York's Taras Bulba on West Broadway in SoHo. Last year Vogue called it a "great Ukrainian restaurant" and it well may be but the one I ate in in Moscow 2 weeks ago was the worst restaurant I tried during my whole time in Russia. The chain was started in 1999 in Moscow and there are 16 restaurants there, one in Kiev and one in New York. One is down the street from the Baltschug Kempinski, where I stayed, and the concierge recommended it as a good place for hearty Russian food nearby. A stone's throw from the Kremlin, how bad could it be, I figured. Maybe I should gotten the clue when we walked in and found it empty save one table of drunk German tourists, but I didn't.

The food wasn't just supremely mediocre, the bill was triple what it should have been. When I asked why there where three times more items on the bill-- in Russian of course-- than what we ordered, they explained that when you order, say, fish and potatoes and a vegetable the way it's listed on the menu, they charge you for each component, although there's certainly no indication of that on the menu. As Roland said, "thank God they didn't charge us for the dill and the salt." So not only was it a bad dinner in a creepy atmosphere with bad service, it was extremely expensive, even though you'd never think that by looking at the menu.

This was the day I stressed out my peripheral neuropathy by walking too much

People who want to know where to eat a good meal in Moscow have to be told the truth: St. Petersburg, just a few hours by bullet train. We tried Café Pushkin and the food was good and the service perfect, but there was literally some guy walking around dressed as Pushkin trying to interact with the diners. We were also steered towards Dr. Zhivago at the Hotel National and that was also supremely mediocre in all ways. I heard that Varvary, a molecular gastronomy place, is really good but we never made it there and the whole idea of eating stopped appealing to me after a few days in Moscow.

St. Petersburg, on the other hand, must have a tradition of good food and good service because there were plenty of good restaurants all over town. Palkin on Nevsky Prospect was perfect-- great Russian food, awesome service, fantastic ambience and good value. There's a great seafood restaurant called Russkaya Rybalka where, if you choose, you can catch your own dinner. I didn't but the dinner was really great, as well as inexpensive. There was a pretty good vegetarian-oriented place near St. Isaac's Cathedral called The Idiot and that neighborhood also boasts Dom, which isn't quite as good as Palkin but close enough, and a decent Italian restaurant, Percorso, in the Four Seasons hotel. But, to tell you the truth, the restaurants in St Petersburg are just plain as good as the ones in Moscow aren't.

Back to Korchma Taras Bulba for a moment. It purports to serve "authentic Ukrainian cuisine, prepared with the exact recipe that was handed down for centuries from generation to generation, and now from our grandparents to our grandchildren [with] a unique interior design that will make you feel like you were brought back a hundred years to a cozy Ukrainian home." Well, it was named for a fictional character invented by Gogol as a national Ukrainian hero in an 1835 historical novella that was judged by the tsarist censors as being too Ukrainian and anti-Russian enough to be revised in 1842. I saw it-- the revised story-- as a film starring Yul Brynner and Tony Curtis when I was a kid. Bulba is painted as a kind of Ukrainian George Washington freeing his country from the yoke of the Turks and then the Poles, while engaging in the Ukrainian national trait of persecuting the Jews.