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Cyberian Dispatch 14: The Nature of Faith in Ulan-Ude

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

At a time of polarization and division around the world, the Republic of Buryatia stands out as a place where people of diverse backgrounds live in harmony. Ulan-Ude, the tranquil and welcoming capital nestled among a ring of mountains, is not only the leading center of Buddhism in Russia, but a haven for those practicing Shamanism, the Russian Orthodox faith, and for Old Believers, who maintain the ancient rituals of the Orthodox church before reforms were implemented centuries ago. And each of these faiths places a high value on the land, air, and water.

The first thing almost everyone learns about Ulan-Ude is that it’s the home of a monumental sculpture of Lenin’s head, towering above the city’s main square. But there’s another colossal figure that has more significance these days -- the largest Buddha in Russia, perched blissfully above the devotees at Rinpoche Datsan in the hills on the outskirts of the city. Worshippers attend daily services that are alive with drums and chanting and afterwards ask for the blessing of its aging Lama. They can also follow a kilometer-long “Walk of Life” that pays tribute to all the animals of the Buddhist zodiac. (Gabriela is a tiger, and Mark is a bull.) On the morning of our visit, a snowstorm with savage winds cut right through our overly optimistic outerwear and obscured the view of the mountains around us. But a single purple crocus reminded us that Siberia’s next season will arrive eventually.

Back in the center of the city, at the only women’s monastery for Buddhists in Russia, a grinning Lama emphasized the interconnected nature of everything, including the natural world, and the cause and effect nature of our actions. If we throw garbage at Lake Baikal, it will be harmed. In her view, a growing number of birth defects can be traced to the damage people are doing to the environment.

At the Ivolginsky Buddhist Monastery, about 40 kilometers outside of Ulan-Ude, the Rector of the Buddhist University, Dimbril Bagsha Dashibaldanov, also stressed the importance of reverence for all living things -- and traced ecological problems to the human ego. The emotions that arise in the body as a result of egoism, such as anger and dislike and jealousy, are the root causes of environmental degradation, and to the extent we can eliminate these feelings and focus more on other people, such as our neighbors, we can better safeguard the natural world.

When asked about the urgency of responding to critical issues like climate change, Dashibaldanov favored “raising awareness” over anything prescriptive, emphasizing that people need to work on changing themselves instead of being told what to do. Can people change quickly enough? It’s not clear. But he raised the possibility that we need a “фишка” (pronounced “fishka”) -- Russian slang for a transformational idea -- to help improve ecological conditions. He pointed out that it took only a few years for smartphones to conquer the world, and something similar for the environment has the potential to jump-start real progress.

After meeting with the Rector, we strolled the grounds of the Monastery, which was opened in 1945 as the spiritual center of Buddhism in the Soviet Union. Among the many ornate and exceptional buildings on the grounds, one can enter a shrine that contains the body of Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov, a Buryat monk who died and was buried in the lotus position in 1927. According to his own instructions, his body was exhumed 30 years later, and shocked adherents were amazed to see that it was entirely intact with no signs of decomposition. Worried about how the Soviet Union would react, they reburied the Lama, and exhumed him again in 2002, when his body was once again found to be extraordinarily well-preserved. But more than that, many of his followers claim that he is actually alive, in a transcendent state of meditation or nirvana. A jovial monk near the door insisted that Itigilov’s body is warm, that he sweats under his armpits and needs to have his clothes changed, and that his face shows fatigue after long rituals. Visitors were invited to ask the monk for assistance, but cautioned to remember others before thinking of ourselves. We were careful to include Lake Baikal in our prayers.

Many Buryats in Russia are Buddhists, many embrace the ancient practice of Shamanism, and still others practice both. But all Buryat traditions are extremely close to the natural world. Marina Danginova, a practicing female Shaman, explained that nature is alive in the Buryat tradition. For example, Baikal is a living organism, and in winter, it goes to sleep rather than freezing. Marina worries a lot about damaging changes in the Baikal region in recent years, including extensive fires, the strong push to create businesses along the Lake’s shores, and the fluctuating level of water in the Lake. “We will not remain silent,” she insisted. But her most important worry is that, as Buryats slowly lose their language, they also lose their connection to nature.  

The next day, Marina met us at our Airbnb to conduct a ritual in support of our project. She started by lighting ceremonial Siberian herbs and letting the smoke and the scent permeate the entire apartment. She passed vodka, milk, cookies and candies above the burning herbs. Then she spilled vodka and milk at the window as she chanted in the Buryat language, and mixed these ingredients in a bowl. A cup of black tea made its way into the concoction. The sequence was repeated several times, each time with an empty cup thrown over her shoulder. At the end of the ritual, we were asked to carry the bowl of vodka, milk and tea outside, walk around a tree, and sprinkle the contents at the base. Similar Buryat rituals can also be used to ask for what is needed in the natural world, such as the rain needed by farmers.

It’s not surprising that Buryats commune closely with nature. They are the “original ecologists” who insist on taking only what they need from around them. But we were taken aback when we learned that Metropolitan Sergey Popkov, the youthful leader of Old Believers in Siberia, is an unabashed environmentalist.

Old Believers resisted reforms that were instituted by the Eastern Orthodox Church in the mid-1600’s, adhering closely to the ancient liturgy and rituals. As a result, they lost their civil rights and were persecuted and even executed. Some fled Russia, and small pockets exist in many places around the world, including the United States. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Old Believers can freely open churches in Russia, such as the one where Metropolitan Popkov leads his parishioners.

In good English and with no hesitation, the Metropolitan recited a litany of negative environmental changes he has witnessed in recent years, including climate change, an increase in forest fires, reduced groundwater, shallow rivers and streams, diminished fish populations in the Selenge and Ude Rivers, thick smog in the city, expanding problems with garbage, and the spread of non-native species, among others. He acknowledged that many problems, such as the practice of setting fire to woods so that it is then legal to log the wood, stem from a lack of good jobs, so he favors policies that will provide people with more economic security. In his view, climate change is accelerating environmental degradation, in part by driving people to cities, where the link to nature is more tenuous. Much like the Buddhists, he suggested that individuals start by improving their own practices as an important first step. Luckily, humankind’s connection to nature and to God is essentially the same, so it’s possible to enhance both simultaneously.

Following the Buryat ritual in our apartment, we quickly learned that the spirits favored us. There were two auspicious signs. First, liquid spilled on the window traveled straight down. Second, the cup landed face up each time it was thrown. Not only did the spirits welcome us, they had been waiting for us.

Playfully, it seems. After the ceremony, important items disappeared four times, then reappeared in places that had already been searched. The exact meaning of this mischief remains unclear.

But if the spirits were waiting for us, we were also waiting for them. In Ulan-Ude, almost everything felt spot-on. The team of women from Buryat State University who hosted us were among the kindest and most accomplished people we’ve met in Russia. Their students, who welcomed us in their classrooms and helped us navigate the city, were exceptional guides with outstanding English skills. The Director of the Fulbright Program in Russia, Joel Ericson, arrived in Ulan-Ude complete with a can-do spirit and a concrete vision of how to expand Fulbright’s focus on Baikal and safeguard its future.

Most of all, representatives of every faith greeted us with open arms in successive meetings, embracing diversity and focusing on a better future -- a future in which the health and well-being of the people is never separate from the health and well-being of all living things. The spirits don’t care if you are Orthodox, an Old Believer, a Buddhist, a follower of Shamanic traditions, or an atheist. In Buryatia, it is the nature of faith to safeguard the Earth. The spirits only want us to do the right thing.

In Ulan-Ude, monumental socialist realism meets pop cuisine in this inimitable Lenin head gingerbread.

In Ulan-Ude, monumental socialist realism meets pop cuisine in this inimitable Lenin head gingerbread.



Cyberian Dispatch 12: A Note on Temperature

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

We made it through the Siberian winter.

It snowed today and it’s not exactly lovely yet outside. But with the vernal equinox upon us, we can look forward to temperatures that are much warmer than before.

We’ve resisted a post about how cold it is in Siberia, since that’s the biggest cliche about the Far East. But Siberia is cold -- even here in the South, not too far from the Mongolian border. And if you have any aspirations of visiting here, or another place that’s as frigid, we have some insights to offer.

The first thing that locals will tell you is that Siberians are not people who are used to the cold. Instead, they are people who know how to dress well. You don’t necessarily need the highest tech gear, or the most expensive. You need many thermal layers. You need heavy coats that cover as much of your legs as possible. Kidneys are a sensitive spot -- keep them as snuggly as possible. You need very warm boots and several layers of socks. The locals swear by “unti,” boots made from reindeer fur that are allegedly the warmest around. We couldn’t bear the thought of harming a reindeer, so we bought very expensive European boots that were still somewhat problematic on long hikes.

You need mittens -- they’re much warmer than gloves. Unless you need to operate a camera, in which case you are really in a quandary. Bare hands last only moments in serious “moroz” (literally, frost, but Russians use this word to denote temperatures of -20 Celsius or lower). Thin gloves allow some mobility but are little better than bare hands. Thick gloves remove most ability to reach camera controls, and mittens eliminate it completely. There’s no good solution, and often we found ourselves pulling off most hand coverings, shooting briefly, and then balling our aching hands inside our mittens to restore circulation and slowly ease the pain.

You need to cover your face during moroz. The first time Mark walked around in -25 Celsius without covering his face, a woman said, “You need to touch your nose.” He thought his nose was dripping. But that’s not what she meant. She could see, by its white color, that his nose was starting to get frostbite. Russians avoid this literally by putting their mittens or gloves on their nose to warm them. A better way is to cover your face with a scarf, a ski mask, or a balaclava. The problem is that the balaclava is soon moist and then frozen from your breath. This is how we got the icicles on our eyes that we featured in our popular holiday card.

Everything that is exposed during the worst cold will hurt, especially eyes. They may drip like a faucet, a way of expressing severe distress. But it is not only what is exposed that may suffer from the cold. Along with many locals, we experienced a form of “winter psoriasis,” or red, dry and peeling skin that results from the extreme temperatures, even in places that were covered. Our friend even developed hives on her face. While there’s some winter cream for babies you can spread on your suffering skin, it’s more of a placebo than anything else. True relief comes only from warmer weather.

The worst cold we experienced all winter was in December in Buguldeyka, a village near the Lake. Not only did temperatures drop to -40 Celsius at night, but a stiff wind was blowing the whole time we were there. During the day, the gale threatened to topple us from the hills right into the water, and a two to three hour hike proved to be the outside limit of what we could endure. At night, we huddled near a very toasty Russian pechka, or wood-burning stove, so we kept quite warm. But even a quick visit to the outhouse was an ordeal and forthrightly dangerous for sensitive skin. Beware.

We realize that, so far as Siberian winters go, we were spared the worst. There was very little snow compared to last year, when plows couldn’t keep up with it. And while we did experience serious moroz, temperatures were among the warmest in memory in February. This is consistent with the growing body of evidence suggesting that Siberia is warming much more rapidly than most places on the planet.

Lake Baikal is home to one of the longest running environmental monitoring programs in the world. A leading scientist, Mikhail Khozhov, began the program in 1945. He was first assisted by his daughter, Olga Khozhova, and then his granddaughter, Lyubov Izmest’eva. Now the Biology Institute of Irkutsk State University maintains the program, routinely logging temperatures and other critical statistics.

These data show incontrovertibly that temperatures are changing over time. As far back as 2008, a major paper by Russian and international scientists, using the Khozhov’s data, concluded that water temperatures in Lake Baikal had increased 1.2 degrees Celsius since 1945, with corresponding changes in the Lake’s plant and animal life -- dramatic increases in chlorophyll and “cladocerans,” or miniscule crustaceans commonly called “water fleas.”

In 2009, scientists predicted that Baikal will become “warmer and wetter” by the end of the century, significantly affecting the amount of ice cover. In turn, the changes in ice cover will likely affect the entire ecosystem, from small diatoms (single-celled algae) that feed the Lake to the world’s only true freshwater seal, the nerpa. As we noted in our last post, nerpas rely on ice cover to safely raise their pups. And the entire food chain relies on ice -- and the transparency of that ice -- that is diminishing now in response to climate change. Melting permafrost in surrounding mountains is likely to worsen existing problems with industrial pollution and eutrophication (the increase in nutrients from detergents, fertilizers, and sewage from tourism sites).

A major 2016 study confirmed the trend. Scientists found that surface water temperatures have increase a full 2 degrees Celsius Lake-wide between 1977 and 2003. As a result, populations of non-native, warm-water organisms increased dramatically. Luckily, the study showed that populations of native, cold-water organisms remain stable, and dangerous nutrient loading is restricted to coastal waters. In 2018, another major study reinforced some of the positives. By analyzing the remains of diatoms in the sediment on the Lake’s floor, scientists found that damaging effects of warming over the past 20 years are thus far restricted to the South basin, despite significantly reduced ice cover throughout the Lake.

The title of this post, “A Note on Temperature,” embodies the inspiration for one of our ongoing projects: we’re plotting compelling scientific data as musical notes to create compositions that musically express the Lake’s ecological status. In recent years, a team of scientists led by Maxim Timofeyev at Irkutsk State University has focused extensively on the impact of temperature changes on the Lake’s native and non-native amphipods, or crustaceans, which are absolutely critical to the Lake’s health. This latest composition draws on data from one of their recent studies, showing that amphipods undergo severe stress when subjected to changing temperatures.  

In this work-in-progress, “Izmir Ambience” represents the stress response of native amphipod Eulimnogammarus verrucosus, “Reflective Strings” represents the stress response of endemic amphipod Ommatogammarus flavus, and “Nylon Shimmer” represents the reaction to changing temperatures of non-native amphipod Gammarus lacustris. Higher notes for each electronic “instrument” in the composition represent increased stress response among the delicate and beautiful crustaceans.

The upshot of all these studies? Baikal faces real danger, but unlike many other bodies of water around the world, it is not too late. There is still time to reduce nutrient inputs and pollution, and to prevent the worst effects of climate change.

Our own data show that two American artists and researchers can survive the Siberian winter (and capture some photos and videos without too much frost nip). But the reality is that we cheated a bit. Rapid warming in Siberia likely made the ordeal more tolerable. And our small victory hints at a major defeat unless rapid action is taken.

There is a prominent bright spot. Russian and international scientists and ecologists are fighting to be heard -- and fighting for change. Russia has the unique opportunity to stand out -- as the place where the worst damage to one of the world’s most precious bodies of water was avoided.

We can all drink to that -- voda, not vodka -- a clear, fresh glass of pristine Baikal water. That’s still possible to find, at least in most places on the Lake.

Images in this blog post were captured at Lake Baikal, frozen in ice, and then rephotographed.

Images in this blog post were captured at Lake Baikal, frozen in ice, and then rephotographed.




Shark Conservation

Jessica Zychowicz

“Shark Conservation,” Jessica Zychowicz. Oil-pastel crayon and charcoal. Berlin. 2019.

“Shark Conservation,” Jessica Zychowicz. Oil-pastel crayon and charcoal. Berlin. 2019.

There are no sharks in Berlin. There are no sharks in Poland, either, not in any of the 2,000 lakes of Masuria. You would think that they might be thrashing around somewhere in Russia’s unfathomably deep Lake Baikal, but no, they are not. Maybe it is too icy and cold for them there? What about Israel, you say? There are even two seas there, and they are warm and bright greenish and muddy---the perfect habitat for many different kinds of sharks. But there are no sharks in those places, either: not in the Red---or in the Dead!

There are no sharks at all, in fact, wherever we might expect to find them: not in my neighbors’ swimming pool (I looked there first!), or in the sink where I like to rinse my coffee cup in the morning, or in the dark spooky space under the garden hose, next to the stairs in the backyard, where the spiders live.

There are no sharks in the wide ocean where they used to be—I looked for them with my special goggles in San Juan, but found none.

There are no sharks at all anymore. I have given up.  

Or so I thought!

One day in February, on a rainy and grey Wednesday afternoon (sharks like Wednesdays!)—I found exactly what I had been searching for. I did not expect to find so many sharks smiling at me from every single corner of this magic place that I discovered! There were funny sharks and mean sharks, big sharks and small sharks, polka-dotted ones and striped-ones, and even a very colorful lady shark with glasses and a funny hairdo who sang and danced the tango and salsa! There was a poet-shark wearing a yellow plaid scarf, and a shark with a camera who could swim really fast and talk about very important things to all of the other sharks. I even met a tiger shark with a bicycle who likes to eat French fries as much as I do.

Their teeth were so terrifying, and their fins so powerful, that I almost imagined that I would never want to meet a shark again! After all, I was just as surprised as you are to find them all swimming around inside of Lindenstraße 9-14, 10969, in Berlin, of all places. I was sure that I had checked everywhere: high and low, near and far. Had they been hiding all of these sharks? Did someone put them here? Why didn’t I see them before? Why were they here, and not in the other places that I thought they would be?

But I changed my mind. It doesn’t matter why they were here or there, instead of in the deep lakes, or in the greenish muddy seas, or the wide ocean, or in the sink where I like to rinse my coffee cup, or under the garden hose next to the stairs in the backyard. I love sharks wherever they are! Maybe someday I will even visit them again and invite them to my next birthday party. I wonder if spiders like birthday cake, too?

Berlin, February 2019

in “A Curious Guide to Ecology”

by Jessica Zychowicz

“Voided Void,” Daniel Liebeskind. Shoah Memorial Space, Jewish Museum, Berlin. Photos by the Author. February 27, 2019.

Cyberian Dispatch 9: Playing Hide and Seek with the Angara

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

There are more than 330 rivers that flow into Lake Baikal, filling the cavernous Lake with one-fifth of the world’s fresh water. But there is only one mighty river that flows out: the Angara.

In Irkutsk, the largest city on the Angara, the River is half a block from our apartment, so we have almost daily encounters with its intensely different moods, striking range of colors, and its habit of hiding from local residents.

There is a longtime legend in Siberia that Angara was the exceptionally beautiful daughter of Old Man Baikal, and he was filled with love and admiration for her. But one day, while Baikal was sleeping, Angara slipped away to try and meet the young Yenisei. Grandfather Baikal was furious, and ripping a cliff from a nearby mountain, flung it at Angara, who was pinned at her throat. Angara begged her father to give her water, since she was parched, but her father refused, saying she was condemned to nothing but her own tears. And since that time, it is her tears that flow from Baikal to the Yenisei River, far to the north and west. Today, the cliff that Grandfather Baikal threw at Angara, called Shaman Rock, is visible at the Angara’s outlet from the Lake.

But the Angara itself is not always visible. Especially in winter, the warmer water flowing from Lake Baikal meets a shockingly cold Siberian air mass, and the result is tuman (туман), the Russian word for fog. In Irkutsk, it might start with a little steam rising off the river. A few hours later, the fishermen in the middle of the River are visible one minute and lost the next. Soon, the three main bridges fade away. The sun is faint, then fainter, then slips completely from view. And finally, there is nothing, only a wall of light gray that obscures everything but the wonderland of icy frosting deliciously decorating the trees along the banks. It is a fog to end all fogs, an ethereal display that lends the entire city an unearthly glamour.

It is also rich with human activity and sound. Near the statue of Tsar Alexander III at the foot of Karl Marx Street, Russian radio is broadcast from loudspeakers, often featuring English language pop songs or Christmas music. On Ostrov Konnyy (literally, Coney Island), near a towering ferris wheel, children gleefully exclaim as they sled from ice sculptures, ice skate, or play hockey. On the frozen shores, fisherman cut holes in the ice with enormous drill bits and wait for hours in the numbing cold to extract a meal. Listen carefully and you will hear lapping waves against the ice, the murmur of ducks foraging, and the sound of a muskrat surfacing and then diving. And most prominent of all, the reverberating announcements of departures from the main railway station, which echo across the invisible water, coupled with the rattling of invisible trains en route to remote destinations.

The alluring tuman is a signature feature of Irkutsk and the Angara, but unfortunately, beneath this exquisite veil some disturbing secrets are hiding. Each major city along the Angara, including Irkutsk, is a site where significant amounts of pollution enter the river, including industrial wastes that seriously threaten the river’s health. Also, the Angara has been dammed four times since the 1950s. The dams chop the river into pieces, blocking any navigation and impeding the transit of fish and other native species. And the creation of numerous reservoirs has radically altered the ecology of the waterway, harming endemic species and increasing the amounts of algae that deprive the River of oxygen.

One of the most important historical voices against dam-building and the diversion of rivers is the late Russian author Valentin Rasputin, who was born in Irkutsk Oblast. Rasputin’s views on this subject were heavily influenced by the fact that his own childhood village along the Angara was destroyed to create a massive hydroelectric plant. His 1979 novel Farewell to Matyora is focused on a fictional village that suffers a similar fate, and a later non-fiction work, Siberia, Siberia also dwells on this theme. Although some consider his work “anti-modern,” and his conservative politics were controversial, his influence on environmentalism in this region -- including the fight to save Lake Baikal -- looms large. (Those who are interested in a film treatment of his work can search for the 2008 Russian film, Live and Remember, in which the Angara plays a starring role.)

Dam-building continues to be an issue that is central to the future of the entire region. Among the threats to Lake Baikal’s health are proposals to build several dams on the Selenga River and its tributaries that flow from Mongolia to Lake Baikal. The plans threaten to disrupt the ecology of the Selenga River delta, the largest source of Baikal’s water and a major habitat for Baikal’s endemic species. They will also affect the water level, water quality, and ecosystem throughout the Lake. In 2017, activists achieved a small victory when the World Bank froze its support for the planned projects, but efforts by Mongolia to become energy independent, together with lavish Chinese financing, mean the fight is by no means over.

Here in Irkutsk, we play hide and seek with the Angara and its veil of tuman almost every day. We hide ourselves in its blanket of white, embracing the ghostly nothingness for as long as our arctic mittens and winter boots will permit. We take endless photos of its spare visual delights. But we also seek the truth about the environmental health of the Angara and of Lake Baikal. Irkutsk’s homegrown environmental leader, Valentin Rasputin, was one of the first to understand that there is “damming” evidence of harm. All those concerned about the future of our waterways must join together to respond.


Locked Apart Permanently: Children and Incarcerated Parents

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

Kiya, a young woman in Philadelphia, was separated from her family and thrust into the foster care system when her father was sent to prison.

Kiya, a young woman in Philadelphia, was separated from her family and thrust into the foster care system when her father was sent to prison.

As many of you know, we’ve spent years working on the crisis of mass incarceration in the United States, including a special focus on the plight of children whose parents are incarcerated. There are millions of children in the United States whose parents are in prison, and they are often the innocent victims of a criminal justice system that does not take their welfare into account when assigning lengthy sentences far away from the family home.

Now, a new study by the Marshall Project, the non-profit news platform devoted to criminal justice reform issues, finds that children are often permanently separated from their parents when they are behind bars. In fact, the study finds that parents behind bars are more likely to lose their parental rights than those who physically or sexually assault their children. The specific law that unintentionally encouraged this outcome was unfortunately supported by top Democrats. You can read this important reporting here.

The two of us have often said that the criminal justice crisis in the United States is like an onion. Every time you peel back a layer, there’s another one underneath, usually more rotten than the one before. This reporting unfortunately confirms our adage.

For a glimpse at our work on the impact of incarceration on families — and especially children — please visit some of these portfolios and short films:

Cyberian Dispatch 7: Spirits of Buryatia

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

Outside of Sukhaya, a village in Buryatia so small and remote that it doesn’t appear on Google Maps yet, we paused at a roadside monument for Khaim, the spirit that holds sway in four local villages. A posted sign warned foreigners who don’t understand local traditions against participating in rituals. But our Russian guide Georgii firmly disagreed, insisting that anyone can and should honor Khaim. We searched our pockets for small coins, often favored in this situation, but found none. Alcohol is suitable, but was unavailable. So a small measure of hot Earl Grey tea was poured from a thermos in Khaim’s honor, also appropriate. Khaim’s sacred location also overflowed with the colorful ribbons that locals tie to trees as a symbol of respect.

During our first trip to Buryatia, several weeks ago, we were enthralled by the virgin ice that had just crystallized. (See our blog post, here.) We were also captivated by the spirit of the place, or should we say, spirits. Each set of small villages has a native spirit who plays an important role there. “We don’t necessarily believe in these spirits,” Georgii clarified, “but we definitely respect them.”

More than 60 percent of Lake Baikal’s shoreline is in the Republic of Buryatia, on the east side of the Lake. Buryatia is sparsely populated, harder to reach, free of the most intensive tourism, environmentally more pristine, and in theory, a homeland for the indigenous people of the region, although many Buryats live in Irkutsk Oblast and elsewhere. It also is a spiritual center, home to a unique mixture of Russian Orthodox, Old Believers (who maintain an ancient version of Orthodox tradition), Buddhists, and people who embrace Shamanic traditions.

As we traveled the coast of Buryatia, the remoteness and the serenity were undeniable, but we also tried to measure the spirit(s) of the landscape. At Vydrino, the border town with Irkutsk Oblast, we crossed the Snezhnaya River on a pedestrian bridge unlikely to pass a safety inspection and marched into the snow-filled woods with Georgii leading the way. We stopped briefly at small lakes created from former quarries, including one renamed Fairy Tale Lake instead of Dead Lake to better attract tourists. Here a sign improbably warned against spearfishing in the ice-covered water. Then we entered a valley in the Khadar-Daban mountain range that dominates the eastern part of the Lake. A long, peaceful hike in the fresh, deep snow brought us to an unexpected obstacle: a mountain stream that could not be safely forded. Instead, we fought through thick brush and ample snow to ascend a small peak with dramatic views of the mountains in all directions.

In Tankhoy, a small village adjacent to a nature preserve in the mountains, our goal was also to hike into the mountains, but the preserve has a higher level of protection than a national park, and advance arrangements are required. Instead, we hiked the first and only wooden trail for disabled people in this region, through a special grove created for the protection of Siberian Cedars, which are not really cedars but a hardy species of pine endemic to the region. Except for one woman who crossed our path in the evening, we were satisfyingly alone in meditative contemplation and image capture for an entire day.

In Babushkin, a tiny coastal town, we encountered Marina, the animated and knowledgeable docent at the local museum, who shared artifacts of the town’s relationship to the Lake, including photographs of the oversized ferry that transported people and rail cars across the Lake before the Trans-Siberian Railroad was completed. When asked about the environmental health of Baikal, Marina insisted that the Lake is strong and will withstand any pressures that humans place on it. Then she hosted us on a whirlwind tour of the Babushkin waterfront, where a defunct, graffiti-covered lighthouse can be accessed by climbing a rope 3 meters to its lowest staircase. From the top of the lighthouse, the Lake spread out in three directions, with a scruffy railyard and desolate beach anchoring the scene.

In Posolsk, one of the most ancient Russian settlements in the region, we visited a male monastery of the Russian Orthodox church. In 1651, a Russian ambassador to Mongolia and members of his party who came ashore from their boat were slain here, and there is a prominent monument to their memory. Like many religious sites in Russia, the monastery was commandeered during Communism and has only recently been restored to its original purpose. The young monks continued their daily chores, oblivious to our small group of visitors, and we strolled to the expansive shoreline, bleak, endless and alluring.

Along the main road at Proval Bay is a large wooden monument to Usan-Lopson, the spirit who is reputed to live underneath the Lake with his wife and to rule its waters. Near a caravan still prominently marked with Soviet symbols, workers repaired modest tourist facilities that overlook the spot where, in 1861, a catastrophic earthquake dumped several Buryat villages into the Lake. While most locals escaped, some drowned, and Russian families welcomed homeless Buryats into their homes for the remainder of the winter.

Further north, we visited Enhaluk, a thriving tourist mecca in summer, now frozen and ghostly. Nearby is a hot spring with healing properties discovered when Russians drilled for oil decades ago, and a Buddhist temple that hosts large outdoor meditation retreats in the summer months. Also in close proximity is a monument to the Evenk indigenous people, now dwindling rapidly in numbers. A gate to the monument has tumbled to the ground, and banners with information on Evenk traditions have torn in the wind, but in spite of this, or perhaps because of it, the ground feels weighty and significant.

Finally, we ascended rapidly to the peak of Biele Kamen, or White Rock, where a pale calcium derivative in the stone was used to paint the walls of houses. A local tradition suggests that if you pick up a stone at the bottom of the hill and place it at the top, you will be forgiven one of your sins. On the summit, anthropomorphic towers of rounded stones register as a gathering of tiny penitents lamenting their improper deeds.

Back in Sukhaya, we took note of the uneven pace of development that brought a smooth highway and a blinding array of streetlights, but stopped short of funding wastewater treatment that will protect the Lake from the coming increase in tourism. At the Tengeri Guest House, run by a Buryat matriarch, we settle into a quiet sleep on a hillside near the Lake.

In the night, Mark dreamt that he was on a bus and someone tried to sit next to him. He shooed the newcomer away, thinking he was undesirable, but moments later realized it was Khaim, the spirit of the Sukhaya region. Khaim accepted this affront without taking umbrage. He urged Mark to hold Gabriela tightly and vanished.

In the morning, we awoke to an unending procession of lumber trucks that noisily rumbled past the guest house and faded into a translucent curtain of newly falling snow. We knew without any conscious thought that these trucks, rapidly denuding Siberian forests, do not pay tribute to the local spirits.


Dreamland: New Electronic Music

DreamlandCoverArt.jpg

Maria Shesiuk

This composition was born after a trail run on a warm fall day at Loch Raven Reservoir north of Baltimore, MD. Solitary trail running can induce a very hypnotic state. As the body produces endorphins, highly euphoric feelings can be reached. The warm November weather is contributing to the euphoria, but sadness sets in. The beauty of the experience is overshadowed by the stark reality of climate change. The music is a reflection on things that we take for granted such as our fragile environment, relationships, and our own various states of consciousness. It is also a commentary on waiting too long to say something or to do something. But a glimmer of hope is still present.

The sound of a stream was recorded on this particular trail run. Symbolic of fleeting emotional states and thoughts, words are spoken, but they are deliberately masked. The meaning of what is being said is to some extent created by the listener. The gentle, repetitive nature of the arpeggio is as hypnotic as running and symbolizes the forward march of time. The melody is representative of the euphoria of a body fueled by endorphins bathing in the warmth of the sun, taking in the fresh fall air, and connecting with Self and nature.


Workshop for the Revolutionary Word: 4 Poems

Jessica Zychowicz

This is the fourth of four in a series of experimental poems by Jessica Zychowicz, a scholar, critic, curator, and writer currently based at the University of Alberta's Contemporary Ukraine Studies Program in Canada. The title of the series, "Workshop for the Revolutionary Word," references the avant-garde circles of artists in Kyiv, Ukraine, in the 1920s, a context that gave rise to fierce debates on the direction of culture between opposing groups of writers in the early Soviet era. The poet Mykola Khvylovy, first a member of the Ukrainian Communist Party CP(B)U organization Hart, later founded VAPLITE in 1925 (Vilna Akademiia Proletarskoi Literatury—The Free Academy of Proletarian Literature) that served as a powerful platform for his critiques. He disagreed with Rosa Luxemburg and her Ukrainian supporters Iurii Piatakov and Evgeniia Bosh, who claimed that the world transformations then occurring were successfully dissolving national boundaries; by contrast, he put forward that any conclusion to the search for a more revolutionary, more progressive internationalism had yet to be achieved. “To create a new language Khvylovy fused various linguistic levels: the traditional concerns of the Ukrainian intelligentsia were interspersed with references to Western literature, Marxist political theory, the macaronic language of the Russian civil service, and the racy idiom of the town proletariat. The twenties were witnessing a democratization of culture of unprecedented proportions: the introduction of mass education, mass publications, radio and cinema meant a rapid expansion of culture beyond lyrical poetry and the theatre of ethnographic realism.” Parallels to this earlier moment of social and cultural upheaval in the early Soviet era can be felt and seen in Ukraine today. These poems bring together contemporaneous observations in the frame of exploring forms of dissent with regimes of power around the globe that serve to oppress creative expression. Asking us to revisit what can so easily be taken-for-granted, or rendered invisible, the poems play with historical repetition in different times and places in order to unmask “new” versus “old” technologies of censorship. These poems are shared in keeping with Atlantika Collective's emphasis on embracing an "open circle" of artists, writers, curators, educators and thinkers. Jessica welcomes any responses in this collaborative spirit. For more on Jessica's background, please visit our Members and Contributors page.

Nine Augusts

or, A Short Chronology of a White Girl in the U.S. in Protest Against the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville.

August 2003:
Transcribing speeches by Malcom Ex, Marcus Garvey, Angela Davis in Oakland. Debating police violence at meetings on Sproul Plaza. Studying with Saidiya Hartman. Writing poetry with Ismael Reed. Berkeley.

August 2009:
Visiting an activist friend in Puerto Rico and learning about her dissertation based on her grandmother's forced sterilization, La Perla District, San Juan.

August 2012:
Moving to the Deep South, far from familiar "Yankee" midwestern and Californian roots. A small local university is occupied by armed police for two months due to unknown threats on a professor's life. She is a friend - and survives. Alabama.

August 2013:
"Most of Alabama is still filled up with places that I call, like Birmingham, a 'Plantation City.' Don't let anybody fool you. We black folks know where to go and where not to go." - My conversation with a homeless black activist temporarily employed by a local group to give alternative tours of the Civil Rights Movement counter to the gaps and unequal distribution of revenue from the official museum, 2014. Birmingham, Alabama.

August 2014:
"Sorry Ma'am."

August 2015:
In a cinema next to my gay friend, writer and observer of post-Soviet Russia and Kazakhstan, while watching James Baldwin describe "whiteness" in the film I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO. Washington D.C.

August 2016:
We are coworkers for awhile: Reggie - a former officer from Obama's motorcade. Willie - an Iraq veteran. Tamikah - a single mother of three. "You know what I say about Trump? The same thing that I used to say when I was little and had to eat welfare food: “Government cheese doesn't melt!” Washington D.C.

August 2017:
Sharing a meal with friends in Virginia. White supremacists with symbols from the KKK are marching in the Unite the Right Rally two counties away. “I am afraid for my kids.” Flying to California the next day and then going abroad to work. Virginia.

August 2018:
Seeing the asymmetry in the interpretation of the law in the relative ease of reporting, documenting, and closing a criminal case. Detroit.

Not knowing how or why the season changes so quickly.



Cyberian Dispatch 6: 114 Gigabytes of Ice

Gabriela Bulisova and Mark Isaac

Most people who have never visited Siberia imagine it as a vast territory locked in permafrost. In fact, it was far from that when we arrived in September. We often walked about Irkutsk in shirtsleeves admiring the flowers and enjoying the warm breezes. Temps slowly diminished over time, but were still very tolerable into early November.

When we traveled to Buryatia last week, a remote area on the east side of Lake Baikal, we came prepared for the worst. New thermal boots, thick hats, extra layers, mittens the size of boxing gloves. But most of that was for nothing, since the weather was still cooperating. The temps were relatively balmy for this time of year, hovering between -10 Celsius in the night and +7 during the day (between 14 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit). We left the mittens at our guest house, shed layers, and even removed our coats during hikes.

But...it’s still Siberia, and that means the appearance of ice. Ice is now omnipresent along the coast of Baikal. Its small bays are crystalline. Its nearby wetlands are glazed. Memorable icicles dangle from shrubs, trees, and wiry debris. The undulating grasses of its tributaries are viewable through a transparent screen. And along its shores, the frozen spray forms a winter-long record of the Lake’s waves and the wakes of passing boats.

Unless you’ve been confined to the tropics, everyone is familiar with ice. You know its color, its texture, the threat to safety it can pose. But Baikal’s ice is distinctive, an experience unto itself. A natural artwork that manages to outdo any possible human exploit.

It’s clear, white, gray, black, sometimes in rainbow colors. It’s in crystals, patterns, outlines, layers. It grips plant life, bubbles, and rocks in an unyielding, graceful headlock.

What’s more, it’s already often thick enough to walk on. We hesitantly stepped onto the frozen shallows of wetlands, fearful of falling even a few inches. But locals, knowing its strength from experience, plunged without any qualm into the middle of deep pools.

In art school, learning video, Mark’s class had an assignment to use as many video filters as possible in one short film. The goal was to get it out of the students’ systems once and for all and get back to the basics of shooting.

Maybe that’s what our week in Buryatia was all about, at least in part. For a full week, we celebrated the unparalleled allure of frozen water. We photographed it morning, noon and eve. We have at least 114 gigabytes of Buryatia’s ice frozen on our hard drives.

Is it out of our system now? That is extremely unlikely.

Workshop for the Revolutionary Word: Four Poems

Jessica Zychowicz

This is the third of four in a series of experimental poems by Jessica Zychowicz, a scholar, critic, curator, and writer currently based at the University of Alberta's Contemporary Ukraine Studies Program in Canada. The title of the series, "Workshop for the Revolutionary Word," references the avant-garde circles of artists in Kyiv, Ukraine, in the 1920s, a context that gave rise to fierce debates on the direction of culture between opposing groups of writers in the early Soviet era. The poet Mykola Khvylovy, first a member of the Ukrainian Communist Party CP(B)U organization Hart, later founded VAPLITE in 1925 (Vilna Akademiia Proletarskoi Literatury—The Free Academy of Proletarian Literature) that served as a powerful platform for his critiques. He disagreed with Rosa Luxemburg and her Ukrainian supporters Iurii Piatakov and Evgeniia Bosh, who claimed that the world transformations then occurring were successfully dissolving national boundaries; by contrast, he put forward that any conclusion to the search for a more revolutionary, more progressive internationalism had yet to be achieved. “To create a new language Khvylovy fused various linguistic levels: the traditional concerns of the Ukrainian intelligentsia were interspersed with references to Western literature, Marxist political theory, the macaronic language of the Russian civil service, and the racy idiom of the town proletariat. The twenties were witnessing a democratization of culture of unprecedented proportions: the introduction of mass education, mass publications, radio and cinema meant a rapid expansion of culture beyond lyrical poetry and the theatre of ethnographic realism.” (Shkandrij, Myroslav. Modernists, Marxists, and the Nation: The Ukrainian Literary Discussion of the 1920s. Edmonton: CIUS Press, 1992, p. 55.) Parallels to this earlier moment of social and cultural upheaval in the early Soviet era can be felt and seen in Ukraine today. These poems bring together contemporaneous observations in the frame of exploring forms of dissent with regimes of power around the globe that serve to oppress creative expression. Asking us to revisit what can so easily be taken-for-granted, or rendered invisible, the poems play with historical repetition in different times and places in order to unmask “new” versus “old” technologies of censorship. These poems are shared in keeping with Atlantika Collective's emphasis on embracing an "open circle" of artists, writers, curators, educators and thinkers. Jessica welcomes any responses in this collaborative spirit. For more on Jessica's background, please visit our Members and Contributors page.

WHERE THE FUTURE IS

UKRAINE is a country

Of angels and mafia men,

Of gunshots and gunned engines,

gutter dogs and little girls in

thick striped tights waiting to take communion.

Ukraine survives on its soiled hands,

on its gritty shell,

on its back like a COCKROACH—it kicks hard with a powerful will.

Ukraine is a territory claimed by

its neighbors’ tendencies to EXPAND,

and machines that SPIT AND CUT,

hurtling tons of wheat across 50 GAUGE RAILS well past midnight.

And they keep the EVIDENCE of DECADENCE anyway—

the SOVIET crystal decanter CONSTRUCTED from two halves,

two NATIONS ALIKE IN DIGNITY

stamped together in a FACTORY—

the line between them nearly invisible,

but still tactile—perceptible only to the touch

WHERE CIVIL BLOOD MAKES CIVIL HANDS UNCLEAN

walnut whisky running over everything

IN FAIR KYIV WHERE WE LAY OUR SCENE

A FLOOD

when they return

to report that they all

PRACTICALLY GOT AWAY WITH MURDER.

STAMPS AND MONUMENTS

will attest that she is an OFFICIAL country—

she is warranted between the lines,

traded in sideways doses of 80 proof currency,

when she deals her CONTRABAND.

POLITICIANS and their HENCHMEN are NO WIT

for the ABACUS

that will eventually serve them up

to the HUNGRIEST WOLF

waiting in line

at the communal counter

O – the inescapability of numbers

and the danger of monthly SPECULATION.

Ukraine is a pot-holed ROAD

A rug on the wall instead of A FLAG

Chicken bouillon, black bread, borscht,

She is one day late in a 24-hour clinic,

a gruff goodbye, a deep bow,

a marriage proposal, an anecdote,

a wooden stool

an “I LOVE YOU” and then a “FUCK YOU”

for believing them, when they say

in the election campaign posters

ON THAT ONE LAST RIDE ON THE METRO

for six Hryvnias instead of eight

that they are all telling the truth

THIS TIME AROUND.

She is a defunct beet SUGAR FACTORY,

Berries that look like eyes, staring,

Out of MANNEQUIN HEADS IN BLACK LACE

An antennae covered in razor wire

REPLAY in the martshrutka rearview.

A clay oven, apologies,

ENVY

and a loud T.V.

tuned to your favorite REALITY SHOW— [INSERT YOUR UTOPIA HERE].

Bring your best CAMERA to capture

TECHNOCHROME FINGERNAILS

and LAMINATED PHOTOS of NEON LUNCH SPECIALS

nothing is too flashy here!

SHE is many headscarves away from THE FRONT LINE,

sitting in the back

     OF THE THEATRE

where the bullets sound quieter

            AS THEY         WHIP BY.

There is also the CHOREOGRAPHY

       to consider:

       of cherry blossoms during KYIV’S TURKISH TOURIST SEASON

the bills

falling on the bar

faster

than

blouses:

That one tastes of LIPSTICK and the other one is IMITATION PERFUME FROM CHINA.

it must be some strange yeast that they are SELLING here in the bread basket of Europe

where the prices are so cheap, even the INTERNET IS CHEAPER THAN IN PAKISTAN

and don’t have to pay extra

FOR A ROOM WITH A VIEW.

But UKRAINE rides through the winter of her life like an UNBROKEN horse

holding her head up to the LIGHTBULB of a GUERNICA MOON.

IN TORETSK, DONETSK near the city of Konstiantynivka.

they leave potatoes in BLUE BUCKETS for the STRAYS

in the VILLAGE near the train station

to distract themselves from the sound of the GUNS:

“You will OCCUPY NOTHING.”

Then it ends up being the GRIP OF THEIR TEETH,

and not the basket of apples

recorded at the beginning of the FILM REEL

that leaves a purple memory

on her arm.

Deep into summer she is bright steel

in the sun’s reflection on her 3,000

riverbeds full of SHRAPNEL

“I dare you!”

Thunder cracks over her back,

BANG! BLAST!

She disappears—

like GOGOL’S DEVILS under lightning.

This is what her villagers will tell you,

when they PREDICT that their crop will turn out.

AND IT DOES.

She is RED OCTOBER,

when the silent watchers among the trees give up their currency

and demand another COUNT for the HARVEST

stolen and imprisoned in jars

basements

and MINDS.

Ukraine is ashen like BURIED BONES and OLD PAPER—

far flung with the distancing effect of

historical documents and crushed snow,

footprints in the catacombs

where SAINTS and SOVIETS STILL ACCUSE each other in the DUST:

A SLAP IN THE FACE OF PUBLIC TASTE!

When she has had enough with the FIGHT—

She is AN OLD WOMAN,

VERTOV’S STREET SWEEPER

RODCHENKO’S MOTHER

Looking through SPECTACLES

for other seers like herself

who look

like an audience filled with APPLAUSE

on the cover a book—

filled with photographs of

OLYMPIC CHAMPIONS

doing backflips

to the tune of the INTERNATIONALE

PRINTED

in red and gold LETTERS

now burning inside the CENSOR

next to the tabernacle

in the church of all

that is ICONIC —

TO WHERE THE ETERNAL FLAME HAS SIMPLY SWITCHED SIDES.

So she kneels

through a PASSAGEWAY

framed in birch

as if GOD were busy elsewhere—

in a black OVERCOAT

smoking and SMILING LIKE A CAT

extending a hand

sealing secrets in wax—

to more easily move the SURPLUS around—     

       

       into the STEELWORKS!

       into the MEAT PROCESSOR!

WHERE THE FUTURE IS

ALWAYS ARRIVING

ALL WAYS GO FORWARD!

Cyberian Dispatch 5: The Closest Place to Kiss the Lake

By Gabriela Bulisova and Mark Isaac

If the goal is to get to Lake Baikal quickly, Listvyanka makes it easy. Sitting at the source of the Angara River, Baikal’s only outlet, Listvyanka is a mere one hour marshrutka (minibus) ride from Irkutsk. It also has a reputation as the most commercial and touristy of all lakeside destinations, drawing a surfeit of visitors twice a year. In the summer, the warm weather inspires swimming, boating, and hiking. In the winter, skiing draws the crowds.

In late autumn, though, tourists are more of an oddity. We were the only ones registered at the Gavan Baikala (Baikal Harbor) Hotel, and we selected a choice room with views through a deep canyon toward the immensity of the Lake in the distance.

One reason people are scarce in fall is the capricious weather. When we arrived, it was sunlit and undeniably warm. In the evening temperatures plummeted, and we woke to a delicate snow powdering the landscape. Throughout the next day, faint sun alternated with blasts of wind and drizzle. It was every season in one.

Despite catering to tourists, Listvyanka is a small town with cows wandering its dirt roads and traditional wooden houses packed in amongst Soviet-era apartment buildings. It also has a burgeoning collection of small luxury hotels -- some legal and some that likely are not. There is a buzz about excessive construction fueled by Chinese investors, who allegedly build structures under rules for family homes and then operate them as hotels. And there is outrage over “lectures” by Chinese guides who contend (indefensibly) that Lake Baikal is historically Chinese and only in Russian hands temporarily.

The problem with the building boom is that the town has very limited sewage treatment capacity, so when tourists inundate the area, excess sewage flows directly into the Lake. While an influx of easy money is hard to resist, it may culminate in an environmental catastrophe that chokes off tourism permanently. And scientists are already raising alarms about high levels of dangerous pollutants and the mass death of native sponge populations in the waters surrounding Listvyanka.

For the moment, this tourist mecca is a strange blend of visual and emotional experiences. The collapsing concrete esplanade attracts sightseers who bound out of cars with selfie sticks to make a permanent record of their rapture in front of the Lake. The wooden houses, wandering bovines, and roadside stands offering smoked omul (the most prevalent of Baikal’s fish) present a pastoral scene. The stuffed seals, omnipresent Coca-Cola signs, and men using bullhorns to tout boat trips expose a kitschy capitalism. The construction of faux-glamorous hotels suggests a luxury that is still mostly aspirational. And often there is a rough (but photogenic) edge to the scenery, with building materials strewn about, crumbling fences, and peeling paint.

All that is juxtaposed with the sublime experience of walking out of the village to the east, in the direction of Bolshie Koty (see our blog post from that location, here). At first, grim metal lockers mar the pebbled beach. A few steps away, a landslide has deposited a torrent of boulders on the banks. Then, an ascent along the cliffside offered an astonishing perspective on the Lake’s incomprehensible vastness. Despite a dense cloud cover, a slim opening in the sky in Buryatia created a luminous white line on the Lake’s surface, a divine presence that persisted implausibly. Did it mean the gods were pleased with our visit?

We’d like to think so, but ultimately, it’s difficult to be a visitor in Listvyanka. The town’s messages are mixed, and it is disturbing to think that in small ways, we contributed to the growing problems facing the Lake. We came to kiss Lake Baikal and tell others of its charms, but we were left to ruminate...was it a kiss goodbye?







Workshop For The Revolutionary Word: Four Poems

Jessica Zychowicz

This is the second of four in a series of experimental poems by Jessica Zychowicz, a scholar, critic, curator, and writer currently based at the University of Alberta's Contemporary Ukraine Studies Program in Canada. The title of the series, "Workshop for the Revolutionary Word," references the avant-garde circles of artists in Kyiv, Ukraine, in the 1920s, a context that gave rise to fierce debates on the direction of culture between opposing groups of writers in the early Soviet era. The poet Mykola Khvylovy, first a member of the Ukrainian Communist Party CP(B)U organization Hart, later founded VAPLITE in 1925 (Vilna Akademiia Proletarskoi Literatury—The Free Academy of Proletarian Literature) that served as a powerful platform for his critiques. He disagreed with Rosa Luxemburg and her Ukrainian supporters Iurii Piatakov and Evgeniia Bosh, who claimed that the world transformations then occurring were successfully dissolving national boundaries; by contrast, he put forward that any conclusion to the search for a more revolutionary, more progressive internationalism had yet to be achieved. “To create a new language Khvylovy fused various linguistic levels: the traditional concerns of the Ukrainian intelligentsia were interspersed with references to Western literature, Marxist political theory, the macaronic language of the Russian civil service, and the racy idiom of the town proletariat. The twenties were witnessing a democratization of culture of unprecedented proportions: the introduction of mass education, mass publications, radio and cinema meant a rapid expansion of culture beyond lyrical poetry and the theatre of ethnographic realism.” (Shkandrij, Myroslav. Modernists, Marxists, and the Nation: The Ukrainian Literary Discussion of the 1920s. Edmonton: CIUS Press, 1992, p. 55.) Parallels to this earlier moment of social and cultural upheaval in the early Soviet era can be felt and seen in Ukraine today. These poems bring together contemporaneous observations in the frame of exploring forms of dissent with regimes of power around the globe that serve to oppress creative expression. Asking us to revisit what can so easily be taken-for-granted, or rendered invisible, the poems play with historical repetition in different times and places in order to unmask “new” versus “old” technologies of censorship. These poems are shared in keeping with Atlantika Collective's emphasis on embracing an "open circle" of artists, writers, curators, educators and thinkers. Jessica welcomes any responses in this collaborative spirit. For more on Jessica's background, please visit our Members and Contributors page.

[In order to preserve the integrity of the original text, this poem is presented as two image files, to be read without an intended break between them.]

Black Site Biennale(1).jpg
Black Site Biennale(2).jpg

Cyberian Dispatch 4: A Glimpse of Moscow

by Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

No city can be grasped in a few days, so our quick fling with Moscow is already a haze of veiled impressions on the fly. Gabriela had been once before -- but long ago, and the city has changed dramatically in the interim. Mark never.

The outstanding Fulbright office gathered us for a check-in with other scholars and students, many scattered across this immense nation, so there is no other opportunity to connect in person. They also arranged a bonus meeting with the US Ambassador, Jon Huntsman, a former Republican governor, who spoke quite reasonably about how to bring the Russian and American people together -- and about his efforts to engage with the Orthodox Church.

Then the city unfolded as a sumptuous, impromptu walking tour. The wide avenues and their grandiose buildings, often a misleading facade for comfortable neighborhoods with pedestrian walkways and community ponds. Zaryadye Park, Moscow’s answer to the High Line, replete with undulating rooftop gardens, delicate birch groves, and an overlook perched far above the Moskva River.

Red Square, a chaos of architectural styles. The fanciful church with precious relics. The looming walls of the Kremlin. The Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Prada stores directly facing Lenin’s tomb. The mausoleum, in maroon and black, guarded by stern-faced police who enforce silence and hats off. Lenin, glowing supernaturally in the darkness, with perfect facial hair. Outside, the graves of Stalin, Brezhnev, Andropov, all bedecked with red flowers. Also John Reed, the American who witnessed the revolution.

The exquisite art, from all eras. Ancient Egyptian death mask (Fayum) portraits, spectacularly rich icon paintings from rural Russia, modern art from around the world, official and unofficial Soviet-era art, contemporary gems. A survey exhibit of contemporary photography that would have been at home in the Whitney or MoMA. A sculpture garden in Gorky Park, abutting preserved statues of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin, also in close proximity with a memorial to the victims of totalitarian regimes.

The world class veggie bistro. The restaurants that are innovating successfully, with prices to match the West. The metro, a tour de force of architecture, convenience, value and service (trains consistently arrive moments after the last one departs), sharply contrasting with our own capital city. The warm service, the embrace of America and Americans. The sense of safety, even in crowds.

Then rapidly back in the airplane for the same overnight flight that first brought us to Irkutsk. The dawn is accelerated as five time zones melt away, and the bracing Siberian air, blowing out of an endless forest, is a potent reminder that Moscow is more than 5000 kilometers away.

Workshop For The Revolutionary Word: Four Poems

Jessica Zychowicz

This is the first of four in a series of experimental poems by Jessica Zychowicz, a scholar, critic, curator, and writer currently based at the University of Alberta's Contemporary Ukraine Studies Program in Canada. The title of the series, "Workshop for the Revolutionary Word," references the avant-garde circles of artists in Kyiv, Ukraine, in the 1920s, a context that gave rise to fierce debates on the direction of culture between opposing groups of writers in the early Soviet era. The poet Mykola Khvylovy, first a member of the Ukrainian Communist Party CP(B)U organization Hart, later founded VAPLITE in 1925 (Vilna Akademiia Proletarskoi Literatury—The Free Academy of Proletarian Literature) that served as a powerful platform for his critiques. He disagreed with Rosa Luxemburg and her Ukrainian supporters Iurii Piatakov and Evgeniia Bosh, who claimed that the world transformations then occurring were successfully dissolving national boundaries; by contrast, he put forward that any conclusion to the search for a more revolutionary, more progressive internationalism had yet to be achieved. “To create a new language Khvylovy fused various linguistic levels: the traditional concerns of the Ukrainian intelligentsia were interspersed with references to Western literature, Marxist political theory, the macaronic language of the Russian civil service, and the racy idiom of the town proletariat. The twenties were witnessing a democratization of culture of unprecedented proportions: the introduction of mass education, mass publications, radio and cinema meant a rapid expansion of culture beyond lyrical poetry and the theatre of ethnographic realism.” (Shkandrij, Myroslav. Modernists, Marxists, and the Nation: The Ukrainian Literary Discussion of the 1920s. Edmonton: CIUS Press, 1992, p. 55.) Parallels to this earlier moment of social and cultural upheaval in the early Soviet era can be felt and seen in Ukraine today. These poems bring together contemporaneous observations in the frame of exploring forms of dissent with regimes of power around the globe that serve to oppress creative expression. Asking us to revisit what can so easily be taken-for-granted, or rendered invisible, the poems play with historical repetition in different times and places in order to unmask “new” versus “old” technologies of censorship. These poems are shared in keeping with Atlantika Collective's emphasis on embracing an "open circle" of artists, writers, curators, educators and thinkers. Jessica welcomes any responses in this collaborative spirit. For more on Jessica's background, please visit our Members and Contributors page.

A Lovesong for My Hackers

Seven flights to Saudi Arabia

the day Trump boards Air Force One.

If you do not recognize these charges,

please call immediately.

Robocalls at midnight

Are more fun than rental cars

but not as sexy

as the insurance papers

from Mr. Cletus in Missouri

with the photos of the body stripped

of all electronic equipment:

Theft of Ford Focus Hybrid—Paid in Full.

You are still sleeping, waiting

in the codes

and when you strike

the price will already have been paid,

but as we both know,

the trace of an NSA file, erased

stays.

And maybe we could have had it all.

You knew me better than anyone.

If you do not recognize these charges,

please call immediately.


Where The Rivers Come Together

Zhanna Oganesyan

Zhanna Oganesyan

By Gabriela Bulisova and Mark Isaac

As part of their series titled “Race and Postcolonialism in Ukraine and North America,” the journal Krytyka, an intellectual monthly magazine focused on contemporary thought regarding Ukraine and the region, has published an article and photographs by Atlantika Collective members Gabriela Bulisova and Mark Isaac. The project, created as part of their Fulbright grant in 2017-18, focuses on the unexpected diversity in the Southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv.

https://krytyka.com/en/race-and-postcolonialism-ukraine-and-north-america/articles/where-rivers-come-together