Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Just What is Mine? And Yours?

In America, the concept of personal property is well established, really a fundamental belief system in the system. It extends to intellectual property as well, although this belief continues to be eroded by pervasive piracy, plagiarism and perhaps the moral corruption of American citizens.

But in Ukraine, the legacy of Communism means that the idea of personal ownership of property is vague at best, nonexistent at worst. I did a photoshoot last week for a friend of a friend. She needed some professional photographs for a new job, so I offered to shoot them for her, gratis. I told her up front that I would allow her to select 10 images that I would edit and deliver to her in both small and large resolution formats, for web use and for printing.

After the shoot, she was quite excited about how they turned out (I'm a fair photographer with 20 years of experience doing this as both an amateur and pro in America). She selected about a dozen images, and I even edited several more because I wasn't so busy and thought it would be nice.

But when she arrived to pick them up, she got upset with me that I wouldn't give her all 350 images (the unedited images that I didn't think were of sufficient quality to let other people see). I tried to explain to her that shooting hundreds of images was part of a process to produce the best ones for her use. She had no need for all of them for the job; she just wanted to print a bunch more up to show her family. I have never given out unedited images to my models; it's bad advertising for me, and really useless for any of the semi-pro and professional models I typically work with, anyway. Nobody actually ever asks in the USA.

I ended up giving her the 17 images, plus low-res photos of the rest for her own use on the computer, just to make her happy. But that wasn't enough. She wanted them all, in full resolution, so she could print them up and do who knows what with. I wouldn't go further than that, and even what I did was really a violation of my principles regarding having my work out in the world. But she wasn't happy at all, and she couldn't understand why I wouldn't give them all to her, or even why I had the right to deny her.

And from some perspectives, I understand. If you live in a country without intellectual property rights, then it is hard to argue that my time, experience, equipment, and talent give me the right to control the photos. After all, they are photos of her. But it sure makes me wary about doing trades of any sort in this country. Why use my $60,000 of equipment, 25 years of experience, and whatever "talent" I have just to see my worst photos out there in the world?

Lesson learned.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Taste of America

The mournful guitar of Mark Knoffler echoed in the marble hall as I strolled among the bundled up patrons and fake trees of the Caravan shopping center. It almost felt like home...McDonalds in the food court, plenty of jewelry shops, overpriced shops like Tommy Hilfiger, Nike, and Adidas, and teenagers laughing and generally screwing around (two young guys sat in the food court connecting about 30 straws into one long pipe for no apparent reason).

Today I finally tackled the metro, heading up six stops from my local station to two mega malls, at least they seem that way in Ukraine, on the north side of town. I needed clothes--three t-shirts, three button-downs, and a couple of sweaters don't really cover the needs of a modern American man--and I was trying to find the last pieces of the XBox puzzle so that I could play online with my son. I succeeded on both counts, finding several shirts, sweaters, and t-shirts at discount prices while also managing to spend way too much money on a wireless connector for my new XBox.

And it felt good to realize that Ukraine does offer frozen pizzas, more than one kind of white-ish cheese (although no cheddar, nor any kind of nacho chip), and even has a pseudo-Apple store (although without the headphones I am desperately missing, after losing mine sometime within the first few days of my arrival).

But it wasn't all familiar. Each mall was anchored by a super-Wal-Mart sort of grocery store, and while the aisles were huge, the selection sometimes baffled me. Here's a photo of one of the complete aisles dedicated to vodka!

But much of it felt very comfortable, like the esclators and marble and fountains.

I'll be back, I'm sure, if only to feel modestly like I am not in a completely foreign world.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Small Victory

Can I just tell everyone how accomplished I feel at this moment? I have been trying for weeks to set up a wireless network at home, and tonight, after six hours of fiddling with the settings, I have actually managed to make my internet connection work wirelessly. Woo Hoo!

This may seem like a small victory (because it is), but I still feel like a king tonight. I can connect to the internet on my computer as well as my iPhone....which means that soon I ought to be able to hook up an Xbox and my remote backup to the network as well. Good times....

Friday, February 19, 2010

Watch for Falling Daggers!

Today I was walking with some friends and they pulled me away from a building, pointed up and warned me about falling ice. After a big snow and some warmer weather, the icicles are huge and sometimes break free, falling three or four stories to the sidewalk. I've seen some monsters on the sidewalk already. And then I read this:

Woman Hit by Icicle

As if the slippery sidwalks weren't enough of a hazard.....but I prefer these risks to the kind of litigious society that requires warnings on coffee that it is very hot :)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Morning Snow

The snow had been falling softly all night. At one a.m., I looked out my window to se the most beautiful kind of winter wonders under the dim streetlights--dark, veiny trees with a coat of pure white, formerly dirty sidewalks seemingly washed soft and clean in a blanket of new snow, snow piling up softly on the smallest of surfaces.

So when I awoke near dawn, I knew I had to rise. The streets were nearly deserted as I trudged into the six-inch powder. A few early risers walked in the center of the street. Now and then, a taxi or truck would grumble down Pushkinskaya. It was still snowing hard, and the light was a diffuse blue. I started shooting. 

For two hours I watched the city wake. First came the shovelers (my experience with the sidewalks suggested there were none, but I was wrong!). Old men and women with dark clothes and homemade shovels scooped the sidewalks clear. I wandered downtown, wondering what the bustling center looked and sounded like when snow quieted the city. 

After about an hour, even the unshoveled parts of the main paths were carved by foot traffic, long lines of people bundled against the elements, all seemingly headed to the same two or three buildings for work. The bus terminals had lines of nearly 100 for some routes. No one seemed to speak. 

I have been shooting ditigal for eight years, and in that time I have noticed my eye has transformed into one that only paid attention to light and shadow and form has also begun to see color. For 20 years, I shot exclusively Tri-X in my M4-P's and M6's, but now, shooting with a digital M8, and after several years with other digital cameras, I notice color as much as I notice anything else. So even on a day like today, where the city was practically painted in black and white, I still found that converting my images to monochrome was disappointing. 

But I perservered and ended up with what I think are nine images that are fairly strong in B&W (some even better than the color versions). So here they are. A color gallery might be forthcoming....stay tuned. And then you can decide for yourself if I can see better in color, black and white, or not at all.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Ten Positive Surprises about Kharkov

This week has been more than a little tough....Margarita was sick most of the week so I didn't see her, and nobody called me back on my jobs, nor did I manage to get any of them on the phone, either. And with my VD plans ruined by Margarita's temperature and cough, I have spent some time wallowing in self pity. But I have learned a few things along the way about cheering myself up, so I thought I'd do one of the tried and true: A list of positives. So, here are the top ten positive surprises about living in Kharkov after one month:

1. House slippers. I knew I'd need to have house slippers over here, if only so I didn't look like some kind of clod who didn't have any manners. After traipsing around the city sidewalks for just a few minutes, your shoes are coated in ice and dirt and schmuck, so it stands to reason that nobody wears their shoes inside. So when I get home, I slide off my dirty boots and slip into a pair of $6 Belsta faux-alligator leather slippers. They keep my socks clean and my toes warm. 

2. Ukrainian catsup. Yes, it really is better (at least everyplace but McDonald's, where it is identical to every other McDonalds in the world). It is thick and rich and a little sweet--almost like home made! Of course, it comes, like everything here, in a bag rather than a bottle, but at least it has a screw-off top. This is what keeps my motivation up for making french fries...more on that later (this is the positive blog!). 

3. My apartment. I think this might be the nicest apartment I've ever rented, anywhere, and it costs less than a mediocre place in the suburbs. But my apartment has been recently renovated, with good heat, good windows, a security system, balcony, new stainless appliances (even though I can't quite figure out how to run the dishwasher!), and is located less than 10 steps from a good pizza place. Which brings me to...

4. Pizza. It's not quite like American pizza, but they always have "Pizza Margarita,"  (cheese pizza) two words which I can recognize in Russian and Ukrainian, and comes thin like NYC pizza. I smile every time, too, because my GF has the same name ;) 

5. My Red Oxx Chica (aka Chico). Yes, it really is a man purse...barely big enough to fit A4 sized books in it, but light and convenient and still big enough to carry a camera in when I need to be discreet. I still prefer to think of it is a miniature messenger bag, but regardless it's no embarrassment to carry one here because about half the guys do.

6. My French Bakery. It's just around the corner from my flat and has amazingly good breads of all sorts--cibatta, regular white bread, black bread, croissants (even chocolate....for just 50 cents), and even though I can't pronounce anything on the menu, the staff is always pleasant and gets me what I want. Oh, and a good loaf of bread costs $0.80. 

7. Tolerance for my Stupidity. Every day is an adventure here, and I make so many mistakes that I can't keep track of them all. For example, I bought some blini at the supermarket last week, not realizing that the clerk behind the meat counter had to weigh them and put a sticker on them before I could take them to the cashier. But when I went through, the cashier looks at me in that way that says, "You stupid American, don't you know these need prices?" and then she smiles and takes them back to the meat counter herself. 

8. iTunes. Okay, so technically this isn't even something in Kharkov, but after I got my internet working and realized that most of the free downloadable content I was expecting (I'm talking to you, Hulu!) wasn't available with a foreign IP address, I realized that if I wanted to watch ANYTHING in the English language besides BBC news and English Club TV, I had to get it from iTunes. It's been a lifesaver--I've watched every episode of The Wire at least twice (and a quick shout out to my old college dorm-mate Jim True-Frost, who has a great supporting role in the show)!

9. My fuzzy, leopard-print blanket. Sure, I'd never have even considering buying something like that in the US, but Margarita and I were at this giant outdoor market (on one of the coldest days of the year), and she pointed it out, so I said, cool. And it is the softest, fuzziest, snuggliest blanket I've ever had. 

10. Margarita. I'm not surprised by her in every way, but I have been positively surprised by her general helpfulness and patience with me. She laughs at my language screw ups, is tolerant when I can't stomach some traditionally wonderful Ukrainian food (pickled tomatoes and this disgusting cold salad come to mind), and has been integral to my getting anything much done. She sometimes takes me shopping, cooks for me, found this great apartment, found the slippers, the blanket, and, even though I don't see her as much as I'd like, she has made this first month bearable at worst and wonderful at times. 

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Tymoshenko won't quit

While not much a surprise, Tymoshenko ended her silence and declared that Yanokovych wasn't fairly elected:

Kiev Post

I spoke today with my friend Misha, who is an ardent Party of Regions member and supporter of Yanokovych. He called Tymoshenko a "bitch" who stole the election last time (the Orange Revolution) and who tries again to steal it now. I guess no matter where you go, ideology trumps reality. I can find no independent observer who argues that the election was anything other than fair, and I can understand why a plurality of people would want a different government than the one the Orange adherents have run the past few years.

Sure, I would have preferred Tymoshenko. She's at least intelligent. But this kind of political posturing makes me dislike her, makes me believe she's not really a democrat. Just another round of cynical posturing for her party's advantage (or, I think more likely, disadvantage).

It is too bad that the Orange Revolution failed so miserably to handle the things that Ukrainians care about, but that doesn't give Tymoshenko license to argue that the electorate was shut of out of this democratic process. I wasn't happy when Bush got the nod over Kerry by the Supreme Court (not that I really wanted Kerry either, but at least he had a brain). But the foundation of a democracy--regardless of whether anyone likes the results--is that voting, conducted fairly, is the rule of law.

Arches Two

This archway has a mural of Pushkin, depicting his deadly duel, on one side and a mixture of the Simpsons and Futurama on the other. I walk through it on my way to the grocery store. Sure, there are plenty of taggers here (there's one that says ", although I think it is more a sentiment here than an actual advertisement for some kind of web site), but I like the literary and artistic tone of much of the street art.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Arches One

One of my favorite subjects so far is the myriad archways that feel like some sort of portal to another dimension, branching out from every street. So I thought I'd start posting a new one every day (or so). Here's the first, Cafe Bamvyk:

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Kharkov at Night, part 2

I thought I'd try out my M8 and 50mm Lux under the streetlamps of the city and am pretty happy with a couple of these images from my neighborhood. I live in a mixed residential-commercial district about six blocks from the center of the city, and there are many bars, restaurants, and cafes that stay open until 11 or 12.

As a city goes, it is quite safe in my neighborhood, but I wouldn't want to be wandering around much after midnight...drunk hooligans are the same everywhere. I took these during a trip to the all-night market for a snack at about 10 p.m. It seems to snow about every other day here, making the sidewalks a constant mine field of slushy snow hiding underlying layers of very slippery ice. Maybe that's why the locals always are looking down when the walk!


Kharkov at Night, part Dva (2)

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Disappointing, but not Surprising

Yulia Tymoshenko, the loser in Sunday's election, plans to challenge the results in court despite all the independent observers calling the election free and fair. I admit, I would have preferred her over the Mechanic, but she lost. She and the Orange coalition had five years to do something with the country and they blew it. That's what happens when you screw up governance--you get booted. 

What's actually sad, though, is that moves like this make Ukraine even less of a democracy than ever. It's not as if observers found wide-spread irregularities, or even that the results were contrary to expectations, exit polling, or pre-polling. People are frustrated. So they booted the incumbent president in the first round of voting and the standard-bearer of the ruling government in the second round. 

Does it suck that the financial crisis happened on the Orange watch? Yes, most definitely. Can Yaunkovych fix the economy? Not likely. Are both candidates in the pocket of powerful oligarchs? Definitely. But it seems to me that when the candidates reject the results of an election because they lose (and I think Yaunkovych would have done the same thing had the shoe been on the other foot), then the legitimacy of the entire system is in doubt. 

I can't help but think this is just a ploy for some kind of leverage with the new administration. Maybe she wants to hang on to her prime minister post, or maybe she wants a voice in some other way in the new administration, but it looks to me like the only way she wins is if the appropriate judges are in her pocket rather than Yaunkovych's. And maybe that's the deal. Either way, it is a sad day for democracy in Ukraine. 

Monday, February 8, 2010

Yanukovich Wins...for now

It seems evident after 90% of the votes have been counted, with the election commissioner saying that most of the rest come from Yanukovych strongholds in the south and east, that Ukrainians elected the guy whose first victory in 2004 caused the Orange Revolution.

 CEC: With 89.13% of the vote counted, Yanukovych hangs on to 2.76% lead

This shouldn't come as much of a surprise. The financial crisis in 2008 crushed the Hryvina, causing people with savings to lose over half of it, and the economy contracted by something like 18 percent in 2009 while inflation remains in the double digits.

Yet, many Americans persist in their belief that simply having democratic elections will generate wealth and prosperity. It hasn't happened in Ukraine, and it generally doesn't happen that way. Sure, nobody wants to live under oppression, but nobody wants to go hungry, to work for wages that can't pay the bills, and see the value of their savings crushed under significant inflation. Most people, anywhere, just want some stability and personal prosperity. Whoever they think gives them a better chance of that will usually win.

Don't get me wrong. I'm no huge fan of Yanukovych. I would have preferred somebody with at least a modicum of general intelligence (he insists that Chekov, who spent much of his life in Crimea, was a poet). But I realized a few years ago during a trek across Russia that all the democracy in the world won't CREATE stability, and stability is crucial to the effective governance of a nation as well as a foundation for economic growth. People loved Putin not because he was a liberal democrat, but because he stabilized the Russian economy and society. This does not forgive the oppression of the people, by any means. It is just a tradeoff that Americans have never faced, never had to even consider.

Only when the USA has a better understanding of how the rest of the world lives can it make foreign policy that is a net benefit to the world.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

First Set of Photos

I finally got around to roaming the city with a camera for a's awfully cold here (15 F high today), so I hope you enjoy them. 

The neo-Tsarist Russian empire is an increasing security problem for the West

More division on the Russia-West front as well....
The neo-Tsarist Russian empire is an increasing security problem for the West


Okay, the black comedy here is in full swing. Witness, from the Christian Science Monitor:

A large group of crowbar-wielding men, accompanied by lawmakers loyal to Yanukovich, smashed their way into the Ukraina state printing house two weeks ago, claiming that millions of excess presidential ballots were being produced there to enable fraud by Tymoshenko's camp. Pro-Yanukovich parliamentarians have also tried in recent weeks to fire the national police chief, Yury Lutsenko, who is loyal to Prime Minister Tymoshenko, and to take over the Kiev Appeals Court, which is exactly where any forthcoming election challenges are likely to be heard.

And...there have been, I think two deaths related to the campaign. A representative of Tymoshenko was killed/died in Western Ukraine, in Ivano-Frankivsk:
Plus, another man from Yanukovich died at a polling station:

And....disappearing ink???

But it appears that Yanukovich will will, according to a western exit poll that is considered to be independent, by 48.7% to 45.5% (voters here can also vote for no one).

This is one crazy country. Maybe not more crazy than America, but certainly crazy in some unique ways....

Election Day

The children clambered back up the hill behind the opera hall and waited patiently for their next turn on the ice. One by one, or sometimes in pairs, they slid down a steep icy slope. Some went face first, others crouched on their feet, and few bothered with actual sleds. All around, parents and grandparents looked on, laughing as the kids spun and slipped down the embankment.

Across the park at Independence Square, Kharkov’s primary claim to fame as the largest public square in Europe or the World (depending on who you talk to), similar tension filled the air. The Lenin statue watched over the ice skaters twirling and falling on the outdoor rink. The shops that lined the square were quiet, as you would expect on any Sunday afternoon. I walked the streets of Kharkov for hours today, camera in hand, ready to catch some of the political tension that the newspapers said was rife in Ukraine these days, but what I found--indeed, what I really expected to find--was people enjoying a sunny day off. No people gathering for protests, no trouble at polling stations, no sign even that it was election day. 

Kharkov is the heart of Victor Yaunkovich country, the largest city in East Ukraine ,where people generally speak Russian, the economy is driven by heavy industry, and the city is only 40 kilometers from the border with Russia. There have been campaign signs and political booths set up in the few weeks since I arrived here on the eve of the primary elections, but otherwise, nobody is excited about this election. Yaunkovich handily won the primary, beating his challenger by 10 percentage points over one of the leaders of the Orange Revolution, which ousted him only six years ago after a fraudulent vote. 

But with one exception (the real estate agent who manages my apartment building), the prevailing attitude was of disgust. Vote for Yaunkovich and you are voting for a mafia-tied strong man whose educational credentials are suspect and who served time as a youth for criminal violence. Vote for Yulia Tymoshenko, the stunning blonde with trademark braid and the rhetorical skills of Reagan (or so I am told), and you are voting for a savvy, wealthy gas magnate whose bickering with former Orange compatriot and current President Viktor Yuschenko has kept the country in political gridlock as the global financial crisis has crippled Ukraine’s economy. And she has her own mafia chieftain backer, too. 

Nothing in this campaign has suggested politics will get smooth soon. For months, it seems the two main candidates, as well as the president, have simply thrown charges of vote manipulation while doing everything in their own powers to manipulate the vote for themselves. Yaunkovich pushed through several election law “reforms” in the days leading to the vote, and Tymoshenko charged that Yaunkovich people murdered one of her campaign staffers today, and her camp also has vowed to challenge the results of the election before any of the votes come in. The current president canned the governor of my district yesterday, but he refused to step down. And Yaunkovich muscle has also been brought into Kiev to make sure the election tabulating is fair. Kinda reminds me of the ’04 Bush-Kerry election, but with the usual Eastern violence and threats of violence thrown in. 

I guess they both have some kind of platform--Yaunkovich for law and order and a balanced policy between the West and Russia, Tymoshenko for good governance and more integration with the EU while maintaining a good relationship with Moscow. I’m not even sure how different their platforms actually are. But nobody seems to believe or care. They just want “a chicken in every pot,” something neither seem to be able to deliver or seems to even promise with concrete policy ideas. 

Reminds me a little bit of how politics works in America--candidates controlled or hamstrung by their financial backers (we call the mafia here corporations; at least the Ukrainians are a little more honest with the names), with only sidelong interest in what voters actually care about. Our Jeffersonian democracy died a long time ago; Ukraine’s never even got a chance to grow.