May 8, 2018: New Perspectives in Art

This morning our group met with Aleksey Pushkov, an outspoken and prominent Russian politician, in a Soviet-vintage government meeting space set above a nondescript strip mall.  He opened our audience in this wood paneled conference room with a humble, “What do you want from me?”

5DDF5C25-217B-4AF4-B8E0-6F9303FF7BE7.jpegHe then launched into a thoughtful outline of the world from Russia’s point of view, speaking immaculate English without an interpreter or even notes for reference.  It was all that I could ask for…

To summarize, hopefully without oversimplifying, he pointed out that the world order has been in a state of transition for years.  The US may still be the single most influential country by most measures – but it certainly has less claim to unchallenged dominance than it once had…  His commentary was far reaching, but for me, the key take away was that Americans must consider how it sounds and feels to the rest of the world when we talk about our exceptionalism.

We tell ourselves that we know what it is right.  That we are the good guys – the late arriving hero in world history.  And this self-righteous attitude often makes us blind to other points of view.  After all, if we are the good guys – and Russia disagrees with us about something – then logically, they must be the bad guys.  Right?

We also refuse to learn from history.

Combine these traits, and you get a situation like Syria.  The US espouses regime change in Syria.  Russia does not.  To hear Pushkov tell it, this has less to do with Russia liking Assad – and much more to do with lessons learned from Iraq.  In Iraq the US made regime change our business, upending the Middle East, incubating ISIS, helping along the Syrian civil war, which has fueled the refugee risks that is now driving the EU apart…  And now we want to topple the Syrian government, brutal as it may be, with no clear plan for what comes next…  Pushkov calls that irresponsible, and it is tough to disagree.

The Russians certainly subscribe to a realpolitik view of the world…  But US willingness to pursue ideals that are not grounded in reality – however well-intentioned those ideals may be – can lead to some very serious consequences…

When your default position is I’m the good guy, and I mean well, you don’t tend to examine your own actions quite so closely…  You are not so self-aware.

In the second half of the day, I learned I was not fully aware of Russia’s past either.  I visited a museum near Gorky Park, full of Russia’s 20th century art.  I went for the social realism – the signature style of the USSR’s public and propagandistic art, but I was so pleasantly surprised to see a plethora of other styles created under Soviet rule…  The work ranged from abstract to surprisingly personal…  It was at times evocative and in moments, it hinted at subversion.

I have been taught to think of Soviet artists as closely managed and repressed, but I have found that many managed to produce expressive, diverse work.  I know there were things that they were forbidden to say expressly in their art – but sometimes limitations push artists to communicate their message more subtly, right under the noses of their censors.

That said, the gallery featuring work from the 1990s – the years after the USSR collapsed and Russia became a more open society – is full of jokes these artists must have been waiting decades to share.  And there is a heck of a lot of glee to be found in the work from this period as well.  Just look:

 

May 7, 2018: Stories

How we choose to tell our stories sometimes matters more than the story itself.
If there is a theme for today, that is it.

 


Spent the morning at RT studios. In case you haven’t caught it somewhere on the high end of your satellite TV package, RT is a Russian news service that broadcasts in the English language. If you ever want to know how Russia is talking about Syria, Trump, or any of the other Russia-proximate stories that seem to dominate the American news cycle these days, RT is the place to find out. It isn’t a propaganda vehicle, per se. And yet, most of their coverage has a way of looking slightly off model to the American viewer.
But in truth, I think that is just how things look from this side of the planet.
Everyone we meet is very earnest – idealistic, even. They are excited about reporting the news. But the media’s relationship to power in this country is very different from America. Whereas there is an expectation in the US that the media should adopt a skeptical, even adversarial posture relative to the government, there is no strong tradition of this in Russia. None.
Not in czarist times. Not in Soviet. Maybe briefly in 90s, but all that got them was chaos, corruption, and unpredictability. And that is a high price to pay for an independent media.
Maybe Russians are naive for believing what they see on TV. Or maybe they are more sophisticated than the average American for taking it with a grain of salt.
So RT is telling a Russian story. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it is propaganda. Or maybe it is propaganda, but that doesn’t mean that it is not also true.
The same could be said for the story told in the Victory Museum, which we visit after a fine lunch in restaurant devoted to Soviet-era nostalgia. Just as certain Americans remember the racially polarized, repressive 50s with fondness, despite those negatives, there is a big market here for golden warm memories of years past…

 


The Victory Museum outlines the broad strokes of Russia’s World War II experience – its struggle for survival against the Nazis, to whom it nearly succumbed. Most of the world had their money on the Nazis. It looked like Russia’s number was up. But through superhuman sacrifice – to the tune of more than 20 million lives – the Russians prevailed, breaking the back of the German army before a single boot hit the sand at Normandy.
Is the version of events portrayed in the museum self-serving? Sure. It leaves out many of the more egregious Soviet actions – the retribution against Nazi collaborators, for example… The ways in which the very telegraphed Nazi attack still managed to catch Stalin off guard…
But to be fair, most American stories about the war ignore the Russians more or less entirely. The invasion of Normandy is D-Day, which decided the war in Europe. We sort of saved the Russians, to hear it laid out in most history books or Hollywood films.
So we all tell stories.

May 6, 2018: On the Eve of Putin’s Fourth Term

Moscow is like one big monument to the past.  It is full of hammers and sickles, and grand, imposing Soviet-era statues.  The so-called Seven Sisters – Stalin-era skyscrapers that were supposed to make Moscow look like the capital of a modern superpower – now look dated.  They haunt the city’s skyline like testaments to a world that might have been…  Imagine what the world would have been like had the USSR poured its resources into further developing that unique form of architecture, instead of a generation or so of nuclear and missile development…  Instead of a generation of backing satellite regimes and leftist revolutionaries the world over.

With reference to all of that Cold War stuff, I could write the same things about my own country…  What if the United States had declined to pursue those same provocative actions?  What if instead we had looked inward and gotten serious about, say, a War on Poverty?

Well, the world would be a different place in so many ways…  Not the least of which is that this mini-Cold War we are now reliving – typified by election hacking and assassinations by nerve toxins – would likely be the stuff of fiction instead of fact.

And Vladimir Putin, whose fourth inauguration is tomorrow, would probably be an anonymous government functionary in some modified, but still socialist USSR.

It is a strange coincidence that I am in Moscow for this moment.  I’m here to commemorate Victory Day – May 9 – the anniversary of the surrender of Nazi Germany to the Allied Powers at the end of World War II.  What we used to call V-E Day.  The last moment where the United States and Russia could plausibly claim to be standing shoulder-to-shoulder on anything.

On May 6, as I was landing at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport, more than a thousand anti-Putin demonstrators were arrested for protesting against Putin’s impending inauguration.  They see him as corrupt – as a man who has held on to office in part by preventing free and open elections in his own country.  By encouraging the same thing in mine.

Putin is a man who has learned from history.

Competition, not collaboration, was the story of the Twentieth Century.  And that winners don’t need to play fair, because they can retell the story of their triumph anyway they please.

More missiles mean more security.

More guns mean more safety.

Poverty isn’t a social problem, it is a personal one.

Why am I in Russia this week?

Because I’m trying to remember that fleeting moment when collaboration was necessary for survival – when both Russia and the United States found themselves with their back to each other, fighting for their very existence.

I wonder how dire things must get in our present before we can see each other in that light once more.

More funky, dated skyscrapers more 1945 and all of the missed potential it carried…  Less missiles, less stolen elections, less climate change, less 2018.

Live from Moscow

May 9 marks the 73rd anniversary of Victory Day, the surrender of Nazi Germany to the Allied powers.  A mere footnote in much of the West, it is a grand national holiday in modern Russia.

All next week, Open Ended Social Studies founder Thomas Kenning will be coming to you live from Moscow.

Check this page for daily posts covering the festivities.

Follow Openendedsocialstudies on Instagram to get the whole picture.

Teach your students about who beat the Nazis and how.

Want to be a better person? Travel can make it happen.

Mark Twain once wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”

That is pretty much the sentiment upon which this entire site was founded, but did you know that there is science to back up that wonderful idea?

Check out some of ways in which travel can open up your world and sharpen your mind.

Travel really can make you a better person – why not use it to teach right in your own classroom with some of these great lesson ideas from Openendedsocialstudies?

  • Live From Moscow, 2018:
  • New Horizons in Peru and Bolivia, Travel Writing:
    • Adventure Blog.
    • A Guided Tour of Bolivia, 2016 – Explore the streets of La Paz and El Alto, scramble through the 500 year-old silver mines of Potosi, or race across the barren salt flats of Uyuni.  Supplementary photos and information on Bolivia, past and present.
    • A Guided Tour of Peru, 2016 – Explore the streets of Cusco and Lima, scramble through Inca ruins from Machu Picchu on down, take a slow boat up the Amazon River from Iquitos, and an even slower boat across Lake Titicaca to the floating man-made islands of the Uros.  Supplementary photos and information on Peru, past and present.
  • TEACH in Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, Travel Writing:
    • Adventure Blog.
    • A Guided Tour of the Gulf States is a curated photo essay.  Stroll the streets of Manama and Doha, ride to the top of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, witness the grandeur of Islamic architecture at the Sheikh Zayed Mosque before spending the evening dune bashing with high-paying tourists in the sands of Abu Dhabi.
  • An American in Cuba, Travel Writing:
  • A Guided Tour of Maya Mexico, 2017 – Explore the ruins of Ek’ Balam, Uxmal, and Chichen Itza, scramble through streets of colonial Merida, and sample the cuisine and culture of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.  Supplementary photos and information on the Yucatan, past and present.
  • Scenes from Cambodia, 2014 – supplementary photos to enhance a sense of place.
  • Scenes from China, 2015 – supplementary photos to enhance a sense of place.
  • Scenes from Nicaragua, 2015 – supplementary photos to enhance a sense of place.
  • A Guided Tour of Moscow, 2017 – Explore Red Square and Gorky Park, race through the Moscow Metro, and participate in the 2017 Victory Day celebrations commemorating the end of World War II.  Supplementary photos and information about Moscow, Russia.
  • Scenes from South Korea, 2015 – From the glistening towers of Seoul to the DMZ, from the bustle of downtown to the sanctuary of its Buddhist monasteries – supplementary photos to enhance a sense of place.

 

Take a Guided Tour of Maya Mexico, 2017

Explore the ruins of Ek’ Balam, Uxmal, and Chichen Itza, scramble through streets of colonial Merida, and sample the cuisine and culture of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula on this guided photo essay (complete with suggested activities for use in your social studies classroom.)

This photo essay works perfectly in conjunction with the rest of our free Maya unit.

Suggested Activities

  1. Choose any topic described in a photo or caption in this album. Do deeper reading and research on that topic, creating a presentation to share with your class.
  2. Research and plan a realistic travel itinerary through Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula that focuses specifically on its Maya and colonial histories. Explain the historical or cultural relevance of your choices. Present the final itinerary with photos and estimated costs for the whole trip.

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What is Openendedsocialstudies.org?

Open Ended Social Studies collects and presents original and dynamic classroom materials focusing on parts of the world neglected by traditional world history textbooks in the United States.  The middle and high school lessons hosted here aim to foster critical and historical thinking, greater cultural awareness, and a sense of wonder about the world and our place in it. Open Ended Social Studies is free, always growing, and collaborative – please check back and contribute often.

Browse all of the free texts, activities, and lesson plans – all of the chapters missing from your conventional textbook.

Check out the library of travel writing and photography from previous adventures in the field.