May 12, 2018: What You Leave Behind

Somewhere out beyond Moscow’s Third Ring Road, a group of enthusiastic amateur archivists has undertaken a truly heroic project – to collect all of the loose odds and ends of Russia’s Twentieth Century material culture.  They have rented an old warehouse complex south of Kuzminki Park, packed it beyond capacity with everything from kitchen appliances to Soviet-era arcade games, and called it the Museum of Industrial Culture.

 

The men behind the project seem to be gregarious old putterers – fix-it men with eye for design and detail.  They greeted me warmly and charge nothing for entry, though they will gladly accept donations.  During my visit, they were engaged in various restoration and conservation projects – getting that old Soviet dirt bike running, feeding the guard dogs some kind of ad hoc mash, sorting some new addition to the collection.

What appears to be a mess on first glance is actually carefully organized by a logic that becomes mostly apparent to any visitor careful enough to notice.  All of the old Soviet cars, trucks, and buses are out back – along with several partial jet fuselages, one passenger, one fighter.  There is a case full of old food packaging and another with toys.  Some of the arcade games turn on, and visitors are encouraged to play.

I did not have the touch for the shooting game, much to the curator’s amusement.

 

Lined up in the shade outside is a row of Soviet-style vending machines – which dispense beverages into the buyer’s own personal cup.  If you’re thirsty and you didn’t bring a cup, you can use the communal one that is chained to the machine.

There’s nothing too obscure for these guys – there are various styles of the metal grating that guard windows on the Soviet apartment buildings throughout the city.  They’ve got 1980s computer equipment and old maps showing train routes throughout the USSR.  They even have those coin operated mechanical animals that sit outside supermarkets.  Whole bins of screws and fasteners.

Nothing here is sorted chronologically, and there is almost no signage.  I bet these men could tell me stories about every item in their collection, but I don’t speak Russian and they don’t seem to speak English.  All of that context would be fascinating – it is a conversation I’d love to be a part of and a book I’d die to read… But just handling these things – getting right up beside them, squinting to recognize that weird decide as a 1960s vacuum cleaner or is it a men’s electric razor?  Smelling the leaky oil from that motorcycle’s crankcase or hearing that old arcade game roar to life – these men are engaged in something bigger than a hobby…

 

They are archeologists working in the recent past, collecting the things that the rest off the world has called obsolete.  What most Russians have discarded and replaced, they have rescued and preserved.

This is a barely living history, full of the granular details that no one bothers to note – because they’re so mundane, so omnipresent that no one in the future will find them interesting, right?  I mean everyone uses a typewriter for important papers, and we all consult the phone book from time to time, when we’re not too busy reading the newspaper…

Those things once seemed like they were so obvious, so unimprovable that they would just be around forever – like your smartphone or your car do today…  But one day, your great-grandkids or some future archeologist will be confounded by the material traces of your life, too.

The Museum of Industrial Culture is a great pairing with my afternoon visit to the more conventional, state-sanctioned Moscow Museum of Archeology.  This museum sits several stories underground, near the Kremlin, where excavations at the start of the Twenty-First Century uncovered the ruins of Seventh Century bridge – that spanned a river that has since been confined to an underground channel and completely forgotten by modern Muscovites.

 

This museum has the glass cases and captions – as well as state-of-the-art VR goggles – of a more conventional institution.  A city like Moscow – that is more than 800 years old – turns up its fair share of random debris during everyday construction projects, and much that of that randomness has made its way here.  Literal pots full of gold coins hint at moments of tumult and uncertainty from centuries past – why else would somewhere bury a basket of more than 3000 coins and never come back for it?

Equally evocative are the bits of cloth – a woolen belt or a pair of socks, the scraps of a leather shoe that was uncomfortable the day it was made.  There are bits of colorful glass jewelry – tacky by modern standards, but good god, those Technicolor greens and yellows must have dazzled in a world dominated by dust, mud, and snow, like Russia had to have been 500 years ago.

These two museums have a lot in common, and leave me reflecting on my own too brief experience in this ancient city.  It is my last day in Moscow, and I have barely heard the opening lines in the epic poem that is Russia….

What do I leave behind?  It’s not a medieval comb or a rotary telephone from the Soviet-era – it is more lessons, more ideas, more points of view that I have only begun to recognize, let alone learn…

I’ll be back – with more questions in tow.

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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:

 

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.

 

Write a Poem in Ancient Mayan

Here’s an idea to get your social studies students going — have them write a poem using the glyphic script of the ancient Maya. 

Background on the language can be found with this free Openendedsocialstudies lesson plan, The Written Language of the Ancient Maya.  Then, your students can use this dictionary to write a short poem in the Maya script, using at least a dozen glyphs. 

Have students share their poems with the class and reflect — does composing in Mayan effect the experience of writing and reading?

cocao
Chocolate beverages were popular among the ancient Mayas, who used special recipients to serve it. They often consumed it cold, hot, or spiced with chili, annatto, or vanilla. The inscription on this vessel records its function for drinking a specific type of cacao, and the name and place of residence of its owner, Tzakal u K’ahk’ Hutal Ek’, lord of Acanceh.

Find more free lessons on the Maya at Openendsocialstudies.org.  

There are also plenty of free lessons featuring other peoples from world history.

Uxmal: Thrice Built City of the Maya

Check out this new Openendedsocialstudies documentary short, shot on location at Uxmal, a Maya ruin in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.  This tour of the city is a great introduction to Maya culture and can be enjoyed by the casual viewer, the history buff, or in the classroom, in conjunction with our brand new (and totally free) unit on the ancient Maya.

The Inca: The Highest Achievements of Andean Civilization

Continue reading “The Inca: The Highest Achievements of Andean Civilization”