Tuesday, April 28, 2009

TWMM: Russia's Canal

In the 1930s, the Soviet Union undertook a massive construction project. England had Suez. America had Panama. The USSR's White Sea-Baltic Canal was just as massive an undertaking.

The massive canal starts at Saint Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland, travels up the Neva River and into the massive Lake Ladoga before it cuts overland for many miles until it reaches another massive and more remote freshwater lake, Onega, and from there it heads due north, through even more remote regions and through smaller lakes until at last it reaches the White Sea not too far from Archangel'sk, Russia's great northern port.

The canal doesn't save nearly as much time as the other two great canals of the world, but it allows purely domestic transport from Russia's second largest city to anywhere along the northern coast, without any need for routing past Germany and all of Scandinavia--and in the 1930s, finding a shortcut around Germany had its advantages.

The canal took less than two years to build and was hailed as a wonder of Soviet engineering, a triumph of the Five Year Plan.

Over 100,000 laborers, most of them conscripts against their will, died in the construction of the canal.

A popular brand of cigarettes, Belomorkanal, commemorated the epic feat for the Soviets for decades to come:
These unusual cigarettes were 'papirosas'; they were very strong and had no filters. They are still made today.

And for many years the canal, like the cigarettes, thrived; its yearly tonnage peaked in the late days of the Soviet Union, in 1985, when over 7 million tonnes passed through the canal.

But those days are over. Because the canal is too shallow, and because Russia is a shadow, and because the route is not so necessary anymore, this once-great waterway wrought by human hands at the cost of a hundred thousand lives sees hardly thirty ships a day plying its lonely route toward the vast northern reaches of an empire resurgent only when its past decline is ignored.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Tuesdays with Memento Mori: Paul McCartney

Paul McCartney has done quite a good job of maintaing his joie de vivre despite his advanced age. Nevertheless he is no starry-eyed youth, and despite all the wealth and accolades his high position can provide, the work that made him famous is 40 years behind him, there are no more journeys of wonder to the Orient, no more mysteries to solve, and of course two of his ancient collaborators and friends are dead, one for almost 3 decades. He was made a Member of the British Empire by the Queen when he was just 23.

He may still tour and perform and support good causes, but he is still an old man, and the glory days of his youth are forever gone.
Memento Mori.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Forget You'll Die

Apologies for those offended by the lack of a memento mori yesterday.

Sometimes joie de vivre can sweep you away and you forget that you'll ever die.

The Romans didn't want this to happen, but I think we can let it slide for once.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


Rejoice in the Paschal Feast, for Christ has broken the barrier between the sacred and the profane!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Sunday is Adventurer Day

To spice things up, add a human element to Axis Monday, and get me to actually post again, it's time to announce a new weekly column. Every Sunday is Adventurer Day, and I will profile an Adventurer.

Adventurers are normal men who do the extraordinary. Their deeds invariably involve defying the norms of society and forsaking mundanity to explore a less well-charted world. Their transgressive quests catapult them from initial obscurity to much stranger heights. The best achieve renown. The worst fail ignominiously. But all of them are adventurers.

Some--like Alexander, who is far too well known for this series--try to shift quite obviously into the realm of the wondrous, in his case by believing he was a god, and getting the priests to go along with it. In most cases, the adventurers in this showcase will not do something so dramatic as that. But they will show that they stand outside the normal realm of men.
You haven't heard of our first adventurer:

Boris Skossyreff
Flavor: Conqueror
Century: Early 20th
Feat: Singlehandedly Tried to Conquer A Sovereign Nation

No one knows quite where Boris Skossyreff was born, or when. He used far too many fake passports during the course of his career for such information to be pinned down. He was from the Russian Empire, as his name reveals clearly enough, and he was born presumably in the 1890s. The date of his death varies even more--from the 1940s all the way up to a venerable (and rather likely) old age in 1989.

For most of his life he was a con man. He passed bad checks, committed fraud, lied habitually about his place of birth. He spent time in Spanish prisons, American military interrogation camps, French detainment camps, German jails, and Siberian gulags. Par for the course for an adventurer.

But Boris was no mere ne'er-do-well.

He spent much of his late 20s and early 30s living in the shadow of the Pyrenees. Sometime in the 1930s he moved to Andorra, one of the European microstates. In late 1933, he even earned Andorran citizenship. It only encouraged further civic involvement.

In 1934, Boris showed just how much he wanted to help the Andorran government. He formally proposed an overhaul of the tiny principality's bureaucracy. Magnanimously, he suggested that several new offices be created, and suggested that he be appointed to all of them.

The government politely declined and tossed him out of their high valleys in May 1934.

No adventurer takes such setbacks lying down, though. Boris took matters into his own hands and decided to take on the corrupt state directly.

In July, Boris declared himself Boris the First, Sovereign Prince of Andorra, and regent to His Majesty the King of France, even though there hadn't been a French monarch for nearly 70 years, since Napoleon III Bonaparte's days.

Not only that, he declared war on Andorra's head of state--the Bishop of Urgell, nominal co-ruler of the mountain realm along with the French President (not King). Was Boris a devout secularist? A crusader against religious corruption? A mere opportunist?

History never gave us the chance to learn. His reign as "Prince of the Valleys of Andorra, Count of Orange, and Baron of Skossyreff, Sovereign of Andorra and Defender of the Faith" was short-lived. After a little more than a week on the job, the vast apparatus of the Spanish state descended upon him.

Why would Spain overthrow their new neighbor?

Perhaps because he swore allegiance to the French King. Perhaps because he overthrew the Andorran General Council and placed himself in its stead. Perhaps because of his new constitution--by all accounts just!, or the new provisional government, or the new courts.

Regardless, the Baron did not languish long in Spanish prison. By November he was free for new adventures, none of them as exciting, and Andorra by all appearances was behind him.

Or was it?

Mere history suggests he never returned to Andorra.
But in Russia, he became a figure of legend. Newspapers reported on his reign long after it had ended. According to their stories, Boris ruled as sovereign of Andorra until 1941, when the Vichy government overthrew his righteous state.

It's not true that he ruled for 8 years--just 8 days. But that hardly matters.

He may not have succeeded in everything he wanted. But he certainly tried to rule, and justly, and what more can you ask?

Friday, April 10, 2009

Axis Friday

Obligatory. Don't need to say much about this one. Trinitarian, hierophanic, liminal. The Sacred tower, the Sacred mountain, the Sacred man:

Monday, April 6, 2009

Therein lies the source of all our woes

The valiant vanguard of cultural purity, our beloved Fox News, has finally isolated the cause of our overpowering sense of entitlement as a nation:

"This evil, evil man," Fred Rogers.

I am having great difficulty wrapping my head around this. Every day I am more firmly convinced that whoever pulls the strings at Fox is one of the greatest performance artists of all time. Dadaists, surrealists, modernists, postmodernists, and The Onion alike would weep before material of this caliber.

In a totally unrelated photo, here's Fred Rogers getting the Presidential Medal of Freedom: