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View from Vitalia: Of capsules, yachts and goats

Considering the 100th anniversary of the Russian revolution, a history of London Docklands, Google Street View and other related subjects.

I never thought I would live up to this day – a hundred years since the so-called ‘October Revolution’ in Russia, the tragedy that wrought tremendous pain and suffering and affected the lives of millions of people all over the globe. Its echoes could be heard in today’s news, when President Trump is visiting South Korea, a country with the world’s fastest broadband and most precarious geographic location – a stone’s throw from the USSR’s direct descendant, ‘communist’ North Korea, whose deranged baby-faced dictator keeps rattling his nuclear-powered ballistic ‘sabres’ in the face of the West. 

Exactly a hundred years ago, according to the eyewitness accounts - broadcast last Sunday by Radio Svoboda - the central streets of Petrograd around the Winter Palace were filling up with “drunk, uncouth and foul-mouthed sailors and soldiers”. Fifty years ago, in my native city of Kharkov in Soviet Ukraine, my school teachers were busy stuffing a scroll of parchment (or was it just a piece of crude Soviet cardboard?) into a bespoke vacuum-filled capsule, engineered by our physics teacher, nicknamed Donkey. The scroll constituted a bombastic ‘Letter to the Future’, put together on behalf of the students by our one-eyed, yet politically all-seeing, history teacher, nicknamed Cyclops (I told the story of that ridiculous ‘letter’ in my After All column from volume 12, issue 7/8).

The Letter, describing our ‘happy childhood’ and full of praises for the Communist party and ‘personally Comrade Brezhnev’ was supposed to be taken out of the capsule, stored in a specially created niche in the wall of our school’s assembly hall, on 7th November 2017, i.e. today. Can we assume that as I am writing these lines the new generation of ‘Donkeys’ and ‘Cyclopes’, assisted by the most conformist of the pupils, are busy liberating the capsule from the niche and opening the Letter? I don’t think so. There’s little doubt that the long-suffering ultra-Soviet Letter - alongside red banners, ‘Long Live the Communist Party!’ slogans and streets named after Lenin, Andropov and Spartacus (sic) - has fallen victim of ‘de-communisation’, recently announced by Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko, whose decree strictly banned all kinds of communist and Nazi (sic) symbols and propaganda. Who could have thought that Donkey’s capsule, with the daring engineering solution it contained, was doomed to be disposed of in such a crude manner?

Here I could argue with an old French saying ‘plus ça change’, for certain things do change with time. I was exposed to one of the examples the other day while visiting London Docklands, armed with a freshly published book by Peter Stone, ‘The History of the Port of London: A Vast Emporium of all Nations’ (Pen & Sword Books Ltd, £19.99, ISBN 9781473860377). When living in the nearby area of Tower Hamlets, I used to admire the Docklands, that alternative City of London. I liked its spirit of innovation and reconstruction which could be felt everywhere alongside the sweet nostalgia for its days as the world’s largest port, with a vast network of functioning docks, so vividly described in Peter Stone’s book. That history can now be found only in the names of some DLR stations - West India Quay, Pontoon Dock, Westferry - and in a handful of now-useless specially preserved port cranes, looking lost and out of place amidst all those new high-rise buildings.

The function to which I was invited was held inside the Sunborn Yacht Hotel, a former luxury yacht (looking very much like those of the Russian oligarchs in Monte Carlo’s marina) moored forever in the Royal Victoria Dock. From the hotel’s open terrace, I was watching flocks of confused seagulls dashing chaotically among skyscrapers – a living (or shall I say flying?) paradox of modern London.

Yes, wherever you look, you see paradoxes. Another one was waiting for me at an industry event I had to attend last week. The conference was all about ‘smart’ and ‘intelligent’ solutions for cities, public transport and such like. The event’s website promised an easy and entirely paperless registration procedure which I had followed to the letter a good month in advance. According to the automated message, my registration was successful and I could collect my conference badge at a reception desk on the day of the event. Imagine my surprise when I was asked to produce a printed copy of the confirmation email at the entrance! Not too ‘intelligent’, let alone ‘smart’, if you ask me.

Despite all the inherent paradoxes, life goes on. And here’s a long-awaited (by me) bit of good news: I am very pleased to report that my second most favourite mini-nation (after the Falkland Islands) has been finally picked up by Google Street View and has therefore become a tad more prominent and a tad more noticeable on the world’s map.

Only a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned the Ordnance Survey mapping of the last hitherto unmapped bit of British territory - the tiny Scottish island of Foula. Now the Faroe Islands will appear on Google Street View, hurray!

To be honest, I do understand the difficulties Google Street View could have faced in the Faroe Islands, where there are not many streets to begin with. The semi-independent, football-crazy nation of 60,000 people is so riddled with hills, hillocks and mountains that finding a sizeable stretch of flat surface there is a problem. Each time a football pitch is built (and there are over 500 of those), another mountain has to be excavated and razed to the ground. For the same reason, the Faroes’ main (and only) airport boasts one of the world’s shortest air strips. Landing there has never failed to send shivers down my spine.

I can clearly recall one sunny Sunday I spent on Vagar, the third-biggest island in the Faroes archipelago. The guesthouse I was booked into for the night was in the hamlet of Beur, at the end of the island’s only 18km-long road (or ‘street’, if you wish) – too long to walk from the ferry terminal, so reluctantly I had to rent a car and drive there. There were no other cars on the road, so I was able to get away with swaying from its left side to the right and back, out of sheer boredom and without an accident. A couple of times, however, I had to swerve to avoid head-on collisions with the ubiquitous sheep, who were jaywalking in the ‘street’ (sorry, road) freely, and once with a nearby mountain, too.

Near one of the few villages on my way, I was thrilled to spot another car – an old jalopy moving towards me at a snail’s pace. When it finally came alongside me, I saw an elderly, neatly dressed gentleman behind its wheel. As he crawled along, he was looking not at the road in front of himself, but to the sides, turning his head right and left, like a leisurely pedestrian admiring the landscape. With awe, I realised with sudden clarity that he was admiring the landscape and that he was a pedestrian, only a pedestrian behind the wheel. He was out on a Sunday walk in his car!

I have to confess that so persistent and all-permeating was the Sunday quiet (read boredom) on Vagar that by the end of the day, for lack of anything else to do, I ended up going for a walk in my car, too!

In the end, let me fulfill my promise of quoting the anecdotes from munificent readers’ emails received in response to the Soviet lightbulbs mini-quiz. From now on, in each blog I will reproduce a reader’s mini-story. Here’s one from Nigel Spooner:

“The various tales of 1990s Russia were all too sadly believable. They reminded me of a story from some Czech friends of pre-Velvet Revolution USSR air travel on an Antonov, where a goat brought unofficially onboard by a passenger then chewed its way through their luggage stored at the front of the plane. Needless to say, the goat was the only passenger to get any sort of in-flight meal service.”

Very relevant to the sad anniversary we are marking today which, among other things, led to persistent and severe food shortages in what was potentially one of the world’s richest countries. Here’s another popular Soviet joke: “Question: what would happen if they build socialism in the Sahara Desert? Answer: nothing at first, but soon severe shortages of sand would set in.”

In the words of the famous Polish satirist Stanisław Jerzy Lec, it is by laughing that humankind says goodbye to its past.

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