• Old Photos: Thomas Hart Benton’s History of Missouri

    Previously: Thomas Hart Benton Paints the Persephone.

    In 1935 the Missouri legislature commissioned Thomas Hart Benton to paint a mural history of the State on the walls of the lounge in the State House in Jefferson City. It chose Tom Benton because he is Missouri’s ablest painter and comes from one of Missouri’s most distinguished families. The legislature, however, never expected to get anything like the Benton History of Missouri which was completed just before this year’s session began in January. No pretty glorification, the murals turned out to be a raw and animated review of Missouri’s past and present. They gave full space to Missouri’s first settlers, its first railroad, its agriculture and industry, its great Champ Clark. But they also gave space to a slave auction, a lynching, Jesse James of Clay County, Frankie and Johnny of St.Louis. Loud were complaints that Benton was vulgar, that he had distorted Missouri into a “houn’ dog State”. But Benton Supporters pointed out that Missouri was, after all , a “houn’ dog State” whose natives did call each other “pukes.” As the fuss subsided, Missourians began to look at the murals more calmly. Though they admitted that the pictures were interesting, they still felt that it wasn’t a fitting way for a son of Missouri to tell the story of his native State.

    Artist Thomas Hart Benton presents former Gov. Guy B. Park w original pencil sketch from which the governor's portrait in the History of Missouri mural was painted.© Time Inc.Alfred Eisenstaedt

    Continue reading →
  • Behind the Iron Curtain: Komsomol

    I am not sure what to make of the fact that one year anniversary of this blog falls on the 90th anniversary of Komsomol – Communist Union of Youth which I joined at the ge 14 back in 1983. Komsomol was a third step in the Soviet brainwashing pyramid after the Little Octobrists and the Young Pioneers. Knowing that the big 90th anniversary is coming up I was trying to think what do I remember about being in Komsomol and couldn’t come up with anything. By 1983 joining all the communist organizations while still mandatory, became more or less a formality. People who refused to join were constantly harassed by Komsomol leaders appealing to their non-existent communist spirit; on the other hand, “troublemakers” and openly religious people weren’t easily accepted, which could have had a negative influence on their future lives and chances of getting into college.
    In order to join one had to fill out an application and be recommended by two members of Komsomol and/or Communist Party and also by a local Young Pioneer Organization. To make it look even more serious the candidate had to study the Komsomol Bylaws and be able to answer specific questions. If I remember correctly “specific” questions were supplied to us ahead of time. An artist’s depiction of the ceremony in 1962 looked like this:

    For your homework find a difference between the painting above and its previous version from 1949. Discuss amongst yourself.

    In my case it didn’t look anything like that; several people got accepted at once after answering some questions with prepared answers. A member of Komsomol had a membership ID like this

    and a pin like this

    On the right side of the membership ID you see one of the pages where a payment of membership dues was marked with a special stamp. Komsomol was the first of the Communist Organizations that had actual dues. Since the Soviet kids didn’t work (unlike poor exploited children in the West) the monthly dues were two kopecks, pretty much a pocket change but multiplied by millions of members it added up to huge amounts of money.

    I continued to pay membership dues throughout the technical school and in the army. It increased a little but was always a small amount.

    One could stay in Komsomol until the age of 28. Some joined the communist party before that, some just let their membership run out. For my generation Komsomol slowly dissipated without a trace and no memories. When I was leaving the country in 1992 I didn’t even know where my ID was. Many Komsomol leaders used their positions, connections,probably some of the dues and other property to acquire huge amounts of wealth and become oligarchs. The rest of us just moved on…

    Just like many other attributes of the USSR Komsomol is now fondly remembered by some. Big celebrations were held this week to commemorate the 90th anniversary. Years are like beer-goggles of history, they make even the ugly past look better.

    And now we dance…

    Continue reading →
  • My Date With Reuben

    This morning couldn’t come fast enough. I haven’t had a date for a long time and ever since I saw the sign with his name on it I couldn’t get it out of my mind. When it was finally lunchtime I ran downstairs with my car keys in hand and within a few minutes I was approaching the building where it was going to happen.

    O, how I longed for this minute. My heart was beating faster and faster. There was no way this date could go wrong. With the name like Reuben, I knew he wouldn’t disappoint. All the signs where pointing to the place where we will finally meet.

    My heart was pounding and the things happening with my mind and body could only be understood by an experienced medical professional. I timidly approached the counter and whispered: “Reuben, please”. The wait was becoming unbearable. I had to run outside to see if he was ready.

    He was getting dressed. My lips were smacking in anticipation. I ran back inside.

    Then out again.

    This was starting to feel like torture. Sweet, sweet torture. I was ready to explode. Finally he was mine. I stared lustily, he was all there – seductively spread in front of me, on a slightly grilled hoagie roll, covered with slices of thick-cut pastrami, cheese, sauerkraut and topped with the thousand island dressing, so hot, steamy and beautiful.

    His smell took over my car turning it into a prison of anticipation and impatience. We still had to get back to my place. I couldn’t keep my eyes on the road.

    I couldn’t think of anything else, I just wanted to touch this hot mess with my lips, swollen with desire. I don’t remember much of the ride. Finally we were alone.

    The short ride helped me regain my senses. I wanted this to last as long as I could, and this I could control for a change.

    I could, of course, dig in face first, impatiently devouring my beloved Reuben, tearing into the hot dog, pastrami, roll, taking greedy bites until nothing was left. Or I could take it slow, savoring a bite after delicious bite. The choice was hard. Maybe I should’ve made it a threesome so I could experience it in every way. I chased impure thoughts out of my head.

    Slowly I started to cut it in small pieces. Sauerkraut juices mixed with dressing were getting me even more excited. O, what a pleasure every small bite was. I could do this for hours.

    Finally it was over. I thought about smoking a cigarette but then remembered that I quit 13 years ago. Reuben almost made me get back to the old habit. I listened to the music instead.

    “The best four dollar date I ever had” I thought to myself making imaginary smoke rings, “I wouldn’t mind doing this again”
    Hot Dog Haven, Armour Rd. Kansas City,MO.
    Hot Dog Haven on Urbanspoon

    Continue reading →
  • Music With The Russian Accent

    A clip of the Russian folk string quartet Skaz performing Brahms’s Hungarian Dance.

    When I was growing up®, there was an old guy “Uncle Kolya” playing balalaika on the street for some change near my house. He sounded a lot like this.

    Update: This post was published long time ago, so I am adding a new amazing clip by Aleksei Arkhipovskiy called “Hurdy Gurdy“:


    Continue reading →
  • Checked Off My Bucket List: La Recoleta Cemetery


    I’ll start by busting another myth: the streets of Buenos Aires are crowded with hot Latin-American women with model looks and explosive tempers, who would make a certain lonely foreigner lose his mind, ship his child back to the USA and make his home in Argentina, earning a meager living by playing guitar on a busy intersection and singing off-key. Let’s just say that I am writing this from home and the country of Argentina will never hear me sing. While it’s true that most Argentinians are in good physical shape, the looks of men and women you see on the street are pretty average, far from what my wild imagination led me to believe.

    La Recoleta Cemetery is a world-famous Buenos Aires landmark and we visited it on our very first day in town. While being buried in a crypt (or mausoleum) is not a preferred way of getting rid of my body, the cemetery is fascinating to see for many reasons like architecture, sculpture, artwork, sheer amount of marble and granite, amount of religious imagery per square foot, record number of tourists looking for the Evita’s grave and a visual history of the Argentinian facial hair fashions. Over the period of almost 200 years the Argentinian upper crust invested untold amounts of money into placing their likenesses in a variety of Biblical, Roman, Egyptian and whatever else-inspired imagery. There is a mind-boggling number of mourning virgins, sad Jesus’s, Roman Emperors and weeping angels, portrayed in sculpture, portraits, engravings and stained glass. We took our time taking these pictures, but I will try to limit the number to a few that I like.

    Continue reading →