Archive for the ‘In the News’ Category

Holy Jihad Tourism, Batman…


Photo: Lara Setrakian/ABC News

Tourists in Lebanon have a brand new attraction to visit: the Hezbollah “Museum for Resistance Tourism” in the town of Mleeta. In a world full of questionable tourist attractions, I can’t say I’m surprised by to see Hezbollah-Land join the ranks. As the word terrorism become an overfamiliar part of our day-to-day vocabulary, museums and attractions dedicated to attempting to explain or contextualize contemporary ideas about terrorism are bound to pop up. Recent attempts at making sense of terrorism include centres as diverse as the Anti-Imperialism Museum in Tehran (housed in the former US Embassy), Denver’s Center for Empowered Living and Learning, aka The Cell, and Intelligence and Terrorism Information Centre in Israel. All of these locales put the issue of terrorism on display, but none of them does it with quite the same élan as the Mleeta site.

This Museum for Resistance Tourism experience begins with two promotional films: one about the making of the museum, the second on the history of Hezbollah. The historical film includes battle footage and, as ABC news puts it, “a version of history that casts Israelis as the ultimate bad guys.” Visitors are then taken to various exhibits described in the article as stacks of stylized pyramids of small arms left behind by Israeli forces and a sunken terrace titled “The Abyss” which holds the debris of Israeli tanks and equipment, arranged around what is meant to be a tombstone, emblazoned with the Hebrew acronym for the IDF.The museum is part of a larger tourist development which will include motels, playgrounds, camping areas, and spas and swimming pools for visitors. It’s one way to entice support from the general population, and the museum has seen over 300,000 visitors since it opened its doors in May of this year.

Clearly a fair amount of thought and planning went into this museum. To start off, the location of the museum is impotant in Hezbollah history. According to blogger Sietske in Beirut, the museum is located on the site where the first resistance fighters were trained (Mleeta hill). She also describes the area as a “dead zone” where Israeli planes used to dump unused bombs when returning to their base, so they would not have to land with them onboard. This practice was done in uninhabited areas so the risk of civilian deaths (and the expected retaliation) was low. As a result, there is a huge pit on the hill created by years of the dropping of these bombs. The museum is built around this unnatural landmark.

As is the way with all tourist attractions constructed around polarized histories, Hezbollah-Land is an act of propaganda, and an unashamed one at that. My favourite quote from the ABC story is from Rami, a tour guide at the museum. When asked if he thought the museum advances terrorist propaganda, he said:

“I believe it’s our right to have our own propaganda. The important thing is that this is the sincere and true propaganda.”

The museum is part of Hezbollah’s overarching strategy: in times of peace, the organization invests in creating social and economic bonds with its followers, for example by building homes and supplying hospitals. There is no better way to retain your supporters than by giving them a roof over their head (especially if their roof has been bombed away by the enemy), improving their quality of life and providing them with a social safety net. The museum, and the planned entertainment complex that will be built around it, plays into this strategy while simultaneously promoting Hezbollah’s message through edu-tainment. Histories used to be written by the victors, but increasingly they are being written by those who find the most amusing and entertaining ways of delivering their “sincere and true propaganda”.

On a side note, when researching Hezbollah-Land, I came across an article in Wired that describes another interesting site that uses popular culture as a forum to promote a terrorist cause — Hamaswood (or the Asdaa Land for Artistical and Media Production), a movie set owned by Hamas and located near the Gaza town of Khan Yunis. This set has been used for several years to create content for the Hamas owned media network. And though the studio maintains that is not reserved exclusively for use by Hamas, all the current projects filming there are about the conflict with Israel. Of course, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for the studio; in the winter of 2008/09, airstrikes from Israel heavily damaged administrative buildings and other parts of the studio, causing several hundred thousand dollars worth of damage.

At the Hezbollah museum site, Rami, the tour guide interviewed for the ABC piece indicated that the possibility of war was always on the minds of the residents in the area, but, he says, collateral damage doesn’t worry them because they have been reassured by the backing and resources of Hezbollah. And what about the museum? “If it is ever destroyed by the Israelis, we will just build again” was Rami’s answer.


Georgia on My MInd


In the summer of 2008 I watched footage of the Russian-Georgian war with horror and the morbid fascination that come with having visited a place that has unexpectedly turned into a war zone. I had visited Gori (famous as the birthplace of Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, aka Joseph Stalin) in the summer of 2007. I toured the Stalin museum, the fort, ate khachapuri, drank wine, sifted through Stalin memorabilia at the local market and stood in the central square staring up at the larger than life statue of Stalin wondering – how can he possibly still be standing here?

Well, it looks like the time has come for the museumization of this important relic of the cult of Stalin. A friend who is in Georgia for the summer on internship posted on his facebook page that he’d missed the demounting of Stalin by mere hours. A historic occasion in a city that has for years defended Stalin’s place of honour in front of the municipal parliament building at the base of Stalin Avenue. Al Jazeera picked up the story, stating that the Stalin statue is being moved to the nearby Stalin Museum.

This museum has been on my radar for a little while: rumour has it that the Stalin Museum may soon to be re-designated the Museum of Russian Aggression. If this is true, it marks a cultural shift in a country that has held tight to pride in their “great leader” while much of the rest of the former Soviet Union has worked hard to out Stalin’s crimes against humanity. One exception is Russia, where Stalin is lauded as a great military leader and “effective administrator”, especially during the celebration of the Allied victory in WWII (celebrated with great solemnity in Russia). By removing the Stalin memorial in Gori, Georgia is making yet another assertion of which direction they are looking for assistance – towards Europe and the West. Not that this wasn’t clear already.

On a lighter note, looks like the Stalin impersonators are going to have to find a new line of work.

Busting out Stalin in Bedford, Virginia


Commemorating WWII can be tricky, as the administrators of the National D-Day Monument in Bedford, Virginia recently found out. They recently revealed a bust of Stalin as part of the large narrative monument, and this has some people up in arms for what they believe is the glorification of a tyrant.

It is undeniable that Stalin’s involvement in WWII turned the tides for the Allies and it’s doubtful if the Nazi Axis would have been defeated without the Red Army. But including a bust, and quite a Soviet-styled one at that, of a mass murderer who purged the Red Army during WWII and sent soldiers who had been captured as POWs by the Nazis to the Gulag at a national monument to D-Day? Questionable.

This May marked 65 years since Stalin led the Soviet Union to victory in the Great Patriotic War (WWII for all you Westerners out there), fanning the flames of the controversy surrounding the Man of Steel. From the Stalinobus cruising the streets of St. Petersburg, to debate over Stalin billboards going up in Moscow, to a movement in Ukraine to erect a statue honouring Stalin as the unifier of the country, there are many different opinions on how to deal with Stalin in a post-Soviet world. Re-writing history is something of a Soviet past time, one that has carried on to the post-Soviet era. As they say: Russia is a country with an unpredictable past.

In an age where attempts to erect monuments to Stalin in the former Soviet Union are met with rabid protest, it seems unreasonable and illogical to erect such a monument in North America. But I’m all for accurate representation of history, and perhaps the bust is contextualized in such a way that Stalin’s role can be properly understood. Until I see it for myself, I’m going to reserve judgement. In the meantime, here is a short piece on the sculptor who created the controversial monument, published on the D-Day Memorial’s website.

In the “You’ve Seen One You’ve Seen Them All” Dept…


Getting Soviet history right isn’t always easy, especially when parsing the Great Patriotic War (WWII as it is known in the former Soviet region). The anniversary of the Soviet victory is still paid lip service in many former Soviet countries, often with grand parades or commemorative exhibitions, but as veterans and civilian survivors age and pass on, first-hand accounts are disappearing and details are being forgotten. A publishing house in Perm came face to face with this reality when it commissioned a calendar to honour Soviet veterans and somehow ended up with images of Nazi troops surrounding Soviet tanks instead.

The designer’s excuse? “We were young and we didn’t see the war.”

Who says that history is written by the victors?

Happy Birthday, Lenin!


He would have been 140 years old today. Some celebrate with BBQ‘s. Some celebrate by looking at his old socks. Others with giant billboards questioning capitalism.

I’m going with none of the above.

(on the left is a photo of his current abode — Lenin Mausoleum, Red Square, Moscow)

“I painted Tank Pink to Get a Girl”


Last time I was in Prague I came across a little girl playing on a tank painted pink. The sculpture, picture above, is in a residential area on the less-touristy side of the Vltava River. I had always wondered what the story was, and now I know. Apparently artist David Cerny painted the tank pink in an attempt to get the attention of a girl he had his eye on. That and he was making a bold anti-war statement… Read the interview, the guy’s charming. If he wasn’t so into art, he’d be a pilot.

There are a lot of military remnants throughout the former Soviet Union and in former communist countries like the Czech Republic. Many of them are on display in more sombre ways than this particular installation. It’s good to re-work these objects with a sense of humour. Perhaps more people will be interested in finding out about where the tank came from (I suspect it’s leftovers from Prague Spring 1968) and learn a bit about the history of the city while they’re buying their Czech glass, taking the historic (empty) synagogue  tour and searching for the perfect Kafka snow-globe.

“So, how do you like living under capitalism?” Celebrating Lenin’s Birthday in Ukraine


These billboards have popped up in Luhansk, in southeastern Ukraine to mark the upcoming 140th birthday of Lenin. Arguing freedom of speech in a democratic country, the Communist Party of Ukraine is stirring up controversy with these billboards, asking local residents how they like living under capitalism. After almost 20 years of independence, much of the population of Ukraine still suffers from poverty and sub-standard living conditions, a shaky political situation and dying hopes of joining (and benefitting from) the European Union.

As Lenin is feted as though he is still alive (and in many ways, the myth, if not the man, is alive and well) I think it is a good idea to think about what it is to live under capitalism, both in the Ukraine and the rest of the world. Questioning what democracy and capitalism have done for us is one of the rights and privileges afforded the “free world”, and the more often we take it out for a brisk walk, the better.

“Russians are dank. Russians are crazy.” And Russians are marketing it.


“Russians are dank. Russians are crazy,” says David Treybich, 21, a personal trainer, martial artist and aspiring reality TV star. “We drink vodka. We go nuts. Come on, what’s better than that?” Treybich was interviewed by the New York Times about “Brighton Beach”, a reality show that is the Russian-American answer to MTV’s “Jersey Shore”, poised to bring low-brow Russian chic to a television near you.

The casting call reads:

“Are you the Russian Snooki or The Situation? Are you a super outgoing and fun-loving Russian-American that sometimes sneaks kalbaska, pel’meni and vodka from the fridge? Can people hear the Euro/Techno/Russian music blasting from your car before they see you pull up? Do you attend birthday parties at Russian restaurants every weekend? If so, we may want to cast you for a new reality TV show that centers around a group of Russian-American strangers living together in a house on the shores of Brighton Beach for a summer. The cameras will roll as you do what you do best — eat, drink and PARTY.”

Clearly “Brighton Beach” will introduce the best of Russian-American culture to the world (or at least MTV-watching North America). The show is looking for “Outgoing guys and girls between the ages of 21 and 30 who would be willing to spend one summer living in an all-expense paid digs in the New York City area and consider themselves to be Russian-American (or from the former U.S.S.R., including the Caucasus).” I’m glad they include the Caucuses in the casting call — how better to ensure the same kind of fireworks as the summer of 2008?

Since when did Russia become synonymous with vodka bars and partying? What happened to the avant garde? To Russian literature? And when did the best gig around for a post-Soviet immigrant become partying in a wired beach house, re-enacting every soap opera drama known to man? I miss the good old days of television when Russians played chain smoking gold-toothed bad-guys or double crossing double-D devotchka spies.

Cold War technology so retro it’s modern.


Four years ago the U-2 bomber was slated to be retired. Originally designed to find Soviet missiles (it was photographs of taken by U-2’s that sparked the Cuban Missile Crisis), this piece of Cold War technology has found new life as a reconnaissance aircraft that can outperform drones used by the US missions in Afghanistan. According to this article in the New York Times the updated sensors in the U-2 bomber can detect slight disturbances in soil, indicating the possible presence of mines or improvised explosive devices (IEDs), take panoramic photos that often reveal footpaths used by insurgents and can even intercept cell phone signals that would ordinarily be blocked by the mountainous terrain.

Pretty remarkable for a piece of Cold War technology. One major downside, though, is that the pilots have to wear space suits and eat their meals through tubes because of the crazy altitudes they fly at.

I wonder when they’ll find a re-use for the poison-tip umbrella.

Soviet Town for Sale: the life and times of Skrunda-1


Inspired by this article: For sale: one communist-era ghost town

Occasionally after a research trip I spend a month or two in Latvia at a translators’ and writers’ house in the small city of Ventspils, on the shores of the Baltic Sea. One afternoon last winter Ieva, one of the administrators at the house, and I climbed into her green Lada Zhiguli and drove out into the Latvian countryside. I’d been talking to Ieva about my fascination with abandoned Soviet-era military sites — the shores of the Baltic made up one of the borders of the USSR and were heavily fortified — and she thought I should see the abandoned city of Skrunda-1.

The drive took about an hour. We travelled along a narrow highway through thick pine forests then made a right hand turn on a marginally paved road that led towards the radiological observatory, visible from the highway. Part of the site was dismantled in 1994 (the radar) and what remains looks like a giant satellite dish and is currently used by Latvian scientists at the International Radio Astronomy Centre. During Soviet times it was part of the early warning defence system and is rumoured to have been used to intercept communications of all sorts.

It is possible to tour the Radio Astronomy Centre but no one was around so we couldn’t go inside and climb to the top of the dish. Instead we got back into the Zhiguli and drove about two kms back towards the highway to the site of the town. About 5,000 people lived and worked in this secret city during Soviet times. There was a chain over the entrance but we just stepped over it. A couple of young Latvian guys were tearing down a building nearby. Ieva asked them what they were doing. They pointed at the bricks piled neatly at the edgs of the access road — “Selling bricks.” During the late 1990s, this site was being considered for an amusement park but now, according to the workers, the crumbling ruins were going to be torn down and allowed to be rehabilitated slowly by nature. According to them the site is quite polluted with heavy metals and leaked oil and petroleum.

We asked if we could explore the buildings. They just shrugged.

All the buildings were in a serious state of disrepair. Any metal objects of any value had long been stripped. This is the case in most of these military installations; scrap metal equals money. There were many broken windows and a lot of evidence of squatters and parties. Racist graffiti, of course. And a lot of faded murals. It was eerie and beautiful and sad. Most of the people who lived here were kicked out very suddenly in 1994 when the Russian military was ordered out of Latvia. A few hundred stayed for four more years to manage the site, but it was fully abandoned in 1998. According to Ieva, many of the apartment blocks, buildings of reasonable quality, were abandoned with furniture and appliances intact. Something could have been done with the infrastructure, but there was no organization, no money, no foresight.

Skrunda-1 was sold to a Russian company last month. There have been rumours that it will be turned into a huge pig farm or a large factory of some kind.

Whatever ends up on that location, it’s going to cost a lot of time, energy and money to remove this relic. Multiply this story by hundreds of kilometres of border land to be protected, throw in the Stalin Line and the Molotov Line and you’ll get a sense of just how militarized the former Soviet region was, and how much clean up there remains to be done.