A ticket to eternity

“Men are haunted by the vastness of eternity. And so we ask ourselves: will our actions echo across the centuries? Will strangers hear our names long after we are gone, and wonder who we were, how bravely we fought, how fiercely we loved?”

Odysseus, “Troy” 2004

“…All will be still, that sang and that did struggle,

That glistened and rejoiced:

The greenness of my eyes, the gold of my hair,

And this my tender voice.

 

Life will continue with its soft hot bread,

With day’s oblivion.

All will continue – under outstretched heavens

As if I’d never been!

Marina Tsvetaeva

 

The very idea of eternity is as old as humanity itself. A human being always believed there would be another door opening once this finite world comes to an end. “Otherwise what are we living for? If there is nothing that follows, why should we bother with deeds, especially when life is so short?” he has been asking for centuries. Religions succeeded to offer a solution only partially, promising continuation of existence in a spiritual form yet failing to satisfy desires of vain ones. And those vain ones dreamt about preserving their names as much (if not more) as about endless physical existence. Eternal life without eternal fame is nothing but boredom, still, religions never encouraged such ambitions, reserving this privilege for prophets and saints only.

The vain, proud and narcissist had finally discovered the recipe, simple as anything genius, – one’s actions need to be significantly grand to be carved in memory of generations to come. They found the key of true immortality, much more reliable than ephemeral promises of afterlife. “The life of dead is placed in the memory of the living”, professed Cicero whose sharp mind won him a ticket to eternity. And there were many brave, wise and talented whose names and stories reached us from thousands of years ago, yet there also were “kingdoms and kings, and of them no trace has been left, as of a wind that has sped over a desert“.

But what about those, whom life did not grant with any excellence? Don’t they deserve to be remembered? ”They do!” proclaimed Herostratus, setting the Temple of Artemis on fire. Despite all attempts of his contemporaries to erase the very name of Herostratus from human memory, it did survive, giving a hope to less talented and fortunate and also making an edition to the earlier statement – “one’s actions need to be shocking enough to be carved in memory of generations to come”. The new edition proved itself many times, and for every Jesus there was Juda.

But what about those, less talented yet not opting for notoriety, are they doomed for oblivion? Apparently, they aren’t. Simonetta Vespucci, Mona Lisa and Raphael’s “Fornarina” have been on the altar of beauty-admirers for centuries and will remain there. What is their deed? Whereas Simonetta’s “only” achievement was her remarkable, glorified by Italian Renaissance, beauty, Mona Lisa’s ticket to eternity was paid from pockets of her rich husband. Eternal youth and fame of classic Renaissance beauties left many women envious; some even tried to repeat their success. One of them was Marchesa Luisa Casati. Investing in her immortality, this eccentric noble woman created numerous copies of herself in portraits and sculptures by the artists whom she lavishly supported.

Portrait of Simonetta Vespucci by Sandro Botticelli
Portrait of Simonetta Vespucci by Sandro Botticelli

The present-day society seems to be infused with narcissism, vanity and hedonism as never before. Countless “selfies” invade social networks and blogs, at times collecting an impressive amount of fans with similar ideas and desires. Whether or not they are haunted by the ambition to remain in human memory, it is very unlikely they ever get there. As never before, technology facilitates creation and distribution of one’s image but it cannot guarantee eternity yet. One day selfies will share the destiny of many nameless faces from old family albums that tickle our curiosity with their silent questions for a few moments before disappearing on the shelf again.

Portrait of Marchesa Casati by Adolf de Meyer
Portrait of Marchesa Casati by Adolf de Meyer

Immortality does not stand ordinary. And even if destiny ever granted ordinary beings with a ticket to eternity, they happened to be fortunate to cross a path of genius and were lit up by their brightness, just as a ray of light reveals dust in the air. How many were enviously staring at Simonetta’s cold and perfect profile, secretly wishing there would be someone wondering about them long after they are gone? Has there been anyone not asking “Why not me?”. Perhaps, we forget that being an inspiration to an Artist is a rare talent which means to be a Co-Creator of Art. May there always be the Art, the Artist and the Muse, and may Art remain eternal, saving from oblivion all those who desire and deserve it.

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Astrakhan, where East meets West and both get confused

Astrakhan is a province city in the south-western outskirts of Russia, located a few miles away from the Russian-Kazakstanian frontier. Oriental presence was always strong here: the capitals of Khazaria and the Golden Horde established in the area, made it particularly important for merchandise. Burnt by Tamerlan to the ground in 1395, the capital of Astrakhan Khanate was rebuilt 12km upstream from the modern-day city. Fertile soils of the Volga delta, rich in sturgeon and exotic plants, were of interest to Ottomans. In 1556 Ivan the Terrible joined Astrakhan Khanate to Russia, but the spirit of Astrakhan was shaping under the influence of many merchants from Armenia, Persia and India, settled in the town. To a certain extent, Astrakhan had some impact on the history of the 20th century: father of Vladimir Lenin, the Russian revolutionary, was born and grew up here.

It is truly a land of contrasts: fertile soils neighbor steppes and sand dunes, Caspian seals Astrakhan camels; Orthodox, Muslim, Catholic and Buddhist religions are all present here, giving the place a multinational and variegated character. Slavs mixed well with Mongolian tribes and the integration resulted in a variety of face types, high cheek bones, eyes of all colours and shapes.

What is written above is true, but do not be mistaken imagining an exotic paradise, perfect for tourists. The reality is not as bright-coloured as the info in a tourist flyer. The city, slowly but surely, is sinking into alcoholism and drug addiction. Doom and frustration on people’s faces, their clenched fists would convince even deliberate positive thinkers that existence effects conscience and not the contrary.

The historical city centre is packed with old architecture: 18th and 19th century houses of merchants are falling apart without a touch of restoration.

Old merchant house (late 18th - early 19th century)
Old merchant house (late 18th – early 19th century)
Post arrived (inside the old merchant's house)
Post arrived (inside the old merchant’s house)
Backyards in the old city
Backyards in the old city
Backyards in the old city
Backyards in the old city
Often melancholy is the only hobby
Often melancholy is the only hobby

Astrakhan Kremlin built in mid-16th century is under UNESCO protection, and one of a few well-maintained historical objects.

St. Nocolai Church within Astrakhan Kremlin
St. Nocolai Church within Astrakhan Kremlin
Children playing next to the Cathedral and the Bell Tower
Children playing next to the Cathedral and the Bell Tower

Oriental feel is especially strong at open markets …

Bolshye Isady open market - traditional residence of Muslim merchants
Bolshye Isady open market – traditional residence of Muslim traders
Southern sun made Astrakhan rich in fruits and vegetables
Southern sun made Astrakhan rich in fruits and vegetables

… and in the traditions of different ethnicities.

Tatar man playing harmonica
Tatar man playing harmonica
Muslim girls playing basketball
Muslim girl playing basketball
Russian and Dagestanian boys posing together
Russian and Dagestanian boys posing together

Life is life, with all its attributes: children do not look forward to the new school year, …

First year school boy is hiding behind a balloon
First year school boy is hiding behind a balloon

… or rather play outside instead of listening to teacher’s explanations.

Children playing in the school yard
Children playing in the school yard
Children playing in the school yard
Children playing in the school yard

Not easy to get back to lessons and homework after summer fun by the river.

Summer fun by the river in one of suburbs
Summer fun by the river in one of suburbs

Here, as everywhere else, people fall in love and get married.

Newly married couple waving to passers-by from a wedding limousine
Newly married couple waving to passers-by from a wedding limousine
Wedding photo session on Lover's bridge
Wedding photo session on Lover’s bridge
Awkward wedding photo session: the bride surrounded with friends holding a gun and a champagne bottle
Awkward wedding photo session: the bride surrounded with friends holding a toy gun and a champagne bottle

As in any other Russian city, there is a memorial to Anonymous Soldiers.

Memorial to Anonymous Soldiers
Memorial to Anonymous Soldiers

… and fun mixes with fatalism.

Celebrating Day of Pensioner despite low pensions and lack of healthcare
Celebrating Day of Pensioner despite low pensions and a lack of quality healthcare
Roof maintenance Russian way
Roof maintenance Russian way

I think, I know where the famous Russian fatalism comes from. When life is so unstable or stably hopeless, hardly it is worth to cling to.

Even a week spent here might be quite depressive. In such moments I take my Maltese residence permit out of a file and look at it as at a bridge to a fairly better world. Or, perhaps, same world, just with little more hope in it.

Read more: https://raisatarasova.wordpress.com/2012/07/10/born-in-ussr/

What are we proud of?

What are we proud of as a nation, as a race, as species? Is it scientific achievements, space missions or, perhaps, hydrogen bomb that makes us proud of being human?

AN602, the Soviet Tsar Bomb, the hydrogen bomb, the most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated, keeps patriotic feelings of the Russians warm. A few of these devices would have been enough to send this world to hell, and we are proud of our creativity because no other nation got that far in designing mass death and destruction. Yes, Soviet physicists were ‘smarter’ and more creative, and that’s what Russians are still proud of.

Tsar Bomb explosion. Picture taken from an open websource
Tsar Bomb explosion.
Picture taken from an open websource

Kalashnikov is another word that induces Russian patriotic thrill. Simple to such an extent that even a child can assemble it, it remains the most popular weapon, efficiently taking lives around the globe. How can we not be proud of the Russian design in this case?

Jesus and Madonna are familiar with AK-47. Photo credit: http://www.neurochild.net/?p=4526
Jesus and Madonna are familiar with AK-47.
Photo credit: http://www.neurochild.net/?p=4526

What else? Stalingrad, the battle that irreversibly changed the trend of WWII. The word “Stalingrad”  became a metaphor of courage, 70 years later photographs of its ruins still have blood-chilling effect on us. The soil soaked in blood of 2 million and yet it became sacred.

Advertising power
Advertising power.
Photo credits: AP/ITAR-TASS
CHOPPER SHOOT LLC / BARCROFT MEDIA
USAF

Countries never stop competing in who has the most powerful armies, tallest buildings, longest highways, most modern technology, biggest cities, biggest banks, best football clubs, richest people and most famous celebrities. Should we, single individuals, be proud of our country’s ‘achievements’? Why are we so startled by the biggest, longest, richest, fastest? These achievements are there to mark the power of mankind in defeating nature or to make us proud soldiers of the most powerful armies. The true glory is unknown; it does not scream from every TV station, it is in individuals.

Honestly, I do not care about Russian participation at Eurovision or World Cup, neither about its growing military power. I am proud of my grandparents though.

Living in Eastern Germany after WWII they did not get any spoils of war, not even a watch, most available and, therefore, most popular  spoils among Soviet soldiers. They did not try to become rich in 90s, when former USSR citizens were competing in enterprise. Such little facts are more precious to me then bombastic achievements of any country or nation.

Children of the world

Last three years numerous times I was asked what my home country was. Three years ago guesses were correct or close to the truth: Russia, Ukraine, Poland. Then, as years passed, suggestions became various: German, British, Swedish, French, Czech, Dutch, Polish, Bulgarian, Romanian, Russian and even American (!). Many times I was approached in Maltese, in Germany I was asked for directions as well as in Southern Spain.

Sometimes I wonder what I would have been like if born in Sweden, France, Germany, Poland or Spain. How different would be my perceptions? How the country of origin does affect our minds, opinions, visions? Would we even recognise ourselves born in other corner of the word?

One thing I am perfectly sure about is I’d still get into odd situations and would have plenty of adventures. But what about education – would I be still proud of my universal academic education? And food preferences – would I think of pasta as of the tastiest thing in the world if born in Italy? And what about tolerance in general – would I pass by kissing boys without surprise if born and grown up in Netherlands? Would I be a fan of cruel psychotic Disney cartoons if was a child of USA? Probably, yes. Or how different my generation would be if not growing in times of a big change – USSR collapse?

These reflections convince me how much of true “us” is formed in certain surrounding and could be different. We could not choose where to be born but how much our individuality and our character depends on us? How possibly can we have such different family values varying from “wife is for life” in Malta and “wife is not a wall, it can be replaced” in Russia. It easily could be the opposite way… All these international battles to protect national identity and values seem so ridiculous.

Would I wish to be born somewhere else? I do not know, honestly. I learnt about other countries from books and they all seem imaginary. I cherish memories about my tough and full of hardship childhood. Nevertheless, Tolstoy and Bulgakov were loved as much as Robert Stevenson, Hans Andersen and Astrid Lindgren. At the age of 25 I decided to move away from Russia as I could no longer call it home. I realize some habits are changing, I am becoming Maltese in some way. Is it important to have a national identity?

The right for craziness

Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin can openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance. Choose fixed-interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisure wear and matching luggage. Choose a three piece suite on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked-up brats you have spawned to replace yourself. Choose your future. Choose life . . . But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life: I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons.

From the movie “Trainspotting”

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In consumerism era everything is labelled and branded including very private sides of our lives. Our emotions, personal and professional achievements, feelings have become objects of trade and promotion.

What’s success?!

Day by day we are bombarded by images of smiling, glamorous looking “successful” people encouraging us to buy more goods or to improve any possible sides of our life: career, physical appearance, sexual performance and psychological state of mind. These intrusive ads try to convince us: a modern person must be successful, financially stable and physically attractive. Can I wonder who decided it?

I’m becoming allergic to the very word “success”. What is success after all? Does it mean that an owner of an oil corporation whose income is billions of dollars is more successful than a school teacher or a single mother, or even a street dog? Do I understand it correctly that to be/to be known as (highlight the appropriate) successful one needs to dedicate his life to self-promotion, jumping over heads to reach his goal, then to eventually find him/herself on the top, observing his fame and wealth with a pleasant smile of satisfaction? A fool who for weird reasons refuses to strive for “success” is labelled as a loser. A loser can be easily spotted by some indicators: low paid job, a humble place to live in, constantly struggling for survival, or even worse, drinking and having no goal in life whatsoever. In other words, a loser has a low market value – cannot be sold for high and cannot consume a lot, he’s a trash.

Is it really as clear as it seems? Why should prosperous employers wonder about your goal in life and who you want to be by age of 40? In other words, is it so necessary to actually want to “be” someone at age of 40? Isn’t it enough to be yourself at age of 40 and why are we all expected to have a goal in life? If somebody deliberately does not want to live an American dream, does not want to become a top-manager of a transnational corporation or Hollywood actress, does it mean having a loser mentality?

What’s happiness?

No idea, to be honest. We are merely sinking in the ocean of ready-made ideas and fast-food philosophy. Somebody decided that a human being must be happy and positive, and for this sake, must learn how to achieve it. If looking at this situation from a different angle, positive thinking is becoming a pure obsession: additionally to having a life ambition one must be positive. Happiness has become a good that is sold as happy-ending movies, books advising how to be a happy person. Every day TV and internet try to convince us that happiness is incomplete without a new iPhone or iPad; smile is an essential attribute of positive thinking obsession and has a high market value. Official banner of mass media is “Be positive, smile and you’ll reach your goal. Pessimism is an enemy of success”.

Of course, there would be nothing wrong to be wealthy and happy if it was not the only allowed option. Pessimists without ambitions seeing life in a dark light are considered a flaw of mass production. Somewhere there, at the factory of minds, an error occurred and these freaks came to life. And the worst thing is that these freaks do not want to buy happiness.

But not all is lost. Depressive and negative thoughts must be killed in an embryo by happiness pills and life planning books.

Well, it looks like we have no right to live the life how we want it. What if somebody might enjoy moral masochism? What if success is not about career and bank accounts ad happiness is not always about positivity and toothy smiles? Who can be a judge of success and happiness if not a person himself?

I am fed up of these suggestions how we need to live, look and feel. Emotions unlike cars cannot be standardised. Everyone deserves a right to be himself and feel how he wants without being labelled. Viva to all the freaks who do not give a shit about “Brave New World” that demands long-life planning, promotes growth of desires and unscrupulously kills the most charming thing – spontaneity. Giving it more thoughts, how can one burdened with ambitions, desires, and long-life plans be happy at the same time If I am to propose a definition of success I’d say “ability to stay yourself and do what you really want no matter whether it is prestigious or not”.