Emphasis

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In 1920, after Lenin delivered a speech in Petrograd to troops departing to fight in the Soviet-Polish war, Russian artist El Lissitzky challenged his architecture students to design a speaker’s platform on a public square. The result was the Lenin Tribune, a rostrum that can bear its speaker aloft to address a crowd of any size. In a letter to the art historian and critic Adolf Behne, Lissitzky wrote:

I have now received some sketches of former works and have reconstructed the design. Therefore I do not sign it as my personal work, but as a workshop production. The diagonally-standing structure of iron latticework supports the movable and collapsible balconies: the upper one for the speaker, the lower one for guests. An elevator takes care of transportation. On top there is a panel intended for slogans during the day and as a projection screen at night. The gesture of the entire speaker’s platform is supposed to enhance the motions of the speaker. (The figure is Lenin.)

Here the message reads PROLETARIAT. Lissitzky later said he regretted not publishing the design when Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International was attracting attention, so that the two might have competed against one another.

That Good Night

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Image: Flickr

There’s a statue of Lenin in Seattle. Originally sculpted by Bulgarian artist Emil Venkov, it was installed in Poprad, Czechoslovakia, in 1988, just a year before the Velvet Revolution. Visiting American English teacher Lewis Carpenter found it lying in a scrapyard waiting to be melted down; he offered $13,000 for it and shipped it home to Issaquah, Washington.

When Carpenter died in an auto accident, the statue found its way to Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, where the local chamber of commerce has agreed to hold it in trust until a buyer can be found. The current asking price is $250,000.

For now the founder of the League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class stands at the intersection of Fremont Place North, North 36th Street, and Evanston Avenue North, where he is regularly decorated with Christmas lights. Six-year-old Colin Sackett told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, “It just makes me remember Christmas is coming. And it makes me remember Hanukkah, too.”

First Contact

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On April 12, 1961, witnesses saw a spaceship enter Earth’s atmosphere and descend to the ground in a ploughed field in the Leninsky Put Collective Farm near the Soviet village of Smelovka. At a height of 7 kilometers, a spaceman left the ship and drifted to earth on a parachute. The spaceman later reported:

As I stepped on the firm soil, I saw a woman and a girl. They were standing beside a spotted calf and gazing at me with curiosity. I started walking towards them and they began walking towards me. But the nearer they got to me the slower their steps became. I was still wearing my flaming orange spacesuit and they were probably frightened by it. They had never seen anything like it before.

‘I’m a Russian, comrades. I’m a Russian,’ I shouted, taking off my helmet.

The woman was Anna Takhtarova, wife of the local forester, and the girl, Rita, was her granddaughter.

‘Have you really come from outer space?’ she asked a little uncertainly.

‘Just imagine, I certainly have,’ I replied.

He was Yuri Gagarin, and the site would soon receive a permanent monument marking the landing place of Vostok-1.

See To Whom It May Concern.

Podcast Episode 121: Starving for Science

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During the siege of Leningrad in World War II, a heroic group of Russian botanists fought cold, hunger, and German attacks to keep alive a storehouse of crops that held the future of Soviet agriculture. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Vavilov Institute, whose scientists literally starved to death protecting tons of treasured food.

We’ll also follow a wayward sailor and puzzle over how to improve the safety of tanks.

See full show notes …

Rock Steady

If we’re given 32 stones, each a different weight, how can we find both the heaviest and the second heaviest stone in 35 weighings with an equal-arm balance?

Click for Answer

Weighty Matters

From the Second All Soviet Union Mathematical Competition, Leningrad 1968:

On a teacher’s desk sits a balance scale, on which are a set of weights. On each weight is the name of at least one student. As each student enters the classroom, she moves all the weights that bear her name to the other side of the scale.

Before any students enter, the scale is tipped to the right. Prove that there’s some set of students that you can let into the room that will will tip the scale to the left.

Click for Answer

Rubbing Elbows

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Vienna’s Café Central was crowded with intellectuals at the turn of the 20th century, including Freud, Lenin, the Vienna Circle of logical positivists, and endless chessplayers.

When Victor Adler made the argument that war would provoke a revolution in Russia, Leopold Berchtold replied, “And who will lead this revolution? Perhaps Mr. Bronstein sitting over there at the Café Central?”

Mr. Bronstein was Leon Trotsky.

Lost Hope

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

A gruesome detail from the siege of Leningrad, from the diary of ballet teacher Vera Sergeevna Kostrovitskaia, April 1942:

And there, across from the entrance to the Philharmonic, by the square, there is a large lamppost.

With his back to the post, a man sits on the snow, tall, wrapped in rags, over his shoulders a knapsack. He is all huddled up against the post. Apparently he was on his way to the Finland Station, got tired, and sat down. For two weeks while I was going back and forth to the hospital, he ‘sat’

  1. without his knapsack
  2. without his rags
  3. in his underwear
  4. naked
  5. a skeleton with ripped-out entrails

They took him away in May.

That’s from Cynthia Simmons and Nina Perlina, Writing the Siege of Leningrad, 2002. They add, “The man was apparently heading for the Finland Station in the hope of getting out of Leningrad on Lake Ladoga, the ‘Road of Life.'”

Housewife Sof’ia Nikolaevna Buriakova remembered, “Having grown numb from work, having lost a sense of what was permissible, the gravediggers stooped to all sorts of disgusting jokes, even blatantly violating the deceased. On the road leading to the communal grave a tall corpse had been stood with a cigarette sticking out of his mouth. His frozen, iced-over arm pointed the way to the trench graves.”

Presidential Wordplay

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In 1936, as Franklin Roosevelt campaigned for re-election against Republican Alf Landon, a group from Wall Street’s financial district sponsored a competition to find the best anagram for FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT. The winner was VOTE FOR LANDON ERE ALL SINK.

During the 1980 campaign, Jimmy Carter was accused of reversing his position on several issues to maintain his popularity. Edward Scher of New York University coined the palindrome TO LAST, CARTER RETRACTS A LOT.

Carter lost that election to Ronald Reagan, who inspired Howard Bergerson to compose a “press conference” in 1982 using only the letters in RONALD WILSON REAGAN. Here the Gipper describes his foreign policy:

We are sworn nonaggressors; we need law and order, we disallow war as lawless and senseless, and in a larger sense we also regard war as, now and again, needed. A needed war is no dead end or swan song, nor need we ride in war as no-good sinners on genderless geldings! We need androgens and derring-do! We need Old Glories, and seasoned soldiers garrisoned worldwide, generals in golden regalia, and raised dander! We need all-seeing, world-girdling radar, seagoing sonar and liaison ensigns, newer DEW lines and earlier NORAD warnings, larger arsenals and deadlier arrows in silos, R-and-D on lasers, and goodlier anger! We need no ring-a-ding dissensions and wild-goose rallies, nor do we need addled ding-a-ling diagnoses on wielding dread winged swords and daggers — or on wielding God’s own grenades! Ordained grenadiers alone assess, and ordained godlings alone will wield Gold’s sidereal grenades riding on Odin’s arrows. Godless Leningrad warlords and roodless, religionless Red warriors sold on Red-engendered Warsaw agreeings are as sidling sidewinders in loose sand! In nine innings (I disdain gridiron analogies) we will win — no one is dawdling! We are leaning on oars! We and God will engage all Red raiders, and, God willing, we will win odds-on! No one dragoons or goads God!

Reagan’s name can also be rearranged to spell INSANE ANGLO WARLORD.

Tanya

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In August 1942 a students’ nursing brigade discovered 12-year-old Tanya Savicheva, weak with hunger, living alone in an apartment in Leningrad, which had been besieged by Hitler since September 1941. She had kept this diary:

  1. Zhenya died on December 18, 1941, at twelve noon.
  2. Grandma died on January 25, 1942, at three in the afternoon.
  3. Leka died on March 17, 1942, at five o’clock in the morning.
  4. Uncle Vasya died on April 13, 1942, at two o’clock at night.
  5. Uncle Lesha on May 10, 1942, at four o’clock in the afternoon.
  6. Mama died on May 13, 1942, at 7:30 in the morning.
  7. The Savichevs are dead.
  8. Everyone is dead.
  9. Only Tanya is left.

The nurses evacuated her along the narrow lifeline that had been opened that summer by the Soviet army and placed her in an orphanage in a nearby village, but she died there, probably of chronic dysentery, in July 1944. The diary is kept today in the St. Petersburg Museum of History.