Archive for January, 2013

Демографическая модернизация России, 1900-2000 (Demographic modernisation of Russia, 1900-2000)

January 16, 2013


I was extremely interested by this book–not knowing anything at all about demography beforehand–it was a real encyclopedia of Russian life, and of many other things besides.  The text can be found in pdf here.

The meaning of the title is that societies as they become industrialised and urbanised experience a decrease in mortality, which then leads to a decrease in birthrate, which process comprises ‘Demographic modernisation’.

This death rate thing explains rather a lot:

In all preceding ages, high mortality necessitated a high and stable birth rate, which could only be guaranteed by subjecting people’s large-scale behaviour in producing offspring to strict rules.  It was necessary to  make the chain connecting the sex act, conception, bringing to term, the feeding and care of children  simultaneously both mandatory and unbreakable.

(That leads me to wonder whether all of this religion nonsense is well is an adaptation specifically to conditions of high mortality, rather than primitive ones in general.  So that’s the way to a religious revival–through diphtheria, whooping cough, and scarlet fever.)

It’s interesting to see, from the data presented on life expectancy, that in the early 1960s Russia did catch up with the West, as described in Red Plenty, but it didn’t last for very long.


The solid black line joins the others, but not permanently

Referring to more contemporary times, the book notes:

Contrary to deaths caused by diseases of the circulatory system, excess deaths from the different types of accidents are not concentrated in some or other age-groups, but are quite evenly distributed, displaying to the world how weakly on all sides the Russian is defended against carelessness, negligence and violence.

There’s something very Russian about that conception of people as the helpless victims on unseen and maleficent influences…

Another interesting point is that the age of (first) marriage and of birth of the first child have remained lower than in Western countries, over a period when the number of births per woman has decreased from 8 or so to substantially less than 2:


The book often compares Russia with a ‘peer group’ of industrialised and urbanised countries in the West.  You could ask whether this is a fair comparison–with regard to birth statistics, we frequently get United States (Whites) as one of the comparators, but maybe United States (Blacks), as a group also subject to severe external shocks, would also be an interesting comparator.

On a professional level, Lenin also gets to give his views on statistics:

Statistics must illustrate socioeconomic relations established by a comprehensive analysis, and not turn into an end in itself, as it so often does with us…[1899]  [The Central Statistical Agency] must not be an ‘academic’ organ and not an independent’ one, which by old bourgeois habit it is for nine-tenths of the time now,  but an organ of socialist construction, checking, accounting for what a socialist state has to know now, this moment, first of all.  [1922]

The Silence Of The Sea, Trafalgar Studios 12 January

January 13, 2013


This play–let’s not worry about the original novella by Jean Bruller, alias Vercors–is set in Occupied France during World War II.  Very probably.  Most of the time.  But sometimes the characters refer with poetic vagueness to ‘this country’, ‘foreign soldiers’ and the like, so maybe you’re not meant to be so sure.

The basic idea is that an old man and his niece have had a German officer billeted on them.  They settle down into Survive Unwanted Meeting mode and refuse to speak to him.  I could certainly sympathise, because I was in SUM mode as well, and was rationing myself to one glance at my watch every quarter-hour or so.

The soldier (Leo Bill) addressed the other two and of course got no answer.  The uncle (Finbar Lynch) addressed the audience (or himself), and in a bit of an Irish accent as well.  The niece (Simona Bitmaté) didn’t get to say anything until the very end, but did a lot of miming.

At the beginning, she mimed opening the shutters (lighting effect), opening the piano (sound effect of piano lid), playing the piano  (sound effect of piano playing), and then the uncle carried the piano stool right through where the piano was meant to be.  (I guess that may have been a scene change.)

There were many of these kinds of inconsistencies in 90 minutes’ worth of sparse text.  On the one hand, the old man seemed to be some kind of simpleton isolated from the realities of normal life, while on the other he discoursed knowledgeably about classical composers (while being unable to pronounce the names of the French ones correctly).  The German officer similarly couldn’t manage simple German words like das Meer, but at least we were saved from comedy foreign accents.  The old man managed to buy pieces of fish that then required gutting.  The local village (presumably on the Atlantic coast) apparently featured an abandoned synagogue, which seemed a bit unlikely also…

Now this may all have been meant to evoke a sense of dislocation and numbness, in the style of Kurt Vonnegut and Flann O’Brien, all of a piece with the strategy of denying the invaders beauty, comfort and piano-playing–but it just irritated me.  Similarly the officer’s speeches were probably meant to show him drowning in ghastliness as he became aware of it.

Perhaps even the way we were charged £ 3-00 for the Internet booking system that sold tickets for seats that were not available was calculated to the same end, like the waiter on the officer’s Paris jaunt deliberately mixing everything up.

It got a bit more interesting at the end, where something actually happened…

The Other Egypt (Andante Travels), 20-30 December

January 1, 2013



Some enjoyable desert between Siwa and Bahariyya

This tour seemed to be about Graeco-Roman Egypt, but in the event we spent a lot of time looking at peripheral memorials of Dynastic Egypt.  Since our Guide Lecturer, the very lovely Caroline Hebron, was an Egyptologist (and very good at what she did), many interesting themes went unexplored. They might have included:

–the importance of Alexandria in the Roman Empire,

–the paradox of the second city of the Empire being non-Roman (and the capital of Egypt being non-Egyptian)

–the place as a locus for the clash of civilizations (Jewish-Greek riots being a constant in Hellenistic Alexandria) as well as cross-cultural transfer (the Septuagint, for example)

–the importance of Alexandria in the development of ancient philosophy, and hence in the formation of Christianity

–Alexander the Great’s practices in regard to Greek and foreign oracles

–how and why Alexander’s empire became ‘orientalised’ but never Egyptianised

–who (and why) are the Copts?

–the place of Alexandria in the history of the Jews

–daily life in Hellenistic Egypt as illustrated by the Oxyrhynchus papyri

–the Oxyrhynchus papyri and others from the Fayoum as shedding light on the Greek of the New Testament.

Because of the unsettled political situation in Egypt, in Alexandria we were lodged in a hotel at the edge of town in its own compound, so never really got to see modern Egypt.  The result of this was that we were very much in a lovingly-tended bubble and I got rather bored–in fact, small-boy-taken-on-incomprehensible-adult-jaunt bored.  I also spent a lot of time admiring the prints left by different footwear in the sand.  And I developed a mild but quite persistent case of traveller’s diarrhoea as soon as I got back, which must have originated some time around the middle of the trip.

The guests were largely women of a certain age–we had something like 7 men as against 15 women, and only one (younger) couple.  It took me a long time to realise that the average participant was free at Christmas not by choice, but because she was widowed or divorced, and so a certain amount of overpressing on the cheery sociability front was entirely normal.

My highlights were:

–a night ride from Cairo to Alexandria and seeing a real Egypt of crashed cars, wrecked roads and businesses open at 2 am;

–visiting a Coptic monastery and seeing (for a change) cheerful people and women dressed like human beings;

–very blocky apartment blocks in Alexandria and Cairo that were what a city ought to look like in my opinion

–the very diplomatic way Louise asked Caroline how she managed her personal life with half her time spent in London and the other half in the Middle East, with the ensuing beautifully-managed discussion.

There is an official blog (describing a tour in November) here.  And now for some more pictures with brief descriptions.


Serapeum with “Pompey’s Pillar”


The Corniche in Alexandria


Tour Manager escorting guest

St Menas Monastery made a nice change with cheerful people (not just those tourists) and women dressed like human beings

St Menas Monastery made a nice change with cheerful people (not just those tourists) and women dressed like human beings

The heating system at the Shali Lodge Hotel in Siwa was not so sophisticated, and I managed to be both freezing cold and mosquito-bitten

Riotous underground drinking party

Riotous underground drinking party at the Shali Lodge Hotel in Siwa


Intense professional discussion


Temple of Ammon, Siwa–where Alexander the Great may have been declared son of Zeus

Hackneyed shot with poor composition

Hackneyed shot with poor composition

The convoy rests

The convoy rests

Tracks in the desert

Tracks in the desert

Lunch in the desert

Lunch in the desert



Temple of Sobek, Qasr Qarun

Temple of Sobek, Qasr Qarun

Prototype and partly-collapsed pyramid of Snerefu, c2600 BC

Prototype and partly-collapsed pyramid of Snerefu at Meidum, about 2600 BC

Guide and drivers

Guide and drivers