What is canon?

The following is a long overdue post about two OGs, Matt Taibbi and Mark Ames.

Last fall, Matt Taibbi departed Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media before the launch of his much anticipated new web journal, Racket. The unexpected departure prompted rueful tweets from Taibbi:

TaibbiTweet

https://twitter.com/mtaibbi/status/537340415997771776

And some surprisingly tame finger pointing about who was to blame for Racket‘s failure to launch.

From NY MAG: link

From Pando: link

And the ‘inside story’ from First Look itself: link

Was Omidyar to blame, a new media oligarch with poor management skills? This would be unsurprising, as it is a theme we have seen over and over again (hi, Chris Hughes)

Was it Matt Taibbi, an abrasive celebrity journalist? Or maybe it was a little bit of both?

Then, tagging himself into the ring, Mark Ames threw his version of a haymaker: Taibbi’s pal came to his fellow The Exile alum’s defense by directly linking Omidyar to funds allocated towards alleged neo-fascists at the vanguard of Ukraine’s post-Maidan counterrevolution. Here are some money quotes:

Zalishchuk was given a choice spot on the president’s party list, at number 18, ensuring her a seat in the new Rada. And she owes her rise to power to another oligarch besides Ukraine’s president – Pierre Omidyar, whose funding with USAID helped topple the previous government

&

Earlier this year, Pando exposed how eBay billionaire and Intercept publisher Pierre Omidyar co-funded with USAID Zalishchuk’s web of nongovernmental organizations

&

This latest twist in Omidyar Network’s murky, contradictory or two-faced roles raises more disturbing questions about what the tech billionaire is up to. On the one hand, Omidyar plays the “adversarial” watchdog of the US National Security State, having privatized Snowden’s NSA files, the largest national security secrets leak in history, for his startup publication The Intercept with Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, the only two people entrusted with the complete Snowden cache.

On the other hand, Omidyar and his wife have been among the most frequent visitors to the Obama White House, intermingling with members of his National Security Council and State Deptartment. Meanwhile, in just the past year Omidyar Network has co-funded Ukraine revolution groups in Ukraine with the US government, and directly financed far-right, pro-business political actors in both Ukraine and in India, where a former top figure in Omidyar Network, Jayant Sinha now serves in theultranationalist BJP Party and as close advisor to its controversial far-right leader, Narendra Modi. Previously, Sinha had served in a powerful BJP Party think-tank, the India Foundation to elect Modi, while simultaneously working as head of Omidyar Network India Advisors, and serving on the five-member global Executive Committee of Omidyar Network.

This week, Omidyar Network’s “investment lead” for Ukraine, Stephen King, accepted an award for Omidyar Network’s role in a major new USAID-backed project, Global Impact Investing Network.

There is truly nothing like Omidyar’s contradictory roles – fighting the empire, leaking the empire’s secrets, while also working hand-in-glove with the empire’s agencies to make the world more pliable to US government and corporate interests. Perhaps it reflects the multibillionaire’s bizarre Howard Hughes-like schizophrenia; perhaps it’s deliberate, a co-optation of the dissident activist wing. Perhaps there’s no rhyme or reason, only the effects – an eerie silence from nearly the entire activist community when it comes to holding Omidyar or his many endeavors accountable.

Depending on what you think of USAID, Omidyar, and Ukraine, this either represents a valiant defense of a long-time friend and colleague, or it represents baseless bloviation in bad taste.

But this post is not about First Look Media or about what happened with Racket.

It is about looking past the recent events surrounding First Look Media (and Pando) to remind readers where Ames and Taibbi belong in the canon of post-Soviet writing (hint: they are first ballot hall of famers). Because elsewhere on social media there has been an ad hominem backlash against Ames & Taibbi, especially after the Pando salvo cited above. Sifting through some of this backlash, it is easy to see where it comes from: their work on Russia is vulgar.

I am not a fanboy of The Exile. For a hagiography, read James Verini’s 2010 Vanity Fair article.

I am not a fanboy, but I firmly believe that the work that Taibbi and Ames did in Russia, long before Pando and First Look Media, is canon for any student of Russia. To be contemplated, critcized, and contextualized in order to understand where Russia is today.

While those of us working in Russia in the late 1990s and early 2000s were maybe tangentially exposed to the filth, the misogyny, the xenophobia, and the depravity of the early- to mid- Post-Soviet years, Taibbi and Ames immersed themselves in that filth and illuminated it for those who were too blind or too spineless to admit what was going on. Give me Taibbi and Ames every time, instead of the British journalist who keeps a secret second wife and kids in Moscow, or the American banker who enriched himself by essentially stealing from the Russian people. What we see in The Exile is the ugly truth of what was happening in Russia.

In my humble opinion, the strongest piece of writing by the OGs on that period is Matt Taibbi’s 2007 obituary of Boris Yeltsin, containing hard truths such as the following:

He has been dying for at least twenty consecutive years now — although he only started dying physically about ten years ago, he has been dying in a moral sense since at least the mid-’80s. Of course, spiritually speaking, he’s been dead practically since birth. … I once visited Boris Yeltsin’s birthplace, in a village in the Talitsky region of the Sverdlovsk district in the Urals, a tiny outhouse of a place called Butka. I knocked on the door of the shack where Yeltsin was born and stepped in the soft ground where his room had once been. Boris Yeltsin was born in mud and raised in shit….

As a teenager he only knew two things; how to drink vodka and smash people in the face. At the very first opportunity he joined up with the communists who had liquidated his grandfather and persecuted his father and became a professional thief and face-smasher.

And, for further edification, who could forget their satirical Field Guide to Moscow (personal favorite: Trophia Minigarchia)

Their work is offensive but relevant, even today. After all, the people skewered on the pages of The Exile remain influential even today.

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The (Actual) 12 Labor of Putin

Yesterday President Vladimir Putin delivered an anti-west screed pontificating on the New World Order:

This is just the latest in Russia’s atavistic turn, with Putin’s 62nd birthday earlier this month offering up another example: the return of the personality cult in full force.

For a children of the corn style vibe, check out this song sung by a St. Petersburg children’s choir:

But perhaps most vivid of the celebratory outpouring was series of Herculean paintings comparing Putin’s achievements as Russian Head of State with the 12 labors of Greek legend. This spawned a rash of coverage all devoted to the exhibit and the metaphorical labors of Putin:

http://www.rferl.org/content/putins-birthday/26624623.html

http://www.economist.com/blogs/easternapproaches/2014/10/vladimir-putins-birthday

http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2014/10/putin-birthday-present-hercules-art-show.html

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-29513589

(can see all 12 ‘labours’ at the last two links)

But Onion Dome is not so sure that the artist, Mikhail Antonov, quite nailed the exhibit. Instead we offer the following more apropos 12 Labours of Putin:

Slay the Nemean Lion

In Antonov’s depiction, the death of the Nemean Lion is represented by Putin’s fight against terrorism, a fight that is still ongoing and whose victory is not assured.

Instead, what Antonov should have shown was Puting slay Alexander Litvinenko in England, the land of the lion.

Litvinenko

Slay the nine-headed Lernaean Hydra

With the ruble falling off a cliff and the ever-increasing threat of inflation, I do not agree with Antonov that Putin’s response to western economic sanctions is the equivalent of slaying the nine-headed Lernaean Hydra.

Instead, the exile of Yeltsin-era oligarchs, from Abramovich to Berezovsky, seems more appropriate.

Capture the Golden Hind of Artemis

Am really not sure what message Antonov is sending by equating the Sochi Olympics to the Golden Hind. This one seems too easy to me: Putin captured Yukos from Golden Boy Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a victory that may cost more than expected.

Capture the Erymanthian Boar

We have already used the liquidation of the oligarchs above, so here we replace Antonov’s representation with Putin’s courtship of Lyudmila Shkrebneva.

1634cecb3c

Clean the Augean stables in a single day

Instead of the fight against corruption, the day-long cleaning of the Augean stables is best represented by Putin’s decision to wait five days while on vacation in Sochi before actually doing something about the Kursk sub disaster.

Slay the Stymphalian Birds

Antonov believes Putin slayed the Stymphalian Birds by stopping air strikes on Syria, apparently preserving peace in a fragile region.

How about this instead: shooting down a Malaysian Airlines passenger jet murdering entire families and AIDS researchers.

Capture the Cretan Bull
– Capture and annex the Crimea Peninsula

OK, Antonov nailed this one.

Steal the Mares of Diomedes

Antonov uses the contract for French Mistral warships for this one (have the ships been delivered yet?). Given that this one involves stealing, it may be more appropriate to depict Putin’s expropriation of billions in ill-gotten wealth.

images
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Putin’s_Palace

Obtain the girdle of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons

The South Stream pipeline (Antonov’s labour of choice) is a valid representation of a girdle. But the pipeline is far from complete, and faces significant regulatory pressure from the EU.

Instead, Putin’s efforts to reverse the Soviet geopolitical dissolution by re-integrating ex-communist states in the Eurasian Union seems more appropriate. Putin has girded Kazakhstan. Belarus and Armenia together in a customs alliance.

Obtain the cattle of the monster Geryon

Not sure what Antonov is thinking with the gas contract with China. We need a ‘monster’ here, and there is an obvious canadidate: lockdown Chechnya by enriching the monster Kadyrov.

Steal the apples of the Hesperides (He had the help of Atlas to pick them after Hercules had slain Ladon)

Another easy one: Putin stole the apples of Hesperides by stealing a Superbowl Ring from Pats owner Robert Kraft

Capture and bring back Cerberus

Here we need three heads, so we can’t use Antonov’s example of conflict with the U.S. A counter-proposal: Putin can capture and bring back Cerberus by eventually annexing the rogue states of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria.

Anyway, this is the only appropriate reaction to Antonov’s work:

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Meet: Yuri Meshkov

A long-time listener of Mark Schauss’ Russian Rulers’ History podcast (now called Russian History Re-told), I would like to give him a shout-out for his podcast last week on Crimea.

While I disagree with his theory behind Russia’s Ukrainian incursion – he believes Putin wanted to gin up instability in order to keep oil prices high and enjoy a post-Sochi bump in government revenue – he did introduce me to Yuri Meshkov, a lesser-known figure in Ukrainian history.

Yuriy_Meshkov

Who is Yuri Meshkov?

Well, before the adoption of Ukraine’s current constitution, and before the much-discussed Budapest Memorandum guaranteeing Ukraine’s sovereignty, Yuri Meshkov was elected as the first and only President of Crimea in post-Soviet history.

Per Wikipedia, his election platform consisted of:
– Facilitating much closer relations with Russia up to the possible annexation of Crimea by Russia.
– Introducing the Russian ruble as the currency of Crimea
– Issuing Russian passports to citizens of Crimea
– Shifting Crimea to the same time zone as Moscow

The only initiative he was able to successfully implement was the shift to the Moscow time zone.

In fact, Meshkov’s Vice President, Yevgeny Saburov, wasn’t even a Ukrainian citizen (he was Russian).

Meshkov has been deported from Ukraine twice, and his background is classic Soviet apparatchik.

The case of Meshkov makes it clear that Russia has had designs on Crimea for a long time, and the latest incursion was not planned over night.

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Ukraine’s Got Talent // Украина мае талант

Based on recent events, we need no reminder of the vitality of the Ukrainian people, but a cheap internet meme has been going around under the heading “The Real Reason Putin Invaded Ukraine”, focusing on World’s Greatest Pole Dancer Anastasia Sokolova and her epic performance on Ukraine’s Got Talent

The performance is from 2013, and Putin does have a supposed affinity for rhythmic gymnasts. Check out 2:24 for the money shot.

But this reminds me just how rich Ukraine’s Got Talent is.

One of the more epic performance’s is Maxim Doshi, aka rapper Cruel Addict, who attempted to win the internet by releasing a home-made music video for his single “I Am The Best”

The music video is embedded here, for his two appearances on Ukraine’s Got Talent, click here (2010)б and here (2011)

If you are interested in learning more about the troubled Doshi, I point you to his entry in Lurkomore, the bizarre Russian combination of Urban Dictionary and Dickipedia.

Saving the best for last, though, there is Ksenia Simonova, who rendered heart-wrenching WWII images in sand in 2009, set to traditional Ukrainian music as well as Metallica for the finale.

Not a dry eye in the house starting at 5:20

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Is Putin playing chess or checkers?

For the past 20 years, Ukraine has been a country in transition, emerging from the Soviet rubble with an unneeded nuclear arsenal, a linguistically heterogeneous population, a crumbling economy and a semi-authoritarian political system in place, party-boss plutocracy reimagined as “democracy”.

Now the country has been invaded. The parliament of Crimea has voted to accede to Russia. After months of gripping street battles a drama is playing out in the Black Sea coast that apparently has taken much of the world by surprise.

But it was easy to see this coming. Russia has consistently pursued an activist foreign policy in its near abroad, most viscerally seen by its 2008 invasion of Georgia, ostensibly to protect ethnic Russians in South Ossetia.

The argument, the objective, and the implementation are parallel to what we see in Ukraine. They are running their playbook.

And what is their objective? Broadly speaking…

To ensure that key former Soviet states remain politically and economically aligned with Russia.

There are fill-in-the-details, like the naval base deal brokered in 2010, or the seemingly half-hearted attempt at re-integration (following the Soviet disintegration) via the Eurasian customs union.

While the Russian playbook is transparent, the grand strategy of American President Barack Obama, who has been critical of Putin’s incursion into Crimea, has been less clear. Hence the spread of witty political cartoons such as this one:

putin-obama-chess-vs-bingo-checkers

But what moves does he have? Given that…

Ukraine is in transition.

In fact, as taught in American academia, Ukraine is undergoing two transitions:

(1) Institutional transition

The country shifted from a communist regime to a country on the path to democracy (whatever that means)

(2) Geostrategic transition

Due to its geography, Ukraine has been drawn to two competing poles – Russia to the east and the EU to the west, both offering certain protections and certain constraints on Ukraine’s sovereignty.

In fact, as stated in an interview with a member of Ukraine’s Autonomous Workers Union, “objectively, the optimal scenario for the Ukrainian economy would be to continue the old policies of geopolitical “neutrality”, without decisive integration into Western or Eastern structures. Any ‘choice’ will be a severe blow to Ukrainian exports and to the well-being of the people” in order to “avoid an explosion of so many contradictions (class, national, geopolitical, economical, etc.) that intersect each other in the Ukrainian society.”

Based on my reading of world events, these two transitions, perhaps one internal and one external, have created two sharp dichotomies: will Ukraine’s political institutions become more liberal or anti-liberal? And will Ukraine maintain its territorial integrity? (note that this blog post was drafted before the Crimean referendum).

Transitions1

One underlying objective, preferred by realists but not yet articulated by Western leaders in the latest series of events, is stability. Stability in transitions is brought about through any number of instruments, from authoritarianism to the careful management of social expectations, or through gradual economic reform. And the fact is, compared to other former Soviet states, particularly those that experienced armed conflict, Ukraine experienced a stable transition in the first 13 years of its recent independence.

Despite being ruled by a corrupt strongman, Ukraine maintained the geopolitical diffidence described above while paying lip service to democratic reform. The country was stable, until in 2004 all of a sudden it was not. What appeared as the Orange Revolution was in fact just a dramatic reshuffling of the patronage system.

Transitions3

Since this time, Ukraine has been at a crossroads, and this is the first point where we can say maybe the west was playing chess not checkers, as they (naively) engaged in negotiations on an EU association agreement with President Viktor Yanukovich, no friend of the EU and a man who owed his political success to the Kremlin kingmaker.

Let’s say at this stage, based on the two transitions described above that there were four paths before Ukraine:

(1) More liberal (EU-oriented), maintain territorial integrity — path to EU membership for unified Ukraine
(2) More liberal (EU-oriented), compromise territorial integrity — path to EU membership for western Ukraine
(3) Less liberal (Russia-oriented), maintain territorial integrity — path to strategic alignment with Russia
(4) Less liberal (Russia-oriented), compromise territorial integrity — possible path to civil war

These scenarios are depicted below:

Transitions4

In November 2013 Yanukovich made a tactical decision that required a strategic response: he ‘revealed the lie‘ and abandoned negotiations with the EU on a trade and association agreement. The sparked an outbreak of street protests that he was unable to suppress, revealing a society deeply divided. He had deceived his own people, costing him political capital. And had he perhaps also deceived the EU?

transitions6

At this point, Ukraine’s transitional path shifted abruptly as the carefully managed expectations gave way to rapidly growing social instability. I believe this required a strategic response by the EU. Alternately, the absence of a response showed what my intuition tells me is true: of the four scenarios outlined above, none of them fit into any strategic parameters articulated by the west. There are no nukes involved like there were in the 1990s, so we simply dont have any skin in the game. EU membership for Ukraine would be nice, but not worth going to war over.

And here is where Russia implemented its strategy by moving military units into Ukraine, committing the Crimean security services to Russian loyalty and coordinating a dubious parliamentary referendum on accession to Russia. As of this writing, I still believe the military play is largely a bluff (no shots have been fired), but the implications are strategic: Russia is protecting its long-term interests in the Black Sea and understands that its actions have possibly permanently knocked Ukraine off any path towards EU membership, certainly in the foreseeable future.

Why did they do this? Because they believe that the strategic objective is worth the cost. You may disagree with their objective, but I find it hard to disagree with their implementation of strategy. On the other hand, I have trouble seeing what the west’s objective is or even should be. Based on the ad hoc and reactionary response from the west, I think our lie – like Yanukovich’s – was revealed as well: we support Ukrainian integration with the west, so long as it does not cost us anything. We have been on a collision course with Putin’s Russia for years and do not appear to have done any contingency planning. Or we did, behind the scenes, and it has been ineffective.

So is Putin playing chess? If so, what is the west’s countermove? Nation-states come and go, and sometimes stability requires a country to split, either peacefully (Czechslovakia) or as the end point of a long period of bloodshed (Yugoslavia).

Transitions7

If I were a realist, I would make two conclusions:

– While Putin may still be bluffing, he is willing to threaten extreme action to protect Russian military interests in Crimea. [We will see if Putin is bluffing once violence escalates]

– If recent events have “exploded Ukraine’s internal contradictions” beyond repair, then the strategic play for the west is to move Ukraine on the path to the top left corner. That is, redoubling efforts to integrate western Ukraine with Europe.

I think this matches up with what the west has demonstrated it is willing to risk. To move a unified Ukraine back on the path to EU membership in light of the facts on the ground as of March 2014 may require more than we are willing to risk. This means that we either gravely underestimated Putin (possible), or that Ukraine’s future was never a strategic priority (more likely).

transitions8

Years from now, looking back, we may remember November 2013 (and not March 2014) as a moment when the west conceded a crucial stage of a post-Soviet nation’s political and economic transition.

Posted in Economy, History, News / Novosti | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

О вкусах не спорят

This post is not about the 2014 Winter Olympic games themselves. The exorbitant cost of the games and allegations of corruption have been well-documented, as have the moments of sporting triumph, and heartbreak.

Instead this post covers the coverage of the games by Western journalists. I think in our coverage of Sochi we learned as much about ourselves as we did about Russia, and it was at times counterproductive.

There was the twitter phenomenon of journalists posting photos of their unsatisfactory accommodations. No wifi, broken doorhandles, and failing plumbing, all presented as voyeuristic selfies. Leave it to Bill Burr to call BS on all of us (skip to the 5:22 mark for his Olympics rant):

Transcription:

All the journalists complaining that the water isn’t running and all that type of shit…am i the only guy who watched all those cold war movies when i was growing up? You know what it’s like over there…there’s 20 people who have some shit, and everyone else is getting fucked; its unbelievably corrupt.

A little later in the podcast comes a money quote about Russia’s intolerance towards gays:

How can you have the technology to blow up the world, and still not understand humanity?

Likewise, opposition leader and vocal critic of the Sochi Olympics Garry Kasparov also found the coverage of Sochi banalia tiresome:

kasparov

https://twitter.com/Kasparov63

As Kasparov makes clear, there are more salient political issues that have taken a back seat to bathroom selfies: freedom of speech, transparent elections, and freedom of religion and sexuality.

Perhaps incensed by Putin’s smug homophobia, sexual freedom in Russia has become a cause celebre. This is a worthy cause but, as Julia Ioffe recently wrote, advocacy journalism has become counterproductive in the backdrop of Sochi. (“The Only People Harassing the Gays of Sochi are the Foreign Journalists“)

There was a lot of mockery of the opening ceremony, and especially of the police choir singing Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’. It was kitsch.

But Putin loves kitsch. Why was the police choir invited to perform? Because Putin wanted them there! They performed the song at a November 2013 tribute event during which Vladimir Putin was overcome with emotion and actually cried! (video in the link)

The 2013 performance:

О вкусах не спорят.

It is counterproductive to bash the kitsch without understanding where it’s coming from. And, as Bill Burr implies, the ‘scandals’ that did come out of Sochi suggest that many journalists did not understand, and continued to be shocked.

This had two impacts:
– Engaging in Russia-bashing at a moment of heightened national pride actually boosted Putin’s popularity. Pictures on twitter of broken doorknobs will never induce Russians to root against their own Olympic teams (and Olympic Committee organizers). Russia was the first winter Olympics host to top the medals table since Norway in 1994.

– Second, it left all of us susceptible to some epic trolling at the closing ceremony:

rings.si

In Soviet Russia, Olympic Games troll you..

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Russian Parenting

Exhibit 1:

Source: Liveleak

Exhibit 2:

animal-children-photography-elena-shumilova-13

Russian Mother Takes Magical Pictures of Her Two Kids With Animals On Her Farm

Source: Bored Panda

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Who won the Space Race?

With the success of Alfonso Cuaron’s latest film, Gravity, which features space debris from a Russian missile as a prominent plot device, I am reminded of the fierce 20th century competition between Russia and the US over the cosmos and want to ask the somewhat rhetorical question: who really won the Space Race?

Well for one, let’s acknowledge that the space race is not over (will it ever be?) and that opinions may change in the coming decades as mankind continues to explore the final frontier and gets closer to putting a human on Mars.

Second, the July 1969 breathtaking broadcast of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the Moon is understandably considered the triumphal high point of the Cold War-era contest between the USA and the USSR.

It’s also true that the USSR never really stood a chance in the race to put a man on the Moon. Jalopnik just released a fascinating piece explaining in detail why the Soviet Union’s kerosene-fueled N1 rocket was never able to reach the same heights as the Saturn V that launched the crew of the Apollo 11 on their historic mission.

The N1:
ku-bigpic

The N1 had four test launches, all resulting in failure:

But, courtesy of the Jalopnik commenters, let’s not forget some important milestones that the Soviet’s did reach first:

– First satellite in space (Sputnik)
– First animal in space (Laika)
– First man in space (Yuri Gagarin)
– First woman in space (Valentina Tereshkova)
– First probe to land on the Moon (Luna 2 in 1959, it crashed)
– First probe to land on the Moon and survive impact (Luna 9 in 1966)
– First rover on the Moon (Lunokhod 1, 1970)
– First to release a film version of the novel Solaris (the George Clooney version was not released until 2002)

So there’s that.

One additional thing to note is that the Soviet’s were extremely cautious with their own Luna program, fearing that sending a man to the Moon would lead to a hazardous Solar Radiation Event.

This caution is atypical, as one reason the Soviets were the first to achieve the milestones noted above is that they often threw caution to the wind. The thinking with the ill-fated Luna 2 probe, the first to ever ‘land’ on the Moon was that “hey, crashing counts as landing!!”

Posted in History, Observation | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

No surprises here

Not sure if Evil Jared got what he expected after he “placed a Russian flag in his pants, rubbed it on his ass, and said to the approving crowd, “Don’t tell Putin.” As Gawker reports, the Bloodhound Gang was subsequently banned from the Kurban music festival and briefly detained at the airport.

http://gawker.com/bloodhound-gang-banned-from-russia-for-flag-desecration-1024658685

One Russia-related reference from the Philly-based group comes from their sophomore album, Use Your Fingers:

Clap it on, clap it off
Sniff my exhaust
Because I’ve got more steps than Baryshnikov

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Time lapse video of Moscow

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