Monday, April 25, 2011

Hats Off to King & Spaulding

I have not spent a whole lot of time lately on gay issues. There’s the sadness and anxiety in Japan, there’s more than a dozen charity appeals for money on my desk, from an orphanage in Nepal to Médecins Sans Frontières to you name the worthy cause. There’s American democracy on the ropes, the ethical dilemma over how America’s support for tyrants fits into the big picture of the unfolding Arab awakening – and so much other consequential stuff to get into. And I’ve said nothing about the joy of rediscovering old friends. Or about my aching feet and whether I’m going to be able to walk all over Stockholm and Copenhagen come June.

Now that the majority of Americans polled say they are in favor of same-sex marriage, why not just relax, turn to bigger issues, and enjoy the fruits of a new post-gay world.

OK. Just had to give voice to that little man in my head who thinks like that. Now on with the issue.

Something happened today that settled over me like a warm blanket. A cozy feeling that things were going to be all right. The news that the law firm of King & Spaulding has decided to withdraw its support for John Boehner’s efforts to keep the Defense of Marriage Act in place.

It sounds so trivial and obscure. The kind of news most people reading the morning paper will skip right over. If it’s even there. But it’s a positive step forward, in my view, in getting this country out of the grip of the religious nuts whose childish fear of sex keeps their homophobia alive.

DOMA, the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act” was signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1996. It established that marriage in America must be defined as something only a man and a woman can engage in. It has a meanness to it. It also says that if you are in a same-sex marriage performed elsewhere, that marriage will not be recognized in this country. And now, with same-sex marriage legal in five states as well as the District of Columbia, it stipulates those marriages do not have to be recognized by the other states or by the federal government.

It is a law that flies in the face of the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the Constitution, without which the country would collapse. That’s the bit that says if you adopt a child in Maine, that little one is still yours if you move to Illinois, and if you get a driver’s license in Texas you can drive legally in Wisconsin if you are just passing through. It’s a mean law with no purpose other than to pump blood into the brain-dead idea that gay people have no right to live as gays in America. Giving gays in America the right they have in a dozen or more other countries and jurisdictions neither picks anyone’s pocket nor breaks anyone’s leg, as Thomas Jefferson might say. Nobody gains from DOMA, and only gays lose.

DOMA was conceived in malice and has been kept in place for fifteen years already through apathy and cowardice, and many gays are itching to get it into court, so it can be declared unconstitutional once and for all. That puts them in bed, ironically, with Boehner. Each side is convinced the courts will rule in their favor. It’s worth remembering that some states in this country once performed interracial marriage and other states had the right not to recognize them. Until 1967, when the Supreme Court struck that law down as unconstitutional. We should remember also that Oklahoma once refused to recognize adoptions approved in other states, and that a federal court found their refusal illegal in 2007. Given these precedents, say advocates of a court fight, things look good for overturning DOMA on Full Faith and Credit grounds.

With Republicans and gay optimists (mostly young, I suspect) working hand in hand here, gay people in the latter half of their lives (again, I'm just guessing about the age range), if I’m at all typical, might well advise caution. One must never underestimate the power of the fear of sex, they/we say, especially when it is combined with fear of “the other,” all the progress in the fight for gay rights notwithstanding. Since things are apparently moving steadily toward full civil rights for gays, this mindset goes, we should avoid confrontations and let homophobia die a natural death. Remember that argument? And its counter-argument - about justice delayed being justice denied?

If you were wondering why gay people vote democratic so overwhelmingly, consider this. When Proposition 8, which removed the right of gays to marry in California, was challenged in court, Jerry Brown, the state’s Attorney General at the time, refused to defend it. Opponents of same-sex marriage cried foul, and insisted this democratic government official wasn’t doing his job. Jerry Brown responded it wasn’t his job to defend unconstitutional laws, and the case is still working its way through the court system.

Now comes a parallel issue on the federal level. Attorney General Eric Holder, also a democrat, is taking a similar position: it’s not the job of the Justice Department to defend laws it believes are unconstitutional.

But how can he make that claim, say the republicans, if it hasn’t been found unconstitutional by a federal court, whose job it is to determine constitutionality. Determining constitutionality is for courts to decide, not individuals.

Ah, but the federal court DID declare DOMA unconstitutional in July of last year. What this is about is the appeal. Holder does not want to use federal funds to defend DOMA when the federal court has thrown it out. It’s not worth defending he says, using his power of judgment as Attorney General. And once again, republicans want to take the case to the Supreme Court, where there is a solid chance the arch conservatives there will throw out the federal court’s decision and set DOMA in stone, at least for a generation or two. So Boehner hired this $900 dollar an hour lawyer, Paul Clement from the firm of King & Spaulding (who, out of the kindness of his heart, I understand, has lowered his fee to $500 an hour, since it’s coming out of the taxpayer’s coffers) to defend the law in Holder’s place.

And that brings us up to where I started – with the news that King & Spaulding has decided it didn’t want this case any more than the Justice Department did. Clement has left the firm, arguing everybody deserves his day in court, and it's his duty to stick with what he started. It's up in the air as of this writing whether he’s going to take the case with him to another law firm, one without the King & Spaulding's scruples about defending discriminatory legislation.

So what about that question, why not fight the case in court? Much as I loathe the folks currently running the Republican Party, don’t they have a point? Doesn’t everybody deserve their day in court? Aren’t they right when they say if everybody in the executive branch of government decided cases a priori, wouldn’t that disturb the balance of powers? Should this not stay in court all the way to the top if necessary? That's Clement's argument, and that's why he resigned when his firm refused to pursue the case

Well, no.

First off, it’s people who deserve their day in court, not ideas. If by some cruel accident we elected a fascist to office (a few years ago that would have seemed a lot more ridiculous), and once elected he announced he wanted to make all the Jews in town wear a yellow star, and a class action suit grew out of this and he went to court over it, I’d say, yes, by all means, give bozo his day in court.

But what of the policy itself of making Jews wear gold stars? When the case got thrown out, as it no doubt would nowadays, would taxpayers have to pay for bozo to take the case to a higher court? And would we force the attorney general to defend it? Or could he just say, “This is bullshit. I’m outta here,” and let the lower court ruling stand.

Or suppose a David Duke type got elected and wanted to put people back at the back of the bus. Again, I’d defend his right to advocate the position, but I’d also expect my fellow Americans to speak up loud and clear and tell him how out of line it is. If he managed to get some county or state to put that policy in effect, would you seriously want the Attorney General of that state to defend it once a federal court had found it unconstitutional?

I hear the grumbling in the bleachers now. Who the hell are you gays to compare yourself to the blacks and the Jews? Your sufferings are trivial in comparison. Have you no shame?

No, actually, I don’t. I don’t think we line up the holocaust, slavery and segregation, weigh them against bride burning in India, female circumcision in Africa, ethnic cleansing anywhere – or the struggle of gays to get free of religious oppression, take the worst case and dismiss all the rest. I think we’ve come as far as we have because non-Jews have learned to see the evil in anti-semitism, white males have come to understand the abuse of women and people of color in this country, and everybody is slowly but surely coming to see the injustices inflicted on gay men and women in the name of religion. There was a time when the bishops and the teary-eyed evangelists commanded silence, and we obeyed. But today we're helping each other understand "it gets better," and refusing to do their dirty work for them in the courts. There is progress.

It’s an ironic situation. On a practical level, the young gay optimists may be right and the Republicans may be shooting themselves in the foot pushing this into court. After all, when Anita Bryant tried to keep gay people from teaching by whipping up the notion gays were all child molesters at heart back in the 70s, the stench of that lie got aired and gay rights took a giant step forward. It’s entirely possible that Boehner’s lie might get a similar airing, and we might get to the sunshine a whole lot faster than by calming everybody down and waiting for greater numbers of Americans to come around. I wish I could read all the signals here, but I don’t have enough information.

The whole story is more complex than I've just described it because there are two mutually exclusive arguments going simultaneously - one that DOMA should not be defended because it's wrong, and one that it should not be a high priority, regardless of the constitutionality issue, given how much trouble the country's in at the moment.

But practical and legal questions aside, symbolically to have the prestigious law firm of King & Spaulding come down on the side that both Clinton and Obama are on, as well as California's former Attorney General and current Governor, both state senators, the California Supreme Court and no end of other legal minds, is very good news indeed. Hats off (such a lovely silly old expression, that) to Jerry Brown for having a bullshit detector in working order. Ditto for Eric Holder and his detector. And hats off and a deep bow at the waist to King & Spaulding.

The cynic in me says they’re a big money law firm just being practical and they know which way the wind is blowing.

But hats off all the same.


Monday, April 18, 2011

Nuclear Fallout – a child’s perspective

Many years ago, I was watching some kids in Japan playing with vocabulary cards. Some were pictures of ducks and cats and the like, and others were "action cards" like "washing dishes" and "riding a bicycle."

Imagine my surprise when I suddenly heard this three-year-old shout out, "Unchi ga dete kuru!" (The poo is coming out.)

I grabbed the card out of the kid's hand and, sure enough, it had a picture of a little doggie with a turd exiting his behind.

The Japanese attitude was it's something kids see, why should they not have words to describe it.

It was one of those moments I began to embrace the Japanese way of doing things.

Since then I’ve encountered one example after another of how much less reserve there is in Japan over dealing with this thing we call a turd. In all its many forms.

They have turd flashlights, for example.

In Asakusa, a French designer created a beerhall that looks like a black beer mug with a “golden flame” thingie on top, but Tokyoites immediately began referring to the building as the “unchi biru, ” the “turd building.”

And there’s even a scientist who is working on extracting the protein in sewage to create a “turdburger.”

I could go on and on; examples abound. But I mention all this by way of introduction to a guide for children that just came my way to explaining the meaning of fallout from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

I should let it speak for itself. There are English subtitles.

See if you can do any better.


Sunday, April 17, 2011

There but for the grace of…are you kidding me?

I’ve got Dmitri on singing Russian Songs from the War Years, and rubber gloves on my hands. I’ve torn open the windows, and faced the fact that while an occasional swirl of the toilet brush and a dash of Comet on the sink may work for a while, there are times when you’ve got to wipe down the walls and get at the underside of life.

If I were more regular with my housekeeping, I might get by with Mercedes Sosa or Renée Fleming. But I’ve been slacking off, and this job calls for a pipe organ or a full symphony. Or, of course, the mac truck masculinity of a voice like Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s.

When Dmitri sings he almost always gets my full rapt attention. I would never reduce him under normal circumstances to background music. But you haven’t seen my bathroom lately.

The soldiers march across the parched steppes, bullets whistle, the white cranes are the souls of fallen comrades, my sorrows, my sorrows, the memory of my mother’s tearful eyes. Sing, Dmitri. I hear you. I really hear you.

For some reason my mind wanders to the Bitburg Cemetery and the time I went off the tracks with my friend Achim. He was in the German Navy in the Second World War and committed to caring for the graves of the German war dead. I insisted at the time that Reagan should not visit the Cemetery because members of the SS were buried there. Achim said most of the graves were occupied by hapless young men unable to resist their country’s madness and they should not be forgotten either. I’ve written about this elsewhere, and mention it only to make the point one more time that we’re all blind men describing the elephant part put in front of us by fate, or a sometimes merciful sometimes nasty divine force acting quite arbitrarily.

I have been exchanging ruminations with a friend in Japan over whether Tepco should be held criminally responsible and whether government can be incompetent and irrelevant simultaneously. Discussions zoom in and out and opinions flow freely and how are we to judge whether where we sit gives us a more authoritative perspective?

Some years ago I came to understand how arbitrary and how illogical were our chance connections to world events, when I was studying Russian at the Army Language School (now the Defense Language Institute), in Monterey, at the height of the Cold War.

I never gave the army sufficient credit for this, and for all I know this happened not because of them but in spite of them. But even though the Russians were clearly bad guys, and even though we were strictly forbidden to “fraternize” with the Russian faculty and community, somebody at the top knew enough to allow the school to form a Russian choir. It helped keep us human, and made the point none too subtly that, while opposed to Soviet policy and to communism, we were not anti-Russian, and were certainly capable of admiring Russian culture.

The military was soul-killing, the mindlessness staggering. They had stamped all our bilingual dictionaries “confidential” because there were Russian words in it. And if it had not been for the Russian culture that seeped through, we would have been goners. The music was uplifting, the poetry magical, the language grabbed me like no other language study ever did, and I even started attending Russian Orthodox church services. Not for the religion. For the beauty. And yes, the spirituality.

Fast forward a year to Berlin and I’m listening to Russian soldiers in the East Zone keeping the lines of communications open by counting to ten and back down, and mostly I’m going out of my mind.

When we get into discussions about the political situation five feet from the door of the windowless quonset hut we’re in, somebody always comes up with the bravado line, “You know if they ever march into West Berlin, we’re dead meat.”

We’re not at war, so mercifully there is no need to demonize the Russians and remove their humanity and find a white-boy analogue for jap or chink or gook. We read copies of Pravda and Izvestia openly, not because we understand or care what’s written there, but to piss off the sergeants in charge of us who know in their hearts we’re the weak link in the anti-Communist chain. And we listen to Russian music in our spare time, and keep the love alive that came from that year we gave eight hours a day in class and more in the evening, learning how to interrogate Russian prisoners of war – should the need arise. Kak vashe imya, familia i otchestvo? What’s your first name, last name, patronymic?

It was one of the earliest examples I had first hand of how hatred requires distancing. It’s the other side of the coin of “familiarity breeds contempt.” Sometimes it does, of course, but it’s also essential to sincere compassion. And then you have to consider what life would be like without familiarity. It’s a risk we take. Get to know someone intimately and you know sweat and bad breath and all manner of unworthiness. And you also take on reasons for living.

Russian folk music still lifts me out of a funk like little else. If I were to do life over again, I’d probably spend a whole lot more time immersed in things Russian.

Dmitri is singing about a boy longing for his home. The night is dark and he’s alone. I’m going at the glass door tracks in the shower now with a toothbrush and reliving the time I wore a uniform that obligated me to carry a gun. That boy that Dmitri’s singing about? I might have shot that boy if the order came. But it didn’t, and years have passed and now I ache as readily over the loss of life of those Russian boys in Afghanistan as I do over the loss of American lives today.

I had a sad exchange a couple weeks ago with a friend who tried to persuade me that America has no choice but to support petty dictators. That what looks like an Arab awakening does not mean we were wrong to keep thugs in power all these years for the sake of stability in the region. I hate it when those discussions fall into that trap, when somebody justifies supporting Noriega and Marcos and Mubarak because the alternatives are worse. When young people are dropped from helicopters into La Plata River so there is order and stability in Latin America. When Jeanne Kirkpatrick describes Pinochet as “muy amable” and it’s not fascism, it’s just anti-communism. Talk to the mothers in the plaza before you tell me Kissinger was right to support the junta.

The School of the Americas can be defended if you never go into the street in Buenos Aires or Santiago or dozens of other places in Latin America and talk to real people. Maggie Sullivan can defend the family against gay marriage if she never sits on the living room floor in a gay household and plays with the kids. It’s all a question of whether you can get yourself into a position where the elephant really looks like it does to the man or woman to your right or your left. Where your reasoning means your big picture overshadows my little picture.

I had an uncle I used to love to infuriate. Like the time I sent him a postcard from East Berlin with a picture of Yuri Gagarin on it. Gagarin had just gone up in space and the postcards were being distributed for free. My waspy uncle, never happy that I had taken to my mother’s German side of the family more than to his, went apoplectic when years on I made Japan my home. I was shaming the family and thumbing my nose at all the tribal loyalties. Getting into bed with the commies. And actually sleeping with the Japanese, come to think of it.

I tried once talking with him about separating out the Germans from the Nazis and the Russians from the Commies, but he saw no reason to waste time on something so wrongheaded from the start. He’s long gone now, so I no longer have any sense of obligation to explain why I can resonate with a Moscow audience in tears listening to Dmitri sing of soldiers dying on a hill in Manchuria in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905.

I’ll bet he never cleaned a toilet. At least the way I can.

My family, if they ever thought of it, would have urged me to thank God for sparing me from having to actually shoot a Russian. Or a German. Or a Korean or a Vietnamese. I lucked out, they would tell me. Isn’t it curious how the English language forces you to call it fate.

It’s all in the part of the elephant you get to look at. They say God spared me. I wonder why God didn’t spare all those other people. They fought and died in wars all around the planet. I put on a uniform, joined the Russian choir and sang Gospodi Pomilui and Katyusha (the young girl, not the rocket) and Stenka Razin and Kalinka and Moscow Nights.

Now I wonder if it wasn’t God faced with a Sophie’s choice of who would kill the Russians and who would swoon over their music, who was it? And if it was him, did he have a nervous breakdown too after making the decision? Who would go to Buenos Aires to talk to mothers of the disappeared and who would, like Kissinger, congratulate themselves on keeping America strong? Who would stare at a picture of a cousin in a German uniform and wish I could have known him, and who would argue not giving an inch on the Bitburg Cemetery policy. Oh, right. That last one was me in both cases.

How curious that if it were not for the Cold War, I would never have carried a rifle. Never have, when asked what the spirit of the bayonet was, shouted at the top of my lungs, “Kill! Kill! Kill!” Never have sung Lord Have Mercy in Old Church Slavonic with other American soldiers.

I’m thinking now that if it were not for the Cold War, my bathroom would never sparkle like this, and I suspect that means I’ve done enough for one day.

Have you ever heard Katyusha sung in Chinese?

How about in German with animated girls doing pilates, or something, in their underwear?

So much more to see and do.

I'm Mishka Gummi-Bear?

The picture at the top is of the Russian Choir of the Army Language School/Defense Language Institute, Monterey, California, taken in late 1962 or early 1963. Mine is the seventh head in from the right in the very back row. Smiling at the camera and facing a bit more to the left than the others around me.


Thursday, April 14, 2011

Merciful Jesus, they sure do sing to you pretty

They have been giving concerts at noon at the Hertz Hall on the UC Berkeley campus on Wednesdays since forever. OK, since 1953. But what a gift to the community these performances are. I went yesterday to a performance of Fauré’s Requiem, one of my favorite pieces of music of all time. They have a marvelous choir director in Marika Kuzma and you wanted it to go on and on.

Because I wanted it to go on and on, as soon as I came home I went to YouTube to get more of the Pie Jesu/Agnus Dei, the highlight of the piece. I wasn’t disappointed. Everybody and his cousin Vera has sung it, looks like. There’s a beautiful Kiri Te Kanawa version (what has she ever done that isn’t beautiful?). Unfortunately I can’t find any versions of her doing it without those friggin angel still shots. Keep your eyes closed and just listen to the voice.

Many prefer hearing Cecilia Bartoli do it. That would be like asking me to choose between chocolate and macadamia nuts. I’ll just listen to one on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, the other the other days, thank you. And Dmitri Hvorostovsky all day Sunday.

A more consequential debate is whether it should be sung by a world class soprano or whether the vibrato detracts from the pure sounds. Listen to a couple boy sopranos do it and you tell me. There's the Winchester Cathedral Choir, a 12-year-old from Zagreb, another with the London Symphony Chorus, and another from King's College, Cambridge.

And you know there are more.

I’ve been a pushover for boy soprano voices ever since I had one myself for a brief spell. The Vienna Boys’ Choir never gets old, even if they have gone all pop and international, although I still prefer the classic knock your socks off dulcet tones of the Regensburger Domspatzen singing Schlafe, mein Prinzchen, Schlaf Ein.

But back to the Pie Jesu and the tug of war between the ladies and the boys. Perhaps the best way to resolve it is to put them together.

Like Andrew Lloyd Webber did when he wrote his version of Pie Jesu. Or, more precisely, when Sarah Brightman came to sing it with a string of choirboys, with each young voice more beautiful than the last. Here are three: Ben De’ath, Paul Miles-Kingston (and a younger Sarah Brightman), and Adam Clark.

Sarah puts on this fish face and the kid forgets to follow the conductor. And yet, this is what the music in heaven must sound like.

Jerry Falwell once told me that I would never get in. But if he’s there I wouldn’t want in anyway. I’ll just stand in the hallway with my RDP (registered domestic partner – our desire to marry is what’s keeping us out, you see) and our doggies, and listen.

Or a private booth in hell with access to YouTube would be OK as well, I should think.


Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The ridiculous and the sublime, sort of

I can’t believe I once said of Japan, “It’s a place of such sameness, such balance and middle-of-the-road ways, that it’s hard to develop strong feelings about it.” Over the years I lived there and it became increasingly familiar, the pendulum swung for me to the other extreme. It’s now a place of intense feelings.

It has a nasty bunch of right wingers. Some of them ride around in sound trucks and shout at you, adding noise pollution to other forms of pollution in the busy areas of Tokyo. It is a bully’s paradise. Its natural beauty is offset by some of the ugliest urban sites imaginable. Big corporations like Tokyo Electric pretty much run the country, and some, like Green Cross, which knowingly killed off hundreds of Japan’s hemophiliacs by giving them HIV tainted blood, are enough to make you believe in Satan.

There’s so much about Japan not to like, if you’re in a grouchy mood.

At the top of my list of things that make me grouchy at the moment is the news that Shintaro Ishihara has been elected yet again as governor of Tokyo. This despite the fact that he represents the far right in Japanese politics, in sharp contrast to the current prime minister, Naoto Kan, who first captured the hearts and the respect of Japanese when he went after those bastards at Green Cross. Now, a couple decades later, Tokyo voters throw their weight once more behind Ishikawa, even in the aftermath of the tsunami and earthquake, which Ishikawa notoriously described as “divine punishment.” It’s as if New York had put Pat Robertson at the head of its power center.

It’s not just the blaming the victim stupidity that makes this guy loathsome. Among his many accomplishments is the charge that criminality in Japan can be blamed on foreigners, that the Rape of Nanking is a fiction, that women are useless once they are no longer capable of reproduction, that homosexuality is abnormal, and that the Japanese occupation of Korea was completely justified. He is also responsible for squandering taxpayer money on a bank scheme (Shinginko) and on a losing plan to bring the Olympics to Tokyo. But voters apparently translate all this as a sign of eccentricity, and translate eccentricity into heroic resistance to politics as usual. Nobody ever said you had to be smart to vote in a democratic election.

Fortunately Japan is so much more than its crummy politicians.

Like this YouTube video, for example.

First Seiji Ozawa.

Now this.


Friday, April 1, 2011

Kak molody my byli

I knew this would happen. All it took was one new Dmitri Hvorostovsky song (that stunning a capella number, “Farewell, Happiness”) to set me off, and I’ve spent the entire day listening to him, and coming across all these new songs. New to me – they’re hardly new to anybody familiar with Russian folk music as I once was. I’m experiencing a moment of nostalgia reliving the days when I sang with the Russian Choir in the (U.S.) Army Language School, and used Russian music as a hook to sanity.

This love of Hvorostovsky is bringing it all back with a vengeance. Something about the “Russian soul.” Used to laugh at it in Russian School. All so terribly contrived, we thought it was. So much excessive gushing. Such overconfidence that you hold the only key to honest emotion, we used to sneer at the Russians all around us.

And now, as it floods back into my life decades later, it comes without the youthful need to ridicule. It just comes straight in and I’m a believer. Thanks, I am convinced, to Dmitri Hvorostovsky.

Never lost it entirely. I fell in love some years ago with a Russian song, “A Million Roses” sung in a Japanese version by Kato Tokiko, and that set me off for years as a fan of her music. I now have all her albums. You may remember my fascination with Alla Pugacheva.

The point I’m trying to make is that Russians can do schmalz like few on the face of the earth and when you're young, and being cool is just about everything, this is worse than camp. It's plain ridiculous. But I'm plugging into different parts of this whole, and perhaps that's why this song about how the world looked when we were young is speaking to me.

As with all sentiment, the line between deep emotion and shlock is very thin and culturally determined. What makes some sneer makes others weep. Russian sentimentality is like that. When it's bad, it's horrid. But the flipside of that is also true. When it's good, as I think Hvorostovsky demonstrates, it can be very very good indeed.

Case in point.

There’s this song designed to wring every tear out of the dryest of tear ducts. It’s called “How Young We Were” (“Kak molody my byli” in Russian). You can write the lyrics yourself. Just imagine an old person longing for his or her youth, and remembering all that was, when times were better and we had the energy, the innocence, the faith to enjoy it. The key phrase is “Nothing on earth ever disappears entirely, what we had in our youth lives on…” Your eyes are welling up already, right?

If you go to:
and click on “Find a clip on YouTube” it will lead you to this song sung by a number of performers, including Hvorostovsky. There’s Aleksandr Gradskiy, Ivo Bobul and, for those of you who read Georgian, თამარა გვერდწითელი, the Georgian singer, Tamara Gverdciteli, sometimes referred to as the “Russian Edith Piaf.” (I just work here. Don’t ask me.)

Check out a minute or more of the Aleksandr Gradskiy version, since this is probably his signature song. As was the case with the Alla Pugacheva performances, the staging and production values are pure Walt Disney on an LSD trip.

When you’ve had enough, take a 12-minute break and study the use of the Russian dative case with Victor Dmitrievich Huliganov. (Apparently his real name – a man named Hooligan.) Victor will explain how it is that “everybody in the room gets kicked into the dative case” at times, and how sometimes “too hot” is good – like if you’re in a sauna, or something.

If twelve minutes of this are more than you can take, and you want to skip the grammar lesson, fast forward to Minute 9:22 where Victor translates the words of “Kak molody my byli – How young we were.”

He then provides a sung version. In chipmunk.

There's a risk, of course, that you may never be able to hear this song, even when sung by Hvorostovsky, with a straight face.

But give it a try. My man Dmitri has great powers. Even to overcome such as this.

For those of you who do Russian karaoke, the original is available at:

Or you can read along in transliteration, which I've provided at the end here.

You’ve seen what Russian shlock looks like.

Now watch the white haired god do it.

Kak molody my byli
Oglyanis, neznakomyy prohozhiy,
Mne tvoy vzglyad nepodkupnyy znakom...
Mozhet, ya eto, - tolko molozhe,
Ne vsegda my sebya uznaem...

Nichto na Zemle ne prohodit bessledno.
I yunost ushedshaya vse zhe bessmertna.
Kak molody my byli,
Kak molody my byli,
Kak iskrenne lyubili,
Kak verili v sebya!

Nas togda bez usmeshek vstrechali
Vse cvety na dorogah zemli...
My druzey za oshibki proschali,
Lish izmeny prostit ne mogli.

Nichto na Zemle ne prohodit bessledno.
I yunost ushedshaya vse zhe bessmertna.
Kak molody my byli,
Kak molody my byli,
Kak iskrenne lyubili,
Kak verili v sebya!

Pervyy taym my uzhe otygrali
I odno lish sumeli ponyat:
Chtob tebya na zemle ne teryali,
Postaraysya sebya ne teryat!

Nichto na Zemle ne prohodit bessledno.
I yunost ushedshaya vse zhe bessmertna.
Kak molody my byli,
Kak molody my byli,
Kak iskrenne lyubili,
Kak verili v sebya!

V nebesah otgoreli zarnicy,
I v serdcah utihaet groza.
Ne zabyt nam lyubimye lica.
Ne zabyt nam rodnye glaza...

Nichto na Zemle ne prohodit bessledno.
I yunost ushedshaya vse zhe bessmertna.
Kak molody my byli,
Kak molody my byli,
Kak iskrenne lyubili,
Kak verili v sebya!