Soccer fans: Always up for a good brawl, anywhere, anytime

Among the more interesting aspects of the World Cup is the fanaticism it invokes.

As the world’s most popular sporting event – 3.2 billion people watched the last World Cup, in 2014 – it’s bound to attract a number of zealots. But often the circumstances of such passion prove more than slightly curious.

Take yesterday’s match between Poland and Senegal. One wouldn’t expect there to be too much conflict between fans of countries more than 3,000 miles apart, but, then again, this is the World Cup.

Which is why approximately four dozen Polish and Senegalese soccer fans brawled while watching a live screening of the game – in Antwerp, Belgium!

Benches and fists were thrown in the donnybrook, which occurred after an argument started.

“It got out of hand and people started throwing chairs,” bar manager Johan Peeraer told local paper Gazet van Antwerpen.

While disturbances have been rare during this year’s World Cup, certainly rarer than in past Cups, the fact that fans from an Eastern European country and an African country brawled while in a North Sea city watching a game played in Moscow is fascinating.

I suppose it’s the equivalent of me and two dozen buddies brawling with the same number of angry Uruguayans in a cantina in Baja California while watching a Formula 1 race in San Marino. Except, this only seems to happen in soccer.

It’s almost enough to make up for the deadly boredom of the sport.

(Top: Poland and Senegal locking horns Tuesday in World Cup action.)

38 percent of Russians show poor understanding of history

No less an authority than Alexander Solzhenitsyn understood that a considerable dissimilarity existed between Russia and the West. He lived in both, saw the good and bad in both and believed both had something to offer mankind.

What he wouldn’t have understood is that a sizeable percentage of Russians hold former Soviet dictator and mass murderer Joseph Stalin in high regard.

Russians have picked Stalin as the greatest figure in history, beating out President Vladimir Putin and poet Alexander Pushkin, according to a poll released today.

The poll, conducted in April by the Levada Centre, asked Russians to pick the greatest individuals of all time.

Stalin came out on top with 38 percent, while Putin shared second place on 34 percent with Pushkin, Russia’s beloved national poet.

Stalin’s predecessor Vladimir Lenin, Tsar Peter the Great and first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, came next in the list, with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in last place at 6 percent.

The list includes included just three foreigners: Napoleon Bonaparte, Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton.

Stalin is believed responsible for the deaths of as many as 25 million individuals, some executed during his political purges and many more dying in the Gulag, the vast prison camp systems, or through mass starvation such as the Holodomor.

Stalin was a monster on par with Hitler and Mao, and the fact that more than one-third of Russians consider him the greatest figure in history points out either great deficiencies in the Russian educational system, a voluntary myopia among many Russians regarding their past, or a combination of the two.

(Top: A cemetery for victims of the one of Stalin’s gulags in Vorkuta, in Russia’s Far North.)

Soviet World War II hero dies in Chicago at age 94

Stepan-Borozenets

The only Hero of the Soviet Union living in the United States has died at age 94.

Stepan Borozenets, born in what was then the Soviet Socialist Republic of Kazakhstan in 1922, flew more than 100 missions during World War II, or, as it is known in Russia, the Great Patriotic War.

Flying an Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik, a ground-attack aircraft, he was shot down at least once and wounded on at least two different occasions.

Borozenets is credited with destroying great quantities of enemy equipment, as his unit destroyed tanks, locomotives, rail cars and vehicles, suppressed fire from dozens of antiaircraft and field artillery batteries, demolished warehouses and fuel and ammo dumps, and was credited with killing more than 1,200 Germans.

He was awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union on Aug. 18, 1945, for “exemplary performance of combat missions and for their heroism and courage,” according to the Russian news agency TASS.

Il-2 Sturmovik, similar to what Stepan Borozenets flew during World War II.

Il-2 Sturmovik, the model Stepan Borozenets flew during World War II.

Borozenets came to the US in 1995 for medical treatment and opted to remain in the States afterward, settling in Chicago, where he died this past Friday.

Despite spending more than 20 years in the US, Borozenets retained his Russian citizenship, according to TASS.

Borozenets was called up by the Red Army in April 1941, shortly before the Nazis began Operation Barbarossa – their invasion of the Soviet Union. After graduating from flight school, he was sent to the 2nd Belorussian Front in the fall of 1943.

The following July, Borozenets’ plane was shot down, but he managed to land the burning aircraft despite suffering serious injuries. In February 1945, while over Poland returning from a combat sortie, Borozenets was attacked by a group of German fighters and again wounded, but later returned to service.

Among other honors Borozenets received was the medal for the Capture of Königsberg, in recognition of participation in the battle to capture the East Prussian city of Königsberg from the Nazis in 1945.

Borozenets remained in the military service after the war, rising to the rank of colonel.

The US-Canadian Association of Veterans of the Airborne Troops of the Former USSR Countries has begun collecting funds for the erection of a monument to Borozenets in Chicago.

(Top: Stepan Borozenets in recent years, in a uniform with his many decorations.)

World’s only wild horse appears to be on the rebound

przewalski-horses-on-a

Seventy years ago the world’s only wild horse, called the Przewalski’s horse, was extinct in the wild and down to fewer than three dozen animals in captivity.

Today, that number has not only swollen to some 2,000, but hundreds have been reintroduced into the wild, including six Przewalski’s horses that were recently released into a vast, 40,000-plus-acre unbroken plot of virgin steppe in Russia, near the border with Kazakhstan.

Native to China, the stocky, tan-colored horse once inhabited the Eurasian steppe, including Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

These hardy creatures enjoy rolling around in the snow, scratching their backs on the crusty surface, according to Przewalski’s horse expert Tatjana Zharkikh, who heads the Russian reintroduction project.

“They are not afraid of wind, snow, cold … If the Przewalski’s horse has enough food, it is practically invincible,” she said.

The Przewalski’s horse is considered the world’s only wild horse because it has never been domesticated, unlike some equines found in the western US that, while untamed, are descendants of domesticated animals.

This winter marks the first in the wild for the half dozen Przewalski’s horses introduced into the Orenburg Reserves, a cluster of six strictly protected nature areas, according to Agence France-Presse.

Przewalskis horse.

Przewalski’s horse.

The animals were born at a reserve in the south of France.

Other horses have been released into the wild at locations in Mongolia.

The species was discovered by Russian explorer Nikolai Przhevalsky, who described it in the 19th century. After its discovery, there was a ruthless effort to capture the animals.

“Herds were chased down to exhaustion to capture the young foals,” Zharkikh told Agence France-Press, “but in the end the process secured enough animals to save the species after they had gone extinct in their natural habitat.”

The 2,000 animals alive today are descendants of just 12 wild-caught horses. Breeding a viable population from such a limited gene pool has not been without difficulties.

Also, unlike what happens when a horse and donkey reproduce, Przewalski’s horses can breed with domestic horses and produce fertile hybrids, which are a threat the species’ gene pool.

“Even a few hybrids can cancel out all conservation efforts,” Zharkikh said. “What is the point of protection if they are just cute shaggy-haired horses rather than a species?”

“Our goal is to form a reserve of genetically pure animals,” said Rafilya Bakirova, director of Orenburg Reserves, who would like to expand the project, including working with neighboring Kazakhstan.

A wild population would only work if the protected area is much larger, Zharkikh said, 250,000 acres or more.

(Top: Przewalski’s horses on a snow-covered field in the Orenburg Reserves. Photo credit: Agence France-Press via Tatjana Zharkikh.)

Francis, Kirill set for historic meeting in Cuba

francis kirill

The recent announcement that Pope Francis, head of the Roman Catholic church, and Patriarch Kirill, leader of the Russian Orthodox church, plan to meet in Cuba later this month will mark the first such gathering in more than 950 years.

The summit comes after decades of diplomacy between the Russian Orthodox church and the Vatican.

The two branches split in 1054 over disagreements regarding theology, when they officially became two separate faith traditions: Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians.

While modern popes have met in the past with the Istanbul-based ecumenical patriarchs, the spiritual leaders of Eastern Orthodoxy, the meeting with Kirill is more substantial. Eastern Orthodox patriarchs play a largely symbolic role, while the Russian church is seen as wielding considerably more influence because it includes 165 million of the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians.

Whereas past efforts to bring the two faith leaders together have failed, the two churches are now willing to meet largely because of the “current turmoil facing Christians in several parts of the world, and particularly in the Middle East,” according to the Christian Science Monitor.

Both the Vatican and the Orthodox Church have long been vocal in denouncing Islamic extremist attacks in the Middle East, North and Central Africa, in which radical Islamists have waged wars on Christians, often causing a rift between Muslims and Christians, the publication reported.

“In this tragic situation, we need to put aside internal disagreements and pool efforts to save Christianity in the regions where it is subject to most severe persecution,” Metropolitan Illarion, foreign policy chief of the Russian Orthodox Church, told the Associated Press.

In addition, concerns that Ukrainians are losing faith with the Orthodox church over its acquiescence to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “aggression in Crimea and the Donbas,” and the Roman Catholic church’s desire for religious freedom for Catholics in Russia and Ukraine are also driving the meeting.

The split dates back to difficulties between Michael Cerularius, patriarch of Constantinople, and Pope Leo IX, head of the Roman Catholic church.

By the middle of the 11th century, there were a number of ecclesiastical differences and theological disputes standing between the Greek East and Latin West. These included the source of the Holy Spirit, whether leavened or unleavened bread should be used in the Eucharist, the Pope’s claim to universal jurisdiction and the position of Constantinople in the organizational structure of Christendom.

Michael Cerularius was determined, if possible, to have no superior in either church or state. He took several actions against the Western church, including attacking it because it used unfermented bread in the sacrifice of the mass and closing the Latin churches in Constantinople, according to The Catholic Encyclopedia.

In 1054, Leo IX sent a letter to the patriarch that cited a large portion of the Donation of Constantine, a forged Roman imperial decree which was purported to have been written by the emperor Constantine the Great, supposedly transferring authority over Rome and the western part of the Roman Empire to the pope.

Leo believed the Donation of Constantine to be real and cited it to show that the Holy See possessed both an earthly and a heavenly imperium, the royal priesthood, according to The Catholic Encyclopedia.

The upshot of the Donation was that only the apostolic successor to Peter – the bishop of Rome – was the rightful head of all the Church.

In early 1054, Leo IX sent a legatine mission under Cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida to Constantinople to negotiate with Michael Cerularius in response to his actions concerning the church in Constantinople.

Humbert quickly disposed of negotiations by delivering a bull excommunicating the patriarch. This act, though legally invalid due to Leo’s death on April 19, 1054, was answered by the patriarch’s own bull of excommunication against Humbert and his associates.

Not surprising given the bad blood that had been brewing between the pope’s representatives and Michael Cerularius, the patriarch rejected the claims of papal primacy, and subsequently the church was rent in two in the Great East–West Schism of 1054. That split continues to this day.

(Top: Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill.)

Russian billboard pays homage to Nazi bomber crew

motherland_billboard_WW2_mix

Those who adhere to the axiom that there’s no such thing as bad publicity will find at least one Russian politician who likely believes differently.

Sergei Gridnev, mayor of Ivanteyevka, outside Moscow, has apologized after billboards celebrating the upcoming 70th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s World War II victory, set for May 9, appeared around town featuring a German air force crew.

Not surprising given that the Soviet Union bore the lion’s share of Hitler’s wrath between 1941-45, suffering at least 25 million dead, the image of a Luftwaffe Junkers Ju 88 bomber crew rather than that of Soviet soldiers didn’t sit particularly well with locals.

Area news portal Ivanteyevka Today has since owned up to the blunder, according to the BBC.

It commissioned 20 banners to mark the end of the conflict, but confessed to “negligence” in choosing the photo, which had the unfortunate tagline “They fought for the Motherland.”

Also not helping matters: The brutal Battle of Moscow, fought from October 1941 to January 1942 and an integral aspect of the Nazi assault on the Soviet Union, code named Operation Barbarossa, claimed 1.5 million lives.

Attempts to point out that the photo dated from 1940, the year before Germany invaded the Soviet Union, when the two nations were actually allies, did little to alleviate heartburn.

Gridnev says local people, war veterans and the whole of Russia can rest assured that “he’ll punish those responsible for the ‘appalling incident,” the state news agency Tass reported.

“The local branch of the pro-Putin All-Russia People’s Front says it spotted the billboard and demanded its removal, and 12 hours after it went up the offending image came right back down again,” according to the BBC.

On the bright side for Gridnev and everyone at Ivanteyevka Today, if this had happened when Stalin was in power, everyone involved with this gaffe would have already been tortured in Lubyanka Prison and then lined up and shot.

(Top: Billboard in Ivanteyevka, Russia, celebrating the upcoming 70th anniversary of Soviet victory over Nazi Germany with image of Nazi bomber crew and words “They fought for the Motherland.”

Missing Fabergé Eggs: Gone forever, or waiting to be found?

famous-easter-eggs-by-faberge-in-st-petersburg

Fabergé Eggs represent both the opulence and extravagance of the Romanov Dynasty.

Over the course of a little more than three decades, famed goldsmith Peter Carl Fabergé crafted some 50 imperial Fabergé Eggs; each an enchanting piece of art so posh that it cost as much as 40 times what the average Russian earned in a year.

They would come to symbolize the wealth, power and self-indulgence that led in part to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and ensuing assassination of the Russian royal family.

Today, 43 of the famed eggs are spread around the world in museums and private collections.

Seven, though, remain uncounted for. The lucky individual who comes across one of the missing gems will find themselves with a prize worth tens of millions of dollars.

If that seems like a pipe dream, consider that last year an American scrap-metal dealer bought what he thought was a tacky gold ornament at a “bric-a-brac” stall.

The dealer, who requested anonymity, planned to melt the piece down but Googled its markings first. He discovered it was the Third Imperial Easter Egg, made in 1887 and worth an astonishing $30 million. The egg was later sold to an anonymous buyer.

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