Friday, February 20


Sea-Monkeys of Old Russia

I suppose some of our readers are old enough to remember the fad for keeping sea-monkeys, or at least the various commercial attempts to get children to buy them. It is to be noted, as even the sea-monkey folks admit, the fanciful caricatures on the box don't really look too much like the actual animals, a playful if not very simian species of brine-shrimp called Artemia salina x nyos. The main advantage, economically, to the animal is they go into suspended animation and thus can be easily shipped. I think they were a big deal to the previous generation but I can still remember ads for them in the back of either Military History--in-between classifieds for conspiracy-theory paperbacks about Marshal Ney and those pesky Templars again--and in Boys' Life, the scout journal, which also featured a section of mummified jokes collected by readers that were old when Baden-Powell was still alive. (John Glenn purportedly took 400 million of the animals into space with him in 1998 for reasons I can't quite fathom. Perhaps it was to liven up the taste of his ration of Tang.)

Our Orthodox readers and fans of Father Vasily in particular will be interested to know that it seems brine-shrimp have been a popular childhood let-down since tsarist days, as we read in Orlando Figes' intriguing cultural history of Russia, Natasha's Dance, in an account quoed from Mikhail Zernov, which also mentions an ancestor of another simian childhood disappointment, the sock monkey, which, according to Wikipedia, 'hold an important place in the culture of North America as a symbol of ingenuity.' Unsurprisingly, a citation is lacking for the last statement, which puzzles and alarms me. But, as I was saying:
On the eve of Easter, Moscow broke out of its ordered service and a screaming, raving market opened on Red Square. [...] We went every year to take part in this traditional Moscow celebration with our father. Even from far away, as you approached Red Square, you could hear the sounds of whistles, pipes and other homemade instruments. The whole square was full of people. We moved amid the puppet boths, the tents and stalls that had appeared overnight. Our religious justification was buying willow branches for the All-Night Vigil to mark Jesus's entry into Jerusalem [a substitute for palms one finds in some colder western-rite countries]. But we preferred the other stalls which sold all kinds of weird and useless things, such as 'sea dwellers' living in glass tubes filled with colored liquid, or monkeys made from wool. There were colorful balloons with wonderful designs, and Russian sweets and cakes which wer were not allowed. Nor could be go to see the woman with moustaches, or the real mermaids, or the calves with a double-head.
So, say it loud, 'Was it fancy capitalist sea-monkeys in 19th century Russia?! Yes, it was!' Also, I think Passiontide would indeed be quite lively if we had bearded ladies in the Western Church as well.

Next week--the secret Carthusian origins of the mail-order submarine.

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