Russian Cryptosystems

You’re surfing the internet on a random Tuesday, when suddenly, you receive an unexpected email.

“What holiday package?” you mutter to yourself, as your finger hovers over the delete button. “On second thought, I should check this out,” you decide seconds later, recalling your tendency to browse Amazon after a few too many drinks.

“Tracking…tracking…wait, what?” Suddenly, all your active windows close: your email browser, solitaire, and even that word document you were kind-of working on. They’re replaced by a single window, displaying the notice below.

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Heaven’s Gates

This article is part of a series on Baroque Music. See also:

  1. Structure: The Perfection of Bach
  2. Style: Baroque Style Sampler
  3. Performance: Heaven’s Gates

“Mystical states of consciousness”, as described by William James in his 1902 Varieties of Religious Experience (1), feature a set of distinctive characteristics: ineffability–they resist adequate depiction in words; noetic quality–they seem to deliver “depths of truth unplumbed” by the standard intellect; transiency–their durations are consistently brief, and passivity–they seem to have been brought on by powers above.

James describes the power of music in facilitating mystical experience. “Music, rather, not conceptual speech, is the element through which we are best spoken to by mystical truth… Music gives us ontological messages which non-musical criticism is unable to contradict.”

The Moscow Conservatory’s performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio was no exception.

“Lacking the heart or ear, we cannot interpret the musician or the lover justly,” writes James, “and are even likely to consider him weak-minded or absurd.” James’ disclaimer is prescient. These experiences are difficult to describe. I’ll try anyway, though; let’s begin.


The main concert hall of the conservatory

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The Troubled Wanderer

This article is part of a series on Italian Renaissance Literature. See also:

  1. Bocaccio: Youthful Idyllic Escape
  2. Petrarch: The Troubled Wanderer
  3. Dante: Heavenly Host

Petrarch, the towering Italian Renaissance poet born in 1304, “Enjoyed the respect of the literati and the confidence of princes,” writes Yale Italian scholar Thomas G. Bergin; “Petrarch was… one of the most remarkable men of all time.” “The greatest kings of this age have loved and courted me,” Petrarch himself writes, confident and dismissive; “They may know why; I certainly do not.” In the palace of the illustrious Giacomo the Younger of Carrara, Petrarch raucously boasts, “I was received by him… not as a mortal, but as the blessed are greeted in heaven.” Petrarch was colossal and commanding. (1)


“From thought to thought, from mountain peak to mountain / Love leads me on; for I can never still / My trouble on the world’s well-beaten ways.” (CXXIX: Ode 17) (1)

The poet, however, had a darker side, visible only in his poetry. Good Friday, April 10th of 1327, was the day Petrarch glimpsed – merely once caught eyes with – the ethereal, and life-altering, Laura. “Love stormed my heart as I walked unalarmed,” Petrarch writes, “Through eyes that now but serve to weep my ills” (III: Sonnet 3) (1). Petrarch’s unrequited obsession with Laura lasts a lifetime – past Laura’s death and even to Petrarch’s own death. “Lord, who first imprisoned me in this cell, / Release me,” he writes near the end of his life. “I grant my final years devotedly to you” (Sonnet 364) (2).

Were Petrarch’s infatuated decades wasted, “passed,” as he himself declares, “in worship of a mortal thing” (CCCLXV: Sonnet 317) (1)? Or was his love a source of life, energy, and ultimate creative purpose?

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The Iron Fortress

This article is part of a series entitled 20th Century Chess Greats. See also:

  1. Mikhail Tal: The Deep Dark Forest
  2. Bobby Fischer: The American
  3. Tigran Petrosian: The Iron Fortress
  4. Mikhail Botvinnik: The Research Player

Petrosian as a youth in Moscow

1963 world chess champion Tigran Petrosian was nearly deaf, a trait that produced several interesting tournament tales. In one tournament game, Petrosian offered Serbian grandmaster Svetozar Gligorić a draw. Gligorić was taken aback and declined, but seconds later he reevaluated and accepted the draw offer. Petrosian, however, had already entered “concentration mode” and had shut off his hearing aid. He didn’t hear Gligorić’s re-offer, kept playing, and went on to win the game.

At a candidate’s match in Seville, Petrosian played Robert Hübner, who was at the time a frail 22-year-old college student. Hübner was driven to distraction by the noise produced by the crowds and by the streets outside. Ultimately, he overlooked a winning move, burst into tears, and forfeited the tournament. Petrosian, meanwhile, hadn’t heard a sound [1].

Petrosian’s performance on the chessboard matched closely his external demeanor. No matter how destructive and chaotic was his opponent’s attack, Petrosian’s iron fortress would remain standing. Continue reading