27 April 2007

Child of Hungry Times

I recently had the pleasure of attending the Moscow premier of Child of Hungry Times, a one-woman play written, produced, and starring Bridget Bailey, a friend of mine here in Moscow. The play, performed in English, is based on the writings of Russian writer Lyudmila Petrushevskaya who produced touching - and often controversial - portraits of Russian women and their place in Soviet society.

I have yet to decide which I find more impressive - the power of Petrushevskaya's characters, or Bridget's skill in bringing them all to life (she plays six separate characters, giving unique vitality and identity to each one). Obviously, the great achievement of the show is the combination of Petrushevskaya's groundbreaking writing (which was too controversial to publish during much of the Soviet era) and Bridget's own remarkable acting gifts. I think I might have to see the show a second time to decide which aspect is more impressive.

And so should you, if you happen to be an English speaker in Moscow this weekend.

The play is showing in the Zal Vladimir (mezzanine level) at the Baltschug Kempinski Hotel in Moscow on April 28th and 29th. The show begins at 8:00 pm and tickets are free, though they would be well worth paying for if we had to!

I strongly encourage anyone reading this in Moscow to attend if they're able.

And, for those of you reading this from the comfortable bliss of the United States, do not despair. Mother Russia is losing Bridget this fall when she returns to the states to persue a production of Child of Hungry Times off Broadway in New York. So with any luck, we'll get to see this impressive show back home too.

26 April 2007

Food for Thought

I have a complicated relationship with food in Russia. Which is to say that I have a complicated relationship with Russian food.

It's not that I don't like Russian food. It's just that when I'm in America, I usually crave Russian food about once a year. On that day I pull out the Russian cookbook, make some pelmeni by hand and a pot of borshch, after which I'm set for another year.

I've found that I crave Russian food at about the same frequency when in Russia, which is problematic due to the fact that I'm eating it every day, not just one day. Thus, there seems to be an oversupply problem, not something you find in Russia very often...

I wake up every morning to find my breakfast waiting for me on the table (meals are included in the rent I pay my host family). I sit down and stare at the bowl of porridge in front of me. 75 percent of the time it's kasha. The rest of the time is split between millet, oatmeal, and rice porridge. It's already been sitting on the table a couple of hours because host mother usually leaves for work fairly early. So I pick up my bowl and stick it in the microwave for one minute twenty seconds. Every morning.

When I get back to the table with my steaming bowl of kasha, I sit down and pour in some milk to help wash things down. I'm not sure if I'm supposed to do this, but I tried it once without the milk and once was enough. Then I get up to search for the sugar, which has a habit of wandering all over the apartment. I don't know why. Eventually I find it and am ready for my daily dose of fiber. Sometimes there is other fare to accompany my kasha - cheese, salami, yogurt. Sometimes the other things aren't there. I'm not sure why host mother decides to serve me the extras some days and not others. Maybe she thinks to herself, "hmm, R is looking a little chubby today. Maybe he shouldn't have any cheese." Actually, since she's a Russian woman reaching babushka stage, she probably thinks, "hmm, R is looking a little thin. Maybe he needs some extra cheese today." Most likely she simply doesn't think about it at all, as she's not exactly the doting type...

On weekends there are usually these thick pancakes (not blini) that have a deliciously crunchy crust thanks to the fact that they're practically deep fried in the massive quantity of oil that goes into the pan. One time I tried to complement my host mother by telling her how good they were and how I'd like to get the recipe.

"I don't understand..." (this is how she starts most conversations with me). "I make these all morning and you just sit in your room reading when you could come out and write this all down. I don't understand" (this is how she ends most conversations with me). But a bit of sugar, some smetana (sour cream), and jam on the pancakes makes everything OK.

Because host dad and I both work from home, we usually have lunch together. My friends at home will attest that you could set your watch to my lunch schedule - when the clock strikes 12:00 I become one of Pavlov's dogs. European readers will be comforted in knowing that I have managed to push this back a couple of hours in accordance with host father's preferred dining schedule. However, the call, "R, are you having lunch?" can come anywhere from 2:00 to 4:00. Lately I've been keeping a jar of pickles on the balcony just in case it's a late lunch day...

Lunch always always begins with the soup of the week. Host mother usually makes a big pot on Sunday night, which lasts us the week and lives out on their balcony. Sometimes it's shchi (cabbage soup), sometimes it's borshch, and sometimes it's a soup with pickles called rassolnik. One time the rassolnik had bits of liver in it, which was not a good week. And of course, readers are familiar with the trauma of the dreaded ukha (fish soup). Fortunately the ukha has not returned since that terrible week. If it does, it may not be enough to slip out for the afternoon; I may have to head to Kiev for the week...

When they don't contain offal meats and second-grade fresh fish, the soups are actually quite good. Though I have to admit that soup every day gets a bit...repetitive. I try to vary things by adding smetana to my soup in the Russian tradition some days but not others. But then host dad inevitably asks why I'm not putting smetana in the soup, "since it's much better with smetana." Given his enthusiasm for the stuff, it's usually more appropriate to describe it as "sour cream with soup added" rather than vice versa.

The second course for lunch always consists of mashed potatoes (made from flakes). This is not a joke. I have not had a single lunch at home that doesn't include mashed potatoes. There is also usually some sort of meat to go along with it. Most of the time it is an underseasoned and patty of ground meat known as kotlety. Sometimes the kotlety are undercooked and pink on the inside, which is why I now insist on taking a short detour to the microwave between courses. I, for one, don't have a lot of faith in post-Soviet meat quality standards and prefer to avoid medium-rare mystery meats.

A generous dollop of mashed potatoes and several kotlety go into the frying pan that hasn't been washed in ages. Now, I know the nonstick wonder that is well-seasoned cast iron cookware. But when black flakes from bygone meals end up in every bite, I think it might be time to give it a good scrub. Along with the potatoes and kotlety goes at least a quarter cup of oil for good measure. Just in case the non-stick layer developed over decades of not washing decides to go on tekhnicheskii pereryv... And so, eventually the potatoes, kotlety, and most of the grease end up on my plate and into my stomach.

In contrast to the predictability of breakfast and lunch, dinner is anyone's guess. Its timing depends on when host mother arrives home - sometimes as early as 7:30 or as late as 11:30 if they go to the theater, but usually somewhere in the middle. The problem is that nobody ever tells me which it's going to be. If it looks like it's going to be a late nighter, I'll make something for myself (usually eggs, as they tend to be the only thing in the fridge amenable to culinary transformation) or I'll go out and get something at a cafe or restaurant. It never ceases to amaze me when, at 11:30 at night, my host mother returns home and is surprised when I tell her that I already had dinner and won't be joining them. Did you really think I was going to wait that long?

While we're on the subject of the fridge, I suppose I should address its contents. First of all, it is packed to the brim, as is the freezer above and the separate standalone freezer nearby. In fact, all three containers are so full that anything behind the first row or two of food items is literally inaccessable. I've dug around back there a time or two looking for a pickle (I guess I've developed a taste for the things) and have become quite unnerved upon seeing some of the occupants of the fridge's depths. I'm sure some of the contents still have fond memories of the Brezhnev era...

Also, it would appear that host mother isn't a fan of things like plastic wrap for covering dishes and wrapping up opened items. So we end up with a lot of dried up cheese and moldy vegetables that go quite some time before being noticed (by her, not me). The result is that cornucopia of odors known as "fridge funk," which in turn permeats all the open packages in the fridge. I sometimes wonder which is worse - the moldy food in the fridge or the milk that they left out all night and the kotlety that stay in the frying pan from one day to the next. And I wonder what my last thoughts will be as I keel over dead from food poisoning.

You may wonder why I don't say anything about it. Well, the fact of the matter is I'm afraid of my host mother. But that's another story... In the meantime I just cut off the crusty parts of the cheese and I put away the milk that they leave out.

Now, where were we? Oh, dinner. Usually there's more soup of the week. If she's feeling ambitious there might be something that's actually cooked - frozen pelmeni (dumplings), pan-fried meat (with plenty of oil), butter-drenched pasta, along with some kind of marinated or pickled vegetables. Oh, and don't forget the potatoes. On nights when she's tired, the best you can hope for is a plate of tvorog (cheese curds), which are to be covered in sugar, sour cream, and jam. Not exactly the meal of champions, but I don't complain.

This isn't to say that she can't cook. In fact, I've seen her put out truly impressive spreads of zakuski (appetizers), "salads", and tasty treats like fresh-baked pirozhki when guests come. While on the subject of salads, those of you not familiar with the Russian "salad" might be somewhat disappointed with such a "salad" if you ever have the opportunity to eat said "salad." I use "salad" in quotations because it is not the leafy bed of greens you've come to expect in the West. Rather, most Russian salads consist of cooked and chopped vegetables and sometimes meat tossed (drowning) in mayonaise or a similar "dressing." One version even contains pickled herring; you can imagine how I feel about that one.

Did I mention the dill? Apparently this is the only herb that grows fresh in Russia because it has found its way into damn near every dish on the table. I once loved dill. Now it too falls in the "once a year" category.

Of course, I eat everything in front of me because my mother taught me to be polite. Perhaps too polite. Sometimes they set a place for me, with soup and food already served before asking "R, do you want lunch?" Despite the fact that I had lunch at a cafe 2 hours ago and it's somewhat strange that they're eating lunch at 5:00 on a Saturday, I don't want to be rude, so I reluctantly eat lunch again. I also don't know when dinner will come again, so I hedge my bets and dig in for the long haul.

Now, none of this is to say that I dislike Russian food. Ok, I don't like the ukha. Or the liver. Or the things growing in the fridge. Or all the grease that soaks into the kotlety and potatoes. It's just that I don't really love Russian food. Which is why I only need it once a year.

My host mother thinks otherwise:

"I can tell you love Russian food, R., since you eat everything we give you."

I smile and nod, partly out of politeness, partly out of fear...

25 April 2007


I paid my respects to Yeltsin yesterday evening at Christ the Savior Cathedral. I arrived at 7:30 pm and only had to wait about 30 minutes to enter. By the time my host parents went around 10:00 pm, the waiting time had increased to two hours.

The funeral and burial, an all day affair, has been on TV all afternoon. A while ago the cortege passed our apartment on the way to the cemetery. The first picture is of the hearse. The second is a limousine flying the Belarusian flag; I assume it was carrying Lukashenko.

The most touching image of the day was Naina Yeltsina, his wife, gently caressing his hair and kissing his face before saying goodbye at the cemetery. It was a powerful reminder that he was, first of all, a human being. A human being who was called upon to do superhuman things for his country. While mistakes were made, we can only imagine how a weaker individual would have carried his burden...

24 April 2007

Ode to Yeltsin

In August 1991, you showed them that the State should answer to the People, that it could be defeated. You showed them that democracy was worth fighting for because it could be won.

In October 1993 you showed them that sometimes it was OK to use the iron fist to save "democracy." But what would that teach your successors who have their own ideologies (and power) to save?

In July 1996 you showed them that it was possible to win an election at any cost, even if it caused that election to fall short of the democratic ideal for which you had once fought. Because the alternative - a return to communism - was too horrifying to contemplate. And so, in the name of democracy, democracy was undermined. But what would that teach your successors who have their own reasons and resources to win an election at any cost?

And in December 1999 you showed them that when you've made years of mistakes, sometimes it's best to slip away quietly for the sake of stability. Stability for yourself, knowing you won't be prosecuted for your mistakes, and stability for the country, which won't have to go through the discomfort of a disruptive election process. And while your hand-picked successor was a man the people wanted, he was still your hand-picked successor, given all the resources and benefits of office not by the people but by you. What would that teach him when it comes time to pick his own successor?

More importantly, what would that teach the people about their ability to control the destiny of their country? In August 1991 anything was possible. By December 1999 it was anything but possible.

And so, perhaps your legacy is unfulfilled hopes, dreams, wishes, and promises. For what started out as an historic experiment in Russian democracy was slowly undermined, chipped away at in the attempts to save that ideal. But what are they left with in the end?

Perhaps your prime minister's famous words are the most fitting epitaph for you:

"We wished for the best, but what we got was the usual."

23 April 2007

Boris Nikolaevich

While this is not how I planned to mark my return to blogging on Russia, it seems empty to write about anything other than today's news that Boris Yeltsin is dead. The mood is heavy in my apartment right now - as I've noted before, my host parents are among the dedicated faithful that remain of the old democrats. They were with him at the White House in August 1991 and despite his many flaws, believed in him to the end. We just toasted to Yeltsin's memory, but it's obvious that the shot of vodka does little to dull the pain. It's interesting, of course, since few Russians would ever hold Yeltsin in such high regard.

Of course, the question of Yeltsin's legacy, already an overworked topic, will once again be in the limelight for some time. I don't wish to reflect on it at the moment; I don't have the energy. Plus, the historian in me knows that we have to wait another 50 years or so before we really can say what his legacy was. Nevertheless, I'll leave readers to ponder the following question:

Which of the following dates will come to be seen as the "defining moment" of Yeltsin's legacy? Each date is important to reflect on, as each one yields a different portrait of a leader. Only time will tell which Yeltsin history chooses to remember.

August 1991
October 1993
July 1996
December 1999

Of course, there are other important dates - November 1994, August 1998, August 1999 - but the ones listed above, I believe, are key not only in Yeltsin's political legacy, but more importantly, in setting the current path of Russia's political development.

04 April 2007

Terminal Velocity

So much for the tekhnicheskii pereryv...

I'm writing this from the terminal at Domodedovo, waiting for my British Airways flight to board. I should be sleeping - its 4:30 am, and I didn't go to sleep last night. The car picked me up at 3:00, so what was the point? I would be sleeping were it not for a curious phenomenon that has broken out behind me.

It seems that a large group of Russians and a smaller group of Central Asians have joined forces and vodka bottles from the duty-free shop and are throwing one hell of a party. Seriously, they're having a great time back there, hollering and laughing almost to the point of tears. I half expect them to break out in song at any moment now...Ah, there it is, one man started singing a tune. They've taken so many pictures or their old and new friends already, I'm afraid they won't have any film left for their real vacation.

Did I mention that it's 4:30 am and they're on their way to getting good and drunk (in all likelihood they are already)? And that we're all on our way to London? I have no doubt that the party is going to migrate to the plane, following me all the way to London. Talk about friendship of peoples! And all I really want to do is sleep. So much for that idea.

Obviously I'm irritated and more than a little puzzled: how in the hell can anyone - ANYONE - be so lively at this time of day? And yet part of my (the part of me that's clinging on to my sense of humor) can't help but smile. After all, anyone who knows how to turn 4:30 in the morning at the airport into such a good time knows a thing or two about life. I guess it comes with the territory - a people that knows how to suffer also knows how to rejoice.

That's as philosophical as I can be at 4:30 in the morning (did I mention that it's 4:30 in the morning and all I want to do is sleep?). I have a feeling that little glint of a smile on my face will have disappeared by London, though...

Update from London:
It turns out the raucous crowd of Russkii partygoers weren't on my flight after all, so I have no idea what they were doing at our gate. Actually, I know very well what they were doing there (they were having a party at 4:30 in the morning). I just don't know why they were doing it there.

Fortunately it was an uneventful and rather empty flight, but I still didn't manage to sleep much; I rarely do on airplanes, no matter how tired I am. The only detail worth noting was the lone Russian who burst into thunderous applause when the plane landed in London. This seems to be a common reaction to the successful landing of an airplane among Russians - I've observed it many times flying in and out of Moscow. If anything, today was unusual in that only one passenger took up the cheer. I always chuckle when they applaud, as it implies that their safe arrival is an unexpected and pleasant surprise. I suppose with Russia's aviation safety record, this is an understandable reaction...

London, I'm finding, is sort of an intermediate gray area for me. The English (and often South Asian) accent is just "foreign" enough to my American ear that I instinctively start attempting to decipher the code from Russian into English. But then I realize that they're speaking my native tongue, by which time I've missed the first couple of words of the sentence. Very confusing. I also keep feeling the urge to address people in Russian. However, I'm keeping my mouth shut, as Russian + London hasn't been a very healthy combination lately...

02 April 2007

Технический Перерыв

As you may know from my previous post, I'm taking a little break from Russia for a couple of weeks. Thus, I'll follow in the wise footsteps of my friend Lyndon at Scraps of Moscow and declare a brief "технический перерыв" (tekhnicheskii pereryv).

In a post dedicated to the subject, Lyndon provides a variety of technical definitions for the term:

Деловая лексика (business lexicon):
перерыв по техническим причинам - interruption for technical reasons

Техника (equipment):
перерыв по техническим причинам - maintenance outage

Телекоммуникации (telecommunications):
перерыв по техническим причинам - out-of-service

But of course, in Russia, there is often a gap between practice and theory. Lyndon writes:

"In practice, though, as anyone who's ever needed to (just for example) urgently change money in a one-exchange-booth town knows, it's a phenomenon that can occur at any time, although generally at an inconvenient time, and for just about any reason. One cashier and she has to take a bathroom break? "Tekhnicheskii pereryv." The paper receipt roll in the cash register ran out? "Tekhnicheskii pereryv." Smoke break? "Tekhnicheskii pereryv." You get the point."

And so, I'm going on my own технический перерыв for the next couple of weeks. It's possible that I'll be able to sit down and write a bit, as I'm sure I'll be wide awake in the middle of the night for the first few days. But even if I don't manage that, I can assure readers that there are a lot more stories rolling around in my head, waiting to be liberated upon my return to the Motherland.

До скорого,

Dueling Identities

Academic eggheads like myself who study identity like to drone on about how "identity is multifaceted - individuals have multiple consructed identities." Don't worry about what that means - nobody really knows, including the people who utter such words.

Nonetheless, I find myself dealing with two identities at the moment, my Russia identity (not my Russian identity, as I would never dare lay claim to such a thing. I mean my identity in Russia) and my America identity.

In Russia I go to art museums and history museums on the weekends (at least when I'm not at Izmailovsky searching for Lenin busts). I go to the ballet and the opera. I listen to Prokofiev and Shostakovich while reading Solzhenitsyn and Bulgakov. I go for evening walks on the Arbat because the golden light of the setting sun bathes everything in a warmth that is too beautiful to resist. I go alone because I am alone. Yet there is beauty, comfort, and retrospection in my solitude. Russia is my life and my life is Russia.

In America I go to Costco on the weekends so that I can barbecue out back. I'm a competitive skeet & trap shooter and shooting coach. I do a lot of fishing and a bit of hunting. I love to cook, doing everything from scratch. And yeah, I'm pretty good at it. I cure meats and make cheeses. I am rarely alone, and this is one of my greatest blessings because I've married a wonderful woman; I want to spend every minute I can with her. In the fall we pick apples. In the winter we play in the snow. In the spring we play golf. In the summer we barbecue and go to the beach. My life is ordinary. It is my life.

The point is that these two worlds seem miles and ages apart. It feels as if my physical presence in both is the only unifying thread between the two. Even that is tenuous, as I'm never in both at the same time. Laws of temporality have taken care of that one. Even the point at which the two should intersect - my academic work at my little desk in the political science department - isn't really an intersection. The desk is part of the other world, the American world, and though I may be reading about the Russian world, it is so distant. Too distant. A week's worth of intuition gained by walking the streets of Moscow have taught me more about today's Russia than all the reading I've done in the last three years. No, they are separate worlds and they do not easily intersect.

But the two worlds are about to meet. I'm leaving for the airport in 6 hours to fly back to the States for a brief trip home. I'll see friends, family, the wife. I'll cook and eat American, Chinese, Italian, and French food to my heart's content. I'll even being coaching at a national shooting tournament. My body will be there, but where will my head be? More importantly, where will my heart be?

I have a feeling that it will be precariously straddling the fence between my two worlds, between my two identities. On the one hand, I have looked forward to this trip from the moment I arrived in Russia. Let's face it - parting from your wife for 8 months before you've even reached your first anniversary is nothing to look forward to. At least not for me. My mother will tell you that I don't like change - I never have - and uprooting a very comfortable life in a little college town and exchanging it for one in a dizzying metropolis where I only understand part of what's spoken to me was never going to be easy. But I viewed it as something that had to be done. I would get through this hardship. Do it for the career. Holding onto the thread of this trip and looking forward to the comfort of my "real" life, if only for a couple of weeks, made February bearable.

And yet I came to realize that Moscow is my home now too. I do have a life here, and it is a good one. I was surprised to find myself genuinely saddened by the thought that I would be missing so many Moscow sunsets in the coming days. I will miss my strolls through the streets, cashiers that smile kindly when I stumble on my words, and even things like the screeching brakes of the metro as it pulls into the station. I know I'll be back soon, but I'm sad to leave Russia too. She is something beautiful, and she will be missed.

The fact of the matter is, Russia is my primary identity right now. It is the one in which my feet are planted, along with my head and at least part of my heart. The next couple of weeks will be interesting. I won't bother taking the rubles out of my wallet. I wonder what will happen when I try to pay for a "Coca Cola lait" with them. I won't bother taking the Moscow pocket atlas that's always in my jacket pocket. I won't bother taking my Russian keys (the funny 4-sided kind) off my keychain. I wonder what will happen when I try to stick it in the lock to my apartment.

And I wonder what will happen when I try to stick myself into my old life. Will I fit? Will everything fall into place like it was before? I've heard of reverse-culture shock before - the disorientation that comes with repatriation, and I suppose there might be some of that. After all, I'll be surrounded by people so distant from my world of the last several months. How could they possibly understand where I've been and where I'm going?

For there are no words that can do justice to an evening stroll down the Arbat, a cool spring breeze stirring the leaves on the cobblestones, swirling them around in circles until it gets bored and releases them from its grasp. There is no way to explain the way the pastel buildings seem to burst with surreal color as golden rays of the sun's dying light transform them from the ordinary to the extraordinary. And it is impossible to share the soft strains of a guitar whose notes float in whisps and whispers along the street, as if hitching a ride with the wind.

Such things defy words. They cannot be described; they can only be felt...

01 April 2007

Soviet Innocence

As this blog started as a travel journal, I haven't been in the habit of linking to other blogs. However, two posts recently came to my attention that are well worth the link, relating directly to the recent discussion of innocence and guilt among ordinary Russians during the Soviet period (see Beggars and Choosers, LR's Russian Philosophy 101, and and older post of mine, The House on the Embankment).

The first is Natalia Antonova's fiery and impassioned response to La Russophobe's views on post-Soviet babushkas.

For those of you who aren't familiar with Natalia's work, she is a truly gifted writer with some stunningly beautiful prose. I strongly suggest you check it out here. Among my favorites are "She had Eyes So Blue" and "You Died for Three Days Straight, as they leave you gasping for air.

But back to the subject at hand, the second blog I'd like to bring to your attention is The Clone Factory by Deborah Hoffman. Deborah is currently working on translating into English Children of the Gulag, a collection of letters, diaries, and reminiscences of children who were sent through the Soviet prison camp system. Lucky for us, we don't have to wait until the book is published (though I, for one, look forward to having a copy on my shelf), as Deborah posts drafts of her translations on her blog. Fascinating for anyone with even a remote interest in Soviet history. For those of us who have read some of the more famous Gulag memoirists, hearing the voice of a child offers an entirely new experience and perspective. Huge thanks to Deborah for bringing the project to my attention. I strongly recommend that you take a look.

That should keep everyone busy reading for a while...