Monthly Archives: July 2010

Slow Cooked Americans

Folks, its been a hot, hot summer.  The hottest recorded summer in Moscow.   While I came prepared for the city’s infamous rain and cold July days, I was at first pleasantly surprised, then desperately exhausted by the constant sunshine.  Poor Moscow is not designed for such weather.  Our classrooms are in a building that is functionally a greenhouse—giant windows sealed shut to let in sunlight but not air.  Every class ends with prying yourself off the plastic seat cushion you’ve sweatily merged with over the past two hours.  At one point, every single store and kiosk on campus was sold out of water, and since you can’t drink the tap water here, people were starting to get a crazed, dehydrated glaze to their eyes.

On some level, I think the physical discomfort might actually be good for us.  On our weekend trip to Murom, which was basically monasteries and insufferable heat, marked by long nights of sweating out holy water in tiny beds, we hit our breaking point, as a group.  We revolted; we couldn’t take the heat anymore!  We refused to go on excursions; we demanded to be taken back to Moscow.  We ceased to be intellectuals and were united in our common discomfort, our insatiable thirst, our countless mosquito bites.  In short, we bonded over a common enemy, cruel Mother Nature.  Our wise leader called off our final plans, bought us watermelon and took us to the beach.  Fight bodily discomfort with physical treats.  No better way around it.

Back in Moscow, there was a different feeling in the air.  We were people broken by the heat.  We were crappier, but funnier.   I cut off my leggings and for two weeks have almost entirely only worn what are makeshift bike shorts and tank tops.  When I catch my reflection somewhere, I’m not a little relieved that the chances are very very slim that I’ll see anyone I know.

With the collapse of physical strength, came the collapse of enthusiasm.  We are like bored putty in our teachers’ hands.  We trod to class, carting giant bottles of water or iced tea, and have taken to all eating candy or snacks during class (etiquette faux pas) because the sugar helps you not entirely lose consciousness.  A few days ago, the peat bogs started to burn.

Yes, that’s right, its so hot that the peat on the outskirts of the city is burning and so the air is thick and smelly.  The first morning, I woke up thinking something was on fire.  It was a strange, unfamiliar smell of burning.  When I came to my senses (wait, I have nothing that could catch on fire!), I started to wonder if my neighbors were smoking the most vile sort of Russian marijuana possible.  But why, why, why would you smoke this devil’s hash at 5am on a Monday?  Then again, life is full of mysteries.

Once in class, looking out the window at the haze that was once the Moscow skyline, the culprit was named,–“oh, don’t worry, its just the peat bogs, funny its only now happening”–although there is still something a little mysterious and quite disconcerting about peat bogs spontaneously combusting.

Two days ago, so the day after the peat fires, the elevator in the building broke.  We have class on the 8th floor, so the elevator is pretty key to our daily routine.  What’s wild is how we found out it was broken.

One of my classmates came in twenty minutes late to class.  “I’m so sorry!  I was trapped in the elevator for fifteen minutes!”

In the haze, the heat, and the general apathy, we all just nodded.  Sounds legit enough to me.

Through the peat smog it dawned on me–Wait?! You were stuck in the elevator for fifteen minutes?!

Not only were they stuck, but when someone finally responded to the emergency call, the trapped occupants were scolded for hitting too many buttons and fiddling with the door in an attempt to escape their metal chamber of captivity.

They listened dutifully, I’m told, while repressing laughter.

Such heat, combined with the completely unchanging daily routine, has made everything feel a little absurd.  As about half of the group has gotten sick as our trip has wound down, from weakened bodies and soul, I presume, the pace of the program hasn’t budged.  Dangit, we came here with a schedule, and we’re not going to change it.  This of course, is from the higher ups, not ourselves.  As a coping mechanism, classes have been skipped, activities ditched, but generally, its on the sly and under false pretenses, since no one in authority here appears want to acknowledge the oppressive power of the heat.

Tomorrow I am playing Masha in a little performance of Three Sisters for our closing day.  My group is just doing a tiny excerpt of it, in which Masha is described as wearing black.  My teacher for this class—the leggy Ballerina, about whom a much longer post is pending—has grown increasingly emphatic about this production.  As we loose enthusiasm, she gains it.  As we rehearsed the other day, she asked me if I had a black dress I could wear for the scene.

“No,” I told her, “but luckily, I have a long black skirt, and a black tank top, so I should be fine.”

She looked at me, slowly and disapprovingly.  “Hmmmmm….you need something more,” she said.

“Well, yes,” I said, thinking that it was inappropriate for a Chekhov character (a married one at that) to wear just an H&M spaghetti strap tank.  “I’ll bring a scarf for over my shoulders,” I assured her.

Today, she handed me my “costume.”  I didn’t even know I was getting one.  Its from her personal wardrobe.  Rather than my obviously plebian outfit of cotton, she has given me a top and shrug to wear tomorrow as I perform for the group and the entire faculty.

The shrug is tight, sparkly black lace, and barely fits over my arms (the Ballerina is probably 5’10’ and has a 24, maybe 25 inch waist).  It ties in a bow right where my cleavage would be, had I been so endowed.

The top?

Well the top is a tube top.

A black tube top.

Entirely sequins.

Yes, a black, sequined tube top that measures about 12 or 14 inches from top to bottom.

She handed to me and said, “This will be much better.”

Did I reply, “No!? What? I’m no Ballerina!  Can’t you see I’m in class wearing homemade bikeshorts and Chucks? I don’t feel comfortable wearing your clothing, let alone carousing around the department in a sequined belly shirt? What would Chekhov say?!” [He’ll already be rolling in his grave, considering we play 1980’s pop rock in the background, thanks to the encompassing artistic vision of the Ballerina]

No.  I didn’t.  I raised my eyebrows, suppressed a laugh that turned into a peat smokey cough and said, “Ah, excellent.  Wow.  Oh. Wow.”  My classmates met my gaze but quickly looked away, lest we all begin to laugh or cry.

She handed me the fan I’ll be using during my scene, and a necklace of bling that will “bring it all together.”

Great thing is, I’m also playing Snow White in the other group’s skit.  Yup.  So I’ll be wearing the tube top for two dramatic performances tomorrow.  Prince Charming is going to actually physically carry me off scene at the end.  I think we’ll need to practice all over to make sure I can be hoisted while not disturbing the oh-so-fragile balance of the borrowed top.

When I got back to my room this afternoon, carrying my props, my roommate looked at me.  “This is all absurd,” she said. “We’re frogs, that have been slow boiled.”  I looked at the sequined top, the Chinese fan, I thought about America only three days away.  My mind flashed to the notion of the ‘absurd,’ how crucial it is in Soviet literature as a tool to cope with feeling powerless and pointless in giant, crushing systems of bureaucracy and intuitionalism.  You have to have a sense of humor about these things.

I agreed with her and tried on my top.  With some earnest wiggling and tugging and an enormous slice of humble pie, I think I can do this.

[As I walked to the main building with wi-fi to post this piece, I was carrying my computer in one arm, and a mug of instant coffee in the other.  About five feet from the door, drop plop!  A bird pooped in my coffee.

In Italy, they say that getting pooped on by a bird brings good luck.  I assume that making it smack dab into a mug of hot coffee means I’ll have really good luck.  As in, I’m thinking that tomorrow is gonna be a good day, and that that sequin top is gonna stay right where its supposed to.  It was Mother Nature’s way of saying, “Break a leg, kiddo, I know it’s been a long summer”]


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Market Day

So it’s been a pretty amazing last weekend in Moscow. I suppose, technically, my last weekend is still around the corner, but as I leave next Sunday and arrive back Stateside on that very Sunday, this was my last entirely Russian weekend! Crazy how times flies. Friday I skipped the group excursion to Yasnaya Polyana to stay in Moscow and venerate the relics of St. Matrona, a newer saint of Russia. What, you ask?! You skipped a funded trip to Tolstoy’s estate to bow before the bones of blind woman who is venerated as a Saint?! Yes. I will write more on that later, but to be honest, the day was so precious, I’m not quite ready to put it in prose. Saturday was a different excursion—I ventured out of the city to see Optina Pustyn, a famous monastery that has been host to a number of important Russian writers (Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky) and is to this day a very important spiritual and intellectual center of Russia. Again, I will have to put that whole day into words some other time but suffice it to say, it was wonderful and getting to go at all felt like a minor miracle, since it had seemed like it was going to be impossible during my time here.

So what am I going to tell you about? The Market. I had grand plans for today, I was going to go all over the city, visit monasteries, sculpture parks, bookstores and hit up a market on the outskirts that I’d heard was good for souveniring. Well….I started with the market (planning to work my way back inwards) and got entirely carried away. Yes, I got some good Russian gifts and took some cool photos, but the real prizes of the day were two conversations I had with sellers at their stalls. They were so delightful and fascinating that I left the market for home with a sort of semi-elation springing out of love for humanity and the crazy, whimsical, honest, generous conversations I had.

The market is called Vernisazh, and is located near Ismaylovsky Park, metro station Partizanskaya, for those of you who’d like to check it out when circumstances allow. A ten ruble (30 cent) entrance fee gets you into a vast complex of wooden stalls featuring rows and rows of all things Russian souvenir-y—books, clothing, posters, pure kitsch, antiques, handicrafts and art. There were much of the usual suspects—t-shirts with Lenin, Stalin, Chiburasha as Che Guevara (Chiburashka is an iconic cartoon character from the Soviet days, whose names can be cleverly rendered as Che Burashka on t-shirts!).

Cheburashka, Beloved Cartoon Critter

Che Burashka

There had to be THOUSANDS of Matrioshkas, mostly traditionally painted, but plenty featuring Russian politicians or other world leaders. Not going to lie, part of me wanted to buy an Angela Merkel Matrioshka just because it’s so ridiculous. But then the punch line to my gift giving would be that sad sort of irony—Hey grandma, who the heck buys this Russian crap? Me! And I’m passing it on to you! One more potential case of terrible gift giving—averted.

There were lots of hats—fur hats, soviet army hats, big Siberian hats with hammer and sickle pins, etc. There were countless pins and badges and belt buckles and flasks with the red star and various military insignia. Busts of Lenin, Stalin, and Pushkin in all sizes. Traditional embroidered scarves and delicately painted eggs. Replicas of St. Basil’s, serving dishes shaped like firebirds (a unique character from Russian folklore), infinite vintage posters of hard working soviets at war against either the Drink or the Dollar. There was an amazing poster of a fat, flatly drawn man holding out a wad of dollars, and a ripped, dynamically rendered faceless Soviet who was just clocking him, his fist crashing into the face. Alas, it was actually a first print from the 50’s (or so I was told) and was over $100…

All right, enough with the stuff! Where’s that human interest I promised?

So one of my first purchases was of old stamps. Now, I’m no collector, but I love stamps, and I always try to buy some cool looking cheap ones when I can to collage with, or turn into jewelry (hence, I’m not a collector…maybe a “refurbisher?”). There were quite a few coin stands, but I only found two stamp guys. Of those, only one of them really had cheap ones that were for amateur collectors, i.e. he sold stamps in little sheets and not individually for the knowing buyer. I start perusing his wares, and when I ask the first prices, they were way out of my league, so I start to go. He insists I wait–he has very inexpensive ones, look! He shows me a pile of stamps, sold in little sets of 6. They’re mostly uninspiring, but the pile is huge, and as I flit through them, we start up a conversation.

The stamp man is older, has two gold teeth, is wearing a semi-Hawaiian print shirt, entirely open (it’s too hot to button up if you don’t need to). The conversation, of course, begins typically (and entirely in Russian):

“Where are you from?”


“Ah! Where in America?”

“Well, I grew up in St. Louis, which is in the Mid(dle) West of America.”

“You don’t have to say where it is, of course I know.”

“Ah, okay, yeah, well, I grew up there, but now I live in New York.”

“State or City?”


“Brighton Beach!”


“You live by Brighton Beach?” (Brighton Beach is like America’s little Russia, its this entirely Russian part of Brooklyn, near Coney Island, where everything is in Russian, you can buy Russian food, Russian books, Russian newspapers. It’s quite a sight!)

“Oh, well, um, not really. I mean, its far away, sorta, but its still in New York.” (How to explain that even though Brighton is only 15 miles from my house, is at least 90 minutes on the subway, so it feels like another world…)

“Great! You can learn Russian there!”

“Well, yeah, I mean, I already am learning Russian in a different part of New York.”

“Of course you are, you can speak Russian.”

“Um, yeah….”

“So you’ve been here before?”

“To the market?”

“No, Russia.”

“Yes, seven years ago, I was in St. Petersburg.”

“What? Seven years ago? Seven?” Like Russia didn’t exist then.

“Um, yeah, seven. In 2003. So yeah, seven.”

“You came here when you were ten?!” He says this seriously but then half winks.

“Hah! No, I wasn’t ten. Not hardly.”

“Devushka, please. You told me you came here seven years ago. I’m looking at you. You can’t be a day over 18. I think you’re 17. So that means you were ten.”

“Hah! Please! I’m not 17, not even 18, oh no, not at all. I’m twenty six.”

“TWENTY SIX?! So you’re married?! You probably already have a son!”

“Um, I’m 26, but I’m not married. I don’t have a son, uh, no kids.”

“So you’re “single”? (He said “single” in English: A vy (so you’re) singl?)

“No, I—“

“Devushka! What’s wrong with you? I ask you if you’re married, you say no. I ask you if you’re single, you say no! Nonsense! And you try to say you’re also twenty six!”

“No no, I am twenty six! I have a boyfriend, that means, I’m not single, but that I’m not married either.”

He stares.

“Hmmm…so you have a boyfriend. So you’re not “single” but you’re not married?”

Is this that complicated?

“So,” he proposes, “you’re somewhere in between, in some, some sort of in between place?”  He seemed to think my relational status was akin to the 5th dimension…

“Yes, I am, yes, in that place.”

“Great. So, your dad is a millionaire?”


“Your grandpa?”


“Your brother then!”

“Hah, not at all!” (Sorry boys)

“Is your sister married to Bill Gates?”

Interesting, that she herself could not be a millionaire… “No, she isn’t”

“Hmmmm….” The pause in conversation lasts only a second. He smiles and looks at my bracelet—

“Does wearing that make you hot?”

“No…it’s not too warm of a bracelet, luckily.”

“That is lucky.”

I guess since men don’t wear big jewelry, they don’t know how these things work… Anyway, I end up picking out two little packs of stamps that I like and ask if I can get a special discount for two. Of course I can. Of course! For me?! Of course. Not just a discount, but he wants to give me a gift as well. Well, this whole “gift” on top of the purchase is not totally uncommon here. Often if you spend any more than the bare minimum, a friendly vendor will throw in a magnet or doodad as some sort of gesture of goodwill. So I’m expecting a pin of Medvedev (the president) or something, when he gets out a stack of postcards from behind his counter and then walks out to stand right next to me.

“Well devushka, you live in New York, right? You have Brighton Beach, right? Well, here, I’m giving you Moscow gifts! Does Brighton Beach have a Kremlin?” He asks this in all seriousness.

“No, no Kremlin.”

“Here,” and he hands me a vintage postcard of the Kremlin, “there isn’t anything like this in Brighton.”

“Does Brighton Beach have buildings like this?” He hands me a postcard of a Soviet tower. “No,” I dutifully reply, “there’s nothing like this at Brighton.”

“How bout this, look at this beautiful monastery! Does Brighton have monasteries? Beautiful monasteries?”

“Oh no, nothing like in Moscow. It doesn’t have any monasteries, but you know, Brighton Beach isn’t, um, a very Orthodox Christian area…”

“I know,” he scoots closer and whispers into my ear “there are no monasteries because in Brighton, they’re Jews.” His voice gets lower and I can barely hear him, “Its all Jews, because we let them out first.” [The first wave of emmigration during the final days of the Soviet Union was granted, for whatever reason, to Jews. For this reason, the mass arrival of Russian emigrants from the 80’s is heavily Jewish, although they are actually a minority in terms of general representation in the Russian population]

He retreats and resumes his normal volume, “And how bout this, our White House!” He shows me a postcard of what is the Russian “White House,” which is not actually the President’s abode, but a government building often compared here to our White House.

The Russian "White House" or House of Soviets

“You know your White House, in Washington? Its teeny tiny.” His voice gets high and he cups his hands together delicately as if he were cradling our little White House and all its Lilliputian inhabitants in his palms. “Our White House, why, it’s a real building! Not like they have on Brighton.” Poor Brighton. Poor DC. Not often conflated into one miserable architectural failure, I would imagine.

“You must know that Russians love stories, jokes, anecdotes, right”

“Oh sure.”

“Well, when Barak Obama was elected, we saw it here in Russia, and I made up my own joke! Listen! You know what a barak is? (Same as English, “barrack”, although the Russian pronunciation is closer to how we pronounce Barak the name)

“Sure, its like, a house for many people in the army.”

“Exactly! A little house for people in the army. Or…in prison! You knew that right? That prisoners live in barracks?”

“Sure, sure.”

“Okay, here it is—after the election in the United States, the White House was a Barak Bomzha!” He burst out laughing. “I wrote that one myself!”

A Barak Bomzha means, the ‘barrack of a bum’ in Russian, and sounds—sorta—like a decent pun because it can be pronounced very similarly to Barak Obama. What’s great is that I don’t think he was trying to hate on Barrack by calling him a bum, he just loved that it was barak, which could be a Russian word, followed by what could conceivably be a Russian word in the genitive (the –a ending means “of” in Russian for masculine words. So it works). Which moves to me bring up a point about the word “Bomzh” or bum. The Soviet powers that were LOVED acronyms. Like mad. I mean, it continues today, but every other word in soviet speak is actually an acronym, so its impossible to know what’s going on because people tell you some historical fact—oh, this person was the MDV of the MMKVD but then the PPE of the SSRPRL combined with the MRFDP and now they’re just a TTP. Ohhhhh, I see, what a reversal of fortunes…Anyway, even the word for bum, which sounds a lot like our word, is actually an acronym—its B.O.M.Zh.—“без определённого места жительства” or “without (a) specified place of residence.” If you want to know what one looks like (I’m sorta being facetious), peep the wiki article:

So all jokes aside, I was given my last postcard, prefaced by:“Devuska, you love the Russian language. You love Russia. You love Russians, like me. [he winks and thumps his shirtless chest] Therefore, you must love the greatest of Russian poets, look!”

And he thrust out a postcard of Pushkin and then placed it in my hand.

We both sensed the poetic closure to our acquaintance.

“I love Pushkin, who doesn’t. Thank you for the gift.”

He looked at me, smiled with the tiniest hint of sketch (oh Old Russian Men!), and said, “All is well, you have everything, absolutely everything.”

I walked away kind of feeling like I kind of did and continued with a sense of victory—the Russian language and Russian stamps were in my possession! I genuinely laughed at a bad pun and so the world may just be okay after all!

I decided to check out the upper level of the market, over whose entry read a sign saying “Hall of Art.” This upper level was much less souvenirs and much more legit antiques. There were quite a few men selling old icons, or pieces of them, all at prices that, alas, prohibited me from snagging them. All except one, which I bought from an adorable old man who only asked me what my name was, and after hearing me say “Brittany” asked, “How is that translated?”

I replied, “Oh, its not really translated, its only a name in English, I think.”

“Ahh…my, my, a name that is only in English. Hmmm, are you at least from England?”

“I’m from America.”

“Oh my, America…well, yes, that explains that. A name that isn’t translatable…hmmmm….”

At all the other stands, when I would draw close to the icons (they’re like magnets!) the vendors would dissuade me, murmuring, “Devushka, these are very expensive” and I would retreat back to the sidewalk, tail between my legs and continue on my way, wondering how they came to possess these amazing images…

Although the market was supposed to say open until six, by three most were wrapping up their things, no surprise as in general the crowd seemed thin and the heat was almost unbearable. I was cutting across the almost empty mezzanine of stalls to leave altogether when I heard someone yelling, “Does that work?” and turned around.

I was being pursued by a wild-eyed, snaggle-toothed, shirtless man, who repeated, “Devushka! Does that work?”

Confused, I pointed to myself and said, “Huh? Do I work? Here?”

“No, no, your camera, does it work?” The man pointed at my Nikon strung round my neck.

“Ah yes, it works. I’m just not taking any pictures right now.”

“Devushka, please, take some pictures of my things. These are very special things, why are you not photographing them?”

He motioned to his wares, laid out on tables and blankets. It was a pretty motley collection, but I obliged and took a few shots.

Sergei's Stuff for Sale

He came closer to chat, I noticed that his hair was either cut by himself, blindfolded, or a very shakey barber. “Look,” he said, “I have all kinds of stuff, and even art. I have some art work that I’ve made myself.” He picked up a painting of a neon rooster and showed it to me. “I painted this myself. I’m no professional. I haven’t had any training, I’m self-taught, you know? I went to the mechanical institute, but I never graduated from any art school, you see?”

“Oh sure, I see” I tried to say that in a way that didn’t make it seem obvious that his rooster didn’t look professional.

“You know, I have no training, so that means I’m not like other artists. I don’t paint from training, I paint from myself, from my inside, from my mind. I don’t paint like anyone else.”

He had two pieces out that he asked me to meditate on. I couldn’t help myself, so I asked if I could take a picture of them.

“Of course, but only if I’m in it.”

Even better.

Here he is:

Sergei and His Two Paintings

I thanked him and he said that now I needed to have his autograph, afterall, “I’m not a humble man.” As he rummaged around looking for some paper, he began to tell me of life. It was amazing. Unlike most others, he was entirely uninterested in me, uninterested in America, in why I was in Russia, didn’t try to even sell me anything once. None of that small talk, no nonsense, we went straight to the heart of the matter.

He gave me his autograph, as well as his address, his father’s address in Yaroslavl, his mother’s name, and his brother’s address in St. Petersburg.

“Will you be in St. Petersburg?”

“No, I leave Russia in a week.”

“You can never know what will happen, I’d better give you his address to be safe. He fought in Afghanistan, and he has a medal.” He motioned towards his left breast, like he was awarding himself a Purple Heart.

“Wow, in Afghanistan!”

“Of course. My father was also in the army, in Soviet times, he was awarded two medals. You know, he’s from Dagestan.”


“Yes, Dagestan. It’s funny, because my whole life I have thought about Dagestan and how it is part of me, part of my father. But I’ve never been there. Somewhere that I have never been is a very important part of my life, imagine! My mother is from the Crimea—that’s why I wrote down her town.”

“Oh, yes, right here, I see.” What he actually wrote—this is wild—is my name (he’d asked what it was for the autograph) and written “Britony from Krymganina” (his mother’s town).

“You know, I’m a real “crazy artist” [he said “crazy artist” in English], a real fool [durak]. Its true though, there’s no other way to say it, I’m just a ‘crazy artist.’ You know this term, right?”

“Oh sure.”

“Well, that’s me, a crazy artist. You know, I never joined the Communist party, I was never one of those members of the Official Soviet Artists Group, nope, I rejected all that.” He leans in and whispers to me, “I’m actually a very stupid man, I’m quite stupid, I’m not made to do many things. So I did things for myself. You know, mostly I write poetry, that’s my real work. I’m a poet. I have books and books of poetry I’ve written, but for what? You see how I live, I barely make a living here. I make 600 rubles a month from my art—you know what that is? It’s twenty dollars. You think you can live on twenty dollars?”

“No, no, you can’t, that’d be very hard.”

“I know, you can’t live on that, but I make no money. It’s the truth. You know, they threaten to throw me out of here, they threaten to throw all of us out of this place [he gestures to his fellow vendors], then what? Why just throw us out, why not hang us as well?”

I’m not sure how to respond, especially because he’s not actually ranting, he’s just telling me, enthusiastically, but not frantically, not angrily.

“You know what I don’t understand, I don’t understand how people there”—he points to a window of the administrative building for the market—“how they can look out their window at me and do nothing. In the winter I come here and sell stuff and I’m wearing boots to my knees and a heavy coat and I’m still freezing. I just stamp around to keep warm and I see them warm in their office and they’ve never invited me in. They never help, they pretend they don’t know I’m in the cold. But that’s life. There’s a girl here who sells things with me, she’s a Bomzhik [tiny Bomzh], she’s not here right now, off on a walk, with God knows who. But she’ll be alright, you know, some of us will be alright, even if the people in the warm never invite us in. You know, I have a child, who lives with me, and I live with a woman, and she has two children, and we get along, you get along in life, you know?”

I nod.

“But then, sometimes, you wonder, what for? Why? Why? Why doesn’t someone just tell you how to live? Why can’t there be a clear way, this way that you know—hey”–he thrusts his right arm out, towards the yellow brick road he wants–“Go straight down that way in life and everything will be fine. It’ll all be in order! But no.

“And you know, right now, there are probably people in flying saucers, flying, flying, flying around the earth. And they’re wondering the same thing, in their saucers—why am I flying around? Why am I here, is this the way for me to go? Should I be flying in this direction? Both of us are wondering this. There must be a third way.”

“Yeah….” I mean, I do agree, there must be another way, between selling broken Soviet memorabilia, and being an alien with existential issues (or a kosmonaut? Not sure who he though was in the saucers, but I don’t think kosmonauts get in saucers, only rockets).

“And then you wonder, why is all this the way it is, but still, you know the only thing we’re left with?”

I look at him wide-eyed, “What?”

“Responsibility. We’re still responsible, accountable, for our lives, even if no one told us the path to take and if no one invites us in. Responsibility. [Otvetvenost’]”

I was dumbstruck, because this was the single craziest moment of full-circleness ever. I’m writing my master’s thesis right now (hah, supposed to be writing it, taking a break while here…) on Bakhtin, a 20th century philosopher, theorist, and linguist. I’m specifically looking only at his early essays on art and ethics, because I think there’s a lot be explored in how he decides that ART and LIFE are related. How, you ask, are they related? In his exact words: responsibility. Ta-da! A funny word in Russian, because it can be translated in English as “responsibility” or “answerability”—and Bakthin claims that you must respond to life with art and be accountable for everything, artistic or interpersonal, that you ever do. Bakhtin criticizes art that doesn’t influence life, and life that is not influenced by art. How can these two spheres remain apart when they should be integrated? Because we refuse to be answerable for each, we refuse to acknowledge that art must be answerable to life, it must respond to all of life in its joy and agony and complication and humanity. And life must respond by acknowledging that art can do this, that art can change and impact all that joy and agony and complication and humanity. In a nutshell. It actually takes him like 300 pages to almost make that point.  The collection of essays I’m working with, and slogging though at a terribly slow, uninspired pace, are called “Art and Answerability.” And here Sergei just told me the key to life is Answerability. Astounding.

He didn’t stop there though. I tried to pry my mind away from Bakhtin and dwelling on the chances that a “crazy artist” and self-taught painting vagabond would come to the same conclusion as a classically educated It-Man of 20th century literary theory.

“We only have answerability/responsibility, because we don’t really have truth. What is Truth? You know?”

I paused and tried to think of how to tackle this one, and lost my moment to interject.

“Its Jesus, of course. He is Truth. And because of him, the disciples knew Truth. But, us, well, it’s hard, I don’t know. Then you have Mohammed, who made this very big book, a huge book, that he carried around, telling people that he could organize their lives.” He starts to walk back and forth with his back hunched, charading a huge book in his arms. “’Look!’ said Mohammed, ‘I wrote a very big book about how you must live.’ This of course isn’t Truth, but people want to know how to live, he told them how to live. So it’s all difficult to say, difficult to understand, what we should do.”

I didn’t move, rapt like a disciple at the feet of a master.

“Take for example, Chinese people. They come here, selling crap. And you don’t want to like them, why are they here, selling crap to us, when we’re already poor, when we already don’t have any money to buy things? But then, my friend, he tells me, look at the Chinese, you never see them begging, they’re never on the streets asking for money. They just want to live.”


“And I think he’s right. The Chinese, I mean, there’s no reason to hate them. I just don’t understand them, we have no common language. But then, I think about it, and we do have a common language. We sell stuff here, and we don’t beg, and we want to live our lives, so this is a common language, and they can’t help it if they all have to work in factory to make crap. That is their fate. Fate has forced an entire people to make junk, but, it would seem, they are like us, wondering if there is a third way.”

A patron who had been staring at Sergei’s wares for a while and trying to catch his attention interjected at this moment—“Hey! How much is this plate?!”

Sergei, in what could only have been an effort to get rid of him, shouted “A thousand rubles!” (Which is a ridiculous price–$30—for someone’s old plate!)

“A thousand rubles?!”

“That’s right—who needs more stuff at prices like that?!” Sergei retorted.

He shook his head at the man and then made a sweeping gesture over all his things—“Look, look at this stuff. You know, people can’t live without stuff. They can’t live without it. That’s why I sell stuff. But I don’t need it. You know why? Other people, they’re whole world is their stuff. But I have opened the world of my mind, and I live there. So I don’t need stuff.”


“Well, so here’s what you’ll do”

“Oh, what?”

“You’ll go to the New York Times and tell them you have a story for them, an interview with a real ‘crazy artist’ a real character!”

I laugh—genuinely—“You know,” I tell him, “I actually live in New York, but I certainly don’t work for the New York Times.”

“Please! Who cares if you work for them—you’ll go to them, find them!, and tell them: Here! Look! Please! I have an interview with a real Russian artist. Do you watch television?”

“I don’t have a TV.”

“Well, you should get a Russian boyfriend, he’ll have a television, then you can watch it in case I’m ever on.”

“Ah, okay, we’ll see.”


“Hmm, well, I should probably get going…” I could have listened more, but I was actually melting into a puddle, and also was afraid that if I heard too much more, I’d start to forget everything…as it was I was trying to subtly jot down notes (fyi: this conversation was much much longer, I’m just giving you the parts that I can remember well enough to honestly pass on…)

“Well, here, you probably don’t have internet if you don’t have a television, but here’s a website you should visit.” He wrote down the website that features his art on the backside of the autograph sheet, which was actually the program for an opera that was staged in August of 1950. His autograph (below) was accompanied by the epithet “poet of the land.”

Sergei's Autograph and Other Important Information

He also jotted down his father’s Dagestani name, “Amet Khan Sultene,” and told me there are 35 different ethnicities living in Dagestan. Then he gave me his phone number and in all seriousness looked at me and said, “If you ever get bored, just call.”

Oh Sergei, I will keep that in mind.


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Short Reports Indeed

Its been a whirlwind past week—classes, outings, adventures, a three day trip to the Golden Ring that lead to a mini-insurrection of the group, a long, tired return to what now feels like home—Dear Moscow, hello hello.

Where to start writing?

I don’t know, and my sun-addled brain can’t decide. So I’m giving you a gimmick—a list of random impressions I’ve had here that surprised me…just little things that weren’t what I expected.  A gradual effort to fill in tiny pieces of the enormous, shifting portrait of modern Russia that I’m running around in, trying to take in everything before it darts away, changes, or, most likely of all, before I forget what I saw in the first place.

In no particular order:

Russian men carry their ladies’ purses here.  At first, I was taken aback when I saw macho looking men, with their perforated pointy-toed leather shoes and aviators carrying giant leather slouch bags.  Then I realized that they were also toting them for their lady.  Doesn’t matter what the bag looks like—big, little, designer, kitschy—they weigh down the man’s shoulder on a long walk through the city, not the woman’s.  I love it!

Russians love to push to the front of a line.  Lines are not linear in any strict sense, they’re more like constantly fluctuating crowds that are roughly arranged in the shape of a onion, with the wide end closest to whatever point of interest has beckoned us in the first place.  Bank lines, forget about it!  Even if a line has emerged from the back of the onion cluster, and is snaking in one direction, people will start a new line (read: clump of masses) in the other direction, just to ensure that everything moves as slowly as possible.  I thought that at first this might be a weird Soviet shortage thing—people cramming towards grocery store cashiers, Metro ticket boxes, etc.  But the very same happens at Church.  For an hour and a half, people reverently stand, pray, cover their heads and cross themselves.  Then the moment Communion is brought out, it’s a stampede towards the Priest of shoving and finagling.  I don’t know if there are Canons about this, but I am pretty sure they never run out of bread and wine during the Eucharist.  Which means the shoving and rushing is not so much about worrying about what you get (we all get the same Body when we go to the Cup, and we all stay just as long afterwards for the exact same communal prayers) but just instinctively racing towards whatever is being made available.  It’s also indicative of how jumping to the front of line (chronic occurrence here) is not really marked as a rude action.  People are on their best behavior in the house of God, this does NOT preclude jumping the Communion line.  Hmmmmm…..

An observation combined with a conundrum: are older Russian women more prone to facial hair?  I’m not talking the odd chin hair or upper lip fuzz.  I’m talking full ‘staches that when removed actually leave their evidence in five o’clock shadows on older women.  I haven’t seen any young women with this, but in a month here, I’ve seen a couple bearded babushkas, not a few mustached ones, and one of my professors not only has a white stubbly upper lip, but the most incredible, huge, curly white sideburns I’ve seen on anyone, male or female.  It’s hard to look at anything but those sideburns when she’s speaking.  I know that America has a vast array of facial-hair-removal-options, but I’m also pretty sure that growing sideburns and a goatee is not a typical part of the aging process.  I mostly notice the old women (there are not that many old men, for many sad reasons) but I wonder if there are old men out there with enough ear hair to wrap around their head…

Muscovites are more helpful than you would think.  In a moment of desperation, I approached a stranger in a major intersection of downtown Moscow.  Yes, I did select my stranger based on my comfort level (I’d only been in the city three days), which was to look for a nice young girl in decent but not too fancy of clothing. Not only did she lend me her phone (minutes are prepaid here and not as cheap as in the states) but she gave me (correct) directions and assured me it was no worries.  An old cab driver with a mouth full of gold teeth watched our exchange.  He’d offered me a ride earlier when he saw me pacing around nervously (I’d tried a couple of public phones around the intersection with no success).  After I hung up the borrowed cell phone, he got out of his cab, shot me a brilliant smile, and asked, “Have you worked everything out?  You’re going to be okay?” Others from my group have testified to very similar experiences.

In Moscow (this completely excludes a recent trip to the “provinces”) I have not seen any drunks wandering the streets, and I have seen hardly any people begging.  Certainly nothing, nothing, nothing compared to New York.  The only people I have seen begging regularly are clean and humbly dressed women who hide their faces behind signs asking for money for their dying children.  Attached to the signs are normally doctor’s certificates.  In my hyper literarified head, when I see them my mind flashes to Dostoevsky heroes.  Does that objectify them or only make me even sadder, and more terrified for their uncertain future?  Otherwise, you see men in military outfits missing limbs, sometimes only one, sometimes all four.  A friend (from Moscow) asked me when I first arrived whether I noticed drunks or homeless people; I was surprised to find myself replying, no, not at all. Wait a sec! What city of 10.5 million with an incredibly stratified class system doesn’t have beggars? Moscow must have social services no one in the West knows about, or family structures that put everyone else to shame. My friend replied, Ah, the Militsia (State police) are doing their job, it seems. But of course, it’s the ubiquitous military presence everywhere (I mean, everywhere) that keeps the beggars out of public places.  You see them in pairs or threes at every university entrance, in every corridor of the Metro, strolling down all the major streets and often pacing around paid parking lots, in front of any government owned building or office.  I presume they go easy on the amputee veterans, at least I hope.  For this reason, and not the abundance of shelters, substance abuse counseling, or family cohesion, you only really see beggars on monastery grounds, where they crowd the entrances, just like the lonely and desperate of the New Testament, at the Temple gates.

(I didn’t intend to be dark in this post, but apparently for every gentleman with a leather and chainmail tote over his shoulder, there’s a beggar, a police officer and a bottlenecking line.  I guess that’s good to keep in mind as I buoyantly spring from topic to topic here)

Russians love the beach.  Love it.  Love it.  Let me rephrase. Russians love being by natural, or semi-natural occurring bodies of water.  All they need is a sandy, grassy, or not-too-rocky surface, and they’re out sunning, picnicking, and inevitably hopping into the water, regardless of warning signs, water opacity, or the fact that their chosen watering hole is a narrow channel for ferries. I love this. Not surprising to find them skinny dipping, and even if they’re clothed, the men only wear spandex and women of all ages and sizes wear bikinis that leave very, very, very little to the imagination. Swim trunks are definitely not in this season.

Russians love dairy products.  I think because they don’t drink their tea with milk, and this was such an adjustment for me the first time I came to Russia, I got a lopsided idea that Russian’s weren’t into dairy.  Seven years ago when I was freshly arrived in the Motherland and asked if there was milk over my first cup of black tea, my host mother stared at me and then asked me if I was pregnant.  I completely failed to see the connection, so I got confused, over-thought the word for pregnant and then tentatively answered, “No?”  “Are you English?” was the second question.  The logic was getting more elusive—“No?”.  “Then you don’t need milk in your tea.  That’s for the pregnant and the English.”  Realizing that the English were part of the exception, I eagerly tried to explain that I was Irish.  But I realized that the English question had been rhetorical and that lemon was the only addition to tea I would see for that long summer.

Which goes to say, little did I know of the dairy heaven that awaited me in Russian supermarkets.  Yogurts, milks, milk-cocktails (which range from what is American chocolate or banana milk to more milkshakey concoctions with real fruit inside).  Kefir (like thin, sour yogurt, excellent for the digestive system) is as common as regular milk, sometimes even more common to find in corner stores that milk.  Its making its way to the bougie aisles of America, but is a very run of the mill dairy delight here.  Then of course, countless cheeses, and things between cheese and yogurt that resemble any variety of sour cream, ricotta, quark, etc.  These middlemen of the diary world are dolloped on top of every soup, salad, meat, dessert you see.  They’re fried for breakfast, and used as fillings in dumplings, blinis (like crepes), etc.  There are ice cream stands everywhere.  It’s easier to buy ice cream in this country, I would wager, than anything else other than, perhaps, water. You’re lucky if you can find a bag of chips or bag of candy or Diet Coke in the far reaches of some public park or random street corner, but yes, there will be an ice cream man or woman.  And there will be at least ten options.  Going out for ice cream is like grabbing coffee for Russians.  And, as in many Western European countries, ice cream is aggressively marketed to adults, rather than children.

There are lots of very sexy ice cream ads. (I remember the first time I saw a naked person on public television—it in a Swiss ad for cheese, where a supple young women emerges, full frontal nudity, from a lake, walks languidly to a blanket waiting her on the shore, and proceeds to eat cheese from her picnic basket in nothing but her very shapely birthday suit.  Hmmmm, a far cry from our cheese commercials that inevitably show savvy moms in enormous kitchens with eager, hungry children and dopey, cute husbands.)  Some ice cream ads here are simply sensual—lots of posters with a spoon of vanilla ice cream about to brush the voluptuous lips of our ice-cream-starved model.  Others are quite designy—the naked sculpted back of a woman, her iridescent black hair falls in perfect conformity past her shoulder, her toned and slightly contorted right arm balances an ice cream masterpiece in a fragile bowl behind her back (I’m going to forgo describing the banana split to fight off Freudian impulses in all of us), so that whoever she is facing can get a view of her front, but us lucky consumers know that she’s still cunning enough to hide her ice cream behind her back…

Tvorog is untranslatable, but is sorta like Quark, or Crème Fraiche.  It doesn’t really exist in America, but is a staple here and quite delicious (way better than smetana, which is like sour cream).  What’s great about tvorog, other than its rich, dairy yumminess, and the ice-cream-bar like manifestations of it (with sugar, coconut and chocolate), is its name.  In Russian, the word tvorit’ means ‘to create.’ God is known as Tvoretz ‘the Creator’ and creativity and creation are tvorchestvo and tvorenie, all from the same root, you’ve probably gathered, of tvor.  Well, last week in my art history class, I referred to the tvorchestvo of an artist, meaning his creative output.  I was abruptly corrected.  The creative work of a mere artist cannot be called tvorchestvo.  It can be a ‘work of art,’ a ‘piece,’ a ‘project,’ but tvorchestvo is higher, more powerful, more immaterial: it has to be theoretical, or it has to be creation out of nothing.  The teacher wanted to drive home her point,

“Artists make, God creates. So God is the Creator. Artists are not creators.  Children, all works with tvor are very high style, they symbolize something great [she gave the list of words which I have shared with you].  So remember, pay attention!  Tvorchestvo is creation from nothing, God is the Tvoretz, his work is a tvorenie, and, of course, there is tvorog.”

Granted, tvorog is the transformation of sour milk into a delicious dessert, so her (folk) etymology works, in a sense.  That’s right readers, there is a special something here in Russia (and in Russian), available in your local grocery market that shares it’s name with the advent of light and dark, the separation of the firmament from the sky…

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Specific Reflections on a Few Generalizations

I’ve been thinking about ethnic and national stereotypes quite a bit since being here, but it’s a topic I fear demands treading lightly, and my prose has not yet learned to step lightly, let alone–alas–dance through the dark haunts of sweeping claims on observed generalizations.

Yet today’s grammar lesson was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back.  In preparation for today’s class we were given a hand-out with little sketches of 8 different people, all quite obviously of various national origins.  Our assignment was to write about each of them. Then, in the one empty box provided in the center of the page, sketch our stereotype of a Russian. Straight forward enough, and the sketches invited, for the most part, generally accepted and positive generalizations.

So class began this morn and we each took turns describing a nationality.  The point of the discussion was not to debate the validity or purpose of stereotypes; it was to enhance our vocabulary by practicing on a mundane daily task that would indisputably come in handy in our careers of speaking Russian.  Discussing national commonalities is just like practicing how to talk about weather, food, or clothing.

Nonetheless, we tripped up from the beginning.  The first picture showed a woman with dark eyes eating noodles from a bowl.  My classmate said, “This is a China-lady.  She eats noodles with a chopstick.”  The teacher practically bolted from her chair.

“China-lady?!  No, no, this picture” She pointed at that very sketch of the first woman.  My classmate nodded and apprehensively said, “Yes, the China-lady eats noodles?”  The professor pointed to one picture over, of a man in a woven coolie hat, in the posture of a bow.

“He is from China,” she said.  “But her?”

She looked at me, and I piped in to hem the awkwardness,  “She is from Italy.  She is eating pasta.  Italians love food and love pasta.”  (You have to lose all self-awareness to survive language courses, just in case you didn’t know that already.) The teacher calmed and smiled.  She looked at my classmate, “Italian-lady.  Look at her, she doesn’t have slanted eyes, she has on dark eye makeup.  Italians always wear black eye makeup.  That is different from eyes that are hard to see.”  She pointed to the picture of the man bowing in a coolie hat, “He has very slanted eyes.”  She pulled the ends of her own eyelids so that we would understand the term “slanted.” My classmate nodded, catching on. “Ah, she isn’t eating noodles, she’s eating pasta.”

That was settled.

Moving on.  To the “real” Asian.  This left us in a discussion about whether he was Japanese or Chinese. We agreed that the hat was worn by a person from the Far East while working in the rice fields.  But Japanese or Chinese?  To complicate matters further, our professor maintained that Koreans actually bow more than other Asians.  I’d never heard this before, but then, there are a ton of Koreans in the department at MGU, so who am I to contradict it?  We eventually threw up our hands (our professor, literally) at the Asian-ambiguity and moved on to the other nationalities.

The Spaniards were shown in tight, low cut clothing, mid dance move. Let me stress, both the man and the women were in tight, low-cut clothing.  They both had big hair, and again, the woman wore a lot of dark eye makeup.  The man might have had on a little. That one was a cinch.  Next was a picture of a little figure painting, wearing a tunic and leggings, looking out the window at the Eiffel tower.  We thought we’d nailed that one too:

“She is a Frenchwoman, she is painting, she is looking at the Eiffel Tower, she loves art.”

“But what about her appearance?” we were asked.  “What is very French about her clothing?”

We stalled, “Um, she is wearing a shirt and pants.”

“Leggings!  The French wear leggings!”

“Ah, leggings” we repeat, almost in sync.

“Of course.  Leggings and such a shirt.  The French have a very ‘free’ style.”

Of all the frogism I had in my back pocket, this wasn’t one of them.  But it may just explain why more than one gaggle of young men on campus have yelled at me in French (an entire post on men is pending…)…I love leggings.  I just had no idea I was wearing them as an ethnic disguise.  I wonder what they assume when I’m in my nifty new stirrup pants….

Oh snap! The next sketch was of a couple, heavy set, wearing baseball caps, t-shirts, shorts, with cameras around their necks.  It was my turn to go.

Hesitantly, I proffered, “Americans?”

The professor shot me her winning smile, “Of course. Elaborate.”

“These are Americans, they are wearing t-shirts, shorts, and baseball hats.  They like to travel and take pictures.”  Oh how to really stretch the linguistic muscles on such a chore!

“But their appearance.  More…”

Hmmm. “They are a little fat.”

“Very good.  Now look at their faces.  How to they look?”

Their noses were, granted, a little upturned…

“They think they’re superior, don’t they?” the professor asked, in that tone that simultaneously answers the question.  Her raised eyebrows invited my commentary.

You can’t fight the truth. I ran with it,

“These are Americans, they love to travel, but when they travel, everything appears to them not quite as good as it is at home.  Things are interesting, but not that interesting.”

Clap!  Sparkle!  Hit the nail on the head!  (This is why I’m in grad school! Hurrah!)

“Excellent.  Excellent.  When Americans travel, nothing is as good as it is at home.  Very well said. Is this a true portrait of Americans?”

“Well…sometimes…of course there is a reason for every stereotype.  Many Americans are not like this.  Many are very happy and curious when they travel.”

Knowing nods, “Yes, not everyone is the same…luckily…But they are still very American, yes?”

We all nod.  My classmate adds, “I think they are from Arizona.”

This surprises the professor—it is the first stereotype she didn’t expect.  What does that mean? To come from Arizona?

“It means you are very American,” my classmate explains.  ” You are probably wealthy.  You live in a suburb.  You are a consumer.”

I chime in, “It is quite American to live in a desert and steal water from your neighbor-states to have swimming pools in a giant suburb!”

Now everything is clear, we have given nuance to her Americans–tis the Arizonians, oh dire epitome of America!  Move over New York, sorry, Los Angeles.  Hello, Sun Valley.

Which brings us to another kind of American—the “Indian.”  Now, this is actually at least the third time that Native Americans have come up in this class, and each time, we try to figure out how to say “Native American,” it flops—it comes out at Natural American, Folk American, Original/Genuine American.  Each the professor looks at us queerly and says, “You mean an Indian?” We always say, “But not from India, from America.”

Then—every time!—she repeats “Indian, of course” and writes the word “Indian” on the board.  Oh well.

The Indian is crouching in the grass, wearing a headdress, holding an arrow and his face is painted.  We mention all of this.

“He is an Indian.  He is a hunter.”

I tried to say “He has a special connection to nature” but that was completely shot down.

“What about his headwear?”

“It is a cap of feathers.”

“What do the feathers mean?”

I wasn’t totally sure, but when has that ever stopped me? “Every feather is for, um, an animal, maybe, he killed?”


“Um, yeah, animal, like buffalo, maybe…” I sense I’m not getting this one, “Or maybe he killed a person.”

“Of course!  Every feather is a person he killed!”

The plot is all the time thickening.

Considering this, the Mexican got off easy– he’s pictured holding a guitar and wearing a sombrero.  My classmate gives a little stereotype-based vignette, clearly getting into the task at hand:

“This is Carlos. He works in the fields in California. On the weekends he gets together with his friends, relaxes, and plays the guitar. “

Check, check. Nothing to add here.  You never hear Russians talk about Mexicans.  Except when they try to complain about Chechens, and they sigh, and half inquire, half concede that we have the same problem.  Southern borders, distastrous, nightmare.  And we have to explain that Mexicans don’t bomb our trains, and for all of our government’s naughty tangles in Mexico, straight up occupation isn’t one of them (Ev, I’m sure you could find a counter example for me here!). In fact, they mostly do work that we actually need done, and provide delicious food at affordable prices.  This comes across as a bit fantastical to some.

Last of all (before the looming blank box for the Russian) was a surprisingly innocuous image of a man holding a giant stein of Beck’s, spearing a huge sausage and smiling. It was my turn again,

“This man is a German.  He works very hard.  Everything in his life is in order.  I would think, he likes to organize…things…perhaps everything. After work, he eats sausages and drinks beer.”

Silence, nothing more there.  Which brought us to the summit of our exercise, the Russian.

Who is the Russian?

What is a Russian?

And you can’t talk about the Russian, without pointing to that most compelling, most mysterious, most tormented “Russian Soul.”

The week earlier we’d been given a page of sayings about Russians to mull over and consider in light of our experience and education.  Which goes to say, we had a lot to work with.  Sayings included,

“The Russian person doesn’t live by their mind, but by their heart–their emotions prevail over their reason.”

“The Russian person intrinsically hopes in miracles. He is used to relying not on himself, but on the will of God.  He is certain that in its own time all complications will subside, work out, be rectified.”

“All Russia—a drunk Hamlet”

“Russians are a people of extremes, governed by the battle cry, ‘All or nothing.’”

“The Russian soul doesn’t take to pragmatism, striving towards profit, gain or material utility, it strives for something more grandiose, something immaterial.”

“The Russian doesn’t expect goodness or support from the powers that be (governments, organizations, bureaucrats, etc), rather, they see them in connection with injustice and villainy.” (We all agreed America would do well to adopt this position!)

Last but very not least, “All that is good in the Russian people is localized and embodied in the Russian woman.”

Hard to follow that up, especially when proposing stereotypes to a Russian, which is much different than a Russian proposing stereotypes to us (just fyi, this is the Devushka professor, who is 90% legs and comes to class in a different party dress everyday.  We learned—shocker!—she’s a former ballerina).

We plunder ahead anyway:

“Russians are dark, always thinking about how life is hard.”

“Exactly, we are melancholic” the professor assents, batting her lashes more expressively than usual.

“Russians have to suffer, but they believe in miracles anyway.”

“Russians always hope,” she insists. “We believe in God, or miracles, or perhaps just wizards [колдун].” [!!!]

“Russians like to jump in cold water in the winter, that is, they have a strange relationship to being uncomfortable.”

“Of course.” Which has been the delightfully blasé reply to almost everything during this lesson.

“But new Russians look different, they are not suffering.  They are wearing fur and eating caviar and doing bad business.”

We are corrected, “Everyone wears fur.  It is very cold here.”

Touché.  There is then debate on whether the new Russians are really Russians.  Our professor suggests that its almost as if their materiality has replaced their Russian soul, they are hardly true Russians, they may have lost their Russian essence in some terrible exchange…

Suddenly my poetic classmate redeems her earlier Italy-China mistake.  She volunteers a picture of a Russian who is neither a babushka, an oligarch or call-girl wearing Dolce and Gabbana (yes, that came up).  No, she suggests that the most encompassing vision of a Russian should be a beautiful, lonely woman standing in a field, obscured all but entirely by a snowstorm.

The professor cries out and clasps her hands to her chest, “Unbelievable, yes, there it is! That is a Russian, a woman from Blok [a Russian symbolist poet].”  Fluidly and flawlessly, she recites a poem of Blok’s by memory, about a beautiful women, alone and lovely, the apparition of a pining lover. (I can not emphasize enough how much poetry Russians know by memory, and how much it enlivens and beautifies casual conversation)

This, my friends, is why national stereotypes are so important.  Because the image of a Russian is very close to the Russian.  They see themselves as a type, they cherish it, they take the good with the bad because they have no qualms about being an archetypal Russian.  Life is a mixed bag, so why shouldn’t self-image be as well.  Perhaps some Russians would gainsay such inclinations, but Russian literature and Russian song and Russian art is full of celebrations of the Russian type.  The suffering, faithful, soulful individual in a country ravished by corrupt institutions, blessed with writers who offer brief moments of stolen consolation.  The frenzied, painfully self-conscious sinner, the penitent and rambunctious fool.  The heart prone to falling in love, breaking too soon, mending only in part.  The repertoire of poems, aphorisms and proverbs Russians scatter in conversation is not an affected cultural snobbery adopted as a party trick, but evidence of the deep permeation of a shared cultural language and imagery in daily life.  They don’t identify with their government, they identify with how they have coped through governments.  Religion isn’t problematized as ideology or a brand, to the left or to the right or to the mall; its daily ritual and a fundamental understanding that life is more likely than not rooted in daily heartbreak, in the shadow of a God who inexplicably provides miracles to those who seem least deserving.

Of course, I may be getting carried away here.  But that’s the Russian way, and I’d rather over-assimilate to my foreign home at the moment–bringing you, dear Reader, a dash of sentimentality–than miss out on the good stuff for the sake that mythical notion of being an objective observer…

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Looking for Love, Good Skin and a Little Pick-Me-Up?

How bout a dash of delicious, and occasionally heroic history?

You’ve come to the right place.

The most famous chocolate company in Moscow, Krasnyj Oktyabr “Red October,” is no longer in its iconic building along the Moscow River, facing Christ the Savior Cathedral.  It was bought out and now houses chic chic cafes, a restaurant, hi-end offices and lofts, and an art space. As is the way of the global economy, its manufacturing center has been consolidated in the outskirts of the city, in a building with two other factories—Rot Front and Babaevskaya. This was at first a disappointment, as when I was our group was going to the Chocolate Factory, I was sure I’d be in Red October, where I could look at the red bricks and gold domes of the Kremlin and eat sweets in the same place that, I imagined, Lenin had.  This is no longer an option.  That was the bad news.

Original Red October Factory

Now the good news: the new consolidated building is also home to the Museum of the History of Chocolate (and, strangely, a bank, which you pass through to enter the museum).  This is where I spent a recent morning and learned about chocolate, in theory and practice, discovering how chocolate has played a role in not a few daily lives, ancient horoscopes, and the propaganda machine of the Soviets.  Epic, I know. And don’t worry, my visit still included “I Love Lucy” moments of women in white caps and coats and chocolates dashing down conveyer belts. (And samples!  So many samples!)  This place is THE home of the famous Alyonka chocolate bars, with the unforgettable wrapper:

I’m convinced the little peasant girl is the spitting image of what one my professors MUST have looked like as a child (won’t name names).

But first, the informative and occasionally laugh-out-loud (1) tour beforehand…

Now, just so you know that this tour was actually impressive (albeit a tad bit long for my taste), I’ll let you know that AGAIN, I was dragging my heels—I figured that the chocolate factory would be awesome, but a museum???  Upon arrival I could see folding screens covered in mediocre photos of cocoa plants and Central American teenagers and I was convinced I would have to suffer great feats of boredom before being rewarded with fresh chocolate…I was wrong.  I’m starting to learn that even if the exhibitions look boring from a distance, the startling passion of the tour-guides is what makes the day, as well as all the wonderfully unexpected Russian-isms of their speech, behavior, and trivia.  That and the bizarre sorts of very obvious exhibitions they coordinate—at the Library it was the book-toting figurine exhibition in the midst of ancient manuscripts, here, it was a collection of marzipan and chocolate sculptures and “paintings” such as the ones below…

Squirrel fashioned of Chocolate

Framed Scene of Making Chocolate, fashioned out of Chocolate

After we put little blue booties over our shoes, we were ushered into the first exhibition room.  The entire museum is laid out “chronologically,” with each important phase of the History of Chocolate assigned it own space and its own particular technological doo-das.  The first room transports us back to ancient Central America, or, as the guide specified, “Indian Chichen-Itza.”  The room featured a large screen, and across from it was a miniature reconstruction of a tiered Mayan temple, on which we all sat as we watching our first film about chocolate.  The walls were painted like a tropical rainforest and the room was full of reproductions of Mayan art, material culture, and—best of all!—a life size mannequin of a Mayan, dressed in feathers and holding a tiny totem of a bird.  I want to you to assume, as I did, that all of this was done with the utmost respect for Mayan culture.

Our guide began eloquently, “Four thousand years ago, on the Indian peninsula [Yucatan], chocolate was born.”  She showed us ancient Mayan tools for breaking cocoa beans and proto-mortar and pestles.  On the ceiling the twelve astrological signs of the Mayans were painted in a circle, with a giant serpent in the middle under a cup of flowing red liquid.  Our guide explained that the ancient Mayans learned how to make a drink out of the cocoa bean, a drink that is probably portrayed above, in their mystical astrological painting, as “the Drink of the Gods.”  Only the elites—those allowed on the highest (365th) level of the temple—were allowed to drink this cocoa concoction. They had to prove themselves in Mayan society and war to be allowed the Drink of the Gods. Naturally, we’re assured, no women were allowed the Drink of the Gods. How far M&Ms and Hershey’s kisses have taken us from the mystical, ritualized exclusivity of the ancient bean….(and thank goodness!)

Our guide points to a bust of a Mayan against the wall.  She picks up a reproduction of a cocoa bean.  Do we see it?  The similarity? The Mayans, she insists, actually depicted their heads in the shapes of cocoa beans, in efforts—we can only deduce approximately—to gain the powers of the cocoa plant, and the gods who make it grow.  Hmmmm…..

Mayan Bust

Cocoa Pod

But wait!  How in the world do we know this?  How can we be sure that the elites weren’t up to other nonsense on the 365th level of the temple, and that the cup of life (or death?) being poured out on the serpent of the sky is really chocolate?!  Well, it’s true, for many many years, the Secrets of the Mayans were closed to us. Even long after explorers and scholars got a hold of their ancient texts, it was impossible to make heads or tails of them.

Queue our film, featured in 3D.  We put on glasses, settle into our fake-stone seats.


“The Secret of the Texts of the Mayans”

Footage begins with monkeys, turtles, and dew-covered tropical plants.  Suddenly we are in a dark Mayan temple, filled with swirling hieroglyphics.

“Who can unlock the mystery of the Mayans?”

“No one.”

Scholars from Spain, Belgium and Dresden (yes, that’s how it was put) have tried and failed.  The swirling hieroglyphs accelerate, converge, disappear down what must have been some ancient Mayan well.  We are left with the thunderous impenetrability of the Mayan language and culture.

Cue music, a black and white snapshot appears on the screen: it’s a young boy, with a serious face, confidently holding a violin.  The violin assures us that not only is the boy clever and disciplined, but his parents made the necessary sacrifices for his Education.  We quickly learn that this Yuri Knorosov.

His curiosity and brilliance would lead him to the Mayan manuscripts, which he would “unlock” at an early age.  Thanks to Yuri, the records of this ancient people are illuminated.  We see brief footage of him as a very old man, teetering around a Mayan temple, which, considering how steep it is, actually just makes one nervous.  The camera pans in for a close up—he has wild, yet stern, eyes and even wilder eyebrows.  Clearly only a man of exceptional, nay, otherworldly!, intelligence could have such a piercing gaze and such unruly eyebrows.

Another snapshot appears, it’s Yuri, but we’ve moved back in time and now he’s middle-aged, holding a Siamese cat.  We are quickly told that this cat was, perhaps, Yuri’s greatest confidante, a statement that takes us even further away from any semblance of an expected Museum experience.  The plot thickens—

Yuri Knorosov with his Cat

The Siamese Cat leaps onto the screen and is suddenly sitting in the middle of a Mayan cave, surrounded by menacing, bloody wall paintings.  The cat begins to speak—it will tell us the story of the Mayans, and what Yuri revealed about their language, ritual, and ultimately, about chocolate…(2)

The rest of the video was pretty straightforward, although it had a surprising opening scene—we’re in contemporary Central America, watching three very young children break open cocoa beans and hungrily eat them.  They have the big, sad eyes of the kids in World Vision commercials.  The cat asks us, “How do we get delicious chocolate from the bitter beans these children are eating?”  The Siamese cat tells us nothing of the cocoa trade or its victims, but rather bounds off into the forest and back in time.

The video doesn’t last much longer, as we will actually learn more about processing cocoa in a later room (19th century Europe).  Most of the film was pictures of darkly painted Mayan lairs, spooky music, and then flashes of Yuri thinking.  Fair enough.

After the film ends, we return our 3D glasses, climb down from the reconstructed temple, and walk, briefly, in the Conquistador-era Spain.  We are in the underbelly of a very small ship, with three TV screens looping footage of the ocean.  We are about to discover America, we’re told (note: when a Russian says this, they mean CENTRAL America.  Just so we’re all on the same page.  No Plymouth Rock here…)  Burlap bags ostensibly filled with cocoa beans sit on the ground, veritable sacks of gold in that time, we’re told.  There’s a tiny grate window overhead, which we are instructed to look through.  For whatever reason, we’re told that we’re not allowed to go up top, as if we were indentured servants on a cocoa bean seeking expedition.  This tiny glimpse of the night sky is be our only consolation, we’re informed.  Fortunately, the constellations have been accurately reproduced on the ceiling, so our glimmer of the night sky is not entirely a rouse…

We move out of the boat, but we have not yet left the Conquistadors behind.  Forgetting our Siamese guide, we now watch a cartoon film that sums up Cortez’s entire life.

We get a brief glimpse of the 15th century Spain, were a cloaked academic in a funny hat angrily slams his pointer on a poster reading “America: Myth or Reality?” This pressing question leads Cortez sails his boat across an empty map, until


He hits shore! An outline of North and South America instantly materializes on screen!

Cortez looks out onto the New World.  There are brown people with painted faces. One of them climbs a tree, which—I’M NOT KIDDING—is bursting with chocolate bars in Alyonka wrappers.  Yes.  Exactly.  But then Cortez and his gang pull the little brown Central Americans out of the trees and push them back off the shores—we seem them retreating with sad faces into the Jungle—to fill their boat with chocolate bars in iconic Russian wrappers and sail back to Europe.  Glory and riches follow, and in the closing scene, we are in contemporary Russia, where a little boy is out in a snow storm hitchhiking (yes, I also noticed the plot jump here).  He’s so cold and alone.  He puts out his thumb, AMAZING!, a truck appears, he hops in, sigh of relief.

The driver offers him some chocolate and they munch away, with a light-hearted tune about chocolate in the background.  As the “camera” pans out, we see that it’s actually a delivery truck full of chocolate, which makes the little boy’s rescue even more ideal.

But what happened in between Cortez and our little Russian hitchhiker, who was saved by the goodwill that chocolate inspires?

The early history of chocolate in Europe!  A delicacy so delicious, it’s existence and production was apparently kept under wraps by Spain as a veritable state secret!  That is, until France made a strategic marriage and got a member of the Spanish royal family to cough up the recipe for hot chocolate.  From there it spread to Germany, Switzerland, England, and Italy (you know how incestuous they were back then…).  Our tour guide told us though that people in Italy didn’t actually like chocolate at first, and Switzerland was actually the very last to have chocolate at all, apparently a blow to their reputation as the most-chocolately of nations.  Russia, we learn, was always of one devoted mind to chocolate….

Cue Peter the great.  In his great importation of All Things Western, he probably introduced chocolate to Russia, although it’s unclear.  It’s likely that it was around beforehand, but not yet made in Russia until Peter brought German chocolate-engineers into the country. The guide plays a slide show of famous Russians with chocolate—Peter the Great’s daughter, Elizabeth Petrovna, with a saucer of chocolate, a picture of the café Pushkin frequented, which is known for its hot chocolate (he’s ubiquitous in Russian history, as you may be learning), etc, etc.

Then began the explanation of how chocolate is made, how its grade is determined (percentage of cocoa bean product vs additives) and how it is processed today to get the delicious creamy candy we all love so well.  If you’re interested in actual details, email me, or, let’s be honest, just wiki it.  I aim to share that which isn’t easily available to the public, and I have a sneaking suspicion chocolate processing could be common knowledge….

The museum had a model cocoa tree, full of fake cocoa pods.  Strangely, it was illuminated by green lights, which made it a more menacing version of what’s found in nature, I assume.  With downcast eyes and supplicating palms, our guide, whose passion for chocolate in Russia was increasingly infectious, revealed that every time she walks by that model cocoa tree, she rues that they cannot grow in Russia. Russia, with its long history of confection!  Russia, where the sweet tooth transcends Class and Education!  Russia, where chocolate brings private consolation and social opportunity!  No, nothing can be done, the native love of chocolate cannot coax the tree into growing in a climate not its own…so the chocolate lovers of Russia must all the more embrace the processing of chocolate as their honorable trade, if not the cultivation of its plant…

We learned about the two men who owned the biggest chocolate factories in Moscow, both of which now operate out of the new consolidated building.  One man, a German named Einem, started the Einem Chocolate Factory, was wildly successful, even buying a blimp to fly over Moscow with his logo on it for advertising.  (Fantastic, yes?)  However, our guide told us in a low, sad voice, he had no wife and children, and no one to leave his factory to.  His was a lonely life dedicated to sweets…Now, that might not bother us, she implied, because after all, he was just a German.  But you know what?  Einem gave so much to Moscow, beyond just chocolate, that he is more like a “Russian German,” [Russkij Nemetz] than just a German.  Poor poor Einem, not only was he childless, but there are no surviving pictures of him: the guide seemed to link these things, as if the failure to transmit your DNA could cause all material evidence of your personage to disappear.   The museum cannot even offer a sketch of him. Instead, there is a model of his factory with a different man inside, his business partner, who had many children (ten or twelve!) and carried on the factory until it was taken over by the government and renamed Red October.

Contemporary to Einem was another major chocolate company that started out as a simple confectioners shop.  It grew, first through caramels, then through chocolates, and was named after its founder, Abrikosov, until it was also taken over in the Revolution and renamed Babaevsky, after a revolutionary.  Abrikosov, the inversion of his competitor, had 22 children. All by one wife!  I think its been proven that chocolate is an aphrodisiac, but I’m starting to suspect the Mayans may have discovered some sort of fertility drug of the gods.  We can only hope.  Seventeen of the Abrikosov children survived to adulthood, and not a few of his grandchild have been important figures in Moscow society, we learned, as business people, actors, and singers.

Across from Abrikosov’s photograph and a model of his living room is a large portrait of a young woman carrying a tray of hot chocolate.  We learned that she was a simple ‘chocolate girl’ (Russian is a very production language, so there’s a word for the girl who served chocolate).  She was from a poor family and made very little money as a chocolate girl in Moscow.  However, one day, she served chocolate to a very wealthy and well-connected man and he fell in love with her, and married her.  He had her portrait commissioned, in honor of her beauty and holding the tray of chocolate that brought them together.  Let’s say they lived happily ever after.

1917.  Chaos, Revolution.  The Rise of the Proletariat.  The end of the Romanov Dynasty.  The State takes over all chocolate production.  Mayakovsky (a famous revolutionary poet) has a job writing “poetry” about the Red October chocolate factory.  Our tour guide, straights, crossed her hands in front of her and recites two poems by Mayakovsky. [«Не могу не признаться: / лучший шоколад – / aбрикосовый № 12. / Нет нигде, кроме / как в Моссельпроме».] Damn, Russians are so good at memorizing poetry and then having something fantastic and appropriate to bust out at any given moment.  We could learn from them…

Anyway…this is the time in Russia when bars of chocolate produced by the State are plastered with slogans of economic emancipation and calls to arms.  Tins of chocolate are sold with pictures of Lenin on the front, because—as our guide explains—the peasants were illiterate, and couldn’t read about their own history.  Hence, their history was presented on the chocolate tins and wrappers, because even peasants eat chocolate. Chocolate was the way to get them to voluntarily consume their own visual history.  Then chocolate production practically halted in the 1920s and 1930s because of economic conditions, and most of the factories only made caramels and other sugar based confections.

In the 1940’s special bars of chocolate that were sent to the Front, with some sort of methamphetamine in them (moments like these and I really wish I had better Russian language skills)…I certainly got this now verbatim:

“It is, of course, a narcotic.  But we had the task of victory ahead of us, so…”

In the same exhibition case as the super-powered chocolate bars, we saw the medals and personal effects of the confectioners who were sent to the Front, again, the workplace remembers those who went before them…

When things improved in the 50’s and 60’s, more tins with historical events surfaced. We saw chocolate tins with scenes from the Olympics, strapping boys running across finish lines or hurling shot puts, the Soviet Space dogs who went on rocket trips, and not a few commemorative boxes of assorted chocolates for the US/USSR Apollo joint mission.

This just about wrapped up our tour of the museum, and we transitioned into the factory itself, donning white jackets and haircaps.  Now, our museum guide had told us about the many strengths of cocoa butter—it was delicious, healthy, good for your skin.  She told us that all of the women in the factory have beautiful skin because they work with cocoa butter all day (not, she noted, like the women who work on the caramel belts).


But after the talking Siamese cat and Yuri unlocked the mystery of the Aztecs, after cartoon Cortez ransacked Central America and made off with all their cocoa, after Switzerland’s dedication to chocolate was pooh poohed, I was a little skeptical of our guide’s perspective.  But damn.  Those factory ladies (and they were all ladies) absolutely glowed.  The young ones, the old ones, the ones in between.  Either they make so much money that they can afford fantastic skin care regimes and never go in the sun (right, I’m sure that’s it) or there’s something about cocoa butter.

At each conveyer belt, we were given a sample—dark chocolate bars, fresh truffles, the insides of truffles before being glazed in hard chocolate.  We walked past vats of cocoa powder and what looked like dumpsters filled with liquid chocolate.  We saw the liquid chocolate poured into molds, cut into bars, wrapped in foil, then wrappers, then boxed, bar-code-stickered, and pulled off the belt for shipment.  There was a huge scale in one room for weighing shipments, and as we stood around and watched chocolate get wrapped in silver foil (some girls from the group sneaking a few off the belt!) one employee walked onto the scale, checked her weight, and walked back off again.  Completely matter of factly. I guess you end up keeping a vigilant eye on the scale if you work around chocolate all day.

Our guide for the factory, a factory worker herself, told us that after 32 years of working here, she still loves chocolate.  Could she name a favorite?  No.  But she loves working here.  And she still loves chocolate.  Who knows, it could have been the sugar high from the conveyer-belt freebies, but I certainly felt in love with all things chocolate too.  To top it off, we got a “gift” from the museum, a chocolate bar of famous Alenka chocolates and a little box full of goodies with a terrific whimsical, vintage cover.

Einem Gift Box

All that learning and thinking and unlocking of mysteries wore me down more than expected, and after departing the museum/factory, I fell into a heat and chocolate induced afternoon coma…I’m pretty sure I dreamed of marzipan squirrels and German blimps and Mayakovsky, declaring the dawn of a new era of chocolate and art for everyone…

(1)  By laugh out loud, I mean that my expectations for a history museum were so thoroughly squashed, my American sensibilities of political correctness (which I only half-heartedly recognize) were so rebuffed, that I had no option but, quite literally, to laugh out loud.  It was good.  I needed a good laugh, things have been too serious lately.

(2) Wandering thought: I’m guessing Lady and the Tramp (ITAL) isn’t big here.  Because anyone who watched that as a child inevitably should fear Siamese cats for the rest of their life.  They’re not to be trusted.  They should not narrate films. They try to commit in

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