poemless. a slap in the face of public taste.

October 11, 2010

Odds & Ends: Like in a dream Edition

A bit of catching up.

Vova’s Girlz.

~ Kevin O’Flynn: “Wanted: Putin’s Girl.”

So, this is annoying:

A girl was needed, but no ordinary one. She had to be not too tall and not too short, not too young and not too old — which if you’re wondering, is apparently between 22 and 27 — and she had to have a Moscow propiska, or registration.

It sounds like many a Moscow or even St. Petersburg man’s dream. Her skin had to be pure — no mention of her heart — her brows not too heavy, her chins not too many. Slavic features, please, they asked. Good manners, a way with lifts, not too big on the hips.

A beautiful smile and kind, intelligence plus the ability to take a bullet to the chest if somebody takes a pot shot at the guy who looks almost tall — to you, possibly — by your side.

If asked to find an escort for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, it is unlikely that I would have stuck an ad up on a web site.

But that is what went buzzing around the Internet a week or so ago. The escort was needed for last Friday when Putin was set to visit the Arctic forum at the new Moscow State University building.

Her job was to escort him to the lift: Nails have to be short enough to be able to press the button; make some meaningless chitchat — “So when will Novaya Zemlya get its first Coffee House?” — and then fade away like a late morning dream.

She was not the only one, as the company in question was actually looking for three hostesses in total. Probably because there are always a lot of lifts at Arctic forums.

Your dress, the ad said, must be business-style: suit, skirt/trousers, blouse, high heels, “not vulgar but beautiful.”

The girls, who have already had their moment, were to be chosen in a “casting” close to the Universitet metro station.

Most specific was the height requirement: “Height, STRICTLY 160-165 (plus 2 to 3 centimeters is possible),” the ad said. “VVP has a height of 169 cm, not higher than him, that’s for sure.”

I didn’t even bother trying our for that one … you know, er, propiskaless and all. Maybe Kevin finds this kind of headhunting vulgar, but at least it is honest. In America, we invite all the highly qualified applicants, hire the pretty ones as intended all along, and send the rest consolation letters, if they are lucky.

Why isn’t Lyudmila helping with the elevators? If you want to send a pro-family, traditional-values demography-inspiring message to your people, why not have the wife at your side? Alas, perhaps she has joined a convent? There are not even elevators in convents, I don’t think. Not in the ones I’ve stayed at. Oh yes I did. Catholic school, baby. Anyway, here is the difference between me and Lyudia Putina: I can still entertain the idea that it’s just that he hasn’t met me.

~ … I don’t have much to add to the Great Calendar Debate, except to wonder if people even need wall calendars anymore. I buy them. Mine have themes like “365 Days in France” and “Warhol’s Shoes,” but only because Putin hasn’t out out his own beefcake calendar yet. However, between Outlook, Blackberry, Google and every other cyber organizing tool out there, why buy a wall calendar? Because it gives you something nice to look at when you realize your bills are due. Which, politics aside, is why depressing calendars don’t sell.

~ From Becky Cloonan, via Natalia Antonova:

Read This.

Elif Batuman is a name I’ve come across from time to time, thought I should remember, and always forgot. She is the author of The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. Which -based on nothing more than the title- has been immediately added to my reading list. But it’s her blog that has me reeling….

Kafka porn contest

Patient readers! I promised a Kafka contest, and here it is. In the course of researching my recent Kafka article, I was interested to learn about a 2008 Kafka pornography scandal, provoked by the publication of James Hawes’s Excavating Kafka (the US title of which, Why You Should Read Kafka before You Waste Your Life, makes me proud to be an American). As the Guardian put it:

At the focus of Hawes’ investigation are pictures he stumbled across in the British Library in London and the Bodleian in Oxford of the pornography to which Kafka subscribed while in his twenties. They include images of a hedgehog-style creature performing fellatio, golem-like male creatures grasping women’s breasts with their claw-like hands and a picture of a baby emerging from a sliced-open leg.

Myriad questions came to my mind. Whom or what was that hedgehog-style creature fellating? Was the Guardian being anti-Semitic when they called that breast-grasping creature a Golem? And who wants to see a baby coming out of someone’s leg? I consulted Google for answers and came across a terrifically helpful blog post which identifies and reproduces Aubrey Beardsley’s representation of a very angry-looking baby being removed from some guy’s leg (below), as per the description, in Lucian’s second-century proto-sci-fi hit True History, of how children are birthed on the Moon:\

Gratifying as this was, I was still really curious about that hedgehog and its unknown partner, which continued to elude my Googling skills for some time. One respected Kafka expert, to whom I broached the subject, basically counseled me to give up: “I think we can assume that the hedgehog was [performing these acts upon] another hedgehog, no? Isn’t that porn reportage protocol? You assume they’re of the same species, unless otherwise noted.” Well, Sir, that certainly isn’t my reportage protocol. And I’m glad it isn’t. Because, OK, don’t click on the link if you’re under 18 (believe me kiddo, it can wait), but I eventually found the picture, and, although I can’t tell you exactly what the soi-disant “hedgehog” is pleasuring, I can state with confidence that it is definitely not another soi-disant “hedgehog.”

As is often the case with Kafka, the more I learned, the more questions remained unanswered. What was that thing? Why was it behaving that way? Are such images “porn, pure and simple,” or are they, as Reiner Stach has suggested, mere “playful representations”?

Hoping to penetrate some of these mysteries, I addressed myself to valued reader and colleague Dimiter Kenarov, author of the Bulgarian bestselling poetry volume Апокрифни животни (Apocryphal Animals), the proceeds of which are diverted to the Sofia Zoo, where they have already financed a new swing for the monkeys. Kenarov suggested that the illustration represented some form of “apocryphal evolution,” but that, more significantly, one had perhaps stumbled upon “a whole new porn genre: Kafka Sex. There is money in here. For example, undressing a person only to find new and new layers of clothing underneath.”

I hereby decree this the first official entry in the My Life and Thoughts Kafka porn contest. Please send in your best ideas for this lucrative new genre, which may or may not eventually benefit in some way the monkeys in the Sofia Zoo.

Contest is over, and you’ve missed your chance to get some of her furniture. But a “first official entry” suggests there will be a second, official or otherwise. Anyway, this all somehow reminded me of that Edition 69 and the “The Devětsil ” literary movement. A bit after his time. But surrealist porn seems to be a theme with the Czechs…

~ Sheyngart recently showed up in the neighborhood. He did a great Q. and A., like he really wanted to be there, unlike Sasha Hemon. He’s quite funny. But not terribly serious. Which is too bad, because when he gets serious, great things come out. He was talking about how writers should take acting classes. I’d never thought about it, but it makes great sense. I’ve taken enough acting classes that I should now be prepared to write a novel. The crowd was a mix urban hipsters, Russian immigrants (a burly man rudely pushed past me to demand of the staff, “Vhat Time you Close?!”) and elderly Jews. Gary said he thought the Tea Party was better than Putin’s Russia. (Gary lives in NYC and doesn’t exactly have to worry about the Tea Party. I’ve not had any ancestors pogromed to death by Russians. We disagree.) He said he liked Pavel Pepperstein and Sorokin. He told a story about these old babushky who erected a giant toilet in central Moscow and were flushing Sorokin’s lurid books down it. You thought the story would end in grievance: so that’s the kind of thanks an artist gets in Putin’s oppressive Russia. He took a u-turn and remarked, “Russia’s the only country in the world that continues to care enough about novels to hold public protests against them.”

~ Adding to my blogroll: Lizok’s books.

~ I’ve about finished Rasskazy, and off the top of my head, the stories I liked most:

“THEY TALK” by Linor Goralik
“RUSSIAN HALLOWEEN” by Aleksander Bezzubtsev-Kondakov
“THE SEVENTH TOAST TO SNAILS” by Ekaterina Taratuta
“D.O.B.” by Aleksander Snegirev

Probably pure coincidence, but in this selection I’ve made, the women are writing experimental prose, and the men more traditional narratives. There is a lot of stuff in the book that, while very artistic and academic, does not seem to work very well. These did. I also wanted read twithout any political bias. One might argue that these are “Western” in their style, and condemnations of Russia in their content. They’re well written. And I am not sure I buy the idea that anything less than saccharine is an indictment, or the only good writers are Slavophiles.

And BG and Slava came to me in a dream…

~ c/o Oleg Kashin (who is spending WAY too much time on Twitter):

BG & Surkov! You know how in cheap beer commercials, there is always a set of hot twins the average Joe spies at a bar? (As if an average Joe drunk on Budweiser were more attractive to Scandanavian twins than the sober version of himself?) Anyway, If Budweiser were marketing to me, this would be the commercial. The third fellow is Andrei Makarevich. Meh. What was going on here? Political event at which musicians are kissing up? Or musical event at which poor Slava is kissing up? Anyway. So there is now some debate as to whether or not Boris has gone over to the dark side. Some people are like, hey, he’s just having a polite chat – who cares? They aren’t being helped by this, from Ekho Moskvy:

~ Борис Гребенщиков и Владимир Путин плавали по коммунальным квартирам России.

Известный музыкант Борис Гребенщиков в день рождения премьер-министра России Владимира Путина встретился с ним во сне. Об этом сам музыкант рассказал сегодня в эфире “Эха Петербурга”:

“Он мне снился сегодня. Мы с ним совершали вояж по России. По-моему, мы с ним плыли на катере сквозь квартиры коммунальные. Причём было дико красиво. Вероятно, вели разговоры. Я такого сна не помню просто в жизни своей! Я так ему благодарен! Какие силы работают на нашего президента… премьер-министра, что даже я вижу сны про него! Фантастика. Вот оккультизм настоящий”.

Alrighty then… Let’s keep in mind he smokes a lot of pot. But, is he being sarcastic, or sincere? Is it veiled criticism or harmless entertainment? It’s one thing to dream you’re sailing with Vova through communal apartments, another to issue a press release about it to your hippied-out followers. Hm. Fascinating indeed.

Bonus.

~ Finally, we have some pictures of the Soyuz capsule landing. For a while, I was not impressed. Looked like a piece of junk on a parachute. Then a piece of junk crashing to the dirt. Then an old piece of junk out in a field.

Then spacemen crawled out of it!!!! Wowee!

Soyuz TMA-18 Space Capsule Landing.

It’s really a metaphor for Russia, is it not? To the casual observer: junk. To the close observer: oudated junk. To the surveyor: junk surrounded by miles of nothing. But inside the junk are fascinating, adventurous, curious, educated and slightly insane people, doing astonishing things. And even the junk has stories to tell…

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September 22, 2010

Found in Translation.

Filed under: Culture: Russia — poemless @ 5:07 PM
Tags: , ,

My New Acquisitions.

Pelevin. Tolstaya. Kurkov. Akunin. Ulitskaya. Sorokin.
… Did I mention Pelevin?

Ok, so chances are you will have little trouble locating these souls on the shelves of your local bookshop, or at the very least, have some gregarious bookseller offer to order one of their books for you. Maybe I’ve been a bit too doomsday about it, the whole “lack of translations of contemporary Russian authors available to the English speaking world.” After all, it only took a blog post and an afternoon wandering around the library (in fairness there are 87 miles of stacks in this library) to discover the following items:

~ Living souls by Dmitry Bykov. Published in the UK by Alma Books.
~ Give Me (Songs for Lovers) by Irina Denezhkina. Published in the US by Simon and Schuster.
~ Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky. Published in the UK by Gollancz.
~ Lizka and her men by Alexander Ikonnikov. Published in the UK by Serpent’s Tail.
~ Do time, get time by Andrei Rubanov. Published in the UK by Old Street.
~ 2017 by Olga Slavnikova. Published in the US by Overlook.

And of course various poets and playwrights could be found hawking their wares to the anglosphere along the aisles. It appears that some Russian writers are in fact reaching an English speaking audience. … an American speaking audience? Not so much. Hopefully it bodes well for American literary connoisseurs that Russian oligarchs have begun buying our sportsteams. Now we just need to get our own Andrew Bromfield. (OMG is he singlehandedly responsible for every translation in the past 20 years?!)

Andrew Bromfield

is a British editor and translator of Russian works. He is a founding editor of the Russian literature journal Glas, and has translated into English works by Boris Akunin, Vladimir Voinovich, Irina Denezhkina, Victor Pelevin, and Sergei Lukyanenko, among other writers.

[including]

“Very Short Stories” by Genrikh Sapgir
“Monday Starts on Saturday” by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky
“Rachmaninov” by Nikolai Bazhanov
“The Law of Eternity” by Nodar Dumbadze and Mikhail Krakovsky
“Glas: New Russian Writing” magazine (ed. by Natalia Perova)
“Lizka and Her Men” by Alexander Ikonnikov
“The Good Angel of Death” by Andrey Kurkov
“Maxim and Fyodor” by Vladimir Shinkarev
“Reasons for Living” by Dmitry Bakin
“Witch’s Tears” by Nina Sadur
“Headcrusher (novel)” by Alexander Garros and Aleksei Evdokimov

Madness. Ok, so this will give us something to read for the next month or so. But can one really glean the scene from these selections? Can one read these and make any kind of definitive statement about the post-Soviet Russian mind? Who knows… Probably one should refrain from such an endeavor anyway. Still, it’s not much to go on. Like judging American culture by a reality tv show where 6 random Americans are forced to live together. How do you know they weren’t chosen simply because they exemplified some stereotype? Or maybe one was sleeping with the producer. You don’t know. Who is Andrew sleeping with? We don’t know.

I’d come across mention of Glas twice in separate searches now, so I decided to check it out.

Glas: New Russian Writing.

It bills itself as the “best in contemporary Russian fiction in English translation.” Wow. Just what I was looking for. Well, without the boasting. (Your home page is your blurb page? really??) In addition to publishing gobs of individual authors, Glas also publishes gobs of anthologies. Collections include winners of the Russian Booker and Debut prizes, female, Jewish and young authors, stories about love, war, the Soviet experience … you get the picture. It all seems very comprehensive, if not a bit overwhelming. And not helped by the fact that we’ve gone and bound them all together in 2’s and 3’s. In order to get my paws on a couple of short stories, I had to check out about 25lbs. of book. Oof.

Wait. Anthologies! I’d said I “would actually very much appreciate a Hemon-esque, everything but the kitchen sink anthology of post-1991 Russian literature in English translation.” I did. But I was so focused on individual authors and their novels, I rather forgot to go googling for collections. It’s probably for the best. With names like “Rasskazy” and “Life stories” Russia might have taken over the world and abolished the English language before I found these online. Fuck the computer. I was upstairs in the stacks having a mild panic attack while deliberating which issues of Glas had the most relevant contents in proportion to its physical weight when Evgeny posted a link to Life Stories: Original Fiction by Russian Authors on the previous post. I know – I need a smartphonectomy. All the same I was able to just walk around the corner and find the book on the shelf. So that was convenient. From its publisher:

Masterfully translated by some of the best Russian-English translators working today, these tales reassert the power of Russian literature to affect readers of all cultures in profound and lasting ways.
Best of all, 100% of the profits from the sale of this book will go to benefit Russian hospice—not-for-profit care for fellow human beings who are nearing the end of their own life stories.

all royalties waived
all translation fees waived
100% of profits to the cause
The authors included in this fine collection are: Vladimir Voynovich, Andrey Gelasimov, Boris Grebenshchikov, Yevgeny Grishkovets, Victor Yerofeyev, Alexander Kabakov, Eduard Limonov, Dmitry Lipskerov, Sergey Lukyanenko, Vladimir Makanin, Marina Moskvina, Victor Pelevin, Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, Zakhar Prilepin, Dina Rubina, Dunya Smirnova, Vladimir Sorokin, Alexander Khurgin and Leonid Yuzefovich.

It’s too bad I didn’t actually buy this book and help those dying people. OTOH, I feel like I have secret superpowers walking around the BG, Eddie baby and Sorokin in my bag. Tingly, even. Ah… Oh, and it’s one rather slim paperback that weighs no more than a hamster. The unbearable lightness of unbound, unboundwith books… Finding the contemporary anthologies section was like a finding buried treasure. You dive in, grab hold of one item and parade it around: it’s mine! it’s mine! and seconds later you’ve discarded it for another shining trinket.

Like Moscow Noir, for example.

Moscow has been chomping at the bit to enter the Noir Series–with the intention of perpetrating extreme Russian menace.
Brand-new stories by:Alexander Anuchkin, Igor Zotov, Gleb Shulpyakov, Vladimir Tuchkov, Anna Starobinets, Vyacheslav Kuritsyn, Sergei Samsonov, Alexei Evdokimov, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Maxim Maximov, Irina Denezhkina, Dmitry Kosyrev, Andrei Khusnutdinov, and Sergei Kuznetsov.

Yeah, extreme Russian menace! Rock and roll! I am all about the Extreme Russian Menace, you know. I have to give Keith his props. I think he must have been correct when remarked that “those that do get published probably either fit the publisher’s preconception of what Russia is/should be or what english speakers should like.” Soviet childhoods, extreme Russian menaces, Pelevin.

And we simply cannot ignore the following editor’s note:

The stories printed were all written in the past five years. The developments in Russia’s political sphere during this time and under Vladimir Putin’s rule—total consolidation of power in the Kremlin’s hands, airtight censorship in the electronic media, the wholesale institutionalization of corruption, the all-out ascendance of former KGB personnel (especially the Leningrad KGB) to prominent posts throughout the government, the near silencing of political opposition, even the restoration of the Soviet National Anthem—have in many ways turned back the hands of Russia’s sociopolitical clock. However, Russia has also experienced its share of undeniable successes: the strengthening of its currency; the steadily rising living standards of its citizens and the emergence of a bona fide middle class; its resurgence on the international stage as a global power, etc. It is during this complicated and conflicted moment in Russian history that this new generation of Russian writers wrote the stories presented in this anthology.

Although the Soviet Union did not technically cease to exist until 1991, its disintegration was a fait accompli even before the Berlin Wall fell two years earlier. These writers don’t remember Soviet life all too well, but its genetic code is stored in some dormant memory cell in their brains that is activated when the curve of modern-day Russia hews too closely to the former Soviet matrix of societal atmosphere. They recognize the air they’ve never breathed before, and they come alive within this condition of borderline nonfreedom. They’re free people, but they’re also Russian writers, and Russian writers need a measure of nonfreedom to feel free, to realize their relevance. […]

At this moment in history, as Russia submerges into crisis, calling into question yet another economic and political model of its development, the work in this anthology reminds us that Russia’s greatest commodity—and its greatest contribution to the world—has not been oil and gas and armaments. Rather, it’s been the successive generations of Russian writers capable of examining life’s emotional and intellectual restlessness, its complexity and intensity.

Oof, submerges into crisis even… This is from the otherwise rather brilliant anthology, Rasskazy: New Fiction from a New Russia from Tin House Books in the US. I dare say that when I asked for a Hemon-esque, everything but the kitchen sink anthology of post-1991 Russian literature in English translation, this is precisely what I’d had in mind! Right down to the, err, blurb by Hemon on the front cover. Francine Prose’s introduction said everything I had in my previous diary. “We’re reading the Russians,” she writes. Meaning, we’re reading dead 19th century Russians. Because who even knows if there is a 21st century Russian literature, or literatures? We don’t have a clue, and it is not our fault. They’re simply not published here. But we’ve always relied on literature to understand the Russians, largely because they’ve always relied on it to express themselves. Anyway, it’s simply abhorrent that we don’t have a flipping clue. So here you are: a sensibly sized anthology of the best post-Soviet Russian fiction out there. Or something.

I’m beside myself. It’s exactly what I have been searching for, all crisis mongering editors aside. I’m about a third of the way through it, and it is wonderful. Not as loquacious as their 19th century predecessors, but every bit as passionate, neurotic, sensitive, earnest, alienated, and sympathetically impractical. I’ve really enjoyed Linor Goralik, Oleg Zobern especially.

Wishes granted.

Now I just have to find a way to get them all home.

In this post:
~ Rasskazy: New Fiction from a New Russia.
~ Life Stories: Original Fiction by Russian Authors.
~ Moscow Noir.
~ Glas: New Russian Writing.

September 17, 2010

Lost in Translation

Filed under: Culture: Russia — poemless @ 5:05 PM
Tags: ,

This is not about the movie Lost in Translation. But for this post, let’s pretend Scarlett Johansson is playing the part of me and Bill Murray the part of Russian Lit. Ok?

A Request.

Q. I am interested in learning more about the current state of Russian literature. Can you please recommend 5 contemporary Russian novels that are available in English translation? (Besides Pelevin, whom I’ve already read.) Thanks so much! p.s. No sci-fi, please!

When I saw something like this question recently asked of a group of so-called Russia experts, I thought it was a reasonable enough request and began composing a response … until I was stopped dead in my tracks. I see a glut of Russian popular fiction everyday, but have no clue what kind of novels are being hailed by the Russian literati, let alone what is available in English translation. Probably no coincidence, those two facts. Chagrined, I sat back and let someone else respond. Everyone seemed to run into the same problem: there was lots to recommend, but many of them are not in English translation. Well, it is simply unacceptable that I should not know the answer to this inquiry. So I began my search and eventually came up with the following response:

A. I have been patiently waiting for an answer to your very specific question. Until you get one, here is a list of writers (in translation) people recently came up with when I asked who Russia’s leading thinkers were:

Viktor Pelevin, Vladimir Sorokin, Boris Akunin, Dmitry Bykov, Tatyana Tolstaya, Sergei Lukyanenko, Lyudmila Ulitskaya…

But your question was enough to get me wondering, so I looked up the recent winners of the Russian Booker Prize:

2005: Denis Gutsko’s Without a Way
2006: Olga Slavnikova’s 2017
2007: Aleksandr Ilichevskii’s Matisse
2008: Mikhail Yelizarov’s Librarian
2009: Yelena Chizhova’s A Time of Women

2017 is the only one I see readily available in English translation.

Others proceeded to recommend simply reading Russian literature … in Russian. Duh. What’s the problem with that, eh? How can anyone possibly appreciate Russian literature if they don’t read it in the original? Harrumph!

1. Well, personally, I might, but I am too lazy. My vocabulary is such that I require the frequent use of dictionaries and more brainpower than I am wont to exert while reading for pleasure. Because I read for work all day (yes, in Russian too) when I read for pleasure, the idea is to take a break. I understand the philosophy of self-improvement would advise that I force myself to make the effort to regain fluency so that I might be able to read for pleasure again. It is a beautiful idea. Like quitting smoking. We’re in New Years resolution territory here…

2. I suspect that most native English speakers don’t read a lick of Russian. Or any other foreign language, for that matter. They should be denied the opportunity to read anything published outside the Anglo-lit-o-sphere? Because Americans are not already ideologically isolated enough?

3. I’ve never heard a writer boast of being “read by everyone who speaks my native language!” Mostly it is the number of languages one has been translated into that signifies the degree of one’s literary success. While there is consensus that nothing can replace the experience of reading a novel in its original language, most writers are more than happy to sacrifice some artistic merit in order to reach a wider audience.

4. And as reading novels organic to lands not your own can make you wiser about the world, exporting your novels can make the rest of the world wiser about you. I know Russia is making an effort to reach a global audience by exporting Russia Today. But really, when cultivating allies, why not aim for the cream of the crop, the intellectual elite, people with an IQ of over 100, people who can … read. Don’t complain the world doesn’t take you seriously when hard liquor and dumbed-down tv news are your main exports. Just sayin’…

So… Why are there so few translations of contemporary Russian authors available to the English speaking world?

The good news? It’s not personal or anything.

WBEZ: U.S. Publishes Few Books in Translation. (<-click to listen to the show.)

Americans don’t get the chance to read many books written by authors who aren’t from this country. That’s because just about three percent of all the books published in the United States are translated from another language. Chad Post is publisher of Open Letter Books. They’re dedicated to the translation of works of fiction here in the United States. Without small publishers like Open Letter Books, there would be hardly any translated books in our bookstores at all. Other countries are different. Chad says that more than half the books on the market in France and Spain have been translated from another language. Even Canada is way ahead of us.

(“Even Canada”!) My own personal, unscientific observations seem to confirm this. It seems contemporary Russian authors are more likely to get a translation published in the UK than here in the States.

But the problem is not entirely on our fat apathetic end. The Russians have some work to do themselves:

Russia Profile reported on the First International Congress of Translators recently held in Moscow in the article, “Gained in Translation.” While the translators know the dearth of Russian lit in the Western market is a problem and are trying to do something to fix it (primarily in that most Russian of ways: by setting up institutes), they also point to numerous culprits of their suffering.

Lack of government support:

This time the literary translators were not left to their own devices: the congress was timed to coincide with the annual 23rd Moscow International Book Fair and backed by the Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communications. Thus international publishers, contemporary Russian writers and even government officials could join their efforts in finding new ways of promoting Russian literature in the modern world. “Translators don’t get attention from the government. This functional vacuum has to be filled,” said Vladimir Grigoryev, the deputy head of the Agency for Press and Mass Communications, at the opening ceremony.

Lack of pay:

Literary translation is notorious for being among the most underpaid areas of academic work in Russia and elsewhere. The organizers’ plan is to set up a Translation Institute, which would not be an educational institution but a state-supported organization securing grants, especially for long-term projects. Here, not everything has to be done from scratch. “We at Pushkin House in St. Petersburg, already run the International Center for Translators for those who translate Russian literature into foreign languages,” said Vsevolod Bagno, a corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. “We have a yearly contest for the best translations of Russian literature in four nominations and a database of published translations from Russian, but we’d like the new institution to reinforce our efforts.”

If it is not overly long and cerebral, it doesn’t meet Western expectations:

“Modern Russian literature in the West is perceived in light of stereotypes that have been piling up for decades. Against the backdrop of the great literature of the past, anything coming from Russia is expected to be prophetic and somewhat world-scale,” said Professor Oliver Ready, an Oxford scholar and translator of modern Russian authors, adding that UK publishers often complain that the reality depicted in modern Russian prose is too specific and insular.

If it is overly long and cerebral, it doesn’t meet Western needs:

Russian authors also tend to write long, complex books, which can be hard to adapt for an English-speaking audience. “I was extremely lucky to translate books by Boris Akunin and Victor Pelevin, the most published modern Russian authors, because they fit into existing niches without much adaptation. They have become really popular in the West,” said Andrew Bromfield, a prominent UK translator famous for his translations of Leo Tolstoy.

So everyone’s stuck reading Pelevin and Akunin.

The translators’ convention coincided with the Moscow International Book Fair, which hosted an “International Drawing-Room” debate for Russian and foreign participants, from which the following wisdom arose:

Voice of Russia: Russian literature produces uncloned stock.

… in 2011 Russia is to be an honourable guest at the London Book Fair and in 2012 an honourable guest in the USA. For this reason, the guests of the “International Drawing-Room”, a discussion floor arranged at the Moscow Fair for the first time, talked about the problem of promoting Russian literature on the international market, in particular, the English-language market. As the writer Dmitry Bykov said, we should make an effort towards a dramatic entrance into the English-language book world. Dmitry Bykov believes that modern Russian literature is capable of attracting the attention of this world:

“Today’s world has a marketing approach to literature. If something is a success, innumerable clones spring up. In this respect, Russia is a country where marketing strategies do not work, so Russia can be described as a provider of fresh, uncloned and unpredictable stock. Modern Russian literature is honest, it is a literature of protest, and there has always been a market for that in the West.”

Probably more so during the Cold War… Granted, we’re much more likely to be made aware of your existence if you write something politically scandalous, Rushdie-like. But still, for all our hemming and hawing about Putin in our airspace, we’re no longer inclined to read your books out of charity or prop you up to spite your masters. However much VVP has managed to roll back freedom of speech, y’all can’t even compete with Middle Eastern theocracies or the Chinese. So don’t even try. Which leads me to another factor contributing to the drought of Russian lit in American book bookstores, one that dareth not speak its name:

Russia is not hip. Impossible!, you’re thinking. Sorry, however tragic it may be, debating marketing strategies is just about a thousand times less sexy than publishing the samizdat of some poor soul forced into exile by real-live commies. But at least we have the memory of that, and our lingering Stockholm syndrome from Russian lit classes of yore. Your literary greats may be gone from our lives, but they are not forgotten. It’s more than the French can say.

Bosnian American Chicagoan wonderboy decides to whip us pathetic Americans into shape.

Because writers refuse to acknowledge reality and can easily slip into a reverie wherein capitalism and Oprah do not exist, they are either the most ideal or very worst possible candidates to take on the responsibility of introducing more foreign language writers to the English speaking world. On the one hand, I admire the whole Rise up with fists!, DIY attitude. On the other, well, do they let you market your own books, Sasha? I am referring to Aleksandar Hemon, who has edited the impressive Best European Fiction, 2010. The publisher’s decription goes like this:

Best European Fiction 2010 is the inaugural installment of what will become an annual anthology of stories from across Europe. Edited by acclaimed Bosnian novelist and MacArthur “Genius-Award” winner Aleksandar Hemon, and with dozens of editorial, media, and programming partners in the U.S., UK, and Europe, the Best European Fiction series will be a window onto what’s happening right now in literary scenes throughout Europe, where the next Kafka, Flaubert, or Mann is waiting to be discovered.

Hemon is so genius that he not only writes brilliantly, but he has the foresight to write in English, even though it is not his native language, to avoiding the very issue of translation. His native language is Bosnian. See, he’s so genius that he had the good sense to be from Bosnia while there was a war going on there. So maybe I should be less skeptical about his ability to sell escoteric lit. (I actually think he is a fantastic writer and his prose stands on its own merit. But would he have been slathered with such hype had he been from … Belgium?) Anyway, I’m as giddy as a little girl that he’s using his powers for good:

Omnivoracious: Against Eternal Provincialism: An Interview with Aleksandar Hemon.

Amazon.com: In a recent interview with the Paper Cuts blog, you said: “I think American literature is crippled by the shortage of available translations.” Do you mean that the body of literature available to us as readers is incomplete, or also that American literature as an art form is not developing as fully as it should because emerging writers are not reading widely enough?

Aleksandar Hemon: Both. Literatures, cultures, writers need to communicate among themselves, to reach for and explore what might seemingly be outside their experience.

Amazon.com: In your introduction to the anthology, you expressed an urgency for translation to keep up with the “rapid developments in European literature.” What are some of these developments, and do you see them happening more rapidly in Europe than in America?

Hemon: Europe is a rapidly changing place, on every level. Immigration, post-communist transitions, the unification, steady presence of war and conflict, the inescapable challenges to the notion of national literature/culture–it all exerts pressure upon writers who must be aware of the transformational possibilities of the situation.

Amazon.com: In your mind, what needs to happen in order to get more of this writing translated, so it can be more readily available to American readers?

Hemon: You cannot wait for the mainstream publishing to snap out of their profit dreams, which have recently turned to nightmares. There has to be a kind of grassroots push, a movement, as it were, against the inherent isolationism of American capitalism as practiced in the publishing industry. There need to be grants and government support and a few publishers, mainstream and independent, who are not afraid to challenge American readership. We need to build a network of translators, publishers and readers. We hope that our annual anthology might provide an upsurge in interest for European fiction and then, as we publish it every year, become a habit to many readers. […]

Amazon.com: What percentage of these stories or excerpts were translated specifically for this book? Did the anthology launch any further translation projects?

Hemon: Pretty much all of them. Moreover, for each published piece there were 3-4 translated ones, which are now circulating in various ways. The anthology in and of itself generates translations.

Amazon.com: For you, what was the most exciting outcome of this project?

Hemon: The project is already indelible. There is no way to go back from this point–the moment it was published the anthology became essential and necessary for American literary life. If the project, somehow, failed to live on, American literature and culture will be sentenced without parole to eternal provincialism.

I am wholly in solidarity with Sasha’s righteous mission. Which is why I read the whole book. My review? Honestly? I liked his introduction best. Oh, I know. After all my bitching about no translations, I get a whole anthology of them and I am still unsatisfied. In hindsight, I don’t know if this Noah’s Ark exercise is the best method of importing contemporary writers to the promised land. With 35 writers representing 30 countries, the focus was on getting a snapshot of the European lit scene rather than uncovering unique talent, the effect was of throwing everything at us to see what would stick. I ended up with the impression that some authors were included because well, someone has to represent Luxembourg, and others may have deserved a better translator.

Bookslut has a different gripe:

The only frustrating thing about the anthology is the fact that not all of the authors have full-length books available in English (yet) — several, though, have been published in English by Dalkey Archive and others. My own list of authors to explore grew by at least a dozen after reading this, and I’m already drafting emails to publishers begging them to translate and publish some of these authors in the States. I’m more than a little sad that I haven’t been paying enough attention to European writers (I don’t keep up with their sports cars or supermodels, either, though I’m pretty well-versed in their beers and drug laws); it’s great to have Hemon help me find who to look out for. Like Dalkey Archive Press itself, this anthology is fascinating, accomplished, and absolutely crucial. America and Europe don’t always agree on much; I hope readers in both places can agree that we needed this book.

And who was chosen to represent Russia for this anthology? (drum roll…) Pelevin. I fucking kid you not. I am going to go bang my head against something hard, you can keep reading.

So what lessons can we learn from Sasha’s little experiment? First, while there must be countless literary talents who have yet to find their way into English translation, not being translated does not an unsung literary talent make. Regardless what language you are published in, it still helps to be a very good writer. Secondly, having a brilliant short story buried in an anthology isn’t going to make a splash on the American stage unless your little amuse bouche is followed by an entree. Thirdly, I think Victor Pelevin has tapped into some of that space time continuum magic he’s always writing about, because he is everywhere, Zelig-like, and it is freaking me out, man. Lastly, Hemon has put a spell on me and can make me read anything.

I sauntered over to see if my peeps at Unbound Europe have anything on offer. I’m lying. I don’t have “peeps.” But I do have a few dashing ex-professors who are publishing a slew of literature from the former Communist countries of Eastern Europe in English translation at Northwestern University press. And I do mean dashing; in fact, they may be entirely to blame for my current neurosis. But that’s beside the point. They were also the ones who introduced me to brilliant but then obscure authors like Dubravka Ugrešić. It seemed a logical place to go searching for brilliant but still obscure Russian authors. … This looks potentially interesting, if I just ignore the inclusion of Ms. Latynina. As if finding her in translation were difficult. As if avoiding assult by her deranged thoughts were even possible. Anyway, slim pickings on the Russia front at Unbound Europe.

So … we’re kind of back at square one on our search.

For myself, I would actually very much appreciate a Hemon-esque, everything but the kitchen sink anthology of post-1991 Russian literature in English translation. I think a snapshot of the good, the bad and the ugly of fiction published in post-Soviet Russia would be fascinating. Perhaps it is too much to ask for no Pelevin or Latynina or science fiction. But surely such an enterprise can be successfully undertaken. But by whom? I don’t see how literature fits into Dima’s pro-modernization push. Surkov tells us to read Dostoyevsky, and we can, because he is in translation. But what are you doing for your living, breathing writers, Slava? Perhaps the problem is actually too much dependence on the state? Maybe writers and translators should go maverick? I’d have a hard time believing Sorokin has made it abroad with federal funding (but that might be the American in me, who thinks of federal funding as if it were Santa Clause, a nice idea, but it doesn’t actually exist.) It is heartening to find presses like Open Letter Books, Dalkey Archives. Archipelago Books or even university presses making inroads into bringing literature in translation to American audiences. Still, if only 3% of books published in the U.S. are translations, you probably need a maths degree to figure the percentage of the books by Russian authors published in the U.S., and a graduate maths degree to figure the percentage of the books by living Russian authors published in the U.S. Yet there is no shortage of crap American literature in Russian.

So while I dwell upon this cruel injustice, can anyone answer our friend’s request?

Name 5 contemporary Russian novels that are: available in English translation, not by Pelevin, not science fiction.

And then go buy something from one of the small presses publishing translations, to support their efforts.

And thanks for reading.

August 25, 2010

In Photos

Filed under: Culture: Russia — poemless @ 5:31 PM
Tags: , , ,

I. “Russia in color, a century ago.”

Perhaps you have all seen these by now, but they never get old. Seriously. It is creepy how not old at all they appear. Incredible. For those who have not seen them, they are from a Library of Congress’ collection of color photographs taken between 1909 and 1912 by Prokudin-Gorskii, who was doing a photographic survey of the Russian Empire for Tsar Nicholas II. Why does LC have these? They bought them up at some point. I am of the opinion that Russia should buy them back. And no – they are not photoshopped. Well, maybe he used the 1909 equivalent to photoshopping.

Self-portrait on the Karolitskhali River, ca. 1910.

(photo: Prokudin-Gorskii)

General view of the Nikolaevskii Cathedral from southwest in Mozhaisk in 1911.

(photo: Prokudin-Gorskii)

See more photos by Prokudin-Gorskii.

Learn more about the Library of Congress Prokudin-Gorskii collection.

II. “Six endangered sites in Russia that will soon disappear.”

For a variety of reasons (longterm neglect, lack of funds, general disinterest) there are lots of endangered places in Russia. Forbes points us to 6 worth checking out before they bite the dust. I should like to add that while post-Communist apathy and over-development are usually blamed, bulldozing or abandoning one’s past is hardly a new phenomenon, in Russia or elsewhere. But why does it seem more brutal when Russia does it? In America it feels unfair that these things happen, yes, but also part of life, the collateral damage of an ongoing, uninterrupted march into the future. And something always seems to organically spring up in place of the past, as if this cycle of architectural death and rebirth were completely natural. But Russia neither excels at smooth transition nor pretends replacements are functional improvements as much as they are ownership stamps (be the owner a person or idea or bank.) The effect is an exquisite corpse of architectural history rather than a linear narrative. The breaks are cleaner and so must have been made by someone more coldblooded.

Anyway, I’d like to say this one I have actually seen. But I can’t be sure. There are so many of these cathedrals, and they all look alike. And all the little old women will tell you that Ivan the terrible had them built and Andreu Rublev painted the icons inside.

The Andrei Rublev frescoes in Vladimir and Zvenigorod.

(photo: Itar TASS)

Wikipedia tells me the Vladimir church is on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. Isn’t that supposed to protect it? Is Forbes maybe being a bit hysterical?

And check out the building shaped like a hammer and sickle!

A kitchen factory in Samara.

See the other sites.

III. “Soviet photography of the 60s and 70s.”

The Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography in Moscow (I thought they were French…?) has been holding a very popular exhibition of Soviet photography from the 1960’s and 70’s. I love this kind of thing. Everyone associates Soviet visual arts with Socialist Realism and tends to forget that the Soviet Union persisted for almost 40 years after Stalin’s death. The exhibition celebrates the more personal, honest, whimsical and less formulaic aesthetics of the Thaw years and even after. It’s charming, if you ask me.

Well, these are not the types of scenes of Communist Russia that were pounded into my little American head while I was growing up. In the same fashion, you probably won’t see any normal, adjusted American families on RT anytime soon either. For two countries who have quite enough problems of our own, we certainly devote a lot of time to pointing out the other’s…

See other photos from the exhibition.

And more from their Moscow Metro exhibit. Art in the Subway again!

IV. “Moscow and Leningrad in 1990.”

I don’t remember where I first saw this, but whoever posted it reminded everyone that in 1990 Russia was still Soviet. I was reminded of waking up on the morning of January 1, 2000 and looking out the window. Everything was the same as it was when I’d woken up on the morning of December 31, 1999. No flying cars. Those buildings that had been built in 1872 and 1972 were still there, had still be in built in 1872 and 1972. How strange it felt. … I was never in the Soviet Union. But I was in what was the Soviet Union in 1995, and if you think Muscovites woke up on December 22, 1991 and looked out the window and found the world looked radically different than it did the previous day, when they’d been citizens of the USSR, well, … well actually I have no idea how it looked to them. You’d have to ask them.

But this is pretty much exactly what Russia looked like to me in 1995:

(photo: Ben Gustafson)


(photo: Ben Gustafson)

Kiosks, kiosks everything in kiosks. People wearing bad, ugly clothes. Tacky advertisements in public areas featuring naked ladies. Lines for crap. Grey skies. Everything falling apart and dirty. Everyone looking vaguely cold and depressed and exhausted and resigned. Poor lighting. (I recently installed those CFL lights in my apartment which prompted my stepfather to remark, “Oh great! Going for that depressing Soviet apartment look, are you?”)

Of course it was not all grime and kiosks and bad clothing and an air of disappointment. Petersburg got hip to shiny happy capitalistic optimism before Moscow -or the world outside its luxury hotel lobbies- caught on. (Likewise, in the provinces so much Soviet imagery persisted that one wondered if they’d heard the news yet, and realized they probably just did not have the money for new non-Commie signage.) But vasts swaths of it were. I miss it. I know. It’s a little evil of me.

See more photos of 1990 Moscow and Leningrad at Tema’s blog.

And the photographer’s Picasa page.

V. “The Unusual Metro Systems of the Soviet Union.”

Treehuger.com brings us a slideshow of the many subway systems throughout the (former) Soviet Union. Vova may want to wax poetic on what was responsible for the global warming that killed the mammoths, but one must admit that there is something remarkably environmentally responsible in the zeal for efficient public transit that accompanied the Soviet command economy. Granted, an ability to get people to work en masse on time at their filthy factory jobs and a potential use as bunkers to protect leaders from bombs, radiation, chemical warfare etc. were significant selling points. And more and more people are driving automobiles around this part of the world now. Nevertheless, it stings that Stalin, who almost single-handedly destroyed the Russian ecosystem, excelled where hippies with bikes and souls have failed. Maybe more Americans would take the train if the stations were built of marble, decorated with chandeliers and housed art exhibits? Well, maybe more Americans would take the train if there were any train to take at all…

Metro station in Moscow.

(photo: Nir Nussbaum, c.TreeHugger.com.)

Metro station in Tashkent.

(photo: Nir Nussbaum, c.TreeHugger.com.)

Tashkent. Tash-FREAKING-kent, people!

For comparison’s sake, here is a station in Chicago:

Again: Tashkent. Chicago.

Stupid idiot moron American design is not even brilliant enough to keep out the rain and snow (does it even rain or snow in Tashkent? Isn’t Tashkent in the desert?) let alone the fallout after nuclear holocaust. Is not even brilliant enough to be called design! Those terrible Soviet kiosks are more functional and attractive! Good thing Americans all have cars and will never be bombed, I tell ya. I need a cigarette. I’ll be right back.

See many more strange, beautiful (and functional) subways of the Soviet Union.

Bonus: “Putin takes care of bears, says they should be afraid of people.”

Ok, kids, it would not be a proper photo blog, at least not at this url, without a requisite pin-up of my favorite Premier. Whatever the hell a Premier is. Lucky for us, he’s just done another photo-op. Where does he find the time to rule a sizable chunk of the world and keep a shooting schedule that would make Gisele Bündchen dizzy? I do not know… I think he’s tapped into some science we yahoos are yet unaware of. Or has been cloned. Don’t tell me Dima’s doing all the work. Pshaw! Dima’s sipping tea with rock stars and changing names of things while our Premier is putting out fires and saving endangered species. Which begs the question: Who is actually … governing?

But why think about that when you can look at this!

That blurry dark spot in the back is ostensibly a bear. Raawwrr.

(photo: Alexei Druzhinin. c.RIA Novosti.)

Has he even done a brown bear photo op before? What took so long?! If Putin wanted to scare the pants of of everything west of Minsk, this should have been first on his agenda. The Russian bear is to the neocon’s imagination as clowns are to a child’s. Of course, there remains the possibility that he isn’t interested in scaring us. Just saving animals. He doesn’t look like he is trying to frighten us. He looks like a kid at the zoo. Where’s his ice cream? You know – it would all be rather embarrassing if everyone at the Economist, BBC and Washington Post were running about wetting themselves about Russia when Putin wasn’t even trying to freak them out in the first place. Not that they shy from embarrassing themselves…

Alright, fair readers, that’s all for today. Hope you enjoyed the show!

June 14, 2010

Another horror story about Russian traffic cops?

Filed under: Culture: Russia — poemless @ 6:05 PM
Tags: , ,

So I am probably the last person on earth to hear of this guy, Sergei “Vissarion Christ” Torop, who used to be a Siberian traffic cop until he realized he was the Second Coming. Which leads me to wonder if being a Russian cop isn’t as psychologically dangerous for the cops themselves as it is for those they serve and protect. Especially the traffic cops. In Siberia. For whose inhabitants there appear 3 life options: corrupt civil servant, corrupt savior of mankind, or their victims. You can write the guy off, but he has 10,000 of followers. And they haven’t taken the Kool-Aid way out. Yet.

Here is a video produced for Nightline (an evening news program in the States that no one to my knowledge watches):

I was not made aware of Vissarion by Nightline, but by Daniel Kalder’s book, Strange Telescopes, which has a large section devoted to the cult. Unlike the backpacker in the news item, Kalder is a bad ass and goes to stay there during the winter. Like any proper cult, or political party, they have strict talking points (after watching several YouTube videos produced both by and about the cult, they start to sound like robots), so you won’t gain any new revelations from interviews with the members or its leader. But something I found very neat about Vissarion’s cult is how it is allowed to prosper: First off, he acquired a ton of land on lease in the heady days of the collapse of the Soviet Union, when encouraging religious expression and giving away land to crooks was all the rage. This is where he and his followers have settled among the mountains and taiga. He’s been able to stay legit in the more stringent, un-Orthodox friendly Putin era by … well, what does Mr. Putin like? Following the rules. Seriously, the Vissarions follow the law, pay taxes, conduct legal business, allow regular government audits and inspections, home school the kids using the State-approved textbooks, support the local governor, the whole shebang. In the country from which I hail, most cults spout up out of resistance to the government. We have more freedom of religion than Russia. (Which means little more than annoying people with pamphlets can show up at my door and not go away, or pyramid schemes with Hollywood actor acolytes can get tax breaks.) Yet the Messiah is thriving in Siberia. Oh, also the Messiah is also waging a War on Christmas by abolishing it and changing the holiday to his birthday. How nice to be God. Well, technically he’s not God. And technically he’s the 3rd coming.

Listening to and reading about the lifestyle of his followers and his basic teachings, I can initially totally see myself running away to join. At least for a year. They’re all environmentalists who develop useful skills and think positive thoughts. That sounds nice. No money. That sounds lovely. Arts and crafts and the whispering of the wildflowers in the Siberian spring… oohhhh. Then there is the stuff about following him, the global, nay, intergalactic Jewish conspiracy, traditional marriages and gender roles. (Kalder is miffed that Vissarion gets a hot little girlfriend -in addition to the wife- and a Land Rover while his followers must do without, but he is God, after all. It would be weird if he couldn’t have those things.) Yet I can see how people get lured in. It’s not difficult to imagine an educated professional reflecting upon their crap life of materialism and social alienation and thinking, all I have to do is submit to this guy and I get to live in a Utopia? Alright. The people I’m forced to submit to now are 10 times more evil and I’ve little to show for it.

Most if not all of the outside coverage of Vissarion’s cult point to the back-breaking work and harsh climate to illustrate just how brainwashed and desperate his followers are. You’d have to be either a total wreck or operating against your free will to become a Siberian construction worker. After all, that’s what Stalin chose as punishment for those who dared threaten his regime. I don’t buy it. I can totally see how sitting in an office/car/living room/etc. for most of their lives would make people antsy for some hard fucking labor, Office Space-like. Especially the kind of labor that leaves you with something to show for it. As for climate, it’s not like Moscow and St. Peterburg are tropical paradises. Plus, it’s a “dry cold,” making it more tolerable. (I’ve heard this when referring to the heat, but never the cold. Hm.)

Most if not all of the outside coverage of Vissarion’s cult point to the new religious freedoms allowed in the past few decades to illustrate what might have provoked such a cult. Eager to take advantage of their new rights and a bit confused and adrift because of all the social chaos and lack of obvious choices, these poor folk fell into Vissarion’s trap. I don’t buy it. Most Russians who wanted to cash in on their religious freedom had no problem locating the Orthodox Church across the street. But more importantly, Vissarion’s cult seems to me motivated less by the need to worship indiscriminately and more by the need to leave their current socio-economic situation for something better, more promising, more fulfilling. Yes, the origin of Vissarion’s cult coincided with the end of State atheism. But in many ways it is now trying to replicate the economic ideals of that failed State. I wonder if it was an infusion of faith, or a crisis of faith that has lured people to this workers’ paradise? Vissarionites are rejecting their post-Communist country, after all, not embracing it…

You can read more about Kalder’s stay with the Vissarionites here.

June 11, 2010

Lost Cosmonaut: Book Review

Filed under: Culture: Russia — poemless @ 6:03 PM
Tags: ,

Sad Teletubbies, Elista, Kalmykia. c.Daniel Kalder.

I recently got to thinking about the difference between a blogger and a journalist. It’s a terrible subject so I only thought about it for a few seconds before I settled on, “journalists are paid.” But now I’ve found another difference: Bloggers can write reviews of books that were published 4 years ago. Which kinda throws a wrench in the CW…

I don’t read many travel narratives. I went through a phase where I collected them, but I could never get past the first chapter before deciding I not only knew how the story ends, but I’m pretty sure the author was that jerk I used to see in the stolovaya being all chummy with the scary abacus lady or that girl with the overwhelming goodness and lack of personality particular to a breed of Western girls studying in Russia. I even wrote one too. Because when something deranged happens every day of your life, you have to write about it. Like vomiting to avoid alcohol poisoning. The problem is this: the same deranged things happen to everyone who writes these books. It’s all new to the author of course, but not to anyone who has already read a travel narrative, personal memoir or pseudo-autobiographical novel about Russia by a Westerner. So I passed by Daniel Kalder’s Lost Cosmonaut repeatedly until the day came when I’d read all the other books in that section of the local library, except Anna Politkovskaya’s Russian Diary which I don’t think I could bear. (A typo just gave me brilliant idea for a children’s book: “Anna Politkovskaya’s Russian Dairy”.) Also, I am not crazy interested in Udmurtia or Kazan. What’s going on there? Nothing.

A co-worker of mine and I were laughing today at the crazy synopses people put in WorldCat records. “Epic masterpiece that is about nothing and everything.” Ok, that’s helpful.

Lost Cosmonaut is an epic masterpiece that is about nothing and everything. Specifically as nothing and everything is experienced by a noncoformist Scot in Tatarstan, Kalmykia, Mari El and Udmurtia.

If you are interested in Tatarstan, Kalmykia, Mari El and Udmurtia you should probably read this because not much in English is written about them and you don’t have a choice. If you are not interested in Tatarstan, Kalmykia, Mari El and Udmurtia you should probably read this because it’s not really very informative about these places anyway. You could be reading about anywhere. Or nowhere. Which is the point.

Kalder sets off with a mission to introduce the world to forgotten an unknown peoples and places. It begins with a manifesto:

From THE SHYMKENT DECLARATIONS

(Excerpts from the resolutions passed at the first international congress of Anti- Tourists
at the Shymkent Hotel, Shymkent, Kazakhstan, October 1999)

As the world has become smaller so its wonders have diminished. There is nothing
amazing about the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, or the Pyramids of Egypt. They
are as banal and familiar as the face of a Cornflakes Packet.

Consequently the true unknown frontiers lie elsewhere.

The duty of the traveller therefore is to open up new zones of experience. In our over
explored world these must of necessity be wastelands, black holes, and grim urban
blackspots: all the places which, ordinarily, people choose to avoid.

The only true voyagers, therefore, are anti- tourists. Following this logic we declare that:

The anti-tourist does not visit places that are in any way desirable.

The anti-tourist eschews comfort.

The anti-tourist embraces hunger and hallucinations and shit hotels.

The anti-tourist seeks locked doors and demolished buildings.

The anti-tourist scorns the bluster and bravado of the daredevil, who attempts to

penetrate danger zones such as Afghanistan. The only thing that lies behind this is

vanity and a desire to brag.

The anti-tourist travels at the wrong time of year.

The anti-tourist prefers dead things to living ones.

The anti-tourist is humble and seeks invisibility.

The anti-tourist is interested only in hidden histories, in delightful obscurities, in bad art.

The anti-tourist believes beauty is in the street.

The anti-tourist holds that whatever travel does, it rarely broadens the mind.

The anti-tourist values disorientation over enlightenment.

The anti-tourist loves truth, but he is also partial to lies. Especially his own.

At one point Kalder quotes the end of Gogol’s Dead Souls and answers the question of what lay ahead for Russia: “poor people and junk.” If the moral of the story were that every provincial Russian city is miserable in the same way (general disrepair, awful weather, egomaniacal leader, Stalinist factory, ethnic population with little or no recollection of their heritage as a result of centuries of occupation and systematic assimilation, dive hotel where the rooms are outfitted with radios you can’t turn off and no hot water, fat American men trawling for wives, Brezhnev era apartment blocks, depressing cafe and nightclub …) well, I’d have gotten through the first chapter and decided I knew how the story ends. Been there. Done that. The names were different (Pskov, Uglich, Suzdal…) but I’ve experienced the radio you can’t turn off and it is particular hell that cannot be underestimated. And I’m pretty sure the most depressing cafe in the universe is in Uglich. But that wasn’t the moral of the story. And I wasn’t prepared for the ending.

At times Kalder is a kamikaze thrill seeker, presenting his surroundings the world with all the grace and humility of an eXile deathporn spread. He’s really into Peter the Great’s collection of preserved mutant babies and Ilyumzhinov’s egomania. Russia is cruel and psycho. Lick it up baby, lick it up.

Then he gets really existential about the psychological effect of living in a place the rest of the world does not know exists. He muses that globalization makes life easier. We see an for McDonalds, Pepsi, Mercedes and are immediately connected to everyone else who has seen those ads. A man in London is eating the same cheeseburger as a man in Houston. They are not alone. Anyone who’s been in Russia or other Commie’d out countries when there were no or few corporate ads has understood this. All those nameless remont chasovs can really become unsettling. When you only have uniquely named stores in your town, when the billboards only advertize your local dictator, you are estranged from the rest of the world. Or something.

Realizing there is nothing shocking to see in these outposts he becomes obsessed with the nothingness, the boredom, the profound insignificance of his surroundings. Zen-like. (The combined fascination with the grotesque and the mundane leaves the reader feeling a little psychotic.) Eventually he does give himself completely over. But not to the nothingness. Or the freakishness. But to things as they are. To the efforts people make, the dignity they maintain, when dealt a mediocre deck. Nothing exclusively Russian about that. Except that Russians are perhaps more honest and upfront about their crap deck than rest of us. No sense in pretending about it.

There are many things I really liked about this book. The gonzo journalist tone is reminiscent of the eXile, which I really miss. He’s a pretty good and funny writer. Who happens to be interested in something that interests me. It is also endearing to watch someone else go through the stages of grief people with souls tend to go through when they try to get to know Russia. Like me. In fact, I have many selfish reasons for loving this book. The most obnoxious being that Kalder reminds me of this strange boy from college I hung out with for a year. Anyway. Kalder makes a lot of lists, which I too enjoy. Lists. He takes photos of random stuff and calls it “The Secret History of the World” – photodocumentation of things others walk past and never see. I liked that. He makes up entire scenes as if briefly lost in reverie while writing. He can be irreverently crass but it’s not an act, nor is the painfully sweet and beautiful observations he makes about things most people don’t notice. A little girl he catches a glimpse of in a dank cafe with her mother whose entire life he manages to invest himself in emotionally before she leaves – vanished forever. A self-promoting pagan preist who just makes up everything and even has a shrine to himself, but whom Kalder defends as not a fraud or a loser but just like the rest of us, making it up as we go along, seeking fame, trying to give some meaning and staying power to our unnoticed lives. Instead of getting angry at one local authority whom he expects to set him up with important people but can only get him a meeting with a local museum tour guide or theater director, Kalder thinks, well, he did his job, they did theirs, they don’t owe me anything beyond that. They didn’t even owe me that.

At the end, a tv anchor asks him what’s wrong with Russia. “Look around! It’s terrible. Other countries are not like this. Why is Russia like this?” She’s clearly not happy with the state of affairs. That’s for someone else to discuss, Kalder thinks. Let someone else make a profound appeal for democracy. From their warm safe lives in the West. Experts making profound appeals for democracy are a dime a dozen. Fuck them.

I really liked that last bit.

You should go check out his website now.

May 14, 2010

Would the real Andrei Kolesnikov please stand up? please stand up?

Filed under: Culture: Russia,Politics: Russia — poemless @ 5:50 PM
Tags:

Attention! Wikipedia writer and detective needed! See below for details!

There are two Andrei Kolesnikovs who are award winning journalists covering politics in Russia’s leading papers.

I didn’t even know this until today, when an aquaintance posted a link to this absurd little fantasy from Forbes Russia. The confusion began when I saw the byline “Андрей Колесников | 13 мая 2010 22:03” and subconsciously mistook Forbes for Kommersant. Which, really, is not so incredible. It’s a silly article in capitalist rag written by Andrei Kolesnikov. It would be strange if I didn’t mistake it for Kommersant.

However. The fellow whose picture is ostensibly that of the journalist Andrei Kolsenikov in said article looked nothing at all like what I imagined Andrei Kolsenikov looked like. Which is this:

I generally don’t pay attention to what journalists look like (except Latynina because how can you not?) but this a pretty unforgettable mug. And looks nothing like this:

Which is what the fellow writing in Forbes looks like. My first thought was that this was some prank. Kolesnikov has always struck me as a mischievous sort who likes attention… Or, he’d been in a terrible accident and needed a full face transplant. I googled to find out what tragedy had befallen our once impish looking reporter such that he now looks like the Spanish MBA student who takes my bus in the evening.

The genius who wrote this was not helpful:

en.Wikipedia: Andrey Kolesnikov

For a soccer player, see Andrei Kolesnikov (footballer).

Andrey Vladimirovich Kolesnikov (Russian: Андрей Иванович Колесников) is a Russian journalist, an author of a series of books about Anatoly Chubais.

It’s greatly unfortunate that this was the first thing I found, because it only reinforced my belief that there were two Andrei Kolesnikovs who were the same person in English, but different people in Russian. And lo, Russian wikipedia listed them separately!

ru.Wikipedia: Колесников, Андрей Иванович

Андрей Иванович Колесников (1966(1966), п. Семибратово Ярославской области) — российский журналист, публицист.

Окончил факультет журналистики МГУ им. М. В. Ломоносова, год проработал в многотиражной газете «Ускоритель» института физики высоких энергий, затем в газете «Московские новости». В 1996 году перешёл в газету «Коммерсантъ» специальным корреспондентом. Лауреат национальной премии «Элита», обладатель премии «Золотое перо России», номинант премии А. Д. Сахарова. Вместе с Н. Геворкян и Н. Тимаковой в 2000 году подготовил книгу-интервью с В. В. Путиным «От первого лица». Является автором многочисленных статей о В. В. Путине.

Главный редактор журнала «Русский пионер».

Книги А. Колесникова
Я Путина видел! — М.: Эксмо, 2004. — 480 с. — ISBN 5-699-08721-4 …

Ok, so that’s who I thought Andrei Kolesnikov was. If the Russians can be trusted (hah!) Ivanovich is the man I’ve always associated with the name “Andrei Kolesnikov.” And the puckish smile. I think. But there is not photo on this Wikipedia page to confirm that belief, and I’ve never met him in person, so…
Next up, Andrei Vladimirovich Kolesnikov:

ru.Wikipedia: Колесников, Андрей Владимирович

Андре́й Влади́мирович Коле́сников (р. 29 июля 1965, Москва) — российский журналист.
Родился в семье юриста. Окончил юридический факультет МГУ (1987).

1987—1990 — старший консультант судебной коллегии по уголовным делам Верховного Суда РСФСР.
1990—1992 — обозреватель журнала «Диалог».
1992—1993 — обозреватель газеты «Российские вести».
1993—1995 — обозреватель журнала «Огонёк».
С 1995 года — в журнале «Новое время» — The New Times: обозреватель, заместитель главного редактора, с января 1998 — 1-й заместитель главного редактора.

С 1998 года — в газете «Известия»: в июне — сентябре 1998 — редактор отдела экономики; в сентябре 1998 — январе 2000 — редактор отдела политики; с января 2000 — политический обозреватель; с февраля 2005 — заместитель главного редактора.

Был обозревателем интернет-газеты Gazeta.ru, колумнистом «Российской газеты» и журнала «Профиль», постоянным автором «Независимой газеты» и газеты «Новое русское слово» (США), журнала «Огонек», заведующим московским отделением литературного журнала «Время и мы» (США), обозревателем программы «Человек и общество» московского бюро радио «Свобода». В апреле 1997 — главный редактор первого номера антифашистского журнала «Диагноз».

В ноябре 1997 года «Общая газета» назвала Андрея Колесникова одним из авторов книги «История приватизации в России». Сам Колесников в интервью программе «Сегодня в полночь» заявил, что он редактировал главы, авторами которых были А. Чубайс и М. Бойко.[1]

Преподавал в Высшей школе журналистики ГУ-ВШЭ (курс «Базовые понятия и тематические направления политической журналистики»[2]).

В 2001—2005 — исполнительный директор по связям с общественностью аудиторско-консалтинговой компании ФБК.

Был пиар-консультантом и спичрайтером ряда российских политиков, PR- и GR-консультантом ряда российских корпоративных структур.[2]

Был членом Креативного совета СПС.

Well, this article makes no mention of Forbes and presents no photo evidence, but through process of elimination, I might assume this is the man who wrote the article about the fate of Misha’s parallel reality judge and feel lighter. Though again, I cannot confirm that this is true. In fact, all I can confirm is that someone is desperately needed to write a nice English Wikipedia page for the elfin Putinista journalist called “Andrei Kolesnikov” and at least clean up the page for whomever is writing Chubais’s biographies.

These Andrei Kolesnikovs are like good/evil twins or something. They’re both journalists who cover high profile politicos and contribute to widely-read newspapers and other media outlets. But one’s in with Vova’s cabal while the other is hanging out at RL/RFE and openDemocracy. When I saw openDemocracy Andrei Kolesnikov I almost had a heart attack from fear they were multiplying like pod people or being cranked out of the clone factory. Because this byline bio said, “Andrei Kolesnikov is an independent journalist and regular contributor to Russia’s leading online newspapers, gazeta.ru and slon.ru.” But another bio of him on oD reads, “Moscow based journalist, former deputy editor of Izvyestya. Author of three books, including biography of controversial politician Anatoly Chubais.” Which clears things up. Unless multiple Andrei Kolesnikov clones are contributing to oD… Which I am not ready to rule out at this point.

I am also not ready to rule out that this is really just one journalist who is using a fake face when he writes anti-Kremlin screeds so should anyone get the idea to shoot him in the brains, they would not be looking for him but someone who looks like a Spanish grad student in Chicago.

How are readers expected to differentiate between Andrei Ivanovich and Andrei Vladimirovich and whatever other journalists are out there using the name Andrei Kolesnikov? I’ve seen some English language sites prefer the spelling “Andrey” for Vladimirovich, but this is not helpful for anyone actually reading their articles in Russian. I don’t see much use of patronymics in their bylines. What a mess. What a terrible mess!

I demand the Andrei Kolesnikov of non-Kommersant Kremlin pool/Russian Pioneer fame to change his name!

I also demand you now read this positively GENIUS post I wrote about the real Andrei Kolesnikov several years ago. (Scroll down to Part II.) You wont regret it. Here’s a snippet of the genius at work, covering a Federation Council meeting:

“…Petrenko’s hairdo. It was fabulous. Maybe she goes to work every day with her hair done like that. I don’t know. But I don’t think it is possible to do your hair like that every day. You could spend your whole life fixing a hairdo like that. What was it like? Like a pastry that had fallen off the shelf and been kicked aside by an ill-tempered customer? Like a stale Napoleon cake? Like the foam they seal the windows of new buildings with that lets the bugs through any way? No. More like a ball of papier-mache with the top cut off. You wanted to touch it to make sure it was secured tightly. And you wanted to get up and jump around.”

I don’t know which or how many Andrei Kolesnikovs actually wrote that, but I think it was just one, and I think he’s brilliant and thus, should certainly not be forced to share his name with anyone else.

Baby pictures!

Filed under: Culture: Russia — poemless @ 3:38 PM
Tags: ,
No – I didn’t have one. 
 
God forbid.  I hate babies.  “Hate” may be the wrong word.  I hold no real animosity against babies themselves.  They didn’t choose to be babies.  Mostly it’s the parents I hate.  And the cult of parenthood.  Oof.  But babies, children, mostly I feel sorry for them.  They all seem a little confused and angry and sad on the inside, and hysterical on the outside.  The other day my cat ran into a little girl in the hallway of my apartment building.  They were both bewildered.  I like putting animals and babies together.  It’s miraculous.  The little two legged beasts turn into angels, the absolute personification of the sublime, and the little four legged beasts turn into saints, nobly tolerating the demands and abuse of the two legged beasts because that is why they were put in this earth.  Like star-crossed lovers, they eventually had to be torn apart and returned to their proper families.  Oscar actually seemed somewhat terrified and disoriented when we got back inside.  He’s not used to children.  I can’t even verify that he’s ever been handled by one before.  I tried to explain to him what children were.  “Like, half space alien, half pet,” I told him.  Keep in mind I treat pets like children, so I’m not advocating giving kids as presents or locking them in the garage.  I just mean, they are small and needy and silly and it makes us feel good to care for them.  Yet they grow in us and often need to be cut out of our stomachs, they make up their own languages and can’t really be trusted. And have big eyes and small bodies.  Like aliens.  Oscar looked at me like I was the alien and sat down in front of the tv to watch a documentary on the Spanish Inquisition.
 
Anyway, baby pictures!  Care of FP Passport:
 
Dima! 
 
 
Aw…  Normally when I’m shown pictures of people’s children I have to lie and pretend like I care and then I punish them by showing them photos of my cat which instead makes them pity me for some reason and frankly it’s not right because I think I’ve got the better deal.  But you have to admit, this is a cute kid!  Those eyes!  My mother warned me of Russian boys before I got on the plane to Moscow.  Then she repeatedly sent letters repeating those warnings.  Specifically, she warned of “puckish” Russian boys with their “impish” eyes.  Looks like they’re born with them…  Also, Medvedev’s mother (far right) is beautiful too.
 
Vova!
 
 
Once a nature boy, always a nature boy…  I suppose the only real surprise should be that he manages to put on a shirt for formal occasions.  Truthfully, though, he seems a bit cold.  Well, it doesn’t look like he had the same picture-perfect happy childhood as his protege.  Life in Post-War Russia must have been rather hard.  Compared to all of the cheezy, goofy, nary-a-care-in-the-world childhood pictures of my family (and all others I’ve seen) in mid-1950’s America, this looks downright tragic.  Could be right out of a Dovzhenko still taken decades earlier.  Or one of those late-nite Feed the Children PSA’s.  No wonder we were afraid of Communism. 
 
And no wonder they were afraid of us…

April 27, 2010

You say To-MAY-to, I say To-MAT-to. Or, Censored in Russia!

Filed under: Culture: Russia,Culture: U.S. — poemless @ 6:00 PM

A case study in the irreconcilable aspects of American and Russian culture. National ideologies, cultural sensitivities, urban legends, or just another way we annoy each other for kicks?

There are aspects of Russian culture which leave me a bit baffled. There are aspects of American culture which also have me baffled. Generally speaking, people baffle me. My general philosophy is thus: I celebrate cultural diversity as a weapon against existential monotony and intellectual inertia; I claim the right to opt in/out of social norms as I see fit and extend this right to everyone else; I harbor a deep suspicion that said norms are the pretty packaging of tribalism, identity, largely constructs which, like a good home, keep us feeling secure so long when we remain locked inside them, provide some peace of mind and a decent road map should we venture outside, yet are hardly immutable or impervious to outside forces. Like, to wolves, for example.

Still, sometimes the I feel like I’m living in bizarro world when trying to navigate the respective moral landscapes of Russia and America. Despite being at times diametrically opposed (though rarely in the cases most often assumed), neither seems very intutive or logical to me. Which is weird, since one prides its culture on the former, and one on the latter.

Example I. Mat.

Recently, a post of mine was republished on Inoforum.

Being an indignant American, I could only bring myself to care about the fact that the F word had been edited out, resulting in the following exchange:

Me: …if you want to post my stuff elsewhere, it is ok, but ONLY so long as you do not censor it.

E–: …as you know, “mat” is not allowed in a civilized/cultured Russian society… A lot of Russian girls dislike mat extremely… Mat is not allowed among kids. Most of us are not kids, but it can’t be ruled out that kids are taking interest of our resource… I said that usually mat is not allowed among adults, however it is also not banned, but requires a justification — mat is good to use only in an adequate situation.

Me: I refuse to let society decide which words are “good” and which words are “bad.”

E–: Poemless, the problem is not that the society imposes what is good/bad on women. The problem is that mat hurts some girls. They just feel negative about it.

Maybe you are thinking that because I’m not up in arms about the policies of one Russian premier, I have some kind of double standard about what is ok for Russians and what is ok for me. Oh, no. I will happily let Putin run my country (may not be a joy ride, but could not possibly be worse than my current choices. Oh who am I kidding – the man is total joy ride.) Likewise, I think that if a devushka wants to say or write “mat” – let ‘er! And fuck anyone who says otherwise! (so… this won’t be getting reposted…)

Who is Russia to dictate to me what is civilized society, anyway? Just because they drink tea and watch ballet they’re the pinnacle of civilization? I’ve been to Moscow – you can’t fool me. Besides, who said I was trying to be civil? Also, what is this nonsense about girls being “hurt” by vulgar language?

I step back. Are there some irrational things that “hurt” me? Yes. Do I know any Russian women who go around swearing like sailors? No… Still, I don’t use such language in any kind of professional or formal setting, and mostly employ it only in creative writing. And when something’s happened that requires me to call maintenance. Or I’ve been put on hold by someone in India. Ok, I swear. Who cares? Some woman in Russia? Really? I start a blog and Russian porn spammers are now an unavoidable part of life, but I can’t write “fuck?” Even if I accept that it were more offensive to the average Russian, even if I were to accept that writing f in Russia were punishable by death, I should compromise my values (you’ll have to pry my freedom of speech out of my cold dead hand!) in deference to your quaint sensibilities? Madness!

Cultural chauvinism? I don’t think so. I’m not interested in dictating to the rest of the world what is or is not offensive. I’m just reserving the right to say “fuck” even if it offends people. Because if the rest of the world can’t handle that, we’re in trouble.

P.S. Natalia Antonova has moved to Moscow. She’s also unafraid of colorful language. So, if the tulips are weeping in Moscow, you’ll know why…

Example II. Kompromat.

So, having been informed that it’s not ok for me to say “fuck,” which, in my culture is considered a lesser offense than, oh, sceewing a prostitute with your two best friends and having a home movie of it posted on the Internet, you can imagine my confusion when said video provokes more silly jokes than moral indignation. Not surprise. Not frustration. I happen to share their ambivalence. In my country, this kind of thing would bring the Puritans right out of the woodwork, be pointed to as the root cause of recent natural disasters. (Which is about as nuts as anyone being hurt by a curse word.) But confused. Because I can’t curse. Given the arbitrariness of national sensitivities (I recently heard a new item about African immigrants being offended that Americans allowed their pets to share their bed) how can I possibly consistently respect any of them? Let alone all of them… That is, if I hypothetically wanted to? Anyway, back to Katyagate.

A Good Treaty (and friends) gives a summary of the reactions the scandal has provoked in Russia. Note the absence of volcano scapegoating.

A. This just proves the people who made the tape know nothing about Russian society, which is is less offended than bemused by the whole thing. The perpetrators are out of touch and the security apparatus is out of control.

B. This just proves the people who made the tape know exactly what they are doing, which is not to stamp the liberal opposition with scarlet letters, but make them appear less serious. Instead of evoking political disenchantment, now these figures will evoke pathetic images in the public psyche.

(C). This just proves Nashi’s looking for a way to justify its existence.

And then there is my reaction, (D) Why do I care? Before now the only reason I had to care about sex scandals was that they might expose the moral hypocrisy of their all-star line ups. Take that out of the equation and all I can think is … more p)rn on the Internet. Reaction (E) this just proves all cultures are sex-obsessed. And lastly, reaction (F) “God, I hope no one ever makes a sex tape of me. I’ve always wanted to sleep with Edichka, but now I am not so sure…”

Note how my own cultural sensibilities prevented me from using the f word in the context of that last sentence. Fortunately, mystical intervention has designated this “Reaction F” making it literarily unnecessary to do so.

What is the moral of this story, dear readers?

I guess that depends on who you ask. If you are asking me, it is that the cultural “norms” of countries and nationalities are no less arbitrated by convenience than are my own individual sensitivities.

But if you ask America, they’ll tell you it’s evidence of how censorship-mad Russia is, no freedom of speech there at all. And Russia will probably tell you it illustrates America’s quest for cultural hegemony and sick, demented relationship with sex.

Ignore them.
Decide for yourself.

March 29, 2010

March Elegy

Filed under: Culture: Russia,Too Much Information — poemless @ 4:26 PM
Tags: ,

Park Kultury on my mind…

(image c/o bbc.co.uk)

I’ve been working on a post about how the New START and the issue of nuclear deproliferation are dangerously underappreciated in this age of the GWOT. About how terrorism is the new It War because it is sexy and sells but it’s frankly over-rated and largely a ruse blah blah blah.

Call it the Worst. Timing. Ever.

Said diary will be postponed.

It’s a very weird feeling to wake up, open your e-mail and suddenly be in a panic about a bomb blast on the other side of the world. Sure, I have friends and acquaintances in Moscow, but what are the chances they’d be among the 30+ victims in a city of 8.5 million? Besides, I swiftly accounted for the closest of them. Of course, there are the infinite number of people who come in and out of your life, with whom you lose or never bothered to keep contact. Still, those people could theoretically be on any plane that crashes or in any city struck by an earthquake. Why the freak-out, poemless?

It’s been many years since I’ve set foot inside Park Kultury Metro station. But at one time in my life I set foot in it every single day. Moscow must be one of the few places in the world where the metro isn’t just a way to get from point A to point B, but a whole microcosm of society. I once imaged that anything you could get above ground you could get underground in Moscow. And that you could possibly live forever underground there. It was a disturbing concept. Even the subway is above ground where I am from. Only worms live underground, right? I felt like I’d stumbled into some dark sci-fi genre. A Twilight Zone episode. In the Metro, you could buy a puppy and take the puppy to the vet, have its prescriptions filled, buy some lingerie and some guns, grab nachos fromTaco Bell, see a performance, see fine art, see people die and be born, have your hair done, watch fixed, shoes re-soled… The possibilities in Moscow Metro were only limited by one’s imagination. In this way it was like a mini-Moscow. But warmer. My most vivid memory of Park Kultury stop was buying ponchiki on the sidewalk in front of the station during the harsh winter, and ducking inside to eat them. For those who don’t know, ponchiki are doughnuts. But these were not like any American doughnuts. They’d been deep fried and then tossed in a plastic bag with sugar just moments earlier, and a huge waft of sticky steam would escape when you opened the bag. For some reason this had to be done on the down lo. The ticket ladies were not too fond of people loitering with food in the entryway. Which was a bit odd since every human incursion fathomable was taking place in the bowels below us…

Anyway, idiot terrorists blowing people to bits for no good reason is a pretty horrific image to begin with. And I can’t imaging what it was like for those who experienced it first hand. But I guess it just made it a bit more vivid, the bloody scenes on the tv combined with my crystal clear memories. Like a dream. Or a nightmare, as it were.

I’m glad I have been able to account for my friends and very saddened for those who will not be able to. I can’t say I blame the terrorists for changing my memories of Park Kultury. My second most vivid memory of the place was when I discovered a dead body outside the doors late one night. Apparently a homeless drunk had succumbed to hypothermia. Oh, who am I kidding? I saw all kinda of horrors in that place. A lady who walked down the metro car on all fours barking like a dog. Someone hit and kiled by a car on the highway outside. People being generally abusive toward each other. Sad, stray animals (we took a kitten home one night).

And even then there were bombings. Bombings by Chechens, by gangsters, by lunatics…

Life went on. People continued to take the metro to the ballet and library and the university and the park and the museum and work and school and shopping… I don’t know if people continue to duck inside for illicit kiosk ponchiki. I think if I could do that right now, I’d feel a little better about all of this. But I can’t, so a poem will have to do.

March Elegy

I have enough treasures from the past
to last me longer than I need, or want.
You know as well as I . . . malevolent memory
won’t let go of half of them:
a modest church, with its gold cupola
slightly askew; a harsh chorus
of crows; the whistle of a train;
a birch tree haggard in a field
as if it had just been sprung from jail;
a secret midnight conclave
of monumental Bible-oaks;
and a tiny rowboat that comes drifting out
of somebody’s dreams, slowly foundering.
Winter has already loitered here,
lightly powdering these fields,
casting an impenetrable haze
that fills the world as far as the horizon.
I used to think that after we are gone
there’s nothing, simply nothing at all.
Then who’s that wandering by the porch
again and calling us by name?
Whose face is pressed against the frosted pane?
What hand out there is waving like a branch?
By way of reply, in that cobwebbed corner
a sunstruck tatter dances in the mirror.

~Anna Akhmatova

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