poemless. a slap in the face of public taste.

June 19, 2014

The Russian Bug, or, An exercise in gratuitously mixed metaphors.

Plus: Odds & Ends, and US-Russia relations as Gogol-esque pathos.

Once upon a time, zhili-byli, this was a proper Russia blog. Back when a pack of cigarettes cost six bucks and the only people who read Russia blogs were those battling PTSD (Post-Transition Sentimentality Disorder.) Now my bad habit puts me back double, every casual nightly news viewer is an armchair Kremlinologist and political blogs have been replaced by celebrity Instragrams. Returning to one’s defunct blog is the internet version of returning to one’s grandmother’s home in middle age. Smaller, emptier and humbler than memory serves. Could use a fresh coat of paint. And it smells weird … like pickles? But its continued existence provides an anchor to the past, and practical reasons for giving up this place – so much work, and no one ever visits anymore – are no match for the insufferable romantic disposition of the writer.

There is no grandmother here to make me soup, but let’s be honest, it’s the indulgence that makes one feel better. And what is more indulgent than one’s own blog? Here I’ve convalesced through feverish delirium brought on by The Russian Bug. “How was Russia?” “It was a living nightmare, poverty, desperation, nihilism, I knew a guy who was killed…” “I’m sorry you had to experience that.” “No, it was soul-achingly beautiful, and the people, the people… and there was just a more sane idea about personal priorities in general, you know? Best thing that ever happened to me probably.” “Oh God. You caught it.” “Caught what?” “The Russian Bug.” Thusly I was diagnosed by the head of a Slavic Department.

People have been known to recover from it, or at least go for long symptomless periods. But there is no cure, only dormancy. Triggers are infinite: melancholia, despair, too many shots of the clear stuff, winter Olympics, Cossacks fighting Nazis in goddamned 2014 and anything that reinforces a belief that nothing makes sense and everything is poetry. Like any addiction, by the time you realize you need help you are already in deep, up at 3am unearthing pre-perestroika Soviet rock from the bowels of the interwebs, re-watching Zvyagintsev’s films for the nth time, reading yet another dry analysis of the collapse of the USSR and practicing personal hygiene worthy of an Intro to Russian Lit protagonist. And as the alcoholic turns to drink to shake the delirium of his torment, the Russophile turns to writing about Russia. Just enough to clear the head and straighten the spine, not so much that one does something they’ll later regret, like start a novel. I can stop writing a Russia blog whenever I want. Lo, look at the sad history of this place – it’s absolutely true. But if I am honest with myself, sometimes all it takes is one bad day, and I’m back to obsessing about souls and international relations and hot Russian men. The first thing addiction steals from a person is shame.

So can I talk about the war?

Is it not a war? A president was forcibly ousted, land was annexed and people are killing each other without even truly being able to explain why. Seems like a war to me. It really pisses me off, war. So I have this thing I am overly earnest about. Everyone has something – usually their children or their art, usually vomit-inducing. For me, it is the load of axes the United States of America and Russia carry around, forever in need of a proper grinding (so they will be ready when the time arrives, and the grinding itself signals to the other that this time has arrived, and it is like the two Ivans, but if they had tanks and nukes.) Especially when those axes are carelessly dropped all over grandmothers and the houses their grandchildren won’t be able to visit again now, and all over the grandchildren too. Ukraine is no innocent victim, but the people who have and will suffer from the policies, military or economic, in play there, or worse, absent there, disproportionately are. These policies have been shaped in no small way by the military and economic axe-grinding of the United States and Russia. No, this is not simply or even primarily a proxy war between Russia and the US or the “West.” The people of Ukraine have their own dysfunctions, grievances, historical luggage, responsibilities, needs, desires, etc. But once you start funneling money, inciting nationalist hatred and outright annexing territory, you are implicated in the instability that follows and must abdicate your “innocent bystander” status. At best, neither the US nor Russia are doing anything to scale back their perceived and/or real involvement in escalating the tensions and violence now witnessed throughout Ukraine and its separatist territories. And the rhetoric from both sides makes me wretch, however legitimate or sincere concerns of the West and Russia may be – and they are. You want to support the development of democracy, be my guest: stop supporting coups, stoking the fires of extremism, ignoring discrimination and giving corrupt oligarchs a pass. You want the world to respect you and treat you as an equal, so do I: start by not engaging in behavior and propaganda that confirms the very worst stereotypes of your nation, that you are lawless barbarians who cannot be trusted.

I’m a peacenik. But I’m not a hippie. My opposition to going around killing our neighbors is a very practical one. When the war is over, after all the death, destruction and trauma, people still have to figure out how the hell to live with each other, and if national borders ensured that, my fair city of Chicago, USA would have neither its notorious murder rate, nor its remarkably peaceful coexistence of Jews, Russians, Poles, Indians, Pakistanis etc. If you need a fence to behave like a decent human being, realize the lack of a fence is not the underlying problem, and that fences can easily be torn down and rebuilt elsewhere. Humans don’t kill other humans because the fences are in the wrong places. They do it because they are angry, afraid and because there is a boatload of money in the military industrial sphere. No arms dealer ever got rich off of our better angels, regardless how often our better angles are invoked in the name of war.

And if I had a dime for every iteration of the “Great Game” explanation I’d be able to pay my rent next month. Sure, there is a great game. But it can’t be played without pawns, and that’s where people like you and I come in. World leaders, oligarchs and their shady intermediaries don’t fuck everything up in a vacuum; they fuck everything up in the petri dish of our anxieties, anger, cynicism and deficit of critical thinking abilities. They need us to be too tired and overworked to care, too impassioned to reason or too helpless to bother either way. Ignorance, apathy and anger are free artillery, charitable donations to the war effort. War is people telling you so sorry but they cannot possibly solve their personal disputes without accidentally killing someone’s mother.
If you think I’m a pedantic idealist when writing on the topic of war, it would blow your mind to hear what I have to say on the topic of US-Russian cooperation.

We are already as ignorant as we need to be, about ourselves and each other. Why go out of our way to cultivate ignorance? Why not … try to understand each other, try to live with each other, accept our differences and celebrate our shared humanity? I recently learned that the name of the original large landmass on Earth, before it broke apart into continents, is “Rodinia.” Alas, the planet is our Motherland, and when we kneel to the ground and kiss the earth in Dostoyesvskian humility, we belong to the same nation. Oh sure a few people would not profit from such an intrinsically spiritual yet astonishingly practical venture – but neither you nor I are among them. (Shout out to the NSA, thanks for reading, I mean you are among them, but you know what I mean.) Invoking the Great Game narrative only gives us a false sense of not being implicated in it. We are.

Look, I am not a beads-wearing, incense-lighting, Kumbaya-chanting happily oblivious stoned wacko. (Though if a pack of cigarettes goes up another dollar, I may begin looking for a dealer.) I don’t generally adore humanity. I’m depressed or angry 90% of the time. I have traumas that freak the fuck out of my acquaintances. I am an American. I am involved in American politics. The fact that you are no saint – this is my point – really is no excuse. The fact that you are a realist is no excuse. The fact that you are angry is no excuse. The problem is not that happy saintly idealists will not make an effort to hear each other out. It’s the bitter, broken, proud, jaded people of the world who need to figure out how to fucking coexist.

They also write the best poetry, you know…

Ok enough about my bilateral frustrations.

I’m only inconsolable because I love you all so much.

When I become inconsolable I behave badly. Sometimes I just lie in bed until noon contemplating the particular shade of blue sky on the other side of the window and wallowing in the lamentations of provincial gulls (Oh, Chekhov…,) sometimes I resolve to end it all and don’t, sometimes I drink cheap wine and watch Scandinavian murder mysteries all night. At this point I am just typically depressed. A dull depression, a stasis, a kind of interminable waiting room of the soul. Nothing is too terribly real. Nothing is too terribly beautiful. It’s canned soup existence, tasting of nothing, better than hunger. Sometimes, however, like an autoimmune disorder activated by a weakened immune system, the Russian Bug bites again. I’m not entirely comfortable classifying it as an illness. For all I know, it is the cure. Certainly it is the cure to canned soup existence. “The mania phase of classic bi-polar disorder,” you suggest, clinically-minded. Mozhet byt‘. No doctor has diagnosed me as such, but it seems as plausible as “the Russian soul, it’s like a vampire and once you are bitten you are doomed to live like a crazy person for all eternity” explanation. Are not both the Gothic monster novel and modern psychiatric classification but crude metaphors for our anxieties and desires?

Hark! Arisen from the crypt of the Poemless blog, cursed, undead, roaming the internet like feral animal and come in through the window to steal your precious innocence:

Odds & Ends: “You’ve read this far – I’ll make it quick” Editon.

Ukraine, Putin, and the West: Putin walks into a bar . . .
By the editors of n+1, a must-read, as in, if you only read one thing, but you are here reading this so if you only read two things about Ukraine, read this. You will be less ignorant for it and people will respect you more. And I’m not even charging you for that advice.

My Mind-Melting Week on the Battlefields of Ukraine Death and disappearance in the foggiest of wars.
By Julia Ioffe. I’m not her biggest fan, but this is a very good, unbiased, on-the-ground attempt to make sense of why people are killing one another in Eastern Ukraine. Spoiler alert: no one is completely sure, but they all have good reason to be afraid.

Who is the bully?
By Jack F. Matlock Jr. Well, you won’t get out of here without being subjected to my usual propaganda about how the US treats Russia like a gaslit mistress and is it any wonder then she acts so unhinged? But this time, it’s written by the former US Ambassador to the Soviet Union. Don’t take my commie word for it. I’m now reading his “Autopsy on and Empire: The American Ambassador’s Account of the Collapse of the Soviet Union.” 900 pages of sheer glorious foreign policy talk. I told you I was sick.

Why Washington must try harder to understand the Kremlin: The chill in US-Russia relations is not just down to conflicting interests on Ukraine – it stems from a deeper lack of expertise of the Kremlin’s logic and actions.
By Alexander Gabuyev. It’s all well and fine to spend ten years of your life online bemoaning the awful state of US Russia policy. Far better to understand why it is just so incredibly awful. This doesn’t explain everything (like why anyone with an average IQ understands Kremlin psychology better than White House advisors) – but it is an exquisite examination of the global cause and effect of Americans not studying Russian like they used to. Oh it is a dreary world, gentlemen! Send your kids to get Russian degrees for the love of all that is holy. The fate of the world is in their hands. Probably not a great idea to place the fate of the world in the hands of those who would rather read very long murder novels than get a decent paying job. I don’t make the rules.

FYI, I stumbled upon this piece via The Guardian’s New East Network: “inside the post-soviet world”, if you’re into kitsch. It’s all Lenin statues and cabbage over there. Go get yer Ostalgie on.

As I said earlier, I was up all night with nostalgia-induced insomnia and probably watched every Akvarium video on YouTube. Admitting you have a problem is the first step. A bit later this binge dove-tailed with an exchange I had with an acquaintance in Moscow about trains and the soul of the Rodina and whatnot, and I recalled a recent situation in which Boris Grebenshchikov (leader of Akvarium, kind of a genius) got rather pissed off that his song “Etot Poezd v Ogne (This train is on fire)” had been used for pro-war propaganda purposes. Unlike me, he really is a pot-smoking, beads-wearing anti-war hippie, and I’m far more surprised that the people who chose to co-opt the song were unfamiliar with his almost cringe-worthy peacnikery than that they were using this song to bang the drums of war. I am yet more surprised that The New York Times ran an article about it. An article which, quite beside the point, describes the existence as a Soviet artist as such:

“It was a shadow society,” Mr. Grebenshikov said. “But in Russia it had a peculiar form, in that you could live for months without really encountering that other world. The only places you needed to go were the wine shop and the book shop.”

Wait. THE ONLY PLACES YOU NEEDED TO GO WERE THE WINE SHOP AND THE BOOK SHOP? Well they sure as hell kept that bit of info from us American Cold War kids. Look, I am not calling for a full return to Soviet society, cough, but forgive me for not taking more pity on your persecuted soul, BG. Anyway, here’s the song: Аквариум – Поезд в огне.

“You said something about hot Russian men, poemless.”

There were some at the Social Security Administration office on Lawrence the other day, and I would like to personally thank them for making that trip worthwhile (and who even knew you still need the actual card?) But for the rest of you, how about a beautiful Russian song? Ok, and a sexy beast of peacenik!

The magical thing about visiting a grandmother is that she will feed you delicious candies while she lectures you, trying to pass on her hard-earned insights while you are distracted with gluttony. I’m no one’s grandmother, but I am so happy you stopped by.

As always, thank you for reading. Namaste, druzya.

August 21, 2010

Odds & Ends: Official Latest Roundup Edition.

Filed under: Odds & Ends — poemless @ 2:26 PM
Tags: , , , , ,

Step right up, folks! Step right up!

I’d abandoned the blog for so long interesting spam began to show up. “Help! I am currently being held prisoner by the Russian mafia and being forced to post spam for p—s enlargement or they will kill me! Help!” I hit the delete button and allowed to poor chump to be offed. Well, he probably should not have been doing whatever he was doing to attract the attention of the Russian mafia, right? Who is worse, gangsters, or the people who do business with them, enable them, and then get all surprised an panicky and morally outraged when their lives start being threatened? I am pretty sure that was the whole Khodorkovsky defense… Well, as if I were not feeling enough guilt about slacking off with the blog this summer, Siberian Light goes and declares my previous post about reading on the subway “Poemless’ latest roundup.” Ack! That was a real life genuine blog post, with original thoughts on one subject and everything! It was no “roundup.” Boo! Also, round up is something you do to weeds and cattle and fractions. I write. Yeah. Anyway… Here’s your damn roundup:

POLITICS

I. Lovely little article appeared on FP this week in which professionals were paid money to make the same observations I make for free everyday and most 10 year olds could school you on. Oh well. I suppose a bit of repetition is required to get basic facts through thick skulls. Probably arranging a mafia kidnapping would be more effective, but journalism is legal.

Foreign Policy: Why Russia Matters. Ten reasons why Washington must engage Moscow.

Consider this your talking points memo:

1. Russia’s nukes are still an existential threat.
2. Russia is a swing vote on the international stage.
3. Russia is big.
4. Russia’s environment matters.
5. Russia is rich.
6. One word: energy.
7. Russia is a staunch ally in the war on terror (and other scourges).
8. The roads to Tehran and Pyongyang go through Moscow.
9. Russia can be a peacemaker.
10. Russians buy U.S. goods.

No one ever mentions #9! We only illegally invaded Iraq and then pretended to leave a decade later because Russia wasn’t going to give us the UNSC vote to do it legally. They also one of the (many) reasons we haven’t declared war on Iran. #1-6 are no-brainers but sadly a lot of people are too. #7 is a lame excuse both countries use to get away with things they shouldn’t. #8 sounds like the subtitle of a creepy neocon white paper and #10 is the least palatable reason in my book. And really, what the hell does the U.S. even manufacture anymore? Besides bullshit economic models and Hollywood celebrities? And I am taking the gangster defense on this: if Russians want to buy our stuff, I can’t be responsible for what happens to them.

ARTS

I. A “Who’s Who” of approved entertainment, or a potential blacklist, depending on your sensibilities…

Plucer: Служители Муз, участвовавшие в работе объединения “НАШИ” на Селигере.

художник Анатолий Осмоловский – 2010
художник Николай Полисский – 2009
режиссёр Никита Михалков – 2009
художник Андрей Бартенев – 2010
галерист Софья Троценко – 2009
художник Никас Сафронов – 2010
галерист Елена Селина – 2010
певица Земфира – 2005
группа “Любэ” – 2005, 2007
певец Вячеслав Бутусов – 2006
группа “Би-2” – 2006, 2009, 2010
группа “Серьга” – 2006
дизайнер Денис Симачёв – 2010
дизайнер Леонид Алексеев – 2010
дизайнер Гоша Рубчинский – 2010
фотохудожник Олег Доу – 2010
дизайнер Татьяна Михалкова – 2010
поэт Евгений Евтушенко – 2009, 2010
писатель Леонид Каганов – 2009
писатель Олег Рой – 2009
писатель Елена Кунсэль – 2010
писатель Кирилл Бенедиктов – 2010
писатель Валерий Печейкин – 2010
певица Маша Макарова – 2006
группа “УмаТурман” – 2005, 2006
группа “Король и Шут” – 2006
группа “Кипелов” – 2006
группа “Ночные снайперы” – 2006
группа “Агата Кристи” – 2006
группа “Кукрыниксы” – 2006
группа “Мультфильмы” – 2006
певица Юлия Чичерина – 2006
группа “Дискотека Авария” – 2007
группа “Чай вдвоём” – 2009
группа “Город 312” – 2009
группа “Корни” – 2009
группа “Блестящие” – 2009
группа “Виагра” – 2009
группа “Плазма” – 2009
певец Никита Малинин – 2009
певец Ираклий Пирцхалава – 2009
группа “Пилигрим” – 2009
певица Ирина Ортман – 2009
певица Лена Князева – 2009
певица Электра – 2009
певец Владимир Лёвкин – 2009
певец Александр Киреев – 2010
певица Пелагея – 2010
режиссёр Наталья Бондарчук – 2009
режиссёр Анатолий Прохоров – 2009
каскадёр Александр Иншаков – 2009
режиссёр Тимур Бекмамбетов – 2010
режиссёр Иван Максимов – 2010
режиссёр Сергей Мирошниченко – 2010
продюсер Ренат Давлетьяров – 2010
актёр Валерий Гаркалин – 2010
актёр Андрей Фомин – 2010
дрессировщики бр. Запашные – 2009

I have to plead guilty to not knowing half of these people (and even guiltier to having once attended a Ser’ga concert) but am rather shocked by the mention of Yevgeny Yevtushenko. It just seems a bit vulgar for him somehow. But then Mikhalkov has illustrated that the infamous haughty panache that so defines the Russian intelligentsia is hardly limited to critics of the government. In fact, the “real” Russian oldschool dissidents I know can’t stand Yevtushenko’s guts. So maybe I should be less surprised.

II. And speaking of Bekmambetov, who once had me kidnapped and forced to watch the filming of Wanted, it sounds like he’s about to make the most brilliant(ly titled) movie ever:

About.com: Wanted Director Signs on for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

And it is not a comedy! Is this from the same people who brought us the video game Eugene Onegin: Devil’s Mercy, which “sought to provide a lesson in literature by rendering the hero of Alexander Pushkin’s masterpiece as a zombie killer”? Is there some “historical-figure-becomes-monster-hunter” genre I am unaware of?

Well, I wasn’t kidnapped exactly. Just exiting a building smack in the middle of a stunt scene and swiftly corralled into the “safe” zone on the set. And not allowed to go home until they got the shot. So, kidnapped, basically. Movienapped, we’ll say.

III. Despite rumors of my darling BG once colluding with Surkov, I didn’t see his name on the list of celebs willing to publicly kiss up to a political party to get the kids to buy their records. Of course – he is taking the high road:

Far from Moscow: New from Akvarium’s Archives: “Our Life as Seen by the Trees.”

Yesterday a remarkable document from the history of Russian rock music was made available to the general public – in ways that might actually help that same social body. In other words, ten songs from the archives of St Petersburg ensemble Akvarium have been released via the music service Kroogi for charitable ends. Proceeds raised by the sale of these songs, known en masse as “Our Life as Seen by the Trees,” will be used to help victims of the recent forest fires in Russia. Kroogi is requiring downloaders to pay nothing more than one cent; hopefully fans of the band will feel obliged to offer more. Information about the charitable organization involved, headed by Dr. Elizaveta Glinka, can be found at the same online venue.

You should read this nicely written article, which includes some of Grebenshchikov’s own words about the time and place in which the songs were recorded, some history of the band and some heavy-handed reflection on the past and future or Russia.

P.S. If you are a fan of Akvarium, I’m putting in a plug forThe Bodhisattvas of Babylon, recently revamped. Checked it out.

IV. Apropos of nothing, Gary Shteyngart has a new book out, “Super Sad True Love Story,” and was just on PBS’s Need To Know.

I have a real love-hate relationship with Shteyngart. I think his novels lack any redeeming qualities, but I keep reading them for the Russian kitsch and for other reasons I am consciously unaware of but subconsciously probably just unwilling to admit to myself. I’d never seen him interviewed before and am glad I did. He seems much more decent and likable than his characters…

V. Finally, you can go check out some olden days fotos of Russian intellectuals who were Russian intellectuals back when that was a brilliant thing to be:

Babs71: Ленинград. Групповой портрет культуры. 1920-30е.

ODDS

I. WTF is going on in Japan?!?!

I honestly don’t pay any attention to Japan. Why would I? I mean, besides Banana Yoshimoto? But I keep coming across these INSANE stories about missing old people. Not as in “old people who wander off.” As in, “old people who are killed or whose deaths are not reported by relatives so they can collected their pensions!”

Slate: The Rise of the Parasite Singles.

Didn’t the Japanese used to kill themselves when they ran out of money?

A nationwide search for missing elderly people in Japan is turning up more macabre and mysterious stories every day. The hunt began earlier this month after Tokyo officials found the mummified body of an 111-year-old man in his bed, 30 years after his death. On Aug. 10, the city of Kobe admitted that the last registered address of the woman who at 125 years old would be Japan’s oldest citizen has been a public park since 1981.

With almost one-quarter of the population over 65 years old, Japan has more than 40,300 centenarians, about 87 percent of them women. Government officials suspect that more supposed centenarians are dead, and at least some of the deaths went unreported by family members so they could continue to claim the elderly relatives’ retirement benefits.[…]

The relatives (usually children) of the missing Japanese centenarians located thus far have all been of retirement age, people old enough to be getting their own social security checks. But a growing number of younger Japanese citizens are depending on their retired parents for financial support. On Aug. 12, police arrested a 56-year-old unemployed man in central Mie prefecture on suspicion that he starved his mother to death two years ago and has been living on her pension ever since.

But wait! There’s more!

BBC: Japan man ‘kept dead mother in a backpack’

The remains of a Japanese woman have been found in a backpack, in the latest gruesome discovery by investigators searching for missing old people.

The woman’s son told police his mother died in 2001 but he had not been able to pay for a burial.

A similar discovery weeks ago sparked a search for people who are registered as being more than 100 years old.[…]

“Because I didn’t have money for a funeral, I didn’t report her death,” the Sankei Shimbun newspaper quoted him as saying.

The AFP news agency reported that he told police: “I laid out her body for a while, washed it in the bath, then broke up the bones and put them into a backpack.”

But the woman’s pension continued to be paid and police are now investigating the son on suspicion of fraud.

There are more than 40,000 registered centenarians in Japan, according to government data, but the number of missing has raised concerns that the welfare system is being exploited by dishonest relatives.

Analysts say there is dismay in Japan that a rich, efficient society could have lost track of its senior citizens to such a degree.

I am in dismay that a rich, efficient society cannot afford proper funerals…

II. I am also dismayed by other stuff I found on Slate.

Slate: Here, Kitty, Kitty, Kitty: Is it legal to eat your cat?

When police in Western New York pulled over Gary Korkuc for blowing off a stop sign on Sunday, they found a live cat in his trunk, covered in cooking oil, peppers, and salt. Korkuc told authorities that his pet feline was “possessive, greedy, and wasteful” and that he intended to cook and eat it. Korkuc has been charged with animal cruelty. Is there a legal way to cook and eat a cat?
Maybe in some places, but not New York. Few states have specific laws barring the use of pets for food. […]

California’s anti-pet-eating law has a broader reach. It bars possession of the carcass, so having bought your cat steaks from someone else wouldn’t be a useful alibi. The California law also protects “any animal traditionally or commonly kept as a pet or companion,” rather than just Fido and Fluffy. The statute is somewhat untested, though, so no one really knows which animals are included. Pigs are not, even though they are commonly kept as pets, because they are farm animals. Horses are specifically covered by a different section of the code. There’s no precedent on iguanas, goldfish, or boa constrictors.[…]

On the other end of the spectrum are states like Missouri, where very few restrictions are placed on when, why, and how an owner can kill his pet. In these areas, it would be difficult to lock up a cat-eater, unless his chosen means of slaughter were particularly inhumane.

Ah, Missouri… I’ve often thought about this issue, the double standard. My cat sinks his teeth into my flesh on a regular basis, and I am pretty sure if he were starving, he’d look at me and see dinner. But even if I were starving, I could not eat my cat.

III. If you think the previous two stories were disturbing … and enjoyed that, let me alert you to the website http://www.Christwire.org. There you will find stories about Chinese pandagators, gay pets (do they go to heaven?) and many, many far more deranged and offensive items. Parody, perhaps, but your boss won’t know that, so a NSFW warning is attached.

IV. Lastly, and remaining on the topic of pets and ethics:

AP: Russia marks 50th anniversary of space dogs flight

MOSCOW — Russia is marking the 50th anniversary of the space flight of two mongrel dogs — Belka and Strelka — who became the first living creatures to circle the Earth and come back alive.
The August 1960 mission helped test the equipment which was used to carry the first human, Yuri Gagarin, into space on April 12, 1961.

Belka and Strelka were part of a Soviet program of animal tests intended to pave the way for human space flight. They followed Laika, a dog that flew into space on Nov. 3, 1957 but wasn’t meant to survive and died.

The successful flight of Belka and Strelka had showcased the Soviet lead in space exploration and turned the dogs into global celebrities. Russian television stations topped their newscasts Thursday with anniversary reports.

Belka & Strelka!

November 25, 2009

Giving thanks for chocolate potatoes, khachapuri and BG.

Filed under: Culture: Russia,Too Much Information — poemless @ 1:24 PM
Tags: , , ,

In a cryptic response to the previous post recounting my quest for the Biophar lavender honey, someone left the address of the Three Sisters Delicatessen on my facebook wall. So last weekend, my cabinets worrisomely low on honey and the weather perfectly warm and sunny, I decided to make a trip to Little Russia on Devon Ave. Mind you, the perfectly warm and sunny weather did not lure me out of the house as much as it motivated me to find extreme distraction. I don’t even like perfectly warm and sunny weather in June, but in November it is positively unbearable. Between the pressure to “get out and take advantage of it” and the thought of starving, drowning polar bears with no icecaps on which to rest … no I really cannot stand a perfectly warm and sunny November day. Thus I set out to take my mind off the fact.

Naturally, they didn’t carry the honey, but that’s really neither here nor there…

The Neighborhood.

It’s not really called “Little Russia.” I just made that up. It’s called West Rogers Park, and more specifically, Devon Avenue, which I wrote about here. That was a long time ago, spurred on by the by the Israel/Lebanon war. But it could just as easily have been about the August ’08 war. For whatever reason, along this stretch of asphalt on Chicago’s far north side, Jews and Arabs, Indians and Pakistanis, Russians and Georgians are all living side by side, with no nukes or tanks to be found. Left to their own devices they all seem to get along as well as anyone, actually. Intellectually we all know this is possible. But the teevees and interwebs try their damnedest to assure us that these civilizations are just incompatible, because at their roots those terrifying Islamic or Russian or vagelymiddleeasternlookingdarkskinnedpeople are products of cultures based on ethnic or religious chauvinism. They hate our way of life and everything we stand for. Well, I’m here to tell you the fine people of Devon Avenue are living proof that talk radio hosts and the French are wrong.

Three Sisters Delicatessen.

The magical deliciousness that is шоколадные картофель:

photo c/o Chicago Reader.

You may be wondering why I have never been to this Russian establishment located just minutes from my apartment. So am I. I’ve settled upon a few explanations. First, in Chicago-ese “Devon” is synonymous for “Indian food that will assure such digestive agony you’ll be begging someone to gut you like a catfish before the night is through.” So I normally decline offers to go to Devon. Secondly, while it’s actually possible that 3 sisters do run the joint, I hate the name. Not because it is cliche, but because I hate the play. Well, “hate” is a strong word. I don’t like it. I’m really not a huge fan of Chekhov. Thirdly, I think I never thought to go to the Russian deli because I never thought about what they might have. When I lived in Russia, there weren’t very many such establishments, and those I came upon were usually -oh, really, it’s too stereotypical- rather empty. If you wanted to buy stuff, you could get almost anything on the street, though it was mostly from the West. The Russian “stores” were basically the same, but under a roof, warehouse-like. Most food was something you made at home from whatever you brought back from the dacha or could obtain through various connections. Or maybe my family were just purists or something…

What does a Russian deli carry? In this case the entire Russian diet crammed into a space about half the size of the old Meyer’s. Tea, kvas, mineral water, jam, honey, bread, cookies, boxed chocolates, anything you could conceivably pickle and put into a jar, kasha, meat, fish, caviar, cheese, those crazy zillion-layer cream cakes, boiled potatoes, blini… the only Russian food groups missing were alcohol and cigarettes. The clientele was just as quintessential: a babyshka with a walker, munching toothlessly on salami and buying pickled mushrooms, an older fellow getting some fish, and separately, 3 young women, each of whom bought chocolates. Behind the meat counter were 3 -yes, 3- middle-aged or older women. Like the ladies behind the meat counter at Meyer, they were stout and clad those white lady-like old world deli uniforms. Unlike the ladies behind the meat counter at Meyer, their Russian counterparts were sporting garish turquoise eyeliner and crazy dye-jobs, and were incredibly friendly. I bought a loaf of locally baked black bread and some jam from Nizhny-Novgorod, and ordered “chocolate potatoes.” And that’s how I ordered them. “Chocolate potatoes.” The older woman behind the counter screwed up her face at me. I panicked. “Shokoladny kartofel. Dva. Pozhalsta. Spasiba,” I managed to eek out, bewildered since, though I read Russian on a regular basis, I only ever speak it, oh, well, pretty much never. The lady smiled with a twinkle in her eye, looked me up and down for a moment, and shouted to someone to get this devushka 2 chocolate potatoes, ASAP. They all began looking at me mischeivoulsy like they knew something I didn’t and weren’t going to tell me. Maybe they just found my terrible broken Russian charming, but I secretly wondered if they weren’t conspiring to take me home and turn me into tomorrow’s lunch special, Baba Yaga-like…

Chocolate potatoes? DIVINE. AT first I regretted that I’ve lived 30-something years without them. Though that may not be entirely true. My mother used to make Christmas cookies called “Russian tea cakes.” They looked like “Mexican wedding cakes” but had a very different texture and taste. They were very dense and moist with a nutty, liqueur-like flavor … just like these “chocolate potatoes.” The only difference is that the potatoes are dusted in chocolate rather than powdered sugar, and are about 5 times larger.

Argo Georgian Bakery.

Hello, my little hachypury. I am going to eat you!

My next stop was the Georgian bakery one block down. Argo Bakery made Three Sisters look like a bustling cornucopia in contrast to its spare interior. A few very small tables. A few awkwardly placed refrigerated display cases. A giant stone slab/oven thing in the middle of it all where the little khachapuri lived their short lives between creation and consumption. I ordered some of the patient khachapuri and a hazelnut churchkhela. Like the ladies at the Russian deli, the proprietor of the Georgian bakery was very friendly. Unlike them, he spoke English. The menus were in Russian, so it should not have felt presumptuous to speak to him Russian, but I’ve watched too much CNN and decided the most politically correct choice would be English. He reminded me of my Sicilian step-father, with a combination of relaxed gregariousness and theatrical humility. I asked it he knew where to buy wine, Georgian wine, and he told me he could only get it either by the barrel, or in 4-liter bottles. Because he was in the “restaurant business.” I looked around the room. Restaurant… I invented a story in my head about a man who opens a storefront hachypurry joint as a ruse so he can import Georgian wine by the barrel. Back in reality, this man asked if I’d like a 4-liter bottle? I declined. He laughed and dismissed my concern: “Four liter! For us Georgian, iz nothing, you know? Iz, just getting started!” Yes – I know. I’ve been to a few Georgian feasts and know how much wine they have to consume to keep up with all of the toasts they make. Considering you have to drink to every toast, yes, it’s probably best to buy wine by the barrel.

The khachapuri were alright. The dough was pretty tasty, but the cheese was a rubbery feta type cheese, not the gooey melty cheese I remember. I have no idea what cheese they were using in Russia, but it was spectacular. The churchkhela, however, were quite a treat. I was afraid they’d be too sweet or leathery, but the grape entrails-looking stuff had the subtlety of a Turkish delight. In fact, that’s pretty much what it is: Turkish delight only with grapes instead of rosewater, on a string, made up to look like intestines. Grape Turkish delight sausages. Too bad there is no way to describe them that does justice. I HIGHLY recommend getting your hands on some of this stuff. Oh, but keep in mind there is a string running through the center. Remember not to eat it.

Русский книжный магазин.

You will never be this cool. Sorry.

The last stop on my shopping trip was the Russian bookstore. Well, no it wasn’t. But it is the last one I will recount here. I have previously been to this place on several occasions, back in college. While I bought books there, it was less a bookstore than some kind of miniature Izmailovsky market crammed into a storefront, with piles of Soviet kitsch and Russian souvenirs everywhere you looked. The layout was more like an attic than a store, and the interior dimly lit, which made it rather disorienting. These days it is “under new management” and the kitsch is all but gone and it is bright and spacious. Perusing the books on display, I saw a few about Medvedev, but nothing Putin. Which only surprised me because the ratio of Putin:Medvedev books I see at work are about 30:1. Anyway, I was not there for books.

Almost all of my Akvarium/BG (and, er, there’s a lot) is on cassette tape and second or third generation at that. I don’t know why. It’s not like I couldn’t find or afford cd’s in Russia. They were hawked on every street corner for spare change. But I preferred to do my own bootlegging, thank you very much. Maybe it was out of some vestigial tradition of samizdat (or magnitizdat, whatever), or more likely it was simply that the cold winter days lent themselves to staying home and eating blini while making tapes. Well, this is how I and my girlfriends spent the time. Those tapes felt like gold at the time, but their value has since been reduced to that of cultural artifacts.

When I walked in, I was met with a “Zdra’stvuetye” from a woman and a “Nuzhna pomosch?” from a little moon-faced man who slipped out from a room in the back. More terrible broken Russian escaped from my mouth as I asked if they had any Akvarium or BG. Ok, buying a cd is not rocket science, but I have to admit I was surprised to find myself conversing in Russian, you know, without having to think about it. Maybe someone who has tried to learn a new language as an adult can appreciate this. I felt weightless. The little moon-faced man was incredibly genial and excitable as he went around picking out cd’s for me (confirming that, no, they were not displayed in any order; it wasn’t just me). Maybe I was the first customer he’d seen all day. Or maybe I reminded him of some daughter who moved to Seattle and whom he hasn’t seen in years. Who knows? He was terribly sweet. He had puppy dog eyes. I was sad to have to go. I left with a couple of cd’s and the intention of returning just to see him again. It was only when I got home, jumping around to “Nikita Riazanskii,” that I fully appreciated how empty my life had been without Navigator and the Russian Album. Or rather, with them on cassette tape wasting away in a cardboard box in a closet.

Coda.

Since it is Thanksgiving and I am inclined to be reflective and thankful, I can’t do the tactful thing and say, “And thus ended my little shopping trip. Thanks for reading.” Except for the thanking you for reading part, of course. No, I need to make some profound observation about it all. So it’s helpful I have one to make. And that is this: I was impressed with Gene’s Sausage Shop. It looks fabulous, from the grand staircase to the aisles of attractively individually wrapped sweets to the infinite selections of meat. An embarrassment of riches. But I was disappointed when they did not have my honey, put off by the service, and generally ho-hum about the whole affair. The Three Sisters Deli, in contrast, was superficially unimpressive. Small, homely, old-school. No row after row of sparkly packaging, no carnivorous gluttony. Likewise, the Georgian bakery was not going for aesthetic appeal but no-frills homemade pastries. And the bookstore, again, not a scene, just a place to go to get what you want. Everyone was helpful and kind. The yuppie consumer/bitter wage slave dynamic was replaced with plain old human interaction. And while I didn’t find what I set out for, what I can home with was of such quality and nourishing to the soul, I totally forgot about the damned honey! I was out of honey and blissed out. Maybe it’s a commentary on the lack of authenticity in our society. Maybe it’s an illustration to all of you who don’t “get” why anyone would “like” Russia. Maybe it’s confirmation bias. I don’t know. I’ll probably go back to Gene’s, because it is right down the street. But I’ll certainly go back to Devon, because it rocks my world.

August 7, 2009

i answer your questions. or, ladies and gentlemen, an act of shameless desperation.

Filed under: Culture: Russia,Meta — poemless @ 1:59 PM
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Mr. Sublime Oblivion, a.k.a. Da Russophile, a.k.a. Anatoly has inquired to ask if adding my blog to his blogroll with make him as cool as Sean & I. (I deny being in Sean’s league of coolness.) The answer is a resounding “YES!” It will make you rock star cool if you add me to your blogroll. Maybe you cannot afford a pair of cowboy boots in this economy. Adding me to a blogroll is free! Also, if you take a look over to the right, you will see my blogroll. If you are on it, and do not add me to your blogroll, not only will you be destined for supreme uncoolness, you will make me a sad and bitter girl. And you don’t want me to be sad and bitter. Because I am also a writer. And sad and bitter writers tend to pose a danger to society and themselves. Or they become cult-like famous and draw readership away from more talented, emotionally stable writers, like yourselves. Or they are just profoundly annoying. Know what I mean?

Oh, and if you look and find you are not on my blogroll, let me know.

Also, while you are thinking about acknowledging me in your blogroll, you may also be wondering what else you can do to be cool. You can do what Lyndon at Scraps of Moscow did and refer to this blog in a post on your own. And we all know how cool Lyndon is!

If you have done all that and are still not content with your level of personal cool, … eh, you’re on your own after that. Sorry kids.

Spasibo bolshoe, y’all. (more…)

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