Saturday, October 29, 2011

Have reusable grocery bag . . .

. . . will travel. To Moscow. Just thought it would be fun to show the bags I got from Weaver St. Co-op in action on the far side of the world.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Burning Questions


For some reason, the sign at right struck me enough that I stopped to snap a mobile-phone picture. The one above is a classic from the Russian Civil War. "Have you volunteered?"

And then there is the burning question of today's Russia: "Have you paid your mobile phone bill?"


A friend of mine here won a contest for the best recipe using pumpkins and, as a result, came into possession of a huge stack of them. To resolve the conundrum, she invited friends and fed us dishes made from pumpkin. Delicious! To make a long story short, I was nominated, as the American in the room, to supervise the carving of a jack o' lantern. Voilá!

Friday, October 21, 2011

This Week from the Archives

“The Council of Ministers of the RSFSR and Gosplan [State Planning Agency] of the RSFSR reported that to decrease the plan for procurements of popping corn for 1964 is not recommended because the existing level of production does not satisfy the population's demand for foods prepared from these varieties of corn.”

The Soviet people demanded more popcorn! That is all.

Thursday, October 20, 2011


The film, Zviagintsev's Elena, about which I wrote briefly a few posts back, has stayed on my mind, so I've decided to try to explain it more thoroughly.

I said before that it was not entertaining per se, but instead thought-provoking and troubling. Despite its quotidian subject matter, or perhaps because of it, I found it disturbing. Each major character lives a life with which the viewer can easily identify. That said, they are real in some way, rather than being types or stereotypes. Each, in order to "just get by" is compromised or, rather, has made some choice which compromises them: Each chooses depend on someone else out of a sense of either helplessness - or entitlement. They exploit their relationships, and the power imbalances within them, to achieve what they want, rather than working to achieve a balance that is mutually beneficial and supportive.

The central characters are Vladimir, a wealthy businessman of some sort, somewhat past 60, and his wife, Elena, somewhat younger. They met when he was a patient in a hospital, appendicitis if I remember correctly, and she - a nurse. They have been together for approximately ten years, married for a rather shorter time, and each has a child--now an adult--from a previous marriage.

As I was watching the film, I considered that perhaps Katya, Vladimir's daughter, was the potential exception, the character who, despite superficial appearances, defies to the above characterization. Now I'm certain that it fits her as well. She plays her father expertly, as only daddy's girl can. At the same time, there's a something in her expression, speech, and body language that suggests that she despises him for the very thing that gives their relationship any footing at all, his unquestioning provision of anything material she requests. She despises him in a way, I think, a person can only despise one to whom they owe a debt. Thus Katya's compromise; she craves independence from her stern but doting father, but she depends on his money--and the expectation of his inheritance.

However, we also see her relationship to Elena, her ostensible step-mother. Elena feels acutely Katya's haughty sense of superiority based on class, education, wealth, and status. Katya is rude and dismissive, and Elena returns the favor by denouncing her to her father as a spoiled brat, to whom he has never denied anything.

Concomitantly, Elena's relationship with Vladimir is another compromise. Whatever the conditions and nature of their relationship in the past, it is now a sort of dystopian sort of world-turned-inside-out. He needs (or rather, has) not a wife, but a maid, cook, and nurse. They have a sexual relationship, but there is little warmth between them. In fact, the film's first line of dialogue sets the tone. Him, to her, over the breakfast that she prepares him daily: "The oats are good." Each of those aforementioned roles she plays while occupying her own modest bedroom at the other end of their otherwise opulent apartment in a posh Moscow neighborhood. Her material needs are met, but it is very clear that her emotional ones are anything but fulfilled.

Vladimir, on the other hand, retains all power, not the least of which are control over finances and the right to a wandering philanderer's eye, evidenced by his ogling of a woman in the gym just moments before the heart attack that, after some twenty-five or thirty minutes of growing tension and sparse and therefore effective movie-score strings, sets the plot in motion.

Thus he has made his choices: he has made her dependent on him financially, while being dependent on her to care for him both before, and most certainly after, the heart attack incapacitates him. He has also made his choices. Moreover, he professes that he refuses to help her son out of "tough love" toward Sergei, regardless of his willingness to provide anything for Katya. Eventually, he contemplates reserving not half of, but his entire estate for Katya in a petulant attempt to keep her son and his family away from his wealth. 

And then there is the son himself, Sergei. And his own wife, son, baby, and, as we learn, a third child soon-to-be. They are as close as Zviagintsev comes to allowing himself stereotypes. However, as far as I am aware, Russian film has thus far little portrayed their type and so it has somehow avoided becoming trite, cliched. They are, in an attempt to place them in American terms, urban white trash.

Early in the film, we watch Elena leave the marbled halls of the tower in which she is caged. She collects her modest state pension and journeys far beyond the edges of Moscow to the post-industrial wasteland in the shadow of a power plant where their apartment is situated. She delivers the stash of rubles (and a bag of groceries bought on Vladimir's dime) into the hands of Sasha, who pockets a little for cheap beer and gives the rest to his wife for the provision of food. This portrays their poverty, the class divide between the Vladimir and his wife, and the physical decay of the post-Soviet Russian reality for those beyond Moscow's glitter and glam. It also serves to demonstrate Sergei's helpless but entitled dependence on troubled, even desperate, yet comfortable Elena.

But they want more from Vladimir, whom they hardly know, and who cannot tolerate the thought of helping "others." What Sergei and his tragically overstretched wife want is for the elder son--Sasha--to avoid military service (to be avoided at any cost in Russia, given the living conditions and hazing by most accounts rampant) by gaining entry into higher education.

The young man is aimless, probably blamelessly, given the socio-economic conditions of the post-industrial wasteland that surrounds their apartment block. His way out - gaining access to higher education on his own merit - he closes by avoiding study in favor ofss, probably blamelessly, given the socio-economic conditions of the post-industrial wasteland that surrounds their apartment block. His way out - gaining access to higher education on his own merit - he closes by avoiding study in favor of first person shooter games and petty brawling between his clique of friends and its neighboring counterparts. Thus it will take money to buy his way, by hook or by crook, into a university or college.

The wife is, although a minor character, more sympathetic than any. She attempts to maintain order, culture, and decorum in the face of a slobbish husband and a surly teenage son, but she manages neither exercise her considerable authority in the family to encourage Sergei to do anything but drink beer and get her pregnant, nor to induce Sasha into taking his education seriously.

Without giving too much away, Elena takes drastic action to secure the grandson's admission and a substantially more comfortable existence for her son, daughter-in-law, and their 2.3 children. That leads, of course, to the ultimate question: Are her actions moral, the 'right thing to do'? Is everything, including harm to a man who is in many regards reprehensible, permissible to secure the material needs of those who are dependent on you?

We are, as the audience, expected to see her as the protagonist. But are we to be sympathetic? In a Hollywood multiplex block-hit cine-buster, there would be clear good guys and clear bad guys. But here, the point is finer. In fact, I think it sits on the point of a pin. Is blood thicker than water, or whatever makes up the bond that holds Elena and Vladimir together?

To be honest, I think I could sympathize more with her if her actions toward him were in revenge for the apparent emotional abusiveness of their relationship, rather than in pursuit of the money.

At bottom, the conflict is about money. But where does that get them? Vladimir had it, but was he a good person? A happy person? And Katya? She has it, but is she happy? And as for lacking it, Sasha, the lump that he is, has a certain childish joie de vivre, despite the poverty and chaos around him.

On the one hand, money as the motivating force for the plot disappoints, for it seems such a hackneyed, trite way for an artist to create a conflict for his tale. And yet, there is something true in that struggle, which seems to consume us all. And this, with a nod toward another film I've seen recently, honors Hemingway's dictum that an artist's work is good because it is true. This is not a commentary on Russia's upper crust, although theirs is the pursuit of money. It is not a condemnation even of Russian society, but rather of all of us. You might grandly say, of our entire civilization.

And that brings me to a final point: Chekhov. I'll bet you didn't see that coming. This film has more than a little something of Chekhov within. As I was watching, I thought of this Chekhov short story. Chekhov is esteemed - rightly so, in my humble opinion - by many, especially beyond Russia, because there is something universal in his stories. His stories, in a way that those of most other great Russian writers do not, works in translation. He created the believable, the typical, but not with stereotypes. His stories place the reader in situations in which something universal resonates. These situations, lacking an author-imposed apparatus of moral judgment, leave it to the reader, to us, to decide who - if anyone - is good, who is bad, and to whom. All while turning the spotlight on the day-to-day tragedies of which human folly are made.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Anglophone University Power?

I don't generally give a lot of credence to university ranking systems. I would argue that, past a certain point, the name on the walls--and the diploma--is less important than the quality of the people within those walls.

With that in mind, I read in one of the Moscow foreign language newspapers an article lamenting the state not only of Russian universities, but of continental Europe as a whole.

"The Decline of Europe" 

The source, of course, was a series of rankings released by a firm called Quacquarelli Symonds, or QS.


Moscow State University came in at 112 and St. Petersburg - 251. The article continues, suggesting that there are historical reasons for the low placement of universities in the former state socialist countries of Eastern Europe, evidenced by the fact that the Charles University in Prague is the only other one in the top 300.

However, it also laments that the countries of Western Europe don't, in the opinion of this ranking system, stack up well either.

My translation, which is, of course, rough:

"We can put this [the low ranking of universities in continental Europe] on the account of the supernatural force of the the American power. Effectively, beyond the celebrated schools of the Harvard sort, the humbler ones such as the University of North Carolina overshadow Europe like a mountain over the mouse." [I may have missed the exact sense of that, I'm not familiar with the idiom.]

The conclusion that the article reaches is that American universities--and by extension those of the Anglophone world--hold their advantage in sciences, humanities, and social sciences thanks to the position of English as the language of international learning, itself a product of American power.

It's something to think about, but also makes me apprehensive. We in America have built a system of education that, while imperfect, functions very well. And that system is under threat by savage budget cuts from the state governments that support it and increasing pressure to find sources of funding in the non-profit and private sector. The young and the talented come from all over the world to learn and contribute to this system, but can this system continue to function as it has, in light of this budget squeeze, post-9/11 visa regulations, and a host of other pressures?

Monday, October 17, 2011


So Russia has elections coming up in a little over a month, for the State Duma, the federal parliament. But, other than a few posters, you would hardly know it from the streets of Moscow. In fact, the only evidence I have seen is a few posters: this first one isn't even for a party, it simply says: "December 4, elections for the State Duma of the Russian Federation. For life, for people."

But even the election posters for United Russia are a little hard to come by: the only ones I've seen were for the local party branch in Moscow's Lefortovo district.

I guess it should be said that Russia--like most countries not called the US--doesn't have a tradition of near constant electioneering. I will be curious to see the elections become more and more visible over the next six weeks - if they do.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Russian Film Recommendation

I'm slowly settling into a normal routine in Moscow. One of the things that I hope to make a part of that is going to see good movies. A friend of mine introduced me to a great theater that shows Russian films, but also foreign films without dubbing. It's a little thing, but it makes all the difference and they are often hard to find.

Today I went and watched Elena. I don't want to give anything away, but I recommend it. I will say that it is not light entertainment; it's a difficult film, to say the least. It challenges the viewer to consider the moral position of each and every main character. There is much that is Russian, but also, I think, something universal in the story. It's also quite beautiful and technically brilliant.

Wikipedia in English

Wikipedia in Russian

It has also been well received internationally, so you folks out there might have a chance to see it.

Hollywood Reporter Review

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Some cooking pics . . .

I've made a couple of forays into the kitchen in the last few days. First, dissatisfied with the stock available in the local supermarket, I decided to make my own.

Then, there is the question of what to do with the stock. The answer: coq au vin. I followed Julia, so it was easy. Render the bacon fat, brown the chicken. Flambé. (Whoa, the flames didn't go that high last time!) In goes the stock and wine. Saute your mushrooms on the side. Brown braise the onions. Put it all on a platter. Then reduce the remaining sauce. Serve with parsley potatoes. Yum. With enough leftovers to feed me for the rest of the week.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Bright Lights, Big City

I was out and about last night and decided to take a few pictures of the bright lights of the city:

Occupy Wall St.

I'm sad that, by chance, I left the country just at the moment this was getting started. I'm now consuming news and information about it on a daily--sometimes hourly--basis. Suffice it to say, no one is likely to start an "Occupy the Kremlin" movement any time soon.

If you're out there in 'Merica, find a site--NYC or one closer to home--and please go. Check it out.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Crappy Opinion Pieces, a Global Phenomenon

I was reading Moscow's English-language newspaper the other day and happened across this:

American Terrorist Liberties Union

I'll give you two guesses, based only on the title, what the thrust of the author's opinion is. And the staggering thing is that she is affiliated with what is ostensibly a moderate to liberal media outlet, Ekho Moskvy. In this case, that could not stand in the way of a good game of "beat-the-hippie."

I'm angry about the "world is black and white, good guys and bad guys" worldview not so much implicit ans explicit in the article. Far too reminiscent of George W. "You're either with us or against us" Bush.

The first person I showed this to brought it to my attention that her interpretation of Harry Potter is even wrong. (Full disclosure, I did not read past the first book. Знаю, что я - некультурный человек.)

Any other thoughts on this?

By the way, I sent a response to the Moscow Times editorial page, but I highly doubt it will get published. I've not heard anything back from them.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Today's post consists merely of a picture and a link.