31 July 2008

Only in Russia

My pilgrimage to Patriarch's Ponds was part of the self-guided "Walking Tour of Literary Moscow" suggested by my travel guide. I decided to do at least the part of the tour that I hadn't already seen on other trips to Moscow, and this is what I encountered:

(Please note the date - Thursday, July 31.)

Gogol Memorial Rooms - closed for repairs
Church Gogol attended - closed for lunch
Lermontov House-Museum - closed for unknown reasons
Church Pushkin got married in - SUCCESS!
Gorky House-Museum - closed on the last Thursday of every month
Aleksei Tolstoy Apartment-Museum - SUCCESS #2! I don't really care about Aleksei Tolstoy (note: not the author of War and Peace - that was Lev Tolstoy), but the museum worker was really nice and took me on a private guided tour.
Chekhov House-Museum (really wanted to see it since I've been living in Chekhovland all year) - closed on the last day of every month
Patriarch's Ponds - SUCCESS #3! Hard to screw up visiting a public park, really.
Bulgakov apartment-museum - SUCCESS #4! Very cool little museum, run privately, with lots of artwork, costume sketches, movie clips, etc. related to Bulgakov's works. And a live black cat. And a mailbox where you can put a letter to the Master. And tons of visitors! Not that surprising, I guess, since "Master and Margarita" is the favorite book of about 80% of young Russians I've talked to.

Then I decided to go to the Sakharov Center, a human rights research center/library/museum named for Andrei Sakharov, the Soviet physicist/human rights activist. Alas, it is closed in July, as the workers are all on vacation.

To review, that's six strikes, but I think it's even more impressive that each one was a strike for a different reason. It was still a nice tour, since many of the buildings were interesting to look at from the outside, and going to all of those museums would have been museum overdose anyway. But I've decided to go back to the Chekhov museum and the Sakharov center tomorrow, since (barring any unpleasant surprises) they should both be open.

Горы, солнце, пихты, песни и тайги / Mountains, sun, fir trees, songs, and the taiga

I doubt anyone uses this blog to check up on whether I'm alive or not, but in case you were wondering, I am.

I'm in Moscow now and am starting my extended leave of absence from Russia (a.k.a. moving home for grad school) on Saturday. I think if I could really grasp that I'm leaving, I'd be crying a lot, but happily for myself and everyone else, I only sort of half-grasp it, so I just kind of mope around. We'll see what Saturday morning is like, though.

Siberia (the reason for my extended silence) was AMAZING. The risk that I will run away and live on the shores of Baikal forever is now even higher than it was last year after Ulan Ude. I have tons of impressions from the trip (do we say that in English? I feel like maybe only Russians and Americans who have been in Russia for too long say that), which unfortunately makes it hard to write about, but I promise that I will. And there will be pictures. :)

But for now, I'm off on a little pilgrimage (read: two stops on the metro) to Patriarch's Ponds, the setting for the opening scene of Bulgakov's "Master and Margarita," which I finished reading yesterday... in Russian. It's the longest work I've read in Russian so far, at 413 pages. Gold star for me!

10 July 2008

On the 4:40 p.m. Commuter Train to Rostov.

I would like to write about how hard it is to be leaving Taganrog, but I have no idea what words to use.

07 July 2008

Best Going-Away Present Ever

From Lydia Arkadievna, the institute's Latin teacher (they make the law students take Latin).

A scarf. Actually from the 1980 Olympics. !!!! I can hardly believe she was willing to part with it. Needless to say, I love it. Late Soviet kitsch is a guilty pleasure of mine.

Oh, my colleagues are so nice to me! I will miss them.

(She also gave me a little calendar with Orthodox icons on it. It has all the fast days marked... I haven't counted, but at first glance it looks like the Orthodox devout spend more time fasting than not fasting. In fact, they're supposed to be fasting right now. Happy St. Peter Fast, everyone. June 23 to July 11.)

Aina's Beetless Borscht

This is partly just for my reference, but I get a fair number of hits from people looking for borscht recipes, so I thought I'd post it here. I went over to my friend Aina's the other day and found her making borscht for her brothers. "If it's borscht, shouldn't it have beets in it?" I asked. "It can, but it doesn't have to," she replied. To Aina and to many Russians, borscht means 'cabbage soup,' not necessarily 'beet soup', as Americans tend to think.

This is all quite approximate. Russians aren't nearly as recipe-obsessed as Americans are; for example, I remember one of my classes laughing out loud at the fact that our recipes tell us to preheat our ovens, and my Russian girl friends often have to hide their skepticism of my ability to cook, since I appear to require instructions that are, to them, far too specific. Anyway, for soup, amounts don't really matter as long as you don't oversalt it.

Start by peeling and slicing three or four potatoes (Aina cuts them in half lengthwise, and then slices each half widthwise into centimeter-thick slices) and shredding a whole head of cabbage. Take a tablespoon or so of dried mint (she does this for her Turkmen father; mint is apparently prominent in Turkmen cuisine) and use your hands to mix it and some salt to taste into the shredded cabbage.

Put the cabbage and potatoes to boil in a 5-liter pot with broth for at least 15 minutes. Aina used meat broth, but no meat. I'm pretty sure any kind of broth would do. I didn't see how much she had in there, but it was enough so that the broth and the cabbage mixture combined almost filled the pot.

Meanwhile, grate a carrot with the large holes of a grater and chop an onion; put them in a pan with some vegetable oil over medium-low heat and get to work chopping three or four tomatoes. Add those to the pan, along with a spoonful of tomato paste for color; bring the pan contents (now quite liquid because of the tomatoes) to a boil while chopping some garlic to taste. Add everything to the soup pot. Now chop some fresh parsley and dill (maybe about half a cup chopped) and add that, along with some more salt. Let everything simmer for a minute or two more, and your borscht is done. Serve with a dollop of sour cream or mayonnaise in each bowl.

P.S. It seemed weird to me that Russians eat soup in the summer, but with some bread and a salad of chopped tomatoes/cucumbers/parsley/dill (ubiquitous in Russia from May to October) it made a nice, fairly light dinner. And it's quick, if you've got the broth on hand already.

04 July 2008

One Thing I'd Like to Fix About Russia

I know, it's not my place. Still.

I was hanging out with my friend Aleksei the other night when out of the blue he said, "Remember Andryusha?"

"Which Andryusha? The one who lived with you while he was looking for an apartment this spring?"


"Yes, why?"

"He died last week."

"Are you serious?!?"

"Yeah. They had his funeral two days ago."

"What happened?!"

"Car accident. There was a drunk driver, and he had been drinking too, and the other guy swerved and he swerved to miss him and slammed into a pole. It was the day Russia beat the Netherlands."

"That's terrible! I don't even know what to say!"

"I know. I was totally shocked when I found out, too. The worst part is, he was just unlucky. I was in an accident on the highway, we were going 100 kph and the other people were too, and I got out with nothing but a scratch on my leg. But he died. If his car had had airbags, he'd probably still be alive. (pause) And if he'd been wearing a seatbelt, I'm positive he'd have made it."


I only met Andrei once or twice, but it was still shocking to be blindsided by that. It's hard to grasp how someone who was totally alive the last time you saw him, who had, as they say, his whole life in front of him (he was 22), could have suddenly just ceased to exist. And I feel terrible for him, for having his life cut so short, and for his family and friends. But the worst part is that this kind of stupid crap happens all too often in Russia. Almost 40,000 Russians a year die in traffic accidents. That needs to change. I once looked up the number for the U.S. and I believe it's somewhat similar, but we've got more than twice Russia's population, and I'm sure our number of cars per capita is much, much higher.

So many Russians, especially men, just don't wear seatbelts. Ever. How many taxi drivers have I watched put on their seatbelt as we approach the customs checkpoint at the edge of town and then unfasten it again as soon as we're past? Seriously, guys. The seatbelt isn't that uncomfortable, and the highway from Taganrog to Rostov in most places doesn't even have a center line or clearly defined shoulders. What's the point of risking it?

I won't even get into the traffic laws and people's tendency to follow them, except to say that it's one thing about Russia that most Western visitors seem to find legitimately shocking. I've been in cars that have hit 100 kph on city streets, 200 meters from a stop sign. Why? Because it's badass to drive that way, and if you get caught, you can give the policeman a hundred rubles and get off scot-free. (For the record, I do not ride with people who drive that way more than once.)

Judging by my friends and acquaintances, drunk driving isn't quite as common in Russia as I originally believed, but it's certainly not nearly as actively stigmatized as it is in the U.S. You can lay the blame on Andrei for driving under the influence – or for not wearing a seatbelt, for that matter, but how many of us would be doing the same thing if they hadn't beaten it into us how dangerous and stupid it is? We are lucky, my friends. They teach us to wear our seatbelts and they punish us when we do stupid things on the road. They sell us cars with airbags in them. They keep our roads in relatively safe condition. That's not what Aleksei meant when he said Andryusha was "just unlucky," but that's how I take it.

01 July 2008

Это всё, что останется после меня*

*This is all that will remain after me.

I moved out of my apartment yesterday. I've got ten more days here, but now that I'm living out of my suitcases in the institute's guesthouse, it really feels like the beginning of the end.

Goodbye, gas stove. You were a kasha-boiling and chocolate chip cookie-baking workhorse. Goodbye, window that required masking tape, caulk and strips of furniture foam to keep the drafts out this winter.

Goodbye, Khrushchev–era fridge with the contact paper coming off. I'm sorry I only defrosted your freezer box at the very end of our relationship. I say "relationship" because, for a machine so ugly and disgusting, I really grew to love you.

Goodbye, world's most comfortable fold-out bed/couch. Your winning combination of squishy soft foam cushions and reliably supportive wooden planks has earned a special place in my heart that no future mattress will ever steal.

Goodbye, living room/bedroom/home office/balalaika studio rolled into one. Goodbye, wardrobe with the video game stickers on it. Goodbye, curtain that is all that remains of the world's greatest Draft Dodger. Goodbye, hideous carpet and green wood-print linoleum. Goodbye, sewing machine table-turned-desk.

Goodbye, best views of Taganrog in the whole city. Goodbye, roofs and treetops, park, sea, factory smokestacks, wheat fields, road to Rostov and, on extremely clear days, Rostov itself.

Goodbye, entryway.

Goodbye, first real apartment.

Also, as today is July 1st: goodbye, Fulbright. We had a good two years.