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Photo: Susie Armitage for Atlas Obscura
The line for Stolovaya 57, a Soviet-style cafeteria in a Moscow mall, shows the power of nostalgia and tight household budgets.

It’s funny how one can sometimes feel nostalgic for times that really were not great. There was privation and cruel lack of freedom in the old USSR, for example, but especially if a person was young then, there are aspects of that time that are missed. In this story, Russians miss the food they once enjoyed — or imagine they enjoyed — in Soviet cafeterias.

Susie Armitage writes at Atlas Obscura, “On a recent afternoon in Moscow, a line of hungry people stretched across the third floor of GUM, a stately 19th-century shopping arcade turned modern luxury mall overlooking Red Square.

“As the crowd waited to get into Stolovaya 57, a self-service cafe modeled on a Soviet workers’ canteen, a young woman snapped photos of the faux propaganda posters in the entryway. Inside, customers loaded their trays with fruity kissel, fuschia ‘fur coat’ salad, and jellied pork. On the hot food line, a woman in a white uniform dished out mashed potatoes, Chicken Kiev, and stuffed cabbage and curtly called out, ‘Next order, please!’ Murky jars of canned vegetables sat on shelves overhead. An abacus, like the kind used by Soviet shopkeepers, stood next to one of the cash registers. …

“As I stood in line with Pavel Syutkin, a culinary historian who co-authored CCCP COOK BOOK: True Stories of Soviet Cuisine with his wife, Olga Syutkin, he told me the long wait was just another period touch.

‘When you go step by step, 20 minutes, half an hour, you really get an effect of being inside the Soviet past,’ he said, recalling the anticipation that made the food taste better when he lived in Cold War-era Russia.

“I asked Syutkin why, in 2019, a mostly Russian crowd would wait this long for a bowl of borscht served with a heavy dollop of Soviet kitsch. He explained that Stolovaya 57 is one of the cheapest places to eat near Red Square …

“Aside from the prime location, Stolovaya 57’s popularity may have something to do with its name. Whether they’re from Moscow or a remote part of Siberia, Russians have a shared understanding of the word stolovaya, which means ‘dining hall’ or ‘cafeteria.’ Due to the Soviet legacy of public canteens, it’s shorthand for an affordable, filling, and predictable meal. …

“According to Anya Von Bremzen, author of Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, while a handful of these early canteens had genteel touches such as fresh flowers and live music, many were plagued by rats and served awful food. The cafeteria in the Kremlin was so bad that Lenin ordered multiple investigations. As it turned out, in addition to struggling with food shortages, the nascent Soviet state had replaced many professional chefs with ideologically pure but untrained ones. …

“While the dishes in any Soviet cafeteria were supposed to be identical, in practice the quality varied widely. A large stolovaya in Moscow or Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) typically served far better food than the canteens in smaller towns. …

“Lackluster food wasn’t necessarily the fault of individual chefs, who had to make do with whatever ingredients the state provided. The Soviet food supply system routed the best stuff to high-level officials and larger state enterprises. ‘Access to good products was a symbol of your place in the social hierarchy,’ Syutkin said. …

“In 1959, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev signed a resolution to make the system of public food service ‘more massive, comfortable, and favorable.’ … A publication called The Female Worker documented cafeterias with great interest, lauding a particular dining hall in the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (now Belarus) for its ingenuity in using kitchen scraps to raise its own pigs. …

“However, nostalgia isn’t the only thing motivating people to wait half an hour for plates of pickled herring. My 31-year-old friend Victor [points out] that many of his peers are on tight budgets. Russia’s economy has been sluggish in recent years, and paychecks still don’t go as far as they used to.” More here.

Photo: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images
Women factory workers eating in a Soviet Union lunchroom in 1928.

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The world’s oldest working actor has died at age 101. And good for him to have worked at something he loved for so long!

Shaun Walker wrote recently at the Guardian, “Vladimir Zeldin, believed to have been the world’s oldest working actor, has died aged 101, after appearing for 71 years at the same Moscow theatre.

“The Russian actor appeared on stage as recently as [September], using a walking stick due to a broken hip, to appear in the play The Dance Teacher by the Spanish playwright Lope de Vega.

“He had appeared in the play more than 1,000 times, Tass reported. The theatre had planned for him to appear again next February, to mark his 102nd birthday. …

“Zeldin was born in 1915, when Tsar Nicholas II was on the Russian throne. He shot to fame when he appeared in the film They Met in Moscow, on which shooting began shortly before the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. …

“When the war finished, Zeldin joined Moscow’s Red Army Theatre, where he was part of the troupe from 1945 until his death. The theatre is now known as the Russian Army Theatre. Fellow actors at the theatre described him as full of energy until the very last.” More.

I think the actress who played 104-year-old Great-Great-Grandmaw in All the Way Home (the stage version of James Agee’s A Death in the Family) must have been nearly as old as Zeldin. I remember her voice came out as kind of a croak. But that may have been because she was acting.

Photo: Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr/AP  
Vladimir Zeldin on stage in Moscow.

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Ukraine has banned TV shows from Russia, so Russia cannot afford to make many new shows. The Ukrainian shows are generally in Russian, and Russian viewers need shows, so their TV stations are buying shows from Ukraine.

Production in Ukraine is ramping up to meet demand, but there are challenges. Often the Russian actors that producers want to use have once said something negative about Ukraine, so they are banned, too. And since police procedurals are popular and need to work for both countries, uniforms have to be unidentifiable.

I loved hearing about this today on Public Radio International’s The World.

Alina Simone reports, “When Ukraine banned all TV content created in Russia after 2014. Russia didn’t impose the same ban on Ukraine. Instead, they started buying Ukrainian TV shows like crazy.

“ ‘When all of this happened, there was such a big kick in the butt,’ says Iryna Kostyuk, a producer at the Ukrainian media company, FILM.UA. ‘Volume-wise, everything is growing. Even the smallest production company is now filled with orders.’

“Kostyuk’s production company is behind Russia’s favorite detective series, ‘The Sniffer,’ about a cop who dissects crimes using his … olfactory superpowers.” More here.

Photo and video: FILM.UA
“The Sniffer,” one of the most popular detective shows in Russia today, is made by a Ukrainian production company.

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Members of a family separated for 77 years were recently reunited through the wonders of the Internet. Caitlin Gibson has the story at the Washington Post.

“The five women crowded together around the kitchen table in New Jersey, their eyes fixed on a laptop screen. It was 7 a.m., and none of them had slept well the night before; they were too anxious and excited for this moment. Jess Katz logged into Skype as her mother and three sisters watched.

“A face flickered into view: their cousin, the son of a long-missing uncle, the family they thought they had lost forever in the Holocaust.

“On the other side of the screen, on the other side of the world, Evgeny Belzhitsky sat with his daughter, his granddaughter and a translator in his home on Sakhalin Island, Russia.

The eight family members smiled at each other, speechless. Then, Katz recalls, they all started to cry. …

“More than 70 years had passed since Katz’s grandfather, Abram Belz, first tried to find his younger brother, Chaim. Abram last saw Chaim in 1939, the year their family was relocated along with thousands of other Polish Jews to the Piotrków Trybunalski ghetto at the start of World War II.

“The brothers died without seeing each other again, but on April 20 their families had been joyfully reunited. …

“ ‘My grandfather, because he was the oldest son, felt an obligation to stay,’ [Katz] says. ‘But it was important to their mom that Chaim try to escape.’

“With his mother’s help, Chaim slipped through a gap in the ghetto wall and fled across the border to the Soviet Union. The family knew he made it there, Katz says, because he sent letters and packages to his family. But then the letters and packages stopped coming. …

“In April, Katz — a tech-savvy 25-year-old who works for a software company in New York City and has blogged about her family’s Jewish roots — had extra time on her hands as she recovered from minor surgery at home. She decided to take up the search.

“After decades of tedious research and letter-writing, it took Katz two weeks to find Chaim’s son.

“It was a success born of an improbable alchemy: the serendipity of social media, the generosity of helpful strangers, and access to technology that allowed distant relatives to bridge thousands of miles, a 14-hour time difference and a language barrier.” Read the read the happy ending here.

Let’s hope that technology will also help the refugee families that are getting separated today. There is nothing in the world like the pull of family.

Photo: Jess Katz
The Katz and Belzhitsky families Skype together on Passover.

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Jeremy Hance has an article at the Guardian on the quest to save from human encroachment a huge — and largely unknown — raptor: Blakiston’s fish owl.

“It’s not easy studying an endangered species few people have ever heard of,” says Hance. “It’s difficult to raise money, build awareness, or quite simply get people to care. But still, Jonathan Slaght – one of the world’s only experts on the massive, salmon-eating, frog-devouring Blakiston’s fish owl – insisted there are upsides. …

“Blakiston’s fish owl is the world’s largest [owl], and in the Russian forests, where Slaght conducts his research, it cohabits with a lot of big names: the Ussuri brown bear, the Amur leopard, the Asiatic black bear and, of course, the grand-daddy of them all, the ever-popular Amur Tiger. …

“Slaght is a project manager with the Wildlife Conservation Society and a co-founder of the Blakiston’s Fish Owl Project along with Russian ornithologist, Sergei Surmach. But his first run-in with a Blakiston’s came in 2001 when he was a Peace Corps volunteer in Russia. At the time, all he knew about the species was from a tattered bird book more than 40 years old, including an ‘inaccurate, terrible illustration of Blakiston’s fish owl. …

“Although an avid birder, Slaght never expected to actually see one of these things. He was told the owl was so rare that even seasoned ornithologists rarely saw it. Yet one day, hiking in the forest with a friend, he had an encounter that changed the course of his life.

“ ‘Something enormous flies away from us and lands close by and it’s just this big owl.’

“He assumed it was a Eurasian eagle owl – which can be found across the entirety of Eurasia, from the coast of Spain to that of Primorye – but took a few photos just in case.

“ ‘My brain wouldn’t believe it was this mythical thing.’ …

“A few weeks later, though, Slaght gets his pictures developed and takes them to a local ornithologist.

“ ‘He says: “don’t show anyone this picture; this is a Blakiston’s fish owl.” ‘

“Slaght … has become one of the foremost experts on the great owls and continues to find them where people thought them vanished.”

Read about other places this rare bird is found (including Hokkaido, where it was once considered a god), here.

Photo: Jonathan C. Slaght/WCS Russia  
Jonathan Slaght holds a Blakiston’s fish owl in his arms. He is one of a handful of researchers studying this massive raptor, which is threatened by human activity.

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When I think of Russia and the words “big brother” together, I don’t ordinarily picture the charitable organization that partners adults with kids who need role models. Roman Sklotskiy has altered my mental model.

Last month, Diana Kultchitskaya interviewed Sklotskiy for the Christian Science Monitor.

“Roman Sklotskiy, a former businessman and a graduate of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, didn’t dream of having a career in charity. In the early 2000s he was a pioneer in the telecommunications industry, testing applications for mobile networks.

“But then he was invited by a friend to be the administrator of a theater for deaf actors – a charity project launched by a group of professional actors and directors. He was so inspired by the experience that he decided to pursue charitable work.

“In 2007 he learned of a nonprofit group trying to bring a United States-based mentoring program to Russia. Big Brothers Big Sisters International is a volunteer program that helps orphans and children from troubled families find mentors who provide them with a role model and help them build a healthy relationship with an adult.

“In Russia this kind of volunteering was a new idea. Mr. Sklotskiy decided to join the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Russia team and became its director, spending six years developing it. …

“The selection process for people who would like to participate in Russia’s Big Brothers Big Sisters program is strict. … Those who are selected receive training. Psychologists work with them and explain the unique demands of communicating with an orphan. …

“Alexandr Gezalov, an expert on child adoption and orphanages, says that the project is very successful.

“ ‘I’ve never seen a more effective format for communicating with an orphaned child,’ Mr. Gezalov says. The success of Big Brothers Big Sisters should be shared with other organizations, he says.

“Today Sklotskiy serves as director of charitable programs at the RVVZ Foundation. But he’s stayed involved in Big Brothers Big Sisters as chairman of the board. And he thinks it still has great potential to grow and help even more children. Currently Big Brothers Big Sisters is operating in Moscow and St. Petersburg.”

More here.

Photo: Svetlana Balashova for the Christian Science Monitor
Roman Sklotskiy longed to do charitable work, and he found his calling in developing Big Brothers Big Sisters of Russia.

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My husband passed along word of a TV special on an ecologist interested in the Siberian tiger who joins forces with a remarkable Korean filmmaker.

From the Public Broadcasting website: “Hunted almost to extinction, the last wild Siberian tigers can only be found in the forests of the far eastern Russian frontier—but not easily.

“Ecologist Chris Morgan embarks on a challenge that will fulfill a lifelong dream — to find and film a Siberian tiger living wild and free in these forests. To help him, Morgan turns to Korean filmmaker Sooyong Park, the first individual ever to film Siberian tigers in the wild.

“Park spent more than five years watching and waiting for a glimpse of the elusive creatures, confined sometimes for months in tiny underground pits or 15-foot hides in trees. His technique was unconventional, but produced more than a thousand hours of wild tiger footage that told the story of a three-generation tiger dynasty.

“During their time together, Park teaches Morgan the secrets of tracking tigers—where to look and what to look for in these vast, seemingly uninhabited frozen forests. Eventually, Morgan’s mentor and guide leaves him to his own private quest, and it is up to Morgan to follow the tracks and markings of these giant cats, searching out spots where tigers are prone to hunt, setting up cameras he hopes will also capture a precious image of a wild Siberian tiger.

It must take courage to do pursue these creatures. The local bears are so afraid of Siberian tigers that they hibernate in nests up in trees.

More.

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