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An illustration of the cat Behemoth from Soviet writer Mikhail Bulgakov’s anti-authoritarian The Master and Margarita.

Here’s a wonderful book I want to reread, partly because of the invasion of Ukraine, where citizens of occupied towns are expected to rejoice that they have been “liberated” by the Russians, and partly because some US towns are starting to ban books, just like the old Soviet Union did. Plus, I remember the book as fun to read.

Emily Zarevich writes at JSTOR Daily about the evergreen relevance of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.

” ‘Manuscripts don’t burn.’

“This iconic line made Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita a staple of the Russian literary canon. It’s quoted constantly, in its original language and in all its translations. Uninitiated readers may be surprised to find out that these words are spoken by the Devil, who in the novel resurrects and returns the main character’s abandoned writing project after an attempt to destroy it in a fire. It’s an allegorical exchange between our world and the next, demonstrating that even supernatural entities don’t possess the [ability] to extinguish the power of human creativity.

“As Bulgakov’s Devil — disguised as a foreign professor and operating under the name of Woland — insists through his simple words, true masterpieces will endure and rise from attempted extinction like the mythical phoenix, as proven by The Master and Margarita itself, which emerged intact from the calamitous flame of Soviet censorship.

“The initial journey of The Master and Margarita to publication is somewhat cryptic. Following a morbid and natural cycle of life, its birth began on a deathbed. Bulgakov’s third wife, Elena, who was his inspiration for the avenging character of Margarita, swore at the suffering Bulgakov’s bedside — he passed away on March 10, 1940, at the age of 48 — that she would make his magnum opus her life’s mission; she would prevail against suppression. But unfortunately, unlike the fictitious Margarita, Elena didn’t have access to a sympathetic circle of demons who could offer her the power to reawaken her lover’s lost dream. She was a human woman, and she was given very human, cautionary advice by Bulgakov’s close friend Pavel Popov, as recorded in J. A. Curtis’s reader’s companion to the novel:

‘The less people know about the novel the better,’ wrote Popov to Elena, ‘The masterfulness of a genius will always remain masterfulness, but at the moment the novel would be unacceptable. 50–100 years will have to pass.’

“As Curtis points out, Popov’s prediction was around thirty years off the mark. It would take twenty years for the book to be published. …

“What made the novel so unacceptable to Soviet censors was not only its depiction of unregulated female power and sexuality, but its portrayal of a USSR that existed parallel to the celestial realms of the afterlife. One of the Soviet Union’s main principles was staunch secularity; citizens were expected to be loyal to their communist superpower country first and their faith second, if they believed in the institution of religion at all.

“What The Master and Margarita dares to present is a 1930s Moscow subjected to both paranormal mischief and an overarching Christian-biblical presence, helpless to stop or ignore either. The state is never at any point in the book positioned as the higher power — a major threat to the supremacist government agenda — and so Elena found herself unable to fulfill her vow to publish the book in a timely manner. …

“During the years between its completion and its publication, the existence of The Master and Margarita became something of an open secret among Russian literary circles. The journal Moskva made the daring decision to finally publish The Master and Margarita in 1966, but this version was censored to the point of butchery, and many of Bulgakov’s canny messages vanished in the process. Gone was Margarita’s sexual liberty, for instance, and Bulgakov’s mockery of the USSR’s corruption and incompetence as a communist nation.

“For the book to be published in its full, unabbreviated glory, it had to be smuggled abroad. The publisher Eesti Raamat in Estonia can take credit for bringing out the first unedited rendition in 1967, but it should be noted that this was only a translation. Published in Estonian, not Russian, it, unfortunately, couldn’t be interpreted as Bulgakov’s own voice. The Italian publisher Einaudi brought it out in Russian later that same year, but in the Soviet Union, it wouldn’t be published properly until 1973, three years after Elena’s death, though she would have enjoyed the satisfaction of knowing that rebellious Russian readers were enjoying copies of the book being secretly passed around under the government’s radar.

“Naturally, the novel caused controversy and mass bewilderment when Bulgakov’s fellow citizens were able to get their hands on publicly available copies that hadn’t been filtered by the censors or lost in translation. Admittedly, it is a strange book, and as Stephan Lovell explains, ‘Readers accustomed to a diet of Soviet classics were ill-equipped to interpret the novel’s complex network of symbols and plot levels, its unusual treatment of time, its use of irony and the fantastic, and its references to Christianity and myth.’ …

“Today, it’s accepted as one of the finest novels to come out of the political disquietude of the twentieth century, with a modern readership better prepared to recognize its merits.”

More on this classic skewering of authoritarianism at JSTOR, here.

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Photo: Routledge, Taylor & Francis.
Merryl Goldberg, Professor of Music, California State University San Marcos, and part-time spy
.

Do you like true spy stories? Here’s one about a mild-mannered saxophonist, now a music professor, who felt a call to help Jewish musicians in 1980s Russia.

Lily May Newman has the story at Wired.

“In 1985, saxophonist Merryl Goldberg found herself on a plane to Moscow with three fellow musicians from the Boston Klezmer Conservatory Band. She had carefully packed sheet music, reeds, and other woodwind supplies, along with a soprano saxophone, to bring into the USSR. But one of her spiral-bound notebooks, lined with staves for hand-notating music, contained hidden information.

“Using a code she had developed herself, Goldberg had obscured names, addresses, and other details the group would need for their trip in handwritten compositions that looked, to an untrained eye, like the real melodies she’d written on other pages of the book. Goldberg and her colleagues didn’t want to give Soviet officials details of who they planned to see and what they planned to do on their trip. They were going to meet the Phantom Orchestra.

“The group was a dissident ensemble that Goldberg describes as an amalgamation of Jewish refuseniks (Jews who were barred from emigrating out of the USSR), Christian activists, and Helsinki monitors—watchdogs who tracked Soviet compliance with the 1975 Helsinki Accords. The Americans’ trip was funded and coordinated by the nonprofit Action for Soviet Jewry (now Action for Post-Soviet Jewry), which works on humanitarian relief in the former Soviet Union and was focused on helping Soviet Jews emigrate to Israel and the United States. 

“The trip was a rare and special opportunity for American and Soviet players to meet in the USSR and make music together. It was also an opportunity for the American musicians to smuggle information about aid efforts and plans to the Phantom Orchestra, and for the ensemble to send updates out, including details about individuals looking to escape the Soviet Union.

“Goldberg and her colleagues, all of whom are Jewish, traveled to Moscow separately in two pairs to make it less likely that they would arouse suspicion as a group. They had received training on how to react to questioning and been told to expect surveillance, even run-ins with Soviet officials, throughout their trip. But first Goldberg needed to get her notebook past border control. 

” ‘When we arrived, we were immediately pulled aside, and they went through everything in our luggage, to the point of unwrapping Tampax. It was crazy,’ says Goldberg, who [presented] about the experience and her musical code at the RSA security conference in San Francisco [in June]. ‘With my music, they opened it up and there were some real tunes in there. If you’re not a musician, you wouldn’t know what’s what. They went page by page through everything—and then they handed it back.’ …

“Musical note names span the letters A to G, so they don’t provide a full alphabet of options on their own. To create the code, Goldberg assigned letters of the alphabet to notes in the chromatic scale, a 12-tone scale that includes semi-tones (sharps and flats) to expand the possibilities. In some examples, Goldberg wrote only in one musical range, known as treble clef. In others, she expanded the register to be able to encode more letters and added a bass clef to extend the range of the musical scale. These details and variations also added verisimilitude to her encoded music.  For numbers, Goldberg would simply write them between the staves, where sometimes you might see chord symbols. …

“While someone could technically have played the code as music, it would have sounded less like a tune and more like a cat walking across piano keys.

“ ‘I picked a note to start, and then I created the alphabet from there. Once you know it, it ends up being pretty easy to write things. I taught my friends on the trip the code, too,’ Goldberg says. ‘We used it in order to take in people’s addresses and other information we would need to find them. And we coded things while we were there so we would be able to take out some information about people and their efforts to emigrate, as well as details we hoped could help other people ask to leave.’

“The US musicians got their bearings in Moscow before heading to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. There and on their next stop in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, they successfully met members of the Phantom Orchestra, many of whom spoke some English. …

“During eight days of travel, the musicians were tailed constantly by Soviet agents and were repeatedly stopped for questioning. Goldberg says that members of the Phantom Orchestra, all of whom faced similar treatment in their daily lives, gave her and her colleagues advice and encouragement. When the Americans would express concerns that their presence was endangering the activists, Goldberg says the Phantom Orchestra members were resolute about the importance of spending time together. She adds, though, that some of the activists were later arrested and even beaten, because of the interactions.

“ ‘On the second night, we were playing together and the KGB came in and everything got shut down. The electricity was turned off; it was a scary situation,’ Goldberg says. ‘And yet, when we’re playing music no one can take away that sense of freedom and empowerment. Playing together and communicating with people through music is like nothing else. I was amazed by the strength it brought the people there. Music can be very comforting, but it also conveys a sense of feeling powerful.’ “

More at Wired, here. No firewall.

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Photo: Luba Petrusha via Wikimedia.
A mix of traditional Ukrainian, diasporan and original pysanky (Ukrainian Easter eggs).

Today’s story shows how artists help a country’s culture survive.

Katya Zabelski writes at Hyperallergic, “Last year, when I was writing my dissertation on the history of Ukrainian folk [art], my research found a repeated pattern: Despite long histories of suppression, erasure, and destruction, Ukrainian people often used folk art as a tool of resistance and a symbol of hope and preservation.

“During the Soviet era, artists found sly ways to incorporate folk art into their work, despite the possibility of serious consequences. During the Euromaidan revolution [of 2013], vyshyvankas (traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirts) became extremely popular and are now a part of daily fashion. …

“Now, over 100 days since the war began, there is a resurgence of Ukrainian folk art symbols throughout media, art, and everyday Ukrainian life. And for the first time, the international community is using Ukrainian folk art to show solidarity with the Ukrainian people. …

Pysanky are one of the most recognizable Ukrainian folk art forms. The decorative eggs are an indigenous art associated with Carpatho-Rusyn women in Western Ukraine; they were often planted in the ground to encourage fertility and growth. The legend goes that the fate of the world depended on the pysanka.

Each year, an evil monster, chained to a mountain cliff, sent his henchmen to see how many [decorated eggs] were created in the land. If the number of pysanky was high, then the monster’s chains would tighten up.

“If the number of pysanky went down, then the monster would be unleashed to sow destruction. As long as Ukrainians continue to create pysanky, the world continues to exist. 

“Sofika Zielyk, a Ukrainian ethnographer and pysanka artist, has organized the exhibition The Pysanka: A Symbol of Hope at the Ukrainian Institute of America in New York. … Once the war is over, the eggs will be taken to Ukraine and planted in the soil, to help rebuild and fertilize Ukraine, in line with the ancient tradition. …

“Olya Haydamaka is a Kyiv-based illustrator whose work is influenced by traditional clothing. As a response to the Russian invasion, Haydamaka has created multiple illustrations of women in traditional clothing acting as protectors and healers of Ukraine. In ‘Чернігів. Сильне коріння. (Chernihiv. Strong Roots.)’ (2022), Haydamka responds to the particularly brutal attacks on Chernihiv in northern Ukraine. The woman wears a traditional embroidered vyshyvanka with exaggerated embroidered sleeves, along with a traditional red coral namysto (necklace). The iconic St. Catherine’s Church levitates in the air, with deep red roots dangling under it. This piece not only highlights Ukrainian folk clothing but also elevates the clothes to be otherworldly and ‘healing.’ …

“Danylo Movchan, a contemporary painter from Kyiv, created ‘Struggle’ (2022) in response to news that 25 paintings by Maria Pryimachenko, Ukraine’s most loved folk artist, had been destroyed. In this work, Movchan painted a Pryimachenko-inspired creature in yellow and blue, with a tongue that attacks a dark figure to the right of the composition. …

“It was not just Ukrainian artists who were impacted by the destruction of Pryimachenko’s works. The international community has also used her illustrations to show solidarity with the Ukrainian people. The group Justice Murals, which uses the medium of murals to inspire change and action, partnered with the Ukrainian Institute to project Pryimachenko works on buildings in California. Murals featuring Pryimachenko’s work were showcased in Oakland and San Francisco, with a text that read: ‘Art bombed by Putin. Boycott Russia.’ 

“The international music community is also seeking inspiration from Ukrainian folk art. Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine has recently released a new music video entitled ‘Free,’ featuring the British actor Bill Nighy. In parts of the video, Nighy and Welsh can be seen seated in front of a backdrop of petrykivka-style flowers, painted by Ukrainian artist Katerina Konovalova. At the end of the music video, Florence Welsh makes the connection between the title, the Ukrainian folk art paintings, and the war by dedicating the song to ‘the spirit, creativity, and perseverance of our brave Ukrainian friends.’ ” 

More at Hyperallergic, here. No firewall, but memberships welcomed.

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Photo: Daniil Shvedov.
An eco-playground in the Gorkinsko-Ometyevsky Forest near Kazan.

The problem with headlines is that they tend to focus on bad stuff — a bad leader, say, planning bad moves in a country we know about only from headlines. But a leader can’t be everywhere all the time, and no country is a monolith. Especially not one as big and diverse as Russia.

Alex Ulam has a Bloomberg City Lab story about something going on way out in the semi-autonomous Russian republic of Tatarstan.

“In 2015, Natalia Fishman-Bekmambetova arrived in [Kazan] to oversee a large public works program. Then only 24 years old, she found a city with a population of 1.7 million, a renowned university, grand boulevards and major historic sites, including a Unesco-listed walled Kremlin from which Mongols once ruled.

“But Kazan also was a typical post-Soviet city — surrounded by drab concrete tower complexes and parking lots. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, little attention had been devoted to revitalizing derelict public open spaces or to building new ones.

“Six years after Fishman-Bekmambetova’s arrival, a massive initiative often referred to as a ‘green revolution‘ has dramatically reshaped this city 450 miles east of Moscow. Tatarstan’s Public Space Development Program, launched by Fishman-Bekmambetova and Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov, has created or upgraded more than 420 projects throughout the republic, including parks, walkways, gardens and other kinds of landscaped areas.

“You don’t have to walk far in Kazan to see how the new public space program has changed the city. Near the center of the city is the Lake Kaban Embankments, designed by the Chinese-Russian consortium Turenscape +MAP and completed in 2017. The project transformed a formerly deserted postindustrial site around three lakes into a waterfront promenade with rows of trees, beds of wild grasses and wooden decks. At night, the area is illuminated by lights inside glowing red benches of diaphanous resin. Huge fountains rise on the lakes; restored wetlands help clean the once-heavily polluted water.

“Southeast of the city, Fishman-Bekmambetova’s team oversaw the rebirth of the 87-hectacre Gorkinsko-Ometevsky Forest, a new park that features a ski hill and an eco-playground along with preserved woodlands and performance spaces, located on a site where local activists successfully defeated the construction of medical centers and a planned road that would have bisected the park.

“The most ambitious project in the works for Fishman-Bekmambetova’s team is the Kazanska River Strategy, a plan for a 22-kilometer stretch of urban river and 68 kilometers of embankment running the entire length of Kazan; it’s one of the largest landscape projects in Russia. More at CityLab, here.

And while we’re feeling surprised about Russia, here’s a story by Fred Weir at the Christian Science Monitor about environmental action in the far north.

Arkhangelsk, a Russian region almost as big as France that borders the White Sea, is a land of permafrost and marshy tundra, with stunted Arctic forest, rolling hills, and labyrinthine lakes and rivers. It’s been inhabited by Russians for almost a thousand years; Indigenous peoples, some related to Finnish Laplanders, have been there much longer.

“People here are very conscious of history. Much of it revolves around their fragile Arctic habitat and the need to preserve it.

“About two years ago, mass popular protest forced Moscow authorities to abandon plans to build a giant waste dump near the village of Shiyes in this Arctic region that had been intended to receive 2 million tons annually of the garbage overflowing from heavy-consuming Moscow. The success of that ‘Stop Shiyes’ struggle launched a lasting ecological movement and ushered in the election of a more environment-friendly local leadership. It also planted surprisingly divergent ideas in some peoples’ minds about how to take that newfound consciousness and turn it toward a permanent transformation. ….

“For Oleg Mandrykin, a local real estate developer from the closed naval shipyard city of Severodvinsk, it served as inspiration to try and get into national politics in order to raise ecological awareness in Moscow. Anastasia Trofimova, an Arkhangelsk doctor, went a different direction, eschewing politics for [business]. And Alexandra Usacheva heads Clean North, a group that interfaces between the public and local authorities to promote ecological education.”

More at the Monitor, here.

Photo: Fred Weir.
Anastasia Trofimova, a doctor, in her shop in Arkhangelsk, Russia. She was inspired by protests against a proposed landfill to launch a business that sells around 700 products made from natural or recycled materials.

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This Russian is not a teen, and she’s not political. She’s 22 and wants people to learn the natural-sounding American English that she teaches online.

I loved the TikTok video by Lera Sycheva (neurolera on TikTok) showing how one could pretend to be American in a Russian anti-government protest. Like most viewers, I assumed she was all about politics. She isn’t.

After the Daily Mail wrote an inaccurate story about Sycheva, PRI’s “The World” assigned a reporter to interview her over Skype this week. I don’t have the transcript, but I can quote Sycheva’s view of politics: “Politics are dirty. It’s not for normal people.”

At “The World,” Daniel Ofman got the real story: “Last month, leading up to a protest in support of opposition politician and Kremlin critic, Alexei Navalny, the hashtag #FreeNavalny blew up on Russian TikTok. But one video, in particular, grabbed a ton of attention. In it, a Russian TikToker with the username neurolera explains how to say some key phrases with an American accent, which ‘can save your life, or how to pretend to be American if you get detained at a protest.’ ”

Turns out her TikTok advice on pretending to be an American in a protest was based on something that happened more than a year ago in a different protest. At that time she saw a video on the news in which a Russian police officer left some guy alone because he claimed to be an American. Sycheva saw an opportunity for teaching American English.

If you listen to the interview at “The World,” here, you can get a bonus — Sycheva’s description of her time in Montana, where (unlike Russians, she notes ) people smile all the time.

Now, about the Daily Mail report: They got Sycheva’s age and motivations wrong, but they got it right how people were responding to the TikTok post.

Ryan Fahey reported, “Law enforcement agencies are preparing to suppress nationwide demonstrations after 44-year-old Navalny urged supporters to flood the streets to protest him being detained on return to Russia. Navalny, who was charged with flouting the rules of a suspended jail term, was being treated in Berlin for suspected poisoning with the nerve agent novichok. Soon after he roused from his coma, he accused President Vladimir Putin of orchestrating his attempted assassination.  

“Moscow police today said they would ‘immediately suppress’ any ‘unsanctioned protests’ in support of the dissident in the capital tomorrow. Protest coordinators have planned demonstrations in at least 65 other cities. Several Navalny aides have already been arrested. 

“TikTok user @neurolera, who gives her name as Lera in her bio, posted a video of herself explaining the pronunciation of common American phrases. .. Lera’s first tip is to confidently tell the officers, ‘I’m American’. She then stresses the tone and intonation for the statement to sound as if it’s coming from the lips of a native speaker. 

“If asked for a passport, Lera advises, protesters should tell the police they left it in their hotel room. Lera then suggests shouting: ‘You’re violating my human rights!’ … Finally, Lera advises demonstrators in trouble to pull out a phone and tell officers they will be getting in touch with their lawyer. …

“Teachers, and the Kremlin, have warned schoolchildren against attending. …

” ‘These are Western social networks, they manipulate our children in every possible way in order to bring them to the streets,’ parents’ leader Olga Letkova said. ‘At the protests, there will certainly be provocations and attempts to turn this into bloody massacres. … It is obvious that this is a coup attempt that is being conducted in the West.’ ” LOL.

More at the Daily Mail, here. You need to watch the video. Sycheva’s body language is hilarious. This is how other nationalities often see Americans — obnoxiously entitled.

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Photo: ergey Ponomarev for the New York Times.

This was completely new to me: Many Russian restaurants provide disposable gloves for things like burgers that you eat with your hands. Although I know I’m much more likely to get Covid-19 from breathing droplets, I think I could get used to the glove concept.

As Anton Troianovski reports at the New York Times, “When you enter a home in Moscow, you take off your shoes. When you go to a play, you have to check your coat. When you eat a burger, you often wear gloves.

“Across hygiene-conscious Eastern Europe, many people consider it uncouth and unsanitary to eat a burger with their bare hands. The answer used to be a knife and fork. But the pandemic has accelerated a years-old trend: order a burger from Kyiv to Kamchatka — or in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn — and there is a fair chance it will come with a side of disposable gloves.

“Most often, the gloves are made of a synthetic, latex-free rubber called nitrile. At Black Star Burger, which launched the phenomenon in Moscow in 2016, the gloves on offer are black, individually wrapped in plastic packets. At Star Burger in Kyiv, Ukraine, they are green (or pink on Valentine’s Day). At Butterbro, a gastro pub in Minsk, Belarus, they come wrapped discreetly inside a napkin next to a serving dish made of the trunk of an ash tree.

‘Gloves, I think, are an unspoken, required attribute of any burger restaurant,’ said Butterbro’s manager, Alina Volkolovskaya. ‘I’m surprised that establishments in every country don’t offer them.’

“To visiting Americans, the practice always seemed odd, bordering on blasphemous. But when Moscow’s lockdown ended this month and I went out to celebrate, nervously, with a cheeseburger to go, it suddenly kind of made sense. …

“I called George Motz, a New York hamburger specialist, and he insisted that gloves negate the ‘very tactile experience’ of eating a burger. ‘Take the gloves off and get closer to your burger!’ Mr. Motz said. ..

“Several American restaurant safety experts, however, were intrigued, having never heard of establishments providing diners with disposable gloves. They doubted the practice would take off in the United States — the coronavirus, after all, is not even known to spread through food — but some said that gloves used properly could help protect people who don’t wash their hands from a variety of germs. …

“Vanity, not health concerns, first propelled Eastern Europe’s gloves-and-burgers fad. Mr. Levitas of Black Star Burger recruited Timati, a Russian rap star close to the Kremlin, to lend a celebrity cachet to his new burger chain, which now has 67 locations across the former Soviet Union and one in Los Angeles. …

“The gloves help Black Star’s customers feel special, Mr. Levitas said, like the sparklers that go off when waiters bring out the $11 ‘V.I.P.’ burger.

“The gloves proved impervious to politics. A Kyiv restaurateur, Gennady Medvedev, says he had the idea to serve gloves with burgers independently of Black Star Burger in the years after he opened his Star Burger chain in the Ukrainian capital in early 2014 — during his country’s anti-Putin revolution. …

“The trend took off behind the former Iron Curtain as fancy burger places popped up in a region unfamiliar with the dish before McDonald’s arrived in the 1990s. Alexander Monaenkov, a Moscow-born burger-bar owner in Prague, says he handed out gloves to evoke the refinement of white-gloved waiters in Michelin-star restaurants. Corina Enciu, a Moldovan-born restaurateur in Krakow, Poland, said she introduced gloves because her burger joint lacked a place for people to wash their hands. …

“Gera Wise, a Kyiv-born cafe and nightclub owner in the Russian-speaking Brooklyn neighborhood of Brighton Beach, said his customers started asking for gloves after Timati started modeling them. …

“Isaac Correa, a Puerto Rico-born chef who lived in Moscow for two decades, thinks the gloves-and-burgers concept could have a global future. Mr. Correa worked with Mr. Medvedev in Kyiv to start the Star Burger chain. … Now Mr. Correa runs a restaurant in Sarasota, Fla., and his diners hesitate to touch menus or to come inside to collect takeout orders.

“ ‘I could see some of my customers in a casual restaurant say, “Hey, look, I’m going to try this,” ‘ Mr. Correa said.”

I’m thinking of adding gloves to my other nutty pandemic practices, including throwing out the takeout container immediately and reheating all the food in the oven. Now, if only I could find a place that sells disposable gloves.

More at the New York Times, here.

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Photo: Jack Devant
The Perm Opera theater in Russia is getting around quarantine regulations by performing to an audience of one. At least, that’s the plan.

I have been reading a lot of articles about organizations that, although hurting badly from the pandemic, are managing to limp along. You are probably reading other such articles. Just as humans with underlying conditions are said to succumb more quickly to coronavirus, so do institutions with underlying conditions. Some weak nonprofits and businesses have already folded.

Others may come out on the other side of this with new ideas for a stronger future.

It helps to be adaptable.

Andrew Roth writes at the Guardian, “Picture the scene: The curtain rises as the orchestra strikes up the opening bars of Puccini’s La Bohème or Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.

And in the 850-person auditorium of a storied Russian theatre sits just one lucky viewer, a lottery winner whose prize is the personal performance of a lifetime.

“Barred from hosting audiences due to the coronavirus outbreak, a theatre in Perm, a city near Russia’s Ural mountains, plans to host a unique experiment – private viewings of the theatre’s ballets and operas for the price of just a normal ticket.

“The project, called One on One, is the creation of Marat Gatsalov, the principle stage director of the Perm Opera and Ballet theatre. The idea, he said, predated the coronavirus pandemic. …

“When the local government in Perm, an industrial city that also has a reputation as a cultural powerhouse, declared that events with large audiences should be cancelled, he realised the time for the experiment had arrived.

“ ‘We’d been told that we can’t let viewers into the theatre hall,’ Gatsalov said. ‘But that doesn’t mean we can’t let just one viewer in.’ …

“Russia’s coronavirus outbreak has accelerated in the last week and the government has passed tougher measures to prevent its spread. One on One had been scheduled to open with Puccini at the end of March, but the theatre has said that it will begin holding shows only when the rules for the country’s theatres are clearer. …

“The lottery will work like this: 850 people will register for each show, whether it’s an opera, ballet or concert, and a winner will be selected and invited to buy a ticket at the theatre for the normal price.

“Nobody else will be charged, although the theatre could use the funds. Financially, Gatsalov said, the coronavirus crisis has been ‘catastrophic.’

“Asked about how he planned to keep performers safe, Gatsalov said he was trying to follow safety rules ‘as much as possible’ and said the theatre regularly checked people’s temperatures and disinfected the premises. But it was clear that plans were in flux. ‘Of course the theatre can’t be operating as normal at the moment,’ he said.”

More at the Guardian, here. I sure hope it works and will look for a follow-up story down the road. Meanwhile, you can watch New York’s Met opera nightly as an audience of one in your home. It’s a free service while the pandemic lasts. Check it out.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Perm, Russia, where a lucky lottery ticket will get you an opera performance for you alone.
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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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A political analyst from Russia who has lived in the U.S. off and on for 20 years has written a book for Russians thinking of living in America, and it’s a knockout hit. It turns out that even Russians who are not planning to go to the U.S. find our culture deeply puzzling and want to learn more.

Reading about Nikolai Zlobin’s book in the NY Times is helping me understand how differently Russians see some everyday things. Live in a cul-de-sac with few neighbors? That’s a dead end. Very dangerous! Leave curtains open at night, and let people see what you’re up to? No way!

“In Russia,” adds Ellen Barry, “children are raised by their grandmothers, or, if their grandmothers are not available, by women of the same generation in a similar state of unremitting vigilance against the hazards — like weather — that arise in everyday life. An average Russian mother would no sooner entrust her children’s upbringing to a local teenager than to a pack of wild dogs.

“But of course much in everyday American life sounds bizarre to Russians, as Mr. Zlobin documents meticulously in his 400-page book, ‘America — What a Life!’

“It seems strange, 20 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, that ordinary Russians would still be hungry for details about how ordinary Americans eat and pay mortgages. But to Mr. Zlobin’s surprise, his book — published this year and marketed as a guide to Russians considering a move abroad — is already in its fifth print run, and his publisher has commissioned a second volume.” Read more here.

Photograph: James Hill for the NY Times
Nikolai Zlobin, the political analyst and author, in central Moscow near the Kremlin.

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