The Cats of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum

Sally McGrane writes a wonderfully quirky piece on the cats of the Hermitage Museum, certainly the most famous museum in St. Petersburg and perhaps all of Russia (I visited it in 2007).

First, the obligatory history:

There have been cats in the palace since Peter the Great’s daughter, Empress Elizabeth, issued a decree, in 1745, that the biggest cats, capable of catching mice, be sent immediately from Kazan to the court of her imperial majesty. Catherine the Great is thought to have favored Russian Blues as indoor palace cats; under the last Czar, the royal family’s pet cats, who were left behind in the palace, fared better than the dogs, who were taken along to Yekaterinburg with the family to their deaths. During the three-year siege of Leningrad, all of the animals in the city died—except for the rats, said to have been so numerous as to form a gray, moving mass in the streets. When the blockade was lifted, Haltunen said, as we continued our walk beneath the museum, Russians sent their cats to the city to help fight the vermin.

On the variation of the cat names:

Stepping into the little cat hospital, a cozy, cluttered space that the oldest and sickest cats call home, Haltunen greeted Irina Popovetz, one of the volunteers who looks after the cats. Then she greeted Kusya (“Oh, this one has no tail!”), Jacqueline (“Look how fat we are!”), Sofiko (“You are very old!), and Assol, a tabby named for an impoverished literary heroine who waited at the seaside for a man sailing a ship with scarlet sails to come for her.

The cats aren’t allowed in the galleries, but that hasn’t stopped them from proliferating around the Museum:

The cats themselves, who are no longer afraid of people, have a positive effect on staff morale, she said. “People here become kinder, because they have the possibility to show this kindness,” said Haltunen, as we made our way back outside, where an orange cat was asleep in the sun beneath a classical statue. “It is very good when you have the possibility to show your best qualities.”

Earlier this year, Hermitage Museum even dedicated an entire day to the cats dubbed “Day of the Hermitage Cat.” Since April 21 fell on a Saturday, this must have been the ultimate Caturday of the year.

Do you know of any other examples where a public place is inhabited by animals, but the people not only accept it, but love it?

BAM: The Other Siberian Railway

This is a wonderful New York Times travel piece on the Baikal-Amur Mainline railroad, otherwise known as BAM:

When most people consider crossing Siberia by rail, they think of the Trans-Siberian Railway, the 5,000-mile-long rail line stretching from Moscow to the Pacific, which was finished in 1916. But two-thirds of the way through the continent from Moscow, the Trans-Siberian sprouts an artery — the BAM — that inexplicably darts north through a blank spot on the map with few towns or even paved roads, a mysterious and enormous railroad loop through nowhere.

Begun under Joseph Stalin as a northern alternative to the Trans-Siberian, the BAM was finished only in 1991 though it’s still being tinkered with to meet growing Asian demand for Siberian lumber, gas and oil.

The author posits that the BAM isn’t so tourist friendly, and that it doesn’t offer all the plush comforts of the Trans-Siberian. The BAM:

…[W]as built for freight and people who have business in the wilderness. The dozen cars on the first leg of our trip were half-filled with workers and managers destined for Siberia’s lumber camps and oil and gas fields, as well as people working on the train line itself. As such, it is more of a utilitarian train, with a nothing-fancy dining car that served essentially as a round-the-clock bar, a couple of packed third-class wagons with clothes draped across bunk beds crowding dormitory-like spaces, and a few second-class cars with four comfortable berths in separate minivan-size cabins.

My favorite portion of the article, the camraderie offered on the train:

Thanks to the dozen passengers who rotated into our coupe during the weeklong journey — among them an engineer heading to the oil fields north of Lake Baikal, a navy officer on leave, a college student who didn’t say a word — our table was a perpetual buffet of pirogi, boiled chicken, pickles, hams and lots of tasty things I couldn’t pronounce. Our contribution was whatever local snack we could buy from the babushkas during the 10- to 15-minute stops the train made at various stations, and the omnipresent, daily replaced bottle of vodka. 

I’ve added this piece to the travelreads collection on this blog.

Television in Putin’s Russia

There are two targeted TV audiences in Russia these days: older Russians who are nostalgic for their pre-perestroika youth and younger viewers who are curious about a Communist system that today seems unimaginable. This New York Times piece profiles some of the shows:

The jokes on a new Russian sitcom called “The Eighties,” are punctuated with faded archival footage; Moscow without neon or traffic and Russians lining up around the block to buy sausage. It’s a coming-of-age comedy like “That ’70s Show” or “Happy Days” but focused on the naïveté and insularity of Soviet society in a way that makes viewers feel sophisticated and modern. A nerdy university student tries to impress a pretty girl who just moved back from France. “When I was a kid, I went abroad too,” he boasts. “Mongolia.”

And Russia’s version of The Bachelor:

“Let’s Get Married!” is a dating show like “The Bachelor,” but without the time — or budget — for sunset balloon rides across Moldovan wine country or hot-tub getaways on the Black Sea. Instead, it brings a jolt of Slavic fatalism to romance: the bachelor has his choice of three eligible and comely young women, but first he must listen to the advice and commentary of a panel of older women who cross-examine him and the potential brides. Also, for no better reason than a flair for excess, the bachelor and his prospective brides sometimes wear theme costumes: he as a hussar officer and they as Tolstoyian ballroom belles, he as Aladdin and they as a harem of belly dancers.

Still playing today, my favorite Russian TV show is Что? Где? Когда?, a very exciting and challenging team trivia game.

Gorgeous Timelapse of Saint Petersburg, Russia

This is a gorgeous timelapse video of one of the most beautiful cities in the world, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Watch as we get numerous overhead views of the city, including a stunning fireworks display over the Neva River. For the stunning closing, we see the opening and closing of the Palace Bridge over the Neva River.

The video was shot by Andrew Efimov using Canon 7D and 5D Mark II cameras. The cut scenes are of a violin duet by Igot Zalivalov and Sofia Bridge. What a beautiful composition as a whole. Highly recommended seeing this one large.

[vimeo http://vimeo.com/36397732 w=650&h=400]

The Life of Lana Peters, Stalin’s Daughter

“He broke my life…I want to explain to you. He broke my life.”

This is a quote from Lana Peters, the daughter of Josef Stalin. According to The New York Times, she died in Wisconsin last week (where she lived in a cabin with no electricity). She’s led a remarkable, though haunting, life, as the obituary in the NYT attests:

Long after fleeing her homeland, she seemed to be still searching for something — sampling religions, from Hinduism to Christian Science, falling in love and constantly moving. Her defection took her from India, through Europe, to the United States. After moving back to Moscow in 1984, and from there to Soviet Georgia, friends told of her going again to America, then to England, then to France, then back to America, then to England again, and on and on. All the while she faded from the public eye.

Ms. Peters was said to have lived in a cabin with no electricity in northern Wisconsin; another time, in a Roman Catholic convent in Switzerland. In 1992, she was reported to be living in a shabby part of West London in a home for elderly people with emotional problems.

Born Svetlana Stalina, she changed her name numerous times in her life:

In her memoirs she told of how Stalin had sent her first love, a Jewish filmmaker, to Siberia for 10 years. She wanted to study literature at Moscow University, but Stalin demanded that she study history. She did. After graduation, again following her father’s wishes, she became a teacher, teaching Soviet literature and the English language. She then worked as a literary translator.

A year after her father broke up her first romance, she told him she wanted to marry another Jewish man, Grigory Morozov, a fellow student. Stalin slapped her and refused to meet him. This time, however, she had her way. She married Mr. Morozov in 1945. They had one child, Iosif, before divorcing in 1947.

Her second marriage, in 1949, was more to Stalin’s liking. The groom, Yuri Zhdanov, was the son of Stalin’s right-hand man, Andrei Zhdanov. The couple had a daughter, Yekaterina, the next year. But they, too, divorced soon afterward.

Her world grew darker in her father’s last years. Nikita S. Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor as Soviet leader, wrote in his memoirs about the New Year’s party in 1952 when Stalin grabbed Svetlana by the hair and forced her to dance.

What an incredible, tragic story her life has been.

Visiting Moscow in the Winter

I really like this post in The New York Times travel section about visiting Moscow in the winter.

The author, first of all, is correct in this assessment (having been to Moscow in the winter myself):

It would be a stretch to say that Muscovites embrace the winter, but they come as close as human beings are able to outside a ski resort. Bitterly cold outside? No matter. Snow piles atop snow piles? Life marches on. Restaurants are full. Sidewalks are crowded. Theaters and opera houses are packed. Parks are crisscrossed by people on ice skates along with those who are simply taking a leisurely stroll as though at the height of spring.

The author explains that if you don’t know Russian, it’s tough getting around in the city (this is true):

Communication was difficult. The waitress, dressed in a sexy version of Georgian folk costume, offered little help. So we opted for the famous Georgian dishes we’d read about, a delicious chicken satsivi (cold chunks of white meat in a walnut sauce), some khachapuri (cheese-stuffed bread) and an assortment of grilled, skewered meats. It was very good. But other tables seemed to be having much grander, happier feasts — huge platters of meats and salads and toast after toast, sometimes with the kitchen staff scurrying out to serenade everyone.

On the infamous coat check person found in most Russian establishments:

This was also our first encounter with what we discovered to be a distinct Moscow character: the insistent coat check person. At many modest restaurants, and certainly at the top ones, customers are given no choice but to check their coats (it’s free, and tips are not expected). A dining room free of winter gear seems to be a sign of class, and the whole process becomes a little ceremony, a punctuation point between the cold world outside and the warmth within. It also provides a frame for that most frequent Russian winter activity: wrapping the scarf, putting the coat on, positioning the hat just so, checking to make sure your gloves are in the pocket.  

Why don’t we see the coat check as a tradition in more American cities? It adds a grandeur to the dining experience, I think.

I like the author’s bravery to try the famous Russian sauna (banya):

Inside, men took turns pummeling one another with thick bundles of leafy birch branches soaked in water. I tried whipping myself with the things a few times — it’s supposed to make your skin feel great — but couldn’t quite get the angle right. Every now and then, one of the Russian men walked over to a giant steel door in the wall, opened it to reveal a glowing red inferno and slung in a giant ladle of water. By the time I left, the floor was strewn with leaves and debris, like a driveway after a storm.

A Mission to Mars (on Earth)

“Our main challenge right now is to avoid being bored. Every single day is very similar to the previous one.”

At the Institute for Biomedical Problems in Moscow, six men (three Russians, an Italian, a Frenchman, and a Chinese national) are finishing up a remarkable 520-day experiment in isolation. They are participants in a simulated mission to Mars about a “ship” dubbed Mars500.

Bill Donahue, the author of the Wired piece, had a chance to interact with the participants:

When I visited the institute last year…The voyagers were sealed off from terrestrial life, each one allotted a private bunk room just 32 feet square and access to a common living room, a small gym, a greenhouse, and two minuscule lavatories. The crew’s food storage room is almost as big as their living quarters, and when they entered isolation on June 3, 2010, it contained every single calorie they would consume as they soared through “space,” then spent nine days on “Mars” (in this case a small pit of red sand) before returning and exiting a year and a half later.

I did find the betting on who would quit the program a bit unsettling:

Isolation is hard; being deprived of fresh air and social variety makes you go batshit. That narrative is so ingrained in the collective psyche that when the Irish bookmaking chain Paddy Power set odds on Mars500, it all but anticipated failure. If a bettor wagered a dollar that the original six-member crew would not last the whole mission, he was, by Paddy’s lights, practically predicting the sun would rise tomorrow—he’d only get $1.20 back. Paddy, meanwhile, set 8-to-1 odds that at least one crew member would go “clinically insane” after leaving the Mars500 experiment. (Fairly long odds until you consider that most jobs don’t come with an 11 percent chance that you’ll go clinically insane in a year and a half.) The Irish bookie even set odds as to who’d be first to quit. It tapped the sole Chinese astronaut, Yue Wang, putting him at 2-1. (Yue was, after all, the most culturally isolated.)

And if you think everything is rosy aboard the Mars500, consider what has happened in a previous isolation experiment (in the year 2000):

The booze wasn’t the only contraband aboard that simulated space station run. The ship’s Russian cosmonauts regularly watched pornography, Kraft admitted, and one Japanese man, Masataka Umeda, left the mission two months early in protest. Meanwhile, there were cockroaches in the showers and mice crawling up through cracks in the floor.

The experiment sounds quite unpleasant, but these men are doing it for science!

Being aboard Mars500 is mostly menial and toilsome—the astronauts are glorified lab rats. Scientists are keeping close tabs on how the isolates’ hearts are coping with the stress of confinement. They are monitoring the microflora in the crew’s intestines, subjecting them to questionnaires on their interpersonal dramas, and hitting them with regular doses of blue light to gauge its effect on their psychological states. The regimen is at times exhausting. “The biggest challenge for me,” Charles wrote in one email, “is the width of my bed—60 centimeters. As soon as I have more than one device to wear during the night (for blood pressure tests, electrocardiograms, electroencephalograms, etc.), I can’t move.”

UVB-76: Russian Short Wave Radio Enigma

From the latest issue of Wired, an interesting piece on UVB-76, a Russian short wave radio:

On the evening of September 7, something more dramatic—one listener even called it “existential”—transpired. At 8:48 pm Moscow time, a male voice issued a new call sign, “Mikhail Dmitri Zhenya Boris,” indicating that the station was now to be called MDZhB. This was followed by one of UVB-76’s (or MDZhB’s) typically nebulous messages: “04 979 D-R-E-N-D-O-U-T” followed by a longer series of numbers, then “T-R-E-N-E-R-S-K-I-Y” and yet more numbers.

From Wikipedia:

The station features a short, monotonous buzz tone repeating at a rate of approximately 25 tones per minute, for 24 hours per day. The station has been observed since around 1982. On rare occasions, the buzzer signal is interrupted and a voice transmission in Russian takes place. 

To this day, no one still knows what the purpose of the station is. Or precisely where it’s located. However, the author of the Wired piece explains:

Most observers believe that UVB-76 is an idiosyncratic example of what’s called a numbers station, used to communicate encrypted messages to spies or other agents. Typically, these stations transmit numbers in groups of five, making it impossible to detect partitions between words and sentences. The numbers can be decoded using a key in the possession of the intended listener. Numbers stations are thought to have existed since World War I, as documented by the Conet Project, a compilation of recordings that was first released in 1997. (Director Cameron Crowe, a fan of the Conet Project, used samples from it in his 2001 film Vanilla Sky.) Drug runners are believed to have used numbers stations on occasion; so too are the North Koreans, the Americans, the Cubans, and the British. Indeed, shortwave hobbyists suspect MI6 was behind the most famous numbers station on the planet, the much-revered Lincolnshire Poacher.

If you’re interested, you can listed to a feed of UVB-76 online at http://UVB-76.net.

New Yorker Profile of Joseph Brodsky

In this month’s New Yorker, there is an interesting profile of Joseph Brodsky and the fortune of misfortunes.

If you aren’t familiar with Brodsky’s story and his exile from Russia, that piece is an excellent primer. I’ve previously profiled a conversation between Brodksy and a judge in this post (scroll down to the bottom), but this exchange (profiled in the New Yorker) was new to me:

Judge: Tell the court why in between jobs you didn’t work and led a parasitic life style?
Brodsky: I worked in between jobs. I did what I do now: I wrote poems.
Judge: You wrote your so-called poems? And what was useful about your frequent job changes?
Brodsky: I began working when I was 15 years old. Everything was interesting to me. I changed jobs because I wanted to learn more about life, about people.
Judge: What did you do for your motherland?
Brodsky: I wrote poems. That is my work. I am convinced. . . . I believe that what I wrote will be useful to people not only now but in future generations.
Judge: So you think your so-called poems are good for people?
Brodsky: Why do you say of the poems that they are “so-called”?
Judge: We say that because we don’t have any other idea about them. 

Of note is this paragraph about Brosky’s loneliness when coming to the United States:

Brodsky’s poems during his first years in the States are filled with the most naked loneliness. “An autumn evening in a humble little town / proud of its appearance on the map,” one begins, and concludes with an image of a person whose reflection in the mirror disappears, bit by bit, like that of a street lamp in a drying puddle. The enterprising Proffer had persuaded the University of Michigan to make Brodsky a poet in residence; Brodsky wrote a poem about a college teacher. “In the country of dentists,” it begins, “whose daughters order clothes / from London catalogues, . . . / I, whose mouth houses ruins / more total than the Parthenon’s, / a spy, an interloper, / the fifth column of a rotten civilization,” teach literature. The narrator comes home at night, falls into bed with his clothes still on, and cries himself to sleep…

I also thought the author’s conviction on Brodsky’s grasp of the English language was profound (I am reminded of Nabokov in this instance):

His [Brodsky’s] English was able to grant his parents a measure of freedom. But there was one thing it could not do: transform his Russian poetry into English poetry. Inevitably, Brodsky tried, and he wasn’t shy about it. Almost as soon as his English was up to snuff he began to “collaborate” with his translators; eventually he supplanted them. The results were not so much bad as badly uneven. For every successful stanza, there were three or four gaffes—grammatical, or idiomatic, or just generally tin-eared. Worst of all, to readers accustomed to postwar Anglo-American poetry, Brodsky’s translations rhymed, no matter what obstacles stood in their way.

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Hat Tip: @openculture