A Scandal at the Bolshoi Ballet

In this must-read piece titled “Danse Macabre,” David Remnick profiles the sulfuric acid attack on Sergei Filin, the artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet, and the ensuing scandal:

Filin was in agony. The burning was immediate and severe. His vision turned to black. He could feel the scalding of his face and scalp, the pain intensifying all the time.

“In those first seconds, all I could think was, How can I relieve the pain?” Filin told me later. “The burning was so awful. I tried to move. I fell face first into the snow. I started grabbing handfuls of snow and rubbing it into my face and eyes. I felt some small relief from the snow. I thought of how to get home. I was pretty close to my door. There’s an electronic code and a metal door, but I couldn’t punch in the numbers of the code. I couldn’t see them. When I understood that I couldn’t get into the building, I started shouting, ‘Help! Help! I need help!’ But no one was around. I tried to make my way to another entrance, in the hope that someone would see me and help me. But that was not such a good idea, because I was falling down and getting up and bumping into cars and into walls and falling down because I couldn’t see any steps. There was so much snow. Snow was coming down. I kept rubbing it into my face.

“When I understood that there was no use shouting for help, I decided to reach into my pocket and put my mobile phone in my hand. I hoped someone would call me. I couldn’t see the screen, so I couldn’t dial. Usually, I get one call after another, but there were no calls for some reason. I tried to knock on the door of each entrance. I’m quite strong and I banged very loudly, but no one was coming out to help. Then the phone slipped out of my hand and I lost it in the snow. The pain in my eyes and face was so terrible that I had a wave of thought: I was dying. But I only wanted to die if it was in the arms of my wife. The pain was unbearable. I really thought this might be the end of me.”

Incredible read.

On Israel’s Flourishing Russian Culture

Israel has the third-largest Russian-speaking population outside of Russia, after the United States and Germany. 

The New York Times Lens blog looks into how Russians have assimilated into Israel culture, via photographs by Oled Balilty:

Mr. Balilty’s journey started a year ago, at a large Russian New Year’s Eve celebration. In Israel, most people celebrate the Jewish lunar new year, Rosh Hashana. Mr. Balilty said that he can appreciate continuing one’s culture, as his parents had emigrated from Morocco to Israel.

“The Russians are totally Israeli. They work like everyone else, often in high-tech jobs, but at night they can live in a different world,” Mr. Balilty, 33, said. “They came here with a beautiful culture, but the culture didn’t open to the Israeli people. I hope someday that Israel will be able to fully experience it.”

See the photographs here.

A Hunger for Tales of Life in the American Cul-de-Sac

The New York Times profiles Nikolai V. Zlobin’s book on American culture. Zlobin is spot-on about many things in American culture:

On Russians raising their children:

In Russia, 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.

Some general scrutiny:

Mr. Zlobin scrutinizes the American practice of interrogating complete strangers about the details of their pregnancies; their weird habit of leaving their curtains open at night, when a Russian would immediately seal himself off from the prying eyes of his neighbors. Why Americans do not lie, for the most part. Why they cannot drink hard liquor. Why they love laws but disdain their leaders.

Interesting bit:

Mr. Zlobin, who has lived in St. Louis, Chapel Hill, N.C., and Washington, finds his answers in middle-class neighborhoods that most Europeans never see. Readers have peppered him with questions about his chapter about life on a cul-de-sac. Most Russians grew up in dense housing blocks, where children ran wild in closed central courtyards. Cul-de-sac translates in Russian as tupik — a word that evokes vulnerability and danger, a dead end with no escape.

But this isn’t exactly correct: there are neighborhoods with true dead ends (they usually have a yellow sign as a warning). This is the literal tupik, not the cul-de-sac. There is no Russian equivalent to the word cul-de-sac, so I disagree with this translation.

Not a boring read.

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]