Archive for August, 2008

Clear the Ice! Oksana Is No Blue Baiul

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008

On a recent Monday morning, Oksana Baiul was pulling on a pair of battered skates at the Ice House in Hackensack, N.J., a few miles from her top-floor high-rise apartment in Cliffside Park. (When friends come over and see her Manhattan view, she said, “they’re all like, ‘Mo-ther fu-cker!’”) She yanked off one American-flag-bespangled blade protector, then another, pushed up the sleeves of her fuzzy Tweety-yellow sweater and made her way onto the crowded ice, skating past five-time national ice dance champions Peter Tchernyshev and Naomi Lang; Ukraine’s Olympic aspirants Sergey Verbillo and Anna Zadorozniak; some pubescent skating students; and a pair of ice acrobats. Pumping her back, she did a couple laps around the ice and began to vogue to the throbbing beat of Mika’s Euro-hit of yesteryear, “Relax (Take It Easy).” At center ice, she hoisted her left blade over her right shoulder, threw her head back and began spinning.

“Talk about back compression!” said Frank D’Agostino, a former figure skater. “That’s her signature donut spin.”

Mr. D’Agostino is the reason the bubbly Ukrainian 1994 Olympic gold medalist is training again: He is the composer and librettist behind Cold as Ice, a musical about figure skaters, to be performed on a stage turned ice rink with the help of Freon tubing.

“You know, Nancy Kerrigan was thinking of doing this musical, but she had just had a baby; she wasn’t sure if she wanted to do it,” said Mr. D’Agostino. “And then Oksana came in there with her Starbucks and just stole the show—just like she stole Nancy’s gold medal!”

The producers are hoping to book a run at the Millennium Theater in Brighton Beach this December, after work-shopping in Alberta and Toronto, with hopes of landing on Broadway in 2009. (“We’re like vultures waiting for a show to die,” said Mr. D’Agostino of the search for an appropriate Broadway theater.) Cold as Ice takes six Olympic hopefuls through the stages of inspiration (“Mom turned the TV on/ And there she stood/ Like a graceful swan/ The majestic power of/ Michelle Kwan!”); tribulation (financial hardship, Soviet training regimens, frustrated homosexual teen romance—“Why can’t I let these feelings show?”); adventure (“So I skate around, I skate around, I skate around again/ And I push it and I bump it and I jump and even spin”); and triumph (“Can you believe it? The kid who was picked last in gym class is now King of the Ice!”).

Ms. Baiul, who will skate, act and sing in the production, plays Maya, a young skater trapped in the Russian system by her fur-coat-wearing, vodka-swilling coach Natalya. (“Skate like beautiful lady, not crappy monster!”) Actually, Ms. Baiul only plays half of Maya, the glamorous, triple-toeing half who twirls around the other half: a sad, bewildered “inner” Maya, played by another skater, who carefully shuffles around the ice in sneakers, singing, “Parents promised to come! They know importance to me!”

At first, Ms. Baiul, now 30, wasn’t eager to star in a Broadway musical; she went to read for the part at her manager’s urging. “She just showed up in pajamas with her Starbucks,” Mr. D’Agostino said. “She blew us all away.”

“Oh my God, Frank! I was wearing these pants!” Ms. Baiul said, tugging her ratty brown leggings. “Yes, I was wearing these pants to the audition!”

She pulled off her skates; she was done for the morning. Nearby, a Polish couple training for Vancouver 2010 were stripping down to their skivvies after practice.

In preparation for the hoped-for Broadway debut, Ms. Baiul is turning her 5-foot-4 body back into a machine. (“I can’t go out there and not be perfect,” she said. “No fucking way.”) She leaves parties early, doesn’t drink, eats “pure protein” (mostly cottage cheese and filet mignon) and tries hard to keep her energy focused because Scorpios, Ms. Baiul said, “cannibalize themselves.” She also knows that people remember her 1997 DUI bust in Connecticut, and that she spent time in rehab in 1998. “If I were really an alcoholic, it would still hurt, just like if I hurt my leg, it would still hurt, even after it healed,” she says now. “It would still bother me, you know? It’s just a story I sold them, and now they think I’m an American hero.”

Every morning she is on the ice by eight, doing jumps other skaters her age have long retired. In the afternoons, before another round on the ice, she and her intensely freckled trainer, Tim Lynch, go hard. Anaerobic Monday is followed by Plyometric Tuesday and so on.

“We’re going to start with two and a half to five miles on the bike just to get the heart rate going,” Mr. Lynch said as Ms. Baiul bounded around the Ice House in her yellow Crocs. “Then we do a dynamic warm-up with ballistic stretching and some core stuff.”

“Tim, Tim, Tim,” said Ms. Baiul, bouncing around him and grinning. “Tim, tell her how I couldn’t do shit before I came to you.” She pouted, plunked her head down on her folded arms and sent her puppy eyes skyward. “Tell her!”

“You weren’t so bad.”

“Yes, I was! I was so fucking bad,” Ms. Baiul said, lunging around and guffawing like a sugared-up kid. “I couldn’t do shit! But now look! Look at these!” She yanked up her shirt to reveal bronzed abdominal muscles like copper rivets.

“But I’m not coming today, Tim, my energy is all off. I don’t want to hurt myself.”

Instead she got into her Mercedes-Benz sedan (“I only drive Mercedes”) and prowled around Hackensack looking for a copy of the New York Post: She’d heard a Page Six item had come out about her that day. “I was on a date on Saturday and we went to a party and all the Sopranos were there,” she said, referring to the HBO cast. “And I was talking to my buddy Paulie”—actor Tony Sirico—“and I’m afraid those fuckers wrote that we’re together.” (They’re not.)

During a pit stop at Starbucks, she talked about her last long-term relationship. “He was totally fucking sick,” she said. First, she said, he didn’t invite her to dinner with his mother, who was in town from Moscow for the winter holidays; so she refused to go out with him on New Year’s Eve. Soon, she was returning the ring. Ms. Baiul suspects that he was interested only in using her name to further his family’s entertainment business in Russia. A year and a half later, he still phones and she still screens. “Totally fucking sick.”

She put Mariah Carey on the car stereo. “Do you like Mariah? The bitch is all plastic fantastic.

“See, Britney was manufactured, like all those stars are manufactured,” she continued. “That’s why she’s going to shit right now. Madonna is a genius. That’s why she’s still around.” She turned the Mercedes into a Shop Rite; inside, no New York Post.

She drove through Teaneck, passing the bakery where she’d had gotten a kosher birthday cake for her 30th birthday party. (Raised by a series of coaches after being essentially orphaned at 13—her mom died, and dad had left years before—she recently discovered her mother’s Jewish roots.) The Merecedes purred onward; the sun was setting as she drove past the Hudson River cliffs. “Beyoncé and Jay-Z live around here,” she said. “I always see them in their white Bentley, and they’re always going up there.” She pointed up a winding road. “Who knows what the fuck they do up there?”

Blogging For Truth

Thursday, August 21st, 2008

Bearing cigarettes, crackers, and salami, Krig42 returned to Tskhinvali on August 15th in search of the truth. The city, which came under heavy Georgian fire the night of August 7th before the Russians retook the city three days later, had instantly become the center of a propaganda battle between the two countries.

In the first hours of the war, Russian officials announced that 1,600 South Ossetians had been slaughtered by bloodthirsty Georgians; two days later, the count stood at 2,000. Tskhinvali, they said, lay in ruins. Georgia disputed the tally and claimed that Ossetian militias were engaging in a campaign of ethnic cleansing, burning and looting Georgian villages in South Ossetia. Tskhinvali, they countered, was not as badly damaged as Moscow claimed. Russia shot back with claims of genocide; Georgia filed suit with the International Court of Justice. In an attempt to find some measure of objectivity, Human Rights Watch waded into the conflict and found that the death toll seemed to be exaggerated: the head physician at the city’s hospital said they had treated only 273 wounded and received forty-four dead bodies, believed to be the majority of Tskhinvali’s dead.

Krig42 (the blogging alias of Russian journalist Dmitry Steshin) had seen much of this chaos firsthand. On assignment for Komsomolskaya Pravda, he arrived in Tskhinvali hours before the fighting started and had been supplementing his daily reporting with vivid frontline posts on his personal blog. His press pass accorded him journalistic authority while his LiveJournal gave him the room to describe a confusing and maddening war as he saw it, and the blogosphere—apparently hungry for just such unfiltered war stories—responded enthusiastically, making Krig42 one of the most popular bloggers in Russia.

The Russian blogosphere, meanwhile, was abuzz with speculation over the Tskhinvali charges: Had the city really been leveled? How many people had really died? And who, exactly, killed them? Just after midnight on the day Human Rights Watch published its findings, Krig42 finally weighed in:

To all you people blowing hot air about the totally destroyed or barely touched Tskhinvali, I report: I shot thirty rolls of tape and made my own “virtual tour” of Tskhinvali. I rode through it on an armored personnel carrier from north to south and from west to east, filming continuously. I filmed basements where people died. I filmed people exhuming the grave of a woman and two children, buried in the garden. I filmed a car in which two kids burned alive. I filmed the rancid cellars of the city hospital. I think these should make an impression on you.

Steshin even found the elderly doctor interviewed by Human Rights Watch, who clarified her version of the casualty story. “Could there possibly be 2,000 dead?” she told him in her broken, heavily accented Russian. “If you’re counting the entire district, then yes.” Though exhausted from traveling, he pledged to stay up and post his virtual tour online by morning. It was, he said, “a personal response to the base claims of Human Rights Watch. These fuckers thought there weren’t enough casualties in Tskhinvali.”

Almost two weeks out, the cement of the war’s narrative is starting to set, and Russian journalists, especially those who were there, are frantically blogging to make sure it sets right. It’s not always clear, though, whom they are fighting. A recent poll found that only 2 percent of Russians sympathize with Georgia. Visitors to Krig42’s blog, ambivalent last week, have been punctuating their comments on the picture of the charred, disembodied leg of a dead Georgian soldier with smiley faces.

By almost all measures, the Kremlin’s media campaign has been successful. But there are still naysayers out there, especially in the West, and, in the face of such chaos and international outcry, Russians are hungry for a unanimous, objective, exonerating verdict. They are also, however, suspicious of what they see as propaganda, both at home and abroad. “Russia,” journalist Michael Idov wrote, “is a society of conspiracy theorists. In fact, the notion that politics is mere theater and policy is determined via backroom collusion is so central to the Russian worldview that “theorist” is perhaps too weak a word. Russia is a society of conspiracy axiomists.”

Combine a culture already suspicious of all things political with the natural, magnifying outlet of the free-for-all blogosphere, and you get Russian bloggers searching desperately for the necessarily elusive key to the riddle of this war. Obviously, the thinking goes, evidence on the ground is being manipulated for political purposes. Obviously, says the rare Georgian sympathizer, we’re only being shown the wrecked streets and not the rest of the city. Or, says the Russian nationalist, the West wants to minimize the death toll in Tskhinvali so that Saakashvili can escape the war crime charges he so desperately deserves.

It is not, however, a question of looking for the skew-factor of media bias, as it would be in the West. In Russia, the question is more essential: What truth are they trying to hide from us? As Moskovsky Komsomolets correspondent Irina Kuksenkova put it in an interview after her return from the war—which she greeted, incidentally, drinking champagne and watching the firefight from the roof of the Alan Hotel where Mikhail Romanoff was later holed up with the Russian press—“There’s only one truth. There can’t be two truths.”

Evgeny Poddubny, a TV correspondent for TV Center, revived his dusty blog to present his eyewitness account of the war after his nine-day stay in Tskhinvali. “I will tell you what I saw there with my own eyes. At first, I didn’t want to write about it in my LiveJournal,” he wrote, “but after I returned to Moscow and read the stuff being said online, I just couldn’t keep silent.” He then plunges into a self-consciously flat account—“I tried to keep the descriptions as dry as I could”—detailing the war’s progression, paying careful attention to timing and tank formation, as if his precise telling will finally deflate all the conspiracy theories whirling about the blogosphere. Poddubny’s blog isn’t as rhetorically compelling as Steshin’s, but he, too, resorts to graphic imagery to make his points:

An elderly man approached us and, with a gesture, invited us into his house. We walked into the bedroom, he brought us over to the bed – a big double bed – pulled back the cover, and there were his wife and daughter, both burned and headless. Many have said, you guys are only telling us when you could show it.

And so he does.

“Of course, I didn’t include everything,” Poddubny writes at the end of his long, painstakingly detailed account. “I have to gather my thoughts…But!” he adds (and here the paths of journalistic strivings for objectivity and conspiracy theorizing diverge):

But! Georgia made the first military move! Russian forces entered South Ossetia 16 hours after the beginning of Operation ‘Clean Earth’! There was not one Western camera crew in Tskhinvali until the moment that military operations ceased! The Russian air force hit military infrastructure!

Krig42, on the other hand, more gingerly treads the line between skeptical journalist and conspiracy theorist. When Krig42’s videos finally went up on Tuesday, he showed – truly showed – the eerie moonscape of Tskhinvali: A long, rumbling drive down Tskhinvali’s Moscow Street, the early evening sun planing through the trees, falling on rubble. Broken glass still in the panes, black shadows of fires long extinguished climbing up the outer walls. The muzzle of an AK-47 pops briefly into view. An occasional grandmother hobbles along, but otherwise the street is deserted.

There is a clattering reel of a shabby, ill-equipped basement, identifiable as a hospital only because the video titles it as such. A deserted town square. Another video, called “A dead body, briefly,” just one second long, snaps a quick shot of a body in a wide muddy road as trucks detour around it.

Riding along Moscow Street, Steshin offers no commentary. All you hear is the wind and the personnel carrier trundling along. The post is titled, simply, “Watch. Count the ruins, if you want.”

Blogging From The Front

Wednesday, August 13th, 2008

At 6:19 p.m. this past Saturday, Russian journalist Mikhail Romanoff added a two-line post to his personal blog from the chaos of Tskhinvali: “They’re shooting like fucking mad over here.” Eighteen hours and a couple posts earlier, he was blogging from the basement of the city’s Alan Hotel, where he was holed up with Russian journalists and peacekeepers. “Interfax is here, REN-TV, Channel Five,” he wrote. Romanoff, a twenty-something native of Yakutia who works for the New Times of Moscow, had come to South Ossetia to track the rising regional tensions two days before the fighting broke out, leaving a prescient post – “I’m off to volunteer for the Georgian War! Ciao!” Now he was stuck. “I had planned to leave tomorrow,” Romanoff blogged from the besieged hotel. “I ordered a car for five a.m. It’s unclear if it’ll come. Hell, nothing is really clear anymore.”

Like most Russians his age, Romanoff is an active user of LiveJournal, a sort of blog-meets-social-networking site that has become a vital outlet for meaningful political discourse in a country where the mass media has been happily gobbled up by the state. Some blog for their friends, others have wider followings with thousands of commenters, putting them at the top of rankings done by Yandex, Russia’s search engine.

Though many Russian journalists at the front reported that access to many Russian websites had been shut off by the Georgians, LiveJournal was still accessible because of its .com suffix, rather than the suddenly problematic .ru suffix. And so, even as a geopolitical nightmare unfolded around him, Romanoff continued to blog. When he wasn’t posting himself, Romanoff would phone his entries in to his friend Ilya Yashin, head of the youth branch of the liberal (and defunct) Yabloko Party, who would then post for him. While young Russians love their LiveJournals like Americans love their Facebook, Romanoff’s dedication to keeping his LiveJournal humming from the trenches is stunning.

He’s not the only one who did so. Take Krig42, the right-leaning, WWII-obsessed LiveJournal alter ego of Dmitry Steshin, a political correspondent for the tabloid-y Komsomolskaya Pravda. Steshin’s LiveJournal dwarfs Romanoff’s brief “I’m alive, I’m scared, don’t believe your TVs” posts, however. Trapped in Gori when the fighting started, Krig42 had been blogging feverishly up until his escape yesterday morning over the Georgian border into Armenia. His terse, vivid entries recall the frontline journalism of Vasily Grossman and Mikhail Koltsov, and have boosted his blog’s Yandex ranking nearly 300 spots in the last day alone. A sample from August 9th, the day he decided it was time to get out:

“I went outside. Everything is deathly silent; there is booming somewhere on the outskirts. Georgian troops are lounging along the walls. Gori’s city square is piled up with the garbage of war: ammo transportation boxes, crates, bandages. Packs of NATO MREs, but with Georgian labels. Fuck, this is someone else’s war. ‘What am I doing here, on this side?’ I ask myself again. All for the sake of fucking objectivity…The soldiers try to strike up a conversation with me. Mutely I slide past them – it’s better than pretending to be a sorry-looking Englishman.”

Later, he meets David, a Georgian his age, who invites him into his home for tea. David has rushed home from his construction job in Thessaloniki to get his elderly parents out of Gori, but they won’t budge:

Men were swarming outside of David’s house. There was a Georgian veterans’ recruitment station nearby. Even invalids on crutches showed up…With his huge hands, David pushed me into the last (or second-to-last) refugee van. Everyone who could had already left last night on ‘more comfortable buses like the Icharus.’

In muted, shocked prose, Steshin describes a ruined country. There is rubble everywhere, buildings turned to funeral pyres. His van waits out a gunfight in someone’s yard before being mobbed by a crowd of refugees. People stream south, roads jammed. Just before midnight on the day he fled for Tbilisi, he posted a picture he took from the hill overlooking Tskhinvali, three hours before the war broke out there. A wooden cross, a sunny valley below: “Tskhinvali,” he wrote, “which no longer exists.”

He describes how his friend, also a journalist, traveling unarmed and unmarked, gets out of a truck to find himself staring into the muzzle of a machine gun. Behind it is a female Georgian soldier. “I’m a journalist!” he yells. She lowers the gun and “folds in half,” shot dead. Another colleague, Sasha Sladkov of Vesti, a state-owned news program, is wounded while hiding in a roadside ditch.

Romanoff posts an ode to Grigol Chikhladze, a soft-spoken Georgian photographer who worked for the Russian language edition of Newsweek. Although Romanoff barely knew him, he is pretty shaken up by Chikhladze’s death. (“I knew Gia only casually,” Romanoff wrote, “but you don’t need much time with him to realize that you’re talking to a solid, intelligent and kind person. He was riding with the Georgians, but fell behind and was gunned down by the Ossetians.”)

Steshin also posts the wartime observations of his colleagues. There’s a triumphant sense of camaraderie here as journalistic competition falls away in the hell they’re all witnessing. Via Steshin’s LiveJournal, in a post that was picked up across the Russian blogosphere, Moskovskiy Komsomolets special correspondent Vladimir Sakirko recounts how his friend, journalist Alexander Kots, was wounded:

Someone yelled ‘Incoming! Incoming!’ Two Georgian jets hit the column of troops with a couple of rounds. We fell to the ground. The battle began. One Georgian plane was hit. We decided to stay close to the center of the formation, started moving and ran into the film crew of ‘Vesti’ – Sasha Sladkov and the guys. We thought that, by lunchtime, we’d get to the city with the troops. But that didn’t last long. The shooting was getting worse and worse.

Crawling through the bushes with a few other officers, they come under fire again.

We fell to the ground. On one side, a battalion was repelling an attack; on the other side, firing soldiers. And we lay right in the middle. I raised my eyes towards Sasha, and he’s suddenly so pale. ‘Is everything okay?’ I ask him. ‘No,’ he says, shaking his head. ‘D’you get nipped?’ I reached for his hand and saw blood. We had no bandages, nothing. You couldn’t raise your head, bullets spraying from both sides. All we could do was wait.

As the official Russian press trumpets the Kremlin’s line—something to the tune of “March on Tiflis” and “Georgia is America”—the Internet sings a different, more conflicted song. Much has been made of the liberals’ flight to the Web, but it is by no means a liberal haven. Online, one will find as many people cheering for Karadzic as for Obama. What is surprising is that, in the face of the near unanimity of official press coverage, there is a very lively debate going on in the Russian blogosphere. Commenters debate questions that the Kremlin has already answered for them: Who really started this war and what does it mean for Russia’s geopolitical future?

To be sure, there are plenty of people advocating “showing Georgia who’s boss” in a way that resembles sodomy, plenty of people who echo nationalist fears of American meddling, bias, and double standards. But there is also a good number of more introspective commenters who are critical of Russia’s role in the conflict. And for all the bloggers going crazy over Saakashvili’s embarrassing dive on Monday (he was roundly reviled as unmanly on various LiveJournals), mostly everyone is horrified by the images coming out of Georgia and Ossetia, which these young journalists, thrust by fate into war, are readily providing them. Take Steshin’s ghost photograph of Tskhinvali before the war. Though it is a tacit condemnation of the Georgian forces that first attacked Tskhinvali before the Russians arrived to finish the job of leveling it, Steshin is more stunned by the enmity between two cultures that used to adore each other. He arrived in Gori hours before the war because he wanted to hear the Georgian side, and he comes away feeling that they too have lied. “Everyone,” he wrote after his escape, “got what he deserved.” Although his commenters ask, he’s unable or unwilling to assign blame. He’s too caught up in the horror.

“When the shooting died down, the troops began to move forward,” Vladimir Sakirko continued on Steshin’s blog. “Nearby, I saw a severely wounded major and I crawled up to him. I look and I see that there’s a wound the size of an eyeball on his forehead. There’s liquid dribbling out of it and you could see the pulsating of his brain. His arms and legs were battered. I rooted around in his bags and found two packets of gauze. I bandaged Sasha as well as I could…”

Sasha survived, but the commentators, usually ready to debate to the death, were shocked: they all wanted to know what happened to the wounded major. These young Russians, who missed the traumas of Chechnya and grew up in a largely prosperous decade of cell phones and iPods and petrodollars, are suddenly faced with a nationalistic war, and, like the generations before them, they are drawn in by its pathos. It’s as if these images hit a cultural switch: the politics dissolve as the drama of war looms large. For all their country’s recent wealth, it is still actively haunted by World War II. Now the press is filled with first-person “I was in the trenches” press accounts, even close-range video interviews with wounded journalists lying on gurneys—the kind of stuff one rarely sees in the West. This fascination with the warrior-journalist is especially notable in Russia, ranked the world’s third-most dangerous country for reporters (after Iraq and Afghanistan), where journalists aren’t encouraged to go poking around in dangerous places. War, however, is sacred, and the Russian blogosphere is singing mournful hosannas. Krig42’s entries, for example, occasionally verge on the melodramatic but his commenters cheer him on for his “objectivity,” “accuracy,” and, most of all, “heroism.”

For his part Krig42—he never acknowledges that he is, in fact, Dmitry Steshin—keeps a stiff, heroic upper lip. Having slogged across the border to Armenia, he writes: “I’ll just rest a bit and head to Tskhinvali.”

Soup to Nettles

Monday, August 4th, 2008

In 1861, the year Tsar Alexander II freed the serfs, Elena Molokhovets published her domestic bible, “A Gift to Young Housewives, or the Means of Lowering Household Expenses.” She explained how to feed the servants, how to pick the freshest meat, how to measure precisely in a culture that still cooked by instinct, how to plan six hundred meals of varying attendance, cost, and life-cycle significance. (A breakfast for one’s name day, for example, should include a turkey galantine, a cold French pâté, a well-sauced duck or goose, beef tongue, fried foul, rice, radishes, two salads, pastries, coffee, rum, and, of course, more pâté.) A half century later, by the time the Bolsheviks had overthrown Alexander’s heirs, the book had been printed in thirty-odd editions, most of them overseen by Molokhovets herself, all while rearing ten children, writing religious tracts, and running her own hearth with utmost efficiency.

The once ubiquitous and bourgeois “Gift to Young Housewives” all but disappeared in Soviet times, but it resurfaced this summer in Red Hook. Valerie Stivers-Isakova, a young, American, and very pregnant housewife, received it as a gift from the mother of her Russian-born husband, Ivan. Inspired, Stivers-Isakova, a writer, decided to have a Molokhovets-themed dinner party.

First, the menu. For a June dinner “of the first order,” Molokhovets recommends starting with a soup of puréed game or wild mushrooms, accompanied by “strong Spanish wines,” lobster-stuffed pastries, and pirozhki with brains, “served in their shells.” The dinner should then proceed through eight more courses: filet of beef with a knockwurst butter paired with a nice Saint-Julien or a warmed Lafite; sturgeon and potatoes served with a Sauternes or a Chablis; young carrots, turnips, potatoes, and cabbage in a cream sauce, “divided on the platter with strips of pastry”; lobster soufflé; a wild-strawberry Imperial punch; braised capon stuffed with liver and truffles; strawberry ice cream; and, finally, berries with black coffee, tea, and cognac.

After hours of translation, Stivers-Isakova decided to ditch the vegetable dish with what she termed “fancy dough receptacles.” She also figured that she was inviting too many vegetarians to serve so much meat. In the end, she said, “I decided to go for the spirit of the thing.”

She started with the poultry. “We tried to make the veal-stuffed duck, and it was a total disaster! We deboned it, we even sewed it closed, and it just came out looking ridiculous,” Stivers-Isakova recalled, posing, elbows out, in homage to the ill-fated mallard (Recipe No. 894). “Molokhovets just says, ‘Cook till it’s done.’ What does that mean? What vessel do you use? What temperature?”

A peach tart turned out soggy; rice-and-egg pastries too dry. Stivers-Isakova went hunting for nettles at the Union Square Greenmarket, called Court Street butchers looking for kidneys and veal bones, and scoured the Red Hook Fairway for elderberry juice. The nettles were the worst. Six stinging bushels had to be cleaned, boiled, drained, blanched, wrung, chopped, and reduced, finally, to a small pile you could hold in your hand. “I had four pots going,” Stivers-Isakova said. “I had to wear ziplock bags on my hands.”

Stivers-Isakova cooked for three days. When her twelve guests finally arrived, on a Saturday night, the meal got under way with smoked fish (from Russ & Daughters) and pickles (prepared in Russia by Ivan’s mother, using Recipe No. 3,287), accompanied by shots of cold vodka. Cutting into a chicken cutlet (Recipe No. 846), Alix Alferieff Murdoch, a law student, recalled how her Kentuckian mother had tried to re-create a traditional Orthodox Easter dinner for her Russian-émigré husband. “She lost the recipe for kulich”—a dense Easter cake—“and could never remember—was it twenty eggs? Twenty-two eggs?” (Molokhovets, in Recipe No. 2,472, recommends ten.)

After the sorrel-and-nettle soup (Recipe No. 2,032) and fish in champagne aspic (a variation on Recipe No. 1,249), the guests wandered over to look at the Statue of Liberty, visible through the dining-room windows. Anya Ulinich, a writer and a Russian immigrant, tried to give Stivers-Isakova some advice, young housewife to young housewife.

“I really want my kid to speak Russian,” Stivers-Isakova said, balancing a slice of rum torte with jam (Recipe No. 1,944) on her belly. “Ivy says he’s going to speak Russian to the kid, but I don’t believe him. So I’m going to hire a nanny who only speaks Russian.”

“But you know the problem with Russian nannies, don’t you?” Ulinich said. “You need a nanny who speaks no English, and if she speaks no English she’ll be older than you, in which case she’ll become your surrogate mother. She’ll constantly be freaking out: ‘Oh, my God! How can you give the child cold milk straight from the fridge!’ ”

Stivers-Isakova remained confident that she’d build a fine nest, even if it is a hybridized version of the one Molokhovets envisioned. What did she think of the book, in the end?

“It’s an instrument of torture.”