Archive for the ‘RUSSIA!’ Category

High Note

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

Alexei Semin lives in a billowing four-story red-brick “cottage,” which is locked into a gated community of other lower-upper-class cottages, about 20 kilometers due south of Moscow. It is a nice place to live and, when it snows, it is very quiet.

And that’s nice, because Alexei Semin builds stereos in his basement — by hand, from scratch — using antique vacuum tubes he finds scattered throughout the Internet tube sound aficionado universe.

He is part of the renaissance of tube sound, or sound systems based not around solid-state transistors – tiny, cheap, plastic things in your home stereo – but around vacuum tubes, known as “lamps” in Russian, because that’s what they look like.

Unlike transistor amplifiers, which replaced tubes commercially in the late 1960s, tube-based amps are bulky, fragile black holes of energy that are hard to build and are therefore very, very expensive.
Famed for their fidelity to the original recording – and, according to enthusiasts, for the warmth of their sound – the tube amplifiers have surprisingly low wattage. The amps on Semin’s sound systems max out at five watts, which doesn’t seem like much, but actually is.

“What do you want to hear?” Semin asks. “Katy Perry?”

He pops in the pink-flecked disc into a gutted CD changer that he has retooled and hooked up to the half-built stereo in his basement. Two simply curving wooden speakers with home-cooked, rice-paper drivers are each just under five feet tall and are just for vocals. In the background, partially finished transformers sit on workbenches. They are stuffed with condensers from 1955 and studded with even older vacuum tubes. (“This is the famous Hitachi 5Y3-GT,” Semin says, showing me a thumb-sized Japanese glass tube he bought online for $100. He also showed me an even smaller and more expensive GE tube from 1953, as well as crates with giant forearm-length tubes from the American military – spare parts from 1937.)

All this takes up a good quarter of the room, and it is only half the system, his largest and most expensive yet: Semin’s finger-in-the-wind estimate puts it at $150,000, not including labor, and he’s worked on it for four months. Tuning the thing may take up to another month. (When it’s finished, it will get a small metal plate that says “SALabs, Inc.,” which stands for Sound Analyzing, but it also conveniently coincidences with his initials.)

Semin turns a metal knob still dangling from a wire (he gets the metal from Germany and then polishes them into a sleek, matte-chrome knobs) to 1.1 watts. Katy Perry starts to strum her guitar at a decent volume.

“The idea is just to turn it on,” says Semin of the lack of displays and buttons and such. “You don’t have to do anything but adjust the volume.”

He turns it to 2.5 watts.

Katy Perry, pouting through an acoustic number — “you’re so gay and you don’t even like boys” — is approaching deafening.

At five watts, she gets there, but her throaty hatred is clear, pure – warm, even. No distortion, just Katy Perry ragging on some poor young man who wears scarves and likes his Hemingway.

Semin began playing with radio and acoustic constructions when he was 15 years old, a lonely army brat who grew up in 15 different places spanning the Soviet Union, from Sakhalin to Belarus. After graduating from the military academy, he followed his father into the GRU (the Soviet CIA-NSA amalgam) as a radio engineer.

“I never built anything for them,” he said when I asked him what he did for the GRU. He reached the rank of lieutenant colonel but never elaborated what he did for the agency in the last decade of the Cold War.

After serving for 15 years, he quit the GRU in 1995. The pay was small, the country was in chaos, and, Semin says, “I don’t like doing what no one needs.”

So he got a job as a trade representative with Mars, just after the first Mars candy bar produced in Russia rolled off the conveyer belt. He worked at some of the big Western companies doing business in Russia – Bristol Meyers Squibb, Dannon – until January, when he finally quit, left his Moscow apartment to his daughter, and moved permanently into the suburban cottage to devote himself to his hobby, investing tens of thousands of dollars (his own) into stereo systems he makes no money on. His friends have encouraged him to go into business but the artist within him has so far resisted the idea.

His wife, the marketing director for Dannon, has been largely supportive, he says.

“It’s a good think my wife gets me,” he says. “What if she didn’t?”

“When you talk to someone, you hear the emotion in their voice,” Semin tells me as we sip coffee in his kitchen. He is a quiet, inconspicuous-looking man with a softly bulging belly and wire-rimmed glasses hovering on a small, bulbous nose. “In a normal recording” – say, Katy Perry – “these emotions are erased, leveled,” he goes on, sounding misty. “I once put on a recording from the furry years of God knows when, of Ella Fitzgerald performing live at the Savoy. You can hear her mastery of her voice, how the saxophone player gathers breath and passes it through the instrument, how the guests are moving their forks. When I heard it on a lamp system, I thought, ‘holy moly!’”

But to Semin, those furry years were the golden years of audio. “Humanity has been racing ahead, leaving everything – even the good things – behind,” he says. “Everything is premised that it needs to be made in huge volumes, and cheaply. And faster, faster, faster.” Without, that is, the care and patience required to assemble one of Semin’s elaborate constructions.

“There’s a nostalgic aspect to this movement,” says Jeff Snyder, the technical director of the Princeton University electronic music studios. “It recalls a time when technology was taken a little more seriously. And a lot of the nostalgia about old technology is because it is so well-made by today’s standards.”

A return to that quality is exactly what Semin is after. In fact, one of the reasons he won’t go into business is he doesn’t want quantity to overwhelm his quest for the sublime. “He is uncompromising, which is his advantage, but it’s hard to go into a business with this mindset,” says Dmitry Mozhaev, a friend who recently hooked up a set of SALabs amps that Semin had given him as a gift. “He sees it as an act of creation. He thinks least of business; he’s focused on achieving perfection.” (That said, Mozhaev says the quality of Semin’s system has “reawakened” his long-latent love of music.)

Semin also doesn’t have a regular output. He can make twenty systems a year, or he can make three. They can cost $20,000 or $40,000 or $150,000, depending on what the customer – or he – feels like. (And this is often right up the alley of an elite – and showy – clientele. A construction magnate put an SALabs system in his office, and when his equally wealthy friend saw it, he came to Semin asking for a system that was even better and more expensive than that guy’s.)

“The idea,” says Semin – and it’s always an idea, “is to never make anything twice. Stradivarius never made anything twice. If you put an assembly line of wood parts together that came out as a violin, that wouldn’t be Stradivarius.”

Only one store in Moscow has an SALabs system in stock. It’s small – six blocks — and not even for sale. It is the property of an unnamed businessman who allowed the store, Nota Plus, in Moscow’s historic center, to exhibit it while his apartment is renovated. It has Class A, single-ended triode amps, and each of the two channels has a six-watt power output. This one has an 8 ohm impedance, though Semin is flexible: his work has spanned the full gamut, from four to eight to 16. And like all of Semin’s uncompromising work, this system is a power suck. For optimal sound, the system needs 1 kilowatt hour.

Nota Plus estimates its value at around $25,000.

“It’s happened more than once that people have circled in front of the store windows saying, ‘I’m gonna buy it, I’m gonna buy it,’” says Mikhail Dimitreev, a sound specialist at Nota Plus. “But many of them aren’t satisfied with the price, and everyone wants a foreign brand because they think it’s better than a Russian product.”

The closest comparison, Dimitreev says, are Kondo systems, manufactured by hand in Japan and sold for astronomical prices.

Dimitreev, who has been working in sound engineering for forty years, says that he’s never heard anything like a Semin.

“I’ve never heard anything of better quality,” he says. “Our Kondo is Alexei.”

High Note [RUSSIA!]

Chivers Me Timbers

Friday, March 27th, 2009

EARLY THIS MORNING, Moscow-based New York Times correspondent C.J. Chivers was detained by the South Ossetian KGB as he tried to cross into Mogabruni, an Ossetian village on the border with Georgia, which claims its territory.

Told that he did not have the proper accreditation in South Ossetia, now technically an independent nation, Chivers was sent back to Georgia whence he came.

At least that’s what’s being reported in Russia.

“In truth, the whole thing amounted to nothing,” said Moscow bureau chief Clifford J. Levy in an email.

Chivers, it turns out, was not detained at all. He and his fixer, who had a Georgian passport, were stopped at a Russian-Ossetian checkpoint. They had been headed to nearby Akhalgori/Leningor to visit a local resident who had invited them over. The Ossetian guards called the resident, who confirmed the invitation, but Chivers and his fixer, Olesya Vartanyan, were told they had to wait: The supervisor, apparently, was in the shower.

Chivers waited for two hours, during which time he and Vartanyan were treated with utmost hospitality. “During this time, the men at the checkpoint gave us pears to eat, and offered seeds, and chatted amiably with us about a range of subjects,” Chivers wrote in a late-night email from Georgia. “Our passports/documents were returned to us midway through this time,” he added, “We never were told, and we never had the impression, that we were detained or under any sort of restriction or arrest.” His request to enter South Ossetia was denied this time around, and Chivers was told that, next time, he would have to enter South Ossetia through Vladikavkaz, a ridiculous and roundabout request since the village was visible from the checkpoint. Vladikavkaz is 30 miles away.

Contrary to alarmist reports in the Russian press, courtesy abounded. The Russians and Ossetians gave the two Times journalists a lift back to the Georgian checkpoint, but not before inviting Chivers on a trip to the countryside, “or perhaps for some trout fishing in the mountains.”

Within the hour, Chivers and Vartanyan were receiving frantic phone calls checking in on their welfare. A standard bureaucratic encounter had made it into the echo chamber, where it had morphed accordingly.

“I am quite surprised that this is a story, because it was numbingly normal interaction with a border checkpoint, and nothing else,” says Chivers. “The men at the checkpoint were rule- and security-conscious, but they also exhibited the hospitality and politeness I have long experienced on many trips to many places on both sides of the Caucasus.”


Friday, December 5th, 2008

It was a matter of great importance that I learn to forage for my own protein and so, almost as soon as I could walk, I was initiated into the cult of the mushroom. Far too early one summer morning, my parents scooped me out of bed and we set forth from our dacha, about an hour and a half southwest of Moscow, making our way toward the forest down dusty packed-earth roads, our buckets and baskets swinging.

Still foggy with sleep, I trundled along with the pack of parents and grandparents and cousins, struggling on the two-wheeler I had just learned to ride. It was a 20-kilometer trip to the forest and, at 3 years old, I was approximately the height of the bike’s back tire.

Every August, just when summer rains cut the heat, the forests of Russia blossom with all manner of fungi and the country’s city-dwellers board trains bound for the countryside. Armed with sticks and knives, they invade the forests, necks craned, eyes peeled, poking under leaves and fallen trees. Find a mushroom, slice it at the stem, and send it, with a soft thunk, into your leaf-lined basket.

Mushroom picking is an ancient peasant tradition, but in the Soviet Union, where fresh vegetables were scarce and meat products were enhanced with newspaper or fishbone filler, hunting for mushrooms, those fragrant nuggets of vitamins and protein, became a fiercely competitive sport. Keeping your mushrooming location a secret from rival groups was key, as was going as far as possible from any cluster of human habitation: the closer the forest was, the more thoroughly it would have been picked clean by the hungry crowd preceding you. Remarkably, respect for mushrooms in Russia is such that it transcends Russian disrespect for the environment. In a country where oil was left to pool on the ground and the Aral Sea was reduced to a salt plain, mushrooms were lovingly sliced down, not ripped out of the earth, to ensure future crops. And what began as the hunt for delicious freebies in a culture of privation soon morphed into a national pastoral myth.

Ask any Russian about mushrooming, and you’ll hear their salivary glands activate, their voices gather breath as they expound on the beauty of the forest and the quiet thrill of the hunt in something akin to beat poetry. It has even survived into the era of the petrodollar and the ubiquitous luxury supermarket. Every year, scores of people check into Russian hospitals with mushroom poisoning; dozens die. In 2003, a bumper crop killed 34 Russians and poisoned nearly 500 more. That year, 121 people got lost in the forests near St. Petersburg in one month alone.

The danger is real, and so most Russians also moonlight as mycologists, lay experts in the fungal sciences. There is a lot to learn, which is probably why my parents drafted me so early in life. (The bike, which I had to haul through the woods over felled aspens, seemed at the time somewhat gratuitous.) One must know, for example, that chanterelles, or lisichki (those amber-colored, frilly-gilled “little foxes”), cluster in mosses; that in the tall grasses of sunny birch groves, you could find the clay-colored podosinovik or the puffy ecru cap of the podberyozovik, but that rotting birch is prime real estate for colonies of pale opyata (honey fungus) stacked atop one other like favela dwellings, though you should wait for autumn to gather them in earnest; that under drifts of leaves, you’ll find the pickling workhorse of the Russian fungi, the milk-cap or gruzd, but that the mixed forest near our dacha was mostly littered with syroyezhki (the bare-toothed russula), the jalopy of the bunch, and that these can be easily confused with the poisonous, pale-gray poganki (break it open and, if it turns pink, it’s edible – I think).

At that stage in life, however, I knew only that the toadstool, the beautifully named mukhomor or fly-killer, was horribly poisonous and potentially downright evil, even though its red cap with white polka dots looked so pretty in my picture books. Perhaps I even knew that the round buttons of the hilarious but inedible dymoviki blew up in smoke when stepped on, but I was delighted to learn, a couple years later on a trip to the Baltic coast, that, in clearings, you’re likely to find ryzhiki (the stout-stemmed ocher Lactarius deterrminus, its viscous cap punched in at the center) growing “in families,” as my grandmother used to say; that, in those same clearings and also growing in clusters, you’ll find slimy little maslyata (known here as “slippery jacks”), but that you couldn’t possibly confuse them with a ribbed ryzhik. (A maslyonok has a brown bowler hat, yellow stem and porous, corral-like underbelly. Besides, when cut in half, a ryzhik lactates rust-colored ooze that turns green in the air – a dead giveaway to any mushroomer worth his salt.)

One should probably also know that, though these mushrooms are around all summer, the best haul comes in during an Indian summer, when the heat has abated and when rain followed by a couple of sunny days coaxes forth a bloom of mushrooms. Even better is a “mushroom rain,” whose bizarre simultaneity – sunshine and rain at once – heralds full baskets.

In the silence of the forest, lost as you may be in fresh air and introspection, you are always, always on the hunt for the White Whale of the Woods: the elusive beliy grib. This meaty, luxurious white mushroom, known to the Whole Foods-spoiled urbanite as the simple porcini, was to a Soviet the delicacy of delicacies. It grows among young spruce trees or in a mixed birch-and-spruce forest, but mostly in theory; in practice, it seemed nearly impossible to find. Its brown cap makes it blend with the forest floor and, just to keep things interesting, if you manage to find one, you may have actually found a booby-trapped body double. (Simple test: lick the cap; if it’s bitter, it’s poisonous.) Chances are, you’ll find a few white mushrooms, but they are so prized, so fervently worshipped that you’ll be sure to place them at the very top of your already overflowing basket alongside your most beautiful fungal specimens just to provoke the envious, drooling rival hunters on the train platform waiting to head back into the city.

Back at the dacha, after the interminable bike ride back, we dumped our loot into a bathtub full of water, which promptly filled with the confetti-like dirt clinging to the mushrooms. White mushrooms, recognized by worms as well as humans as incredibly tasty, had to be soaked in salt water to smoke those suckers out of our food. After a few washings, the chopping, boiling, salting, pickling and sautéing would begin, the smell of earthy mushrooms, the sounds – of knives and jars and pots and pans, of my parents and grandmother and great aunt and uncle scurrying between the cellar, the kitchen and the veranda, wiping their hands on old aprons – filled the house that night, though I was probably already asleep.

My Great-Grandmother’s White-Mushroom Soup

• 1 medium onion, diced

• 2 carrots, diced

• 3 celery stalks, diced

• 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

• 2 bay leaves

• 1 cup Great Northern beans, soaked overnight, sorted (can be substituted with a can of rinsed cannellini beans)

• 3 medium potatoes, cubed

• 4-5 medium fresh porcini mushrooms, chopped

• _ cup chopped shitake mushrooms

• _ cup chopped baby bella mushrooms

• Salt, pepper

• Sour cream (for garnish)

In a large soup pot, sweat the onion, carrots and celery. Season with pepper. Fill 2/3 of the pot with water; add beans and bay leaves; bring to a boil. Turn down heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Add potatoes, mushrooms, salt. Make sure the beans are almost cooked, and simmer for 10-15 more minutes, skimming foam off the top. Adjust seasoning. Serve with a dollop of sour cream.

Grandma Khinya’s Pickled Mushrooms

• 1-2 lbs. assorted mushrooms, cleaned (if using slippery jacks, remove slippery membrane on cap)

• 5-8 peppercorns

• 2 cloves

• 2-3 bay leaves

• 1-2 tsp salt

• 2-3 tbsp white vinegar

• 1.5 cups water

In a large soup pot, add just enough cold water and 1 tablespoon of salt, so that the mushrooms barely covered. Boil for 15-20 minutes, until mushrooms are cooked through. Fish out the mushrooms, save mushroom stock for soup. Transfer cooked mushrooms to a clean jar. In a small saucepan, mix peppercorns, carnations, bay leaves, salt, vinegar and water. Bring to a boil. Pour over mushrooms. Let it sit, uncovered, for a couple hours until it comes to room temperature. Adjust salt. Screw the jar closed, keep in fridge for 2-3 days before serving.

Mama Olga’s Sautéed Chanterelles with Potatoes and Sour Cream

• 1 medium onion, diced

• 2-3 tablespoons unsalted butter

• 1 pound chanterelles, cleaned, sliced

• 7-8 medium Yukon gold potatoes, peeled, cubed

• 1 cup sour cream

• 2 tablespoon fresh dill, chopped

• Salt, pepper

Sauté onions in butter until soft. Add chanterelles, salt and pepper; turn heat up to medium-high. When the mushrooms start releasing juice, turn heat down to medium, stirring occasionally until liquid evaporates. Add sour cream; cook until heated through but not boiling. Adjust seasoning. Meanwhile, boil potatoes in salted water. Cook for 5-7 minutes. Potatoes should be soft when poked with a knife. Drain, return to pot to dry. Add mushroom mixture to the potatoes, dill. Mix and serve immediately.


Going Out on Top

Friday, July 25th, 2008

The last time I spoke to Lena Berkova, Russia’s preeminent porn star, she had just woken up—at nine in the evening. “The young lady drank too much last night, you see,” her manager Sasha Valov tells me. “She’s not feeling too well.” But Berkova, a disciplined entrepreneur, knows the value of putting on a good show for the Western press. “It’s kind of hard for me to talk right now, but let’s talk anyway,” she insists, registering the weary notes of metabolized ethanol. “Plus,” she adds, switching into her usual deferent breathiness, “Sasha yelled at me for it, so we should talk.” Like many of her less successful colleagues’ paths to fame, Berkova’s is littered with men who, well, yelled at her.

At 14, she met a dashing young Armenian named Albert in her home town of Nikolayevo, Ukraine. Albert, then 33, was young only in absolute terms, but he ran a successful marriage agency that helped foreign men find the desperate Ukrainian loves of their lives. Albert kept Lena for himself, marrying her in 2001 when she was 16, but proved to be so suffocatingly jealous of his nymphet wife that Berkova divorced him two years later and fled, penniless, for the neon dreams of Moscow. What was a pretty girl with no education to do? Model, of course. But Berkova was too short, and someone at the modeling agency let her down easy by suggesting that other profession for a pretty girl with no education: porn.

Fast-forward to 2004, when a 19-year-old Berkova appears with her (second) husband, Roma, as a contestant on the reality TV show Dom-2 (a rather explicit Big Brother knockoff). Her compromising history is quickly discovered and revealed; Roma gets up and, without batting an eye, walks off camera, leaving Berkova, who was summarily kicked off the show, with an exploding reputation that fueled the sale of two million copies of her hardcore porn debut, retitled “Dom-2: How to Make Love to Lena Berkova.” It even outsold the blockbuster meta-thriller Night Watch, according to Sasha Valov, Berkova’s new manager. Valov wasted no time turning Berkova into a multi-platform brand: there’s the de rigeur music career (her debut album is called It’s Just SEX, recorded with her girl band Min Net, a play on the Russian for oral sex), a Berkova-branded television channel, OERTV, that regularly holds contests for luscious young “veejays,” and even a porn academy that trains legions of young Berkovites.

Berkova has since retired from the hardcore circuit, triumphantly remarried (a Ukrainian businessman), and now limits herself to high-concept “light erotica.” In 2005, she turned down the lead role in “Yulia,” a half-hour polit-porn written by a Russian ultranationalist parliamentarian, in which Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili join the mile-high club on a helicopter.

Berkova, unwilling to do heavy erotica on screen, opted instead to play Tymoshenko’s innocently clad 19-year-old daughter Zhenya, a role she kept in the sequels, “Yulia 2” and “Misha” (named for Saakashvili). Berkova is now working on an erotic biopic about Russian pop icon Alla Pugacheva, a sort of Cher-Barbra Streisand-Liz Taylor amalgam.


RUSSIA!: So how did you get into porn?

Lena Berkova: It wasn’t because I wanted to but because I had to. When I got to Moscow, I had no money, my financial situation wasn’t so great and—you know, it’s hard to talk about it now, but I got used to it. After a while, I started to enjoy it. It was nice to work with certain stars and be in front of a camera. I don’t hide my past. I’m not ashamed of it; I’m proud of it. It brought me fame and everything I have today. I mean, we all have sex, we all have certain fantasies—it’s normal. Maybe I even helped someone along the way, helped someone discover their sexuality, or helped some married couple explore their fantasies. You should try it some time!

R!: Uh—

LB: Really, try it! You might like it! Everyone has sexual fantasies, it’s just a matter of developing them.

R!: All right, I’ll think about it. So what did your parents think when you started doing pornography?

LB: Well, obviously it was really hard for them at first. We fought a lot. I didn’t talk to my mom for a long time. But eventually, they realized they couldn’t really do anything about it and soon I was making enough to support myself and I started sending them money and helping them out financially. And then, when I became famous, my mom finally recognized that it was a good thing and now she really supports me.

R!: Will you ever go back to porn?

LB: No, I won’t go back to it. It gave me a story, it gave me a name, and I’m grateful for it, but it’s enough. I want to work on my music—I’m working on my second album now—and I’m also working on starting my own political party. It’s going to be called the Party of Love, and it’s going to fight for the rights of people of uncertain orientation—homosexuals, transvestites, you know, people like that.

R!: Do you think gay people choose to be gay?

LB: I think it’s a personal thing. Everyone picks for themselves, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. I think that some people have it in them when they’re born, and when they’re older, they can decide if they want to be gay.

R!: Are you running for office?

LB: No, no, I’m still working with Erica on developing the party. Do you know Erica? She’s a transsexual. Anyway, we’re creating this party because people aren’t so good about these things in Russia, they just don’t get it. We want to protect them, to speak out for them.

LB: Oh, that’s a question of politics, I don’t know. I don’t want to talk about politics. But I mean, why not, right? It won’t happen for a while, though, because women in Russia aren’t considered—well, they’re often not considered equal to men, at least politically. You know, founding this party, we’re having a hard time getting our political position out there.

R!: Is that because of the political climate or because you’re women?

LB: Oh, both, probably.

R!: Do you consider yourself a feminist?

LB: (Laughter) Well, I guess I am in my own way? Sometimes I’m a feminist, sometimes not. I see it more as a fight for equal rights, you know? But equal political rights. At the end of the day, every woman wants to lean on a strong man’s shoulder and cry and feel like a vulnerable woman.

R!: Who is the Russian woman?

LB: She’s a strong and independent woman. But… without a man, she probably isn’t too happy.

R!: Why do you think American men have such a thing for Russian women?

LB: Oh, we’ll be here all day if you want me to explain that one, but really there is that idea that the most beautiful women in the world are in Russia. But it’s more than that. “Russian women know how to feel their men. We know what our men want and what they need at each moment. We’re more attuned to our men.”

R!: How is that different from American women?

LB: Well, I don’t want to talk badly about American women; I’m sure they’re very nice, but they’re more independent than Russian women. They’re more, um, egotistical?

R!: Have you ever gotten offers to work in the U.S.?

LB: Well, I’ve worked with American stars before, like this one young lady, one of your porn stars whose name I can’t remember. Not Jenna Jameson, someone else. Anyway, we’d like to branch out into your market, though, definitely. My friend Sophia and I opened a new modeling agency that wants to bring Russian models to the U.S. Our models are much thinner than Western models, which we think is an older ideal of beauty. These days, everyone is using the same big girls—they’re all the same type. They’re all big. So we said, why not? Why not return to that classic ideal of the thin woman? We have the very thinnest models. The thinner, the pricier.

R!: So how thin are we talking?

LB: Oh, about 5’ 7”, about 90 to 100 pounds.

R!: Do you think this might be a dangerous ideal?

LB: Well, there is this concept of anorexia. When you reach that point, it’s a very, very bad point. It’s one thing if a girl that size feels good, if she’s like that naturally; it’s another thing if a girl goes against her genes and does it by force, you know? It depends on the girl. If she has a good head on her shoulders, she won’t do it. A girl has to think for herself. I can’t climb into her head and tell her not to do it. I personally don’t want to get that thin, but it’s their choice. I don’t see how I can help them.

R!: So tell me a little bit about the Porno Academy.

LB: Well, the Elena Berkova Porno Academy is for girls who want to do porn, some professionally, some just for themselves. We teach them how to hold themselves in front of a camera, what’s expected of them—it’s really difficult work, a really hard industry.

In one year, we get about 120 girls, but only ten or twenty finish the course because it’s really hard work. Not everyone is capable of opening themselves up like that. So we teach them things like striptease and the basics of the industry, how it works and stuff. We have choreographers that teach them how to strip and we have lots of psychologists. It’s really hard work, and sometimes even the camera people need to talk to them.

R!: What do the psychologists counsel the girls on?

LB: You know, normal psychologist stuff. The hard thing about the industry is that a porn film isn’t like real sex; it’s scripted, it’s rehearsed. And a lot of these girls aren’t used to that, they’re not used to being naked on camera, having sex on camera. So the psychologists talk to them and explain to them that’s it’s not that scary, it’s not a bad thing to open yourself up like that.

R!: Has your work improved your sex life?

LB: I don’t really like to talk about my personal life, but there’s no comparison. Before and after—no comparison. Let’s just say that there are certain skills you learn that you put into practice.

R!: So where do you see yourself in ten years?

LB: Married, with a kid.

The Many Lives of LOMO

Tuesday, January 1st, 2008

Though Lenin’s heirs didn’t quite succeed in exporting the Revolution to the West, they did produce a Trojan horse of sorts. It’s called LOMO, and it’s a small, portable camera you can stash in your tunic pocket, always ready for that candid shot of a fat cat slurping caviar. And though the Soviet Union is long gone, its battalion of Trojan horses continues to multiply under the auspices of an Austrian company called Lomographische AG. Just last month, suspiciously close to the 90th anniversary of the October Revolution, Meg and Jack White, the rock ’n’ roll siblings known as the White Stripes, came out with their very own, limited edition his-and-hers LOMO cameras in — you guessed it — cornea-scorching red.

This marketing ploy is just the latest development in the cult phenomenon known as Lomography, a kind of egalitarian, populist approach to taking pictures and, some would argue, making art. The technique, which is neatly encapsulated in the Lomographer’s mantra of “don’t think, just shoot,” produces blurry, on-the-fly shots that recall the guerilla impressionism of photo vérité. Add to this the garish colors produced by the cameras’ odd focus, alternative film development techniques, and the optional fish-eye lens, and you’ve got yourself an international hipster sensation.

But back before Lomographers were holding world congresses and building “Lomowalls” in European capitals, LOMO was just your typical Soviet enterprise, striving for mechanical excellence despite its map of scars tracing the arc of 20th-century Russian history.

LOMO’s history goes a little something like this.

When it was founded in 1914, the concern manufactured World War I gun sights for under a fittingly belle époque name: the Russian Stockholding Association of Optical and Mechanical Producers (RAOOMP). In 1930, the same year the company was renamed GOMZ, or State Optico-Mechanical Factory, it came out with its first lightweight civilian camera. It continued its operations through the war years, surviving the siege of Leningrad without ceasing its operations for even a day, heroically pumping out badly needed observational optics for the front. After 1962, when it was rechristened LOMO (or Leningrad Optico-Mechanical Amalgamation), the enterprise continued producing video cameras, microscopes and astrophysical instruments, the largest of which, the BTA (or Big Telescope Alt-Azimuthal), had a diameter of 6 meters. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed, LOMO had produced over 40 million of the highly portable cameras for which it became famous.

Like Soviet warheads, LOMO cameras proliferated around the globe. It was not until 1992, when two Viennese marketing students found one in a Prague thrift shop that the cameras went truly viral. The duo easily finagled an agreement with LOMO, which by that point was nearing bankruptcy, and the company granted them the sole right to soup up and sell the cameras anywhere outside the former Soviet Union. It took LOMO until 1995 to realize the extent of its blunder and cry foul, at which point St. Petersburg’s deputy mayor, one Vladimir Putin, intervened at the behest of the Austrians. He consoled LOMO with a tax break and befriended the company’s chair, Ilya Klebanov, who would eventually become a deputy prime minister. In the end, Lomographische AG retained “Lomography” as its trademark.

Now, with hundreds of thousands of youths snapping photos, sharing them on myriad web forums, and organizing themselves in underground Lomography clubs, perhaps LOMO’s latest incarnation may prove to be more than a fad.

Office Party

Monday, October 1st, 2007

Alexei, the improbably young, impossibly effervescent director of international and investor relations at Russia’s largest private bank, really likes the Moscow Marriott Grand Hotel. “It’s really great,” he says, nodding emphatically. “Everything is very convenient here, very convenient. Really great.” It’s practically the first thing he says to me after we shake hands. I notice the hotel’s inoffensive taupe marble, the surprisingly loud fountain in the lobby; Alexei notices its good organization. “I value efficiency,” he says, nodding emphatically.

This throws me off. How could someone raised in this comically disorganized country possibly value efficiency?

Alexei came of age when the Soviet economy had stagflated itself into absurdity. High oil prices in the ’70s created an artificial sense of growth and this, combined with Brezhnev’s standpat resistance to any reform, reinforced and exacerbated the inefficiency of the country’s command economy. Workers pilfered their workplaces for supplies they couldn’t find on store shelves. They took home rubbing alcohol and bolts; they took home meat meant for stuffing sausages. They took hours out of their workday to scavenge for groceries and, when Gorbachev cracked down on vodka production in 1985, for sugar to run their bathtub stills. People read newspapers at work; they knitted and read romance novels. People did everything, it seemed, but work. “We pretend to work, and you pretend to pay us,” the old saying went.

But the state did pay, diligently, dutifully, regardless of their workers’ performance and regardless of their value. It paid its engineers and its old ladies guarding the rooms of state museums; it paid its bus drivers and it paid its doctors, though it paid the latter significantly less. And, when the Soviet worker passed from a life of toil to a life of leisurely retirement, the state paid him his pension and life was good and there was no unemployment.

But then capitalism came and spoiled the arrangement. Now pensioners are out on the streets raging against their shrunken pensions, and their children are trying, at middle age, to adjust to the rat race of a brutal new economy. Their grandchildren, on the other hand, are thriving.

Since 2000, the Russian economy has been growing by some 6 percent every year. Most of that comes–once again–from ballooning oil prices, but whatever oil and gas money isn’t getting stashed in Swiss banks (and billions of it is) is rapidly cycling through Moscow’s economy, spawning new and legitimate businesses.

“It’s a generation of workaholics,” Anya Katyurovskaya, who writes for Kommersant, who writes for Vlast magazine, told me. “It’s not unusual nowadays to call someone at one or two in the morning and hear, ‘I’m still at the office.’ This was unheard of in our parents’ generation.”

For young Russian professionals, the corner-cutting employee of their parents’ generation has become an irrelevant and ridiculed bogeyman: the sovok. The term is a play on the Russian words for “Soviet” and “dustpan,” and sovoks are exactly that: stale curmudgeons.

“They work nine to six, no matter what,” 24- year-old Vladimir Zimovtsev explained to me when we met for a rushed lunch. “The easier their work day, the better. They’re going to get paid anyway, so the client is just an inconvenience. He takes away their time to read a magazine or a newspaper at work, and this inevitably comes out as anger toward the client.”

Vladimir, a highly paid sales planner at Toyota’s Moscow office, got his MBA in Strasbourg, France. When he came back to Moscow looking for a job, he applied exclusively to foreign companies.

“I didn’t want to work for anyone of the old Soviet mentality,” he said. “Everything in our office is done according to Western methods, 100 percent. I don’t know – and don’t want to know – anything else.”

It is a common attitude among young Muscovites. The new Russian professional speaks English, is comfortable with technology, and works weekends. Danila Oleolenko, who moved to Moscow from Novosibirsk after college in search of a career, works for Sovero Media, an independent Russian advertising agency. He is frequently away, crisscrossing the country supervising production and scouting locations for billboards and ads. At his suggestion, we met for dinner at Propaganda, a popular hangout. “I never cook anymore,” he says, cheerfully spooling pasta onto his fork. “I come here most nights after work. The food is good, and it’s a very good value.” By the time Danila extricates himself from his office and crawls home through Moscow traffic – “I spend most of my time at work or in the car,” he says – there isn’t much time or energy left to whip up a home-cooked meal. So Danila, who earns a comfortable salary, has begun making the same kinds of opportunity cost calculations as his American counterparts: His time is too valuable to waste on labor-intensive thrift. In a city where affordable restaurants are still a new phenomenon, and where, until recently, most people ate almost exclusively at home to save money, this analysis is new and conspicuously Western.

On my last trip to Moscow, I was surprised not only by young Russians’ punishing work ethic, but by their matter-of-fact, almost soldierly approach to their duties. No one complained. No one pinned her distended schedule to her chest like a medal. It was, quite simply, the way things had to be done. A friend who is an art director at a sports magazine once sent me an email from work at four in the morning with no explanation. This was just his weekly routine, the mad rush to close the week’s issue, and there was no point grumbling about it. Ayshat Zulumhanova, a 21-year-old account manager at a prestigious advertising firm, says her job is very stressful and the hours are long. “On a light day, I could be there nine to six, or I could stay till one or two, or even four in the morning.” But, she hastens to add, no one is monitoring your hours. You choose to stay. The point is to get your work done rather than to put in face time for the boss. “It’s an honor system,” she says. “You stay till you finish your project, and when you’re done, your work is evaluated on its merits. The system of evaluation is very honest – it’s pointless to cheat.”

It’s pointless to cheat in part because there is so much opportunity, especially in industries like magazine publishing, financial services, advertising and marketing. These fields never existed in the Soviet Union, so when it collapsed, Ayshat’s generation found itself in a vacuum, “building their businesses from scratch,” as Stephen Jennings, CEO of Renaissance Capital, told a conference of investors last year. This generation’s parents did not know how to manage a portfolio or put out a fashion magazine–and they were too busy keeping their families afloat during the chaos of the ’90s–so their children had to step in instead. Kostya Penkov, who at age 30 was named editor-in-chief of the Russian edition of Men’s Fitness (it folded in 2005), recalled the launch of Playboy in Russia in 1993. “We didn’t have publishing software, just this moveable metal type,” he said. “Even better, we only had Latin characters, but the magazine, of course, was in Russian. So we had wrack our brains coming up with Cyrillic headlines that we could spell out using Latin letters.”

The result of Russia’s opening is that resource-based companies, like natural-gas giant Gazprom, tend to have an older managerial class. The same is true for professions like law and medicine, where experience adds value. In the new economy – media, advertising, finance – the average employee is 20 years younger. At ArkConnect, Ayshat’s agency, for example, the business side is run almost exclusively by women under 35.

“In the West, an ambitious college graduate is competing with someone his parents’ age who is just as ambitious, just as hard-working but who also has 20 years of relevant experience,” Rem Petrov, the publisher of InStyle in Russia, told me. “In Moscow, young twenty- and thirtysomethings are more ambitious, have better communication skills; they work better and harder. They a have a significant competitive edge over their parents.” Petrov, it seems, is one of the few middle-aged people in media who can still compete.

Young Muscovites, then, are vying mostly with each other, and they do it in ways and settings that are increasingly similar to those in the West. They work in friendly, open spaces, a change from the old Soviet workplace of unwelcoming, closed-door offices or crowded, noisy rooms. The offices of the Russian Internet giant Yandex, for example, are airy and colorful, laid out with lots of common space and good humor. There’s a stage for talent shows and the two halves of a conference room that can be divided with an accordion wall are called “GDR” and “BRD”. Vladimir, the Toyota employee, sees a positive development in this. “In the Soviet Union, people sat in their little offices and no one knew or cared about what was going on. There was no information flow,” he says. “Now, where I work, no one has an office but the CEO. Everyone sits together. We are constantly discussing ideas and making decisions as a group. You feel like you’re part of a team, that the business actually depends on you. You’re invested in it.”

This psychological investment is instantly apparent. Young Muscovites make an effort to dress well for work. And, now that the novelty of available consumer goods have worn off, Moscow yuppies dress with subtlety and taste, abandoning the gaudy burgundy club jackets that, in the new Russia of the ’90s, connoted luxury. “I’m usually meeting with businesspeople in their 30s and 40s, so I have to look professional,” Slava Pospelov told me. At 26, Slava is a marketing manager at Ochakovo, a Russian beer company. “Your appearance takes care of 50 percent of anyone’s questions, so I try to look good. I wear nice Italian shirts, nice shoes.” He says that at his office, you can always spot the sovoks. “They’re the ones wearing old shirts and synthetic ties, and you know just by looking at them that they just don’t give a shit about anything.”

One can’t help but smell a kind of idealism in these conversations, a certain hard-nosed belief in meritocracy. It surpasses a desire to simply mimic the West. The goal, once again, is to catch and overtake. The young Russians working in these new industries seem to be in overdrive, both in terms of how hard they work, and in their faith in the fairness of the market. (One can imagine an Olympic competition in office sports between the lackadaisical Americans and the disciplined, ruthlessly trained Russians.) Vladimir, for one, already thinks Russia has overtaken Western Europe. “When I was in France, I saw lots of things we do better than them,” he told me. “Why are their banks closed on Mondays, for example? Why do they have a 35-hour work week?” He has a ready answer: “Because they work to live, and we live to work.”

Perhaps their zeal and their conscientious approach to work is not just a reaction to the old system, but a reaction to the current one. At the investor’s conference, Stephen Jennings spoke of the contradictory “dialectic” of the Russian economy. He praised the new generation as “modern, efficient, effective and honest,” but lamented the hyper-centralization of the state, which breeds “inefficiency, stalled reform, corruption and a serious decline of economic and social infrastructure.” Despite Putin’s recent announcement that he is launching a crusade against corruption, life in Moscow is checked at every turn by its countless manifestations: traffic cops who pull you over just to collect a bribe, say, or real estate prices inflated by the kickbacks the developer has to pay to get the building permit. In a society so choked with corruption, so unpredictable and highly personalized, any measure of objectivity and the sense of control it must bring must be very reassuring.

Then again, the youthful zeal could be, more simply, homage to the hand that feeds you. After all, these buzzwords and sharp clothes ultimately pay for cars and vacations in Vietnam and all the other Western luxuries that this generation’s parents couldn’t have. Whatever the reason, Moscow’s new corporate culture breeds optimism and self-assurance, and, of course, gibes at the poor old sovok left in the dust.

“They don’t dress well, they don’t speak English, they approach everything with this old Soviet attitude that everyone owes them something–they aren’t assets,” Alexei told me over lunch at the Marriott, peppering his speech with English “sorrys” for emphasis. “I mean, no offense, but sorry! They just aren’t.”

He paused to spear a forkful of lox, then added, “Thank God I never worked a day in the Soviet Union. It’s a good thing, because I didn’t respect the business culture at the time. I mean, no offense to that generation and all they’ve accomplished, but thank God! I mean, sorry, but it was a very strange country.”