Posts Tagged ‘Culture’

The Borscht Belt

Monday, April 16th, 2012

According to Maksim Syrnikov, who has spent the past two decades studying traditional Russian cuisine, there is a reason that there is no agreement on the ingredients of a solyanka, a classic and very controversial Russian dish. Solyanka is generally understood to contain cabbage and maybe some meat, but even that’s in dispute: Is the cabbage soured in brine, or braised? Can you make solyanka with fish? And what is a solyanka, anyway? Is it a casserole, as Muscovites claim, or, as Petersburgers argue, a soup?

Apparently, it can be all of the above. Moreover, it is unclear whether the dish’s name comes from the word sol, meaning “salt,” or whether it has a different etymology. “Back in the day—say, for a holiday—everyone in the village would bring out whatever they had in the house, put it all in one big pan, and then bake it in the oven,” Syrnikov says, explaining an- other theory. “Which is why some people think the dish was originally known as selyanka, not solyanka, from the word selo”—which means village. Syrnikov—whose preferred version of solyanka comprises layers of shredded, smoked, and boiled beef alternating with braised sour cabbage, all doused in beef stock—is a short, plump man in his forties with the ruddy face of a benevolent village matron. When he cooks, he wears a chef ’s apron stretched around his belly, and his hair, long and graying, is messily bundled into a ponytail. He is extremely polite, which, for a moment or two, makes you forget that he is almost always correcting you. When he makes a point, his voice rises and breaks in excitement. Syrnikov is an exacting researcher: if he wants to discover how whitebait was fished in the northwestern Belozero region for centuries, he spends days out in the boats with the local fishermen. He was appalled when the editors of one of his cookbooks, unable to find whitebait in Moscow, substituted dried Chinese anchovies in a photograph, and he is still deeply embarrassed about it.

As a self-appointed guardian of authentic Russian fare, Syrnikov has a problem: Russians don’t hold Russian food in particularly high esteem. When they eat out, they favor more exotic cuisines, like Italian or Japanese. The tendency to find foreign food more desirable is a prejudice that goes back centuries—to a time when the Russian aristocracy spoke French, not Russian—and it was exacerbated by the humiliating end of the Cold War and Russia’s subsequent opening to the West. Russian food is pooh-poohed as unhealthy and unsophisticated.

Among the many things that annoy Syrnikov is the fact that a good number of the despised Russian dishes aren’t even Russian. “I did an informal survey of eighteen- to twenty-five-year-olds in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and asked them, ‘Name some traditional Russian dishes,’” Syrnikov told me. “What they named was horrible: borscht, which is Ukrainian, and potatoes, which are an American plant. In the middle of the eighteenth century, there were riots, because people didn’t want to grow potatoes.” He insists that real Russian food contained no potatoes, no tomatoes, few beets, and little meat. Instead, there were a lot of grains, fish, and dairy, as well as honey, cucumbers, turnips, cabbage, apples, and the produce of Russia’s vast forests—mushrooms and berries. Because of the climate, little of this was eaten fresh; it was salted, pickled, or dried for the long winter. Most of Russia ate this way until the twentieth century.

By exploring the Russian food that existed before potatoes, Syrnikov hopes to help Russians reacquaint themselves with the country’s agrarian roots, torn up during seven decades of Soviet rule, and to convince them that their national cuisine can be just as flavorful as anything they might find in a sushi bar. He spends his time travelling through the countryside in search of old recipes, trying them himself, and blogging about his experiences. He has written four books, including an encyclopedia of Russian cuisine and a cookbook that ties food to the fasts and feasts of the Russian Orthodox calendar. He makes frequent television appearances and conducts master classes all over the country, instructing everyone from restaurant chefs to hobby cooks in the ways of the Russian peasant kitchen. Often, he is brought in as a consultant on projects to make a restaurant authentically Russian. Recently, he hatched a plan for a user-generated database of folk recipes. “My idea is to send out a call across all of Russia,” he told me. “If you have a grandmother who makes shanishki”— disk-shaped pastries—“that aren’t made in any other village, but your grandmother still knows how to make them, go immediately, and take a picture of them, write down the recipe. To me, it’s absolutely obvious that, if we don’t wake up and find out from these old women and set it down on paper, in twenty years we won’t have anyone to ask. Russian culture will lose a very significant part of itself.”

A traditional Russian kitchen starts with a pech, a huge brick oven with many winding vents designed to retain the heat from a wood fire. A pech was once the centerpiece of traditional peasant homes: it took up about a quarter of the available living space. It heated and ventilated the house; it dried food; children and the elderly slept on ledges built into it. When the oven cooled, it even served as a bath: family members climbed inside and doused themselves with buckets of water heated in the oven. From a culinary point of view, it was also ideal for the peasant cook: stoke the oven with a cord of wood in the morning, put in an iron pot of solyanka, and, while you worked in the field, the slowly decreasing temperature of the oven would take care of the rest—a pre-modern Crock-Pot. This is why the central Russian method of preparing food is tomlenie, which is loosely translated as braising.

On a bright, chilly day last August, Syrnikov was working at a pech that he had helped construct, in the kitchen of a restaurant called Golden Rus, in Chelyabinsk, an industrial city just east of the Ural Mountains. Golden Rus is part of an entertainment complex called Galactica, whose owners had decided to rebrand the restaurant as a bastion of pure Russian fare. Syrnikov had been brought in as a consultant after a partner in the Galactica venture picked up his book “Real Russian Food.” Now Syrnikov, who lives in St. Petersburg, was finishing a two- week stint at Galactica, helping in the preparation of a trial banquet. The menu consisted of twenty-nine dishes, most of them unknown to the average Russian.

The process of turning Galactica into a showcase for Russian cuisine, however, had been complicated by the fact that a pech is hard to come by these days. In the Soviet era, the stove’s immense size proved ill suited to urban life styles and to communal apartments. A pech also consumes a great deal of wood, and Russia’s forests have thinned significantly. Moreover, a true pechnik, or oven builder, is hard to find: what was once a common trade is now a rare hobby. The man hired by Galactica did not have the expertise to include a heat-conserving labyrinth of vents, and he built the chimney toward the front of the oven, rather than over the fire. This arrangement used less wood and kept heat in longer, but all the food came out tasting smoked. Still, the oven’s three little compartments provided enough room for a frequent rotation of pans and traditional cast-iron pots—fat-bellied, with narrow bottoms—and its warm roof, about a foot below the kitchen’s ceiling, became a favorite for the three young chefs in the kitchen: Anatoly, with his blond mullet; Serezha, who had two gold incisors and a Russian Navy tattoo on his hand; and quiet, lanky Sasha. They worked twenty-four-hour shifts, sometimes consecutively. Periodically, one of them would climb down from the top of the pech, ruffling his hair and rubbing his eyes.

On the morning of the banquet, Aleksander Ladeischikov, the tanned and dandyish co-owner of Galactica, visited the kitchen. Syrnikov had just lifted a suckling pig, milk-white and puckered, from a vat of marinade: a bottle of vodka, water, and lemon. (Lemons, he explained, came to ancient Russia by way of Byzantium.) “He didn’t have a very long life,” Syrnikov said, laughing as he rubbed the piglet with paprika, salt, sage, and sugar. Ladeischikov gave a rueful smile. “Oh, I can’t even look at it!” he said. “And then I’ll have to eat this poor child!”

Ladeischikov walked proprietarily through the kitchen in white boat shoes and a white Yachting Class Club T-shirt stretched tight under a seersucker blazer. He peered inside the oven and smiled at everyone encouragingly. Then he noticed some cigarette butts in a makeshift trash can. “Who’s been smoking in here?” he asked, and looked at the three young cooks. “Guys, guys, let’s get this straight right now: we’re not going to smoke in the kitchen. Clear?” The boys shuffled their feet and carried on mincing and stirring. Ladeischikov’s upbeat charm returned. “I have some friends, who are also chefs, who want to come see what you’re doing here,” he announced. “I told them they could come watch.”

After Ladeischikov left, Syrnikov called to the head chef, a wry, wiry woman in her forties named Rita, and asked for some buckwheat kasha—a kind of porridge. It would be mixed with chopped hard-boiled eggs as stuffing for the pig. Meanwhile, Anatoly and Serezha were preparing another kasha, made with semolina, known as Guryevskaya kasha. It was named for Count Dmitry Guryev, the Russian Minister of Finance during the Napoleonic Wars, who is said to have purchased the serf who invented the dish and installed him as the head chef at his own residence. Guryevskaya kasha consists of layers of semolina porridge alternating with layers of the chewy, caramelized film that forms on the surface of milk as it bakes in the oven. It is baked, then topped with nuts, dried fruit, and macedoine—a light syrup with skinned grapes that is a French import—and finally sprinkled with sugar and brûléed.

In the pech, a black iron pot bristled with fish tails. It would eventually become an ukha, a clear fish soup customarily made with three types of fish. In a different compartment were the tel’noe, a kind of fish cake made with cubes of salmon and perch, and mixed with raw egg and chopped onions. The patties had been arranged in a cast-iron skillet and covered with a mixture of sour cream and rassol, or pickle juice, a common way to add flavor in a climate where not many flavorful things grow. Soon, three small, fat carp would join them. In the neighboring compartment, a goose and a duck, their wings wrapped in foil, were turning a deep Cognac color.

Tucked in the back, near the coals, was a pan of grechniki, a buckwheat cake that is cut into squares—like brownies—and served with shchi, Russia’s traditional cabbage soup. Syrnikov considers shchi the most Russian food of all. Cabbage was a vital source of nutrients in a harsh climate that could support few fruits or vegetables. It was gathered in the fall, soured in brine, and stowed away for the winter in ice cellars. Shchi is made by chopping this soured cabbage, putting it into a cast-iron pot, and leaving it in the oven for hours. This breaks down the sugars in the cabbage, resulting in a sweet-and-sour taste similar to that of sauerkraut. A stock—fish, meat, or mushroom—is added after the cabbage has braised for a day.

Sutochnye shchi, or day-old shchi, gets its name from this process and can be found on the menu of almost every Russian restaurant in Moscow. These days, it is usually made more quickly, with sour cabbage tossed into the soup at the last minute to boil, but Syrnikov had braised his cabbage the day before. Shchi is very filling, and was central to the Russian peasant diet. Furthermore, the long cooking time became a characteristic aspect of the nineteenth-century culture of the traktir, the roadside inns that crop up so often in the writings of Chekhov and Gogol. When a coach driver stopped at an inn, he would have with him a pot of braised sour cabbage prepared in the pech of a previous inn. This would be mixed with a stock prepared at the new inn, and, while the driver ate and slept, a new batch of cabbage wilted in the pech for the next leg of the journey.

Syrnikov did not have a hungry childhood, but his parents did. His mother was born in Leningrad in December, 1941, at the start of the Germans’ siege of the city, in which more than half a million residents died of starvation and disease. “Throughout my childhood, they told me about what they ate during the siege,” Syrnikov recalled one day, as we sat in an upscale Italian restaurant in Chelyabinsk. “They told me how they boiled carpenter’s glue, and how the food warehouses burned down during the first days of the siege. My grandmother would go to the spot where they had stood—many people went and dug the earth where the sugar silo was. And then they would bring this earth home, wash it, and make syrup out of it.”

Before Syrnikov’s mother’s family came to the city, they lived in the countryside by Lake Seliger, between Moscow and St. Petersburg. Peasants for generations, they lost their land in the forced collectivization of the nineteen-twenties and thirties, when the Soviet Union’s plans for colossal communal farms obliterated existing agricultural communities and led to food shortages that claimed millions of lives. The field where Syrnikov’s great-grandfather grew rye is now abandoned, but Syrnikov, who has built a dacha nearby, takes walks here with his six-year-old son. His father’s side of the family, meanwhile, included a long line of cheese-makers, from whom his last name derives (syr is Russian for “cheese”). His paternal grandfather was arrested in the thirties and shuttled around the Gulag for nearly twenty years. Syrnikov is bitterly conscious of the miseries endured by the Russian people in the twentieth century. “My great-grandfather had eight children, and I am the only great-grandchild,” he says. “Can you imagine?”

Perhaps because of an acute sense of what his family lost to the Soviet regime, Syrnikov has made it his life’s work to reclaim the past. He refers to regions and cities by their pre-Revolutionary names, and to tsars as gosudar’, or lord. He is extremely devout, observing most Orthodox fasts and ignoring secular holidays. Nonetheless, his upbringing was in some ways typically Soviet. He served in the Soviet Navy in the early nineteen-eighties—Navy Day is the only secular holiday he acknowledges—and at university he studied the quintessentially Soviet subject of “culturology,” which attempted to examine the basis of culture scientifically. But by the time Syrnikov graduated, in 1991, the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse, and in the economic chaos that ensued he worked various odd jobs to support himself.

Syrnikov began to travel around the country, sleeping on boats or in tents, exploring what remained of Russia’s peasant culture. There wasn’t much. Thanks to decades of inefficient collective farming, vital expertise had been lost, and Russian agriculture has not yet fully recovered. The culinary traditions of the peasants had likewise fallen into obscurity, as had the intricate fusion of Russian and French cuisines favored by the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy. In their place, the country’s diet was dominated by the bible of the Soviet kitchen, “The Book on Delicious and Healthy Food,” which was published in 1939. Through countless editions in the following decades, it helped Soviet cooks adapt to the growing dearth of the most basic produce. But it is also the source of the bland, greasy things that are commonly thought of as Russian food.

These days, few Russians have eaten the simple foods with folksy names that were once staples of the Russian table, such as kulebyaka (a huge pastry stuffed with fish, mushrooms, rice, and crêpes) and mazyunya (a fudgelike mixture of turnip flour and autumnal spices). Yet Syrnikov found that old women in the remote corners of the empire still remembered such things. Their mothers had made these dishes before the Revolution and had managed to pass on the recipes.

Syrnikov fleshed out his discoveries by hunting down pre-Revolutionary texts, accumulating an impressive library of culinary literature. (The oldest item in his collection is a Russian cookbook from 1790.) He also looked for clues in the Russian literary canon. In Nikolai Gogol’s “Dead Souls,” Chichikov eats nyanya, which, Gogol notes, is a “famous dish, served with shchi, consists of a lamb’s stomach stuffed with buckwheat, brain and legs.” Syrnikov decided to re-create the dish, which he calls Russian haggis. He procured and cleaned a lamb’s stomach (“Not a very pleasant or easy task”), and then stuffed it with lamb shank and liver, fried onions, hard-boiled eggs, and buckwheat kasha. He sewed up the stomach with white thread, and, after it was baked and photographed for his blog and his books, ate it with shchi, just like Chichikov.

“Who, other than me, is making nyanya in Russia right now?” Syrnikov says. The same can be said of other literary dishes. He soaks and preserves cloudberries, an orange raspberry that grows in the north of the country and is a peasant delicacy that Pushkin is reputed to have asked for on his deathbed. He has re-created the recipe for sayki, buns made from a dense wheat dough which, in Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from the House of the Dead,” are handed out to prisoners.

The result of Syrnikov’s twenty-four years of investigation is outlined in his lushly illustrated books. They read like the description of an utterly foreign cuisine. This is because, while Syrnikov was recovering techniques and flavors from before the Revolution, the rest of the country was being propelled into the globalized world of the twenty-first century. The new urban élite has the leisure to think about food, and is able to travel widely. In response to this, restaurants in Moscow and St. Petersburg have begun to focus more on the quality of the food they serve. In big cities, you don’t have to be an oligarch to get a grass-fed steak or chicken sous vide or an Old-Fashioned. Farmers’ markets are suddenly in vogue, and, last August, a food festival in Moscow attracted thirteen thousand people, despite the twenty-dollar admission fee and the fact that it was peak vacation time, which meant that the city was largely empty.

The festival’s organizer, Aleksei Zimin, edits a food magazine and owns a restaurant—Ragout—that wouldn’t be out of place in the West Village. He praises Syrnikov for restoring regional differences in a country that experienced decades of upheaval. For the most part, though, he sees Syrnikov’s project as quirky and anachronistic. “For me, food is alive—it’s what is here, now,” Zimin says. “Syrnikov is an archivist. There are people who spend years searching for something that was lost, like the fountain of youth, thinking that if they find it they will find some kind of truth in life.”

Others contend that the food in Syrnikov’s cookbooks is simply impractical for a modern life style. “You have to feed people according to contemporary standards of nutrition, and Russian food doesn’t meet these standards,” says Victor Michaelson, who leads the Slow Food movement in Russia, and describes himself as Syrnikov’s “antagonist.” “First of all, Russia was an agrarian country, where most people lived in villages. This means work outside, which, given the difficulty of the labor and the harshness of the climate, burned a colossal amount of calories and demanded a solid, peasant figure. But life has changed. Modern life means a low weight, fewer calories. Eating like a Russian peasant is no good for an urban life style. It’s good for an archeological restaurant.” Michaelson, whose slim figure presents an obvious contrast to Syrnikov’s, paused and added, “If you need proof, look at Maksim, and look at me.”

The first time I met Syrnikov, in Moscow, Russian television crew was about to film him as he made samogon— Russian moonshine. He had arrived that morning from St. Petersburg, carrying a twenty-litre jug of malted rye and a metal box—a still that his friend, an engineer at a dairy factory, had welded for him. “I don’t like store-bought vodka,” Syrnikov said, pausing to clarify that, while it is illegal to sell moonshine in Russia, it is perfectly legal to make it. He usually makes samogon from rye, the grain that grows best in Russia, but sometimes he experiments with things like rowanberries—hard, red berries common in the country’s forests. After the first frost, he gathers thirty or forty kilos of them, naturally frozen on the trees. After pressing out the juice, he ferments it for two months, and then distills it. “And what you get is a completely unique beverage,” Syrnikov says. “Unfortunately, it’s hard to make a lot of it. Maybe about two litres of this heavenly drink.”

The Russian fondness for drink was noted early. Travelling through Muscovy in 1476, the Venetian diplomat Ambrosio Contarini wrote, “They are great drunkards and are exceedingly boastful of it, disdaining those who do not drink.” Contarini, however, did not mention vodka. At the time, distilled spirits were a rarity still being introduced by Hanseatic traders through the Baltic. Contarini reported that Russians drank a much milder beverage: “They have no wines, but use a drink from honey which they make with hop leaves.” Syrnikov occasionally makes this drink, known in English as mead and in Russian as myod (which is also the word for “honey”), flavoring a mixture of boiled honey, water, and yeast with hops and homemade cherry juice. The result is bitter, tart, and only mildly alcoholic.

Distilled liquor was initially tightly regulated in Russia. It is said that the first Moscow tavern allowed to serve it was exclusively reserved for the oprichniki, Ivan the Terrible’s secret police. But eventually it was made all over the country, in a process much like the one that Syrnikov was going to show the TV crew. For a long time, vodka was similar to whiskey: it tasted and smelled strongly of the grains used to make it, and was called “bread wine.” Until the twentieth century, only bread wine infused with herbs or berries was called vodka. The crystalline, nuance-less spirit that we now know as vodka emerged in the late nineteenth century, when the monarchy monopolized alcohol production and marketed the move as a health initiative that removed the impurities in homemade bread wine. Instead of making alcohol through fermentation, distillers used a new industrial method of synthesizing pure alcohol. To meet the centuries-old standard of forty per cent ethanol content, distillers simply diluted pure alcohol with water. The vodka historian Boris Rodionov compares the technique to making coffee by dissolving a caffeine tablet in water. “It will pick you up, clear your head, no question,” he said. “But the aroma, the taste, the things that make coffee have been stripped away.”

Preparing for the TV crew, Syrnikov put the metal tank filled with the malt on the stove and screwed on a metal cylinder containing the cooling coil. Then he attached two pieces of green hose, one to supply cold water to the coil, which would cause the evaporating samogon to condense, and one to flush the water back out. But there was a problem. A third tube, through which the samogon was to flow into a waiting bottle, was missing, as was the rubber seal needed to keep the hot malt from bubbling up into the cooling chamber. Without these parts, the whole process could go wrong. That morning, Syrnikov had searched nearby gas stations and car-repair shops for a piece of hose to use instead, to no avail. He decided to risk it.

When the television crew arrived, Syrnikov put on a traditional embroidered linen peasant shirt that he tends to wear on such occasions, and explained the intricacies of preparing malt and distilling it into samogon. First, he had soaked the grains of rye in warm water, drying them when they showed signs of sprouting, and then heating them until they did. Sprouting increases the sugar content of the grain, and more sugar means more alcohol. When the sprout was nearly the length of the grain, Syrnikov had rubbed handfuls of the rye between his palms to remove the chaff and the sprouts. Then he dried it, milled it, mixed it with yeast and water, and added some dried peas, which speed up fermentation because they have colonies of yeast on their surface. In about five days, Syrnikov had twenty litres of cloudy braga, or malt—enough to distill about two litres of samogon.

This malting technique is centuries old and subject to all sorts of variants. As Syrnikov poured the milky malt into the metal hulk of the still, he told the story of an old man he’d seen one spring in a village in the Vologda region, in the northwest, once the heartland of ancient, pre-imperial Russia. “ This grandfather makes it the way they made it two hundred years ago in that village,” Syrnikov said. “In spring, snow melts and you get a big puddle. So he takes a bucket of rye and tosses it in the puddle and leaves it. In two or three days, the rye sprouts. And when it sprouts he scoops it back out with the bucket and dries it in his oven.”

Behind Syrnikov, the still sat awkwardly on the stove. It wasn’t heating up fast enough. After a discussion of whether to turn on a second burner, Syrnikov decided to leave things as they were. He talked about a recent expedition to Belozero to fish for whitebait. The small fish were a crucial part of the Russian peasant diet during Church fasts. In the nineteenth century, the region had been a major exporter of whitebait to Britain. An hour passed. The crew was getting impatient. The cameraman mentioned how eager he was to have a taste. Suddenly, the room began to smell of bread. Someone noticed the first clear drops of samogon.

“A tear!” the crew’s driver said.

“The tear of a newborn!” Syrnikov said.

Then he realized that the reason for the smell of bread was that the still was leaking, just as he had feared. Panic set in. Someone tried to wrap the leaking tube in a towel. Syrnikov yelled for some rye flour and water to spackle the leak. (Because the malt was rye-based, this solution, he explained, would not ruin the taste.) The television reporter suggested putting an empty drawer under the bottle that awaited the samogon, in order to catch any liquid that went astray. The driver demanded a nail or a key to bend the spout down into the bottle, or else a wire or thread for the distillate to trickle down. In the end, the still was spackled, the spout bent. A glass bottle stood propped up on the empty desk drawer, ready to catch the samogon. “It’s not very pretty, is it?” Syrnikov said, sighing.

Once the leak was fixed, the samogon started flowing. When there was enough for a degustation, as Syrnikov called it, everyone tried a shot. It was still warm, and smelled of freshly risen dough. It had the alcoholic burn of strong vodka but none of the smoothness. This drink, with its distinct flavors of grain, cannot be mixed with cranberry juice, and it would make for a rather strange Martini, which is perhaps the point: samogon is specific and Russian, entirely different from the chameleon export that the West has come to know as vodka.

In the end, Syrnikov made around two litres of samogon, and we drank it all that night. They say that, unlike vodka, samogon doesn’t give you a headache the next morning. It’s not true.

Around noon on the day of the banquet, a Galactica administrator, a tall, middle-aged woman of distinctly Soviet aspect, sternly paced the kitchen, cross-examining the staff on their preparations. Then she came across a glass of toplennoe moloko, milk that has sat in a hot pech for several hours until it is the color of crème brûlée and has the faintest suggestion of caramel. She drank it down in a few long gulps. “Oh, that is so good,” she said, closing her eyes and wiping off the milk mustache with the back of her wrist. “That’s the taste of childhood.”

By the time Ladeischikov’s guests— two local chefs—arrived, activity in the kitchen had reached a frenzied pitch. One guest, a chef named Aleksander Kotenko, watched Syrnikov fashion a pastry in the shape of a giant horseshoe. The dough was made of butter, sour cream, and flour, and Syrnikov rolled it up with a filling of crushed walnuts, confectioner’s sugar, and honey from a local apiary.

“So,” Kotenko said in a tight, sibilant voice. “Is this going to be like a strudel?”

“No, not really a strudel, because strudel is made with a totally different type of dough,” Syrnikov said politely, as his big hands mashed the nuts into the honey. “And the filling is apples and raisins, if you’re talking about a classic Austrian strudel.”

Kotenko helped Syrnikov hoist the pastry onto a pan, and asked what kinds of crockery the ovens required. Did they have thermometers?

Syrnikov kept working, answering Kotenko’s barrage of questions as economically as possible. He reached into a pot and took out a section of risen dough. Part of it would be used to make garlic knots to accompany the borscht, the soup that Syrnikov regards as a Ukrainian interloper. (“They insisted I make it,” he said, sighing.) The rest he rolled out for a giant vatrushka, an open-faced pastry topped with farmer’s cheese mixed with egg, sugar, and raisins—my childhood favorite.

Sensing that he was in the way, Kotenko went to examine the pech. “Everyone’s going to be walking around covered in soot!” he exclaimed. Embroidered on his chef ’s whites was the legend “Mr. X,” the name of the restaurant-cabaret where he worked. The bottom of the “X” was a stockinged pair of women’s legs. “We serve all kinds of food,” he said. “Dorado, tiger shrimp, pizza for the kids, Bolognese, carbonara.” He cooks a few Russian dishes, too. “We also have a Guryevskaya kasha,” Kotenko said. “But, having seen how they make it here, I understood that it’s quite different from how I make it.” Unable to bake milk, Kontenko substitutes thick cream for the caramelized milk film, which, in Syrnikov’s version, gives the kasha a smoky flavor. “It’s the difference between making kebabs on a grill and making them in a frying pan,” Kotenko said. “As different as heaven and earth.” The heat in Mr. X’s conventional ovens isn’t the same—it’s not as dry. “My kasha came out kind of liquidy,” he said. He wondered again about the soot.

Hearing this, Syrnikov bellowed from across the kitchen. “All over the world, Chinese chefs make Peking duck in wood ovens!” he said. “All over the world, Italian chefs make pizza in wood ovens!” “And only Russians look at Russian ovens with horror: ‘Oh, how can we work with this! Oh, the soot!’ ”

Kotenko quickly conceded the point. But he had another question for Syrnikov: “Can you bake croissants in these ovens?”

By three o’clock, the kitchen had begun to send the dishes up to a dining room hung with disco balls. Syrnikov, Anatoly, Serezha, and Sasha started arranging the food on a long table covered with a mauve tablecloth. In one corner stood black cast-iron pots containing two types of shchi (one with meat, the other with mushrooms); the ukha, with its three kinds of fish; and the borscht. Stretching into the distance were the solyanki (one with fish—the Moscow version—and one with meat), the tel’noe, and the carp. There was buzhenina (garlicky roast pork, served cold with horseradish), a beef-and-liver stew, braised chicken hearts and kidneys, and quail, wrapped in bacon and baked in a rye crust. Beyond that were the goose, the duck, the suckling pig, and a sturgeon, which had been baked in a sea of pickle juice, a halo of a lemon slice gilding its head. At the end of the table were the pastry and the grain dishes: the Guryevskaya kasha, the kulebyaka, the vatrushka, the horseshoe pastry, and a kurnik, a gloriously golden dome of pastry stuffed with layers of chicken, mushrooms, rice, eggs, and crêpes. Syrnikov had topped it with a little dough chicken, in honor of its name, which means henhouse.

The staff milled about the table, craning their necks to see the dishes, afraid to touch anything.

“Can we start?” someone asked, after Syrnikov had explained what everything was.

“Yes, yes, of course!” he said.

Everyone swarmed the borscht. Second most popular were the goose and the pig. And the horseshoe pastry was gone in an instant; Russians are among the world’s biggest consumers of sugar.

Music from “The Godfather” played overhead. People ate quietly. Syrnikov disappeared into the kitchen with the three young chefs. “This can all be made at home,” one man said to no one in particular. “I don’t see what the big deal is.” It was Vladimir Maximov, the deputy head of the district. He was eating borscht. “Russian food is really bland,” he noted. “I like Georgian food better.” He said that he couldn’t see much difference between this food and food that wasn’t prepared in a proper Russian oven.

Ladeischikov and Sergei Efimenko, the partner in the project who had introduced Galactica’s owners to Syrnikov’s work, toasted with shot after shot of vodka. Ladeischikov was happy. He liked the duck, and was chewing on one of the ribs of the suckling pig, which had tugged at his emotions earlier that morning. His wife liked the Guryevskaya kasha—which came out sweet and subtle and creamy—and talked about their recent cruise in the Mediterranean and her daughter’s private school, in Geneva.

“She’s fluent in English,” Ladeischikov bragged.

Some dishes flopped: the quail tasted strange, tinny. The duck, which had earlier been deemed undercooked and returned to the oven, had ended up dry. The goose was better, but less succulent than the one Syrnikov had made the day before. The kurnik, despite its festive exterior, was dull. But the kulebyaka was a magical fluff of dough, full of the taste of salmon, mushrooms, and rice. The kalitki—little boats of rye dough stuffed with mashed potato and cream—were buttery, cheesy, chewy. The flavors of the solyanki (the smoky meat, the velvety fish) sparkled against the backdrop of the braised sour cabbage. The vatrushka, thick with sweetened farmer’s cheese, was the best I’d ever eaten. And the shchi, their smoky sweetness cut by a subtle tartness, were a revelation.

“They need to put thermometers in the ovens,” Kotenko said, as he enjoyed a bowl of borscht.

“We can do that,” Ladeischikov said. “Not an issue.” He asked for Kotenko’s opinion of the meal.

“The goose was undercooked,” Kotenko said. “The solyanka was good, but so unusual! The Guryevskaya kasha is good, but some soot from the logs must have gotten in, because there’s something crunchy in there.”

Efimenko called for silence and offered yet another toast. His face had reddened.

“To Russian cuisine!” he said. “The best cuisine in the world!”

“To our native cuisine,” Kotenko said. “The one we don’t even know!”

The Borscht Belt [TNY]

A Fraud Ring and the “Russian Mindset”

Saturday, March 3rd, 2012

A couple of days ago, thirty-six Soviet immigrants were arrested in New York for plotting to bilk health-insurance companies out of a quarter of a billion dollars. The plot, according to a story in the Times, involved ten doctors, nine clinics, and a hundred and five corporations: “The ring sought reimbursement for so many excessive and unnecessary medical treatments that it had to set up three separate billing processing companies just to handle the paperwork.” What’s remarkable here is just how unremarkable the story is, coming, as it does, out of Brighton Beach.

Brighton Beach is famous not only for its gauche cabarets and Russian delicacies and grumbling, highly-inflected Russian of the provinces, but for its improbable concentration of insurance fraud. As the Times puts it, “Brighton Beach has one of the highest rates of health care fraud in the nation, according to federal statistics. In fact, an analysis of data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency that regulates those two programs, shows that more health care providers in the Brighton Beach ZIP code are currently barred from the programs for malfeasance than in almost any other ZIP code in the United States.”

The article then goes into an intricate dance, dipping into a “Russian mind-set” that might draw Soviet immigrants to fraud—that’s from an unnamed law-enforcement official—and the to-be-sure-not-all-Soviet-immigrants-involved-in-health-care-are-criminals reminder:

Still, some experts in law enforcement and academia believe that the cumbersome Soviet system, with its thicket of strictures that governed almost every aspect of life, effectively helped to groom a generation of post-Soviet criminals in the United States.

“Obviously, particularly in Soviet times, but even nowadays, Russia still has a large amount of red tape and bureaucratic systems that are parasitic and hostile, almost designed to make you pay bribes,” said Prof. Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian organized crime at New York University. “So from cradle to grave, they have been used to that.”

It’s not so much that “systems” in Russia are designed to make you pay bribes, it’s that they’re often designed on the back of an envelope—that is, not designed or thought-through at all. The effect—sometimes intended, usually not—is to make de facto criminals out of basically everybody. In contemporary Russia, you’ll meet many pristinely-educated, well-traveled, white-collar business people who will tell you, absolutely sincerely, that they’d prefer to have “white”—that is, clean—businesses, but that the laws are so contradictory that they would go bust abiding by them all. These people are not guys in tracksuits named Fat Misha. They wear nice suits and speak foreign languages and have great table manners. Their wives like diamond stud earrings and subtle lip gloss. They’re contractors and distributors and partners with big Western firms. And, for the most part, they’re not crooks by intent but because there are simply very few ways to make money legally.

Many, if not most, of the guys rounded up in this week’s operation, I assume, came to the U.S. before making money was even a legal option for them. They came from the Soviet Union, where commerce was illegal. Back there, back then, they could have been black marketeers and speculators. Or they could have been drones working boring Soviet jobs, making salaries that could buy them nothing because the economy was too inefficient—and state spending priorities were too rocket-oriented—to give them anything to buy. So everything, from clothes to canned goods to shampoo, had to be gotten by hook, crook, personal connection, or by buying them off a black marketeer. So it was not that “you’re looked upon as a patsy” if you were not “scamming the government,” as that unnamed officer told the Times, it’s that you’d die of hunger if you expected to get your food just by walking into a store with some money. (Plus, there was probably a line out the door and down the block.)

“These people deserve all the opprobrium in the world, but context is important. These are traumatized people, taking actions for which they remain fully responsible, but not because they’re evil—because you, too, might quite possibly act that way if you’d spent a lifetime living in the nightmare place where they lived,” Boris Fishman, a former fact-checker at The New Yorker who’s finishing a novel about a failed journalist who starts forging Holocaust-restitution claims, told me. (Boris is also a fellow Soviet immigrant.) “Even in these cynical souls it goes back to their inability to imagine a system where you get enough by acting fairly.”

The other thing about the “Russian mind-set” is that it goes back to pre-Soviet times, too. There’s a Russian saying, born of a history full of hard rulers and stupid laws spinning in distant corners of a very big and hard-to-regulate space: “The severity of the law is mitigated by its lack of enforcement.” So whereas someone of the “American mind-set” expects to be caught for breaking the law, someone of the “Russian mind-set” doesn’t. That’s a gross oversimplification, but it gets you close to the cultural context.

I was seven when my family came over from the Soviet Union. My parents largely avoided—and sneered at—the immigrant milieus like those of Brighton Beach. They were educated Muscovites; they did not party at Russian restaurants. They took us, their children, to the opera and the ballet. But being poor immigrants, and ballet tickets being ballet tickets, we often found ourselves sitting in the nosebleed sections only to scamper down to the parterre when the lights went out. (These shows were full of other Soviet immigrants, and so you’d find yourself clawing for velvet seats in the dark with someone just like you.) If you can do it and no one will catch you—hey, it’s dark!—why not? Though I should say that the greatest obstacle to moving down to the more expensive seats was the vehement resistance of my annoyingly law-abiding little sister—also a Soviet immigrant.

A Fraud Ring and the “Russian Mindset” [TNY]

Activists Get Connected

Friday, December 16th, 2011

Two years ago, Dmitry Ternovskiy, a Russian small business owner, blogger, and hobby photographer, had a dream: he is skiing, and he runs into Russian president Dmitry Medvedev. The two men make each other’s acquaintance, at which point Ternovskiy asks the president for his autograph on the side of his camera lens. A week later, Ternovskiy found himself on the slopes above Sochi, where, he was told, the president also happened to be skiing. Intrigued by the coincidence, Ternovskiy made his way over to where Medvedev was passing and took a few pictures. To his even greater surprise, the president approached him, and Ternovskiy asked him to sign his camera lens. And, because things were already unfolding so bizarrely, Ternovskiy decided to take the opportunity to ask the president about something that had been bothering him for years: the pointless Soviet-era ban on photography in the Kremlin and Red Square. “Dmitry Anatolyevich [Medvedev] said this was stupid and within an hour, the news agencies were reporting that he had given the order to the head of the Federal Security Service [the Russian Secret Service] to lift this ban, which had been in place for 20 years,” Ternovskiy recalls, still marvelling at the cosmic strangeness of that day.

The run-in was not only broadcast on national television, it also provided the catalyst for a project Ternovskiy called A Country Without Stupidity. Chief among the inanities in his sights is something most tourists in Russia have encountered: the screaming security guard or elderly woman telling you that you cannot take pictures here, as if your photograph of that supermarket compromises Russian national security. Ternovskiy has used his blog to mobilise Russians to inform these guards and grannies that they are the ones in the wrong: by Russian law, photography is allowed almost everywhere. “Despite the fact that there is no legal basis to ban photography in all the places it’s banned, people will still tell you it’s forbidden,” Ternovskiy says, pouring himself a cup of thyme tea as we sit in a Moscow café. “It’s like a Soviet phantom limb. Back then, every person felt himself to be in the thick of a nest of spies, there were enemies all around, everything was banned. Unfortunately, we still see this alive and well in the minds of many people today.”

Using his blog and Twitter, Ternovskiy has declared war on this archaic mentality. In the year since he launched A Country Without Stupidity, he has taught a growing number of sympathisers what to do if a guard in a train station tells you to delete that picture you just took: call the police, have them write a report, then write an official complaint to the Prosecutor General’s office. Thanks to Medvedev’s modernisation initiative, he points out, you can now file that complaint online. “It’s very simple and it uses legal methods,” Ternovskiy explains. “You don’t have to fight anyone, you don’t have to pitch a fit and yell at the guards. Just go home, and calmly register a complaint.” To everyone’s surprise, the prosecutor’s office stopped ignoring these complaints and began answering them – and finding in the complainants’ favour.

This may seem like a strange fight, but in a country where abuse of authority and brazen shirking of the law has become an accepted part of the daily routine even in the smallest things, Ternovskiy’s battle is a novel attempt not to fall into the sort of complacency that makes this kind of grim reality possible in the first place. “It’s a small thing, yes, but Russians are so indifferent and so convinced that you can’t change anything here, that what we’re trying to show people is that sometimes you just need a little effort to change something,” Ternovskiy explains. “And then maybe the next time, when this person encounters a bigger problem, not just something stupid, he’ll know that he can act, and he’ll know how to.”

With more than 50 million users, the Russian internet has this year become Europe’s biggest internet audience and Ternovskiy’s initiative is one of several that has used the explosion of the web in Russia to do something unheard of in its history: the mobilisation of civil society. “For many years, there was no means for people living here to do anything that relates to the organisation of society in any way,” says Anton Nossik, a pioneer of the Russian web and now the media director of SUP, the company that owns LiveJournal, Russia’s most popular blogging platform. “In Russia, it was always the state that was in charge of dealing with social issues, never the people. It’s a situation that, on the whole, has lasted here for about a thousand years.”

The change came only recently, and only with the introduction of high-speed internet, first in the big cities, then in the countryside. Then came LiveJournal, which gave Russians a platform to discuss the things no longer being discussed in the state-controlled media. After that, the social networks – VKontakte, or Facebook for the urban elite – which Russians use more than any other people on the planet, connected like-minded citizens of a country spread across nine time zones. In the past year this trifecta – low-cost, hi-speed internet access, LiveJournal, and social networks – has given rise to a cluster of novel civic movements. One of the first was anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny’s RosPil, which used crowd sourcing to spot corrupt government tenders. Then, using Yandex.Money, the Russian analogue of PayPal, he launched an online collection of funds to hire young lawyers to help him fight corrupt state corporations in court. His goal had been to raise Rbs3m (£61,000). As of May this year he had raised Rbs6.5m. The next frontier in this movement is apps. Ternovskiy is currently working with developers to create an app that allows users to document and send a complaint to the Prosecutor General’s office right from their phones. “We want people to act,” Ternovskiy says, explaining that, in the time it takes someone to come home and get in front of a computer, the desire to register an official complaint may easily pass. Another potential hit, given the talk of fraud in Russia’s recent parliamentary elections, is RUGolos, an application that allows voters to register how and where they voted. The idea is that, given the penetration of smartphones in Russia, the app can collect enough data to serve as an independent counterweight to official election results.

Blue Buckets, another online movement, uses a different currency to achieve its aims: public shame. Loosely affiliated clusters of people have united in fighting the blue migalki, or sirens, which allow any car to which they are attached to circumvent all traffic laws. Predictably, they cause countless, often deadly, accidents, and given the sanctity of the car in Russia, they have become a major social irritant. Blue Buckets – named for the blue buckets activists tape to their car roofs as a spoof of these VIP sirens – gives people the means to fight back against the abuse of privilege. Drivers who capture this abuse – the VIP vehicle of a film director speeding in the oncoming lane, a bureaucrat turning on his siren to get to the dry cleaners – on camera, can submit the picture or video to Blue Buckets, which then disseminates it to its nearly 40,000 members and hundreds of thousands of monthly visitors to its LiveJournal page. Inevitably, this makes it into the news cycle, fuelling more rage. This summer saw a spate of such small but loud scandals over migalki, and Blue Buckets was behind most of them.

“It’s the broken windows theory,” says Petr Shkumatov, one of the Blue Buckets co-ordinators, and a marketing specialist by day. “Since we’ve started the group, people have stopped being as brazen. A year ago, you saw these migalki everywhere but now they are more hesitant to turn on their discotheques,” he says, referring to the whoop of the sirens. “Of course, they’re allowed to by law, but the fact that society has become so angry at them, and they see the anger, has clearly been giving them pause.”

The point of Blue Buckets is to disincentivise ostentatious prestige, which is still so comically common in contemporary Russia. “The problem of migalki is not solved through laws because the sirens play to a very natural desire to be above other people,” says Shkumatov. He sees the legacy of the Soviet Union at play here, too, and he and his co-conspirators at Blue Buckets have tried hard to keep the group as decentralised and organic as possible, in order to prevent it from becoming “an instrument for realising someone’s ambitions”.

“The Soviet Union still exists in Russia because people are still repeating old patterns,” Shkumatov explains. “As soon as someone joins an organisation, he wants to become the general secretary of the Communist party.”

In the past few days, the Russian blogosphere has proved to be a powerful tool in organising such sentiments. A day after disputed election results delivered both a victory and a defeat to the ruling, vaguely Soviet, United Russia party – it won a majority of seats in the Russian parliament, but lost 15 per cent compared with the 2007 electio7 – some 6,000 young people took to Moscow’s streets. As in the case of protests seen around the world, from Cairo to Zucotti Park, they had been brought there by Facebook and Twitter. And they were angry about what they had read on the internet, information that rarely makes it into the “official” Russian press. In absolute terms, it was not a large number – Moscow is a city of at least 11 million – but it flew in the face of the conventional wisdom. Young Russians are thought to be apathetic and, even if they are not, rarely come out to protest, which they see as the realm of the shrill and the elderly.

The anonymous KermlinRussia duo, who write a wildly popular parody of Medvedev’s Twitter account, recently teamed up with Zhgun, a graphic designer, to create a campaign ad on YouTube for a fictional party called “F****** Amazing Russia”. The premise of the party was to leave behind the bad guys – Putin, Medvedev, and their cronies – and to mobilise what one of the KermlinRussia writers called “the party of the internet.” Hundreds of thousands of people watched the YouTube video, but nothing seemed to happen – until it suddenly did. “The internet is the new politics,” one of the duo told me. “It was able to organise the first serious protest in many years.”

Whether or not these protests continue as temperatures in Moscow drop is not clear, but they have already accomplished something very important: they have brought down the barrier between the online and offline worlds. When Navalny was arrested at the December 5 protest, thousands of his followers watched a live feed of the protest staged outside the police station where he was being held. At 4am on a weeknight, there were nearly four thousand viewers. When Navalny’s trace temporarily vanished, and when Navalny was brought into court and sentenced to 15 days in prison, it was Shkumatov who tweeted the proceedings to everyone who had not been allowed inside the courtroom: Shkumatov, too, had been arrested.

On December 10, around 50,000 of the young urban elite came out in Moscow for the biggest anti-government protest since the fall of the Soviet Union. Tens of thousands protested in dozens of cities around Russia. Addressing the crowd, Shkumatov thanked them for coming out, “for showing them” – the Kremlin – “that you’re not cattle”. “You guys are so wonderful!” he said, while recording a video of the crowd with his phone.

Activists Get Connected [FT]

What’s Russian for “Homosexual Propaganda”?

Thursday, November 17th, 2011

In a near unanimous vote on Wednesday, the St. Petersburg city parliament passed the first draft of a law that would ban what the Russian press has labeled “homosexual propaganda.” Actually, and if we’re to be precise, the law would fine people for “public actions, aimed at propagandizing sodomy”—literally, “man-laying” in Russian—“lesbianism, bisexuality, [and] transgenderness among minors.” Violators would be subject to fines ranging from three thousand rubles (about $100), for individuals, to fifty-thousand rubles ($1,600), for organizations. The fines and language are the same for those propagandizing pedophilia, more or less inserting an equal sign between the two.

The sponsor of the bill—it still has to go through two more votes to become law—is Vitaly Milonov, from the ruling United Party. He explained the legislation by saying, “children have to be protected from destructive information.” What that meant was subject to interpretation. According to Milonov, this information could be found in sex-education classes where such values were “advertised,” as well as in the works of that gay cabal—show business. This was not in any way meant to be an intrusion into the personal lives of Petersburgers, Milonov added, but what could he do when his city is drowning under “a wave popularizing sexual perversion”?

Milonov’s colleagues chimed in, lumping sexual assault of a child in with consensual gay sex. “Children maimed by pedophiles jump out of windows, they take their own lives. Pedophilia is an attempt on a child’s life!” one of them said, adding that spreading such propaganda should be a criminal offense. Another deputy, Elena Babich, from the nationalist-crazypants Liberal Democratic party, agreed that the proposed penalties were too light. “What is a three-thousand ruble fine to a pedophile when they are supported by an international community?” (Did she mean show business?)

The legislation, which was rushed through the local parliament, is not unique. A similar law was passed this summer in the northern city of Arkhangelsk, where legislators expressed concern about the effect of gays on the city’s already low birthrates, and in the Ryazan region. But those were the provinces.

St. Petersburg, long Russia’s window to Europe and its bastion of high culture, is both a strange and logical place to pass such a law. For one thing, it was the first place with an L.G.B.T. organization: Kryl’ya (or “wings”) was founded in October 1991, having fought for its creation in the Soviet courts at a time when homosexuality was still criminalized and punishable by five years of hard labor. (That provision, the notorious Article 121, was repealed two years later, in 1993.) Moscow used to have a mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, who denounced homosexuality as “satanic.” St. Petersburg, in contrast, was in some ways the center of organized gay life in Russia: the Russian branch of the I.L.G.A., the international L.G.B.T. rights organization is run out of St. Petersburg; pride parades, long the subject of violent battles with the Moscow authorities (who won’t allow them), have passed through this city peacefully, until this year. Imagine passing an anti-gay law in San Francisco.

“They upset me more as Petersburgers,” said Igor Kochetkov, of the LGBT Network, one of several gay-rights groups based in the city. “St. Petersburg has always been a European city, a city that’s very different from the rest of Russia, where the level of civilization, of intellect, of simple common sense is much higher.” Kochetkov added, “It’s no secret that life in Russia is difficult, and there are a lot of poorly educated, frightened, phobia-stricken people who are ready to be against anyone who doesn’t look like them, who lives better than them.”

Despite the elitist strain in that comment, there is also much truth in it. I witnessed a flamboyantly racist Russian March earlier this month, with blue-collar youngsters shouting “Fuck the Jews!” and “Allah is a fag!” Playing to a very low common denominator, especially when Europe’s economic crisis threatens to spill over to Russia, is a very dangerous game. “We’re not just fighting for our rights,” Kochetkov said, of the picket gay-rights groups had set up outside the city duma. “We’re trying to save Russia from fascism.” And there is a bit of truth in that, as well.

The passage of the draft legislation shows that attacking the supposed enemies of “family values” can be an easy pleaser come election time everywhere. Russia has only eighteen days to go until the parliamentary elections. The results will doubtless be adjusted to keep an increasingly unpopular United Russia in power. That adjustment will have to be biggest of all in hyper-educated, cosmopolitan St. Petersburg, where United Russia has one of its lowest poll numbers in the country. Rallying the party’s naturally conservative, less affluent, less educated base against a horde of pernicious, perverted, effete homosexuals and/or pedophiles—they too are portrayed as foreigners, planted and financed by the West—is an easy, if unsavory, last-ditch play.

And yet, under the seriousness of fomenting hatred and inscribing discrimination into the legal code, there has also been a streak of irony and humor in the response to this development. It’s especially fitting in a country where public displays of machismo can often bleed into the homoerotic. How, for example, will this law affect the annual celebration of Paratrooper Day, when, all over the country, thousands of former paratroopers get drunk, strip to their skivvies, and frolic in city fountains, splashing and wetly embracing? Is that homosexual propaganda? And, as a Russian friend pointed out to me, what about the ruling tandem? When Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin go bike riding together, when they have intimate public breakfasts, when they are forced to deny that they’re married, when they play badminton, when they ski and drink cocoa and fish, often in matching outfits and in the total absence of women, what about that?

What’s Russian for “Homosexual Propaganda”? [TNY]

The Royal Wedding, Moscow Style

Friday, April 29th, 2011

About two score Muscovites gathered to watch the wedding of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, and William, Duke of Cambridge, Earl of Strathearn, and Baron Carrickfergus, in the sun-flooded bar of the Strelka Institute, a design school and hipster hangout in a wing of what used to be the Red October Chocolate Factory. Half of them were British expats, dressed in their lacy Sunday best. If they couldn’t be home to watch the historic event, this place was perhaps as good as they could get in Moscow: dominating the view from Strelka, just across the water, is the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the garish Easter cake of white marble and gold domes where Nicholas II and his family were canonized in August, 2000. Nicholas, once Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias (and now Saint Nicholas the Passion-Bearer), was the first cousin of King George V, who was also a cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm II (and great-great-grandfather to Prince William), and cousin to Tsarina Alexandra Fedorovna (née Princess Alix of Hesse), who was also the cousin of Nicholas. (The three sovereign cousins looked more like twins and, perhaps ironically, perhaps predictably, were not all on the same side in the First World War.) William is basically family here.

This was not, however, on the minds of the Brits who came to celebrate. They had received an invitation from Natalie Horsting, the petite British chef who runs Strelka’s kitchen. Missing home, Horsting whipped up an English menu—roast rib of beef and tiered dessert stands of tea sandwiches, scones, and clotted cream—and invited fellow expatriates to celebrate. “The food is brilliant,” said Martyn Andrews. He was from Liverpool, and draped in a Union Jack.

Kate Partridge, of London, was there to watch “a bit of our heritage and our history unfolding, really, and we can watch it even though we’re two thousand miles away from home.”

“I’d watch it even if I was on the moon,” Andrews said.

The two were waving the flags provided by Horsting, seemingly devoid of the conflicted feelings of some of their more egalitarian-minded countrymen. (“For the last thirty years, the monarchy has gotten such bad press,” Andrews complained.) Perhaps fittingly, Andrews and Partridge both work for Russia Today, an English-language cable channel founded by the Kremlin in 2005 to improve its image abroad.

Behind them sat a group of five young women, classmates from the Moscow Architectural Institute. They sat peeking over the high-backed wooden booth, the festive, edgy bows in their hair bobbing as they watched the wedding on the big screen and gossiped, expertly, among themselves.

“What kind of wave is that?” said Anna Khodina, imitating Kate’s gestures, which she thought overly floppy. “She’s supposed to wave like this.” Khodina did the classic stiff-wristed parade wave.

“Maybe it’s a protest,” said Alice Starobina. “Like her car.”

“What does it mean that he’s putting on his gloves?”

“It means, that’s it. He’s holstered.”

“Don’t they have noisemakers?”

“Yeah, sure, they tie cans to the back of the carriage.”


“Wait, where are they going? They have to kiss now.”

“No, they kiss in the palace. In front of the public.”

“Didn’t they say her dress was Alexander McQueen?” said Khodina. “Isn’t it by the creative director of Alexander McQueen?”

“I think it’s some secret royal atelier.”

“She looks good in this role, a convincing Duchess.”

“Oh my god, what’s on their heads?” (This, on seeing the cavalry ride off with their tassled helmets.)

The girls, who want to found their own design studio (Palip Bureau), bemoaned the lack of such national traditions in Russia. “We use to have all this here, but it was cut off in 1914,” says Natasha Ermolenko, by which she meant 1917. Now, when the children of heads of state get married, they do so in strict secrecy. “I don’t even know what Putin’s second daughter looks like.” No one at the table seemed to know what the first one looked like, either.

It was hard to pinpoint what the women liked so much about the royal wedding. Mostly, it came down to the fact that it wasn’t a Russian wedding, which involves touring all the historical monuments of Moscow in one long and drunken photo session, and, at the reception, screaming “Bitter! Bitter!” to make the newlyweds kiss, and counting loudly, in unison, the seconds they keep their lips locked. “If you compare the Russian wedding style to the English wedding style, I think the English style wins,” said Starobina. “Russian weddings are a bit, how shall I say it, are a bit tasteless. They’re very loud, raucous, and this is, well, very traditional.”

Meanwhile, on the pedestrian bridge linking Strelka to the Cathedral, Moscow wedding season had clearly begun. Wedding parties swilling champagne from clear plastic cups roamed the bridge, as the brides posed for pictures by the monument. I counted six.

The Royal Wedding, Moscow Style [TNY]

Defender of, um, Women

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

‘Twas the second night of a long holiday to celebrate International Women’s Day, on March 8, and Moscow honored them the best way it knows how: by smearing them with glitter, taking their tops off, and having them bounce in honor of the country’s macho ubermensch Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

The resultant Putin Party seemed a throwback to the best of the golden days of Putin’s (official) rule, all bread and sparkly circuses. There were the outlandish gogo dancers and the sparkly eunuch working the tightrope. There was the acrobat in red tights splitting apart the clear plastic shell that spun her over the crowd with the sheer force of her split; the spinning, airborne bed on which a scantily clad pair reenacted the over-under coital acrobatics that go on in most happy homes. There was the obligatory show, with sequined candelabra-head aliens and cabaret girls with a banner that says, “It’s shitty without Vova,” using the casual version Putin’s first name. And, it goes without saying, that the décor was top-tier swanky: cheap plastic leanders and a giant snake head – and a lady rubbing her breasts atop a replica of Putin’s desk.

Putin would’ve been proud.

But everyone, especially the journalists covering the event, had a question: what did this all mean? Was this the first salvo in the prime minister’s campaign to retake the presidency, in March 2012? Had the event been organized by the nutters at the Kremlin youth group, Nashi? (The speech bubbles floating around the party with slogans like, “Vova, I’m with you!” were, after all red and white, the colors of Nashi. Plus, one of the bartenders said so.) And what of the weak outrage shown by Putin’s press secretary that the party had no relation to the Prime Minister, whose name was being used in vain? If he were really so outraged and so against the idea, surely one phone call could’ve shut the place down. Doesn’t that mean that Putin was actually behind it all?

These were interesting questions, ones we continued to discuss while fending off the other journalists with cameras. (“We’re also journalists,” we told each other. “You don’t need us.”) The rest of the public couldn’t have cared less about the politics or the non-politics or the simulacra politics covering the decoy politics. They were there to dance, or stare at boobies.

In reality, the answer is much more simple, and much more Russian. The Putin Party was held at Rai (“paradise”), a club that was once the hottest, most splashiest in Moscow but has now almost reached the final shore of washed up. The concept of the party came from someone else’s idea (of course), which had used ladies to celebrate another important Russian Federation holiday: Vladimir Putin’s 58th birthday, last October. To mark the occasion, one enterprising young journalism student at Moscow State University (“Russia’s Harvard”) decided to make a calendar for Putin. It would be of his fellow students in the journalism department, considered a bastion of liberal opposition to the Kremlin. These ladies, on the other hand, did not so much care. They were happy to get into fancy lingere and pose for the man with fun little slogans. “Vladimir Vladimirovich, they put out the forest fires, but I’m still burning,” said Miss March. “Vladimir Vladimirovich, how about a third go?” said Miss February, referring to a potential third term. “Vladimir Vladimirovich, I’d like to thank you in person. Call 8- 925-148-17-28,” said Ksenya Selezneva, Miss December. The calendar was a huge media success, and even Putin said he liked it, in public.

And so the owners of Rai, watching the media madness over the calendar and their own passing glory, decided to cash in. They summoned in the Moscow State calendar girls and threw a sexy Putin party, using the time-tested Russian knowledge that you don’t fix what ain’t broke. (In the promotional video for the party, Selezneva aka Miss December says, “Not only women love Putin. Men also adore Putin and they too want to dance at a party dedicated to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.”)

“Our goal was to attract attention to ourselves,” said Andreas Lobzhanidze, the organizer of the party and Rai’s promoter, when reached by phone the next day. He denied that the party had been organized by Nashi, the Kremlin youth group. “Our goal was to show that we want to be part of the Olympics and Formula-1” – both events, in 2014, that Putin brought to Russia using his star-power. There’s a lot of money to be made, and Rai wants in. “We’re ready to be partners, as event organizers and the like,” Lobzhanidze said. And, given all the uncertainty and guessing in the run-up to Putin’s decision, in March 2012, whether he or Dmitry Medvedev will be president, the party was sure to create a very lucrative splash.

Despite the Putin Party’s success, Lobzhanidze sounded very irritated. “I’m on a romantic date with a lady, celebrating March 8th,” he said. “I don’t have time to discuss this party.”

Defender of, um, Women [The Daily]

Russia’s Black Swan

Monday, February 21st, 2011

Whatever happens at the Oscars next Sunday, it is likely to bring on yet another wave of “Black Swan” mania. Meanwhile, in Russia, all eyes are on another ballerina horror show. This one involves a real Black Swan—the prima ballerina Anastasia Volochkova, who is famous for her long-limbed renditions of Odette and Odile in “Swan Lake.” She is also a notorious Moscow socialite—appearing frequently in the Russian tabloids for things like allegedly stealing a friend’s lover and starring in a Snickers commercial, in which she tells a group of basketball players to “kiss my tutu.” She didn’t help matters when, last month, she published naked photos of herself on her blog.
Earlier this month, Volochkova cut her ties with the country’s ruling party, United Russia, which had enlisted her as a celebrity spokesperson. She announced her decision in a radio interview—seemingly on a whim—and referred to the party of Vladimir Putin as “that fucking party” and “that shit into which I was careless enough to step.” United Russia posted a short statement on its Web site: “Women, like children, are inclined to changes in mood. In this sense, Anastasia Volochkova is a real woman.” Then, on February 11th, when Volochkova was on tour with her new show, “Applause,” in the southern city of Togliatti—Russia’s Detroit—a television segment celebrating her thirty-fifth birthday was scheduled to air during a popular talk show. She wrote on her blog: “At the very end of the show [in Togliatti], right before I entered the stage for the final number, my director told me that the show ‘Let Them Talk,’ dedicated to my birthday, had been taken off the air.” Volochkova blamed a man named Vladislav Surkov.
The channel on which the television program was scheduled to run, Channel 1, is the country’s main station, and is majority-owned by the Kremlin, and overseen by Vladislav Surkov. Officially, Surkov is the Russian President’s first deputy chief of staff. Unofficially, he is United Russia’s chief ideologist, its Karl Rove, its Grey Cardinal. Volochkova had been looking forward to watching the program—she had asked friends to tape it because she would be on stage in Togliatti when it aired. She found out backstage that the special had only aired in the Russian Far East and Kazakhstan before the switch was made.
“Of course, I was extremely upset,” Volochkova recalled on a recent wintry afternoon, in her office up the street from the Kremlin. Heavily made up, with tattooed eyebrows, she was sipping a cup of rum-spiked tea. Her bedazzled gold phone kept interrupting her with the chorus from Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal.” Swans adorned her bejeweled velvet backpack, as they do nearly every accessory she has. The last number of her performance in Togliatti was a song, “Applause,” written for her by one of her show-business friends. “I performed this song in one breath, trying not to show my audience that something was not right,” she recounted. “But at the end I started weeping, because I was extremely upset with what had occurred.” She went on, now angrily, “I don’t know what will become of me later. Because if this is the first step of this vengeance, then I don’t know what form the future steps will take.”
Volochkova, the daughter of a Leningrad table-tennis champion, became a prima ballerina at the Bolshoi Theatre at the age of twenty-two, in 1998. She excelled at her Swan Lake roles, but then, in 2003, the theatre fired her. Volochkova’s version is that it was because of the influence of a former boyfriend of hers, a powerful billionaire. The Bolshoi’s version is that Volochkova had simply gotten fat. The resulting public squabble—which included a New York Times reporter showing up at a Moscow restaurant to weigh and measure her, as well as a lawsuit, which she won—still brings her to tears. “Over the course of seven years, wherever I went, people would say, ‘Well you know, Anastasia, we thought you were so big and fat,’” she said in a recent interview. (The lesson learned? “I will fuck the shit out of the entire world. In a good way.”)
Volochkova joined United Russia in 2003, shortly before her problems with the Bolshoi began, but the party did not come to her rescue. Then, two years later, according to Volochkova, they set her up. She has two versions of how this happened, but the basic facts are the same: she joined other Russian artists in signing a public letter supporting the conviction, for tax evasion, of the oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky—a charge most of the world saw as politically motivated. (Volochkova’s defense of this act sounds a bit like that of a teenager caught smoking pot: she didn’t know the letter referred to Khodorkovsky; the letter was brought to her by a cool and important person; all of her artist friends were doing it.) In 2009, Volochkova ran for mayor of the Russian town Sochi, which is scheduled to host the 2014 Winter Olympics. The United Russia party kicked her off the ballot on a technicality. Since then, she says, she has had trouble getting bookings in the region.
In Volochkova’s account, the last straw in her troubled relationship with the Party came in January, when she published the naked photos. They showed her lollygagging on a beach in the Maldives, with what looks like an arrow of strategically placed pebbles running down to her nether regions. During her birthday show, Elena Drapeko, a Soviet actress and parliament member, lay into Volochkova for the photos, and advised that, at her age, it was better to be “wise, rather than luxurious.” The fact that Drapeko was from a different party didn’t tame Volochkova’s wrath. Why, Volochkova wondered, were people focussing on this instead of building art schools? “But when I put up my beach shots on my own blog—not the Party Web site—they suddenly remember that Volochkova is a United Russia member,” she told an interviewer at the time. After all, she added, “I showed them my breasts, not my member!”
To Volochkova and her fans, the cancellation of her birthday broadcast was reminiscent of the days of the Soviet Union when official Party artists were showered with privilege while the blacklisted foundered, were arrested, or, like Joseph Brodsky, were forced into exile. “I was convinced that I live in a free country, and I thought that the leaders of the party were sane people, that they wouldn’t start battling me, a woman,” Volochkova said. “And for what? Just because I decided to stay out of politics?”
The day after her tearful performance in Togliatti, Volochkova went hunting with the locals of the nearby city of Samara. They hunted groundhogs, the plural accusative for which, in Russian, is “surkov.” “It turns out the groundhog is a cowardly animal,” Volochkova wrote on her blog. “It spends all its time hiding in its den and won’t go more than five yards from it.” As a result, Volochkova wrote, “during my hunting trip, not one groundhog was hurt.”

Russia’s Black Swan [TNY]

Meet the Persident

Saturday, January 1st, 2011

In his off-hours, a seemingly dutiful government servant in Czar Nicholas I’s Ministry of Finance would pass the time jotting down little aphorisms. Some were obscure in meaning: “Not every general is stout by nature.” Or, “If you have a fountain, plug it up. Let the fountain too have a rest.” Others mocked the state for which the official, a heavy-browed and dimple-chinned man named Kozma Prutkov, worked. “Our land is rich; there is just no order in it,” he wrote of Russia under Nicholas, a reactionary authoritarian who personally censored the poet Aleksandr Pushkin and whose education minister came up with the dubious motto of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality.” Prutkov’s very existence — a doltish, maudlin bureaucrat in a state overflowing with them — was itself an admonition to the regime.

Prutkov, however, did not actually exist. His verses and indelible image were the invention of writer Aleksey Tolstoy and his cousins, the Zhemchuzhnikov brothers, who published his short witticisms in the thick literary journals so popular at the time.

It’s hard not to think of Prutkov when scrolling through the short, sharp parodies on KermlinRussia, the wildly popular new Twitter account lampooning President Dmitry Medvedev and his anodyne official news feed at KremlinRussia. KermlinRussia’s persona — that of a solipsistic, foolish child-president — seems an apt echo of the earlier satirist’s bumbling scribbles. When I asked the anonymous author of the Twitter parody whether he was a latter-day Prutkov, he responded with characteristic bite: “More like a lie detector.”

As of this writing, KermlinRussia has more than 50,000 followers and is adding a thousand or more each week. Its tweets, like Prutkov’s acerbic little commentaries, pack the kind of sharp nuance for which Twitter is so well-suited, weaving together current events, history, literary allusions, and a very Russian sense of the absurd, all in 140 characters or less. It has been a successful formula. Not only is KermlinRussia the third-most popular Twitter account on the Russian-language Internet, it has among its followers the cream of the Moscow chattering classes and 40 percent of the real Medvedev’s followers. All this has transpired over less than half a year, while readers remain happily unaware of the author’s true identity, a tightly guarded secret.

When I asked KermlinRussia’s author for an interview, the “Persident of Ruissia” agreed to grant one but only via Skype, through an account created just for the interview — security fit for any world leader. The Persident dialed in first.

“Hello?” she said.

It’s interesting, I noted out loud, that a country as patriarchal as Ruissia should have a female persident.

“Yes, it’s unexpected, isn’t it?” the Persident said, and released an airy, tinkling laugh.

“There’s a male voice, too!” chirped a young man. “There’s an author and a co-author,” he added.

The author and co-author — let’s call them Masha and Sasha — are young (“between 20 and 30,” as they like to say) professionals, both of whom studied at St. Petersburg State University, an honor they share with Medvedev, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and author Ayn Rand.* There, the two studied journalism (Masha) and economics (Sasha), and they now work as a copywriter (Masha) and financial analyst (Sasha).

Sasha’s idea for a parody Twitter feed came about when Medvedev visited Silicon Valley last June and, to much fanfare, started his official Twitter account.

At the time, Sasha was already in what he called “a protesting mood.” He hated that the division between business and government in Russia had become so negligible that even though he worked for a private company, his job amounted to ratifying public corruption. He hated the lack of professionalism, the lack of logic, the slapdash, emotional decision-making, the fact that Kremlin connections outweigh results. He hated that “all our politics are centered on thousands of people guessing about what kind of relationship Putin and Medvedev have.”

“Basically, this is the system that’s formed here, and I find it deeply repulsive,” Sasha told me in our Skype call, his ebullience fading to despair.

Sasha’s first tweet came on June 25, two days after Medvedev’s first tweet (with a typo, for ambience) from Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters. At first, Sasha just retweeted the president’s bland messages. Then his writing skills — and years of barely repressed grievances — kicked in.

“I don’t understand all this talk of hours-long traffic jams,” he tweeted as the bizarro president, jabbing at the epic standstills created when the roads into the Russian capital are closed off to make way for functionaries zooming in from the ritzy outer suburbs in their speeding Mercedes: A trip from Rublevka, the Russian Beverly Hills, easily takes an hour or more for commoners. “Personally, I always get to the Kremlin from Rublevka in 10-15 minutes.” On the corruption and wildly growing bill for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi: “In order to save 327 bn. rubles, the decision has been made to move the venue for the Olympic games from Sochi to Vancouver, where everything is already ready.” On the graft that accompanied the Kremlin bailout in 2008 and 2009: “It’s important not to allow a second wave of the economic crisis as the stabilization fund has already been looted.” On the lack of elections of governors: “Today the elections of the governors of Karelia and Chuvashia were held in my office.” When a controversial law giving the internal security service known as the FSB significantly wider reach was being discussed: “The amendments to the FSB law will give the special services powers necessary for guarding the country’s most valuable possession — the country’s citizens.”

One of Sasha’s great gifts as a tweeter is his ability to deftly link the seemingly unrelated — all in service of underscoring the absurdity of Russian political life. When a list surfaced of the plum businesses headed by bureaucrats’ children, he connected it to the government’s campaign to spark an entrepreneurial culture: “Governors need to have more children so that the country will have more successful young entrepreneurs,” he wrote. Commenting on the battle against corruption that seems to have only made corruption worse, he managed a jibe at the falsehoods of state television too: “Everyone who observes what’s happening in the country on television will note that corruption is decreasing.” When the second trial of already jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky wrapped up with observers expecting the inevitable additional lengthy sentence, KermlinRussia invoked the widely held notion that Putin will take back the presidency in 2012. “When Khodorkovsky finishes his second term, Putin will be finishing up his second second term.”

Over the summer, Sasha convinced his good friend Masha to join. With Masha on board, the tweets became richer, more layered. “The second dissident” — i.e., Masha — “has a very fine sense of language,” Sasha told me. “Approximately 70 percent of the tweets with the complex humor? Those aren’t mine.” Masha has a background in Soviet film and a head full of obscure quotes, giving some of her contributions bonus-points-level opacity. When Dmitry Zelenin, governor of the Tver region, found a worm in his salad at a Kremlin reception and got in trouble for tweeting a photo of it, Masha wrote: “Eisenstein got an Oscar for his worms. What’s Zelenin angling for?” No one got it. “In the film Battleship Potemkin by Eisenstein, the plot turns on the part where the sailors are served maggoty meat and they’re forced to eat it,” Masha explained to me. “And of course it turns into a mutiny, and the rest we know from history books.”

Both Sasha and Masha have a propensity, like many young Russians, to speak in the floridly vague, precisely obfuscatory language of the ruling class. They’ve learned to speak like the bureaucrats who control their lives. In conversation, as well as on the KermlinRussia feed, their indirection and polysyllabic jumbles sound just like the officious ballast of the actual president, until the tweet suddenly disintegrates into a Gogolian absurdity. Consider these persidential tweets: “For a number of categories of citizens, drunkenness or intoxication at the time of the committing of the crime will be a mitigating circumstance. Similarly, the mitigation of punishment will require the provision of a document, according to which the citizen committing the crime was already a fuckwit.” There just isn’t that much KermlinRussia needs to do to make Russian reality funny.

IN A COUNTRY WHERE the presented reality usually smacks a bit of hallucination or, at best, a joke, and where the political system has almost always been closed, opaque, and absurd, satire has long played a key role. “Irony is a classic phenomenon of a totalitarian culture and a closed society,” observed Irina Prokhorova, a scholar of culture and the elder sister of Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov. Glancing sarcasm and mockery reached their peak in the late days of the Soviet Union, when few believed in a system that was stagflating itself out of existence. This was the period of the famous anekdoty: short, canned jokes that played with the drab reality of Soviet life, the absurdity of the country’s leadership, the tectonic separation between words and meaning. (For example: What is happiness? Living in a socialist country that is building communism and striving for a bright and happy future. What is unhappiness? Having such happiness.) Anekdoty were also a means of analysis, of sharing knowledge that was unavailable in official media. The jokes were told for hours at the famous Soviet kitchen tables, the cramped linoleum corners into which civil society had been pushed.

After the Soviet Union’s collapse and the brief flowering of journalistic liberty that followed, anekdoty became more mainstream and gradually less relevant. Real satire was making its way into the media. Writer Viktor Shenderovich became a star for his TV program Kukly, which used puppets of the country’s politicians and businessmen to deliver potent, hilarious political comedy — a Daily Show for post-Soviet Russia. But that didn’t last long. At the top of Putin’s agenda when he came to power in 2000 was regaining control over television. He didn’t like his portrayal on Shenderovich’s show, so he took over the channel that aired it and quickly snuffed the program.

Putin’s clampdown created a vacuum: There was no longer real space for making sense of the changes happening so rapidly in the country. Eventually, the Internet filled most of that blank spot, but in the absence of real political discourse, the anekdoty started creeping back. “The tradition is being revived because civil society is feeling increasingly squeezed,” Prokhorova said. “And this is the tried-and-true societal reaction: irony, mockery. It’s not as bad as in the Soviet Union, but the elements are there and they’re recognizable.”

This time, however, anekdoty have morphed into digital-era equivalents like KermlinRussia, allowed to exist for its tens of thousands of followers, a minuscule nothing in a country of 140 million. “Satire will never go away,” Shenderovich told me. “It’ll always find a way out like water finds a hole. The question is, will it be on the margins, like on the Internet … or will it be on prime time, like Jon Stewart?”

The authors of KermlinRussia do not see themselves as an outgrowth of the tradition of anekdoty — it is “a dead genre,” according to Sasha — but there is one powerful link between the two: Both forms of satire are necessarily anonymous. No one knew who wrote the anekdoty before they were launched into the perfume-bottle atomizer of Soviet society. They just circulated. “I would have really liked to know the names of the people who wrote them,” Shenderovich said. “But of course I was not the only one who wanted to know their identities, which is why they were anonymous.”

This is also why the two halves of the Ruissian Persidency — like the anekdoty authors before them and the men behind Kozma Prutkov before that — prefer to remain nameless. Until our interview, KermlinRussia had talked to the media only by chat service, and only in character. Exposure, they say, could well cost them their jobs. It would also spoil the whole carefully constructed image of the parallel tweets of the Russian president, slightly warped at the edges. Said Masha, using a particularly Russian turn of phrase, “Why reveal information if you can not reveal it?”

But Masha’s is a larger point that speaks to the reason why KermlinRussia has resonated so deeply in the Russian blogosphere: It plays on the image of Medvedev as a cheerful, gadget-happy man warming the seat for the grimmer proto-czar Putin — a fake leader no one, including many in the government hierarchy, much believes in. Medvedev is already viewed as a parody; KermlinRussia is almost a form of wish fulfillment. “What people really want is for Medvedev himself to be writing it,” Masha explained. “People still have this hope that our president is actually a witty, discerning, thinking person. Everyone’s constantly writing to us that KermlinRussia is just his alter ego, that these are his real thoughts, and that what he writes in the official Twitter is just PR.”

As for the president himself, Masha and Sasha are “100 percent certain” that he reads their tweets. The presidential press service told me that everyone in the administration knows of KermlinRussia’s existence, but would not comment on whether Medvedev himself actually reads it. When pressed, they stonewalled: “We were stumped by your query,” they said.

Two weeks later came a strange riposte: The president was leaving his KremlinRussia account. Instead, he was starting a new Twitter feed that no one would confuse with Kermlin: MedvedevRussia. He took all 122,000 of his Kremlin followers with him. “Goodbye to everyone who is now with @MedvedevRussia,” Kermlin tweeted when the news broke. “Hello to everyone who never confused the two accounts to begin with.”

Meet the Persident [FP]

Garage Mechanics

Monday, September 27th, 2010

On a windy, sun-soaked afternoon in June, Dasha Zhukova stood on the terrace of the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, an arts venue she founded in Moscow two years ago. Such are the demands on her time that it was the first opportunity she’d had to see the terrace. Wearing a diaphanous summer dress and teetering on high-heeled sandals, she surveyed the wicker couches and the white linen umbrellas flapping in the breeze. Zhukova shivered and folded her arms. Next to her stood Roxane Chatounovski, a stocky woman in her thirties with several large tattoos; she runs the Garage, and was eager to show her boss the work completed in her absence. “There’s a feeling that the sea is over there,” Chatounovski said, with a gesture that vaguely implied the breeze and the umbrellas. The comment hung unpromisingly in the air: Moscow is four hundred miles from the sea. But Zhukova seemed not to hear. She had just flown in from Art Basel, in Switzerland, an art fair that she doesn’t particularly like but, as a collector, attends religiously. Her time was limited.

In the Western press, Zhukova is best known as the girlfriend of Roman Abramovich, the Russian oil billionaire, who is the world’s fiftieth-richest man, according to Forbes, and has extremely close ties to the Kremlin leadership. But in Russia Zhukova, who is twenty-nine, has cultivated a role of her own. She founded the Garage as a kind of Russian Kunsthalle, a space that hosts temporary exhibits rather than having a permanent collection of its own. The Garage has introduced important contemporary art— by artists like Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons, and Takashi Murakami—to a Russian audience that still associates the term “contemporary” with Picasso. It quickly became clear that Zhukova had hit on something bigger than even she ex- pected. Last fall, during the Moscow Bi- ennale, the Garage brought in a hundred thousand visitors in a month.

“So what’s going on with the event?” she asked, taking a seat at one of the heavy wooden tables on the terrace. Delicately tanned, big-eyed, and full-lipped, Zhukova usually wears an entirely neutral ex- pression reminiscent of an empty tide pool. She says little, letting her lieutenant, a Russian woman named Marina Barber, explain her intentions. When she does speak, it is often in a volley of questions which can seem at odds with her general passivity. She began to grill Chatounovski on arrangements for the private opening, that evening, of three new exhibits. There was a show by AES+F, an important quartet of established Russian artists; a version of a Los Angeles performance piece by Francesco Vezzoli, in which Lady Gaga played a Damien Hirst piano; and a retrospective, imported from New York’s Museum of Modern Art, of semi- nal performance art. There was also a Mark Rothko exhibit, which had opened in the spring—the first time that Rothko had been shown in Moscow.

“How many are confirmed?” Zhukova asked.

Four hundred, all with a plus-one.

“Food?” Perplexed, Chatounovski reminded Zhukova that she had said no food for the event’s after-party, and Barber as- sured her that a formal meal at the opening would be out of place.

Zhukova interrupted. There were too many other things she wanted to know about. She wanted to see the press list, to check on the photographer, to examine the P.R. bill. Then there were the shows themselves, which she had not yet seen. Were they even ready? Chatounovski said they were, but, when she began to describe her impressions, Zhukova cut her off.

“Did we have time to buy beanbags?” she said. In Zhukova’s conception, beanbag chairs would enable visitors to lounge in front of the AES+F exhibit.

“We’re buying them, we’re buying them,” Chatounovski said, but it quicklybecame clear that there was a problem.

“There aren’t any,” Barber said quietly.

“What do you mean, there aren’t any?” Zhukova asked. Chatounovski and Barber steeled themselves for what they knew would follow. They tried to suggest benches, but Zhukova was adamant: “The main thing is that it’s soft.” She had another idea.

“What about the IKEA here in Moscow?” she asked.

Barber said that they were already looking in three IKEAs.

“And in the store there’s not a single beanbag?”


Zhukova is the quintessential creature of a new cultural moment. Russian oligarchs are notorious for the manner in which they have spent—and, for that matter, acquired—their fortunes, but, as the country’s economy has matured, the big spenders have, too. Serious philanthropy and arts patronage are on the rise, and it is often women who preside over the building of family legacies. Zhukova’s perspective is naturally international, and she combines energetic socializing with worthy cultural aspirations. Even her look epitomizes a shift in which mere consumption is becoming something subtler and more coded. She is glamorous but discreetly so, a world away from the stereotype of the fur-draped Russian wife— equal parts Donatella Versace and Madame de Pompadour—that circulated in the nineties. Some of these women have approached arts patronage in a perfunctory way, organizing fund-raisers and tossing money around at auctions. But a few, like Zhukova, are transforming the profile of Russia in the art world while also giving Russians new access to the latest currents of the avant-garde. Sometimes this lofty task means thinking of banalities like beanbags and canapés. When I spoke to Zhukova on the terrace, her manicured fingers discovered a forgotten price tag under a placemat. She tore it off and immediately began checking the rest. Her face, hidden behind dinner-plate-size sunglasses streaked with gold, barely rippled.

The Garage is, in fact, a garage. Or, to be precise, it is a former bus depot designed by the Constructivist architects Konstantin Melnikov and Vladimir Shukhov, in 1926. The building, with a distinctive red brick façade, has become an architectural landmark that, through a series of ownership transfers, ended up in the hands of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, which wanted to make it into a “tolerance museum.” But there was a fire in 2001, and the depot was gutted and sat vacant until Zhukova discovered it, in 2007.

“It was just this beautiful big building, and they said, ‘We really want to do something cultural here,’” Zhukova explained, as we sat on the terrace. “And I said, ‘Great, well, I have some ideas— give it to me, and I’ll do something cultural.’ ” It may have helped that Abramovich was the chairman of the federation’s board and a major donor. (Zhukova’s mother is Jewish, and her father is “very Christian”; Zhukova, who says she’s “studied a lot of Biblical subjects,” now identifies herself as Jewish.)

Zhukova threw herself into renovating the space. It was difficult and expensive to restore. “The size, the wiring that was here, or the lack thereof. There was nothing—electricity, water, even the basics,” Zhukova said, sipping what she called her “fake coffee,” an herbal energy concoction recommended by her nutri- tionist, which her driver had just fetched from her car. “I think in the span of a year we learned more about consistency of floors, ventilation—I mean, things that I never thought I’d have to learn.”

A year and nearly fifteen million dollars later—in June, 2008—the Garage opened its doors, for a dinner for mem- bers of Zhukova’s set: a beau monde extending from European aristocracy to Jeff Koons. Amy Winehouse entertained the crowd, for a fee of reportedly well over a million dollars. (Zhukova says that the figure was substantially lower.) That September, the Garage opened to the public, with a show by Ilya Kabakov. Known as the godfather of Russian contemporary art, Kabakov had spent the previous twenty years in exile in the United States, and the opening of the Garage was his exuberant homecoming.

Since then, Zhukova has overseen a burgeoning education program, with free lectures, children’s workshops, film screenings, and master classes. She is particularly eager not just to import high-profile shows but also to foster the emergence of a homegrown Moscow art scene. Thus a recent exhibit—“Futurology/Russian Utopias,” which ran simultaneously with the Rothko—encouraged local artists to explore the strong utopian strands in Russian culture. “I guess it’s the mission for the Garage,” Zhukova told me. “It’s to integrate Russian contemporary culture with the international. I definitely see the Garage as an institution that can implement social change in the country. I think we can’t just be bringing things in.”

Zhukova balances her work at the Garage with a number of roles that are, at least potentially, highly demanding. She founded a fashion label and has been appointed editor-in-chief of the edgy, eccentric British fashion magazine Pop. (The magazine’s most recent issue has Britney Spears on its cover, designed in lurid Technicolor by Murakami.) She spends most of her time in London, where she lives with Abramovich and their nine-month-old son. Periodically, she flies to Los Angeles, where she grew up, and Moscow, where she was born and spent her childhood. Because she is so rarely in one place for long, she tends to bookend projects. When choosing art for the Garage, for example, she spots something she likes and then seeks advice from a circle of art-world acquaintances, most notably the American dealer Larry Gagosian, who first nurtured her interest in art. (One of his former curators now works for her.) Zhukova’s connections and wealth enable her to obtain art works that are rarely loaned—like the fragile Rothkos, and works from the collection of the French billionaire François Pinault. She is also able to get them into Russia, past a notoriously unpredictable bureaucracy. Once the art makes it through customs, the Garage’s staff takes charge of installation.

At the final stage, Zhukova moves in and gives the whole project what one might think of as the Dasha aesthetic, generally achieved by a relentless focus on particulars. After surveying the terrace, Zhukova set out to see what her exhibits actually looked like. Surrounded by a cloud of whirring cameras that she made a point of graciously ignoring, she walked through the galleries with Klaus Biesenbach, a MOMA curator who had brought the performance-art show to Moscow. Biesenbach, a German in his forties with close-cropped white hair, talked excitedly, his accented English rising in a series of interrogative loops. He led Zhukova into a darkened rectangular room. Its walls were filled with texts stapled under photographs and with screens showing videos of performance pieces, such as the scratched midriff of a woman slowly spinning a hula hoop made of barbed wire. Biesenbach explained the significance of each piece to Zhukova, taking care to distinguish the merely “brilliant” from the “masterpiece.”

He led Zhukova to a small video screen showing an off-white glob with people wriggling around in it like apple worms. “This is something that I am going to do at MOMA in winter,” he said. But there was a problem: the piece had an audio component, and the speaker wasn’t working. Zhukova, monosyllabically appreciative up to now, saw the opportunity to contribute to the discussion. “But there’s no way to turn it up right now?” she said. Biesenbach went on to explain the significance of the work, which drew its inspiration from the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich.
“It’s a Caspar David Friedrich iceberg made out of chalk?” he said, scanning Zhukova’s face for comprehension. “And there are nine little caves? And inside these caves there are trained opera singers, and the trained opera singers sing? The melodies of arias, but they sing political speeches.”

“Right,” Zhukova said. “Well, let’s see what we can do about the speaker.”

After the tour of the MOMA exhibit, Zhukova led Biesenbach around the AES+F one. He praised the show and discussed its installation. Zhukova wanted his opinion on something else.

“We got some beanbags,” she said. “Or do you think that’s too casual?”

Daria Zhukova was born in Moscow in 1981, into a well-connected family of scientists, writers, and linguists. “It was the usual, normal Moscow intelligentsia,” her mother, Elena, a molecular biologist, said. Elena met Dasha’s father, Alexander, when the two were students in Moscow. They married, had Dasha, and divorced three years later. In the late nineteen-eighties, after Mikhail Gorbachev relaxed the strictures on private enterprise, Alexander formed an energy trading company, which became one of the industry’s most important. Dasha, meanwhile, had an unremarkable Soviet childhood until 1991, when Elena Zhukova left the country to do research in Houston, taking her ten-year-old daughter with her. Two months later, the Soviet Union collapsed, and Elena decided to stay in the United States.

Alexander’s growing wealth back in Russia helped ease the stresses of immigration. In Texas, Dasha was sent to private school, and her English became so good that she nearly forgot her Russian. She skied, played tennis, acted. Later, she moved with her mother to Los Angeles, eventually enrolling at U.C. Santa Barbara, where she majored in Russian literature. Katia McClain, one of her professors, remembers her as a thoughtful student. “Most significant, she was unassuming,” McClain said. “She gave no indication that she came from a very wealthy family.” Zhukova also took premed classes—she wanted to be a pediatrician—but struggled with organic chemistry.

By the time Zhukova graduated, in 2003, she had lost interest in medical school and began to develop an interest in alternative medicine. Elena remembers this as a not especially happy period. “She searched to find herself for a long time,” she recalls. “It was a tumultuous process, and she found her way by trial and error.” By way of salvation, her father invited her to move to London, where he was living. Alexander Zhukov was by then a very wealthy man—with a villa in Sardinia, a jet, and a portfolio of London property. Though most of his money comes from Russian oil, his career has been varied. In 2001, he spent six months in an Italian jail, on suspicion of supplying arms to Serbian forces during the civil war; no charges were filed and he was released.

Zhukova enrolled in London’s College of Naturopathic Medicine, and moved into a penthouse next door to her father’s, in a gated community in Kensington, which had emerged as a glittering enclave of Russian wealth. Zhukova’s life, previously merely privileged, became truly glamorous. She partied with members of the Royal Family and the children of other tycoons. She and a childhood friend back in Los Angeles, Christina Tang, launched a clothing line, calling it Kova & T, for their last names. “The idea came about, honestly, because we wanted a clean pair of jeans at a time when all the jeans were being bedazzled,” Zhukova told me. “You know, why can’t anyone just make them without all the stuff on it?” She shuttled between London and Los Angeles, learning about fabric and distribution and sales. The brand did well—attracting notice for Catwoman-style leggings, which enjoyed a vogue among young Holly- wood celebrities—though Zhukova is no longer directly involved in designing for it.

Zhukova’s life might easily have continued in this vein, but in 2005, after breaking up with her longtime boyfriend, the tennis star Marat Safin, she met Roman Abramovich, on a trip to Russia. At the time, Abramovich was the richest man in Russia. He had got his start while in the Soviet Army, in the mid-eighties, reportedly selling stolen fuel at a markup to officers, before graduating to sell perfume, deodorant, and tights on the black market. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he moved into the newly privatized oil industry, buying at cheap domestic prices and selling abroad. In 1995, in partnership with the oligarch Boris Berezovsky, he began his acquisition of an oil company called Sibneft. The deal was typical of the era: the company had been created by a Kremlin order and handed over to the duo for a farcically low price. At Sibneft, Abramovich ran the business while Berezovsky tirelessly curried favor with President Boris Yeltsin’s inner circle. When Yeltsin positioned Vladimir Putin to be his successor, in 1999, he did so at Berezovsky’s suggestion, but Putin quickly proved determined to curtail the political power of the oligarchs and made an example of his erstwhile supporter. Berezovsky was forced into exile, in London, and had to sell his share of Sibneft to Abramovich. At the age of thirty-five, Abramovich gained control of one of the biggest oil companies in the world.

Abramovich sold the company, for thirteen billion dollars, in 2005, not long before meeting Zhukova. He was married then, to his second wife, Irina, a former flight attendant whom he had wed in 1991. (The couple had five children.) Soon after meeting Abramovich, Zhukova flew to Barcelona to watch a soccer match with him. Afterward, she was reportedly seen being hustled into a car by his bodyguards and taken to a hotel. The relationship developed behind a wall of spokesmen’s denials—she was “a family friend,” they said—as Zhukova, fourteen years younger than Abramovich, popped up with him in cities across the world and sat in his box at soccer games. (Abramovich, a soccer fanatic, purchased Chelsea Football Club in 2003, for two hundred and fifty million dollars.) By October, 2006, Irina was reported to have hired divorce lawyers known in London as Jaws and Mr. Payout. Abramovich’s representatives tried to keep the story a secret, which made the British tabloids all the more determined to play it up. For a while, it seemed that Irina might receive five billion dollars, the biggest settlement in history, but she settled, in a Russian court, for around three hundred million.

Since the relationship’s inauspicious beginnings, the pair has kept a low profile. Abramovich, notoriously press-shy, has found a good partner in Zhukova. She will not discuss how they met, or even whether they are married. In public, the couple barely interact, floating past each other without words or eye contact. Her press corps rivals his in obstructiveness and obfuscation. She gives few interviews, and, when she does, her answers are studies in evasion. When I asked her about her recent art acquisitions—since becoming involved with Zhukova, Abramovich is said to have spent record amounts on paintings by Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon—her airy Southern California drawl turned to lead. “I don’t really talk about the collecting,” she said, and then, as if by way of explanation, added, “It’s something that’s quite personal and doesn’t involve just me.” It’s tempting to suppose that such vagueness betrays a neophyte’s lack of confidence, and a wariness about being portrayed as a rich dilettante. But Zhukova’s almost virtuosic uncommunicativeness seems to apply to all areas of her life, and her infinite unquotability has earned her a kind of fame among journalists. At a fashion show, a reporter for Women ’s Wear Daily asked her what she thought of the clothes. Zhukova responded, “I liked them, but that’s off the record.”

“If you want to understand the oligarchs, you really need to think in terms of Napoleonic France,” Irina Prokhorova said, as she sat in a large, sunny office overlooking one of Moscow’s tree-lined boulevards. Prokhorova, a publisher and an academic with a strong grounding in cultural history, is the elder sister of Mikhail Prokhorov, who made a fortune in nickel mining and is now, according to Forbes, Russia’s second-richest man. (Outside Russia, Prokhorov is best known for his recent purchase of the New Jersey Nets.) Irina runs a philanthropic foundation that she started with her brother.

The thing about Napoleon’s reign, Prokhorova explained, was the social vacuum: the blood aristocracy was gone, leaving the country without a natural élite. The epoch’s extravagance was the expression of the desire of a new self-made class to define itself. “These were talented people who rose because of the Revolution, who didn’t have any birthright, nothing. And in this way this glamour, this opulent beauty, this interest in style, was absolutely a product of the Revolution,” Prokhorova said. “The glamour of the Russian nineteen-nineties was the same thing.” In post-Soviet Russia, when the entire economy was transferred from the state to private hands, unimaginable wealth could be made with almost surreal speed. But, after seven decades of poverty and Communism, there was no template for how to spend it. “A lot of talented people from different circumstances rose to prominence, and the only way they could present and legitimatize themselves was to find their own style,” she said. From this came all the clichés of Russian wealth: the baroque excess and theatrical pursuit of luxury.

David Hoffman, who was a reporter in Moscow at the time and later consolidated his impressions in a book, “The Oligarchs,” suggests that the model was not Napoleonic but American. “They came from nothing,” he told me. “They learned their behavior from reading Theodore Dreiser’s ‘The Financier.’ They learned how rich men behave by emulating Western experiences.” The American example may be the key to understanding what happened next: slowly, Russians started to emulate Carnegie and the Rockefellers, who made their money in dirty, unglamorous ways and, in later decades, put it into cultural, scientific, and educational causes. In Russia, as usual, this process has been telescoped. Here, the generation giving back is the generation that first made the money.

Philanthropy in modern Russia started informally, with oligarchs handing out money in their blighted industrial bases. A decade later, the approach has become more systematic, although most oligarchs’ foundations are not endowed, and are instead funded year to year or project to project. But there are a few prominent exceptions. The Prokhorov foundation tries to bring culture to dilapidated industrial towns across Russia. Vladimir Potanin, once Prokhorov’s partner, has become the first Russian oligarch to announce that he is leaving his billions not to his children but to charity. Abramovich, too, has put much of his money into philanthropy; when, in 1999, he was elected governor of the desolate and impoverished Chukotka region, in the Arctic northeast, he began pouring nearly two billion dollars into the region’s infrastructure and economy. He even hired mountain climbers to scale the walls of the gray buildings and paint them in bright, colored patterns that would set them apart from the eternal gray of the landscape.

By the middle of the past decade, oligarchs had also emerged on the world art scene, collecting at record prices. Inevitably, collecting and curating art has also become a fashionable way of obtaining cultural legitimacy. “When Dasha came on the scene, we just thought, Here’s another socialite who decided to do art,” Marat Guelman, a Russian gallerist, told me. “But, when Roman started buying art, people started believing in her, because he is a systematic person. When he starts something, he carries through. She, too, has shown a tremendous focus.” According to Prokhorova, the huge public response to Zhukova’s Garage is not a surprise: innovations in the arts have been severely underfunded for the past two decades—“Everything is needed everywhere”—so that even small investments can have a dramatic impact.

A few days after meeting Zhukova, I visited the art collector Maria Baibakova. She was showing a group of trustees from Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art around her family’s extensive collection, housed in her father’s home in Rublevka, Moscow’s version of Beverly Hills. The daughter of Oleg Baybakov, who serves as Mikhail Prokhorov’s lieutenant and has branched into real estate and development, Masha, as she is known, is in many ways Dasha Zhukova’s direct counterpart. Born in Moscow in 1985, she moved with her mother to America, while her father made his fortune back in Russia. But, unlike Zhukova, she has cultivated expertise in contemporary art. She graduated summa cum laude from Barnard, with a degree in art history, before doing a master’s, at the Courtauld Institute of Art, in London. She spent her college years in New York interning at Sotheby’s and at galleries in Chelsea.

If anyone is to become Russia’s Peggy Guggenheim, it is Baibakova. In 2008, when Zhukova opened the Garage, Baibakova launched a nonprofit gallery, in the old Red October Chocolate Factory, in the center of Moscow. Unlike the Garage, which seeks to introduce a Russian audience to blue-chip contemporary art, Baibakova’s project is more narrowly focussed on emerging artists. Her target audience already knows Damien Hirst and so is ready for Cyprien Gaillard and Thomas Hirschhorn. As one observer of the Russian art scene put it, “Masha can bring in Sterling Ruby because they’ve already seen Koons at the Garage.”

Baibakova’s focus is less mainstream than Zhukova’s Garage, and doesn’t have its rarefied hipness, just as her personality lacks Zhukova’s impenetrable, flattering-mirror sheen. Baibakova is loud, confident, warm. She Tweets. She speaks quickly but eloquently; she is blunt, and does something Zhukova never does in public—complain about Russia. “Here, I am constantly reinventing the wheel,” she groaned over a bottle of Coke, in a basement café near a new exhibition space where she had to move her gallery after Red October raised the rent. (That space has since closed as well.) She began to tell me about her various difficulties—visits from corrupt fire inspectors, the broken mail system, the country’s ingrained sexism, and logjams with bogus bureaucracy. “I had to solve this with vodka because I don’t have the budget or the money for bribes!”

Baibakova’s management style, too, is the opposite of Zhukova’s. Unlike Zhukova, who employs a small army of gallerists and curators, Baibakova works with only a skeleton crew, doing much of the work herself. Partly this is because she doesn’t have Zhukova’s resources: Baibakova’s father is wealthy, but he is not an Abramovich, either in riches or in stature. But Baibakova, who is twenty-five, has still managed to become a serious force on the international art scene. The Guggenheim has hinted that it wants her on its board, and the magazine ARTnews recently included her and her father on a list of the world’s most active and influential art collectors. The only other Russian on the list was Abramovich.

As the well-heeled MOCA trustees milled around the family’s back yard, admiring the food (cooked by Masha’s grandmother) and the art, conversation turned to a comparison of Masha and Dasha. Masha they loved. She knew her art and spoke their open, American language. But they had doubts about Dasha. One curator, asked if she was seen as a serious connoisseur or as a big spender, said, “She’s seen as the wife of a big spender. Artists trust people who trust their instincts, not someone who calls Larry”— Gagosian—“to ask them if it’s right or not. Masha, on the other hand, knows what she’s doing.” Surprisingly, despite Zhukova’s help in organizing a benefit gala for MOCA that raised more than four million dollars for the museum, another member of the delegation asked what she “brought to the table.” Money? “Nope,” he said. “Not even.”

Few people are so dismissive, however. In running the Garage, Zhukova has shown considerable acumen. “Instead of steering it herself, she hires professionals,” Marat Guelman said. Zhukova, recognizing her lack of time and expertise, finds talent and gives the people she picks considerable autonomy. In this, she closely resembles Abramovich. Alexander Voloshin, who was Putin’s first chief of staff, told me, “Abramovich understands people well. He’s not a super-manager. He has one big asset, which is that he is a good judge of character, and he picked people who are capable of managing.”

Even Zhukova’s baffling blankness— her absolute reserve and her apparent fear of saying anything remotely opinionated—usually works in her favor. An older generation of curators and artists, who could easily feel threatened by a rich and influential young woman, unanimously praise her good manners, her modesty, her tact. Others suspect that the impassive exterior masks the will of one who knows how to manipulate people in order to get what she wants, the sort of woman for whom billionaires leave their wives and families. “Dasha is one of the hardest people to read that I’ve ever met,” the art-world observer told me. “It’s not because she’s not smart or passionate about what she’s doing. She’s just the ideal model. She hides her emotions, her passions, though you know it’s there because you see the projects she puts together.” Ultimately, perhaps, Zhukova doesn’t speak much because she understands that her money and connections speak for themselves.

The night of the Garage opening, hundreds of guests wandered through the exhibits. They lounged on the gray velvet couches in the café, and spilled onto the crowded terrace. The beanbags had not arrived, a setback that Zhukova bore with resignation. She had put on a navy wool blazer and a pleated pink miniskirt. There were streaks of blush on her cheeks. She seemed worn down but talked gamely with her guests. She listened to the wife of a flamboyant Russian designer chatter about their daughter’s schooling abroad. She hugged one of the Old Guard curators who had helped her organize the inaugural Garage exhibit. Periodically, she collapsed onto the gray couches, looking like a sullen child, and searched her purse for a pack of cigarettes. (Abramovich dis- approves of the habit, and Zhukova denies that she smokes.) She was tired of having a reporter follow her around all day. “Do you always have to have that tape recorder out?” she asked. She developed a makeshift way of going off the record, covering her mouth and whispering to her friends. Masha Baibakova arrived and bouncily congratulated her on the opening. Zhukova said something cool and polite but didn’t get up.

On the terrace, under the umbrellas, artists wearing big necklaces and strange eyeglasses mingled with bored-looking, stick-thin women. Inside, others filed past the AES+F exhibit. Titled “The Feast of Trimalchio,” it was a display of photographs and animations inspired by Petronius’ “Satyricon,” in which Trimalchio, a self-made man, hosts an obscenely lavish dinner party. As he becomes increasingly drunk, he tells his guests—the nouveaux riches of Nero’s Rome—about a grandiose tomb he has planned for himself and then gets to act out his funeral. The AES+F prints were a burlesque of fashion photography, crowded with absurdly dressed models twisted into exaggerated poses of domination and servitude. The notes accompanying the exhibit claimed that it would “envelop visitors in a temporary hotel paradise, where they can enjoy the excesses of wealth, luxury and gluttony.” In a context in which so many of the guests inhabit “a temporary hotel paradise” as a matter of course, the exhibit took on an eeriness that may not have been entirely unintentional.

On the terrace, the canapés had run out, and people stood tightly packed, swirling their drinks and nibbling on bread sticks that grew out of vases like post-apocalyptic cacti. Waiters jostled through the crowd and converged on a particular table, putting down place settings, bottles of wine, and plates of food. People stared at the table. Eventually, surrounded by a gaggle of friends, Abramovich strode onto the terrace, dressed in jeans and a navy blazer with an open-collared white shirt. He looked around. The table was ready. He sat down, and his friends did, too, oblivious of the casual, democratic ethos of the evening. As the crowd looked on, they laughed, and poured wine for one an- other, forked cheese and cured meats onto one another’s plates.

At one point in the evening, I came across Abramovich as he wandered into the room with the MOMA exhibit. He walked slowly around, chewing on gum and staring blankly at the works. When I approached him and mentioned that I was writing about Zhukova, she leaped up from a nearby sofa and sprinted over on six-inch Louboutin heels. “Can I talk to you for a minute?” she said to Abramovich, in Russian, and, grabbing him by the arm, led him quickly across the room and out the door.

Garage Mechanics [TNY]

Real Housewives of Moscow

Monday, July 26th, 2010

A strange thing happened in late June, when the big Russian Internal Ministry bosses disclosed their earnings and those of their family members, thanks to President Dmitry Medvedev’s new anti-corruption measures. The surprise didn’t come from the men: The head-honcho cops were the fat cats everyone assumed them to be, declaring incomes that strangely exceeded that of the president. And the ranks of the obscure upper-middle management fittingly declared modest incomes, usually topping at out around $50,000. A Russian-made car here, a modest apartment there.

But the wifely half of the family disclosures was far more revelatory. There was, for example, the amazing financial statement of the spouse of Viktor Smirnov, the deputy director of the Russian Internal Ministry’s Center to Ensure Operation Performance to Combat Extremism. In 2009, a year in which the Russian economy struggled to get back on its feet after the financial crisis turned it virtually inside-out, Mrs. Smirnov made $500,000. She also owns two plots of land, each about 40 acres. She has shares in two apartments as well as in a housing complex, plus a Subaru Outback, an industrial truck, and a BMW 3-Series, which can retail for over $60,000. What does Mr. Smirnov own? One-quarter of one apartment.

Others wives flourished, too, like the Chechen one who owns 10 hectares of land, two apartments, a summer cottage, a pig farm, two cattle barns, and one slaughterhouse. Her husband, the deputy head of the Chechen Internal Ministry, owns exactly one trundly Russian-made hatchback.

What’s happening here is, of course, quite clear: corruption, pure and simple—the very sort Medvedev is making a show of rooting out by requiring his employees to declare their incomes. If, in a superficial stab at transparency, you are forced to disclose your assets, how do you, as a government employee making a pittance, conceal all the “left”—or dirty—money you made by using your uniform to squeeze it out of people? Register it in the wife’s name. The wives aren’t limited in their salaries the way the men are. So technically, they can have all the goodies that come from the extortion or embezzlement of their husbands.

But while using your wife as an offshore bank account is a simple—and universal—trick to slick your way through disclosure on a loophole, there are also broader consequences for millions of Russian working women. Most of them are not the wives of crooked cops or officials who use their government positions to loot the Russian state. Most of them, in fact, are the sole bread-winners in their families, despite the country’s macho fantasies of itself. Most Russian women still work and, with male life expectancy at 62, provide much of the household income into their senior citizenship. Their struggles are nowhere reflected in the mirror held up by Mrs. Smirnov. And yet she’s the cultural icon they’re stuck with.

According to a poll conducted after the disclosures, no one is falling for the spousal Internal Ministry accounting trick. Asked “Why do you think that many wives of high-ranking civil servants have incomes that exceed their husbands’ by several factors?” a full 84 percent of Russians responded that it was because “the resources of power”—connections, access, etc.—of these civil servants “is used by members of their family to conduct private business and increase the family income.” In a country so rife with corruption that Transparency International ranked it on par with Zimbabwe, Russians are surely right not to buy the fictions of the high-rolling wives of modest civil servants.

To understand the way that corruption has undercut professional Russian women, one must understand a radical shift of the last 20 years. Many of the Internal Ministry wives grew up in the Soviet system and can remember when there were few housewives supported by their husbands’ earnings. In those days, the Soviet woman was supposed to shed the shackles of labor division based on bourgeois notions of gender, to be a “mother-comrade.” She was expected to go to college, have a career, bear and rear children, and, oh yes, also keep house. Granted, this did not stamp out the strong paternalistic strains in Russian culture, nor did all women do this with joy (many complained that it took away their femininity), but it gave the country several generations of female scientists, doctors, lawyers, and engineers. (Two of my great-grandmothers, for example, were physicians; one was a professor of chemistry. They were all superb cooks.)

Then came the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, followed immediately by the sudden onset of no-holds-barred capitalism. It came as a huge psychological shock. Money seemed to fall out of the sky—or off the carcass of the collapsed state. Making money in the lawless, gangland 1990s became a mostly male sphere. As their husbands’ wealth ballooned, many wives—even the doctors and the professors among them—decided they’d rather stay at home than work long hours for tiny Soviet-era salaries. Eventually, the goal for many women became to find a man, any man, to support you instead of working. Naturally, the old paternalism blossomed under this old-fashioned arrangement, especially since most men and most women came to agree that the man was supposed to be not only the family bread-winner, but also the uncontested family boss.

Enter Elena Baturina, a plain, tow-headed bureaucrat in the Moscow city government in the 1980s. She worked for a man named Yuri Luzhkov, a big gun on the Moscow city council. By the post-Soviet mid-1990s, Luzhkov became mayor, and he ruled the city like a latter-day Boss Tweed. Baturina, 27 years his junior, became his wife. As Luzhkov developed and oversaw the extremely corrupt process of privatizing Moscow property, most of which had belonged to the Soviet state, Baturina simultaneously amassed a fortune in Moscow real estate. Did she make this money because she had inside information and access through her husband? Was she stashing the cut Luzhkov pocketed from the buyer? It was unclear, and Luzhkov and Baturina sued anyone who tried to find out—and won every single time.

When Luzhkov finally disclosed his earnings for 2009, he revealed that Baturina brought home more than $200 million—1,100 times more than her husband the mayor made. And that was just the cash. Baturina is, by far, Russia’s richest woman—its only female billionaire—as well as its biggest farce. She is the lens through which the recent Interior Ministry disclosures were derisively viewed. She has become the embodiment of the rich, corrupt woman, whose husband’s fortune is registered under her name.

The problem for other Russian women is that with the image of the mother-comrade gone, these two images have replaced it: The corrupt businesswoman a la Baturina, or the lux dame who expresses her femininity by not working. Both are entirely reliant on their husbands’ support. Neither is a selling point for women more generally. Or a role model.

Real Housewives of Moscow [Slate’s Double X]

From Russia with Gloves

Monday, July 5th, 2010

On a windy May evening, seven perfectly respectable, well-paid professionals —including two women—trudged up three flights of dusty concrete stairs in an abandoned Moscow factory and strapped on boxing gloves. For the next hour and 15 minutes they twisted and ducked, jabbed and cut, and sweated through their T-shirts as their hair turned to wet spaghetti. “I’ll quit drinking, I’ll quit smoking! I promise,” one moaned, slinking, paunch first, out of the room and past the boxing club’s owner, his wife.

“Get back in,” she snarled. “Stop whining.”

Her husband obliged, and Elena Molova went back to monitoring the class from the studio’s doorway. It was the second day of operations at her October Boxing Club, a high-end boxing studio located on a thin island in the middle of the Moscow River and named for the now defunct, Soviet-era Red October Chocolate Factory next door. Tan, thin, and leathery—with a bob of peroxide blonde hair and vertiginous platform shoes—Molova is around 50 years old and has no prior boxing experience. (Her previous career? “Let’s just say…construction,” she demurred.)

About a year ago, in the throes of a financial meltdown that hit Russia especially hard—and hit its construction industry even harder—Molova sensed a trend wafting from the West. It started about a decade ago when Gleason’s, the hallowed Brooklyn training ground for boxers, started admitting the occasional neophyte. The trend moved across the East River to Wall Street, where overpaid and overfed bankers, traders, and analysts began gathering in places such as the financial district’s Trinity Boxing Club to release their competitiveness and, in some cases, vanquish their inner nerd. These soft-pawed bankers trained and competed in charity smackdowns that, during the good times, brought in as much as $100,000 a night. The trend quickly leapfrogged the Atlantic. From London, a city crawling with Russian expatriates, the hop to Moscow—where the sport remains popular from its 1930s proletarian heyday—was inevitable.

In a strange riposte to boxing’s hardscrabble roots here, four gentrified clubs have opened in Moscow in the last eight months. All claim they are open to everyone, but they’re actually targeting one particular demographic: men under 50 from the higher rungs of corporate management. “Our clients have achieved a certain stature in life—they know what they want,” says Evgeny Tresko, a former boxer and the owner and manager of the Put’ Boksera (Way of the Boxer) Club. “These are not people with too much time on their hands who just want a dumb fight. Of course, a couple of those types have shown up here. But they were intimidated by the prices and left.”

As aspiring oligarchs seek out ways of differentiating themselves from other bourgeoise strivers, belonging to an exclusive club where only the wealthy can afford to pummel each other makes sense. “This is the most expensive equipment that exists in 2010,” boasts one thirtysomething fighter at October, invoking the standard Russian metric for quality. The club is stocked with Johnson weights and Title gloves and punching bags. Says the fighter: “It’s what Mike Tyson uses.”

When it comes to price, this is not your mother’s Russia—and that’s the point. Way of the Boxer’s one-on-one sessions can top $100 per class. And with membership at $2,000 per year, October’s denizens are not your average street brawlers, either. Tatyana Arno, a TV personality, is a regular; so is Andrey Boltenko, the artistic director of Channel One, the main state-owned TV network. Filipp Yalovega, a Moscow hedge fund tycoon, usually rolls up on his Augusta motorcycle.

October is a favorite of Deutsche Bank (DB) employees as well as their counterparts at Merrill Lynch (MER) who work across the water. “The English and American guys just spar politely and break it up,” says Eugenia Kuyda, Molova’s daughter and a fighter herself. “The Russians—once you get gloves on them, you can’t tear them apart. They are vicious.”

That may be good news. Moscow’s boxing club owners will tell you that the point of boxing is unprecedented fitness, but the real inspiration is reviving a masculine ideal that some feel is lacking in modern, corporate Russia. The empowerment of these wimpy, corporate technocrats is a challenge, and boxing appears to be a distinctly Russian solution. “It gives a man what he needs to be a man: to stand up for himself,” says Tresko, hitting a common refrain. Behind the spread collars, lavish lunches, and hired women—so the theory goes—are fragile eggheads who studied hard, played chess, and paid for it in schoolyard gut punches. “What happens when a boy is attacked?” asks Kabi Korreia, a trainer at October club and a native of Guinea-Bissau who grew up in Russia. “He needs to fight back. It’s wired into his nature.”

In its first month in business, October Boxing Club has garnered about 50 regular clients. Molova is looking to eventually quadruple the number, launch a second gym, and, with the help of Moscow’s government, open a children’s boxing clinic in the fall.

“What’s most important about boxing is it allows a man to not feel like a girl in a step aerobics class,” Molova says amid the din of Russian gangster rap. “Boxing allows them to engage their masculine emotions. It’s a way to prove himself, and it’s nice to see men being men.”

To that end, once they enter the gym, the nouveau riche suits are reduced to average citizens. “These are slightly spoiled people,” Korreia says. “But here, when you walk in with your white collar, your status means nothing.” This is not the first place Korreia has worked with doughy elites. Once, he personally trained a banker pushing 50. In two months, the client dropped 26 pounds and quit smoking. “I trained him like an animal,” he says proudly.

As if on cue, three men walked in, one fat, one in a trench coat, one nondescript, all of them slightly menacing looking. They glanced around and watched the sparring a bit. Molova marched over to Yuri Koptsev, a bistro owner and former boxer who helps run the gym. “Who are these men?” she demanded. “Are they yours?” They were. Mr. Trench Coat, it turned out, was the deputy media director in the office of the all-powerful Moscow mayor. He was interested in taking classes.

With the more democratic fitness chains in Moscow offering more affordable boxing sessions, office drones all over the city just might start following the suits into the ring. By that point, though, the elites will have moved on to something different and more expensive. In modern, white-collar Russia, catharsis is important, but status is everything.

From Russia with Gloves [BBW]

Russia’s New Privatization

Friday, June 4th, 2010

It wasn’t supposed to be so cold in Moscow this late in May, which is why Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas arrived wearing only slacks and a T-shirt. He stood on stage with a slate-gray fleece blanket clumsily draped over his lanky frame, making him look like the superhero that the crowd — a who’s who of the Russian artistic and media elite — already believed him to be.

Koolhaas was gracing the opening of the Strelka (or “Arrow”) Institute, a new design school, housed in a stylishly restored old factory on an island in the Moscow River, with the ambitious goal of offering a transformative push to Russian architecture. Strelka is but the latest example in a larger crop of similar ventures. Frustrated with the tepid pace of traditional university education in Russia, private investors are dropping serious money on some unorthodox methods to tap into the intellectual harvest of the world beyond the country’s borders.

Koolhaas stood by patiently as the (private) funders and architects of the space — a sternly swanky Dutch-inspired compound with a cozy bar decked out like a vintage furniture store — spoke about Strelka’s mission to educate and inspire a new way of thinking about architecture, design, media, and urban planning in Russia.

Strelka’s position is that “in Russia there is a serious issue in terms of [architecture] education,” Koolhaas, still wearing his fleece cape, told me after he clambered down from the stage and made the rounds of the audience. “Of course, I’m not in a situation where I can say whether it’s true or not, but I see the same situation with education in general.” The star architect had been brought on to help Strelka design a curriculum for young professionals in the architecture and design fields that would bring them up to speed with the industries elsewhere and train them to bring the cutting edge to Russia.

It’s an experiment increasingly embraced, in a variety of fields, by Russians who are ill-served by an aged and slow-moving university system combining the worst elements of old and new Russia. The schools are still stocked with Soviet-era administrators, cloaked in unbudging tradition, prey to antediluvian ways of thinking, and marred by massive corruption, with students buying everything from a place on the class roster to a passing grade. (Just last month, a lecturer at Moscow State University, Russia’s most prestigious university, was filmed taking a million-ruble bribe to grant a student a spot in her department — chaired, incidentally, by the professor’s father.) Reform may be finally in the air, but its pace is glacial and uneven. Instead of waiting for universities to catch up, a handful of private initiatives are taking matters into their own hands, educating and training a hungry Russian populace in everything from modern art to data analysis.

Strelka is the youngest of the lot. Funded by three new-media moguls, its goal is to supplement the classical education Russian architects receive at old temples of the trade like the Moscow Architectural Institute, which traces its lineage back to 1749. Students at the old schools are trained to sketch and draw and plan and make, but rarely to think conceptually about their craft. “Russians are naive about questions of architecture and design,” says Ilya Oskolkov-Tsentsiper, one of Strelka’s founders and the creator of the Afisha media empire, Russia’s answer to Time Out. “Most people here think of an architect as someone who can build a pretty house, not someone who has a dynamic social role.” (His co-founder, Web mogul Alexander Mamut, thinks Moscow architects aren’t even good at that. “If you look at what’s been built in Moscow in the last 20 years, it’s humiliating,” he told me. “They haven’t built anything that we can be proud of.”)

Natalia Dushkina, a professor at the Moscow Architecture Institute and heir to a long dynasty of famous Moscow architects, does not disagree. “The most important thing that should happen here is to teach architects to think conceptually,” she said.

At the opening, Oskolkov-Tsentsiper told the crowd that a Moscow architect had “to make the city more habitable, and our society more humane.” That is a tall order for architects trained in building pretty houses, so Strelka is helping by providing a free yearlong master’s program to young professionals in the field, who, starting this fall, will work on tangible projects with Koolhaas and other stars of the architecture and design world.

This is all new to Moscow, but the model isn’t, points out Arkady Volozh, founder and CEO of Yandex, the dominant Russian search engine. In the Soviet Union, university upperclassmen would be placed in internships through their departments to prepare them for real work after graduation. When the Soviet Union collapsed, this system did, too. As universities languished from lack of funds and modern curricula, young Russians began to all but abandon class for work, much of it full-time and during the academic year, in new fields that were chronically understaffed.

In fact, the Soviet apprenticeship tradition has been better maintained in the private sector than in Russia’s educational institutions. When Yandex found that the excellent but abstract mathematical education provided at most Russian universities wasn’t equipping its graduates for the workforce, the company founded the School of Data Analysis. The two-year program, a partnership with two prominent universities in Moscow (but not Moscow State, which refuses to be involved despite supplying half of Yandex’s employees) aims to mold good math students into excellent programmers — and future Yandex workers who need no on-the-job training. It has been a sound investment: The school has served as a laboratory for innovations like MatrixNet, which, within a month of its introduction, bumped Yandex’s market share by 6 percent.

Strelka and its ilk are not without their problems. How deep, for example, are their founders’ pockets, and how expansive are their philanthropic spirits? How long can they fund the free education of 20 to 40 people per year? At Strelka’s grand opening, however, the crowd just seemed happy that something so promising — and promisingly unacademic — had been born. The founders, for their part, hoped that the institute would bring another kind of sustainability to Russia and prove immune to one of the country’s most persistent problems. “Someone who graduates from our program can work for any of the most fashionable firms,” Dmitrii Likin, who is responsible for the new media program, said. “But I hope they’ll stay and work here.”

Russia’s New Privatization [Foreign Policy]

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!]


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.


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?”

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.”

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.