getting lucky at the Pushkin Museum

I want to write about something that happened on Christmas eve, the day before I left home for my two week winter break.  I decided to go to the Pushkin Museum, Moscow’s main art museum.  (There’s another museum, only slightly smaller, called the Tretyakov Gallery, which is strictly for Russian art.  This mirrors the situation in Petersburg, where there’s the Russian Museum and then there’s the Hermitage for everything else.  All the good stuff, that is… Russian painting is lovely enough but it just doesn’t stack up to the French, the Italians, the Spanish, the Dutch… Russians can more than console themselves with their music and literature, of course.)  Anyway, this was actually my first time in the main branch of the museum.  There was an exhibit of drawings done in Paris in the early twentieth century, which is definitely up my alley as far at art goes.  But that morning, musicians were setting up for a rehearsal for that night’s chamber music performance in a concert hall, among the Picasso and Braque drawings.  I went to see what was going on, and they started playing the Brahms piano quintet.  This is one of my favorite pieces of music… I actually tried to learn it once and I still hold out the hope of playing it one day.  I stayed and listened to them play.  It was a very serendipitous moment because it gave me an opportunity to put great art and great music in competition for my attention.  Now I love art, looking at it and making it, I actually gave serious thought (imagine it!) to becoming a painter or illustrator as late as this year, under the influence of Basic Painting.  However, the music won out, no contest, and I forgot I was there to look at pictures at all.

It’s been a year of getting lucky so far: the apartment at Oktyabrskoe Polye,  Moscow being more beautiful and less cold than predicted, a few exceptional friends…



There was a bombing at the Domodyedovo Airport yesterday.  I was sorting papers in my flat at the school and flipping around between news channels.  I caught the end of the report, and I’m not sure if I didn’t understand completely, or if it was too early at the time to call it a terrorist attack.  I heard the word vzryv, or explosion, and assumed technical incompetence or something like that.   Later, I was back in my Moscow apartment, sitting in the kitchen, enjoying some scrambled eggs.  Kot was meowing loudy, Sveta was complaining about Kot loudly, and then she said– there was a terrorist attack today.  To have it delivered like that in person kind of freaked me out, and I went to read about it right away.

I was talking with my dad about this yesterday, and I told him that I don’t get the impression that Russia’s problem with terrorists from the lands in the south is going to be over any time soon.  But I know fairly little about the issue.  I’m mostly just going on what I see–Russians are afraid of Chechnyans, and there’s so much hostility and volatility… they see someone who looks like they’re from the North Caucasus, and they expect them to be violent, unpredictable, to blow up at any time.

To conclude, I’ll borrow this excerpt from the NYT’s article, “After the Bombing, Business as Usual“:

“Ms. Vishnyakova, a petite woman cocooned in a puffy down coat against the cold, was traveling with Andrei Ivanov, a fellow member of a film crew flying to Kazakhstan for a shoot.

“’I am afraid,’ Mr. Ivanov said to her. ‘The only reason you are not afraid is because you are a fatalist.’

“’Most people are fatalists,’ she responded. “’Aren’t they the same in America?'”

A heroine of soviet productivity!

Well, I feel like one, anyway, whenever I tell someone that I’m heading off to work at the factory.  I have a new job since I got back working at the Shcherbinskiy Liftostroitelniy Zavod– The Shcherbinka Elevator Factory.  Can you believe it?  Though the work is wildly inconvenient–evening hours, a fifty-minute metro ride to the last stop on the grey line, followed by a half-hour jaunt on a marshrutka and a ten minute walk over icy sidewalks (my boss conveniently neglected to mention the last forty minutes when she proposed the job) I couldn’t turn down an opportunity to say that I worked in a factory in Russia.  Whatever I do in the rest of my life, this is an extremely valuable claim to be able to make.

(I want to add an aside that elevators have, in my recent life, been a constant feature of my nightmares.  I find getting into an empty elevator late at night a little disquieting, but I’m not terrified of them in real life.  However, elevators take on the most disturbing mutations in my dreams.  They have taken me to ridiculous heights–the eight-hundredth floor, for example, they have been tiny, suffocating spaces filled with desperate and bizarre people in nightmare hospitals, they have plummeted me into eerie basements, and most terribly, they have taken me against my command to dark floors, reminiscent of the floors of my music school with their rows of identical, dusty practice rooms, populated by the dead…

So perhaps it’s a chance to confront my fears by learning about them?  My students, after all, have requested that I teach them elevator-related vocabulary in English.)

Well, I really like it.  First of all, what a relief to be in cooperation with your students and not waging a war against middle-school laziness, and to feel recognized by students as someone who is there to help and teach them and not to scold them.  There is nothing wrong with teaching children, in fact, I adore most of my kids.  But I see the kids at the school so infrequently and have been forced into teaching them such a stale curriculum that I feel I can’t do too much for them.  At the factory, where I teach young engineers and management types, I have much more freedom, and I get to explain words and concepts, rather than perform them.  And I get to use my Russian there to explain and to provide vocabulary words–I feel proud that they ask me to tell them how to say certain words in English–rather then to say tikho!!!!!!  sadityes!!!! (quiet!!!!  sit down!!!).

They’re funny people and they already manage to joke around in English.  Plus, they supply me with plenty of interesting information.  For example, last week one guy told me how he jumped into an ice cold lake for kreshchenie, a two-day holy period in which all water everywhere is said to turn to holy water.  And how it felt awesome.  Today, I asked what my students thought: are fur coats for women only or can men wear them too?  Well, one guy said, I saw this fat guy on the metro wearing one, and he just looked really strange.  But suddenly this sparked a conversation about how some “very successful businessmen” have taken to wearing “men’s” makeup on the job.  I balked, but one girl said, “well, men have to take care of themselves…”

After class, one of the women gives me and Carl, the other teacher there, a lift to the metro.  I help translate as we talk.  Carl, an Englishman who has been having a miserable time dealing with the Russian system of doing work and is indignant and angry much of the time, nonetheless goodnaturedly barrels through life here, picking up bits of Russian, gesturing, asking for milk in grocery stores by grasping at invisible teats…


In America, you get used to things working.  You wouldn’t dream of going to a grocery store and seeing the floor rutted and uneven, and the lights flickering.  If something breaks in a public place, it’ll be fixed right away.  If you ask for something to be done a certain way, you’ll get it, or you can raise hell, send the dish back to the kitchen, file a complaint, whatever.
Not so here.  The mall across the street from me—elegantly named “Fifth Avenue”—has been suffering from two broken sliding doors since November.  One of the three treadmills at my gym gave out a week after I signed up for membership and has been sitting there dead, taking up space ever since.  This past Tuesday I asked to have a bunch of copies done for my classes—you can’t do it yourself in the library, I was told, the copier will break—and what I got back was a stack of pages, all out of order, with only every other page copied, costing me literally hours of sorting and an embarassing request for my order to be filled out correctly this time.
So this Friday, when I was coming home, I stopped at the grocery store to pick up some stuff for Sveta, my roommate who was stuck in bed with the flu.  I noticed that, behold!  Mars ice cream bars, my favorite—and rare—ice cream treats, were in stock!  Today was my lucky day!  Of course, I gathered all the other groceries first so that I could snatch one at the last minute to provide for the least amount of melting.  It was a very busy day at the grocery store.  In fact, I had just waited in a twenty-cart-long line to get my cucumbers weighed, and the checkout lines looked pretty full too.  I chose exactly the wrong one.  In front of me was a young couple who were buying six thousand rubles worth of groceries.  That’s close to two hundred dollars.  After this, they received a whole sheet of little token stickers which enabled them to purchase as a reward a really hideous stuffed cat.  The wife was clearly very determined and serious about obtaining this thing.  So the helpless cashier, a helplessly ugly woman whose stultifying job had rendered her face completely unexpressionless, had to go get assistance from some manager to get official permission to hand out the stuffed monstrosity.  This took forever.  I looked down at my Mars bar.  It was surely beginning to melt as it lay there on the belt.  The couple amassed their groceries and retreated.  Now, it appeared that their purchase had been so big, that the cashier’s computers temporarily crashed, and she couldn’t get it to turn back on!  Help was again sought.  The Mars bar package started to lose its shape as the ice cream melted further.  I and the other customers in line behind me looked at each other with expressions of quiet suffering.  Finally, finally, the computer blinked back on and I was able to pay for my groceries.  Steps away from the checkout area, I stuffed the ice cream in my mouth in a few bites.  I would have liked to take my time to enjoy the thing, but it was already falling apart in my hands, and hey, I guess it still tasted pretty good.

Cat pictures for your time:

here's Kot enjoying kotovnik, catnip, that is-- thanks Lynne!

reading in 2010

Oe, Kenzaburo A Personal Matter
Berlin, Isaiah Russian Thinkers
Firlik, Katrina Another Day in the Frontal Lobe
Gawande, Atul Better
Chekhov, Anton Дядя Ваня – Uncle Vanya
Chekhov, Anton Моя Жизнь  – My Life –
Kapuscinski, Ryszard Travels With Herodotus
Grossman, Vasily Life and Fate
Bukovsky, Vladimir To Build a Castle
Selzer, Richard Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery
Chekhov, Anton Палата № 6 – Ward Six –
Chekhov, Anton, Скучная История  – A Boring Story –
Chekhov, Anton, Чайка – The Seagull –
Nolen, William, The Making of a Surgeon
Murakami, Haruki South of the Border, West of the Sun
Williams, William Carlos The Doctor Stories
McEwan, Ian Saturday
Roth, Philip American Pastoral
Cassell, Joan The Woman in the Surgeon’s Body
Remnick, David Lenin’s Tomb
Pence, Gregory Classic Cases in Medical Ethics
Thomas, Lewis The Lives of a Cell
Montefiore, Simon Sebag Stalin: Court of the Red Tsar
Pipes, Richard A Concise History of the Russian Revolution
Hnida, Dave Paradise General
Kafka, Franz The Penal Colony and Other Stories
Eugenides, Jeffrey Middlesex
Nuland, Sherwin Doctors
Meacham, Jon Franklin and Winston
Massie, Robert Peter the Great
Kaku, Michio Hyperspace
Dovlatov, Sergei Наши –Ours-
Bulgakov, Mikhail Мастер и Маргарита – Master and Margarita
Asimov, Isaac Foundation
Murakami, Haruki Kafka on the Shore
Nabokov, Vladimir Отчаяние  – Despair –
Stuermer, Michael Putin and the Rise of Russia

The good ones:  Everything read in Russian was good.  Master and Margarita though was an unparalleled experience.  And it was great to read Nabokov in Russian, he is so so fun to read, and my skills had improved since reading The Eye, which was almost impossible.  Sherwin Nuland’s Doctors, a chronological collection of biographies of medical figures from Hippocrates to the present, was wonderful, and I just read his National Book Award Winner How We Die which was remarkable and which I think everyone should read.  Life and Fate was great, though I read it in translation, and Haruki Murakami is just fun and mind candy.  Middlesex once again proves it’s worth it to read most books that win a Pulitzer Prize.  Also, Stalin: Court of the Red Tsar was a mind-blowing portrait of the dictator.  It was just a crazy, crazy true story.

Lousy books: I thought Foundation was so bad.  Maybe if I had read it ten years ago, I would have thought it was sort of cool, but it was just lousy, lousy, lousy.  Why did I waste my time.  Putin and the Rise of Russia: and that’s the last time I read a book by a political scientist.  Unbelievably dull writing on an interesting topic.  Saturday was total crap dressed up as meticulously brilliant writing.  Just preposterous.  No more Ian McEwan, I’m done.

Book with the most typos ever: Classic Cases in Medical Ethics.  So interesting, so unedited.

Goal for this year: by the end of 2011, have many more entries in Russian.

Google Ngram Viewer and the Russian Revolution

Google’s new Ngram viewer–you can use it to chart usage of a certain word in all books uploaded to google books from the beginning of the nineteenth century til now–includes Russian.  This could provide hours of amusement.  One of the best things about the Russian feature is that you can see very pronounced changes at around 1917.  For example, “Marxism” shoots up out of nowhere–you could have guessed, maybe, but I thought with all the intellectual ferment of the nineteenth century he’d have come up a tad more gradually.  Then there’s iskrennost’ –“sincerity,” which dropped sharply to a half of its original frequency after the revolution and has not recovered since.  Zhid— “Yid,” that is, took a few short years around to quadruple in usage–more antisemitism?  Sud’ba or “fate” took a pretty steep dip during the time of the USSR but has recently made a recovery.  Zhizn’ –“life” took a nosedive after the Revolution.  Who knows what this actually means, but what a cool tool when you like words and stuff.

a пошлый Chekhov, people who go to the theater to get drunk, an apartment scandal!

Пошлый–poshliy–is a word that Nabokov defines in this hell of an essay.  Excerpt: “Ever since Russia began to think, and up to the time that her mind went blank under the influence of the extraordinary regime she has been enduring for these last twenty-five years, educated, sensitive and free-minded Russians were acutely aware of the furtive and clammy touch of poshlust.”

I will provide my own definition with my review of the Lenkom’s Cherry Orchard, which I finally saw this Saturday after having been once thwarted.  I should have taken it as a sign.

It was a loud, brassy production.  I think half the material had been yanked out because it was very short.  Lyubov, the woman returning to her old estate and the center of the play, was played by a woman who seemed like a washed up television star, with horrible yellow curls.  There was awful sentimental music drifting through the whole thing: every monologue and it was there again, this synthy syrup piped in on an overly loud soundsystem.  There was some random sex thrown in — was that vagina grab really necessary? — and two much raucous laughter.  The visiting beggar–silly Lyuba can’t find any silver coins for him, and gives him gold–was randomly turned into an Asian in bizarre pajamas.  And there was nothing subtle in the play at all.

To give you an idea, you know the famous stage direction, the sound of the string breaking?  The play never quieted down enough for you to hear that sound.  Instead, the whole massive country house facade set, which had to be attended to with electric drills during the intermission, collapsed with an ugly thud.

At least the very distinguished actor who played old Firs was good.

As the first act started I noticed that the guy next to me–this is what happens when you get cheaper seats, I guess–had pulled out a bottle of something.  It was brown even though the label was marked Gin.  As my dad joked, “he probably made it right before he got there.  Ha ha.  This guy, probably sixty years old, drank and munched on chocolate throughout the performance, his wife sitting on, watching, neither encouraging or scolding.  He would mumble something in my direction, and then say “sorry, sorry” quite often, by the end of the performance, he was repeating actors’ lines, gently punching the air, and humming along with the music.  So I still got some good entertainment for the evening.

Anyway, we’ve been having some apartment drama.  Last night I was cornered on the stairs by a middle aged woman who screamed that water was flowing down from our apartment to hers.  If I understood correctly it had been trickling on her while she sat on the toilet.  “If you don’t do something it will end in a scandal!!” she screamed.  “Do you want a scandal?”  So today after work I have to stick around at home while the plumber–he’s called a master in Russian, interestingly enough–comes for a marathon repair session.  Such is life.  In other apartment news, a nice airmchair materialized in my room.  Apparently it’s mine to use now.  Another one to file under “the unpredictability of Russia, I guess…”