One could be excused for imagining that a book with the title Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking might be a collection of recipes, with details about the finer points of food preparation in the former Soviet Union. The subtitle, “A Memoir of Food and Longing,” hints at a more personal account. Neither of these, however, prepare the reader for the epic of family history, biography, autobiography and scholarly assessment of the Soviet Union presented in this excellent new book by Anya von Bremzen, former citizen of the USSR and three-time James Beard Award winner. While this may seem like too much for a single volume, it is artfully stitched together using food, in all its meanings, as thread. The tale of the creation and eventual dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is one of, if not the grandest narrative of the 20th century. Anya’s stories of herself, her grandmother, and especially her mother, are engaging and endearing, and breathe life into the stock of familiar characters and events in the history of the USSR. Her well-crafted distillations of the theses and arguments of prominent academics on subjects such as the “nationalities question” and Stalinist totalitarianism are usually spot-on. All this is brought together by how it informs, and is informed by, food.
Any illusions that this is a book celebrating the quality of Soviet cuisine are quickly put aside when the author admits, in mentioning her mother’s love for sosiski, i.e.- Soviet hotdogs, that “besides sosiski with canned peas and kotleti (minced meat patties) with kasha, cabbage-intensive soups, mayo-laden salads, and watery fruit kompot for desert—there wasn’t all that much to eat in the Land of the Soviets.” Continue reading →
Khlebnikov’s century-old poem resonates with the Russia of today.
I do love translating poetry, agonizing as it can be sometimes (see previous post- It Has to Be “Love”). My latest effort puts into English a poem written by one of the founders, and leading lights, of the Russian ‘Futurist’ movement, Velimir Khlebnikov (Viktor Vladimirovich; “Velimir” was his pen name). Below is my translation of Не Шалить (pron.-Ne Shalit’!= Don’t Be Bad!), followed by a discussion of Khlebnikov, the futurists and the resonance of this poem with Russian society today.
Don’t Be Bad!
Hey, cut-throat racketeers, Heads full of sludge! In old Cossack leathers Through Moscow I trudge! Not for its grandeurs Is truth on our side, So that in rich furs We may haughtily ride. Not in that strife Did blood flow without check, So that each merchant’s wife Could wear pearls round her neck. It’s no good to rail All the night long I will sing, I will sail The Volga, the Don! I will go tonight Ahead where fate tends Who’s with me in flight? There are with me–my friends
In an earlier post, The “Foreigner”, I wrote about my fascination with finding what looked like a Russian critique of an especially Russian view of outsiders. Much has been made in the Western media recently about attempts by the Putin government to blame domestic political unrest on foreign influence; Notably, the signing of a law in July labeling Russian NGO’s that receive money from abroad as “foreign agents”, and the expulsion in October of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). These actions are described in the West as efforts by the Putin government to curb protests against alleged fraud in recent elections, and to repress dissent generally. I will argue that this reporting is somewhat unbalanced, but first I would like to briefly examine the history of Russia’s approach to the outside world, highlighting some of those things that have contributed to Russia’s reputation in the West as xenophobic and inherently distrusting of foreigners. Continue reading →
The purpose of this blog is to chronicle my continued pursuit of an understanding of Russia, Russian and Russians. My background is that of a student of Russian language and teacher of Russian history. My main interests, then, are focused on language, literature and history. These topics, however, can’t help but inspire at least a curiosity about things like Russian culture, politics and current events. And I believe that deeper insights into any one of these subjects requires at least some knowledge of others.
My apologies to those who visit this site expecting it to be about poetry. The name—Russian Tumble—is a wordplay on the second line of a mnemonic for remembering four different kinds of meter in English verse: “The iamb saunters through my book, trochees rush and tumble, while the anapest runs like a hurrying brook, dactyls are stately and classical”. Continue reading →