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Rhea's Slavic Adventures Posts

On Spontaneity and Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago

This first week of my first Christmas break home from college, I reread Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, a classic Russian love story and the text behind that iconic 1965 film of the same name, directed by David Lean and released on New Year’s Eve that year. There is one beginning passage of Pasternak’s that stood out to me this second time around; I’ll explore it below. My copy was translated from the Russian by Max Hayward and Manya Harari.

“Yura liked being with his uncle. He reminded him of his mother. Like hers, his mind moved with freedom and welcomed the unfamiliar. He had the same aristocratic sense of equality with all living things and the same gift of taking everything at a glance and of expressing his thoughts as they first came to him and before they had lost their meaning and vitality.” Борис Пастернак, Doctor Zhivago

Yura, the son of Yury Zhivago (the very Doctor Zhivago of the title), has just lost his mother, Marya Nikolayevna; having attended her funeral, he journeys south with his Uncle Kolya (Marya’s brother) and reflects on her death here. Kolya and Marya seem to be fine, free-spirited people: very self-assured, fully trusting of their instincts, and probably charismatic to boot. What must it be like to live life with no doubts whatsoever? To solely act upon the very first thought that enters one’s mind for fear of its meaning slipping away? Extending this further, this is the definition of living without regrets and, more fundamentally, without fear. Do such characters only exist within the pages of these romantic novels? Doctor ZhivagoInto the Wild (looking at you, Chris McCandless, and your dogged nomadic spirit — that which eventually led to your death, but lives on between Krakauer’s pages)… the list goes on. I want to believe I’ll cross paths with people who abide by this same style of carrying themselves as Marya and Kolya — people who know what they want, people who dream, people who are so wildly different from me that I couldn’t even fathom it, but who will change me all the same… As for applying this philosophy myself? Embracing the unfamiliar and living freely and without regrets—that sounds like a very enticing concept, but I don’t think I’m at the point in my life where I can (or want to) fully live it. Instead, I will choose to practice just a slice of Pasternak’s words, the last line: to understand and express my thoughts “before they [lose] their meaning and vitality.” Let’s see where being more spontaneous rather than measured with how I feel takes me in 2022.

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Combining Russian Studies + Machine Learning: Price Classification on Sberbank Russian Housing Market Data with Python

Last year, in my Advanced Topics in Computer Science class, we were tasked with designing the best system for supervised classification (a machine learning approach to separating data into representative regions) of a dataset of choice. I’d been eyeing the Sberbank Russian Housing Market dataset for quite a while leading up; this final project turned out to be the perfect place to explore it. 

Some context on the dataset: Sberbank, the largest bank in Russia, sponsored a Kaggle competition to predict house prices in Russia’s turbulent economy to help them give more accurate real estate price predictions to their customers. Their given dataset consists of 6000+ housing data points from around Russia, where each point is the sale of a house. There are 278 features associated with each point, including: preschool count nearby, distance from the metro, cafe count nearby, mosque count nearby, etc.

Through scikit-learn, a Python machine learning library, I experimented with each of the four classifiers we learned about – Naive Bayes, decision tree, k-nearest neighbors (KNN), and support vector machine (SVM) – and varied parameters (tree depth, number of neighbors, etc.) along the way to identify the best classification method. Resulting confusion matrices (for both the reclassification and leave-one-out methods – the latter shows the system generalizes to unseen data, as stated by this Stackoverflow answer) are included and analyzed in the conclusions of my attached report. Note that due to the sky-high number of features (278, and for each of 6042 points), PCA plots and corresponding decision region visualizations would have taken days to render and were therefore excluded from the report.

I hope you enjoy the writeup, and I’d love to hear what you think – let me know in the comments!

Sberbank Housing Data Classification – Rhea Kapur
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My Favorite Russian Music!

Hey all! Happy Saturday afternoon. Our re-imposed state of quarantine has me once again turning to music – specifically, Russian music. While listening, I noticed that one of my Russian playlists on Spotify just exceeded 300 followers (yay!), so I thought I would write a short post to commemorate the occasion and share my favorites. Here are three Russian playlists I’ve curated over the past year, all representing different types of Russian music. The first reflects the late 20th century voice, from before the Western influence took over (this is the one with 327 followers!). And the last two playlists are instrumental, dedicated to Russian classical and jazz music. Here they are:

I’ll update this post later with some thoughts on the different genres, themes I see, cool musical aspects, and more, but for now I figured I’d leave you with an unswayed ear. Happy listening, and let me know what you think!

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Worthy of Aivazovsky’s Brush

In his renowned 1897 play Uncle Vanya, Anton Chekhov coined the phrase “worthy of Aivazovsky’s brush” – which, according to Wikipedia, then soon became a popular Russian expression for something “ineffably lovely.” A while ago, when I was first reading Uncle Vanya, this phrase stuck out to me. I had never heard of this “Aivazovsky”; the reference seemed quite out of place in the text. So naturally, as we do in the 21st century, I googled it:

Examining his paintings, it became clear; he’s a romantic. Seeing as one of the main currents that runs through Uncle Vanya is a deep, unfettered admiration for Nature, it made sense that Chekhov would name-drop Aivazovsky. Even a layperson like myself can sense in his paintings the deep fascination with Nature that so defines Romanticism. Not to mention, here and there, they also exhibit flashes of realism: a definite philosophical focus in Uncle Vanya.

But there were a slew of Russian Romantic painters for Chekhov to choose from. Why Aivazovsky? Why was Chekhov so enamored with this artist, then relatively unknown? Why did he choose to include that phrase – “worthy of Aivazovsky’s brush,” those four words that propelled the painter into greatness – of all possible phrases? Returning to the trusty Google, I came across these words, spoken by none other than Anton Chekhov himself.

“Aivazovsky himself is a hale and hearty old man of about seventy-five, looking like an insignificant Armenian and an bishop; he is full of a sense of his own importance, has soft hands and shakes your hand like a general. He’s not very bright, but he is a complex personality, worthy of a further study. In him alone there are combined a general, a bishop, an artist, an Armenian, a naive old peasant, and an Othello.” (Wikipedia)

From this quote, it became clear. Chekhov paints a complex, but honest picture of Aivazovsky. There’s a quiet admiration in his words, no doubt. No matter that he wasn’t bright. It was his personality, so nuanced, so inherently Russian – full of both aristocracy and peasantry, brilliance and patriotism – that made him stand out. Perhaps the most important idea to note from all of this, however, is just how existential Aivazovsky seems. After all, the “complex personality” seems to fit a total of 5 roles, and by Chekhov’s own admission: “a bishop, an artist, an Armenian, a naive old peasant, and an Othello.” Now, maybe Aivazovsky is just Chekhov’s ultimate Renaissance man. But there’s an uncertainty to how Chekhov describes him, a wariness in his words, a hesitation in his praise, that further pushes me toward the existentialist theory.

Chekhov, too, was an existentialist, and an outspoken one at that. This side of him comes across clearly in Uncle Vanya through the character of Voinitsky (who is, in fact, Uncle Vanya!). Voinitsky is at odds with life, at his core, and most definitely an uninspired soul. He considers all fine days “fine days to hang oneself,” and finds life in excessive drink (“Because it is like living. Somehow—like living.”) While “nature will be fresh and breathing,” Voinitsky says, he will be dying; this is the bane of his existence. There are striking similarities between Voinitsky and Aivazovsky, Chekhov and Aivazovsky, Chekhov and Voinitsky – every iteration of the three reads the same under the existentialist lens. You could consider Aivazovsky a hidden character, of sorts. It’s fascinating how Chekhov manages to weave him in.

Most of the time, artists carve their names in history through one thing: their work. It’s what they are remembered for. It’s a reflection of who they are, their influences; oftentimes, the artist’s work serves as the best description of the artist themself. Aivazovsky is no exception in this regard. Our trusty Google and Wikipedia may be able to provide the background information, places of study, awards won – but to truly understand who this marine artist was at his core, past the résumé – I refer you to his work, to his paintings. Pretty much ever since I read Uncle Vanya and first researched Aivazovsky, his favorite paintings have served as my desktop backgrounds. I leave you with my selection. Enjoy getting to know the naturalist, the complex, charismatic figure behind brush strokes. The painter who charmed Chekhov and thousands of Russians after him, who brought the genre of marine landscape to his country, who could paint brilliant seascapes and translucent waves by memory. Enjoy the work itself, too. Simply put, it’s stunning. I don’t have a trained eye for artwork, but personally? These paintings take me places. I hope they do the same for you.

The Ninth Wave Painting by Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky
The Ninth Wave (1850)
Storm on the Black Sea (1899)
Wave (1889)
Storm at Sea (1850)
The Black Sea (1881) by Ivan Aivazovsky: Analysis & Overview
The Black Sea (1881)
Ships in a Storm (1860)
Moscow in the Winter from the Sparrow Hills (1872)
Winter Scene in Little Russia (1868)

Credit: All digitized painting snapshots are from Google Images.

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The Great Galina Ulanova

A while ago, scrolling through Netflix, I stumbled across Reign, the CW television series centered around the life and times of Mary, Queen of Scots. I was entranced by the storylines, all full of true love, betrayal, scandal, power, threatsand, of course, death. What drama would be complete without it? The show exudes a gripping wealth, elegance, and aristocracy that immediately reminded me of the Romanovs, an infamous, long-influential Russian imperial family. Anyway, the visual elements in Reign are also captivating; the set and costumes are authentic, and absolutely stunning. The show is not without its flaws, of course: consider the abrupt, rushed ending. But considering all of the above, I wasn’t surprised when, at the completion of the fourth and final season, I found myself with a newfound love for historical dramas.

It was around this time when I first heard of Claire Foy, the breakout star of the hit Netflix drama The Crown. The show chronicles the life of another monarch, this time Queen Elizabeth II, from the 1940s on. A friend of mine, having just watched The Crown, raved about Foy’s acting; apparently, this cool, collected queen and her infamous politesse was not something to miss. It seemed that the very best critics also agreed—I remember the 2017 Emmys, and the immense buzz around Foy and her show after she won Outstanding Lead Actress and John Lithgow (who plays Winston Churchill) won Outstanding Supporting Actor. Given my recent experience with Reign, I was intrigued by this next historical drama. And, of course, there’s a certain fascinating quality of the British royal family that almost all of us are drawn to, that which feeds the clamor and crowds over the royal weddings. Not to mention my grandfather is a huge fan, and I was excited to share the show with him.

So, I started watching. And it’s every bit as good as they say. The costume and set design immediately stood out (transcends Reign‘s, I’d say!). The show itself, equipped with a stellar cast, brilliantly reveals the burden on the queen’s shoulders. More broadly, The Crown brings to light the struggles of these obscenely rich, who wield a purely ceremonial power—figureheads, in a sense, masking what truly dominates (hint, hint, Churchill’s government). It was a refreshing change from Reign; much less soap opera-y, and more grounded, like Foy’s character herself. In The Crown, the royals are brought down to earth; clearly, they experience some of the same existential dread that we (“mortals”) do. 

This isn’t to say, of course, that The Crown is devoid of drama; love, along with its accompanying challenges (especially in the royal context), are well documented. We see a prime example of this in “Misadventure,” the first episode of the second season. Prince Phillip (Matt Smith) is about to embark on a lengthy overseas tour, so Queen Elizabeth (Foy) playfully hides some sort of camera in his baggage, as a parting gift. Sadly, in the process, she discovers a portrait of our infamous ballerina, Galina Ulanova. 

Prince Philip appears to be 'cheating' on the Queen with acclaimed ...
From The Crown: The beautiful Ulanova, framed, cradled in Foy’s hands.
Prince Philip appears to be 'cheating' on the Queen with acclaimed ...
From The Crown: Queen Elizabeth II examines Ulanova’s photograph in the trinket.

With Foy’s brilliant acting—her gaze hardens as she stares at the photograph and makes the realization, her face trembles ever so slightly—the implication is crystal clear: Prince Phillip and Ulanova are having an affair. However, according to this Vanity Fair article by Julie Miller, it never actually occurred in real life. Miller cites the two’s busy, almost certainly conflicting schedules as evidence: Ulanova with her “rehearsals, performances, and traveling,” and the prince with his royal duties. However, Miller writes, The Crown‘s directors may have been building upon the slew of affairs in which the Prince was known to participateand perhaps in particular upon rumors of one with another dancer, Pat Kirkwood.

Nevertheless, it makes sense that the directors would select Ulanova as their “other woman.” Later in the Vanity Fair article, Miller mentions the biography Queen Elizabeth II: Her Life in our Times, where author Sarah Bradford claims that Phillip’s affairs were almost always with very private women, “usually beautiful, and highly aristocratic.” Ulanova almost certainly fits this description; in fact, she had “a personal reputation for being aloof and private,” Miller writes. But she was a stunning figure regardless (or perhaps because of this, at least in part!), one who commanded the interests of Russians and Westerners alike. Widely known as the greatest ballerina of the 20th century (Boris Yeltsin himself said as such—read the Times obituary below!), Ulanova “riveted the Western world in 1956 when she traveled with the Bolshoi Ballet to London’s Royal Opera House,” reported The New York Times (and Miller included this quote in her article as well). According to Ulanova’s Wikipedia page, British papers were also struck by the ballerina, writing that “in London [she] knew the greatest triumph of any individual dancer since Anna Pavlova.”

Ulanova, a rare beauty. (SOURCE: Getty Images Bettmann Archive)
(SOURCE: Google Images)

Ulanova is certainly not without a rich backstory. According to this Elegancepedia article, she was born on January 8th, 1919, in Saint Petersburg, Russia, and she learned her craft from both Agrippina Vaganova (of the Vaganova method, a ballet technique still commonly used today) and her own mother, who was a ballerina of the Imperial Russian Ballet company (now the Mariinsky Ballet, of the famous Mariinsky Theatre which, according to Wikipedia, Galina herself later joined!). With Mariinsky, she rose rapidly; the press was taken with the “sort of captivating modesty in her gestures” (Wikipedia). Her fame eventually reached Stalin himself; he went so far as to personally transfer her to the even more renowned Bolshoi Theatre (Wikipedia). At the Bolshoi, she really thrived, remaining prima ballerina assoluta (an honor typically reserved for the best of a generation) for a number of years—one of the only two Soviet women to ever hold the title (Wikipedia). She danced the lead role in the world premiere of Prokofiev’s Cinderella, where she had a profound impact on both her diverse audiences and also on Prokofiev himself (Wikipedia). “She is the genius of Russian ballet, its elusive soul, its inspired poetry,” he said of her. “Ulanova imparts to her interpretation of classical roles a depth of expression unheard of in twentieth century ballet.”

Ulanova appears once more at the end of the aforementioned episode of The Crown. In an almost “masochistic act by the monarch,” as Miller of Vanity Fair described it, Elizabeth views a performance of the classic romantic ballet Giselle, in which Ulanova holds the title role. Keep in mind, of course, this comes after Elizabeth’s discovery of the portrait, that “ominous clue that her marriage is not as it seems” (Miller for Vanity Fair). The scene brilliantly “juxtaposes Ulanova’s stunning beauty and talent with Elizabeth’s insecurity.” Again, Foy’s acting is incredible there; her stoic face manages to simultaneously hide and reveal great emotion.

The Crown spins Elizabeth’s viewing of Giselle in a way that furthers the affair plotline (for the drama, I guess!), but it may have taken on an entirely different meaning in reality. In the Vanity Fair article, Miller cites a book by Ekaterina Domnina, The State Visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Russia and its Coverage in Russian and British Press, which acknowledges that the real Elizabeth’s reaction to another 1994 performance of Giselle in London was one of sadness, yes—but not because of an affair. Rather, Domnina speculates that it may have been more so that Elizabeth was “recalling the days of her youth, when she saw [an earlier showing, specifically of] the famous Galina Ulanova performing the party of Giselle during the tour of the Bolshoi in Britain,” at the Royal Opera House (Miller, too, includes this quote of Domnina’s in her article). See below for two clips from the very 1956 Bolshoi tour which the real Elizabeth originally saw; rare pieces of footage featuring Ulanova herself.

From Michael Specter’s Times obituary on Ulanova comes this striking quote: “Miss Ulanova performed most of the greatest roles in classical ballet, including the leads in “Giselle,” “Swan Lake,” “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty.” Such was her power that when Mr. Martin,” the Times dance critic at the time, “criticizedmildlyher performance in “Swan Lake” during the 1959 New York tour, Pravda,” a staple Russian paper, “responded the next day by accusing him and The Times of being ‘bent on continuing the cold war.'” Clearly, Ulanova was revered (both as dancer and also as teacher, which, according to the New World Encyclopedia, she went on to become after retiring). Maya Plisetskaya, a longtime friend and another renowned ballerina (who eventually replaced Ulanova as prima at Bolshoi), stated simply: “She was an angel and she danced like one” (see Times obituary). Ulanova was a true princess of the Russian people, especially the aristocracy—and government, I might add. The obituary goes on to note how Ulanova “received nearly every medal the Soviets bestowed on their most accomplished citizens, including the Order of Lenin and the Stalin Award. Although she tried to remain politely uninvolved in party politics—always an impossibility at the time—she was twice named a Hero of Socialist Labor.” 

A snapshot of Galina Ulanova’s obituary in the Times, in its original context.

At the time of her death, Boris Yeltsin, the first President of Russia, said of her: ”Her life and the art of dance to which she has give her soul has become part of Russian and world culture. Ulanova has always been for us the symbol of conscience, honor and dignity. She was a true artist” (see Times obituary).

Galina Ulanova’s influence on Russian ballet, and even ballet worldwide, is incomparable. While her inclusion in The Crown may not have been entirely historically accurate, I am glad to have discovered her (along with the world of Russian ballet, and, as a result of my research, Russian opera as wellstay tuned!). To see her once again in the public mind is just as it should be. Great art, and artists, must forever be appreciated.

File:Russia-2000-stamp-Galina Ulanova.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
A Russian 3-ruble postage stamp, issued in the year 2000, depicting Ulanova.
A rare photo of Galina Ulanova as Princess Florine...
A rare 1928 photograph of Ulanova as Princess Florine, from Mariinsky’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty.

I leave you with a last, stunning performance of hers from the Bolshoi production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Every movement tells a story.

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Holly Golightly as a “Grown-Up Lolita”

Having just read Breakfast at Tiffany’s, I have recently become interested in Truman Capote, an American novelist with a complex past and quite the socialite in his time. A couple weeks ago, I found an original 1965 edition of Capote’s masterpiece, In Cold Blood, a gripping account of the 1959 murders of four members of the Clutter family in the tiny, rural town of Holcomb, Kansas. Capote denoted this work the first ever “nonfiction novel,” a label that has remained subject to controversy to this day. The premise and plot of the book (the town, the murders, the investigation into the killers and their execution) are all based on fact (Capote interviewed extensively, stayed in the town and took copious notes, etc.); however, the catch is that Capote wrote the story exactly like a (seemingly fictitious) novel, complete with lilting prose and recreated dialogue. The question, then? To what extent can we consider the work a truthful, detailed account of a series of horrific murders and the chaos that followed, versus one in some respect “marred” by Capote’s overshadowing interpretation? Where is the line? Interesting to deliberate, though not the subject of this post.

In Cold Blood is a riveting read, in any caseI would recommend it. I was flipping through it again yesterday, this time to investigate its connections with Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men (in terms of rural setting, ethics at play, etc.). I happened to notice that at the beginning of my edition of In Cold Blood, some of Capote’s other novels are advertised, including Breakfast at Tiffany’s. An excerpt of a Time Magazine review of his novella discussing the heroine, Holly Golightly, was included. “She’s the hottest kitten ever to hit the keys of Truman Capote,” it stated, “a cross between a grown-up Lolita and a teen-age Auntie Mame… aline and a little afraid in a lot of beds she never made.” Having just read the novella, and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita this past summer, I found the phrase “grown-up Lolita” particularly intriguing. Further research online revealed that the connection between the two protagonists, Holly and Lolita, seems to have not been fully explored, and I thought it was worth contemplating in greater detail here.

When reading the words “grown-up Lolita,” what immediately came to mind was Capote’s implication in Breakfast at Tiffany’s that Holly Golightly’s childhood was to some extent characterized by abuse. In the novella, “Holly Golightly” is not actually Holly’s given name; rather, just a persona she creates to escape the trauma of her past and reinvent. Holly begins as scarred child-wife Lulamae Barnes, married at age fourteen and shouldering incredible responsibility as mother figure for the previous four children of her husband, Doc Golightly. On top of this, Lulamae was a victim of abuse, as is clear from a discussion on her past lovers in which Holly almost casually says, “not counting anything that happened before I was thirteen because, after all, that just doesn’t count.”

We see the likes of this abuse in Nabokov’s Lolita, in the obsession of Humbert Humbert, a thirty-something literature professor, with the twelve-year old Dolores Haze: the “light of [his] life, fire of [his] loins,” his “sin, [his] soul.” She is the perfect “nymphet,” he believes—his Lolita. Over the course of the novel, he becomes sexually involved with her, and at the end, accuses himself of statutory rape. The effects of this abuse on Dolores’s development are clear in Lolita: “amorous relations [with Humbert Humbert become] a commonplace she must face with boredom” (Balakian 141), and which she can frequently manipulate to obtain money from him. “Used up physically before her deeper feelings have been aroused, she cannot grow to the real meaning of love” (Balakian 141). And, as our last glimpses of Lolita suggest—we see her married, in need of money, pregnant, and broken—”she will grow old before having known what it is to be young and fulfilled” (Balakian 141) because Humbert Humbert has robbed her of her childhood.

Lolita later dies in childbirth, so we do not see the more lasting, psychological effects of the abuse much beyond that. But with Holly Golightly, we do see the aftereffects. The little-discussed trauma of child marriage and sexual abuse and the unimaginable pain and loss of innocence that go along with them are the very reason she reinvents, forever in futility. First, she runs to Hollywood, seeing in acting—a socially acceptable profession of reinvention for women—an opportunity to push away her pain forever. However, as an actress, she would need to be “managed” and taken care of, by producers, agents (O.J. Berman), and other men. Having just emerged from an environment in which she was “taken care of” by being forced into teen marriage as a tragic respite from a childhood filled with abuse, this is understandably unbearable. The “wild thing” once again runs, this time to New York—where she rejects stability, masquerading on the edge of danger through the Russian roulette she plays each night with powder room men, or in visiting a drug dealer for weekly prison chats. She chases control (like Lolita, with the bribes), constantly giving out roles for her male acquaintances to play—“serve me a drink, lend me your key, answer to the name of Fred,” she commands enticingly. She increases her allure by creating a game, of sorts—one that allows her to pull all of the strings. She needs to do this, to be able to live with the violation that characterizes her past—that which Lolita also experiences. In a way, Holly’s story, given the time of her life in which we see her in Capote’s novella, could most certainly serve as a continuation of Lolita’s own. She really is a “grown-up Lolita.”

I noticed quite a few other similarities between the two works. In terms of Holly and Lolita again, both Capote and Nabokov write them as rebellious anti-heroines, moving relentlessly against the grain. For Holly, we see this in the “ragbag colors of her boy’s hair, tawny streaks, strands of albino-blond and yellow” (3) that stand out to the narrator along with her “chic thinness” (3) and more feminine “rough pink darkening in the cheeks” (3). An androgynous figure, she challenges conventional societal standards for female beauty while still coming across as elegant, slick, and attractive, both in physical appearance and personality. With Lolita, one would expect her to be much more shaken up by the abuse she has faced since childhood—a twisted take on the “damsel in distress” trope—but I would argue that he does not write a lot of that explicitly into the novel. In many respects, Nabokov instead portrays her as a seemingly normal teenage girl whose “lust for life has no other object than creature comforts and infantile excitement” (Balakian 141). That is part of why his novel is actually so controversial—with his beautiful prose, he twists the standard, making us believe for a moment that this kind of “pathological love” (Balakian 141) is possible—real, even—and could actually leave a teenager “normal.” Breakfast at Tiffany’s would of course suggest otherwise, as would the little bits of Lolita’s adult life that we see at the end of the novel.

Published three years apart, both Lolita and Breakfast at Tiffany’s also offer very interesting, but wildly different views of America at the time. Capote tends to focus on New York, the epicenter of the country; for Holly, it is in that city and that city alone where her persona can go unnoticed for its falseness and even be widely accepted! She throws fabulous parties, strings along oodles of men, keeps up a reputation as a starlet, jumps bail, and then leaves and is forgotten almost immediately by the vast majority of people. For reinventresses like Holly, for immigrants looking to become Americans, for the endless amounts of people coming there to escape their pasts, Capote makes it clear that New York is the perfect mask. The city is a kindred spirit; it’s Holly herself who says, “they must see this, these lights, the river—I love New York, even though it isn’t mine, the way something has to be, a tree or a street or a house, something, anyway, that belongs to me because I belong to it” (19). That is Capote’s vision, and one that has stood the test of time.

Nabokov, on the other hand, characterizes the greater American landscape. This mainly occurs in Part Two of the novel, where Humbert Humbert takes Lolita across the country on a “road trip” (note: really, he kidnaps her). In my opinion, this, along with his absolutely stunning prose, is the real value in his controversial Lolita. Nabokov’s portrayal of the American Roadside no doubt heavily draws from a road trip he took with his wife Vera across the country. “through the open expanses of the Appalachians, the small towns of Tennessee and Arkansas, the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona” (Haven). His descriptions of the landscape in the novel, in Humbert Humbert’s voice, are incredibly detailed and vivid. He writes: “We came to know—nous connûmes, to use a Flaubertian intonation—the stone cottages under enormous Chateaubriandesque trees, the brick unit, the adobe unit, the stucco court, on what the Tour Book of the Automobile Association describes as ‘shaded’ or ‘spacious’ or ‘landscaped’ grounds.” He also extensively describes the American motels in which he and Lolita stay frequently: “Nous connûmes (this is royal fun) the would-be enticements of their repetitious namesall those Sunset Motels, U-Beam Cottages, Hillcrest Courts, Pine View Courts, Mountain View Courts, Skyline Courts, Park Plaza Courts, Green Acres, Mac’s Courts.” In the novel itself, motels—locations where people up and leave frequently—serve to detach Humbert Humbert’s actions from society’s moral compass; with them, the two don’t settle down anywhere, and therefore, Humbert Humbert is free to define his own criteria for relationships and continue to live in the hidden dream where what he does to Lolita is acceptable. The description is even more so a valuable account of what motels, the populist American invention, looked like in Nabokov’s eyes—the eyes of a Russian outsider, an émigré. It’s fascinating to contemplate this vision in conjunction with Capote’s. Both authors offer different portraits of America, but with intertwined heroines.

A last note, and not the original subject of this post, but just for fun—the quality of writing in both is absolutely amazing, and renowned as such; both Capote and Nabokov are famous for it. Nabokov’s is the perfect combination of humorous and serious, and somewhat uncomfortably and rigidly intellectual (purposefully so, to reflect Humbert Humbert’s profession as a literature professor as well as his hubris and high personal opinion of his own intellect). And Capote’s is lilting Southern prose, striking in its own right.

Here are my favorite excerpts in this regard from Lolita:

“It was love at first sight, at last sight, at ever and ever sight.”

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”

“You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.”

“We had been everywhere. We had really seen nothing. And I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night — every night, every night — the moment I feigned sleep.”

“For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.”

“My car is limping, Dolores Haze,
And the last long lap is the hardest,
And I shall be dumped where the weed decays,
And the rest is rust and stardust.”

And, from Breakfast at Tiffany’s:

“Never love a wild thing, Mr. Bell,’ Holly advised him. ‘That was Doc’s mistake. He was always lugging home wild things. A hawk with a hurt wing. One time it was a full-grown bobcat with a broken leg. But you can’t give your heart to a wild thing: the more you do, the stronger they get. Until they’re strong enough to run into the woods. Or fly into a tree. Then a taller tree. Then the sky. That’s how you’ll end up, Mr. Bell. If you let yourself love a wild thing. You’ll end up looking at the sky.”

“Home is where you feel at home. I’m still looking.”

“It should take you about four seconds to walk from here to the door. I’ll give you two.”

“You’re wonderful. Unique. I love you.”

“But it’s Sunday, Mr. Bell. Clocks are slow on Sundays.”

“I am always drawn back to places where I have lived, the houses and their neighborhoods.”

And that’s it! Hope you enjoyed this post, and I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. До скорого, Рая!

Balakian, Nona. “The Prophetic Vogue of the Anti-heroine.” Southwest Review, vol. 47, no. 2, Spring 1962, pp. 134-41, Accessed 24 Mar. 2020.

Haven, Cynthia. “The Lolita Question.” Stanford Magazine, 2006, Accessed 24 Mar. 2020.

Some of the analysis is from a paper I wrote about Breakfast at Tiffany’s, specifically around Holly Golightly as a reinventress, for an American Lit class. Read it here.

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k-Means Segmentation on Russia-Related Images

In my Advanced Topics in Computer Science class at school, we recently implemented k-Means Image Segmentation. The algorithm works by partitioning the dataset into non-overlapping subgroups, or clusters. In this case, the dataset would be the set of pixels of an image (as we are performing image segmentation, or the process of breaking an image up into different sections). We are doing image segmentation based on color (on the R, G, B values), so our clusters would essentially be pixels that have the most similar colors.

Here’s a brief overview. See this link for more details.

  1. Set a number of clusters.
  2. Initialize the k centroids (or cluster centers) by randomly selecting points from the shuffled set of pixels.
  3. At each iteration of the algorithm,
    1. Compute the sum of the squared distance between all data points and all centroids.
    2. Determine, for each pixel, which centroid is closest.
    3. Assign that pixel to the corresponding (closest) cluster.
    4. Re-assign each cluster’s center (i.e. re-compute the centriod) by averaging all of the data points in a cluster. With pixels, this means, for all pixels in a cluster, average the X-position and the Y-position. The centroid location will then be (Xavg, Yavg).
  4. Stop iterations after a specified number has passed, or a certain error threshold has been reached, etc. You can set any end condition, just know that k-Means is an iterative algorithm, and it is in the programmer’s hands to terminate it.

You can find the code here, on my GitHub. In the meantime, enjoy the segmentations and the analysis at the end!

собор Василия Блаженного матрешкафото Чалабова из тумана в Москвешифровальная машина ФИАЛКА шифровальная машина ФИАЛКА (cont.)

Some key insights:

The k-Means algorithm favors classifying different levels of shading (the colors that represent them) rather than classifying distinctly different colors. I had originally thought this may be to incorporate detail, but going back to the steps of the algorithm and analyzing them revealed that it is really just that the parts of the spectrum of shaded colors are more common than spots of different, vibrant, eye-catching colors. For instance, the shaded parts cover a greater area than do the blue pixels in the small blue eyes in the matryoshka dolls, and therefore, they are more likely to be initially picked as a color. However, if you manually set the starting pixel to be that small blue region, though, that color would be captured (albeit covering a very small portion of the segmented image). 

The algorithm runs faster when images cover a smaller area of pixels, as would be expected. And, some image-specific observations: note the good results on the FIALKA image with k = 4 (i.e., four clusters) – the texture and 3D aspect of the photo is really captured well. For the image of the person in Moscow fog, with St. Basil’s Cathedral in the background, the sky is separated into lighter and darker parts. You can see this gradation in the original image as well, but it is definitely not as distinct as the classification would suggest (it’s actually much more gradual). 

Hope you enjoyed reading! As always, let me know if you have any questions/thoughts in the comments. До скорого, Рая!

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NYC’s KGB Espionage Museum, In Photos

This past November, a couple friends and I visited the KGB Espionage Museum in NYC! A week or two earlier, I had seen online that the New York Adventure Club was holding an “exclusive tour and artifact showcase” at the museum. I recalled reading Masha Gessen’s review of the place in The New Yorker just after it opened in January 2019. They noted what a “peculiar thing [the museum is] to observe, particularly at a moment when Russia—and Russian espionage in particular—looms so large in the American imagination.” Intrigued, I had added the museum to my list of Russian-related places to visit. I was so excited when I saw that notice for the tour, months later.

Below is a slideshow of photos I took at the museum! My favorites include the ones of the Fialka, a Russian-made M-125 cipher machine, and the April 13, 1961 edition of Pravda, an iconic Russian newspaper. My two friends and I also dined at Chama Mama, an authentic Georgian restaurant in Chelsea, where we enjoyed some amazing Georgian cuisine—see the end of the slideshow for photos! The highlight for me was their khachapuri, a puff pastry-type bread filled with a blend of cheeses. It’s an iconic dish, and one I actually made at Лесное Озеро, the Russian immersion camp I attended this past summer (read about my experiences there here and here)! Was so cool to it see on the menu.

Anyway, enjoy the collection!

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Overall, it was an absolutely amazing trip. The tour was one of the only two times each year when some of the artifacts, like the elegant lipstick gun, are brought out of their protective glass cases, which was so cool to see. I had some videos, but they were lost when my camera’s hard drive broke down (long story). Our tour guide, Alexei, was wonderful—I loved his dry humor, and he was so knowledgeable about all of the artifacts.

I’d encourage anyone to go visit the museum (and Chama Mama). Here’s the link to the Times review as well, which I found interesting—it sheds light into the story behind the museum’s founding and includes some wonderful photos.

Lastly, here is some more detailed info about the locations, in case that would be helpful!

KGB Espionage Museum; 245 W 14th St, New York, NY 10011; open 10AM-8PM daily;

Chama Mama; 149 W 14th St, New York, NY 10011; open 11AM-10PM sun, mon, tues, wed, open 11AM-11PM thurs, fri, sat;

Ask me any questions you might have down in the comments, and I’ll do my best to answer them. До скорого!

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