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Rhea's Slavic Adventures Posts

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. “A romantic!” I whispered to myself, smiling slightly. He’s a romantic. Of course. 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)
ULANOVA
(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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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; kgbespionagemuseum.org

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

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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Chekhov: The Realist Starring in Uncle Vanya

Happy holidays, all! This is a selection of quotes from Uncle Vanya, a famous play by the great Anton Chekhov, that stand out to me. I find these to be especially revealing of Chekhov’s view on life, death, aging, and the human condition. At his core, Chekhov was an existentialist, and the ultimate realist. Maxim Gorky recognized this too, writing to Chekhov in 1900:

“Do you know what you are doing? You are killing realism. You will soon have killed it off completely, and it will stay that way for some time to come. This form has outlived its time, and that’s a fact! No one can go further along this path than you have done, no one can write as simply about such simple things as you can…”

Here, ironically, being branded as “killing realism” is perhaps the greatest compliment! See this paper for the quote’s source and for more on this idea. This realism is crystal clear in Chekhov’s writing, and so are his existentialist tendencies and his admiration for Nature. Chekhov was also a Naturalist—he believed that Nature always rules supreme over all aspects of society and civilization, and that life, aging, and death are just effects of its influence. Perhaps that is even what formed the basis for his greater, realist views. So, make what you will of that! Oh, and a last note: be on the lookout for Chekhov’s ~interesting~ views on alcohol and the drink (throughout Uncle Vanya, and also in some of the quotes).

I’ve purposefully presented these as just plain quotes here, but I’m currently working on a YouTube video in which I hope to explore these aforementioned ideas (and more!) in greater depth and offer more of my own thoughts and analysis. In the video, I’ll also touch on both the film Vanya on 42nd Street and differences in interpretation of Sonia’s last monologue, both in performances and in literary criticism. 

I’ll link the YouTube video here soon—enjoy this teaser in the meantime! And again, happy holidays! 

Dyady_Vanya_2
Тranslation: Act. 1, Chekhov, Uncle Vanya. Elena Andreevna (to Astroff). You are still a young man, you look… well thirty-six or -seven years old… and it must not be quite so interesting as you say, with always the trees and the trees and the trees. I think it’s monotonous.

Please note that all quotes are of Stark Young’s translation of Uncle Vanya, which appears in my edition of Chekhov’s collection of plays: Chekhov, Anton. Plays. Translated by Stark Young, New Dehli, Rupa Publications, 1999.

. . .

“And life itself is boring, stupid, dirty… it strangles you, this life.” (74)

“… a man for exactly twenty-five years reads and writes about art, and understands exactly nothing about art… twenty-five years reads and writes about what intelligent people already know and stupid people are not interested in…” (78)


ELENA: And fine weather today… Not hot… (A pause.)

VOINITSKY (Uncle Vanya): It’s fine weather to hang yourself… (82)


“He says that forests adorn the earth, that they teach a man to understand the beautiful and inspire him to lofty moods.” (83)

“The whole thing very likely is only foolishness after all.” (85)

“This damned, disgusting old age, the devil take it!” (88)


VOINITSKY: A storm is gathering outside. (Lightning) (90)


“Old ones like young ones want somebody to feel sorry for them, but nobody feels sorry for the old.” (91)


VOINITSKY: The rain will be over now and everything in nature will be fresh and breathing. Only I will not be refreshed by the storm. Day and night like a fiend at my throat is the thought that my life is hopelessly lost. No past, it was stupidly spend on trifles, and the present with all its absurdity is frightful. Here they are: my life and my love: where shall I put them, what shall I do with them? This feeling of mine is dying in vain, like a ray of sunlight that has strayed into a pit, and I myself am dying. (92)


ELENA: And today you were drinking? Why is that?

VOINITSKY: Because it is like living. Somehowlike living.  (93)


“Now we both would have been awakened by the storm; she would have been frightened by the thunder and I would have held her in my arms and whispered: “Don’t be afraid, I am here.” Oh, beautiful thoughts, how wonderful, I am even smiling…” (93)

“When one has no real life, one lives in illusions. After all, that’s better than nothing.” (96)

“An idle life can’t be right.” (98)

“One must have faith in everybody, otherwise life is impossible.” (102)

“And do you know what genius means? Bravery, a free mind, a broad sweep.” (103)


VOINITSKY: As a token of peace and harmony, I’ll bring a bouquet of roses, now; I made it for you this morning… Autumn roses—charming, sad roses… 

(Goes out.)

SONIA: Autumn roses—charming, sad roses.

(Both of them look out of the window.)

ELENA: And September is already with us. How will we live through the winter here… (106)


“It seems to me the truth, whatever it is, is not so frightful as uncertainty after all.” (108)

“We have here a case of degeneration that results from a struggle that’s beyond men’s strength for existence; degeneration caused by sloth, by ignorance, by the complete absence of any conscience… Nearly everything is already destroyed and in its place there is nothing created.” (110-111)


ASTROFF (With false nonchalance): Today, much esteemed Ivan Petrovich, the weather is not bad. In the morning it was cloudy, as if it would rain, and now the sun’s shining. Honestly speaking, autumn turned out beautiful… And the winter crop not bad. (Folds the chart into a cylinder.) Except for one thing: the days are getting short… (Goes out.) (114)


“The fact is manet omnes una nox, that is: we are all mortal…” (116)


VOINITSKY: Why not—I am insane, irresponsible, I have the right to say silly things.

ASTROFF: That’s an old story. You are not insane, you are simply odd. A little clown. There was a time when I too regarded every person who was odd as sick, abnormal, and now I am of the opinion that the normal state of man is to be odd. You are entirely normal. (125-126)


VOINITSKY: Give me something! Oh, my God… I am forty-seven years old; if—suppose I’ll live till sixty—if so I still have thirteen years left. That long! How shall I live through these thirteen years? What will I do, what will I fill them with? Oh, do you understand… (Convulsively pressing ASTROFF’s hand) Do you understand, if I could only live through what is left of life somehow differently. To wake up on a clear, quiet morning and to feel that you have begun to live anew, that all the past is forgotten, faded away, like smoke. (Crying) To begin a new life… teach me how to begin… from what to begin… 

ASTROFF (Annoyed, sharply): Eh, you! What new life is there? Our situation, yours and mine, is hopeless. (126)


SONIA: What can we do, we must live! (A pause) We shall live, Uncle Vanya. We’ll live through a long, long line of days, endless evenings; we’ll bear patiently the trials fate sends us; we’ll work for others now and in our old age without ever knowing any rest, and when our hour comes, we’ll die humbly and there beside the coffin we’ll say that we suffered, that we cried, that we felt bitter, and God will take pity on us, and you and I, Uncle, darling Uncle, shall see life bright, beautiful, fine, we shall be happy and will look back tenderly with a smile on these misfortunes we have now—and we shall rest. I have faith. I believe warmly, passionately… (Kneeling before him and putting her head on his hands; in a tired voice) We shall rest!

(TELEGIN plays the guitar quietly.)

SONIA: We shall rest! We shall hear the angels, we shall see the whole sky all diamonds, we shall see how all earthly evil, all our sufferings, are drowned in the mercy that will fill the whole world. And our life will grow peaceful, tender, sweet as a caress. I believe, I do believe… (Wipes away his tears with a handkerchief) Poor, dear Uncle Vanya, you are crying… (Through her tears) In your life you haven’t known what joy was; but wait, Uncle Vanya, wait… We shall rest… (Embraces him) We shall rest! (The night watchman taps. TELEGIN is strumming quietly; MARIA VASILIEVNA is writing on the margins of a pamphlet; MARINA is knitting on a stocking.)

SONIA: We shall rest!

The curtain falls slowly. (134-135)

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What Can Матрешки (Matryoshka Dolls) Tell Us About “Grey” vs. “Gray”? A Poem…

matreshka color

matreshka medium color

matreshka black and white poem on color

Interpret this poem how you will! But I hope it sparks some thought on the role of technology in our world today and its consequences – not just for the humanities, obviously, but also photography and the arts. It has caused immense change, and we must acknowledge that.

Check out more of my writing in this poetry-based photo essay I did on matryoshka dolls, and read more about the story behind the photographs here. Until next time!

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Международный День, Балалайка, Юрты и Еще: My Experiences at Concordia Language Villages’ Lesnoe Ozero, Week 2

Hey everyone! I’m back again with Лесное Озеро content.

A refresher: I attended Concordia Language Villages’ two-week full Russian immersion program at their Russian language village, Lesnoe Ozero (Лесное Озеро), this past summer. Each day, between завтрак, урок, hanging out in Алматы (my cabin), frequently going to the magazine with my дрызья to buy mango-aloe juice, and more, I took some time to record my experiences in a journal. Through these journal entries, all typed verbatim, I hope you can gain a deeper sense of what villagers do at Лесное Озеро and picture the everyday environment. As someone with no Russian ancestry or experience in a completely Russian environment, I wasn’t fully sure what to expect going in. But my time there was absolutely wonderful, and I’m so excited to share it with you.

These entries are from the second week of camp (finally! they took a while to transcribe). The first week’s can be found here. And lastly, the first part of this title translates to “International Day, Balalaika, Yurts, and More.” Enjoy!

Понедельник, 5 августа

Today, I finally managed to wake up early. The nice thing about the расписание at Лесное Озеро is that we are quite literally forced to sleep by 10:30/11, and then “Доброе утро” is at 8 am. So it’s a solid amount of sleep that we get. 

For my second час културис, I got balalaika and cooking (again)! We’re learning to play one of the Russian folk songs that we sing here at camp – hopefully, I can record us singing it on my tape recorder (edit: currently processing! check back in a bit). Here’s a quote from Gogol that a вожатый put on the screen while we were doing folk songs, and one that I found particularly fitting and profound: “Russian folk songs are a living history of the Russian people, rich, vivid and truthful, revealing their entire life.” Food for thought.

So excited for cooking again, too – Kamila asked me to be on the International Day Team for when we simulate a MasterChef competition!

For the Вечерняя программа (evening program), the вожатый held a simulation for us campers on the Chernobyl nuclear accident. One of the first parts of the accident was that people didn’t quite know what was going on, but sensed that something was wrong. So throughout the day, even when it wasn’t the actual Вечерняя программа (evening program), the вожатым held a simulation for us campers, on the Chernobyl nuclear accident. One of the first parts of the accident was that people didn’t quite know what was going on in the days following it, but inherently sensed that something was wrong. So throughout the day, even when it wasn’t the time of the actual Вечерняя программа, we heard random loud noises that sounded like explosions, and saw вожатым running among us in hazmat suits. It was all quite confusing. 

Then, during what was supposed to be Тнхнй час (quiet time, or quiet hour), the вожатым ushered us all into the Мариинский театр (Mariinsky Theatre, a meeting place, and also where we sing camp songs before lunch. Named after the famous Санкт-Петербург Theater). They turned the lights off, drew the curtains, and put on a video of a ballet performance to Tchaikovsky’s famous Swan Lake. We were all pretty confused, and many were complaining about losing тнхнй час. I had wanted to use it to journal, and my friends to sleep! But this was actually all also a part of the Chernobyl simulation. According to one of the вожатый (I don’t remember who I had asked), during Chernobyl, the Russian government played classical music on the radio to distract people and calm them down. And when the Soviet Union was falling, the government broadcasted Swan Lake pretty much all the time, instead of the regular news broadcasts – and all in order to distract and calm down the people. Even though Swan Lake wasn’t actually played during Chernobyl, Dasha, the вожатый who was in charge of the simulation, told me that she wanted to recreate that feeling. It definitely worked!

During the simulation itself, all us campers were split into different groups – liquidators (put out fires, did cleanup at the reactor), government officials, Soviet scientists, Western press, Soviet press, and a couple more, I believe. I was a liquidator. One of our goals was to make sure we got out the story about suffering from radiation sickness, and about how we were told to clean up radioactive materials for much longer than was safe, to the foreign reporters and to our government officials, for stipends for our injured family/friends/etc. It was difficult, as we couldn’t tell the Soviet press or government about the struggles too much, for fear of our families (and us!) being killed. The simulation overall was very informative, and most of my friends and I really got into it.

After the simulation was over, our медсестра, Саша (who takes care of my many allergies, and is super nice!), got up to speak. She was actually a child growing up in Russia (about 10 yrs old) when the accident happened. She remembers her parents getting a call from a relative in the U.S. calling to say that there was horrible radiation in Russian and that they needed to get out ASAP – which they were all very surprised at because they lived 2 hours away from Pripyat reactor where the accident occurred. She then remembered that when news of the accident actually got out and was confirmed, her family tried to move to other, far away parts of Siberia, even go to Georgia, but they couldn’t due to housing shortages and people’s unwillingness to trade houses (government = landlord in Russia, said no to new houses, system is inherently Soviet, only way to get out was to trade and no one wanted to). She did, however, go to Moscow in government buses, and she remembered all her belongings, and herself, too, being doused with water to get rid of the radiation.

Most of all, however, she remembered and described the effects the radiation had with regards to livestock, babies, and cancer. She said that livestock and babies were born with 3-4 arms, had severe deformities, disabilities, etc. She noted that most of her friends’ parents died young, of cancer, and many of her friends contracted thyroid cancer – one from exposure to her father, who volunteered to help clean up the plant and spent his resulting, awarded vacation with his daughter, who was at the time around 10 years old. He would read to her on his lap, thus transferring the radiation, and then – 30 years later, a huge tumor on her neck (because radioactive iodine concentrates in the thyroid). 

Overall, I really enjoyed hearing Саша’s story. I thought it was incredibly touching & poignant. Very striking and scary, though. She said, “The worst was not the accident. It’s that we were lied to. A betrayal.” (by the government, who originally kept the severity of the accident, and that it even happened, from the people and world). I understand why governments like Russia’s, like the U.S. (Snowden), keep such things from their people. They have a reputation, an image to keep up. But it’s still quite horrible. Саша said that a friend of hers said, “The Soviet government would never let their own people die. That could never happen.” And yet, it did. Time and time again, incidents like this happen. And with many countries, not just Russia. As Саша said, in this case, “We have to think about what’s more important – to save face, or to save lives.”

Lastly, I thought it was quite nice how most of what I saw in HBO’s Chernobyl series (absolutely amazing. I discussed it with many campers and вожатый. Almost everyone had at least heard of the series, and many had even seen it). I’m glad I had some background going into the simulation from that series, and some outside reading I had done after watching. 

Вторник, 6 aвгуста

So I spent pretty much the entirety of yesterday during my quiet time / early hours journaling about Chernobyl and didn’t get to anything else! But so far, overall, camp has been pretty good. It’s now Wednesday when I’m writing this, so there is only today left with the normal schedule. Tomorrow (Thursday) is the end-of-camp banquet, and Friday is International Day, or I day. That’s where all camps meet at the German camp, Waldsee, and have a huge celebration, with lots of ethnic food stalls, things to buy, etc. Also, I think I’ve talked about what час культуры is before (cultural hour for various things). Mine have been matryoshka (last week), and balalaika (this week) and cooking (this week). Аnd Тарас, who is the вожатый for the balalaika class, said my friend Анастасия and I would be able to play with him and a couple others on I-Day, in the midst of all the festivities!

Before we settle into night routine and getting into bedtime, we have what’s called земство, where each member of our cabin will say a rose (something good that happened today), a bud (something good that happened today), a bud (something to look forward to), and a thorn (something bad that happened). We also usually include a hippo (something funny that happened). My bud was being excited about balalaika and cooking at I Day! I’m so looking forward to that. I’ve been writing down all the recipes from cooking class (which Kamila and Natalia gave us) in an old brown leather notebook – it’ll be my own Russian recipe book! I hope I can add каша to it (the camp’s recipe) too (edit: sadly, I never got the recipe). It’s a porridge/oatmeal type of breakfast food that they serve at least every other day here at camp. All of us campers, and especially me and some of my friends, get pretty excited about it. It can be made with rice, grain, etc., and it’s pretty filling. It tastes wonderful with lots of многа сахар, изюма, джема и сливочного масла. Oh, и фрукты! Клубника or черники are really good in каша. A friend of mine commented about how almost every culture essentially has some equivalent of каша – oatmeal, and in India we have something called दलिया (daliya), which is a type of porridge made with milk, etc. etc. I hadn’t really thought about that before, but it’s a very good insight.

tassel пампончик
Random note in a margin. This filter gives me a distinctly Russian feel. Correction: *медсестра*

While I’m talking about food, one thing definitely worth commenting on is how often we eat клеб and масла. Еvery single meal, untoasted! Аnd we are usually so hungry that we eat several slices, and quite rapidly, too! At lunch, when we eat with our families, there’s this boy at my table who almost always goes up to get another half loaf of bread. There was even one day, I think, where the kitchen was delayed in bringing out the main part of lunch, so we were all really hungry, and that boy and some others on our table when up to get bread at least five more times! 

There was also a huge thunderstorm on Tuesday night, so the Вечерняя программа got cut short and we hung out in our cabins.  I had to take a shower, and the shower curtain is covered in Orange mold at the bottom, which is growing up the curtain, which kind of sucks. But hey, that’s camp life for you.

My cabin (Алматы), named after a city in Kazakhstan (Казакхстан), is one of the smaller ones – I think the smallest, actually. So all of us girls here are pretty close – I think some of my best friends at camp are in my cabin. So yesterday, when it was raining, Лева (Taylor) got out her ukulele from home and played “Riptide” by Vance Joy, and then Настя played “Home” by Phillip Phillips. We all turned the lights off except for one soft, warm and orange one, which was left in the middle to simulate the campfire whose warmth and vibe we all missed. We all sang along to the songs! I have a nighttime shower time, and my friends and Фера and Нина sang so loud that I heard them in the shower and could even sing along! It’s been really nice being in Алматы. My cabin mates are some of the most interesting, nicest people I’ve met, and it’s nice that we’re so close.

hand signal
Аnother note in the margins. ш sounds ‘sh’ in Cyrillic. Shshshsh!
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