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!
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.
Credit: All digitized painting snapshots are from Google Images.
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, threats—and, 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.
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 participate—and 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 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, “criticized—mildly—her 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.”
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 well—stay tuned!). To see her once again in the public mind is just as it should be. Great art, and artists, must forever be appreciated.
I leave you with a last, stunning performance of hers from the Bolshoi production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Every movement tells a story.
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!
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!
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!
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.
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.
“Inside, I am met with an explosion of velvet, tulle and satin. The dozens of dresses, tutus and elaborate headpieces stored here comprise a rare collection of Soviet-era dance costumes, still in use more than 40 years after they were made,” writes Bianca Ladipo in a stunning photo essay for the New York Times.
Ladipo writes about Mazur Dance, a dance school in Chicago where “trove[s] of Soviet-era tutus” come to life on a new generation of American dancers. As I transcribe my second week of long journal entries from Лесное Озеро (check out the first here!), I thought I’d share her piece. It is a part of Surfacing, “a visual [NYT] series on the intersection of art and life.” Ladipo herself was years ago a student at the studio, which is run by by couple Tatyana and Roman Mazur. The photographs I’ve included in this post are my favorites from the article – all shot by Whitten Sabbatini, by the way – and they bear their original captions. I’ve accompanied them with quotes from the article and/or my own reflections. Enjoy!
“I looked at myself in the mirror, an otherwise average girl from downtown Chicago, now transformed into a countess. It was in that moment that I found the resolve to dance through my final ballet performance,” Ladipo writes.
From my intrinsic photographer’s perspective – wow. What a picture. The beauty, the clear sense of reflection, the thoughtfulness, the youth. Mirrors are so powerful. And the juxtaposition between the young ballet hopeful (fresh as a raindrop, as Katniss Everdeen would say!) and the delicate, hand-crafted, historic dress – brilliant and so very well-captured on Sabbatini’s part.
“The bodices, bejeweled with hundreds of handsewn sequins stood in stark contrast to the minimalist costumes of modern ballet productions. The faux gemstones may have seemed large and gaudy up close, but onstage they subtly caught the stage lights, illuminating dancers as they moved. Every decorative element was exaggerated to be visible from the last row of any theater,” says Ladipo.
Imagine all those who have worn these priceless pieces! Imagine the feelings one has when wearing one! Imagine the sensation of entering a different era, a different world entirely, while encased in the fabric!
The blur effectively conveys the famous “spinning” motion. I’ve experimented with this style myself. The focus, the poise. Clever again on Sabbatini’s part – and what a beautifully captured photo.
According to Ladipo, Tatyana and Roman both fled from Kyiv, Ukraine after the Chernobyl catastrophe (which took place in the fairly nearby town of Pripyat) and later met in Latvia. After returning to Kyiv when things died down to teach at a government-funded dance school, they immigrated to the United States and began their studio. Tatyana, upon failing to find first-rate Russian ballet costumes in the United States, “traveled back to Ukraine and Russia… where she bought old costumes from professional companies, including the National Ballet of Ukraine,” Ladipo writes. “The costumes were already 20 to 30 years old at the time [Tatyana] bought them,” she continues, “meaning they were made and worn in the U.S.S.R. during the 1970s and ’80s, when companies would commission local designers and seamstresses to craft elaborate costumes for each production.”
I find it so interesting how the way the costumes themselves bear “the record of differently shaped Russian, Ukrainian and now American dancers” mirrors the immigrant journey of Tatyana and Roman as well as the story of how Mazur Dance began. Both the costumes and their owners have Russian and Ukrainian roots and, by virtue of each other, have begun new lives in the U.S., ready for future legions of dancers.
If you haven’t already, check out Ladipo’s article here. It’s an incredible piece of photojournalism. I leave you with a final quote: In Russia, “Ballet is very popular, it’s like treasure.” What a contrast to the U.S. attitude, as the article points out! Let’s all appreciate the beauty of the craft a little bit more.
Hi everyone! I just attended Concordia Language Villages’ two-week Russian immersion program at their Russian language village, Lesnoe Ozero (Лесное Озеро). Each day, between завтрак, урок, hanging out in Алматы (my cabin), 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 – typed verbatim – I hope to provide a deeper understanding of what villagers do at Лесное Озеро and paint a picture of the everyday environment. As someone with no Russian ancestry or prior exposure to a completely Russian-speaking environment, I wasn’t sure what to expect going in. But my time at Лесное Озеро was absolutely wonderful, and I’m so excited to share it with you.
These entries are from the first week of camp. I’ll be publishing the second soon. Enjoy! Oh, and the first part of the title translates to “Canoeing, Pelmeni, and More” 🙂
Вторник, 30 июля
Привет from Лесное Озеро! I’ve been at Russian camp for about 24 hours now. I’m immediately struck by how much this camp mirrors an all-American, stereotypical camp-like experience. Log cabins, bunk beds, lakes, canoeing, etc. Except, of course, for one tiny detail – it’s all in Russian, and entirely Russia-themed! The counselors (вожатый) speak entirely in Russian to everyone (even those with absolutely no background, like my dad when he dropped me off) and use hand signals and gesturing to get meaning across. The teaching methods are really well-thought out, and they work. For example, in the morning, we have зарядка, which is a common phrase (“daily dozen” in English) that refers to morning stretching exercises. Counting out loud with all the other villagers the number of repetitions of a stretch out loud is how you learn your numbers in Russian!
Up until this point, I’ve mainly been interested in the cultural side of all there is to know about Russia (the literature, superstitions, Russian music, etc.), but already, being immersed in the language and really beginning to learn it has me excited to continue learning at home at an even more vigorous pace! My name here is Рая (pronounced “Raya”) Тургеневя. “Тургеневя” is my family (I wonder if that was on purpose, given that I had mentioned before coming that I read Fathers and Sons!). At Лесное Озеро, that’s who you eat with at lunch and do cleaning, activities, etc, with. They are named after famous Russians (in my case, Ivan Turgenev, the great author who wrote Fathers and Sons). One guy in my family is actually from NJ – what are the odds!
Essentially, how the day starts here is: Wake up at 8:00 with one family (different one chosen each day) screaming “Доброе утро!” (Good morning!) outside your cabin and banging on the walls loudly. Quite an experience if I must say so.
Another note about the whole “American camp experience” part of Лесное Озеро. I lose track of time so easily here, because no electronics, and I also forgot to bring an alarm clock. And there’s a cute little wasp’s nest outside my cabin. This is my first time at sleep-away camp (I guess Лесное Озеро would qualify as one?), but I’ve heard these are normal things. All part of the experience, I guess. It’s going pretty well.
Note: Bring notebook to cooking tomorrow.
Четверг, 1 августа
Looking at that date reminds me that the second Democratic debates must have just finished. NYT, CNN, Fox, and Twitter must be abuzz with commentary. Kinda sad that I am missing out on it. During the last debate, a couple friends and I furiously texted and tweeted about the whole thing!
Camp overall is quite an experience. We have 3 classes (called урок) after зарядка and завтрак, all in the morning. My instructors’ (Russian) names are Kola and Dina – but if you pronounce them wrong, as I did at first, they mean ‘dinosaur’ and ‘cola,’ as in Coca-Cola! It became a joke in our урок group. (Роза и Александра, тоже! Я скучаю по вам, ребята!)
Tonight, Лесное Озеро is simulating a Thai restaurant for dinner to give us a chance to practice ordering, making reservations, asking for certain items (“Можно хлеб/воду, пожалуйста”), etc. – we went over all the relevant vocab during урок. During the simulation, we even actually had to call Антон and say, in Russian, how many people we were reserving for, what time slot we would come in, and whether we wanted a taxi (a camp car to take us up the short road that leads to the Санкт-Петербург building)!
Пятница, 2 августа
Тоday in урок, I learned some verb conjugations! It was really interesting to see the way Russian grammar compares to Spanish grammar. Spanish has -ar, -ir, and -er verb endings, which each have their own conjugations and irregular cases. But Russian has more than seven, I think! Combine that with verbs of motion, the notoriously difficult cases, and more, and you have possibly the most complicated language yet. Just kidding, I think… anyway, it’s no wonder Лесное Озеро has an entire час культуры (culture hour) dedicated to Russian grammar. (Земфира, if you are reading this, I so admire your enthusiasm for it!)
Суббота, 3 августа
I got a shirt from the camp store yesterday, which I forgot to write about. It says, “Как ты себя чувствуешь сегодня?” which means, “How are you feeling in this very moment?” And then, there are a bunch of cartoon faces with all the possible expressions. It’s очень крутo. (Note from Рая, transcribing these after camp: check out the end of this blog post to see it!)
Yesterday night, we did an exchange program with the German camp (Waldsee), which is right across the lake. There were plenty of snacks and food when we got there – noodles, crepes, gyros, falafel, corn on the cob, etc. – I’m not sure if any of those are actually German, though, will look it up later (edit: they are not). It was nice to talk to the German kids, though. The German вожатый – lagerberater in German – spoke to us “Russians” entirely in German, using the same hand-signal technique that is used at Лесное Озеро. We then played Capture the Flag with them, but with a twist. Some of the вожатый from both camps were aliens, who the teams (one family from each camp, together) had to capture and bring back to the jail. But in order to put them back in jail, we had to form a circle around them and sing a camp song on the way back – either German or Russian!
Воскресенье, 4 августа
Today was a more special, unusual day. We had no урок – instead, we had 3 huge мероприятие (essentially longer час культуры). The first one was to make pelmeni, or these little dumplings filled with meat or potato (картошка). I got the recipe from Маша and Камила, who gave me and my friends pointers and watched us make them. So did Фера, my cabin’s (yay Алматы!) вожатый. I think she mentioned she makes them at home. It’ll be so cool to make all these camp recipes on my YouTube channel – I’ve been writing them all down, in Cyrillic, in a brown leather notebook, with Камиллa’s help.
I finally learned how to canoe – my friend Svetlana and I went during the third мероприятие. In Russian, of course. Here are some Russian terms related to canoeing: весла (paddles), каноэ (canoe), байдарка (kayak), lake (озеро), спасательный жилет (life jacket), and плыть в челноке (verb: to canoe). Canoeing’s a classic camp-type thing I really wanted to learn how to do as a part of my “all-American camp experience.” It’s even cooler to me that I learned it in Russian, though. And I can now canoe at national parks and other places nearby!
During the second мероприятие, I went boating with Kola, Svetlana, and a couple others on a small camp boat, which was fun as well. It was nice to actually be out on Лесное Озеро (quite literally translates to “Forest Lake” – what we call the lake, and what the camp is named after). Most of the time, we’d think about it just in terms of being the camp name!
Some end-of-week reflections: Camp overall has been a really interesting, transformative experience for me. Being completely in Russian all the time, both language-wise and culture-wise, has helped me infinitely. I’ve solidified my basic grasp on the language, and I have the opportunity to learn so much more about the culture! For my second round of час култупи (we switch in the second week), I can learn cool things like the balalaika (traditional Russian guitar), or pick up Russian folk dance – there are so many cool opportunities. We’ll see what I get. (Note from Рая, transcribing these after camp: more on the balalaika later…) But overall, I really like it here 🙂
Check out my journal entries from the second week here!
Hi all! It’s been a while since I posted on here (sorry about that), so I figured I would post about what I’ve been up to this summer and my Russian-related plans for the next few weeks! Read to the end to see a fun candid of me as I write this in my favorite (and sadly, maybe only) Russian t-shirt, and check out the middle of this post for some very aesthetic images of my copy of Peter and the Wolf. Enticing stuff, I know.
Let’s start from the beginning. On June 15th, 2019 (the weekend after my school ended), I led a “Saturday Stories” session in the children’s section of the library. In this program, a library volunteer reads a selection of 3-4 short stories to children who are usually around 0-10 years old. From 10:30 to 11 AM on that Saturday, that was me!
I read 3 short children’s stories. The first was Clever Katya: A Fairy Tale from Old Russia, retold by Mary Hoffman and illustrated by Marie Cameron (ISBN 9781901223644). It begins with a conflict between Ivan, Katya’s father, and Dimitri, Ivan’s wealthy, but self-centered brother, who both desire a young foal born to their two respective horses. It happens to be the one day that the “Tsar of All Russia” hears cases from the local people, and he has a penchant for riddles. For Ivan and Dimitri, the Tsar decides that whoever could solve his riddle – “What is the fastest thing in the world, what is the fattest, what is the softest and what is the most precious?” – would get the foal. Ivan turns to his seven-year old daughter Katya for help, and she wows the Tsar with her thoughtful and insightful answers.
The Tsar is amazed and proud that such a clever girl lives in his kingdom – so much so, in fact, that he marries Katya when she comes of age. Katya then becomes the “Tsarina of all Russia.”
According to Hoffman, this story is originally called The Wise Little Girl in Russia. In different variations, the girl is given no name, or she has to complete an additional set of tasks in the middle of the story. Hoffman gives her the name “Katya” in this picture book, reasoning that “the most important person in the story should not be anonymous” in an author’s note at the end.
When reading Clever Katya, I taught my audience (of little kids and some babies on the other side! So cute!) about what tsars and tsarinas were (like kings and queens, but Russian!) and explained their overall significance in layman terms as the “cultural aspect” of the storytelling. I also had my Russian/Slavic Instrumental Spotify playlist playing in the background (that’s why my phone is on the ground lol), which hosts my personal selection of Russian piano, string, and opera music from the great composers. Here it is – give it a follow!
Next, I read Peter and the Wolf (Пе́тя и волк) by Sergei Prokofiev, translated by Maria Carlson from Russian and illustrated by Charles Mikolaycak (ISBN 9780140506334).
It tells the story of young Пéтя (Peter), who lives in a cottage on the Russian countryside and makes friends with many animals, a small bird and a duck among them.
Пéтя, who can talk with animals, warns the little bird of a cat who was sneaking up on it. Петера дедушка (Peter’s grandfather) then worries about Пéтя going outside of the gated portion of the meadow with their house in it, as a wolf might come by. He then takes him inside.
However, just at that moment, a wolf appears! Пéтя pays no attention to what his grandfather says and ventures past the gate. He watches the wolf swallow the duck whole! It then looks at the little bird and cat, who have climbed a tree for safety, with greedy eyes. Unafraid, Пéтя runs home, grabs a rope, climbs up the tree with the bird and cat on it, instructs the little bird to “Circle around the wolf’s nose, but be careful not to let him catch you!” and then catches the wolf’s tail in a loop he made with the rope, Western cowboy-style. Пéтя, some hunters, and Петера дедушка (who was still worrying about what could have happened) lead out a grand procession in which the wolf is carried to the zoo and locked away.
As the story says: “if you listen very carefully, you will hear the duck quacking in the wolf’s stomach. For the wolf in his haste had swallowed the duck live.”
One of my favorite things about this specific copy of Peter and the Wolf is the illustrations. Mikolaycak does an absolutely stunning job of depicting the Russian countryside and capturing the overall vibe of rural Russian life. Notice the traditional manner in which the elders dress: thick coats for the men and the handkerchief on the woman. As mentioned in this link, handkerchiefs were common among eighteenth-century Russian woman, according to Elizabeth Dimsdale, and were thought to “reinforc[e] the sense of purity” within them. I love how Mikolaycak thought to stay historically true to that. I let the children know about the cultural significance of the clothing and that it is representative of old Russian countryside attire.
Also, note how on the last page (the photo above), where the wolf is shown in its cage in the zoo, there are four references to Russia directly in Cyrillic; these definitely add to the distinctly “Russian” feel of this picture book. Here are their translations: “дикий волк” is “wild wolf.” The other three are all cut off, unfortunately. But, in Russian, in case anyone’s interested, the remaining, slightly legible portions say “ркофьев” (which translates to “Rafiev”? any ideas?), “(д/п)отнм” (my guess), and “-фе” (can’t really make out the first part). Overall, I just really admire Mikolaycak’s creativity, talent, and conscientiousness. He’s done a wonderful job with the illustrations.
Here’s my last note about Peter and the Wolf. According to Phil Tulga, Sergei Prokofiev, who wrote the story, was a great Russian musical prodigy and began composing at just five – five! – years old; he later studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, a very famous and prestigious music school. After returning from lengthy periods of travel to settle in the Soviet Union, Tulga says, Prokofiev composed Peter and the Wolf for a Moscow children’s theater; it was meant to serve as “a child’s introduction to orchestra,” he writes.
In addition to the actual opera, Prokofiev wrote this short, accompanying children’s story – Peter and the Wolf – which quickly became a Russian classic. I compiled a Spotify playlist with the opera (see below). The most interesting thing about this two-part series is how specific parts of the opera correspond with specific parts of the story as well as specific characters. For example, the wolf’s entrance is #8 on the playlist below; it aptly begins with an ominous, dark, and low tone. If anyone can place the instrument, let me know – I can’t find the sheet music anywhere. Anyway, if you’d like to read more about Peter and the Wolf, check out this well-written, informative essay. It includes part of Prokofiev’s personal description of his opera as written in his diary. An excerpt: Prokofiev says that the book is meant to be “read during the pauses in the music, which was disproportionately longer than the text – for [him], the story was important only as a means of inducing the children to listen to the music.” Interesting. He was committed to the music above all else. I suppose this is no surprise; after all, his accomplishments and professional areas of focus click with that decision. And as for the first part of Prokofiev’s musings – that’s exactly what I did! I read the book in the pauses of the opera, letting the music play from the Spotify playlist below. At the end, I told the kids about the actual opera (what I played) and reinforced how the story and the music go along harmoniously. They especially enjoyed the wolf’s section!
Next, I read Hansel and Gretel, the fairy tale about the kids who aren’t nice to the old witch who offers them food and shelter and later get eaten. Quite a classic! Its earliest, most probable origins lie with the Brothers Grimm – Jacob Ludwig Karl and Wilhelm Carl, two Germans who, according to Wikipedia, “together collected and published folklore during the 19th century.” I originally thought that German was a Slavic language; therefore, it would fit in with my “Slavic” theme for the library storytime. Not to mention that kids generally enjoy the Hansel and Gretel story anyway. But the history of the German language is actually quite complex, and many argue that German isn’t even a Slavic language at all! So I won’t discuss the story much here. The origins of German are indubitably interesting, but they will take a while to explain – I’ll save the genealogy lesson for another blog post.
All three of the books were picture books, with colorful, engaging graphics and simple text. This was a really important factor when I was choosing which stories to read, as the kids, although very cute, had generally short attention spans and more so enjoyed the pictures and my inflections and reactions to the stories. What I think also helped was that every now and then, before reading a line or so, I would ask them what they thought would happen, what they thought of the main character, etc. Other times, I asked if they could identify something in an illustration, or even if the content of the story matched up with anything in their lives. This was all plainly done, of course! I also went over the main morals of the Russian stories – insightful, clever heroines can get things done, to borrow the 21st century lingo (Clever Katya), and both taking risks and being kind to all pay off (Peter and the Wolf).
Ellen, a staff member at the library, helped me out with everything and gave me lots of useful tips. Huge thanks to her. After observing and preparing for weeks, I loved finally having the chance to share aspects of Russian culture with the kiddos. It was a really enjoyable experience overall.
Now, I’m super excited about this part. I just attended Concordia Language Villages’ two-week complete Russian immersion program at their Russian language village, Лесное Озеро (Lesnoe Ozero). That translates to “forest lake” – and fittingly, Лесное Озеро is on a lake, surrounded by forest. Real clever. But camp there was definitely one of the most unique, different, and immersive learning experiences I’ve ever had in my life. Not only was everything (and I mean everything) at camp done in Russian – so I picked up a lot language-wise – but I learned очень крутoй (very cool) cultural and skill-based things, like how to play the balalaika, a traditional Russian string instrument. Or even how to cook many different Russian recipes in my кулинарный час культуры (cooking culture hour)! I recorded all the recipes – in Cyrillic – in that brown leather book I used to keep pages still in some of the above pictures. And I learned how to canoe – all in Russian! I journaled about my experiences every single day while I was there, and I’m so very excited to share my entries here in the coming weeks. So stay tuned!
Also: the main reason (other than reading lots of Russian literature, and I mean a lot. So excited to talk about it) that I hadn’t posted much on this blog in the beginning of the summer is because I was kickstarting my YouTube channel! It’s also called Rhea’s Slavic Adventures (I know, I’m very creative. Lol). Please take a look and subscribe! I’ll be posting more очень крутoй content in the next month or two, including cooking vlogs of Russian recipes from Лесное Озеро and videos of me playing the balalaika along to camp songs (a rare opportunity to see me sing! Ура/Ura/Oorah, as we said at camp! It’s a famous Soviet military battle cry). I’ll also hopefully be posting a few literature reviews. Stay tuned for an essay about Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov that I wrote this summer to be posted on this blog, and some reviews of the book and also of the two corresponding movies on my YouTube channel. It was my ~book of the summer~ to be sure.
Check out my first two YouTube videos below!
So that’s it! Lots of fun content to come. I’ll leave you with this fun candid I took with my cousin while writing this blog post – in my Russian t-shirt that I got from Лесное Озеро, no less! It says “Как ты себя чувствуешь сегодня?” on the top, which translates to “How are you feeling in this very moment?” in English, according to my friend Юлия from camp. It then has a bunch of wacky cartoon characters below that depict many different feelings and possible answers (also written in Russian). There’s so many of them – 30, to be exact – so I’d say this is as specific and thorough a shirt as I’ve ever seen. I was just really setting the vibe for a healthy dose of Slavic-themed blogging 🙂
Happy New Year! I hope the holidays have been enjoyable and relaxing for you and your family.
This past Christmas time, my family and I took a day trip to New York City. And, as usual, my camera was by my side! I’m a pretty avid photographer, so I absolutely love visiting NYC – the city offers a wide range of unique, fresh photo opportunities.
We had a great time. We stopped by Bryant Park’s Winter Village (dubbed “Manhattan’s winter wonderland!”), which included an eclectic array of charming holiday shops, an ice skating rink, and of course, a fully adorned Christmas tree! I also tried a flavorful avocado sandwich and a very strong ginger smoothie, called the “Energizer,” at Joe & The Juice, a popular place to grab coffee or a bite and relax. Afterwards, my family and I took part in a free walking tour of SOHO, a trendy, historic New York neighborhood. And we closed out the evening with pizza at Lombardi’s – “America’s First Pizzeria” – and walked around Rockefeller Center and watched the holiday light displays.
My favorite part of the evening was definitely exploring Bryant Park’s holiday shops. I visited a “farm-to-fresh” stall that offered eccentric, yet cool hot sauces like as “Ghost Pepper & Blueberry” or “Chocolate Habanero.” At another place, I tried a garlic and parsley pretzel!
My favorite shop, though, offered a look into Russian culture and art. I hadn’t seen anything like it before! Called “St. Petersburg Collections,” the shop featured various beautifully painted, carved wooden sculptures, ornaments, and the traditional Russian dolls, all made by Russian artists from St. Petersburg, the old Russian imperial capital city. Fun fact: St. Petersburg is commonly referred to by native Russians as Питер (Piter) – St. Petersburg is just the English adaptation!
The hand-painted sculptures were artfully displayed on shelves or hung up inside the shop. The intricate and elegant designs were simply amazing.
Such sculptures are made out of linden wood, “a very soft natural wood that has been used for centuries by the master carvers of Europe,” according to this Etsy item description.
The Russian nesting dolls, however, were my favorite part of the shop. Called матрёшка (matryoshka or matreshka) in the Russian language, they are a timeless centerpiece of Russian art and culture, and often a popular souvenir for tourists to take home from Russia! According to the Firebird Workshop, the first set of Russian nesting dolls was created at the Abramtsevo estate, “an intellectual and artistic center” located north of Moscow. The Firebird posting goes on to describe how, inspired by a set of Japanese nesting dolls, Sergei Malyutin, a resident artist at the estate, planned and sketched the first set of Russian matryoshki. He enlisted Vasily Zvyozdochkin, a fellow resident and woodworker, to carve his design (fun fact – Zvyozdochkin made them from linden wood!), the Firebird posting notes, and then painted the bare dolls himself.
This particular NYC shop featured many colorful, animated matryoshki.
I also conversed with the Russian shop owner, who told me more about the creation of the dolls and the other sculptures. He told me that St. Petersburg Collections has been in business for more than 17 years, and artists from both St. Petersburg and New York work together to create the pieces, all of which are quite common in Russia and in Russian art in culture. He seemed especially proud everything in his shop is hand-carved and hand-painted!
“For me, it’s art,” he said. “Pure, simple, beautiful, Russian art. And I love it.”
For me, too, I believe that sums up the experience quite nicely.