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Rhea's Slavic Adventures Posts

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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Львa Николаевича Толстого (Leo Tolstoy’s) Thoughts on Love and Family

“Got up late; we’re on friendly terms. The last squabble has left some small (imperceptible) traces — or perhaps time has. Every such squabble, however trivial, is a scar on love. A momentary feeling of passion, vexation, self-love or pride will pass, but a scar, however small, will remain forever on the best things that exist in the world — love. I shall know this and guard our happiness, and you know it too…” Лев Николаевич Толстой, in a diary entry regarding his wife (source).

And the ever-famous, truly profound first line of his Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Really let that sink in. How beautiful. How tragic. Sense a connection?

I’m purposefully withholding my own analysis right now, because sometimes, such striking, enduring thoughts just have to stand on their own, left for each person’s own interpretation. Know thyself, as Socrates said. Ralph Waldo Emerson, too, echoed this sentiment: “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind,” he wrote in his essay “Self-Reliance.” Take a moment to reflect on those “imperceptible traces,” those lasting scars on love, those fiery feelings that accompany the very best and very worst things in your life. Record your thoughts in a diary, like Tolstoy. Write to yourself. See how you feel.

More on Anna Karenina and Tolstoy to come: I’m a part of a Russian Literature Humanities Independent Research Team (HIRT) at Pingry that’s examining them. It’s been a wonderful experience so far.

Рая Тургенева / Rhea Kapur

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Chicago’s Russian Ballerinas

“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.

A tutu in Tatyana Masur’s collection. Most of the pieces are more than 40 years old.
NYT caption: “A tutu in Tatyana Masur’s collection. Most of the pieces are more than 40 years old. Whitten Sabbatini 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!

Julianne Pankau, a ballet student in Tatyana’s Mazur’s class. The gown she wears was brought from the Ukraine, originally made for a role in “La Esmeralda.”
NYT caption: “Julianne Pankau, a ballet student in Tatyana’s Mazur’s class. The gown she wears was brought from the Ukraine, originally made for a role in “La Esmeralda.” Whitten Sabbatini for The New York Times“

“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.

Tatyana, right, instructs Ms. Zhang on point. The dress was originally made for the ballet “Le Corsaire.”
NYT caption: “Tatyana, right, instructs Ms. Zhang on point. The dress was originally made for the ballet “Le Corsaire.” Whitten Sabbatini for The New York Times

“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.

Ms. Pankau in a costume made for the National Ballet of Ukraine.
NYT caption: “Ms. Pankau in a costume made for the National Ballet of Ukraine. Whitten Sabbatini for The New York Times”

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!

NYT caption: “Whitten Sabbatini for The New York Times”

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.

Ms. Zhang as Kitri from the ballet “Don Quixote.” The ornate beading was intended to be visible from any seat in the theater.
NYT caption: “Ms. Zhang as Kitri from the ballet “Don Quixote.” The ornate beading was intended to be visible from any seat in the theater. Whitten Sabbatini for The New York Times”

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.

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Гребля, Пельмени, и Еще Больше: My Experiences at Concordia Language Villages’ Lesnoe Ozero, Week 1

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!

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I’m Back, and With Updates! A Russian Story Time at My Local Library, Concordia Language Villages’ Лесное Озеро, My New YouTube Channel, and More

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.

Katya’s answer to the first riddle.

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.”

The happy ending.

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.

Me reading Clever Katya to some of the kiddos!

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).

Peter and the Wolf Cover
Aesthetic arrangement am I right? 🙂

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.

Russian countryside life, beautifully depicted by Mikolaycak, on the dedication page.

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.

Петера дом на лугу (Peter’s house in the meadow).

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.

The волк (wolf) at the zoo. Note the Russian references (magnified)! I counted 4 but I missed 2 the first time, so just comment down below if I missed any more and I’ll modify this post 🙂

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.

While reading Peter and the Wolf. These two came up to see the волк!

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 🙂

An only slightly weird candid 🙂

Bye!

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Examining Slavic Language Speaker Statistics in the U.S. with R

Hey everyone!

For the Data Science unit in my Programming Language and Design class at school, I used R (a statistical programming language) to visualize data on people in the U.S. who speak a Slavic language at home along with their respective English proficiencies.

I love data science and creating cool graphs and visualizations through programming. My research (more on that coming soon!) is done almost entirely in R, so I’m very familiar with the language and various IDEs that people use (RStudio, Vim, Emacs + ESS, etc.). I’m also an avid reader of the daily email newsletter from R-bloggers, a site that offers great R tutorials and discussion as well as a strong community of R users.

Of course, I can’t bear to leave out Twitter, which has introduced me to many awesome women in data science. Rachael Tatman, a Data Scientist at Kaggle with a PhD in linguistics from the University of Washington, is one of my inspirations. She works mainly with R and Python (also used for data science, but more powerful in terms of algorithms/machine learning) and does really cool research in computational sociolinguistics, specifically looking at emoji and how different dialects are processed by computational systems.

For this project, I used RMarkdown to create a report and add descriptions and analysis. It is attached below. My favorite graphs are the map and the pie charts on the second page. R has some really nice color palettes (check out RColorBrewer!) to make graphs look amazing, and those were pretty cool to play around with. It was overall an immensely fun project.

Hope you enjoy reading!

Examining Slavic Language Speaker Statistics in the United States
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Ever Heard of Yandex?

Ever since discovering Karen Spärck Jones and learning more about her, I’ve been reading a lot about information retrieval and natural language processing – especially as it relates to search engines. As I researched, I started to wonder about other languages. What about search engines for people who solely speak Spanish? Hindi? French? And even Russian! Are there gaps in efficiency & quality of these search engines compared to those in English, the world’s most widely spoken language? And if so, do any languages suffer more, and why?

I dug a bit more into widely used Russian search engines, out of curiosity. Apparently, the three most widely used ones are Yandex, Google.ru, and Rambler, listed in order of their popularity. I’ll focus on Yandex (or Яндекс, in Russian) in particular.

Yandex.ru main page
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In Honor of International Women’s Day: Karen Spärck Jones, Information Processing and NLP Pioneer

This past Friday, while reading the New York Times, I stumbled upon the Obituaries section. As I browsed through them, I found a particularly captivating one, published in January, that really struck me. It’s part of the “Overlooked” series, which features obituaries for people who were not honored at the time of their death.

Entitled “Overlooked No More: Karen Sparck Jones, Who Established the Basis for Search Engines,” the obituary describes Karen Spärck Jones (1935-2007), a self-taught programmer and an advocate for women in computer science. After meeting the head of the Cambridge Language Research Unit, Margaret Masterman, when studying at Cambridge University, Spärck Jones was inspired to enter natural language processing (NLP), a field in CS dedicated to improving how computers and machines interact with and process human language. Later, Spärck Jones went on to publish “Synonymy and Semantic Classification” in 1964, one of the foundational papers in NLP, and also coauthored a seminal textbook about the field. She was named the president of the Association for Computational Linguistics (ACL) in 1994, which hosts a highly regarded annual conference that, to this day, brings new research in computational linguistics and NLP to light. As a full-time professor at Cambridge, Spärck Jones also mentored many researchers, both male and female, and came up with the slogan “Computing is too important to be left to men” to encourage more women to enter the field.

As a woman, and an avid, self-taught programmer & aspiring linguist myself, I am in awe of Karen Spärck Jones. Even today, she has a huge impact. Her research continues to be cited, and her formulas are only just being implemented today – that goes to show just how ahead of her time she was. Also, 30 years ago, the gender disparity between men & women in CS was even more severe and difficult to deal with than it is today – and she dealt with it and surpassed it. She finally became a female Professor of Computers and Information at Cambridge, even though she notes that it took too long – because of her gender – and that bothered her. And this is all in addition to conducting highly influential research. Pretty inspiring stuff.

The NYT obituary also brings to light her absolutely critical research in information retrieval (applicable to search systems, etc.). Spärck Jones published (another!) seminal paper, this time in the area of information processing, entitled “A statistical interpretation of term specificity and its application in retrieval” in the Journal of Documentation. She used a combined, statistics + linguistics approach and came up with index-term weighting, where certain words in queries are weighted based on the frequency of their appearance in documents (think: all your search results), and based on that, the most efficient and relevant results would be retrieved. This research remains the basis of search engines like Google, even today! Spärck Jones tests her weighting formula on a number of different, well-known collections, and she even notes that pruning queries to reduce words to their stems is important & produces better results. For instancy, keeping “computing” as “comput-” to account for documents that may include “computation,” “computers,” “computed,” and more. I found that especially interesting and relevant – I’ve seen this accounted for countless times when I google things! In the rest of the paper, Spärck Jones devises and presents the results of her own weighting formula. It’s quite interesting stuff – I would recommend taking a look at the paper!

Karen Spärck Jones and her 1972 term weighting formula.

As a closing note, it was only later that day that I realized that it was International Women’s Day (Friday, March 8th, 2019). So I bring you this blog post to just point out this truly amazing, impactful woman – now one of my own inspirations.

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