Saturday, December 19, 2009

7. New Year

Ahh, Christmas, that lovely time of year filled with frantic buying of presents and being instructed on how to cut down on your calorie intake (Do not eat cookies. They are evil, you see!). A fragrant Christmas tree in the living room, hot drinks, and staying up late -- who wouldn't like that?

Oh, right -- Russians! See, Russians don't have Christmas -- we have the New Year.

Let me expand on that: the Russian New Year has all of the above beloved elements (even the calorie counting articles!), it is just on a different day and involves drinking a lot more than usual around midnight. Christmas in Russia is considered a purely religious holiday, and only the more devoted church-goers devote much time to celebrating it.

The Russian New Year is a perfect mix of dairy products, alcohol, and chocolate. As we all know, Russians only eat heavy foods, especially on holidays. Tomatoes? Fah! A light salad with oil and vinegar? Oh please. Low-starch dishes? Inconceivable! As many a friend of mine helpfully explained to me, Russians actually subsist solely on potatoes (that, and vodka). So for the New Year the table is covered with: potato salad, potato bread, fried potatoes, pureed potatoes, deviled potatoes, the Devil disguised as a potato, potato caviar, 50 bottles of vodka, and potato livers roasted with onions. I should mention that the potato is a popular game in Russia, much like the deer of the U.S., and the potatoes are conveniently mature and antlered right around the holiday season.

Other popular holiday foods that are actually potatoes disguised as something else: tomato salad, olivye, smoked fish, the vinegret salad, pickled mushrooms, roasted meat, and layer cakes.

Generally, a large family or a group of friends gather around a table full of food and dine until midnight, at which point they turn on the television and count with the Kremlin clock till it strikes midnight, at which point they knock their champagne glasses together and drink as much as possible in a subconscious attempt to block out the fact that they are one year closer to death. Then they cheer and wish each other well-being in a conscious attempt to remember that they are also one year closer to retirement -- even the children! Because retirement is something you should look forward to in any age.

If you live in a large city like Moscow and you come out into the street at that point, it often turns out to be peacefully and strangely empty, with all cars parked and pale snow falling down softly on their hoods and the asphalt (well, except for the years when the snow turns out to be an insubstantial brown mush, that is). The only substantial lights are the streetlights, and you can see other peoples' fur trees through the windows. And there are, of course, fire works, set off by some poetically incautious youths who jump away at the last moment, only occasionally losing a toe or a finger.

All the children of Russia know that sometime after they go to sleep on that night, their presents will get delivered -- but not by Santa Clause, no! By Ded Moroz (Old Man Frost) and Snegurochka (his young ice-girl sidekick), no less. Since most Russian apartments do not tend to have chimneys, Ded Moroz usually comes in through the door -- so if you are staying in Russia on New Year's night and hear someone picking the lock, do not be afraid! Just lay still and pretend to sleep, and ignore any dark shapes with large sacks coming by -- after all, you want to get presents, right?

I shall leave you with a recipe for "Kartoshka," or, "Potatoes" -- small chocolatey cakes that are a distant relative of the Common Wild Potato.

-1 cup sugar
-2 tsp. unsweetened cocoa powder
-1 cup hot milk
-A large package of graham crackers or vanilla cookies, at least 300 grams
-7 oz. butter
-Rum or rum flavouring to taste (optional)

First of all, place the cookies in a plastic bag and punch or roll them until they turn into crumbs.
Mix the sugar and cocoa, add the hot milk. Heat this in a saucepan until the sugar and cocoa dissolve, then add the crumbs and the butter. Mix until melted and add rum. Stick in the refrigerator until it is a consistency suitable for working with -- if it is too soft, add more crumbs and let stand for a while longer. When the mixture is right, form it into potato-like shapes (or just balls) and roll them in some more cocoa powder. Voila! More potatoes.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

6. Eastern Orthodox Churches

Eastern Orthodox Christianity is the most widespread religion in Russia these days, followed by Islam*, with other religions and denominations being relatively rare. Most people, however, only go to church once in a while to light a candle for someone or say a vague (though generally heartfelt) prayer, and some visitors are only somewhat spiritual, or agnostic. Whatever the visitors are, Eastern Orthodox churches have a very memorable atmosphere -- tall ceilings, frescoes of large-eyed saints, dim lighting; incense and little old ladies in headscarves holding thin beeswax candles delicately. For all my being an atheist, I've always found them beautiful and rather impressive.

Which made my first visit to a U.S. church (Baptist, I think) all the more shocking.

When I was young and naive (i.e. a couple of years ago), I was pestered by a then-friend into going to church with her. I should mention that I was very intimidated by religious Americans -- they go to church every single Sunday! They wear special clothes for it! They encourage their children to watch "Veggie Tales"! Who wouldn't be intimidated, really? However, I figured this was my chance to observe American culture and try to figure out what's the big deal about Going to Church. So I put on a passable dress and off we went.

To my surprise, the church did NOT have gold onion-shaped tops. If anything, it looked like a large, plain house with a bit of pointy roof at the entrance. And the inside? Very disappointing -- no candles, no incense, just a strangely enthusiastic young woman asking me to sign a membership card. Instead of a high ceiling with golden chandeliers, there was what looked like a school gym. But then came the worst shock of all -- the sermon. Instead of solemn, sing-song reading in old Russian, it consisted of the priest asking everyone to dance to a Christian rock song, then teaching us that "our god is an awesome god". Then he broke a flag in a fit of righteous anger.

No honey-smelling candles. No quiet and solitude. No depressing, dark frescoes! You Puritans! Such were my thoughts as I sat awkwardly on the edge of a foldable chair, watching my friend jump around under the fluorescent lights.

We Russians require mystique and half-darkness, you see, like vampires. Our poetic souls cannot deal with plastic chairs and cheerfulness -- instead, we prefer marble and a nice, large line at the candle-selling counter. Lines in a church are what lets you know you are participating in a truly Russified religion -- a privilege that should probably only be accepted when you are wearing comfortable shoes. And of course, we must have incense to placate our sensitive Slavic noses and headscarves** for the women to add a nice touch of Biblical sexism.

So if you are to go to Russia anytime soon, I urge you to visit an Eastern Orthodox church, even if you are not religious, and particularly if you are an artist. The slightly melancholy grandness of it is quite inspiring, and the history of a country's religion (both pagan and not) often tells you quite a bit about the country itself -- just like in much of the rest of Europe, pagan and Christian rituals in Russia mix together and their history is intertwined. Most churches in Russia are quite old -- usually at least a century or two -- and walking into one is a bit like walking into Russia's past, complete with long-skirted old ladies and woolen or flowery headscarves.

Do remember, though, that neither old nor modern Russian churches approve of people grabbing the candles and dancing with them whilst singing about how awesome their god is. Please, don't ever do that. It is much too cheerfully Post-Puritan for the somber people of Russia.

*I can't really write much about Russian mosques since I've never been in one, but if there are any Russian Muslims around, I'd love to hear about what it's like.
**For the love of god, never call a headscarf a "babushka". "Babushka" means "grandmother," and no Russian I have known has ever worn a grandmother on her/his head. I have no idea who decided that the Russian name for a headscarf is "babushka," but I would like to make them carry around mine on their head so they can tell the difference. If you really want to use the Russian name for it, call it "platok".

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

5. Tea time

There's a stereotype that the British are obsessed with tea -- every afternoon, they supposedly sit down and have tea, delicately extending their pinky finger as they drink and exchanging snobby, proper conversation.

I highly doubt that's true -- I'll bet my own pinky finger that they're nowhere near as obsessed with tea as Russians are. Though one could hardly say that the Russian tea time is snobby and proper -- you'd have to search hard to find any proper Russian people, period. Personally, I like to flash or cuss at a stranger at least once a week. And without tea, I just wouldn't have the strength to fulfill my quota.

The Russian tea time is wonderfully ambiguous -- it may happen at noon, or at 3 (PM or AM-- pick your choice), or right after dinner. The table is set with any snacks around -- jam, chocolates, candy, cheese sandwiches, even salami. The water is heated and zavarka -- a very strong tea -- is brewed in the teapot. If it is too strong for your tastes, you are supposed to add in some more hot water to your cup -- or discreetly pour it onto your host's shoes, if you're so inclined. When the tea is too hot, many Russians will pour it into the saucer and sip it from there, usually with a fairly loud slurping noise -- if you want to avoid a burnt mouth, it would be wise to follow their example.

I should mention that Russia is currently in the throes of a nationwide, heated debate over whether one should drink loose leaf tea or tea from teabags. Some say that teabags make bland tea, as the tea leaves are mercilessly chopped and dried until they turn into a stale powder more suited to go up one's nose, and suggest that teabag-users move to the U.S. if they're so into convenience. The other side responds with, "YOU'RE unethical! We'll chop YOU to a powder!" Sadly, I suspect that much like the Lilliputs of "Gulliver's Travels," Russia will soon split into two nations -- one with teapots, and one with teabags.

The most popular tea in Russia is probably Assam -- a strong black tea grown in Assam, India (hence the name). It's usually sold in tins or boxes with "Indian" things on them -- you know, shahs riding around on elephants, belly dancing girls, belly dancing girls conversing with shahs, etc. One would think there are no people there other than shahs and belly dancers. Green and herbal teas have also become popular, as of late, particularly herbal teas claiming to be cleansing and weight-loss promoting. Of course, people in Russia have been gathering and drinking Willowherb tea for some centuries, but unfortunately Willowherb doesn't sort itself into convenient packages with the words "Ancient Wisdom Shaman Gypsy Herbal Cleansing Tea," and as such is no longer as popular as it used to be.

Since tea was first introduced to Russia in the 1600's, ways of drinking it have changed a great deal, mainly based on the availability of sugar. Originally, many people drank plain black tea (imported from China at the time), taking bites out of a sugar beet after each sip. Later, it became common to drink tea with sugar "on the side" -- that usually referred to either keeping a sugar cube in your mouth as you drank the tea, or biting pieces off it after each sip. When sugar became cheaper and easier to get, people started putting it in the tea by the teaspoon or cube, but tea itself became harder to get right before and after the splitting of the USSR. Fortunately, the situation improved, but even now it's still quite common to find horrid-tasting teas on the store shelves.

Tea time is a perfect time to relax, enjoy yourself, and talk about the depth of the Russian soul and the suffering it experiences. I strongly suggest you (dear reader) buy a tea set and start having regular tea time, Russian-style. A teapot is a must, as well as someone to drink tea with, jam, and chocolate -- sugar cubes are preferable, but not necessary. An even better suggestion would be to buy a nice samovar and use it regularly -- particularly if you live out in the country (like a dacha) and have too much firewood. But dachas and samovars are topics I will save for future posts.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

4. Books

Imagine, if you will -- you arrive to a different country and decide that you would like to check your e-mail, only to find out that they have no internet. None at all! No computers, no blogs, no LOLcats, or what have you.
That horror and desolation you feel is the same as that of a Russian arriving to a country where people proudly proclaim that they don't read (i.e. the U.S.).
"Not even Dumas? No 'Karlsson-on-the-Roof'? No 'Moomintrolls'?" they will ask, and with each shake of the head, their little Russian hearts will flutter and sink deeper into denial.

In Russia, nearly every home has at least one book case filled with books -- at the very least classics like Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Dumas. Even the Russian homeless have book cases -- in fact, if they have nothing else, they will at least have some cardboard and a bookcase. (This is a lie) When worst comes to worst, they eat a couple of pages for dinner -- classics for protein, fantasy as a salad, and romances for desert. (This is a lie as well). Polar bears are well known to drink vodka while roaming in hordes throughout Russia, where it is always wintertime. (Now I'm telling the truth. How did you know?)

A Russian likes to hang out in places with multiple bookcases -- the more, the better. Thinking of asking out a Russian? Take him/her to the library. Want to make a business deal with a Russian? Do it in the back of a bookstore. Want to go to the beach with your Russian S.O.? Bring some full book cases with you and drag them out into the sea or ocean -- preferably in an interesting formation. You can talk about the moldy books later.

Russians scorn people who prefer to watch movies rather than read books. You didn't see hundreds of Russians show up in your local movie theater when "Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix" was showing, did you? No, you did not. Actually, you may not see hundreds of Russians anyway, unless you live in Russia, but that's probably because they've been driven into hiding by their neighbours' inability to recall the main character from "The Last of the Mohicans". And how can you blame them?

In order to understand the Russian soul, you must read. Go to the library and get about 40 books. Brew yourself some strong black tea, eat a piece of "bird's milk" cake, and start on "La Dame de Monsoreau" by Dumas. Or at least "Mary Poppins" if you're that against the main character dying violently, but remember, the Russian soul is a suffering one. Try to suffer just a little -- imagine Mary Poppins beating you with her umbrella, or forcing you to climb up a chimney full of pins.

Saturday, September 12, 2009


Hello, dear reader(s),
I'm afraid this blog is on hiatus until what will likely be the beginning of October -- for the past two weeks I have been busy moving into a new house (in which I have so far had the pleasure of stepping barefoot into cat poo -- something you won't see listed on this site, I assure you -- and single-handedly fighting off a ferocious army of huge black ants). We won't have internet in our new house till Thursday, until which me and my S.O. will be taking a vacation -- that is, staying with his brother two states away. Actually, that is what we are doing now, hence this entry. After that will be my birthday, and after THAT we might have another trip (maybe). So you see, I won't be writing here for a little while. Somewhere in October, this blog will continue as scheduled (that is, whenever I feel like writing in it).
Until then, I leave you with the following short Russian video, based on the novel "Master and Margarita".


Sunday, August 23, 2009

3. Kvas

If you ever end up in a typical Russian home and ask for a glass of coke, do not be surprised if you receive bemused stares and mutinous mutters. Do not be surprised, again, if you see a huge jar in the corner full of some strange dark mass and liquid. This is a very popular Russian drink you may have heard of before -- kvas.

Kvas is a slightly sour drink made from rye or black bread using fermentation. The bread is toasted until darkened, then simmered in water with sugar; yeast is added to the resulting liquid and left to stand for a couple of days, then strained.

Yes, my dear coke-drinking (but hopefully not sniffing) readers, it is basically fizzy bread liquid. How can Russians possibly choose kvas over Pepsi or Coca-Cola? -- you may be wondering, whilst sipping from a bottle of smooth, fresh high fructose corn syrup. But it cannot be helped. The Slavic people are a strange and heathen kind, and stubborn to the point where not even a commercial depicting Santa Clause consuming Coca Cola will make them change their minds. In fact, they don't even believe in Santa Clause! But that is a topic for another post.

Kvas-drinking has been ingrained into the Russian culture for centuries, perhaps more than a thousand years. It was used as medicine and as food, combined with vegetables, meat, and/or boiled eggs to make a cold soup. Sometimes other ingredients were added, such as mint, berries, or hops. It should be mentioned that kvas contains alcohol, but very little -- at most about 2%; therefore, it is considered safe for children. In relatively recent times, kvas has become available as a bottled drink, and is also readily available in the summer, when huge barrels of it are parked in city streets. However, many people still prefer to make it themselves, especially since a lot of bottled kvas is of inferior quality.

In conclusion, if you would like to feel like a true Russian, kvas is a must, as well as black bread, schi, and a strong addiction to cigarettes, preferably resulting in an early and tragic death. To complete the picture, write a lot of poetry and get in a duel, if possible. Just make sure the blood from your bullet wound doesn't get into the kvas.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

2. Mushroom Picking

Unless you want to make a Russian faint, do not tell him or her that you have never been mushroom-picking. It is akin to telling an American that you have never seen a Disney movie, or have never eaten pizza. In a Russian's eyes, you simply aren't human until you have gone traipsing through the woods in search for various forms of fungi.

Russians are taught the types of edible mushrooms and where to find them from childhood, until it becomes second nature. You could bring a Russian into the woods and they would probably find the nearest chanterelle just by smell. Mushrooms are dried, salted, pickled, fried, and used for soup. They have been picked for centuries, and despite the fact that nowadays you could probably go to a market and buy some, most Russians with an access to a good forest and a woven basket or two will go mushroom picking at least once each year.

In the late summer or early fall, soon after a rain, a Russian family will set out to the nearest forest with baskets and shears or scissors. The most prized mushroom is the White Mushroom, known as the king of all mushrooms, followed by various other mushrooms from the boletus family, many of then named after what trees they grow under, their caps, and whether they will poison you or not when eaten raw (Ex: "Syroyezhka," or "Raw-edible").

If you look up the kinds of mushrooms Russians are likely to pick, you may notice that some mushroom guides will list a few of them as poisonous. So how is it, you may ask, that Russians continue to eat them without dying? Are they insane? Or perhaps they possess magical powers?
Well, you are right on both accounts! But mostly it is that their immune systems have strengthened over centuries of consuming poison, and where a German or an Englishman might die an untimely and painful death, a Russian might just have a bit of a head ache.

Of course, there are some mushrooms even most Russians can't eat. Some examples would include Poganka (Death cap) and Mukhomor (Fly Agaric). Death caps are easy to identify, because they look like their name -- all pale and sickly looking. Fly Agaric, on the other hand, while well known to cultures that engage in mushroom picking, is known to many others as "that cool-looking mushroom from Mario":

To be fair, Fly Agaric has been used in the past by shamanistic tribes to induce visions -- but this experience tended to include intense stomach cramps and drinking someone else's pee.

So in conclusion, no need to make anyone faint! If a Russian asks you whether you have been mushroom-picking, nod vigorously and invite them to go with you. If you do not know how to identify mushrooms, do not bring a guidebook! -- you will be scorned. Instead, just grab any mushrooms you see and shove them in your mouth. Any Russians around you will be touched by your enthusiasm.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

1. Old Russian Cartoons

While there are a few new Russian cartoons out that people genuinely watch, the majority still prefers old Soviet-time cartoons -- the classics. If you would like to show a Russian that you truly understand their deepest workings of their culture and society, just put on "Nu Pogodi!" ("Just You Wait!") or "Bremenskiye Muzykanty" ("The Musicians of Bremen") and nod appreciatively.

Here is a basic guide of the most popular cartoons:

"Nu Pogodi!" is similar to the American "Tom and Jerry," but in this case it is a delinquent, cigarette-smoking wolf chasing after a young (and somewhat goody-two-shoes-ish) rabbit. Occasionally the wolf does something "refined", like dancing ballet, or smoking a pipe, and several times he and the rabbit appear to be friends, but mostly it's just the rabbit outwitting the wolf.

"Troie iz Prostokvashino" ("Three from Prostokvashino") usually refers to a series of three cartoons -- "Three from Prostokvashino", "Summer vacation in Prostokvashino" and "Winter in Prostokvashino", Prostokvashino being a little village. All of the cartoons are about a boy called Uncle Fyodor ("uncle" because he is so independent and mature), a sarcastic cat called Matroskin, and a somewhat naive dog named Sharik. The boy is fond of running away from his pet-disliking parents to live in the village with the dog and the cat. ("So much for maturity!" you might say, but you are wrong! You see, in Russia, people run away from our parents routinely, just to prove their maturity -- it is a well known ritual. As is shooting lasers from the eyes.)

"Bremenskiye Muzykanty" ("The Musicians of Bremen") is the animated take on the Grimms' fairy tale, but with better music.

"Snezhnaya Koroleva" ("The Snow Queen") is a classic -- even American libraries have it, occasionally (I don't know about British or Australian ones, I've never been there). Apparently, Miyazaki (of Princess Mononoke, My Neighbour Totoro, etc.) was quite influenced by the style. It is based on Hans Christian Andersen's story with the same title, and follows the storyline fairly accurately -- a girl, Gerda, and a boy, Kay, are best friends; shards from the Snow Queen's mirror strike him in the eye and heart, making him mean and cold, and eventually the Snow Queen comes and takes him with her to her Northern palace. Gerda, come spring, sets out to find him, helped on the way by some crows and a robber's daughter. You get the general gist. It is quite the classic.

Other cartoons worth looking up: Cheburashka, Adventures of Buratino, The Tale of Tsar Saltan, Investigations Held by Kolobki, The Hedgehog in Fog, and the Little Humpbacked Horse.