Daily Archives: June 15, 2008

June 15, 2008 — Contents


(1) The Sunday Photos

(2) The Sunday Travel Section

(3) The Sunday Supper

(4) The Sunday Satan

(5) The Sunday Atrocity

(6) The Sunday Funnies

The Sunday Photos: Oborona Demonstrates to Free Russia’s Political Prisoners

The Sunday Travel Section

The Russian people, via Internet voting, have chosen the “seven wonders of Russia.”

Well, Russian people is an overstatement of course, since the vast majority of Russians have no regular access to the Internet (and how could they, when the average salary is $4/hour while the cost of Internet access is similar to that in the West).

Here are five of their seven choices (picked from a list of 50):

(a) Mt. Elbrus

(b) The Valley of the Geysers

(c) The Stone Idols

(d) Peterhof

(e) The Motherland Statue

Congratulations if you’ve ever even heard of, much less seen a picture of, much less actually visited, any of these.

Geyser Valley, Russia’s pale imitation of Yellowstone, isn’t even in continental Russia, it’s on the remote and largely inaccessible peninsula of Kamchatka in the Far East. Russians may not have noticed, but last year it was wiped out by a landslide. Perhaps state-owned Russian TV forgot to mention it. Even before that, more Americans probably visit Yellowstone in any given day than Russians see Geyser Valley in a year. Guess Russia is kind of down to six wonders, now.

Stone Idols, in the far northern Komi Republic, is Russia’s Easter Island. Good luck trying to find photographs of them swamped with tourists. Indeed, as even Russia Today admits, the whole point of having the “seven wonders” voting was to convince Russians who otherwise ignore these ho-hum items to pay them more attention.

And even more good luck visiting Mt. Elbrus, the Russian Everest. It’s practically in Georgia and surrounded by a seething cauldron of terrorism. Wikipedia notes: “It is said to be home to the ‘world’s nastiest’ outhouse which is close to being the highest privy in Europe. The title was conferred by Outside Magazine following a 1993 search and article. The outhouse is surrounded by and covered in ice, perched off the end of a rock, and with a pipe pouring effluvia onto the mountain.”

You will see tourists swarming over the remaining two items on the list, as they are man-made and located in large cities.

The Motherland Statue is Russia’s version of the Statute of Liberty (except that it carries a sword instead of torch, pretty apropos for Russia). It’s rather inconveniently located in Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad. You’ll actually see people looking at it, but most of them will have a look on their face that says: “I came all the way here for this?” In essence, it’s a monument to the Soviet Union, which murdered millions of its own citizens and then imploded spectacularly. Peterhof, the country palace of Peter I in St. Petersburg, is actually a genuinely serious national tourist attraction for Russians. But it’s not exactly Versailles. Basically, it’s a pretty nice park with a big house on it. Peterhof is a Dutch word (likewise, Petersburg is not Russian). It was built by Francesco Bartholomeo Rastrelli. If he doesn’t sound like a Russian to you, it’s because he isn’t. Most ordinary people outside Russia have never heard of either one.

Russia has two genuinely world-famous features, the Cathedral of St. Basil on Red Square and Lake Baikal in Siberia, deepest body of fresh water in the world. They round out the seven wonders, and they’re quite similar in that you can’t really appreciate Baikal because you can’t see its inner “depth” and if you go inside St. Basil’s you basically find an empty hulk that the Soviets considered blowing up because it got in the way of their military parade.

Even if Russia had world-leading attractions that were physically accessible, that wouldn’t mean foreign tourists could safely glimpse them. In its 2007 report on travel and tourism competitiveness, Booz Allen rated Russia #119 in the world out of 124 countries under review in terms of how inclined to welcome tourists the national population is (page 443). Russia miserably failed basic criteria like whether you’re likely to get out alive after your trip. Only 31 countries in the world, out of 124 reviewed, had a higher incidence of AIDS than Russia (p. 437). Only 40 countries had a higher incidence of tuberculosis (p. 439). Only 35 had a lower life expectancy (p. 440). In terms of national wonders, Russia doesn’t rank in the top 50 nations of the world in share of national territory protected from development (the U.S. ranks #10 with over 25% protected; Russia is #53 with just 8%, see page 448) and it ranked #113 in terms of business concern for the ecology (p. 449).

Russia ranked #114 in terms of respecting tourist property rights (p. 313) and #106 in terms of the burdensomeness of its visa regime. It ranked #105 in terms of the reliability of police protection and #108 in terms of health and hygiene. It was #103 in terms of road infrastructure quality.

Only four governments on the planet placed lower emphasis on travel and tourism than the regime of Vladimir Putin. You’d have to have some pretty damned impressive attractions to make up for something like that, now wouldn’t you?

The Sunday Supper

The New York Times reports:

CANNED peas and boiled bologna, Lara Vapnyar says, is a dish she has missed since arriving in Brooklyn from Moscow in 1994. “We also ate a lot of black caviar,” she said last week. “But I don’t feel nostalgic for that.”

Along with immigration, food and love, nostalgia for the lost world of Soviet Russia has informed Ms. Vapnyar’s fiction — two collections of stories and a novel — since her first short story was published, in 2003. “It is a little like being from Atlantis,” she said.

Ms. Vapnyar’s work is structured and elegant, despite the fact that she spoke little English when she emigrated. But she does not yet have the mastery over spinach that she does over syntax.

“I don’t seem to be able to cook fresh vegetables well,” she said, a broad and breathtaking admission for a writer whose new collection of short stories is called “Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love” (Pantheon Books). In these stories, food has the power to define characters, propel plots, cause riots and even commit manslaughter.

In “Luda and Milena,” two Russian-born women in their 70s compete for a man in their English language class, each elbowing the other aside with platters of spinach pie and cheese puffs. The man finally chokes to death on the day that both women make Russian meatballs: juicy patties enriched with cream-soaked bread, onion and garlic, and fried until crusty and brown. It is, however, impossible to know from the story which woman’s meatball was the fatal instrument.

“I couldn’t do that to either of the characters,” she said. “The point is that no one wins, and they both win, because, after all, they don’t really like to cook, and now they won’t have to.”

In Ms. Vapnyar’s work, the chores of cooking are often presented alongside the satisfactions of the finished dish: Sergey, an impotent carpet installer, is seduced by watching a prostitute make borscht — mincing garlic and parsley together, carefully crushing boiled potatoes — in her tiny, steamed-up kitchen. A young woman, trapped in Brighton Beach by her immigrant parents’ expectations, finds her place at the family table by sitting down with a knife to make Salad Olivier. It is the Russian party dish par excellence: a mound of hard-boiled eggs, canned peas, pickles, potatoes and meat, diced and bound with a tangy mayonnaise. For particularly swanky occasions, the salad is covered with aspic.

“There are high versions and low versions,” Ms. Vapnyar said. “I like them all.”

Through her work, American food is seductive — often to the point of nausea. In her novel, “Memoirs of a Muse,” Tanya’s immigration application is fueled by fantasies about the coffee she will be able to drink in Brooklyn. “Turkish coffee, Swedish coffee, Arabic coffee! … Cappuccino, espresso, iced coffee,” her uncle shouts down the phone line.

Arriving in Brighton Beach, Tanya gorges on cream cheese, smoked salmon, cherry-flavored wine and chocolate cake, and spends her first night in America on the bathroom floor.

Ms. Vapnyar’s transition to the United States was often rocky in its own way. Brooklyn, and its Russian enclaves, did not live up to her expectations of the New World. Her husband, “like all the educated Russians,” got a job as a computer programmer, but she could not find work.

While taking care of their two children, now 13 and 10, she worked on her English first by reading, then by writing.

“I was so lonely and starved for conversation that I began to invent characters,” she said.

She has never written in Russian, only in English. She has taught writing at the City College of New York, where her students often turned in work filled with sex and gore. One assignment she gave them was to write about food and how characters responded to it, to teach them how preferences, memories and quirks could make up a personality on the page.

“Beginning writers often don’t give their characters enough particulars,” she said. “Food is something that readers can understand.”

In the short story “A Bunch of Broccoli on the Third Shelf,” the character Nina is defined by her infatuation with American vegetables. (Her husband — who, clearly, will soon leave her — introduces her to his poetry-reading, guitar-playing friends as “a vegetable lover.”) Nina buries herself in a lavishly illustrated Italian cookbook, with pictures of a woman’s smooth, capable hands working in the kitchen: “Nina fantasized that … It was she who pushed the hard, stubborn stuffing into the bell peppers, or rinsed grit off lettuce leaves, or chopped broccoli florets, scattering tiny green crumbs all over the table.”

In fact, like many home cooks, Nina never manages to cook the vegetables she buys. When her husband leaves her, it is with a crisper drawer full of rot.

Like Nina, Ms. Vapnyar says that her intentions often exceed her abilities in the kitchen. “I like to cook, but it wasn’t considered a prestigious or entertaining activity when I was young, the way it is here.”

When she was growing up in Moscow in the 1970s and 1980s, her family — like most other Soviet-era Russian families — had one cookbook: “It was a big book full of canned food, published by the government,” she said. That book, “The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food,” was first published in 1939, a move by Stalin’s regime to replace what had been Russia’s classic cookbook from 1861 until 1917, when it was banned: the aristocratic tome “A Gift to Young Housewives.”

“You couldn’t make a case that that book was anything but bourgeois,” said Darra Goldstein, a professor of Russian at Williams College and editor of the food journal Gastronomica. “It was for the upper classes and their servants.”

By contrast, the recipes in “The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food” were accessible to ordinary Soviet citizens.

“It was the 1952 edition that took off, just as the Soviet food industry was really getting going,” Professor Goldstein said. Alongside photographs of cans of fish and recipes using dried soup were vistas of wheat fields and orchards. “It was a powerful piece of nationalistic propaganda, but also very useful as a cookbook,” she said.

Ms. Vapnyar was born in 1971 and grew up during what is sometimes termed the stagnation period of Soviet history, presided over by a top-heavy, aging Communist party bureaucracy. Some of the regimentation and repression remained — at Ms. Vapnyar’s preschool all the children had to nap lying on their right sides — but by the time she was 18, the first McDonald’s in Moscow had opened.

“One of the first signs of perestroika that I remember is commercials for American candy bars,” she said. She remembers watching a construction worker eating a Snickers bar, and the slogan for another candy bar, Bounty: Paradise on Earth.

“I believed every word,” she said. When she was small, she said, there were vegetables and fruit at weekly farmers’ markets in Moscow, but fresh food became less and less available. The daily work of shopping and cooking was grim and unpredictable.

“I remember waiting hours, standing on the street, to buy frozen meat that someone had bought from the Belgian military,” said Ninel Vapnyar, Lara’s mother, who lives with her daughter on Staten Island. “It had expired, and all that was left was the bad bits. I couldn’t stand the smell and went in the bedroom, but Lara cooked it slowly, with garlic and salt and oil.”

Lara Vapnyar’s food memories, filtered through a childhood lens, are more fond. It is, it turns out, possible to be nostalgic even for a cuisine so repetitive and denatured as Soviet-era institutional cooking.

“I am sure the meatballs at my school were inedible, but I would give all of these cakes and things to have some right now, with a pile of real mashed potatoes,” she said, dismissing the plush layer cakes and perky cupcakes at Kitchenette in TriBeCa. “Even just the potatoes, with a small piece of pickled herring.”

The Sunday Satan

Yulia Latynina, writing in the Moscow Times:

On June 5, a Moscow City Court jury acquitted Vladimir Kvachkov, a retired military intelligence colonel, of charges that he attempted to kill Anatoly Chubais, the architect of privatizations in the 1990s and head of Unified Energy System. After being freed from custody and asked what he would do next, Kvachkov replied, “Now I have a chance to finish what I started.”

The circumstances surrounding the attack on Chubais and Kvachkov’s subsequent swift arrest were very strange, and this shed doubt on the former intelligence officer’s guilt from the very beginning of the investigation. Kvachkov was arrested because his wife’s green Saab was found on a busy highway in the Moscow region near the scene of the ambush. But it seemed unbelievable that an experienced intelligence officer would drive to the crime scene in his family car.

Second, and even more unbelievable, was the evidence presented by investigators. They recovered floor mats from the assailants’ car very close to the spot where the attack took place. Investigators said they took the mats as evidence and showed them to vendors selling mats at a nearby roadside marketplace. There, according to an investigator’s testimony, they found a Tajik vendor who not only recognized the evidence, but he also remembered who he had sold the mats to and, what’s more, the exact license plate number of the assailants’ car.

Who is Kvachkov after all? He is a Russian Orthodox version of a Wahhabi extremist. Kvachkov claims that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is a “Gauleiter” leading an “occupational force” of Western sympathizers who have seized control of the country. Kvachkov, the argument goes, is not guilty of a crime because attempting to kill Chubais — one of the country’s worst traitors — is not a crime.

The jury members spoke not with the voice of the law, but with the voice of the people, and Kvachkov was cleared of all charges.

Even after Kvachkov’s acquittal, the problem is that the case remains just as unbelievable as ever. What about the amazing Tajik car mat salesman who had photographic memory of license plate numbers? This is all very hard to believe, but one explanation is that a Federal Security Service agent had come to the market with his colleagues and bought the mats as part of a setup.
Why would Kvachkov, an old hand in espionage matters, drive to the crime scene along a busy street in his wife’s Saab? Only because he is a truly honest and selfless idealist — qualities that befit a Russian Orthodox Wahhabi. He didn’t even have enough money to buy another car for the hit.

Why is it that everybody who opposes the siloviki runs into trouble? Former Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak and General Alexander Bulbov, a senior officer with the Federal Drug Control Service, are both in jail, and Chubais was nearly gunned down.

If Chubais had been killed, the siloviki would have taken control of Unified Energy System. Kvachkov would have succeeded in obtaining a multibillion-dollar prize for delivering a serious blow to the occupational forces of pro-Western jackals and Gauleiters. But Chubais survived the attack and is attempting to prove to the intelligentsia that Putin is the lesser evil compared with the ultranationalist siloviki patriots.

And where does Kvachkov figure into all of this? He was manipulated as an Orthodox Wahhabi pawn, but this is nothing new. In Dagestan, for example, the highest-ranking officials often use their Wahhabi militants as cheap hired killers to settle scores with rivals.

We hear all the time that Russians ardently and unanimously support Putin. But this doesn’t jibe with the Kvachkov acquittal. How could the majority of jurors dismiss charges against someone who so blasphemously called Putin a Gauleiter and his regime an occupational force?

The Sunday Atrocity: Annals of "Pacified" Chechnya

Reuters reports:

Russia’s volatile North Caucasus experienced one of its worst eruptions of violence in months with at least nine people killed in a series of attacks across the region, officials said on Friday.

The Kremlin is struggling to contain a mix of Islamist insurgents, separatist rebels and organized crime in the North Caucasus, even though a separatist rebellion in one of the region’s hotspots, Chechnya, has largely been quelled.

The latest violence included a blast in the Ingushetia region that killed four people, a remote-controlled bomb in neighboring Dagestan that killed one man and a rebel raid in Chechnya that killed at least three.

Former Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed when he took office eight years ago to end violence in the North Caucasus, home to a collection of impoverished and mainly Muslim mountain tribes who have periodically rebelled against Moscow’s rule.

Though he succeeded in restoring control over most of Chechnya, when he handed the president over to his protege Dmitry Medvedev last month the North Caucasus remained a source of instability.


Officials on Friday reported the following attacks over a two-day period in the North Caucasus:

* In Nazran, the biggest city in the Ingushetia region, four people were killed on Friday in an explosion that destroyed a building, emergency services said. Police said they suspected an accidental gas blast.

But a local interior ministry source told Reuters the explosion was deliberate. The destroyed building housed a liquor shop. The owner had previously received threats from Islamist insurgents who demanded he stop selling alcohol, the source said.

“There was a blast and black smoke pouring out,” said 39-year-old Nazran resident Ruslan, who was passing the building at the time of the incident. “People were running away in panic … some were covered in blood.”

* In next-door Chechnya late on Thursday, at least 25 armed rebels raided the village of Benoi-Vedeno, killing three locals and setting several houses on fire, Russian news agencies quoted officials as saying.

An internet site with ties to the separatist movement, http://www.kavkazcenter.com, said the rebels had killed 11 armed men linked to Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s pro-Moscow president. It denied the rebels killed any local residents.

It was not immediately possible to independently verify accounts of the raid.

* In Dagestan, a remote-controlled bomb killed a jogger in a park in the capital, Makhachkala, local police said. A passerby was injured and taken to hospital. Police said the explosive device was packed with shrapnel.

Russian television pictures from the scene showed a pool of blood on a pavement. The blast happened near some administrative buildings.

* Security forces killed an armed insurgent in Bayram Aul, a settlement to the north of Makhachkala, Interfax news agency quoted a source in the region’s interior ministry as saying. The agency said there had been a firefight lasting two hours.

The Sunday Funnies