Category Archives: arts/letters

Essel on Imperium

Imperium by Ryszard Kapuściński

A book review by Dave Essel

imperiumI find Western Europe’s foreign and domestic political outlook more and more weak-kneed, morally relativistic, and appeasement oriented. In a word – deplorable. But them I’m a Brit and therefore an involuntary member of the European Union. Clear-sightedness is to be sought elsewhere, in certain quarters across the Atlantic but also, and importantly for the Russian theatre, in Eastern Europe, where the stance is clear and the knowledge direct. Nowhere more so, it seems to me, than in Poland, whose citizens have had centuries of experience in dealing with the Bear.

I was therefore delighted to come across this by no means new book – Imperium by Ryszard Kapuściński – the other day. Herewith a couple of excerpts which I think demonstrate the peculiar genius of the Polish way of thinking (and of the author, of course).

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Soviet Crimes Documented on the Silver Screen

The JB Spins blog reviews a new film documenting the horror of life in the USSR, currently screening in New York City:

Prior to Sunday night’s Lincoln Center screening of Katyń, Andrzej Wajda gave the audience a probably much-needed history lesson, explaining the Soviet-German alliance during the early years of WWII. When he concluded, Wajda received a well-deserved standing ovation. However, for his in-depth survey of Soviet crimes against humanity, including Soviet cooperation with the Third Reich, Latvian director Edvins Snore was burned in effigy by Neo-Soviet Russians. It is an ominous badge of honor. The film that you are not supposed to see is titled The Soviet Story (trailer here), and it opens in New York this Friday.

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Putin vs. Hankey: The Steel Cage Match!

Watch out, Mr. Hankey — Vladimir Putin knows where you live!  He has a plunger and he’s not afraid to use it!

EDITORIAL: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Good Riddance

EDITORIAL

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Good Riddance

It was fitting that on the same day the Moscow Times reported the demise of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whom it called a “literary giant,” it also reported that “prime minister” Vladimir Putin had issued a public pledge to strengthen Russia’s ties with America’s hated foe Cuba, thus inviting a new escalation in the cold war. “We need to rebuild our positions in Cuba and other countries,” Putin declared. In other news, arch American enemy Hugo Chavez was spewing forth plenty of Castro-like anti-American hatred as he took delivery on a couple of dozen Russian war planes. To round things out nicely, another round of the campaign to resurrect and rehabilitate the mass murderer Josef Stalin was announced, this time in the form of smears and slurs against Stalin’s great nemesis, Nikita Khrushchev.

As we report below, Russians overwhelmingly believe that it is Putin, not their so-called “president” Dimitry Medvedev, who wields the real power in their country. And Putin is using that power not to advance the interests of the Russian people but to undermine them by provoking and alienating the world’s most powerful country, just as his Soviet forbears did. Nothing else can be expected, of course, from man who spent his whole life in the KGB. Putin’s actions give the U.S. justification for doing the same in Georgia, Ukraine, the Baltics, and anywhere else that Russia might see as threatening. It’s neo-Soviet suicide, pure and simple.

If Solzhenitsyn had had his right mind, the one that produced The Gulag Archipelago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, he would have been the world’s leading critic of Putin’s KGB regime. But he didn’t, so he wasn’t. Solzhenitsyn’s brain went soft years ago, right about the time he returned to Russia and decided the thing to do would be to host a TV talk show. The show was, of course, a cataclysmic failure — and Solzhenitsyn has not written a significant book in decades. Instead, he churned out dreck attempting to blame the Jews for the excesses of the USSR and, as we’ve reported several times on this blog, issued numerous statements rationalizing the KGB regime of Vladimir Putin in an apparent attempt to curry favor with power for the sake of his senile ego mania. Putin attempted to praise Solzhenitsyn as some kind of linguist, totally ignoring his work documenting the horrors of Soviet Russia. As Viktor Sonkin, a literature columnist for The Moscow Times Context section and a teacher of cultural studies at Moscow State University, wrote in his column: “Solzhenitsyn understood Western society only superficially, and many alarming things he said about it were simply not correct. Rejecting the ‘bad totalitarianism’ of the Soviet type, Solzhenitsyn was promoting a kind of ‘good totalitarianism,’ as if there were such a thing in the world.”

We warned Mr. Solzhenitsyn that if he wasn’t careful, he was going to pass from this earth in a state of mortal sin, having abrogated his entire life’s work for the sake of his old man’s ego. He ignored us. And now, it is too late. The eulogies can talk about Solzhenitsyn’s courage in standing up to the USSR, but they can’t say he did anything whatsoever in the past ten years to stop Russia from sliding down the path towards becoming a neo-Soviet state. To the contrary, by accepting awards from the Putin regime, history can only conclude that Solzhenitsyn played role, however minor and doddering, in helping Russia become what he loathed and risked his life to chronicle.

In the end, Solzhenitsyn was a traitor to Russia, a traitor to his own ideals. The only thing that can be said in his defense is that his actions were surely a sign of the toll taken on his psyche by being evicted from his own country, his fellow citizens having not lifted a finger to protect him, just as they did nothing to protect Pushkin or Dostoevsky, and the crippling affects of his advanced age and the deprivations he suffered in the GULAG. Solzhenitsyn lived two decades longer than the average Russian man (thanks to his comfy digs in a gated community and plenty of access to elite medical care sponsored by the Putin regime), but he spent more than enough time in Russia to suffer its ill effects.

Solzhenitsyn, like the majority of his craven countrymen, sat by and watched as a proud KGB spy wiped out political opposition, destroyed the mass media and crushed local government, centralizing power under his filthy jackboot. He applauded, like the majority of his malignant countrymen, when that proud KGB spy provoked a new cold war with the United States, the same cold war that reduced the USSR to rubble. His ability to generate literature of import vanished, and he groveled for attention like an aging puppy dog. Years from now, when anyone challenges the latest draconian moves against civil society by Dictator Putin, he’ll undoubtedly whip out the above photograph and claim that he had Solzhenitsyn’s blessing just before he packs off the critic to the neo-Soviet GULAG.

And that will be the story of Solzhenitsyn. Talking about the “good” Solzhenitsyn did long ago now is like talking about how Hitler made the trains run on time. It’s beside the point.

Good riddance, Aleksandr Isakyevich. You used your final years to stab yourself and your country in the back, and you could not have disappeared from this earth soon enough to suit us.

The Sunday Book Review

Town Hall reports:

The International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. displays a list of what are called Moscow Rules – commonly accepted guidelines for the good guys during the Cold War. Basically, they are based on a through-the-looking-glass approach to reality, where nothing is as it appears to be.

Some directories note as many as forty of these espionage nuggets, including things like, “float like a butterfly; sting like a bee” (guess who inspired that?), or “Murphy is right,” or “technology will always let you down” (actually, I think that one’s true). But ten are in the commonly accepted list:

  • Assume nothing.
  • Never go against your gut.
  • Everyone is potentially under opposition control.
  • Don’t look back; you are never completely alone.
  • Go with the flow; blend in.
  • Vary your pattern and stay within your cover.
  • Lull them into a sense of complacency.
  • Don’t harass the opposition.
  • Pick the time and place for action.
  • Keep your options open.

Author Daniel Silva [pictured] has brought these deep-background precepts to life in his latest novel that bears the actual name, Moscow Rules. His eleventh book is a bit of a departure from recent ones because it shifts from using the Middle East as a backdrop in favor of the intriguing world of present-day Russia.

The spy novel has come back home.

With the feel of a Cold War story, and a pace unmatched by most war-on-terror thrillers, this book is likely Silva’s best to date. Spy-Mystery-Thriller writers all have their favorite characters. John Le Carré gave us George Smiley, William F. Buckley introduced us to Blackford Oakes, Jack Higgins writes about Sean Dillon, and, of course, there’s Vince Flynn’s creation, Mitch Rapp. But in art restorer-Israeli top spy Gabriel Allon, Silva has a hero for all seasons, shapes, and sizes – a man who is intensely human, fiercely intelligent, and quite good at what he does.

In Moscow Rules, Allon finds himself moving with ease between worlds of religion, politics, and history. From the Vatican, to a CIA house in Georgetown, to the dark and dank inner-sanctum of old Soviet-style brutality in the Lubyanka, he’s a hero for everyone who still believes that there are good guys and bad guys.

Mr. Silva’s style matches the prose gold standard of Mr. Le Carré. He then, however, leaves the Brit far behind to wallow in his well-worn and historically inaccurate arguments about Cold War moral equivalency between east and west. Moscow Rules reminds us that the U.S. and Israel, though far from perfect, provide the world a vital strategic partnership against enemies of freedom. And it’s especially important to have such a relationship up and running when nations like Russia and Iran draw close to each other for their own ends and agendas.

In a sense, Daniel Silva has written a new Cold War novel. By that I mean, a story that’s very much about how an old enemy has come back from the abyss to taunt and haunt us once again. History is repeating itself. This time, however, the weapon we ultimately used to defeat that old “evil empire” – our economic strength – is no longer completely available to us. And it’s very available to them.

Today’s Russia is vastly different from the empire we tried to contain fifty years ago. It’s a place no longer marked by colorless uniformity and severe deprivation. Quite the contrary, today we find a land of great contrasts and contradictions. And we also find a nation recently flooded with petro-dollars. If the Soviets of old had been able to tap into that kind of resource-driven wealth, the Cold War would have never ended. And the rules of engagement, even history itself, would have been very different.

The fact is that Russia today represents a greater threat to the security of the world than it ever did in the days of Cold War bipolarity. And our old adversaries are taking great pains to reconstruct an empire, one that would include their strong presence, as was once the case, in the Middle East.

Daniel Silva’s story is told against this backdrop, and it has a ripped-from-the-headlines feel. Readers encounter stories that are reminiscent of recent real-life dramas such as the intriguing murder of former FSB Colonel Aleksandr Litvinenko, who died while investigating the death of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya. The new Russia is starting to strongly resemble the old Soviet Union – only with nicer cars.

Along the way, the novel takes the reader on a jet-set paced ride to places like Saint-Tropez, Courchevel, Paris, London – but back time and again to Moscow. All the while it tells a cautionary tale, one that should be widely heard these days. It’s not just the Islamists we should be watching – and watching out for – we need to keep our eye on that big old bear roaming once again in the global woods.

As Russia becomes stronger and stronger, and as its leaders tighten the reins more and more on all aspects of national and international life, the world becomes a more dangerous place with each passing day. Vladimir Putin and his puppet, Dmitry Medvedev, have an agenda. They have empires in their brains. And, if the past is any indicator of the future (of course it is!), they will also play by a sinister set of rules – the most important one being: the ends justify the means.

When it comes to characters out of Cold War literature and media, I can’t help but resonate with something said by Boris Badenov. No, he wasn’t a KGB leader. Nor was he ever on the wall overlooking Red Square as the missiles rode by on May Day.

Boris was a diminutive fellow with a distinct accent who, along with his wife and side-kick, Natasha, tried to foil the good guys, Rocket J. Squirrel and Bullwinkle the Moose. He had a memorable saying I thought about as I read Daniel Silva’s book, Moscow Rules. It came to mind every time one of the bad guys did something rotten. In fact, what Mr. Badenov had to say should be heeded by both candidates for the presidency this year.He said: “Never underestimate the power of a schnook.”

The Sunday Sit-Down Strike

Reuters reports (hat tip: TakeYourCross):

Carrying bags of stolen groceries, Oleg Vorotnikov takes out the batteries of his mobile phone before entering the secret headquarters of his underground art collective on the outskirts of Moscow.

“This is to prevent the cops from listening in,” said Vorotnikov, a 29-year-old art graduate, who with other politically conscious artists co-founded the Voina, or War, collective in 2007. “Once a drunk artist introduced us to bystanders as ‘Russia’s main radical group’ — that’s when I understood that we have to do something together,” Vorotnikov said.

In a country where traditional opposition to the government has been dulled by public apathy and a diet of pro-Kremlin television news, these artists take a different approach: they poke fun at the establishment, and the more absurd the better. They hunch over laptops in their headquarters — a garage — editing video of their latest piece of guerrilla street theater: an impromptu tea party in a police station. For the lack of chairs they sit on chests of drawers and a TV set. Cameras, camcorders and books of poetry are scattered over the floor.

“We always do things that violate rules. We combine art and politics to achieve something new,” said Kotyonok, a slightly built young woman who teaches physics at a Moscow university and who only gave her nickname, which means kitten. “People watch us and are simply shocked.”

Voina became a household name in the Russian blogger scene with a stunt intended as a wry commentary on the handover of power — decried by opponents as undemocratic — from former President Vladimir Putin to his successor, Dmitry Medvedev. A day before the presidential election that Medvedev won by a landslide, five couples, including one heavily pregnant woman who gave birth four days later, secretly undressed in Moscow’s Biological Museum. With video cameras rolling, they had sex in front of a banner calling for copulation in support of “the bear cub-successor” – a pun on Medvedev’s family name, which is derived from the Russian word for bear.

EVICTED

Blogs carrying photos and videos of the event shot to number one in Russian Internet rankings within 24 hours. Some users called the participants “freaks,” “sh–eaters” or “animals.” One blogger suggested they should be shot. When the mother of the pregnant woman saw her having sex on television, she threw her out of home. Voina said they had to leave their old headquarters under pressure from the authorities but few members have yet to face the full weight of the law for their activities.

The group is most vulnerable to the catch-all “hooliganism” charge that could lead to a short prison term, but only one member is currently facing prosecution for throwing cats during one performance. Voina’s actionist art draws on Moscow Conceptualism, a movement that started in the 1970 with performances subverting socialist ideology. Given the repressive nature of the Soviet state, these happenings had to take place secretly.

Only when state control over the arts receded during Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms in the 1980s could artists take their events into the public sphere. In April 1991 members of a group around Anatoly Osmolovsky, a Russian artist, art theorist and curator, lay down on Red Square forming the word “khui,” Russian for cock, with their naked bodies. Voina members describe the happening as inspiring but add that it would be impossible today in an “authoritarian Russia” where, nevertheless, they have earned the respect of some in the mainstream art scene.

“In the ’90s art fell under the influence of a society that was becoming more and more bourgeois: artists happily turned into conformists,” said Andrei Yerofeyev, who until last month was head of modern art procurement at the state-run Tretyakov Gallery. “Only in the last year a strain of protest art reappeared, one that takes a critical line, reflects, takes a step back and sometimes cynically, sometimes comically, describes what is going on in our society.”

Back in the Voina headquarters the activists scramble around a laptop computer trying to improve the sound of their latest video to make it fit for Internet publication. Shaky images, filmed with a hidden camera the day before Medvedev’s inauguration, show the artists dishing out cream cakes and tea in a police station. Watched by a stunned officer, they pin Medvedev’s portrait to a wall. “We invite you to celebrate with us the inauguration of the new president,” one activist can be heard saying. Attempting to remove the intruders, the officer resorts to verbal abuse. “We have to fix the sound, you can’t hear anything,” said Kotyonok, twitching the dials on the video- editing software.

UNDERGROUND WAKE

In another piece of performance art, the group rigged up a table in a metro carriage, brought out food and vodka and held a wake for absurdist poet Dmitry Prigov. They also marked international workers’ day by going in to a McDonald’s restaurant and throwing live cats at the counter staff. The idea, they said, was to help snap the workers out of the dull routine of menial labor. Behind the bizarre stunts, the artists who make up Voina have a serious political agenda. “If the authorities say ‘we are building a strong state,’ an artist should show that this is not the case. If they say ‘we are improving the lives of the people,’ an artist should show that this is a lie,” said Vorotnikov over dinner, tearing off a hunk of the chicken he earlier stole from a supermarket. But they say their work is also a journey of self-discovery, to see how far they can push their own boundaries as artists and radicals. “We hate cops but if we just attacked them like that, they would jail us immediately. So we hide our hatred behind art so they can’t get us and we achieve our aim quicker,” said Kotyonok.

The authorities have dealt harshly with overtly political opposition but to date there has been no sign of a crackdown on Voina. Acting under the aegis of art protects them to a large extent, she said. “We’ve had sex in public and are no longer scared of it. We’ve invaded a police station and are no longer scared of it. What else is there to scare us?,” asked Kotyonok. “Death we will deal with in the future. Soon we will be completely fearless.”

The Sunday Salvation


The International Herald Tribune reports:

Nina Khrushcheva [shown above], the great-granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader who boasted that the Soviet Union would catch up with and overtake the United States, has a different model for post-Soviet Russians making their way in the Western world: the life and works of Vladimir Nabokov [the statute in the picture], the émigré writer who became a giant in the West decades before being acknowledged in Russia.

The Moscow publisher Vremya recently released her book, “V Gostiakh U Nabokova,” or “Visiting Nabokov,” first published in English in 2007 by Yale University Press as “Imagining Nabokov,” a slightly different version. Khrushcheva was in Moscow in June, lecturing on individual freedom and national identity, which are at the heart of her book.

Freedom, as it was understood during the Putin era, was the antithesis of Nabokov’s own understanding of the term, Khrushcheva said in an interview.

“I think Putin stops at Dostoyevsky,” she said, musing on whether Vladimir Putin had read Nabokov. “I think Nabokov would be very threatening to his whole worldview. He doesn’t really provide for any exceptionalism and sovereign democracy.”

“The ‘American’ Nabokov of the second half of the twentieth century is the most important cultural and literary phenomenon for Russia in the first half of the twenty-first,” writes Khrushcheva in the book.

Both editions deconstruct “Pnin,” “Pale Fire,” “Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle” and other works by Nabokov as breaking with the Russian literary tradition of suffering epitomized by Gogol and Dostoyevsky and nurtured by fatalistic, submissive Russian Orthodox culture.

Nabokov depicts characters who “take responsibility for their own lives,” Khrushcheva writes.

“He is our textbook, and our road map for today’s transitional period from a closed and communal terrain to its Western alternative, one open and competitive,” she continues. “How to survive and succeed in this Western world, which Russia always deemed linear, cold and calculating: this is what the art of Vladimir Nabokov teaches us.”

Khrushcheva dedicates “Imagining Nabokov” to Andrei Sinyavsky, the Soviet dissident author who wrote under the pen name Abram Tertz. His essay “Strolls With Pushkin,” written in prison camp and shocking at the time, is an irreverent take on Russia’s god of literary gods.

Likewise, “Imagining Nabokov” and its Russian counterpart, “Visiting Nabokov,” are far from dry literary analyses. Khrushcheva converses with the statue of Nabokov in Montreux, Switzerland. He comes alive and responds, citing passages from his works.

In June, Ex Libris, the literary supplement of the Moscow newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, praised the “amazing lightness and sincerity” of “Visiting Nabokov.” Khrushcheva has also been taken to task, on the basis of her ancestry, for daring to approach Nabokov.

Nabokov was forced out of Bolshevik Russia and fled Nazi Europe for America, where he realized his passion for butterflies as an entomologist at Harvard and taught literature at Cornell University. He then returned to Europe and settled in a hotel in Montreux.

“Nabokov showed others how to live now – in a world with open borders, among different people, different cultures,” writes Khrushcheva. “He showed us how to live in the new solitude of multiple worlds.”

She recalls her repellant introduction to Nabokov – a cardboard-bound, carbon copy, or samizdat, of “Lolita” that was furtively passed around – but then describes how she grew to identify with his writing.

In 1991, just as the Soviet Union was collapsing, Khrushcheva went to the United States, where she earned a degree in comparative literature at Princeton University. She now teaches international affairs at the New School in New York. At a 1999 exhibition at the New York Public Library, “Nabokov Under Glass,” honoring the 100th anniversary of his birth, the writer’s notebooks, with their constant, organic interchange between Russian and English, captivated Khrushcheva.

“Those who live in several languages know, and at times can almost sense, how their minds wander not between words but between worlds,” she writes of the experience, so close to her own. “Nabokov is me!”

Nabokov, who as a member of the well-educated Russian gentry was trilingual, wrote his first works in Russian, then switched to English and translated some of his own books, including “Lolita.”

In a Nabokovian twist, Khrushcheva wrote her books in parallel – in English and Russian – with some variation based on cultural context. The conversations with the statue of Nabokov in the English-language version were jarring to her American editor and moved up closer to the beginning of the book, where they were explained, said Khrushcheva, while the Russian editor had no problem with the long passages quoting Nabokov in English.

In “Imagining Nabokov,” her literary and political interests have converged. Khrushcheva lectured on the book last month in London at the Royal Society of Arts and Pushkin House.

Khrushcheva outlines the way responses to Nabokov changed under Vladimir Putin’s presidency. In 2001, she taught a course called “Nabokov and Us” at Moscow State University and found that the “post-postcommunist new-century kids” in her class had wholeheartedly embraced Nabokov’s worldview, calling him “our Pushkin.”

By 2006, she writes, young listeners at her lecture at the Nabokov Museum in St. Petersburg responded by downplaying Nabokov’s social and political significance, saying that Russia was strong enough to find its own way.

But there are signs of a new openness to Nabokov. Elena Nemirovskaya, the founder and director of the Moscow School of Political Studies, which runs seminars about civil society, was impressed by Khrushcheva’s book and invited her to lecture there on June 12, Russia’s independence day.

“This book shows that through the wonderful language of Nabokov, the modern embodiment of genius of the Russian language, we can read how language forms identity,” Nemirovskaya said.

Nabokov’s transition from Russian to English marked a quest for personal responsibility, she added. “I make a choice and I want to realize my freedom and answer for it.”

Nabokov, after years of writing in English, compared his Russian language to “frozen strawberries.”

Sergei Sulimsky, a Moscow-born lawyer and Nabokov enthusiast who is based in London and commutes between the two cities, wrote by e-mail: “The taste of the frozen strawberry on the tip of my tongue still keeps me going as distinctively Russian through my English odyssey and helps me to feel not as conspicuous reading a Penguin paperback of ‘Ada’ on the Moscow underground.

“Nabokov taught us how to remain Russian without Russia.”

EDITORIAL: Unwanted

EDITORIAL

Unwanted

Beating down the audience is what the crudest entertainments try to do, and in this respect, and in every other, “Wanted” is nothing new.

Those are the words of New York Times film critic A. O. Scott, reviewing the new major motion picture Wanted starring Angelina Jolie and directed by Timur Bekmambetov, whom Scott describes as “a Russian filmmaker who has earned a cult following with his razzly-dazzly thrillers Day Watch and Night Watch.

While it’s very unlikely that any Slavic Russian would acknowledge a person with Central Asian name like “Bekmambetov” as being “Russian” in any sense that means anything (not to long ago, Russians were rounding up people with last names like that and ejecting them from the country as spies), the irony of Bekmambetov is really quite extreme. Let’s reflect upon a little, shall we?

But before we do, a word about Ms. Jolie. Here we have an actress who, in her private life, pretends to be all about world peace and uplifting the condition of the world’s hapless minions. And yet, what kind of movies does she make? Empty-headed shoot-em-up bloodbaths that make light of violence and have nothing to say about anything, that’s what. Wow, what a fraud.

And she’s in good company where this “Russian” filmmaker is concerned. Anyone who knows a thing about Russian people knows how heartily they love to claim cultural superiority, to look down their noses at Hollywood movies as being devoid of emotional sensitivity or intellectual substance. And yet, if you read Scott’s review you find that not only is Mr. Bekmambetov doing exactly that, he’s not even being original about it. Check out this damning passage:

What does turn up looks familiar — the slowed bullets, the air that ripples like water, an underground group, here called the Fraternity — especially if you’ve seen “The Matrix.” Although Mr. Bekmambetov and his team take plenty of cues from that film, they have tried to distinguish their dystopian nightmare by borrowing from even farther afield. To that end the Fraternity practices its murderous skills on pig carcasses (much as Daniel Day-Lewis does in “Gangs of New York”) while bunkered in a sprawling factory (that looks like Hogwarts). I’m pretty sure I saw the fabulous recovery room — a concrete spa filled with sunken tubs and lighted candles where Fraternity members go for restorative soaks after a hard day of carnage — in a layout in Vogue.

So Bekmambetov is not only copying America at the superficial level, he’s copying it right down to the roots, and not even doing it all that well. Scott says the movie boils down to “a grindingly repetitive rotation of bang-bang, boom-boom, knuckle sandwiches and exploding heads.” His conclusion: “Things happen in Wanted, but no one cares. You could call that nihilism, but even nihilism requires commitment of a kind and this, by contrast, is a movie built on indifference.”

To us, that sounds just like Russia itself, in microcosm. Things are happening (the population is shrinking, art is being stifled, journalism censored, politics castrated) but nobody cares. Instead of bringing a new sensibility to cinematic art when given its chance, Russia’s contribution is to further deaden it, almost as if simply for the fun of it. Russia these days it seems has nothing to offer the world by cynicism and nihilism — or in fact, perhaps they don’t even have the energy and perseverance to raise themselves to that level.

Have a proud KGB spy as president? Why not! Start up the cold war by buzzing American with nuclear bombers and providing weapons to rogue leaders in Iran and Venezuela? Hell yeah, let’s give it a go! We’ve already got the world’s largest supply of territory? So there’s nothing for it but to grab some more — let’s take the Arctic!

It’s as if, some time ago, the whole nation resolve to launch itself upon a massive suicide pact, thumbing its nose at a world that somehow never managed to offer the recognition and worship it craved.

The Sunday Film Section: Kremlin Studios Opens its Doors

The International Herald Tribune reports:

When Vladimir Putin visited the set of the latest movie by Oscar-winning filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov, he sat in the director’s chair while actors playing Soviet soldiers marched toward the front.

Putin didn’t direct the action — he left that to his host. But the prime minister’s presence at the $55 million “Burnt by the Sun 2,” the most expensive film in Russia’s post-Soviet history, was a potent symbol of his government’s expanding role in the country’s film industry.

Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin called cinema “the most important of all arts,” and film was regarded by the Communist leadership as one of its most powerful propaganda weapons. Legendary directors such as Sergei Eisenstein, who made “The Battleship Potemkin,” and Andrei Tarkovsky, whose brooding classics can still astonish, won acclaim even as they bent to the will of the totalitarian state.

Now the Russian government is trying to revive the Soviet film tradition, helping to produce movies and miniseries that push the Kremlin’s political views, vilify its critics and glorify the military and intelligence services.

Artistically, the results have been decidedly mixed.

Outside of the work of Mikhalkov, whose international fame dates back to the 1960s and who won a best foreign film Oscar for 1994’s “Burnt by the Sun,” few government-sponsored films have won either critical acclaim or box-office success.

“History repeats itself with a farce, so this new propaganda seems ridiculous compared to textbook Soviet examples,” said Yuri Valkov, a historian of Russian culture.

Throughout the 1990s, the Russian film industry was mostly limited to imitations of Hollywood blockbusters and attempts to preserve the old artistic traditions.

In the new millennium, Russian filmmakers have found themselves in a business-oriented environment of investments and profits. But the government has taken a greater role in film projects, and remains the country’s largest film producer. Putin recently proposed a merger of three Soviet-era film studios into a mammoth, state-owned concern.

Some in the film industry — the largest in Europe alongside France — welcome the influence of authorities over what movies get made and the political lessons they teach.

“Law enforcement agencies are part of our state, and the government has the right to propagate whatever it considers necessary,” said producer Leonid Vereshchagin of 3T, Mikhalkov’s own production company, which has released several highly patriotic films.

But critics say government influence has stifled most critical and creative artists. Russian documentary filmmakers, for example, could probably never produce documentaries directly critical of the government, said Vyacheslav Shmyrov, chief editor of the Kinoprotsess magazine.

“A Michael Moore is impossible in Russia,” he said, referring to the American filmmaker whose documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11” was a scathing critique of the Bush administration.

This year’s most controversial Russian documentary, “The Destruction of the Empire: a Byzantine Lesson,” was written by an Orthodox monk who argued that Western ideas and institutions would ruin Russia as they did Byzantium centuries earlier.

Unlike in the Soviet era, there is no centrally directed state effort to use cinema for indoctrination. Instead, artists know that they can win state support for film projects that promote the views of those in power.

“There are attempts of artists, producers and film directors to profit from patriotic themes and get government funding for their projects,” said political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky.

Films critical of the government or at odds with the Kremlin’s view of Russian history can face problems getting made, or gaining recognition after their release. The macabre 2007 film “Cargo 200,” with its Orwellian vision of Soviet society, provoked a scandal at last year’s Kinotavr film festival and was rated X for limited distribution.

The result is films like this year’s “Alexander: The Battle on the Neva,” which celebrates a 13th century prince who repels a Swedish invasion on his city, puts down a riot of Western-leaning nobles and vows fealty to the Mongol empire.

The message could not be more clear: Russia needs a strong leader to defend it from a hostile West. The film was advertised as a prequel to Eisenstein’s 1938 epic, “Alexander Nevsky,” which was personally commissioned by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin to stir anti-German sentiment on the eve of World War II.

Russian intelligence, police and military agencies have underwritten at least a dozen television series or films in recent years, spending tens of millions of dollars to polish their images.

Last year, the Fund to Support Patriotic Films — a nonprofit backed by the FSB, the main successor agency to the KGB — produced “The Apocalypse Code,” a $15 million James Bond knockoff.

In the film, a seductively dressed female FSB spy blasts bad guys, outwits her rivals and saves the world from nuclear annihilation. The film flopped with critics and filmgoers. “The Code is a raving of a drunken horse,” said critic Victor Matezen.

But failure didn’t discourage the film’s backers. Olesya Bykova, executive director of the Fund, said it plans a feature film, television series and interactive online projects targeted at a younger audience.

State-financed films have featured Kremlin foes, thinly disguised as fictional characters, as the bad guys. A character apparently modeled on the billionaire Boris Berezovsky plots terrorist attacks in the 2004 film “Personal Number.” Berezovsky fled to London in 2001 after a falling out with Putin.

“The Apocalypse Code” and “Personal Number” were among the winners of the revived Soviet-era award for best works of art that “form a positive image of FSB officers.”

The Sunday Film Review: Politkovskaya

JB Spins reviews a new film on Anna Politikovskaya:

If ever there was a woman who personified strength, dignity, and a commitment to human rights, it was Anna Politkovskaya, the crusading Russian journalist assassinated for investigating the neo-Soviet Putin regime. Unfortunately, there is not much human rights watching going on at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, besides Letter to Anna, Eric Bergkraut’s dogged documentary investigation into her death (trailer here).

Of the thirty two films at the HRW Fest, five focus their fire on Israel and four concentrate on America, clearly safe targets to shoot at. Few films at the fest, besides Letter, tackle a government perfectly willing to murder those who questions its policies, as in the case of Politkovskaya in Putin’s Russia. (To be fair, it sounds like China’s Stolen Children also deserves recognition for taking on the country’s one child policy, but the fest completely ignores Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, and North Korea.) However, the sins of the festival should not be held against Letter, a first-rate documentary.

When Politkovskaya looks into the camera and tells Bergkraut she expects to be killed, it is spooky. Obviously, she knew what she was talking about, having already survived a poisoning attempt (evidently no Polonium was available to those would-be assassins). Politkovskaya made her name exposing human rights abuses (real ones) in Chechnya, again nearly getting killed in the process. It was while filming a documentary on the Russian Dirty War that Bergkraut filmed hours of interview footage with Politkovskaya, which formed the backbone of Letter.

Although one could uncharitably characterize Letter as a film built around outtakes, much of that footage is quite insightful. Perhaps most controversial will be his decision to begin by taking the audience through her assassination step by step. As Bergkraut marshals the facts and circumstances around the event he makes a compelling case against the Putin machine. By American legal standards, he would probably have enough to indict, but not convict. Of course, on a common sense level, the notion that a free-agent in Putin’s Russia would take out a prominent Putin critic without the go-ahead from the highest levels, stretches all believability.

Things are bad in Russia—no question. Relatively few have been willing to publically challenge Putin’s authoritarian rule. Some of those who did join Politkovskaya, like democracy activist Garry Kasparov, participated in the film. We also hear from expat billionaire Boris Berezovsky, perhaps a problematic anti-Putin spokesman, but always a good interview.

Letter would make for good, if depressing, companion viewing with Poisoned By Polonium, as Litvinenko appears in the former and Politkovskaya is also featured in the latter. Politkovskaya had everything to live for, having just heard she was about to become a grandmother. However, she never backed down in her attempts to hold Putin’s government accountable for its crimes. If you want to see what “patriotic dissent” looks like, Politkovskaya is its human face.

Bergkraut makes another credible case against Putin’s criminal reign, and give Susan Sarandon credit for recording the English narration (and Catherine Deneuve for the French), but are people paying attention to the increasingly frightening developments in Russia? Letter screens only once during the fifteen day film festival, Thursday the 26th, at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater.

Russian Bad Guys

CALLING ALL FILM BUFFS! We notice what might be a trend in the appearance of Russians playing the role of bad buy in recent major motion pictures, and of the Russian character being played by a non-Russian. Three such examples appear below, but we don’t claim to be experts in filmography. Do you know any other recent films in which Russians are featured as the bad guys, especially where the character isn’t even played by a Russian? Here are some examples:

THE INCREDIBLE HULK (2008)
(Tim Roth – UK)

INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (2008)
(Cate Blanchett – Australia)

THE BOURNE SUPREMACY (2004)
(Karl Urban – New Zealand)

UPDATE — READER ADDITIONS:

EASTERN PROMISES (2007)
(Viggo Mortenson – U.S.A.)

The Sunday Cinema: lndiana Jones Cracks his Whip over Russia

Reuters reports on still more humiliation for Russia, this time at the hands of Steven Spielberg:

Russian Communist Party members
condemned the new “Indiana Jones” film on Friday as crude, anti-Soviet propaganda that distorts history and called for it to be banned from Russian screens.

“Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” stars Harrison Ford as an archeologist in 1957 competing with an evil KGB agent, played by Cate Blanchett, to find a skull endowed with mystic powers.

“What galls is how together with America we defeated Hitler, and how we sympathized when Bin Laden hit them. But they go ahead and scare kids with Communists. These people have no shame,” said Viktor Perov, a Communist Party member in Russia’s second city of St. Petersburg.

The comments were made at a local Communist party meeting and posted on its Internet site http://www.kplo.ru.

The film, the fourth in the hugely successful Indiana Jones series, went on release in Russian cinemas on Thursday. Russian media said it was being shown on 808 screens, the widest ever release for a Hollywood movie.

In past episodes Indiana Jones has escaped from Nazi soldiers, an Egyptian snake pit, a Bedouin swordsman and a child-enslaving Indian demigod.

RUNNING DOGS

“Harrison Ford and Cate Blanchett (are) second-rate actors, serving as the running dogs of the CIA. We need to deprive these people of the right of entering the country,” said another party member, Andrei Gindos.

Though the ranks of the once all-powerful Communist Party have dwindled since Soviet times, its members see themselves as the defenders of the achievements of the old Soviet Union.

Other communists said the generation born after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union were being fed revisionist, Hollywood history. They advocated banning the Indiana Jones outright to prevent “ideological sabotage.”

“Our movie-goers are teenagers who are completely unaware of what happened in 1957,” St Peterburg Communist Party chief Sergei Malinkovich told Reuters.

“They will go to the cinema and will be sure that in 1957 we made trouble for the United States and almost started a nuclear war.”

“It’s rubbish … In 1957 the communists did not run with crystal skulls throughout the U.S. Why should we agree to that sort of lie and let the West trick our youth?”

Vladimir Mukhin, another member of the local Communist Party, said in comments posted on the Internet site that he would ask Russia’s Culture Ministry to ban the film for its “anti-Soviet propaganda.”

The “Indiana Jones” film is not the first Hollywood production to offend Russian sensibilities.

In 1998 the Russian parliament demanded the government explain why the Hollywood film “Armageddon” – which depicted a dilapidated Russian space station that blows apart because of a leaky pipe — was allowed onto Russian cinema screens.

A government official at the time said the film, starring Bruce Willis as the leader of a team of astronauts sent to deflect an asteroid on a collision course with Earth, “mocked the achievements of Soviet and Russian technology.”

Reuters

Paramount Pictures appears to have another hit on its hands, as the new “Indiana Jones” movie grossed $25 million from its first full day in North American theaters, independent box office analysts reported on Friday.

That tally ranks as the fourth highest-grossing Thursday debut on record and puts “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” on track to possibly match or overtake last year’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” film as the biggest opening on a U.S. Memorial Day holiday weekend.

The last big release from Viacom Inc’s Paramount, “Iron Man,” opened three weeks ago with $98.6 million in U.S.-Canadian receipts its first Friday-through-Sunday frame — a sum that the latest “Indiana Jones” film is expected to surpass.

Unlike the new “Indiana Jones” film, “Iron Man” was fully financed by Marvel Studios, which paid Paramount a flat fee to market and distribute its film. Thus, Paramount has much more at stake riding on the success of its latest release.

“Crystal Skull,” directed by Steven Spielberg, is the fourth movie in the beloved and lucrative movie franchise that began in 1981 with “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and is the first to hit the big screen in 19 years.

Harrison Ford reprises his title role as the bullwhip-cracking archeologist who hates snakes, and reunites with actress Karen Allen, his co-star from the first adventure. In the new film, set during the 1950s Cold War era, he competes with an evil KGB agent played by Cate Blanchett to find a skull endowed with mystic powers.

Box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian, president of Media By Numbers, said the film’s opening Thursday performance was strong enough to bode well for its commercial potential but not so strong as to diminish its weekend audience.

If its Friday-through-Monday box office tally crosses the $140 million mark, the film would exceed last year’s Walt Disney Co’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” as the biggest North American opening yet for the four-day Memorial Day holiday weekend.

“They have a strong shot at meeting or exceeding that Pirates of the Caribbean number last year,” Dergarabedian told Reuters.

By comparison, the highest-grossing Thursday debut at the domestic box office was the $50 million raked in three years ago by “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith,” according to Box Office Mojo.

The Sunday Film Review: Banned in Russia

The Moscow Times reports:

Swiss director Eric Bergkraut doesn’t expect his latest film, “Letter to Anna,” to go down well in Russia, or even to make it into theaters. But in an interview after the premiere of the feature-length version at the Hot Docs International Film Festival in Toronto, he said he didn’t want his film to be perceived as “anti-Russian.”

“One can be very critical of Mr. Putin’s politics without being anti-Russian at all,” Bergkraut emphasized. “I am not sure if that is understood in Moscow today.”

“Letter to Anna” is a documentary describing the life and death of the independent-minded Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was often treated with suspicion by the Russian authorities, and indeed by no small number of ordinary Russians.

Politkovskaya was best known for her critical writing on the wars in Chechnya, which appeared in the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, and in her books, “A Dirty War,” and “A Small Corner of Hell.”
She was shot to death in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building on October 7, 2006.

Bergkraut first met Politkovskaya in 2003, while he was working on his documentary, “Coca: The Dove From Chechnya,” a film about a Chechen woman who had filmed human rights abuses in the republic.

Bergkraut asked Politkovskaya to appear in the film, and she agreed.

“My first impression of Anna was that she was very busy, very focused on her work, and that she was afraid of wasting her time. But once we started talking, we had very long talks, much longer than we had intended,” Bergkraut said.

“What I liked was that she was always on the side of the weak person. I never had the feeling that it was about good Chechens and bad Russians. She was not naive at all. She just found the way the Russian government was dealing with the conflict not very intelligent.”

Bergkraut assembled “Letter to Anna” from footage of Politkovskaya left over from “Coca,” as well as footage which he shot in Russia after her death.

The film includes interviews with Politkovskaya’s son Ilya, her daughter Vera, her ex-husband, Alexander Politkovsky, and makes clear that Politkovskaya’s family feared for her life.

“Her family wanted to stop her. The only person who did not want to stop her was her daughter, Vera, who had a deep understanding for what her mother did. All the others — and it’s very understandable — tried to stop her, but it was not possible.”

The idea of living in exile was impossible for her, he said. “She did not want to leave the country. That would have been in total contradiction to who she was and how she lived.”

Expatriate Russian billionaire and Kremlin critic Boris Berezovsky is among the Kremlin opponents Bergkraut interviews in the film, which is one reason he expects to have difficulties getting it screened in Russia.

“The film could do without Berezovsky, but why should it? Why is it impossible for Russians to see Berezovsky?” Bergkraut asked.

“He is a kind of Mephisto in the film. He is not the good guy. He has to be in the film because, [Russian Prosecutor General] Yury Chaika said at a press conference that [Politkovskaya’s] murder could only have come from abroad, from oligarchs. It is quite clear that he was pointing at Berezovsky,” he said.

Another possible obstacle to the film’s presentation in Russia might be Politkovskaya’s characterization of the war in Chechnya as “genocidal.”

“She gives a very good argument,” says Bergkraut. “Do you know how many people have been killed in Chechnya? We do not know the figures. Maybe only 80,000. Maybe 150,000. Maybe 300,000. It’s really a tragedy. Chechens are a very small community,” he said.

“But every single Russian soldier and his family is a tragedy too, for me. It’s not necessarily that I share [her] judgment, but I wanted to show it,” he added.

“Letter to Anna” also includes appearances by Garry Kasparov, Novaya Gazeta editor Dmitry Muratov, and other colleagues and acquaintances of Politkovskaya.

Bergkraut regrets that he was not able to represent “official Russia” more thoroughly in his film.

“I tried very hard to get an interview with Yury Chaika, but it was not possible. I am trying hard to understand [his position]. I would have loved to have more official Russian voices,” he said.

Bergkraut also laments that no one from “official Russia” has attended any of his international screenings.

“At all the screenings of my film, I was expecting that some day someone from the Russian embassy would come, and we would have a discussion. Nobody ever came. It’s a pity. My last film has been shown in about 30 countries, but not in Russia. Isn’t that strange?”

After winning the International Human Rights Film Award for “Coca” in Berlin last year, Bergkraut was approached by several film stars who expressed interest in collaborating with him. As a result, Susan Sarandon, Catherine Deneuve, and Iris Berben provided the narrations for “Letter to Anna” in its English, French, and German versions, respectively.

Bergkraut’s film was also honored by Vaclav Havel when it screened at the One World International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival in Prague earlier this year.

“Festivals and television stations are now approaching me because they want to show “Letter to Anna,” but no one has come to me from Russia,” Bergkraut said.

“A discussion [about Politkovskaya] — which may be controversial — would be interesting and somehow natural. The best thing would be if a Russian television channel bought “Letter to Anna. Maybe one day. Things can change.”

Woody Won’t be Filming in Russia any time Soon

I was there for about two hours and I went to the travel agency in the hotel and I said, ‘Get me the first reservation out of here, I don’t care where it goes.’ That was my memory of it: that I had a terrible terrible time when I was there.”

— Director Woody Allen, on his experience in Russia

The Sunday Film Review

The JB Spins blog reviews the new film Refusnik:

The words “Next Year in Jerusalem” have always been rich with meaning but for Soviet Jewry, they took on even greater significance during the stark years of Communist oppression. Soviet Jews who dared to apply for exit visas were dismissed from their employment, harassed by the KGB, and often imprisoned or exiled to Siberian. Filmmaker Laura Bialis documents the inspiring story of the so-called Refuseniks in the new film Refusenik (trailer here), which opens in New York May 9th.

The film starts with a quick and lucid recounting of Soviet anti-Semitism, ranging from discrimination in university admissions to Stalin’s Doctors’ Plot, the invented conspiracy used as a pretext to persecute Jewish doctors. Although Stalin was an initial supporter of the State of Israel, anti-Semitism would become systematized to such an extent during the Stalin years that many were honestly expecting to be swept up in another Holocaust.

Called a “renaissance of hope,” by historian Sir Martin Gilbert, Refusenik identifies the stunning Israeli victory in the Six Days War as a pivotal moment for Refuseniks. Israel’s battlefield triumph, despite all Soviet state media predictions to the contrary, provided an inspiration and a hoped for destination.

As a matter of course, the Soviets denied all emigration requests, often on the pretext of the applicant being an important specialist. Then these irreplaceable specialists were summarily fired, forced to live uncertain hand-to-mouth existences. Yet an extraordinary refrain is repeated by many of the Refuseniks Bialis interviews. Regardless of the desperate circumstances they faced as a result, they never regretted their actions, because it was through their defiance of the Soviets that they first felt free.

Perhaps the most celebrated Refusenik, Natan Sharansky is one of the film’s lead voices. His story is nothing less than heroic, having served nine years in a Soviet prison on trumped up charges. However, some of the lesser known Refuseniks are equally remarkable. Vladimir Slepak was actually the son of a loyal party member, but when told by his father it was preferable to arrest one hundred innocent people rather than allow one enemy of the party to go free, his response was: “I’ll never be in your party. It’s too much blood on your hands.”

Refusenik also chronicles the worldwide movement on behalf of Soviet Jewry, and is laudably bipartisan in who it credits in the struggle. The passage of the Jackson-Vanick amendment requiring countries observe emigration rights to qualify for favored nation trading status is presented as a principled coalition of liberal and conservative congressional representatives over a détente-obsessed Nixon administration.

Of American political leaders, two stand above all others. One is a Democrat, Sen. Scoop Jackson. The other is a Republican: Pres. Ronald Reagan. It is clear from interviews that he made Soviet human rights a priority like none of his predecessors had before him. It is not just summit anecdotes from George Shultz that make the point.

Refusenik Ari Volvovsky tells a story that powerfully illustrates Reagan’s commitment. While serving his sentence in a prison camp, Volvovsky was called into the commandant’s office and asked if he was friends with the American president. He was then shown a letter from Reagan to Gorbachev pressing for his release. Probably Gorbachev’s reputation will suffer most from the film, as it is made clear he resisted releasing the Refuseniks and actually tells his interviewer: “Many of them were my friends.” Right, some of his best friends were Refuseniks.

Refusenik is structured as a traditional documentary, proceeding in chronological order and relying on interview commentary to provide narrative and context. However, the refuseniks’ testimony is very compelling stuff, which elevates the film above standard doc fare. It also benefits from some knowledgeable interview subjects, like Gilbert and Richard Perle, who served as a young aide to Sen. Jackson.

By exposing the abuses of Soviet Communism, Refusenik makes points that are still salient today. The courage and sacrifice of the Refuseniks profiled really are an inspiration. The film makes the point that they were not just defying the Communists on occasional basis, but over the course of decades, without respite. This is an area I thought I was fairly well informed in, yet I still learned quite a bit from Refusenik. It is an often moving film that deserves a wide audience. It opens in New York on May 9th, (which coincidentally was Soviet Victory Day) at the Quad, and in Los Angeles on the 23rd. It is highly recommended.

That’s Russian Entertainment!

Reuters reports:

Before grumbling about rising movie ticket prices in the United States, consider a trip to the multiplex in Russia.

The recent Matthew McConaughey movie “Fool’s Gold” is playing at Moscow’s 11-screen Oktyabr Cinema for 300 rubles per ticket — that’s $12.70. [LR: In a country with an average wage of $4 per hour, a Russian needs to work for three hours to pay for a single movie ticket; a whole day’s wages would be needed to pay for a date]. Stick around for the later showing of the horror film “Shutter,” which is running only in Oktyabr’s 35-seat VIP room, and the price jumps to 1,200 rubles ($51).

A night out at the movies or the occasional theater seats might require budget-balancing in the West. But that same escapism is becoming a luxury item in Russia, where out-of-home entertainment can eat up a sizable portion of the average wage of the working class and those on retirement incomes. “Certainly, there is a segment of the Russian population that is left out of entertainment because of the price,” says Maria Lipman, analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, which studies public policy issues.

But even as Russia spawns a growing middle class and disposable income increases of about 10% each year, the average net monthly wage translates to $524 per month and the average monthly pension to $130.The increasing prices aren’t limited to Moscow’s entertainment industry; the city was named the most expensive in Europe two years running, according to Mercer Human Resource Consulting. At the same time, PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that the average price of a movie ticket in Russia was 101 rubles ($4.12) in 2006. Today, Moscow prices range anywhere from 150 rubles-500 rubles ($6.12-$20). And for “event” movies, ticket prices often are hiked during the first two weeks in release. In Moscow, prices also can vary depending on the time of day or whether it’s a weekend showing.

Leonid Ogorodnikov, CEO of Russia’s largest movie chain, Caro Film, explains the variance in cost as the price of ensuring quality. “There are theaters in which prices don’t go up on weekends and holidays, but these are old cinemas that don’t guarantee quality presentation, sound, service, etc.,” he says. “These are attended by moviegoers who aren’t ready to pay for a quality film screening.”

Kirill Ivanov, vp operations and development at Cinema Park, Russia’s fourth-largest exhibitor, chalks up the expensive ticket prices to extremely high rental rates for cinemas in Russian shopping centers. “If before this concerned only Moscow and to a certain extent St. Petersburg, now the rental rates in small cities are just through the roof,” he says.

But Sergei Lavrov, box office analyst at Russia Film Business Today, places the responsibility for high ticket prices squarely on the shoulders of the film business. “With so little regulation in this country, distributors can do whatever they like,” he says.

Although reserved seating is becoming increasingly common in Europe and the U.S., tickets in Russia are divided into economy and VIP categories. Some theaters even set aside halls with much smaller capacity, with tickets selling for as high as three or four times the usual admission rates. If prices are beyond your reach, don’t even think about heading out to a Moscow nightclub. A booth can cost as much as $12,000 in some hot spots.

That’s Russian Entertainment!

Reuters reports:

Before grumbling about rising movie ticket prices in the United States, consider a trip to the multiplex in Russia.

The recent Matthew McConaughey movie “Fool’s Gold” is playing at Moscow’s 11-screen Oktyabr Cinema for 300 rubles per ticket — that’s $12.70. [LR: In a country with an average wage of $4 per hour, a Russian needs to work for three hours to pay for a single movie ticket; a whole day’s wages would be needed to pay for a date]. Stick around for the later showing of the horror film “Shutter,” which is running only in Oktyabr’s 35-seat VIP room, and the price jumps to 1,200 rubles ($51).

A night out at the movies or the occasional theater seats might require budget-balancing in the West. But that same escapism is becoming a luxury item in Russia, where out-of-home entertainment can eat up a sizable portion of the average wage of the working class and those on retirement incomes. “Certainly, there is a segment of the Russian population that is left out of entertainment because of the price,” says Maria Lipman, analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, which studies public policy issues.

But even as Russia spawns a growing middle class and disposable income increases of about 10% each year, the average net monthly wage translates to $524 per month and the average monthly pension to $130.The increasing prices aren’t limited to Moscow’s entertainment industry; the city was named the most expensive in Europe two years running, according to Mercer Human Resource Consulting. At the same time, PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that the average price of a movie ticket in Russia was 101 rubles ($4.12) in 2006. Today, Moscow prices range anywhere from 150 rubles-500 rubles ($6.12-$20). And for “event” movies, ticket prices often are hiked during the first two weeks in release. In Moscow, prices also can vary depending on the time of day or whether it’s a weekend showing.

Leonid Ogorodnikov, CEO of Russia’s largest movie chain, Caro Film, explains the variance in cost as the price of ensuring quality. “There are theaters in which prices don’t go up on weekends and holidays, but these are old cinemas that don’t guarantee quality presentation, sound, service, etc.,” he says. “These are attended by moviegoers who aren’t ready to pay for a quality film screening.”

Kirill Ivanov, vp operations and development at Cinema Park, Russia’s fourth-largest exhibitor, chalks up the expensive ticket prices to extremely high rental rates for cinemas in Russian shopping centers. “If before this concerned only Moscow and to a certain extent St. Petersburg, now the rental rates in small cities are just through the roof,” he says.

But Sergei Lavrov, box office analyst at Russia Film Business Today, places the responsibility for high ticket prices squarely on the shoulders of the film business. “With so little regulation in this country, distributors can do whatever they like,” he says.

Although reserved seating is becoming increasingly common in Europe and the U.S., tickets in Russia are divided into economy and VIP categories. Some theaters even set aside halls with much smaller capacity, with tickets selling for as high as three or four times the usual admission rates. If prices are beyond your reach, don’t even think about heading out to a Moscow nightclub. A booth can cost as much as $12,000 in some hot spots.

That’s Russian Entertainment!

Reuters reports:

Before grumbling about rising movie ticket prices in the United States, consider a trip to the multiplex in Russia.

The recent Matthew McConaughey movie “Fool’s Gold” is playing at Moscow’s 11-screen Oktyabr Cinema for 300 rubles per ticket — that’s $12.70. [LR: In a country with an average wage of $4 per hour, a Russian needs to work for three hours to pay for a single movie ticket; a whole day’s wages would be needed to pay for a date]. Stick around for the later showing of the horror film “Shutter,” which is running only in Oktyabr’s 35-seat VIP room, and the price jumps to 1,200 rubles ($51).

A night out at the movies or the occasional theater seats might require budget-balancing in the West. But that same escapism is becoming a luxury item in Russia, where out-of-home entertainment can eat up a sizable portion of the average wage of the working class and those on retirement incomes. “Certainly, there is a segment of the Russian population that is left out of entertainment because of the price,” says Maria Lipman, analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, which studies public policy issues.

But even as Russia spawns a growing middle class and disposable income increases of about 10% each year, the average net monthly wage translates to $524 per month and the average monthly pension to $130.The increasing prices aren’t limited to Moscow’s entertainment industry; the city was named the most expensive in Europe two years running, according to Mercer Human Resource Consulting. At the same time, PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that the average price of a movie ticket in Russia was 101 rubles ($4.12) in 2006. Today, Moscow prices range anywhere from 150 rubles-500 rubles ($6.12-$20). And for “event” movies, ticket prices often are hiked during the first two weeks in release. In Moscow, prices also can vary depending on the time of day or whether it’s a weekend showing.

Leonid Ogorodnikov, CEO of Russia’s largest movie chain, Caro Film, explains the variance in cost as the price of ensuring quality. “There are theaters in which prices don’t go up on weekends and holidays, but these are old cinemas that don’t guarantee quality presentation, sound, service, etc.,” he says. “These are attended by moviegoers who aren’t ready to pay for a quality film screening.”

Kirill Ivanov, vp operations and development at Cinema Park, Russia’s fourth-largest exhibitor, chalks up the expensive ticket prices to extremely high rental rates for cinemas in Russian shopping centers. “If before this concerned only Moscow and to a certain extent St. Petersburg, now the rental rates in small cities are just through the roof,” he says.

But Sergei Lavrov, box office analyst at Russia Film Business Today, places the responsibility for high ticket prices squarely on the shoulders of the film business. “With so little regulation in this country, distributors can do whatever they like,” he says.

Although reserved seating is becoming increasingly common in Europe and the U.S., tickets in Russia are divided into economy and VIP categories. Some theaters even set aside halls with much smaller capacity, with tickets selling for as high as three or four times the usual admission rates. If prices are beyond your reach, don’t even think about heading out to a Moscow nightclub. A booth can cost as much as $12,000 in some hot spots.

That’s Russian Entertainment!

Reuters reports:

Before grumbling about rising movie ticket prices in the United States, consider a trip to the multiplex in Russia.

The recent Matthew McConaughey movie “Fool’s Gold” is playing at Moscow’s 11-screen Oktyabr Cinema for 300 rubles per ticket — that’s $12.70. [LR: In a country with an average wage of $4 per hour, a Russian needs to work for three hours to pay for a single movie ticket; a whole day’s wages would be needed to pay for a date]. Stick around for the later showing of the horror film “Shutter,” which is running only in Oktyabr’s 35-seat VIP room, and the price jumps to 1,200 rubles ($51).

A night out at the movies or the occasional theater seats might require budget-balancing in the West. But that same escapism is becoming a luxury item in Russia, where out-of-home entertainment can eat up a sizable portion of the average wage of the working class and those on retirement incomes. “Certainly, there is a segment of the Russian population that is left out of entertainment because of the price,” says Maria Lipman, analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, which studies public policy issues.

But even as Russia spawns a growing middle class and disposable income increases of about 10% each year, the average net monthly wage translates to $524 per month and the average monthly pension to $130.The increasing prices aren’t limited to Moscow’s entertainment industry; the city was named the most expensive in Europe two years running, according to Mercer Human Resource Consulting. At the same time, PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that the average price of a movie ticket in Russia was 101 rubles ($4.12) in 2006. Today, Moscow prices range anywhere from 150 rubles-500 rubles ($6.12-$20). And for “event” movies, ticket prices often are hiked during the first two weeks in release. In Moscow, prices also can vary depending on the time of day or whether it’s a weekend showing.

Leonid Ogorodnikov, CEO of Russia’s largest movie chain, Caro Film, explains the variance in cost as the price of ensuring quality. “There are theaters in which prices don’t go up on weekends and holidays, but these are old cinemas that don’t guarantee quality presentation, sound, service, etc.,” he says. “These are attended by moviegoers who aren’t ready to pay for a quality film screening.”

Kirill Ivanov, vp operations and development at Cinema Park, Russia’s fourth-largest exhibitor, chalks up the expensive ticket prices to extremely high rental rates for cinemas in Russian shopping centers. “If before this concerned only Moscow and to a certain extent St. Petersburg, now the rental rates in small cities are just through the roof,” he says.

But Sergei Lavrov, box office analyst at Russia Film Business Today, places the responsibility for high ticket prices squarely on the shoulders of the film business. “With so little regulation in this country, distributors can do whatever they like,” he says.

Although reserved seating is becoming increasingly common in Europe and the U.S., tickets in Russia are divided into economy and VIP categories. Some theaters even set aside halls with much smaller capacity, with tickets selling for as high as three or four times the usual admission rates. If prices are beyond your reach, don’t even think about heading out to a Moscow nightclub. A booth can cost as much as $12,000 in some hot spots.

That’s Russian Entertainment!

Reuters reports:

Before grumbling about rising movie ticket prices in the United States, consider a trip to the multiplex in Russia.

The recent Matthew McConaughey movie “Fool’s Gold” is playing at Moscow’s 11-screen Oktyabr Cinema for 300 rubles per ticket — that’s $12.70. [LR: In a country with an average wage of $4 per hour, a Russian needs to work for three hours to pay for a single movie ticket; a whole day’s wages would be needed to pay for a date]. Stick around for the later showing of the horror film “Shutter,” which is running only in Oktyabr’s 35-seat VIP room, and the price jumps to 1,200 rubles ($51).

A night out at the movies or the occasional theater seats might require budget-balancing in the West. But that same escapism is becoming a luxury item in Russia, where out-of-home entertainment can eat up a sizable portion of the average wage of the working class and those on retirement incomes. “Certainly, there is a segment of the Russian population that is left out of entertainment because of the price,” says Maria Lipman, analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, which studies public policy issues.

But even as Russia spawns a growing middle class and disposable income increases of about 10% each year, the average net monthly wage translates to $524 per month and the average monthly pension to $130.The increasing prices aren’t limited to Moscow’s entertainment industry; the city was named the most expensive in Europe two years running, according to Mercer Human Resource Consulting. At the same time, PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that the average price of a movie ticket in Russia was 101 rubles ($4.12) in 2006. Today, Moscow prices range anywhere from 150 rubles-500 rubles ($6.12-$20). And for “event” movies, ticket prices often are hiked during the first two weeks in release. In Moscow, prices also can vary depending on the time of day or whether it’s a weekend showing.

Leonid Ogorodnikov, CEO of Russia’s largest movie chain, Caro Film, explains the variance in cost as the price of ensuring quality. “There are theaters in which prices don’t go up on weekends and holidays, but these are old cinemas that don’t guarantee quality presentation, sound, service, etc.,” he says. “These are attended by moviegoers who aren’t ready to pay for a quality film screening.”

Kirill Ivanov, vp operations and development at Cinema Park, Russia’s fourth-largest exhibitor, chalks up the expensive ticket prices to extremely high rental rates for cinemas in Russian shopping centers. “If before this concerned only Moscow and to a certain extent St. Petersburg, now the rental rates in small cities are just through the roof,” he says.

But Sergei Lavrov, box office analyst at Russia Film Business Today, places the responsibility for high ticket prices squarely on the shoulders of the film business. “With so little regulation in this country, distributors can do whatever they like,” he says.

Although reserved seating is becoming increasingly common in Europe and the U.S., tickets in Russia are divided into economy and VIP categories. Some theaters even set aside halls with much smaller capacity, with tickets selling for as high as three or four times the usual admission rates. If prices are beyond your reach, don’t even think about heading out to a Moscow nightclub. A booth can cost as much as $12,000 in some hot spots.

Annals of Neo-Soviet Censorship

Other Russia reports:

Two well-known Russian rock musicians have been cut from television programs planning to feature their work. The first, ironically named Televizor (Television), was supposed to appear in a live show on the St. Petersburg 100TV channel on April 24th. The second, DDT frontman Yury Shevchuk, was banned from the Kultura (Culture) channel.

As the Sobkor@ru news agency reports, the 100TV channel’s editorial offices were apparently concerned with nature of Televizor’s recent lyrics.

Televizor, which came out of the Soviet underground of the mid-1980s, describes itself as “one of the predecessors of Russian neo-romanticism and electronic funk.” The band, led by Mikhail Borzykin, was supposed to appear on the “100 Percent Sound” show, in a live musical performance.

While many of the group’s songs have nothing offensive about them, the group has never shied away from political themes and strong-mouthed lyrics. Their early recordings include songs titled “Your television is speaking with you,” and “Your dad is a fascist.” The band’s most recent album, Megamisanthrope, takes jabs at religion, war and materialism. Televizor’s latest songs have taken a sharp political edge, criticizing repressive authorities and imperialism. Borzykin is an active member of the opposition, and has performed at several demonstrations, including the March 3rd, 2008 March of Dissent in St. Petersburg.

“The songs of Mikhail Borzykin could not be aired, but not for political, but rather ethical reasons,” said Andrei Radin, the lead editor for the 100 TV channel. He explained the channel’s concerns for letting Televizor on the air, noting the “barefaced, explicit obscenity, and even unmentionable language” of Borzykin’s songs.

The singer himself said that “we were told that ‘now there’s such a situation, that we cannot allow this to happen.’”

Another television channel is apparently unhappy with Yury Shevchuk, the front-man of one of Russia’s most famous rock-bands, DDT. According to the North-West Political News Agency, the Kultura (Culture) TV channel has a standing order not to air any of Shevchuk’s songs. This year, he was also replaced at an annual commemorative concert for folk artist Bulat Okudzhava.

Shevchuk, who took part in the March 3rd March of Dissent in St. Petersburg, also performed at a concert after the mass-demonstration. Speaking during the protest, he explained that rock music in Russia and St. Petersburg most of all represents freedom. In a later interview, he added that he decided to march because “there was no other choice left.

Those who speak Russian can listen to an interview with Borzykin here.

The Sunday Book Review

J.R. Nyquist reviews Comrade J by Peter Earley:

At the end of Pete Earley’s book, Comrade J, Russian master spy Sergei Tretyakov tells why he defected to the United States seven years ago. It had to do with his “growing disgust and contempt for what has happened and is happening in Russia.” According to Tretyakov, he and his wife were not naïve about the “immorality, cruelty, repression, and ineffectiveness” of the former Soviet regime. “Yet it was our motherland,” he said, “which, like your parents, you cannot choose.” He was hopeful when Gorbachev arrived on the scene. “I believed that Gorbachev would start a new era of democratization in the Soviet Union.” The outcome of Gorbachev’s reforms, however, was hardly encouraging. “The economy collapsed, and people became desperate and miserable,” Tretyakov explained. “Since then Russia has been repeatedly raped and looted by its leadership. I call this process GENOCIDE of the Russian people performed by a group of immoral criminals.”

In this column I often attempt to describe the dangerous thugs who dominate Russia. In response I regularly receive outraged emails. Why should I write about corruption and tyranny in Russia when the real corruption and tyranny is here in the United States? It is hard to argue with ignorance, especially when that ignorance is bolstered by ideological presumption. No country is perfect, to be sure; but let us consider the testimony of someone who knows both Russia and America. Sergei Tretyakov was a Russian master spy who spent many years in New York. He is in a better position to judge which country is free, and which is governed by criminals who ruthless exploit the people.

“I want my new compatriots to know who and what I am, and why I am in this country,” wrote Tretyakov. “Speaking out enables me to give my qualifications, and after giving them, I can sound an alarm.” According to Tretyakov Americans think the Kremlin is an ally, a friend. “In speaking out,” he wrote, “I hope to expose how naïve this is.” Since he and his family have become American citizens, Tretyakov said he has been offended by natural-born Americans who take their liberties for granted. He wrote: “Sometimes I believe only someone who has lived in a corrupt society can truly understand the importance of America’s liberties. I find this frustrating.”

I had an opportunity to talk last Wednesday night with a courageous man from Russia, Dr. Andrei Illarionov, who previously served as Vladimir Putin’s senior economic advisor. In December 2005 Illarionov surprised the world by stating, at a press conference, that Russia “is no longer a democratic country. It is no longer a free country.” Needless to say, Illarionov left the Kremlin. He is now a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. He told me that the problem with Russia was not the imposition of a new system of strict authoritarian rules. “The most important element in this new system,” he explained, “is the absence of the rule of law.”

The old totalitarianism in Russia was, as George Orwell described it, “a lawless order.” The new totalitarianism is a lawless disorder. “In the case of modern Russia,” Illarionov explained, “there is no rule of law and no rule of man. In Russia it is the rule of thugs. It is not the rule of one person…. It is rule by people who in most civilized countries would be [in jail].”

During the past century Russia has not developed a solid, civil society. It has descended from tsarism to Stalinism down to a regime of competing thugs. Before coming to power Stalin robbed banks. He was a Georgian thug who stole power. His example was contagious, spreading throughout Russia like a plague. “Socialism was not a great system,” Illarionov said. “It was a dictatorship. It was a terrorist type system.” The men at the top were thugs, perhaps, but there were rules. “As long as you followed those rules you had a high level of safety,” Illarionov added. “Today nobody knows the rules.”

Yet there is a rule, if you can call it a rule: The Kremlin regularly seizes control of companies that are making the most money simply because they are cash cows – ready to be milked. “The criteria,” said Illarionov, “is to take companies that can generate cash.” He further explained: If society develops from nomadic banditry to stationary banditry to a civilized state, then Russia is going backwards.

“In Russia,” said Illarionov, “we see an enormous destruction of civil society, but sometimes we see very impressive economic growth. We see one of the fastest growing economies in the world.” According to the best theories of political and economic science this shouldn’t be happening. “So we have to ask if some new law, new pattern, is observable in Russia.”

Andrei Illarionov is a brave man, and so is Sergei Tretyakov. Both these men are trying to warn us about the same thing. History teaches that rulers who rob and butcher their own citizens will not hesitate to bomb and invade their neighbors. It must be remembered that the thugs in the Kremlin have thermonuclear weapons. They are improving these weapons, day by day. They arm terrorists throughout the world. They are supporting North Korea, Venezuela and Iran. And here is what I find most disturbing. Illarionov pointed out that “George Bush sees Vladimir Putin as his personal friend.”

This is a mystery, and Dr. Illarionov has no “good explanation for why it is so.” It is normal for Western governments to isolate gangster regimes. But the Kremlin has not been isolated. The Kremlin has murdered or poisoned various Russian and Ukrainian politicians. The facts are widely known. “Anyone who would behave remotely similar would be immediately isolated,” said Illarionov. But Russia has not been isolated.

“It is something really special,” Illarionov conceded. Russia is growing economically while breaking free of the pattern of civilized life. This is reminiscent of Nazi Germany. It creates a psychological feeling within Russia, a sense of superiority. “All those people believe they have found a way to make a successful political system,” Illarionov warned. It makes violence and banditry seem like a workable alternative to civilization. People begin to believe that banditry has a future. Why not become a looter? Why not follow the bandit’s example?

From all of this we learn that the struggle for freedom is also a struggle for law and order. It is also a struggle against moral nihilism. Civilization exists because of standards. These standards refer to “right” and “wrong.” If there is no objective right and wrong, recognized as a basis for the rule of law, civilized society cannot long endure.

The Sunday Short Story

Sana Krasikov, in the New Yorker:

“The Repatriates”


The last days of Grisha and Lera Arsenyev’s marriage might have been a story fashioned out of commonplace warnings. Retold, it was no longer about the Arsenyevs at all but about the ambushes that befall the most gleefully naïve of us, still laboring under illusions of security. The Arsenyevs were a different sort of immigrant from those who’d washed up with the tides of asylum-seekers in the seventies and eighties. In 1994, Grisha Arsenyev’s visa had been processed not by the staffs of refugee committees but by a covey of lawyers working for Hewlett-Packard, assigned to skim the cream of Eastern brainpower. After his indentured servitude at HP—which lasted the five years it took the company to come through with the promised green card—Grisha quit and promptly got himself hired for twice as much, as a quant at Morgan Stanley, building market models for mortgage traders.

Whatever envy his fast climb had stirred in the hearts of others, to hear Grisha Arsenyev talk one might guess that immigrating had turned out to be the great anticlimax of his life. At the get-togethers that Lera and Grisha attended, Lera would often see her husband off in a corner, rattling his drink and talking with someone about the moribund state of American culture, the absence of any real spirituality here. It had been known to happen to such late arrivers—the ones who’d risked nothing, forsaken little, and had not even been required by the Russian government to annul their red passports. Once, in somebody’s kitchen, Lera had heard a man refer to her husband as “Lenin in exile” and had recognized the allusion to Grisha’s beard and his huge forehead heightened by baldness, and to the provokable mind that liked to assign every problem its proper place in a political chain of events. The enthusiasm with which Grisha spoke of the “opportunities” in Russia would begin to remind his listener of the sort of miscalculation made by those who marry for money and then invariably realize they didn’t marry for enough. In the economic upheavals he had avoided, his old colleagues who’d stayed in Moscow had started making serious money, while he was still shackled to a salary on Wall Street, of all places. So it surprised only a few when Grisha started travelling back, seeing old friends and making new ones, looking for his own golden formula. And when one of his weeklong trips stretched out to two months Lera found her husband’s absence something to be endured.

On the phone, he told her he had no plans to return to Morgan Stanley, where he had been disregarded, he said, passed over for men whose only qualifications beyond his were that they could quote from “Star Wars” and recall Yankees scores from the Nixon era. He no longer wished to be tyrannized by bogus performance evaluations in which he was called “judgmental” and told that he “imposed his opinion on others,” before being asked to sign that filth like a forced confession. Fate, he said, had chosen a better path for him in his homeland. He was staying in Moscow to look for financiers for a business idea that would do for the Russian market what mortgage traders had done on Wall Street since the eighties: pool and repackage loans for investors in one massive turbine of debt and capital. He would build not only wealth for himself but a better life for the doctors and schoolteachers in distant provinces, still living in run-down, vermin-infested apartments and dreaming of raising their kids in solid houses, if only Russia could grow a robust mortgage industry.

Within three months, Lera had sold the Dobbs Ferry house with its view of the Hudson. Dekabristka, her daughter called her, joking that her devotion was like that of the Decembrist wives who’d followed their men to Siberia after their uprising against the monarchy. She wasn’t sure if Masha meant this kindly, but when the first clouds appeared through the airplane’s windows Lera pretended they were vales of snow she was crossing by sleigh and carriage. She’d be too far away now to send Masha packages at college—scented soaps and soup mixes, magazine clippings and dried flowers from her garden. The garden itself would probably be neglected by the house’s new owners, a busy professional couple with infant twins who wouldn’t necessarily appreciate that Lera had spent several seasons selecting plants for full and partial shade, dragging limestone from a quarry, digging a hole for the dogwood tree to replace the diseased elm that the town had cut down. Then again none of that mattered much now. It was Grisha who needed her, not a garden.

There was effete, uneven applause in the cabin when the plane touched down on the runway in Sheremetyevo. At the gate, Lera looked for Grisha among the people holding bouquets and spied his head. His hair had turned the color of a battleship a while ago, but his skin was still as ruddy as a country boy’s.

“Couldn’t leave anything behind?” he said, smiling at her suitcases. He slid an arm around her shoulder and gave her a quick kiss before leading her out into Moscow’s pale November evening.

Through the vibrating raindrops on the car window, she could see the jagged monument marking the limit of the German advance in ’41 and, just beyond it, the cobalt blue of an Ikea superstore.

“I wish you would convince Masha to fly here for New Year’s,” Lera said. “She says she’s going to stay in the dorms all winter.”

“If she wants to stay, it’s her business. She needs a ticket, I’ll send her money.”

Her husband and her daughter were exactly alike. Both liked to take a misanthropic posture, but against what, Lera could never guess. “I just want to make plans, Grisha. So everything isn’t done at the last minute. If we’re going to start renovating, Masha won’t have a place to sleep. You said it took Olya and Kirill eight months to redo their apartment.”

“Kirill wanted all his closets wired. So when he opens the doors they light up like refrigerators,” Grisha said. “I’m a simple man.”

When they’d left, Grisha’s cousin had been eking out a living fixing furniture. That he had since made a fortune buying and selling upholstery hadn’t changed Grisha’s view that Kirill was fundamentally an idiot.

“You didn’t forget the suit?” Grisha asked. “I’m going to Tver next week.”

“It’s still in its plastic. I don’t know why you need an Armani jacket to talk to a bunch of bureaucrats.” She had gone into the city to buy it for him before she left, because he insisted it was twice as expensive on Tverskaya.

“They aren’t bureaucrats. There are going to be people from SberBank, AIGK. And Stanislav Mitin, too.”

On the phone, Grisha had told her about Mitin, the real-estate developer who’d offered to guarantee the first issue of loans, to put up his own money if a housing market in some province collapsed. She didn’t like the sound of Mitin; his interest in Grisha’s proposed company seemed predicated not on its profit potential but on his sharing Grisha’s somewhat sanctimonious vision of a glorious and holy Russia. Mitin had had an Orthodox priest bless each of his businesses, Grisha had told her, which made her think the man had more than enough to atone for.

“Should I tell you about my flight?” she asked. “They sat me next to one of those Russian candy bars in pink sweatpants. She tapped my shoulder whenever she had to get up and pee. No ‘excuse me.’ No ‘thank you.’ Tap tap. The stewardess told her to put away her giant white leather bag, and she pointed to my purse and said, ‘What about her? Why don’t you tell her to put hers away?’ ”

“What blue bloods we have these days.”

“And her husband had a spade tattooed on one of his fingers.”

A silver chain glinted from under Grisha’s collar. Lera reached over and fished it out with her nail. “What’s this?” She rubbed her thumb over the small cross. Grisha gave her a dark look, like that of a teen-ager whose privacy has been intruded on. “It was my mother’s.”

She let the cross drop and reclined in her seat. In what drawer, she wondered, between what set of ironed sheets, would Grisha’s dead mother, with her Komsomol and Party allegiances, have kept this silver cross?

Along the main drag of Bolshaya Cherkizovskaya, the trees had lost their leaves, revealing sparse playgrounds with wooden seesaws and painted steel climbing bars between the buildings. Soon they were turning onto their old block of Khrushchev-era low-rises just past the Preobrazhenskoye metro, a neighborhood of durable, identical blocks where they’d spent the first years of their marriage.

Little had changed inside. The living room had the same massive lacquered wall unit and textured wallpaper, damaged now by the pencil scrawlings of tenants’ children, the same double curtains of polyester lace and cretonne. Year after year, they had intended to sell the place, waiting first for the market to pick up, then worrying about dishonest agents. Finally, Grisha had simply left it empty for his visits. She could see he hadn’t done anything to the place, that he had probably been waiting for her to arrive and start renovating.

The next morning, Lera made phone calls. She called her aunt in Krasnodar, promising to visit before New Year’s, and her old friend Lidochka, who cried from joy that Lera was only three metro stops away. She called Olya, Grisha’s cousin’s wife, who was rushing off to Mamontovka, where she and Kirill were building a kottedzh. Olya apologized that she couldn’t stay on the phone longer, but she needed to get to the suburbs before her work crew took their eighty-proof eyeopener.

A few days later, Lera called in her own crew to replace the windows in the apartment. The two men who showed up asked if they could change into their work clothes in the living room. They were still in their underwear when she returned ten minutes later with a plate of cheese and glasses of juice. “We’ll forgive you this time,” one of them said, smiling crudely when she looked at his work boots and bare chest. The other one sniffed the juice and said, “Anything a little stronger, Madam?”

“My husband wants the windowsills replaced as well,” she said, leading them through the rooms. “And please take away the old glass when you’re done. I don’t want to give my husband more work to do.” The words “my husband” were like an incantation, filling the rooms with Grisha’s spirit, a Grisha who defended his wife’s honor and did not tolerate grown men stripping in his home. The husband she invoked was master of his domain, a more solid presence than the one who actually lived here. The one who lived here left early and came home late, just as he’d done in Dobbs Ferry. In the mornings now he took the metro to Kitai-Gorod, where he rented the corner space from a computer company. A real office would come later, he told Lera, when he found more investors for his securities firm. He was going to Tver, a regional center two hours north, in a few days to pitch his idea to some forward-thinking mini-garchs. At night he worked at the computer desk in the bedroom, before getting into bed and reading a few pages of the book on his nightstand.

“Who is that?” Lera asked one night, looking at the bulldoglike face on the jacket.

“Pavel Ryabushinsky.” He had his chin tucked into his chest as he read.

She wedged her pelvis against the side of his hip. “A writer?”

“He was an industrialist at the turn of the century.”

“Like Rockefeller?” she said. Her fingers played with the hair on his stomach. The warm world below the blanket had its own rules.

Grisha didn’t answer. He turned another page. Traffic sounds floated in through their casement window. “Rockefeller was like him,” he said, nearly a minute later. “Russia was more industrialized than America back then. The ruble was more stable than the dollar.” She felt Grisha’s soft belly tighten under her stroking hand. She didn’t remember when they had developed this pattern of him not responding to her until the last possible moment. Seductively, she traced her finger along the elastic band of his shorts. He hadn’t made love to her since she’d arrived. Now he removed her hand, patted it, and placed it beside him on the sheet. “I have to get up early,” he said, shutting the book and curling up toward the wall.

She tried not to feel insulted. He was exhausted by his work. She was here now, to take care of him. She would make Grisha a special dinner before he went on his overnight trip to Tver on Thursday. The next morning, she walked to the Preobrazhensky market to get groceries and fresh fish, following the crowds rolling their handcarts down a footpath lined with pensioners holding up hand-knitted shawls and strings of dried mushrooms. A battery of grandmothers stood along the chain-link fence peddling old shoes they’d set out on newspapers. Books, dull knives, outmoded cameras—useless things. How conspicuous the elderly were here, she thought, how openly old.

She made her way through the acre of stone counters piled with carrots and potatoes, tubs of sour cabbage. Sharp gusts of wind burned her cheeks. At a table covered with egg cartons, a frizzy-haired blonde in fingerless gloves rubbed her hands together and lit a cigarette.

“Right out of the henhouse,” Lera said, and grinned. She pointed to the largest of the eggs, which had a downy feather stuck to it. “How much?”

The woman exhaled smoke through the side of her mouth. “You can’t read?” She glanced down just enough for Lera to notice the prices taped to the edge of the table.

Lera picked up a carton and started to fill it with eggs.

“Take a look at her,” the woman said. “Self-service.”

“You didn’t want to be bothered.”

The blonde shook her head. “Give me that,” she said, grabbing the egg carton. “At this speed, you’ll take all day. Can’t you see you’re driving away my customers?”

“Excuse me?”

“Excuse me. Excuse me,” the woman said, loading eggs.

“Don’t be a dandelion,” Grisha told her when she complained to him in the evening. “You like to let everything raise your blood pressure.” He’d finished the mushroom soup she had made for him and was cutting into the trout she’d served. “You know how these people live,” he said, washing down the fish with white wine. “This egg lady probably has to get up before the roosters, use an outhouse, drive here from some huyevo-tutuyevo. O.K., so she has light bulbs, thanks to Lenin’s faith in electricity. You want her to tell you to have a nice day?”

“And she’s just waiting for you to make her life better,” she said, finishing her wine.

He let her remark pass, apparently deeming it too foolish to acknowledge. “Someone looks at you wrong, Lera, and you need a sedative. What do you think I have to put up with? The last time I gave this talk that I’m giving tomorrow, some V.I.P. picked his nose through my entire presentation. And not just digging—I mean doing an investigation.”

“I don’t want to argue,” she said. “I only wanted to tell you about my day.”

She got up and set her dishes in the small sink. She would need to look for a job here, to channel her mind toward something more useful than complaining. For the past two years, since the drug laboratory where she’d worked had closed its Westchester branch, she had manned the reception desk at her gym three days a week. She’d taken an exit package from the lab, learned to garden, started reading novels again. She missed the gym now, missed the women telling her about the nannies they’d hired or the ones they’d fired because they’d caught them stealing money or seen photographs of nephews in Hungary playing with toys that had disappeared from the house. She missed being told in confidence about the cycling instructor who’d remarried his first wife right after divorcing his third. At the gym, people involved her in the theatre of their daily lives as though she were a bartender, handing them not towels but glasses of gin. In the evening, when she’d tried to interest Grisha in these stories, he’d listened with a face of painful submission. When she was with him, the life that gave her pleasure seemed frivolous; it was like describing a sitcom—the plots unravelled, the jokes were no longer funny. Grisha would listen until he had finished eating and then go upstairs to start his graveyard shift, working late into the night on articles about “social mortgages” and “securitization” that he submitted to Russian economic journals.

She watched him consume his dinner now, get through the trout bite by bite, gulp down his wine. His pale-blue eyes looked watery from exhaustion, the skin of his nose polished as if by a sunburn. His sideburns had been trimmed in preparation for the presentation of his idea for a private loan-backing firm, a Russian Fannie Mae, as he called it. She knew she would have been too frightened to start all over the way he was doing, at forty-six.

“You’ll do fine,” she said. “You’ll see.”

He smirked, though not meanly this time. Lera sat down and slid her hand across the table, touching his arm. She wanted to be a supportive wife, to do whatever fate required, though at times it seemed that the best she could do was not interfere.

She went to meet her friend Lidochka on Thursday afternoon, after Grisha had boarded his train. Her friend had been going by Lidochka, not Lida, all her life—a little girl’s name that had followed her into her forties because of her gentleness and her reputation for being short on common sense. She covered her mouth when she saw Lera on the platform of the Ohotny Ryad metro. “Oh, my soul!” she said, embracing her. Lidochka had once looked like a fairy, but now her small features puckered out of a face that had become as puffy as a flaky pastry.

They went to a café on the ground floor of the Tchaikovsky Conservatory, unadorned and nearly empty, which was what Lidochka must have liked about it, Lera thought, living as she did with almost no privacy. When Lera carried éclairs and coffee to their table, she saw tears in Lidochka’s eyes. “How I’ve waited for you,” Lidochka said, touching Lera’s thin jacket lovingly. “Don’t spend your money. I’ll have Natasha pick you up a good coat on her next trip.” Lidochka looked out the window at the dry, tiny snowflakes and added, “It’s going to be a bad winter for orphans.” Natasha, her daughter, travelled to China every few months, buying merchandise that she and her new lover, whom she’d moved in with, sold to the kiosks in the markets. Meanwhile, Natasha’s husband and her five-year-old son still lived with Lidochka in a two-room apartment, a domestic situation now in its second year.

“He’s like a son to me,” she said of Natasha’s husband. “It breaks my heart to watch him on the couch in the evenings, changing the channels without saying a word. Sometimes he goes days without speaking. Every morning, I wake up and think I’m going crazy. Then I fold my cot in the kitchen, get a grip on myself, and tell my son-in-law to eat breakfast.”

“How do you stay afloat?” Lera said.

“Oh, my dear, I still have my students. At a time like this, though, I wish I tutored English instead of French.”

“I forgot! Tell me about your trip to Paris this summer.” She wanted to switch to a less desperate topic. It was clear that Lidochka, after eleven years, did not want to bother with small talk. To her, friendship still meant coming face to face with another’s unmediated existence. It was exhilarating, Lera thought, but also exhausting.

“What is there to say? They put us up in some dirty hotel outside the city. We rode into Paris in the mornings and had to stand in line on the bus for hot water. And we weren’t fed—I had to carry around tins of sardines in my purse.” She wiped a tear from the corner of her eye with a napkin. “I didn’t want to tell you before, but now I will: I answered a classified ad in the paper for a receptionist job at a travel agency. You don’t know how hard it is to find work after forty. These ads are all the same—they ask for twenty-year-olds ‘without complexes.’ But this one seemed reasonable. I told them I’d been a French teacher, and they hired me right away. They said the bus tour was a requirement for the job, so I’d be able to tell the clients about the trips the agency sold. I’d be reimbursed as soon as I started working. But when I got back from Paris it turned out they’d already filled my job with a girl Natasha’s age. I’m so ashamed. To be such a fool.”

“That’s awful.” Lera didn’t know what else to say. If it weren’t for the weakness of Lidochka’s voice and her smudged makeup, it might have been a joke someone told at a party. “You need to go and ask for your money back,” Lera added firmly.

“I did go back, and you can only guess what kinds of names they called me. There’s no decency anymore, Lera.” Her eyes were dry with conviction now. “No decency and no fair play.”

She was glad to be alone in the metro again, in the splendor of its vaulted ceilings and mosaics, away from the sickly touch of misfortune. She took the red line to the Library of Lenin and transferred through its maze of halls and escalators to the Arbat line, emerging out of the templelike station and crossing the Boulevard Ring until she was on the bright, populated strip of the Noviy Arbat. She was looking for the Citibank office, to pick up more cash, since the window job had cost more than she’d expected. The quick pace of pedestrians on the street carried her along. Being part of the purposeful, business-day life of the city was lifting her spirits. You needed a certain kind of desperation, she thought, to wander into the type of trap Lidochka had entered. It wasn’t enough simply to be foolish. It came from living too long in a fantasyland of your own hopefulness. She felt grateful for Grisha, whom she’d trusted to make sensible choices for both of them.

She found the glassed-in office of the Citibank on the corner of the main plaza, across from a café whose greasy shish-kebab smells now clogged her nose. It was a nice feeling to open those heavy glass doors, to slide your bank card into an A.T.M. and watch the crisply ironed bills come out. She stuck the bills in her purse and then, to restore her spirits a little more, touched the glass monitor to bring up her and Grisha’s current savings. She saw now that the various accounts added up to less than two hundred thousand dollars, not even half of what she remembered depositing after the house was sold. In the past week alone, there had been three large transfers.

Grisha must have decided to keep some of their money at a local bank, she thought, on her way home. Inside the shuddering, speeding subway car, she made a mental note to ask him. She watched two adolescents engaged in heavy kissing on the seat across from hers, pressing themselves up against the large circle of the Moscow metro map. The girl looked like a rag doll, with her striped stockings and limp bangs. She was gnawing on her dense-looking boyfriend’s lip, and every few minutes her eyes flickered around the subway car with calculated satisfaction. They’d probably met only a day before, these teen-agers, but already they knew it wasn’t love unless it could be shown off to the whole world. The lovers in this city made such an elaborate production of their affections, especially considering that the natural expression of everyone else was either dour or resentful. But then again making elaborate productions was a specialty here. Lera thought of Lidochka again. To put an ad in the paper and to interview a desperate, hopeful woman for a job that didn’t exist, in order to fill some third-rate bus tour—they went to such lengths here to fool you.

The kissing was still going on when the doors opened at Lera’s stop. At the turnstiles, she glimpsed a young man with a cardboard sign on his chest that read “Money for Prosthesis.” His sleeves were tucked in on themselves, flaccid flaps over which he wore a long hunting vest, probably to keep his real arms well hidden.

It seemed that fraud was everywhere, once you paid attention. It was like the stray dogs Lera had suddenly noticed all over the city, trotting around the market, lying curled up beside the heating vents in the metro underpasses. Fraud took up a good deal of the local-news coverage, she realized in her kitchen that evening, watching the TV atop the refrigerator as she ate the mushroom soup she’d reheated. On the news, a woman was being led away from a hospital in handcuffs. She had checked herself into eight clinics with phantom illnesses and persuaded the other female patients to lend her money for a child (also phantom) who was going hungry at home. For a con, it certainly seemed like a full-time job, Lera thought. On the small screen, the woman was raving that she hadn’t stuck her hand in anyone’s pocket.

Lera turned off the television, unable to watch anymore. They justified their deceit by convincing themselves that the truth—if you took a close enough look at it—was no different from the lie, that even the principles of morality and lawfulness were themselves only lies by which the clever outsmarted the dumb. She walked into the bedroom and undressed. She missed Grisha; he hadn’t called to tell her about his presentation, and his cell phone seemed to have been turned off. Outside the window an arrow-shaped sign pointing to a jeweller’s shop flickered erratically. Snow had started falling again, in tiny flakes at first and then in thicker chunks slanting down from a dark, milky sky. She crawled into bed and reached for the book on Grisha’s nightstand. It was part of a series on the lives of “The Great and the Famous,” the sort of book he liked to read. When he’d quit Hewlett-Packard, he’d brought home books about moguls, biographies of C.E.O.s, and read them in the basement, then he’d repackaged his applied-math background as a boon for Wall Street, where the winds had started blowing in the direction of quantitative analysis.

She thumbed through the first pages, about Pavel Ryabushinsky’s ancestors, merchants descended from the peasants of the Ryabushinsky community, old believers who’d launched a sackcloth business that had survived Moscow’s fire of 1812 and left them well positioned to buy up looms and weaving mills. Later, the Ryabushinskys would import machinery from Manchester, send their sons to study abroad, enter the mortgage-banking business. All was well until the October Revolution, when Pavel Ryabushinsky and the rest of the clan fled to France. Lera turned the page. Like some of his Western counterparts, Ryabushinsky considered charity his sacred responsibility, held progressive views, and wanted to improve the lot of his countrymen. Until his last days, living in France, he’d hoped to be useful and come back to his beloved Russia after the Revolution was toppled. But, alas, he was not destined to return. This line was underscored faintly in pencil. Next to it was a handwritten note in the margin: “He wasn’t fated, my rabbit, but you are.” Lera looked at the message curiously. It was unmistakably a woman’s hand. Its author had signed it simply “T.”

Lera touched the cavity of her neck. Her heart was galloping. She tried to steady her pulse with a deep breath, but the walls of her throat were closing up. “T.” Her mind was drawing a blank. “My rabbit” sounded like the endearment of some sentimental tart. Had the book been a gift? A souvenir of a casual dalliance that might be over by now? Was it possible that Grisha had skipped that page and not seen the inscription? Or had he left the book here in order to savor the inscription, certain that Lera would never open it? She remembered the saying (was it her mother’s?) that on such occasions there were only two options: to leave or not to know. Nothing in between. Well, where was she to leave to? The house in Dobbs Ferry had been sold, the bank check deposited, the furniture taken to consignment shops. And not to know—wasn’t that always the intelligent option? It seemed that so much of marriage—hers, at least—was made up of these negative spaces, the words she’d kept herself from saying, all in the service of not polluting daily conversations with unnecessary poison. And what good had it done her? She threw the bedcover off, her feet, her underarms clammy with sweat. She opened the window and breathed in the frost-laden air. The cold was like a remorseless living presence descending on her and gripping her under her nightgown. She stared at the snow until she felt herself floating up, out of her numb skin.

It sickened Lera to have to call Olya in the morning. She could think of no one else who could tell her what was going on with Grisha.

“He hasn’t called us in a month,” Olya said. It was hard to tell if she really felt snubbed or was only feigning insult. “Must be a busy season for him.”

“Let’s not be so delicate. If he had someone else, you would tell me, I hope.”

“You know me, Lera. I don’t stand over anyone’s business holding a candle.” The hesitation in her voice suggested that she didn’t want to say more on the phone. “I need to drive to Mamontovka today,” Olya said. “Why don’t you come along?”

Olya steered her Acura with one hand resting atop the wheel. The gold tooth Lera remembered in the corner of her smile was gone. She’d cropped her hair, which played up her Tatar features, the wide cheeks and profile that looked as if it had been pounded flat by a small hammer. The Mamontovka that Lera remembered had changed as well. Some of the wooden dachas had been rebuilt as year-round residences. A cottage town was what Olya called it now, though the “cottages” had nothing in common with the cozy, quaint ones of Westchester. These were more like fortresses you’d have to take by tank—three-story ski lodges rising from behind two-story fences.

“I think a woman lives alone in that one,” Olya said. It had gables and turrets like a little medieval castle. “They shot off the husband last year.”

“Shot off?” Lera said. “What is that, like too many elks? Population control?”

Olya turned onto a residential street with high fences on either side.

“It’s tacky to put up a fence if you live on less than four acres of land,” Lera said, more to the window than to Olya, and then felt a kind of shame at her own snobbery. She wasn’t in Westchester anymore.

Olya drove down to the point at which the road forked. An austere brick church stood in the middle of what might have been a small athletic field, the earth around it overturned by excavation. She parked the car and walked around to the side of the building. Boot prints had frozen in the hardened sludge. In the stillness, Lera could hear the guttural cawing of a crow. She craned her neck to look up at the vaulted roof, which was helmeted by two blue cupolas. There was space for one more. The sign on the brick wall read “Church of the Icon of the Holy Mother of Unexpected Joy.”

“They started restoring it two years ago,” Olya said. “And by restore I mean tore it down and built it up again. You can imagine the cost.”

Olya hunted in her pocket for a handkerchief to wipe her nose, damp like a puppy’s from the cold. “When Grisha was visiting us in June, he said he wanted to meet some people who could help him. People with money. So we brought him here. First we introduced him to Father Alexander, who introduced him to that developer Mitin and his wife, the ballerina. Too old to stick her leg up in the air now, so she gives away her husband’s money. Well, didn’t they love Grisha! Blessing his soul, saying it was God who’d brought him back. We thought Grisha was playing along at first. You won’t get far in business nowadays being an atheist. First everyone attended Party meetings—now it’s church.”

The modest attack of sympathy on Olya’s face couldn’t disguise the pleasure of finally delivering this information. “But you have to show you’re serious. You have to . . . make a gesture.”

“And how much does a gesture cost these days?” Lera asked.

“Thirty thousand dollars won’t get you canonized, but it’ll get your name whispered.”

“Hah!” Lera’s laugh entered the air with a cloud of breath. “What other good news do you have for me?”

“I suspect he doesn’t call us because he knows the talk has reached us. She works at a gallery, one of those avant-garde places that sell things you can find in a dumpster. She used to talk about energetics and U.F.O.s. Now she crosses herself whenever a bus passes.”

Olya walked up the steps of the church and tested the brass handle. The door was so low that to go through it one had to bend to a posture of humility. Lera tightened her coat and followed Olya inside. Two old women nodded kindly as they entered. The church smelled of candle wax and wet plaster, and most of the space had been sectioned off with scaffolds, leaving a high-ceilinged room the size of a small cellar. A makeshift altar and brass gate had been set up, with wooden icons to the left and right. Unlike everything else inside, the icons looked old, their wood battered and gouged. Lera approached one, an image of the Holy Mother, silent pain in her flat painted eyes. The icon was behind a protective sheet of Plexiglas, already covered with waxy pink marks, left behind by some passionate believer who hadn’t bothered to wipe off her lipstick. Lera touched her hand to the Virgin’s and brought two fingers to her lips. Her grandmother had taught her this: the proper way to kiss the Lord or the Holy Mother was on the hand, never on the face, the way you’d kiss your drinking buddies. Lera closed her eyes and tried to pray. Even here, under the domes into which a good portion of their savings had gone, she wanted to ask God for justice. She prayed that Grisha would remember himself.

On Saturday, Grisha returned. She heard the squeal of the hinge and smelled his damp jacket in the corridor. He walked into the bathroom first, and locked the door. From the kitchen she could hear him washing his hands and taking a long powerful piss, then washing his hands again.

“They know how to do everything here,” he said, coming in to where she sat in the kitchen. “Win gold medals, send rockets into space. Only thing they don’t know how to do is wipe their own asses.”

Lera stared out at the activity on Bolshaya Cherkizovskaya, where the traffic never ended. She turned to look at him. His hair was matted down on his high, bald forehead. He reeked of smoke and sour sweat from the train. “Champions in everything,” he said, finding a bottle of cognac in one of the cabinets. He poured three fingers of it into a narrow juice glass and drained it in one gulp. Then he poured another.

“I offer them a guaranteed revenue. The problem is they can’t hide the profit. If they can’t see a way to steal, they’re not interested. Try to show them how to build an industry from the bottom up—it’s like explaining bronze to cavemen.”

He finished off the second glass and sat down.

“It isn’t an earthquake, Grisha,” she said. “We can always go back. You had a good job. You can find something similar.”

She tried not to think about how she looked right now, about the loose skin under her eyes from a night of no sleep. She hated herself for the way she was speaking to him, the voice of a lifetime of appeasement.

He squinted at her. “Have you been listening? Are you saying you want me to return to where some imbecile who’s attended two management seminars can tell me, ‘You can do better’?”

“A lot of people would wish for a start like yours, Grisha.”

Start?” He laughed. “Eleven years later and that start was nothing but my finish line.”

She got up and went to the windowsill, where she’d left his book. She opened it on the table and laid her finger on the margin. “After you told me to sell our house, told me to join you—I find this!”

He studied the inscription with a contorted, inscrutable expression on his face.

“Now I learn I don’t know you. And what’s more I don’t want to know you.”

He flinched a little when the book hit his chest, then edged his chair back to pick it up off the floor.

“The house,” he corrected, “was mine. I paid for it while you slept till noon.”

He got up, the book tucked under his arm, and walked out. It took her a moment to understand what he was saying, as though her mind were awakening out of a spell. She gazed around wearily, her eyes alighting on the wilted plants on the windowsill. She followed after him into the corridor, where he was putting on his shoes.

“Where are you going? To this bliad?” The words didn’t sound as if they were coming out of her mouth. The shrillness in them seemed forced.

“Don’t talk about what you don’t know. Whatever obscene ideas you have are only in your own godless head. She’s been celibate for two years,” he said. “She’s a zatvornitsa.”

Now, here was a word she hadn’t heard in thirty years—a sexual hermit! And he didn’t seem to care that she knew. He couldn’t possibly be making this up. Celibacy! Well, these sluts had really gotten sophisticated.

Grisha plucked his jacket off the line of hooks by the door. She reached for his arm. “Whatever happened before I arrived, I’ve forgiven already.” Her voice had gone needy, as soft as a rotting fruit. “We don’t have to talk about it. Just stay.”

His face was a soundless picture of loathing. “Let’s not humiliate ourselves tonight,” he said.

She placed herself between him and the door handle. “If you leave now, I promise you I will have the locks changed.”

“This apartment doesn’t belong to you,” he said. He walked back to the bedroom. Lera followed him in.

“It’s ours,” she said, her voice breaking.

“I inherited it. I know the law.” He found a squashed duffelbag at the bottom of the closet. In another few minutes, she sensed, she would be on her own. She felt it in the way she knew people felt their mortality, very suddenly, a knowledge deeper than shame or anticipation.

“Is it one of those midlife things?” she said. “You want to grow your hair long? You want to buy a motorcycle? I’m not stopping you. But to give our money away like that, to a church!”

“You expect me to give it all to you? I’m done slaving away. You didn’t even like to drive me to the station in the mornings. I had to run to catch the train and then sit there sweating.”

“Don’t you dare throw that at me. I didn’t make your meals or clean your house? Or raise your child?”

“I forgot, you bought a guest book for the bathroom. So everyone could sign their names when they shat, as if they were at Buckingham Palace. You even hired someone to clean. The chemicals gave you headaches! I would have been here years ago,” he said.

“If what?”

He didn’t answer. He was dumping the folders and books on his desk into the duffel.

“Did you plan this?” She pictured herself making phone calls, tonight or tomorrow morning, to freeze their accounts. How much of their money was already gone? “Did you bring me here for a quick and cheap divorce? To cheat me out of everything?”

“What, exactly, I’d like to know, would I cheat you out of? Explain to me where you got that stupid entitled idea? At the divorcée colony you call a gym?”

“And Masha?”

“I’ve always taken care of her. She’ll understand me.”

“You think I won’t hire a lawyer?”

“Do what you wish,” he said. “You’re not among your americaners. Here they don’t eviscerate a man for the crime of having a job.”

“I don’t know what that woman made you drink, Grisha.” It was difficult to keep the tremor out of her voice.

He avoided brushing against her in the doorway on his way out with the duffel.

“Where do you expect me to go?”

“You’ll get along,” he said.

When she returned to New York, her friends met her with open arms. They competed to help her, appropriately outraged by what Grisha had done. They praised her for having enough sense to freeze whatever money was left in the joint accounts. They were compassionate and practical and let her stay in their houses until she found an apartment. They drove her everywhere until she bought a car. But their eyes did not fool her. Their gratitude for the normalcy of their own marriages was almost like an awkward lust. At first, they told her that she shouldn’t blame herself for what had happened. Then, in their living rooms, as she voiced her suffering they listened closely to the parts of her story that confirmed that her common sense had gone slack: that she hadn’t looked at her accounts for months, that she’d let Grisha go alone to a city where someone would steal your husband if you so much as got up to take a piss. After a while, they seemed to have no reaction at all to her story, which was what made her stop telling it.

When she was working again, in a lab at a medical-research park in Eastview, surrounded by test tubes and electrophoresis trays, she had a lot of time to think about Grisha. She imagined failures and disappointments for him in proportion to his smug magnanimous “principles,” in proportion to his pietistic love of his soil, his secret belief that he deserved to be a national hero. She imagined him bankrupt, drinking at eleven in the morning. She imagined him in a coffin surrounded by strangers and none of his old friends. But sometimes this hatred broke like a wave, collapsing under its own weight, and before it would begin to well up again she suddenly felt nothing but pure compassion for him, a kindness and forgiveness that almost broke her heart.

Annals of the Neo-Soviet "Art"

The Moscow Times reports:

A British-based playwright has accused Russian authorities of Soviet-style censorship after her play, about a real-life hostage siege in Moscow, was canceled on its opening night. The play was based on events at Moscow’s Dubrovka theater six years ago, when Chechen terrorists stormed in as more than 700 people watched a musical. About 120 theater-goers died in a rescue operation that victims’ relatives say was botched. Playwright Natalia Pelevine said that moments after the curtain came down on the play’s first performance in Russia, in Dagestan, local officials told the director the play’s first night would be its last. Dagestan’s President, Mukhu Aliyev, was in the audience for the performance. He denied that he had ordered its cancellation or that his administration practised censorship.

“The banning of this play is either a provocation by someone or an ill-conceived decision by the republic [of Dagestan’s] minister of culture,” he said in comments on his web site. But he added: “I did not like the production as a whole because, in my view, it romanticizes the image of the terrorists. It made them look heroic.” He hinted Russia’s enemies could be using the play to destabilize the region, an allegation Pelevine described as “absolutely mind-boggling, laughable.” The theater siege was one of the bloodiest attacks by Chechen rebels in a separatist war that lasted over a decade. The attackers stormed the theater during a packed performance with bombs strapped to their bodies.

After a standoff that lasted three days, special forces pumped a gas into the auditorium that rendered most people inside unconscious. They shot the terrorists. Relatives of the theater-goers who died say many were killed by the gas, having suffocated or choked on their vomit while unconscious because they were not given proper medical care. Authorities praised the operation as a success, but a police general has since said medical help was slow in reaching many of the victims. The country’s cultural establishment has shied away from the sensitive subject matter. Pelevine said several theaters she approached turned it down before she received an invitation from a theater company in Dagestan to stage it there. She said her aim was not to romanticize the terrorists, but to explore what compels people to commit violence.

A central character in her play, which is called “In your hands,” is a young Chechen woman who was one of the hostage-takers. She describes how she had wanted a normal life. “All of that fell apart when the war [in Chechnya] happened, and her loved ones were being killed, and her desperation led her to become this monster,” said Pelevine. “This is not trying to find an excuse for her on my part. By no means. This is just trying to have a dialogue about what it is that we are doing, politically, what our government is doing, what we are doing as a people,” she said.

Other Russia reports:

Pskov, April 13th: The opening of an art exhibit titled “Prison, Madness, Equality and Justice” has been cancelled by local police and authorities in Western Russian city of Pskov. As the Sobkor@ru news agency reports, the show’s organizers believe that the reasons given by officials –alleged safety issues—may in fact be manufactured.

“At the present moment, people wishing to attend the exhibit are gathered by the entrance, however they are facing an shut door,” said Natalya Chernova, the artist behind the opening. Before the exhibit began, building personnel told Chernova that the show must be stopped for technical reasons: Simultaneously, the electricity had been cut, the roof had leaked and the sewage pipes had burst. According to Chernova, the building super then began taking down her artwork.

Meanwhile, a van-load of OMON riot police arrived at the scene. Law enforcement officers, led by the militsiya, arrested two people waiting to the show to begin. “They came earlier, and were smoking and standing by the entrance,” Chernova said. The militsiya also took down the names and identifying information of the artist as well as the exhibit’s organizers.

Natalya Chernova created the exhibit’s artwork and poetry while locked away in pre-trial detention over a 2004 stunt organized by the banned National Bolshevik Party. During the Moscow protest, around 40 National Bolshevik activists stormed the presidential information administration building, and denounced reforms to regional elections legislation and state welfare benefits enacted by President Vladimir Putin. Chernova was ultimately sentenced to three years behind bars for her role in the event.

Annals of Russian Hypocrisy

It’s always amusing to hear Russians haughtily condemning American culture even as they shamelessly copy it. The Hollywood Reporter has details (click through to watch a translated excerpt of the show):

Most of you may think you don’t know big-haired Dasha Bukina or her harassed shoe salesman husband Gena Bukin. You probably won’t fare much better with the names of their two high-octane teenage kids, Sveta and Roma. But if you’re a Russian TV viewer, you’ve most likely already met them: They are Russia’s reincarnations of the Bundy family from “Married … With Children.” It’s actually a bit scary to watch the Bukins gathered on the family couch working out yet another crisis — it’s Peg and Al and Bud and Kelly down to the tiniest detail. Except for the language, of course.

But if you were to watch all 200-plus episodes that have been adapted from the original scripts by Sony Pictures Television International so far, you’d begin to see many subtle changes made to fit Russian cultural nuances and viewer tastes. Jeff Lerner, senior vp development and current programs, international production, at SPTI, says it would be impossible simply to cut and paste the scripts for Russian consumption. Adapting existing formats is nothing new for SPTI, which also has produced local versions of “The Nanny” and “Who’s the Boss?” in Russia. In fact, SPTI makes local versions of U.S. shows all over the world. And the one big lesson learned is that many small and almost invisible changes must be made along the way in order to slot the shows seamlessly into the cultural mix.