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A Week in Culture: Sophie Pinkham, Moscow and Kiev

August 7, 2013 | by

Crocodileguy

Slavicist Sophie Pinkham documented her week in NYC-based Russian culture for the Daily in April. When she returned to Russia, we asked her to diary her cultural experiences there, as well.

DAY ONE

In Moscow, I attend the opening of Lily Idov’s new exhibit, “Relics.” Idov took a series of photos at the Russian museums that tourists rarely visit: the Museum of Culinary Arts, the Museum of Darwinism, the Museum of Moscow Railways, the Museum of Cosmonautics. The photos are surreal, and often funny. A dummy astronaut gazes heavenward, starry-eyed; a dummy chef poses in front of a lacquered swordfish, looking perplexed. Idov’s photos remind us that the attendants are often the most interesting artifacts in these empty museums. A dummy youth in a train plays a guitar, one chord for eternity, as his live guard stands nearby, sphinx-like. A young woman gazes skeptically at a wax man wreathed in bagels. One elderly attendant looks as taxidermied as the crocodile he’s been assigned to watch. In fact, with his long white beard and weary expression, he looks rather like a taxidermied Tolstoy.

L.N.Tolstoy_Prokudin-GorskyDAY TWO

With two friends from New York, I take a day trip to Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s estate. The signs are in Russian, English, and Korean, and our fellow tourists wear large bundles of leaves on their heads. The effect is festive, but also warlike. And what does it have to do, exactly, with Lev Nikolaevich? Tourism is its own civilization, with customs that can be understood only through intensive ethnographic research.

“Who are you, and where do you come from?” asks a surly attendant. We return to the entrance, pay for a mandatory tour, and put plastic baggies over our shoes, as if prepping for surgery. Our guide is an older woman with tinted glasses, bright red lipstick, and what is, one senses, a certain weariness with Lev Nikolaevich. There is a marked contrast between her fast, flat delivery and Tolstoy’s tortured moral ideas.

Lev Nikolaevich had sharp eyes that saw into a person’s soul the question that tortured him throughout his life was what is the meaning of human life what is truly in the human soul surely it contains great goodness

We examine the leather sofa where Lev Nikolaevich and his children were born. There was once a leather pillow, but it was lost in the war. Read More »

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Cossacks and Clowns and Bears, Oh My!

October 9, 2012 | by

Galina Brezhnev.

One cold March day in St. Petersburg, I paid a visit to Vladimir Ignatievich Deriabkin, whose apartment does double duty as the Museum of Gramophones. Above me was a gramophone wearing red and white clown shoes, perched on a unicycle. A samovar walked a tightrope across the room, holding a stick to help it keep its balance. Train tracks stretched across the ceiling. Brightly painted, blooming wide, the gramophones were like a garden of enormous morning glories.

I was in St. Petersburg, the city once called the “Russian mirage,” doing research on criminal songs of the Soviet period. My investigations had already taken me to such exotic places as the St. Petersburg Record Collector’s Club, a set of subterranean rooms full of grizzled, toothless men in caps and striped sailor shirts. Escorted into the back room, where the head honchos were celebrating International Women’s Day by drinking cognac from metal jiggers, I suspected that I was the first woman ever to enter the building. One man asked me to marry him, saying that he didn’t want to live in New York but wanted to live as if he were in New York. This intriguing rhetorical turn was the central finding of that day’s research; the men were too busy celebrating to answer my questions.

A helpful friend had told me that Vladimir Ignatievich was someone I absolutely had to meet before I left town, and I hoped that my interview with him would be more fruitful than my trip to the record club. Armed with my dictaphone, notebook, and tattered map, wearing my too-thin, too-short New York coat and my cracked, leaking New York boots, I tramped through the drifts of snow. (The St. Petersburg city administration is lax in clearing the streets—but they do better than Kiev, whose mayor was said to have proclaimed, “Let whoever put the snow down clean it up!”) The Museum of Gramophones was clearly marked and above ground, just off a major thoroughfare, and from the moment I entered it was clear that there was no risk, as with some of my previous research subjects, that I would be invited to consume multiple liters of vodka in the course of my interview.

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