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Posts Tagged ‘Russia’

Dovlatov’s Way

September 4, 2014 | by

This weekend, an intersection in Queens will be renamed Sergei Dovlatov Way.

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Sergei Dovlatov

Sergei Dovlatov gave me a pistol when I was a child. It was just an air gun, it turned out, but my mother couldn’t tell the difference, and she was justifiably horrified to see me running around with a semiautomatic. It did not have a red plastic tip and it was nicely chromed, from somewhere in Eastern Europe. With enough pressure pumped into it, its little steel pellets could really hurt someone. Dovlatov found this very funny. Now we New Yorkers are naming a street after him.

And I’m thrilled. That street in Forest Hills, Queens, is the same one where his widow lives; it’s where his daughter, who recently translated Dovlatov’s great novel Pushkin Hills, grew up; and it’s where I grew up, too. At least eighteen thousand people share in my enthusiasm—that’s the number of petitioners it took to make this happen. That it’s such a formidable number should come as no surprise. Even if Joseph Brodsky was the greatest member of the so-called Third Wave of Russian immigrants—he won the Nobel and married an Italian woman—it’s Dovlatov whom readers love viscerally, unconditionally. How can we help it? When Matt Taibbi showed up to inaugurate Katherine Dovlatov’s translation a few months ago, I asked why he came: it was because Dovlatov was the one Russian author who made him laugh out loud. And suddenly we understood one another. Dovlatov made me laugh out loud, too, first in person, and then when I grew up, through his literature.

During the height of his fame, Dovlatov’s works were read universally. Solzhenitsyn, a dour man in his Vermont stronghold who wished to have nothing to do with the Third Wave “sausage immigrants,” read his entire three-volume collected works. The pieces translate easily because of their inherent humanity, and their humor, remarkably, translates as well. In Russia, where his work was retyped at night for samizdat, his secret readership grew, making many a fan. Half of Russia sat in jail, the other half stuck around to be with the first, and Dovlatov had been in both positions—and wrote about it, and still made it funny. The KGB, of course, was not a fan; they even destroyed typeset plates that had been prepared for publication. Dovlatov took the dissident-lite approach of simply not taking the Soviet Union seriously, and for this he was beloved. Read More »

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Beach Read

August 14, 2014 | by

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Image via Urban75.org

Over at the LRB blog, Peter Pomerantsev has an affecting story about love, lies, and hair in Brighton Beach—you know,

the Russian ghetto where Brooklyn meets the ocean, a last stop on the subway from Manhattan. In the evening the boardwalk would be full of Russian immigrants with gaudy haircuts and fur-wrap finery, and as the light faded you could forget you were in America.

He tells of a time in 1982—and this is a true story—when an unemployed electrician named Lev found himself spinning a web of lies in pursuit of a beautiful young woman. What captivated him was her alluring, progressive hairdo: “shaved at the back with a Siouxsie Sioux spiked mop on top. He couldn’t stop staring at it.” Lev told the woman he was an intellectual, a Soviet dissident—he wasn’t. He said he was single—he was married, with kids. He said he’d been arrested by the KGB—he hadn’t been.

The story takes a tragicomic turn in the end that I won’t spoil here, except to say that it involves the woman’s haircut and has a singularly arresting image of a stroll on the Brighton Beach boardwalk. Read it here.

Those with no tolerance for shameless plugs can stop reading now, because I’m only about to mention our subscription deal with the LRB, which is, like this story, a kind of summer romance, and is, unlike this story, not sad in the slightest. Subscribe now and you’ll save on both magazines.

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Soviet Ghosts

July 17, 2014 | by

Soviet decay

A military base in East Germany, constructed in 1937 and used by the Germans as an elite riding and driving school. Photo: Rebecca Litchfield, via the Guardian

The Guardian, Beautiful/Decay, and others have featured unnerving photos from Rebecca Litchfield’s Soviet Ghosts: The Soviet Union Abandoned: A Communist Empire in Decay, which documents the photographer’s travels to the ruins of the Soviet Union. The series examines how and why communities are abandoned, but this isn’t mere ruin porn; there’s an aspect of political subversion here, as Litchfield faced radiation exposure, arrest, and interrogation to secure these pictures, which include decommissioned locomotives, dilapidated military bases, and an abandoned sanatorium, many of them now deemed secret by the state. A more sensationalistic publisher might’ve subtitled the book, THE UNBELIEVABLE PHOTOGRAPHS THE FORMER USSR DOESN’T WANT YOU TO SEE! As Litchfield explains,

We maximized our stealthiness, ducking and diving into bushes and sneaking past sleeping security. But on day three, our good fortune ran out as we visited a top-secret radar installation. After walking through the forest, mosquitoes attacking us from all directions, we saw the radar and made our way toward it, but just meters away suddenly we were joined by military, and they weren’t happy …

See more photos here.

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Elizabethan Warts and All, and Other News

July 2, 2014 | by

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Detail from “Treatment for lachrimal fistula performed on a nun,” an illustration from a seventeenth-century surgical guide. Via Wellcome Library.

  • A report by British dermatologists makes the audacious claim that Shakespeare is responsible for Western society’s obsession with clear skin. “Shakespeare’s works have survived the intervening centuries; has his success led to the perpetuation of Elizabethan negativity toward skin disease?” Apparently, too many of his plays feature insults about skin disease—poxes, boils, carbuncles, moles, blots, blemishes, plagues—an excess of abscesses, a sebaceous surfeit.
  • “One of the most intriguing questions I get from readers of my movie reviews is: ‘But did you like the film?’ … The binary scale of good and bad, like and dislike, is essentially pointless. Movies are complex experiences—even those that are simplistic or clumsily made are rich in substance—and sometimes criticism is like the science of medicine, with advances coming from diagnoses of some dread disease that you wouldn’t want to have.”
  • A linguist’s cri de coeur: death to Whorfianism! “What Whorfianism claims, in its strongest form, is that our thoughts are limited and shaped by the specific words and grammar we use”—but linguists have found only “fairly negligible differences … between language speakers.”
  • These hand-painted posters from Russian cinemas make movies like Shrek 2 and 50 First Dates look like surrealist masterworks.
  • You can live in the house from Twin Peaks. (Leland Palmer not included. Or is he?)

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Nastia Denisova, St. Petersburg, Russia

February 14, 2014 | by

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I’ve been living here for four months. The center of the city. Fifth floor. I usually look out the window at night, but it’s not exactly a window—it’s the door of a balcony. I can see all the windows of the building opposite mine.

I see how, from a window on the right, they regularly throw out plastic bags of trash onto the roof of the one-story building in the courtyard. But I don’t know from which window, exactly—I follow the bags, and when I shift my gaze to the windows they’re all closed, identical, except for the one that has a piece of green plywood instead of glass.

From a window on the left side of the building, people throw garbage without bags. Brown plastic beer bottles and, for some reason, heaps of metal tops from jars of homemade preserves. I see the man who throws all this from the window of his kitchen, leaning out the window and looking down. He looks down and spits. His cigarette butt has set some dead grass on fire. He spits for a very long time. He goes out and comes back with a bottle of water. He pours down the water. He throws the bottle out.

In the windows of the second floor are the kitchen and the back rooms of a restaurant. They’re always throwing cardboard boxes out the windows. When the boxes start to block the little back courtyard, someone piles them up and they disappear. In the winter, covered in snow, the boxes become monolithic, angular snow architecture. And if you didn’t already know, you wouldn’t be able to say what they are.

From the window opposite me, cheerful teenagers fling DVDs. Maybe it’s a dorm room. Are they using them like throwing stars, or just tossing DVDs out the window? Have they noticed me? Two discs land on the balcony, through the door that I’ve been watching. Someone has drawn large, colorful butterflies on their surface. —Nastia Denisova

Translated from the Russian by Sophie Pinkham.

 

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The Tragic Diary of a Lunar Rover, and Other News

January 30, 2014 | by

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From a NASA presentation slide, 1963. Image via Wikimedia Commons

  • “My masters discovered something abnormal with my mechanical control system … I might not survive this lunar night … I am not fearful … Goodnight, Earth … Goodnight, humanity.” In the heartrending tradition of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” a Chinese lunar rover has live-blogged its own death.
  • Meanwhile, in Russia, a man was stabbed to death for having declared, to a very fervid admirer of verse, that “the only real literature is prose.”
  • There now exists a digital version of the Gough map, “one of the earliest maps to show Britain in a geographically recognizable form.” It dates between 1355 and 1366, when roads were a novelty. (Not that they aren’t today.)
  • If you’d planned on watching the Super Bowl “just for the ads,” you might be able to skip the game entirely: you can watch many of the ads ahead of time, because Capitalism Cares™. Now get out there and shop!
  • Under the cobblestones, the beach. Under Versailles, some magnificent subterranean reservoirs.

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