Borscht: It’s What’s For Dinner!

Fun loving garnet coloured root veggie seeking succulent and warm beef broth. 

This picture will make sense at the end trust me...
This picture will make sense at the end trust me…

Maybe if beets put out personal ads in weekly grocery ads there would be less of them on the shelf…

Americans love potatoes, carrots, and onions; those in the know might even appreciate a shallot or parsnip from time to time. But there is no respite for a beet. It’s a hard world for beets. No one really seems to appreciate them let alone no what to do with them. They grow in dirt, are a creepy shade of reddish-purple, and have a nondescript taste that the average colonial wouldn’t be able to tell you about (incidentally though plenty of Americans consume sugar produced from beets). 

And yet in Russia and Ukraine the beet is king and the enticing ruby soup it makes is a staple of any diet. We speak of course of borscht. It’s the first thing that comes into any middle-class American’s mind when they think of Russian cuisine. In the West borscht carries connotations of creepy root vegetables. The soup is also notable in being a genuinely red food; it is excruciatingly red isn’t it. 

I have fantasized about borscht for many years now. My first encounter with it wasunfortunate. I invite all of you to click on the word “unfortunate” in that last sentence to find out why…Pre-made borscht rears its ugly head around Hanukkah and Passover every year in big jars labeled “Manischewitz.” If you shop in some of the B-stores you can find it year round. Now don’t get me wrong, it isn’t absolutely terrible; it just tastes like they forgot to wash the dirt off of their beets…

No we if we want to get true blue…er…true red beets we have to go fresh. I suppose the grocery store varieties are adequate although I always opt for the finest if I am dealing with a center stage ingredient. Good borscht needs good beets! I originally intended to make it with beets picked from somewhat nearby Larriland Farms…those beets are still sliced up in my freezer with a substantial amount of freezer burn ingrained into them. No, I opted for even fresher beets…

From the Womb of the Earth: the Humble Beet

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I attempted to start beets from seed; unfortunately business prevented me from getting them in soil before they grew moldy. Instead I opted for pre-started sprouts and I was not disappointed. A patch of several dozen beets cost only a few dollars making this a more rewarding investment than grocery store beets.

With seeds you have the advantage of spacing out your beets. You can stagger your planting in order to get multiple successive harvests from mid-summer until the bitter end of autumn. Since not all of the seeds germinate you are encouraged to plant some in a clumping fashion and then thin out the herd if too many grow. Pre-grown sprouts come in clumps and you have the option of either leaving them in clump formation or breaking them into individual sprouts. As an experiment I grew some in clumps and some solo; the clumps produced a large amount of small beets while the lone sprouts became behemoths that would win 3rd place at a local farmer’s market. Smaller beets are allegedly sweeter and have a more pleasing texture although my American palate failed to notice this. Smaller beets are most certainly better for pickling however.

Beets sprouts seem pretty hardy. Nearly every one that I planted ended up bearing a sweet ruby fairly quickly. I have not had time to pickle the little ones although I am fairly certain they are still alive and well. Beets can apparently survive some frosts fairly well which, combined with staggered planting, would make them a stable and reliable addition to any family diet. The leaves certainly wouldn’t survive a frost however and they faded fairly quickly under a barrage of hot sun and bugs which is a shame because beet greens are supposed to be healthy and delicious. Maybe next time…

For my borscht I used one large beet and three medium-small ones:

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Beetiful aren’t they? Puns aside they looked great after being boiled for 45 minutes until fork tender, at which point they were blanched so that the skin could be easily removed. Remove the dirty purple exterior and you get a rich, regal purple interior that will dye every surface they come into contact with. Boiling beets, as I later found out, is not recommended. The water leaches out color, flavor, and nutrients, thereby rendering the beets less potent in culinary use. A better method of prepping beets is to roast them in the oven. Regardless of what method you use, nearly all of them call for leaving the long root and an inch of stalk on the beet so as to prevent too much seepage. The boiling method allows for easy removal of the tough skin through blanching, but a peeler will suffice for most applications. 

I ended up using half of one of the smaller beets just as an appetizer to get me through the long process of making borscht. Describing the flavour of beets is a difficult prospect. They have a somewhat starchy texture evocative of a potato but are much smoother. Their flavour is…hrmmmmmmm…What does a beet taste like? Well…It tastes like…a BEET. I can’t think of anything close to directly compare it too. Beets have the sweetness of a carrot and manage to hit a few of the same notes as the aromatic, quasi-minty parsnip. Beets also have a decidedly earthy flavour to them as well; there is no mistaking that this is a child of the land and the taste of earth will occasionally overpower the other elements. How do we render such a difficult, variegated, and occasionally subdued flavour into a viable ingredient?

Union of Soviet Soupcialist Republics

Lets start with the beet’s traditional application…borscht! We must be careful to note that borscht isn’t a particularly Russian dish. It is still huge in Russia, but borscht is ultimately a Ukrainian dish. Whether or not Ukraine is interchangeable with Russia is a difficult and life-consuming question that is currently being fought over, but hopefully we can at least agree that borscht is more Ukrainian than Russian. 

For the recipe I adapted a recipe found in Please to the Table. A James Beard award-winning cookbook that covers the cuisine of the Soviet sphere, this is the definitive cookbook for the Russophile. The book deserves its own post as a book review, but suffice it to say that it is a tour-de-force of culture, history, and cuisine. Anya Von Bremzen (the definitive celebrity chef specializing in Russian food) and John C. Welchman throw together a great presentation. 

But enough talk…LET US MAKE BORSCHT! 

Are you looking for a recipe? You can find some copycat recipes online. I will take a cue from the foodie bloggers I so often loath and just present the process as a series of artful photographs and informative captions!

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The Bible of Russian Cuisine with all the components for a great beef broth.
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A 2lb London Broil and countless porkchop bones gave their lives for this broth.
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Onions, carrots, bay leaves, peppercorns, dill, and parsley helped round out the broth. Unfortunately the grocer was out of parsnips although I made due without them. I made this a day in advance just to save time. Afterwards I strained the broth into a large bowl sitting in a sink filled with cold water and ice cubes. The broth was fridge ready in 10 minutes and the porkchops and steak were fair game for shredding. 
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Boiling beets until fork tender takes about 40 minutes with extra time needed for the bigger beets. It leaves you with a beautifully stained pot of purple-red water though. Careful, beets will dye EVERYTHING they come into contact with. 
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Potatoes, a carrot, an onion, garlic, tomato paste, garlic gloves, cabbage, some garden fresh tomatoes, and the juice of a lemon make a nice stew.
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Borscht is a dish which definitely allows for proper prep, and mise en place is a lifesaver in a small kitchen. Most veggies are easily dispatched. Beets, after boiling, can be soaked in ice cold water. The skin will literally peel off with the slightest finesse, at which point the beet can be grated, shredded, or diced. I opted for dicing them.
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I dislike celery, but cabbage can still make a mean mirepoix. Just be sure to sweat everything until it gets reasonably soft.
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Heat up your meat broth and add the veggies. Add the beets and tomatoes after the potatoes get soft and take in that rich red colour.
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Remember the porkchop bones and london broil from the beginning? Feel free to shred those and throw them in for a hearty opulent borscht!
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Serve in a bowl with a healthy dollop of smetana and a fair sprinkling of parsley and, especially, dill! Feel free to mix the sour creme in whenever you like.

And there you have it! Borscht! Now that wasn’t so bad. The whole thing can be prepared in a day and will yield at least a dozen servings. I prepared the broth in advance to shave off time for the final product. 

Overall borscht is good, and much more approachable than the average American might think. It turned out much like a rich beef stew, although the vibrant reddish colour is a nice change of scenery, just as the minty-earthy notes from the beets are a nice change of pace. I can’t help but feel that my borscht is somehow…wrong. The borscht I see is usually thinner and has a greater emphasis on broth. My borscht likely took a few too many cues from the Hungarian goulash which is my default stew of choice. It probably didn’t have enough dill for the average Russian. But who knows, maybe this was an authentic borscht. This is manly full borscht that a muzhik might enjoy. Overall I was impressed. Borscht has a nice, full-bodied flavour with a decidedly sweeter tang. It works fairly well reheated and would warmly accommodate any cut of beef. Kielbasa? Hop on in! The Russians are a soulful people, and borscht is certainly a great soulful stew that will warm you whenever you need. 

Epilogue: the Devil in the Details

After painstakingly enacting a modified vision of the borscht recipe presented in Please to the Table I read the short afterward which listed some cute folktales surrounding borscht. Apparently making borscht on a Thursday is discouraged as the devil will visit to bathe in the soup. I shrugged this off before realizing shortly after that it was Thursday…maybe that is why I feel like it didn’t turn out right…

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Writing Papers About Russia: Tips for an Undergrad!

So You Want to Write a Paper About Russia?

I can’t speak to all colleges, but mine offered a lot of classes pertaining to Russian Area Studies. I have a feeling that there will only be more classes on the topic in light of Russia’s involvement in global affairs. At the very least Russia will hopefully merit some attention; regardless it is now more appropriate to choose paper topics pertaining to Russia. This blog post is intended for undergrad students who intend to write a paper on Russia.

I wrote probably at least a dozen papers pertaining to Russia during my time in college. If I was taking a class on Russia it was only natural. I was fortunate enough to take other classes, such as International Relations Theory and World Folklore, which gave me the freedom to pick Russia as a topic. This post will hopefully either convince some of you to choose Russian paper topics or give you the confidence and tips to write a more successful paper in your Russian policy classes.

Hopefully if there are any educators reading this you will pass on some of these sources and tips to your students if you are not already doing so. Here is my approach to writing papers, and it has always worked for me. I understand that not everyone learns or writes the same, but I will hopefully share some secrets that are objectively useful or flexible enough to incorporate into your style.

This post is divided into two sections. Section One is my approach to paper writing with Russia as the topic: this section deals with my process. Section Two includes some interesting sources you make want to check out. If the details of writing bore you just go forth and start a folder for the good Russian sources I provide. 

My Steps of Writing a Paper

  1. Picking a Topic: This first step depends on whether or not your classes offer you freedom of picking a topic. If they do, then this step is valid and necessary. Start off with a topic from lectures or textbooks that interests you. Do some preliminary searches on the topic to gain some footing (Wikipedia is fine for this). Also do some rough searches at the library and on available journal databases to make sure that you actually have enough material to work with. Some professors expect more analysis than research, so the available of sources may not be a problem. In 9 out of 10 cases however you want to avoid topics with a dearth of available research information (although sometimes taking the road less traveled leads to the most interesting papers and presentations). Ultimately weigh your interests and available sources and the expectations of the class before deciding on a topic.Russia is a great topic to choose because there is a wealth of available information on just about every possible paper idea. Just remember that this is still a challenge. While you will not be hard pressed to find sources you may have a hard time determining what is important. With a topic in mind we can move on to your next step.
  2. Preliminary Qualification of Topic: Whether your topic was handed to you or freely chosen, this is a huge step that will set the tone for your research. While this is an important part of paper writing it is by no means long and labourious. Basically what you are doing here is defining your topic. So you have decided to write about the Russian approach to the Cold War. First, turn this into a question: What was Russia’s approach to the Cold War and why was it chosen? Next, think about what the question means. What is the Cold War? Does “approach” reference foreign policy or does it include non-political factors and worldviews? While “Russia” may seem like a fairly objective term you still need to define it. Does Russia’s approach to the Cold War involve all Russians or only leaders? Is Russia’s approach independent of the Soviet Union or are they synonymous? What about other countries? This is the kind of thinking you should be doing.This should actually be one of the most interesting parts of your paper writing because you will be pushing your judgments and values and reflecting on them. This is where you will be wrestling with ideas, and it may spur on some early research. Where exactly, for instance, did the term Cold War originate from? Does the context/year it appeared in matter? Who first used the term and how did it evolve? (George Orwell was the first to use the term).This may seem like splitting hairs but getting all of your assumed definitions in order is a huge part of paper writing. Intensive writing courses may require you to present your research topic and defend it, and that would roughly correspond to this step. Ask yourself what interests you and what your judgment is of the situation and be prepared to put our answers to paper. The questions, definitions, and rationale you provide for yourself will enable you to construct a strong introduction. Now, the most important component of this step is remembering that nothing you do here is absolute. As you conduct research you should constantly be finding connections to your definitions and sources that will bring you to reassess and refine your original ideas. It is important to begin from somewhere though, as you will be in a much better position to critically appraise sources and fit them into your paper.
  3. Research: There is an old Italian proverb, “well begun is half done.” Research may seem like the most daunting and awful part of paper writing (it is), but if you followed step two you are already done half the fight of paper writing. Research is just completing the process. As you do research you should constantly assess your original ideas and definitions. Challenge them and mull them over as you read each article. Some things will corroborate with your initial assertions, other things will challenge them. You can always update your definitions if you need to, but if you put good thought into the beginning stages you should not have to change them. Don’t throw away sources that contradict you: instead use these in your paper and explain why they might be an exception or just flat out wrong. Of course, use your judgment to know when a source completely decimates your argument.As I research I usually keep an MS word doc of all my sources (I even convert the useful ones into chicago/APSA style citations to save time later). Just take notes. You may want to jot down some page numbers if you need it. From here, just take notes. Look for background and data to open with and then start getting some judgments and arguments to assess. As you develop this you might even start building topic sentences and headers to compliment your theses and ideas. Organize as best you can into what might be a logical flow for you paper and then you can start on the most important step…
  4. Writing: I can’t give you many tips on writing. Its something you either have or you don’t. You can still develop good habits though and maybe, someday, become a great essayist. Start with a nice opening that grabs the attention with a flourish. Delve into some background. Sum up your argument in a statement, or two, or three, or several (ideally the whole opening paragraph should be a sort of thesis) and then start talking about the individual components that make this true. These components will become your topic sentences of body paragraphs that will convey your research. Depending on the length or complexity of the paper you may wish to work with a more complex thesis or spend more time fleshing out the opening paragraphs. End with a nice conclusion that neatly sums everything up and end on a thought provoking note. But please don’t just listen to me, do what you feels right!
  5. Polish. For the love of god, POLISH. Proofread, improve things, get rid of awkward sections, do some organizational fixes, get your works cited in order, etc.

Invaluable Sources on Russia (follow links!)

Like I said before, there is an ABUNDANCE of sources on the topic of Russia. All kinds of sources are at your fingertips. I do not know how you collect sources. I tend to try to download/bookmark dozens of them at a time and then just work through them, starting with the most useful. Certain sources are good to read all the way through, but other sources you can get by doing a quick search or by skimming. As you do research you will get a feel for what you need to do, and as you get more research done you will likely be able to move to a quicker and more flexible skimming approach. With Russia you will find all kinds of sources representing all kinds of perspectives. Always be on the lookout for information that contradicts your assumptions and definitions. Do not disregard this, but rather look for weaknesses in these arguments. You can bring these sources up in your paper and refute them, which only empowers your argument.

I will now share with all of you a few very valuable sources that can help you to start (or complete) your research.

https://www.marxists.org/ is a valuable source that basically has everything ever written pertaining to Marxism. Here you can find Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and more. You can find both praise and condemnation of the Soviet Union here. This is a great collection of primary sources.

http://www.levada.ru/eng/ is the website of the Levada Center. This is an independent and well reputed polling institution not unlike Gallup. Here you will find everything from opinions on Chechnya and Lenin to Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings. Working statistics into your paper and presentations is usually a good move.

http://en.kremlin.ru/ is the website of the Russian executive. This is a great source for finding out about Putin, and it maintains archives as well. I highly recommend including quotes by Russian leaders whenever possible. Russian leaders tend to be vocal, brilliant, and hilarious. You can find Lenin and Stalin on Marxists.org by the way. Khrushchev appears on Marxists.org and also in a ton of books (you may wish to look at Khrushchev’s memoirs, which provide his perspective on various periods of history). Putin tends to give a lot of colourful and piercing interviews (the 2014 Valdai Summit address stands out in particular).

http://russialist.org/ is a great collection of news stories and articles from all around. This website provides translations of Russian news outlets and links to especially strong articles from English language media. Russian media is fun to use. Always do some background research into the news source to determine its bias and who runs it. Russia Today and Moscow Times are both decent English language publications to include in a paper. Russia Today is more or less just the Kremlin’s propaganda arm while the Moscow Times tends to be more critical of Putin. Pravda (the old Communist Party newspaper) runs a website that generally has exactly the biases you would expect from it. While not necessarily trustworthy, looking as various media outlets (including state owned) is a great way of getting summaries of pro-Kremlin perspectives and getting a feel for issues. Incidentally the Russia List also offers archives.

The BBC and New York Times can sometimes have good archived stories that can help you understand the often insane events of the 1980s and 90s. I tend to swear by the Economist also as a vendor of reputable journalism. Finding old archived articles can add a nice flair to your work.

https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/rs.html is a reliable source. The CIA factbook is good if you need hard information about demographics, geography, and so on.

Writing about Russian folk culture? Here is a pretty useful book that is roughly the Russian equivalent of Grimm’s Fairy Tales: http://www.amazon.com/Russian-Fairy-Pantheon-Folklore-Library/dp/0394730909/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1432919922&sr=1-1&keywords=Russian+Fairy+Tales

It is always fun to work references to Russian fairy tales or literature into your paper. Not familiar with them? You may be more familiar with some other authors who wrote a lot about the Soviet Union and Russia. George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 can make for nice references that will add culture, distinction, and intrigue into your paper. They can be used to help set the tone or emphasize certain points.

Always remember that if you find something in Russian, you have Google Translate. Chrome can actually translate entire pages sometimes, so do not be afraid to look at some primary Russian sources. I just make sure to include (translated by Google Chrome) in the citation, usually after I talk about the access date. Incidentally be on the lookout for good Russian words. Put them in italics and refer back to them. This looks impressive. Just be sure that you use Romanizations rather than the actual Cyrillic.

Do not forget secondary sources too. They can be pretty useful and often times will provide some great analysis on unusual or awkward areas of your paper. Primary sources are great, but unless you have several weeks to do intensive research and analysis you will likely need to rely on secondary sources as a crutch. Paraphrasing and summarizing articles is always good, although occasionally you will find lines that are just too good not to quote. Always try to find a monograph or two about the topic you are writing about. Plan a library day and get some monographs that you can skim through to find good points. Try to avoid tertiary sources (like textbooks) as they tend to just be unappealing and flaccid like overdone noodles. Textbooks can be used to guide your research to several key points, but overall secondary sources are more valuable.

Fitzpatrick’s Russian Revolution and Kenez’s A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to the End usually found their way into my papers.

Incidentally, https://www.gwu.edu/~ieresgwu/programs/demokratizatsiya.cfm is a great FREE collection of secondary sources on modern Russia. Demokratizatsiya is freely available and would be invaluable to any paper on the 1990s. Actually I have just checked and they added articles up to 2014, which would have been nice when I was still in school…Issues tend to be grouped by topic but not always, and demokratizatsiya tends to have a great variety of authors, topics, and views that are critical to understanding modern Russia.

Of course be on the lookout for NGO websites. Freedom House is a nice source of facts. There are all kinds of assessments of Russian democracy and reports on changes. Keep an eye out for these. I must warn you though, they tend to be harder to uncover. Generally these are most useful for writing about comparative politics.

Don’t be afraid to follow certain authors. There are plenty of prominent Russian scholars and they usually each have a unique and daft specialty.

One last note: sometimes a lack of sources on a specific point can be significant. This is especially true of an autocratic and traditionally opaque nation-state like Russia. Can’t find specific data or information. Mention this and try to figure out why in your paper.

There are other sources of course, but these should be able to get you by. I may actually make a follow up post about how to present on Russia but that is for another day. I may also update this post with more sources as I find them, so if you are taking a class on Russia next semester bookmark this so you can keep it handy!

Freedom on the Rocks: the Chilling Effect

Article 29 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation (taken from constituteproject.org)
1.Everyone shall be guaranteed freedom of thought and speech.
2.Propaganda or agitation, which arouses social, racial, national or religious hatred and hostility shall be prohibited. Propaganda of social, racial, national, religious or linguistic supremacy shall also be prohibited.
3.Nobody shall be forced to express his thoughts and convictions or to deny them.
4.Everyone shall have the right freely to seek, receive, transmit, produce and
disseminate information by any legal means. The list of types of information,
which constitute State secrets, shall be determined by federal law.
5.The freedom of the mass media shall be guaranteed. Censorship shall be
prohibited.
ChillingEffectRussia is too cold for democracy…

I like to read Constitutions in my spare time. I recommend that you read the Russian Constitution. It actually sounds pretty great, with lots of great rights; just like the Soviet Constitution! Oh….wait…..

Never trust a Constitution…

Sometimes you’ll find the devil in the details. Section 2 of Article 29 for instance bans all sorts of agitation. Who determines which group is an irritant and which isn’t? You have one guess…

But the real devils don’t live in the details. The real devils are the restrictions, the fear, and the arbitrary enforcement that indirectly render rights impotent. Modern Russia has perfected this sort of Constitutional bait-and-switch.

Well, we should give Russia some credit. You can do what you want, and you can say what you want, but if you do you are pretty damn brave.

Most people aren’t brave, and that is precisely what makes a chilling effect so…well…effective.

So what exactly is a Chilling Effect? Perhaps some examples are in order.

If you want to be an enterprising and truth-seeking journalist in Russia you are in good company. Anna Politkovskaya was killed back in October of 2006, apparently for her maverick reporting on Chechnya. Natalya Estermirova, another unabashed human rights journalist, was killed in July 2009.

Modern Russia at least has free markets right? This was certainly true in the Russia of the 90s, where powerful oligarchs bought and sold influence. When Putin came in he let all of the oligarchs know that this was at an end. A few stood in his way. One of them, Boris Berezovsky, saw the writing on the wall and skipped town. His assets were nationalized. He was found hung in an apparent suicide in early 2013. An associate of his, self-exiled FSB agent turned Putin critic Litvinenko, turned up dead in 2006 after being poisoned with radioactive polonium. Another oligarch, Khodorkovsky was only recently released from prison in 2013 after being sentenced and having his company, Yukos Oil, nationalized years earlier.

Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) try to be active in Russia. The Liberal ones have a hard time though ever since the Law on Foreign Agents passed. This required certain groups to register as Foreign Agents, a term with unfortunate connotations in the Russian language. Foreign Agents would have to subject themselves to piles of paperwork and monitoring. Occasionally an NGO office gets searched or robbed, but hey its just a coincidence! I still don’t know why civil society poster boy and chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov left Russia on a sudden fearful whim…

Some people still try to make a difference. Pussy Riot tried to engage in acts of protest in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. A few of their members were thrown in jail on inventive charges. Blogger Alexei Navalny was a vocal Putin critic. He got thrown in jail for a brief period and then let go; an action which clearly indicates who is in charge. Prominent politician and critic Boris Nemtsov was recently shot in the shadow of the Kremlin under auspicious circumstances.

Get the picture?

I can give you all the rights on paper you might want, but they don’t mean anything if you are too scared to take advantage of them. That is the beauty of the chilling effect. Some rights, among them free speech and free association, are inconvenient to the central government. Champions of these rights generally have a bad time. They are harassed and intimidated. Their work will be marginalized or hampered in whatever way possible. Lack of evidence and a sluggish judiciary will ensure that their families will never figure out who pulled the trigger when push came to shove.

Slowly, gradually, the morass sets in. The mercury drops and when you go to publish some dissident work you are confronted with a sudden hesitation. Will there be a gunman waiting outside of an elevator? How long do you think you’ll last in prison? A chill runs up your spine; maybe you should just take your anti-government pamphlet and shred it.

That is the chilling effect.

The Kremlin counts on the chilling effect. Why waste money on batons and bad PR when you can rely on the inherent fear and doubt of your citizens. But it has always been cold and Russia, and not just because the country is located so far north. The Tsar’s relied on fear to corral power, and the Soviet’s employed the chilling effect to its logical extreme with free-form hysterical state terrorism. Don’t stick a toe out of line; just keep your head down and maybe no one will notice you.

What is most staggering perhaps is that Russia has found ways to extend the chilling effect beyond its own populace. What else would the assassination of Litvinenko serve to accomplish? The man was already out of Russia; was it really necessary to poison the man’s tea?

Russia does not like free speech. It especially dislikes social media, which has already proven critical in the Arab Spring and other outbreaks of mass modern protest. To make matters worse for the Kremlin, social media based in other countries are harder to monitor and control. Maybe that is why Russia enacting a law requiring all data on Russian internet users to be stored within the borders of the Motherland. Sure, this prevents other governments from keeping tabs on Russian citizens, but it also grants Russia a greater ability to monitor and control the internet usage of its citizens.

Russia has a lot of internet users, with over 60% of the population having internet access. They provide plenty of traffic (and are generally notorious for their brutal simplicity and decisive ruthlessness in online games.) Maybe that is why Reddit decided to bend over backwards to accommodate Russia.

Reddit has increasingly come to suffer from painful decisions surrounding freedom of speech, with some accusations of censorship flying around. Russia recently tested its ability to influence Reddit and export the chilling effect just this past week. The government was apparently upset about a thread on Reddit surrounding hallucinogenic mushrooms. Reddit was temporary blocked in Russia as a complaint was lodged. Reddit responded by hiding the content from Russian users, and Russia graciously unblocked the social media outlet.

No, mushrooms are probably not the most noble topic, but maybe that is why Russia went after them. Its too dangerous to go after the anti-government posters, maybe try something innocuous. Trying to fight drug abuse gives them a blank cheque to justify their blocking of Reddit. It provides a nice, under-the-radar test drive. If Russia can force Reddit to censor itself over mushrooms, than Russia can force Reddit to censor itself over just about anything.

Another victory for the chilling effect! A brief expenditure of government time and money, and what has Russia won: Reddit is now wary and willing to censor itself to please the Kremlin while some of Reddit’s users might be a little more subdued knowing that they are being watched. Russia’s gamble is essentially just a friendly reminder to everyone about who is really in power. What more effective method of control is there than forcing people and companies to edit themselves out of fear that they might be targeted in the future?

Russia is too cold for democracy. Civil institutions wither in a climate of fear. How can people internalize rights when they cannot even freely employ them? Cryogenics may be a primitive field, but Russia has somehow discovered how to freeze society and lengthen the lifespan of Soviet style public oppression. But at some point a thaw has to come. Russia has seen two revolutions in the last 100 years, so maybe the old ways aren’t the best…

As I mouse over to the publish button I feel a chill go up my spine, and I don’t even live in Russia…

Don’t Laugh, Andrei Petrovich: Yuri Olesha’s “Envy”

We often envision life in the Soviet Union as laden with hardship, but there was a time when life was normal…almost

Between the horror of the Civil War and the rise of Stalin there was a brief period, lasting for about 5 years, where things seemed ok. The years of struggle were behind, the years of struggle were ahead. The journey towards Communism was still tame and controlled. The mid-1920s were ok. Small scale capitalism had been introduced via the New Economic Program, and some industrious individuals were able to make a profit. Relations were starting to emerge with other countries. A bright and dynamic future seemed near, all that one needed was to reach out and grab it.

None of this would last. Stalin would solidify his power by the end of 1927 and push the Soviet Union into a period of frantic growth and, eventually, into grim paranoia. But the period that Stalinism eclipsed did not simply fall into the dust pan of history. There are traces of it here and there if you are willing to search. Probably one of the more promising embodiments of what the mid-1920s meant for the Soviet Union is Yuri Olesha’s Envy. This novella is dated February-June 1927, just at the end of the strange transitional period we are exploring. In a way, I suppose it could be compared to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, which has become inextricably linked with the public consciousness surrounding the Roaring 20s.

The Great Gatsby and Envy deal with similar themes, namely the self-destructive tendencies of jealousy and the awkward growing pains of a changing culture.

The plot is relatively simple. The “protagonist” is Nikolai Kavalerov, a homeless 27 year old alcoholic who was taken off the streets by Andrei Babichev, an enterprising albeit sloppy Soviet citizen who strives to create the ideal factory-made sausage that will free housewives from the need to make dinner. Nikolai is given lodging on a sofa left vacant by Volodya, a vibrant soccer player who Babichev treats as a son. Babichev is generous but he is not kind, and his bizarre antics and aloof manner let Kavalerov know that he is not at home in his new dwellings. Kavalerov admires a girl named Valya from afar. Valya, as it turns out, is the niece of Andrei Babichev. She became estranged from her father, Ivan Babichev, at the insistence of Uncle Andrei, who ultimately wishes to have her wed Volodya. Eventually Kavalerov runs away and meets up with Ivan, and the two conspire to take their revenge using the wicked Ophelia machine of Ivan’s design.

The story is rife with political symbolism. Andrei and Volodya represent new Soviet men. Ingenious, efficient, athletic, and inspired, these men are striving to create a better future. They represent everything that is great about the Soviet system. They also represent everything horrible about it. Andrei and his adopted son are quite inhuman, showing very little sensitivity to the needs and feelings of others. They are avoidant, evasive, dull, and detached. Additionally, Andrei represents some of the hypocrisy of the New Economic Policy in place at the time; here is a convinced communist who nonetheless is an enterprising self-made businessman.

Nikolai and Ivan represent the old way of doing things. They are individuals dominated by individualism, pride, envy, and emotion. They have dreams and feel cheated by the new system which rejects their thinking and way of life. They realize that their time is past and they are struggling to preserve their identity and dignity.

Nikolai is the “protagonist” right? We are supposed to support and sympathize with him…right? This book is meant to be a political satire that uncovers the problems of the Soviet system, yes? Why am I putting the word “protagonist” in quotation marks? Why am I questioning all of this? Theyy are clearly being antagonized by the new Communist way of life.

But I really am not sure if Nikolai is actually a “protagonist.” Sure he has struggles and goals, but I am not sure I really empathize with him. By extension, I am not sure if I really accept Envy as a condemnation of the new Soviet lifestyle. Kavalerov rejects the Soviet system and lets his enormous contempt towards it show, but his own way of doing things is just as unacceptable. Kavalerov is highly contemptible. He is an ungrateful and depraved alcoholic whose pride and feelings of inadequacy drive him to horrific lows such as planning murders and beating women. He is a man utterly consumed by envy of the successful Soviet men around him. Much of the story deals with Kavalerov coming to grips with him envy. Part I is about revelation, while part II deals with the refinement of his feelings and revenge. He hates all of the phonies and empty-headed men who claim to be Soviet citizens. Phonies…now where have I heard that before? Oh yeah…

You know how I mentioned Gatsby earlier? Well forget that…The closest thing to Envy is Catcher in the Rye.

Nikolai Kavalerov is a Russian Holden Caulfield. He is young, listless, and boiling over with angst and hatred. Sure he represents human frailty and emotions and individuality, but he just makes us look bad and complains when he has no right to.

So the characters who represent the old order are unlikable…Is this book then a celebration of the new Soviet way of life? Nope. Babichev and Volodya are also exceedingly unlikable. Babichev sings on the toilet and is absurdly selfish and disrespectful, ultimately caring more about ideals than people. Volodya is ok although he would sooner call the militsiya on you than actually have an uncomfortable conversation. The Soviet men just feel like pieces of cardboard and have no sense of romance or affability. Babichev places so much faith in the inevitability of Communism that he gives up on much of his humanity.

Valya may be the critical character here since she is the only dynamic one. While we don’t see her transformation, we at least know that she started off as the emotional sort and gradually drifted away from Ivan towards Andrei. She is still conflicted though, and she feels pulled between Ivan’s individualism and Andrei’s Communist ideals. Olesha does not really grant much time to Valya though, so we really do not see the battle between old and new playing out in her head. By the end of the book though it is clear that she had accepted the new way of life and has rejected both Ivan and Nikolai. I think Valya represents the common person trapped in between the great forces of social change, struggling to determine which side will win. Valya’s arc may also be commentary on the importance of women to social change; perhaps it is women who are the gatekeepers of social change. It was women who overthrow the Tsarist regime in 1917, and it was women who completed the revolution by accepting careers. Men like Andrei may have made the transition easier by using the mass industrialization of food to free women from domestic drudgery, but I digress.
Having slept on it, I can honestly say that I sympathize more with Ivan and Nikolai. I root for the old-fashioned men over the ideal new Soviet vision. Even if the former may be wretched and unlikable they at least have a soul, a personality that makes them approachable. Nikolai is a tragic hero. For the first half of the story he is excited to be growing up with the new Soviet age. For the second half he realizes that he is already an adult, having matured under the previous era, and is therefore an anachronism. He has no future, and he accepts this by living in the present.
If I had to comment on Olesha’s political beliefs I would have to label him as a conservative of the Burkean sort. As the forces of social change were beginning to slide downhill you would find Olesha at the top of hill looking down asking if jumping was really the right decision to make. Maybe he was too scared to jump, but that is fine! We’re cursed with emotions and maybe it is better to accept them and stay at the top than jump into oblivion on the promise of paradise. I need to read more of Olesha’s works to really judge him further, but I’m interested to see how he felt about the Stalin era. While his book functions well as a period piece I think it has a timeless message to offer about what makes us human and what is lost or gained when things change.

According to the omniscient god, Wikipedia, Envy was quite popular but faded out of the public spotlight until the 1950s. The idea that a satire of the Soviet system would be popular and accepted is surprising, but makes sense given how easy it is to hate the individualistic protagonist. The satire is very well hidden. I find it interesting that a book about emotions fell out of favor during the Stalin era (1927-53) only to re-emerge once the bouncy and surprisingly human Khrushchev took office. We shouldn’t dwell too much on this coincidence though…I don’t think that Envy disappeared due to any sort of counter-revolutionary content. Envy was likely forced under the rug due to its avant-garde style.

Here is an example of Malevich’s Suprematism style that emerged before the Revolution. Stalin’s age would have no need for such a style.
Stalinism brought about a transformation in the arts. The innovative work of artists like Malevich was shunned in favor of Socialist Realism, which called on art to depict the daily lives of individuals and celebrate the working man. It seems like Olesha enjoyed a fair relationship with the Kremlin (he died of natural causes after all) but undoubtedly he was limited in what he could do. I think this just makes his work richer: it is disagreement hidden beneath a veneer of acceptance.
Envy goes between first person stream of consciousness (not unlike that of Catcher in the Rye) and a more informal sort of story telling. While we usually see things from Nikolai’s eyes the book switches around. It is hard to tell where perspective lies at any given time, and due to the unreliability of some narrators we can’t be too sure of anything. Some things are purposefully left ambiguous. Overall the book is very difficult to comprehend, and I think it would take about 3 or 4 readings to truly grasp it. It’s less tangible than the writing of Gorky. Even then, I still think Envy’s style is, well, enviable. It grants the work a certain amount of levity. Like the characters who struggle with their emotions and their place in a changing world, the reader also experiences the same sort of disorientation and needs to wrestle with some uncomfortable concepts. Some of the jokes and content may be lost in translation, but overall I was able to comprehend enough to see the work for what it really was…I think?

This would be great book for a sadistic high school English class…Instead of spending hours pouring over Shakespeare looking for jokes students could try to find and understand the gags of Envy.

Olseha, Yuri. 1927. Envy. Translated by Marian Schwartz. New York: New York Review of Books.

Special thanks to my aunt for gifting this book to me!

Time of Troubles

You don’t get to be the world’s largest nation-state without making a few enemies. Russia has lots of enemies. Who is Russia’s biggest enemy? The United States? NATO? The E.U.? Hitler? Napoleon? Genghis Khan? The case can be made for any of these, but personally I believe that Russia’s true enemy is something more immaterial and everlasting.

The real enemy of Russia is the month of August.

A few things stick out in Russian history. Russian history is filled with plenty of quirks and trends and even the most poker-faced Sovietologists show some degree of reverence for the more poetic superstitions. One such oddity is the so-called “Bald-Hairy” law: Russian leaders alternate between being bald or hairy.

Generally terrible anniversaries tend to cluster around August. The Wikipedia article on this calls it the “August curse” and lists anniversaries of terrible August events from 1991 on. While helpful, this list omits some August events that occurred even prior to the Bolshevik revolution.

Why is August such a rough month? Well it is probably the hottest month Russia sees. Maybe its in Russia’s stars? Who knows: it just so happens that an August rarely passes without something huge happening. I won’t speculate further, but I will list some of the more major events on August. Sometimes August brings death and calamity. Sometimes war. Sometimes it merely just marks the crucial point of a revolution. Curiously many of these events tend to occur around the 19th-25th. Enough talk, lets just get right into it:

  1. 1904: Siege of Port Arthur Starts-This battle, a part of the Russo-Japanese War, would result in significant Russian losses in Manchuria. These losses would inspire Russia to send its fleet to do battle with Japan, which did not end very well for Russia…
  2. 1914World War I Starts-When did Tsar Nicholas II decide to enter the War? August of course. World War I was a disaster that de-stabilized the Tsarist regime…permanently.
  3. 1917: Kornilov Coup-Frustrated with the softness of the Provisional Government in addressing the atrophy of army discipline, General Lavr Kornilov and several officers launched a coup. The head of the Provisional Government, Kerensky, was unable to thwart Kornilov without the assistance of the Bolsheviks, many of whom were incarcerated after the ill-fated aborted revolution that was the July Days. The Bolsheviks and their sympathizers, with militant organization and control over the trains, were able to disrupt an already poorly organized coup. Ultimately Kornilov failed, although his coup inadvertently solidified Bolshevik popularity and resulted in a disastrous loss of face for the Provisional Government. (Sheila Fitzpatrick’s The Russian Revolution is a great source for this).
  4. 1939: Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact Signed-This codified the short lived and ill-fated peace between the USSR and Nazi Germany.
  5. 1940: Trotsky Assassinated-While this didn’t happen in Russia I figured we may as well include it for good measure
  6. 1943: Battle of Stalingrad Starts-The Battle of Stalingrad was the major turning point of the European Theatre of World War II. While it would cement the ultimate Soviet victory it was an enormously costly battle, only behind Leningrad in terms of casualties.
  7. 1945: August Storm-The USSR abrogates its peace treaty with Japan and enters into Manchuria, the Kuriles, and Sakhalin. Soviet losses were mild and the operation was hugely successful…and consequential. During their occupation they would inflict trauma on civilians. Their taking of islands north of Japan would cause continue strains in Russo-Japanese relations.
  8. 1949: First Lightning-The Soviet’s detonated their first atomic bomb. While a triumph of Soviet science it was one of the factors that inspired the Cold War.
  9. 1991: CPSU Coup-Frustrated with the softness of the Gorbachev regime in addressing the atrophy of the Soviet Union,  several “hardliners” in the Communist Party launched a coup. Tanks and troops entered Moscow and Swan Lake was played on loop on the radio. Gorbachev, on vacation in Crimea at the time, was placed under house arrest and was powerless to stop the events. The date of the coup’s start, 19 August, interrupted a vote that would have turned the USSR from a centralized power into a looser confederacy. This vote would have likely preserved the USSR for a while. Ironically, the CPSU coup not only destroyed this last glimmer of hope for holding the state together but also hastened the demise of the Soviet Union. The Communists lost all credibility and were quickly replaced by Yeltsin, who famously stood up on a tank in defiance of the coup. Gorbachev’s regime, and the Soviet Union as a whole, would collapse before year’s end. This event is eerily similar to the Kornilov Coup in consequences and timing as Kenez takes not of.
  10. 1996: End of First Chechen War-Chechnya broke away from Russia in the chaos of the early 90s and Yeltsin was too busy to respond until 1994 when he launched a disastrous invasion of Chechnya. This war resulted in a great deal of civilian casualties and collateral damage, and accordingly it brought a great deal of criticism to the Yeltsin administration. The war wound down in August 1996 but there was no definite conclusion. Russia had failed to reincorporate Chechnya and the war had radicalized many Chechen rebels, who increasingly resorted to terror tactics.
  11. 1999: Beginning of Second Chechen War-Chechen rebels would invade Dagestan and conduct terrorist bombings of several apartments in Moscow. The latter would galvanize the Russian people and lead to broader support for a war aimed at pacifying the region. Some believe that the apartment bombings were actually organized by the government to create support for the war; I doubt this although there are some auspicious circumstances that are hard to reconcile.
  12. 2008: War with Georgia-While China was impressing people with the Beijing Olympics, Russia invaded Georgia in a bid to back certain breakaway regions (South Ossetia and Abkhazia). There was a great deal of international consternation over this although little to no reaction. Ultimately though this war did create new fears among NATO and Georgia of Russian regional hegemony.
  13. 2015: Mi-28 Helicopter Crash-This just happened today; a freak accident killed a pilot and injured another man. I started writing this post yesterday and created a draft. Today when I resumed work I read about this story…I hope I didn’t conjure anything up…

    I figure we can stop at the number 13. You can of course find more events through your own browsing. Aside from number 13 I mostly listed big events, but there are tons of personal tragedies and smaller scale disasters that I overlooked. Feel free to leave anything you might find in the comments section. I may or may not update this list in the future.

    Regardless of what the future for this blog holds, I think we now know enough to be wary about this month. Is August really any worse than any other month? No. Not really. Its hot, but that is to be expected. The August curse is really just a matter of coincidence…

    but you should still be careful just in case…