I was studying Russian in central Moscow. The only student in my class, the teacher was as stern as a Russian professor could be. I was in my early 30’s and she’d already reduced me to tears. I feared her. She knew no mercy, especially when it came to verb tenses. Somehow, she had the unique ability to insult both my intelligence, manhood, and most everything about me as a way to motivate any desire I had to read Tolstoy or buy food in a grocery store. Does anyone remember the story of the Soviet hockey players who defected because the coaches were so mean? I used to think she had been one of their trainers.
One snowy afternoon, the conversation shifted from grammar to Leninist revolutionary theory. I don’t quite remember how we made the jump. I believe it had to do with priorities in translating, that is “what did I need to look for first when approaching a new text.” She asked, “Do you know what Comrade Lenin said were the most important things to do when starting a revolution?” I had missed that day of Leninist orthodoxy with the late Dr. David Mackenzie at UNC-Greensboro. We talked more Tito.
She asked me again. “Do you know what Comrade Lenin said were the most important things to do when starting a revolution, a coups d’état?” Nyet, I said. “You find the most important people and then you kill them first.” Those were her exact words. Then she said, “You find the most important verbs and you kill them first. Then the rest of the sentence will come to you.” Grammar is revolution.
You know what, she was right. Learning Russian was like over throwing the bourgeois English speaking dictatorship in my mind. Revolutions involve total commitment or they will die.
As Turkey decides which language it will speak, let’s hope everyone stays safe and committed to words of peace.
Between now and then, there and here, dawn and dusk, I remember little more than the remains of my most recent meal. It came on a plate. The plate was round, full of a complete wholeness unseen in the baked goods of my south Moscow youth. From the beautiful northwest of the plate’s painted circumference, I witnessed the watery mass of potatoes fall from the plate to the table. North of the fork and northeast of my dulled knife, they began a journey through the fibers of my dead grandmother’s sacred tablecloth. These Ukrainian potatoes, ignorant of the history born by this simple fabric, marched to the table’s fading varnish like Hitler’s armies to the gates of Moscow. By adding these facts together, an infinite progression of indisputable realities, I witnessed the unfolding nature of my day. Were I to quantify the beauty of a perfect sphere, a chaotic system of poorly farmed Ukrainian potatoes, and the incalculable speed at which they fell from the plate; I might derive an equation for the impending, now entirely predictable horrors which awaited me after breakfast.
As the tablecloth was destroyed and grandmother’s legacy of smuggling people to safety while dodging Nazi bombs was ruined forever under the stain of watery Ukrainian potatoes, I had ample space to write and work. I did not want to leave the table and move to my desk. This, to my own supposition, would instigate the beginning of the entirely predictable horrors as noted in:
Unwilling to accelerate the process of predictable horrors, I would use my knife as a pen, the leftover borscht as ink, and the remaining 12 meters of potato free tablecloth on which to write. My premise, while theoretical, was simple. The square root of overflowing, spilled potatoes was too consequential to ignore or avoid. If such a disturbing, cosmos shifting event occurred so early in the day, was it not the square root of something identical, guaranteed to occur later in the day. If your precious kitten scratches you at dawn, might you also be mauled by a Siberian tiger whilst visiting the Moscow Zoo only two hours later? Yes. This is what my equation supposed. It was a theory of calamity, of abhorrent, loathsome, evil things; all of which occurred if one thing went horribly wrong while you were eating breakfast. Burnt toast and spilled goat’s milk need no longer be variables. If bad things started your day, run the numbers to see how odious events will conclude your day.
When I had finished the first proof, mama appeared in the dining room. “What have you done with your grandmother’s table cloth? Have you bled all over it? I give you dull knife for a reason,” she said. I am not allowed to play with sharp knives, spears, or sharp anything. This is why I’m blind in one eye.
No, I carefully explained. I was not dying, bleeding to death, or intentionally destroying grandmother’s memory. Nor am I now blind in the other eye. With as much pride as I could muster, I said, “Dmitri, using only a dull knife, wrote in borscht ink, a new theory of why bad things happen all day long-especially after your mother spills potatoes when callously throwing the plate at her genius son.” It really seems to irritate her when I refer to myself in the third person and as a genius. For some reason, I do this often.
“Really,” mama says. “Bad things happen when potatoes spill and you write on table,” this is what you believe? “God has given me blind borscht writing idiot.”
I guess this may be half true.
Dmitri, the half blind genius, sometime idiot, shall now shovel snow.
I had a long conversation with a man last night about the ongoing, violent, and near forgotten war in Ukraine. By most objective standards of dialogue held in America and the west today to discuss anything over ten minutes borders on a full-fledged symposium. Fifteen minutes of interrupted reflection on something as important as Ukraine; this was a gift from God. It was during the intermission of a folk music concert here on the island. We were about as far away as one can be from the atrocities in Galicia as you can be. In a hot little room on a tiny island, for fifteen minutes, I tried to explain a country tearing itself apart. Of course, they’re not doing it on their own. They’ve had active help from Russia, the aid of a blind eye from America, and encouragement from Europe in disturbing ways. Ukraine, like a disintegrated Yugoslavia before it, is being prodded into destruction while the world occasionally glances at the atrocities.
Civilians are killed, cities are bombed, and churches are destroyed. To quote the judge’s sermon in Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian, “War is god”. I’ve been looking for a means to understand the return of war to a country I love. The Napoleonic histories which tell of the division of Ukraine between east and west offer some context concerning the current crisis. What’s happening now owes much to the failures of the Congress of Vienna. It’s always easy to answer the ‘what’ question. I know what is happening. The ‘why’ is much more difficult to frame. The unrestrained savagery of ‘why’ is not so readily answered. Blood Meridian provides a framework for giving words to the most extreme human savageries. Diplomacy does not offer such a language. We’ve forgotten (and McCarthy recreates) what is means to live in a time and place when excessive violence is normal. Brutality, blood, and slaughter are the daily amalgam of modern ethnic war and in McCarthy’s story of frontier justice in the west Texas badlands. In short, if you want to understand the worthlessness of human life to violent gangs of human predators, the impulsive carnage of intermittent killing, and war as a way of life in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Ukraine read Blood Meridian.
I am not the author of these letters. I am the merely the editor. According to information I received in late 2014, a box containing mid-century correspondence between two anonymous Yugoslavians in search of bird common to Eastern Europe was inadvertently discovered in the overhead compartment of an abandoned piece of luggage on the “Red Arrow” train between Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Baggage handlers working in the seedy Moscow railway and literary underground soon sought my assistance in dating and translating the archaic Serbo-Croatian typescript into Russian and English. While each letter was clearly dated and both languages share common linguistic similarities, their duties moving luggage and preparing for underground poetry readings made the effort more than they could handle. As such, I became the custodian of this story. Each word was carefully passed to me in individual Aeroflot airmail envelopes and then reassembled on alternating pages of Estonian born psychologist’s Wolfgang Kohler’s dissertation on gestalt methods. Thanks to being forced to read Kohler’s early and innovative work, I have learned much about myself as well as those wrote these letters. While much knowledge about the authors is still unknown, I may reveal this. Both lack at least one finger on two hands. Birds, like people, can be vicious, when you approach too quickly.
I am a condiment guy. I am a connoisseur of condiments. Whether ketchup, mustard, hot sauces, or salad dressings; there are certain things with which I like to season my food. When travelling abroad, it’s always a pleasure to see what other cultures and peoples identify as condiments. What do they reach for when they sit down at a table by a street vendor in Bishkek or Kiev? These are some of the questions that went through my mind as I wandered the back streets of the cities and towns of the former Soviet Union. Some Soviet food is reprehensibly bland. That’s an undeniable fact of life. To someone raised on hot sauce and peppers, the need to find spicier ethnic food (usually from the Caucasus or Central Asian Republics) or effective condiments is absolutely crucial to eating well.
In the “магазин” (small shops-pronounced “magazines”) that line the roads, train stations, and small towns between Moscow and Saint Petersburg one can find all the essentials of life. Toilet paper and vodka come readily to mind. Meat and cheese are also available along with a supply of local vegetables. These shops are not unlike, in some respects, American convenience stores. It was to one of these shops I went in search of the most basic condiment of all, ketchup.
What ketchup does one buy when one is thousands of miles from home and knows none of the brands on offer? Have you ever asked help or a recommendation from an angry Russian to aid your purchase of ketchup? You might have asked a waiter or waitress for a wine recommendation or some beer aficionado about the latest advances in craft beers or pale ales; all in the comfort of a fine restaurant or a whole food type market. But asking a Russian, about ketchup, when there’s more than a foot of snow on the ground, and he’s unhappy about a) working and b) talking to an American with an atrocious accent? I admit it; I never saw this scenario unfolding when I began conjugating Russian verbs in a classroom on the other side of the world. And yet, my love of ketchup and my love of Russia were about to be combined. I asked and I received. I am a better man for it today.
Russian ketchup bottles are works of art. They remind me of handheld lighthouses one might see along the Neva River, guiding mariners toward the Gulf of Finland. Once you realize what you’re seeing, the massed array of red, glass, and turquoise labels create an impressive sight on the most dilapidated shelf. The most prominent and well-displayed ketchup on offer was St. Petersburg’s own “Admiral”. If you have the extra rubles, go for the “Admiral”. You won’t regret it. Is it ketchup, is it tomato puree, is it tomato sauce, or is there a hint of curry, who knows? Each of those questions will go through your mind. Admiral Ketchup expands the possibilities of the tomato to create taste epiphanies once thought unimaginable.
I love a good salad. I might even self declare as a salad aficionado. One of my images of heaven involves a Golden Corral and being told to, “have at it”. The Soviets liked their salads as well. While not quite the same as my conception of a salad, the Russian “салат” can encompass a wide of variety of vegetables and means of presentation. I learned to love Russian salads. Salads can be appetizers, heavy appetizers, or they can be so hearty you’ll simply need nothing else to eat for several hours (even though more food may be readily available). The Russian salad is one of the miracles of Soviet cuisine. I’ll say it again, I came to love Russian salads. Perhaps this is because I saw it everywhere. People have the dish at every major social event large and small. I’ve never been to a Russian, Armenian, or Georgian birthday, wedding, house warming, or any kind of important life event where this dish wasn’t served. It is ubiquitous across the former Soviet Union.
To begin with, a coherent Russian salad isn’t lettuce based, it’s potato based. Yet, this is not a potato salad in the way southerners or Americans (in general) conceive of the term. I feel uncomfortable calling it a potato salad. Descriptively speaking, that’s correct. But to a Russian, it’s just, “salat”. Potatoes form the base of the salad (much like lettuce would) to receive, hold, and bind other vegetables in the dish. What the Russians do differently (and their Soviet ancestors-possibly due to rationing) is hold back on the amount of mayonnaise and other sauces which go into this overwhelmingly “vegetable” salad. The flavor and taste of the vegetables are not lost (or drowned) in a sea of mayonnaise, Dijon mustard, or vinegar. There are just enough of the seasonings to emphasize the quality and earthiness of the vegetables. The content of the salad; the potatoes, peas, carrots, the things that people grew with their hands in their local gardens and villages are the items people want to taste and appreciate within the dish.
How might one create such a magnificent Soviet salad? You could give this a try.
3 large sized boiled potatoes (peeled, diced, cooked)
2 medium carrots (diced, cooked, peeled)
2 medium dill pickles (sliced)
1 average size cucumber (sliced and diced)
3 hard boiled eggs (chopped)
1 can of peas (drained)
¼ cup scallions
¼ cup dill
12 oz of cooked chopped chicken (up to you whether you want to do a vegetarian version)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup of mayo
2 tablespoons of lemon juice
2 teaspoon of Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
1. Put on some Russian music. I recommend Vladimir Vysotsky. He’s like the Russian Don Mclean. You can find him all over You Tube. This will get you in the mood for Russian food.
2. In a large mixing bowl, through mix the ingredients. In a smaller mixing bowl, mix the seasonings/dressing.
3. Toss everything thoroughly. Serve in a nice clear bowl so your guests can see all the ingredients working together.