Tag: Borscht Report

Тихая ночь в Москве: The End of Echo, No More Rain (Borscht Report #11)

 

I’m not quite sure how to start this. In fact, I’m not quite sure I’m going to post it. I write a lot about Russia, for Ricochet and in ‘real life.’ Watching the level of discourse about the war in Ukraine across American social media has been…well, let’s just go with ‘words I’m not allowed to say here because this is a family website.’ Maybe, if it were something that was less present in my everyday life, I would feel as though I could engage with this topic and not watch my temper rocket from zero to a hundred in record time. But it isn’t. 

As a historian, I have a sub-field specialty in Russia, and as a scholar with a professional interest in Jewish studies, Russia and Ukraine are vital research locations for me. As an undergraduate student, I spent three very difficult years going from my ABCs to fluency in Russian. As a Russian speaker, I’m sitting in an apartment filled with books, vinyl records, t-shirts, etc. in Russian. As a human being, I have people I love in Russia and Ukraine, and even more people I love have friends and family in both of those places. In the last week, I’ve seen a Ukrainian friend I studied with in London leave the safety of that city to fight for his country, and have watched from afar as a Russian friend’s life comes unraveled, her brother and father conscripted to fight, her Ukrainian family struggling with no hope of help, her avenues to the outside world growing narrower every day, and her activism a very real threat to her life. It’s entirely possible that he will die defending his nation, and she will go to prison for criticizing the megalomaniacal dictator that runs her country. A month ago, we were joking about our stress-obsessed former Russian teacher, or our shared taste in oldies underground rock. Now I’m just hoping that I won’t wake up one day and realize that yesterday would be the last time I ever heard from them. 

Плохие дни для Мр. Путина: A Week of Prize Winning Russians (Borscht Report #10)

 

As international recognition of Russia goes, this hasn’t been a fun week for Vladimir Putin. News that the Kremlin had decided to reimpose lockdowns and the President’s own admission that the country could be hurt by a gas crisis was overshadowed only by two things: Dmirty Muratov winning the Nobel Peace Prize and Alexei Navalny being awarded the Sakharov Prize. Neither man is a friend of the regime, to say the least, and winning such prominent awards bolsters Muratov’s international profile, keeps Navalny on Western minds, and gives much-needed succor to the pro-democracy opposition movement in the country.

Anyone that follows Russia will be familiar with Navalny, but I think it’s worth doing something of a deep (or at least not quite shallow) dive on Muratov, as he represents a branch of the opposition less recognized than political and movement leaders outside of the country. 

Essential to understanding Muratov is understanding the outfit he works for, Новая газета/Novaya Gazeta, lit. New Gazette. Founded in part with the monetary prize from Mikhail Gorbachev’s 1990 Nobel Prize win, the newspaper put out its first edition on the 1st of April, 1993. Many of the journalists were drawn from Komsomolskaya Pravda (one of the official news arms of the Komsomol, the youth wing of the Soviet Communist Party, which is now a tabloid), and were excited for the opportunity to do uncensored journalism for a non-state entity. The newspaper did everything but endear itself to Vladimir Putin from the start; in 2001, it became embroiled in a fierce legal battle for accusing a member of his inner circle, Sergei Pugachev, of corruption. Although the organization he represented was eventually forced to withdraw its claim for compensation because the extent of the corruption was revealed, by materials the organization’s own lawsuit, to be much worse than previously thought, the pattern repeated itself. 

Where Have You Gone, Samuil? A Journey Through Identity and Exile with Vladislav Khodasevich (Borscht Report #9/Group Writing)

 

When it comes to pre-WWII Russian literary critics and poets, Vladislav Khodasevich is not well known, particularly in the West. Compared to someone like, say, Bunin or Tsvetaeva, he’s been largely ignored. But Khodasevich deserves attention, both as a skilled memoirist and poet, and as one of the few who chronicled the whole journey of his generation through the realities of WWI and the White exile, grappling with issues of right, honor, and Russian identity, especially for those who carried non-Russian blood in the vast multiethnic empire. 

Born in Moscow in May of 1886, Khodasevich was the son of a Polish nobleman and a Jewish woman. Unlike the union of Vera and Vladimir Nabokov, though, theirs was not an unusual act of mutual tolerance. Jacob Brafman, Khodasevich’s maternal grandfather, was a famous convert from Judaism to Orthodoxy, who wrote The Book of Kahal, a forerunner to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. He entered the law faculty of Moscow University in 1904, then switched to history and philology the next year, staying on until 1910. It was during his time at the university that Vladislav met Samuil Kissin, a law student and aspiring poet from Orsha who was a year older than he. Twenty years later, he said Kissin, whom he affectionately nicknamed Muni, was “как бы вторым «я»” (like my second self) and reflected on how “we lived in such a faithful brotherhood, in such close love, which now seems wonderful to me.”

Despite his training, Khodasevich did not want to be a historian or a philologist, but, like Kissin, a poet, and dropped out in the final year of his course. He frequented Moscow’s literary salons and cafes, and published articles and poems for famous literary magazines, like Golden Fleece and Libra. Although he was the descendant of a noble family, his father had come to Russia impoverished, and Kissin, who hailed from an observant Jewish merchant family (he was trained in Hebrew and the Talmud at home during his childhood) actually had a much more secure financial position, though he was always willing and happy to support his friend along with himself. 

Ваш король голый: The Brilliant Theatre of Alexei Navalny (Borscht Report #8)

 

“They don’t like you to die unless you can die anonymously. If your name is known in the West, it is an embarrassment.” 

This is what Alexander, an imprisoned and unlikely dissident, explains to his son Sacha, when he begins a hunger strike in the Soviet mental hospital in which he is being imprisoned, in Tom Stoppard’s 1977 play Every Good Boy Deserves Favour. And it is clearly a lesson that Alexei Navalny has learned well. 

“Мы были Сережей и Иосифом”: Call Me When You Reach New York, Seryozha (Borscht Report #7)

 

When Sergei Dovlatov, finally having run afoul of Soviet censors one too many times, was encouraged (i.e. told he was going) to leave the Soviet Union in 1979, he never doubted his destination: New York. Of course, the large Russian community there, which his wife and daughter had settled into a few years previous, played a role in his decision. But so did the presence of an old friend. Joseph Brodsky, an established poet two years his senior who shared a similarly combative relationship with Soviet authorities, had been forced into exile in 1972, and had chosen New York as his final destination.

Brodsky was something of a literary older brother to Dovlatov. The two met in the winter of 1959, when Dovlatov was a student in the faculty of Finnish language at Leningrad State University, and Brodsky, who at various times had worked in morgues, geological expeditions, and naval boiler rooms, was beginning to find a prominent place on the Leningrad literary scene. Only a year later, he would meet his mentor, the famous poetess Anna Akhmatova, who helped him reach fame all over the country. The young student, though, was already impressed: “He pushed Hemingway out of the background and became my literary idol forever.”

Dovlatov’s new idol quickly found his fortunes reversing. In 1963, Brodsky’s poetry was officially denounced, and, on charges of social parasitism and with a diagnosis of sluggish schizophrenia, he was twice placed in mental institutions. Not yet twenty-four, he was put on trial, and, when he replied to one of the People’s Judges, on asking who had made him a poet, “No one. And who put me in the ranks of humanity?”, he was sentenced to five years hard labor in the Arkhangelsk Oblast of northwestern Russia. Meanwhile, his new friend had flunked out of LGU and was subsequently drafted into the Soviet Internal Troops, used a camp guard in between stints as a boxer. 

Alexei Navalny and His (Real Life) Hollywood Thriller (The Borscht Report #5)

 

Alexei Navalny knows who tried to kill him and he wants you to be entertained. 

On the face of it, this seems quite odd. Since his poisoning in August, Navalny has become undisputedly the most prominent figure in the Russian opposition and has used his already well developed social and alternative media presence to keep supporters, foreign observers, and enemies well appraised of his progress and actions. Like fellow anti-Putinist Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Navalny is an expert in using social media platforms, especially YouTube, to spread his message in a way that is friendly and accessible to young people and supporters, even those residing abroad. (A not insignificant thing, just considering the size of the Russian diaspora in places like London and New York, not to mention the many non-Russians who take an interest in seeing Putin thrown from power). And now, only months from what many suspected would be his deathbed, Navalny has returned to tell his tale and that of his would-be murderers.