Archive for the Cultural Impressions Category

Questionable joke of the day

Posted in Cultural Impressions, Russian humor with tags , , , on June 7, 2010 by Alec

Here’s a translation of today’s “Anecdote of the Day” from

“Paris, 2030.  A tourist asks a man in a turban:
– I can’t by any means track down the Eiffel Tower …
– Look, there it is showing through the minarets …”


Russian blonde joke

Posted in Cultural Impressions with tags , , , , on March 13, 2010 by Alec

This is the top-rated joke on, a compendium of funny Internet quotes submitted by users and one of the most popular Runet sites.  Russian humor can be very idiosyncratic, but this kind of joke can be universally appreciated.

Woman: Answer me honestly, yes or no, okay?
Man: Ask away.
Woman: Why do men make fun of blondes?
Man: Yes!

Your Honour, Madame Farewell

Posted in Cultural Impressions, Russian music with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 4, 2009 by Alec
on pushkin

"High culture meets hooliganism": Taping a bottle of champagne in Puskin's hand.

I’ve left St. Petersburg after a year there and 15 months in Russia.  What did I learn?  That Russia’s an arbitrary, unpredictable and sometimes mean place, but that’s why we love it  It’s the Wild East, the big vacation from the Western banality that suffocates like a drawn-out waterboarding.  It’s simultaneously a refined culture that is breathtaking in the beauty of its everyday manifestations; high culture meets hooliganism.

My last day was a lesson in these contradictions: In the afternoon, I raced a bunch of drunken Russians down a river on blow-up dolls in the 2009 “Bubble Baba Challenge.”  Then before I left for the airport at 3 a.m., we followed Russian tradition and sat down for a moment of silence, airplane be damned.  It’s the second time I’ve left, and the second time this moment of silence has buoyed me up before the coming storm.

In Russia, I love the bold people, the contradictory culture.  I love sovok.   I love the angry cashier ladies.  And I even love the language, kind of like how a dog owner loves his mangy pooch even when it shits on the carpet every day.

Of course, back in America it’s very … nice.  A lady in the airport saw me breaking my fist on the bank of pay phones and offered me her cellphone: “Good karma,” she said.  Boring, but nice.

Even though my Russia dream has died its inevitable first death, the blog won’t be going the way of the Dodo.  I’ll be focusing on translations of Russian literature and music, reviews of Russian movies, and bits of Russian current events that may elsewhere be overlooked.

I’ll soon be back in Russia, or at least the former Soviet Union, but until then, I take my leave with these lines from Bulat Otkudzhava’s song “Vashe blagorodiye”:

“Your Honour, Madame Farewell,
We are kinsfolk of old, what a thing to see.
The letter’s in the envelope, wait, don’t worry,
I’m not fortunate in death, but in love I will be lucky.”

People who park their cars in glass houses shouldn’t … build them in Russia

Posted in Cultural Impressions, Russia: A love-hate relationship with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 18, 2009 by Alec

0116Over at the hilarifying blog English Russia, they’re raving in their endearing, barely grammatical English about how new “multistory automated parking garages” are going to save the commuter’s hell of Moscow from its dearth of available parking.

On paper, this idea makes sense.  Too much sense.  Nobody comes to Russia for convenient parking.  That’s like going to a biker bar for a Blueberry mojito.  Russia is supposed to be impenetrable, foreboding and crude, a kind of embodiment of shiny-happy American customer service’s worst nightmare.  It’s supposed to be illogical.

Needless to say, I was immediately against the idea the minute I heard it. Western capitalization of post-Soviet Russia almost turned Moscow into a McDonalds and may still yet, but its inexorable flow toward a smiley face-plastered future was luckily perverted by Russia’s prickly and brutal illogicality.

Of course, there’s still a good chance this sheer illogicality — I would say zaniness, if that didn’t bring to mind a Tom-and-Jerry cartoon instead of eternal, purposeless misery — may still wipe the pimple of this parking garage idea off Moscow’s greasy face.  Just looking at the complex gears required to raise and slot the cars into their parking spaces, it’s easy to imagine some drunken idiot jamming his Lada in like a well-placed wrench. Or figuring out how to overload the thing, bribing the supposedly competent “operator” to let him fit an extra car in, then another, until the whole “steklyashka” comes crashing down like a house of cards.  Or paying someone to shoot up a rival mob boss’s car on the third tier — I mean, the thing’s made out of glass for chrissakes!

In downtown London — wait, “Moscow-on-the-Thames” has already been overrun by the half-a-million Russians, let’s say somewhere a bit blander, like Toronto — this idea would undoubtedly take off, and probably earn some environmental credits from the government or something in the meantime.  But in Russia it’s just not meant to be, and I hope Moscow spits the first of these glass houses out like a rotten tooth.

Into Georgia (and Back Out Again)

Posted in Cultural Impressions, Photo, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 31, 2009 by Alec

babushka-in-red-2Apologies for the absence; I’ve been traveling in Georgia, that mysterious little post-Soviet Eden on the Black Sea. And as post-Soviet things tend to do, the republic is slowly crumbling, from pockmarked, torn-up stretches of sidewalk on Rustaveli Avenue, the main street of Tbilisi and the most important street in the country, to the Tbilisi metro, which in form looks like a rundown mimicry of the St. Petersburg metro and in size resembles a model train set. But the food is delicious, even the alcohol, which ranges from red wine to the stiff Georgian white wine, a de facto hard liquor, to the grape-based vodka “cha cha.”

butcherAnd the people are the friendliest I’ve met so far in the former Soviet Union, priding themselves on their maxim, “Guests are a gift from God,” and inviting this traveler into their homes on more than one occasion.

fruit-being-sold-on-streetIn short, a charming place, which is why it’s hard to watch as its already scarce territory is sliced away by Russia, which has played on Abkhazia’s half-baked dreams of independence and poured its settlers and then its troops into South Ossetia in August 2008. These troops have yet to withdraw from the new swaths of territory they conquered.

cow-w-soviet-building-2The August war is never far from mind. On Rustaveli, there’s still folks living in tent-like “cells” to protest the rule of Misha Saakashvili, who is either loved or hated by each citizen of Georgia in his turn. An American government employee I met in Tbilisi blamed Saakashvili for the August 2008 war, saying he had misinterpreted signals from Washington and gotten overexcited to win back his country’s territory, but also noted that the Georgians don’t have anyone better to lead them at the moment.

When I went to Georgia in the second week of July, word was that a new war was soon to break out …

Here’s to you, Viktor

Posted in Cultural Impressions, Russian music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 23, 2009 by Alec

cojj“How many songs are left unsung?
Tell me, cuckoo bird, sing out.
Is it my destiny to live in the city or in the village?
To lay as a stone or burn as a star?
Like a star.”

Kino, “The Cuckoo”

Sunday was the birthday of Viktor Tsoi, the Soviet Kurt Cobain, who wrote some iconic tunes, changed the Russian music world with his group Kino, and then died young enough to become a martyr.

Unfortunately it was also the day after the perennial shitshow “Aliye Parusa” (“Crimson Sails”), which celebrates the end of secondary school for graduates, but is actually just an excuse to pack way too many drunk people and police into the center of St. Petersburg (sometimes the two parties aren’t mutually exclusive: a gang of cops were tipping a few back in Cafe “Bochka” when we arrived). The point is, by the time Sunday rolled around, compatriots to raise a glass or two to Tsoi were few and far between; I didn’t make it out to the artist’s grave at Bogoslovskoye Cemetery.

But I did make it to a birthday concert near my apartment on Petrogradskaya, in the Palace of Culture Lensovyeta, an entirely Soviet venue, down to the angry babushki patrolling the giant, crumbling halls.  Apparently Aliye Parusa really took it out of the Petersburg populace, because the concert itself was ill-attended.

In fact, headliner Torba-na-Kruche, a band I’ve seen twice and often imagined as a Russian Coldplay with the slightest metal edge a la Bon Jovi, refused to play because of the low turnout.  Before there scheduled performance, the MC came out and announced their absence with an enigmatic Soviet saying: “The money to the ticket counter, the culture to the masses.”  But his meaning was apparent looking at the empty hall, where spider webs outnumbered people two-to-one; apparently, the take-in at the door wasn’t enough to pay Torba.

The small crowd began to shout a few meek protests and rumble with discontent, before a savior emerged in the form of an unknown concertgoer with an acoustic guitar who emerged and played half-a-dozen Tsoi tunes.  It was just what the audience was looking for, since the bands at the event almost completely avoided Tsoi covers, like Phish always refused to play the Grateful Dead.

The crowd sang along with every word (Tsoi lyrics are more widely known than those of the national anthem, which has changed so often since the fall of the Soviet Union no one’s sure what they are anymore) and swayed arm-in-arm in the mosh pit.  Tears and sweat streamed beneath the strains of acoustic guitar and plaintive teenage wailing.  It was a 100 percent Russian experience, one that lacks an American equivalent.  As the co-pariah of the Moscow expat newspaper The eXile (which has ironically enough been exiled from Russian soil) Matt Taibbi noted, “Americans can’t do anything without irony.”

The next few bands weren’t bad, and Moscow group Priklyucheniya Elektronikov, which might be loosely translated as “Adventures of the Electronicists,” played a great punk-rock cover of the cartoon classic “The Song of the Bremen Musicians.”  But the highlight of the night was everyone belting out “The Cuckoo” with our surprise guest.

“Sun, have a look at me,
My palm has become a fist.
And if there’s gunpowder, give me fire.
Vot tak.”

Ukraine: “Countrybumpkinland” in a good way

Posted in Cultural Impressions, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 14, 2009 by Alec
On Ai-Petri with Gever the dog, whose forest-ranger owner named him after the "Sturmgewehr" Nazi assault rifle.

On Ai-Petri with Gever the dog, whose forest-ranger owner named him after the "Sturmgewehr" Nazi assault rifle.

Sorry for the absence; I’ve been in Ukraine to get a new Russian visa.  I stayed in Kiev for a week, then hitchhiked down to the Crimea to soak in some sun and see some nature.

Overall, Ukraine seemed like a mini-Russia: Everything looked the same, only the cities are smaller, the distances are shorter and the people are nicer.  No stereotypes shattered here; there really is a little of the podunk “Khokhlandia” about which Russians like to joke (“Khokhlandia” means “Land of the ‘Khokhols,'” “Khokhol” being a slightly derisive word for “Ukrainian” that carries connations of country-bumpkinness; the word comes from name for the single tuft of hair Cossacks traditionally wore).

"Or even worse: Turn into a Khokhol."

"Or even worse: Turn into a Khokhol."

You can stop along the highway to buy milk — milk that somehow tastes earthier, farmier — from a farmer who squeezed it that morning, or strawberries from a babushka.  Or listen to the country folk speak Russian with an accent of exaggerated vowel sounds.  Or listen to them speak Ukrainian, which, to the Russian-speaking ear, sounds like a deaf person reciting tongue twisters.

But the ups outnumber the downs — Ukrainians are kind and friendly folk.  And it is a land of adventure for those who know how to find it, from the sea cliffs of Ai-Petri in the Crimea to the abandoned farmhouses of the middle country to the “industrial alpinism” (rappeling off abandoned factories) of the Soviet cities.