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There are famous people, and then there are famous people you feel some sort of connection to for one reason or another. Strange that in the last two weeks three of the latter have died: Vonnegut, Yeltsin, and now Mstislav Rostropovich.

I’ve known the name Rostropovich since I was really small. When he and his family were in exile in the U.S., they lived in upstate New York and sometimes gave concerts in my hometown. I remember going to see him and his wife perform when I was 7 or 8 years old. I remember my mother telling me, on the way to the concert, about why they had left the Soviet Union. I think that this was one of the formative experiences that made me curious about Russia, which made me choose to study Russian in junior high school, which led to a whole long chain of events.

In 2002, when I went to Russia for the first time and spent three months in St. Petersburg, I went to the philharmonic several times a week. The music was amazing, the tickets were cheap, and I didn’t know many people so I had to occupy myself in the evenings somehow. Aunt Kelly came to St. Petersburg for a business trip/visit that summer, before we ever dreamed we’d live there together. We went to the philharmonic one evening. During the performance, an old man sitting across the aisle from us opened some noisy cellophane candy wrappers. I was horrified and annoyed, and rolled my eyes at Aunt Kelly. During the intermission, people started lining up to talk to this old man. “Isn’t that Rostropovich?” said Aunt Kelly. I looked closer. “I think so, actually.” I felt so guilty for being annoyed. If anyone has the right to open candy wrappers in the philharmonic, I suppose it’s Mstislav Rostropovich.

Photo Credit

How much will you all hate me if I move my blog to WordPress? That means those of you with links to me will have to change them. And those of you who have me bookmarked will have to make a new bookmark. I know that not all of my readers are people who care about the finer points of blogging and if they have to bookmark something new, they might just stop reading.

It’s just that Blogger is a pain, (though the new Blogger is an improvement), and some snooty people don’t like its comment function. And WordPress is so sleek and nice to use.

If you have objections to a move, please comment below.

For Hugh and anyone else too lazy to look anywhere else for news on Russia…

Update: English Russia reports “Yesterday Mr. Yeltsin, first president of Russia passed out.”

Somehow it’s comforting to think of death as just a final passing out. Knowing Yeltsin, it probably was. (No disrespect.)

I meant to write something about Kurt Vonnegut’s death last week and then got distracted and forgot about it until I saw Josh’s tribute. Anyway, Kurt Vonnegut was the dog’s bollocks. I discovered Breakfast of Champions in my high school library when I was 15 and as I read it I couldn’t believe that they actually had such a book in an American public school library – didn’t the librarians and school administrators know that it was funny and crazy and had swear words in it? Between then and age 19 I read almost everything he wrote. His combination of humor and irreverence and humanity is something this world needs more of. I’m sad that he’s dead, but he was 84 and he lived a good life.

Photo from the New York Times obituary


I heard about it on the radio yesterday and I wasn’t quite sure I was understanding the Swedish correctly. They’ve been talking about it all day on the radio and of course Swedes and the resident Russian can’t understand why the U.S. doesn’t do something about its gun problem. And I can’t either, 15 years after the shooting on my own college campus.

I don’t really want to write any more about it, but Rooted Cosmopolitans have some words of wisdom.

My thoughts are with you, Hokies.

Edit: I guess I do want to write a little more about it. I’ve been avoiding reading too much news coverage because it can’t tell me anything I don’t already know. The particulars of the perpetrator are irrelevant, considering that this is a regularly recurring phenomenon in the U.S. I think I used to be much more into the “America is a sick society” explanation for these things, especially immediately after what happened to us at Simon’s Rock. After having travelled a bit, I think the “America is a sick society” explanation mostly applies to the gun lobby. People go off the deep end everywhere in this world, but the difference between whether a disturbed person stabs somebody or beats somebody up, or whether they manage to kill 32 people in a couple of hours has everything to do with the availability of firearms. Can we reduce violence in this world by working to create mentally healthier societies? To a certain extent. Can we reduce the amount of carnage people can create when they go nuts by making firearms difficult to get, as most of the civilized world has done? Absolutely. The American gun lobby is directly responsible for this horror.

Some organizations that are doing something about it:
Stop the NRA
Million Mom March
Coalition to Stop Gun Violence
Brady Campaign

This morning I did my Swedish taxes. They’re not due until May, but I decided to get it over with because it is so easy. They send you a preprinted form with all your reported income and taxes on it, and if everthing is correct, you can, a) mail the form back; b) report on the internet, or c) report by SMS. So I did the latter. I had to put a few numbers in a message and hit send. Ten seconds later I got a reply saying that reporting was complete. How about that? Sweden is so civilized.

Turned in my paper on The Swedish Education System yesterday. Now I only have to study Swedish and write a thesis. A friend who’s in the same boat said, “But that’s still a lot!” After the last few weeks it doesn’t seem like a lot, though. I’ve been trying to work on my thesis for awhile already, but there was always more pressing stuff to do.

Here are some random links; amusing and disturbing in differing proportions:

Pearls Before Breakfast (via Rooted Cosmopolitans)

On Becoming a Woman (via Thistles)

Usually Kostia and I do the grocery shopping together but yesterday he went to Lidl without me. Lidl is this Germany-based supermarket chain that is a normal supermarket in Germany but is kind of a seedy supermarket by Swedish standards. Some of their products are comparatively so cheap that you really don’t want to reflect much on how they were produced. But we’re poor students, and so we buy those things.

Kostia couldn’t find Vollkorn, our usual cheap German whole-wheat bread, so he bought another kind, which I would never have been able to bring myself to buy no matter how affordable, because I am allergic to Uncle Sam. Behold Active Sandwich:

It seems to be German-produced and the ingredients look normal, but it still kind of freaks me out. I didn’t think that Uncle Sam was such a good marketing tool in Europe these days, but perhaps the masses who buy cheap sandwich bread still find America glamorous.

by Kostia Andreyev (Константин Смелый)
translated from the Russian by Megan Case

In the spring lots of things happened. The snow, covered in a grey layer of ash from the cement factory, melted. The wooden planks that served as sidewalks dried out. From beneath the wet earth and gravel that had been strewn everywhere, the coltsfoot flowers crawled out and bloomed. The ditch along the road filled up with water and clumps of frog eggs. Grandma Olya started to dig in the rocky soil of the vegetable plot. The neighbourhood kids, myself included, played ball games in Zhanka and Oksanka’s side street. Around the Day of Coloured Eggs the families set off for the forest: there, on the bank of the river, the Papas drank portwine, the Mamas quarrelled with them, we rolled eggs down little hills and collected bouquets of snowdrops, on the endangered species list (I was fiercely opposed to this, but I was younger than everyone). In the spring we celebrated Papa’s birthday, Lenin’s birthday, my birthday, the May holidays, and The Anniversary of Aunt Tamara’s Birth. After it rained, the air smelled of wet poplar trees. The school year ended.

The number two event, after my birthday, was the purchase of the chicks. The chicks, like everything else that wasn’t books, newspapers, or portwine, were purchased by Mama. We took them to the country house, where they became hens and one bad-tempered rooster, laid eggs and gradually found themselves in broth. But before being taken to the country, the chicks spent a week or two in a box in the kitchen. They were yellow and fluffy, pecked at grains of wheat, crapped, and brought me to a state of ecstasy. In memory of this, in the place of this alien loan word “ecstasy”, I try to say “little chickens!” Unfortunately, not everyone understands right away.

One year the purchase of the chicks happened on the eve of the Day of Coloured Eggs.

You have to keep in mind, having started on the portwine, papas in general and Papa in particular weren’t always able to stop. Even those who didn’t know how to fetch groceries knew how to fetch portwine and booze and remain in a state for two, three, or more days on end. Quite likely, this state compared favourably with the reality available to papas. Even more likely is that my papa felt this difference particularly acutely. Before my birth he managed to endure 40 years and several medium-sized biographies’ worth of experiences, all of them more interesting than the current one.

When we returned from the forest, Papa decided he wanted to be alone with the portwine and put the hook in the eyehole. Hooks can only be extracted out of eyeholes from the inside. I, Mama, and reality remained outside.

All of this was probably quite emotional, I don’t really remember.

As usual, we went to stay with the neighbours. There I could play with the neighbours’ kids, look at different furniture, and not change clothes. If Papa’s solitude stretched out longer, there was a chance of going across town to Aunt Tamara’s and taking a bath in a real tub, diving and making bubbles. Basically, I don’t remember my childhood as difficult.

The difficult childhood belonged to the chicks, who remained in their box in our kitchen.

Generally, the chicks in our kitchen were of two types: normal and broilers. The first type were differentiated from the second by their smaller size, deeper yellowness, and greater capacity for survival. They hatched from eggs laid by real hens in a normal henhouse. They weren’t afraid of drafts and pecked everything within reach. As adult hens, they laid their eggs in places where country grandma Valya couldn’t find them. At the broth stage they turned into less meat, but it may have been tastier meat.

The broilers came into this world in an incubator. Some of them grew into big and stupid specimens which strutted among the rest of the chickens like elephants among ponies. But most of the broilers snuffed it soon after purchase, sometimes even on the way home. They, like drunken Papa, couldn’t stand reality.

I didn’t understand why we needed broilers when there were normal chicks, but Mama continued to buy them; I need to remember to ask her why. That particular spring she obtained both kinds, with a preponderance of normal ones. The lively little natural ones ran around the anaemic broilers and underscored their impending doom.

Even before the trip to the forest, most of the broilers had died from stress and drafts. When Papa locked the door, only one of the incubator’s offspring remained among the living. It’s difficult now to reconstruct the exact chain of events, but quite obviously, at some moment Papa glanced in the box.

While the rest of the chicks were easily able to cope with the absence of grain and the shutting off of the heater, the last broiler wasn’t feeling so great. He was sitting in the middle of the box, having painfully closed his eyes, and barely responded to stimuli.

I think that on an intellectual level Papa understood the broiler’s hours were numbered. However, history knows that cold judgement and common sense rarely manage to suppress the noble impulses of a man’s soul.

Papa extracted the chick from the communal box and transferred him to his winter hat, made of artificial fur, which he placed next to the electric heater. He turned it on – a classic steel saucer, which served as a radiotelescope when I travelled to outer space. Then Papa tracked down the family first aid kit and lined the hat with gauze. Feeling warm, the chick seemed to perk up a little. Encouraged, Papa sprinkled some grain onto the gauze, poured himself some more portwine, and placed his stool opposite the heater. He wanted to monitor the condition of the chick.

Close to midnight, after a few hours of observation, Papa felt that the chick could no longer remain nameless.

– I’ll call you Sergeant, said Papa.

Although Sergeant had picked only a few grains out of the gauze and now was just sitting there, occasionally raising his eyelids, Papa looked at him and saw a fighter – just like Papa himself, who had served in the army for five years. He saw this fighter engaged in a struggle with death. It seemed that there was no one dearer to him than Sergeant. And even if Sergeant was a future hen, no one could tell anyway.

Then the portwine ran out. Papa went into the other room, got undressed, lay down on the sofa, and fell asleep.

In the morning, when he woke up and made his way to the entryway to pee in the bucket under the washbasin, Sergeant was already dead.

At this moment we were eating breakfast at the neighbours’. According to Mama, it was a cloudy April morning. After breakfast she went on reconnaissance and found Papa sitting on the wooden planks between the house and the bus stop. Papa was in his underpants and slippers. He held his head in his hands, resting his arms on his knees. In front of him were our metal dustpan and a black spot of freshly dug earth.

– Rudya, what’s wrong with you? asked Mama, dumbfounded.

– Sergeant died, sobbed Papa, not looking at her. Sergeant died.

He sat on the planks for awhile longer – long enough for me to arrive, see him and carry in my memory the image of his blue underpants and bowed head my whole life, right up to the present moment.

Later, after we moved across town, they turned our old house into a shop. They took away the wooden planks. They covered Sergeant’s burial ground with gravel and sealed it with cement. They drained the ditch. After a few more years, when all the remaining participants in the forest excursions moved away, the shop went bankrupt.

And now completely different things happen in the spring.

Well, I said I wasn’t going to write anything interesting for the next couple of weeks, but I hope this will be interesting to all you Swedophiles out there.

Topic 1: Yesterday Kostia and I got to meet Björn von Sydow, a member of the Swedish Parliament and its Speaker from 2002 to 2006 (when the “right” wing came to power). As he explained it, the Social Democrats have a bit more time on their hands at the moment, so they’re getting out and about in the country. The event was a presentation about Dalarna University followed by a sort of roundtable discussion with about 15 people, half of them students. Kostia and I didn’t contribute much, since the discussion was in Swedish, but I was happy that I understood what was being talked about most of the time. Why we were invited is a mystery, but my guess is that they needed to find a few friendly-faced international students who would accept a last-minute invitation.

Here’s the photographic evidence:

Topic 2: Swedish Drinking Culture. Since we got to Sweden, people have been telling us things to the effect of “Swedes seem really reserved, but then they drink and all hell breaks loose”. I dismissed this as exaggeration, but I’m starting to believe it. The first piece of evidence was the trail of blood we discovered when we were still living in the dormitory last autumn – someone had come home drunk, punched a window, cut up his hand and bled all the way back to his room. And it turned out it wasn’t an international student. I last week I heard that a similar thing occured again recently in the dorm. I’ve also heard a few stories about drunken Swedes in bars trying to pick fights. But I haven’t witnessed any violence first hand. What I have witnessed is guys who seem mild-mannered around the university reflecting a completely different side of their personality at the student union pub — being talkative, outgoing, and singing drinking songs. Of course, alcohol has this effect on lots of people, but it’s the stark contrast between Swedes’ quiet everyday demeanor and their boisterous drunken behavior that is surprising when you’ve gotten used to the former. At the student union pub last Friday, I was sitting next to a Swedish woman who I had just met that night and who was highly critical of Sweden, and when one group of guys started to get rowdy she said “You see what we have to put up with?” Well, I guess so, but all things considered it’s not that bad.

Topic 2a: The dual toilet. The student union recently moved to a fancy new building downtown and last Friday was our first visit to the new pub. Before we went, our friend Lenka mentioned that there was a curiosity in the women’s restroom – two toilets in one stall. She said, “Have you noticed that Swedish girls always go to the bathroom in pairs? In this one they can go in fours.” I had not noticed that Swedish girls go to the bathroom in pairs. But apparently they do. The Swedish woman above said it was so they could talk about things. This phenomenon, of course, is more or less universal, but why do they have to be sitting on the toilet to do that instead of standing by the sinks or something? In any case, the dual toilet really exists. Here’s what it looks like:

That’s about all I have to say about that, but while I’m at it I’ll post the student union pub rules. My favorite is “If you throw up you must clean it up yourself, or pay 300 crowns if the personnel have to do it.”

Right. Back to those papers I’m supposed to be writing.

About This Blog

I'm an American who started blogging when I moved to Russia in 2004. Eventually I moved to Sweden, where life is pleasant but uneventful, and stopped blogging for lack of interesting things to say. And then I joined Facebook, which further destroyed any motivation for blogging. Maybe someday I'll start blogging again, but for now, this blog is dormant, an archive of The Russia Years: 2004-2008.

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April 2007