Archive for April, 2012

If I had to pick a national icon for Russia, it would not be vodka. Vodka was introduced to Russia by (who else) Italians in the 15th century. The matryoshka wasn’t even introduced until the height of the Slavophile movement in 1890, with a design straight lifted from Japan’s much older daruma dolls. No, if I had to pick one, it would be the babushka (grandmother): hard-working, stern, traditional (and ubiquitous, given the much longer life expectancy of women over men in Russia); they are the mainstays of old-timey Russian values, combining upper body strength with moral superiority. Seriously, if you want to find out if something is taboo in Russia, try doing it in front of a babushka and see how long you’ll get away with it before that death glare/cane/soup ladle/ purse/disgusted sigh bears down on you.

Russian grandmothers: to feed and defend

The sacred art of aging in Russia is characterized (for women) by gaining 50 pounds, perfecting the twelve most useful applications of butter, and of course forming a Beatles cover band with your girlfriends. (For men it’s characterized by alcoholism and death, but that’s an issue for a different post).

Over the past two years, babushkas rose to international prominence through the group “Buranovo Babushkas,” a serious contender in the Eurovision singing competition since 2010. Hailing from Russia’s Udmurt Republic (near Finland), the babushkas, all in their 70s and 80s, started out with traditional folk songs. They really rose to prominence when a local fan suggested they try rock music. The group took songs like “Let it Be” and “Yesterday” by the Beatles and “Hotel California” by the Eagles and translated them into Udmurt. YouTube videos of the group went viral, and they caught the attention of the organizers of Russia’s Eurovision finals. I mean seriously, what could be more “in” right now than embracing your body, growing your own vegetables, and tasteful pattern-clashing?


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While looking for snacks and drinks at a nearby grocery store this weekend, I ran into a bit of Georgian history—“Laghidze’s Waters,” the first commercialized brand of soda made in Eastern Europe. Last year I had read a scholarly article (by my Caucasus studies rock star, Dr. Paul Manning of Trent University) about the role of “ethnographic brands” in Georgian markets and society. One of his case studies featured the competition between local Georgian beverage companies (which had been protected under the USSR’s regulated economy) with Western capitalist brands like Coca-Cola.

I recognized the name, although the label was in Cyrillic. Apparently the Laghidze company was purchased by a Russian group at some point and production moved out of Georgia. In order to understand all the associations tied up in Laghidze’s Waters, you could read this intensely researched working paper by Dr. Manning. Or you can just listen to me sum it up.

Either way, you have to start with Georgia’s historical relationship to Russia, particularly the imperial period, which is when Laghidze’s was established. If you’ve read Pushkin, Lermontov, or any other 19th century Russian author of note, you will know that for Russians of the period, the Caucasus meant two things: adventure, and health spas. Authors, poets, and musicians of Russia praised Georgian nature and doctors often prescribed a season in Georgia’s health resorts to take in the fresh air and water. To this day, Georgian water is considered to be good for everything from hangovers to cancer, especially by Georgians.

Laghidze’s is also the product of the era of patent medicines. Soda, originally “soda-water,” was intended as a health drink. Consuming natural or artificial mineral water was considered a healthy practice. In America and Western Europe, pharmacists selling mineral waters began to add herbs and chemicals to the unflavored mineral water (which otherwise smells a bit like fart; those who have experienced Nabeghlavi can empathize). Common additives were birch bark, sarsaparilla, and fruit extracts. Also cocaine. Flavorings were added to improve the taste, and soon soda was the edgy “in” beverage–pharmacies with soda fountains became a popular part of Western culture by the late 19th century.

Mitropane Laghidze was the first to combine Georgia’s traditional reputation for medicinal waters with the trendy soda craze of the West—and make bank. Laghidze patented a process for blending natural fruit syrups (compotes) with mineral water, which not only landed him a spot at the Russian World Exposition in 1913, but a poem written by the well-known Georgian poet and nationalist Akaki Tsereteli:

sasmelebis met’oke var—                                                I am the rival of drinks–
ghvinis, ludis, ts’qlis da rdzisa,                                     of wine, of beer, of water and milk,
xileulta esencia                                                                   the fruit essence
mit’ropane laghidzisa.                                                      of Mitrophane Laghidze.

This poem is actually like four stanzas long, I shit you not. But Georgian nationalism was just hitting its stride, so we’ll cut them some slack on the Beverage Odes. Mr. Laghidze opened his first “Laghidze Cafe” in his hometown of Kutaisi, a backwater compared to the Georgian capital Tiflis (Tbilisi), in 1900. It was heralded as a sign of progress and modernity, of creating a uniquely Georgian way to participate in Western trends, and cities all over the Caucasus (and later, Russia) wanted a Laghidze’s fountain.

"Kutaisi entertainment," a cartoon showing the juxtaposition of genteel, Europeanized Laghidze consumers with a local peasant and his sewage cart

As Dr. Manning puts it, “the cartoon draws attention to the gulf between the aspirations for ‘European’ modernity (represented locally by Laghidze’s café) and the fact that throughout this period Kutaisi lacked any kind of sewer system or other provisions for urban sanitation (Mch’edlidze 1993: 87-88; 209-210). The problem of ‘Kutaisi entertainment’ is emblematic of the more general problems of modernity on European peripheries: public urban spaces have different functions, entertainment and sanitation, which are kept separate in a European metropole like Paris (for Georgians at that time Paris was the paradigmatic model of modernity), but which are juxtaposed in jarring contrast in derivative, colonial outpost like Kutaisi.”

Laghidze’s drinks remained popular even throughout the Soviet period, in that weird way that brands existed but didn’t under a controlled economy. Today, they have been almost entirely overtaken by the major global beverages, products of PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, Inc. and persist mainly as novelties. The flavors I came across were lemon and cream soda. I went for the cream soda and it was actually disconcertingly natural. As in, it looked like beer but tasted like a dairy product.

I can see how something like this probably won’t survive much longer in the modern marketplace, but I’m glad that I ran into this obscure little point of departure for so many thoughts on branding, imperialism, socialism, health trends, Westernization, and postsocialist markets.

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Given the popularity of my “In Soviet Russia” meme binge, I thought I would make a sequel. But this time, we don’t even need memes. Everyday life in Russia speaks for itself:

Smart like bull. Best use for babushka.





Russian IKEA

Don’t you dare go around it

a liquor store for the whole family!

Because beer is actually just a flavor of soda here

How did they make it to space?

Taking the “cabbage patch” imagery in exactly the wrong direction

The rape alley is now clear for new victims

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Za Baltika!

With AIFS, it is customary to make one cultural excursion per week, but this week we are blessed with two! Today’s trip was to the Baltika Brewery, arguably the largest beer factory in Europe even though it was only founded in 1990.

Baltika, we all know you were founded 20 years ago. Leave the 19th century draft horse schtick to Anheuser-Busch. Seriously you didn't even paint the reins on there.

Tours of the brewery are an amazing deal (only 100 rubles per person, or about $3.50), but are somewhat exclusive in that you must be part of a group with an organization. Our tour guide spoke excellent English, and I learned more about beer than I expected I would. Fun fact: did you know that beer wasn’t classified officially as an alcohol in Russia until a few years ago? It was considered more like a soda. Which maybe explains why so many people drink it at like 10am. There was also a campaign to get people to drink more beer in order to combat alcoholism—because beer is less alcoholic than vodka. But now they’ve somewhat realized that isn’t a good idea, and they recently upped the tax on beer by 200%.

I felt like I was behind the scenes on How It’s Made. There are glass walkways up above the factory floor, and the first one we entered, in this cavernous dark warehouse filled with giant silos of something, smelled like beer–everywhere. The kind of sour, the-party-has-ended sort of beer smell, but a good mood setter. We got to see the computers where they control the machines, at least two displays of all the different awards Baltika has won, and all the eclectic presents their factory has received from other factories. Sadly, we were not allowed to take pictures of the actual factory floor, as this is TOP SECRET. My personal favorite was the warehouse, because Russian forklift drivers carrying thousands of pounds of booze seem fond of Tokyo drifting their way to the loading docks.

Towards the end of the tour there was small museum created for Baltika’s 25 anniversary, where hilarious pictures abounded. The main event of the tour was, of course, the tasting. We were seated at tables filled with all of Baltika’s products and given 20 minutes to free-for-all it. Their beers are numbered, 0-9, from lowest alcohol content to highest. 0, obviously, is the non-alcoholic one, which just tasted like a bad juice. But some of the others were interesting, including “Eve” (or “lady beer,” which has a 5% alcohol content but tastes like sparkling cider), “Old Bobby” (English pub-style ale), and this extra-dry Japanese beer.

After trying something like 10 or 11 types of beer, it was much easier to speak Russian. I’m not savvy enough to tell you any of the types of beer we sampled, be they lagers or ales or whatever. But I can provide you with a WORD OF THE DAY: Пьяный (pi-yan-ii)—drunk. Over dinner, my host mom asked me which were my favorites, and when I told her No.8 and No.4., she promptly told me they didn’t have either of those: they had a No.3 and No.5 and a No.7 and a No.9. But there was definitely a No.8. And No.4 was our guide’s favorite. But perhaps I’m just doomed to never come out of a conversation with my host mom in which I make any sense to her.

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So you’re sitting on the red line, minding your own business, when you look up and see an adorable Russian toddler. Then as you stand up to get off at your stop, you realize that’s not just any toddler. It’s…


To be fair, if anyone can pull off a mullet, it’s an otherwise-precious three year old. But really, why risk it?

I have actually been meaning to write a post about the disturbing preponderance of mullets in Russia for a while now, but it seems that an actual journalist cut me to the chase and wrote surprisingly well-researched inquiry into the mullet phenomenon. Enjoy!

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public opinion: sealed

For someone who loves horses, Russia is a fascinating place to be. First of all, horses in Russia do not say “neigh.” As I learned in class yesterday, Russian horses say “ee-go-go.” Really?

Speaking of things that make a lot of incomprehensible noise, perennially shirtless, perennial vote-winner Vladimir Putin also likes to appear in photographs with horses. I can just see his publicist trying to convince him to soften his image: “Vladimir, everyone love little pony. I find one for you and you give sugar cube; opposition crumbles.”

Prowess on horseback was highly valued in the Russian empire, given the necessity for traveling long distances in harsh conditions. The Cossacks (a Slavic culture that inhabited southern Russia and present-day Ukraine) were well-known for their equestrian skills. Buffalo Bill Cody even invited Cossacks (some of whom were actually Georgian) to join the “Congress of Roughriders of the World,” the highlight of his International Wild West Show. Today, Cossack-style trick riding is still performed for entertainment at festivals, circuses, and carnivals.

One of the most iconic images of St. Petersburg is the equestrian statue of Peter the Great by Falconet, colloquially known as “The Bronze Horseman,” in reference to Pushkin’s 1833 narrative poem. This work struck a resonant chord in the Russian apocalyptic mentality with its central image of a flood descending on Saint Petersburg without any hope of salvation.Drawing on his own memories of the flood in 1824, Pushkin transforms the Peter and his bronze stallion into an ambiguous symbol of imperial majesty and inhuman power.

The clerk Eugene, in whose final delirium the statue comes to life, became the model for the suffering little man of subsequent Russian fiction, pursued by natural and historical forces beyond his comprehension, let alone control. The imposing memorial to Peter thus became an enduring symbol of both the majestic power and impersonal coldness of the new “Western” capital.

The image of the horse looms large in traditional Russian lore and imagination as well. One well-known story is that of “the Little Humpbacked Horse,” a fairytale about how a peasant’s magical long-eared horse helps him to capture mythical beasts and eventually become Tsar of Russia.

Then there’s the troika (тройка), or three-horse sleigh developed in the 17th century. This traditional form of transportation is still a common scene found in folk art, like Palekh boxes. The troika’s origin is rooted in the expanse of the country and the necessity of overcoming long and difficult paths at great speed. The troika is unique in its arrangement of the horses: three abreast.  A troika can travel up to 50mph when it gets going, which was an extraordinary land speed for any vehicle in the pre-automobile era

delightful 19th century postcard showing a troika sleigh under attack from wolves

The center horse moves in an extended trot between the wooden shafts under the duga (the central wooden arch that keeps the collar from pushing too hard to the horses’ shoulders), while the horses on either side gallop smoothly with outward bent heads, led by the coachman with only a single rein each.

This arrangement was practical not only in terms of speed, but in that a side horse could be more easily released from the sleigh should it be attacked by wolves, a periodic occurrence when driving through desolate woods.

One of the most famous passages in Nikolai Gogol’s “Dead Souls” uses the troika as a metaphor for Russia itself, and one that still has some resonance today:

“Rus, are you not similar in your headlong motion to one of those nimble troikas that none can overtake? The flying road turns into smoke under you, bridges thunder and pass, all fall back and is left behind!… And what does this awesome motion mean? What is the passing strange steeds! Has the whirlwind a home in your manes?… Rus, whither are you speeding to? Answer me. No answer. The middle bell trills out in a dream its liquid soliloquy; the roaring air is torn to pieces and becomes wind; all things on earth fly by and other nations and states gaze askance as they step aside and give her the right of way.”

But perhaps the most interesting horse-related thing I have come across while here is the Nevzorov Haute Ecole. I first learned about it while waiting in a bookstore to meet one of my friends, and a book about horse cruelty caught my eye. But it wasn’t about horse cruelty as I usually hear about it–mustang round-ups, slaughter, PMU confinement, or neglectful owners. Instead it was about the cruelties of equestrian sports, which admittedly are many. This was the last thing I expected in Russia, as criticism of equestrian sports (aside from thoroughbred racing) is rare even in America, and humane treatment of animals does not have a long history in the world’s biggest mainstream fur-wearing nation. I was actually really impressed.

In about a decade of working with horses in all different kinds of stables, I’ve come to realization that in general, elite show horses are subjected to much worse treatment than horses that are neglected and left out in a paddock. They may be shiny and muscular, but they usually suffer from long periods of unnatural isolation in their stalls, have sore jaws and mouths from harsh metal bits, develop neck and back problems from hours of training in hyper-flexed positions, have their ears stuffed with cotton to prevent distractions during performance, are fed and injected with painkillers so they can continue to compete even when injured or worn out, and tend to turn to neurotic habits as a means of coping with hours of confined boredom punctuated by periods of intense stress and over-stimulation.

Many show riders are spoiled, selfish, and childish (if not actual spoiled, selfish children), who treat their horse as a vehicle on which to show off and exert their control, rather than as an animal with a unique psychology and individual personality. I was surprised that all this was being recognized by a Russian equestrian academy, and I wrote down the name to look it up.

Then things got weird. 

The academy was established by Alexander Nevzorov, a gifted horse trainer (“whisperer,” as people are wont to say). If you run a Google Image or Youtube search of him, you can see him performing complex dressage and trick riding maneuvers without a saddle, bridle, or any other kind of aid. Although his reputation as a rider is still widespread, according to his website, Mr. Nevzorov has recently become enlightened and now firmly believes that all riding is detrimental to a horse’s health. He and his wife, Lydia, have since started a pseudo-scientific, cult-like program to eradicate riding (especially equestrian sport) and bring out some kind of golden age of understanding between man and horse.

Nevzorov recently produced a strange, completely unfocused film known as “The Horse: Crucified and Risen,” and if you read the site, it’s clear that the Nevzorovs view horses about on the same level as Jesus: by their creed, a horse should never be punished, and actually never be made to do anything it doesn’t “consent” to do.

Isn’t there some kind of middle ground here? Is all riding necessarily “parasitizing on physical abilities of another living being,” as Nevzorov says on his bio page? Isn’t it unreasonable to think that human-horse relationships can exist on totally equal terms, with neither ever misunderstanding or irritating the other? I mean, unless you ride your horse, isn’t that basically just like owning the largest, most expensive, and most inconvenient dog possible?

It is possible to enroll in and live at the Nevzorov Academy, upon which you presumably begin life as some kind of monk-novice and make a cult-oath never to ride your horse again. Instead, Nevzorov has embarked on a project to teach horses Latin. I shit you not.

Only in Russia, folks. Only in Russia.

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I will update this post with my experiences at non-fast food restaurants in Russia. There are of course plenty more frequented by AIFS students, (Mama Roma, O’Hooligan’s), but I’ve decided to review only the ones at which I have personally eaten. Many students are overwhelmed by Russian-language menus and less-than-stellar table service, and are intimidated out of St. Petersburg’s sit-down restaurants. This need not be!


This is actually a chain, but a surprisingly good one by Russian or even American standards. Their specialty is Russian cuisine, specifically meat pies. The two restaurants I’ve visited are more like cafes, with counter service but also with nice decor and seating areas. I highly recommend the rabbit and mushroom pie.

Conchita Bonita

I have to admit, I had rock-bottom expectations for a Latin restaurant/basement bar in St. Petersburg, but I was pleasantly surprised. The cuisine and decor are pan-Latin and South American, although most of the menu items are recognizable to anyone who’s been to a Tex-Mex place in the States. Every guest gets a free shot, and prepare to be impressed by the quality of the appetizers and entrees (unfortunately the desserts are the standbys you get in any other sit-down restaurant in the city). I recommend the nachos and taquitos. However, like many other downtown basement bars, seating is limited here (avoid busy hours) and it can get very hot and smoky when crowded. Still, this is the place to go if you need your Latin food fix.


This is a Georgian restaurant with a light, minimalist interior (so…not exactly authentic in terms of Georgianness) and has great views of the Fontanky canal. I recommend ordering several dishes (the entrees are rather small, with the exception of the appropriately enormous khachapuri adjaruli) to share. It is more expensive than the many other Caucasian restaurants around the city, so I would save it for a special occasion. But I do give it extra Georgian points for including a free bread basket with the meal, a rarity in Russia.

Sherlock Holmes

An English “pub,” complete with a brick-lined interior, engravings of London, and affordable beer. It is somewhat small and can be smoky when crowded, but I recommend it if you’re out with friends.

Tokyo City

This is one of the better sushi chains you can find in St. Petersburg. We actually had a hard time getting in, because the restaurants tend to be smaller and fill up quickly with couples, groups, and reservations. If you happen to walk in when it’s not crowded, the food is well worth it and sometimes there are even 2 for 1 sushi deals.


An Italian basement bar with a menu that changes daily, featuring mostly pasta and thin-crust pizza.  It is cheaper than most downtown ethnic restaurants, and had a better selection of authentic Italian food than other restaurants in Russia.

King Pong Cafe

This is a pan-Asian restaurant and is actually one of few establishments in Russia that I can see actually doing well in an American city. It has funky interior design, is not too expensive, and makes really good food. I recommend the Thai fried rice with either chicken or shrimp. It is the only good Asian food I’ve had since leaving London. Unfortunately the menu is only in Russian, and it can be difficult to decipher the Russian transliterations of Asian dishes and ingredients.

Vodapod (Waterfall)

I went to this restaurant for a friend’s 21st birthday party, and we (a group of 15-20 people) had a great time. It isn’t a far walk from IMOP, but if you’re taking the metro it is literally right across the street from Politechnicheskaya. The interior is light, open, and has a kind of ballroom/banquet-hall feel. I remember it was owned by Armenians–in any case, they do have a good selection of dishes from the Caucasus, and the khachapuri (cheese-bread) was a favorite. Around dinner time they also hire live musicians, who looked quite intimidating but were surprisingly good.

Kafe Zinger

It is almost impossible to miss Cafe Singer, located on the top floor of Nevsky Prospekt’s famous international bookstore, Dom Knigi (House of Books). The interior is absolutely beautiful, one of the best surviving examples of St. Petersburg Art Nouveau (many others were destroyed durign the Seige of Leningrad). The cafe also overlooks the Kazan Cathedral, which is perfectly lit at sunset. You definitely pay for the atmosphere as everything (pastries, beverages, small appetizer-type plates) is overpriced, but I think it’s worth at least one visit.

Kavkaz Bar

This Georgian basement bar is somewhat cheaper than Aragvi, and I found it had a better (by which I mean, more Georgian) wine menu. It has a nice atmosphere and they are good about accommodating larger groups.

Baltika Brew

Located right outside Palace Square (ie, very close to the Hermitage), I think this is the first sit-down place I went to in St. Petersburg. Food is somewhat expensive, but beer is about as good and cheap as it will get in the city, this being the restaurant/headquarters of Russia’s famous Baltika Brewery. The place is huge and easily accommodates large groups.


This is about as [consciously] hipster as Russia is going to get. Each menu is a handmade scrapbook/”photo album,” and the walls are crowded with books, old maps, and antique decorations. The menu is in English, and I think all the waitstaff (with unbearably cute vintage aprons) are more or less fluent. It’s more on the expensive side (about 500 rubles per person for dinner), so I think it would be better for a date than going out with friends, although their breakfast options look more affordable. If you can’t afford dessert, you might get lucky and be given a complimentary bag of homemade assorted cookies. From the dinner menu, I recommend the shrimp with coconut sauce. As a smaller downtown restaurant, it’s difficult to walk in without reservations.

Khvanchkara Café

Of what I experienced in St. Petersburg, this restaurant wins the prize for Best Georgian: affordable and authentic. While Aragvi is overall a classier dining experience, Khvanchkara Café is a true Georgian family business, with the parents cooking in back while their adult children wait tables. The décor was straight out of a typical Tbilisi restaurant and the wait staff would occasionally break out the folk dance to their favorite Georgian songs. The khinkali were the best I had this semester—big, perfectly seasoned, not gristly—and most importantly, you can order them by the piece instead of being overcharged for a set portion. They also get points for carrying Georgian beverages, like Natakhtari beer/sodas, saperavi wine, etc.

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