Julia R. Barton
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Soviet Dining

Alexei Zimin in Moscow. Photo by Lily Idov

Dining in the Soviet Style

by Julia Barton

I am struggling to keep up with restaurateur Alexei Zimin as he shows us around a Tsarist mansion annexed in Soviet times to serve as the dining hall for the Central House of Writers. The beam of his flashlight skitters over dusty parquet floors where Tolstoy’s characters once danced and Bulgakov’s Devil dined; as we rush underneath, he points to the crystal chandelier Stalin gave to Maxim Gorkiy. We only stop once, on a staircase, so Zimin can explain a door. The US Secret Service, he says, required staff to cut the door into the wall as an emergency exit, just in case, for Ronald Reagan when he dined with here with Mikhail Gorbachev. But we are still a month or more from the grand reopening of this space (which finally happened earlier this April), so the door is closed, as is everything else, while Zimin recasts the mansion as a bright new welcoming restaurant.

It’s worth pointing out how little the word “welcoming” typically belongs in the same paragraph as “Central House of Writers.” Context: the waiters were all rumored to be on the payroll of the KGB. Context: in 1978, dissident writer Yury Dombrovsky was beaten so badly just for walking into the lobby here that he died six weeks later. Context: the restaurant only opened to the public in the 1990s as a blingy New Russian joint, and then managed by aristocratic Disneyland-builder Andrey Dellos, who filled it with white-gloved waiters and red damask tablecloths before he inexplicably walked away and left the building to its fate.

Yet we’re not rushing through ЦДЛ—the cyrillic acronym TzDL that the place is known by— I suspect, because Zimin is nervous about the daunting task before him, but because we’ve already ordered appetizers and he doesn’t want them to get cold.

Zimin edits Afisha-Eda, arguably the first decent food magazine in the former Soviet Union. Readers turn to him for everything from wisdom on making plain omelets to 58 ways to prepare borscht. After training briefly as a chef in London, he started a mini-empire of casual restaurants in Moscow. He has done something that almost no one else has managed to do: serve food that is fresh, unpretentious, and also Russian. Not faux-French, not faux-Japanese, not Georgian or Central Asian, but Russian—a cuisine battered for 70 years by a command economy, war, food shortages, communal kitchens, school and worker cafeterias, and unspeakable rivers of cheap mayonnaise.

Through all those challenges, Russians have managed to keep small corners of unadulterated, undiluted Russian food alive for themselves, at least on special occasions. Homemade dumplings—pelmeni—for a New Year’s Day party or a “Salad Vinagret” of fresh new beets and dill: Zimin is just elevating and reinforcing that folk knowledge with professional knowhow and cheerful determination. But he has his work cut out for him at ЦДЛ. The public restaurant in front may have gone Euro-snobby after Perestroika, but the private “Art Club” in back had remained a model of high Soviet style. He’s taken over both—they share a kitchen now—but when I visited the public restaurant side was still under its long renovation.

So we rush to the private club side via the underground kitchen filled with shiny refrigerators. The club’s dining room is a vast windowless box, set with Stalinesque gold columns, tall curtains and salmon-pink walls. Zimin fired all the previous staff here and cut the menu in half.

“I tossed all the things that I couldn’t figure out,” he tells me in his stuttery Russian. For example? “For example, salads with romantic names, according to notions of fine cuisine of the 1970s.” For example? “Shrimp with ketchup, some kind of fish, various salad greens, potatoes, carrots.” Mixed altogether with mayonnaise, no doubt, the salad was called Inspiration.

Zimin killed Inspiration, but he kept the stalwart standards of the Soviet menu: the Salad Olivier (peas, ham, potatoes, mayonnaise); Salad Mimoza (rice, tuna, carrots, green onions, eggs, mayonnaise); Forshmak, a Jewish/German/Swedish import (herring, bread, apples, eggs, butter).

My dining companions all grew up in the Soviet Union, and they get visibly excited at the sight of Zimin’s menu and the lightened, reinvigorated dishes that arrive at our table. “I see this menu and I want it all,” says my friend Misha Smetana, Afisha-Eda’s art director and incidentally, a Ukrainian. “I see this and I start to …unh.” He rolls his eyes, sighs loudly, orders vodka.

I had actually come to Zimin with a question that seemed far too small for this astounding setting, but it’s a question that’s bugged me for years traveling the former Soviet Union: why is eating out here so hard? For me, at least. The food is getting much better thanks to Russia’s wealth and expanding taste; most wait staff is perfectly pleasant now and can even be helpful to foreigners. But I can’t get past the menu: no matter what kind of restaurant, it’s usually 250 or more items, arranged beneath a bewildering array of chapter headings including appetizers, salads, hot-dishes, cold-dishes, side-dishes, and sauces (ketchup is always in there, no matter the cuisine, and it always costs $1). It is too much information, augmented by government regulations that require every major ingredient to be portioned out in grams. I usually give up and just order blini with butter, sour cream, and roe (100/50/50/10), Salad Vinagret, mineral water and a side helping of shame.

“I once encountered a menu in Saratov that was 40 pages,” Zimin shrugs. “Russian diners like to feel like they have a lot of choices.”

But even without many choices, the four former Young Pioneers at the table with me are in ecstasy as we sample Soviet restaurant food that actually tastes good. The forshmak is molded from the tiniest slivers of hard-boiled egg; the airy pelmeni couldn’t be any more different from the doughy lumps of grease that might hit your plate in a cafeteria. This is not restaurant food at all, this is the food that grandma worked all summer to grow at the dacha, canning and bringing back home to build a banquet on New Years’ Day.

It’s here I realize that Russian restaurant menus, even Zimin’s, are not a list of food at all. They present a set of coordinates for one to scan and match with the needs of the heart. Your heart might need Salad Olivier, because your aunt made it from scratch, and her home lay at the end of a 12-hour train ride and half-hour tram that smelled of exotic Central Asia, and you miss that trip. If you never traveled to such an aunt, never built your food life around the universal binding agent mayo, then you simply cannot order correctly from a Russian menu. No one is dining out on this cuisine just to eat—everyone is constructing a long-lost banquet in their heads.

Vodka does help, Zimin advises. “If you’re not drinking, it’s going to be hard for you,” he says. I am not drinking, but here, in this company, everything is still just perfect.

This would be a good place to end, with Zimin the hero of a revitalized, de-Stalinized, more accessible Russian cuisine complete with home-made mayonnaise. That is the trajectory he has set, and he seems sanguine about the long campaign ahead. But tonight, Art Club is nearly empty. Our check comes. Zimin has his staff put the bills in small, blank notebooks for feedback. We look at the notes left in ours, and are surprised to see that it is filled with aggressive notes left by other diners about the changes he’s wrought thus far at Art Club and ЦДЛ.

“Why don’t you spend some time learning how to make tasty food?” writes one woman—it has to be a woman, judging from the impeccable Cyrillic script. “We used to know how to make tasty food here.” She signs her name with a great flourish. She is a writer, after all, and this is what writers do. Zimin takes the notebook from us and reads her screed. Ever the professional, he smiles like he’s just tried the most divine dish of all.


Baltic to the Sea of Japan

[a Transom manifesto by Julia Barton and Alex Kleimenov]

I tried to download a map of the former Soviet Union to show you the locations of the 15 radio stations I visited during five months on a Knight International Press Fellowship last summer and fall. But there’s a problem with such maps: they’re too big. You can’t print them out on one page and can’t fit them on a computer screen without making the place-names too small to read.

So I’ll have to draw you this picture instead. At the end of October, we were standing on the shore of the Baltic Sea near Kaliningrad, a detached piece of Russia that will soon be imbedded in the expanded European Union. A week later we were looking at the Sea of Japan, 6,500 miles away. We had just flown from the longitude of Stockholm across that of Central Europe and Turkey (with a stopover in Moscow), then across the length of the Middle East, the poppy fields of Afghanistan, the angry border of India and Pakistan, not to mention all of the Himalayas, Southeast Asia, China, and divided Korea. Yet we were still in the same country. Imagine nine time-zones worth of jet lag, but still waking up to the same language and the same ads on network TV. Even the “Chinese” restaurants, despite our new proximity to their namesake, served the same scary lumps of unidentifiable matter braised in diesel oil.

The radio station director in Vladivostok (Russia’s Pacific port) was pretty blasé about our epic journey. “We were just in Kaliningrad looking at the Baltic!” we exclaimed. “Oh yeah, how is it?” he asked. He’d grown up there.

We visited radio stations that seemed surprisingly connected to the world, despite being in places that most of the world would think of as nowhere. We also visited stations whose reporters seemed frozen in a modern-day gulag with a mini-disc recorder. We worked with a lot of kids who’d been thrown on the air barely a clue as to what to do, but we also met respected announcers whose listeners brought them flowers and thanked them for years of good advice. One thing is for sure: commercial radio in Russia is a lot more varied and interesting than in the United States. Sometimes we heard things that were discouraging, especially ads disguised (and not very well) as news stories, and silly DJ prattle that made us want to throw the radio out the window – except we were usually in the radio station at the time. Still, I have to give the stations credit. At least they HAVE news, and at least they HAVE DJs that are in the same town as the station, not pre-recorded into some computer in Florida. In fact, Russia’s under-staffed, inexperienced, overworked radio newsrooms reminded me of nothing so much as… your average local public radio station.

The connections between public radio and Russian commercial radio are stronger than just happenstance. The stations invited me through the Foundation for Independent Radio Broadcasting (known by the Russian acronym FNR), a Moscow-based non-profit that tries to keep some semblance of ethical reporting and social programming alive in that country. FNR works mostly with commercial stations in the regions, which in Russia means everywhere not Moscow. A couple of years ago, FNR’s director and editor-in-chief visited the Third Coast Audio Festival in Chicago. That inspired them to organize a series of regional audio festivals around Russia. They got funding from George Soros’s Open Society Institute with the help of none other than Bill Siemering.

I got to go to the first of these audio festivals in Khabarovsk, near the border with China (hence the rush from Kaliningrad to the opposite Russian shore). You could tell that the staffers of these isolated, Far Eastern towns were excited to have the chance to talk about their work and meet their colleagues. Although during Soviet times people moved around a lot – sometimes against their wills – it seems today that Russians in the regions are becoming more and more cut off, not only from the world, but from the rest of their vast country. It costs money to travel, and almost no one has that anymore.

As far as radio goes, more has been lost in the upheavals of the last 11 years. When we’d start talking about a technique like natural sound, which is almost never used on commercial radio in Russia, sometimes an old-timer would pipe up: “That’s how we used to do things in Soviet times.” Soviet radio, I got the sense, paid a lot more attention to the craft of audio, even if the content was in service of the state. Radio workers had training and standards they had to meet. Except for the efforts of training outfits like FNR, much of that knowledge has been lost to commercial radio today. But then again, there was no commercial radio in Communist times, so the transition was bound to be abrupt.

But almost everyone I met was eager to learn these new-again broadcasting tricks. No one likes to go on the air without a clue, and we witnessed many great discussions and revelations during our seminars. I have to give a lot of credit to the person who traveled with me, Alex Kleimenov. He acted as my interpreter, because my Russian is fine for ordering a beer but not for explaining how to write into an actuality. As a stringer for NPR and other public radio programs in Ukraine, Alex is also a great teacher of radio himself. And he had a credibility that I couldn’t have. Alex survived the Red Pioneer and Komsomol Youth camps, he knows all the references to old Soviet movies that I’ve never seen – he is, in short, one of “ours,” a word that has resonance in the former Soviet Union in a way that it never could in the United States.

There are other kinds of isolation than just geographical, and the kind the United States is suffering now may be the worst. Discussion with and knowledge of our colleagues abroad is one small way to counter that.

Transom.org, 6/1/03


The Good Old Days

Julia Barton finds that some Soviet standards could benefit Russian radio today

The radio station, like many others I saw in Russia, sat in a Soviet industrial park on the edge of town. But this one had particularly depressing torn-linoleum floors and an even sorrier scene outside. A pack of stray dogs roamed the snow-packed parking area or huddled on an above-ground heating pipe for warmth. Sometimes I saw them gnawing on the pipe insulation for a snack. Inside, the radio staff seemed to gnaw on our ideas with the same mixture of reluctance and hungry desperation. Should we quote real people in our newscasts? Should we verify facts from press releases or off the Internet?

Hmmm… maybe. But one thing they couldn’t do, the station’s chief editor insisted, was even refer to anyone who contradicted the views of the local government.

“You see,” says the middle-aged woman who previously worked at Soviet state radio in Kazakhstan, “the governor’s office is taping all our newscasts! They’ll make life difficult for us if we make them angry.”

In visiting 15 radio stations, from Vladivostok on the Pacific coast to Kaliningrad on the Baltic, I’d never heard of such control. Neither had my co-trainer and interpreter, Alexander Kleimenov, who lives in Ukraine, where media freedoms are arguably worse. Information on commercial radio still largely flies “under the radar” in Russia. After all, what local official has time to sift through hours of music and primitive infomercials for a few snippets of possibly offensive news? But being an outsider, I was willing to give the editor the benefit of the doubt. What depressed me was that she didn’t seem familiar with any of our suggestions. We’d grown accustomed to any elder in the room piping up during the seminar with the most remarkable statement: “Oh yeah, that’s how we used to do things in the Soviet times.”

Thus we discovered that we weren’t presenting new and radical ideas to Russian radio newsrooms. When talking about narrative form, the use of natural sound and interview techniques, we were actually discussing professional standards that had simply been lost in the shuffle during years of political and financial upheaval. Given my background in public radio, my advice often sounded closer to that of a Soviet-trained radio journalist than the modern DJs-turned-newscasters that populate many commercial radio newsrooms in Russia now. The old-timers sometimes seemed shocked at how much we had in common and that it took a foreigner to get the youngsters enthusiastic about the craft of radio.

Commercial radio displays such a generation gap in Russia because until the breakup of the Soviet Union, FM broadcasting barely existed in the world’s largest empire. Private radio stations had to invent themselves in the 1990s at the same time the country was reinventing itself. Since radio stations were looking to the West for music, no one wanted news to sound like a throwback to Soviet state radio, with its long reports and maternal or paternal sounding announcers.

At one point, I traveled to a radio competition organized by my Moscow-based partner organization, the Foundation for Independent Radio, in the far eastern city of Khabarovsk. There, I heard a commercial radio staffer lambaste a contest entry from state radio: “Sad, sad, sad. It sounds like reinforced concrete!”

But in rejecting everything about the past, commercial radio also threw out the standards that Soviet-trained reporters had developed, says Evgeniy Morozov, general director of Radio Lemma, a commercial station I visited in Vladivostok. Those standards included clear writing, lively interviews and the use of natural sound.

Yes, censorship and, especially, self-censorship were a permanent feature of life in the Soviet media, Morozov admits. But within those restraints, he adds, reporters still had to prove themselves with good work. “Journalists had to present ordinary facts in a way that was interesting for listeners. From simple events—maybe slightly interesting ones —you had to make it SO interesting so that people listened, so that they knew you, they remembered your name.”

Morozov got his start in the 1980s while still in journalism school by working on a regional program aimed at youth, “Primorsky Pioneer.” “It was the lowest, simplest level, programming for children, but almost all journalists started with that, and only then, if you showed you could do the work, could you go on to produce other material.”
Now that system is gone, Morozov concedes, along with any practical education for broadcast journalists. What’s left of journalism training in Russia is poorly funded and full of “useless theories from 40 years ago.” So when Morozov hires staff, rather than looking at diplomas, he picks those who show some common sense and a command of language. “The rest they can learn on the job,” he says.

Morozov’s technique seems to work, as his newsroom was one of the best we visited in Russia. Its relatively large staff of seven editors and reporters all do their jobs with diligent composure. We found plenty to work on with them, but their newscasts are nonetheless a model we could show to other stations.

Sadly, as if to show the fragility of such a phenomenon, the last day of our seminar at Radio Lemma was also Morozov’s. He was leaving to head news programming at the regional state-television station. He said he’d grown tired of battling Lemma’s owners, a local fish-canning company, who seemed determined to sell the station to a Moscow-run network.

The capital sets, as with most things in Russia, the trend for commercial radio. While many local FM stations started up with only euphoria and the owner’s record collection, the realities of formatting and niche marketing have emanated from Moscow into the regions. More and more stations are now owned outright by the city’s networks or those paying to air Moscow “brand” formats, such as Avtoradio, which aims to capture the driving market. (Owning and maintaining a car is still not easy in Russia, so driving is practically a separate profession, or at least a way of life.)

These regional “brand” stations get little more than some promo material and vague guidance from the network, which leaves a lot of room for local programming. The Avtoradio station we visited in Novosibirsk aired a popular afternoon show called “People’s Traffic Jam,” where drivers would call in to report traffic snarls around town. In between, celebrity guests (including yours truly) would talk about their own cars. Kleimenov, who went to graduate school in the U.S., also explained the relative ease of getting a driver’s license there—no triple-digit bribes involved!

While formats and target audiences are concepts Russian radio has largely embraced, much confusion about the role of news per se prevails. Unlike commercial radio in the U.S., Russian radio stations see the benefit of having hourly newscasts, even if only for two minutes. But how those newscasts should sound—and whether any actual journalistic effort or ethics should go into them—were questions still up in the air at most stations.

One major problem is that regional stations pay poorly, $100 to $200 a month on average. News staffs consequently tend to be young and inexperienced, and turnover is high. The Internet has also been a seductive money-saver for stations. Rather than subscribe to costly (but more reliable) wire services, newscasters just get their material off the Web, though they often don’t know how or when to ask questions of what’s written there. I sat down with the young staff of Avtoradio in Novosibirsk to listen to their station’s newscast and then asked what they could remember of it. They couldn’t remember much, and their crestfallen facial expressions betrayed a fear of looming punishment.

How were they supposed to know and remember what all those stories were about? Either a boss handed a story to them, or they pulled it off the Internet. Asking questions, clarifying vague language and generally taking control of the news for the benefit of listeners—all that sounded horrid and daunting. But by the end of the week, after a mock press conference, some writing exercises and much encouragement, people showed more enthusiasm and self-confidence.

One last short-cut to an “exciting” newscast at most commercial stations is a music bed beneath the news. This can usually range in sound from jolting to merely hyperactive. Avtoradio also includes between-story “beats,” a pre-recorded male voice that swoops in to announce the next story: “About The Economy!” or “About Chechnya!” and even, “About That!” (which caused this American visitor some confusion until people explained that “that” is a Russian euphemism for sex).

When I played a typical newscast from National Public Radio, most younger radio staff thought the lack of music gave it that Soviet “reinforced concrete” sound. I’d explain that with at least two sound bites and two voiced reports from around the world, all crammed into three minutes along with a stock-market update, music would be a horrible distraction to listeners. I got a much better response after playing the newscasts of Radio France, which uses music beds subtlely. One program director immediately ran into the studio during a newscast and told the engineer to turn down the volume on the music. Everyone exclaimed that it was suddenly easier to hear the newscaster’s voice and understand what he was saying.

Child’s Play?

Despite the superficial breaks with the Soviet past, Kleimenov sensed a deeper continuity. Now 30, the Kiev-based freelance journalist lived through the whole “extra-curricular” education of Soviet life, from the red-Pioneer kerchiefs to the teenage Komsomol Youth meetings. And too many radio stations, to him, felt like his Pioneer days.

“At Pioneer camp, people would all do skits that were funny to them and
their close friends, but no one else would laugh. But it didn’t matter. If you thought it was funny, then it had to be funny,” he told me.

At many radio stations I visited, that translated into a lack of connection with listeners. What would they like to hear? Would, for instance, weather forecasts be useful more than once an hour in the mornings? Could anyone but the advertisers stand to listen to the ads or, worse, the ads disguised as news stories? This vein of questioning was rare at many stations. (To be fair, it seems absent at many U.S. radio stations as well). Part of the disconnect was due to an almost total lack of audience research in the regions. But part of it seemed a holdover from Soviet days, when listeners really didn’t have a choice in radio. Today, the best stations I visited, and those with the best staff morale, know their listeners now have a choice, and stations must make a constant effort to keep their audience share.

That means communicating with, not just at, listeners. In this regard, one of the best stations I visited was Baltic Plus, in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. It played an “adult contemporary” mix of music, had a strong (though small) news team and featured weekly shows on topics like fashion—though the host, Tatiana Ponomarenko, takes that term to include many issues affecting the modern Russian woman. She feels a bond with the audience that’s apparently reciprocated: The newsroom exhibited a bouquet of flowers from a listener, one of many, we were told, who bring them to her on a regular basis.

Ponomarenko told us that once, as she was waiting to cross the border to Poland, a Russian border guard recognized her name and said that everyone listened religiously to her show in the barracks. “We know we can’t live that life of fashion,” the guard said. “We listen to it like a fairy tale.”

That connection with radio is the motivation for many who work in the field, and it may be the best hope for Russian radio. Anna Bakumova, a young correspondent at Avtoradio in Novosibirsk, grew up with Pioneer Youth radio. She would listen to its plays, sing along with its songs, and even send in a few verses of her own. “It gave me the feeling that radio was many different people, many points of view, all coming to me in my home. It had the feeling of people talking personally to me,” she said.

That wasn’t surprising to hear, considering what Bakumova had asked us, almost tragically, a couple of days before. Soviet radio was great, she said, the way it used sounds and drama. “Can we do that still?”

KnightLine International, Summer 2003

(Source: )


Shanghaied in Moscow

It started with an invitation from the Foundation for Independent Radio (FNR), the partner organization with which I worked in Russia, for a chance to be in the audience during the screening of a film about the events of September 11th. Or so I thought.

I invited along a Ukrainian friend living in Moscow, and that evening, Veronica and I took the metro to the TV Center near the Ostankino television tower. It’s a vast gray spire bristling with lights and antennae, famous for once catching on fire. We got our tickets for the show, which were stamped “Svoboda Slova” (freedom of speech).

With some folks from FNR, we were to wait in the lobby for a woman dressed in white. She soon thrust herself into our circle. “Where is Julia Barton!” she demanded to know.

“Come on,” she said when my location was revealed, “we’re late. You’re going to be on our panel of experts.”

“No, I’m not,” I said. “I’m in the audience. I’m not an expert.”

“Yes, you are. It says on the list here,” she said as she thrust out a piece of paper, “Julia Barton, American journalist.”

“I can’t go. I can’t speak Russian well enough. I need a translator.” I practically clung to Veronica.

But the woman in white would hear nothing of it. Twitching with impatience, she suddenly switched to English. “I’ll be your translator. Now come on, we’re late.” And so I somehow found myself following the producer’s clicking heels across the lobby, down the rabbit hole.

Conversation with this woman consisted largely of my contradicting false or unfathomable statements about myself. She led me to an empty coat-rack area, where other experts-to-be also stood around with blank looks, as if waiting for a bus. “Now here,” she said, slapping her list down on the coat-counter, “it says you are an American journalist and that you speak very good Russian. So I hope you can speak in Russian.”

She continued to speak English, I guess to make sure I could understand. Then she ran away to pluck more experts from the crowd.

It was soon time for us to go into the studio. The set, I immediately recognized, was from “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” with many pillars lit various shades of green, purple and white. It had a central podium, in front of which were two chairs on raised stages, facing one another across a chasm. We were told to sit on carpeted benches in a sort of chorus-area behind one of the chairs. It was only then that I understood the format of what was to come.

We were to take the side of the man who would sit in the chair in front of us, a “hero” who would take the pro-American side. The question at issue was no surprise: Should we Russians feel sorry for the Americans, or did they get what was coming to them on September 11th?

Everyone in our group seemed randomly pulled out of somewhere for their association with America. There was Alexei, a manager at the Russian offices of a large American corporation, the name of which he asked me not to disclose out of fear of getting fired, some German couple and me (probably the only American in Moscow naïve enough to get in this kind of situation).

The audience members filled in the raised rows of seats behind the host’s podium. As they took their seats, a disembodied woman’s voice yelled from somewhere, “Okay, where are our Americanists and Anti-Americanists?”

The producer appeared, a beautiful red-head in a tight white cotton blouse, jeans, and beige high-heels. She explained the show’s new technological system. Each audience member had a little console for registering his interest in the film by pressing the “plus sign” during more interesting parts and the “minus sign” during boring parts. But first, to divide the audience into appropriate sociological groups, she asked the audience to pick which side they were on.

“Okay, all those who agree with the policies of America, press one! Those who disagree with the policies of America, press two! You got that? One for America, two against!”
A white blob appeared on the giant LCD screens to our right. This blob, after some delay, turned out to be a pie-graph. Two colors appeared: yellow for Anti-Americanist and green for Americanist. As the votes came in, the yellow chunk threatened to swallow its green counterpart at 60.9 percent anti-American.

Strangely, I had never been in a place in the former Soviet Union that felt more American: bright lights, people running around and shouting, uptight about time, uptight about image. With the exception of the beige high-heels on that producer, we could have been in Los Angeles.

Finally our host, Savik Shuster, appeared.

I saw a short, handsome man striding in to audience applause. The cameras trained on him, and a soft face filled the LCD screens. Practice shot. He smiled at us. Soon they were rolling.

“Freedom of speech means freedom of technology,” Shuster told the cameras as we applauded. “Now for our new season we have not only new studios, but some of the most advanced sociological technology available….”

The film, a British documentary dubbed into Russian, began. It was long and filled with heavyweight interviews: Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell, Richard Armitage, Tony Blair, Vladimir Putin, Pervez Musharraf. There was also footage of the Twin Towers exploding, of people falling, of planes smashing, of dust-pillars rising from the collapse. I haven’t seen that imagery in a while, and it made me want to cry. Actually, given my tension level at that point, I just wanted to scream.

The woman in white came up to me a couple of times during the film. “Julia,” she whispered in Russian, “Are you prepared to make your comment? You can say how you were there, you saw how people cried, you saw the ruins.”

“No,” I said, “I wasn’t there. I didn’t see it.”

“But someone told me that you took pictures of the ruins. You are a journalist, and you took pictures.”

“I’m a radio journalist. I don’t take pictures. And anyway, I wasn’t in New York. I lived in Philadelphia.”

After the film, our discussion began. The Americanist “hero” explained why the U.S. did what it had to after it was attacked. The members of the opposing team were given the chance to weigh in.

“I see from this film how Americans make their decisions,” one squat, mustachioed guy said. “They have breakfast, then take a nap, then meet with their advisors.”

The Anti-Americanist “hero,” dressed in camouflage, declared, “This film was a sophisticated piece of political propaganda. Just another attempt by pro-American forces to consolidate their hegemony over the world.”

Alexei was the first to be given the chance to weigh in on our side. “America says it acted in self-defense,” he said. “I mean, isn’t that what our government says about the war in Chechnya?”

So there it was, the elephant in the living room. The opposing hero tried to ignore the question by stating his opposition to all war. But Shuster prompted him: “Come on, we saw President Putin in this film, agreeing with the Americans’ claim of self-defense. Now he says the same principle applies in Chechnya.”

I don’t remember the guy’s exact response because the woman in white was hovering over me with the microphone. “Julia. Julia. Are you ready?” Suddenly, I saw my face elevated to vast proportions on the LCD screen, looking mottled and bizarre. Looking away, I managed to blurt out this much in Russian:

“Hello. My name is Julia Barton. I’m an American journalist. I don’t feel comfortable speaking about my political opinions, because that wouldn’t be professional. I can just say that I was living not far from New York that day, in Philadelphia. But my fiance’s family all live in New York. We didn’t know if they had died. And of course I had to go to work. It was terrible. It was terrible to live in America that day. And it’s still terrible—even the war in Afghanistan. This film makes me sad, because I don’t know when it’s going to end.”

The green-clad anti-hero looked at me sympathetically, asking something I could not comprehend.

“Excuse me?” I said.

I sensed an embarrassed wince from Shuster. “I think our colleague doesn’t understand,” he told the Anti-Americanist, in an attempt to foster actual communication. But my time allotment had long since expired, and his producer had already moved on to the next commentator.

Veronica and I left cursing the whole thing, two writers irritated with the broadcast circus we’d just endured.

Now that I look back on the experience, it makes me think more broadly of the strange dance that goes on between Americans and Russians, people of the great, paranoid northern empires. It’s a generalization, of course, but something seems to disturb us whenever we look at one another: We see only an unbearable, uncontrollable version of ourselves. Americans, when they bother to look at Russia, see a boorish, sulky nation, filled with backward notions and crumbling infrastructure. Russians see the U.S. as a land populated by lazy, arrogant children who threaten everyone else while claiming purity and innocence.

Maybe in the back of my mind, I had some vague urge to bridge the gap when I went to the NTV studios. But in the universe of television, Russia is already America, and America is just the topic of the day. With any luck, we in the audience will be able to bridge the gap enough to throw garbage at each other. After all, nothing looks better on TV than a food fight.

KnightLine International, Summer 2003


Lost in Translation

Lost in Translation

By Julia Barton

Ona moya drama—shto ya mogu skazat’ bolshye?”

It’s one of the rare moments in Michael Apted’s documentary The Long Way Home when the subject of the film—Russian rock star Boris Grebenshikov—actually says something in Russian. He’s singing in a London studio with the man who was to catapult him to Western fame, Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics. Grebenshikov’s tenor voice is smoky but sweet: Ona moya drama.

"It’s quite hypnotic hearing the Russian language," Stewart remarks, "because I don’t understand every word that you’re singing, so I kind of drift off and it sounds like someone singing backwards."

"I think lots of rock ‘n’ roll should be in a foreign language," Grebenshikov replies. "Like mantra." But the song "She Is My Drama" never made it onto the album they were recording, Radio Silence.

That was 1989, when perestroika was rock’s flavor of the month and Boris Grebenshikov was its main ingredient. Long-haired and lanky, arrogant but undeniably talented, the Leningrad singer was a natural object for the West’s affections. Plus he had street cred most established rockers sorely lacked: he had spent most of his life being illegal.
Inspired by smuggled-in recordings of the Beatles and Bob Dylan—and by his own desire for meaning beyond the Soviet Union’s next five-year plan, Grebenshikov had been making his own rock music since the early 1970s. He and an amorphous group of friends who called themselves Aquarium performed impromptu concerts in apartments and warehouses. Tapes of their work were passed hand to hand across the country’s 11 time zones. The KGB regularly hauled Grebenshikov in to question him about drug use and his “foggy” lyrics, and he eventually lost a university job teaching applied mathematics. But his underground fame grew by leaps and bounds as people turned to his obscure yet optimistic songs for some perspective on Soviet life. In Grebenshikov’s songs, the soul was an “electric dog” sinking its teeth into communal apartment walls, and the long February of Brezhnev’s rule was “only our dance at the edge of spring.”

But those songs were all sung “backwards.” Though some of Aquarium’s songs had been smuggled abroad on the 1986 compilation Red Wave, what seemed to ensure Grebenshikov’s success in the West was his near perfect fluency in English. Backed by some well-meaning Americans who’d “discovered” him, by CBS Records, and ultimately by the cash-hungry openness of glasnost, Grebenshikov decided to record Radio Silence in the language of his rock ‘n’ roll idols. What happened to him afterward remains a cautionary tale for any foreign star who hopes to ride his steed down Main Street USA.

The first time Grebenshikov played in Chicago, it was at Park West, in promotion of Radio Silence. CBS had told most of the members of Aquarium to stay home, but Grebenshikov forged ahead with the tour, which caused great bitterness in Russia and broke up the band. In its place, Grebenshikov had hype. He fielded calls from People, exhaled clouds of nicotine in New York magazine, and posed for Rolling Stone, which asked, “Is Boris Good Enough?”

Sadly, the answer was “not quite.” Able to express everything from sarcasm to hope to despair in a single word of his native tongue, Grebenshikov’s voice was now lost in a din of synthesizers. His English lyrics were mostly about the distress of traveling, with a few references to King Arthur thrown in for no apparent reason. The occasional moments of real poetry and talent on Radio Silence only made this all the more disconcerting. At home, Grebenshikov was seen as a traitor; abroad, he was hardly a temptation to the Great Oversaturated American. Park West was only about two-thirds full that night.

Last Friday, Grebenshikov returned to Park West for the start of his third American tour. He managed to draw a crowd of roughly the same size as his first visit—but this time he did it without a single ad or mention in the Chicago press. Thanks to the fall of communism, there are now enough Russians scattered around the globe to fill almost any medium-size hall Grebenshikov cares to play. His Chicago fans ranged from old men in polyester suits to teenage girls in J. Crew miniskirts. “Borya!” they screamed at every interval between songs. During his three encores, Grebenshikov sang the quirky anthems he’d penned for them in darker times, like “Zheleznadorozhnaya Voda” (“Railroad Water”), a simple, Dylan-esque song off Aquarium’s 1981 Blue Album about aging without growing apathetic:

Dai mnye napit’sya zheleznadorozhnye vodi
Dai mnye napit’sya zheleznadorozhnye vodi
Mnye nravitsya letom tem, shto letom tyeplo,
Zima mnye mila tem, shto zamerzlo styeklo.
Menya nye vidno v okno i snyeg zamel sledi

(Let me drink plenty of railroad water again.
Let me drink plenty of railroad water again.
I like summertime ‘cause it’s sunny and warm.
The winter is good at window patterns and storms.
I can’t be seen behind glass and snow has covered all tracks.)

Backstage before the concert, now 44 and still smoking, Grebenshikov suppressed a cough with black coffee. He looked older and wiser than in the press photos of 1989—though he’s chopped off all his hair and dyed the fuzz blue. He had only wry dismissals for questions about his “circus” days with CBS, but warmed up when asked what he did next: he went back to Russia for a visit and ended up staying to produce some of the best work of his career.

"I just looked around me, and songs started pouring out," he said. "And then I forgot all about this American track."

Starting with 1991’s Russian Album, Grebenshikov churned out all the haunting, poetic music his countrymen could ask for. Using guitar, accordion, violin, and oboe (and a few psychedelic Beatles motifs), he composed dark, metaphoric songs about wolves, stars, and horses. But against a subdued acoustic background, Grebenshikov’s voice has a beauty and intensity that transcends language. These albums of the early 90s would be most likely to appeal to adventurous listeners in the West—but here they’re only available, like most of Grebenshikov’s music, by mail order, as pirate cassettes in Russian-language bookstores, or via the Web (try www.planetaquarium.com/english).

Always restless, Grebenshikov has now declared his “folk” period over, and he’s turned back to the West. Although his latest album, last year’s Lilith, is entirely in Russian, he recorded it with members of the Band, solidifying all those Dylan comparisons. The result, to these ears, is competent but not transcendent. These ears, however, have not been the target of Grebenshikov’s music for a long time.

"It’s clear to me that Americans don’t have ears for anything that’s not in an American language," he said, plucking his guitar backstage. Then he went out into the spotlight, where he didn’t have to speak a word of English the rest of the night.

Chicago Reader, 4/28/98

NPR, 3/14/99