Category Archives: Russia



My apartment building (on the left), photographed in the sunny days of late August.

Although some of you have seen some of my Moscow pictures on Facebook, I’ve been remiss in posting here, so I’ll start with a simple post about my neighborhood. I live in Northern Chertanovo (Чертаново Северное), in the southern part of Moscow, about eight or nine miles south of Red Square (forty minutes by metro).

Chertanovo used to be a small village with an apple orchard, centered far from my apartment; apparently some of the apple trees can still be seen near the district council building (I still need to investigate). In the Second World War, it was the site of a training airfield. Finally, in 1960 it was incorporated into Moscow, and soon after many of the tall apartment buildings were built.

The story will be familiar to those who have seen the Soviet movie The Irony of Fate. After the initial animated sequence depicting marching rows of identical Soviet apartments taking over the world, the narrator gives a brief history:

Подмосковные деревни: Тропарево, Чертаново, Медведково, Беляево-Богородское, и, конечно же, Черемушки — не подозревали о том, что обретают бессмертие в те грустные для них дни, когда их навсегда сметали с лица земли. Деревня Черемушки дала свое имя московским новостройкам, которые расположились на юго-западе нашей столицы. Теперь чуть ли не в любом советском городе есть свои Черемушки. В былые времена, когда человек попадал в какой-нибудь незнакомый город, он чувствовал себя одиноким и потерянным. Вокруг все было чужое: иные дома, иные улицы, иная жизнь. Зато теперь совсем другое дело. Человек попадает в любой незнакомый город, но чувствует себя в нем, как дома. До какой нелепости доходили наши предки! Они мучились над каждым архитектурным проектом. А теперь во всех городах возводят типовой кинотеатр «Ракета», где можно посмотреть типовой художественный фильм.

The villages outside of Moscow—Troparyovo, Chertanovo, Medvedkovo, Belyaevo-Bogorodskoe, and of course Cheryomushki—never suspected that they would gain immortality in those days, sad for them, when they were swept away forever from the face of the earth. The village of Cheryomushki gave its name to the new buildings located in the south-west of Moscow. Now, practically every Soviet city has its own Cheryomushki. In the old days, if a person ended up in some unfamiliar town, he would feel lonely and lost. Everything around him was strange: different homes, different streets, a different life. But now things have changed. A person can arrive in an unfamiliar city but feel quite at home. How foolish our ancestors were! They agonized over every new architectural project. Now, every town has built a typical “Rocket” movie theater, where you can see a typical feature film.

My nearest movie theater is actually called “Formula Kino,” but the basic idea is still largely true. These “спальные районы” (sleeping districts), with their blocks of apartment buildings, inner courtyards, and various shops clustered around transport stations, are similar enough that you could travel to any city across Russia and not find many obvious differences. The same would be true for many former Soviet republics, although the language of the signs would be a giveaway.

Of course, this architectural conformism is not unique to the former Soviet Union. Many suburban developments and strip malls in the United States are equally conformist. But to me as a foreigner, even one who has been to Russia two times before, the different type of conformism is still striking. Nevertheless, as I spend more time in Chertanovo, I continue discovering small differences and unusual points of interest, which I hope to write about more in future posts.


New Blogs for Old

I’m sure many of you have struggled with the great proliferation of blogs in recent years. Some are simply delightful ways of wasting your time; others may be useful professionally; but in every category there seem to be dozens of blogs worth following. Blog aggregators and RSS help somewhat, but I still have not found a perfect solution myself to share with you.

Instead, I’d like to add to your problems by suggesting some blogs that I have found interesting. Here are a few different categories, each with one blog that I have been following for a year or more and one that I have discovered in the past few weeks.


Old: Tenured Radical

I learned about this first from my sister; I believe it is one of the better-known history blogs. The posts are consistently provocative, often dealing with politics, queer studies, or questions of equality in academia. In particular, several of the recent posts on teaching have been quite insightful. Another feature of this blog is the use of pseudonyms for various places and people (Zenith = Wesleyan, Oligarch = Yale, etc.)

New: Executed Today

This won “Best Writer” in the Cliopatra Awards, which prompted me to check it out. As it sounds, it features the description of one historical execution every day. Certainly not for the faint of heart, but it’s not always morbid either. The coverage of times and places is extraordinary, and the categories menu on the right allows you to group executions by method, century, or country, among other criteria. Selecting Russia, for instance, reveals ten more than seventy different executions, ranging from the 1689 burning of the German mystic Kuhlmann to the 1957 execution of the Lithuanian partisan Ramanauskas-Vanagas. Also interesting are his thoughts on historical bias and the meaning of execution on his “about” page.


Old: Language Log

The most prominent linguistics blog, this is regularly updated and covers a wide variety of topics. Among the more prolific contributors are Mark Liberman and Ben Zimmer, who often post on language use in the media, Geoffrey Pullum, who comments on descriptive and prescriptive grammar, and Victor Mair, who writes about Chinese language and translation.

New: Christopher Culver’s Linguistics Weblog

I discovered this blog after reading an Amazon book review. Some entries are a little esoteric (one recent one begins with the disclaimer “This post might not interest readers who don’t know the Romanian translation of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom…”). But historians of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union should check out his posts on the Mari people and on Orthodoxy, while the general reader may enjoy his translations of verse and stories from Turkic and Finnic languages.


Old: A Hamburger Today

Not for vegetarians, this blog features reviews of a variety of hamburgers, ranging from the simple burger stand style to deluxe burgers with foie gras (or even French fast-food burgers with foie gras). My favorite posts are the recipes by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, who devotes extraordinary effort to recreating burgers from various places (going so far as to have In-n-Out burgers shipped overnight from California).

New: The Red Cook

A blog about Chinese home cooking, written by a software engineer living in New York. He goes into good depth about ingredients and techniques, and like all good food blogs, his has excellent pictures. The title refers to the dish “red cooked pork”, which I am looking forward to trying soon.

I hope to find out what blogs all of you are frequenting!

P.S. I’ve debated whether to include blogs like these in my links list on the sidebar, so for now I’ve just included people I know. If I know you, let me know if you would like your blog to be added or taken off!


Title page, w/Russian text; "Былое и думы / Искандера [...]"

Былое и думы (My Past and Thoughts), by Aleksandr Herzen

I have been meaning to start a blog for some time. One of the things that was preventing me was the lack of a title that would be suitably relevant to my life and yet not too obvious. Inspiration came to me after I read a number of books that refer to Aleksander Herzen’s memoirs. Herzen (1812–1870) was a Russian revolutionary leader and writer who emigrated to England in 1852, where he set up the first Russian émigré press. Over the course of the 1850s and 1860s, he published My Past and Thoughts, in eight parts covering an account of his early life, imprisonment, exile, and political activities. The simplicity of the book’s title impressed me and led me to consider using it for my blog. Thinking, however, that it would seem pretentious of me to simply steal the title and realizing that I will be writing not about my past, but about my present ideas (which are, of course, often about the past), I decided to modify it to its current form, My Present and Thoughts. (In future blog posts I hope to say more about the words past and present in English and Russian, and about Herzen, with whose work I have only a brief acquaintance.)

Having decided on my title, for better or worse, I should probably say a few words about the kind of blog that I expect this to be. I do not plan to narrate my daily life. Although the idea of a daily journal is still appealing to me (in fact, I hope to make a post on that very topic), my personal proprieties about what I want to say in public, as well as a wariness of what my eventual audience is and is not interested in, have led me to decide on something different. So don’t expect to hear about whom I met today in the library, how much my new socks cost, or how many doughnuts I ate (which is not to say that I don’t enjoy the blogs of those who do mention such things). I do plan to include some details about travels, and will try to remind myself to take good notes and photographs for that purpose. Most of the time, however, expect to see musings of various sorts, mostly on history (my academic specialization), language, and music, but also on whatever else happens to strike my mood. I hope to write at least once a week, and to keep my posts down to a page or less each.