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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.


Review: Russian Literature

Russian Literature
Russian Literature by Catriona Kelly
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Kelly takes an interesting approach here, by focusing on the life, works, and legacy of Alexander Pushkin, as a window into the changing role of literature in Russian society over time. It is thus very different from the chronological summary of Russian writers that one might have expected from the title. But as the author notes, other books (such as Victor Terras’s Handbook of Russian Literature) already cover the whole field fairly well, and it would have been difficult indeed to squeeze any kind of meaningful summary into 200 small pages.

Although some important writers are barely mentioned if at all, the book does manage to cover many important aspects of Russian history, including gender roles, the multi-ethnic empire, and religion. She pays the most attention to how the “Pushkin myth” has evolved over time, and how through all the tumult of Russian history, with only brief lapses, he has retained a remarkable level of influence in both official and unofficial culture. Moreover, Pushkin’s literary successors, whether they sympathized with him or not, have all had to deal with this legacy in their works.

I enjoyed the book very much, although I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read at least some Pushkin before. It was especially interesting for me to read this as I was moving to Moscow for the year to teach English. Today I went to Pushkin’s apartment on the Arbat, which is packed with artifacts, paintings, books, and a docent in every room, despite the fact that the poet only lived there for a couple months.

View all my reviews

The Past Five Years

You, my loyal readers, who have been checking my blog every day for updates, will surely be overjoyed to see the current post. 🙂

Why now? I have moved to Moscow for the year to teach English, and as I embark on new travels and new travails, it seemed an opportune time to resurrect this old beast.

So what have I been doing for the past five years?

I’m afraid if you want the full story, you’ll have to ask me in person, or piece it together from various hints that may or may not be scattered throughout the upcoming posts.

A few highlights though: after receiving a master’s in history from the University of Illinois, I worked as a freelance tutor and translator; I also began translating Alexander Veltman’s novel The Wanderer.

More about all of this shortly.

Horn orchestras

At Yale I sang in the Yale Russian Chorus, where I was introduced to a great variety of sacred and secular music from Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, and elsewhere. This year I have enjoyed learning the balalaika—the quintessential Russian folk instrument—by playing in the Russian Ensemble at the University of Illinois. But a whole repertoire of Russian music remained unknown to me until recently: the роговая музыка or “horn music.”

Drawing of a group of men in military uniforms holding long musical horns.

The first horn orchestra was founded in 1751 by J. A. Mareš, a Czech musician. The style of music enjoyed general popularity through the eighteenth century but subsequently began to decline, although it was still featured at the coronation of Nicholas II in 1896. During the Soviet period, the practices of horn music were gradually lost.1

The key feature of this music was that the horns could produce only one pitch each. This apparently created a purity of sound that many-holed wind instruments couldn’t match, but this limitation demanded great precision in the timing of the notes. The orchestras could be made up of more than a hundred players, usually serfs or soldiers, who were each assigned multiple horns.2

In recent years, several groups have begun to resuscitate the art form by fashioning instruments based on museum models. One is the Российский роговой оркестр (Russian Horn Orchestra), which appeared last year on a St. Petersburg television program, playing several songs and answering viewers’ questions. It’s worth taking a look; if you don’t understand Russian, you can skip through to the musical sections: They mostly seem to play popular western classical music pieces (e.g., Bolero), but there are some more period pieces sprinkled in, such as the March of the Jäger Regiment. (If you do speak Russian, keep an ear out for the point halfway through when the conductor explains that his group doesn’t have women players because their lungs are “too fragile.”)


1 Russian Wikipedia, s.v. “Rogovaia muzyka,” accessed February 24, 2011,
2 Grove Music Online, s.v. “Russian Federation,” by Marina Frolova-Walker, accessed February 24, 2011,