January 25, 2023

Food, Dance, Poets

The Kingdom of Rye: A Brief History of Russian Food
Darra Goldstein
University of California Press; $24.95; 200 pp.

“The urge to share one’s table, no matter how meager, is a national trait that endures despite wars and political upheavals that create desperate shortages,” Darra Goldstein assures us. The Williams College professor emeritus of Russian (and former Russian Life food editor) neatly conveys information about customs, habits, kitchens, and restaurants with quiet, restrained, occasionally personal commentary in a book that is part of the California Studies of Food and Culture series that she oversees. (Goldstein also authored the recent cookbook Beyond the North Wind: Russia in Recipes and Lore [2020].)

Kingdom of Rye Cover
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An American with non-Russian readers in mind, Goldstein considerately explains and clarifies what a native author might take for granted: “The Russian language uses two very different words for food. Food in general (which can also be a meal) is eda. But then there is pishcha, food that can be elevated to metaphor (food for thought, food for the soul, food of the gods) while simultaneously indicating something absolutely basic and essential. Sourdough rye bread, for instance, is pishcha; white bread is not… Tellingly, the adage ‘Cabbage soup and kasha, that’s our food’ uses the word pishcha, and not merely for its sibilant effect.”

Constructing The Kingdom of Rye on a chronological and thematic framework, Goldstein begins and ends the survey with rye: “So ingrained was rye in the Russian diet that by the late nineteenth century, 30 to 60 percent of the country’s arable land was annually planted in this crop.” The nutritious and hearty rye has unfortunately lost its predominance to wheat: “Beginning with the push for mechanization in the late 1920s, collective farm workers found that combines had trouble harvesting rye, which grows considerably taller than wheat. So, when possible, they cultivated wheat instead. Already in Soviet times, some commentators were ruing the disappearance of rye as Russia’s predominant grain, believing that it eroded Russian national identity in a country that for centuries had defined itself as ‘the kingdom of rye.’”

Rather than a narrative of the author’s food-adventures, similar to Anya von Bremzen’s autobiographical, humorous, and lively Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, readers should simply expect an excellent short textbook.


Mr. B: George Balanchine’s 20th Century
Jennifer Homans
Random House; $40; 784 pp.
Mr B book cover
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This is a big, intense, and messy full-length, full-life biography of the world’s greatest choreographer. Balanchine (1904-1983) was born in St. Petersburg to a Russian mother and Georgian father as Georgi Melitonovich Balanchivadze. When his older sister auditioned at the Imperial Theater School in Petersburg, the directors noticed him, a wiry nine-year-old, and enrolled him instead. His mother, he felt, abandoned him to the school.

It was a stroke of miraculous fate. He began choreographing as a teenager in the new Soviet Union, which empire, in its infancy, encouraged the development of the arts. By 1924, however, Balanchine’s “Young Ballet” group was being suppressed, and when they had the opportunity to go on the road to Europe that summer, they didn’t come back. That is, they didn’t come back as Soviet citizens. Decades later, in 1962, after Balanchine had become famous in Europe and then of course in America, founding with Lincoln Kirstein, a supporting actor in this biography, the New York City Ballet, he brought his troupe of dancers to Russia as part of a goodwill exchange, though he felt little goodwill toward his Communist former colleagues. He visited his father’s Georgia for the first time then and met his brother for the first time in forty years, the composer Andrei Balanchivadze.

As a professional writer and former dancer, Homans’ strengths combine in her analyses of Balanchine’s choreography. Regarding the creation of his Tchaikovsky ballet Serenade, Homans narrates: “He began by quietly approaching each dancer, taking her courteously by the arm, as was his natural manner, and escorting her to a spot on the floor. There happened to be seventeen women present that day, so he placed them in a pattern for seventeen: two perfect diamonds of eight, with a single dancer at the point joining the two formations. From the front, every dancer could be seen—like an orange grove in California, he later liked to say. Another day only nine came to rehearsal, so he made a dance of nine; then six, so six; then one was late – and so in the dance, a girl arrived late and found her way through the other sixteen like a woman lost in a forest of trees. Another day a girl fell, and her fall became a key dramatic moment in the choreography too. Then there was one man, so the ballet had one man. Accident and fate were a theme of the dance, and Balanchine also used them in its making. Chance was the greatest tool he had been given in life; no wonder he used it in art. In less than two weeks, like one long breath, the dance was done.”

The messiness of the book, on the other hand, is not only in the unassured presentations of the background history, everything from the Russian Revolution, World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, the 1960s civil unrest, but in the intimate details of Balanchine’s relationships with numerous women, almost all of whom were his dancers, and five of whom became his wives. Homans observes that “the most disoriented moments of his life were those when he found himself alone and unattached to dancers.”

In the most important function of any biography, Homans succeeds: We feel as if we know him, the man, the artist, the dancers’ Mr. B, the genius who exhorted them when they were overwhelmed by his demands of creating supreme art: “What’s the matter with now? You might be dead tomorrow!” And, of course, readers who have seen his ballets already know him at his greatest: “when the curtain went up on a Balanchine ballet, audiences did not ‘see a ballet’; they witnessed a group of dancers making their way through a living, shifting labyrinth of split-second choices, calculations, mistakes, regrets, adjustments, and consequences. It was alive and unpredictable, bound to music, but also free within it.”

Alexander Korotko
Glagoslav Publications, $27.99; 228 pp.
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Korotko began writing cryptic, narrow-lined verses shortly after the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. The author of many books, Korotko is a Ukrainian who writes in Russian. In the introduction by the English translator, Korotko explains the origin of these poems:

“It was hard to come to terms with this tragedy… I had no thought of how many [poems] would be written, and whether they would be published in journals, still less of the publication of a separate book.” The poems were for himself to take in and account for the shock, anger, and dismay of the senseless, brutal attacks on his homeland by Putin and his minions. After the summer of 2022, he decided to publish the verses, and Glagoslav prints them in Russian side-by-side-by-side translated into Ukrainian (by Olha Ilchuk) and English (by Andrew Sheppard).

The earliest poems are the most powerful and, for some reason, the most open and communicative:

We have to live
with this pain—
will have to live
with our
and your lies.

In one of the few titled poems, “Mariupol,” Korotko concludes:

Do not ask
where sleep is harder
—in the cellars
or on the downy feather beds
that are the clouds.

The English translations, done necessarily in haste, and working with minimalist words and phrases, are sometimes less clear, less suggestive, than the original Russian (e.g. “… говорит / куда то в бездну, / в пропасть, пустоту, ну сколько можно убивать” becomes “he says, / somewhere in the abyss, / into the void – emptiness – ‘Well, how much / can kill?’”).

One of the last poems, however, expresses a wish we might all share:

Когда закончится война
и сны леледами вернутся,
в дом постучит седая тишина
и скажет: от войны пора проснуться.

When the war is over
and dreams return like storks,
grey-haired silence will knock on the house
and say – the time has come to wake up from the war.


Maylis de Kerangal
Translated from the French by Jessica Moore
Archipelago; $17; 132 pp.
Eastbound book cover
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In this thrilling short novel, “Eastbound” means Siberia for the tourists and the Russian army conscripts on board the train. The year is about 2010. (The novel was first published in 2012, in French, as Tangent vers l’est.) The protagonists are the conscript Aliocha (the spellings of the Russian names reflect the original French), a motherless 20-year-old, and Helene, a Russian-less Frenchwoman who, having come to Russia with her partner, a Russian-born, French engineer named or nicknamed Anton Chekhov, realizes that while the Motherland has restored Anton’s spirits, it has inspired her to leave him and flee Krasnoyarsk. She helps the desperate Aliocha, mostly willingly, sometimes not, hide from his commanding officer in order that he might go AWOL. She and Aliocha communicate by sign-language, force, and facial cues. (Would that more Russian soldiers would go AWOL!)

The author Kerangal is a renowned French novelist and also a former travel-guide writer; she most convincingly and lyrically portrays the Trans-Siberian experience:

“On either side of her, in a mess of multi-pocketed bags and zippers, people have pulled out cameras and video cameras galore, cell phones held out any which way to try and capture the infinite lake, the gently sloping shores, the deserted holiday hamlets, the log huts, the shore so close and not the slightest wave, barely a lapping, people snap everything they can while the lake remains in sight, stretched out, silky, smooth, sky mirror, not a wrinkle, only a solitary boat barely moving as evening falls, while inside the Trans-Siberian, in the corridors of the first-class cars, it’s the clamor of a fairground. People shout, sing, share cakes, break down in tears, bottles of vodka are opened and passed down the line, a woman faints from emotion, another recites a poem, a couple dances, everyone is talking at once, and in the general euphoria Helene forgets about Aliocha confined behind her… – an old man at the end of the car beats his chest and shouts, ‘we Russians may be poor, but we have Baikal! The largest supply of freshwater on Earth!’”

The exciting tension permeating the novel reminds me of the accounts of escapes that Solzhenitsyn recounted in Volume 3 of The Gulag Archipelago. Aliocha’s desperate and confused efforts to run away compels our sympathy; the suspense over whether he will be caught or not is riveting.

There are clues, it seems to me, that the novel was inspired by the author’s own trip or trips on the Trans-Siberian and her wondering about the fate of the brutalized young soldiers: “The platform outside is packed. The conscripts stand massed together. Helene, who hadn’t paid them much attention in Krasnoyarsk, can see nothing but them now. Where are they going? What will they be doing? They’re right there, on the other side of the glass – throngs of them, all these young men reeling, sending messages to their mothers, their girlfriends, saying they don’t know when the first leave will be, saying they’re worried about their dogs… Young men who seem to form a unit, but who in fact are only clinging to each other for dear life.”

Stephen May
Bloomsbury; $18; 240 pp.
Sell us the Rope book cover
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This novel dramatizes the week that Stalin spent in England in 1907 for a revolutionary pow-wow of the Fifth Congress of the Russian Communist Party. The British novelist May weaves in historical context artfully, but sometimes not, as if the characters are on stage or film and need to provide background and setting:

“‘Who is Henry George and what is the Land Value Tax?’ Nina Kropin whispers… but Gorky is not pausing to take questions. He has moved on to telling them about how, seven years ago, Fels celebrated the dawning of a new century by helping found the Utopian colony of Arden, Delaware. A place run on strict Georgist principles—all land held in common, no private ownership. It’s one of several labour colonies he has funded.”

Despite being the eventual destroyer of tens of millions of innocent lives, Stalin, not yet known as Stalin, is presented as a Shakespearean villain-hero. That is, May’s Stalin has a soft spot for abused London boys (they remind him of his childhood, beaten at the hands of his drunken father). May’s Stalin has a sense of justice, a stronger sense of self-justification, a Raskolnikov-like conscienceless memory of murders and a biblical prophet’s vision of the future. “‘No free nations without a stream of blood,’ Koba says, and laughs. ‘No free Russia, no free Finland and no free England either. No free anywhere without a lot of blood.’”

Sell Us the Rope is a page-turner that continually has me wondering if it’s moral to try to make Stalin seem normal, just a man. I don’t know. It didn’t work for a great novelist, Karl Ove Knausgaard, to try to imagine Hitler as a teenager in My Struggle (Part 6), but at least Knausgaard didn’t fictionalize anything and he himself questioned his own attempt to humanize that monster.

It's obvious May knows Stalin’s life very well from various biographies, and he enjoys imagining the gritty London of the time, and how these revolutionaries, among them Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin (still known as Ulyanov) and Trotsky and Maxim Gorky, spoke and rallied their small factions that were idealistic and ruthless, spying and spied upon, horribly cynical and ridiculously hopeful. The novelist invents a young, brilliant, beautiful, and liberated Finnish woman, Elli Vuokko, as a contrast to and as an object of attraction to the married Stalin; Elli is everything a twenty-first-century woman could imagine herself to have been 116 years ago and as believable as Wonder Woman.

If you enjoy novels that communicate history and morality as simplistically as a TV mini-series, this one will do.

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