November 25, 2017

Photography, Kachka & Spies

Photography, Kachka & Spies
Vitas Luckas, in Vilnius

Here are this week's best English language long-reads we've come across in the Russoverse. They take us from Lithuania to Brooklyn and then Washington. Check the link at the bottom of the post for how you can submit long reads for our consideration.

A Distant, Overlooked Life

Author Lars Mensel takes a look back at Vitas Luckus, someone who should have been a leading light of Lithuanian photography, but for the fact that he lived in Soviet Lithuania, where orthodoxy and conformity trumped artistic exploration. 

The photographer's tragic end could well be the opening to a LeCarre novel:

Vitas Luckus died after jumping out of the window of his 5th floor apartment in the winter of 1987... his wife found him in the snow.


Seconds earlier, Luckus had committed murder: There was a visitor at his place, and they had argument about his photography. Luckus stabbed the guy with a kitchen knife, only to realize that the visitor was a KGB agent. He chose death over punishment.

Mensel offers some superb examples of Luckus' art, and explores how hard it is to know a time, place or worldview when one is removed from it in space and time. But also at how we, in our desire to simplify the world, often focus too much on the "accepted masters" of an art form, failing to look at or remember those who fly below the radar...

Photography is so dominated by iconic figures that some never reach fame, no matter how great they are or once were.


Kachka: The Word That Saved A Family

Over on the foodie blog Salt, NPR correspondent Neda Ulaby, who has one of the most sonically pleasing names in journalism (and an on-air voice to match), takes us to Brooklyn to hang out with chef and cookbook author Bonnie Morales, who has just had published Kachka, A Return to Russian Cooking. The new cookbook

challenges assumptions that Russian food is bland and lacks variety. "That it's all for cold weather, very meat-heavy, that everything is pickled," she says.


You'll find recipes in Morales' cookbook for buckwheat blinis with lingonberry mustard, beet-and-caviar stuffed eggs, and, if truth be told, a lot of pickles.

The child of Russian-Jewish parents (her husband is part Mexican, thus her last name), Morales originally felt Russian food was "broken" or stodgy and needed a reboot, and nurtured a bit of a love-hate relationship with it.

"I thought the smell of mushrooms boiling was just disgusting," she confesses.

So what is the story about the book's title (which is also the name of Morales' restaurant in Portland)?

Kachka refers to a dramatic moment that took place during World War II. Morales' grandmother fled a ghetto in Minsk after barely escaping a mass killing. She was passing as a Ukrainian peasant when she was stopped by a Russian official working with the Germans.


"He was like, 'You're a Jew,' " Morales recounts. The official challenged her grandmother to say the word "duck" in Ukrainian to prove her identity. Morales' grandmother didn't speak Ukrainian, and she had to stake her life on linguistic overlap.


"She just hoped that maybe it was the same word in Yiddish and Belarusian," Morales explains. "So she said, 'kachka.' And it turned out it was the same word in Belarusian, Ukrainian and Yiddish. And he let her go."

Then follows the funniest passage in the post, when Ulaby demurs when Morales suggests maybe they try some tongue.

And then her editor steps in:

"Neda specifically told me she didn't want to taste any tongue. So let's get the tongue," she announces.

What Trump Really Told Kislyak

It wouldn't be a week in Washington these days without myriad new speculations, revelations, and perturbations in the Trump-Putin-Russiagate-Election-Tampering scandal.

It does all get a bit tiresome, so when a really well-researched, detailed article comes along, it pricks our ears. Howard Blum dives deep into what actually went on at that notorious meeting in the White House where only Russian reporters were allowed, and where the president appears to have tipped Russia's two top diplomats off as to Israeli intelligence's sources and methods in an antiterrorism operation. It was a case, Blum says, where

pretty much the entire Free World was left shaking its collective head in bewilderment as it wondered, not for the first time, what was going on with Trump and Russia.

Beginning with a cinematic opening about the Israeli intelligence op that revealed an incipient danger of laptops to commercial aircraft, Blum goes through the details of the case and the presidential leak to the country's adversary in jaw dropping detail. 

Why did a president who has time after volatile time railed against leakers, who has attacked Hillary Clinton for playing fast and loose with classified information, cozy up to a couple of Russian bigwigs in the Oval Office and breezily offer government secrets?

He also offers a fascinating look back at the history and importance of inter-state cooperation in the intel world (to wit: it was the Israelis that first obtained a copy of Khrushchev's Secret Speech), and how this one interaction may have endangered many of those relationships.

Thanks to Dave Edwards for the tip on the Kachka article.

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