In a bit of serendipity, my library queue brought two books to me at the same time that turned out to be an excellent pairing. Both are set in Russia, both are nonfiction, and they couldn't be more different, which I think speaks well to the vastness of Russia itself and its history and experience. They also brought up happy memories of a trip DH and I took to the Soviet Union in 1991, just before Gorbachev's ouster.
Sylvain Tesson's The Consolations of the Forest is a journal of the six months he spent in a cabin on the shores of Lake Baikal in Siberia. Brave man--he moved into the cabin in February. There's no Wifi, no TV, and the nearest neighbor is miles away, a several-hours hike.
But Tesson doesn't go mad--far from it. As many of us often suspect, the detritus of daily living in the digital age adds a lot of clutter to our lives, and stripping it away gives Tesson a cleaner, more thoughtful life. (Well, cleaner in a metaphorical sense--there's a whole lot of vodka being consumed during these six months.)
Tesson is a vivid writer, bringing to life the natural world around him. It helps that he's already an avid outdoorsman who thinks nothing of hiking out in February for a little overnight mountainside camping. And he loves the untouched world around him:
"The men don't seem to have any respect for the powder snow. Walking on snow, that's attacking the virginity of the world. You start with smashing in the white slopes and before you know it, you're disemboweling Poles."
But through all this beauty and isolation, there are still signs of lingering Soviet dysfunction. Hence this story of weather stations in the Siberian taiga:
"These weather stations are launching pads to psychiatric wards...Every three hours, they go outside to record the data they will radio to their base. Their time is not their own, and the inflexible routine fosters mental confusion. This no-exit situation becomes a circus of disorders: the sufferers drink, tear into one another, develop mental pathologies. Once in a while, a disappearance interrupts their routine. On an island station in the Laptev Sea, north of Siberia, a meteorologist's felt boots were found. Conclusion: wool gives polar bears indigestion."
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking by Anya Von Bremzen is a close, hard look at that Soviet dysfunction. Von Bremzen was born in the Soviet Union and lived there until she and her mother emigrated in 1974. This is a wonderful read, couched in food terms. Besides her own memories, Von Bremzen draws on various family members, most of whom remained in the Union, to pull together a beginner's history of the Soviet era as seen through the eyes of the ordinary people who lived it and survived. Food and its rituals, from its arduous acquisition to the formidable task of transforming barely edible ingredients into something for dinner is contrasted with both the excesses of the czarist years and the shock of shopping in America:
"Shuffling the aisles, I felt entombed in the abundance of food, now drained of its social power and magic. Who really wanted the eleven-cent bag of bananas if you couldn't parade it down Kalinin Prospect inside your transparent avoska [string bag] after standing in a four-hour line, basking in envious stares? What happened when you replaced the heroic Soviet dostat' (to obtain with difficulty) with the banal kupit' (to buy), a term barely used back in the USSR? Shopping at Pathmark was acquisitioning robbed of thrills, drama, ritual. Where did blat come into play, with its savvy maneuvering of social ties, its camaraderie? Where was envy and social prestige? The reassuring communal ochered' smell of hangovers and armpits? Nobody and nothing smelled inside Pathmark."
A few recipes are included, such as the decadent Kulebiaka, a fish pie made with pastry and blini, and Salat Olivier, a Russian potato salad, but the author sadly notes that Russian mayonnaise is an entirely different animal from American mayo, not as sweet, so I have to wonder if it would make sense to try and make it.
Whether I do or not, for sure I'm going to go dig around and find those photo albums from that 1991 trip.