Dec 14, 2014

Я СВОБОДЕН (On dining out in Moscow, pt. 1)

I have a confession to make - I've been eating Russian food again.  I've already blogged on this topic ad nauseam (get it?), but I have yet to take a trip to Russia so brief that I can fast through it.  And besides, as I've said, Moscow isn't exactly Russia - eating here is a world apart from the pigs' heads and forced potato-labor of this blog's past lives.  Flush with Western imports and with its finger to the pulse of global trends, Moscow is the undisputed culinary capital of Moscow Oblast.  Of course, Western imports were banned weeks before my arrival, and when it's this cold, a pulse can be hard to find, but the city does its best - whatever your palate desires, Moscow can produce a workmanlike equivalent.  

To this end, Moscow serves not only Russian food and "Soviet ethnic" food (the topic for my next post), but what I'll call "trendy" food, a whole world of essentially identical eateries, varying only in the gender and ethnic makeup of the waitstaff.  For instance, a Russo-Mexican restaurant might be staffed by poncho-clad Armenian men, but Russo-Japanese is best served by Uzbek girls with chopsticks in their hair.  This post will describe one such Japanese restaurant, but please do not interpret the story as idiosyncratic or isolated - like everything else on this blog, it is true, representative, presented without bias or insight, and a metaphor for all of Russia.  


I never intended to eat trendy food - here's how it happened.  On break from work one day, I went to my usual lunch-place Cafe Prime, which I like because the pre-packaged sandwiches seem fresh, or at least very cold.  Unfortunately, my card was rejected there, so I left in search of a place that would serve me food before swiping the card.  That's how I ended up at Wabi-Sabi, one of the three balancing powers in Moscow's faux-competitive sushi tri-opoly.  Like all trendy restaurants in Moscow, the inside was dark and incoherently decorated, lined with TVs showing silent videos of Moto-cross, and booming with Christmas-themed, feel-good hip-hop too loud for you to hear your waitress.  Before I continue, I want to stress that I've never written a piece of fiction in my life.

When you sit down, you are issued a portfolio of colorful laminated paperwork.  It would take 15,000 words to describe the maddeningly complex ordering procedures at Wabi-Sabi, but fortunately, I have 15 pictures.  I'll begin with the main menu, photographed from the side. It has 26 pages, each with 8-10 options on it, beginning with neon-colored cocktails and I think ending with more neon-colored cocktails.  A conservative estimate would be 250 staple menu items.

Because I was there between 11:00 and 5:00, I also got a lunch menu, in fact the "new" lunch menu, with the mocking title "I AM FREE."  At the top, it promises "even more dishes," from 180 rubles. 

The inside is a grid of even more dishes, organized along two axes - the X-axis is in ascending order of price, and the Y-axis is the usual sequence of courses in a meal.  On the right page, underneath another reminder that I AM FREE, are seven different permutations of the five categories along the Y-axis, for instance, salad + soup + roll + main course, or salad + soup + roll OR main course, with corresponding prices for each complex.  This is in addition to individual prices for each item, and the red table of "special lunch prices" for a seemingly random assortment of drinks.  

Inside the new lunch menu was this small piece of paper, which actually challenged my Russian - all that was clear to me was that, for whatever reason, I could write my phone number on this piece of paper and expect to hear from Wabi-Sabi.  Then it told me I AM FREE, and that Wabi-Sabi has a new lunch.

That was the full extent of my food options, but only because my party was not big enough for the 'special banquet menu',

and it was not late enough for the half-priced after 11:00 p.m. menu:

If you're not sure you chose the right adventure, the whole Wabi-Sabi experience can be replicated in 20 locations across Moscow, some of which have even more menus.  Just grab a map, a magnifying glass and an abacus, and use this handy guide to find a Wabi-Sabi with a children's menu, or a breakfast menu, or both, or neither, or a "game menu," or a "hookah menu" without a game menu, or a live DJ or live music but not both.  Also, remind your waitress that something is 10% off, and another thing is 99 rubles, 120 rubles and 130 rubles.  She certainly doesn't remember.

The staple menu and the lunch menu actually overlap significantly, and with each item I ordered, the waitress asked me to specify from which menu I wanted it - that is, if I would like it for 20 rubles more or 20 rubles less.  One golden rule of eating in Russia is that cheaper food is worse, but more expensive food is not better.  Keeping this rule in mind, I deliberated a long time, but ultimately chose to pay 20 rubles more.  In the process of ordering, the waitress proposed two different sides, including french rolls that "were not on the menu," but I declined.  Soon I would eat, and as per my plan, then I would pay.  Having successfully ordered, I finally had time to browse the secondary literature, not directly related to the menus.

Aside from the varying price schemes for lunch vs. dinner, Wabi-Sabi offers no fewer than five discrete discount deals and programs, unrelated to the time of day or the size of your party. These were advertised on the plastic table-placard, and on two extensions that stuck out the sides of it. First, there is some sort of club-card, provided in partnership with Sviaznoi, one of the two balancing powers in Moscow's faux-competitive wireless duopoly:

Second, some 10% off something, but also, a free drink on any order over 600 rubles,

Third, 10% off if you take it to go,

Fourth, a third champagne glass free after my first two:

And fifth, discounts on select large sushi combos:

Food hasn't arrived yet?  Browse the Wabi-Sabi internal magazine they leave under the menu-portfolio.  As you'll notice on the cover, it offers 250 of something, +10%, multiplied by 2.  

The inside offered another 30% of something, or off something, or in addition to something...  

...with 30 of something else in 7 ways, which can be elaborated on in person, online, or by phone, including through smart phone apps available at the App Store or through Google Play.  

Game theory suggests that there are more possible meals at Wabi-Sabi than there are atoms in the known universe, and YOU ARE FREE to choose any one.  I chose a bowl of miso soup and a salmon roll, which was a little warmer than the sandwiches at Cafe Prime, and then I waited twenty minutes for my debit card to work its way through the sushi-bureaucratic apparatus.  The card swiped fine.

A lot of "trendy" food follows the Wabi-Sabi model, but for whatever reason, "Soviet ethnic" seems to have developed along healthier capitalist lines since the 1990s.  Why these places in particular have thrived is unclear - Russian food is a riddle wrapped in a horse intestine, inside phony packaging from Belarus.  You'll see what I mean in my next post - Georgian food.  I know you think you're full now, but believe me - it never lasts. 

Nov 16, 2014

Слепые вожди пьяных (Photo collection: Moscow in autumn)

Moscow, the beating heart of Russia's great and peculiar civilization!

Begin at Red Square, the center of medieval Muscovy, and take an hour's stroll through nine hundred years of history.  From the medieval cobblestone between the onion domes and fortress walls, walk any direction to the Russian Empire, stopping to marvel at Old Europe's grand hotels and monuments to culture and commerce. But don't look backwards for too long - Moscow certainly never does. Instead choose a new direction - descend twenty stories underground into the marble palaces of Stalin's metro, and emerge under his stately and imposing skyscrapers.  Or look above you to the grid of trolley cables and holiday lights, follow it along iconic boulevards and river-walks, past world-renowned concert halls and film studios, all under the gaze of bronze and marble heroes of labor, art, science and exploration.  Just be sure to lower your gaze occasionally - otherwise you may miss a spontaneous performance of ballet:

If you can't relish life in Moscow, you were never alive to begin with.

At least that's what I hear.  Moscow probably is spectacular, but like you I've only read about it, and mostly on this blog.  Me, I've been sitting in self-imposed isolation for three months, hunched over my desk, neither working nor relaxing, listening to my neck crackle like damp firewood every time I turn to the clock to see if it's bedtime.  My life is so empty that to document it now would turn this blog into every other blog, and I hate blogs.  The most interesting thing that's happened to me since I got here was E. coli, but even that's become routine (incidentally, stay tuned for my post on local fare).  If something happens you'll be the first to know, but in the mean time, please enjoy this tour in photographs.


As a famous Russian proverb has it, God is very high and the tsar is very far away.  This proverb did not originate in Moscow.  In Moscow, the tsar is standing right behind you, making sure you don't take photographs inside the metro.  A few examples:

In the provinces, sometimes rooms get stuffy.  Most Russians, like most Americans, resolve this problem with their wits, i.e. by opening a window.  In Moscow, the problem is resolved with state power.  By each window in the reading room of the National Library, they've posted this document - roughly translated, it's the "schedule for airing out the room."

Intervals of roughly 3 hours, for 15 minutes each time - eat your heart out, OSHA.

Another example:  In the provinces, like in America, there are handicap parking spaces for the disabled.  If you get caught parking in one without permission, the state will fine you to discourage further abuse of the privilege.  In Moscow they make damn sure you don't park in the handicap spot in the first place:

Most surprising of all, at least to me, is the outward sobriety of the city.  The authorities have cracked down on public drunkenness, with the unfortunate side effect of reining in private drunkenness, too. Only stores above a certain size can sell alcohol and only during certain hours; you can't drink openly on the street (not to mention on the bus); even bars discourage you from drinking:

"Excessive consumption of alcohol is harmful to your health."  In the provinces, you aren't required to post that - they already know.  

So in addition to being grand and lively, the city is safe, orderly, and predictable - a showcase of Russia's best efforts in all spheres. This is not to say the Moscow is a Potemkin Village or somehow artificial - the showcase is largely for internal consumption, and Russian citizens from Crimea to Kamchatka take pride in their (outrageously distant) capital.  They all know the major sites and streets, they all watch Moscow's news, and in the Soviet period, all trains across all eleven time zones ran on Moscow time.  Of course, the regions wouldn't mind some of Moscow's wealth and wellbeing, and the glitz and glamour does isolate the center from its periphery.  People in Irkutsk know how Moscow lives, but Muscovites know far less about Irkutsk - the blind leading the drunk.

To me, Moscow has so far been an adjustment, and at times, a disappointment, in that it differs so dramatically from the other Russian cities I've come to love.  Sure, you still get the occasional unfortunately-named cafe

and the same difficulties with English grammar,

but something still feels off, at least for now.  This was evident as soon as I got here.

Upon arriving in Moscow, my most urgent task was to find a banya, or Russian bath/sauna, that I could frequent during my year here.  In both Irkutsk and Maikop, locals operated banyas that one could rent out for the night with friends, or drop in to, to have a steam, a snow-bath, a liter of vodka, a spell of vertigo and a fistfight.  I had assumed that this was a central feature of Russian life everywhere, and thus pursued a career in Russian studies.  It appears now that I acted too hastily - in Moscow, most banyas are either far outside the city in people's private dachas, or in the center, lavishly decorated and priced for the Soviet elite (or now, the new rich).  Try to guess, for instance, which of these two banyas I frequented in Maikop, and which one I can't afford in Moscow:


In my desperation and disbelief, I asked all of my acquaintances here, but their answers were always the same - "this isn't Irkutsk," "this isn't Maikop," or one time, "this isn't America."  Indeed.  I might have added, "this isn't Russia," but I already know that game.  In truth, Russia contains multitudes, but Moscow so far has fallen a bit short of my romantic, blog-distorted memories of Irkutsk and Maikop.  Fortunately, my visa is valid until May, and my impressions, like the city itself, are under constant renovation.

In the mean time, there is plenty to look at.

The following (and final) pictures are a means to coerce myself into blogging further, even if my life stays dull.  Moscow, in addition to its spectacular built environment, is dotted with equally spectacular parks, former gentry estates, and other well-curated green space.  The theme of this post was Moscow in autumn.  I will try to return to these same spots, some of the above but all of these below, during the winter and during the spring, to document the city's seasonal transformations. These are from a park near my apartment (click on any pictures, but especially these, for full-size versions).

Oct 8, 2014

ВДНХ (On post-socialism, or Moscow in the Summer)

I’m sorry.

I was wrong to stray from my blog in search of a larger audience; I’ve realized my mistake and I’m asking for your forgiveness.  My (excellent) article didn’t get published, and in fact, after writing it at Jacobin’s explicit request, that same editor who requested it never acknowledged receipt of my draft or my follow-up email.  In my view, I was due a "yes" or a polite "no," but perhaps I'm just clinging to my bourgeois mores like a life raft while the revolution washes me away. 

IT'S FINE - I’m actually not bitter.  Failure has more to teach us than success.  Although the editor could have been more courteous,  I’m not so thin-skinned as to take it personally.  I'm content to let him do his thing, and I’ll do mine.  And mine is here at Time Flying, sharing little words with my beloved friends and family, not in some overproduced, undersubscribed pinko rag, exhuming dead slogans from the nineteenth century and sending them to every café in Brooklyn for consumption by old classmates from the Subaltern Studies department at Wesleyan.    

Whoa, sorry… not sure where that came from.  What I meant was, I want to move past my ill-fated experiment in journalism, and refocus attention on my first and enduring love, Russia.  Forthcoming post-topics include food, my home life, and a three-part photo-tour of Moscow, in autumn, winter and spring.  

Today’s post is something of a preview – summer, perhaps, which I saw only briefly, but during which I visited Moscow’s most peculiar site.  

Welcome to the Exhibition of Achievements of the People's Economy, or VDNKh (pronounced as it’s spelled).  The name doesn't lend itself to easy translation; a less accurate but clearer variant might be the Exhibition of Achievements of the Planned Economy, or simply the Exhibition of Soviet Economic Achievements.  VDNKh was once a Soviet Disney World, a socialist theme park composed of over 80 separate, architecturally unique pavilions, each dedicated either to one of the various national-ethnic groups of the USSR, or to some obscure corner of the planned economy.  It covers an enormous area - to walk from the North Caucasus Region Pavilion to the Rabbit-Husbandry Pavilion could take all day, even if you can somehow resist stopping at the Sugar Beet Cultivation pavilion and the pavilion of Belorussian Furniture (all real).  The grounds lie north of the city center, and the exhibition itself is a fully functioning city-within-a-city, complete with grocery stores, parks and a population of construction and retail workers.  In addition to the 80+ pavilions, there are fountains, gardens, ponds and forest preserves.  

One needn't read a thing to know the history of VDNKh, which is good, because I didn't read a thing. The history is visible everywhere.  What makes the place so fascinating is that it has fundamentally changed at least four times since Stalin ordered it built in the 1930s.  At first, it was meant to be a microcosm of the rapidly-forming Soviet utopia, complete with Stalinist neoclassical architecture, ornate fountains and art, and monuments to the heroes of socialist labor.  When that utopia didn't pan out, they moderated VDNKh to match the real existing late-Socialist utopia - the authorities covered all the ornament in cheap plaster, painted it white, called it Modern, and hoped the plaster would hold until they retired.  When that utopia didn't pan out, and the plaster fell off the entire USSR, VDNKh came to reflect yet another utopia: the unregulated libertarian free-for-all.  The grounds and the buildings fell into disrepair, while hordes of speculators, mobsters and showmen claimed land and built whatever would sell, including torture and sex museums and a massive shark tank in the center of the former House of the Peoples Pavilion.  Order was maintained by motorcycle gangs.  In one sense, this iteration of VDNKh was an Exhibition of Capitalist Economic Achievements, but if you think about it, the former name was still more apt - the horror show was one final achievement of the socialist economy.  

Oh!  That reminds me.  This blog has a panel of buttons at the bottom, with which you can share posts on Facebook, Gmail, Blogger, Twitter, and Pinterest (whatever that is).  I myself just started using Twitter, and it's super fun and easy - just click the lower-case "t" at the bottom of the post, include the word "@jacobinmag" in the message, and write whatever you'd like!  Don't forget to attach a picture:

The inscription reads "The Com..unist Party ...ormed and strengt... natio......... nbreakabl.... riendshi... eople."  With that, you still have 48 characters left to tweet, if you were wondering.

Where was I.  Oh right, VDNKh!  In the last year or two, the government has taken VDNKh under its protection and is attempting to make something of it, though it's still unclear what.  They've chased out the riff-raff and are gradually restoring the grounds and uncovering the ancient ruins, as seen in the pictures above.  Time will tell how many more lives it has ahead of it.

There are various ways to see VDNKh.  To some, viewing it from the Soviet past, it's a sombre memorial to a more hopeful time, when the Soviet future seemed limitless.  From the post-Soviet present, it might be a museum of capitalism's transformative power, or more likely, a carnival of its repulsive excesses.  But to me, the real meaning of VDNKh lies somewhere in between, and may even contain a faint glimmer of hope.  Gazing into the refurbished Fountain of the Friendship of the Peoples, VDNKh recalls that momentous year 1991 when, at the threshold between the stable oppression of socialism and the dynamic horrors of hypercapitalism, all eoples of the nbreakabl Union joined hands, briefly, to dance on the rubble of Jacobin Magazine’s dreams.

Sep 26, 2014

Перерыв (A non-post)

My dear readers,

This week, in lieu of a blog post, I wrote a political screed for the left-wing magazine Jacobin.  I am waiting to hear if they will publish it or not; if so I will link to it.  Please do not interpret this to mean either a) that I myself am left-wing, or b) that I think people should read more.  I was simply worn out from the rigors of writing silly blog posts, and decided to try my hand at foreign policy commentary.

For your patience, please enjoy this photograph of a woman dancing with a goat on a temporary stage outside the metro:

Sep 6, 2014

Bureau-crazzzy (О бюрократии - pt. 2)



This is what I look like after five rounds of writing my name (surname, given name, patronymic), my advisor's name, my occupation, my employing institution, that institution's address, my personal address, my phone number, the topic and period of my research, the "goal" of my research, my level of education, my citizenship, my passport number, my passport serial number, the name and location of the passport-issuing agency, and the passport's expiration date.  As the photo shows, Russian bureaucracy leaves people aggressively bored, like the orcas in the swimming pool at SeaWorld. Today's post is about bureaucracy.

If you'll recall, I last discussed this topic while waiting for my visa in Maine - fortunately, that situation resolved itself just in time, before the Russian foreign ministry gave me enough red tape to hang myself.  That post described the rich heritage and traditions of Russian bureaucracy, placing it in its historical context.  Today I will focus on how bureaucracy is experienced in reality; that is to say, on paper.

These are all the documents I carry on my person at all times.  Please note their numbers for your reference later in the post:

1) Registration card.  
2) Passport and visa.
3) Immigration card.  (Described previously here)  
4) Library card for the Lenin Library, the central state library of Russia.
5) Official letter from my academic advisor requesting that I be granted access to archives; validated with gold sticker (see below).
6) Pass for the municipal archives of the city of Moscow.
7) Pass for the state archives of the Russian Federation.
8) Student ID.

To get a pass for any archive or library, the procedure is more or less the same.  I walk into a tiny room called the Biuro Propuskov, or the hassle office (translation mine).  I approach a small cashier's window, behind which sits a dour Russian woman named Irina, between the ages of 55-75, in a black and gold shiny patterned dress, who simply cannot believe I don't understand how the hassle office works.  I'm given a four-digit number to dial on the internal phone system, which connects me to the reading room, from which a slightly younger and friendlier woman in a black and gold shiny patterned dress has to come downstairs to greet me.  I present documents #2 and #5 to this woman, who fills out a temporary pass, which allows me past the security gate and into the reading room, where I can fill out the paperwork for a permanent pass (e.g. documents #6 or #7) that will expire on December 31, even though I'll be here through May.  

Once I have this pass, the system is different everywhere, and to describe the procedures at each archive would put excessive strain on my wi-fi connection.  I will just give one example: the Moscow city archives.  There, I walk in the front door and show documents #2 and #6 to a police officer in a giant, mirror-plated box.  The police officer takes my passport, compares the photo to my face with one eyebrow raised, and reluctantly gives me a key to a locker and an Order Slip, on which I have to write my last name and my pass number.  I go to the locker and deposit my bag and outerwear, and then get waved through the gate into the reading room.  When I leave the archive, the gate is locked, and I'm not allowed to exit until a woman inside stamps the date in two places on the order slip and initials it, even if I don't order anything. This is the key point, I should have told you that earlier - feel free to skip everything you just read. The point is, you cannot leave the archive without getting this order slip validated by a woman inside and giving that validated slip to the police officer; there is a locked gate at the exit.  There were at least 15 researchers in the archive when I was there on Thursday, and it's the off-season.  If the building caught fire, there is absolutely no way they could process and issue enough Temporary Single-use Short-term Life-threatening-emergency Exemption Cards, even if we all qualified for the expedited process.  We would all die, either in the inferno or by the hand of the police officer after jumping the turnstyle.  


There are, however, workarounds.  Recall document #5, the letter from my academic advisor:

See that gold sticker, bearing the seal of the University of California?  They cost $3.50 at the university bookstore in Berkeley for a pack of 75.

These stickers, not unlike the revered circular stamp, certify, verify, validate, and expedite every process at all levels of administration inside the Russian Federation. At least, that is the legend among researchers.  As I understand it, gold stickers are assumed to come from levels of administration above the hassle office, while unadorned foreigners obviously fall below.  As such, the sticker absolves the women in the shiny dresses of their responsibilities to hassle me, after which they are quite content to let me go wherever and do whatever - like anybody, they'd rather not be hassled.  I put those babies on everything.

To take one example, the stickers render Western food imports exempt from the current embargo. Here is a jar of pickled fish I bought, imported from Sweden:

Here I am at work, writing my dissertation.  The stickers certify that my work meets the rigorous ethical and methodological standards of my discipline:

And here I am, gold-stickered letter in hand, seeking access to the Kremlin, where I discovered a medieval hassle office built into the fortress wall.

That hassle office, by the way, dates from the mid-12th century - one of the earliest of its kind.

Fittingly, I was stopped by a police officer after taking these last photos.  The officer, as per the hassling protocols of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, asked to see documents #1-3.  But for all its flaws, the system works - I produced the documents, gold stickers-a-blazing, and was on my way.