Russia

Lenin the Dictator: An Intimate Portrait by Victor Sebestyen – Book Review

My history education back in Russia fell on the period where, in my primary school during the last years of the Soviet Union, we were fed the rosy idealised stories about “Grandfather Lenin”. There were school excursions to lay the flowers at the city’s Lenin monument, the red star-shaped pins with Lenin’s portrait in the middle that every kid had to wear at school, and so on. Once the USSR was no more, immediately after there came a weird transitional period where they couldn’t quite figure out what version of history to teach; as an example, my history book somehow managed to have one oblique mention of Stalin in the entire post-revolution part. My idea of Lenin therefore was always rather lopsided; I figured that the idealised version wasn’t true but had little to replace it with, especially after moving to Australia. I was then quite interested to read this biography by Hungarian-born, UK-raised Sebestyen; while complete objectivity is non-existent I thought that the book provided a fairly balanced view of Lenin’s undeniably remarkable life.

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Oh look everybody it’s New Year’s Eve

I’m planning to spend it at home eating ice cream and watching TV. It honestly couldn’t feel more like a non-event, which is a shame in a way because back in Russia it was always one of the year’s most exciting events, with all the trimmings that are associated with Christmas here in Australia, the tree, presents, copious amounts of food, Santa Claus (or rather Grandfather Frost) etc. We tried to keep it up for a few years after arriving in Australia, but then it just petered out and these days my attitude is that of the many Aussies: ugh I’ve just had Christmas, do I have to make an effort for this thing too? And I like Christmas just fine, but without any childhood memories or sentimental attachments it’s just not the same; it’s like I’ve lost a holiday that used to mean a lot and gained one that, without any roots in childhood when you feel the magic of an event most intensely, is basically just an excuse for another big family gathering.

As it often happens, my most memorable New Year’s Eve in Russia was a disastrous one, where our entire neighbourhood lost the electricity and we had to burn candles and eat cold salads. Until miraculously, the lights went back on just in time for us to turn on the TV and watch the clock on Spasskaya Tower in Moscow ring in the new year and for Boris Yeltsin to give his presidential address. And right after he finished, the damn lights went out again.

Mind you, even these days, as the time gets closer to midnight, I do get an echo of the feeling that you’re about to cross some sort of threshold and something new is about to begin. So maybe I should work on some resolutions. Exercise more and eat sugary/fatty crap less, here’s a good one.

Leviathan – Film Review

Leviathan_CannesI wanted to see this movie for a while but held out because, while things at work were super-stressful, I didn’t feel like watching a real downer. Mum and I watched it yesterday and yeah, it’s long, slow and depressing; things start out bad and then get worse, and worse. Then much worse. But it’s very well made. It’s set in a small town in north-western Russia, near the Barents Sea, and it features some of the most starkly beautiful and mesmerising landscapes I’ve seen onscreen. The story follows Kolya, a mechanic who lives by the sea with his wife and son from the first marriage, and his struggle against the local mayor who wants to confiscate his land for development. I’ve read that the film was meant to be something like a loose reworking of the Book of Job (and Job even gets a mention), except that instead of struggling against God Kolya fights against the Russian state. Guess who wins.

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Oh you’re Russian?

I get to have a variation on the following conversation once in a while, when people hear my accent. I’ve been living in Melbourne for almost 20 years now but my accent is as thick as ever – weirdly enough it’s actually stronger than my Mum’s. But then she worked harder on her English pronounciation, whereas I reckoned that as long as I managed to pronounce “th” (common stumbling block since “th” in “that” and “th” in “things” don’t exist in Russian language) I was okay.

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