Following THE INTERVIEW of the century (Tucker Kalrson and Vladimir Putin), I want to point you to some posts on this blog that illustrate or analyze Russian history. Being an historian who spent 7 years living in a Western country, I am perfectly qualified to talk on these topics since I know my subject and foreign people’s expectations and misconceptions underpinned by the lack of knowledge and unbridled propaganda. So below I gathered some posts from different years (I’ve been writing this blog since 2006) in the hope they will help you learn more about Russia, its history and culture.
Three days or so before Christmas all markets and squares were like a great forest of fir-trees. And what fir-trees they were! Russia is very rich in them. The ones here are thin and brittle. The Russian fir-tree, after it warmed up and spread its branches, was like a conifer thicket.
Moscow’s Theatre Square was like a thick forest. All trees stood there, covered in snow. And when it snowed, you could literally get lost! Traders were dressed in thick coats, as if they worked in the woods. And people were walking there, choosing a tree.
My word, the dogs looked like wolves in those fir-trees. The fires were burning, for people to warm up. The smoke was billowing in huge clouds. And in the thickness of the trees the sellers of sbiten were shouting: “Here, sweet sbiten, hot kalach!” Sbiten was everywhere – in samovars, in buckets with long handles. What is sbiten? My, it is so hot, and better than tea. It is a drink with honey and ginger, fragrant and sweet. One glass cost one copeck.
The roll was frosted, and a glass with sbiten was thick and faceted, it burned your fingers. Sbiten was nice to drink in that snowy forest. You sipped the drink, and your breath went up in clouds, like in a steam train. The roll was a veritable icicle, so you had to dunk it in sbiten, to make it softer. And so you walked in those fir-trees till late. The frost was getting bitterer. The foggy sky was burning purple. The branches were covered in frost. Now and again you would stumble on a frozen crow that crackled like a piece of glass.
Frosty may be Russia but… warm!
On Christmas Eve, we usually did not eat until the first star. Kutya was cooked with rye and honey, and so was stewed fruit: prunes, pears, and dried peaches…They were put on a heap of hay, under the icons.
Why did we do so? This was like a gift to Christ. Well, as if He was there in the manger, on that hay.
As you were waiting for that star, you would wipe all windows in the house. The glass was all covered with ice because of the frost. Oh, dear, how beautiful that ice was! There were fir-trees and wonderful streaks, all lace-like. You would scratch it with your nail: is there a star to be seen? There is indeed! First, there was one, then another. The glass turned blue. The stove was crackling because of the frost, the shadows were galloping, and the stars were lighting up one by one. And what stars they were!.. You would open a window pane, and the frosty air would sear you with its bitterness. Oh, those stars..! They were trembling and twinkling, and the black sky was boiling with their light. Oh, what stars! They were live and whiskered, and they were breaking into pieces that blinded your eyes. The air was so cold that it made stars appear bigger, and they shone like coloured crystals, sending down the arrows: azure, and blue, and green. And you would also hear the tinkle, as if it was coming from those stars! It was icy and resonant, like a silver bell was ringing. There was nothing like this, ever. In the Kremlin, when the bells rang, the peal was ancient, sedate, and very deep. And this starry peal was from tight silver bells, all velvety. It seemed like a thousand churches were ringing their bells at once. You would not hear such sound on any other day. At Easter, the bells were chiming, and at Christmas, it was a silvery hum that spread for miles and miles, like a song that had neither a beginning nor the end…
Translated from Russian by Julia Shuvalova.
Ivan Shmelyov, Christmas, part 1.
Ivan Shmelyov (1873-1950) was a Russian writer and essayist who emigrated to France after the October Revolution. The Year of God (Лето Господне) is a book of his recollections of pre-revolutionary life in Russia. The narrator, an adult person, recalls everyday life and religious festivals of a merchant family in Moscow, into which he was born. He turns a loving eye to his childhood memories, going through them like a fantastic kaleidoscope of events. For this Christmas season I have translated a respective chapter of his book…
Ivan Shmelyov – Christmas
You want, my dear boy, that I told you about our Christmas season. Well… Should you not understand something, let your heart guide you.
Imagine me as old as you are now. Do you know what snow is? Here it is rare, and it melts as soon as it falls. But in Russia once the snowfall started, no light of the day would be seen for three days or so! The snow covered everything. The streets were all white, with large drifts. The snow was everywhere: on the roofs, on the fences, on the streetlights – lots of snow! It would even hang down from the roofs – and suddenly it would drop, like a heap of flour, and even get behind one’s collar. The caretakers collected the snow and took it away, otherwise everything would sink in it.
The Russian winter is silent and dull. The sledge may ride fast, but you do not hear a sound. Only when the frost comes, then the runners screech. And when the spring arrives, and you hear the sound of the wheels, then what a joy it is!
Our Christmas comes from afar, very quietly. The snow is deep, and the frost is getting stronger.
Once you see the frozen pork being delivered, then you know that Christmas is near. For six weeks people were fasting on fish. The wealthier ate beluga, sturgeon, walleye, navaga; the poorer had herring, catfish, bream… In Russia, we had all kinds of fish. But at Christmas everyone ate pork. At the butcher’s, they would lay those pigs, like tree logs – up to the ceiling. The gammon was cut off, for corning. And so these cuts were lying in rows, and the snow dusted the pink stripes on the ground.
The frost was so strong that it riveted the air, turning it into a foggy frosty haze. The wagon trains were coming for Christmas. What is it, you ask? Well, it is like a train, except there were wide sledges instead of carriages, and they were riding on the snow, coming from the distant lands. One after one, they went in single file, stretching for miles.
The horses were from the steppe, to be sold. The drivers were all healthy, strong men from the Volga Region, near Samara. They brought pork, piglets, geese and turkeys, from the “ardent frost”, as they said. Then there was a Siberian grouse and a black grouse. Do you know a Siberian grouse? It is mottled, or pockmarked, that’s what its Russian name means. It is as big as a pigeon, methinks. It is a game, a forest bird. It feeds on rowan, cranberry, and juniper. And what taste it had, my brother! Here this bird is rare, but in Russia it was delivered by wagon trains. The merchants would sell everything, including the sledge and horses, buy the cloths and calico and go back home by cast iron. What is cast iron? Ah well, it is the railroad. It was more profitable to travel to Moscow on a wagon train: the merchant carried his own oats for his horses from his plants on the shoals of the steppe, and sold the horses in the capital.
Just before Christmas, in Konnaya Square in Moscow – or the Horse Square, for they sold horses there – the groans never stopped. This square… how to say it? It was more spacious than… the one where the Eiffel Tower is, you know? And there were sledges everywhere.
Thousands of sledges stood in rows. Frozen pigs were piled like firewood for miles on end. The snow would cover them, but snouts and bottoms were lurking from beneath. Next stood the vats as great… as this room, perhaps! The corned pork was cooked there. The frost was so strong that the brine froze, and you could see thin ice on it. The butcher was cutting the pork with an axe, and sometimes a piece of it, as much as half a pound, would bounce off – no care! A beggar would pick it up. These pork “crumbs” were thrown to beggars by armful: have it, the fasting is over! In front of the pork there was a piglet row, for another mile. And farther they traded geese, chicken, ducks, black grouse, Siberian grouse… They traded directly from the sledge. There were no scales, and everything was mostly sold by piece. Russia is a very hearty country: no scales, things are done by the eye. Sometimes the factory workers would harness themselves to the large sledge and off they went, laughing. And in the sledge there was a pile of piglets, and pork, and corned pork, and mutton… Life was rich then.
Translated from Russian by Julia Shuvalova.
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Ivan Shmelyov, Christmas, part 2.
Many of my friends with whom I exchanged the New Year and Christmas wishes expressed a special hope for Peace and Victory. Judging by dispatches from the Western media, the end of the Special Military Operation is imminent because the West is losing the nerve and financial capacity to carry on with the campaign.
Despite our common wish, we harbour no thought that the end of a military campaign might turn the time back in domestic policy. So many changes are due, and people are so keen, that the year 2024 is set to be a decisive one in many careers. Still, today, when the Star of Bethlehem is shining upon our world yet again, we feel immense gratitude for witnessing the Miracle of Love. The energies of Love and Goodness (Kindness) are presently revisited, showing the majorities the previously unknown (unrecognized) facets. Here, war truly becomes an act of Love whereas peace at the cost of one’s independence is an unequivocal Evil. We don’t redefine things; rather we begin to see them for what they truly are.
Holy Night to all my Orthodox readers! Happy Christmas, Peace, and Love! Let us celebrate Glorious Nativity of Jesus Christ!
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It’s been a custom to write a “sochelnik” (Christmas Eve) post here on January 6th. I don’t normally do it in December because I don’t celebrate Western Christmas as a religious festival. However, I do celebrate the Russian one. A few years ago I even went to a night service at my local church. This year it is still very cold, so I’m going to connect to an online service at one of Moscow churches.
Christmas Eve is the time when less religious people make wishes and burn candles; the more faithful pray in the solitude of their homes and get ready for a service. I love to watch the long day of the Eve slowly enter the Holy Night of Nativity.
There were many attempts to “see” the Nativity of Jesus Christ. St Brigitte of Sweden, for example, had a vision that the Child miraculously left His Mother’s womb and lay on a spread cloth. The Byzantine tradition believed in a “real” birth, in which Mary remained “untouched”, nonetheless. Yet these are the details that may appear insignificant on the grand scale, whereas the most important thing is that the Creator chose to come and live among people.
To me, this is a metaphor of a person with a mission who comes here to realize it here, on Earth. The mission is not about “saving” anyone; it is about the understanding of God’s plan for your life and following it through. If there is anything truly sad about the story of Jesus Christ and the apostles, it is that the physical martyrdom and death have got strongly associated with God’s will. Naturally, not many people want to leave this life too soon, so they shun away from discovering their mission altogether. As a result, we are deprived of many talented people.
Of course, as we follow the path of our mission, some parts of us will “die”, figuratively speaking, so that our new self can emerge. Nativity, in this sense, is a celebration of the New Life, La Vita Nuova, that promises the new beginning.
I hope those of us who celebrate Nativity on January 7th will spend the Christmas Eve in soulful gratitude for the gift of Life.
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Since Tuesday it’s been abnormally cold in Moscow. Last time the temperature was so low in 2016 when it fell down to -33. This year it hasn’t gone below -30 at night, but -27 in the day isn’t something we’re used to in early January. Such frosts are typical around Epiphany (January 19th) but not Nativity (January 7th).
In spite of this I went out yesterday and today, and I’ll still have to go out tomorrow. It hasn’t snowed since Monday, and the frost seems more bitter when it isn’t snowing.
The streets are unusually empty; those who dare to leave their abode hurry to finish their business and get back home. There is a special atmosphere of a still life where you are but an element of the composition.
Below are some photos to illustrate the point. In the final photo you can see me and my frosty scarf. Even my eyebrows and eyelashes were frosty, too! When I saw it, I vividly recalled the stories about the Arctic explorers who performed their heroic deed in the abnormally cold conditions. Going out for some shopping was not a big deal, after all!
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Psychologists today talk a lot about our “resource”. You either need to build it, or to maintain it and, if worst comes to worst, to recover it. Resourcefulness, overall, is paramount to our success in life.
Apparently, the long holidays that we have in January is the opportunity to recover the lost resource.
But, of course, this is not just about recovering. This is about watching, reading or listening to something you have missed out on before. This is about visiting your friends and relatives, to share your positive emotions with each other.
Here’s a list of things that help me to recover my resource:
- reading classical or professional literature;
- watching a good film;
- taking a walk;
- an unhurried day;
- spiritual reading.
Still, what really helps me to recover is not the sleep as such, as the opportunity to slow down. During winter holidays I don’t want to travel or go anywhere, not to mention being in a hurry. Just calmness, peace, and quietude – these three work wonders for me.
Another aspect of building or recovering our resource is by generating positive feelings. This is not about positive thinking as such because, frankly, your current stage in life may be a bitter one, so imbuing good thoughts is probably challenging. Instead, try to focus on “good vibrations”: enjoy a sunrise or sunset, watch your favourite comedy, take a walk in the park where you are likely to meet some cute squirrels. The more goodness you learn to notice and feel, the more will come to you.
And how do you build or recover your resource?
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Thinking about January wishes, I wish us, dear friends and readers, a good year. I won’t call it happy or prosperous, although I certainly want it to be such. But not all things can be foreseen, whereas goodness needs no foresight. It exists. And I wish you to have as much goodness in 2024 as possible.
I also wish you to find Love or to cherish the one you already have. Love makes the Earth go round, this is true, so I wish you to experience more of it in 2024.
Finally, I wish us peace – the peace of mind, the peace of your home, the peace in your country. It has to be good and lasting. I believe our January Wishes are similar on this one.
When we are at peace with ourselves, we let others be what they are. It doesn’t mean we approve of everything they say or do. It merely means that we take them for what they are, while remaining focused on ourselves. We take time and pleasure in our own work and development; and if others should remain with us, they will, and if not, it is better that we don’t keep them around for fear of remaining alone.
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I decided not to draw any results for the year 2023 nor to list my resolutions. As for the latter, I used to do this when I was in the first years of writing this blog. For one reason or another, this never worked, and looking back at my list I would realise that my best intentions never even got off the ground. I tried to use a Chris Brogan technique of identifying 3 words for the coming year, but this didn’t really work either.
In the last few years I have been drawing a list of goals for different areas of my life. My technique lies at the intersection of the famous Life Balance Wheel and the 12 Days of Solar Chart that follow one’s birthday and represent different aspects of life, personal and professional development. I then try to “schedule” some goals by quarter, by month, by week and, finally, by day.
And speaking of results, this technique has begun to bring the desired outcome in the form of accomplishments. So, if you like to know more, I shall write another article on this.
Instead of conclusions and resolutions I am drawing a list of things and people I am grateful for. I am grateful for many publications in the Russian online and offline media. I am grateful for many TV appearances. I am grateful for two books that I completed, for 2 academic conferences that I attended with a paper, and for 3 academic papers that appeared this year, in print as in an electronic version.
I am grateful for people I have in life, starting with parents and including many fantastic individuals throughout the world. I am grateful for my pets and for my students. I am grateful for so many things I shall not be able to mention all even if I try. In short, my results of 2023 are impressive even to me.
Most importantly, I am grateful for living in Russia. We hear from many foreign people that here we will reach the unprecedented heights in coming years. While this is true, I certainly don’t want the rest of the world to suffer at the hands of their globalist governments. I hope people will reassess the state of things and will start making a move towards a more conservative and balanced policy.
As always, I wish you a very happy New Year! S Novym Godom!
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I wanted to have a lazy day this Saturday, so I didn’t set the clock. Indeed, this is my best way to relax and recharge: to have no alarm clock go off when I haven’t slept enough.
Then I went to do some shopping because I really don’t like to do it on December 30th or 31st. And by that time we had already started getting reports about the Ukrainian forces attacking the city of Belgorod that borders on the Kharkov Region. Yet around 4pm it got worse. The Russian forces obviously worked well to counter the attack. Yet it still resulted in several deaths, including three children’s. Around 20 people are currently in hospital in life-threatening condition.
As I have a student from Belgorod this year, I messaged his mother to ask if they were fine – just in time to learn that she was going to go out for something. Apparently, my mission was to remind her that there are some important things at this time, especially her safety.
This is not the first time something atrocious happens days before New Year. In those years, despite tragedy, no celebrations were cancelled. This year the capital cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg cancelled fireworks, although the decorations and Christmas markets are in full glory. It is evident, however, that when our entire country is investing in our war effort lavish celebrations are inappropriate.
The case with Belgorod has been reported by the other side as an air raid of a military object. But as you can see in the photo the attack aimed at the central square with New Year tree and the Christmas market. Hence the casualties among civilians, including children.
I wrote last year that all the so-called civilized nations and allies had ever done was killing children. Not all children, of course, but certainly those they deemed unworthy of walking the Earth. Such was their treatment of the Soviet children, then the Vietnamese, then the Russian kids at the Nord-Ost musical and in Beslan, then the children of Donbass. In autumn this year we have witnessed a totally unacceptable destruction of Gaza in Palestine, resulting in mass killings of children. The truth is, the same conductors operate this devilish orchestra. And today they ordered an air attack on the Belgorod city centre, two days before New Year.
As much as they understand the futility of these actions, they still undertake them, for their desire to annihilate those they consider their adversaries is stronger than any common sense. We just wait to see this desire finally turning against them.
Our condolences go to the Belgorod families.