indexA James Beard Award-winning writer captures life under the Red socialist banner in Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking in a wildly inventive, tragicomic memoir of feasts, famines, and three generations.

With startling beauty and sardonic wit, Anya von Bremzen tells an intimate yet epic story of life in that vanished empire known as the USSR–a place where every edible morsel was packed with emotional and political meaning. Born in 1963, in an era of bread shortages, Anya grew up in a communal Moscow apartment where eighteen families shared one kitchen. She sang odes to Lenin, black-marketeered Juicy Fruit gum at school, watched her father brew moonshine, and, like most Soviet citizens, longed for a taste of the mythical West. It was a life by turns absurd, drab, naively joyous, melancholy–and ultimately intolerable to her anti-Soviet mother, Larisa. When Anya was ten, she and Larisa fled the political repression of Brezhnev-era Russia, arriving in Philadelphia with no winter coats and no right of return. Now Anya occupies two parallel food universes: one where she writes about four-star restaurants, the other where a taste of humble kolbasa transports her back to her scarlet-blazed socialist past.

To bring that past to life, in its full flavor, both bitter and sweet, Anya and Larisa, embark on a journey unlike any other: they decide to eat and cook their way through every decade of the Soviet experience–turning Larisa’s kitchen into a “time machine and an incubator of memories.” Together, mother and daughter re-create meals both modest and sumptuous, featuring a decadent fish pie from the pages of Chekhov, chanakhi (Stalin’s favorite Georgian stew), blini, and more. Through these meals, Anya tells the gripping story of three Soviet generations– masterfully capturing the strange mix of idealism, cynicism, longing, and terror that defined Soviet life. We meet her grandfather Naum, a glamorous intelligence chief under Stalin, and her grandmother Liza, who made a perilous odyssey to icy, blockaded Leningrad to find Naum during World War II. We meet Anya’s hard-drinking, sarcastic father, Sergei, who cruelly abandons his family shortly after Anya is born; and we are captivated by Larisa, the romantic dreamer who grew up dreading the black public loudspeakers trumpeting the glories of the Five-Year Plan. Their stories unfold against the vast panorama of Soviet history: Lenin’s bloody grain requisitioning, World War II hunger and survival, Stalin’s table manners, Khrushchev’s kitchen debates, Gorbachev’s disastrous anti-alcohol policies. And, ultimately, the collapse of the USSR. And all of it is bound together by Anya’s passionate nostalgia, sly humor, and piercing observations.

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is that rare book that stirs our souls and our senses. (description from publisher)

You Are One of ThemElliott Holt’s first book, You Are One of Them, is the story of friendship and of the momentous changes in Russia in the 90’s.

The first part of the book is about the friendship of Sarah and Jennifer, 10-year-olds in Cold War Washington D.C. Like the real-life Samantha Smith, Sarah writes to Yuri Andropov, asking for peace between the two nations. Jennifer decides to write a letter as well, and her’s is the one that attracts the attention of Andropov and the world media.

The friendship doesn’t survive and neither does Jennifer, who dies in a plane crash.

The second part of the book is about Sarah’s time in Moscow just after the Soviet Union breaks up. She tries to track down Jennifer, after receiving a letter saying that Jennifer is alive and living in Russia.

The book has a lot to recommend it – the depiction of the life in the 80’s in suburban Washington, D.C., and the adolescent friendship of the two girls. Holt does an excellent job in painting a picture of what it was like for Muscovites and “New Russians” as they desperately try to adapt to consumerism in a chaotic new market economy.

A couple things are bothersome, though. Sarah is rudely unrelenting in her criticism of the way things are done in Russian business and social life. And the ending, to me, is disappointing. To say more would be a spoiler.

 

 

Nearing the end of her life, prima ballerina Nina Revskaya is again haunted by memories of the past, memories that she had thought were safely hidden and forgotten in the poignant novel Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay.

Born and raised in Moscow during the Cold War, Nina’s talent and skill not only ensure her career at the Bolshoi Ballet, it insulates her from many of the harsh realities of life in Stalinist Russia. She falls in love with the poet Victor Elsin, develops a circle of friends that includes writers and composers and enjoys a life of relative comfort. The illusion is shattered when a close friend is arrested and sent to a labor camp, forcing Nina to confront the true nature of the corrupt and unforgiving government. Disillusionment, a shocking betrayal and a daring escape plan propel Nina into the West where her star continues to rise.

Now an old woman wracked with illness, Nina decides to sell her jewels with the proceeds going to charity. Most of the jewels are from her admirers, but a few, particularly a rare and valuable set of amber, are from Russia. Bringing them out into the public eye brings the return of painful memories, of lost love and rash decisions, decisions that reverberate across time and now confront Nina once again.

Moving between present-day Boston and 1950s Soviet Union creates fascinating contrasts in this novel, as well as ratcheting up the tension as separate stories build. From fine jewelry to the ballet to the living conditions of ordinary people in Stalinist Russia, Kalotay effortlessly crafts a bittersweet story of love and friendship and the righting of past wrongs.

In June, when the FBI arrested 10 Russian spies who had been living and working in the U.S.  , it brought to mind books and movies that were based on this very plot. These two films were filmed near the end of the Cold War – an era that seems very distant now.

No Way Out (based on the book, The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing) starred Kevin Costner as a heroic  Navy commander. In a labyrinthine plot of deceit and betrayal, Tom Farrell, as played by Costner, is forced by the Secretary of Defense (Gene Hackman) to search for a KGB mole. The Secretary begins the investigation to distract everyone from an affair and accidental murder, but, it turns out, there is a surprising twist in this  extremely complicated plot.

Sleepers was a 4-part TV series in 1991 about two KGB agents who had been in England for 25 years. They were to establish themselves as native British citizens who would,  theoretically, be called to action someday.  However, as the Soviet Union collapsed, they were forgotten. The two men, by this time, are well established and are not anxious to disrupt their English jobs and lifestyle.  One is a factory worker with a wife and young children, the other is a playboy and  investment banker. Their accidental discovery is played out as a comedy, but there is real emotion in their dilemma.

 What is truly fascinating is the long-forgotten replica of  English kitchen, living room, etc. where the spies had learned to be British. This gives insight into what it means to be British and Russian (in the ’60’s and the ’90’s).

They’re back! The Winter Olympics return with the Opening Ceremonies tonight. Taking place in Vancouver, British Columbia, they’ll serve as a showcase for obscure (to most Americans!) winter sports and the beautiful country of  Canada. Join the blogging librarians over the next two weeks as we discuss all things Olympics, winter sports and Canadian!

I’ll start things off with a look at one of the iconic moments in sports history – the defeat of the mighty Soviet hockey team by the little regarded United States team at the Lake Placid Olympics in 1980 – an event that can still send chills down your spine.

The Cold War was still at its height and relations between the Soviet Union and the United States were tense at best. The Soviet team was stocked with seasoned professionals that had played together for years; the American team was made up entirely of college players, thrown together just a few months earlier. The US had never been considered a hockey powerhouse on the international stage, yet Coach Herb Brooks was able to mold this ragtag group of players into a team that challenged – and beat – the best in the world.

You can relive these events through the movie Miracle, starring Kurt Russell and Patricia Clarkson. From the recruitment of the players to the rigorous training and team building to the tense game situations (this team did not win every game that they played!) you never loose sight of the fact that these are ordinary people thrown into an extraordinary situation, achieving more than they – or anyone – dreamed possible. In the words of Al Michaels, “Do you believe in miracles? YES!”

The setting for David Benioff’s City of Thieves is grim and brutal – the siege of Leningrad during World War II – yet there is also light and optimism, even laughter in this book. Lev Benioff, is a naive, 17-year-old is picked up for looting, a sentence punishable by death. Instead of the firing squad, he is thrown together with brash, confident, Red Army soldier Koyla Vaslav (arrested for deserting). They are given a task: find 12 eggs for the general’s daughter’s wedding in five days. If they succeed, they’re free; if not, they’ll be shot.

What follows is the nearly impossible search for fresh eggs in a city that has virtually no food (conservative estimates place the number of Soviet deaths during the siege at 1.7 million, most of whom starved to death) The unlikely pairing develops from forced to begrudging to a true partnership. What these two see, both the cruelty and kindness, is almost unfathomable now in our comfortable, well-fed lives, from the desperate couple resorting to cannibalism (who they barely escape from), to the former call girl that shelters artists and surgeons made homeless by the relentless bombing, to the Nazi commander they must outwit, the book is full of unforgettable characters and heart-stopping tension.

At first, you will want to hate Koyla. He is arrogant and brash and a bit of a braggart. He is also charming and charismatic and at heart, a kind and generous man who does the right thing for others time and again. Lev, who narrates the story, is full of self-doubt and (he believes) weakness, but finds unimaginged courage and strength when he needs it, partly because of Koyla.

Based on Benioff’s grandfather’s memories, this is storytelling at it’s best, the kind of book that stays with you – a story of cruelty, desperation and hardship, but also of kindness, strength, loyalty, love and friendship.