Voices from Russia

Monday, 16 December 2013

Freedom’s Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose

00 Sergei Yolkin. Freedom is Nothing Left to Lose. 2013

Freedom’s Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose

Sergei Yolkin



When Denis Diderot visited St Petersburg at Catherine the Great’s invitation, the great philosopher and founder of the Encyclopédiewhose writings made substantial contributions to the Enlightenment sometimes sounded like a selfish sophist. How could anyone have said, “I had the soul of a slave in France, where men thought they were free, and of a free man in Russia, where men were called slaves?” How could one feel free in the Russia of 1774, the vast majority of whose population was straightjacketed in serfdom?  Nevertheless, many Americans who’ve lived with Russians at home or abroad think that’s not absurd. My own years in Moscow, during Soviet rule when many restrictions on my notion of fundamental freedoms remained abhorrent, told me Diderot was on to something.

There are libraries full of books about the similarities of Russians and Americans… which is true in some ways, deriving from our still relatively rough-hewn nature after national childhoods in wide-open spaces where formality counted for little, but decidedly not in others, such as attitudes to work and to pleasure. Russians can work all other peoples I know, including Americans, under the table, as they easily do with drink, and, maybe, still combat, as during World War II, when motivated by a cause, ambition, or an ideal. However, getting a job done for its own sake motivates only a few, as opposed to doing it out of a personal vocation springing from flesh, blood, or fantasy. As for pleasure, my experience was that they enjoy it with considerably more abandon and less guilt than Americans, many of whom remain in the grip of one or another Puritan inhibition.

However, Diderot’s seemingly puzzling statement about freedom prompts scepticism. I’d have felt even more hesitant to add my two cents to all that’s out there if I hadn’t spent much of my working life in contact with Russians. Having done so, much of my answer lies in the yawning gap between how they live their private and public lives.  As people, many I know are a treat as they behave distinctly more as free spirits than Americans, who forever boast about their freedoms, but fear others seeing them as eccentric. As citizens, they’re invariably much less appealing, no doubt, because their government has usually been fairly-to-seriously miserable over the centuries, and the country’s civil society was and remains deplorably weak.

Starting with not needing to pretend you’ll soon be a success with them or in a good mood when it’s bad, their appeal as people… here, meaning the kind likely to read this newspaper… roughly, my counterparts with good (but not exceptional) education and social standing… is great even when their politics disappoint. Long ago, an Intourist guide told me her training included practise in smiling for Americans because, they instructed her, we’re uncomfortable without that reassurance that has something in common with advertising when there’s no reason for it. I value the Russian toleration for aberration even more. The country sometimes seem­s to me a giant preserve for oddballs… my category too… who seem to feel entirely at home. A recent description of the Russian psyche as managing to make its owners “broad, generous, reckless, narrow, mean, calculating… not in fits and starts, but all at once” seems to me on the mark.

As with the characters of Russian fiction, many seem emotionally uninhibited enough to hide little, from balmy generosity to gross vanity and grabbing. Tatyana Tolstaya, a distant relative of Lev Tolstoy, wrote in 2003, “Our country possesses certain peculiarities that verge on the fantastic. Russia has its own logic, which its most intelligent people have been unable to explain”. Of course, misfits are often unhappy but they can also be free in their way, a freedom of which few Americans are aware any more than of their own conformism. Most were convinced that Russians were robots during the Cold War, those with whom I kept company seemed to be connected to the legendary and real Russian disorder that gave the country a certain consistency, even if not order itself. Americans driven to “make it” know little about the profusion of nonchalant and impetuous conduct… of impulse, whim, caprice, extravagance, obsession, unpredictability, insouciance, impracticality, surrender to urges, willingness to lose, willingness to expose self-doubt and vulnerability… and few would envy it if they did know.

Whether or not the Russian instinct to seize the moment developed because there were sadly few moments to seize, it’s powerful. In Comrade, a play performed in New York by Vladivostok’s Maksim Gorky State Drama Theatre, the son of a very rich American living in Paris in the 1930s kept complaining about how boring everyone else is compared to Russians. Lamenting his bad luck for not having been born in Russia, he tells his sister they must make the other guests at an upcoming New Year’s party think they’re also “gay and mad and charming”. He confessed to the butler, “We’re congenitally dull”. The butler, a Russian prince who fled after the revolution, for whom New Year’s is occasion for lament rather than celebration, replied, “The trouble is, we’re congenitally savage”. The butler’s wife, a former grand duchess who’s now a maid, added, “Sentimental, but barbarian. Everything’s so sad, isn’t it. Even happiness”. Comrade’s half-caricaturist reflections about the Russian character rang bells for me, and so did an admirer of the huge bestseller in Russia by veteran journalist Nikolai Zlobin about the American character, America… What a Life!. The Zlobin admirer said, “He says it’s boring. It’s all okay, but it’s boring”.

25 April 2013

George Feifer

Russia Behind the Headlines



Thursday, 20 December 2012

20 December 2012. RIA-Novosti Infographics. Order of St George and St George Cross

00 RIA-Novosti Infographics. Order of St George and St George Cross for Soldiers. 2012


The Order of St George is the highest military award of the Russian Federation. It has four classes. The highest is the First Class; the Order in the First and Second Class has a badge and star, the Third and Fourth Class only have the badge. On 9 December, Russia celebrates the Day of the Heroes of the Fatherland. This began in 2007, after President Putin amended the Federal law “On military glory days and observances of Russia”. Prior to 1917, 9 December in Russia was the Feast of the Knights of St George. On 9 December 1769, Yekaterina Velikya established the Order of St George for soldiers who showed valour, bravery, and courage in combat.

11 December 2012



Monday, 4 June 2012

“Guard Cats” In Public Service at the Hermitage

Is this a feline Bulat Okudzhava? Ya never know…



The State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg “hires” cats to protect its artworks against rodents. The so-called “guard cats” go unnoticed as they dwell in the attics and basements, away from the eyes of tourists. The museum administration has “employed” these highly skilful “guards” ever since the museum was founded in 1764. Even though nowadays rats and mice can easily be exterminated using chemicals, the museum can’t do without the cats, who’ve become a living legend and its mascots.

The first “public service” cats came in the 18th century. Tsar Pyotr Veliki was the first to provide shelter for a big cat he had brought from Holland at the then-wooden Winter Palace. Later on, Tsaritsa Yelizaveta Petrovna ordered a batch of rat-catching cats from Kazan because she was scared of small rodents. Cats acquired the status of palace guards during the reign of Tsaritsa Yekaterina Alekseyevna Velikaya. Under Yekaterina, they were divided into chamber cats (the Russian Blue breed), and backyard cats who chased rats and mice guarding Her Majesty’s peace of mind. The State Hermitage Museum started as a private collection of Tsaritsa Yekaterina, who acquired 220 works by Dutch and Flemish artists through her agents in Berlin. At first, most of the paintings she acquired were placed in secluded parts of the Winter Palace, which became known as the “Hermitage”, or “Retreat”, in French.

Hermitage-employed cats survived the October Revolution and continued their service under the Soviet government. However, they didn’t survive the siege of Leningrad during the Great Patriotic War of 1941-45. After starving people ate all the cats, rats infested the city. However, as soon as the blockade was over, two railway cars filled with cats arrived in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) from Russia’s central regions, to form the backbone of a new squadron of rat-eating cats. Cat numbers rose to an unprecedented high in the second half of the 1960s. As the cats prowled the basements, museum rooms, and corridors, the museum administration received orders to get rid of them, which they did. However, several years later, the “four-legged guards” were ordered back, for the museum found it too hard to do without them in its struggle to preserve cultural artefacts.

Since then, the Hermitage cats have gotten good care. Each so-called “hermit” has a passport with a photo certifying that he’s qualified to pursue the difficult task of protecting the museum basements against rodents. The cats are well looked after, fed properly, attended to if ill, and respected for their hard work. Museum employees know all male and female cats by their names, and the name for each cat is picked carefully, to suit his or her character. The team of four-footed guards consists mainly of alley cats, and like the imperial times, the cat community hinges on strict hierarchy. The cats fall into aristocrats, the middle caste, and the low caste. Each group operates within a certain designated part of the building. The cat staff cannot exceed 50-60 cats, but not because they’ll be difficult to look after in terms of cat food. If the number of cats exceeds 60, they start cat fights and neglect their duties. For this reason, from time to time, the museum has to look for people who’d adopt their extra cats.

The museum’s basements have specially designated areas for storing cat food and attending to ailing cats. The roadway near the museum has road signs warning drivers about cats’ presence and urging them to be careful and slow down. Road accidents are the most frequent cause of death amongst Hermitage cats. The Hermitage budget allocates no funds for the cats’ keeping. The cats live on donations from the public and museum workers. Hermitage Cat Day, marked annually on 28 March, is one of the museum’s memorable dates. The museum staff prepares a large number of informative exhibitions and exciting contests.

28 May 2012

Yuliya Galiullina

Voice of Russia World Service


Saturday, 26 March 2011

Hermitage Cats Mark Their Professional Holiday





The traditional spring event, “Cat Day in March” (День мартовского кота), dedicated to the cats at the Hermitage, was held Saturday at the museum, according to its press-service. At noon, in the Grand Courtyard of the Winter Palace, judging began of a school competition, Tales of the Hermitage Cats. The winning pictures, drawn by kids from St Petersburg, shall be on exhibit for a day in the Jordan Gallery of the Hermitage. All visitors to the museum are welcome to join in a game, A Journey with a Hermitage Cat, through the halls of the Winter Palace. In the attic of the palace, a photo exposition, The Magic Scarf of the Hermitage, and an exhibition of works by St Petersburg artists dedicated to cats will open, Interfax informs us. Cats first appeared in the Winter Palace at the time of Tsar Pyotr Veliki, when the tsar brought in a cat from Holland. Later, Tsaritsa Yelizaveta issued a “Decree on the Removal of the Court Cats”, which ordered, “Find the best and largest cats in Kazan, the ones most suited to hunting mice”. The founder of the Hermitage, Tsaritsa Yekaterina Velikaya, gave the cats the status of guardians of the picture galleries. Traditionally, there are 50 cats in the Hermitage; each of them has a passport with a photograph. These cats help the museum staff in keeping the building free of rodents.

26 March 2011

Voice of Russia World Service


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