Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

#17 - JRL 7003
New York Times
January 3, 2003
Mother Russia in Her Dens
Richard Lourie's latest book is "Sakharov: A Biography."

My father hated Russia. No doubt the first 10 years of his life, spent there, gave him ample reasons, but what they were I never knew. When I was a boy and asked what life in Russia was like, he always pondered before answering, "Terrible." Occasionally, he varied it: "Awful."

Still, he drank his tea in the old Russian style with a cube of sugar held between his teeth (a dentist's nightmare) and was known, when fueled with sufficient alcohol, to squat down, kick out his legs and dance a kazatsky across the living room floor.

My mother's father, on the other hand, regaled me with tales of wolves and Gypsies while teaching me my first phrases in Russian, which buzzed appealingly in my ear and on my lips.

To my father's dismay, I not only decided to become a writer a vow of poverty in his view but also chose as my subject the country that his reticence had rendered mysterious. Perhaps it was passionate curiosity on my part to know the world of my father and the land of our enemy, or, more likely, it was youthful rebellion that lives only to make the father wrong.

In any case, Russia became integral to my life. I earned a Ph.D. in the subject, wrote 10 books in which it figured and translated two dozen books from the Russian. Over the last 30 years, I've visited the country more times than I can count. And I learned that my father was half right. I love Russia and I hate it; what relationship worthy of the name isn't love-hate?

When I can't get to Moscow or even Brighton Beach, Manhattan has to satisfy my enduring desire for the taste of Russia. This winter, which came hard and early, I decided to see what else our city offered outside my usual haunts, not that I'd ever neglect them. The first thing I noticed is that Russia is present in Manhattan and in American culture in a new way, not only as a community of immigrants but also as part of globalized style.

Restaurant Pravda at 281 Lafayette Street subterranean, cavernous, happening is Russian in dcor and cuisine. The menu is written in Cyryllic-style letters and covered with real Russian letters that never form words with any meaning, a perfect symbol of the place. The atmosphere is energetic but lacks the lazy ease, madcap jollity and shrugging sorrow that makes for "Russian soul." Still, paradoxically, that makes it a lot like many of the happening new restaurants in Moscow where theme trumps ambience and new money is burned on food and drink.

Some of the Russian-Americans I meet as I move about the city have the usual concerns: their children prefer bright, high-tech English to ornate, old-fashioned Russian and choose pizza over piroshki. Some, those in their 20's who spent their childhood in Russia and their teens here and now go back and forth, have the problem of not quite belonging in either place. One young woman returned to Moscow and was looked at askance when she didn't know how to say "voice mail" or "caller ID" in Russian.

The young Russian-American avant-garde poets meet in the Anyway Cafe at 34 East Second Street. There one night their linguistic gifts are put to unusual use when the woman tending bar asks in a rich Slavic accent: "What is difference between boss and owner?" After explaining, the poets move on to the Bowery Poetry Club at 308 Bowery to read their poems on the theme of Russia but written in English. An American-born Russian Orthodox priest officiating in Manhattan tells me that his kindergarten teachers thought he was dyslexic until they realized he had learned to make his letters in the Russian way, the R's backward.

Cultures interpenetrate in the oddest ways. The epoch of operation of the Russian and Turkish Baths (popularly known as the 10th Street Baths) stretches from their founding at 268 East 10th Street in 1892 to the present, now including a virtual existence at russianturkishbaths.com, where a click of the mouse reminds me that Anna's Restaurant, a little eatery across from the front desk, offers blini with meat and sour cream for $3.50. Who says advertising doesn't work?

I'm there within 24 hours eating those very blini along with a beet salad and a glass of good Russian Baltyka beer. The little restaurant's walls are covered with photographs of the celebrities who have visited, their number including John F. Kennedy Jr. as well as rap stars, and thereby hangs a tale of cultural interpenetration.

One day a rap star, surrounded by an outlandish entourage of hangers-on and bodyguards, entered the establishment. In the baths themselves, a cozy version of Dante's Inferno, the rap star watched as one Russian beat another with a loose "broom" of oak branches and leaves, a traditional way to improve the circulation. But in the rap star's opinion the beater was not beating in keeping with that tradition; he grabbed the broom and showed the man how it was done to the merriment and approval of the other Russians in the room. As improbable as Putin outmouthing Puff Daddy.

The food may be cheap at Anna's, but a day at the baths will cost you $22. Discount tickets are available, but you have to be a little careful. The former partners, Boris and David, have split up and divided the year between them the calendar lists David's shift in red, Boris's in black. Don't even think of using a Boris ticket on a David day.

Boris and David aren't the only Russian schismatics in town. There are also two Russian Orthodox churches, one that remained loyal to Moscow even in the Communist years and one that refused to have anything to do with the atheist government and still has a few axes to grind with the Moscow patriarchy.

Loyal to Moscow, St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral at 15 East 97th Street, with its robust cupolas and slashed crosses, looks like a fragment of old Russia blown by history to the Upper East Side. By contrast, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (also known as the Russian Church Abroad), after wandering to Constantinople and Germany, ended up four blocks away at 75 East 93rd Street in a lovely neo-Federalist landmark building. It was once owned by a New York banker, and its construction began in 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution.

I attend a surprisingly crowded service on a Tuesday morning at the Russian Church Outside of Russia, in what was once the mansion's ball room. The singing is live and, as tradition mandates, a cappella, the men's voices thunderous with gravitas, the women's celestially high. The priests are bearded and in black; the gold icons gleam in the changing light. The parishioners stand during the service, bowing often and kissing icons and the cases containing relics of the royal family assassinated by the Communists. They include a time-darkened bone of the Grand Duchess Elizabeth. The church's principal icon is the "wonder-working" Our Lady of the Sign, which dates to 1295. As the service ends, there is a spirit of chaste joy in the air.

When I walk back outside, I feel the shock of time travel. I've gone straight from the 19th century to the 21st, where private-school children laughing on cell phones and Size 2 shoppers pass oblivious to another world, a parallel universe where even time is different. The Russian church still uses the old calendar, and its Christmas comes on Jan. 7.

I lunch at Uncle Vanya's at 315 West 54th Street. The dcor is busy, eclectic, a touch kitschy in a way favored by the Russian intelligentsia. The owner keeps an album of the famous Russian writers, actors and ballerinas who have been her guests. Flipping through, I see the faces of dead friends, dead enemies. The beef stroganoff tastes homemade, exactly, the cook tells me, what she intended. And the waitress confides that she came to America for a look, took a chance on the Green Card lottery and won on the first try. She laughs at the whims of fate.

Shopping is another way to connect. One of the less heralded consequences of the fall of the Soviet Union was the American removal of a huge duty on Russian diamonds. Now the Russian Diamond Club at 580 Fifth Avenue, at 47th Street, can sell cut and polished diamonds to the wholesale trade. And since the end of the year is their busiest season, the merchants have not a second to spare to show me around. Yet I can't help wondering if I was detecting a whiff of old Soviet paranoia or was it the secretiveness endemic in that world where gems are exchanged on a handshake?

Ikon, at 472 Avenue of the Americas, at 12th Street, has amber and a violin in the same display case, but its wares, except for some Faberg sterling forks and hand-painted boxes from the village of Palekh, are not especially Russian. When Mikhail S. Gorbachev was in power, the owner says, Russian things flew out of the store.

Now Russia is still in style, high style, at la Vieille Russie, 781 Fifth Avenue, at 59th Street, which has the country's largest collection of Faberg and a Russian imperial porcelain tea service for $20,000, as well as paintings, icons and jeweled czarist bric-a-brac. A family business since 1851, when it was founded in Kiev by the Schaffers, the establishment fled Russia in 1921 to escape the Bolsheviks, relocating to Paris until 1941, when it was time to flee the Nazis.

When I mention to the current owner that the Schaffer family has always been one step ahead of history, and that I hope he has no plans for relocating, he smiles and tells me not to worry since all the best prophets from Nostradamus to Edgar Cayce agree that the world will end in 2012.

And to make sure that last decade of ours doesn't pass without some excitement, I head to the Russian Samovar at 256 West 52nd Street, where the atmosphere is lively, racy and unpredictable. Some evenings the higher-level poets read here, but only in Russian. The food is good, the drink is better. After a few shots of horseradish vodka, I stand beside the lugubrious pianist and sing along to a tune that, take my word, is catchy in the original: "And to the artillery Stalin gave command." That my father would have liked.


Stops on the Trans-Manhattan Railway

Moscow on the Hudson is more than a metaphor in a host of Manhattan sites where the influence of new Russian immigration blends with more traditional aspects of Russian culture transplanted to American shores. A sampling:

Where to Go

BOWERY POETRY CLUB, 308 Bowery, near Bleecker Street, East Village, (212) 614-0505.

THE RUSSIAN AND TURKISH BATHS, 268 East 10th Street, East Village, (212) 473-8806.

ST. NICHOLAS RUSSIAN ORTHODOX CATHEDRAL, 15 East 97th Street, (212) 996-6638; usually open daily, 9 a.m. until 6 or 7 p.m.

THE RUSSIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH OUTSIDE OF RUSSIA, 75 East 93rd Street, (212) 534-1601; open daily, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Where to Shop

IKON, 472 Avenue of the Americas, at 12th Street, Greenwich Village, (212) 647-0410.

RUSSIAN DIAMOND CLUB, 580 Fifth Avenue, at 47th Street, (212) 921-4300.

LA VIEILLE RUSSIE, 781 Fifth Avenue, at 59th Street, (212) 752-1727.

Where to Eat

ANNA'S RESTAURANT, at the Russian and Turkish Baths, 268 East 10th Street, East Village, (212) 473-8806.

ANYWAY CAFE, at 34 East Second Street, at Second Avenue, East Village, (212) 533-3412.

RESTAURANT PRAVDA, 281 Lafayette Street, near Prince Street, SoHo, (212) 226-4696.

THE RUSSIAN SAMOVAR, 256 West 52nd Street, (212) 757-0168.

UNCLE VANYA'S, 315 West 54th Street, (212) 262-0542.

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