Weird Russians

Every time I mention that I am Russian, I can always register some fascination mixed with deep suspicion on the face of my interlocutor. Russians are considered to be weird and big. It’s the biggest country in the world, with long history, enormous culture and habits that leave the rest of the world population always slightly puzzled about us.

It was Fyodor Tyutchev (1803-1873) who said the following about my native land:

Russia cannot be understood with the mind alone,

No ordinary yardstick can span her greatness:

She stands alone, unique –

In Russia, one can only believe.

Russia is considered to be big in everything but also weird. Russia has big writers read by many, such Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov. It has world-famous composers, such as Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky, leading chess players, famous ballets and trains. The trans-Siberian train takes 7 days of travel from Moscow to Vladivostok and spans eight time zones and 9,289 kilometers.

But this bigness runs in parallel to misunderstanding. Russians do appear as strange from the look of outsiders. We celebrate the New Year twice, we like vodka, and we had the revolution, the Soviet Union and the communist dream. Russians are often considered to be cold and distant, but few realise that if you probe more, you will discover a great romantic behind the façade of what looks like aloofness. You will discover a passionate spirit, capable of marking a page in the history books. Behind the initial impression of coldness, hides an eccentric.

Scratch a Russian, and you will encounter a great predisposition to deep philosophical debates, a penchant for nostalgia and great ‘terpenie’ that means patience. Because of the history of the country, Russians learned that bad times always end, that good things are meant to happen, and that for everything there is fate.

The misunderstanding of Russians is often due to the fact that we know how to remain silent. Russians rarely do small talk, and don’t chat. They like meaningful discussions about life, about the meaning of existence, about literature and art. If you go to Moscow and take the metro, you will see that many Russians read books while on their journey to work or study. They read a lot, and go to the theatre. If you want a good conversation with a Russian, don’t talk about the weather but ask about the latest theatre piece a Russian saw. Russians like theatre, books, and poetry.

Being a Russian is a tough job. I often think about our own strangeness and came up with the list of some of our weirdness. These are:

  • We celebrate the New year as others on the first of January and then again, on the 14th of January, because of the old calendar.
  • We love poet Pushkin. We learn about him from the moment we are born. He is the best poet. Truly, the best. We learn a lot about Pushkin. We grow up listening to his poems and we know lots of his poems by heart. We even have an expression when we want to be sarcastic that goes like: ‘Right, who will do that for you, then? Pushkin?
  • We are very superstitious. Spilled sault brings quarrel. Money discussed in the evening brings trouble. An empty bottle should be removed immediately from the table, or it will lead to financial difficulties. If your ears or cheeks are hot, it means that someone is talking or thinking about you. An itchy nose signifies that you will soon be drinking, etc, etc. We have a lot of these weird traditions, like really a lot.
  • We believe in Domovoy. It’s the household spirit of a given kin. This little man lives (he is invisible) in your house in order to protect it from the evil spirit. You need to respect him. Never talk badly about Domovoy.
  • We have the salad, called ‘Olivier’, originally from France, as the main dish for every celebration.
  • Most of us are Christians, but, and I am myself stupefied by this strangeness, we also believe in astrology, palm reading and other manifestations of magic.
  • We are great at computers and technology. If something is hacked, Russians are blamed.
  • We have great education at schools and universities. We learn mathematics at school at the level of what is taught at the master level in the universities in the west. School is like a marathon in Russia, and you do come out of it extremely knowledgeable.
  • We like to think big. We think about fate, about true love, about justice in this world. No wonder, revolution happened in Russia.
  • We eat fried sunflower seeds for pleasure.
  • We drink lots of tea, and many households can make their own ‘liquor’.
  • We are obsessed with jam. Each summer we make our own jams, and we stock it for the year ahead. There should be lots of it. There is never enough of jam.

And so many other things that make Russians slightly weird, but I will come back to it in the following posts.  

Russians and the meaning of life

Russians like deep feelings and philosophical discussions. You won’t meet a Russian, who doesn’t believe in ‘cudjba’, ‘ducha’ and ‘toska’. These three words mean: fate, soul, and a sort of nostalgia, that is difficult to translate directly.

However, toska has real part in the Russian culture. It’s a sort of dwelling, dwelling over life, dwelling over the past, dwelling over what could be. Russians are romantics at heart, and behind the façade of initial coldness, you will find a person who reflects constantly about the meaning of life. Russians reminisce about things. Do you remember, they will ask you, how it used to be, -uncomplicated and easy? Do you remember, how the world was peaceful and correct? Older generation reminisces about the days under the Soviet Union, while younger generation reminisces about the freedom that the year 1990ies brought to Russia, when right after the collapse of the Soviet Union, everyone had lots of liberty and ideas to start new things.

Russians dwell about things, because things can always get better. Reflecting about ‘cudjba’ happens every time when two or more Russians gather together. Every Russian believes in fate. If things are difficult, it’s the fault of fate. Russians strongly believe that nothing in life happens because of coincidence. Everyone has a path in life, that is embedded in ‘cudjba’. If things happen, they happen for a reason. ‘You can’t escape your fate’ we say in Russia. You can’t escape your density, as each of us has one.

I remember how my late uncle would explain to us, my cousins and me, the particularities of fate. We would assemble around big table in the garden of my grand-parents farm, and talk. My uncle, a very kind person would tell us that life could be difficult sometimes, but difficulties were meant to be, and one had to learn how to overcome them. I know that most children in Russia have these conversations in their families, as all my friends are the same as me. With my friends from Russia, I can talk for hours about the meaning of life. We might chat for a bit about trivial stuff, but always end up in deep philosophical discussion. Why things are as they are, we ask ourselves? What is a deep meaning in events that happen in our lives? What lesson can we learn from our experiences? What is our path? What is the meaning of life?

One’s soul is also important for Russian. We greatly believe in ‘ducha’. Each of us has a soul that transcends the body. Belief in ‘ducha’ is very much linked with Christian Orthodoxy, but in Russia, everyone believes in the power of the soul, regardless of one’s religion. The soul and caring after it, is much more important than pursuing material comfort. There is a great belief that our soul landed on earth for a reason, that there is deeper meaning to life, that we can only grasp when we are aware of our soul, of a higher calling than mundane existence.

Russians love discussing meaningful things in life, and ‘toska’, ‘cudjba’ and ‘ducha’ are important words with a deep meaning in the Russian culture.

(me: reflecting as usual, about the meaning of life)

My novel

Last year I sat down and wrote a book. It can be found in here.

In my book the main heroine is a 27 years renowned Russian pianist, that looks for her twin sister in a world affected by Covid. The book teaches us the power of human connections and that individual resilience is no longer enough. We all travel together in this life.

I wrote it in English, but the book’s heroine who tells the story, has a distinctive Russian voice. Elena tells us about the Russia of the oligarchs and how she was separated from her twin sister at the age of 8. The orphanage where she grew up lacked in kindness and compassion, and the heroine tells us how hard it is, when one’s personal trauma in life is delegated into a disorder to treat. Elena has a diagnosis of schizophrenia.

Elena is lucky to get a doctor who tries a trauma-approach on her. Trauma-approach in psychiatry can help the patients to recover from their psychiatric journey. We are all prone to become mad, and everything depends on who ends up treating the manifestation of human malaise. Are there some kind doctors left, I wonder, who see beyond the society of medical capitalism, where each extreme feeling can be labeled into a psychiatric disorder to treat?

I am quite optimistic in my novel, and I hope it can bring some hope to all those who have had a psychiatric experience, got diagnosed, and are stigmatized because they dared to be different or suffered from a deep trauma, that can’t be treated only by some pills.

I hope you will read my novel!

Growing up in the Soviet Union: a short story about Russia and Ukraine

I grew up in two places. One was Moscow, with its splendor of being a capital city, and the other place was in Ukraine, in its eastern part, where I spent first two years of my life and where I would go back each summer when I had my school holidays. It used to be one nation, it used to be one people. I remember how I inhaled the smokey area from the mines that was so present in a village near Donetsk, and how that smell brought me a sense of pleasure. It was a symbol for me of cosines, of deep friendships with my cousins, of a happy childhood that could be – when everyone grows up feeling the same, being friends with each other, regardless of the origins and the language spoken. It was a united place under the Soviet Union, where everyone had the same rights, the same benefits, food and the security of a great nation, where Armenians were friends with Georgians, where Ukraine and Russia were the same, where no one would ever imagine that sisters and brothers would fight a war on the opposite sides. One of my cousins lives near Donetsk (the ‘separatist’ area), the other lives right across the border in Russia, where tanks amass, and where no one understands how come that they have to fight each other.

When I would return each summer to the southern Russia, right across the border with Ukraine, it would take us an hour to reach the village One Four, close to Donetsk and Krasnodon, in the middle of the current separatist region, where the area was smoky from the mines, and where people would speak Russian but with a soft accent, that I inherited in my speech, because each summer I would be there, spending it with my grand-parents and my beloved cousins. We swam in the river Don, and we ate fried fish and pancakes in the evening. We would run around, and no one was thinking that this child was Ukrainian and this child was Russian. We were all the same, we were all the children of the Soviet Union, naïve in our beliefs that everyone had the same rights and the same privileges. Talking about Ukraine as a separate nation, a separate country, was unimaginable then. We were all friends, we were brothers and sisters.

The One Four settlement in the Eastern Ukraine that is now a separatist area was among my favourite places. It smelled of mines, a smell that I associated with happiness and a care-free life. Children could play outside whole day long, unrestricted in their movements and whereabouts. Together with my cousin we would walk around the settlement, picking pears and apples in the park, running with neighbourhood kids, to return to delicious pancakes or amazing fried fish made by my auntie. At weekend, if we were lucky, my uncle would take us sometimes to the river Don, a magnificent river where water was deliciously warm, and where instead of beaches, there were stretches of green grass, and one could jump into the water from not very high cliffs, and then climb back for another round. It was wild and so exciting, and made such a difference with a more regulated life back in Moscow. We would stay at my cousin’s house usually for a week during the summer holidays, and the rest of summer months were spent at my grand-parents across the border, where chickens would wake us up at five thirty, but we would promptly fall back asleep, to wake up to the sweet smell of pastries made by my grand-mum. The mornings would be spent on helping around the farm, such as picking up the weed or feeding the chickens, while in the afternoon we would run around the village, and swim in the narrow, small river, together with snakes. In the evening, together with other village’s children we would all assemble in the local park, light up a fire, and sing and dance around. After spending three months in such a paradise, it was always hard for me to get back to Moscow, because I missed Ukraine and Southern Russia.

It is especially painful to see people struggling there now, and it’s not because of the Soviet Union’s big past. We were the same people, one nation long before that. Denying us the right to be called One People is simply ignoring the history of a bigger nation, a greater past. Russia was born in Kiev, it was the capital city of the Big Rus. It was the same people, it was one nation, and a great nation at that. Different religions were welcome. Various languages could be spoken. It was embracing minorities and different walks of life. One of the princesses then, Anna, once she was married with a Western prince, sent a letter back from a ‘civilized’ western land. She could write the letter, but her aristocratic husband, a prince, could only sign it with a big letter. He couldn’t even write. Rus was prosperous and educated. It was a big nation, with a big heart.

It is devastating to see people, nations, languages and faiths being turned against each other, all at once, in a nation with such a great, honorable past.

‘We have to take sides!’ – Everyone seems to be proclaiming without actually realising that the only side which can bring a peaceful solution is to recognise the great past. And despite the fact that the Soviet Union became associated with something bad, I remember how fun it was to grow up there. I was born there, and I was taught equality, great friendships, respect for each other, and acceptance of other lands, faiths, and walks of life. I grew up loving all races, languages, and belief systems.

When I see all these people turning against each other, becoming enemies after centuries of being friends, I can only cry. Half of my family is in Ukraine, while the other is in Russia. I remember how I envied my cousin who went to school in Ukraine and could speak Ukrainian. It could never cross my mind that one language is better than another, or that one nation has more reasons to exist than someone else. Yes, the Ukrainian language is beautiful, but so is Russian, and it was all the same, before a movement of Cossacks claimed a separatist way in the old Rus. Catherine The Great brought it all back together. It became again a Great Rus, with new cities, such as Odessa, being created to memorize the way of a great nation, a great, same land.

Yes, claiming that it’s all different is denying both Ukrainians and Russians the great past. It is ignoring how much efforts was put into making it a beautiful, unique land, where different languages were welcome, and where one had respect for each other. Ukraine and Russia were never really separate lands until the collapse of the Soviet Union, and all the disasters the fall would bring with it. Without its strong bulk of unity, other countries, other lands started to fight, because the collapse of the Soviet Union brought wild capitalism to all other lands. Capitalism is an ideology, a set of beliefs, imposed on us now as if it’s a must, where as children we already grow up thinking that some are better than others, that some can have a better education, a better healthcare system, and a better life. The Soviet Union, however, was based in equality and it was a great and prosperous land. Each summer I would go to my beloved Ukraine, which was the same country, and the same land, and it was, oh, so welcoming and friendly, and together with my cousins we would play, run around and laugh. Growing up as a child thinking that everyone is equal is a past I will never deny myself.

When I think of that days in the past, I experience ‘toska’. It’s a Russian word that is difficult to translate into English. Toska is a dwelling, a dwelling for the old good days, and I dwell a lot because the current tension between Ukraine and Russia, brings to me the memories of how it could be: children happily playing on the street, several languages spoken with freedom, people being kind to each other, despite the country of the origin or a language one speaks. I love Russia, but I also love Ukraine, and things were so different in still quite recent past.

Once, upon a time, there was a great nation with a great outlook at life. It envisioned that everyone should be equal, that everyone should receive education, have access to good medical care, and never be homeless, without any support, understanding and love.

with my Ukrainian cousin at the border between Russia and Ukraine

Elena: A Love Story for Humankind

After catching a brief glimpse of a woman’s face on a friend’s Tinder page, world-famous pianist Elena Sokolova’s life is plunged into total chaos and collapse. The quickly vanishing image is the face of her missing twin sister Olga, separated from her in a Russian orphanage at the age of eight, and who Elena has been told may not even exist except as a symptom of her supposed schizophrenia.
Needing to find answers, Elena frantically runs through the streets of London knocking on random doors until she is finally picked up by police and brought to a NHS psychiatric hospital where she is placed in the care of the kindly Dr Arms, a practitioner of trauma-based therapy. Under his treatment, Elena gradually learns to process the painful events of her past life in the Russia of the oligarchs, while forming close friendships with fellow patients who are also embarked on journeys of healing from trauma.
Set in London and Sheffield amid the backdrop of the Covid crisis with its disruptions and enforced isolation, Elena: Love Story for the Humankind, is a love letter to British culture as well as a testament to the power of human connection to repair broken lives. Elena’s story teaches us that individual resilience is not enough; we all travel through this life together.

‘Elena: A Love Story for Humankind’ is a novella I wrote last year among the Covid pandemic and personal struggle with my bipolar disorder. The novella can be found on Amazon Kindle (here is the link).

Thank you!

Born in the Soviet Union. A phone prank

When I was growing up, during the times of Gorbachev and Perestroika, which as you probably know, resulted in total change of the regime, as well as, of the whole country, things used to be different. Around the age of sixteen or seventeen I was contemplating the end of the Soviet Union and the way Russia was trying to adjust herself to the requirements of capitalism, in a slightly mad mode. We had new churches being opened on a daily basis, together with Tarot and palm readers offering their services in the proximity of the same churches, as well as all kinds of other esoteric stuff. It was total and absolute madness, but it gave me a hint that all kinds of belief systems can be turned into a profit, which is a sad fact of our world which still claims some sanity.
However, while capitalism was there (in new Russia), what wasn’t common as yet, was the usage of mobile phones, and therefore, the community and friendships remained intact, for the time being, as well as some Russian sense of humour, which helped me to survive until I decided to move to Brussels to study in French.
Back in Russia, my best friend and I were doing all sorts of pranks. Sergei, my friend, like me, was observing the dramatic and traumatic changes around us with total bewilderment, resulting in both of us, trying to laugh it off (not very successfully). And there were many things which were indeed funny, besides numerous new churches and witches co-existing in a weird peace. Like, imagine ten women wearing the same coat (we had shortage of choices in food, clothes and everything else) while entering an underground station in the morning! Or tanks next to the white house in Moscow, and Sergei and me drinking coca-cola right next to one (as it turned out, we left five minutes before the coup d’Etat started and were lucky to stay alive). But the funniest thing was our own invention, called the radio joke.
I am not sure who came up with the idea of radio prank (probably both of us) but it was hilarious.
I would sit next to my home phone and make calls. Occasionally, we would call total strangers, but usually we called our friends (no number recognition was available back then).
“Hello, this is radio ‘Love’ calling you live! I am Svetlana Rudnikova, the presenter of ‘hot hour’!” I would, obviously, change my voice, with Sergei standing next to me, playing real radio, to appear as genuine as possible.
“Oh my God!!!!” a hysteric answer would usually follow on my introduction. “Radio ‘Love’! Really?!!!!”
“Yes! And you are our lucky winner of today to choose a song!”
We would do then a small chit-chat and then conclude with a line: “Tune in now to listen to your song!” Before hanging up.
The radio itself (the ‘Love’ radio), the real one, was, on almost all occasions, playing something completely different from the ‘lucky’ choices of my friends, and Sergei and I, would patiently wait before re-dialling the number ten minutes later. Sergei was the one talking, during our ‘repeat’ call.

“Hello Nastenka, this is radio ‘Love’ again on the phone!” He would listen to the reply (mostly complaints about not hearing the song which had been ordered) before proceeding to our ‘reveal the prank’ line.

“It isn’t radio ‘Love’! It is me, Sergei and Ekaterina, having a blast! We are at Ekaterina’s flat now, join us for some fried potatoes and vodka!” We would both laugh hysterically, hang up and wait for our friend to join the party. One week I was hosting, as a result, the entire faculty of acting from a famous university of film-making of Moscow. They all came to a party after our prank call, with Sergei studying at that time at the same faculty. He was a born actor, you see.

But the best bit was when radio ‘Love’ did play a song, ordered by my friend, Nastenka. It was something by The Queen. She had no doubts, whatsoever about the authenticity of the call. And even if she did laugh when we called her back and revealed the prank, I could hear disappointment in her voice, and till today, regret that call (the ‘reveal the prank’ one).
We shouldn’t have done it, but it helped us to live on.

(image found online)

Dima, ou es tu?

I was sixteen, and still studying at school. On the day when I encountered Dima I was taking the Moscow’s underground to deliver myself for a photo session at a modelling competition. It was the time, which lasted for a year at most, when I was dreaming of becoming a model. In other words, I was completely, totally insecure in both my body and my head.

When I entered the wagon at one remote station in our beautiful underground, I immediately spotted Dima. The guy was charming, had dark hair and was laughing in a very sure way with two girls sitting next to him.

A cute guy and a student, I sighed. No way a person like him will ever notice my presence. I was wearing a terrible fur cap (to safeguard my hair for the photo session), while the only piece of style in my wardrobe was limited to the boots, which half of Moscow was wearing at that time. It was the period when limited pieces of fashion were attacking Moscow shops in masses. I might have skipped the rainbow coat (worn by the other half of the city’s population) but I had the boots. I sat next to the guy, however, as there was a vacant place. Taking out of my suitcase a book, I tried to loose myself in studying French grammar – the subject I was supposed to know perfectly, while attending a privileged linguistic college in my native town.           

“You speak French?” I heard a second later, and to my greatest amazement, this comment was coming from the cute dark-haired guy. He turned away from his fellow blonde student girlfriends and was looking intensely at me.           

“Yes, professionally,” I gave the most stupid answer, while removing my fur cap with my right hand and hiding a pimple on my check with my left.           

“Interesting,” the guy moved closer to me to look at my book. “Where?”           

“At the University,” I said in a confident way, while trying to adjust the position of my face in such a way that he wouldn’t notice my pimple.           

“Which university?”Despite the fact that I was only sixteen (and still at school), and blessed with pimples I knew which were the best universities, at that time, to learn French in Moscow.          

“The Institute for Foreign Languages,” I said proudly, forecasting my future at that moment, as it’s exactly where I landed for a year before moving to Brussels, let me think … two years later?   

 “Oh …” I could see that the guy’s interest in me was growing. Which was fine by me, as never in my life had a guy like him talked to me for such a long time, and yes, he was the cutest guy I had met so far.           

“Well …” he continued, “I also study French, at the University for Foreign Relations.”

Not only was he cute, he was also smart. At that time the institution he was attending was renowned as the ‘hottest’ place to get your degree.           

“Really?” I said. “I love French. It’s the love of my life,” I lied, since the biggest love of my life at that period was George Michael and Wham!           

“My name is Dima”, said the guy, while trying to hold my gaze for more than two seconds. It was exactly what I was trying to avoid, as my biggest problem at that time, apart from pimples, was that I was blushing on every possible and impossible occasion.

“My name is Ekaterina,” I answered, while wondering what on earth Dima saw in me, as the look on the faces of his two fellow girlfriends was suggesting that they were asking exactly the same question, and not in a very pleasant way.

“Voudriez-vous diner avec moi ce soir?” the eyes of Dima were really too close to mine this time.

I blushed. The thing was … I didn’t understand a word of what Dima had said. In perfect French. I was so blown away by his intense stare that it didn’t occur to me that I should also use my brain and my ears.           

“Fuck!!!!” was my answer in perfect Russian, when I noticed the name of the underground stop. “I missed my station!”And without giving it an additional, mature, balanced thought I literally jumped from the train.

And only on the platform seeing the departing train and Dima in the train looking (sadly?) at me did the meaning of his sentence entered my teenage brain. “Would you like to have a dinner with me tonight?” This was what he had asked me in French.

Born in Russia. A boy, a book, and The House of Artist

When I was eleven I fancied a boy. It was that innocent, first-time crush when the ultimate wish is to spend more time together, and a kiss on the lips. It never happened.

What did happen, however, was a love of a book thanks to that boy. His name was Andrei and he was a son of a famous painter. Andrei, as I, was a member of exclusive club of young painters at the also famous ‘House of Artist’ in Moscow. The House of Artist was renowned and still is for its amazing exhibitions and a nice restaurant and cafeteria, with grounds next to the House stretching to Moscow river, giving a beautiful view and a time spent in peace, culture and tranquility.

I got into the club thanks to my grand-dad. At some point, a Cossack who had been first sent to Ural because he had marched by foot from Germany after the war, and thus, couldn’t be traced among members of the Russian Army, was later sent to a political prison in Siberia, where he ended up sharing a cell with another famous painter. The painter taught my grand-dad how to paint, and on his return to Ural and then, ultimately, to his Cossack village in the South of Russia, together with my grand-mum and their sons, he became a teacher of art at a local school. One day, when, as usual, I was spending my summer with my grand-parents, during the long break from school in Moscow, he started to teach me how to draw, and these lessons landed me a place in the club in the House of Artist, a small group of ten children among hundreds who didn’t get a place.

It soon emerged that I wasn’t doing that well when my artistic expression had to be supervised at certain hours. I wasn’t that interested in learning further technique of painting or in spending an hour trying to figure out how to draw a still picture of some fruits at the back of the studio. I was eleven years old and was more interested in socializing. Another girl, Nastya, had the same ideas as me, and we would bring our tiny collections of barbie girls and spend all our breaks on playing.

There was also a boy, Andrei, who was very interesting. He wouldn’t play barbies but draw in that dismissive way of a rebel. If we had to do a still picture, he would draw a portrait of a teacher, and then it was time for a landscape, he would make a still picture of a tree.

Needless to say, he was a subject of admiration of all girls in our group, me including. Andrei had a liking of me, since he would always try to sit next to me and engage in some intellectual conversation. Even at that age I would catch myself thinking that here was an intellect way beyond childhood, and that Andrei was simply a genius.
One day, on the way home, when we traveled together for something like five underground stations until his stop, Andrei asked me whether I had already read ‘The Master and Margarita’. I hadn’t and for a good reason. ‘The Master and Margarita’, a masterpiece written by Mikhail Bulgakov, which was published only after his death, is a story of a Devil who visits the Soviet Union under Stalin’s regime, with a parallel story of Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate. It isn’t a book that one reads at the age of eleven. But because I admired Andrei and didn’t want to appear stupid, I answered that ‘yes, of course’, which provoked a zero reaction on Andrei’s face. I reckon he would have been much more surprised if I had answered the truth. I had never read any work by Bulgakov by that point.

“What did you think of Woland?” Andrei then asked me a question, sending me into frenzy of trying to guess who the hell Woland was. If you haven’t read the book yet, I strongly advice you to do it now (urgently so), as it is the best book ever of satire on the Soviet regime (and just the best book, in general) and has amazing insights into the character of the Devil. Professor Woland is the devil who seems to be so ‘impressed’ by the bureaucracy of the Soviet Union, that he can’t stop making practical jokes on Moscow and its establishment. It is both funny and mesmerizing, especially that Bulgakov gives us a human insight into what had happened to Christ.

Not knowing what to answer, I asked Andrei’s opinion on Woland.“He seems quite an interesting character, someone very unusual,” Andrei gave a prompt answer of someone who had read the book and had thought about its message and meaning. Thankfully, we reached Andrei’s stop and he would never discover that I had lied. He stopped going to the club of young artists (probably he was bored due his rebellious nature) and I haven’t seen him since.

Andrei has remained in my life that mysterious boy who helped me to discover my most favorite book ever. Because the first thing I asked my mum once I was back home was to give me ‘The Master and Margarita’ to read. Even if surprised by such request, she didn’t say anything and just gave me the book. In our family the rule was that one could read anything as long as one would read. And in any case, we only had good books in the house.

I started to read the book that night, starting to laugh on the second page thanks to its humour and couldn’t stop for two days. ‘The Master and Margarita’ became my most treasured book which I reread every two or three years, discovering every time something new, thanks to a boy who was way too smart for his age.

My Moscow

Let’s make a break in psychiatry and return to Russia for a bit, my country, my native land.

I was born into a truly picturesque environment, I was born in Moscow. If you ever plan a trip to Russia, I really advise you NOT to miss that place. Moscow has the true Russian architecture, with its magnificent Kremlin, decorating the central space. There is also a mausoleum of Lenin there, something I never visited and never will, but let’s ignore a small negativity of the legacy of some Egyptian traditions to mummify a dead body, and move on towards the Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed,  known as St. Basil Cathedral, and also as Pokrovsky Cathedral, built from 1551 to 1561 on the decree from Ivan the Terrible, to commemorate the capture of Kazan and Astrakhan.

The Cathedral is more than magnificent, it is truly, I feel, a symbol of Russia and of Russian Orthodox Christianity. It stands tall and proud across the Moscow river, and when you drive past it at night, you land up in a magical domain, once you see it illuminated, like a star in a beautiful night. It shines by its beauty, and it shines its Christianity. It is a partial museum now, and when on a visit there, I always felt that it should be restored as a proper church. I know that from 1991 Church services restarted there, which is a blessing, of course.

The grave of the Russian Saint, Saint Vasily is there, the Russian Holy Fool (read about holy foolishness on my post here), and it has a shape of a bonfire, a design that is totally unique and as Dimitry Shidkovsky, described in his book ‘Russian Architecture and the West’, “It is like no other Russian building. Nothing similar can be found in the entire millennium of Byzantine tradition from the fifth to the fifteenth century…a strangeness that astonishes by its unexpectedness, complexity and dazzling interleaving of the manifold details of its design.” (2007, p. 126).

Moscow is full of magical, unexpected places. It is a unique combination of old and new, where almost each corner presents something wonderful and unique, and is truly Russian. If I return to Russia as a tourist, I will start with Moscow, and then proceed to the golden ring, and definitely not miss Suzdal, a city full of churches, but let’s take a walk in Moscow first.

My favourite place to hang out was always the Old Arbat and then walking towards the Kremlin across the bridge, right down to the Oktiabriaskaya underground station. Or turn right after leaving the Arbat and walk through the boulevard park towards Ostozhenka, where the Linguistic University can be found (former Institute of Foreign Languages, where I studied for a year, before moving to Brussels to continue my other degree in languages there). The Old Arbat is a pedestrian street, favourite of the artists, and vagabonds. It always attracted weird crowds of people, and that’s maybe I loved it so much. I felt like a part of the crowd of interesting, unusual people, of artists, painters and performers. My other best friend, Sergei, would often take me there, and we would chat and drink with his friends of the University of Film and Cinema (BGIK) where he studied to become an actor.

The Old Arbat has many interesting cafes, where one can get a good impression of how Russian people eat. It is always a nice warm meal, very delicious, as how pancakes, pastries, delicious porridges, fresh bread from the oven, and the incredible influence we got as legacy from Georgia and Armenia, can not taste good? Tea is more popular than coffee, and drinking tea is a proper ritual. If you are invited for a tea to the Russian family, except a feast. People in Russia, and my native town, are extremely hospitable. You will need to go on a diet, I guarantee you that. Russian host will bring everything he or she has on the table. Last time I was back in Moscow, my best friend, Masha, prepared a table that an army could eat. She made me my favorite meatballs, numerous salads, pastries, and a cake. My other best friend, Anya, made for me a special chicken and a salad of shrimps under the mayonnaise, that is now my signature dish if I am hosting.

I used to love walking in Moscow. I would spend days on it. After finishing my classes at the University, I would walk towards the Park of Culture, and admire the tress, and the lake, and then walk towards the Crimea Bridge and admire my native city. From the Crimea bridge that connects the underground station of Park of Culture and Oktyabriaskaya, one can get a glimpse of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and see the House of Artist, where I used to attend lessons in drawing, and that always has interesting, unique expositions.

Moscow is huge, and as a whole, does reflect well the Russian culture. It has churches with bells, numerous parks, incredible underground station, and people that read. One of the most amazing book shops, called Dom Knigi stands proud on the New Arbat, and if you are lucky one day to travel on the Moscow’s underground station, you will get the impression that you travel in a moving library. Everyone reads. Rides are long to connect people who go to work or to study, and they use this time with wisdom: they read.

At night the center is illuminated and if you do believe in magic, you will notice, that you are indeed in a magical land. I left my native, my beloved city at the age of nineteen to study in French in Brussels, another city I fell in love with. But I will tell you more about Brussels in another post.

(a view of Moscow with my best friend, Masha)

P. Tchaikovsky – Pas de Deux (‘The Nutcracker’

Born in Russia: Somebody that I used to know

We never forget about our first love, do we? Some of us are lucky and their first love is the love of their lives (the story of my grand-parents), but most of us either search for the one (real love with sparkles), or settle for the mediocrity, such as ‘settling’ with someone for the sake of being settled, or looking for someone who can provide (women) or clean the house (men).

I will never forget my first love because he was a very interesting guy, and I can’t forget him because he gave me confidence. Confidence that I wasn’t that bad-looking, was ‘datable’, and could get the best guy on earth if only I wouldn’t ruin it, like I did with him, something which, unfortunately, stayed with me till the day. 
Present me with ‘the one’, and I will find a reason to ruin it.
Misha wasn’t the best guy on earth but he was definitely the most popular guy at our school. I was fourteen when I met him, he was sixteen, joining our school to finish final year after having lived on the other side of Moscow. His mother was our teacher in chemistry.
He soon became the talk of the whole school, among both girls and boys alike. Not only he was very good-looking, funny and smart, he was also different from everyone else. Like, for instance, he didn’t give a damn about any rules and would smoke a cigarette right at the entrance to the school, where his mother was giving classes and where he was supposed to study. I didn’t pay any attention to him (apart from making a mental note that I should dare an act of smoking right in front of the school when I reached my final year, instead of hiding behind the entrance at the back at that time), because there was no chance he would ever notice me. Why should he? I was two years younger, in a class that older boys usually ignored (too studious, etc…not me and my best friend, but he wouldn’t know), with pimples, having a weird hair-do, wearing terrible clothes, and not the prettiest girl in the school. Probably, the opposite.

(me at that time)
But it was me he addressed once we approached the entrance of the school with my best friend.“Got any lighter?” he asked me, and I was so shocked by the request (more like by the fact that he was talking to me) that I answered the first thing which came into my mind, which should be a lesson to hold my tongue in the future…to no avail.
“Not on me at this moment, unless I try to push it out of me”.
I, obviously, thought about my reply for the rest of the day, and days after, because I couldn’t believe that I could be so stupid. I also reckoned that I had turned totally red when I had spoken, which was another disaster. It wasn’t anymore about just paying attention to Misha, it was about thinking about him all the bloody time from that moment on. Soon it became the talk of the whole school, Misha and me. Girls from my class would run to me and whisper into my ear: “We heard Misha discussing with other boys whether Ekaterina should become his girlfriend!”Misha himself would come into our class, for some reason during maths, when the whole class was waiting in fear for the appearance of our scary teacher in maths, with on one occasion, his own mum, a teacher in chemistry, coming in, in order to drag him out back into the corridor.

I became the best pupil in chemistry. Well, I had to, since I fancied the son of the teacher. It took me a month of sleepless nights but I arrived. The teacher (the mum) was so impressed that she didn’t drag Misha from our class in maths next time, once she saw that Misha was chatting to me, with the whole class (mostly girls) watching the scene in total bewilderment.
All nice and rosy until Misha invited me on a date. The idea was to spend the Easter together. It was weird, but never mind. After that, I find it boring when someone offers a normal date. A dinner and a drink? Thank you very much but I rather spend a night marching five kilometres in Moscow. That’s what we did, with Misha. We met in the centre and just walked and walked until we reached my apartment, five kilometres further, where my step-mother was pouring my dad some vodka, keeping him away in the kitchen, so that he doesn’t kill Misha the moment he meets him. At two o’clock in the morning. We went to the living room. My step-mum brought us some cakes, tea and other treats, closing the door behind and managing to continue calming my dad. Misha was supposed to sleep where I was, in the same room, not that anyone would sleep with each other, which was the main concern of my dad, and he made sure to visit the toilette every five minutes for the rest of the night, making sure that no one would get any sleep in any case. In retrospect I realise now that it was a perfect moment for me to loose my virginity, with a guy with whom I was in love and who fancied me back. But no, I pretended to be an idiot. The moment when we finally ended up in the room together, I became so shy that for some reason I decided to ransack one of my cupboards and drag out my collection of barbies (two dolls) and show them to Misha. I still remember the reaction on his face. It was that unclear stare, a stage in between ‘shall I laugh, or run home?’ All transport was sleeping with the rest of Moscow’s population, making running impossible. But he should have laughed. He didn’t.

He then kissed me good-night, asking whether he could kiss me on the forehead. I said yes, without kissing him back on the lips. I was waiting for him to fall asleep for the rest of the night, but he never did, and we both lay there awake, regretting the lost opportunity. 
Misha dropped the talk about the possibility of me becoming his girlfriend after that night, and maybe for a good reason. Last time I checked he is now a spiritual yogi somewhere in India. Great, but I prefer more comfort in my daily life.

Still, while Misha looked exactly like that singer Gotye, he isn’t just ‘Somebody that I used to know’ (which is, ironically, a favourite song of my dad). I named my son after him. As they say it, first love never dies.