31 October 2009

The Hunt for Red October (the chocolate factory)

Back in my Art History days, many advanced graduate students focused on the Italian Renaissance not only because of their strange penchant for Michelangelo's meaty, gender-neutral sybils, but also because they got to conduct research in a warm, sunny place.

The artillery of snowflakes that persistently bombarded my eyelashes on the way to Red October (Krasny Oktyabr' / Красный Октябрь) reminded me of the fact that I could've made more climate-friendly choices too. At the same time, a tour of a chocolate factory, the scent of which filled my nostrills as soon as I left Krasnosel'skaya station, was much more in tune with Halloween pop culture than the handful of pitiful "gothic" events advertised around town.

Moscow simply hasn't been sufficiently Westernized for a proper celebration of Samhain. The Slavic variant thereof -- Christmas Eve -- only seems to be remembered at antique exhibitions and sales (which I've been profusely attending, for some reason) with many overpriced porcelain statuettes of Vakula riding the Devil. I even briefly considered an all-night walk with Bulgakov's house (a more cultured version of a zombie walk, in my book!) starting at 1 am sharp, but I normally expect Woland to play lighhearted pranks on me, not potentially cause pneumonia at below-freezing temperatures.

That made the chocolate factory a solid compromise. Would one of the loud, annoying visitors get sucked into the machinery and turn into human filling? Or, would the cute Shishkin-painted bear family from the century-old Mishka Kosolapy chocolate brand SUDDENLY! leave the wrappers and turn into giant blood-thirsty beasts? Oh, the possibilities...

That...and, uh, a little thing called a doctoral dissertation. Hunting for Red October is not an exaggerated statement. During this research trip, I've been able to easily obtain a number of sources, the existence of which I couldn't even fathom. By contrast, I've been having a difficult time piecing together the type of information that should have been readily available.

The latter includes various details about well-known chocolate brands, which anyone writing on consumer culture in 1920s Russia should not avoid, even those foolish enough not to be occasional chocoholics. And, since I often pretentiously walk around the house failing to sing Buck-Tick, "Ahhh, ahhh, ahhh, give me チョコレート (chokoreeeto)!!!", you know where I stand.

The long road to Red October started by freezing at the unheated federal economic archive and the state archive of the Russian Federation, continued onto various exhibitions, like the fabulous packaging museum, and involved creatively gaining extended access to the art fund of the former Leninka, digging through the Moscow city archive, and, of course, many a busy signal on the other end of the phone line. I certainly didn't anticipate that wearing lab rat gear, tasting half-manufactured chocolate, and observing tired-looking women with forearms that look like they just gave cows a pregnancy test would result in obtaining useful information. Only in Russia?

The chocolate and cocoa museum at Red October features the story of chocolate beginning with its discovery and focuses on Russia's long-established, albeit reinvented brands: Krasny Oktyabr', Babaevsky, and Rot Front. Krasny Oktyabr', for instance, was originally created by one of the many German Badasses who significantly contributed to Russian culture (Empress Sophie Friederike Auguste Badass being my favorite). Ferdinand Theodor von Einem (Эйнемъ) first opened a candy shop on Arbat street in 1851, then expanded into an Einem Partnership factory, which was nationalized shortly after the 1917 Bolshevik takeover and renamed to its current manifestation. Some remnats of that early Soviet period demonstrate a move away from pseudo-Victorian pre-revolutionary imagery toward Communist experimentation like this Red Army Star caramel, not to mention all the famous branding for the large overarching state trust Mosselprom created by Mayakovsky and Rodchenko. Exhibits from the later period include items commemorating everything from space dogs Belka and Strelka to a number of Communist Party Congresses, undoubtedly sweeter than the originals.

Mosselprom's chocolate sales girl

The museum gave me a few information gems that I could not find anywhere else, now coming to a dissertation chapter near you. And, perhaps, next time I could combine this softer, tastier, academically friendly side of Halloween with a zombie walk through the factory. Although, I don't think that flying bits of gelatin wounds are all that hygenic, even if they're crafted with as much love as Red October chocolate.

23 October 2009

A long-distance relationship

Lately, more and more people have been asking me for directions. Shocking myself but not thinking twice, I've been able to give them accurately, in most cases.

An uncultured sea of outsiders from the periphery moves to the center in an attempt to conquer it. It's no different here. Cartographic proficiency is not expected. Yet, I once was the real deal -- a rooted Muscovite, as Russians say, born and raised. I suppose this means that I'm now passing for that real deal once again.

Fifteen years after leaving for good.

The ladies of Moscow

Perhaps it's the fact that I've (temporarily!) dropped the socially necessary, yet occasionally uncomfortable, often dishonest, and certainly ill-fitting North American how-are-you-I'm-well-thanks-how-are-you? facial expression. And, maybe it's my ever-present high heels, which I wear in Canada too. In fact, I pride myself on perfecting stiletto hopping over puddles and cracks in the pavement. Only now I walk faster and more from-the-hip, as women should (and as womyn-historians say we shouldn't). These heels have even contributed to Moscow-style fitness, involving endless self-imposed escalator stair climbs, skillfully maneuvering -- laptop-over-shoulder -- around, uh, less fit ladies on the breathless way up.

@ one of my many "offices" / caffeination stations in Moscow

And I've become a regular in smoking sections at caffeination stations too, not because I don't start feeling rather nauseated after a half hour, but because there's no difference in air quality in non-smoking sections. The latter is combined with fearlessly, carelessly jaywalking across the road, too many grocery bags in hand -- only to end up on the white line as reckless Muscovite drivers pass me by in both directions at twice the speed limit.

I've always idealized Moscow as my city. A living city, it grows organically with a great mishmash of architectural styles and people, and yet is so quintessentially representative of the Russian Empire. In fact, large urban centers I liked well beyond their tourist attractions reminded me of Moscow in some way -- Rome's chaos, noise level, and bad drivers, and Tokyo's sheer human mass in proper black suits -- they are alive too.

At the same time, my recent memories of my city also involved playing tourist: two vacations three years apart. Theaters, dining, museums -- leisure, even if active, is too euphemized to represent life. Careful! This third visit -- another three years later -- gave me just what I wished for. Packed subways, rude clerks who refuse to exchange slightly folded dollar bills, endless rain, angry underpaid public employees, and, yes, general chaos, noise level, and bad drivers too, of course.

Toronto is too rotten to be forgiven for such failures even to a small degree, while my first North American home (mine and Winnie the Pooh's, to be more exact), Winnipeg, is simply too suburban. Yet, somehow Moscow manages to get away with everything. It's like Any and All of Your Boyfriends who always seem to fail at perfection. Or, like a puppy, who jumped onto your brand new couch with dirty paws (or worse), but, unlike Any and All of Your Boyfriends, doesn't know any better.

Though, perhaps, Moscow's been considerate of me as well, and that is why I've been able to practice extreme jaywalking, and that is why I've been fitting in.

Just as I'm about to leave again.

11 October 2009

A small case of mistaken identity

I diligently spent my Saturday at the former Lenin Library -- now the Russian State Library -- still fondly referred to as "Leninka". Until my laptop battery ran out, that is. Some of the government-funded research institutions I've been visiting are ill-equipped for contemporary technological uses. At others, grim archivists respond with one word -- "crisis" -- to my futile question about recharging, evidently in reference to saving on utilities under uncertain economic conditions.

As I headed to stand in line for an extremely overpriced cappuccino (to do my part in alleviating the said crisis!) in central Moscow, I began encountering various signs of patriotism. First, I saw a number of thin, nonchalantly chain-smoking youth donning military-styled caps, wrapped in giant white-blue-and-red flags. Then -- a couple of excited fashionable ladies with smaller flags as well as a group of emo teenagers in scarves with the same color scheme.

Perhaps it was the advertisement for Edinaya Rossiya party in white-blue-and-red that led me to link all this activity to today's Moscow City Duma elections. The campaign banner covered an entire side of a building where New and Old Arbat split, as late afternoon sun rays flooded its leader's -- Putin's larger-than-life photograph with divine light.

"Could all the people I just saw be part of the status quo-supporting Nashi movement that I've read about? Am I witnessing urban political activism in action?"

Further, I passed by two athletic males in dark bomber jackets, their military pants tucked into combat boots, and, later yet, a non-descript adolescent with a sun wheel awkwardly drawn onto his brown faux-leather bag with a black permanent marker.

"Are these extreme right-wing nationalists? Will I be able to photograph something curious?"


"Will they kick my ass if I do?"

It was not until I successfully consumed the somewhat-botched-but-still-overpriced cappuccino and got onto the subway, as my laptop bag attempted to travel by itself pulled by the human deluge, that I (embarrassingly!) discovered the actual reason for all this commotion.

They were all simply going to a soccer match.

07 October 2009

A_typical blogger

My unimaginative stereotype of a blogger has always been one of a scrawny über-geek, sitting alone in a dimly lit cafe, scarf-over-neck, and attempting to sound, uh, all Nietzschean-and-shit. However, I don't quite fit this image, if only because I'm neither scrawny, nor a regular blogger. But, at the moment, I am actually writing from a coffee shop for the first time ever. And, I'm wearing something close to...argyle (although, my cleavage somewhat makes up for it!).

Giant statues of Nietzsche are kind of hard-to-come-by in Moscow, so I've uploaded his sort-of-BFF, Dostoevsky. Although, I've never seen him without birds, as if he deemed himself St. Francis!

This momentary weakness is a result of consecutively dealing with more (poorly alliterated) bureaucratic bullshit at a certain federal archive and then a certain major library here in Moscow than usual. No, I'm not referring to the lack of heat at freezing temperatures outside, arbitrary schedules, smoking indoors, damaged and missing files, malfunctioning machinery, three-hour subway commutes, and the like.

Since my arrival from North America, I've been faithfully visiting these facilities every weekday -- with an occasional Saturday spent at the library and many an evening consumed by tweaking all my simultaneously translated notes. So, I've largely gotten accustomed to all the joys of attempting to contribute to the capital-H History of my Motherland, even if merely in a dissertation format.

The characters inhabiting all the various federal archives would make an odd fairytale. One woman with a well-kept mullet is not a benign closet retro-rocker, but is more like an evil stepmother (who masquerades as a benign closet retro-rocker). By contrast, another woman in large, thick glasses and an even larger MuMu threw me off with her moustache and thick, opaque, yellow fingernails of a deadman. She turned out to be helpful and polite, much like the Fairy Godmother.

I am not about to compare myself to Cinderella-of-the-archives (despite "outstereotyping" my own stereotype today) -- not because I resemble GI Joe's Baroness much more instead, but, rather, because there are so many other characters who won't fit in either.

What to make of the excessively talkative storage staff member, eager to inform me of her husband's drinking problems, her daughter's "tramp stamp" tattoo, her fried-bleached-blonde-perm technique, and her vacation from twenty-five years ago? And what of the militia security guard? He looks like an inept, underweight and giant-moustached movie cop, diligently compares my pass to my passport letter-by-letter, and loudly complains about "the Jews stealing all the heat in the building".

My research is about to take me to a number of municipal archives. I'm sure that their characters will be just as colorful. Although, perhaps I should wait until the city turns the heat on: doubling-my-socks-to-avoid-pneumonia doesn't mix well with high heels.

04 October 2009

Sans titre

I've been living in my birth-town, Moscow, for over a month. Yet, I've been unable to produce one measly travelogue.

Of course, I've been blogging elsewhere (albeit, very infrequently) in general, and, the amount of time I spend in front of the computer screen in my regular life due to work and dissertation research turns me off the idea. More important, my other trips abroad, whether to the Old World or the Orient, have been rigorous, but leisurely.

By contrast, neither the smoke-filled stairwells, rusty 1950s elevators, and the lack of heat in various storage facilities of the federal archives of the Russian Federation, nor the daily multi-hour commutes in sardine can-packed subway trains, while being regularly smacked by my laptop bag and impatient travellers alike, feels all that...well....leisurely.

And yet, this megalopolis, in which Starbucks is 3x as expensive as in North America, but which the Old Arbat pigeon polulation can somehow afford, deserves a few raw blog-style sketches. Besides, I plan to revist Patriarshy ponds soon, and I'd rather not anger the mysterious foreigner, who's undoubtedly been back people-watching since his last stay -- at least once or twice.