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Saturday, May 12, 2018

Russia On My Mind

One of the unfortunate things about paying attention to international (or domestic) politics is how easily the personalities and the negative impressions of foreign governments can easily overwhelm what's truly interesting to me - the people and the cultures. When one is presented with negative news on a daily basis, it can be difficult to remember that a nation's leadership is often in stark contrast to the people they purport to govern.

Take, for example, Russia. Russia is far more than Putin and interference in the elections of its adversaries. Of course I know this on an intellectual level, but it's nice to remind myself of it from time to time.

Just yesterday, I was thinking back to the summers I spent at my aunt and uncle's house. When I think of it now, so much about it reminds me of what I'd imagine Carl Larsson's house to be like, or a wonderful Russian dacha. Perhaps that's because this is where I was first introduced to Carl Larsson or the idea of a Russian dacha!

The house was always filled with good books, music, art and creativity. People were always doing something interesting - gardening, painting, practicing and instrument, playing Super Mario Bros. (I said it was LIKE a Russian dacha, but my cousins and I were still American kids!). In fall and winter, their couldn't be anywhere cozier. In spring it was lovely, too. But, in summer? It was heavenly.

It was in the garden that my interest in Russia really began. As with so many things that I love, it has a royal connection. I remember reading, for the first time, Robert K. Massie's "Nicholas and Alexandra". Somehow, reading it in that setting made it seem more alive, more real. Likewise, I read other books on the Romanovs there, notably the biography of the last Tsar's sister, Grand Duchess Olga.

Inside the house were books about Russia and the Soviet Union and I'd look at them over and over. It wasn't just Tsarist Russia that captured my imagination, but also the Soviet Union.  And, it wasn’t the homes of the Romanovs that I found interesting, but those of everyday people.  Houses in the country – many with very rustic, bare wooden walls – always seemed particularly inviting, furnished with interesting and often beautiful furniture, bright tapestries and cloths and filled with flowers.

For some reason, I particularly remember the description of a party held by a professor that was in the Time-Life “Foods of the World” series (books that I love as much now as I did when I discovered them at the age of about 11).  The apartment was tiny and in a building where kitchens and, I suspect, bathrooms were shared. The party was nothing by our standards here and now, but it had deliciously simple food carefully prepared by the hostess, people playing music and singing and what appeared to be deeply interesting discussions.  There seemed to be a lot of vodka, too, but that is beside the point.  The lessons that I took from all of this was that hospitality, fun and warmth could be created under all sorts of conditions; that simple food is often the best food; and that when you bring together interesting people in a welcoming environment, magic can be made.

I also recall the sets from "Dr. Zhivago", particularly Lara's house.  Despite the simplicity of the materials used to build it and to furnish it, it was richly decorated with carved wood, lovely linens covered the tables and the windows and there was a general feeling of warmth and security, quite in opposition to the reality outside the door.

One of the artists who best captured this feeling was Stanislav Zhukovsky, a Polish-Russia painter who lived from 1873-1944.  Zhukovsky’s paintings capture the interiors of pre-Revolutionary homes and estates and record the glorious colors, textures and styles that filled these houses.  I've used his paintings to illustrate this little treatise, and as examples of all that I think of when I contemplate Russia.

Now, I think that I’ll go find my favorite books about Russia and spend a few hours dreaming of the places that, one day, I’d like to see for myself and the people I’d love to meet.

NOTE:  To learn more about Zhukovsky, visit artist Stephen O'Donnell's blog post at (all of his blog posts are marvelous!) Gods and Foolish Grandeur.

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