by Hank Leukart
September 10, 2012
A mysterious Russian soul
An anthropology student shows me the best animated film of all time — and a glimpse into the Russian mind.
A Russian woman sells hats and shoes on a Moscow sidewalk.
This is the third essay in a series about living like a local in Russia. Start with the first essay to get the whole story.M
OSCOW, Russia — “Have you heard about the mysterious Russian soul?” Dasha asks. I’m sitting in a traditional Russian restaurant with two of my best friends in Moscow: Dasha, an attractive, young librarian with blond hair and a compassionate heart, and her boyfriend Misha, a smart radio journalist with boyish good looks and a mischievous smile.
“I have heard Russians mention it to me,” I answer. “But I don’t really know what it means.”
“Tell him the story about your friend’s mysterious Russian soul,” Dasha says to Misha. Misha smiles and begins telling a story that starts like a romantic comedy. One of his friends decided, after drinking a bottle of vodka, to surprise his wife by taking a flight to visit her for the weekend in St. Petersburg (750 kilometers from their home in Moscow), where she was on a business trip. Yet, here, Misha’s story takes a turn toward the macabre. Misha’s friend missed his flight, because he was drunk. So, he decided instead to jettison his plan and go to drink more alcohol at a Moscow bar to wash away his frustration. At the bar, he became so drunk that he punched someone in the face, and the bar’s security kicked him out. But, the guy who he punched followed him, proceeding to knock out his teeth and steal his wallet. The next day, he discovered that his bank account had been cleaned out.
“That’s the mysterious Russian soul,” Misha says. He announces this as though his story clearly illustrates something deep about Russia, but I’m left utterly baffled. I don’t know whether to be amused by the part of the story that’s an over-the-top romantic comedy, disturbed that the story suggests that most Russians are alcoholics, or horrified that Russian bank managers are so corrupt that a mugger could clear out a victim’s bank account. Regardless, the story makes me feel a creeping sense of melancholy.
Later, I’m amused to discover a “Russian soul” Wikipedia entry, which says that famous Russian novelist Dostoevsky wrote that “the most basic, most rudimentary spiritual need of the Russian people is the need for suffering, ever-present and unquenchable, everywhere and in everything.” Of course, Dostoevsky died in 1881, in a Russia without luxury department stores, fashionable cafes, public transportation, McDonald’s, and pay-as-you-go cell phones, but, nevertheless, I file his idea of the Russian soul into the back of my mind.
I log on to VK, and when I look at my list of Russian friends, I’m thrilled to discover that I’ve been doing such a good job living like a local in Moscow that I know enough people to fill a party — something I’ve never been able to do before while traveling abroad. Hoping that throwing a party in Moscow might help me better understand the mysterious Russian soul, I invite every Russian I know.
On the night of the party, I’m unlocking the door to my apartment, when a gaggle of Russian women spill out of another apartment across the hall.
“It’s my 21st birthday!” one with curly brown hair says to me. She tells me that her name is Vera and introduces me to her friends Vasya, Anastasia, and Maryana. “We’ve rented this apartment tonight for my birthday party!”
After I explain that I’m also planning on throwing a party, Vera invites me to hang out with her friends until my guests arrive. Inside her apartment, I see a large supply of Russian vodka, a fantastic spread of delicious-looking cookies and cakes, and a handful of other women DJing the party with an iPad attached to a projector.
“Where are the guys?!” I ask them, noting a recurring trend of missing Russian men at social events.
“They never come,” Vera says. “Russian men are lazy and irresponsible.” I shake my head, incredulous that any Russian man could have such a mysterious (or lazy) soul that he would pass up a party filled with beautiful, Vodka-swilling, young women.
“Well, I’ve invited some guys to my party,” I tell her. “When they come, I’ll introduce you all.” The girls look at me skeptically, like they know something about the male Russian soul that I don’t.
Maybe, I think, they’re just too familiar with the statistics. I’ve read that women outnumber men in Russia (53.7 to 46.3 percent according to a 2011 census), partly due to premature male deaths owing to alcoholism, driven somewhat by the traumatic and difficult socioeconomic changes that have occurred during the last 20 years in post-Soviet Russia. Twenty percent of Russian male deaths are attributed to alcoholism, Russians drink almost twice the amount of alcohol per year as their American counterparts, and Russia has one of the lowest average life expectancies in a developed country for men (60 years vs. 77 years for other European men). But, I think to myself as Vera pours me a drink, this can’t be the whole story. Every country on Earth has cultural problems with alcohol.
While I’m sipping my drink, Vasya — a confident, earthy woman with flowing, dirty blond hair and a wise smile, wearing a brown tank top and khaki dress — approaches me, looks me in the eyes, and asks, “Would you like a cookie?” I’ve just eaten dinner and I’m not at all hungry, but refusing a sugary treat from this girl seems like something only an idiot would do.
“Wow,” I say, as I take a bite. I’m genuinely impressed. It’s the best baked treat I’ve eaten during my time in Moscow.
“I baked it and all the desserts myself,” she tells me proudly, pointing to the coffee table covered in mouth-watering pastries. She hands me a pink and blue business card. “I bake muffins, cookies, cakes, and pies, and I deliver too.” This girl, I think, is someone I want to be friends with.
Vasya tells me that her bakery business is a side project — full time, she studies social anthropology at the Russian State University for the Humanities. I smile and tell her that, next to recipes for pies, studying the history of people seems to me to be about the most interesting thing a person can study. She seems genuinely surprised by this and pleased, as though I’m the first person to whom she’s ever been able to reveal her area of study without needing to justify herself.
“Are you a Republican or a Democrat?” she asks. She catches me off guard, but she’s utterly serious, as though it has never occurred to her that this might be a complicated question to ask someone she’s only just met. Barely giving me time to answer, she continues: “Why do Americans dislike socialism? Do you listen to country music?” she asks. Clearly, she sees in me an opportunity to finally get answered all of her questions about America’s complex culture, which is fine with me, since I’m hoping to get from her some insight into the Russian soul.
Though I answer her questions as best I can, I always find myself starting with the preamble: “Remember that America is an exceptionally large and diverse place with no two people alike…” The first time I say this to Vasya, I hate myself for it, because she’s clearly much too intelligent for this disclaimer to be necessary. Nevertheless, I repeat it anyway, because, so often, non-Americans simply fail to grasp the mind-boggling diversity of the United States and the idea that a person from Newport, Rhode Island and another from Newport Beach, California often have almost nothing culturally in common. Thoughtful Vasya, however, understands this intuitively, which doesn’t surprise me, considering that she specializes in anthropology and lives in Russia, a country 1.8 times the size of the United States. We spend a half hour discussing politics and pie, with Vasya treating both topics with the utmost seriousness, until the guests for my party begin to arrive.
It turns out that the girls across the hall are right: only three of the six Russian guys who I’ve invited to my party show up — and two of them were persuaded to come by their accompanying girlfriends. Nevertheless, I’m happy to see that most everyone else shows up, including Dasha and Misha as well as Alena and Marina from the other Russian birthday party earlier in the week. My party and the one across the hall merge into a mind-bogglingly eclectic Russian-College-Students-and-Random-People-Hank-Has-Met-In-Russia party — which, really, makes it the best kind of party. Having learned a lesson about dealing with varying levels of English proficiency at Alena’s birthday party, I again divide the guests into teams, grab the Russian-English dictionary, and launch another charades game. This time, though, we’ve graduated to Advanced Charades, and each team spends a lot of time devising very difficult clues like “impressionism” and “transient.” My Russian friend Tim, a fledgling film director, proves that he’s the master at stymieing the other team, when he forces my friend Arina to pantomime, stoyak, a Russian word with a double meaning: “water main” or “erect penis.” Her impression of water rushing through pipes combined with her impersonation of a hard-on is undoubtedly the highlight of the party.
Fueled by vodka and wine, our charades game lasts until about 3:00 AM, when it feels a bit like we’ve exhausted the entire Russian-English dictionary. A few of my guests head home, but a handful of us wander into the apartment across the hall, where Vera’s party continues on, unimpeded by the late hour, proving once again that sleep is Muscovites’ lowest priority. The lights are off, but I notice that Vasya is sitting on a couch, playing iPad VJ, projecting whichever VK videos catch her eye onto the dark wall. I grab a piece of one of her cakes and join her.
“Do you think Native American reservations are a good thing?” she begins. I laugh, partly because of her perpetually serious temperament, partly because her version of small talk is, refreshingly, the opposite of small talk, and partly because this question is as difficult for an American to answer as “Does life have inherent meaning?” I try to respond in a detailed, diplomatic way, describing the way the American government repeatedly wronged Native Americans historically but also highlighting the problems that occur when an entire race of people are partially segregated, living under a different set of laws. Nothing I say surprises her, and I chuckle, suspecting that she’s better read on the subject than I am.
“Have you seen any Russian films?” she asks me.
“I’ve seen some episodes of Cheburashka,” I tell her. “I’ve also seen Tarkovsky’s Solaris, and I once saw Hedgehog in the Fog in an animated film class during college.” Vasya grimaces, seemingly disappointed with my limited knowledge of Russian film history.
“You must see Yuri Norstein’s Tale of Tales,” she says. “It’s considered the best animated film ever made.” When she starts searching VK on her iPad for the film, I realize that she means that I must see it right now — at 4:00 AM, in Moscow, in the middle of a 21-year-old Russian girl’s birthday party.
She reminds me that Norstein, a celebrated Russian film animator, also directed the exquisite Hedgehog in the Fog — possibly the most beautiful animated film that I’ve ever seen — and Heron and the Crane, an elegant, heartbreaking love story. “You must watch,” she says. She taps the play button on the iPad, and the film begins, projected on a large wall in front of the couch that we’re both sitting on.
Tale of Tales is not a rollicking, Mickey Mouse-style cartoon created for children, and it’s not the kind of thing someone would watch normally at a birthday party. Instead, the film is like seeing deep into the wondrous dreams, melancholy nightmares, and mysterious soul of a grizzled, Russian man. Vasya and I watch together as the film begins in ethereal sepia, with the sound of a Russian woman singing a quiet lullaby while a baby breastfeeds. Everyone at Vera’s party is a little bit drunk, but, during this screening of Tale of Tales, the room is totally quiet.
I see a neon green apple glowing on the ground in a rain storm. The saddest piano music I’ve ever heard plays as a bull with large horns exercises with a jump rope. An enormous fish floats in the sky.
“The apple symbolizes hope,” Vasya explains. She has turned Vera’s birthday party into a captivating, Russian animated film class.
On screen, a little wolf admires his reflection in a hub cap until he’s left in a fog of exhaust. A glorious cascade of autumn leaves gives way to a beautiful, snow-covered winter. Russian couples dance to the famous tango “Weary Sun.” Soon, the couples are floating in the air and dancing in the sky, until the man in each couple vanishes, one by one.
“This represents the loss of over 10 million Russian men in World War II,” Vasya notes.
I see a boy eating another of the green apples while his father drinks an entire bottle of Russian vodka. The little wolf blows on a piping hot baked potato, trying to make it cool enough to eat. I hear more forlorn piano music and a lonely train whistle.
“It’s a masterpiece,” Vasya whispers. She’s right, of course. The moody film is a lush dreamscape, carpeted with the ambiguous memories of childhood — an ode to nostalgia.
But, as the film ends, instead of looking at the screen, I find myself looking at Vasya. I’m fascinated by how deeply she internalizes the film’s wistful, melancholy mood. I feel like, maybe, the film is giving me a tiny glimpse into her mysterious Russian soul.
Read the fourth essay in this series about living like a local in Russia, in which I go on an epic bicycle ride around Moscow.
A Russian woman sends a text under a bronze statue of a miner at the Ploshchad Revolyutsii Moscow Metro station.
A mural in the Dostoyevskaya Moscow Metro depicts a scene from Crime and Punishment, in which the lead character Raskolnikov murders two women with an axe.
In Tale of Tales, a boy eats an apple in a snowstorm while standing near two other, enormous apples.
How to See Yuri Norstein’s Animated Films
- TALE OF TALES: Russian animator Yuri Norstein’s Tale of Tales is considered the best animated film of all time. The moody film is a lush dreamscape, carpeted with the ambiguous memories of childhood — an ode to nostalgia. The entire film can be seen on YouTube: Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.
- HEDGEHOG IN THE FOG is a heartwarming story about friendship with stunning visual effects.
- THE HERON AND THE CRANE is a melancholy love story.
- THE OVERCOAT is a new animated film on which Norstein has been working for the last 27 years. Read more about it and watch a short documentary about it (in Russian).