Russian free climbers: seeking thrills in unusual places

With more than 30 million hits on YouTube, two Russian climbers astonished the world with a video, which showed them free-climbing the unfinished Shanghai Tower in China, which is at a height of 650 meters.

Makhorov, perched on the 100th floor of the Shanghai Tower. Photo credit to Vadim Makhorov.

Makhorov, perched on the 100th floor of the Shanghai Tower. Photo credit to Vadim Makhorov.


Apparently this is not the first time that Vadim Makhorov and Vitaly Raskalov made headlines with their daring climbs—according to CNN, the duo climbed the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt, and had to apologize afterwards for climbing the ‘ancient monument’.

Watch here this breathtaking yet terrifying video of the duo, filmed with head-mounted cameras, as they appear to scale the tower with ease.

What is not surprising is that these guys made national headlines in various parts of the globe. Major news websites such as the Huffington Post, Fox News, the Guardian, and many others made sure to report this story because of its terrifying but beautiful pictures and film footage. What started out as a simple love for photography, grew into something much more fascinating with this added element of danger, which sets their photos apart from others’.

I was quite interested with the men’s blogs, because from their blogs I was able to gain better insight to what they were thinking during the climb, and understand the motive for their journey to Shanghai, and other places. Makhorov’s blog (very well written in Russian, and just as fabulously translated into English) contains the video of his climb, with a promise to post about the details of the climb in his next blog. What’s even better is that his blog has all kinds of great photographs, from the places he and Raskalov visited for various reasons. My favorite picture on his blog is the one taken in Switzerland.


Photo taken in Switzerland, as part of Makhorov's trip to Europe. This is called the Valley of 72 Waterfalls.

Photo taken in Switzerland, as part of Makhorov’s trip to Europe. This is called the Valley of 72 Waterfalls. Photo credit to Vadim Makhorov.

Raskalov’s blog is very lively. With a tag line like “Throw away your brilliant career and start living!” you can tell this guy loves adventure. Raskalov says that it took them two hours to climb the tower, and they chose to climb it during the time of the Chinese New Year celebration, because they knew that what they knew the guards would not be around to stop them.

I somehow managed to find a interview between Nikita Lihachev, a writer on, and Raskalov, who as it turns out actually has Ukrainian citizenship! On the next few lines I am including parts of the interview (translated by yours truly) which I found to be most interesting.

Raskalov: In reality, we are unknown in the Russian Internet. In comparison to how we are viewed by the rest of the world, here, it is all different (here, as in Russia). In Germany, every dog knows about us.

Tjournal: They don’t like to give you PR in Russia?

Raskalov: Right, and we don’t really cooperate with Russia, because here are bunch of *assholes* in the likes of NTV and LifeNews. We tell them: hey dudes, we have a video, and they: “We give you PR, and you still want money? You are the ones who should give us money. We just want to make you famous.” Meanwhile, CNN, Fox News, NBC, BBC and a ton of other channels are buying our videos.

Tjournal: Did you return to Ukraine after you were deported? (on December 7, Raskalov was deported from Russia for 5 years, after he was detained in the airport Sheremetyevo.)

Raskalov: To Kiev, yes. Cheered on Maidan there.

Tjournal: Don’t you have Russian citizenship?

Raskalov: If I would have had Russian citizenship, constitutionally they wouldn’t have the right to not let me into my own country. I have a Ukrainian passport, to which, I am actually glad. Nobody can stop me for all of my pranks in Russia, because I am a foreigner. The maximum punishment for me was deportation.  And in Ukraine the people take these things more lightly: well you trespassed, what is there to do about that. I was caught by the police only once, and this is all that was said: “What, where did you climb? You are an idiot.”

“Самая пиковая точка наслаждения — когда ты спускаешься со здания, тебя палят, ты прячешься, тебя ищут 2-3 часа, ты умудряешься убежать и выйти сухим из воды. К сожалению, так бывает нечасто.”     -The highest point of pleasure is when you are climbing down from a building, you’re being chased, you hide, they search for you 2-3 hours, and you somehow manage to run away and get away with it. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen very often. -Makhorov (credit to Tjournal)

Tjournal: And you didn’t have any difficulty (with security, while climbing the Shanghai Tower)? No access levels, locks, or security?

Raskalov: Dude, it’s construction. It was more difficult for us to climb on residential housing  in Shanghai, than on this tower. We had to sleep on the top for 18 hours. When we climbed up, there was a thick fog. At first it was *shitty*, but we waited for an hour, and the fog wasn’t dissipating. We went to sleep and during the sunset we climbed onto the crane for exactly an hour, while it was clear, and then everything was foggy again.

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Femen: Giving us something to talk about

In my last post I talked about Ukraine is Not a Brothela recent documentary following the members of Femen. Originally based in Ukraine and now based in France, Femen is a feminist group of self-identified “sextremists” who lead protests with their messages written on their breasts. Before seeing the film I didn’t know much about the group, other than their chosen method of protest, since most of what I’ve read about the group seems to be exclusively interested in a) the fact that they protest topless (omg breasts—how scandalous!) and b) dismissing most, if not all, of their credibility as feminists based on that fact. Accordingly, many of the pieces that talk about them err on the side of the sensationalist (in the case of the more formal, “factual” media), or the downright patronizing (in the case of more opinion-based media like blogs).

Femen meme

An oversimplification of Femen’s ideology, at best

The way these kinds of pieces talk about Femen makes me uncomfortable in large part because they ignore the complexities of what it means to be feminist in a patriarchal society  and they pay little to no attention to the perspectives of the members themselves. Something that really struck a chord with me when I saw Ukraine is Not a Brothel is the fact that its interviews are exclusively of Femen members. Of the more thoughtful pieces I’ve read about the group online since then (and there are actually more of those out there than I thought there might be), “Rise of the naked female warriors” by Kira Cochrane of The Guardian does a particularly good job of incorporating a member of Femen’s voice into its analysis of the group, and “The femen phenomenon” by Reuters blogger Gleb Garanich (which I mentioned in my last post) definitely wins the award for most humanizing portrayal of the group. Jess Eagle’s House of Flout blog also provides a great, nuanced analysis of Femen’s implications for feminism as a whole.

"Fight for me! Let me be how I want, not how you think is right"

“Fight for me! Let me be how I want, not how you think is right #MuslimaPride (sic)”

This isn’t to say that there aren’t legitimate criticisms of the group that go beyond their chosen method of protesting. Not examined in Ukraine is Not a Brothel, for example, is the group’s approach toward Islam-specific feminist issues. When Tunisian woman Amina Tyler was arrested following a topless protest in her country last year, Femen activists protested for her cause in front of the Justice Ministry in Tunis, announcing that they were bringing a “Topless Jihad” to the Middle East. This has drawn backlash in feminist and Muslim spheres from those who see this as a neo-colonialist attempt to “save” oppressed Muslim women (sparking the hashtag #MuslimahPride seen in the picture to the right). For an on-point explanation of why people are (understandably) upset about this, I recommend checking out these pieces by Manar Milbes, an American Muslim, and Italian blogger laglasnost.

At the end of the day, the way the media portrays Femen has the biggest impact on what we pay more attention to–their message or their breasts–and currently it’s not their message that’s winning. That probably isn’t going to change, because, you know, sex sells and all (and apparently breasts = sex), but we as media consumers can certainly do better by recognizing the hype for what it is and acknowledging that whether we agree with it or not, there is more to Femen’s feminism than meets the eye.

Unter den Linden: Memory Lane or Path to the Future?

News flash: Berlin is old.

The famous TV Tower and World Clock of Alexanderplatz.

The famous TV Tower and World Clock of Alexanderplatz.

Though far from being the oldest city in Europe (or in Germany, for that matter), this capital still has nearly eight hundred years under its belt. And after standing as one of Germany’s most important cities through all of those centuries, it’s no surprise that some of that history is still clearly visible for those who know how to look.

Some of it is spelled out through architecture. There are the museums on the aptly named Museum Island, home to Berlin’s ancestor city of Cölln (not to be confused with Köln, aka Cologne); the oft redesigned city center, Alexanderplatz; and of course, one of Germany’s most famous landmarks, the Brandenburg Gate — which is itself the entry to an equally historic street, Unter den Linden.

The Berlin Wall was unable to escape Berlin’s obsession with street plaques.

There are also the intentional nods to Berlin’s history, whether it’s the numerous Holocaust memorials, the brick path tracing the location of the Berlin Wall, or the survival of the iconic East Berlin Ampelmann in all of his various forms.

Finally, there are the specific reminders from World War II. Even today, seventy years after the fact, many of the cities older buildings are riddled with bullet holes, or bear larger scars from grenades and bomb strikes. Some of the lesser damage remains untouched as a rough, bullet-riddled facade. In other places, bright new brick, half-finished detailing, and poorly disguised plaster patch-ups stand as stark reminders. And in yet others, Berliners have apparently decided their city is best repaired with Legos.

But even when surrounded by so much of it, are today’s Berliners actually that focused on history?

With it’s status as “the most hipster city in Europe,” plus its vivid nightlife and a strong Jugendkultur (youth culture), the answer appears to be no. In fact, as is the case across the country, most Germans are more interested in the reality of today than they are with the bullet holes of yesterday. It’s a subject that doesn’t appear often in the media — and that lack of media representation is telling enough by itself.

When Berlin’s architectural history does appear on the newsreel, it seems to be more focused on opposition to modern reconstruction of war damage. Reports from Der Spiegel, for example, admittedly describe a populace who are concerned with losing the history, but simply because reconstruction is expensive, disruptive, and in many cases, not really all that necessary anyway.

Even the city of Berlin itself describes itself as an entity which is mostly viewed as having combined the old with the new, with very little time for reminiscing on history. With today’s political and economic environment, Berlin in particular has bigger things for its media culture to focus on. Instead, the city has become a European landmark whose citizens walk among reminders of their past, while keeping their eyes firmly fixed on their future.

So even with all of that history quite literally standing around, there’s really only one type of media that pays any attention to it — and most of those travel blogs aren’t being written by Germans.

A Brief History of Russian Folk Dress


Snegurochka clashes with a modern look

It can be argued that the Russian traditional costume dress is well recognized around the world. It appears that the country is still holding on to those looks; reminding the world that they still keep their traditional appearance at heart. The most recent example is when beautiful Russian girls accompanied athletes from different nations in the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics.  The girls were wearing an interesting headgear, which immediately made everyone turn their attention to them. The headgear was exuding a very traditional Russian look. The ladies were specifically representing Snegurochka, also known as a “snow girl.”

“According to the legend the old man and woman who made her from snow used two deep blue beads for eyes, made two dimples in her cheeks, and used a piece of red ribbon for her mouth. Snegurochka was very beautiful, but when she came to life, she was even better. Snegurochka is often depicted with snow white skin, deep sky-blue eyes, cherry lips and curly fair hair. Originally Snegurochka wore only white garments and a crown, decorated with silver and pearls. Her present day costume is blue, red, white or silver and her crown is sometimes replaced by an embroidered cap with fur edging. She is probably one of the most attractive female characters in Russian culture.” (Russiapedia) 

This look highly resembles the traditional Russian costume the “sarafan” which became popular in the 18th century. This was not always considered to be Russian, in fact the look and the word itself came from Persia. The folk dress was mostly worn by peasant women who wanted to still be fashionable like the nobility class.


Peasant women wearing sarafan

The sarafan was brought to Russia byPeter the Great, who had a great impact on Russian everyday life. The ruler is considered by many the first fashion icon in Russia. Peter I created strict regulations on dress code because he had a strong desire to be more Western European. The nobility were obligated to follow the Western European fashion and eventually the fashion trends became the norm for the Russian society. Today you will still see these fashion trends in Russia because it is part of their culture, which cannot be forgotten.

Russian fashion history is extremely fascinating and it is important to see the gradual changes throughout centuries. I hope this post gives you some insight into Russian folk costumes because my next post will focus on how Russia is developing in the Fashion world.

Few Choices for Merkel in Russian-Ukrainian Conundrum

Putin and Merkel in 2007 (Frank Augstein|AP)

Putin and Merkel in 2007 (Frank Augstein|AP)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is between a rock and a hard place these days. Being the leader of the country that’s financially propping up the European Union is tough enough without throwing in a balancing act when the Russian president flies off the handle while holding the EU’s natural gas pipes in one hand and Ukraine in the other.


If you have had a hard time following this whole ordeal with Ukraine, here is how the whole thing got started, in a nut shell. Late last year, the Western half of Ukraine wanted to become more integrated with the European Union -you know, break down some trade barriers and sell some grain to their neighbours (Ukraine is the world’s 3rd largest grain exporter)-.   The Eastern part of Ukraine is very pro-Russia and no so very pro EU. Viktor Yanukovych was the president at the time, and he was from the East and has a lot of Russian Support. (For a much more analytical, visual, and rather pro-Western Ukraine explanation, check out Max Fisher’s blog post for the Washington Post)

Clashes between Western protesters and the government get out of hand and Yanukovych flees (deeper explanation on Fisher’s Blog). The Ukrainian parliament decides to make the chairman of parliament the acting president. Putin decides that Yanukovych is still the president, and that parliament’s actions are unacceptable; so Putin gets the Russian parliament to grant him permission to use military force. Russian troops move into Crimea (a section of the Eastern part of Ukraine), in order to “quell protests,” but also to set the scene for Crimea to be annexed by Russia (something that the Ukrainian parliament is now set t vote on).

The UK prime minister, David Cameron, and the US president, Barack Obama, are working with Chancellor Merkel in trying to find a way to deescalate tensions in Crimea.

Merkel’s Dilema

Obama has already put a hold on bank accounts and travel documents for Russians and Ukrainians who support Putin’s actions and undermine Ukrainian autonomy. Merkel, on the other hand, is in no such position to hold Russia accountable.

As you can see from this lovely map that Wikier Samuel Bailey shared on wikipedia, most of Europe’s natural gas comes from Russia. This means that Merkel has to be very careful in dealing with the man who has his hand on the tap.As NBC’s chief foreign correspondent, Andrea Mitchell, pointed out on The Rachel Maddow Show that this dynamic was forcing Merkel to play “good cop” to Obama’s “bad cop.”


John Cassidy, a political blogger for The New Yorker, seems to think Merkel is the key fixing this situation:

If there is a solution to the crisis, it may lay in Berlin, in the personage of Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor and the de facto leader of the European Union. Since the Russian troops moved into Crimea, Merkel has said little publicly, confining herself to a few anodyne comments about “preserving the territorial integrity” of Ukraine. Behind the scenes, though, she is at the center of things. And, if anybody can persuade Putin that it is in his interests to order his soldiers back to their barracks, she might be the one.

On March 12th, Merkel quit playing “good cop” and gave a speech making it clear that military intervention would not be an option on the side of the EU or its member states. She did, however, say that it Russia were to take Crimea away from Ukraine, it would severely impact the relationship that Russia has with the EU and that Russia’s economy would suffer.

A video with English subtitles of her speech can be found here (unfortunately not many sites have an English translation because American media is currently focused on the disappearance of a Malaysian airplane). If you sprechen Sie Deutsch, you can watch Merkel’s full speech, below.

As you can imagine, the whole situation has been cause for great angst all over the world, and European bloggers have been particularly vocal about it. Many are vocal purely in the sense that they are history buffs or news junkies and unlike the media, who recounts the events of the day, they want to give you a holistic picture of the whole affair. One such blog was written by Jean Quatremer, with help from Lorraine Millot, of the French news site Liberation. The duo try to present the facts of the entire situation in an unbiased manner for their readers.

Other blogs offer less of a picture and more an opinion. A user called vincimus, on the German blog site Terra-Germania, is outraged. He (or possibly she) plays the  role of the conspiracy theorist. He writes in short sentences with vague references to different events and explanations of the situation. Vincimus asserts that Americans and Unkrainian “oligarchs” stormed parliament to overthrow the elected president and states that 10o,000 voices have been allowed to make the decisions of 44 million people.

In a political blog post on, Von Lutz Kinkel agrees with Merkel, for the most part, but asserts that she’s just going through the motions. He believes that essentially, Crimea has already been lost to Russia. He says that Merkel can’t admit this, because if she does it essentially tells Russia that annexing other countries is acceptable and they can continue doing such things with no consequences. Kinkel appears to support the idea of the EU and Germany sanctioning Russia, but balances this thought by asking if they can morally implement sanctions when Germany has gone against international law in the past.

As for you, Dear Reader…

If you were to ask me, I would actually advise not to read any blogs about this situation. The fact is bloggers (including myself) get things wrong. If they had the necessary expertise to tell you the whole story, they wouldn’t be a blogger; they’d be a journalist, historian, or academic. Bloggers have interesting opinions, but they often like to present them as fact.

What you should really do is follow a news service like the BBC, who covers the context of the situation, the politics involved, and gets the first hand interviews with the people -from the politicians to the refugees- on the ground. Alternatively, you could follow Human Rights Watch, who has boots on the ground during situations like these and aggregates first hand accounts into reports and press releases.

Blogs, in these situations, are really just a bunch of noise; and it makes me hate to read them. 

The Selfiest City in Europe Goes To…

For every 100,000 people in Manchester, England, 114 of them are taking a selfie.

Talk about self-love.

If you’re not familiar with the term ‘selfie’, Oxford Dictionaries defines it as:  “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smart phone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.”

Manchester may wear the crown in Europe, but there are seven cities posting even more photos of themselves. To find the self-proclaimed selfie capital of the world, TIME built a database of more than 400,000 Instagram photos tagged “selfie” that included geographic coordinates. (TIME, 2014)

Of the 459 cities ranked, Makati City, Philippines came out on top, producing more selfies per capita than any other city in the world with 258 selfie-takers per 100,000 people.

Second place went to Manhattan, N.Y., with 202 selfie-takers per 100,000 people, and third place is Miami, Fla. with 155 selfie-takers per 100,000 people.

TIME was sure to mention that not all photos tagged with the term “selfie” were actual selfies, and that informal tests showed that vast majority of the photos were of a single person.

Legoland Manchester make their own version of the world-famous Oscar selfie.
( @LDCManchester )

Cat Takin’ a Selfie ( Imgur )

Prince and English actor James Corden at the Brit Awards ( @JKCorden )

While some may shocked at where their city ranks, Manchester native Molly Smith is not.

Manchester Student Molly Smith Poses for a selfie (Molly Smith)

Smith told MancunianMatters writer Tim Hyde, “I am not surprised that Mancunians take the most selfies in the UK because as girls we love taking photos of ourselves.”

She added, “I would take around five selfies to make sure I got a good one. But on a night out I would take loads of group selfies with my friends, probably more than 25.”

The Globe and Mail columnist Sarah Hampson says, “The selfie, in other words, is starting to serve as a portrait of the culture at large, a Rorschach test for a collective anxiety about how rapid technological change and social media are shaping society, providing tools that allow us to become Neros fiddling while ice caps melt and genocides rage.”

In other words, she believes our generation is too self-absorbed, and controlled by the ego, ignoring the fact that there are real issues going on.

And she isn’t the only one who thinks so.

English Actress Chelsea Healey ( @ChelseaHealey )

English Actress Chelsea Healey, who’s selfie has been circulating as part of media coverage of TIME’s survey results, is not too impressed with the headlining news.

She tweets,(@ChelseaHealey)If it was not clear before, it’s obvious now: We are in the Age of the Selfie.

To find out where your city ranks, header over to TIME and play around with the interactive map.


Instagram brings the world to Crimea

The rise of smartphones and photo-sharing apps such as Instagram has allowed citizens in the crossfire of the evolving political and military crisis in the Ukraine to share the conflict with the rest of the world.

Just as the Crimean War in the 1850s is heralded as the birthplace of war photography, the crisis unfolding on the same peninsula today is birthing another new kind of photography: social war photography. As the Ukrainian Revolution and subsequent Russian military occupation in Crimea unfolded, residents took to the streets, and their phones, to share the conflict taking shape around them.

Top: Instagram user Edouphoto documents a Pro-Russian protest taking place in Lenin Square in Simferpol on March 9th.

Bottom: Instagram user Raulgallegobellan takes a photo of a Russian solider standing guard in front of the Crimean Parliament building on March 6th.

Traditional media took notice of this new phenomenon for the first time on March 2nd, when the British newspaper Daily Mail published an article documenting the large amount of images, specifically selfies, emerging from the conflict zone on Instagram. The paper described the act of people taking selfies with Russian soldiers in the Crimea as “shocking”. Even Buzzfeed didn’t seem entirely sold on the idea. Twitter users also chimed in on the phenomenon.

However, the images coming out of the Crimea gives us a perspective on conflict that has seldom been seen before. Instead of relying on images from professional photographers, for the first time, those living in the middle of the conflict can widely share their experiences and perspectives. The Atlantic defends the socialization of war photography in a recent article. They compare the photos on Instagram today to the controversy in the 1850s, when photographers and cameras descended upon the Crimean Peninsula to document, and share, war to those away from the conflict for the first time.

The Crimean War was the first conflict to be extensively documented on camera. For the first time, people away from the frontline could view the destruction taking place.

The Crimean War was the first conflict to be extensively documented on camera. For the first time, people away from the frontline could view the destruction taking place.

The photos that are emerging show us that despite the complexity of the conflict in the news, the situation on the ground in Crimea may be even more complex than we originally thought. The rise of social media has taught us that conflict isn’t black and white after all, but rather consists of 20 filters instead.



Thrills and Chills: Trespassing in Berlin

(photo: Spudnik)

There’s an innate rush many people experience from going somewhere forbidden. Maybe it’s the display of autonomy that gives us a feeling of freedom, or perhaps it’s the curiosity of what the repercussions could be. Whatever it is, it’s what drives us forward even when the sign warns, “KEEP OUT.”

In Berlin, finding places to procure the trespassing rush is about as easy as finding other drugs, and it’s taking more than fences, fines, and fake security guards to stop the growing popularity of sneaking into the city’s many abandoned areas. Blogs such as Berlin Du Bist Wunderbar (in German) and Abandoned Berlin have spread the trend into the blogosphere, and they detail everything from the not-so-appealing sights of dirt and destruction to the nitty-gritty on how to get into the most fascinating, creepy, and sometimes dangerous places without getting caught.

Spreepark 2013 Fto-9239

Spreepark is just one of Berlin’s many thrilling abandoned areas. (photo: Spudnik)

I referred to Abandoned Berlin (which made the list of Berlin’s best blogs on to sneak into the remains of the former East German amusement park, Spreepark, which is hidden behind the forest along the river Spree. After climbing the fence and trekking through some trees, a friend and I began to see the eerie remnants of roller-coasters and a giant Riesenrad (Ferris wheel).  When we heard the creaking of steel as the wind gave the Ferris wheel a push, my more squeamish friend (I swear it was her, not me), decided she was not too keen on going further into the park. I, being the fearless adventure-seeker I am, had to see what else lied ahead. We followed the roller-coaster tracks which lead right through a mossy pond, and both of us knew it was picture time. What we didn’t know, was that a security guard was waiting on the other side of that pond, and as soon as we finished Instagraming the magic moment, the voice of a rather annoyed man called out, in English, “Hey! No trespassing! I call police! 150 euro!” Standing on wet tracks in the middle of a pond, we felt a little helpless. But, as I had read on Abandoned Berlin, the “security guard” at Spreepark was no law officer, and I hoped to God he’d just kick us out at most.


Myself, seconds before the run-in with “Security”

When he took us through the park to the tall white fence and told us to “just climb over that,” I figured this guy wasn’t the most legitimate authority, but already having had a good time there and having nothing on us but a fifth of gin, we weren’t in the mood to try to haggle with him. Outside the fence, we saw another group of young people who had suffered the same fate, but we all laughed and were glad we made it out unscathed.

So, while some people go to Görlitzer Park with 10 euros, some papers, and a dream, others get their kicks from Berlin’s rich history and the ruins of times gone by. Be sure to check out Abandoned Berlin’s first-hand accounts of exploring everything from the 1936 Olympic Village to the US/UK spy tower (Teufelsberg, below) to the old Iraqi Embassy. And if you plan on visiting one of these places, don’t miss the info on the danger and difficulty of each location, as well as the appropriate drink mixes you’ll need for the adventure.


Top 5 Russian stereotypes debunked and affirmed

With recent posts like Buzzfeed’s “16 Things Russians Do That Americans Might Find Weird” and YouTube videos featuring Russian stereotypes like this one, about the “true” nature of Russia, I was urged to create my own list of Russian stereotypes. Let’s dive in, shall we?

1. Vodka


Beautiful women, fur hats, and a giant bottle of Russian Standard vodka–3 Russian stereotypes in one convenient photo!

This is without a doubt one of the most well-known stereotypes of Russian culture–the excessive consumption of vodka. I’d be lying if I said that vodka doesn’t take center stage at some Russian parties, celebrations, etc. Often, this occurs because of the constant need to toast to/about everything every 5 minutes or so. At Russian tables, everybody is expected to contribute at least one toast, and every toast must be followed by the typical clinking of the glasses and a gulp of some type of liquor (since toasting with anything but alcohol is often seen as bad luck, but we will get to the superstitions later). Of course vodka (and other liquor), isn’t only consumed during celebrations and parties, but also as a part of life.

Obviously, overly excessive consumption of vodka can lead to issues like alcoholism and the world has definitely noticed this problem. According to, a new study has shown that a quarter of all Russian men die before they reach their mid-fifties, with alcohol (mainly vodka) being largely to blame for this.

Some cultural changes are on their way, however, mainly with the help of recent laws prohibiting consumption of alcohol in public places and a small (but notable) shift in the cultural mindset where young Russians are deciding against drinking, smoking, and doing drugs.


2. Beets, dill, and herring

Recently, I received a phone call from my mother asking me to buy her something rather strange (for the American mindset) from one of the organic markets in town. What was it? 10 lbs. of beets to be used to create some sort of magical elixir that is (supposedly) helpful if you have a cold. I wish I could have gotten the cashier’s reaction on video when she asked me why in the world would I need 10 lbs. of beets.

I wasn't kidding when I said Russians put dill on everything. Here's a prime example--Greek salad...topped with dill.

I wasn’t kidding when I said Russians put dill on everything. Here’s a prime example–Greek salad…topped with dill.

I would consider beets a staple in the Russian diet. They are used in a multitude of dishes ranging from borsch (beet soup with vegetables), the above “magical” elixir (and others alike), and a traditional New Year’s dinner salad named “seledka pod shuboy”, which is translated to “herring under a fur coat” and includes a base of pickled herring with a top layer of sour cream and beets. (Just to clarify, although it’s on the table doesn’t mean everyone eats it. This dish is often left fairly untouched, even at a table of 20 people).

This brings us to the next foods–dill and herring. It just so happens that the two go perfectly together, at least in my mind. Yes, the consumption of these two is significantly higher than that of beets. Dill is put on almost EVERYTHING in Russia. It’s used to pickle vegetables, used as a spice in countless soups and potato dishes, and even used as a garnish for something you wouldn’t normally think dill should  go on. Herring, however, is not an everyday food like dill is (mainly because it is sometimes too expensive for everyday meals). When it is consumed, it’s best paired with boiled potatoes mixed with lots and lots of, you guessed it, dill!


3. Babushkas


When a sweet babushka offers you apples, you take them, no questions asked.

Babushkas, literally translated to “grandmas,” are, in my mind, a vastly misunderstood part of the population in Russia. Babushkas are often seen as bitter, mean, old women (stereotypically adorning scarves over their heads) who spend their time yelling at youngsters and complaining about the aspects of everyday life. Through my time in Russia, I’ve decided that this stereotype is definitely false.

The babushkas I’ve met and had encounters with have all been extremely sweet and caring women who still try to find joy in their everyday lives. The harsh truth, however, is that all too often, babushkas are a lonely folk left alone by their fellow family members. Many of them are poor (and sometimes even impoverished) and are forced to sell goods like produce, homemade woolen socks, clothes, etc. in outdoor markets.

So the next time you see a babushka, shoot a smile her way and ALWAYS give up your bus or train seat for her.


4. Russian superstitions


Translation: Salt spilled, tears shed.

Throw a bit of salt over your left shoulder if you ever spill some, sit quietly for a minute before heading out for a trip, never give someone an even amount of flowers unless you’re going to a funeral, look in the mirror if you ever have to go back into your house after you’ve already left and forgot something.

These are all examples of common Russian superstitions. The best part is that they are still widely practiced and believed. These are passed down from generation to generation and I can honestly say that I do every single one of the ones listed above. There are some, however, that are a bit far-fetched, even for the most superstitious of Russians.

For example, if a woman ever sits on a table or counter, it means that she will get pregnant soon. Also, Russian girls and women are expected to never sit on a floor or any cold surface because it is believed that it will make them infertile.



5. Russian hospitality

This is one stereotype I am proud (as a fellow Russian) to say is true–the stereotype that Russians are extremely hospitable.


Circa 1997(ish): my family gathers for a celebratory dinner full of love, laughter, and booze.

When going to a dinner or celebration at a Russian person’s home, expect to be bombarded with an array of food, drinks, and the constant question of whether there’s anything else that you want them to bring you. Hostesses are expected to tend to every need of their guests and, during large celebrations like Russian New Year, a man is always designated to make sure that no one’s cup is ever empty.

If a guest gets a bit too buzzed and can’t go home quite yet, no problem! They are always welcome to sleep it off in the spare bedroom, couch, floor, whatever. The next morning, they can expect a hefty breakfast to soak up the booze from the night before and a stiff cup of coffee or tea.


 Bonus: a tip for the American with a new Russian friend

If I had to give you one piece of advice about how to impress your new Russian friend, it would be to never show up to their home without some sort of gift in hand. Russians tend to be gift-givers and you are expected to bring a gift to their home whenever you’re going there for a party or celebration. Whether it’s flowers, chocolates, booze, food, or any other small gift, it’s a great way to show them that you’re attentive and eager to learn more about their culture.

“We Can’t Answer That”: Walther Charged for Illegal Exports of Firearms to Colombia

When I think of the phrase “black market”, I usually picture smoky rooms, secret sub-basements, trade-offs in the backs of unmarked vans- you know, the usual. To put it otherwise, I don’t picture a beautiful and historic Danube town such as Ulm.


Ulm, home of the world’s tallest steeple and illegal weapons exports

Regardless of what I think, however, Ulm is currently playing host to a black-market scandal on an international scale.

On March 3rd, Deutsche Welle  reported that international firearms giant Walther Arms was facing criminal charges for illegally exporting its weapons to Colombia, whose political, social, and criminal turmoil has rarely left the world’s attention.

Certainly, there is a lot of money to be made selling weapons to a war-torn nation, and that’s why Germany has a law against precisely that sort of business. German companies wishing to export firearms must secure an export permit from the government, and such permits are not issued if said country’s internal state is in conflict, say, like Colombia’s.

So, when a gun like this:

Note the prominent "Made in Germany"

Note the prominent “Made in Germany”

shows up in Colombia, there must be something fishy going on. Little information has arisen regarding these allegations, but in response to the question of just HOW these guns got to Colombia, Walther’s Managing Director had this much to say:”We Can’t Answer That”. Well, Herr Direktor, maybe you should try.

These allegations come hot on the heels of a raid by the German State Investigator’s office on SIG Sauer’s headquarters in the sleepy Baltic town of Eckernförde. According to The Firearm Blog, seventy of SIG Sauer’s pistols were sold to the Kazakhstan Republican Guard in 2010.

Peaceful Baltic town or haven for illegal arms merchants?

Peaceful Baltic town or haven for illegal arms merchants?

This was allegedly done using what is known as a bypass transaction. In this case, the official paperwork listed the pistols as being bound for the United States, where an unnamed compatriot obtained permission from the State Department to export the pistols to Kazakhstan.

Such transactions are understandably difficult to investigate, as the line which divides a bypass transaction from a standard resale is very thin and requires no paperwork to cross. The Eckernförder Zeitung reports that the German police seized documents, hard drives, and computers believed to contain evidence that may implicate SIG Sauer in a very illegal trade.

Information on both cases is still forthcoming, so be careful where you get your guns.


‘Lese’ Fair in Leipzig

In grade school everyone loved going to the Book Fair. I’d beg mother for $12 to get the latest version of ‘The World Almanac for Kids’ and try to impress everyone by reciting all the new factoids. By now I should hope we know how important it is to get people to read and to keep them reading. The annual Leipzig book fair, known as Leipzig Reads or Leipzig Liest, will be held this year from March 13-16 with the express mission of any book fair, to bring modern literature to the forefront of discussion, to raise it above local recognition where it may otherwise go unappreciated. The Leipziger Buchmesse‘s mission statement:

The Leipzig Book Fair is the most important spring meeting place for the publishing and media sector and has evolved into an attractive hallmark both in Germany and across Europe. In a nutshell, the aim of the Leipzig Book Fair is to drum up more publicity for books. Held every March, it’s a massive draw for publishers, writers, readers and journalists. An ideal communication platform, the Leipzig Book Fair provides extensive information about new publications as well as current and future trends in the German-speaking and European markets.

Painted stairway at Leipzig book fair

Stairway bearing Leipzig Liest logo 2011

This year is the 23rd modern installation of the fair, featuring two major themes. The first is the “Auftritt Schweiz” (Appearance Swiss, or ‘the Swiss image’) sponsored by the Schweizer Buchhändler- und Verleger Verband (Swiss Booksellers and Publishers Association) and will showcase numerous Swiss musicians, authors, poets, and more at dozens of places around the city. You can see and hear a Visual Reading at the Leipzig Zoo or even see an outdoor Exhibition of Comic Art at the Moritzbastei. All of these events are aimed at promoting Swiss literature in Leipzig and the surrounding regions, and fostering friendship between die Schweizer and die Sachsen.

The second part of this year’s fair is a program known as ‘Tranzyt. Miles 2014: Literatur aus Polen, der Ukraine, und Belarus.’ The goal of this program is to introduce “new, interesting authors from the region of Central and Eastern Europe to a wider public and to promote their publications with German language publishers.” In this article by the Leipziger Volkszeitung, program curator Martin Pollack explains the purpose of Tranzyt is to focus compassionately on literature amidst the recent political events in Eastern Europe, even now with Ukrainian affairs having taken the world stage.

In this interview with Oliver Zille by Helga King, he relates the history of Leipzig as a literary hub past and present, explains the goals of this year’s fair, and tells us the fair has 3,000 authors, 3,200 events, and 410 reading places scheduled throughout the city.

This year features more Cosplay and Comic Art events than ever before

This year features more Cosplay and Comic Art events than ever before

It’s easy to disregard something that seems as innocuous as a book fair, but on the same token it’s just easy to make real-life connections to people, places, and events through literature; and there’s no better way to understand both your neighbors and those foreign to you than by delving into their language and culture. At Leipzig Liest, the city and the participants make a conscious effort to explore, promote, and learn about different cultures; three tactics that define the well-educated and well-traveled person of the modern world.


more on ‘Auftritt Schweiz’

Let’s Talk about Sex, Baby

The red light district in the northern German town     As of 1927, prostitution has been legal in Germany. In 1964, sex workers were required to pay taxes, and in 2002 the prostitution law was updated, granting sex workers more legal rights, such as the right to sue clients who refuse to pay and the right to health insurance and social security. Last Wednesday, the 26th of February, marks the latest update, as the European Parliament voted Yes, 139 MEPS (Member of the European Parliament) to 109, on a resolution proposed by UK politician Mary Honeyball to criminalize the purchase of sexual services, thereby officially marking the EU’s stance on prostitution, and officially marking the start of pressure for the countries of the EU to follow suit.

As said by Honeyball, this “Swedish Model” of prostitution “focuses on reducing the demand, making it the purchaser of sex – invariably the man – who is criminalised.”

While on paper, this theory may seem like a good option to an increasingly hard problem, many others – some 560 NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and civil society organizations, including the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe and La Strada International (an anti-trafficking organization), as well as 91 academics and researchers, to be exact – are resolutely not in agreement.

Mona Küppers, vice chairwoman of the National Council of German Women’s Organisations, in a letter signed by the aforementioned 560 NGOs to the members of the European Parliament asking them to reject a report by Honeyball, commented : “We think that the systematic criminalisation of sex buyers will not bring the change supporters of this resolution are hoping for. Quite the opposite: the experience in Sweden shows that prostitution does not just simply disappear after introducing the criminalisation of buyers – activities just simply shift underground. This cannot be the solution – particularly not for the women working in the sex trade.” View the letter in its entirety here.

One of the big problems that people have with Honeyball’s argument is its failure to separate willful prostitution from prostitution begot by sex trafficking. In doing this, Honeyball effectively submits an argument against sex trafficking, not prostitution, but under the false name of the latter, thereby adding nothing valid to the legitimate discussion at hand.

La Strada graz    What’s more, even if it is sex trafficking Honeyball is campaigning against, her ideas on how to improve the situation have shown to have the opposite effect. La Strada International, a network of 12 anti-trafficking NGOS, have stated, ” The partners of the LSI NGO Platform have supported many women and men who were trafficked in the sex industry in the past nearly two decades. (..) Criminalisation stigmatises and marginalises both domestic and migrant sex workers and it deprives them of the tools to protect themselves from violence and seek redress. It drives the sex industry even more underground, which results in less access to health, social and legal assistance for sex workers, and significantly lowers chances to identify individuals who have been trafficked.”

Another rather large (rather, rather large)  issue is the statistical information used to back up Honeyball’s argument; namely, that its scientific quality is poor and that many of the references cited by Honeyball have been proven to be inaccurate time and time again. Plainly put, as stated in the letter, A CRITIQUE OF THE “REPORT ON PROSTITUTION AND SEXUAL EXPLOITATION AND ITS IMPACT ON GENDER EQUALITY” BY MARY HONEYBALL, MEP, signed by the aforementioned 91 academics and researchers, “The report by Ms Honeyball fails to address the problems and harms that can surround sex work and instead produces biased, inaccurate and disproven data.” View the full critique here.

It’s a hard line to walk, somehow having to balance the agency of prostitutes as legal, rightful workers using sex as a legitimate means of income and the illegally coerced  and exploited women stuck in the violent cycle that is sex trafficking, but it would seem that Honeyball has not only incorrectly toed that line, but fallen off of it completely.


For a full commentary on the (il)legitimacy of Honeyball’s now EU backed resolution, check out these sites: (auf Deutsch)


Identity Crisis at the Döner Stand


The trusty Dönermann

On a cold November evening in the neighborhood of Schöneberg in Berlin, a friend and I decided to take part in one of the most sacred of Berliner activities, going to the Dönermann and getting a delicious döner. This style of the Turkish, gyro-like meal is an amazing gift from food heaven and a unique staple of Berlin street foods, the Berliner art of döner differing quite a bit from what you might find in Istanbul. It was conceived in a German city, so it’s not necessarily Turkish, but at the same time, something created by a Turkish immigrant can’t quite be credited to Germany either.

I asked the man at the döner stand where he was from, and his answer tells a story similar to the food he sells: “I was born in Berlin, but my heart is in Turkey.” This is not an uncommon sentiment for second and third generation German Turks, whose families have lived in Germany since the Gastarbeiter program in the 1960s. During this time, Germany invited guest workers to support the struggling post-war economy, giving them two-year work contracts. Workers were supposed to return to their home countries after their contract was up, but many of them never did. Eventually Germany allowed workers to bring their families with them and stay indefinitely.

berlin-neukoelln-karl marx str

Karl-Marx-Straße, a glimpse into the Turkish community in Neukölln.

Since the 1960s, Turkish immigration has created a minority community that thrives in Germany’s urban areas, and in Berlin, the neighborhood of Neukölln is known as the Turkish district of the city. I had the opportunity to live off Karl-Marx Straße in Neukölln, an area where nearly every business is owned by Turkish Germans or German Turks, depending on who you ask. This array includes businesses dealing everything from exotic spices, candied fruits, and baklava to Islamic apparel, cheap flights to Istanbul, and haircuts, and business seems to be booming. This area can have the feeling of stepping into another city, as this bit of graffiti playfully suggests (below).

Neukölln Urlaub

“I’m not going on vacation, I have Neukölln!”


While there is much to be said about the extent to which the Turkish community has assimilated and/or integrated into German culture, in this post I merely wanted to present a glimpse of the Turkish Berliner community, even if it is just the tip of the iceberg. So, as two Turkish children speak German on the S-bahn while a German boy eats a döner and listens to Turkish rap coming straight out of Kreuzberg, I think it’s safe to say that both of these cultures have made a few lasting effects on the other.

German Turkish

German Cooking for the American Woman: Aschermittwoch

About  30% of the German population is Catholic and celebrate Ash Wednesday.  They have the same cultural practices as many other Catholics around the world, including eating fish on Ash Wednesday.

The Germans celebrate carnival activities before Ash Wednesday. The time before Lent most people take it as the last opportunity to drink, eat and have a good time. In the United States we call it Mardi Gras.

Als Clowns verkleidete Jecken feiern am Montag (04.02...

A common trait around Ash Wednesday is the celebration of Carnival in costumes.

Here is a German recipe for the American Woman that can be enjoyed on Ash Wednesday.

Curry Rice with Fried Fish

2 frozen fish fillets
1/4 onion
1 red bell pepper
1/2 medium hot peppers (if you like your curry spicy!)
1 clove of garlic
8 cherry tomatoes
2 stalks of celery
1 cup of rice
1 cup of curry soup
1 cup white wine (optional)
A pinch of curry powder
Salt and pepper

Heat olive oil in a pan. While the oil is heating put about 3 cups of water in a pot and wait till it boils. Fry the fish fillets on both sides in the pan of oil. Cut up the 1/4 of onion into small pieces and add it to the pan of oil and fish. Once the pot of water has come to a boil add 1 cup of rice. Then sear the rice in the curry soup you choose. Cut the vegetables small and add to the pan of oil and then close the lid. Now, add the curry powder, salt and pepper. Stir the rice again and again in the pan with all of the other ingredients. This is the time to add more soup and white wine as you choose. Finally, pour a little water into the mix and you are ready to eat!

For more German fish recipes for the Catholic holiday you can visit this website.