Truth on Film: Columbia’s True/False Festival

March 5-8, 2015. Photo from

March 5-8, 2015. Logo from

The True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri is a documentary festival that is respected and celebrated for numerous justifiable reasons. Taking place this year from March 5-8, Filmmakers and critics praise the festival for its effective programming and advertising, audiences love the vibrant atmosphere, and the city benefits immensely from the influx in business. Personally, I’ve had the pleasure of calling Columbia home for the last four years, granting me access to one of the world’s most unique film festivals. However, there might be one aspect of the festival that trumps the visible, local flourish. Films at True/False bring attention to current global issues that might otherwise be accessible only through the lens of the media. True/False prides itself on its documentary programming, streamlining urgent topics that demand a reaction.

One such film in this year’s roster is Maidan, a film by Sergei Loznitsa. The film documents aggressive protests that took place from 2013-2014 in and around Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the central square of Kiev, Ukraine. The film utilizes participatory journalism techniques in order to place the viewer among the front lines of revolution, forcing anyone who sees it to come out talking about the situation in Eastern Europe.

A film that counteracts this urgency is the patient unfolding of a Russian girl’s life in Hanna Polak’s Something Better to Come (Yula’s Dream). This documentary employs the revolutionary concept of extreme production lengths, documenting the life of a girl from age 10 to 24. The film explores adolescence and coming-of-age on the outskirts of urban Russia, a bit outside the reach of the ever-present government.

Moderated conversations with featured filmmakers are another intriguing draw of the festival. One such conversation is titled “Living Rough”, which explores the moral ambiguity of filming and gathering information in dangerous situations or locations. The director of Something Better to Come, Hanna Polak, is one of the featured guests in this discussion.

True/False is quickly becoming a routine stop on the film festival circuit, and its popularity justly matches its acclaim. The documentary emphasis places True/False in a special category of film festivals; the crowd in attendance includes enthusiastic filmmakers and cinephiles that seek truth through real-world subjects. This mutual appreciation for intimate portraits and forward thinking brings festival goers together as a unique, progressive community.

Videos courtesy of

What It’s Like To Graduate Abroad

In just a few short days, I will walk across the stage, shake hands with the dean, be handed a blank diploma holder, and put my tassel on the other side. Yes, I am talking about graduation.

Here in America we have certain traditions where we wear special gowns and move are tassels to the other side to signify a step forward. These milestones might also include a large celebration and even some alcohol. As I gear up to enter the real world, I thought it might be interesting to find out how other countries celebrate graduation. Take a look:


Via City University London

UK: According to a commenter on Toytown Germany, graduates also have to wear gowns and they have a ceremony. The parent explains that his/her daughter had a “leaving ceremony where a band played, top pupils received prizes then each school-leaver was handed their certificate.” I would say that sounds very similar to how we celebrate graduation in America.

Norway: There appears to be some interesting traditions at graduations in Norway. In a forum on UniLang, a commenter explained that students take part in a celebration called “russ” that lasts from May 1 to May 17. The interesting thing is that each student wears a different outfit depending on what they have studied. So for instance if you studied only general subjects, you would wear red. However, if you also studied economy your outfit would be blue. This is kind of similar to how we each will have different color tassels depending on what school you’re graduating from here at Mizzou.

Germany: I find it interesting that in Germany, they do not seem to make a big deal out of graduation. In the forum Toytown Germany, another commenter said, “there’s no interest from the Germans to be so grandiose in their educational degreement.” According to this commenter, her husband who graduated from a school in Germany just received his degree, no real fan fare. From what I understand though, Germany takes great pride in its educational system. One would think graduation might be a bigger deal there.

Via Russian World Forums

Via Russian World Forums

Russia: According to blogger for Sparklife, Russian students wear very different attire from what we wear here in America for graduation. Sara Jonsson said girls tend to wear black dresses with aprons. It’s supposed to be “in homage to their Tsarist-era” school uniforms. I honestly might opt for these outfits than the ugly, non-form fitting gown I have to wear on Friday, but I guess that’s neither here nor there. Russian students also line up in front of the whole school, and then leave to party on

Graduation traditions are obviously not just an American way of life. It’s clear many other countries have their own way of celebrating the big day. I am curious what your favorite graduation tradition is?


Blini with Fried Potatoes: The Quintessential Russian Recipe

Growing up, my favorite food was homemade blini, especially blini with fried potatoes. Hey, my parents didn’t call me the Carb Queen for nothing. Today, I’m going to walk you through how to make the basic recipe for both.

If you aren’t familiar with Russian cuisine, I guess a little explanation is in order. In one of my older posts about the Russian festival Maslenitsa, I explained that blini are a thin fried crepe that is usually stuffed with an assortment of yummy foods–meats, cheeses, mushrooms, jams, honeys, or of course potatoes.

Let’s get started! Keep in mind that this recipe feeds 4 very hungry college kids.

Here is what you will need for the recipe:

  • 5 medium-sized Russet potatoes
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 cup water
  • 1.5 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tbs. sunflower oil (or vegetable oil if you don’t have sunflower)
  • 1 small-medium onion
  • 1 tbs. sugar
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • Approximately 1/2 stick unsalted butter



Here is a visual of what you will need, minus the milk and water


The first thing you need to do is to fry the potatoes since they take quite some time to fully cook. Pour some sunflower oil into a pan and heat the stove to medium heat.


Peel approximately 5 Russet potatoes.


Cut the potatoes into small chunks and add them to the warmed skillet along with a chopped onion.


Cover the skillet for approximately 15 minutes. I do this so that the potatoes can get softened and don’t get too browned. Stir and flip the potatoes occasionally.


Meanwhile, mix the 1.5 cups of flour in a small bowl with 1 tbs. sugar and 1 tsp. salt.


Whisk the dry ingredients until combined.


Slowly add the 1 cup water into the dry ingredients until well combined. Whisk that batter into oblivion.


In a separate mixing bowl, combine 1 cup milk with 3 eggs and 2 tbs. sunflower oil.



Mix the wet ingredients with an electric mixer until combined. If you don’t have an electric mixer, it is okay to use a whisk. Just make sure it is well-mixed.


Slowly begin to dollop the flour/water mixture into the bowl with the egg/milk mixture. Mix this really well to ensure everything is well-combined.


By this time, your potatoes should start looking like this. This is around the time that I take the lid off of my skillet so that the potatoes can crisp up and brown properly. Make sure to salt and pepper these bad boys, too.


Heat up your skillets for the blini. I’ve found that the best temperature is a medium heat. I also use two skillets at a time so that I can finish quicker.


After buttering your pan, pour a thin layer of the blini mix unto your skillet. It should start bubbling up like this after about 30 seconds. Once the edges begin to brown, flip it.


This is what the blin looks like once it’s flipped. Cook for another 20-30 seconds.


After the blin is done cooking, stack them on top of each other on a plate. Also, don’t forget to butter them some more after you’ve stacked them. This keeps them thin and soft.


Now, here comes the fun part. Spoon some of those fried potatoes onto your blin.


Next, fold two of the sides inward.


And now do the same with the other two sides and there you have it: a little Russian burrito.

Now, you devour. Dip these into some sour cream and you’ve got yourself a party.

A few important notes, though:

  1. Make sure you butter the pan in between each blin. Otherwise, the blin will stick to the pan and you’ll have a doughy clump.
  2. Eat them while they’re hot. They tend to get a bit rubbery if left out to sit.
  3. After stuffing the blins with your stuffing of choice, you can re-fry them so that the burrito-like shape stays and the outsides get super crispy.

If you are lost and need more guidance with this recipe, check this video out with step by step instructions!


12: Modern Day Russian Propaganda or a Cultural Exposé?

Nikita Mikhalkov’s 12 (2007) is a Russian film in which a group of 12 jurors must decide the fate of an 18-year old Chechen boy (Apti Magamaev) accused of murdering his Russian stepfather, a military officer. The film, an adaptation of Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men (1957), holds much of the same characteristics as the latter: each of the 12 men come in with their own biases and prejudices and must come to a unanimous decision before being allowed to leave the room. In 12, however, the men aren’t stuffed into a cramped juror room; instead, the jurors are placed in a dilapidated school gymnasium that’s conveniently near the courthouse. The crumbling state of the gym is meant to symbolize Russia’s crumbling and failing infrastructure.

Like the film’s older cousin, 11 men immediately come to the conclusion that the boy is guilty (without viewing or attempting to debunk any of the prosecution’s evidence) and one man, not knowing whether the boy is truly guilty or not, votes not guilty because he realizes that this is someone’s life they have in their hands and they need to ponder more about their decision before they decide to convict him.


The film’s cover, courtesy of IMDB

In the film, the twelve men represent the different types of Russian men–there’s the racist and anti-Semitic cabbie, a surgeon from the Caucasus, a Harvard-educated television producer, an elderly Jewish intellectual, a musician, a cemetery manager, and others. Each of them share a bit from their personal lives with the group, thus allowing the viewer to understand more about them as a person. Throughout the film, we get bits and pieces of the Chechen boy’s war-torn life–from him growing up with his mother and father and learning the art of the lezginka (a traditional Chechen dance) to attempting to survive in an abandoned basement alone after his family was murdered.

The movie is highly emotional and keeps you planted in your seat right from the start. Each man tells his own sad tale: one shares how he blames himself for his son’s suicide, another tells the men how his business scams the mourning families of the deceased out of thousands of Rubles, etc. These intertwine with the boy’s story, even though we barely hear him actually speak throughout the whole film.

Structurally, the film is spectacular. The actors’ performances are mesmerizing and the cinematography is beautiful.

However, I do have one huge issue with this film: it completely misrepresents Russian-Chechen relations and is undoubtedly “Pro-Putin.”

It seems extremely likely to me that the beginning of the film would have been the same in real life–that is, that 11/12 of the men deemed the boy guilty from the very start just because he is a Chechen. It comes as no surprise that the cabbie regards the boy as  “a stinking Chechen dog.” However, *spoiler alert* the men slowly debunk the prosecution’s evidence and unanimously decide that the boy is not guilty. But, knowing that the boy will most likely die as soon as he gets out of jail because he will go looking for his stepfather’s murderer, one of the jurors wants to keep him in jail in order to keep the boy alive.

After discussing this with the rest of the jurors, this same man decides that he will help the boy by basically adopting him. He waits for the boy outside of the jail and tells him that he will help him find whoever killed his stepfather.

This is highly unrealistic.


Along with directing and co-writing the film, Nikita Mikhalkov (center) is also the head juror that ends up adopting the boy in the end

Russians and Chechens have long had their problems with each other and Mikhalkov’s portrayal of the kind and open-minded Russians is simply impractical. Tensions between the two cultures are still high and many Russians are still very racist toward Chechens.

That didn’t stop Russians and film critics worldwide from eating this film up. 12 has a 78% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes from the critics and an 84% approval rating from the viewers. Even Putin said that the film “brought a tear to the eye.”

Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman even marks the film as “heavy-handed.”

With that being said, I think Mikhalkov touches on a lot of contemporary Russian issues (example: pointing out the crumbling Russian infrastructure).

I think it would do the film an injustice to fully praise it or condemn it. Regardless of the perhaps too forgiving portrayal of Russians, Mikhalkov perfectly exposes Russian stereotypes and shows the viewers a side to Russia that many never get to experience for themselves (let alone know even existed).

Additionally, regardless of the negative things I’ve said about the film, it is one that I’ve had in my possession for about 4 years and one that I watch fairly regularly, especially if I want to get a good cry in.




Russia’s Library Night Appears to be a Success

Amid the negative news which has surrounded Russia for the past few months, the people of Russia recently organized a notable event.


Library Night’s bright logo attracts attention to the event. Photo credit to Библионочь 2014.

From April 25-26, more than 80 Russian regions held their third national annual event called Library Night or Библионочь. During these two days, libraries, museums, galleries, and book stores remained opened throughout the entire night, well after regular closing hours. This event was sponsored by many different organizations and partners such as the coffee shop chain Coffee Bean and book store chain Moscow Book House, to name a couple.

Anybody interested in reading and the arts in general had a chance to meet famous writers, poets, and critics.

Watch this video recap of Library Night from a town called Mikhailovka. In this video, local libraries held events for both adults and children (the best part is when the little kids dance).

The event is held in hopes of educating people of all ages about local libraries, reading, and fine arts in general. This is a great way to help preserve Russian culture and foster discussions.

Not surprisingly, Crimea managed to steal the spotlight in library numbered 172. Visitors of 172 were able to experience a beautiful event. One of the makers of this project claimed:

“This evening, halls of this library will turn into little streets and beach fronts of one of the coziest Black Sea towns, so passionately described by the great Russian writers and poets. Visitors of the summer café under the Bakhchisarskiy fountain will be treated to a reading of classic writers such as Anna Akhmatova.”

Young children who participated in the events of the night were able to play many trivia games regarding literature. A little girl named Liza won a book by correctly answering questions. She said that she really liked this event, and that she will share this book with her classmates, so they can read it too.


Children participate in literature trivia in hopes of getting a prize.

Library Night shows that Russia continues to instill educational values in its people. Perhaps this is one aspect of Russia’s culture which the U.S. should actually try to imitate. I have never heard of such an event happening in the U.S., at least not nation-wide. It would be great to see American people, especially American youth, showing more interest in their own rich literary culture.

Venice of the North

Fotor0424154820Saint Petersburg is located along the Gulf of Finland and is considered to be Russia’s most vibrant city. If you love food, culture, high art, and lavish architecture, then this beautiful city is for you.

Last summer I had an opportunity to study abroad in this relaxing city for over a month, and I must say it was love at first sight. The best time to see this whimsical city in action is during the White Nights (May-July.) During this season the daylight is celebrated nearly round- the -clock because the sun sets for only a few hours. The White Nights Festival has many ballet performances, operas, and The Scarlet Sails Celebration (Алые паруса.)


The Red Room is a masterpiece by French artist Henri Matisse. This artwork is located at the Hermitage.

If you decide to visit, you must bring out your inner art critic and spend some time in the Hermitage and the Russian Museum.  This is your chance to see the world renowned art works by Picasso, Matisse, Van Gogh and etc. The Hermitage gets extremely busy, so get there early so you do not have to wait in line for hours.

Quick Fact: Experts say that if you were to spend a minute looking on each art piece at the Hermitage, it would take nearly 11 years to do so.

Walking Down the Nevsky Prospect:

Nevsky Prospect is the main street of the city; many shops, cafes, restaurants and tourist sites are located here. If you only have a day to spend in the city, this is where you should spend your time. On this outrageously long street, there is the Kazan Cathedral, Church of Spilled Blood, Hermitage (Catherine’s Palace,) and more. If you are a literature buff, perhaps you should enjoy a meal at the Literaturnoe Kafe (Literature Café.) This is where Alexander Pushkin enjoyed his many meals and his last one before he died in a dual in 1837. As you take a stroll, you will come across pleasant street artists, beautiful canals and cool bridges. The vibe of this place is very diverse and laid back.

Side Note: If you are wanting more detailed information of the city life and what it has to offer, check out Life in Russia blog!


I love food and I was so excited to taste everything, so of course most of my money went towards delicious meals. If you are

Traditional Russian Donuts

Traditional Russian Donuts in Cafe Pyshechnaya.

looking to try out authentic Russian food for cheap, then Stolovaya (Cafeteria) is your place. This is where the locals go to enjoy many of their meals. There is more than one of these, so it should be easy to spot them. Bakeries are everywhere. My personal favorite is БУШЕ (Bushe.) This bakery is heaven. My  favorite is the smoked salmon sandwich with cream cheese. Yum! The bakery only has 30 minutes Wi-Fi limit; if you are trying to get some work done on your laptop, this place is not for you. On the bright side if you get your treat to go, then your price will be cheaper. Another bakery that you must try is the Cafe Pyshechnaya. This is the oldest cafe/cafeteria and serves the best pishki (Russian donuts.) This place is extremely busy and seating is very limited. Also, the Russian women servers are extremely intimidating and they expect you to know your order right away.  Be prepared! The Guardian writes a review on this cafe and they consider it to be top 10 hidden gems in St Petersburg.

Countryside Trips:

Taking some time off from the city is always nice and there a lot of palaces and parks that offer a relaxing afternoon. Here are some attractions that will revive you.

St Petersburg has much to offer and it does take significant amount of time to explore all the streets, museums, monuments, cathedrals and etc. The vibe of this city is addicting and if you are like me, you will want to come back as soon as possible.

From Right to Left: Is History Repeating Itself?

Dagmar Bazzoni was born in Salzburg, Austria in 1943. Shortly after the end of World War II, she and her family moved to a Red Cross station in Aschaffenburg, Germany, before relocating again to Frankfurt am Main in 1951. Ten years later, she moved to America where she learned English, started a family, and settled in St. Louis, Missouri, where she still lives today. 

Although she remembers very little of the war itself, Bazzoni’s childhood was defined by its consequences. In this interview, she talks about some of what she does remember, and her fears that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin may be following in the footsteps of Adolf Hitler, the man who led Germany to war in the first place. 


Rachel Alvord: Do you remember Hitler and his time in power at all? What do you remember from after the war?

Dagmar Bazzoni: It’s like learning from what your parents talked about, and people talked about, and when I went to school, people talking about it at school. I was pretty young. I was only about three years old, so I don’t remember anything. I was maybe… four years old, in my first good memories. I do remember it was just really bad after the war, there was nothing available and they had to build Germany back up. There was hardly any food available. We were lucky because my dad worked for the Americans, so he was able to bring food home that was stale, that the Americans didn’t want to eat. Stale doughnuts, bread, things like that.

I know, the reason people at first thought Hitler was so great was because he provided a lot of jobs building the Autobahn and so on. And once they realized he just wanted more and more, they started turning against him, but they couldn’t do anything by then.

Do you remember what people said about Hitler when you were living in Austria/Germany?

Yeah, that he just was going crazy, that he just… just wanted power. He wanted to conquer the whole world. More and more people lost their lives, and they just realized it was not going to be a good world, and that they weren’t going to be able to win that war. And then there was what he did to the Jews… that was just horrible. And you know, a lot of Germans tried to help the Jews, and the French, the French helped them too. But you know back then the French, they really didn’t like us. I don’t know about the British, I think they just wished the Americans had done something sooner.

They didn’t talk good about him, I know that. I know my parents didn’t, I know my other relatives didn’t. I know a lot of other people, from what I remember, said if it had been like it was in the beginning it would have been okay, but they said he just wanted more power, more countries, and he didn’t care how many people got killed. They didn’t speak highly of him, let’s put it that way. They really hated him. And I guess that’s why they tried several times to assassinate him. But it didn’t work. Now the people who were higher up, they of course liked him because you know he gave them power. They thought he was God. But the average person did not like him.

Do you think that’s how Putin is now?

He might even be worse, because he’s more sneaky. I really think that he’s gonna be worse, unless somebody stops him. I don’t think Hitler was as sneaky. He was pretty much out in the open, and he didn’t care if people liked him or not. He did what he wanted to do. But Putin is more sneaky about it, and all of a sudden he surprises people with the things he does. So I really think he’s worse. But how much worse can he be than the things with Hitler? You know?

What does Putin do that reminds you of Hitler?

He wants the power, he wants to take more land, and more land, and more land. That’s what makes me think, why can’t he just be satisfied with everything being at peace and having his country and letting it go at that? I think he just wants more and more, and the more he can get, the more he’s gonna take.

How do they differ? Do they differ?

I don’t know, but they’re pretty much the same about having the power and doing what they want to do. It doesn’t matter what other nations think or say, it doesn’t matter. They’re gonna do what they’re gonna do. I think what’s holding him back now is the sanctions that were put on them, but I doubt that will hold up. I think as long as we get all those other nations together on our side, he’s gonna be a little more cautious. But once there’s a few more countries he can get away from us, he’s going to be like a loose canon.

Hitler did a lot of good things for Germany after WWI, and public opinion of him in 1925 or 1935 was obviously very different from public opinion of him in 1945. Do you think it’s a similar situation in Russia, or do you think Putin’s regime is entirely negative?

I’m not sure about that. I was very surprised, but I think a lot of people were surprised… well, he must have put a lot of people to work with the Olympics and so on, but now I dunno what’s happening. I dunno. I don’t really know how to answer that, because… I don’t know. I think he’s greedy, and he’ll do anything he thinks he can get away with. What surprised me, he waited until the Olympics were just about over, and he started doing this with the Ukraine. It was just planned, it was planned. And the way he went about it was very sneaky, and of course it was wrong. But I dunno how to answer that question. I dunno, he’s just unpredictable, and I don’t trust him.

Do you think Putin has any goals that expand outside of Russia? Do you agree with the claim that he wants to reconstruct the Soviet Union, for example?

Oh yes. Definitely yes.

Hitler used the excuse of Lebensraum and claimed to be working for the sake of German people and so on. Russia obviously doesn’t have the same space problems that Germany did/does, so why do you think that about Putin? What excuse do you think he has?

It’s greed, number one. He probably can come up with any excuse he wants to, of course, but greed is number one.

Is there anything that can be done to prevent Putin from going to the same lengths that Hitler did?

Yeah, our nations sticking together and putting sanctions on him. Now what I really think, I better not say, but… you can put two and two together on that one. Convince him… I think he’s so far gone, he’ll do anything he can get away with. I don’t think there’s any real way to stop him. The only way of stopping him is putting our nations together and putting sanctions against him, unless we go to war, and nobody wants to do that.

Do you know if other people see Putin the same way you do, or is this just a personal correlation you’ve found?

Oh yeah, people I’ve talked to in my German group*, and pretty much all fourteen of us agree on that. It’s just… it’s not good, not good. If we can strip him of his power, that would be a good thing, but how do we go about it? We really don’t know the full story, what’s going on over there. Is he killing people, is he jailing people… who knows? We only hear really what he wants us to hear. We don’t know exactly what’s going on. What he does to people over there… I’m surprised that so many people in the Ukraine signed up to be part of Russia again, that they were so willing to be part of Russia again. There’s gotta be something behind it, some other force, I dunno.

Bazzoni routinely meets and spends afternoons with a group of friends made up of other German-American women to chat, catch up with each other, and apparently, gossip about international politics.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I wish that we could get the nations together and strip him of his power, if that’s possible. He won’t give up his power easily, I know that, but it’d be a solution. I dunno, I just don’t trust him, he’s just too sneaky. And he wants power, he definitely wants power. And he did say something – or I read something in the news about that – that if he wanted to he could bomb North America. So that means he has something there, and I just thought ‘oh, where did that come from, something’s not right there.’ But he knows that if he does too much, there’ll be sanctions and Russia will suffer. If that’s what’s holding him back, I dunno, but to make statements like that? He’s just got something planned, and that’s scary.

Bazzoni and her friends are hardly the first people to draw comparisons between the two political leaders. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble drew a direct line between Putin’s invasion of Crimea and the Nazi seizure of the Sudetenland in 1938. Though his statements made news everywhere from Germany itself to (perhaps more significantly) the state of Israel, he himself made the connection almost a month after Hillary Clinton did, highlighting the fact that these sentiments are not new. 

It goes without saying that calling Putin the next Hitler is a strong accusation, but the parallels are clearly there for people to find. So what do you think? Do you agree that history is in danger of repeating itself, or do you think Putin’s ambitions will follow a different road?

Models roll out on the Runway


Fashion Without Borders

The Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week (MBFW) Russia made heads turn as some fashion designers decided to break barriers by introducing disabled models onto the catwalk.  The models walked down the runway with a wide range of disabilities; young people who are blind, have Down syndrome, and cerebral palsy. Others were in wheel chairs and even gold medal winners from the Russian Paralympic Team.

“This season Week opens new names in the Russian fashion scene and shows a collection for people with disabilities. This will help make the world a wider and brighter for people with special needs and to reconsider the traditional stereotypes about fashion” – said Jan C. Madeo, General Director of “Mercedes-Benz Russia.” Fashion United


“Undoubtedly, seeing happy faces of people you’ve done work with is always a pleasure! But a much more positive charge given communication itself with guys who do not have some physical abilities, but not devoid of the desire to live, enjoy, and wonder.”said Dima Neu.

"Мода без границ" в рамках недели моды "Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Russia"

“Apparel for women who use a wheelchair, has its own characteristics: for example, the skirt should be inflated rear waist, be of more dense material to be tailored so as not to fall into the wheel.” –Daria Razumikhina


Dmitriy Neu presents a sporty collection that can be worn by anyone.



Designer Sabina Gorelik makes a fashion statement with her edgy collection.

All of these compelling and powerful photos were taken by Getty Images.

Visit Veliky Novgorod! The Birthplace of Russia


Last summer I had the chance to travel to Veliky Novgorod (Veliky= great). With its plethora of some of the oldest Russian churches, beautiful country side, and general feel of old-time Russia, this city made a lasting impression on me. If you do somehow end up in Russia, you absolutely need to visit Novgorod. Here are 5 things worth visiting, in my opinion:

1. A Novgorod sight-seeing experience is not complete without touring one of the oldest Russian stone structures- St. Sophia Cathedral. This cathedral, resembling St. Sophia in Kiev, was built in 1050. It represented the power of the Novgorod Republic. This is definitely one of the more touristy churches in Novgorod because it stood as the city’s central symbol.

St. Sophia, painted with 1 golden dome. The other domes may possibly be under construction. Photo credit to Irina Franz.

St. Sophia, painted with 1 golden dome, stands in the Kremlin, a historic stone fortress.

Do visit other churches too! They are all extremely beautiful and rich in history and significance. The St. George Monastery is an exquisite and secluded spot in the beautiful countryside. I highly recommend taking some time to just enjoy Novgorod’s nature and quiet after looking around the monastery’s grounds.

2. If you go see the St. George Monastery, you definitely have to stop by the Vitoslavlisty– an outdoor museum. It is a neat exhibition village made entirely out of wood! Inside the izbas (intricate wooden houses) there were rooms set up to show how Russians used to live. Complete with a wooden hanging crib and shoes braided out of birch trees, this place made me feel like it was straight out of a fairy-tale. Plus the staff members on site were dressed in colorful sarafans, and there are several opportunities to purchase unique wooden souvenirs in nearby shops.

This church was carefully built with only the use of wood.

This church was carefully built entirely out of wood between the 16th and 19th century.

3. Russian food is typically very tasty and sometimes reasonably priced. Our group was able to have a 5-course meal which satisfied everyone at the Derzhavny café-bar. We were treated to borsch, Russia’s traditional beet soup, which was followed by mashed potatoes, meat, a cold salad, freshly-baked bread, and chocolate dessert. Even though our trip leader was the one paying for the meal, he told us that it was pretty cheap for the amount of food that we received. I left Derzhavny with a full and happy belly! Novgorod has a plethora of other eateries ranging from bakeries to really fancy dine-in restaurants. Here is a link to check out their most notable spots:

Many restaurants in Novgorod are decorated in the medieval style to convey Novgorod's historic significance. Credit to

Many restaurants in Novgorod are decorated in the medieval style to convey the city’s historic significance. Credit to

4. The beach in Novgorod is much nicer than St. Petersburg’s beach (I can’t really say that SpB has a legitimate beach). Why not take a break from gazing at churches all day, and change into your swimsuit for some fun in the sun? I was surprised by how many people were sunbathing/swimming on the Veliky Novgorod beach, next to the Volkhov River. The water is actually safe to swim in unlike the Neva in SpB which is just straight up filthy. I personally didn’t get to test out the waters, but since this is a frequently visited beach, I have no doubt it would be really fun to hang out there and maybe even play volleyball with some Russians.

People relax at the Novgorod beach. We were very sad because we did not get to test the waters.

People relax at the Veliky Novgorod beach. We were very sad because we did not get to test the waters.

5. Last but not least, The Millennium Monument located close to St. Sophia, captures 129 historic Russian figures in 6 different scenes of great importance to Russia’s identity. Mother Russia stands at the top of the monument and is being blessed by God. In it leaders like Saint Vladimir, Dmitri Donskoii, and Peter the Great all stand triumphantly over a group of people whom they defeated during their ruling time. Figures depicted on the base of the monument are relevant historical and cultural figures such as Pushkin, Gogol, and Lomonosov. The Millenium is a beautiful monument. Take the time to explore every inch of it!


The Millennium Monument stands in the central old Kremlin area.

The Millennium Monument stands in the central  Kremlin area.

There are many other things you can check out in Novgorod, but I would rather not list all of them. Here are some links for your independent exploration:

Here are some other photos from our trip!


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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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. 

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.

Drinking and smoking… is Russia changing its “stereotypical” ways? to fight alcoholism and cigarette smoking in major cities, Russia has finally decided to make changes that will prevent people from smoking on the streets and buying alcohol during specific hours. Will these new laws be effective? Nobody knows. In fact, some say that the new laws will backfire, in a sense that illegal purchase of booze will be on a rise.

The St. Petersburg Times reports that early in 2013, St. Petersburg passed a new law that prevents alcohol to be purchased between the hours of 10 p.m. and 11 a.m. The time frame was changed a few times, but in the end the lawmakers went with their first choice. Street markets, railway stations, and local shops that are close to hospitals and schools are also taking a hit to this new law. The new law prevents these areas and shops to sell alcohol altogether. Some suggest that the new law should be just the regulation of the price after a certain time. The authorities have also been cracking down on smoking.

Last year the Russian authorities decided that they should regulate smoking in public places. The bill was passed and now the cities9453543 are forced to implement the new law. If a person is caught smoking in a public place, they will be fined 1,000 to 1,500 rubles ($31-$47). If you smoke around or at playgrounds, the fine rises to 2,000 to 3,000 rubles ($63-$94). And don’t you dare encourage a minor to smoke, because then you’ll get fined 2,000 rubles ($63). Well, unless you’re a parent or a guardian who encourage you to smoke, the fine rises to 3,500 rubles ($110).

This new anti-smoking legislature also has an effect on TV productions. Characters in shows and films are no longer allowed to smoke on screen unless they can prove the cigarettes are fake and if the show was produced before 2013. So how do the people of Russia feel about these new legislatures?  Before we hear from them, let Prime Minister Medvedev speak.

“Over 80 percent of our citizens, including two-thirds of regular smokers, support the fight against smoking. Let’s free our country from tobacco addiction together.”

Last summer I had the chance to actually see these laws being carried out in St. Petersburg. Or were they? When the anti-tobacco403x296_226580_russia-bans-smoking-in-a-variety-o law got enacted, there wasn’t much of a difference on the streets. In fact, the people who were breaking these new laws were policemen. The cops were smoking on the streets like they hadn’t even heard about the new law.

When it comes to alcohol, one of my friends had an encounter with a Russian cop. As a group we thought, “Hey, what Russian activity can we do to kill some time? Drinking out in public sounded pretty exciting.” So we decided to take it easy and drink in the Palace Square.  As we passed around a beer, a cop started walking towards us. Barely able to speak any Russian, Andrew was on his turn with the beer when the cop called out to him in Russian. Poor fellow. Andrew had no clue what he was saying, but a couple of us knew what he was saying. You’re not allowed to drink in public. Luckily, Andrew did not get fined. How were we supposed to know about the new law? After all, it is Russia.

So, Russia is changing their way of thinking. Good for them, let’s hope gay rights are next.