Vladimir Putin: The Man and the Meme

Few world leaders are as easily recognizable as Russian President Vladimir Putin.  His unique looks, as well as his antics, have made him a favorite subject for many silly jokes and memes on the internet, which I will post here for your enjoyment.

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Meanwhile in Russia…

The first image which should come into your head if you’re thinking about Putin, or Russia in general, is of course the President riding a bear.  If riding bears isn’t impressive enough for you, he also has been photographed riding sharks, eagles, meteors, whales, mammoths, skydivers, and ICBM’s.  I suppose when he isn’t busy trying to mount some of the deadliest animals or objects known to mankind he sometimes finds the time to ride his motorized tricycle around Moscow.article-0-0DA0177300000578-915_634x449tumblr_kuxr34jtOb1qzeu38o1_400

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I think that’s Russian for ahsdufuhsabedb

People complain about Russia’s obstinate negotiating strategies, but Putin must care deeply about what the rest of the world thinks of him  judging from the notes he was jotting down during recent talks over the civil unrest in Ukraine.

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Putin on the Ritz

I wonder if Putin realizes that he has become such an internet phenomenon?  If he did, then maybe it would make him happy to be so well loved across the world and Russia would become a much more welcoming and less staunchly conservative place.  Even though he might not get the reference, how could he not smile at this?

Putin will undoubtedly be riding high into Russia’s 2016 national elections, so I’m sure we’ll be seeing much more of Vladimir’s hi jinks before its all said and done and the internet will be there, waiting intently for the next meme-worthy moment to transform it into comic gold. ae6a3220-7269-0131-c44f-4e3b4eb21dea

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:

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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

 

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

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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.

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Peel approximately 5 Russet potatoes.

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

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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.

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

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Whisk the dry ingredients until combined.

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

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

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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

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Next, fold two of the sides inward.

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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!

Enjoy!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Island: Unique, Yet Strangely Familiar

The Monastery

The Monastery where most of the action of “The Island” takes place.

Pavel Lungin’s The Island or in Russian: Oстров (2006) is the tale of a Russian holy man named Anatoly (Petyr Mamonov) who works as the stoker at a monastery on an unidentified and barren Northern Russian coast.  The movie begins with Anatoly and his commanding officer Tikhon (younger version played by Aleksei Zelensky) working aboard a Soviet coal barge during World War II.  The Germans capture their ship and give Anatoly two options: either shoot his commander or be shot.  In a fit of cowardice Anatoly shoots Tikhon, who falls overboard.  The Nazis then leave Anatoly to die on a nearby island, but a small cloister of monks rescue him and he lives with them for the remainder of the movie.

Thirty years later Anatoly has converted and still lives with the monks, but does not live in the prescribed monastic lifestyle.  He sleeps in the coal, never bathes, and constantly works with laypeople from around the region – giving prophecies, healing people, and performing exorcisms.  Despite this, his guilty conscience consumes him, driving him nearly to madness and forcing him to row out and pray alone on an abandoned island near the monastery.

While this does not seem like a recipe for excitement: with just a single setting, muted colors, dim lighting, and several middle aged men living together, the film manages to combine an intense psychological drama with a truly inspiring story of faith and forgiveness into a masterpiece of cinema.  Indeed, the film has won several  awards including “Best film” at the 2006 Moscow Premiere festival, “Best film” at the 2007 Chinese Golden Eagle Awards, and “Best picture” at Russia’s most prestigious award ceremony, the Nika Awards in 2007.

Petyr Mamonov

Petyr Mamonov as Father Anatoly

Of course, the film has some highly religious themes and seems to really resonate with Christians of all denominations including this Catholic blogger, The Rad Trad, who praises the film’s portrayal of a “fool for Christ”; however, I believe the film’s brilliance lies in the universality of its message and the outstanding performances of the actors.  Petyr Mamonov (a truly remarkable artist, here is a good article about him) provides a blend of ridiculous humor and serious dialogue in his performance as Father Anatoly, without which the film likely would not have worked at all.  Supporting actors include Viktor Sukhorukov and Dmitrii Diuzhev, famous for their roles in the Russian gangster films Brother (1997) and Brother 2 (2000).

The Island presents all the ironies of the nominally atheist Soviet state along with those of Christianity in a way which any viewer can understand, and does it all without dragging the plot or getting too preachy.  I highly recommend it even to those who don’t know Russian, its subtle beauty and award winning performances by the actors are well worth seeing for anyone.  Best of all, the film can be found with English subtitles for free on Youtube.

 

 

 

The Battle of the Two Soviet Resort Towns

The Caucasus region of Russia has long been celebrated for its beautiful landscapes, tall mountains, mild climates, and the power to renew the body and soul. Even Russian masterminds like Pushkin and Tolstoy wrote of its wonders and the region’s magical medicinal spring waters.

As for me, I was lucky enough to have grown up in this region.

For the sake of keeping this post short and sweet, I will only stick to reviewing two small towns within the Stavrapol’ region of the North Caucasus Region– Kislovodsk and Pyatigorsk.

  1. Kislovodsk

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    Landscape of Kislovodsk: lots of greenery and hills.

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To answer your question: yes, it is just as beautiful in real life as it looks here.

This beautiful resort town is named after the abundance of natural spring waters that the region produces. In fact, the town’s name literally translates to “sour water.” I know, I know, that doesn’t sound appetizing in the least bit. However, people swear by the stuff and do everything from drink it to bathe in it.

One of the town’s most beautiful attractions is definitely the resort park. The park is only accessible on foot and patrons are prohibited from driving their cars within the park itself.

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My godfather looking dapper in front of the Little Tea House.

Atop a tall hill within the park lies a hidden gem, a small restaurant called Chainii Domik. Translation: Little Tea House. The restaurant only has outside seating and has some of the most spectacular views of the park and the town itself. The wait staff is attentive but gives you your space and the food is absolutely spectacular. I recommend the shashlik, a popular Russian shish kabob that is grilled over an open fire. Yum!

When I visited this restaurant, we were lucky enough to be sat immediately. When we asked why there weren’t many people there, the waitress said that people are reluctant to hike up a steep hill for several miles only for a restaurant. Lucky for us, we got to actually drive through the park because my godfather knew the man guarding the park gates. If I could only describe the jealous (and confused) stares we got from the other park visitors as we drove our car straight on through the park.

You know you're in Russia when you can find exotic animals in the most random places, like outside of a nature sanctuary for example. All you have to do is pay the nice man 400 Rubles (about $11 USD) and you can take a souvenir photo.

You know you’re in Russia when you can find exotic animals in the most random places, like outside of a nature sanctuary for example. All you have to do is pay the nice man 400 Rubles (about $11 USD) and you can take a souvenir photo.

As for the rest of the town, it’s absolutely bustling with energy. There are a multitude of family-owned shops, little cafes like the Little Tea House, and Soviet-style resorts that Russians still stay in when they need a break from the hectic city life.

When I last visited this city at age 15, I told my family that if there was one town in Russia that I had to live in for the rest of my life, it would be Kislovodsk. The air is cleaner, the food is better, and the people seem nicer and more at ease. Visitors don’t call the place “city of the sun” for nothing. Of course, there is still the occasional gypsy beggar at the train station that will probably invade your personal space in order to attempt to get money from you, but you’re likely to find that anywhere in Russia.

2. Pyatigorsk

Pyatigorsk's famous grotto entrance.

Pyatigorsk’s famous grotto entrance.

This town gets its name from the five peaks of the Beshtau mountain range. In fact, the name literally translates to “5 mountains.” This town, also a resort town, has one of the oldest spas in Russia and has been renowned for it since 1803.

The grotto itself with a holy icon permanently watching over it.

The grotto itself with a holy icon permanently watching over it.

If there is one thing you have to see when visiting Pyatigorsk, it’s the grotto. This grotto is open to visitors but people are prohibited from touching the grotto’s infamous mineral waters. Legend has it that a famous Russian poet once became paralyzed as a result of an accident and could no longer walk. The poet moved to Pyatigorsk and was advised to daily engulf his body in the waters of the grotto as well as drink from it. Eventually, the poet was able to walk again like the accident never happened.

    One of my oldest friends, Ilya, and I at the entrance of the grotto.

One of my oldest friends, Ilya, and I at the entrance of the grotto.

This grotto is also atop a steep hill on Mount Mashuk that requires a pretty hefty hike. However, there are buses that can transport you there for very reasonable price. Also, there is a mineral water stream about half of a mile away from this grotto that the public can actually touch and bathe in if they wish to do so. Trust me, you’ll definitely want to. The waters are warm and make your skin feel completely refreshed afterward. As long as you’re not turned off by the middle-aged men in Speedos and fairly pungent smell of sulfur that comes from the water itself, you have nothing to worry about.

As for the town’s other attractions, it is very well known for its food scene. The dining is typically casual but the food itself is phenomenal and includes assortments of grilled meats and regional vegetables that have plenty of Armenian and Georgian flare.

Take a ski lift atop one of the city’s other mountains and you’ll find daredevil mountain bikers riding freely down the mountain and others simply skydiving off of it. I personally thought these people are crazy but I must admit, it looked fun.

If that’s not your scene, you can still find food trucks and souvenir shops on top of the mountain that are sure to please anyone.

Whether you’re coming to the region to visit one of its famous resorts or you’re just passing through, be sure to come to these little towns. In my opinion, this is where you see the true heart of Russia and all she has to offer.

Here are a few more pictures from my last trip to Russia in 2007:

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From Compton to the Kremlin: hip hop’s presence in Russia

Ever since my cousin introduced me to Mos Def when I was 13, I’ve had an obsession for hip hop.  I listen to all the greats from the 80’s and 90’s, some from the 00’s, and remain on the lookout for new talent coming around today.  Although I love the genre, my perspective has always been limited to American rappers, because I never believed that anyone could do hip hop justice outside the U.S. of A.  Little did I know, there exists a thriving hip hop subculture in a place where I least expected, the vast expanse that is Russia.

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The Russian Hip Hop group Dino MC 47, infamous for denouncing the Russian government after two suicide bombers killed 40 in Moscow in 2010

Now, just because you exist does not necessarily mean you’re out there throwing down fresh rhymes, and that goes for all rappers everywhere.  So admittedly I was skeptical of these Russian upstarts.  After all, my favorite rappers usually hail from the deadly streets of Compton, CA or the run down projects of Brooklyn, NY.  Could Russian rappers ever hope to channel the same level of swagger, angst, and danger that MC’s like Biggie Smalls did?

That’s probably not a fair comparison for anyone, but guys like Artyom Tatischevsky  out of the Samara region in Russia have caught my attention.  His beats are chill, he has a nice flow, and his poetry (as far as I can tell) comments on the struggle of being a rapper in Russia today.  He’s aware that he isn’t big, but he’s not afraid to take bold shots at the musical tastes of the pop music loving majority in his track “Titmice Sang”:

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Timati, an international pop culture icon just following the trends.

MC’s like Artyom are undiscovered.  He does’t have his own website, but instead uses the Russian equivalent of Facebook, VKontakte to advertise his upcoming albums and performances.  He doesn’t get a lot of media attention, but he is honest about his roots and about his opinion of society, and for that he has my respect.

On the other hand, there are a whole slew of rappers in Russia who seem to be doing their best to emulate the direction which hip hop has been going in the U.S.  These guys are all about the money, women, cars, and clubs – they are widely known in Russia and abroad.  Timati has his own website and has done songs with several American rappers including Long Beach’s own Snoop Dogg (or Snoop Lion).  He appears in articles for popular networks such as MTV, and appears to be interested in branding himself as some sort of russified P. Diddy.

Hip hop is clearly still in its early stages of development in Russia, but Vladimir Putin himself publicly recognized its importance when he addressed a crowd of youths at a rap battle meant to discourage drug use:

“These youngsters who work at this art in our country – they bring unique Russian charm.  Street rap may be a little bit rough, but it contains social meaning, raising social problems.”

While this statement is probably more meant to rescue Putin’s approval ratings than to express his actual feelings about hip hop, I agree with the gist of what he is saying.  Hip hop began in America as a way for the underprivileged, the forgotten, and the angry to voice their perspective on life and produced what is some of the most visceral, meaningful poetry I’ve ever heard.  It could certainly come out that way in Russia if artists like Artyom Tatischevsky continue to rap about what’s in their soul, and don’t fall under the glamorous spell which American pop culture has cast on the genre.

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 tjournal.ru, 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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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

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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 reuters.com, 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

babushka-apples

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

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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.

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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?

rian_01480303.hr.en.siTrying 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.

The Cold War that never thawed

The political upheavals in Ukraine, and subsequent intervention by the Russian Federation in Crimea have once again brought the ugly specter of war to the attention of discerning people across the globe.  Along with the tension brought by this specter inevitably comes the finger pointing and gnashing of teeth, a classic East versus West match-up played out through various news agencies, online forums, and face-to-face arguments.

-Soldiers

Separatist and Russian troops like these have seized local government centers in Ukraine – a move reminiscent of the Cold War past.

Before picking sides and readying the battle-lines, casual observers like me need to take a step back and ask a simple question.  How did a functioning, albeit slightly impoverished democratic country like Ukraine devolve so quickly into a maelstrom of political depositions and nationalistic violence?  The answer lies in the simple fact that almost nothing has changed since the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. and the supposed end of the Cold War.

According to the Muskovite-based blog “The journal of Arkady Babchenko“:

“Indeed look at this also, even such actions as the beginning of wars and the annexation of the territory of an independent state in the minds of Russians now fully depends on the decision of one man – Putin.  Not Parliament, not the Senate, not a referendum – Putin.”

This is the age old assertion that Russia is overly autocratic and unwilling to compromise with anyone, let alone NATO or the EU.  Of course much the same could be said of Cold War Russia, but they are not the only ones perpetuating this obsolete foreign policy.  That’s right, the United States and her allies are equally to blame for the turmoil which has unfolded.

Victoria Nuland and Geoffrey Pyatt

Victoria Nuland and Geoffrey Pyatt touring an opposition camp in December. These two worked to initiate the uprising in Kiev.

In early February evidence surfaced of a telephone conversation between the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt and the Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland.  They not only chided the EU for its inability to influence events in Ukraine to their liking but also spoke about their plans for the leaders opposed to then President Yanukovich’s government.  In short, Russia and the U.S. have been up to their old tricks, using smaller, weaker nations as proxies for their ongoing struggle to control international affairs.

However, unlike the archaic days of the Cold War, ordinary citizens now have access to information emanating from both sides of the conflict so that big news is no longer our only source.  Yet, as the U.S. based blog Da russophile aptly points out:

“I assume that most of the people who read this blog agree that a great deal of what might be called the ‘Standard Western Media Narrative on Ukraine’ could better be termed propaganda. That is to say that it is a constructed narrative designed to produce deep-rooted convictions. Or, more bluntly, constructed lies and selected truths designed to shape opinion.”

So tell me, what has changed between 1969 and now?  Russia and the U.S. still maintain the largest nuclear arsenals on the planet and continue to exercise the same international power politics which defined the Cold War era.  My advice to you?  Educate yourself with info from as many angles as possible and don’t buy into the same old good-guy bad-guy routine.  To Putin and Obama?  1989 called, it wants its foreign policy back.

Here is a good blog originating from residents inside Ukraine who are just trying to get on with their lives.  Probably the closest we can get to a down to earth, unbiased perspective on these events.

 

Maslenitsa, another Russian festival you’ve probably never heard of

Out with the old and in with the new! The celebratory burning of The Maslenitsa doll symbolizes the end of a harsh winter and the coming of a fruitful spring.

Out with the old and in with the new! The celebratory burning of The Maslenitsa doll symbolizes the end of a harsh winter and the coming of a fruitful spring.

Mass consumption of thin, buttery, crepe-like pancakes. Folklore and traditional costumes. Drinking, singing, and dancing. Sleigh rides and snowball fights. The burning of a scarecrow-like figurine dressed in women’s clothing.

What’s not to love, right?

These activities are all characteristic of an annual Russian festival called Maslenitsa (roughly translated to Butter Week/Holiday).

This holiday has roots in both paganism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity and is celebrated the week before Great Lent begins. For people who are avid believers in the Orthodox religion, this is the last week that they can consume any type of meat, fish, dairy, or eggs, as it is forbidden for the entire length of Great Lent.

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Freshly fried blini stacked high!

Because of this religious tradition, it’s not a surprise that, arguably, the most important part of Maslenitsa is the mass consumption of blini. Blini, or blitzes, are ultra-thin, crepe-like pancakes made from mixing flour, eggs, and milk (recipe to follow). These blini are then fried in butter, stacked on top of each other (with more butter in between the layers), and are then stuffed or served with a wide range of options like meats, cheeses, potatoes, mushrooms, sour cream, jams, caviar, etc. The possibilities are endless. The blini is supposed to be a representation of the sun, hence why they are the top choice for a festival celebrating the coming of springtime.

Sounds delicious? It is. Blini are an absolute Russian staple and every family makes them differently, whether it’s using kefir (a fermented milk drink) instead of milk, using buckwheat flour instead of white or wheat flour, or mixing a bit of sunflower oil into the batter itself to make the flavor a bit richer (a personal favorite of mine, yum!).

Okay, where were we again? Oh yes, Maslenitsa. Although the blini take center stage, there is so much more to the holiday. In ancient Slavic mythology, Maslenitsa was celebrated to signify the end of winter and the blossoming of springtime (hence the pagan roots). The burning of the lady scarecrow made out of straw is supposed to symbolize the awakening of spring and all of its life-giving glory. And, like many other Russian holidays, especially ones occuring during the winter months, celebration always includes a nice shot of vodka (or 6) or a cup of medovukha (a honey-based alcoholic drink similar to mead) to keep you warm.

Celebrating the Russian way--with lots of vodka.

Participants keep warm in the snowy climate by sipping some vodka.

When Maslenitsa was celebrated during the time that the entirety of Russia was still known as Kievan Rus, young single guys would ride around on sleighs in order to be on the lookout for beautiful single girls. This apparently made the matchmaking process easier and paved the way for these new couples to marry on Krasnaya Gorka (translated as the Red Hill holiday, the Sunday after Easter).

I wish that I could include some warm childhood memories of the celebration of Maslenitsa from my childhood in Russia, but, it just so happens that Maslenitsa was vastly not celebrated during the entire length of the Soviet regime and for many years afterward. Russians now celebrate Maslenitsa by keeping old traditions and introducing new ones into the mix. A fellow blogger, Olga Arakelyan, writes that in some modern Maslenitsa celebrations, people are invited to write down their worries on a piece of paper and stick them on the Lady Maslenitsa so that when she is burned, so are your troubles!

According to the “Voices from Russia” blog, Moscow’s Gorky Park will feature a Maslenitsa festival this year. However, Eileen from “From Russia With Love” states that she has not seen any large city-wide celebrations in her current city (and my hometown) of Rostov-On-Don. She believes that the larger celebrations tend to be in the rural areas rather than metropolitan cities.

Traditional Russian songs, festivals, etc. are making a comeback in recent years and the celebration of holidays like Maslenitsa are a fun and unique way to celebrate Russian culture.

All bundled up, a group of Russian kiddos getting ready for a sleigh ride.

All bundled up, a group of Russian kiddos are getting ready for a sleigh ride.

Maslenitsa doesn’t just occur in Russia, however. Every year, Mizzou’s very own Nicole Monnier, the director of Undergraduate Studies in Russian, holds a “blini night” in her home in order to celebrate this delicious holiday with the Russian community and Russian studies students of Columbia. This year, she says, she will be expecting about 50 people.

I was going to include a recipe for my very own version of blini, but upon realizing that I never use precise measurements when I make these (I prefer to simply throw the ingredients in the bowl and taste-test the batter to make sure it’s the perfect consistency and right contrast of salty and sweet), I have decided to include a link to a recipe instead.

Whether you’ll be burning a scarecrow on a Russian field or simply frying up some blini in your 9×8′ Columbia kitchen and stuffing them with fried potatoes (me), I hope you find a way to celebrate this ancient holiday. Приятного аппетита!

OMG, GMOs!

 

GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are predicted to be in approximately 70-80% of all processed food here in the U.S.

According to the Non-GMO Project, GMOs are plants or animals that have been genetically altered with the use of DNA from bacteria, viruses or other plants and animals. You ask, are foods containing GMOs safe to eat? The answer will vary depending on who you ask. The FDA considers GMOs to be perfectly safe for human consumption (and even have a forum on their stance on GMOs on their website), while avid anti-GMO organizations like the Non-GMO Project will tell you otherwise. They will tell you that foods containing GMOs are polluted with more herbicides/pesticides (since they’re genetically engineered to resist these), are disastrous for the environment, and the long-term effects of these on humans have not yet been adequately studied.

GMOs: safe or deadly?

GMOs: safe or poisonous?

Over 60 countries (Germany, UK, Australia, Norway, and France, to name a few) have concluded that the use of GMOs in their food supply is hazardous to humans and have laws protecting against GMOs in their nation’s food supply. The numbers of countries that are proposing similar bills are steadily growing. Surprisingly, Russia may be next.

About a week ago, a bill was prepared by several members of the Parliament that would completely ban the domestic production of GMOs in Russia and drastically restrict the importation of genetically-modified produce in Russia. Currently, there are no restrictions on the production of foods containing GMOs. However, if a food contains more than 0.9 percent of GMO product, it must be labeled on the product itself.

Although the authors of the proposed bill are hopeful that this bill will be successful once it is proposed in the DUMA, it will be interesting to see how a topic such as this one will be addressed in an agricultural powerhouse like Russia. According to the Business Insider, Russia is the #8 largest exporter of wheat in the world and the country itself consumes more than 38 million tons of wheat yearly.

Cucumbers being grown in large-scale factory farms

Cucumbers grown in large-scale factory farms

It is unclear what a ban on GMOs would do for the success of the Russian wheat industry. However, one thing is clear: if successful, this decision could potentially set a standard among other nations, like the U.S., that currently have no restrictions on foods containing GMOs.

Personally, I have several family members who operate small-scale farms in the Caucasus region of Southern Russia. They grow a variety of fruits and vegetables and raise approximately a dozen chickens, either for eggs or for personal consumption.  The techniques they use in farming would not exactly be considered “modern” or “industrial.” Instead, they use methods that have been passed down to them from past generations. They do not sow seeds into the earth that have been genetically modified because they use the seeds from the previous harvest to get them started on the next.

The concept of GMOs is one that is unknown to them. They are not going out of their way to be self-proclaimed organic farmers, they are just using the techniques they know work best for them.

Simple, clean, GMO-free farming.

Although a general consensus about GMOs has not yet been reached, it is definitely worrisome to think about the fact that GMOs are a fairly new invention (about 20 years old) and the long-term effects of GMOs on the human body have not yet been discovered. One question remains: GMOs, the next silent killer?