Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking

The Book of the Week is “Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking” by Anya Von Bremzen, published in 2013. This volume recounts the food-related details of the lives of the author (born in 1963) and her mother, who, up until 1974, lived in the former Soviet Union before moving to the United States. As can be surmised, they suffered many hardships from successive oppressive regimes that gave rise to hunger.

Under Vladimir Lenin in 1918 Russia, “The very notion of pleasure from flavorful food was reviled as capitalist degeneracy.” Millions died of starvation under Stalin in 1927 when he took over the means of grain production. The author’s grandfather, possessor of exceptional survival skills, was an intelligence officer under Stalin, so Von Bremzen’s family had access to the food of the wealthy. The author’s mother raised her to be a food snob. Stalin’s personal culinary expert Anastas Mikoyan visited America in 1936. “Unlike evil, devious Britain, the US was considered a semi-friendly competitor – though having American relatives could still land you in the gulag.” That attitude had changed by 1952.

The author’s mother celebrated the anniversary of Stalin’s March 1953 death, with a dinner party. She wed in 1958 at a government office and “…moved into her mother-in-law’s communal apartment where eighteen families shared one kitchen.”

The Soviets recycled mayonnaise jars all the time for many purposes, including medical samples; the jar itself was expected to be provided by the patient. When the author and her mother moved to the U.S., “Ahead of us was an era of blithely disposable objects.” Von Bremzen’s culture shock arose while food-shopping not from the dizzying array of products, but from the inability to show off those products to less fortunate people, such as Soviets. All Americans took such cornucopia for granted. She was disgusted that American food appeared to be phony and lowbrow, like Spam. At Christmas, Von Bremzen was grossed out by Oreos: “…charcoal-black cookies filled with something white and synthetic. A charcoal-black cookie! Would anyone eat such a thing?”

Mikhail Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign ired many Soviets, as “Getting booze for the holidays ranked at the top of everyone’s concerns.” All the Soviet intelligentsia drank excessively. It was unpatriotic to not drink. Everyone had a drinking partner. Proposing toasts and making conversation with the partner was mandatory. Drinking alone was anathema, socially unacceptable.

Read the book to learn more about the Soviet culinary culture and history through the decades, and even see some authentic recipes.

Gudao, Lone Islet

The Book of the Week is ” Gudao, Lone Islet– The War Years in Shanghai” by Margaret Blair, published in 2008.

This slim volume tells of the WWII traumas suffered by a little girl in a British/Scottish/Chinese household in the International Settlement section of Shanghai, occupied by the Japanese in 1943.

Born in 1936, the author lived in a neighborhood of expatriates originally from the United Kingdom. Her Scottish father was a detective in the British police. The political entity was not a British colony, but was a protectorate subject to British law.

In 1943, the assets and liabilities of the British sector of the International Settlement was sold via a treaty between Great Britain and China, to the Shanghai Municipal Council (i.e., Chiang Kai Shek’s political party, the Nationalists– (non-Communists, but no less corrupt and power hungry). In this way, the British government knowingly allowed its citizens to stay in harm’s way. The Japanese occupied the area that year, and the author and her family became prisoners of war.

Before and during the war, the Japanese took various martial actions that resulted in atrocities and deaths far greater than would the atomic bombs dropped on Japan at the war’s end. The Axis power militarily occupied Korea, Manchuria, and committed the worst brutalities in Nanking, China. There occurred millions of deaths there (according to this book), while Hiroshima and Nagasaki saw only about 120,000 deaths. Additionally, Japanese prisoner of war camps had higher death rates than camps of other nations in the war. The Japanese never did pay reparations for its war crimes.

Prior to the war, Blair lived an idyllic life of social events and familial closeness in the cosmopolitan Shanghai of the 1930’s. All of that was changed radically by the war. Read the book to learn of the traumas caused by the war at large, and the hardships the author faced on a day-to-day basis.

The Lightless Sky

The Book of the Week is “The Lightless Sky” by Gulwali Passarlay and Nadene Ghouri, published in 2015. This is the suspenseful, extreme story of an Afghan boy who embarks on a life-threatening journey in order to flee his violent homeland.

Born in 1994, Passarlay was a year old when the Taliban took over Afghanistan. He lived in a multi-generational household where the main source of income was herding. In 2002, the United States occupied the country. The author and his brother were sent to live briefly with his aunt in Waziristan, near the Pakistan border where there was fighting between the Pakistani military and the Taliban. In autumn 2006, the family paid a network of people-smugglers to try to save the life of the author and his brother, by spiriting them out of the country.

The boys faced a series of traumatic, life-threatening hardships on their long, multi-lingual, multi-national sojourn. Passarlay began it as a Pashtu-speaking Sunni adolescent– a product of his insular culture. Read the book to find out the radical psychological changes wrought by his environments and experiences as a victim of the profit motive in the potentially life-saving operations involving the transport and accommodation of illegal refugees.

Haiti, The Duvaliers and Their Legacy

The Book of the Week is “Haiti (The First Inside Account), The Duvaliers and Their Legacy” by Elizabeth Abbott, published in 1988.

The nation of Haiti is on the western third of the island of Hispaniola, with neighbor Dominican Republic. Since the territory was named Haiti in 1804, the dark-skinned citizens there have rebelled against their enslavement by dictatorial rulers every few decades with little to show for it.

In the 1850’s, although blacks dominated militarily, the mulattoes led the country, owned the land, and controlled the economy. In the nineteen teens, when the United States occupied Haiti, it practiced segregation of the people by skin color. In the Dominican Republic and Cuba, slave labor was in demand for sugar cane harvesting. Haiti’s leaders through the decades sold their own dark-skinned citizens into lives of hard manual labor and extreme abuse because the citizens were tricked into believing their lives would improve if they left Haiti.

In the early 1920’s, “Papa Doc” Duvalier attended medical school in Haiti. During WWII, he generated goodwill among his people by saving the lives of countless yaws patients. During the war, when a black leader finally did come to power, he proved himself to be just as corrupt and greedy as the mulattoes, and was deposed.

Interesting Side Note: In 1947, Haiti’s United Nations vote tipped the balance in favor of establishing the State of Israel. As tokens of its appreciation, Israel sold Uzis to Duvalier’s government and translated his political writing, “The Class Problem Throughout the History of Haiti” into Hebrew.

In September 1957, the presidential election in Haiti was the opposite of free and fair. There was rampant cheating on both sides, with “… [ballot] boxes stuffed, stolen and miscounted.” Polling stations closed early, and numerous voters cast their ballots multiple times. Duvalier was the better cheater, so he was elected “president” of Haiti.

Duvalier and his successor– his son– were able to cajole economic aid from presidential administrations from Johnson through Reagan because “… the Americans were prepared to overlook torture, murder, and disappearances and listen with eager ears to reassuring speeches about democracy, human rights, and unmitigated anticommunism.” Duvalier used that last platform to his best advantage; he knew that the United States was phobic that Fidel Castro’s Cuba– Haiti’s Caribbean neighbor– would exert its evil political influence on Haiti.

The Tonton Macoutes were armed thugs responsible for violence under orders from Duvalier. They were like Mao Tse Tung’s “Red Guard” who killed people at their whim and kept Duvalier in power. To add insult to injury, the dictator named himself “President-For-Life” of Haiti. Additionally, he switched from being a medical doctor to a witch doctor– practicing voodoo to appeal to the Haitians of his generation.

In the spring of 1970, Duvalier died of various, serious health problems. His nineteen-year-old son, Jean-Claude, filled his position, but his widow and daughter were the true controllers of the new regime. His legacy consisted of a nation of “… millions of illiterate peasants on the edge of starvation and desperation.”

By the late 1970’s, the government’s economic policies had actually eased sufficiently to allow American businesses to physically locate factories in Haiti and exploit Haitian slave labor. Despite the continuing unspeakable human rights abuses in Haiti, loss of money and the Communist threat prompted even the Carter administration to provide financial assistance to the Duvaliers, anyway. For, all along, the money was lining the pockets of the first family, not the common people. The first family was treating the government treasury as their personal piggy bank. The leader called his political philosophy “Jeanclaudism.”

By 1980, Jeanclaudism had been shown to be an abject failure. The dictator “… presided over a nation of hopeless millions who tilled eroded soil, relied on capricious gods, and struggled against corruption, injustice and incompetence.” That same year, the dark-skinned Jean-Claude married a mulatto named Michele. Unsurprisingly, rebellion was on the horizon.

The author would have the reader believe that by 1986, the regime had devolved into the Jerry Springer Show: “…Michele was already in France, in New York, in Miami. Jean-Claude was going to divorce her for ruining his government, had only used her to cover up his homosexuality. But Michele didn’t care, the rumor-mongers declared, because she was a lesbian, smoked marijuana and had her eyes on…” someone else.

Read the book to learn more of the gruesome details of both father-and-son-Duvaliers’ leadership histories.

Red Notice

The Book of the Week is “Red Notice, A True Story of High Finance, Murder and One Man’s Fight For Justice” by Bill Browder, published in 2015. This suspenseful, emotional saga should be made into a motion picture, as it is not only entertaining and engaging, but is a comprehensive picture of the extremes of human nature.

Rebelling against his left wing intellectual family, Browder became a capitalist. During his career, he worked under two big bosses who died under mysterious, suspicious circumstances– Bob Maxwell and Edmond Safra. As a young whippersnapper, he longed to do investment consulting in Eastern Europe, but had to settle for London. Browder got in on the ground floor when the Russian securities industry was in its infancy in the early 1990’s.

In early 2000, the power of Russian Federation president Vladimir Putin, was actually held by “… oligarchs, regional governors, and organized-crime groups.” Browder started a hedge fund called Hermitage. What with complex economic and political goings-on, his hedge fund became the victim of the Russian mentality. In 2006, Hermitage had to “… sell billions of dollars worth of Russian securities without anyone knowing.” That was just one of many traumatic episodes in Browder’s career.

The author had the brains and skills to become not only a successful financial consultant and investor, but a muckraker; however, this made him a “Darwin Award” candidate. He became involved in a true thriller with intrigue, greed, power hunger, human rights abuses and karma. Russia struck at his attorney, Sergei Magnitsky. Numerous Russians in positions of authority– in the government, prisons, the police– all lied to the world about what happened to Magnitsky. Under Putin’s rule, Russia had reverted to the Stalinism of the 1920’s, with thousands of dissidents tortured and killed.

The few people whose eyes were open, who were raising the alarm– were risking their own lives. The rest of the world didn’t want to get involved because they were of the mentality that the violence was confined to Russia, and it wouldn’t spread to them. And they might end up like those dissidents if they rocked the boat. Besides, in the 2000’s, people have become desensitized to human rights abuses due to the widespread, propagandized publicizing of them (like video clips arousing viewers’ morbid curiosity, of the alleged beheadings of journalists by Middle Easterners on YouTube).

(Please excuse the legalese in this paragraph- but it is the briefest way of explanation) Some people would say that Browder had “unclean hands” and there was “contributory negligence” on his part, so his story should not have deserved the special attention it got. Admittedly, he was out for revenge, not because he truly wanted to stem uncivil behavior in the world. He made his living in an industry full of greedy people whose scruples are less than stellar– securities. He made a ton of money by engaging in “self-dealing” and insider trading, which would be considered violations of American securities laws. He was from America, the country that gave rise to the corrupt economic system in Russia in the first place. It might be recalled that Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs gave bad advice to Boris Yeltsin (to put it generously), convincing him to adopt “shock capitalism” — a ruinous financial plan. Lastly, Browder had “constructive knowledge” that doing business in Russia was especially risky (not just financially), compared to other countries. Arguably, he was trying to apply American morals and laws to get justice in a situation in which he had profited from Russian morals and lawlessness. Some people would say, “Pox on everyone’s house.”

Browder wrote, “There was something almost biblical about Sergei’s story, and even though I am not a religious man, as I sat there watching history unfold, I couldn’t help but feel that God had intervened in this case.” This blogger thinks that, but for Browder’s powerful professional and political contacts who intervened in this case, it would be just another infuriating, depressing, suppressed, and eventually forgotten human rights abuse story.

Read the book to learn the details of the story, including the actions taken against the morally bankrupt, brazen Russian criminals, and learn whether justice was done.

A Backpack, A Bear, Eight Crates of Vodka

The Book of the Week is “A Backpack, A Bear, Eight Crates of Vodka” by Lev Golinkin, published in 2014. This is the autobiography of a Soviet immigrant from a Jewish family fleeing oppression in Kharkov, in the U.S.S.R. in late 1989, when he was eight. They ultimately ended up in the United States, thanks to the assistance of the nonfprofit organization HIAS and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Two atypical aspects of his family’s situation, were that they were kept at the refugee-hotel near Vienna, Austria for six months rather than a few weeks, and were placed in American Midwestern suburbia, in a college town, instead of in an urban area with other Jewish families who spoke Russian.

There were stark cultural differences between what they left behind, and their new world. You can take the people out of Russia, but you can’t take the Russia out of the people. A simple fund-raising call from the local Police Benefit Fund in America evoked panic in Golinkin’s father, because in Russia, all government authorities were to be feared as those who could ruin one’s life arbitrarily. The Soviets so persecuted Jewish families by singling them out for their religion that when the immigrants settled in the United States, they opted to exercise their freedom NOT to practice their religion. The author’s much older sister was warned she was going to be rejected from medical school for no other reason than that her family was Jewish. So she, like her father, was forced to study engineering instead. In sum, their outlook on life was extremely pessimistic, having been beaten down in their native country from the cradle.

In the United States, the quality of life of Golinkin’s family significantly improved. But they had to learn English and how to navigate American financial matters. And his parents had to take low-level jobs, when previously, they had been an engineer and a doctor. They were adamant that their son would be a failure in life if he did not become a doctor.

Read the book to learn how the author’s family adjusted to their new identity as Americans.

The Queen of Katwe

The Book of the Week is “The Queen of Katwe” by Tim Crothers, published in 2015. This story focuses on Phiona Mutesi, a young female chess player in Katwe– a poor area outside of Kampala, Uganda.

Prior to her playing chess, Mutesi was destined for an empty life in which she was likely to die young from a fire, flood, disease, violence or famine, or bear many children starting in her teens, due to dependency on unreliable, polygamous men as providers of the basic necessities of survival. Education in Katwe was sporadic, as children attended only when they could afford the tuition. Not only priced out of schooling, but living a hand-to-mouth existence, Phiona (and her siblings) were compelled to “…walk around the slum, selling maize from a saucepan on her head.” She had to scrounge around for even one meal a day. Additionally, it was a three-hour round trip on foot between her home and the public well. Her family was evicted from numerous hovels due to nonpayment of rent.

Mutesi’s older brother happened to frequent a kids’ soccer program whose director started to also provide a bowl of porridge, and chess instruction. The soccer was introduced by a non-profit initiative called Sports Outreach Institute, started by Russ Carr. His goal was to teach kids “how to fish” and convert them to Christianity.

Around 2009, when she was approximately nine years old, Mutesi tagged along after her brother, walking the five kilometers to the eyesore of a venue, and became obsessed with chess. The food was a major draw for hungry kids. Their mothers, although grateful, were apprehensive that their kids might be kidnapped by the recreation coach who was a white man, according to local gossip.

Read the book to learn the details of Mutesi’s rise in Africa’s competitive chess culture, and the reasons for her uncertain future.

Meskel

The Book of the Week is “Meskel” by Mellina and Lukas Fanouris, originally published in 1995.

This is the story of two families, two of whose members– the authors– married and lived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (formerly Abyssinia) through the 1970’s. Their forebears had originally come from Greece to live in Abyssinia in 1926. Upon settling in their new country, wife and husband of one family– Evangelia and Manoli Fanouris, started a Greek restaurant, and newspaper and magazine distribution business/bookstore. Then they began having children; Lukas was one of the younger ones.

In late 1934, there was border fighting between Abyssinia and Italian Somaliland. The Italians used poison gas against the Somalis. Although Evangelia’s brother Logotheti had designed the Royal Palace and had friends in high places, Emperor Haile Selassie still threatened Manoli with death because he sold foreign publications that were critical of the regime. Other untoward events occurred through the years, due to the Italian invasion and later, WWII. Nevertheless, the Fanouris did not leave the country, as their business provided them with a good life.

Mellina married Lukas Fanouris when he aggressively courted her. The families had known each other for years from the Greek community in Addis Ababa. She worked for the United Nations. In late 1973, Ethiopia was facing “… union unrest, drought in the north, and rumors of famine, allegations of corruption in the government and rising food prices.” Army soldiers were fed up with their living conditions and turned against the Emperor. Lukas’ parents lived richly, what with a five-bedroom, five-bath mansion, flower garden, balcony and verandas. But there came a time when they finally needed to flee anti-government strikes, protests and violence.

In September 1974, a documentary on Ethiopians’ starvation due to drought was finally released, after the military had taken control of the media. In December, the nation changed from a kingdom to a socialist state, limiting the imported reading material of the populace to Marx, Lenin and Engels. Businesses were nationalized and martial law was imposed. The new leader, Lieutenant Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, copied other dictators in recent memory– Stalin (U.S.S.R.), Mao Tse Tung (China), Peron (Argentina), Pinochet (Chile) and Pol Pot (Cambodia), by ordering citizens to do hard manual labor on farms, telling them to take pride in feeding the country; and by imposing the usual witchhunts, torture, arrests, show-trials and imprisonment for political dissidents and members of the old regime. Not to mention the trampling on what industrialized, democtratic nations would consider due process.

Read the book to learn the details of how the authors survived the attack on their freedoms through the 1970’s, and the suspenseful survival saga of Lukas and his brother Pavlos.