During May we tried something new, with a theme of books, reading and writing throughout the site. In case you missed anything, here’s a roundup of PocketCultures book month. Thanks to Celia, PocketCultures contributor in Kazakhstan, for suggesting the topic.
Art installation at ArteBA 2012. Photo by Ana O'Reilly
For a special collaborative post on books from around the world our contributors recommended books which represent each of their countries in some way.
On People of the World we interviewed a couple of people who are writing books: Alexey from Russia, who wrote his novella on his frequent train trips between Moscow and St Petersburg whilst working for a telecoms company, and Marcel, who is writing a book about the extraordinary life of his grandmother.
On Topics of the World, our Italian contributors Simona and Caterina both had something to say. In Italy is younger than you think, Simona explains a bit of Italy’s recent history, including origin of the Italian language as we know it, while Caterina shares her love of books, in particular one well known book about Italy, Forster’s A Room with a View.
And finally, some good news for book lovers: Ana wrote about the stunning Libreria El Ateneo in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which is housed in an old theatre, and full of people buying books.
Today we’re talking to an author among our own contributors, and following last week’s interview with Alexey, today we also have a Russian connection. Marcel (PocketCultures contributor in Berlin, Germany) is currently writing a book about his grandmother, who spent five years in a Soviet labour camp before settling in West Germany.
To research the book Marcel traced his grandmother’s journey from Poland to Russia by train. Although his first language is German, Marcel writes in English, blaming his proficiency on several years of small talk with the Irish whilst living in Dublin.
Marcel slightly confused in Russian traffic
Why did you decide to write a book about your grandmother? Can you tell us a bit about her?
I’m carrying the idea of writing about my grandmother Cäcilie, short ‘Cilly’, with me for quite a while now. Mostly because her story is an extraordinary one: in 1945, when she was 23, she was taken by the Red Army from her parents’ farm in East Prussia (a former part of Germany that is now Polish) and spent five years in a Soviet labour camp in the Urals before she returned to West Germany where she met my grandfather, and never returned to her home country. She died in 2009 at the age of 86. But I also wanted to learn more about her native country as part of my own heritage – when I was a child, she always kept telling stories about East Prussia, of wolves in the woods and sleigh rides in the snow and deep cold lakes, so I traveled there myself last year.
We’re talking about books this month on PocketCultures, so here on People of the World we’ve got some interviews with authors for you.
Today’s interview is with Alexey Subbotin, whose novella A few hours in the life of a young man describes life in contemporary Russia. Alexey had a pretty eventful life so far; here he tells us about surviving the breakup of the Soviet Union, studying and working abroad, selling a telecoms company and writing on the Moscow-St Petersburg railroad (phew!).
Tell us a bit about yourself
I was born in 1975, in Nyandoma – a small district center in Northern Russia. Both my parents worked for the local railroad. In 1977, we moved to Arkhangelsk – the capital of the Russian North, a place with lots of history and traditions. Then in late 90’s the whole world around me collapsed – whatever people may say nowadays about the break up of the Soviet Union, it was rather unmerciful and unpleasant experience. Luckily for me my parents kept sanity and raised me and my brother in spite of all the challenges stemming from a failed economy and disintegrating society. My father was unemployed for a number of years doing some dull temporary jobs despite his excellent engineering background.
In 1992, I graduated from middle school and began to study management at the Saint Petersburg State University of Economics and Finance. In my third year there I got an opportunity to study in Germany at the Anhalt University of Applied Sciences in Bernburg. DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) recognized me as the Best Foreign Student in 1997. Upon graduation I started to work as an auditor in the St. Petersburg office of Arthur Andersen.
I never was a soldier. Thankfully, I was in a position to forego my military service and opt for civilian service when it was my time to get conscripted with twenty. And with the paunch I developed these days any sergeant would happily refuse me for re-enlisting for even the reserve.
Not that I ever wanted to be a soldier. But coming from a family with military history, I always wonder what if must feel if your state sends you to fight against other humans in a strange country without giving you a choice, just because you are male and in a certain age group. Which is what happened to my grandfather, who served as a pioneer in the German army during the cold winters and intense summers of the Eastern front in World War II from 1941 on.
So, out of a strange coincidence, one freezing Berlin winter’s day with minus 21 degrees Celsius and the snow falling like a blanket, I trudged to the German-Russian Museum in Berlin-Karlshorst. The museum is located at the historic site of the surrender of the German Armed Forces on 8 May 1945 in Berlin, in a former officers’ mess of a pioneer school of the Wehrmacht that served as the seat of the Soviet military administration in Germany from 1945 to 1949.
After being used for various purposes by the Soviet military, a Soviet surrender museum opened in 1967 and existed until 1994, and the whole place is now run by German and Russian authorities as a bilateral institution. It’s the only museum in Germany with a permanent exhibition recalling the war of annihilation against the Soviet Union. And it’s fairly off the beaten track: the location in the Karlshorst suburb is a 45 minute train ride from the tourist sights of Berlin Mitte and only served by bus.
The building itself is not very impressive, the assortment of heavy Soviet ordinance in the park very much so. As I had expected from a former Soviet-army-run establishment, it had an air of pompousness with a T 34 tank on a pedestal, some war-graffiti of the former crew forever etched into its flank; and an array of artillery and bigger tanks lined up behind the building. I only spent a few minutes among the artillery – the Berlin frost drove me inside quite quickly.
The interior of the museum is a strange mixture of even more pompous Soviet murals depicting Stalin, a diorama of the storming of the Reichstag in 1945 and the main negotiation hall filled with commemorative plaques and red flags, and a sober main exhibition covering German-Soviet relations from 1917 on and the (ideological) origins of the conflict.
The part that concerns the war 1941 – 1945 mostly covers the war of the little man using the examples of single soldiers, displaying their war diaries or following their way through the fighting with photos and maps. Exhibits include many personal objects, such as a little sleigh that the inhabitants of besieged Leningrad used to transport food and fire wood. And their dead.
The exhibition also continues to the Soviet occupation of Eastern Germany and Soviet-German relations after 1945, both with the GDR (German Democratic Republic) and West Germany, displaying propaganda posters that look almost ironic sixty years later:
The Red Army comes to help, our gratitude is work and build-up.
When I trotted back from the museum to the bus that would take me to my apartment with Wi-Fi and a dishwasher I (still) wondered if somebody in 2012 could ever truly emulate the experiences of a World War 2 serviceman, but I saluted my grandfather for making it through that war alive so I can only learn about it in a museum and not first hand.
Like many of their compatriots, musicians Zhenya Kolykhanov and Sergey Vaschenko emigrated from Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. They have since established themselves in Texas, USA, and through the formation of a band called the Flying Balalaika Brothers and a non-profit called Musical Connections, they work to bridge cultural gaps by exposing Texans to international art.
Along with providing readers with a daily calendar of performances, music videos, and sound bites, the group’s official website elaborates on how the Flying Balalaika Brothers got established in Austin, Texas:
The Original Flying Balalaika Brothers were formed in Los Angeles in 1995 by Zhenya Kolykhanov (a.k.a. Z Rock), the former lead guitarist of the Russian surf/rockabilly group Red Elvises. The group started as a street band and later transformed into the group Red Elvises; which had a large history of performing for clubs, motion pictures, and tv shows in California.
After Zhenya set up shop in Austin TX, he reestablished The Flying Balalaika Brothers. The band represents a blend of traditional world music and original musical pieces. The group has found a home in the musically rich culture in Austin TX.
NowPlayingAustin Blog, an affiliate of a 35-year-old non-profit devoted to promoting the arts in Central Texas, assessed the Flying Balalaika Brothers’ style in an announcement of an upcoming performance:
Russian, Roma Gypsy, Ukrainian and foot stomping original songs get hands clapping and feet dancing in a crazy blend of rock, bluegrass and traditional folk music from around the world. Now front man for the Flying Balalaika Brothers, Zhenya Rock was a founding member of the Red Elvises and penned some of their biggest hits including “Red Lips Red Eyes Red Stockings,” the full soundtrack for Six String Samarai and the full album “Bedroom Boogie.” William Michael Smith recently wrote in the Houston Press, “Austin’s Flying Balalaika Brothers are to Russian folk music what Béla Fleck is to bluegrass: Outside-the-box, no-boundaries, take-no-prisoners innovators. The FBBs combine jaw-dropping virtuosity with a masterful sense of mixing up genres ranging from rock to Russian folk to bluegrass; if that sounds weird, it’s also cool as hell.”
In May 2011, The Flying Balalaika Brothers appeared on 90.5 FM KUT, an Austin-based radio station. The Daily Grackle Blog posted a video of their live performance:
Coastal Bend College Blog discussed Mr. Kolykhanov’s and Mr. Vaschenko’s educational and professional backgrounds, including Mr. Vaschenko’s eligibility for Grammy Awards in 2003 and 2008:
Kolykhanov graduated from Tchaikovsky Music College in Vologda, Russia, in 1984. He later came to the United States to study critical thinking, reading and fine arts at the University of Delaware. In addition to the balalaika, Kolykhanov plays guitar, composes songs for television, and creates art for commercials.
Sergey Vaschenko earned a bachelor’s degree in conducting and balalaika from Lysenko State Music College in Poltava, Ukraine, in 1980 and a master’s in orchestral conducting, teaching and balalaika performance from the Mussorgsky Ural State Conservatory in Sverdlovsk, Russia, in 1985. Vaschenko’s experience includes: Dean of the Faculty of Arts for Perm State Institute of Culture in Perm, Russia; guest soloist for the Latvian Chamber Orchestra in 1989; music educator in Russia, Latvia, Spain, Dallas and Austin; and guest conductor for the Houston Balalaika Society. He won an international award at the music festival in Segovia, Spain, and was a contender for a 2003 and 2008 Grammy award in the world music category.
The post went on to elaborate on the group’s outreach efforts in area schools:
In addition to touring and performing, they began successfully presenting educational programs in three languages (English, Spanish and Russian) to students of Texas public and private schools, celebrating the arts in all its diversity by providing a unique approach to studying both the profound similarities and distinctive differences of people throughout history and around the world.
Mr. Kolykhanov and Mr. Vaschenko have formed a non-profit organisation called Musical Connections in order to fund and facilitate educational opportunities for young people. Musical Connections and The Flying Balalaika Brothers have a symbiotic relationship in that the non-profit provides an administrative foundation for the band’s artistic objectives, while the band personifies the non-profit. The non-profit’s official website articulates its mission:
Musical Connections is a Texas domestic nonprofit corporation, organized to promote a greater understanding of the music of the world through performances, cultural exchanges, musical history and heritage, and by educating the public about the multitude of music produced by cultures around the world. The founders believe that many people in this country fail to appreciate the great variety of music produced in the world today principally because they have not been educated about that music, or have not had chance to hear it performed.
Today, we introduce you to Nargiza Ryskulova. Nargiza is one of our regional Pocket Cultures contributors, who is from Kyrgyzstan but currently lives in London. Kyrgyzstan is a country that many of us don’t know a lot about:even down to the country’s location on a map, or what language the locals speak! Read more from Nargiza about what makes Kyrgyzstan so unique, multi-cultural, and what most surprises visitors.
Where do you live? Where are you from? If those are different, can you tell us a little about what inspired your move?
I have been living in London since August. Originally from Kyrgyzstan. Technical reason to move to London is to do my MA in International Journalism at it is one of the best journalism schools in the world. But really it’s for London, because London is just one of the cities that are on my “must live” list. It’s an amazing city to be young in, inspiring, overwhelming and challenging. So in combination circumstances match the desire and make London a perfect place for me to be at this moment.
Would you describe yourself as multi-cultural?
I have grown up in a culture which is itself a mixture of cultures. Kyrgyzstan was in Soviet Union for 70 years, inheriting strong post-soviet culture, blended on the basis of native Kyrgyz culture and Russian culture, strongly implemented through media and literature. Now as a developing country Kyrgyzstan is evolving its own new culture.
Why did you decide to become a Pocket Cultures contributor?
Because I love cultures, and I love the fact that I can share mine, or the one I am exposed with so many other people who are also able to appreciate specialties and fascination of different cultures.
Can you describe a typical day for you?
My morning starts with cup of coffee and morning dose of fresh world news. 40 minutes of good reading on the tube and walk to University. After school comes the most exciting, exploration of new: places, people, activities. Thanks to the fact that London has so much to offer it’s never the same!
What is the best part of living in your country? The worst?
The best part of living in my country (Kyrgyzstan) is to be able see mountains from any point. It just gives you a different perspective on things around you, reminding you that you are just a human. People are incredible, their hospitality and sincerity makes up for imperfectness of infrastructure. The worst part is the political system, which is striving to develop into something functional. But I guess, that’s why we called a “developing” country.
What books or films would you recommend someone who’d like to know more about your country?