Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Kitchen Sisters and I

Some time a year a go, I received a call from Davia Nelson, one of the famous Kitchen Sisters, whom I had met earlier while having drinks with our mutual friend Tom Luddy (yes, at Chez Panisse, of course). Davia wanted to do a whole program on the Soviet Kitchen, especially the Soviet kitchen as the locus of civil society in the late Soviet Union. I have heard their features before, and I loved them but it never occurred to me that something this colorful could be done with my "native realm."
Although I like cooking and at a certain point in my life spent quite a bit of time learning Chinese and French cuisine, I had never thought about the kitchen and food as a significant subject in Soviet history, even Soviet cultural history. A good conversation piece, a cute object of the ambivalent Soviet nostalgia, a subject for jokes, perhaps even a shibboleth for the Soviet cognoscenti, but an object of serious study? Well, I scratched the surface and saw -- gold! I realized that my own and at the time inexplicable obsession with learning to cook Chinese, French and Italian dishes had to do with my deep desire to create a distance between  my Soviet past and myself.

Yes, my wife was an American, a New Yorker, I had been living in the US since the fall of 1971 and have been an American since 1974, went to Cal, taught at Stanford since 1977, and yet I now realize that my migration had not been complete without a retreading, so to speak, of my alimentary tract with the tastes, flavors, and textures of non-Soviet cooking. I emphasize Soviet because I love Russian food -- caviar, lox, herring, various salads, bliny, milk products, pickled mushroom, cabbage, apples, and its Georgian/Armenian/Azeri iterations of the Middle-Eastern and Mediterranean dishes.

To make a long story short, I started reading up on the history of Soviet food since 1917 and the origins of ОБЩЕПИТ (Communal Food Industry). A whole new angle of the Russian experience began to come into view: what happened after the whole way of life was destroyed in the 1917 revolution and the civil war that followed, what replaced the tavern (кабак, трактир), the diner, the restaurant, how the kitchen evolved, how the scientific Soviet "diets" emerged, and how everything changed once again with the Stalin revolution of 1929 when all private and semiprivate little shops and eateries were shut down practically overnight, and the country moved toward the centralized industrial, American-style food production. It was so interesting that I started writing up on the subject.

Before long, Davia dropped by, and we spent a couple of hours talking about food and Soviet and Russian history and how it offered a fascinating view, but also the feel of what Soviet life was like. She had her tape recorder on. A year later, we got together for breakfast of lox and bagels (no bagels but the "crackles" from the Cheese Board Collective in Berkeley) and listened to the incredible feature on the communal kitchens in the Soviet Union that she and her "kitchen sister" Nikki Silver produced. Three cheers for the Kitchen Sisters!

Next week the NPR Morning Edition will be running a follow–up feature, "The Dissident Kitchens," that I very much look forward to. In the meantime, you can hear the fabulous "Communal Kitchens" at this NPR URL:

"Dissident Kitchens" broadcast of May 27 is here:

20 and 27 May 2014

Thursday, April 24, 2014

LEO TOLSTOY, MAX WEBER, LOVE, AND WAR (Introduction to a Podcast)

Entitled Opinions (About Life and Literature) has just released a podcast of my conversation with Robert Harrison about Tolstoy and Max Weber. These two names - one, perhaps the greatest novelist of the nineteenth century, the other, the father of modern sociology - rarely appear in one sentence. They should.

During the winter quarter, I taught a seminar at Stanford called "Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and Social Thought of Its Time." We look at Tolstoy great, perhaps, the greatest novel as a kind of an upside-down Noah's Ark transporting us from the optimistic shores of nineteenth century onto the shores of the twentieth - the age shrouded in grand illusions but serving up wars, revolutions, the gulags, the holocausts, as well as the prospect of total annihilation of humanity... Yes, I sigh, stay tuned...

Like all great works, Tolstoy's was in dialogue with his contemporary master thinkers, and I structured the course in such a way that after immersing ourselves in the novel for three weeks, after following all the love and the heart break, the ball rooms and the salons, the barn yard and the races, the meadows and the railroad tracks, after figuring out how Tolstoy could produce a hybrid of Jane Austen and Gustav Flaubert, after grasping the consequences of the Crimean War and the Great Reforms in Russia, we could start re-reading the novel yet again.

Week after week, we paused over a section to catch the echoes of Plato (on love), Freud (on dreams and the unconscious), Marx (political economy), John Stuart Mill (women's emancipation), Nietzsche (ethics, truth, and power), Emile Durkheim (community and religion) and, as a culmination, the response of a thinker who was one of the keenest readers of Tolstoy and one who put together systematically all of these aspects of the modern condition together - Max Weber.

Weber knew Russian (he learned it to follow the events of the Russian 1905 revolution), and thought that on a small chance that a new world religion might arise in the modern world, it could only happen in Russia. No doubt, his reading of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and  a lot to do with it. But it must have been the sociological sophistication of Tolstoy's genius, that drew him ever deeply to his work. Speaking to his students after the end of the Great War, the father of sociology conceded that social science cannot answer Tolstoy's killer question "what is a good life," even though this is, in Weber's eyes, "the most important question for sociology." What it can instead, Weber insisted, is to "help sort it all out." For two weeks, Weber guided us in the seminar, as we tried to sort out Tolstoy's conundrum.

What, then, is a good life? Tolstoy thought he had figured it out. As we know, in the course of writing Anna Karenina, Tolstoy underwent a conversion, and the novel, written over four years, served him during this time as a kind of a diary. Especially the last part of Anna Karenina, Book Eight, resonates with what Tolstoy understood as his conversion - a turn to what came to be known as Tolstoyanism, or in Russian, tolstovstvo. Donning the mantle of a prophet, the author of Anna Karenina felt inspired to re-write the New Testament. His new Gospel (and he referred to it as "my Gospel") affirmed without compromise a distilled, rationalized Christian ethic of love (love thy neighbor as you would yourself, turn the other cheek); what it denounced was the modern civilization, in particular, the modern state and society that he saw as vehicles for spreading carnality and violence, be it under the guise of the cult of romance, the veneration of the arts, emancipation or women, general progress, nationalism, communism, or other modern ideology.

This is why the main emphasis in Anna Karenina falls on the vehicle - the locomotive, the key symbol, the metaphor and the allegory for, not progress, but the perdition awaiting modern man. The novel's love story, by comparison, the tragic romance of Anna and Vronsky, is just a honey trap. As inevitably as carnal love fades away and disappears altogether, its other side - aggression, violence and war - comes to the fore. Weber's thought resonates with Tolstoy's. "The more sublimated it is," Weber wrote about the erotic relationship of the modern sophisticated sort, "the more brutal." And before you stop to catch your breath, he goes on to define erotic love as "the most intimate coercion of the soul of the less brutal partner."

According to Marian Weber's biography of her late husband, Weber was planning a book on Tolstoy, and I believe that his famous 1916 long essay ("Zwischenbetrachungen" or "Reflections") may have been, apart from other things, a sketching out of his own dialogue with the prophet and last author of Anna Karenina. His several men references to Tolstoy's work, the essay's structure, and its very title  - Reflections on Stages and Directions of Religious Rejection of the World - compel us to read Tolstoy and Weber together.

My friend and Stanford colleague Professor Robert Harrison, who has been running Stanford's radio show, has been asking me to do a show on Tolstoy for a few years now. Over the last few years, we've had coffees and lunches and talked about the subject. Finally, the stars aligned perfectly: I had just finished the course, Robert had an opening in his schedule. We pounced. You can now hear this conversation as a podcast on iTunes:
"Entitled Opinions (About Life and Literature)"
Or you can hear it directly on the Entitled Opinions site:
Grisha Freidin on Leo Tolstoy

My deep gratitude to Robert Harrison. I am proud and honored to be among his interlocutors.

24 April 2014

PS. He and I also did a show on Isaac Babel that you can listen to here:
Professor Gregory Freidin on Isaac Babel
or on iTunes: http://www.stanford.edu/dept/fren-ital/opinions/podcast/opinions.xml 

Monday, March 3, 2014


Many who have held supreme power recall the sense of finding themselves inside an invisible but impenetrable bubble. Boris Yeltsin in his memoirs complained about what he called a “rubber balloon,” and a friend of mine, who was once close to Mikhail Gorbachev, described to me his encounters with the USSR's last president in almost the same words. President Clinton, like Yeltsin, complained about this effect. It is difficult to get a sensible picture of the world when you are surrounded day after day, year after year by a circle of approval-seeking advisors. Bad enough in the US, imagine how much worse it must be in Russia where power is traditionally centralized and concentrated in the top executive. Fortunately, the US President is limited to only two terms.

If Yeltsin’s bubble was made out of some invisible rubber, Putin’s, especially after the Olympics in Sochi, is made of far sturdier and more modern stuff. I imagine an array of life-like screens flashing nightmare scenes of victimized and humiliated compatriots, alternating with the Russian version of The Triumph of the Will (Bondarchuk’s recent Stalingrad or some grandiloquent film epic by Nikita Mikhalkov).  For fourteen years Putin identified his own person with the destiny of Russia, and this is not counting his previous career of service under oath in the Services. Now he finds himself caged in his own presidential bubble – a humiliated superman of Russia – and is very hard for anyone to reach.

His friend and colleague on the political Olympus, Angela Merkel, tried. She called him. They talked. What of it? She later telephoned Obama and told him that she found Putin unreachable. Relying on a White House source in the know,  the NYT (03.02.14) cited Merkel as saying to Obama: “He is in another world.” How can we get him back ours?

The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 comes to mind. How remarkable it is that Nikita Khrushchev had the presence
tof mind, inner courage, and some deep humanity that had somehow survived Stalin’s tutelage, to back off and step away from the brink. How equally remarkable that Jack Kennedy had the instinct to go against his advisors and to have the political courage and patience for defusing the crisis. Despite the obvious differences, the Cuban Missile Crisis was the Crimean crisis of its own day, though of course, much more dangerous in the short run. Russia felt encircled by the might of the US and its Western allies. In those days, before the Soviet ICBMs became truly operational, the US could reach Russia with bombers and rockets carrying nuclear charges (some were stationed a stone’s throw from Crimea in Turkey), and all the USSR had then was a strategic bomber that could reach the continental US but did not hold enough fuel to return home from its mission. Some general suggested to Khrushchev that it could land in Mexico after bombing the US, to which Khrushchev retorted with characteristic brash humor, saying something to the effect that Mexico wasn’t Russia’s mother-in-law. But of course, both Khrushchev and Kennedy, especially Kennedy, were only beginning their careers at the top – mere rookies compared to Putin with his fourteen years in the driver’s seat.

‘Travesty’ by Konstantin Altunin,
The main question is: how to shake Putin out of his bubble? During the Cuban Missile Crisis, a special role was given the secret back channels, and there was no direct line between the Kremlin and the White House. Now, of course, there is plenty – chat away! President Obama called Putin twice. Like teens in love, they spoke for two and a half hours in two days! Chancellor Merkel called Putin. They chatted for an hour. Nothing worked. Direct communication has failed. Clearly, Putin is convinced the West is inviting him to play the game with loaded dice, and should he agree, would cheat him  and then, his worst horror, given the latest homophobic legislation in Russia, will set him up, a bachelor, with some LGBT type…

Let us hope he is wrong on both counts. So, how can he be convinced that the West is not scheming to cheat him? Let us invite Russia to join NATO and EU. And perhaps, just to break the ice, Obama should solemnly promise Putin that he won’t have to have sex with a gay guy. Then, after all of this has been settled and the crisis diffused, the world should let Ukraine, its post-Soviet territorial integrity assured, to sort out its own maddening mess.

Copyright © 2014 by Gregory Freidin (gfreidin@stanford.edu)

PS.  "Travesty" by Konstantin Altunin shows President Putin wearing a tight-fitting slip and brushing the hair of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who is wearing knickers and a bra. The painting was seized at a gallery in St. Petersburg in August 2013.