Sunday, 26 December 2010

Urals Federal District - Once upon a time, in a land far, far away . . .

It might seem odd to anyone who doesn't know their culture very well, but Russians love fairy tales!  Or skazki as they're called in Russian.  I've also been interested in fairy tales since my Uni days, when we studied Angela Carter and explored themes such as feminism and contemplated Little Red Riding Hood's revenge!  I find fairy tales fascinating and I think they have a lot to say about culture.  Although this type of storytelling has been around for an incredibly long time, writing them down only really became fashionable in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the Brothers Grimm being two of the most famous fairy tale writers.

What is a Fairy Tale?

Interestingly, Fairy Tales don't need to have fairies in them and our use of this phrase stems from the contes de fées of Madame d'Aulnoy in the late 1690's.  In other languages they are called a variety of things, Skazki in Russian simply means 'Tale' from the verb 'skazat'' (to tell).  In German, they are called Märchen which means 'wonder tale' and is the preferred reference term for those who study folklore.  At Christmas time, fairy tales are all around us - whether it's the school panto, Santa Claus or re-runs of Shrek on the television, Christmas is filled with the magic of fairy tales and far away lands. 

Urals - the Mystical Copper Mountains

One of the Soviet Union's greatest fairy tale writers was Pavel Bazhov, born in a small town in Sverdlovsk Oblast called Sysert.  His most famous collection is called Малахитовая Шкатулка (Malokhitovaya Skatulka) The Malachite Casket - malachite is a semi-precious stone of an amazing Emerald colour and is mined in large quantities in the Urals.  If you have ever been to Moscow, you'll have seen malachite in the cities' markets in the form of jewellery, such as bracelets and earrings.  In the olden days, it was believed to have magical qualities and was worn as a protection against witchcraft and spells! 

Bazhov came from a very modest background and he got involved in revolutionary politics at an early age, eventually becoming a Bolshevik and fighting for the Red Army.  In a time when the Soviet Union was trying to rid itself of all superstitions, it's interesting that Bazhov's work gained such widespread approval, but I imagine that there is something in the Russian soul that yearns for a bit of magic and happily ever after!  There had been other even more famous storytellers, who were popular before the revolution, such as Alexander Afanasyev and Alexander Pushkin.  Many ballets were inspired by Russian fairy tales, Swan Lake being one of the most famous. 

The Tale of the Stone Flower

One of Bazhov's most famous stories, Сказ о каменном цветке (Skaz o kamennom tsvetke) The Tale of the Stone Flower was made into ballet by the Soviet composer, Sergei Prokofiev.  This tells the tale of a skilled artisan Danila (Daniel) who has been tasked with making a beautiful vase featuring a flower motif, the flower being made out of precious stones.  In his quest for perfection, he searches for a precious stone which has a naturally occuring floral pattern and this brings him into contact with the Mistress of the Copper Mountain, a type of witch, who promises to show him the most beautiful stone flower on earth.  When he sees the flower and tries to return to his village, the Mistress captures him, turning him into stone. 

Meanwhile, back in the village, Danila's evil landlord, Severyan (which means 'Northerner'!) who sent him on the quest in the first place, is trying to seduce Danila's fiance, the beautiful Katerina.  Like all good heroines, Katerina remains true to her man and sets off into the mountains to find him.  The Mistress sees Katerina and decides to follow her in the form of a golden lizard until she gets close to where Danila is frozen in stone.  When the Mistress sees Katerina's distress and how humans can truly love each other, she decides to return Danila to his fiance and they all live happily ever after!

I'm posting a YouTube video below, which shows a scene in which the Mistress reveals herself to Katerina.

Propp's Morphology of a Folktale and the Universality of the Fairy Tale

Many scholars and folklorists have recognised the universality of Fairy Tales.  Although the Tale of the Stone Flower will be new to most non-Russians, I'm sure we all recognise the formula.  It even reminds me of the Ramayana which I blogged about back in June.  Propp was a prominent Russian formalist, who created a structured analysis of folkloric texts and came up with a common formula folk tales.  I won't go into too much detail on this, as it is quite detailed, but I want to present the characterisation that Propp outlined, which should cover most fairy tales.

Fairy Tale characters

Propp identified 8 main characters in fairy tales.  A fairy tale doesn't need to have all 8 characters, but I imagine most will at least have a villain, a hero, a donor and a princess!

The Villain - in The Tale of the Stone Flower, Severyan, also Lord Farquaad in Shrek or the Fairy God Mother in Shrek 2 and 3.
The Donor - this is usually a magical character who helps the hero along - this is the fairy god mother in a traditional fairy tale, in the case of The Stone Flower this is the Mistress of the Copper Mountain.
The Magical Helper - for example, the Dragon in Shrek.
The Princess or prize - Princess Fiona in Shrek and Katerina in The Stone Flower.
The Father - who usually helps identify the false hero and is often used as a narrator.
The Dispatcher - a friend, who prepares the hero for his quest, eg. Donkey in Shrek.
The Hero - eg. Shrek or Danila.
The False Hero - eg. Prince Charming in Shrek 2 and 3.

What does 'once upon a time' actually mean?

The phrase sounds a bit strange in English, probably because, like fairy tale, it's a direct translation of the French Il était une fois - again the first contes de fées in English, came from France.  Interestingly, from a linguistic point of view, I've noticed that the translation of 'once upon a time' in a lot of languages has some kind of repetitive/rhyming sound.  In languages across the world that are very different, the opening words of a fairytale are suitably dramatic, to catch the attention of the listeners/readers.  I've put some examples below:

Hajitek ma jitek (Algerian Arabic)
Biri var idi, biri yox idi (Azeri)
Bylo nebylo (Czech)
Fadó, fadó, fadó a bhí ann (Irish)
Mukashi mukashi (Japanese)
Ilgeri-ilgeri (Kyrgyz)
A fost odata, ca niciodata (Romanian)
Bir varmış, bir yokmuş (Turkish)
Ngày xửa ngày xưa (Vietnamese)

The Russian version also rhymes but, in true Russian fashion, the phrase you use depends on the gender and number of characters involved, eg. Жил-был (zhil bil) (male), жила-была (zhila bila) (female), жили-были (zhili bili) (plural). 

The Death of Santa Claus

The Russian version of Santa Claus, Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost) was branded as bourgeois and an ally of the Church during the intensive post-revolutionary 1920's.  I'm not sure what happened to Ded Moroz's helper Snegurochka (Snow maiden) - she's probably driving a tram somewhere in Moscow!  Much more so than in the West, you can see the direct connection between the Russian Santa Claus and the fairytales in which he appears. 

In modern times, Ded Moroz and Snegurochka have made something of a comeback in Russian culture and in 1998, the village of Veliky Ustyug was designated as the official home of Santa Claus, in much the same way as we deem Lapland to be Santa's home.  Also, the Nenets people of Yamal in the Urals have their own version of Ded Moroz called Yamal Iri (Grandfather of Yamal) who carries a magical drum which he beats with a stick covered in fur, to drive away evil spirits. 

I've just got a taster of fairy tales in Russia and around the world and, hopefully, in future blogposts, I will be able to return to this subject and learn even more!

Image credits:

The flag is the coat of arms of Bazhov's birthplace, Sysert and I've taken this from Wikimedia Commons, where it was added by

The image of the stone flower is by flickruser - Monceau - you can see more of her photos at her flickrstream

The image of Shrek is by flickruser - Rafitorres who is a web designer from Miami.  You can see more at his photostream

The image of Ded Moroz and Snegurochka is by flickruser - 2sirius a.k.a. Peter Vanderheyden who is from Vancouver in Canada.  You can see more at

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Urals Federal District - Urals Rock

As part of my learning experience about the Urals region, I decided to immerse myself in Urals Rock!  Not as painful as it sounds, Urals Rock was a music scene that developed around Ekaterinburg (then known as Sverdlovsk) and spread across the Soviet Union like wildfire, with bands such as Agata Kristi, Nautilus Pompilius and Chaif topping the charts and becoming associated, like all the best music, with the changes that were happening in society, as the Soviet Union fell apart. 

Agata Kristi

Russia's version of The Cure, Agata Kristi are a rock group from Sverdlovsk Oblast who named themselves after the English writer, Agatha Christie - eternally popular in Russia.  They come from a small town called Asbest, which has the dubious honour of being named after the towns's Asbestos industry - only in Russia!

I was a massive fan of The Cure, when I was a teenager and, whilst I quite like Agata Kristi, I think they sound quite different to The Cure and probably earned the comparison because the lead singer's hair looks a bit like Robert Smith's. 

The video I want to share with you is called Сказочная тайга (Skazochnaya Taiga), which means Fairytale Taiga from their 1995 album Opium.  The Taiga is a massive boreal forest that stretches right across the top of the world, including the Urals region.  To be honest, it's not so much a Fairytale Taiga, as a nightmare one.  The imagery is dark, angry clouds, drunken stars and Satan lurking in the forest at night collecting fresh souls!  The song makes an interesting reference to the розовый снег (rosovy sneg) or pink snow, perhaps a reference to the fact that the last Tsars' family, the Romanoff's, were murdered in Ekaterinburg?

By the way, the video shows scenes from one of the most famous and best-loved Soviet movies, Иван Васильевич меняет профессию - Ivan Vasilievich changes Profession - which is a comedy about Ivan the Terrible time-travelling and arriving in the Soviet Union.  It also shows the actors as they were in the '90's, having a reunion and watching scenes from the movie. 

Nautilus Pompilius

Nautilus Pompilius (named after a type of sea mollusc), also known more simply as Nau, were big in the 1980's and possibly started the trend of rock bands coming from the Urals region.  I must admit, I know quite a lot of Russian music, but I didn't listen to any of these bands, as they were popular long before my time in Russia.  I really like this band though and they remind me of The Cure much more than Agata Kristi does.

They were also from Ekaterinburg (Sverdlovsk) and a lot of their hits in the 80's will long be associated with the Gorbachev regime and perestroika

The song I want to share with you is from their 1989 album, Человек без имени (Chelovek bez imeni) or 'Man without a name' and is called Падший Ангел (Padshiy Anghel) or Fallen Angel.  It's not one of their most famous songs, by any means, but I really like it, especially the opening riff, which could be straight from one of The Cure's albums.  Sorry about the sound quality, which is a bit tinny!

The lyrics are, predictably, quite gloomy - dreams about running in the forest at night, being chased by wild animals with eyes like lamps.  The singer describes himself as an angel who has been ripped from the sky and thrown to earth - I guess it could be a metaphor for the political situation people found themselves in, one day living in the clouds of a socialist dream, the next day finding themselves in a depressed world, being hunted by wild animals!


The song I've chosen by Ekaterinburg rock band Chaif is an iconic song that many Russians love and will sing at parties.  It's a bit maudlin, but being Irish, I like that!  It comes from their 7th album Давай вернёмся (Davai verniomsa) Let's go back which was released in 1991, around the time the Soviet Union fell apart. 

The name of the song is Никто не услышит (Nikto nie uslishit) Nobody's Listening, but it's also known as Ой-йо (Oi-yo) after the plaintive refrain of the chorus.  In the first verse, we hear how the singer misses his friends and feels depressed by the news in the papers.  In the second verse, he explains that his neighbours have hit the booze, because the factory is on strike, his wife has left him for another man and all the time in the background, politicians on TV are telling him how society is going to continue, but he rejects this because he knows that they are lying.  In the final verse, he dreams of the spring time when he'll be able to go fishing with his mates and forget about the troubles of the world.

It's a very Russian застольная песня (drinking song) and I feel his pain!!


A much lighter sound, also from Ekaterinburg, is a soft-rock band called Chicherina (named after the lead singer, Yulia Chicherina).  The song I've chosen Блюдца (Bludtsa) Saucers, is basically a love song about a young girl who sees that everything around her, even the sky and sea, have got someone, but she hasn't.  The main lyrics are all about broken plates/a girl cries/girls laugh, which I think is a metaphor for having your heart broken, then crying about it, but eventually you'll be able to laugh again! 

Interestingly the video shows Yulia messing about on a golf course with her mates, smashing up expensive vases and having a tremendous amount of fun - I guess that was their idea of a good day out in Ekaterinburg in the 1990's. 

Smyslovye Gallyutsinatsii

Not the easiest name to remember, but a fantastic band, I've become a bit obsessed by one of their biggest hits, Вечно молодой (Vechno molodoi) Forever Young, a song that was also made famous as the title track in Брат 2 (Brat dva) Brother 2 - a popular Russian movie from 2000. 

Smyslovye Gallyutsinatsii translates as something like 'Semantic Hallucinations' and the lyrics of the song are quite cryptic 'I could drink the sea/I could be someone completely different' - the sound of the sax in the background absolutely gets under my skin and I love it!  There's also a fantastic remix by DJ Nejtrino, which you can also find on YouTube at the following link:

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Urals Federal District - Beef Stroganoff

Beef Stroganoff is not so much a typical Russian dish, as a recipe that is typical of Russian dishes.  What I mean is that you won't necessarily find a lot of Russians cooking a dish and calling it Beef Stroganoff (or Beef Stroganov - I prefer the slightly Frenchified spelling with double 'f'), but you will find a lot of Russians throwing together beef, mushrooms and onion, whipping it into a frenzy of soured cream and dumping a whole load of fresh parsley (петрушка) on top!

I picked this dish because it is one I've never cooked before, but also because of the historical connections with the illustrious Stroganov family, who were instrumental in opening up the Urals region to Russian colonisation.  Beef Stroganoff has travelled the world and has become popular in its more traditional forms in Hong Kong, Britain and the US.  It has also been adapted to suit local tastes in countries as far apart as Sweden and Brazil.  The dish I made was inspired by a recipe I found at


300g of steak, sliced into strips
1 large onion
150g of button mushrooms
100ml of Beef stock
A dash of Worcestershire sauce
A cap-full of good quality French brandy
I garlic clove (crushed)
4 tablespoons of sour cream
A handful of fresh parsley (chopped), plus a few sprigs of parsley to garnish
Salt and Pepper to taste


It was a very easy dish to make -

First, I fried the onion and mushroom over a medium heat for about 4 minutes, then I poured in the stock and Worcestershire sauce, let this come to boiling point, before turning down the heat and cooking the vegetables for another five minutes with the lid on and two minutes with the lid only partially on (to let out some of the steam). 

Once I'd cooked the veg, I removed them with a slotted spoon and put them in a warm dish with a lid on top.  I then added the strips of beef to the pan, bunged up the heat and let them brown in the remaining liquid. 

I remember when I was a child, our next-door neighbours bought an electric cooker and we thought it was the coolest (and poshest) thing ever, miles better than our own gas cooker!  What I wouldn't give now to cook with gas rather than electric.  I find you can control your cooking better with gas, increasing or decreasing the heat very quickly, an electric hob isn't quite as exciting any more :-(

It also meant that I couldn't 'pour in the brandy and ignite it', as the original recipe suggested.  I did try to think of ways of igniting the brandy, but decided against it for health and safety reasons (and because I quite fancy keeping my eyebrows, the Christmas photos wouldn't look the same without them!).  In the end,  I just well . . . added the brandy slowly and watched the alcohol evaporate before I'd had a chance to stir in my crushed garlic.

Once the meat was well-cooked, I returned the vegetables to the pan and cooked gently for another few minutes, before slapping on the four tablespoons of sour cream and dumping a flourish of parsley on top.  I mixed the sour cream and parsley in with the other ingredients, let it cook for another five minutes and, hey presto! the result was a successful Beef Stroganoff.

I plated it up with mashed potato, on the recommendation of my Russian partner.  I think Beef Stroganoff is traditionally served with rice in Britain and the US, but Russians prefer to have it with potato.  The result was tasty and I look forward to making it again, perhaps adding a few spices to make it a bit more interesting.

Image credits:

All photos were taken by me on my personal camera.  Please feel free to use or reproduce any of these images, for non-commercial purposes, on a share-alike attribution basis, as defined by the Creative Commons License.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Urals Federal District - Dr Zhivago

I've read a few 'heavy-duty' Russian epics in my time (eg. Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment) and Dr Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak, is a novel of epic proportions.  I must admit, a mere twenty pages into the novel, I found myself double-checking the publication date (1957), as the style it's written in is like something straight out of the 19th century.

Pasternak and Zhivago

Pasternak was a well-known writer and poet in the Soviet Union, long before Dr Zhivago was smuggled to the West by Pasternak's friend Isaiah Berlin.  The novel was an instant hit in the West, but suppressed in the Soviet Union, because of the political views it espoused.  It's quite telling that Dr Zhivago was only published after Stalin's death and that Pasternak continued to live in the Soviet writer's colony outside Moscow, Peredelkino, despite having written such a controversial book.  When Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, he faced great pressure from the Soviet government to turn down the award, which he dutifully did.

Having read a bit about Pasternak's background, after finishing the novel, I can't help drawing parallels between Pasternak and his fictional hero Dr Yury Zhivago.  Both Pasternak and Zhivago came from fairly affluent artistic backgrounds (Pasternak's father was a well-known Russian painter).  They both sympathised with the revolution initially, becoming more and more disillusioned as the horrors of the Civil War reduced Russia to a barbarian state.  They both decided to stay in Russia, despite the repressive nature of the new Bolshevik government. 

Something that's difficult for a lot of Westerners to understand is how much Russians love their country.  I think we all presume that life is so hard there, they would rather be anywhere else, but it's almost as if the opposite is true!  Practising the third conditional with my students in Moscow, the question 'If you could live anywhere in the world, where would you like to live?' invariably received the answer Russia, whereas I'm sure a lot of people in Ireland and Britain could think of more exotic places to live (Barbados, Tahiti etc.)  At first, I thought this was a lack of imagination on the part of my Russian students, but I realise now that the question is simply a 'no-brainer' for most Russians.

Pasternak stayed in the Soviet Union, likewise Zhivago refused to flee to Mongolia or China, or to rejoin his wife and children in Paris.  In Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, published 80 years earlier, the main character Raskolnikov would rather stay in Russia and accept his punishment, than go into exile in America.  Zhivago is not an actual surname in Russia, but is a play on the Russian word for 'life/live' zhizn/zhit'/zhivoy.  Dr Zhivago symbolises the continuation of life in Russia, after a period of great turmoil and upheaval. 

The Personification of Nature

There are several themes running through the novel, one of the most glaringly obvious, and treated beautifully in the language he uses, is Pasternak's personification of nature.  Just as Dr Zhivago (a human) symbolises some kind of natural life-force, Russia herself, her landscapes and the familiarity of her seasons, become human in their moods and actions.  Something as natural as a snow-storm is given a life and character of its own.  As Lara's innocence melts away in the spring, so the 'water drops lisped, the thaw muttered its spells'.  Pasternak gives nature its own language, therefore making it human, as language is what separates us from the non-human world.  As the boats are moved in early winter from the river to the people's gardens, they're described as 'migrating storks'. 

There are two very touching scenes in the novel that illustrate this.  The first is when Dr Zhivago is travelling with his family from Moscow to the Urals and the trees along the way are described as holding out napkins of snow to the train, a reference to the Russian tradition of welcoming guests by holding out a napkin with bread and salt.  The second scene is when Dr Zhivago leaves the train and goes wandering in the forest, he lies down on the sun-speckled forest floor and melts into the natural background.  It's when he is most at peace and far-away from the troubles of the human world around him. 

It's ironic that so many Russians now live in horrible industrial cities, far from the 'nature' that they love so much.  Perhaps the cities are horrible because Russians don't really believe in them and are simply waiting for the long summer evenings and weekends at the dacha, the joy of hunting for mushrooms in the forest and roasting sausages on an open fire, far away from the crowds of people and endless bustle of trains and cars.

Trains and death

Which brings me nicely onto another theme, not just in Dr Zhivago, but also in novels like Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.  Like a lot of countries, Russia's fate seems to have been sealed by the development of the railway.  There's the Trans-Siberian Express, of course, one of the world's most famous railway journeys, six and half days from Moscow to Vladivostok and a lot of towns in the Urals region and Siberia owe their very existence to the fact that they were built to service the Trans-Siberian route.  A large chunk of the novel happens on the train journey from Moscow to the Urals fictional town of Yuryatin (probably based on Perm).  Trains symbolised progress and movement, societies in transition, as the world was transformed by this revolutionary method of transport.

I can't help noticing how often trains are responsible for the deaths of characters in Russian novels.  Dr Zhivago's father commits suicide by throwing himself off a moving train, Dr Zhivago has a heart attack whilst travelling on a tram in Moscow, Anna Karenina commits suicide by throwing herself under a train.  It's an interesting sub-theme in Russian literature and one I would like to explore more.  Not only in Russian literature either: I seem to remember that Lantier in Zola's La Bete Humaine also died by falling off a moving train.  Just as nature is idealised in novels from the 19th century onwards, industrial innovations like the railway are feared and regarded as a cause of death. 

Lara's ruin and the English novel

The subtitle of the edition of Dr Zhivago that I read is 'One of the greatest love stories ever told'.  Whilst reading the novel, I realised that it's much more than a love story and there are bigger themes at play than this subtitle suggests.  Nevertheless, Zhivago's passion for Lara Antipova is an important theme in the novel, as is his love for his family and Tonya, his legal wife.  What I found most interesting about all of this is that Lara's story begins (rather than ends) with her being ruined by an older gentleman friend of her seamstress mother.  I couldn't help comparing this to the heroine of an English novel, whose ruination would, most definitely, come at the end of the novel. 

One thing I love about the Russians is that they are quite practical about 'matters of the heart' and don't tend to take a moral high ground or judge other people's relationships, in the way that we love to do in Ireland and Britain.  Lara is not condemned for being a fallen woman, but becomes the real heroine of the novel, an incredibly kind woman who is even more respected, it would seem, because of the fact that she isn't perfect.  Zhivago's wife, Tonya, who is morally 'pure' and would be a perfect character in a Jane Austen novel, becomes irrelevant in this Russian one and can't support Zhivago when he needs her most.  Likewise, the fact that Zhivago is 'living in sin' with Lara is barely relevant to the events of the book and, in many ways, their relationship is one of the only things that makes sense in the chaotic world they find themselves in. 

The Suffering of the Jewish people in World War 1

An interesting theme that Pasternak raises in the novel and one, I admit, I've never thought about before, is how badly the Jews were treated during the First World War.  I guess it's inevitable that the horrors of WW2 and the Holocaust have obscured the discrimation and suffering that Jewish communities experienced before that.  There's no doubt that Jews also suffered horrendously during World War One.  From the Russian point of view, this war was fought on the Eastern Front, modern-day Ukraine and Belarus and those parts of the old Russian Empire where the existence of Jewish communities was 'tolerated'.  Pasternak was Jewish, as were many of the Bolshevik leaders.  Russia has the third biggest Jewish population in the world (the country with the biggest Jewish population is the United States, with Israel being number two).  It's a theme I'd like to explore even more, as it's something you don't really hear much about. 

10 reasons why I think the book was banned

When I first started reading the novel, I couldn't understand what was so controversial about the book that meant it couldn't be published in Russia during the soviet period.  I started making a list of reasons as I was going along and, as you'll see below, I have come up with 10 main reasons why the soviet authorities would have opposed the publication of this novel. 

1. It was anti-nationalist.  There is a paragraph early in the novel when Zhivago questions the nature of the Russian national identity, a very controversial issue in Russia, even in modern times.

2. It had a spiritual quality to it.  It's not a religious book, as such, but the way Pasternak idolises the natural world, would have raised a few eyebrows in Soviet Moscow!

3. It wasn't suitably upbeat about the revolution, but also told of the hardship, starvation and suffering that happened after the October Revolution.

4. The novel depicts trade on the black market, even at the height of revolutionary anti-capitalism, a view that wouldn't have been condoned by the soviet authorities.

5. During the epic train journey to the Urals, Zhivago suggests that the new worker's revolutionary government didn't really have the peasant's best interest at heart and that it was only substituting one kind of repression (under the Tsars) with another (under the Soviets). 

6. As the train passes through the Volga region on its way to the Urals, Zhivago witnesses a country in open revolt against the competing Red and White Guards.  The novel depicts the period as anarchic and highlights a massacre by the Red Guard, which is not a version of history that would have been accepted by Pasternak's government, even in the 1950's.

7. In his conversation with Semdevyatov, on the train, Zhivago openly slates Marxism as a type of politics that is far from the truth.

8. At times it would seem as though Zhivago openly sympathises with the Whites.

9. Zhivago is disillusioned with the revolution, especially when he rejoins Lara in Yuryatin.  Again not the progressive opinion officialdom would expect a Soviet writer to portray.

10.  Towards the end of the novel, Pasternak refers to the existence of gulags, a very controversial issue at the time and one that led to fellow-Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn being expelled from the Soviet Union and stripped of his citizenship in 1974. 

The Movie

As part of my learning experience, I watched David Lean's award-winning screen adaptation of the novel, starring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie.  It was a great pleasure to watch this visually-stunning movie again, especially as the novel was so fresh in my mind.  Lean took to heart a lot of the criticisms of his adaptation, but I think he did a great job.  He was criticised for cutting down the number of characters and reducing the First World War scenes to a five minute narration sequence, but I think it was probably a good idea to do both these things.  Movies can't handle the complexity of novels and are definitely more watchable if the number of characters is kept to a logical minimum.  Not surprisingly the movie was banned in the Soviet Union and wasn't shown in Russia until the mid-90's. 

Image credits:

I've used the flag of Perm for this blogpost, although Perm Oblast isn't part of the Urals Federal District, it is deemed to be in the Urals and Pasternak spent some time living there and probably used Perm as the basis for his fictional Urals town, Yuryatin.  This image was shared on Wikimedia Commons by wikiuser Panther and you can see its description page at

The painting is by Boris Pasternak's father, Leonid, and depicts a young Boris with his brother Aleksandr.  It is copyright free and in the public domain. 

The image of the book cover is one I took myself, I read the 2002 Vintage edition (Random House).  The photograph on the cover depicts White Russian Troops 1919 (c) Corbis. 

The images of stills from the movie were also from photos taken by me.  These stills are being used to illustrate this blogpost and promote David Lean's movie version.  By publishing these photos, I'm not condoning or encouraging reproduction of these images on the Internet or anywhere else.  These photos are not meant to bring the actors into disrepute or suggest their endorsement of this blogpost, but are meant to promote the amazing performances of these actors in this movie. 

The first still shows Julie Christie in the role of Lara Antipova in the scene where Lara and Yury Zhivago are reunited in the library at Yuryatin.

The second still shows Omar Sharif in the role of Dr Yury Zhivago, as he reads the all-important letter from Moscow, informing him that Tonya has moved to Paris with his children.

The third still shows Omar Sharif in the role of Dr Zhivago, after he has deserted the Red Guards and is walking back to Yuryatin through the bitter Siberian winter. 

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Urals Federal District - an Overview

It's 4,730 miles (7,613 kilometres) from the Togolese capital, Lome, to Ekaterinburg, capital of the Urals Federal district.  It's so typical of Russia that my first two posts are taken up by explaining the nature of the Russian Federation and the bureaucracy involved in administering this massive country!  This post is intended as an overview of the Urals Federal Region and its six constituent parts.

If the Urals Federal District were a country, it would be the 17th biggest country in the world.  It's a bit smaller than Indonesia and bigger than Libya.  It's also slightly bigger than the biggest US state, Alaska.  Although this massive region only contains 8.5% of Russia's entire population (UFD has the same amount of people as Greece), the people and businesses in this region pay a whopping 42% of Russia's tax bill.  It's by far the richest region in Russia and produces 90% of Russia's natural gas and 68% of Russia's oil. 

During the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 90's, the governor of the Urals Region, Eduard Rossell, tried to establish a Urals Republic.  It lasted a mere 10 days, before being dissolved by the (ironically, Urals-born) Russian President, Boris Yeltsin.  With all of its wealth, I can understand why the Russian Federation would be reluctant to let go of the Urals Region. 

The Urals Region was 'opened up' to Russian colonisation in the 1550's, after the defeat of the Tatars, paving the way for Russian colonisation of the entire Ural Region, Siberia and the Far East.  The Urals Federal District today is made up of four oblast or regions and two autonomous okrug.  They are:

Kurgan Oblast (1) - a 'small' region, about the size of Ireland, north of the border with Kazakhstan.  This region has a population of about 1 million people, most of whom are Russian and is administered from the city of Kurgan.  Kurgan is one of the oldest Russian settlements in the region, being founded in the mid-17th century and is a stopping point on the Trans-Siberian railway.

Sverdlovsk Oblast (2) - is the heart of the Urals Federal District and with its administrative centre at Ekaterinburg, capital of the whole Urals region.  The region is named after a Jewish Bolshevik, Yakov Sverdlov.  It was common practice after the Russian Revolution to rename 'Tsarist' cities like Ekaterinburg after prominent revolutionary figures, especially dead ones like Sverdlov (who died in the 'Spanish flu' epidemic of 1919). 

After the fall of the Soviet Union, many cities decided to revert to their original names, the most famous being St Petersburg (a.k.a. Leningrad).  In a particularly Russian manner, ie. not hedging one's bets, whilst the cities returned to their Tsarist names, the oblast retained their Soviet names (just in case!).  Hence we have Ekaterinburg as the capital of Sverdlovsk region and St Petersburg as the capital of Leningrad region!

Tyumen Oblast (3) - is another 'small' region, about the size of Tunisia!  It has a much more mixed population, being only 70% Russian, with around 7% each of Tatars and Ukranians.  Before I moved to Russia, I didn't really realise how ethnically diverse it is - again, associating everything with Russian culture and ethnic Russians. 

It might surprise people to know that Tyumen Oblast, as an example, has dozens of different ethnic groups (in a population of about 3 million people) and is one of the most ethnically diverse regions in the Russian Federation.  These groups include Germans, Greeks, Koreans, Roma, Armenians and Bulgarians, to name but a few.  It might also surprise you to know that there are half a million ethnic Germans in Russia and about 100,000 ethnic Greeks!  I'm sure that they are all Russian-speaking and they hold Russian passports, although they keep links to their 'home' culture and language, with varying degrees of success. 

Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug (4) - is the homeland of the native Khanty and Mansi tribes.  They are Ob-Ugric peoples and their Uralic languages are distantly related to both Finnish and Hungarian!  Long before the Russians arrived on the scene, the Urals region gave birth to a range of cultures, including Hungarian tribes, possibly the Celts and some people even believe that all Indo-European cultures came from this region!  If I have time in a later blog, I'd like to explore some the language families of this part of Russia, as I find this subject fascinating and an area of Linguistics that I know very little about.

Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug (6) - is a region in the far north of Russia, bordering the Arctic Ocean.  It is about six times the size of England, but with the same population as Bristol!  It is the homeland of another Ob-Ugric tribe, the Nenets, although they only make up 5% of the total population.  I have a personal connection with Yamalo-Nenets AO, in that my sister-in-law spent some time living and working in its second biggest city, Novy Urengoy.  I never got the chance to go there, but I remember her stopping off to stay with us in Moscow, before embarking in the three or four day train journey to this remote region. 

Chelyabinsk Oblast (5) - centred around the city of Chelyabinsk, is a place I know practically nothing about.  I do know that it is one of the places that the Decembrists, early 19th-century revolutionaries, mostly from St Petersburg, were exiled to.  Among the Decembrists were many of St Petersburg's intellectual elite and their exile to the east, led to the Urals and Siberian regions being considered havens for intellectual and political freedom.  Many Decembrists were, famously, followed into exile by their wives, inspiring generations of Russian writers and poets, when their turn came to reinterpret the events of Russian history. 

I think the whole region languishes in obscurity for most people from the West, being somehow hidden behind the veneer of Russia.  There's a lot more to this region than meets the eye and I want to spend the next few weeks unravelling the secrets of this region and measuring the impact Urals culture, people and industry has had on Russia as a whole. 

Image credits:

Yet more evidence that I must have been Russian in a former life is our common love of flags.  I find the array of Russian flags really beautiful and have used sources in Wikimedia Commons to find flags for this blog, as well as the map of the Urals region.  The history of each of these files is quite complicated and sometimes involves several wikiusers, so it's probably easier for me to provide the links to the original file descriptions (below):

Flag of Ekaterinburg:

Map of the Urals Region:

Flag of Kurgan Oblast:

Flag of Sverdlovsk Oblast:

Flag of Tyumen Oblast:

Flag of Yugra (Khanty-Mansi AO):

Flag of Yamalo-Nenets AO:

Flag of Chelyabinsk Oblast: