Category Archives: Russia

Beasts of the Eastern Wild


The conflict between Russia and Ukraine is now embodied in two boxers. Twitter users have been spreading a photo of Russian boxer Nikolai “Beast from the East” Valuev, the 7-foot-1, 320-pound former heavyweight champ, as he towers over a pro-Russian crowd outside a government building in the Ukrainian city of Sevastopol, where gunmen seized the regional parliament.

“I arrived in Sevastopol to support residents of Crimea. Friends, Russia is with you!” Valuev wrote on Twitter.

Rival Vitali “Dr. Iron Fist” Klitschko, the 6-foot-7 Ukrainian who once called Valuev a “chicken,” is a parliamentarian who is part of the movement that toppled the government in Kiev last weekend. Calls for the two to duke it out are resounding across Twitter.

Back in 2004, when the Orange Revolution was underway in Kiev, I wrote a story on the support Klitschko was finding in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village. Ukrainian President Yanukovich, recently ousted again, was reviled by most Chicago Ukrainians (as he is now), and Klitchko’s World Boxing Council title match against British slugger Danny Williams symbolized something greater for the Ukrainian people.

The windows of Nikolai Baranovsky’s electronics shop on Chicago Avenue tell the story of two fights that have fired the imagination of Ukrainians around the world.

On one side is a poster of presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko, whose supporters have protested in Kiev to overturn the results of an election that was ruled fraudulent.

Nearby is a poster for Vitali Klitschko, a 6-foot-7 Ukrainian heavyweight who will defend his World Boxing Council title against British slugger Danny Williams in Las Vegas on Saturday.

On the streets of Chicago’s Ukrainian Village, Klitschko’s fight has taken on a deep symbolism in a time of renewed national pride–particularly since Klitschko, 33, is a backer of Yushchenko’s populist battle against the official winner, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. A new election will be held Dec. 26. …

In a conference call in 2004, Klitschko praised the street demonstrators and said he hoped his fight would inspire them and draw attention to Ukraine. As I wrote for the Trib:

Ukraine is struggling because the leaders who once were communists have changed their colors and now claim to be democratic, Vitali Klitschko told reporters. But their way of governing hasn’t changed, he said.

“That is why there are millions of people coming outside in the street to demonstrate peacefully,” the champion said. “Nobody drinks alcohol. It has been very peaceful. After every one of my fights in Ukraine, they hear me speak about freedom, liberty and free press, but now it is hopefully happening.”

This time around it wasn’t so peaceful, but Klitschko was part of the opposition in the parliament that unseated Yanukovych.

Valuev is widely regarded as a towering monster. Twitter users are scoffing at his Neanderthal appearance. But boxing promoter Trayce Zimmermann of Trayce ZPR offers a reminder that you can’t judge a boxer by his mug. (Politics, on the other hand, are fair game.) Trayce wrote to me on Facebook:

Valuev was quite misunderstood and often viewed as a freak. Very well read and educated, he was very shy, due, I think, to his gigantism. Always a devastating puncher and formidable simply because of his size, he had a good run as champion and KO’d Monte Barrett in the 11th round at the Allstate Arena in 2006. Don King (and I) did an extensive media tour here to promote the bout including a press conference at the top of the Sears Tower. “Two Giants.” DK tried for years to make a fight between his Russian and either Klitschko brother. I doubt Valuev would return to the ring now. He’s too smart and likely doesn’t need the money. Certainly, VK won’t ever fight again. He’s too busy fighting the biggest fight.

She adds that one of the few words Valuev knew in English was “Macy’s,” and he went shopping in suburban Oak Brook.

He loved to shop for his wife and kids. Clothes. Of course, he couldn’t find anything at all for himself. I felt sorry for him. People were always staring at him like a circus freak.

The world, and not just boxing fans, is interested in seeing how this fight ends.


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Filed under Politics, Russia

Mandelstam and the Olympics

Statue of poet Osip Mandelstam in Vladivostok, where he died in a Gulag camp.

Statue of poet Osip Mandelstam in Vladivostok, where he died in a Gulag camp.

It was surprising to see, along with the prerevolutionary classic authors whose pictures were displayed in the ceremony at Sochi last night, photos of Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Brodsky, Bulgakov, Pasternak, and Solzhenitsyn. It would have been nice if the organizers had thrown in Shalamov and Yevgenia Ginzburg, but still, it was the only acknowledgement I saw in either the opening or closing shows of Stalin’s victims. I found myself wishing Mandelstam’s wife, Nadezhda, could have been transported forward in time for just three minutes to see that.

In her second memoir, Hope Abandoned, Nadezhda wrote of all those who died in the camps across the Soviet Union, “The mass graves into which the bodies with tags on their legs were thrown are inaccessible. One day, perhaps, they will dig up all the bones and burn them, or throw them into the ocean.” But she was wrong. The bones were never dug up, not in Vladivostok, anyway, where Mandelstam died and was probably dumped in a mass grave.

After his arrest in 1938, Nadezhda wrote him a letter, just in case he was released only to find her arrested (as happened to many couples). She stated:

Like two blind puppies we were, nuzzling each other and feeling so good together. And how fevered your poor head was, and how madly we frittered away the days of our life. What joy it was, and how we always knew what joy it was. …

In my last dream I was buying food for you in a filthy hotel restaurant. The people with me were total strangers. When I had bought it, I realized I did not know where to take it, because I did not know where you are.

When I woke up, I said to Shura [Osip’s brother]: ‘Osya is dead.’ I do not know whether your are still alive, but from the time of that dream, I have lost track of you. I do not know where you are. Will you hear me? Do you know how much I love you? I could speak only to you, only to you. You are with me always, and I who was such a wild and angry one and never learned to weep simple tears—now I weep and weep and weep.

It’s me: Nadya. Where are you?

When I initially posted the above thoughts on Facebook, Rob Coalson, an editor in RFE/RL’s Central Newsroom in Prague, responded, “I think you can go further, though. Practically all the writers from Pushkin to Solzhenitsyn were at one time censored or persecuted by the Russian government. It was a pageant to censorship, arrest, exile, imprisonment, murder. Shameful for the state to be celebrating them without acknowledging it.” He adds excommunication as another punishment (Tolstoy).

He has a point. And while every back-page biography in a Dostoevsky novel refers to his arrest, you have to read Notes from the House of the Dead to get a sense of how harrowing his prison experience was, particularly his description of the flogging of prisoners–a thousand strokes, two thousand, often to death. (Chekhov, by the way, also wrote about a flogging he witnessed on Sakhalin.)

Still, the ceremony’s highlighting of writers, however hypocritical, was at least a contrast to the celebration of Stalinism in the opening. All those people running around in red tights reminded me of devils. I wonder what Bulgakov would have made of it.

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Filed under Books, Russia

The Roommate: Vladivostok and the Ghost of Mandelstam

Here’s an essay of mine that just went up in Numéro Cinq. Much obliged to Douglas Glover for running it, and for his generous introduction. Check out that site for photos as well; I will add some here as I get time.

By Russell Working


Pictures in a Bookcase

The tenth-floor hallway was filthy: paint was peeling from the walls, the garbage chute stank, and the elevator, I was warned, tended to break down. But when Tamara Fyodorovna, the landlady, showed me Apartment 81, the interior was spotless, with linoleum floors and wallpaper of alternating vertical brown and yellowish stripes and columns of fleurs-de-lis. Although the kitchen and living room-bedroom were tiny, the place featured a telephone, which many residences in Vladivostok lacked in 1997. The bathroom exhaled a sewerish eau de toilette, but this was not uncommon in Russia. Tamara Fyodorovna closed the door on the smell. “The kitchen’s got all the pots and pans you’ll need for cooking; plates and cutlery, too,” she said.

But in the end it was the bookshelves that made me fall for the place; those and the view of the sea.

The bookcases were glass-fronted and crammed with fiction and poetry and scientific volumes, and I was charmed that my landlady, an oceanographer who had vacated the place to live with her sister, had clipped photographs of writers from the newspapers and taped them up inside the glass. This practice, I would learn, is commonplace in Russia. The eyes of the authors followed me: Pushkin, Lermontov, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Akhmatova, and someone new to me: the poet Osip Mandelstam.

Tamara Fyodorovna flung open the curtains on the window in the main room, and I said, “Wow.”

It was February, and far below, at the foot of the bluff, the sunset had turned the sea ice on Amursky Bay into molten glass. Vladivostok, on the Sea of Japan, lies at roughly the latitude of Marseilles, but the salt water had frozen so thick, coal trucks cut across it to the far shore. Antlike fishermen peppered the surface. Some had lit fires in barrels that would smolder and die overnight. Across the bay, the sunset silhouetted the torn-paper mountains, and because this salient of Russia lies east of China, I wondered if the farthest peaks might be across the border, not forty miles away. On this side, prefab concrete apartment blocks stairstepped down the hill to the waterfront, and a smokestack smudged the air below with a printer’s devil’s inky thumbprint. A giant water pipe snaked alongside a road, shedding insulation.

Yes, of course, I said. I wanted the place.

I had quit my job as a reporter on a newspaper in Tacoma, Washington, and moved to the Far East, as Russians call their Pacific maritime (Siberia lies to the west). I was editing a biweekly English-language newspaper for the equivalent of $400 a month, although the crash of the ruble the following year would bring the exchange rate down to $72 a month. But if Continue reading


Filed under Russia, Writing