In a perfect world, I’d have begun my month of reading Leo Tolstoy with a day trip to Yasnaya Polyana, the historic Tolstoy family estate near Tula. The countryside around Moscow is beautiful in late July and early August – a land of vast, dark pine forests and fields of golden wheat and sunflowers. Historic country estates that belonged to the royal family and the nobility, like Yasnaya Polyana, have been lovingly preserved as national treasures through decades of disruption and corruption. In my mind’s eye, I stroll a birch allée with a fistful of ripe cherries in one hand, a leather-bound copy of Anna Karenina in the other…a gentle breeze flirts with my long, gauzy, pastel skirt…the samovar is gurgling on the terrace and it’s almost time for afternoon tea….
Oh, well. Couldn’t quite get there – either when we lived in Moscow a decade ago, or this August.
My little sister, who lives in Manhattan, suggested a very acceptable substitute: a “girls’ day out” in Brighton Beach. The hustle of Brooklyn’s “Little Odessa” is worlds away from the Russian countryside. The B and N trains rattle their way to Manhattan and Coney Island on elevated tracks above Brighton Beach Avenue. The local Russians are neither nobles nor serfs; they are elderly Odessa Jews, “biznessmeny” muttering into cell phones, and young adults waiting tables and hoping for green cards. Like Russians in the homeland, they ignore Mayor Bloomberg’s anti-smoking ordinances and light up whenever and wherever they please. It’s noisy, and crowded, and overwhelmingly working-class.
But there are bookstores. And having just picked up a copy of the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories, I was feeling a desperate urge to upgrade my collection of Tolstoy’s works in Russian. My sole Russian-language volume of Tolstoy’s short works, a 1995 edition printed cheaply in Paris and sold briefly through Barnes & Noble, lacked three stories I want to read this month: “The Prisoner of the Caucasus,” “Hadji Murat,” and “Alyosha the Pot.” Its margins are niggardly. It is printed on paper the quality and consistency of Tula train-station toilet paper. These stories are classics! They deserve better!
The first bookseller we found in Brighton Beach sold stacks of used paperbacks – quick- and-dirty translations of American genre fiction – from a five-foot-wide stall between two brick buildings. The second, an older gentleman, had set up a table of beautiful children’s books and forty-page, pamphlet-style volumes on home cooking, beauty, and religion that would not have been out of place by a supermarket checkout.
Then we found St. Petersburg Trade and Publishing House – very much like a “Dom Knigi” or “House of Books” in one of Russia’s provincial cities. Souvenirs, from classy Lomonosov porcelain tea sets to kitschy faux-Soviet-army bling, filled the front of the store and the display case at the cashier’s counter. Multiple editions of Russian classics and contemporary literary fiction lined one entire wall, faced by a long shelf of Western classics translated into Russian. The next long aisle contained genre fiction: detective novels were enjoying great popularity in Moscow when we lived there, and appear to be a particular favorite of emigrés and expats a decade later. A third long aisle was home to nonfiction, books in Ukrainian, and books in Georgian (I recognize the alphabet even though I can read only one word of the language: “Borjomi,” a brand of sparkling mineral water). The final aisle was filled with CDs, DVDs and VHS tapes, helpfully labeled “PAL” and “NTSC.”
I agonized over various editions of Tolstoy’s collected works for 45 minutes while my sister, who doesn’t read Russian, waited patiently. The first fat volume I chose contains the Sevastopol stories, “Cossacks,” “The Prisoner of the Caucasus,” “Hadji-Murat,” and some critical essays. The second, one of a three-volume set of Tolstoy’s collected works, contains “Alyosha the Pot,” the plays Tolstoy wrote late in his life, and every fable and fairy tale the great man collected and wrote down “dlya chteniya” – to teach the serfs on his estate to read. It was a struggle not to spend another $40 on the second and third volumes of the set, but I know I won’t read either Anna Karenina or War and Peace in Russian this year. I did add a volume of Tyutchev’s poetry to the basket, though. Can’t get that just anywhere!
I can’t resist Russian souvenirs, either. I needed a tablecloth for our predbannik – an après-sauna room we put together when we built a Finnish sauna in our basement – and there was a nice linen one printed with a strawberry pattern in the traditional red, black and gold of the Khokhloma dishes a Russian friend gave us. They also sell fetroviye (singular – fetrovaya), felted wool banya hats. Russians wear them in the steam sauna, which is often heated to 200F-230F, to protect their scalp, hair and ears. We’ve never had our sauna up over 170F, but all the same I had to get the “Napoleon”-style hat for my husband.
Such financial excess called for refreshment. Just down the street, the smell of good coffee and chocolate drew us to Vintage Gourmet Specialty Foods, a Turkish grocery. I can’t recommend their fresh Turkish coffee highly enough – better than Starbucks swill any day! We also picked up dried figs, pressed into little round loaves, and “Three Bears” and “Korovi” (Cows) wrapped candies. My sons loved those when they were little shavers in Moscow.
We were disappointed in M & I International Foods, which recently got a decent review in The New York Times. We found it stocked in a way that reminded me of Soviet-style grocery stores in Murmansk and Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy: lots of empty space on the shelves and in the deli counters. It brought to mind the most useful sentence I learned in my first two years of Russian language classes – “Tomorrow there will be no French cheese.” We did find a kind of white puffed-corn snack there, a Russian treat that my husband had requested: “You know, the kind we used to get in Moscow – the ones that come from People’s CheezDoodle Kombinat Number One.”
We decided to bypass the little café on the second floor and headed out to the boardwalk. At Café Restaurant Volna, which has been in business at least since the early 1980s, we had delicious red borshch, blini with strawberry jam and sour cream, and Baltika 7. (Baltika beer, made in St. Petersburg under the auspices of a German-trained brewmaster since the early 1990s, comes numbered. I like #5, golden lager, and #7, export lager.) It wasn’t quite black tea from a samovar on the terrace, but we had a break from the heat and the weather was perfect for a seaside lunch: warm sun, cool breeze, salt in the air.
After a ramble down the beach, we stopped in the Black Sea Book Store. It’s a smaller bookstore, dark and long and narrow. A small room at the back, “Orthodox Books,” is devoted to religious works in Russian and Old Church Slavonic. There are prayer books, Bibles, lives of the saints, and enough volumes of religious philosophy to please a Patriarch. An older gentleman reading inventory to a young man with a computer greeted me, “Devushka!” – “Miss,” or “Young lady!” – which, at my age, warms my heart.
Leo, the young man who rang up my purple fetrovaya and a read-aloud CD of Pushkin fairy tales, was happy to discuss e-books in Russian (not widely available, but there’s a guy on the second floor of a store down the street who…) and the local banyas (“The one
two blocks from here is a real Russian banya – I go there every Monday – but I don’t know the name of it…Lots of people like the Mermaid Spa, too…”)
My sister and I stopped at one last grocery store. We loaded up on sushki, which are a kind of hard-sweet pretzel ring; pryanniki – dark, heavy Russian gingerbread; black bread; a bottle of khmeli sumeli, a curry-like Georgian spice blend containing crushed marigold petals; and a few oversized bottles of Baltika 7.
Like real Muscovites, staggering under our load of heavy plastic bags of groceries, we trudged up the steps and caught the B train back to Manhattan.