Deeper Than Oil: Christmas Presents in Narnia (Russia)

Russia, just like the fairytale-land of Narnia under the rule of the evil, Turkish-delight-scoffing White Witch, sees a winter without Christmas.

Russia, just like the fairytale-land of Narnia under the rule of the evil, Turkish-delight-scoffing White Witch, sees a winter without Christmas. (Okay, okay, there is Orthodox Christmas on January 7, but it’s pretty lame in comparison – you don’t even get presents! It’s all about Jesus and stuff. Russians do their festive gift giving at New Year…)

Still, I realize that not all of you are reading this in a land where December 25 is just another day in the relentless march to eventual world destruction - so I thought I’d offer some advice for anyone looking for presents for that hard-to-please Russophile relative. Or any lucky readers with a gift voucher or two.

First off, a traditional Russian nesting doll. These are lovely gifts and make…stop! My brain has been invaded by a Moscow Times writer.
Begone banality!

I’ll start again.

So, no nesting dolls, none of those unbearably authentic folk art decorative boxes, no tacky Soviet memorabilia. Just a short list of Russian-themed cutting-edge books and DVDs to put under the tree. (What could be better? Huh?)

1. Siberia - graphic novel by Nikolai Maslov (Soft Skull Press)

Drawn entirely in pencil, Maslov’s tale of a Soviet youth (the book’s original title) spent in Siberia is bleak, bitter, and beautiful. Portraying with almost unbearable honesty the faces of the drunks and bullies he grew up with, Maslov had reportedly never actually read a graphic novel before he approached the French publisher of Asterix in Russia with the first pages of the book, and asked him to finance the rest. The publisher agreed, allowing Maslov to quit his job as a night watchman and devote himself to his work. It proved to be a wise investment.

Maslov tells the story of his often brutal life with a complete lack of sentimentality, using matter-of-fact, almost crude frames to portray characters and everyday scenes in Siberian villages and towns. One of the few works of art to portray routine life in Soviet Siberia, as opposed to

Solzhenitsyn-type gulag tales, Maslov’s book has yet to find a publisher in his native Russia, where comics are generally seen as the exclusive preserve of children and halfwits.

2. Gruz 200 – film by Alexander Balabanov

Gruz 200 - or Cargo 200 – by director Alexander Balabanov is one of the darkest visions to have been committed to celluloid in the history of Russian film. The story of a police officer turned killer/rapist in the dying days of the USSR, Cargo 200’s bleak immorality caused a genuine uproar when it was released it 2008. It has only been shown once on Russian television, with a stormy televised debate after the screening.

A host of leading actors declined roles in the film, and Balabanov was accused by a number of critics of making it on the orders of unnamed Western financers to tarnish Russia’s world image. However, in a country where cases of violence shocking in both their brutality and their casualness barely merit a mention in the national media, yet others found his willingness to confront matters head-on not only admirable, but also necessary.

3. Grazhdanskaya Oborona MP3 collection

You could get the individual albums, I suppose, but pirate MP3s are available all over Russia, so this is by far the better option.

Yegor Letov’s Grazhdanskaya Oborona - or Civil Defense – gained notoriety in the late 1980s, when Soviet alternative rock was in its heyday. But Letov's band was unlike anything that Russia had ever heard. A hardcore rush of guitars and barked vocals filled with street-punk obscenities, their songs boasted titles such as “I don’t give a sh*t about my face,” and “Judas will go to heaven,” with one of their most notorious tracks referring to Lenin "rotten in his mausoleum."

Not surprisingly, as Letov himself put it, the group "had difficulties" with the Soviet authorities. But after the collapse of the socialist system, in typically perverse fashion, Letov suddenly developed a yearning for the Soviet Union, and recorded many songs in praise of the “great Soviet motherland.” He later became a supporter of the National Bolshevik party, the now-banned political movement formed by radical writer Eduard Limonov. Letov died in his hometown of Omsk in 2008, reportedly after choking on his own vomit in his sleep.

4. Anything by writer Daniil Kharms

In an ideal world, you wouldn’t be looking him up on some on-line encyclopedia. He would be a household name.

An absurdist writer who died in prison in 1942 at the age of 37, Daniil Kharms remains relatively obscure even within Russia. Banned by Stalin for his sheer oddness, Kharm’s (very) short stories and poetry are full of old women tumbling through windows, people forgetting how to count, and descriptions of non-existent folk. People falling over are a repeating motif throughout his work, although I haven’t a clue what it signifies.

Extremely hard to translate (although people have tried), his work alone is worth learning Russian for. I guess it’s fitting that he is so obscure though; the man himself would have loathed fame, even of the posthumous type.

I could go on, but as Kharms himself said “I hate people who can talk for seven minutes in a row.” So I’ll stop.

Unfortunately, I seem to be running out of words, so I’ll have to be brief with my remaining gift recommendations. Which are –

5. Ivan the Fool - Andrei Sinyavsky’s immensely readable and informative book about Russian folk belief, from paganism to icons.

6. The Mark of Cain (DVD) – Alex Lambert’s groundbreaking documentary about Russian prisons and the intricate coded tattoos worn by many inmates.

7. Soviet cartoons – Ok, not exactly cutting edge, but worth a watch for anyone with an interest in animated films. Check out Prostokvashino, a tale of a boy and his cat who run away to the Russian countryside and work your way on from there.

You could also do worse for a present than my fellow columnist Daniel Kalder’s two “anti-tourism” books – Lost Cosmonaut and Strange Telescopes.

That’s all space will allow. Hope that solves someone’s Christmas gift problems!

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From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.

Marc Bennetts is a journalist (The Guardian, The Observer, BBC Russia, New Statesman and more) and the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books). He is currently working on a book about Russia’s fascination with the occult.

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