Georgian Eggplant-Walnut Rolls

Vegan, gluten-free, kosher for Passover – the only thing these rolls aren’t is nut-free (or low-fat, ha). But they are delicious, and everyone, even people who hate eggplant, will love you for them. The following is an approximate recipe for how I make them. I picked up techniques and ingredients from a bunch of places, so these are a little more complex than most versions. If you are interested, there are many other versions online, both in English and Russian. There’s also an Armenian version – which apparently includes dairy – that I’ve never looked into.

Jenny’s recipe

Southern Living did one

Gotovim-doma (RU)

Armenian eggplant

Ingredients

Filling:

  • Walnuts (I use about 2-3 cups, ideally on the higher side of that)
  • An onion
  • Some garlic to taste (I use 3-5 cloves)
  • Oil for frying
  • Fresh herbs: definitely cilantro, optionally also flat-leaf parsley, chives
  • Spices: Use a variety, including paprika, cayenne pepper, coriander, cumin, maybe a little turmeric. Fenugreek, summer savory and marigold are great if you have them; if not, some nice fresh curry powder actually makes a good substitute. If you’ve been to Georgia recently (which you probably have if you have summer savory or marigold on you), whatever spice blend you have from there is good to add too – particularly the yellow one.
  • Fruity/sour component: I’ve used lemon juice, red wine vinegar, pomegranate molasses, and (in a pinch) Thai tamarind paste. Pomegranate molasses is my preference, if you have it. If you don’t have it, check at Middle Eastern or Persian grocers in your area.
  • Salt
  • Water

Wrappers:

  • Eggplants – I like the smaller, somewhat thinner ones best because they make the best-shaped wrappers. (But not Chinese or Thai varieties, which are too thin and too small, respectively.) But really, whatever you can get is probably fine. The eggplant is just a vehicle.
  • Salt
  • Oil

Also:

  • A food processor or other way of turning the filling to paste.

 

A note about quantities: I have never successfully made this and had the right ratio of filling to eggplant. You generally need fewer eggplants than you think, is all I can say – often I buy 3 and find that after slicing 2 I have enough for, like, 30 rolls and am going to be out of filling before that. Also, having extra filling is great because it’s outrageously delicious. So maybe buy 2 eggplants.

 

Okay so: toast your walnuts in a dry pan. Set them aside. Fry up your onion in a little oil to a nice golden color – don’t worry too much about whether it’s sliced or diced or chopped, since you’ll be food processing it later anyway. Either add the garlic, chopped, to the pan at the end of this step (this is what I do) OR leave the garlic raw. I think that is more traditional, but I’ve never made it that way because raw garlic, gross. If you’re using curry powder you can add that to the pan at this point, too, as parts of it are oil-soluble. Remove from heat and add all the other spices.

Put the onion-garlic-spices into the bowl with the walnuts. Drizzle over some of the sour component, maybe 3 tablespoons. Throw on the herbs, roughly chopped. Don’t be afraid to use a couple handfuls of herbs. Put in some salt – don’t go crazy, but definitely don’t skimp. Now, food process it. You’ll get a sort of meal at first – once you get that, add a few tablespoons of water. That should help the mixture turn a sort of weird light gray color and become more paste-like. Lightly chunky, cohesive, not crumbly but definitely not sopping wet – that’s what we’re going for. Like a spread. Once you get there, taste it and adjust the salt and sour if you need to. Don’t be afraid to make it bold – remember, people are eating 1-2 bites of this at once, so assertive and super flavorful is good. Try not to eat the whole batch while tasting.

So next, put all that in the fridge, well covered. Weirdly, it doesn’t handle being unrefrigerated that well. It goes kind of limp and the top gets dried out. I don’t have empirical data to back this up, but I believe letting it sit in the fridge for a while so the flavors can marry makes it better. So this could be a two-day recipe if you want.

While that’s in the fridge, make the eggplant. Slice it lengthwise as thin as you can – if using a mandoline slicer, the 3/16” setting is recommended. Here I must admit I have not decided what works best. I’ve tried brushing the slices with oil and baking them, which leads to a less heavy, greasy wrapper but  sometimes involves stickage and ruined eggplant and also tends to make the skin brittle and hard to roll up. I usually just pan-fry, which is fine but uses many paper towels (you’ll want to put the slices on paper towels to absorb the grease). Sometimes I salt beforehand to make the slices absorb less oil, and sometimes I don’t. Frankly, I haven’t noticed much difference in oil absorption either way, and I prefer unsalted, to up the flavor contrast between the eggplant and the filling. Anyway, bottom line, no one will complain about the eggplant no matter what you do to it. So cook up a bunch of slices, done but not crispy, and let it cool.

After that, take the filling out of the fridge, use spoons to place portions of it on the eggplant slices, and roll or fold up the eggplant end-over-end. Arrange nicely on a serving plate, garnish with pomegranate seeds if you want to be real fancy, and prepare for everyone to love you.

 

…originally posted as a Facebook comment. Yeah. Edited a bit, paragraph break added.

I find the whole Olympic boycott business, while well-intentioned, pretty obnoxious. I do agree that it’s important for countries and their athletes to consider their safety in-country before going to any international sporting event, but the idea of boycotting just because we’re mad at Russia seems a little uninformed and silly. It doesn’t send Russia a “powerful signal,” because Russians already think (with a certain degree of truth and a certain degree of paranoia) that the West unjustifiably picks on them. Why not boycott Olympics in the U.S. over Guantanamo? Why didn’t we boycott the 2008 Beijing Olympics? China’s got at least as many human rights problems as Russia, if not specifically against LGBT people.

Taking another tack, if you’re going to boycott, why not align with the Circassians, who have been protesting since Sochi was chosen that the Olympics are taking place on their ancestral land on the 150th anniversary of their genocidal expulsion from the Russian Empire, with zero acknowledgment from the Olympic organizers that Sochi is anything but an ethnically Russian city? Or with the Sochi residents who have had their homes demolished for the corruption-riddled Olympic construction projects? Finally, I’d argue that a boycott and international outcry against the Russian government are, in this case, unlikely to build significant pressure. The vast majority of Russians – over 80% – support this legislation, and popular support is a powerful thing.

There are several important questions we can ask after last week’s news from the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs that Russia’s population is “old.” As Sociological Images reminds us, there are a lot of numbers we should know, or at least know to ask about, when we’re interpreting statistics like this.

1. Who counts as old? The Moscow Times says that 13% of the population is 65 or above, and then quotes a figure of 22.7% over the age of retirement later on. It fails to clarify that the age of retirement in Russia is not 65 – it’s 60 for men and 55 for women. So men ages 60-64 and women ages 55-64 make up nearly 10% of the population? Yep – according to the U.S. Census Bureau data, they actually make up 10.2%.This significantly changes the picture from a place like, for example, the U.S., where the demographic age cohort delineation of 65 is also the retirement age.

2. Mark Adomanis at Forbes, clearly a demographic crisis skeptic, asks how different Russia’s age structure actually is from neighboring countries’. (Answer: not that different – although the countries he picked are a bit of a hodgepodge.) I didn’t find his population pyramids very easy to read, so I put the data together another way:

Percentage of Population by Age Group

Ages

Bulgaria

Czech Republic

Germany

Poland

Russia

Slovakia

Average

0-14

14.2

13.4

13.1

14.6

16.0

15.5

14.8

15-64

66.9

68.9

66.1

70.9

70.9

71.0

69.3

65+

18.9

17.6

20.9

14.5

13.1

13.4

15.8

To further contextualize, in the good ol’ U.S., adults 65 and over make up 12.8% of the population, but we have a much larger youth cohort – 20.2% of us are under 16. Our birth rate also almost matches Russia’s, at 13.5 births/1,000 U.S. population vs. 13.3 births/1,000 Russian population, but our death rate is lower, at 8.38/1000 vs. 13.3/1000.

3. What problems might an aging population cause for Russia? Of course, workforce and the pension system come to mind immediately (well, immediately after the specter of demographic crisis and the gradual erasure of Russia, Russian language and Russian culture from the face of the earth, depending on how much of an alarmist you are); and indeed, the possibility of raising Russia’s very low age of retirement has been under discussion for quite some time. I’m interested in something else, though – in its unit on mortality, the demography textbook I’m reading through mentioned something interesting: rising death rates in Russia and neighboring countries in the past few decades, while caused in large part by social upheaval, also reflect the Soviet medical system’s inability to make the shift from curing contagious diseases (which it did, and does, fairly well) to adequately managing degenerative diseases like cancer, diabetes and heart disease. In terms of Russia’s aging population, this is problematic both because it suppresses life expectancy overall and because it decreases the aging population’s quality of life and productivity. In addition to many people’s end-of-life care, more and more pensioners will need years of medication and management of diseases such as diabetes and congestive heart failure. The silent AIDS crisis (you should definitely click that link) and the spread of drug-resistant tuberculosis add to the number of Russians who need chronic medical treatment. How will the Russian medical system respond to these changing needs?

Those are my three questions (and answers, sort of) about Russia’s shifting demographics. Anything you’d add?

I can’t help but chuckle at this Onion article on the Miami Heat’s biggest fans, as a native Ohioan and, of course, as someone who enjoys mocking dictators. As I’m also currently in the thrall of Timothy Snyder’s excellent Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (brief review: read it if you want to be sadder about Poland than ever before), I appreciated that the crime they called Stalin on was the Ukrainian genocide, or Holodomor. Compared to his other crimes – the Great Terror and the GULAG chief among them – the Holodomor is relatively unknown and even contested, both among the Onion’s American readership and within the former Soviet Union (Ukraine excepted). Genocide recognition campaigns are a whole other ball of wax, but it is tragic when the popular historical memory omits such a huge catastrophe altogether. And it is, uh, nice to see a broader treatment of Stalin as the evil mastermind he was.

Strange things are afoot in Kyrgyzstan. News broke on Wednesday that Jogorku Kengesh, the small Central Asian state’s parliament, passed a resolution that would require young women wishing to travel abroad to supply a written note from their parents. Concerns cited by the resolution’s initiator, MP Yrgal Kadyralieva, include curbing human trafficking, protecting the girls’ honor, and preventing a demographic crisis by preserving the Kyrgyz gene pool. For good measure, she throws in a moral-panic reference to Kyrgyz girls going abroad, giving birth and abandoning their babies in the street.

I’m never a fan of demographic excuses for restricting women’s rights, but I’m always especially baffled in situations where there is no demographic crisis to fix. The fertility rate in Kyrgyzstan is 2.73 children per woman, with rates among ethnic Kyrgyz women likely higher, and the population has been growing fairly steadily for nearly two decades. On the other hand, Kyrgyzstan does have a brain drain problem – an estimated 2000 college graduates, over 5% of the country’s graduating class, emigrates each year. Perhaps this legislation was proposed under the assumption that restricting young women’s movements would be culturally acceptable to the majority of Kyrgyzstanis, and would thus be a good way to stem the tide of brain drain without discouraging economically important labor migration by young men. (Remittances from labor migration make up an estimated 15% of the country’s GDP.)

However, it did not turn out to be as culturally acceptable as was, perhaps, expected. There was an immediate outcry by human rights ombudsman Tursunbek Akun, the Bishkek feminist collective SQ, and Kyrgyzstani citizens living abroad. Strangely, when the dust settled on Thursday evening, it turned out that the reported-on resolution text was never passed. Kadyralieva seems to have clearly mentioned the travel restriction to the media, and the resolution was passed in committee with the restriction in place in March of this year – but in the version of the resolution ultimately passed by parliament at large and posted on Jogorku Kengesh’s website, there’s no travel restriction to be found. No one seems to know whether it was removed before the resolution (which now only mentions general measures for counting and protecting emigrants) was passed, or ex post facto in reaction to the public outcry.

An even more fascinating twist to this story is that such a rule is already in force in Uzbekistan. My attention was drawn to this by a commenter on Registan.net, who recounts the hoops she had to jump through the last time she tried to leave Uzbekistan. Ultimately, she had to get her younger brother to write the letter permitting her to leave, as her father is deceased and she has no older brother or husband. (She has been joined in the comments there by another Uzbekistani woman telling a similar story; I recommend reading both.)

There’s not a ton of information on the Uzbek law out there, and a particular dearth of English-language sources, but CentrAzia.net, quoting opposition news site Fergana.ru, reports that it came into force in early 2011. In clear violation of Uzbekistan’s constitution, it requires young women ages 18-35(!) traveling to countries requiring a visa to submit verification, signed by their parents or husband, that they will not engage in prostitution abroad. Additionally, the responsible (read: male) parties assume responsibility for the traveler’s safe passage out of and back into Uzbekistan. Ostensibly, travelers with an invitation from a place of work or study do not need to submit this letter, but the comments linked above indicate that the law is poorly understood, unevenly enforced, and generally a great excuse for officials to extort lunch out of you. And, one assumes, a way to use the power of suggestion to subtly discourage paternalistic families from letting their young female members travel abroad. Very clever, Uzbekistan.

In the end, say what you will about Kyrgyzstan’s commitment to democratic ideals – at least the lawmakers discussed this resolution with the press before its passage, and ultimately removed the section that was in violation of the constitution that some of them probably helped to draft. For now I’ll call it a near miss, but as the resolution that ultimately passed does call for Kyrgyzstan to actively develop a demographic and migration policy, young Kyrgyzstani women may not be out of the woods just yet.

I’m not usually much of one for the quotation, “people get the government they deserve,” but this Vedomosti piece covering the passage of a bill banning some discussions of “nontraditional family values” (a.k.a. homosexuality, and anything else that’s not “mama-papa” sex, as Echo of Moscow’s Anton Orekh so evocatively calls it) in the lower house of the Russian Duma is maybe causing me to reevaluate that. As Duma Deputy Elena Mizulina, chair of the parliamentary Committee on the Family, Women and Children – and possibly my least favorite Russian lawmaker – gleefully points out, the Duma received an alleged 350,000 signatures in favor of the law’s passage, and a paltry 911 against, mostly “from foreigners.” Both VTsIOM and Levada have found that about 88% of Russians support the law, while only 7% are against it.

Nothing about this should surprise me – in fact, when St. Petersburg passed a similar law, I wrote,

I think it’s important to understand that a “small minority” is not actually what we’re up against. The bill passed 29 to 5. Fear and disgust around LGBT and queer issues is the cultural norm in Russia, and most Russians – especially those who live outside major cities and outside the relatively young, well-educated internet-using class – aren’t presented with any alternative ways of understanding gender and sexuality. In that cultural context, it makes sense to pass a law to protect innocent children from exposure to the perversion of homosexuality. Many Russians see this as a no-brainer, like laws imposing steeper penalties for dealing drugs near a school.

But it is disheartening. It’s hard not to see the overwhelming support for these measures as being of a piece with Russian liberalism’s anti-immigrant streak, or the overwhelming support for punishments for the members of Pussy Riot. Or Russians’ distrust of feminism, for that matter. The way I see it, xenophobia and homophobia are both symptoms of a fearfulness and a misguided nostalgia for a simpler, more innocent, more authentically Russian past that Russians have been fed with their kasha, and that have been detrimental to Russia’s development into a 21st-century Western society — even as the educated urban population has started to show political will.

Given said xenophobia, I don’t think pressure from abroad can do anything to change this law, which is expected to pass the upper house of the Duma and be signed by Putin. Nonetheless, Human Rights Watch and other groups are (rightly) on it, some are petitioning for the names of the lawmakers who voted for it to be added to the Magnitsky List – no mean feat, as it passed 308-3 – and there’s likely more outcry to come. The best we can hope for, I think, is that it causes a minimum of pain, suffering, and homophobic violence before it finally makes it into the dustbin of history.

Hello, faithful readers! It’s been a while. Today we turn from social and political analysis to two of my favorite hobbies, which are etymological research and eating (it’s always a party around here).

One of my favorite things about exploring the cultures of Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Eurasia has been learning just how extensive a Sprachbund of food-based vocabulary they have. The same staple dishes can be found from the Levant through Persia to Central Asia, under names that are borrowed or calqued; fruits and vegetables carry their names, sometimes with shifting vowels or consonants, from India north through Eurasia to Russia; and food traditions are shared from the Balkans to the Caucasus and beyond. (As a side note, this is why it is ridiculous that UNESCO enters foods onto its Intangible Heritage list by country.) While studying in Turkey, I was delighted to learn that my host mother’s mother, a native of the eastern Anatolian city of Erzurum, called a drinking glass – usually a bardak in Turkish – an istakan. I related this story to a friend – hey, people in Erzurum, which was once under Russian control, use the same word for “drinking glass” that Russians use! – and was even more delighted when he, a Persian speaker, informed me that this word is almost the same in Persian, and probably was borrowed from there. Well, maybe – it appears to have been an old Turkic word originally, borrowed into Russian and from there into Persian. It could have then been reborrowed from Persian into some dialects of Turkish. Or from Russian into Turkish.

So yesterday, overcome by the plump, tender piles of new summer squash at my local farmer’s market, I attempted my first-ever batch of Russian икра из кабачков, ikra iz kabachkov  – literally “caviar made from summer squash,” sister to the somewhat richer баклажанная икра, or eggplant caviar. This morning, while nursing a summer cold and reveling in the deliciousness of this spread served cold over rye toast, I was poking around the internet reading about the various similar recipes for eggplant- and pepper-based spreads from the Balkans (which are incidentally available at Trader Joe’s). It turns out that ajvar, the Bosnian-Serbian-Croatian and Macedonian name for this type of spread, like the Russian ikra, means “caviar,” from the Turkish word havyar, which is the ultimate source of English caviar, as well. The English Wikipedia entry explains that the spreads were given this moniker with a bit of a sly wink, after home production of actual caviar was outlawed in the Balkans in the 1890’s. The story I have always heard in Russia is that vegetable spreads are called caviars because they are the poor man’s substitute for fish roe – as illustrated by a sight gag in the classic Soviet comedy Ivan Vasil’evich Changes His Profession, where a feast at Ivan the Terrible’s court features huge piles of actual red and black caviar and a tiny dish of eggplant caviar

So, did the South Slavs and the East Slavs come up with the fish roe/vegetable spread connection independently? My guess would be that the Russians borrowed this dish from points south, and calqued the name from BSC or Macedonian when they did so. But has it really only been around, and referred to as ajvar/ikra, since the 1890’s? Well, my copy of Elena Molokhovets’ A Gift to Young Housewivesthe 19th-century classic of Russian cookery, makes no mention of vegetable caviar, so it seems possible. Darra Goldstein thinks the dish came to Russia from the Caucasus – but she also makes a specious connection between the Russian kabak, tavern, and kabachok, squash (the latter comes from Turkish kabak, squash, while the former is an unrelated 17th-century Germanic borrowing), so it’s possible her book, which is full of great recipes, is not the best-researched. Lynn Visson’s The Russian Heritage Cookbook gives six vegetable caviar recipes, some sourced from emigres who left Russia around the time of the Bolshevik Revolution – so the dish must have been known to Russian cooks by then. I would love to research this question farther, but I think the internet has taken me as far as it can, and I would need to read more old Russian cookbooks to find a clearer answer. In any case, vegetable caviar is now a staple of appetizer tables in both the Balkans and Russia – and also a great way to put up several kilos of the eggplant or squash you’ve grown at your dacha for the winter.

……..

PS: The Bulgarian word for at least one of these vegetable spreads, kyopoolu, totally baffled me until I realized it’s from the Turkish köpoğlu, a yogurt and eggplant appetizer whose name literally means “son of a dog” (and yes, its meaning is similar to the English expression S.O.B. – though with additional shades of craftiness, deceit or cunning). Figure that one out!

I subscribe to Registan.net’s RSS feed to stay up to date on Central Asia, and I generally don’t mind them, if I don’t always find them the most professional. But I think their Pussy Riot commentary is really off the mark. Joshua Foust starts off his whopper of a piece, “When Putin Becomes Religion,” innocuously enough, with a summary of the Pussy Riot case, but quickly veers into explaining just how wrong it is that people care about the plight of these women, comparing it right off the bat to Kony 2012:

In a real way, Kony 2012 took a serious problem — warlords escaping justice in East Africa — and turned it into a crass exercise in commercialism, militarism, and western meddling. Local researchers complained about it, and lots of scholars used it as an opportunity to teach how not to do damaging activism.

In Russia, Pussy Riot is doing the same thing — taking a serious issue (Russia’s lack of political freedoms or civil liberties) and turning it into a celebration of feminist punk music and art. Pussy Riot are being unjustly imprisoned, but that doesn’t mean all of the protests against their imprisonment should be lauded.

Wait, really? “A celebration of feminist punk music and art” is the same as “commercialism, militarism, and western meddling?” Madonna’s show of solidarity, for example, is “damaging activism,” and/or the same as a falsified PR campaign that led to military involvement and a Senate resolution? (OK, haha, let’s not pretend that Senate resolutions really mean anything, but still.) Because they don’t seem that similar to me. Let’s read on for a better explanation:

For example, the media frenzy over Pussy Riot’s possible three years in prison is obscuring the much harsher sentences facing their not-famous, not-female co-protesters.

First of all, is it? Would there be more reporting on the Bolotnaya arrests if Pussy Riot weren’t around? Maybe – there is a limited amount of Russia news the West is really interested in hearing (I have tested this hypothesis by talking about Russia at parties) – but can we see some proof? Second, it’s worth noting that no one in that case has actually been sentenced, much less given a “much harsher” sentence. The “much harsher” sentences in question are three extra years of jail time – a ten-year maximum instead of seven.

I guess they’re not pretty girls in a punk band with a naughty name, so they don’t deserve the Amnesty International campaigns and celebrity solidarity. When Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer in Russia who was arrested after alleging widespread political corruption, died from the abuse he suffered in prison — having never even gotten the courtesy of a trial, like Pussy Riot — there were some peeps of protest by some politicians but nothing on the scale of the Pussy Riots. Russian authorities acted suspiciously after his death, leading many to assume they had something to do with it.

Magnitsky’s death prompted some wrangling in the US Congress, where a bill named after him now awaits enactment. But the many celebrities urging their fans to show concern about Pussy Riot, about Russian women, about the plight of Art, apparently don’t know about the many men, non-punk rockers, regular Russians who face far worse brutality and mistreatment by Putin’s government every day.

OK. OK. The West not paying attention to Magnitsky was not Pussy Riot’s fault. Also, the West did pay attention to Magnitsky, to the tune of over a hundred mentions in the New York Times since his 2009 arrest, and, you know, a Senate bill. (Note: not a resolution.) It wasn’t a Madonna concert, sure, but since you’re so contemptuous of that sort of “slacktivism” anyway, isn’t solemn NYT reporting and legislative activism actually better than a Madonna concert?

Also, can we bring up their gender a few more times? I get that you’re frustrated that the media loves young, attractive women more than middle-aged lawyers – as someone whose time as a young, attractive woman is waning, I feel you! – but this is starting to sound a little misogynist, along the lines of “She only got that raise because the boss likes her tits.” The fact that this case is the one that drew widespread attention to the abuses of the Putin-era judiciary does not in and of itself mean that those abuses have been obscured. Attractive women and serious journalism can and do mix.

But not here, apparently! Mr. Foust’s claim that “focusing on the spectacle of Pussy Riot actually obscures from the real issues that prompted the Pussy Riot trial in the first place” is proven by quotes from a New York Times article about an event in support of Pussy Riot, held at a hip Manhattan hotel and mostly attended by well-off, liberal women and mid-range celebrities for whom he actually appears to ooze disdain:

It wasn’t thousands of people rallying in the streets of Moscow for political freedom that got Le Tigre into Russia, it was three girls in a punk band showing up in her twitter feed. And she responded by going to a poetry reading in Manhattan.

What does Mr. Foust think she ought to have done instead, I wonder? Or does the very fact that she would go to a poetry reading, or Manhattan, negate the value of anything she could do? Look, this isn’t the kind of party I’d go to, either – if there’s a reporter there taking note of Chloe Sevigny’s eyelet dress and flats, it’s probably not my scene – but that doesn’t mean it was completely worthless.

He goes on to protest the numerous mentions of the patriarchy at this event (“I didn’t realize Russia’s biggest sin against freedom was its male chauvinism,” he whines), not seeming to have ever learned that this is a normal thing that happens, different people deriving different meanings from art (which he would capitalize, because Art! How silly and pretentious!). And not seeming to realize that an anti-patriarchy reading of Pussy Riot’s actions would, um, probably not be censured by the group themselves.

He closes his discussion of this article by eviscerating this quote: “Three women standing up against Putin,” she marveled. “They are nobodies. They could be silenced tomorrow. They are sheroes, to the world.”

Kudos for introducing me to the term “sheroes,” but honestly: give me a fucking break. Pussy Riot are not normal peasants grabbed off the road and put on trial for being women — they are rather famous (at least in Russia) political activists who got arrested for political activism. That is a horrible, ludicrous thing for Russia to do, but making them into everyman “boy life sure is hard under government” types is worse than silly. It is ignorant.

Dude, I’m pretty sure that was a reference to Samutsevich’s closing statement:

I now have mixed feelings about this trial. On the one hand, we expect a guilty verdict. Compared to the judicial machine, we are nobodies, and we have lost. On the other hand, we have won. The whole world now sees that the criminal case against us has been fabricated. The system cannot conceal the repressive nature of this trial.

(Except “sheroes,” cause that pun doesn’t work in Russian.) But has he read her closing statement? Does he care about this case at all? I mean, it’s fine if he doesn’t, but then why is he writing about it? Oh, right, to bitch and moan:

That’s what is so awful about the way the Pussy Riot media frenzy has played out. Reporters have focused on the most narrow, attention-grabbing aspect of the story (pretty young punk girls being told feminism is bad and put on trial) and have completely ignored that Pussy Riot are part of a larger mass movement within Russia to demand more political freedom that’s being literally, physically, beaten back by Vladimir Putin’s thugs.

Citation needed. I haven’t seen many articles about this case that haven’t mentioned the mass movement, the larger problems with the judiciary, Putin’s thugs. Like, “Move along, folks, nothing systemic to see here, just some poor pretty little girls being pushed around.” Also, again with the feminism-hating. Literally no one is saying this is about “girls being told feminism is bad,” or, as he asserts above, that these girls are being “put on trial for being women.” Are we straw-manning, here? Josh, do you have a problem with women you’d like to talk about?

I’m sorry, but this just sounds like ordinary whining that there are n00bs on your territory who couldn’t ever possibly know or care as much as you do, with a dash of distaste for women who are obviously not as cool and tough and smart as you. From where I’m standing, the Western attention Pussy Riot has gotten is largely a positive thing. It has been coupled with equal attention and support from within the Russian protest movement – hey, another way it’s unlike Kony 2012! – and, with today’s guilty verdict, two-year sentence, and further arrests of dozens of protesters, I think it’ll be great if the media continues to milk the story’s popularity by demanding follow-up reports from Russia.

The mass media, social media, viral media, Ksenia Sobchak remaking her playgirl image via Twitter – none of these are unproblematic. It sucks that most people don’t know that much about the world around them, until someone somewhere gives a push and a story snowballs big enough to roll downhill and smack them in the ass. And it sucks that those pushes aren’t administered fairly. For example, I would love it if the English reporting on this case had done more to explain what Voina is, and what these women’s ties to it are. But Mr. Foust’s argument that the attention Pussy Riot has garnered is wrong or unjustified just doesn’t hold water.

FREE PUSSY RIOT.

Last week, amateur mushroom-gatherers in a forest in rural Sverdlovsk Province discovered four barrels containing 248 human embryos and fetuses preserved in formaldehyde. The developmental ages of the remains ranged from less than four weeks to more than fifteen weeks. It was not immediately clear whether the remains were the results of abortions or miscarriages – a question that is currently under investigation by forensic scientists.

How the barrels got there and who should be held responsible is also under investigation. The barrels came from a hospital that was identified by tags attached to some of the remains; most Russian hospitals, including this one, contract out biomedical waste disposal. The contractors have denied everything. No one seems to have records to identify the path the remains took after leaving the hospital. The story has resurrected persistent questions about lack of oversight and inadequate funding that have plagued the Russian medical industry since the fall of the Soviet Union. Additionally, it has stirred up conspiracy theories that the remains were used for medical experimentation or stem cell harvesting.

It has also resurrected the deep ambivalence that many in the Russian government feel about the state of abortion in the country, which has fairly liberal abortion laws, provides abortion for free at state-run hospitals, and, like the rest of Eastern Europe, has an anomalously high abortion rate. Russian Duma Deputy Elena Mizulina, chair of the parliamentary Committee on the Family, Women and Children and a constant anti-abortion presence in Russia, has seized on the story. She has used the fetal remains scandal to promote the idea that Russia is home to a sinister black market abortion business: “[Remains of fetuses] at 15-20 weeks means illegal abortion! It’s forbidden after twelve weeks! We’re not talking about the one million abortions [legally performed in Russia each year] but 5-6 million [illegal abortions].” In a separate interview with Izvestia, Mizulina is quoted as saying, “[Abortion after 12 weeks] is unsafe for the mother and is already murder of a fairly well-developed fetus. The remains discovered in these containers were not embryos, but human children – unborn murdered human creatures.” Mizulina is calling for laws educating women considering abortion about where “the so-called medical remains of abortion” end up.

While some illegal abortion undoubtedly take place in Russia, Mizulina’s claims are largely a scare tactic. Her statement about the illegality of mid-term abortions is demonstrably false – Russian law allows abortions after twelve weeks in cases where clear social or medical exemptions demonstrate a “need” for abortion. However, Mizulina’s version of the law could be coming soon. In the 1990’s, when laws were relaxed to decrease the number of illegal “back alley” abortions and ease the burden of unplanned pregnancy on a society reeling from the breakup of the USSR, the list of social exemptions allowing a second-trimester abortion included thirteen items, such as family income below the poverty line, death of the father, or imprisonment of either parent. But Russia has repeatedly scaled back on abortion access since the 1990′s, with lawmakers citing both demographic and moral concerns as justification for restricting women’s rights. As of the law’s latest revision in October of 2011, only one item, impregnation as the result of a crime, remains on the social exemption list.

Legislators aren’t the only ones concerned about the country’s demographics and its moral compass. The Russian Orthodox Church, which has steadily gained both followers and political clout since the fall of Communism and abolition of official state atheism, is vehemently against abortion. In 2010, the Russian Society of Orthodox Christian doctors proposed legislation enacting a 72-hour waiting period for abortions. (It was not signed into law – instead, a variable waiting period of two to seven days, depending on the term of pregnancy, was enacted in 2011.) A press release from the synod’s PR department on the fetal remains scandal called it a result of Russian society’s descent into moral relativism and opined that “society and the state will never solve the demographic problem if people continue to treat their unborn children like trash or raw materials for the medical industry” – an echo of conspiracy theorists’ stem cell harvest fears. The Church will be holding a reading of the Orthodox prayer “For the Innocently Slain” in the forest this Friday, joined by anti-abortion activists.

If Deputy Mizulina’s unqualified medical opinions and proposed use of emotional manipulation to restrict abortion access – and the Orthodox Church’s actions against abortion – sound eerily familiar to American readers, there’s a historical reason for that. The United States isn’t the only country where the resurgence of conservatism has led to a war on women’s reproductive health and a reversal of relatively liberal policies. Anti-choice activists around the world are surely learning at the knee of vocal American activists. The extent to which this particular scandal will shift the landscape in Russia remains to be seen, but it seems likely that it will serve as a symbol and rallying point for those who would further restrict Russian women’s access to abortions – either for a long time to come or until they achieve their goals, whichever comes first.

My friend Denise pointed me to this somewhat amusing piece in the Washington Post about Gennady Onishchenko, the Russian public health commissioner (or “head sanitary doctor,” if we are translating literally from the Russian)/Consumer Safety Commission head, and his crusade against hamburgers – specifically, hamburgers from that beacon of global capitalism, McDonald’s.

Instead of citing specific health concerns connected to the consumption of processed meat and/or deep fried potatoes, he invokes the idea that hamburgers are “not our food,” playing off some Russians’ vague sense of superiority of their diet over the American diet – a sense that is deeply ingrained in the culture (after all, Viktor Pelevin in Homo Zapiens famously and evocatively coined the term “govnososy,” or “shitsuckers,” to refer to young Russians swilling Coca-Cola) and has undoubtedly been fed (ha) by exactly this sort of official propaganda.

I say “vague sense” because I have found, personally, that Russians who express these feelings of superiority tend not to know much about either what Americans actually eat, except “fast food all the time;” or about what, specifically, makes their own diet better. Like Dr. Onishchenko, they tend to believe that their diet is more natural, even sometimes using the word “organic” to describe it. (Onishchenko: “If you are fond of American chicken legs, you will get them soon. But Russian legs are better. There are less antibiotics and hormones in them. Our legs are better. Buy our legs.”)

But since all the eggs and chicken I ate in Russia came from establishments called “ptitsefabriky,” or “bird factories,” and since the Soviet agricultural system from which the current Russian infrastructure and farming practices are descended did not exactly prize environmentally sustainable, low-output but high-quality techniques, I think I’ll hold out on believing that one until faced with some evidence. Not that the U.S. food supply chain doesn’t produce foods full of chemicals, preservatives, hormones and antibiotics – it just seems likely that the Russian one does as well.

This sort of culinary jingoism is excusable coming from businesses that have to compete against American mega-corporations in a globalized market – take Nikola, a Russian brand of kvas (bubbly fermented rye drink – I promise it’s tastier than it sounds). Nikola sounds like the Russian for “not cola,” and that’s exactly how the drink positions itself in commercials like this, showing the humiliation of an Uncle Sam lookalike circus ringleader by a bear and a guy whose shirt somehow becomes a traditional Russian peasant shirt when he takes a swig of kvas:

 

Appropriate for a commercial venture, but for the Kremlin? Fortunately, as the Washington Post article points out, Russians aren’t just naively swallowing (oh the puns) what Onishchenko is dishing out. I’d say that they don’t exactly naively swallow McDonald’s, either; my experience is that attitudes toward it are far more ambivalent than WaPo lets on. But in any case, wouldn’t it be more effective and responsible of the country’s head public health official and head of the consumer protection agency to offer data supporting his claims, and not just medically inaccurate claims about Russian DNA (“We are people with established traditions and must not fall for exotic types of food – eat what is inherent to your genetics”)  and sales pitches?

(BUY OUR LEGS.)

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