Detour: Russia

Privyet! After often wondering how authentic our experience was in Andorra last weekend, I’m glad that the next place on our itinerary was a country with a lot of cultural resources to help inform our self-guided travels: Russia.


Our weekend social activity seems to be picking up as the weather gets warmer, and this past Saturday Derek’s aunt and uncle had invited us to go to the Museum of Russian Icons with them. The plans to build our weekend around Russia then came together quite nicely.

We “arrived” on Friday evening, with a cold soup, kefir okroshka, and some rye bread. Okroshka is probably best enjoyed on a hot summer day, and summer still seems far off to us New Englanders, but we still wanted to give the soup a try. We also assumed that other food we’d be eating this weekend would be heavier, so it was nice to have something on the lighter side. It also looked quite colorful, thanks to all the chopped vegetables:


Derek wanted to take a picture of the faces I was making while eating the (store-bought) rye bread, but of course he knew better. I guess I’m not a fan of 100% rye bread, as it’s rather sour and crumbly. Derek pointed out that Russia is the first country where one of us has ancestral roots, since his Polish relatives are from the Russian side of Poland. Maybe that explains his tolerance for the bread. Unfortunately for me, we had more rye bread in our future this weekend.

On a tastier note, we also made pryaniki, spice cookies, that evening as well. They were like soft gingerbread cookies–much easier to eat than the rye bread.photo1-2

We enjoyed a few while watching a 1957 film called The Cranes Are Flying, the only movie from Russia to ever win the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. We packed some of the cookies to give to Derek’s aunt and uncle the next day, as a little thank-you gift.

Saturday morning began with a breakfast of rye bread, smoked gouda cheese, and salami for Derek, and hard-boiled eggs for me. The rye bread went down much easier with cheese.


Armed with the pryaniki, we went to meet Derek’s aunt and uncle, who drove us all to the Museum of Russian Icons, located in Clinton, Mass. A side shot of the building:


The museum houses the largest collection of Russian Orthodox iconography outside of Russia, and also hosts temporary special exhibits. The  ongoing special exhibit during our visit was “The Tsars’ Cabinet,” a collection of  decorative arts from the two hundred-year Romanov dynasty. This exhibit featured a lot of ceramic work, including figurines that depicted many of the ethnic groups who live in Russia, such as the Samoyeds and Tatars.


But the real treat of our exhibit was a brief talk by the museum curator Kent Russell, who gave us and a number of other museum visitors insight into how icons were made, so that we could better understand the many objects on display. While we tend to think of art as a way for the individual artist to show off his or her talent, the makers of Russian icons have had different goals: to venerate the saints and other religious figures depicted, and to help educate followers of Orthodox teaching (many of whom were illiterate in earlier centuries).20140412_110552The museum was an interesting blend of old and new: icons and other artifacts that were centuries old, in contrast with modern features like LED lighting and a solar-paneled roof. The opening picture in this post also shows the old and the new: tea samovars against the colorful LED lighting, in the museum’s Russian Tea Room, where tea and snacks were available for purchase.

We also visited the Tower Hill Botanic Garden that afternoon. We had done some research earlier about Russian flora, but didn’t find the national flower, chamomile, in bloom anywhere. We did, however, find this by chance:


After our fun day west of Boston on Saturday, Derek and I were looking forward to digging deeper into Russian culture within the city on Sunday. We breakfasted on syrniki, cottage cheese pancakes, and Russian tea, a blend of black tea steeped with spices, orange and lemon juices, and sugar. We had some trouble making the syrniki at first, since the batter was thin and our pancakes fell apart when we tried flipping them, but then we added more flour than the recipe prescribed, and were more successful afterwards.


For lunch, we made a cabbage pie. Again, we had some difficulty with the recipe, as our pie crust dough didn’t stick together very well. The end result may have not looked very pretty, but it was tastier than it appeared.


Later in the day, we took the T to Newton and had dinner at Cafe St. Petersburg, which has some nice murals on its exterior. As we were about to enter the restaurant, some other diners were leaving, and so we stepped aside to let them out first. One woman said something in another language, and we assume she was thanking Derek in Russian. Maybe we can pass as natives! Or at least Derek can, in this case.

IMG_0992We started our meal with eggplant “caviar,” a bowl of vegetarian borscht, and a cabbage pirozhok, which was like a puff pastry bun. I especially liked the eggplant caviar, though I think Derek preferred the borscht. We also had bread at the table, and a few of the slices looked like rye, but they were much easier to eat, and tasted more like other kinds of bread. Perhaps these were more authentic to the Russian experience than the bread I’d been suffering through at home.


“Doesn’t Putin do this?” Derek asked, as he posed for this shot with our entrees. He had the chicken schnitzel with plum sauce and a side of fried potatoes, while I had the vegetarian stuffed cabbage, filled with rice, carrots, and chopped dried fruit.


We were very full afterwards, so we skipped the crepes and napoleon pastries available for dessert. Back at home, we watched the 2006 film Piter FM, which didn’t seem too different from a quirky, independent American romantic comedy.

Our Russian weekend flew by, and we even ran out of time to squeeze everything in, including a visit to a Russian market in Brookline, and dining at other Russian establishments. These aren’t bad problems to have, though, so I’m not complaining. I know we’ve only scratched the surface in terms of learning about Russian culture, since it’s such a big country with diverse groups of people, but we certainly enjoyed what time we’ve had. Spasibo, Russiya! Thanks, Russia!

– Jess

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