Anastasia Edel is a San Francisco-based writer who grew up in southern Russia, and is the author of Russia: Putin’s Playground: Empire, Revolution, and the New Tsar (2016). (November 2017)

Follow Anastasia Edel on Twitter: @AEdelWriter.



The Big Smoke

San Francisco seen from Treasure Island as orange smoke and haze from multiple wildfires blankets the Bay Area, California, September 9, 2020

The beach, a scintillating embodiment of the California Dream just hours earlier, now looked more like the landing pad for Charon, the ferryman of Hades, with wisps of yellow smoke hovering above leaden waves and pebbles. It is hard not to think of California’s wildfire plight as a metaphor for America’s decline. “Just come to the state of California,” Governor Newsom said. “This is a climate damn emergency. This is real.” When the president finally visited the state, for a mere two hours this past Monday, he told its suffocating residents to be patient: “It’ll start getting cooler. You just watch.” It felt like an inverted déjà vu of what Trump had said about the coronavirus in February, when he told Americans to wait till “when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.”

Putin’s Constitutional Tsarism

Russia being a strongman’s domain, Vladimir Putin could have achieved his goals, as he always has, simply by pulling on the various levers of his power vertical. There is no organized resistance to the current order; the country is stable and the military is loyal. Why engage in this lengthy political spectacle of rewriting the Constitution? The answer may lie in Putin’s ambition: only a truly great leader, by his reckoning, can succeed in enshrining his personal whims as the “law of the land.” Propped up by the God he has now plugged into the Constitution, Putin wants to reign supreme over his vast domain, a father to a “nation of victors,” a tsar in all but the name.

Pandemic Journal, March 17–22

Dispatches on the coronavirus outbreak from Madeleine Schwartz in Brooklyn, Anne Enright in Dublin, Joshua Hunt in Busan, Anna Badkhen in Lalibela, Lauren Groff in Gainesville, Christopher Robbins in New York, Elisa Gabbert in Denver, Ian Jack in London, Vanessa Barbara in São Paolo, Rachel Pearson in San Antonio, A.E. Stallings in Athens, Simon Callow in London, Mark Gevisser in Cape Town, Sarah Manguso in Los Angeles, Ruth Margalit in Tel Aviv, Miguel-Anxo Murado in Madrid, Tim Parks in Milan, Eduardo Halfon in Paris, Anastasia Edel in Oakland, and more.

A Winter’s Night at the Bolshoi, 1985

Muscovites gathering in the snow, USSR, 1983

“Mama,” I shouted at the top of my lungs, waving the ticket victoriously. “I got it! Orchestra!” Unlike my mother, I didn’t see a man running toward me. It was just that suddenly there was nothing in my hand, still raised above my head. I only saw him running away—with my ticket—pushing aside some passers-by, the crest of his red shapka bobbing between fur coats and dublyonkas, then disappearing into the snow, along with Romeo and Juliet, the rising star Nadezhda Pavlova, and everything good in this world. 

My Chernobyl Vacation Friend

A Black Sea resort beach, 1982

They’d have looked like regular vacationers had it not been for a slightly startled expression they all shared. They followed the waiters obediently. Suddenly, a whisper ran through the dining hall: “Chernobylskye.” People from Chernobyl. In a moment, we got new neighbors: a woman in her early thirties and a girl of five. By the meal’s end, we’d learned that Varya and Katya were from Gomel, a Belarus city about seventy miles north of Chernobyl. At the beginning of June, the plant where Varya worked had started distributing free vouchers to Black Sea resorts. The sea air was healthful and healing, the plant’s management had told them, though nobody would say what they might need healing from.

Shostakovich, My Grandfather, and the Chimes of Novorossiysk

Dmitri Shostakovich with Anatoly Alexandrov, the author’s grandfather, Novorossiysk, Russia, 1961

Once, my grandfather telephoned Shostakovich to say he was in Moscow, with two bottles of Novorossiysk’s famous Abrau-Durso champagne and—no less famous, though in narrower circles—some salted bream. “Why are you sitting there all alone?” Shostakovich demanded. “Haul them over!” The composer and the mayor demolished the meltingly oily fish in Shostakovich’s kitchen, washing it down, blasphemously, with champagne. He and Grandfather used to play film-score music four-handed, a homage to their youth, when both earned extra rubles by playing accompaniment to silent movies. While Shostakovich played, the nervous tics that habitually plagued his features disappeared. He seemed almost happy. And so I grew up with a sense of tantalizing proximity to genius and history and to the men who made it—one with music, another with the monument that enshrined it.

The Pioneers’ Palace Performs in Moscow

The author and fellow members of the

On the last day of 1980, the announcement came: our Pioneers’ Palace had been invited to perform at the Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy in Moscow. My task was to announce the song numbers—“Bread Is A Land’s Glory,” “March of Pioneers,” “A Circle Dance of Friendship,” and so on—with “ringing optimism,” no small feat given that my voice, though loud, was naturally in a low register. When, at last, the day we’d prepared for over six long months had arrived, we lined up at 9 AM sharp, trembling with anticipation, in front of the Exhibition’s main entrance, a giant triumphant arch topped by the bronze “Tractor Man and Kolkhoz Woman” thrusting forward a bunch of wheat.