Sophie Pinkham recently received a Ph.D. from Columbia’s Slavic Department. She is the author of Black Square: Adventures in Post-Soviet Ukraine. (August 2020)

IN THE REVIEW

Living by Lies

Vladimir Putin and Konstantin Ernst admiring a replica sword from a film produced by Ernst, Moscow, December 2016

Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin’s Russia

by Joshua Yaffa
Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin’s Russia by Joshua Yaffa analyzes seven examples of how state pressure has distorted the careers and lives of people in contemporary Russia.

Realists of the Soviet Fantasy

Deineka/Samokhvalov

an exhibition at the Manege Central Exhibition Hall, St. Petersburg, November 18, 2019–January 19, 2020
In Aleksandr Deineka’s painting Textile Workers (1927), three barefoot young women in simple shifts work in a light-filled blue-gray space, the rows of bobbins rendered as floating lozenges along the walls. The girl in the foreground, a skinny teenager, pulls a thread from a bobbin that seems to hang in the air. She faces us, but is unaware of our presence: we have the advantage, as if looking through a two-way mirror. On the right side of the canvas, another woman walks pensively into white nothingness. Deineka, one of the Soviet Union’s most successful artists, said the painting was intended to celebrate the rhythms of the factory, but today it looks more like a glimpse into an alternate universe: the early Soviet project, with its vertiginous hopes for a new world.

Blood on the Ice

Chukchi hunting a gray whale in the Bering Sea, Chukotka, Russia, June 2018

Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait

by Bathsheba Demuth
Bathsheba Demuth’s Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait tells the story of how people learned to make money from the seas—specifically, from the waters of Beringia, the region that includes Alaska, the northeasternmost parts of Russia, and the seas in between. At first the money came from sea otters and whales, but when these grew scarce in the mid-nineteenth century, they were replaced with walruses sleeping in piles on the icy edges of the shore; then attention turned to caribou and Arctic foxes, and to the gold, tin, and oil in the earth. But as humans hunted and mined at an ever-accelerating pace, they did so with little understanding of the cyclical and finite aspects of life on earth, or of the ways their actions would disrupt the larger ecosystem, especially one as delicate as that of Beringia.

Ukraine’s New Leading Man

The Ukrainian television series Servant of the People, which aired from 2015 until this year, is the story of Vasyl Holoborodko, a dedicated history teacher in his late thirties who lives with his parents. His father is a taxi driver, his mother a neurologist, and his sister a train conductor.

The Chernobyl Syndrome

A worker measuring radiation after the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine, August 1986

Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future

by Kate Brown

Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster

by Adam Higginbotham
On the night of April 25, 1986, during a planned maintenance shutdown at the Chernobyl power plant in northern Ukraine, one of the four reactors overheated and began to burn. As plant engineers scrambled to regain control of it, they thought for a moment that there had been an earthquake. In fact, a buildup of steam had propelled the two-hundred-ton concrete top of the reactor’s casing into the air, with masses of radioactive material following close behind when the core exploded. The plant workers had been assured again and again of the safety of the “peaceful atom,” and they couldn’t imagine that the reactor had exploded. Firefighters rushed to the scene without special equipment or a clear understanding of the potential risks; they had not been trained to deal with a nuclear explosion, because such training would have involved acknowledging that an explosion was possible.

NYR DAILY

My Quarantine: Savoring the Ramen Western

Koji Yakusho as the gangster and Fukumi Kuroda as his mistress in Tampopo, 1985

Three years ago, a foodie friend recommended the 1985 Japanese film Tampopo, a self-styled “ramen western.” I wasn’t a foodie and I didn’t much care for ramen, so I ignored him. Now dinner has become the thrilling climax of every locked-down day, and my most sensual aesthetic encounters come from the watermelon radishes and candy cane beets that I buy at the farmer’s market. This weekend, I realized that the time had come for me to watch Tampopo—after dinner, of course.