Russia – Culture Smart! by Anna King

When I was about five, I received my first atlas. I have a very clear memory of asking my mum what that massive section of the world that seemed to be called USSR was all about. At that instant an obsession was born. One that has continued to this day – intensifying somewhat when I made a proper Russian friend, and when I visited that Russian.

An obsession with maps was also born, but that’s perhaps another story.

When I saw this book in Waterstones before Christmas I didn’t buy it, reasoning that it would probably appear in my stocking on Christmas morning. Well, apparently nobody else spent quite as much time lurking in the Russian travel section as I did, and it did not appear. The Amazon voucher I received did the trick, though. Let’s gloss over the fact I said I wasn’t going to buy any more books.

The book starts with a history section which is really interesting, before moving onto different areas of Russian life, explaining the customs that you should bear in mind, and providing an insight into the Russian way of thinking.

My favourite section was about Russian superstitions. I love a good superstition, so it was great to add a few to my list: never shake hands across a threshold (this is repeated many times – must be important), always sit for a while before making a journey, don’t return to the house if you’ve forgotten something, do get married in the rain, always give an odd number of flowers.

Overall, the book was very interesting, and the illustrations made it feel quite fun, although I sometimes felt that I was told something but the details behind it weren’t fully explained. I found it a nice addition to my carefully stored up Russian knowledge, and I look forward to investigating the answers to the questions it left me with in the future.

Church on Spilt Blood

This church was built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated twice, although not where he actually died. Different in style from the rest of St Petersburg, this was the most beautiful church I have ever been to.
I was pleased to find it just as ornate inside as it was outside. Not having been inside a Russian church before I wasn’t sure what to expect. They’re very different from the Catholic and Church of England churches I’ve visited before. One interesting thing is that there are no seats. The church services can last for three or four hours, and pain of standing or kneeling for that period is supposed to bring you closer to God.
The temporary shrine over the cobblestones where the blood was spilt remains in place inside the church, and led to the embankment being extended over the canal to incorporate both the shrine and the necessary layout of a Russian orthodox church.
This picture, with a depressed soviet in the foreground, was exactly what I expected Russia to be like before visiting.

Anna Karenina (2012)

Having read Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, I wasn’t sure exactly how I was going to feel about a film adaptation. If for no other reason, then just because the book is so bloody long. How can you condense something of that size into a two hour film?

The answer, it seems, is by setting the majority of it in a theatre (cleverly mirroring Tolstoy’s own feelings about the superficial nature of Russian society), and by chopping out the boring bits where Levin bangs on about farming reforms for 300 pages. Instead we are left with a rather pleasant montage of him discussing slavery while working with the peasants.

I went to see it with a friend and my boyfriend (actually the other two members of the Bond watching club). Neither of them had read the book, so it was interesting to get their feedback. My friend ‘couldn’t get her head round the fact that it was set in a theatre. Was the book any better?’. She has little time for the avant garde. My boyfriend was a lot more enthusiastic, saying that although he found the story dull, he thought the actual film was beautiful. He’s quite interested in the film making process, so I was pleased that he enjoyed that aspect of it.

And it was beautiful. I loved the theatre setting, I loved the stylised feeling, the sweeping set changes, the rhythms created by the extras which were incorporated into the soundtrack, it was all wonderful. However, I had other problems.

Firstly, I’m not a fan of Keira Knightley. She’s stunning, and that worked very well in this film, but she spends a lot of time playing the same character in each film. I’ve seen every expression on her face so many times now, I can’t help but wonder if she pulls the same faces in her every day life.

Secondly, Anna Karenina is not the most exciting story in the world. I think a good job was made of condensing it, but it remained less than scintillating.

Finally, I didn’t like the translation which they used. The copy of the book I read was spellbindingly quotable, and it’s a shame that they didn’t use more of the dialogue from that. Some of my favourite lines from the book were in the film, but with an awful clunky phrasing.

I normally just avoid watching films which are adaptations of books I’ve read. They don’t work for me and I come away feeling let down. This was a rare example of a film being better. I’d watch it again, which is unusual for me anyway, but especially unusual when I found the story a little dull. Sometimes, just sometimes, good looks can be the most important thing.