Saturday, December 17, 2011

Christmas in old Russia


Red Square at Christmastime

            We were spending our first Christmas in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, a country that didn’t seem to pay much attention to such things as “Christmas”.  It was 1981, and Leonid Brezhnev was General Secretary of the Communist Party.
            Lenin, and Stalin and all the Communists never were able to wipe out Christianity in the USSRI always had the feeling that many of the most dedicated communists still had buried deep in their psyche a rich religious tradition. 
            At Christmastime we attended Russian Orthodox religious services, which were beautiful, with priests wearing splendid robes, incense, and chanting parishioners. 
Karl Marx wrote dismissively about religion*, but deep into the Communist era, we observed devout Communists using words that showed that it was still a part of them.

*“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness”  Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right

Many Russians never dismissed religion, and so when the USSR disappeared, and new Russia emerged, back came all the priests and churches, and the faithful, as if they had never left.
            Our maid, whom we figured was a Major in the KGB, and was assigned to report on all of our doings, had her husband, the plumber at the East German embassy, find us a Christmas tree.  It was a rather pitiful tree, but we appreciated their thoughtfulness.  Ludmila may have been a KGB agent, but she was a wonderful woman, and we learned a lot about life in Russia from her.
            Our middle son, Mark, had spent the last several months living with us in Moscow, and our daughter had been attending high school at an American school in High Wycombe, England She arrived by air from London.
Son Mark at the Train for Helsinki

Leningradsky Vokzal (Station). Our oldest son John and his friend Ned Walsh, both seniors at University of Rochester, had been conducting a low-cost, backpacking trip across Europe for several months, and the plan was for them to arrive by rail in Moscow three days before Christmas.  However, we had not heard from them for several weeks.   
 This was before cell phones and email. However, surrounded as we were in the USSR with much uncertainty, we didn’t think there was much of a chance that the two college boys would actually make it across the Soviet frontier by the overnight train from Helsinki, Finland, on time. 
            It was snowing lightly as we walked through Leningradsky Station. Moscow has 14 train stations, most of them large termini for trains going to destinations all across the country. This station was for trains between Helsinki, Leningrad and Murmansk and other points in the far north.  Across the street was another rail station, for the Trans-Siberian Railway.  Other stations around the city served Kiev, Odessa, Poland and the rest of Europe, and so on. 

Scene from Doctor Zhivago: Julie Christy and Omar Shariff

            Russian train stations were pretty much like a scene from “Doctor Zhivago”.  Grim-faced travelers with huge, heavy bags.  The women often wearing babushkas and the men wearing wool hats, or fur shapkas, but you’d also see a few Turkomans or Khirgiz or Uzbeks or Tadzhiks in their native dress.  Then there were the drunks. Large stations had a room where they would put the very drunk men seen staggering around the station, and you could look in where they were jammed in so tight they could hardly fall over.
            We reached the track for the train from Helsinki and shortly the train chugged in, and the people poured off.  They were mostly Soviet citizens, but there were a few international travelers, including young people with back packs. There were also Soviet soldiers and sailors.
            But no John or Ned!  We began to wonder how in the world we would catch up with them.  With everyone off, the train began to back out, to go over to another location to get cleaned up for the return trip.

Soviet Train Women Meant Business.

            Then, just as the train started to move faster, our son and his friend jumped off, with all their backpacks and jackets flying after them.  One of the sturdy, officious Soviet women who ruled the trains with an iron hand had found these two laggards still asleep in their compartment!  The boys had thought they had another 12 hours to travel. She booted them off unceremoniously.  Welcome to Moscow!
            We gathered the boys and their belongings and rushed them back to the Embassy, and Christmas.
            Chinese General Decorates our Tree.  We had a Christmas party, and one of our guests was the Chinese Defense Attaché, a large, burly man who resembled Mao Ze Dong.  Chinese military did not wear insignia of rank, but we figured this guy was about a Major General. 
            He brought for a gift a very beautiful set of Christmas tree ornaments made with bright colored feathers, and he insisted upon putting them on our tree himself.  He was as excited as a little boy doing that!  We still cherish those ornaments today, 30 years later.
            At that Christmas party we also had the Swedish, British, West German, Japanese, Italian, French, Turkish, Norwegian, Canadian attachés and wives, officials from South Korea, Chile, India, Egypt, our Ambassador, and other Americans.  But no Russians, as our government was showing the USSR our displeasure at their invasion of Afghanistan.
             It was a good Christmas.


[The foregoing Blog was originally published June 20, 2011.  It has been modified for re-posting for Christmas, 2011.]

Here are a few books and papers from The Personal Navigator:

Ginx's Baby: His Birth and Other Misfortunes. A Satire. By anonymous (Edward Jenkins?) 1871 Boston, MA: James R. Osgood & Co. Poor Ginx and Mrs. Ginx keep having babies and the Queen sends £3 when they have triplets, and £4 when they have quadruplets.  Thirteen is too much, and so Ginx offers to drown the little boy. We meet Sister Suspiciosa, and the suggestion that Mrs. Ginx should consecrecate her breast milk.  She's  a protestant, though. There's Adolphus Stigma and Dignam Bailey, Q.C. and the conflict of Popery and Protestantism on the Queen's Bench. This is a nice piece of satirical humor, showing the ridiculous extremes to which well-meaning (perhaps) people may go. [Note: Author anonymous, but generally considered to be Edward Jenkins.] 125 pp.+ adv. 11 x 16.6 cm. Brown cloth on board with gilt decorated title.  Spine torn in two places, over 3 cm. Text block clean and tight. Good. (2735)  $21.50. Humor/Educational

Humourist's Own Book, The; A cabinet of original and selected anecdotes, bons mots, sports of fancy, etc. 1835 Philadelphia, PA Desilver, Thomas & Co. Small book loaded with humorous stories: Whitfield, Union of Literary Compositions; Pun by the Ettrick Shepherd; Daft Willie Law; Scarcity of Asses; Timber to Timber; Peter Pindar, many more. 284 pp. 8 x 13 cm.  (6434) $40.00. Humor 

My Wife's Fool of A Husband, illustrations by True Williams by Berkeley, August 1890 Hartford, CT: American Publishing Company Author has a marvelous wit-- his story of his life is funny a century later. 471 pp. 15 x 23 cm. Cloth on board, cover soiled, lightly frayed, inside front hinge partly torn. Fair condition. (1819) $30.00. Humor/Biography.

One of drawings from Hull's set shows melee against the "Chinee", above

Plain Language from Truthful James (The Heathen Chinee) by Francis Bret Harte (1839-1902); Table Mountain, 1870
Collection of nine drawings by Joseph Hull, published by the Western News Company, Chicago, 1870.  This collection dramatizes the racial prejudice against Chinese brought to America to work on the railroad in the 19th century.  Note the eighth drawing in the series, showing an all-out melee against the “Chinee”. Nine prints, matted. 20 x 25 cm. Set of nine prints, matted in blue cardboard matting. Title card is not present. Lightly soiled. Print No. 6 has 1 x 1 cm tear in lower left hand corner. Good.(7093) $85.00. Humor/Poetry..

Ponkapog Papers, First Edition by Aldrich, Thomas Bailey 1903 Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co. Former editor of Atlantic Monthly published this delightful, if scattered, collection of thoughts, comments and witticisms, written on former Indian reservation near Boston. 195 pp. 11 x 19 cm. Cloth on board, excellent. Ex-lib: Oak Grove School Library. (1242) $28.00. Humor/Literature.

Rejected Addresses: or the New Theatrum Poetarum,  Tenth Edition 1813 London, England: John Miller, 25, Bow-Street.  Collection of bizarre "addresses" on the occasion of the reopening of Drury Lane Theatre, completely rebuilt after a fire. Funny, disrespectful, shameless humor.  It is interesting to see how much of this is still funny, nearly two centuries later!  In "'Hampshire Farmer's Address"  there's reference to cheap soup: "soup for the poor at a penny a quart, ...mixture of horse's legs, brick dust and old shoes." 'England is a large earthen-ware pipkin.  John Bull is the beef thrown into it. Taxes are the hot water he boils in. Rotten boroughs are the fuel that blazes under this same pipkin..." 127 + 5 pp. adv. 10 x 16.2 cm. Quarter leather, marbled boards, worn. On front pastedown is bookplate (oriental motif)  of Russell Gray pasted over fine signature of Henry Wilkinson, and on front free endpaper is name, "Russell Gray 1883--" [Russell Gray was Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, noted for his ruling granting citizenship to the children born in the U.S. to Chinese immigrants working on the railroads.]  Good. (5246) $30.00. Humor

American Mercury, The,  A Monthly Review Edited by H.L. Mencken & George Jean Nathan, January 1924; Vol. I No. 1, First Issue Mencken, H.L., Editor 1924 New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf. With Mencken as editor one might expect brilliance, and this inaugural  issue has it. The Editorial announces the intent of the new magazine to devote itself pleasantly to exposing the nonsensicality of hallucinations of utopianism and the lot.  The lead article "The Lincoln Legend" by Isaac R. Pennypacker, gives a new and more robust look at the life of President Abraham Lincoln.  His forefathers were iron-masters, capable leaders in their communities, giving a lie to the myth of the simple railsplitter.  As a war leader, Pennypacker compares him with Jefferson Davis, and Lincoln comes up far superior. "The Drool Method in History" by Harry E. Barnes is a humorous attack on purveyors of "pure history" --- the superiority of the Aryans, the discovery of America was by well-meaning religious people; the sole cause of our ancestors' embarking upon wintry seas to come to the New World was religious freedom; Loyalists in the Revolution were a gang of degenerate drunkards and perverts, etc.  "The Tragic Hiram" by John W. Owens is contemporary political commentary, about Borah, La Follette, Hoover and Harding-- but skewering Johnson.  144 pp. 17 x 25 cm. Magazine, writing on advertisement, first page of magazine: "Ruth Schliveh's shower Jan. 19, 1924"… and "Bill Paxton Brown U. 1924."  Very good. (7663) $76.00. Literature/History

Biographical and Critical Miscellanies, New Edition by Prescott, William H. 1859 Boston, MA Phillips, Sampson & Co., No. 12 Winter Street Collection of literary essays, the last, about Spanish Literature, is new to this edition. Also: Charles Brockden Brown, Bancroft, Sir Walter Scott, Irving's Conquest of Granada, Moliere, Italian Poetry, Da Ponte. 729 pp. 15 x 24 cm. Quarter calf with marbled boards, Very good, bright, clean copy. Minor wear to leather spine, corners. mep. Contains portrait of author with tissue guard. (1871) $50.00. Literature/Educational/Criticism.

English Traits, by Emerson, Ralph Waldo 1876 Boston, MA: James R. Osgood & Co., Late Ticknor & Fields  and Fields. Osgood & Co. This is Emerson's frank and tart assessment of the Englishman.  He calls on Coleridge and gets a blast against Unitarianism. He visits Wordsworth and gets an assessment of America:  No class of gentlemen (a class of men of leisure),"too much given to the making of money."  Emerson discusses "Race" vis-à-vis the British, and also Arabs, negroes, French and others. Then he discusses "Ability", and "Solidarity". "Character"-"-the British are reputed morose......they are sad by comparison with the signing and dancing nations." He also discusses Aristocracy, Literature, Universities and makes a special trip to Stonehenge, and discusses that. His overall assessment of the British is quite positive. . 312 pp. 12 x 18 cm. Beige cloth on board, blindstamped design with gilt title, slight wear to heel and toe of spine; small nameplate "Clara Hersey, 315 Walnut Ave." on front pastedown.  Very good. (1789) $22.00. Literature/Travel

Golden Thoughts on Mother, Home and Heaven 1878 New-York, NY: E.B. Treat, 805 Broadway.  Introduction by Rev. Theodore L. Cuyler calls this  a collection of "golden gleanings". Excellent example of widely sold sentimental volume, collection of many well-known authors in poetry on prose in three sections: Mother, Home and Heaven. After title page is page "Presented to:” in elaborate illumination, for some lucky mother. (Not filled in). Includes the maudlin poems of death of small children that was so much a part of this era.   Writings by Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, Joanna Baillie, Saxe Holm, E.L. Cassanovia, Fanny Crosby, Mrs. L.H. Sigourney, Phillips Brooks, Daniel Webster, Noah Porter, D.D., Joseph Addison, many more. 414 pp. 16 x 23 cm. Decorated brick red cloth on board with elaborate gilt and black design, very slight signs of wear on cover; frontispiece engraving and title page foxed. No dj. Book is clean and tight, very good. (5379) $29.00. Literature/Poetry/Religious

Little Men: Life at Plumfield with Jo's Boys, First Edition. by Alcott, Louisa M. 1871 Boston, MA: Roberts Brothers Louisa May Alcott's classic about playful, mischievous, energetic boys. With 4 pp. of publisher's advertisements inserted between the front end papers. 376 pp. 11 x 17 cm. Cloth on board with gilt lettering on spine and cover; cover faded and water stained, Heel and toe of spine frayed, bottom of front cover frayed, corner bumped. Binding tight. Text block very good. Overall good. (1363) $60.00. Literature/Fiction.

Frontispiece and Title Page, Scelta di Favole

Scelta Di Favole; Raccolte da' più celebri Autori Francesi, e Rese in Italiano Da Maria Raffaela Caracciolo de' Duchi di Rodi Per uso de' suoi Fratelli, coll' Aggiunta 1816 Napoli, Italia: A. Garruccio Stampatore. 110 pp. 14 x 21.5cm. Collection of Stories chosen from the work of the most celebrated Author, Signor de la Motte Fenelon (1671-1715). François de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon was a French Roman Catholic Archbishop, theologian, poet and writer.  Booklet by Raffaele Caracciolo de Duchi di Rodi is dedicated to his parents, and is for the edification of his younger brothers.  Stories are: La Prefazione; La Vigna ed il Vignjuolo; Il Cane colpevole; Il Zoppo, il Gobbo,il Cieco; Il Pazzo, Socrate, ed un suo Scolare; La Pecora, ed il Cane; I Pastori; La Pernice ed i suoi Figli; La Morte; Giove e Minosse; Il Cardellino; L'Orso giovine ed il di lui padre; I topi giovini, ed il lor padre; and One-hundred six  Massime scelte (Selected Maxims), rendered in both French and Italian. Includes frontispiece engraving, "La Tranquillità" showing young woman seated beneath a tree with three lambs nearby. Truly a delightful little booklet.  Fair condition, paper bound, very rough cut. Engraved illustration as frontispiece. At top left of frontispiece page is small pasted stamp with library information. (0184)  $185.00. Literature/Morality


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