Thursday, December 13, 2007

Experience in Moscow: Part 6 (Final Blog)

December 13, 2007

Dearest Friends, Family, and Faculty,

Well, all things must come to an end, and so my journey abroad has finally reached its pinnacle. In just four short days, I’ll be back in sunny Florida, reflecting on this surreal experience. All of our final performances are over…all we have left is our evaluation meeting and reception. Then I’ll have two days to just chill out and do some last minute exploration. I plan to: visit Novo Devichy, the cemetery where some of Russia’s greatest artists are buried, including Konstantin Stanislavski and Anton Chekhov; go to a “banya,” a Russian sauna where you steam for hours and get beaten with branches (apparently, it’s good for circulation)…which should be a very interesting and very Russian experience; take a tour through the Kremlin, which is essential to any visit to Moscow; and see RICHARD III once more on my last night here. I’m sure I won’t get much sleep as we’ll be celebrating and mourning all night long, drinking to our health and sorrows like true Russians.

Anyway, here’s the final chapter-by-chapter update on the rest of my experience in Russia:


Melikhovo: Other than our trip to St. Petersburg, we’ve only been inside of Moscow. Between classes, rehearsals, and performances, we’re always so busy, and with only single-day weekends, it’s nearly impossible to find the time to travel outside of the city. So, it was especially exciting two weeks ago when it was announced that we would be taking an excursion to Melikhovo, a little village about two hours outside of Moscow, home of legendary playwright Anton Chekhov’s estate.

That Sunday, we traveled by bus to Melihovo, and got to see a little bit of Russian country-side on the way. We also experienced the deadly Russian cold, the kind that, even through two layers of gloves, burns your hands with a freezing chill.

Even so, the trip was incredible. We strolled leisurely around the village, saw quaint little country houses, visited a tiny Russian orthodox church and cemetery, walked along a glittering frozen lake, and best of all, took a tour of Chekhov’s country home. Like the Stanislavski and Meyerhold apartments, seeing Chekhov’s home really humanized the writer. Just seeing the desk on which he wrote THE SEAGULL, his personal book-case stacked with world literature, the kitchen with the authentic Russian samovar, the family photos and portraits…one can’t help but feel the energy of that place. Chekhov would spend most of his time in Melikhovo writing, basically inventing modern drama. Without Chekhov, there is no modern drama, no realism in the theatre. So, for an actor, this was like visiting a holy place, traveling back to the origin of one’s art.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t feeling too well that day. I think some of the Russian food was disagreeing with my digestive system. But luckily enough, I had Marianna, the head of our studio, to suggest a traditional Russian remedy: 50 grams of vodka with half a teaspoon of salt. Apparently, such a mixture is good for any illness. “If my dog was feeling sick, I would give him the same,” she said. Gotta love Russian medicine!

On the bus-ride back, Marianna and some of her Russian students who joined us on the excursion, introduced us to another Russian tradition…telling fortunes via Pushkin! Basically, you choose three pages and lines at random from Alexander Pushkin’s epic poem “Eugene Onegin” to tell one’s fortune. When I asked, “So, is this just a Russian superstition?” one of the students gave me a serious gaze and said: “Eugene Onegin never lies.” So, as I chose three random lines, Marianna revealed three things about me according to Pushkin: 1. I am very popular, and the people who know me want me to visit them; 2. I will write a song or poem for a girl from another country; and at the third fortune, Marianna and her students gasped and stared at me for a few seconds, giggling, then Marianna said: “You are a very dangerous man. It says that you are a heartbreaker.” While this tradition can be quite hilarious and might be seen by some as silly, to me, it is merely another illustration of the nearly spiritual respect Russians have for their artistic and literary history.

The Gypsy Car: Just a quick story that I thought was worth mentioning. A few of us were running late to class the other day, so much that even the Metro wouldn’t get us there in time. So we resorted to an alternative form of transportation that we had learned about awhile back, but never ventured to try. We walked a block along Tverskaya St. and stuck out a finger, but not to hail a taxi. A few seconds later, a random civilian car pulled over and offered to drive us to MXAT for 200 rubles, making it 50 rubles each (about $2…the same as one subway ride in NY). It’s a way for someone to make an easy buck: as long as you’re driving down Tverskaya, why not pick up a pedestrian and give them a quick ride? It’s basically short-distance hitch-hiking. I have to say I was a little nervous the driver would be a psychopath who might kidnap and murder us, but in five quick minutes, I was at MXAT, as opposed to the 30 minutes it takes to walk. So for two dollars, it was worth being a gypsy for one morning.

Chanukkah Celebration: After the success of the Thanksgiving Extravaganza, the small group of Jewish students in our American studio decided to put together an intimate Chanukkah shindig to honor the holiday. Many of us, Jews and gentiles alike, contributed an eclectic collection of food: latkes, doughnuts, stir-fry, salads, cookies. I contributed a bottle of wine, for fear of burning down the kitchen with my spectacular culinary skills. We vaguely explained the story of Chanukkah (we secular Jews don’t necessarily know all the nooks and crannies of the stories, but we do know how to eat!), sang Hebrew songs, lit candles, said a couple of prayers, and feasted! Our movement teacher, Natasha, joined us as well as Marianna and some of her Producing students. For many of them, it was their first Chanukkah experience, so it was a joy to introduce them to something new. In chatting with them, I learned that there are actually many Jewish people working at the Moscow Art Theatre. Between Dr. Anatoly Smeliansky, Konstantin Raikin, my teacher Alexander Rezalin, and dozens of other artists and actors of the Russian theatre, Jews contribute some of the finest art when it comes to theatre in Russia. Though I don’t consider myself particularly religious, it brings me great joy to know that, despite the issues of Anti-Semitism inherent in Russia, Jewish people have nonetheless been able to rise to the highest ranks of artistry and achieve greatness in this country.


With only a week left, I didn’t think there would be time for another life-changing theatrical experience, but I’ve learned that in Russia, those experiences are not few and far between. Last week, I was lucky enough to snag a ticket to K.I. FROM CRIME, a highly acclaimed piece directed by Lithuanian-born director Kama Ginkas, considered one of the best theatre artists in Russia. I had no clue what it was about (other than the fact that it was very loosely based on Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”), and thus went to see it blindly. Little did I know what was coming to me.

When we arrived at the theatre, we were led to a dingy third-floor lobby, where a few rows of fold-out chairs were assembled on three sides. And that was it: no sets, no lights…just chairs in a bare, shoddy foyer. The audience was made up of about 40 people, and I could see on some of the faces that people were as confused as I was, and we skeptically sat in the chairs. All of the sudden, from a nearby door, like a jack-in-the-box, out popped a middle-aged blonde woman in a shabby overcoat, oversized worn boots, and a cap adorned with flowers, resembling a crazed homeless woman you would see on the street. She smiled maniacally and ran about sprightly, speaking directly to us in Russian. She sat in people’s laps, made fun of audience members, and from what I could glean, began neurotically sharing her life story, employing grand wild gestures, ranting and raving into our faces. This was beyond audience participation; this was audience invasion! She wasn’t afraid to touch people either…at one point, she spotted a man dozing off, so she immediately began staring him down, poking him, pestering him, and imitating him. She went on in this way for the first 45 minutes, speaking to individual audience members (myself included), showing us family photos, handing out little slips of paper, staring people in the eye silently for so many silent seconds (when she looked at me, it felt like she was peering into my soul). The premise of the play was that the director took a minor character, Katerina Ivanovna, from the epic “Crime and Punishment” and created this theatre piece, a probe into her history, mind, and soul. It’s impossible to describe this woman’s presence; I could not take my eyes off of her. As she continued to rant on, she would erratically explode into fits of rage, hilarious and terrifyingly pitiful at the same time. We all got the sense that she was accusing us in some way; the audience felt a communal guilt.

Eventually, she led us into a tiny white room and introduced us to her three children, who were all dressed in rags, one of them a crippled girl who was dragged around on the floor. As we were led into the room, the woman stared at me, her eyes glowing brightly, and suddenly shouted: “Mr. Raskolnikov!” (Raskolnikov is the main character from “Crime and Punishment”), and from this point on, I was a part of the play. She physically threw a woman out of a seat in the front row and offered it to me, as I was an “honored guest.” Throughout the play, she would approach me and speak to me personally, inches away from my face, sometimes screaming, sometimes begging. While I had no idea what she was saying, it felt like this woman was developing a very specific relationship with me (that is, with Raskolnikov), and somehow, I felt that I personally was the cause of her and her children living in dire straits. I was totally invested in this performance, and the line between theatre and reality began to dim.

As the play progressed, the woman slipped into madness and despair. She would alternately beat and embrace her children, forcing them to sing and dance for money as she viciously played the violin. She would throw her body around violently, expressing the anguish of her existence, guzzling down vodka and nibbling at a single piece of brown bread. I could feel my body cringing at these images, a true visceral and emotional reaction. The play ended with a symbolic death scene: after freezing coldly against a wall and delivering a final monologue with a cold expression of terror, a white ladder held up by a single rope, slowly descended from the ceiling. The woman hurled herself onto it, swung upon it through the air, climbed to the top, and slammed her hands furiously against the ceiling, screaming “Let me in! Let me in!” as dismal music came to a chilling crescendo. It was one of the simplest, but most emotionally wrenching images I’ve seen in theatre (and it beats the pants off of the falling chandeliers, spinning barricades, and helicopters I’ve seen on American stages).

Oksana Mysina, who played Katerina Ivanovna, gave maybe the most charged performance I have ever seen. She is a highly acclaimed Russian artist, having performed this role for 14 years in many different countries (including a brief stint in New York City). She’s also starred in dozens of Russian films, owns her own theatre company, and performs around the world. She has often been hailed as the Meryl Streep of Russia. The piece affected me on the deepest level imaginable. It’s rare that a piece of theatre can affect you physiologically, but I could feel changes in my body as I watched the play, my heart racing, my blood rushing, my insides twisting. I have never experienced something like that before; I don’t know if I ever will again. It only confirms my new-found belief that theatre can be ANYTHING; that there’s no need for fancy sets, costumes, or whatnot. We need only to feel something, to be affected. This is the kind of theatre that fills me, that makes me want to be alive and creative.


Wearing History: For the second half of the semester, we took a History of Russian Costume Design class, where we studied the development of costumes in Russia through different historical eras (and had a crack at drawing our own costume design…oy vey). While I can’t say it’s my favorite subject in the world, our final class was amazingly memorable. Our teacher pulled out an age-old soldier’s uniform, and announced that it was a costume from the original Moscow Art Theatre production of Chekhov’s THREE SISTERS, worn by none other than Konstantin Stanislavski over 100 years ago. All I could think was “I must touch it! I must absorb its power!” But better yet, she allowed some of us to try it on. It fit quite snugly on my scrawny frame (it must have shrunk since 1901, because I remember learning that Stanislavski was over 6-feet tall). Once I finished buttoning the jacket, someone asked me: “Well, how do you feel?” All I could say was: “Talented.” I only hope I gained some of the energy of that historical costume through osmosis.

Konstantin Raikin Lecture: A few nights ago, a dream of mine came true. Konstantin Raikin, the actor I’ve written endlessly about in these blogs, one of my greatest artistic inspirations since coming to Russia, held a Q&A lecture with us, sharing his wisdom, giving us advice, and generally shedding light on his work. Somehow, I managed to grab a seat right next to him, and the lecture was one of the more thrilling experiences I’ve had at school. His respect for young actors is boundless; he wisely proclaimed: “Real actors are forever students,” explaining that it’s better to work with people who WANT to know it all instead of those who CLAIM to know it all. He also described some of his working methods, mainly physical clowning as part of the rehearsal process, and a return to the animalistic roots of acting. Raikin is also a master teacher at MXAT, and we learned of the deep care and compassion he feels for his students. Dr. Smeliansky explained to us that several years ago, during some of Russia’s hardest economic problems, when actors and students were extremely poor, Raikin bought blankets and delivered them to the under-heated dormitory for his students, so that they could keep warm. I was in disbelief throughout the entire lecture…Raikin is bound to go down in history as one of the finest actors Russia has ever seen, and here I was sitting beside him, hanging on his every word. For me, it was like sitting next to Lawrence Olivier or Peter O’Toole or Dustin Hoffman or any other master of art. What a culmination to such an extraordinary semester.

After the lecture, I meekly approached Raikin and held out my hand. As he shook it, I thanked him profusely and said “Happy Hanukkah!” with a smile. Though it took him a second to understand what I had said, he giggled and gave me a pat on the shoulder…I don’t know if I’ll ever was that shoulder again!

Dr. Anatoly Smeliansky: I’ve mentioned him time and again in these emails, but I can’t seem to get over my awe of this man. At the top of his field, he’s simply one of the most knowledgeable Russian theatre historians in the world. He’s also an incredible story-teller, recounting stories about figures in history with great passion and energy. As he’s been so personable with us, I sometimes forget how important a figure he is in Russia. The other day, when I arrived at the dormitory from class, the “babushka” at the door smiled and motioned for me to come into her nook, then pointed at the television. And there was Smeliansky, my teacher, the guy whose class I take every Monday and Wednesday, being interviewed on national TV. Then today, which was Smeliansky’s birthday, when I saw and spoke to him, he casually mentioned the personal birthday telegram he received from Vladimir Putin, who’s only the President of Russia!

Anyway, last week, he gave an amazing lecture on Mikhail Bulgakov. Until then, in his lectures, he would tell us stories that were so vivid, it seemed as if he was right there – part of the history – but in this case, he actually was part of the history, and one could feel his strong personal connection to Bulgakov. Years ago, when Smeliansky was a university student, after Bulgakov had died but before he was very well-known and truly appreciated for his genius, Smeliansky worked on a thesis paper about Bulgakov. He developed a relationship with Bulgakov’s widow, who shared some of the writer’s unpublished work with him. One day, she handed him an original manuscript titled “The Master and Margarita,” which he read in amazement. Well, that book eventually became one of the most important pieces of world literature of the 20th Century, re-sparking idealistic Christian fervor in Communist Russia, even somewhat replacing the Bible. And Smeliansky read it first, and witnessed the battle of getting that book published, as well as the phenomenon it ignited throughout the world.

The man is just an incredible presence and a well of knowledge. What an honor and privilege it is to witness his lectures, to hear his first-hand accounts, to feel the history in his words. Needless to say, I bought “The Master and Margarita” immediately after classes ended that day.


Singing Concert: We began our final performances with a concert, in which we all performed songs we had been working on throughout the semester…musicals, operatic arias, jazz standards, Russian folk songs. With 35 students on the bill, the concert was quite lengthy, but entertaining nonetheless. While not everyone in our group is a trained singer (some had never sung a note in their lives), those who considered themselves musically challenged learned to have fun with their songs, rather than taking them too vocally seriously, maintaining a light and enjoyable atmosphere. I performed a song called “Gethsemane” from JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (in full costume, no less). After having been sick and unable to sing last year, it was invigorating to fully utilize my recently revived voice, and I was extremely proud of my performance. Many of my teachers and peers approached me afterwards, congratulating me on a powerful and moving performance. Dr. Smeliansky personally congratulated me, which was an unbelievable honor. My acting teacher, Misha Lobanov, gave me an enormous hug and told me my performance made him cry. It was the proudest I’ve been of a musical performance of mine in a long time, and I can’t wait to utilize that energy back in the States!

Dance Recital: Our second final exam consisted of a dance recital, put together by our instructor, Larissa Borisovna Dmitrieva. Our group performed Classical Barre Exercises, a Russian folk dance, a Gypsy Dance, a Charleston, an 18th Century Etude and a Greek finale. While we may not be perfect dancers, our energy was through the roof at the performance, and the audience went wild. My body is still aching. It was very difficult to say goodbye to Larissa Borisovna. As an instructor, she maintained a perfect balance of being challenging and encouraging simultaneously. Just her aura, her glowing presence, brought out the best in us. The woman has more love in her heart and passion for her art than many people gain in a lifetime. And I am just floored that I’ve had the opportunity to work with her…many dancers or dance teachers in America would kill for a chance like that. Just reading her official title: “Professor Larissa Borisovna Dmitrieva – Ballet teacher, soloist of the Bolshoi Theatre, Distinguished Artist of Russia, Special National Merit Award of the II Level” (and what a mouthful that is), I can’t begin to imagine the kind of honor it is to study under such a personage. After our performance and bow, we applauded Larissa Borisovna for about 10 minutes and presented her with a bouquet of flowers. And at our behest, the pianist began an allegro and she performed a swift, vigorous, spirited dance for us. And let me tell you, even at age 80, the energy and exuberance that woman has is enough for 10 people! She completely blew us away.

Scene Presentation: Never have I worked so vigorously on a single scene as I have in Russia. As I mentioned in my previous email, I have been working for weeks on a scene from Ostrovsky’s THE FOREST. Along with scenes from Ostrovsky’s THE STORM, Chekhov’s IVANOV, THE CHORUS GIRL, and THE SPOUSE, and Gogol’s THE INSPECTOR GENERAL, our group put together a showcase of scenes as a final presentation. The work leading up to the final performance was grueling but so rewarding. For awhile, I felt my scene had reached a plateau, and I was disheartened, constantly thinking: “My scene is not funny anymore, it’s boring, it doesn’t go anywhere, it’s going to be the worst scene in my group” blah blah blah. But then, when we showed it to the other half of our group (we had been split in half for a few weeks), the laughter in the audience was non-stop, the energy fed us, and the scene took on new life. Marianna complemented us enthusiastically: “There was so much sex in this scene! I loved it!” My friends wondered what I had been worried about. So, there’s another lesson I need to carry with me: Sometimes, in comedy, the play might not come back to life until it is in front of an audience…I must trust the director/instructor, and more importantly, trust myself. Watching each other’s work within our group was fantastic and really solidified our ensemble. I loved getting excited about other people’s work, and being supported by my peers. I owe a lot of this experience to my group, and I think I’ve gained a good understanding of why Russian artists emphasize the idea of ensemble so ardently. Our final performance was extremely successful; I felt I had really made strides in my scene and that the performance was a huge achievement. More importantly, I felt free and relaxed on-stage, even in front of all my teachers, administrators, and peers. However, it was all over in a flash. So much hard work for so long…and then it’s over. Still, I feel I’ve gained a new level of work ethic from this scene; it’s a memory and a process I will keep with me throughout the rest of my artistic career.


Artistically, it’s very hard to say goodbye to this place…this Mecca of the Arts, as I’ve called it before. Coming from America, it’s hard to fathom the kind of respect and adoration this country holds for the arts. For one, theatre here is state-subsidized, meaning the government funds over 700 theatres in Russia. Oleg Tabakov, legendary Russian actor and Artistic Director of the Moscow Art Theatre, is almost like a political figure (he maintains relationships with the most important government officials in Russia, including Vladimir Putin), extremely important and well-respected merely because he is an extraordinary artist. In face, the Russian government itself actually appoints every new Artistic Director of the Moscow Art Theatre. Whereas in America, what is the first thing to go when budgets are cut to education? The arts. Can you imagine George Bush ever strongly supporting any kind of art-form? I sure can’t. In America, when you tell people you’re an actor, you say it apologetically, trying to prove that it’s actually a real profession. In Russia, if you tell someone you are an actor, they may bow to you.

As for Russian people…sure they may not seem as outwardly friendly, they may not smile quite as often, and they may speak more quietly and seriously at times, but I’ve come to realize that they are just like people anywhere else. They are just living under different “given circumstances,” as Stanislavski might’ve said. Sure I’ve come across my fair share of cold gazes, but I’ve also met many wonderful, friendly, warm Russian people who made me feel very welcome here. When you visit a country with the kind of history that Russia has, you are bound to find dozens of societal and cultural differences, but I feel that deep down, people are the same everywhere. Walking down Tverskaya St. is like walking down Broadway, you see people in cafes, eating fast food, listening to their iPods, walking arm in arm with their loved ones. And sure, Russia has its problems, political and socioeconomic, but what country hasn’t those problems? Russia is still at the dawn of a new era, having emerged from the depths of Communism only 20 some odd years ago. Putin is stepping down from the Presidency soon, a preferred successor was just named, the New York Times was actually quoted positively in the Russian media last week; who knows what will happen next? What I do know is that in terms of the arts, Russia is at the top of the world.

It’s strange that I have no classes left, that I’m not rehearsing some scene or etude right now, that I’m not memorizing lines or practicing dance moves. This is like a gray area, and I feel so emotionally unstable, like a ticking time-bomb that might explode at any minute. My nerves are so jangled because I’m leaving and I don’t quite know how to feel about it. On one hand, I’m unbelievably thrilled to come back to America, to my family, friends, and school…to the English language, to American movies, to the little comforts I always took for granted (like clean, drinkable tap water!). But part of me is so content here, fulfilled, enriched. I feel safe, comfortable in my own skin, secure in my work and my art…I just feel so solidly me! But I guess the most important thing is to take these feelings back with me to the States. I never realized that, aside from learning about theatre, art, and history through this experience, I would learn so much about myself.

Thank you to all those who kept up-to-date on my journey. I hope you enjoyed reading these letters as much as I enjoyed writing them. I will never forget my experience in Moscow, and I only wish that you all have an experience so fulfilling in your lives.

With love,

Etai BenShlomo

Friday, November 30, 2007

Experience in Moscow: Part 5

November 30, 2007

Dear Friends, Family, and Faculty,

Wow. I can't believe I'm only three weeks away from coming back to the states. It seems like only yesterday I started writing this blog, but all of the sudden, the streets are glazed in snow, there's an ice-skating rink being built in Red Square, and Christmas trees are sprouting around the streets and squares. The sidewalks are getting more difficult to walk on...Russians don't spread rock salt on the streets like we do in the states to prevent people from slipping...apparently, it's not good for their shoes (typical Russians...sacrifice safety for beauty!). So, winter is here and I'm one step closer to finishing my semester. It's extremely bittersweet. After two and a half months of being here, I really feel that, despite all the daily trials and tribulations, I could definitely live here. I've become a lot more comfortable, and a lot more "Russified"...I've mastered my Russian face (basically, I just keep my eyebrows lowered and a permanent scowl on my face). In fact, Russians don't automatically recognize that I'm American anymore (that is, until I open my mouth). The other day, I was stopped and asked directions by a Russian woman...I had no idea what she was saying or what to say back, but I felt pretty damn proud for fitting in so well.

Once again, I'm sorry I haven't written in so long. As you can imagine, I've been extremely busy, and usually by the time I get a chance to write, it's about midnight. Also, I didn't think there was too much to write about, but looking back at my journal, I realize there's actually quite a bit. So, as usual, I apologize for the Dostoevsky-esque length of this email. I'll break it down as best I can and hope you get through it:


1. Izmaylovsky Park: I've found that it can truly be a struggle to fight the American urge to souvenir shop when in a foreign country. My friend and I decided to make a trip to the dreaded Izmaylovsky Park. It is an infamous outdoor souvenir market known for its enormous crowds and pushy salespeople about a half hour metro ride away from our dorm. Now, for those of you who know me well, you know that I have a pretty heinous phobia of large shopping areas...Wal-Marts, supermarkets, malls...something about them just makes me cringe. So, I was pretty much terrified when I got to Izmaylovsky Park. Hundreds of people pressed against each other, shoving their way through narrow paths, surrounded by silly matroshka dolls (you know, those dolls that open up only to reveal smaller dolls...), painted lacker boxes, cheaply made fuzzy hats. It was kitsch hell. I was completely overwhelmed. I ended up leaving with nothing except a new winter hat (to replace the former ridiculous one I regretfully purchased). I had to be firm and bargain quite fiercely to get a reasonable price for it, though. Ali, the salesman who had mostly gold teeth and a devious smile, refused to budge. I told him I was a student and didn't have much money, and he told me he was a student as well (yeah, right...). But by some miracle, I was able to haggle him down $30 less than his original price. So, I was quite pleased and ran away as quickly as possible. It was an experience, but not one I'd prefer to have again.

2. Weekend with Whitmore: A few weeks ago, I got an email from Whitmore Gray, a supporter of my college's Musical Theatre Department. He had heard from one of my best friends at school that I was studying in Russia. As a former professor of Soviet Law, he visits Russia every several years, and was visiting for a long weekend. He generously offered to be a "visiting parent" to me and invite me to dinner and shows for the weekend. We ended up having a blast! Over the weekend, we saw three productions: DR. ZHIVAGO (a dramatic interpretation infused with live guitarists and vocalists singing Russian folk songs and church hymns), IOLANTA (Tchaikovsky Opera at the Bolshoi Theatre), and an absolutely hilarious production of THE INSPECTOR GENERAL. We also caught a jazz balalaika performance (Russian banjo accompanied by trumpet, drumset, bass, and piano...something you can definitely only see in Russia!). After months of blood, sweat, and tears, it was so refreshing to be treated to such a wonderful weekend and have a new friend with whom to talk about my experience. It's amazing to me that even halfway across the world, I managed to connect with someone related to my University's theatre department!

3. Sami's Birthday: About a week ago, one of my best friends in the program, Sami, had her 22nd birthday, and a few of us invited her out to celebrate. I suggested we go out to eat somewhere we're never able to go...somewhere unique and memorable. So, we browsed through our guide books and found what looked like an interesting Uzbekistanian restaurant called "Keesh Meesh" on Arbat St, a popular pedestrian street and hang-out spot. The restaurant was set up like a traditional Uzbeki tea-house, with Oriental rugs and pillows, a huge tree in the center of the restaurant, branches lining the ceilings, and the staff dressed in traditional Uzbeki garb. The food was fantastic! With apologies to any vegetarians reading this, I ate more delicious mutton than I ever could have dreamed (in case you don't know, mutton is rabbit it was basically my subconscious revenge against having to read "Watership Down" in high school). It was so essential to have an evening off to just have fun and celebrate our friendship (in toasting to Sami, I think we all began to realize just how close we had gotten). I think it was a very special birthday for her, and we all got a little emotional.

However, on the way to the restaurant, we had a bit of an uncomfortable experience. We were approached by three little boys (roughly between the ages of 8 and 12) dressed in ragged, but urban clothing. One of them walked in front of us, facing us and walking backwards. He recognized our English, and began tugging at Sami's coat, constantly asking "Can you money, baby? Can you money, baby?" and begging her "Take me." The other two boys followed behind us, trying to speak to us in Russian. It was a sad and pitiful sight that really shook us up. Eventually, as we walked on past them, they began screaming at us viciously in Russian, probably obscenities. The homeless situation continues to irk me every day. I usually give them change, but nevertheless, one feels helpless in seeing children and elderly folk reduced to practically nothing, at the height of despair.

4. My free morning that ended in filth: Last Saturday, I didn't have class until 2pm, so I decided to take advantage of my free time and do a little sight-seeing and exploration. I, of course, headed to Red Square (my favorite part of Moscow) to do some people-watching, take a tour through St. Basil's cathedral, and visit the State History Museum. The morning began quite successfully, the skies were fairly blue, it wasn't too cold, Red Square was filled with interesting characters to study. I explored St. Basil's Cathedral and was stunned by its beauty: elegant paintings, vibrant colors, centuries-old icons, elaborate winding hallways...a completely different world than outside, I felt like I was transported to the 15th Century. And then it happened...nature called, and it called quite ferociously. I figured there was probably no restroom in a historic cathedral built in 1434, so I abbreviated my journey and went in search of the nearest bathroom. Turns out the closest one was in GOOM (the famously decadent shopping mall in Red of the fanciest and most expensive in Moscow -- and don't forget that Moscow is one of the most expensive cities in the world). Needless to say, I felt slightly out of my element walking into this commercial shrine in my old gray coat and jeans, but I thought to myself: "Hey, at least I'll probably get a fancy bathroom." I frantically asked a security guard "G'dye tualyet?" (one of the more important phrases I had learned in Russian class) and he pointed me towards the restroom. When I arrived, there was a woman with a cash register in front of the men's room. Yes, believe it or not, it actually cost money to go to the bathroom...10 rubles to be exact (only about 50 cents, but still, it's the principle of the thing!) Anyway, I couldn't waste time worrying about saving an extra couple of cents, so I paid the fee and thought to myself: "Wow, this better be the most incredible bathroom I've ever seen." When I walked in, I anxiously perused the bathroom, looking for the gold-plated toilets I had expected. I found the stalls, peered inside, and toilet, but rather a steel hole in the floor. I was in disbelief...I thought I was being "punked." I'm not even going to get into the foul, toxic stench that filled the air. And so, for the first time, your friend and narrator had to...(gulp)...squat. It was an experience, to say the least. And now, here's the punchline: I later found out from one of my friends, that apparently, just two floors up in that mall, there is a free bathroom with regular toilets (if any of you can figure out the logic in that, please email me and let me know, because I am still completely stumped)!

5. Meyerhold Museum: On Sunday, we were taken to the Moscow apartment (which has now been converted into a memorial museum) of Vsevolod Meyerhold, one of the greatest theatre artists in history. Meyerhold, a contemporary of Stanislavski, is considered one of the world's first experimental theatre directors. Internationally renowned, he changed the face of theatre in Russia and the world (influencing future directors and artists around the world) and developed Biomechanics, a psycho-physical movement technique that revolutionized actors' training. We have studied him extensively in our Russian Theatre History class. We learned that he was a radical revolutionary and die-hard Communist, but as the USSR became totalitarian under Stalin, he could no longer adapt to the Soviet state. In the late 30s, Stalin infamously stated: "Russia no longer needs Meyerhold." In 1939, at age 66, as most artists of the Russian Great Utopia, Meyerhold was arrested, tortured, forced to sign confessions of treason, and murdered by the KGB. A few weeks after his arrest in St. Petersburg, the KGB broke into the same Moscow apartment that we visited, and murdered Meyerhold's actress girlfriend Zinaida Raikh, stabbing her 17 times. Our tour guide actually showed us exactly where in the apartment she was murdered and where the killers was unbelievably chilling. Like when we had visited the Stanislavski museum, this visit really humanized Meyerhold. All of the theatrical history here is so modern, that visiting such an important figure's apartment makes you feel like you're within that history, like it is the present. For an artist, it is so inspiring, witnessing the birthplace of one's craft, like visiting one's roots.

6. Jon-Michael's Horror Story: While we've come to feel generally safe in this environment, the dangers of this city are still very real, and sometimes it takes a traumatic encounter to remind us of that. I didn't actually witness this happening, but it's definitely a story worth telling. A few nights ago, my roommate and best friend in the program, Jon-Michael, went out to buy some groceries. On a street-corner near our dorm, a middle-aged, gray-haired Russian stepped out of a car, approached Jon-Michael and started frantically speaking to him in Russian. Jon-Michael tried to communicate that he doesn't speak Russian, and the man understood that he is American. He began to ask: "Bars? Clubs?" Jon-Michael said he didn't know where there were any bars or clubs. The man grabbed his arm and started pulling him towards towards the car, saying "Come with me! Prostitutes! Prostitutes!" When Jon-Michael pushed him away, the man began to grab his belt, again pulling him towards the car. Jon-Michael yelled "No!" and pushed him away again, and them turned around, stepped back into the car and quickly sped off. Thoroughly shaken, Jon-Michael continued on to the grocery store. After picking up the groceries and getting to the register, he reached into his pocket for his wallet...only to find that it was gone. The man had robbed Jon-Michael blind. His wallet contained 4,000 rubles (about $160), credit cards, driver's license, everything one keeps in a wallet. I was in the dorm when Jon-Michael burst in hysterically, terrified that he had just been pick-pocketed. He worriedly called his parents and had them cancel his bank accounts. I tried to help calm him down, explaining that it could happen to anyone, and that he was merely at the wrong place at the wrong time. To think that something like that could happen right outside of our dorm, in our own's very discomforting. Since the incident, we've all been a little more weary of our possessions. However, the story ends brightly. Of course, we all assumed the wallet was lost for good. Yet, this morning, Jon-Michael received an email explaining that his wallet had been found and turned in to the American Embassy. His credit cards and ID were still in there, all that had been taken was the cash and, funny enough, a Metro card. A trolleybus driver found it on the floor of his bus and kindly brought it to the Embassy. So, it all ended relatively happily...Jon-Michael had a memorable life experience, and it only cost him $160!


1. Yuri Butusov, Konstantin Raikin, and Satiricon: I have become completely enamored with the Satiricon Theatre. I've written a great deal about Konstantin Raikin in my previous blog, and I am continuously in awe of his work. After seeing him in RICHARD III twice, I saw him play the title role in KING LEAR. The production blew my mind, the performance was so stirring, I returned to the theatre and saw it again two days later. It was everything a piece of art should be: thought-provoking, funny, moving, emotionally wrenching, visually fascinating. It was one of the most viscerally stimulating productions I've ever progressed along with the title character's madness: as Lear lost his mind, the production became more intense, more abstract, more physical. I think I enjoyed it even more than RICHARD III, which is no easy feat. While Raikin commanded the stage merely with his presence, this production featured the other actors of the Satiricon Theatre just as well, and their talent shone as brightly as Raikin's, creating a real ensemble piece, as opposed to RICHARD III, which was an incredible tour-de-force solo performance, with the other actors overshadowed by Raikin. Both productions were directed by Yuri Butusov, one of the most innovative directors I have witnessed. Before seeing his productions, I could never say I truly LOVE Shakespeare so much as I appreciate it. But Butusov gave me a new understanding of these plays, of how to interpret Shakespeare...a completely new vision of the Bard's genius. I was also able to catch Butusov's production of MACBETT, Ionesco's absurdist adaptation of Shakespeare's "Macbeth," also at the Satiricon. It was so bizarre, and I didn't understand much of what was going on, but the production was an extravagant feast for the eyes, and kept my jaw down through the entire 3 and a half hours. The visuals of the production and physicality of the actors were so dazzling: Macbett came on-stage with a flaming sword, there was a huge glowing hamster ball that the actors stood and moved on, one actor wore a flaming jacket that sparked fire as he was shot, there was a huge dance element to the piece...Macbett tap-danced and Duncan performed ballet pieces, and most stunning of all, fireballs rained on-stage during one of Macbett's monologues. Butusov's vision, imagination, and creativity are unlike anything I've seen in the states.

2. Eimuntas Nekrosius and the Meno Fortas: If Yuri Butusov blew my mind, it's Eimuntas Nekrosius that has torn my soul to shreds. Nekrosius is an internationally acclaimed Lithuanian director, hailed as one of the five best directors in the world by theatre scholars. Within a week, I saw two of his productions that were touring as part of a theatre festival, THE CHERRY ORCHARD and OTHELLO. Nekrosius is particularly known for the length of his shows; THE CHERRY ORCHARD ran at 5 full hours, and OTHELLO ran at 4 and a half hours. As these plays were performed in Russian and Lithuanian, respectively, I feared that sitting through them would be agonizing. However, there's a reason Nekrosius is considered one of the best in his craft. Though many of my peers left during the intermissions, I was personally blown away. Nekrosius makes use of very stylized movement, with each character having distinct "psychological gestures." For example, in OTHELLO, Iago delivered his soliloquies at break-neck speed, standing completely stiff, but twiddling his fingers maniacally. Desdemonda was played by a Lithuanian prima ballerina and thus employed a great amount of dance and grace into her performance. Her scenes with OTHELLO were illustrated as modern dance duets. The productions were so cohesive and beautifully unified. Nekrosius' use of aural elements was also astounding. During the tragic climax in Act Three of THE CHERRY ORCHARD, the sound of flying and chirping birds blared on the speakers, rising to a volume so high that the entire audience had to cover their ears; Nekrosius really made us feel the agony of that moment. The music in THE CHERRY ORCHARD was constant, fading in and out sometimes abruptly, sometimes seamlessly (creating a rhythmic effect of breathing); The music changed along with the play, becoming more and more ominous as the story progressed. In OTHELLO, the actors played trumpet and piano live, mixing along with the sounds of the ocean. The effect of all these elements is a sort of theatrical mosaic, a real piece of art that delivers a plot clearly, but with creativity and surrealistic style. At the plays' emotional peaks, one could hear much of the audience sniffling or weeping openly. His plays are not just entertainment, they are a journey; I learned that one must be physically and emotionally prepared to be completely shaken at a Nekrosius production. Most importantly, Nekrosius showed me that theatre can be anything...we can break molds and get past our preconceived notions of what theatre should be and create something completely new; that is art.


A few nights ago, we attended a gala at the Moscow Art Theatre in honor of the 80th birthday of the late former artistic director Oleg Yefremov. There were performances and speeches from some of the elite theatre professionals in Moscow; I hardly understood a word, but I must say it was pretty awesome to feel like a part of this exclusive circle of artists. Most exciting for us Americans, Mikhail Gorbachev was meant to make an appearance...but apparently he had hurt his tooth from doing a pizza commercial and couldn't attend the gala (true story).

But the main special event that happened last week was our Thanksgiving feast! Seeing as the price of turkey is astronomical, we decided to hold a pot-luck dinner at our dorm, where everyone pitches in their own dish or drink. We actually compiled a really impressive and ecclectic buffet, with everything from homemade hummus to chicken noodle soup to cabbage pies...and of course, vodka and wine (because what is a Russian meal without alcohol?). I think it was the most I've eaten in one night since I've been here, and any weight that I may have lost from movement and dance class was put back on, and then some. Some of our teachers even showed up! Halfway through the night, Anatoly Smeliansky (our Theatre History teacher, Director of the MXAT school, Co-Artistic Director of MXAT, and one of the foremost Russian theatre historians in the world) came strolling in like Santa Clause, but ironically with Hanukkah Wine to contribute to the feast. Everyone of course crowded around him to make conversation, partly because you feel like the coolest person in the world when he acknowledges you personally, and partly because listening to him tell a story is a huge treat. His lectures in Theatre History class are always fascinating, as they are just stories, and he tells them so passionately as if he was right there through it all. Another hilarious experience that night involved Marianna, the overseer of our studio and basically our Russian mama. She offered to give free palm and face readings to read our personalities and tell our futures. Apparently, I will be married at least twice (the first one will be very early and too rushed) and I will have two sons...also, according to the curves on my face, I'm kind-hearted but can be spiteful, I am generous but sometimes have problems with money, and I am ambitious and passionate and friendly. Wow. Well, I guess I better start thinking of names for my two future sons...

Overall, this was one of my favorite Thanksgivings. After spending so much time together, experiencing everything together, learning together, growing together, and sharing our vulnerability in this exciting but very foreign environment, our studio has really become like a family. So, while I missed digging into turkey with my own family in the states, this was a very unique Thanksgiving experience with a new family, one that I am very thankful for.


The last few weeks of classes have been grueling but stimulating. Acting class has been especially rigorous. We finally received our final scene assignments. I am working on three compiled scenes from Alexander Ostrovsky's THE FOREST (considered one of the great Russian comedies in history), playing the role of Alexei Bulanov, a young, low class school-dropout who basically prostitutes himself to a 50-year-old woman to gain wealth and know, your average run-of-the-mill material! Before even approaching the text, we focused on character development, writing biographies for our characters, creating Dream etudes (where we create and perform the dreams of our characters), working on "organic silence" (where we perform an action in character, but in complete silence). Then, we began our rehearsal process. I've never worked so much on a single scene, and this experience has taught me a whole new method and depth of working. I doubt I will ever approach a scene in the same way again. At first, the character, language, and naturalistic style was very difficult for me to grasp. With my teacher, Alexander ("Sasha") Rezalin, giving me constant notes and trying to break me of my bad habits, I had a little bit of a breakdown (as artists tend to do), and only then, when I had been stripped down to artistic and emotional nakedness, was I able to begin working freely. Sasha explained to me that the character need not be much different than myself, and I didn't have to show or put anything on, just simply BE. Slowly, I began to feel more comfortable, more relaxed, and more free on stage. All of the exercises we had been doing in class for the semester helped me hold my focus in the scene and connect solely with my partner. I noticed as soon as I stopped worrying about whether the scene was funny or not, the comedy emerged naturally. I've begun to feel natural in this role, putting my own inner life into the character rather than acting mechanically or dishonestly. Since then, our scene has taken an upward step-wise direction, improving more and more with every rehearsal. My work and training in this scene has been absolutely invaluable, and I know I will take it back with me to the states, infusing my future work with everything I'm learning here.

Two weeks ago, instead of our regular Movement class, we had a lecture with Andrei Droznin, the creator of the Movement technique we study, and one of the leading figures in Russian Stage Movement in history. His lecture was among the more inspiring and motivating classes I've taken here. The man is 70 years old, but looks like he could be in his late 40s. His natural movement, even just walking into our class or gesticulating as he spoke, was entirely devoid of tension and connected to his entire body. His main point was that an actor must find contact between his body and his soul, and that this was the basis of his Movement techniques and philosophies. "If you lift an arm, you should be entirely inside your arm," he said. He explained that Stanislavsky's idea was that an actor's body will answer and express the inner life of his character, but that the problem is that an actor's body may not be ready. Thus, an actor must develop strength and flexibility to his utmost potential and explore all aspects of movement, so that his body may be ready to perform any task. "Freedom for an actor must be cannot be attained with a primitively trained body." He expressed his dismay of living in a world where we don't need our bodies (as technology progresses, we use our bodies less and less), and he suggested that we do everything we can to FEEL LIFE, our surroundings, the multitudes of sensations that reach us, and to integrate movement into our "daily biological schedule." With enough training and concentration, every gesture we make can be fascinating to an audience. One of the more awe-inspiring moments of the lecture was when Droznin told us: "Someone once asked me, 'What is it to be an actor?' And I replied, 'Well, it's to.....................'" and suddenly he merely began moving his arm slowly across the air, holding extreme focus and exuding a vibrant inner energy. Our attention was held so sharply, and we sat at the edge of our seats watching him perform the simplest movement. His instant engagement was amazing to watch. What a privilege to be able to learn from such a master. We all left that lecture with new-found inspiration.

Our movement training remains incredibly physically demanding. We are working on back-bends, splits, hand-stands, cartwheels, one-handed cartwheels, back handsprings, and some of the most painful stretches imaginable. But our teacher's philosophy is "pain must be pleasure" and as long as you're stretching correctly, you must accept the pain with joy. One day, however, we had a fencing class with MXAT's fencing teacher. We learned basic body and sword positions, advancing, retreating, cross advancing/retreating, and changing sword positions. Within minutes, we were catching swords that were thrown to us in the air, and performing basic duelling with partners. I can tell you with honesty that there are few things cooler than staring your opponent in the eye just before advancing with your weapon.

If I had to give a mantra to describe Russian training, I would say it's "Just do it!" (though I think Nike already has that copywritten). Most of one's biggest obstacels involves merely conquering's all psychology. So, while safety is essential, sometimes it is less exaggerated, and I think that allows for more growth. For example, rather than giving us an hour safety lecture before our fencing class, we immediately jumped right in, and had swords being thrown at us. Thinking can be one's greatest enemy, and when you are forced to not think, you merely act and respond. If the instructor sets up too much of a careful and "safe" atmosphere, emphasizing the dangers and potential hazards of the training, students can become more fearful and their fear will block their progress. However, if you "just do it," (safely of course, but without fear and psychology), your body will naturally follow and prevent itself from harm. I never would have attempted a one-handed cartwheel or moving handstand in my life if my Movement teacher Natasha hadn't said "Stop thinking. Just do it." The same goes for acting training: intellectualizing can be helpful, but I find the greatest work can be achieved by just throwing oneself into his work blindly. An actor must learn to get out of his head and into his body, and thus his instincts will take over, and his acting will be much more natural and honest.

So, now that we're at home stretch, with only two weeks left in our journey, we are preparing for our final exams. We will be putting together a presentation of all of our scenes, an open Movement class to show our movement progress, a concert of songs we have worked on in singing class (I am singing a piece from "Jesus Christ Superstar"...ironic, I know, for a Benshlomo to be singing the role of Jesus), and a dance recital (we have worked on four dance pieces in class...a Russian folk dance, a gypsy dance, a Charleston, and a Greek folk dance). I will do my best to get a video recording of all of our performances. After our final exam presentations, we will be evaluated by all of our teachers. It will surely be a lot of work, but I know it will be well worth it. I just can't believe that we're almost at the finish line.

Anyway, that's it for now. I will probably send a final installment as exams pass and I reflect on this entire experience. I hope you are all doing well and enjoying life as much as I am! Please write and let me know how you're doing. Until next time...

With love,

Etai Benshlomo

Friday, November 2, 2007

Experience in Moscow: Part 4

November 2, 2007

Dear Friends, Family, and Faculty,

Hi everybody! A belated HAPPY HALLOWEEN to you all. We actually hosted a Halloween Party at our dorm for the Russian students. While Halloween is certainly not celebrated here, most Russian people have a vague idea of what it is. And when I say vague, I mean EXTREMELY vague. We saw a flyer for a Halloween Party at a club, and their logo was a cartoon jack-o-lantern...except it was a watermelon jack-o-lantern. I guess they figure one of our traditions involves merely carving faces into any large piece of fruit we can find. When we asked our group leader how to present the Halloween Party, she told us: "Well, the Russian students really only know about the sexy Halloween, not the scary Halloween, so you might want to show them some of the scary side of Halloween." The sexy Halloween...hmm...whatever that means... So, everybody pitched in some money, we got some tacky decorations and bought some drinks and snacks, and some people dressed up (I had neither the time nor the patience to find a costume).

I hope you've all been enjoying the fall. Despite all the talk of the dreaded "Russian winter," the cold weather really hasn't hit us yet. Since I've been here, there's only been one day of snow, and as of late, it's actually been quite comfortable. In the 40's in Farenheit. So, it's been relatively warm - not the extreme frigidity typical of Russia, and while I'm sure Al Gore would be mortified if he were here, I've been quite pleased! However, the Weather report says it's supposed to snow on Sunday, so I may bite my tongue soon.

Anyway, here's another update on my life and my experience in Russia, divided into chapters for your reading pleasure:


On the same day we returned from St. Petersburg, worn and battered as we were, we were scheduled to perform in the "Kapusnik," an annual performance put on by Moscow Art Theatre students. The word "Kapusnik" literally translates to "Cabbage Party." Dr. Smeliansky, our Theatre History teacher explained: Many years ago, when the Orthodox Church did not allow theatres to play on Lent, one actor of the Moscow Art Theatre (I forget his name, but it has so many consonants, I don't think it's possible for an American to pronounce anyway) began a cabaret performance and followed it with a party. Since meat is forbidden during Lent, the actors who participated ate cabbage pies, and thus the "Cabbage Party" was born. The performances mostly consisted of comic sketches and parodies. While at first it was very exclusive, the actors soon began inviting people, and the Kapusnik became a prestigious event at the Moscow Art Theatre. Nowadays, it is directed and performed entirely by Moscow Art Theatre School students, and serves as a sort of welcome gala for new students.

We were asked to perform a short piece. The Russian students encouraged us to keep it brief, with as little speaking as possible. My acting teacher suggested that we sing a popular Russian song "Stariklon" ("The Maple Tree"), and he taught it to us. So, in putting our piece together about two hours before the performance, we incorporated the song into a short sketch. We wanted to do something comical and understandable (and avoid offending the Russians...we weren't sure about their sense of humor), so we decided to poke fun at ourselves. We began with someone in our group yelling out "September 18" (the date we arrived) in Russian. Then, we all entered on-stage in little groups, each group representing an American tourist cliche: excessive taking of photos, unnecessary amounts of winter wear, scarfing down McDonalds, staring at huge maps, unsuccessfuly trying to speak Russian, I came on with the "souvenir" group, wearing a kitschy fuzzy Russian hat (which I unfortunately purchased in St. Petersburg because I thought it made me look like Dr. Zhivago...only to discover to my dismay that no one in Russia actually wears those damned hats) and holding cheap matroshka dolls and a souvenir Hermitage commemorative picture book, with a huge smile imprinted on my face. Then, someone in the group yelled "October 18" (the date of the Kapusnik), we dropped the stereotypes and sang the song. We weren't sure how the Russian students would take it, but they seemed to really love it, cheering, applauding, and laughing hysterically. It was the first time that we felt fully and officially accepted as students of the Moscow Art Theatre...sort of like an initiation. The next day, we were told that it was one of the best performances they had ever seen American students do at a Kapusnik. So, even if we never come back here, we at least left our indelible mark at the Moscow Art Theatre.

What was especially nice about the Kapusnik was to see the Russian students let loose and have a good time. One of the acting teachers here explained to us that in acting, they always find it easier for American students to let go and be silly on stage. While the Russian students are all phenomenal actors (they are chosen from nearly 8,000 applicants), especially when it comes to serious work, they sometimes tend to have more trouble with outrageous comedy. He told us that he believes it comes from 200 years of democratic American society, as opposed to the monarchy and socialism of the Russian past. Even today, Russia is by no means a free country, and that part of the "Russian soul" can prevent an actor's complete freedom onstage, especially when it comes to silliness and fun. So, it was refreshing to see Russian students make fun of themselves and their teachers and generally just having a good time.

After the performance, a party was held at a club about 10 minutes walk from our dorm. The tradition is so honored, that half of our classes were actually cancelled the next day, seeing as the party began at 1am and went on until about 6am. The party was solely for MXAT students, and I felt very V.I.P. when I was able to flash my school ID to the bouncer and be let into the club without a problem. A club is a club is a club, and it was similar to a club experience you would have anywhere else, and we really had a great time, even though some of the Russians did find our dancing quite humorous. There was also a traditional Russian kissing game, but I won't go into detail...


Now that about half of the semester has passed, I feel much more integrated into Russian life. I can read very well, I've been told I have a good Russian accent, and I can order food almost effortlessly. I've been mixing in better with Russian people, as well. I finally got Tania, the beautiful cahier woman at the cafeteria, to smile at me. For awhile, I was utterly terrified of her; if I didn't have exact change, she would give me a stare so cold I nearly turned to stone. But nowadays, we smile and laugh, and we help each other with our respective languages (she's helped me with numbers and phrases...and I taught her how to say "cottage cheese.")

Still, there are those aspects of Russian culture I will never be able to get used to. Russians love to smoke, and smoking is legal inside most buildings, and if not in a particular building (like a theatre), there will be plenty of designated smoking areas. Last time I saw a play, when I entered the Men's Room, I felt like I had entered some sort of gas chamber. There was so much smoke, I could neither breathe nor see through the thick haze. Needless to say, I held it in for awhile longer.

Russian people (especially of the older generation) are very traditional, especially when it comes to clothing. First of all, there are shoe-buffer machines in the foyers of most buildings. Russians demand clean's something they take very seriously. I can't tell you how many death stares I've received directed towards the old boots I wear, or at my converse sneakers after a long day of walking through wet, grimy streets. Also, one is always expected to hang his coat wherever he goes. There are coat-check desks in almost every building (no tips required). A few days ago, we were scheduled to see a show, and I had a few minutes to grab a quick bite at the "stalovaya" (cafeteria), so I ran up as fast as I could, still wearing my coat and hat, hoping to grab a few snacks and run. However, my plan was foiled; as soon as I requested food, the lunch-lady began screaming at me in the typical high-pitched babushka voice. I didn't understand a word, but I finally gathered that she was refusing to serve me unless I hung up my jacket and removed my hat. Sometimes I want to just be able to say "chill out," then I remember...I'm in Russia.

No matter how many times I cross paths with them, the homeless people in Moscow still disturb me. They are a very different type of homeless than in America, far more tragic and far less threatening. While in New York, most of the homeless I see I would describe as drug-addled and terrifying. Here, I would describe them as simply unfortunate and futile. The majority of them are elderly...tiny little toothless babushkas, holding their hands out and crying; there's one old man who sits at the same place every day, a scruffy white beard smeared on his face, a cigarette dangling in his mouth, and his body always quivering. Then there are those with missing limbs. I've seen several men in soldiers' uniforms with missing legs asking for money. There is an armless man that stands in one of the underground walkways with a sign around his neck (though he's usually wearing an enormous jacket, so I've wondered whether he is scamming). By far, the worst is the homeless children. I've seldom seen them, but when I have, it's broken my heart. While in St. Petersburg, I ate at a small, fast Mediterranean restaurant, and a little girl in tatters, with yellow teeth and dirt on her face, walked in and began begging people for money. The workers at the counter immediately yelled at her to leave, and she walked out with weeping in shame. I felt like I was in some sort of Dickensian nightmare. Apparently, there are very few homeless shelters in Russia, and taking care of the homeless children is high on Putin's to-do list. I can only hope that strong action will be taken to fix the problem.

We finally get a real weekend! We have classes on Saturdays, so we usually only have Sunday to rest, but this Monday is a national holiday. I'm not sure what it's called, but it's basically a commemorative Communism Day. For years, the holiday to celebrate Sovietism in Russia was on November 7th, but after the fall of Communism, the government removed the holiday and created a new one on November 5th, only two days before it, to commemorate some battle against Poland that no one (not even Russian people) remembers or cares about. So, while technically, it's not a Soviet holiday, we were told that we can still expect to see Red flag waving and hammer-and-sickle logos throughout the streets. It's hard to believe that there are still so many supporters of Communism out there, and it should be a very interesting sight.


The reality of Russian culture has hit the females in our group most of all. The truth is that in Russia, women are highly demeaned, and throughout history, have always been seen as inferior to men. While it can sometimes make their experience more comfortable on the surface (men are expected to move furniture, open doors, and offer their arms for women), the environment can also feel very insecure and unsafe for our girls. Women are very much objectified in this country...feminism hardly exists. It makes sense why so many women are dressed incredibly lavishly from day-to-day; the pressure to be beautiful, to look amazing and pleasing to the male eye, is sky-high. And overall, women are just not treated with equal respect as men. As it turns out, a few of the girls have brushed with some traumatic experiences of sexual harassment, on the subway and in restaurants. A meeting was actually called, for the boys and for the girls of our group separately, to discuss gender relations in Russia. As the males of our group, we decided to be more aware of the surroundings and to help remove the girls from unsafe situations. Now, I'm a little guy, and I'm not going to pick a fight with some enormous Russian brute, but making sure that no girl walks back at night alone, expanding awareness of any threats in our surroundings, keeping an eye out and holding out an arm...all of these things can make the experience better for our girls. And as an ensemble, a sort of family, we must always look out for and help each other.

Three days ago, a tragic event occured within our ensemble. One of the guys in our group, a dear friend of mine - someone I felt I had actually gotten quite close to, called a meeting in our dorm. He announced that he would be leaving us and returning to America. Several months prior, his father had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and apparently, it was unsure how many days he had left. While our friend had been incredibly strong throughout the semester - he was always so funny and charming, we would never have known about his father if he hadn't told us - he could no longer stay with us. So, the school booked him the first available flight home, and he left this morning. Overall, the atmosphere was and has been incredibly emotional. My mother being a survivor of stage three cancer, I felt a personal connection to the situation. Even after knowing him only about two months, it felt like we had lost one of our family members, and class hasn't been the same without him. The humor, intelligence, warmth, and incredible talent he brought to our group has been sorely missed. However, we know he needed to leave, and I personally know that I will stay in touch with him.

Since we've been in Russia, it's been easy to get lost in the fantasy of it all, but it's these hard smacks of reality that pull us out of our fantasy world and remind us how fragile we are.


I've had some satisfying theatre experiences, but none quite so thrilling as I've had at the Theatre of Satire (here, called the Satiricon Theatre) in Moscow. Konstantin Raikin, a teacher of third-year students at the Moscow Art Theatre School, son of Russia's most famous comedian (basically the Charlie Chaplin of Russia), and nationally renowned theatre actor/director, is the Artistic Director of the theatre (which his father founded), and stars in most of their productions. In a place where theatre actors can become national celebrities, he is one of Russia's most famous and well-respected actors. I would say he is something like the Dustin Hoffman of Russia. Last week, I saw him star in Shakespeare's RICHARD III at his Satiricon. It turned out to be one of the most inspiring and fulfilling experiences I've ever had in a theatre. The unity of his body, voice, and spirit was breathtaking. He was able to make the audience break into fits of laughter and tears almost simultaneously. His contorted facial expressions, his graceful and exact movement as the hunchbacked monarch (he looked like he had been living with the deformity all his life, as opposed to just an actor playing a hunchback), his erratic and surprising behavior; all of the elements of his performance were so moving, and I watched the entire 3-hour production with a gaping jaw. The direction was so crisp, somewhat abstract, completely understandable, and dead on. The visuals were simple, but at the same time so beautiful and effective. The entire ensemble of actors, anchored by Raikin, was so well-connected and versatile. The same actors who played Richard's young child nephews who he murders, also portrayed the assassins he hires. The atmosphere was so heightened and the emotions so clear and heavy. I can see why some Russian students told me they've seen it five times. I'm actually going to see it again tomorrow.

It's amazing to me that the best Shakespeare production I've seen has been in Russian! The language was not a barrier whatsoever. Shakespeare being one of the world's greatest poets, when his work is performed in English, so much importance is placed on the language. I've seen many Shakespeare productions in America get lost within the heightened language, the story and relationships of characters thrown out the window. Here, so much focus is placed on the acting as opposed to the poetry and lyricism of the words. The words were spoken as vernacular. It's also interesting to see how Russian directors interpret Shakespeare. Having seen a good deal of Shakespeare in America, seeing it performed here really highlighted some cultural differences. For instance, a few days ago, I saw a production of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, one of Shakespeare's most loved light comedies, set in a dark, terrifying, neo-Fascist world. The good characters, the heroes of the play, were actually frightening and villainous, dressed in black soldiers' uniforms and toting guns maniacally. The Watch, the comical but "moral" policemen in the play, were frightening and sadistic, and tortured their prisoners. And the end of the play, which usually ends in a happy wedding and the singing of "Hey Nonny Nonny" took a hugely dark turn when, after the lovers wed, the soldiers returned to war and were presumably killed. This kind of production is the result of a very specific culture, and one could not find such an interpretation in the States.

But back to Satiricon and to Raikin. Those kinds of theatre experiences remind me why I decided to be an actor. The play is not just entertainment, it's a work of art on the stage. And Raikin is the kind of actor I aspire to be, fully engaged and unbelievably versatile. Since his theatre runs in repertory, he jumps from role-to-role constantly. Before I left for St. Petersburg, I saw him in a play called COSMETICS OF THE ENEMY, a contemporary play adapted from a French novel, in an entirely different role than Richard III. His performance blew me away. The play only had two actors in it, and I had only a vague idea of the plot, but not once was I bored. Rather, I was highly inspired. Next week, I will see him as the title role in KING LEAR. He is easily among the greatest actors I have ever seen, and it is such an honor and a privelige to witness him perform. Not only that, but Dr. Smeliansky has promised us that Raikin will give us a lecture before we leave.

Seeing this spiritual level of performance, I am believing more and more that, like music, the language of theatre is universal.


We are halfway through the semester now, and classes are racing at full pace. Acting class is always the most difficult, because it can be so illuminating and so frustrating at the same time. Through the etudes and exercises we have been working on, I am discovering so much, but it's so hard organize everything and put it into practice. Every day, I feel like I have new epiphanies. Recently, I discovered the power of focus, and how concentrating my focus and attention is one of my biggest issues as an actor. I tend to get very nervous in front of audiences, especially my teachers and peers, and my teachers explained that all the energy of my focus has to be director towards my scene partner or the task I'm performing. We worked on an assignment where we had to pantomime a physical action with our hands in exact detail, and focus so much on our task that our muscle memory takes over. I decided to do a massage, and the night before and the day of, I gave about 6 massages to prepare. When I got up and performed the exercise, I felt that my movements were very exact, I could literally see the person in front of me (even though there was no one actually there), and my focus was centered so strongly on my physical task that the audience automatically disappeared without my noticing. Now, it's just a matter of training that attention and applying it to all of my work. Meanwhile, we are studying the plays from which we will inevitably perform our final scene assignments. The plays are all by the masters of Russian drama: Anton Chekhov, Nikolai Gogol, and Alexander Ostrovsky. In addition to our in-class exercises, we have been performing etudes based on those plays to get a feel for the atmosphere and characters. Next week, we should be receiving our scene assignments.

Our movement and dance classes continue to be incredibly demanding, but I am beginning to see and feel distinct changes in my flexibility, movement ability, and coordination. What I love about those classes is that the results are so tangible. While in acting, it's hard to notice one's improvement in focus, connection with your partner, and belief in circumstances, in movement classes, one day your leg will kick just a little higher, or you can hold a handstand for just a few seconds longer, or your body will stretch just a few inches further. In dance class, we've been starting to work on choreography for our final performance at the end of the semester. Besides our classical ballet work, we've been working on gypsy dances and Russian folk dances. I'll try to get it video-recorded so that those of you at home and at school can have the pleasure of seeing my new-found Russian kicks...I promise you: it's hilarious.

Another interesting component of the curriculum has been our History of Russian Cinematography course. Every week, we discuss and watch films. We started at the silent era in the 1920s, and have since moved on to the talkies of the 1930s, and are just venturing into the 1940s. We've seen classic films by Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, Alexander Dovzhenko and others. It's fascinating to see how film history developed alongside political history. During dark times, the films explore horrific themes; when Communism flourishes, propaganda is rampant. I also never knew how much Russian filmmakers affected the world industry. Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin" is considered one of the great films of all time, and has inspired countless American films. Some of the images we've seen in the films are very disturbing. As Russia never had animal rights laws in filmmaking, we saw cows getting slaughtered in Eisenstein's "The Strike," a metaphor for the White Army gunning down a group of demonstrating factory workers. And while not real, there were also many portrayals of children being killed, something rarely found in American cinema. This disturbing, but affective imagery is very reflective of the "Russian soul."

You know how as you're growing up, you never notice yourself changing, but one day you look in a mirror, and you are suddenly an adult? That's how I feel now...I can't necessarily see myself changing, yet in the back of my mind, I know it's happening. And I know that once I return to the States, to my comforable home environment, back to school among my usual friends, faculty, and classes, I will bare witness to the vast changes that are occuring even as I write. Until then, I am going with the flow and enjoying the ride.

Please let me know how you're all doing. I wish you all the best, and I hope to hear from you soon!

With love,

Etai Benshlomo

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Experience in Moscow: Part 3

October 26, 2007

Dear Friends, Family, and Faculty,

I am happy to spread the joyous news that our wireless internet has finally been set up!!! It only took a month, but it's finally up and running, and I am online regularly. I'm still on a very busy schedule, but hopefully, I can start writing a little more often and sending personal emails as well. It was actually hilarious: last night, when the internet suddenly started working at around 12:30am, you could literally feel the atmosphere of the dorm change. From my room, I could hear people shouting with glee and people scampering to their rooms to hop onto Google or Facebook or YouTube as fast as they could.

Last week, our group took an incredible excursion to St. Petersburg, and so, I've decided to devote this installment of my blog to that trip. As per usual, I'll divide it into chapters so it's easier not to read the whole novel at once:


Our trip to St. Petersburg has been planned for quite some time. We had been preparing to take a night train on Thursday, October 18 at 12:30am. On that Wednesday, the 17th of October, after Acting class, our group leaders announced a crucial meeting. We all gathered in our studio, and with an embarassed smile, Colleen, one of our leaders, said: "So...turns out we're going to St. Petersburg tonight!" Apparently, they didn't realize when they booked a 12:30am train for Thursday, it basically meant WEDNESDAY NIGHT. So, we had 5 hours to pack our bags and get ready for our 5-day journey. And so it began...

Later that night, we walked onto the train and found ourselves in a tiny narrow red hallway. My suitcase could hardly fit through it. On the left side, there were doors leading into little cubbyhole compartments. We were each assigned compartments, four to each. The compartments were smaller than a single dorm room and somehow managed to fit four bunk beds. This is one of the few times in my life when I genuinely felt lucky to be really short! The little bed was made of a few-inches of mattress laid on top of metal poles. I think all of the work I've done in Movement class to imrpove my back flexibility was undone in one night of sleep on that bed!

The trip was about 8 hours. Naturally, as we excited college students tend to do, our group stayed up for awhile drinking some wine and causing general mayhem on the train. But eventually, it was time to sleep. least...TRY to sleep. My sleep was so eratic. I'd often wake up to strange pop music playing on the loud-speaker outside my little compartment. The air was so thin, the temperature so stiflingly high, every time I'd wake up throughout the night, I was wearing one less piece of clothing! Here I was, in Russia - one of the most frigid countries on Earth - and I was burning up like I was in the 7th Circle of Hell! But, as I've said time and again, it's all part of the experience!

Finally, we arrived in St. Petersburg at around 8am. For those of you who have ever seen me in the morning, you know I am basically a zombie. Well, imagine that times 10, and that's how I trudged off that train. I was actually happy that we had left a day early, so that I could have an extra day to just be a vegetable before our sight-seeing would begin.

I learned we were staying in a hostel, and after the train experience, I was convinced it was going to be something like "Hostel," the horror film, but it actually turned out quite differently. It turned out to be better than some motels I've seen in the states. There were TVs in the rooms (not that we used them...Russian TV is very strange, by the way), the beds were comfortable, the rooms spacious. It was relieving to have a comfortable sleeping space for the next few days. And oh, how busy those days would be...


Our day began with a few hours bus tour of the city. I immediately notcied a completely different tempo than Moscow. The whole look of the city is entirely different...a much brighter, more peaceful, far less bustling appearance. For one, everything was much cheaper, which was a huge plus. The air seemed much more quiet, smiles were more common among residents, people were friendlier. If you waved at them, they'd actually wave back, and maybe even smile! Generally, a polar opposite momentum to that of Moscow. I guess a good way to describe the difference between the two places would be: "In Moscow it is winter, in St. Petersburg it is autumn." St. Petersburg is known as the "Venice of the North." It is a very European city. It is made up of 42 mini-islands all connected by small bridges. The main river that runs through the city is the Neva, it is kind of their Grand Canal...filthy and beautiful at the same time (which I would learn later is a very prominent characteristic of the city).

All of the architecture is in the 19th Century Art Noveau style, so it was all very beautiful to look at. All of the facades on the buildings were very decadent and impressive, and all were painted in soft pastel colors. The main color of the city is yellow, which was chosen in order to keep the city bright through the harsh, gray winters. Peter the Great created St. Petersburg as his Dream City back in the 18th Century. And the city truly does feel dream-like at times. There are dozens of parks and gardens scattered throughout the city. There are statues and monuments decorating the town...some of them frightening, like the huge busts of Lenin that still stand proud, and some of them mind-blowing, like the pair of actualy sphinxes from Ancient Egypt, over 4,000 years old, that Peter the Great placed adjacent to the enormous Neva River.

We saw many important and historic sites on our tour. We visited the Church of St. Nicholas, one of the many Orthodox churches in St. Petersburg, and we happened to walk in while a service was taking place. The Church was incredibly lavish, shimmering in gold and red inside. In Russian Orthodox churches, there are no pews, so all of the churchgoers were standing up. There was a choir in the corner singing in rich, 4-part harmony, and everything inside just felt like a different world, completely removed from everything outside of it. We also saw the Yusupov Palace, where the infamous Rasputin was murdered. While driving along the Neva, we saw many amazing sites, including the Romanov's palace, now known as the Hermitage (which I will get to soon), a huge 19th Century ship, which looked like the Flying Dutchman from "Pirates of the Carribbean" and has been strangely converted into a gym. While the city isn't relatively old, it is filled with history, and being surrounded by so much history is a feeling that can't be described.

After the tour, we had a few hours before evening, so a friend and I decided we would visit the world-famous Hermitage Art Museum, considered the number one must-see in St. Petersburg. Our journey there actually spawned a funny encounter which deserves mention: On the way there, we passed through a kitschy tourist market, and suddenly two young guys, one of them a taller blonde, the other short and stout with a crew-cut, recognized our English and approached us. They were Americans, and it was refreshing to hear English. We asked them if they knew where the Hermitage was, and they offered to show us the way. As we got acquainted, we learned they were missionaries with their Church. All through our walk to the museum, the pair kept talking about their Church, the number of missionaries in Russia, how many Churches they have set up in the city, etc. etc. etc.....etc. We asked them where they were from, and they said: "Colorado and Utah." That's when I realized they were Mormons with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. They seemed confused that we were studying theatre in Russia, and continued to ramble on about their Church. Finally, they pointed us in the right direction, and just before parting ways, I realized we hadn't learned their names, so I asked them. The blonde responded with: "Salisbury...Elder Salisbury," and the other, wide-eyed, said: "Elder Gaeling." We said goodbye and walked along, feeling a slightly uncomfortable, but happy that we now knew the way.

The Hermitage has become one of my favorite places in the world. If I had to describe it in one word, it would be: "breathtaking." Built by Catherine the Great, and formerly the palace of the Romanov Czars, it is the second largest collection of art in the to the Louvre, and it's often considered the most glorious museum in the world. It holds over 3 million pieces of art, only some of which is actually on display at a time. The museum is unbelievably's been calculated that if one were to look at each piece of art on display for one minute without food or sleep, it would take 7 years to see everything. It is easy to get lost, which was actually my favorite part...walking alone through some of the rooms is a spiritual experience. Not only are you surrounded by art - Renoir, DaVinci, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Monet, Picasso, Michaelangelo - but the entire building is a work of art. Everything is so gloriously literally gasp as you enter some of the rooms. Most of them are vibrantly colorful. Elegant staircases adorned with red carpets. Classical sculptures lining the hallways. Golden lining and trinkets along the walls. Huge wall-sized paintings. Everything inside is a feast for the eyes. Sensory overload. It's like a holy shrine of art. Everything is one point, my hand brushed against a door to one of the rooms, and suddenly I heard an old babushka (one of the "guards" of the art in the museum) shouting at me in Russian. While it is an art museum, it also feels like a history museum. This is literally the palace where the Royal Family of Russia resided. I can't imagine getting lost in my own home! I got to see the lavish throne room, many ballrooms, family rooms, places were the Romanovs themselves lived and roamed. The museum is quite begin to feel faint and light-headed...every corner you turn, each threshold you cross, each magnificent room you enter, your lungs seem to stop for a moment and your soul is struck.


The next day, maybe one of our best days in Russia thus far, we took an excursion about 45 minutes outside of the hub of St. Petersburg to a small town called Pushkin. The town is named after the famous poet, who is embedded so deeply within the Russian national consciousness (children are obliged to learn many of his poems by heart). Pushkin spent most of his time in this town, formerly called Tsarskoe Selo, and his statue sits in the middle of one of the parks, surrounded by fresh bouquets of flowers. The respect for him is monumental.

The main sight we visited in Pushkin was Catherine the Great's Summer Palace and Gardens, which literally looks like something out of a fantasy. The palace itself, huge and astounding, is colored blue and white and (as usual) lined with gold. But the real joy came in exploring the surrounding park and gardens. We strolled through the park for over 2 hours. The whole place was ethereal, truly a fantasy, like a dream vision of autumn. Glimmering lakes and ponds. Crystal reflections of orange, yellow, and red trees, the sun creeping out behind them. Families of ducks, seagulls, sparrows, and pigeons. Lush, green fields. Ornate gardens decorated with Roman statues. Gravel pathways enclosed by trees. Crisp, dry, clean, open air. Bare trees against the backdrop of blue skies and white clouds. People fishing in the ponds. Horse chariots driving families through the park. An enveloping feeling of euphoria and serenity. Feelings ecstatic and delicate at the same time. It's hard to try to describe this place without waxing poetic. I could have spent an entire day wandering that estate. After a month of the intense hustle and bustle of life in Moscow, it was invigorating to be able to spend time in a peaceful fantasy land for awhile.

That night, we were taken to the Maarinsky Theatre to see the Kirov Ballet Company perform SWAN LAKE. The Kirov is known as one of the best ballet companies in the entire world. Mikhail Baryshnikov himself came out of this company. I have never seen dancing like this in my life. The artists on stage were performing some of the most intense physical feats and made them look effortless. The lead dancer, Ulyana Lopatkina, is world famous and has been dancing the role for years. We had seen SWAN LAKE at the Bolshoi in Moscow, so it was interesting to compare and contrast. Basically, it's putting two of the best ballet companies in the world up against each other. Still, to me, the Kirov blew the Bolshoi out of the water. The choreography was more creative, the dancers were more impressive, and the piece was captivating from start to finish. I've never considered ballet one of my favorite artforms, but I've really begun to appreciate it in a new light. This whole experience has given me a new appreciation for all art...and I feel like it's all under the same umbrella...ballet, visual art, theatre, musical theatre. It was also refreshing to feel such a strong energy in the audience at the ballet. There were people of all ages, and the crowd would often break into applause in the middle of the performance, with vigorous shouts of "Bravo!" At the end, audience members brought bouquets of flowers on-stage and handed them to the dancers. The curtain call went on for about 20 minutes. A truly phenomenal artistic experience.


Rarely does anything work out completely as planned, but my final day in St. Petersburg was pretty much perfect. We had a free day to do whatever we liked, and my friends Sami and David I planned out a specific schedule - not expecting it to work out, but we managed to do everything we planned and more...and we managed to have an incredibly disturbing experience along the way, so fitting for Russia!

The day began with another visit to the Hermitage. It was so breathtaking, I had to go back a second time. It was even more beautiful this time around. I was able to notice much more detail and absorb the art a little more deeply.

Then came the dreaded Kunstkamera. We had heard about this museum from our tour guide, who told us it housed Peter the Great's personal collection of oddities. We were intrigued by that, so we decided to check it out. We searched and searched for it, and finally found it under the sign of "Anthropological Museum." We went in looking for the oddities, but all we could see were kitschy displays of cultures from around the world. Tools. China. Eskimos. African Masks. Your standard museum fair. We were convinced that we were in the wrong museum, but then found one little area on the museum map titled "The First Scientific Collection of the Kunstkamera." It was the only area in which you were not allowed to take photos, and we knew this was what we had been looking for. So, we skipped all of the cultural anthropological exhibits and unfortunately reached the oddities display. It was not a pretty sight. Apparently, Peter the Great was very progressive: he wanted to convince the public that "monsters" - meaning deformed people (that's what they called them in those days) - were not supernatural beings tied with the devil, but rather human beings. As he had extreme interest in science, he collected "monstrous" animals, fetuses, children, babies, put them in jars on display and opened Russia's first museum. I saw some of the most terrifying things: jars of dead fetuses with hideous deformities...brain hernias, siamese twins, extraneous limbs, undeveloped limbs, fused legs, cycloptic eyes. Then there were jars of childrens' heads and arms and feet. Rows and rows of these horrors on shelves. And it was all real. I nearly gagged at times. An even more horrifying characteristic: When Peter the Great opened the museum, he didn't want to scare too many people away, so he decorated the oddities in little trinkets to make the public more comfortable. So, some of the "monsters" were decorated with bonnets, ribbons, and doilies...making them even more disturbing. Needless to say, we spent only about 30 minutes in this exhibit before we couldn't handle any more. While the experience was very unnerving, I'm glad I went because it really colored the cultural differences between Russia and America. A museum like this would never ever stand in America. It's interesting to think about what value a museum like this has, and why Russians aren't protesting it to the ground. I guess it's one of those cultural differences that we just can't understand. The experience left me quite shaken.

After lunch at the "Greenwich Pub," a restaurant that was basically an unintentional parody of American culture ("My Heart Will Go On" from TITANIC was playing in the background), we went on an hour-long boat trip along the Neva River. The weather was perfect; the wind was chilly but comfortable, the sun was shining, and the sky looked like a Monet painting. Then, we walked along Nevsky Prospect, the main street of St. Petersburg, sat in a park for awhile, and made our way back to our hostel. A very satisfying and busy day. That night, we returned to Moscow on that infamous train.


There is no doubt that St. Petersburg is one of the most amazing places I have ever visited. It's the sort of city I could see myself living in. However, all of the beauty and grandeur also has a dark underbelly. The city is illustrated well by the fact that you can't drink the tap's contaminated. That seems to be a recurring theme in the city. While i'ts beautiful, it can also be quite poisonous. The buildings are gorgeous, but they were built almost entirely by slaves. Many say that the city was "built upon bones." The Kunstkamera museum, a glamorous, bright green building, seems tame and cheerful until you find the horrors lying inside. All of the buildings have incredible facades...and the keyword is "facade." There are indeed some very shady characters. On one of the stops on our bus tour, we saw an older man with two bear cubs tied to straps. He was charging money for tourists to take photographs with the bear cubs. We could see he wasn't treating the bears in any sort of humane way. It was offensive and saddening. While the days are bright and pretty, St. Petersburg by night is considered even more dangerous than Moscow. One of my friends was walking back to the hostel at night and saw a man slamming a car door on a woman's arm, who was wailing for help. The man was clearly dangerous so my friend couldn't help. Gruesome, I know, but it's reality.

Still, with all of the dark undercurrents, the city's beauty cannot be denied. Whether it was built upon bones or not, one cannot help feeling at peace in this city. It's amazing to think how different the city was just 20 years ago, back when it was called Leningrad. Our bus tour-guide, who was only 28 or so, explained to us how radically the city changed in her lifetime. She told us that just two decades ago, there were no stores, restaurants, or advertisements at all, and now the city is filled to the brim with them. People had to wait over three hours in line just for a small chicken. It's unfathomable what the change in government did for this country and for the world. The excursion to St. Petersburg was truly enlightening, and it's experiences like this that feed my soul and enrich my art.

Thank you for reading this email, even if some of it was a bit more gruesome than the previous ones. I'm so happy to be able to share this experience with all of you. Now that I have internet, I'll be able to write you personally (though it still may take a little while). So, feel free to email me to say hi, or catch me on Instant Messenger, or shoot me a Facebook message. Also, for those of you with Facebook, I have posted some of my photos, so please check them out! I will try to send photos to you all via email ASAP.

Anyway, it's now almost 2 am, and I'm literally collapsing on the keyboard. I wish you all the best and hope to hear from you soon.

With love,

Etai Benshlomo