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The Domestic Goddess of the Green Line

By March 27, 2013May 31st, 2017Uncategorized

Here’s one of the great unsolved mysteries of the universe: Why does the Alumni Magazine get through the floundering Russian postal system with a regularity you can set your clock by, but The New Yorker almost never appears?

Still, I give the Class Notes a summary glance before I consign the magazine to the trash. The Class of 1984 seems to be doing well. Many of my classmates are approaching the zeniths of their professional lives — or at least those who write in are. Some are doctors, some are lawyers, and an overwhelming number are in the financial world. Most are married by now and have a matched set of tow-headed children with androgynous names like Madison or Brooks, who screw up their eyes against the late summer sun of Nantucket, strategically splayed in their parents’ laps to mask any middle-age spread.

I’m not a great one for sending in regular contributions to the Class Notes. The last time I submitted anything to the Alumni Magazine was back in my banking days: a picture of me “enjoying a joke at the Russian Economic Forum” with the Duke of York. I consider how I might update it without suggesting entropy:

“Jennifer (Buttenheim) Eremeeva ’84 is still living Moscow, Russia with her husband, HRH (Leningrad Officers’ Cadet School # 401, class of ’86) who is the Deputy CEO at A Difficult Start Up he’s asked her never to write about, and daughter, Velvet, 12. Jennifer has abandoned attempts at working in Russia’s formal economy and is currently employed full-time as a domestic goddess.”

I never set out to be a domestic goddess. I cannot even remember wanting to learn to cook, and I certainly never intended to become an expert on Russian food. Recently, like good domestic goddesses do, I held a massive clutter-bust and gave away all my corporate gear. Today my wardrobe consists of a different pair of yoga pants for each day of the week. Suddenly, I know how to make kvas — kvas of all things! I write a popular food blog about culinary adventures in the Russian capital. I photograph blini. Magazine editors from the United Arab Emirates inexplicably want my borscht recipe.

Katya, my Russian emigre friend from New York, sent out an urgent all-points bulletin the other day on Facebook.

“Friends,” she urged in two languages, “what is the correct culinary translation for ‘salo’?” I didn’t miss a beat.

“Salt pork or lard,” I typed back automatically.

No, I never planned to become a domestic goddess, but in two decades, Russia, it seems, has turned me into just that.

The Domestic Goddess Incubator

In 1992, I moved to Moscow to live my boyfriend, whom I later married. I call him HRH, which I tell him stands for Handsome Russian Husband, but I sometimes alter it to mean Horrible Russian Husband. He calls me Petrovna, since my father’s name is Peter. Everyone should have a patronymic.

“Marrying a Russian man,” people comment with surprise, “that’s unusual — normally it’s the other way round.”

It is unusual. And here’s the other thing: It isn’t the same thing as when a foreign man marries a Russian woman. In fact, the only thing we have in common is that we name our daughters Sophia and our sons Alexander. Apart from that — it’s like comparing apples and gasoline stations. One crowd is legion: You can find a Natasha Smith in one out of five Starlite Diner booths, but running a Jennifer Eremeeva to ground is increasingly more of a challenge, as divorce and separation decimate our numbers at an alarming rate.

The foreign man — let’s call him Bill — who marries Natasha is welcomed into her family enthusiastically with open arms no matter what his age or circumstances. As long as Bill can chew gum and walk a straight line — a straight line to the embassy that is — to fill out the paperwork for a fiance visa, he’s a member of the family now. “Molodets,” Natasha! (Atta girl!). Natasha moves into Bill’s well-appointed flat on the Pond, lowers her heels and tones down her fingernails. When Bill’s contract is up and he whisks Natasha off to Connecticut or Cumbria, that’s considered the logical next step, and a step up at that. Bill and Natasha have made an equitable exchange of commodities and look likely to live happily ever after.

When we meet and fall in love with our HRH — let’s call him Boris — matters do not unfold quite so smoothly. We may be Bill’s equal on paper or in the boardroom, but we are leagues below him in the Russian marriage stakes. We tend to speak better Russian than Bill does, but never quite well enough for our Russian mothers-in-law. These tough-cookie Russian ladies, who are happy to grin idiotically at Bill, find it harder to discuss politics with us. Foreign daughters-in-law are suspicious creatures. We work. We eschew potatoes. We expect their sons — men brought up to believe they actually are the scions of some royal house — to help us unload the dishwasher. We are reckless with our health: We put ice in our drinks and air conditioning in our apartments. We sit on stone walls or metal chairs, thereby rotting our reproductive plumbing. We marry woefully late (around 28), which means that by the time we do get around to having children (30-35) we are way past any expectation of normal gestation or pregnancies. We expect Boris to be with us in the delivery room, rather than boozing it up at home with his friends. When we miraculously do give birth to Sophia and Alexander, we don’t automatically hand them off to the older generation. If career advancement isn’t obvious, we have to think strategically about whisking Boris back to Boston or Brixton, because it might not be a win-win.

How have HRH and I have managed to avoid these pitfalls?  Well, for one thing, he is the one who works in the cutthroat Russian formal economy while I stay at home and battle writer’s block in yoga pants. I can’t see it working the other way around. And, despite my mother-in-law’s worst fears, I have become a domestic goddess: exactly what most Russian men expect from their wives.

When I moved to Russia, I didn’t know how to cook, but as I was female, the task naturally fell to me, just as gassing up the car did to him. From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs, right? My first culinary laboratory was a modest affair, located in Northern Butova (Southern Butova being then only a vague sketch on a drawing board), a charmless environ most expats only glimpse fleetingly on the way to Domodedovo Airport. HRH had his apartment and “propiska” (registration) there, so that is where we lived.

Now I am glad we did. When Russians or those funny expats who have gone native start talking about overprivileged foreigners, I reel out a few well-honed anecdotes about our happy years in Northern Butova and that tends to shut them up. Northern Butova was — and still is — a scale model of hell: an inelegant, sloppily thrown together sprawl of pre-fab buildings, painted in depressingly dingy versions of garish pastels. It was miles from the end of the metro line and accessible only by cramming into Bus # 813 and rattling down a pot-holed street for forty-five minutes.

The domestic goddess incubator in Northern Butova had a sink along one wall, a stove suspended in limbo on the other, with a fridge strategically placed to impede entry to and from the kitchen. No cabinets and not a single millimeter of counter space.  I think of the kitchen in Northern Butova often these days, as I cram paella pans, shrimp deveiners and melon ballers into my oversized duffle bags for a trip back to Moscow. Back then, we had two ugly enameled metal cooking pots and three or four mismatched Czechoslovakian plates with way too much gold leaf. We had a lot of barware of course, complete sets of shot glasses, champagne flutes and tumblers, all in hideous smoky glass. It was appropriate that our glasses outnumbered our plates, since there wasn’t much food in the mid-1990s: We lived on pasta alla carbonara, which I improvised using Rossiisky cheese and tinny-flavored faux ham. This was the first of many culinary revelations for HRH, who had hitherto only eaten pasta in “makaroni po flotsky,” a military staple. His mother, up from Kiev for an awkward weekend, was appalled.

“My son has forgotten what a potato is,” she wailed up and down the musical scale. She and I will never see eye to eye on matters culinary.

Those were the roller coaster years, about which my contemporaries are starting to write books that are disturbingly shelved in the history section of the library.

“Gosh, you must have seen lots of changes,” people in the West say when I rattle off my CV.

I nod and say, “Yes, amazing changes.”

They were amazing, those changes: the second coup; the currency reforms, and Yeltsin growing less steady on his feet. I remember them all, but in my mind’s eye, it is all soft-focus background. In the foreground, in sharp focus, are domestic goddess milestones, like the time I found fresh ginger in the market for the first time and felt as if the horizon had suddenly expanded five-fold.

As we geared up to become parents, HRH and I agreed that it was time to leave the Orange Line. I lobbied hard for the Green Line, to which I retain an affectionate affinity to this day. A big part of that was the Leningradsky farmers’ market, and once we moved within walking distance, Velvet and I became regulars. The market was full of sights, sounds, and smells that cut through the gray gloom of a Moscow winter. More Mediterranean than Slavic in their outlook, the market vendors seemed glad to see us, or at least did a credible imitation of being so. Slowly but steadily, with fresh meat, produce, herbs, and eggcups of pungent spices from the one-armed Uzbek spice merchant, I gained confidence in the kitchen. Recipes with unavailable or hard-to-find ingredients became irresistible puzzles to solve. Interest became passion. I made “plov” (pilaf), I made pesto, and I made apricot baby food for Velvet. I did a turkey. I contemplated attempting a whole suckling pig. I still do.

Cooking gradually became therapy. There was so much I could not control about my life in Russia: the messy politics, the volatile economy, the traffic snarls, and the disturbing rise of anti-foreign feeling. But in the kitchen, the food did exactly what I told it to. Without a “prikaz” (decree), a combination of eggs, flour, butter and salt rose obediently into a lofty souffle. I needed no “spravka” (certificate) to fit the right blade in the food processor and mix lemon juice, mustard, vinegar and oil into vinaigrette. Things were straightforward in the kitchen: A recipe for chicken Marbella never left me with the uneasy sense that someone had insinuated something menacing in a subtle Slavic way I was too dense and too American to understand. Corruption, when it happens in the kitchen, is easily dispatched down the disposal, its lingering smell eliminated with a few sprays of vinegar and water and a firm swipe of the counter.

Becoming a domestic goddess is largely a question of trial and error, and my journey was full of both: the duck that a shifty poultry salesperson sold me without removing the quills, the strawberry sorbet that refused to freeze (strategically repurposed into daiquiris at the very last moment), and the Thanksgiving I tried to go to the St. Andrew’s Ball the night before and cook a meal for nine the next day. You can do one or the other, but not, I learned, both.

Cultural Obstacle Course

Domestic goddesses must also be exemplary mothers to their offspring, surrounding them with love, appropriate reading material, creative outlets and regular, healthy well-balanced meals. Raising a bicultural child presents its own special challenges. When she grows up, I imagine that Velvet will say to her therapist, “Yeah, well, Mom and Dad didn’t really speak the same language,” at which point I hope that she will qualify the statement by explaining that I speak English to HRH and he lobs back a reply to me in Russian. It’s a trifle odd, but Velvet is bilingual and neither of us ends up sounding Ricky Ricardo or Gloria from “Modern Family.”

I’ve worked hard to balance Velvet’s exposure to her two cultures Geographically based in Russia, I scoured the expatriate community for American experiences, going in for things I would never have considered if I had been living in the U.K. or U.S. We joined a renegade Girl Scout troop run by some of my working mom friends that met at the massively inconvenient hour of 5 p.m. on Sunday nights. I sat with fellow mom Liz at the back of the room for the first session as Linda, our zealous leader, took the girls through the Girl Scout pledge.

“Does this strike you as, well, a little fascist?” I whispered to Liz.

“A little?” she responded, raising her well-manicured brows.

“Do you think there will be cookies?” I asked hopefully.

“Never,” affirmed Liz, who worked for a large FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) company, “even Linda couldn’t get Girl Scout cookies through customs.”

Halloween candy and costumes, on the other hand, were easily stashed in suitcases winging their way back to Moscow after summers in the U.S. Each October, I ignored Babushka’s grunts of disapproval as Velvet, dressed up as a bumblebee, a fairy princess or Hermione Granger headed off to Rosinka to trick-or-treat in the late autumn snow. I shocked the neighbors by placing carved pumpkins in the windows overlooking Leningradsky Prospekt.

Domestic goddesses must also be exemplary pillars of the Parent-Teacher Association of their children’s school. Velvet’s school was a disaster.  Lessons were in English, a language almost none of the students spoke with any degree of fluency.  The local management was indifferent and the imported staff out of their depth. Repeated attempts to change schools failed.  Still, I tried to make the best of a very bad proposition.

Events at Velvet’s school were rare and lukewarm affairs. Each September, they staged a half-hearted attempt to invite parents to meet the teachers. This lasted for about 20 minutes and included a cup of substandard Turkish Nescafe — Russia’s national airline has better service than Velvet’s school. The British teachers stood in a wary clump on one side of the multipurpose room, braced for impact, while the parents arranged themselves in equally wary ethnic groups at the other end. I huddled together with my friend Claudia, whose own HRH was equally disinclined to attend anything at school. Together, we formed a tiny American island in an ocean of earnest Korean women, and cast nervous looks at the leather-trouser clad, sleek 27-year-old Russian moms who teetered on four-inch heels, and flicked their hair extensions back from their collagen-sculpted faces as they air-kissed each other.

I tried hard to up my domestic goddess game at these events, but as I was not from Scotland, there was little scope. The Scottish moms had a death grip on parent participation at Velvet’s school. They organized sports days, afternoon discos, and the annual bacchanalia of International Day, the school’s lackluster attempt to celebrate the diversity of its student body. The children wore their national costumes for a little concert, followed by a communal lunch of everyone’s national dish. As always on such occasions, I tried hard to achieve an equitable division of Velvet’s two cultures. She dressed Russian, in a lovely traditional red “sarafan,” and elaborately beaded “kokoshnik,” which I felt altogether more flattering than any Annie Oakley, Laura Ingalls Wilder, or Pocahontas get-up. I cooked American: a large plate of chocolate chip cookies, which is a bit of a domestic goddess rabbit out of the hat, since there are no chocolate chips in Russia. I cleverly substituted M&Ms. To underscore our ethnic origins and get into the spirit of International Day, I stuck little American flags into the cookies. I found the effect festive and was pleased until I overheard one Scotswoman, who had brought (store-bought) shortbread say to another, who had sent her three sons to school in plaid skirts with what looked like very sharp knives dangling over their genitalia, “Isn’t that the most ridiculous thing you ever saw?” I did not love the Scots mafia.

One International Day stands out clearly in my memory. Claudia and I perched on the undersized chairs at the back of the multipurpose room, and noted with interest that the 27-year-old Russian moms were out in fuller force than usual. In a bold move, they had occupied the first rows of chairs, which was normally the unspoken territory of Scots mafia. These stalwart, tartan-clad Highlanders had retreated slightly, to the right side of the audience, and both groups were casting each other killer looks. It was exactly like a very awkward wedding where the bride and groom are from two distinctly different ethnic and religious groups.

The head teacher loped somewhat unevenly on to the platform. Claudia and I dug our elbows into each other. We both found him a deeply unsatisfactory head teacher. We were never completely convinced he was sober at school events, and we found his lengthy speeches borderline offensive. I often wondered what the training program for Head Teacher in Schools Abroad consisted of, but I was pretty sure that the syllabus had been formulated during the heyday of the British Raj, since his speeches had one theme: how Great Britain (still) ruled the world. This pissed everyone off. It annoyed us Americans because we knew we ruled the world. It ticked off the Russians, who were getting an increasingly urgent message from the Kremlin that Russia actually ran the world. It frustrated the Korean crowd because it took up too much camcorder battery time, and it even irritated the Scots, who made a distinction between Scotland and Great Britain. The only constituents who seemed to enjoy it were the three Bangladeshi families, who considered themselves very much part of Britain through their membership in the Commonwealth. There were no actual Britons to appreciate the head teacher’s patriotic ranting, of course, since they all went to the Other School.

But there was the head teacher, in his objectionable, grubby, mustard-colored corduroy suit, revving up for another diatribe in his flat, distinctly down-market Birmingham accent.

“Good afternoon, pay-rents,” he cooed, “Announcements first: We will be having two after-school clubs,” he continued with a supreme effort. “Mr. Pillock-Downes will be offering Morris Dancing on Tuesdays—”

There was a commotion as the ringleader of the 27-year-olds rose on her four-inch heels in one fluid, enviable gesture.

“I veesh to kuh-no,” she began in heavily accented English, “Vat you will be doing with zuh … “kak skazat ‘ploshchadka’?” She fumbled for the word.

“Playground.” I sang out loudly, realizing where she was going, and this earned me a few nods and even the occasional flash of expensively whitewashed teeth from the 27-year-olds.

“Zank you: playground,” said Four-Inch Heels. “Zis playground is terrible—”

“Yes,” said another 27-year-old, leaping to her feet in another fluid gesture that reminded me it was high time to visit the new Pilates studio on Tverskaya-Yamskaya. She joined the three-inch purple talons of her forefinger and middle finger together against her thumb and waggled her wrist up and down in the classic Russian gesture of emphasis.

“And, you know, this kindergarten next door which is—” here she looked at her friend for help, “’gosudarstvinnaya’?”

“State?” Claudia offered.

“State’s good,” I agreed, and gave a nod to Purple Talons and Four-Inch Heels, “State.”

“State,” said Purple Talons nodding her hennaed head vigorously. “Zank you very much. Zis playground is much nicer. But we pay?” Purple Talons heaved a massive Slavic shrug, meant to convey that the school had visited upon her the cumulative suffering of the Tartar-Mongol Yoke, the Napoleonic Invasion and the years 1917-1945. “Vhy?” Both women sat down, crossed their arms defensively, and looked at the head teacher.

What did they expect him to say? His pasty face turned the color of his grubby mustard suit, and he moved rubbery lips up and down, but no sound came out. He cast his eyes wildly around the room, and then finally looked in abject panic to the Scots contingent. Fiona MacQuihrr sighed, moved her bottom into a leveraging position, and hauled herself awkwardly up on to her hindquarters.

“She’s the one who thought my American flags were ridiculous,” I whispered to Claudia.

“Wench,” Claudia said.

In a thick Glaswegian brogue I felt was going to be impossible for Russian moms, the Koreans, or indeed even Claudia or me to decipher, Fiona wrested control of the meeting:

“We will be orrrrrganizing a Brrrringg and Buy in April of outgrrrrrroooan clothes and used boooooks to rrrraise funds for the new playground equipment,” she began.

“Sorry … sorry,” said Purple Talons standing again, shaking her hair extensions vigorously. “I kuh-no zis Bring and zis Buy. No more. Vee will bring, and we will be buying. Vee have decided … and I vant to say you zat my husband is sending his … ‘oborudovaniye’?” she looked back at Claudia and myself questioningly.

“Holy cow,” breathed Claudia softly.

I fixed Fiona MacQuihrr with a revengeful gaze before enunciating clearly for the benefit of the room. “Equipment.”

The head teacher turned a deeper shade of mustard.

“Yes, zank you, hees ekvipment, and vee vill make the playground, because I don’t zink othervise you get it done.” She sat down and crossed her whippet-thin thighs defensively.

The Koreans looked baffled.

“Which one is her husband?” whispered Claudia to me, “The one with three chase cars and the bodyguard?”

“No,” I said, trying to summon a visual, “I think he’s the one with the square jaw who lives in Triumph Palace on the 54th floor. Didn’t your kids go to the birthday party they had for the entire school last year? The one with the caviar and t.A.T.u.?”

“Right,” said Claudia.

“I dinna think—” began Fiona MacQuihrr in an effort to wrest control back to her side of the multipurpose room.

“Vat don’t you kuh-no?” demanded Purple Talons, extending her open palm upward toward Fiona. “Vat you vill sell? Old cloh-thes? In Raaaaasia, we do not buy the old cloth-thes.”

Here we go, I thought: cultural collision course.

“Yes,” said Four-Inch Heels, rising again, “you think what? You think we cannot afford the new cloh-thes? Our childs is not the orphans to need the dirty old cloh-thes of the foreign childs!”

“Sveta,” murmured Purple Talons, “’spokoino’ … calm, please.” She turned around to the auditorium, “Sorry, I don’t mean to say your childs are dirty, but how do we kuh-no from where comes these old cloh-thes?”

“Yes,” insisted Four-Inch Heels, “they will have … ‘mikroby’?” she looked back at me.

“Germs,” I said with a tight-lipped apologetic glance at the Koreans.

“Germs … zank you very much. OK, I no say your childs have zee germs but …,” she tilted her head vaguely in the direction of the three Bangladeshi moms, “how do we kuh-no?”

“Uh oh,” I said to Claudia, “this is getting out of hand.” She nodded. I signaled that it was time to leave.

Racial slurs aside, I drove away with a new appreciation of the 27-year-olds. I had always considered them somewhat vapid — at best decorative — but I was happy to revise my opinion. Four-Inch Heels and Purple Talons were domestic goddesses of their own kind, and they had provided me with a mother lode of material to blog about.

Doing It Like Downton

Highly successful domestic goddesses must publish. With this in mind, I started to blog in 2009, and I only wish there had been blogging back in the Northern Butova days. My blog attracted a fairly attentive and appreciative audience in Moscow and abroad, and I went in search of other opportunities to earn enough to keep myself in yoga pants. After careful research, I pitched a regular cooking column to an editor of one English-language publication.

“Yeah … well,” he drawled, when he arrived at Starbucks 40 minutes after our agreed meeting time, “your writing doesn’t hold much relevance for our readers.”

I was seriously taken aback. Doesn’t everyone want to know the history of kvas?

“How not relevant?” I pressed.

“Well,” he drawled, “I mean, all you seem to do jet-set about and complain about your domestic staff … that’s not really relevant for our readers. What I’d really like is for you to spy on the people you have dinner with and write about that.”

I didn’t follow up with Snarky Editor Guy, but I think about our exchange a lot. I mainly think about it when I am up to my arms in Fairy dish-washing liquid, hand-washing the component parts of sharp-bladed kitchen appliances.

When she left Russia several years ago, Claudia bequeathed me her Italian espresso machine and housekeeper, Lena. Both proved excellent additions to the household, except for the fact that Lena is afraid of the espresso machine, so I have to dismantle it and clean it every day. For a domestic goddess, this is but the work of a minute, but the problem is that Lena’s fear extends beyond the espresso machine to include the blender, the juice maker, the rice cooker and the food processor. Don’t get me wrong — I don’t mind doing all of the scary dishwashing by hand, but it does cut into my jet-setting time.

HRH informs me that dealing with domestic staff, like cooking, should be the provenance of the lady of the house, so I try my best to deal with it efficiently and effectively. I fear, however, that I will never master this aspect of being a domestic goddess. I wonder sometimes if a domestic goddess should need so much help around the house, but Russia is a human-resources rich country, so like most families, we have a cleaning lady and a driver. OK, full disclosure: We have two drivers, but one is for HRH’s work and the other is for everything else. The latter, Tolya, also serves as the token man around the house. When he isn’t driving my in-laws to Auchan or me to Dorogomilovsky Market, Tolya changes the light bulbs, fixes the garbage disposal and calls the plumber. He deals with that surly crowd who fixes things, he pays the cable bill and does a host of other tiny jobs that would bring our household to a screeching halt if he didn’t do them. Tolya is the only person who truly understands how the Italian espresso machine works. He’s around a lot. We have Lena who cleans everything but the sharp-bladed appliances and often wants to settle down for a lengthy chat about the rising cost of buckwheat. We used to have a nanny, who was super while Velvet was a toddler, but who got a little odd as Velvet got older. Lena and my mother-in-law were united in opposition to Nanny, but after I worked up the courage to let her go (a three-martini job), Lena and Mother-in-Law have fallen out over what should go into the dishwasher and how often it should be run. No one cares what I think.

Three people who aren’t related to you hanging out in your house — especially when that house doubles as your office — is a lot of people, no matter how much scut work they are doing for you. There are times when my living room feels like O’Hare Airport. I deal with this not by creating clear boundaries and enforcing them, but by hiding. I plan my days strategically, rising early to pack a bag of essentials and slip out the door before the Help arrives. I don’t go far: just next door to Starbucks — you may have seen me there — to eke out two venti lattes and tap on my computer until I am sure everyone has gone for the day.

HRH says this is crazy. I respond that I am certainly not the only expat to adopt this tactic. HRH doesn’t understand what the problem is. When he arrives in the apartment, Lena scurries out of his way, Tolya retreats down to the lobby, and suddenly we have the place to ourselves. I wish I knew how he does it. Perhaps it’s a cultural thing — being despotic just seems to come naturally to Russians. They’ve always been hierarchical, despite that unsuccessful 74-year experiment last century.

Unlike me, HRH’s DNA is encoded with the human resources principles laid down by Ivan the Terrible, honed by Josef Stalin and currently back in vogue thanks to Vladimir Putin. He is a total tyrant, and guess what? It works! They all worship him! They call him “Vy” (formal “You”) and use his patronymic, scurrying like underfed rats to do his bidding. Tolya waits in freezing temperatures all night for HRH to come out of his business saunas. Me? I let him go after he takes me to Scandinavia restaurant because I would hate for Tolya to see me when I emerge four hours later. Lena bestirs herself to wash the windows when HRH barks at her that they are long-overdo for a clean. But for me, even contemplating bringing the windows up with Lena makes me break out in hives.

At the end of the day, I would rather be a domestic goddess than a despot. I don’t plan to learn how to bark. I would like to find a way to be more assertive with Lena and Tolya. Sitting in my Starbucks refuge, I search the Kindle store on for a book on modern household staff management, but to date there isn’t one. So, instead, I screen “Downton Abbey” on iTunes for clues. I watch carefully, hoping to pick up that noble, magnanimous but essentially totally in-charge thing Lord Grantham has going on; or master one of those withering rejoinders the Dowager Countess delivers each episode.

Alas, they don’t sound the same in Russian.

This personal essay first appeared in The Moscow Time’s 20th Anniversary anthology, Russia For Experts, which is a trilogy:

Foreigner’s Guide to Russia trilogy:

Russian for Beginners: For those of you newly arrived in Russia. We hope this book will help you navigate Russian life and business.
Russia for the Advanced: You will learn how people have built up successful business while dealing with cross-cultural issues, crises, unstable environments, local authorities and other challenges.
Russia for Experts: The contributors to this book wanted to tell their stories of the past 20 years: how they entered the market or the country, made fortunes and lost them, introduced or invented new professions and markets, fell in love – and in the end made good lives, successful companies and enduring ties.
Many thanks to The Moscow Times for permission to reprint this essay.
Readers, have you suddenly woke up to the fact that you are a domestic goddess?  Does your child’s school have a mafia?  What’s the worst servant thing that ever happened to you?
Hit the comment button below to confess all!


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  • Emory says:

    Your writing is really enjoyable. It’s nice to read an experienced American perspective on some of these things, especially being out here in the sticks – I’m down the Volga a ways, in Lenin’s hometown. Unstable workplaces, despotism, strange not quite threats, and various непонятные hand gestures. Not to mention the total lack of PCness, of which I apparently didn’t fully comprehend the effect in America. Post more often!

    • jennifer says:

      Thank you so much for stopping by and for your comment. I am impressed with your tenacity and bravery to live in…Ulyanovsk? Is that right? PC has yet to get over here, and I agree, sometimes it really just fells you! You may prefer to read the pieces on if you enjoyed this essay. Lots more where that came from! I’ve been on a self-imposed book hiatus, but now I’m back! Yeah!

  • Janet Tivy says:

    Hi Jennifer! I love your side-splitting comments about life in Russia, especially as I have a Russian daughter-in-law living in California (Chris’s wife). Only one comment about the “Cultural Obstacle Course” blog: Instead of Scotch (only used for the drink), you should use Scottish, or, as you later use, Scots! But it is all very funny! (Maybe we’ll see you in Williamstown some summer?)

    • jennifer says:

      Hello! thanks Janet, for that observation. I can’t think how that happened: either spellcheck is getting ready for April 1, or I’m channeling my own inner Nancy Mitford (she always says Scotch). In any case, I’m so pleased you enjoyed the piece and whatever insight it may give you into your “nevestka!”

  • Moscow Granny says:

    Hi Jennifer, good to have you back ! Had a great time reading your article and enjoyed witty your comments and observations. Very nice to have “instructions” for life in Russia available (инструкция на применемие) when I sometimes feel I’m the only FF (foreign female or “иностранка”) with a HRH around .. Only thing I might not agree with is that the revolution broke down the feudal mindset in the country .. my theory is socialism was just a transposition of the good old system, but with different criteria for who sits on top of the pyramid 😉 Keep up the good work, looking forward to more and to your book very soon !
    ACF co-microphoner 😉

    • jennifer says:


      Thank you so much for your nice comment! I recall our fun day together very fondly! I also at times that I am all alone, but then, BAM all kinds of women get in touch on the blog and on FB.
      I think you may be right about the revolution….
      I so hope our paths will cross again soon!

  • Moscow Granny says:

    You’re still in Moscow, right ? Any book-signing sessions planned ? So sorry to miss your shopping/cooking classes, but they clash with my bridge group on Wednesday mornings 🙁

  • Denis says:

    Hi Jennifer,

    I totally enjoyed the article. It is quite an interesting life you are having. In fact I stumbled upon it in Russian and had to go and find the blog to read the original :).

    However, for the sake of people reading this I feel compelled to add that however interesting this article represents a lifestyle of a rather narrow part of Russian population. You are talking about the “elite” of Russian society which is loaded with money and excess. And as everyone knows power and money exaggerate people’s qualities out of proportions.

    The majority of Russians don’t live in an environment that would allow for “Domestic goddesses”, servants etc. So, the families are a lot closer knit and regardless of the roles and responsibilities that husband and wife are taking, the family is still a joint enterprise which requires love and work from both sides. In fact the thing about Russian families as opposed to, say, American families is that they are traditionally tighter and there is a stronger link between generations.

    There is of course another side of the pie. Those who are really really poor. In this part of the society you are likely to find family violence (this is a general case for most countries, not just Russia). With low salaries women are often dependent on their husbands which is somewhat similar to the situation in the “high society”.

    Good luck with your blogs.


  • Interesting article there, Jen. Great to hear an American perspective on this issue.

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