Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Word to Husbands:

To keep your marriage brimming

With love in the loving cup,
Whenever you're wrong admit it;
Whenever you're right, shut up.

Ogden Nash


Simon Sebag Montefiore has written two highly acclaimed non-fiction books about Joseph Stalin, as well as several other books about aspects of Russia’s history.
Sashenka is his first foray into the world of fiction, and he makes good use of his specialist knowledge. He has divided the book into three sections, covering the story of one family through the huge changes in Russia from 1916 up to the present day. As a result of reading it I am determined to read more about this period of history.

When the story begins Sashenka Zeitlin is the sixteen year old daughter of an immensely rich, well connected Jewish family who live in St Petersburg. Her
father, who bought his title, is a hypochondriac banker with a more than passing interest in Sashenka’s governess; her mother is entirely given over to self-indulgence, mixing with Rasputin and other debauched friends, drinking and taking drugs at parties every night. Her elderly orthodox Jewish grandparents who have left the shtetl and now live in the rear of the huge Zeitlin mansion, make everyone feel uncomfortable with their old fashioned, religious way of living.

Sashenka has been heavily influenced by her maternal uncle who is a Bolshevik trying to bring down the Tsar. Like many young people she feels the Tsarist regime is unjust and is convinced that by becoming a revolutionary she can help bring about a new, fairer Russia. She seems impervious to what such revolution would do to her family and thousands of others. She becomes more and more involved in the underground movement of Bolsheviks and after the storming of the Winter Palace and the abdication of the Tsar she is given a job at the headquarters of the Central Committee working for Lenin, Mendel, Stalin and the other leaders.

By 1939 Sashenka is living a privileged life in Moscow with a wonderful apartment, servants, American cars and domestic equipment and a country dacha in an area of natural beauty reserved for the top comrades. Married to Vanya Palitsyn who has an important job for the Politburo, she has a young son and daughter. She is working as editor of a magazine called “Soviet Wife and Proletarian Housekeeping”, and she and her husband socialize regularly with Stalin, Beria and the other leaders. The country has just gone through a year of "purges" when Stalin had thousands of Soviet party members eliminated. Sashenka and her husband seem completely blind to the violent corruption at the heart of the regime.

“The cleansing of the Party had been a brutal and bloody process. Many had failed the test and fallen by the wayside, sentenced to death…Some of Sashenka’s oldest friends and acquaintances had turned out to be traitors, spies and Trotskyites. She had never realised so many of them wore masks, pretending to be good Communists while actually being Fascists, saboteurs and traitors. With so many comrades vanishing into the ‘meat grinder’ as it was known, Sashenka had, like all her friends, culled their photos from the family photograph albums, scratching out their faces.”

Eventually, the regime turns on her too, and she wakes up to the monster she has helped to create. At that moment she has only one desire, to save her children. And with the help of others she manages to get them spirited out of Moscow to a new life elsewhere, just before she is arrested by the NKVD (latterly known as the KGB).

The third and final part of the book brings the reader up to date. A wealthy Russian oligarch living in London hires a young historian to research his mother’s family background. She has to overcome much bureaucratic resistance and blatant corruption in order to be able to delve through the Soviet archives, and in so doing eventually uncovers what happened to Sashenka’s two children.

I felt the book really only hit its stride when it got to the second part, and from then on I was gripped, not by Sashenka herself or what happened to her, but by how thousands of intelligent, well-meaning people could allow one man to gain so much power and develop such a regime without them seeing where it was heading. In the final part of the book, Montefiore paints a picture of a country which is still evolving, and frighteningly seems just as vulnerable to totalitarianism and dictatorship as it was in the 1920s.

Rated 4*


When I was young the term “Indian Giver” was one of opprobrium – although I suspect that it is no longer politically correct and I could be hauled over the coals for using it. Everyone knew what was meant by the phrase.

Like most other parents I had to adjudicate when one or other of my kids, having given something to their sibling, or to a friend, then had a major falling-out and demanded that whatever they had given them be given back. It had to be explained that when something was GIVEN to someone, not LENT to them, that it then it became theirs and the giver no longer owned it or had rights over it. Sure this could be very vexing when at a later time (be it hours, days, weeks) the recipient and the giver had a bust-up, but learning this lesson is part of growing up.

Someone obviously never taught this to Dr Richard Batista, who donated a kidney to his wife Dawnell some years ago. The couple have now divorced, and Dr Batista has demanded his kidney back (or $1.5 million compensation) because she has left him and taken the kids with her. This is obviously not what could be described as an amicable separation.

The lawyer advising Dr Batista in his claim can't have mugged up on her Shakespeare. In The Merchant of Venice I seem to remember Shylock got himself into a bit of a legal quandary when demanding his pound of flesh. The point being that though in law he could have the flesh, he couldn’t have any blood, and you couldn’t take the flesh without the blood. Presumably Dawnell Batista’s lawyer could follow the same line and say 'have the kidney back by all means but if you take a single drop of my client’s blood we’ll sue the pants off you.'

Actually its all moot, the kidney was GIVEN to Mrs Batista, it is now HER kidney.

Thank the lord that the brief and acrimonious marriage and divorce of Sir Paul McCartney and Heather Mills didn’t involve any organ donations - can you imagine the headlines then?

The moral of the story is: Think before giving, because once it's given it's gone.


Given my rant, I did consider posting a recipe for devilled kidneys - but then thought that might be a little tasteless (ha ha)! Anyway, the first days of January always seem to demand warm, filling, inexpensive food so I decided to actually write down the recipe for a soup I make fairly often at this time of year. Its real comfort food, and I make it by instinct so I had to stop and note down quantities as I made this latest batch. It freezes well, and with bread and cheese and a piece of fruit is a perfect lunch or supper.


Serves 6

1 medium swede

2 large carrots

2 medium potatoes

2 sticks celery

1 medium sweet potato

1 leek

1 medium onion

1 tablespoon butter

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 Bay leaf

½ teaspoon dried thyme

Salt & pepper


Finely chop the onion; scrape the carrots, peel sweet potato, potato and swede, and cut all of them into small even dice. De-string the celery and cut it into pieces to match the vegetables in size. Remove any tough outer leaves from the leek, quarter it lengthwise and then cut across into small pieces.

Put the butter and oil into a large pan and heat gently until the butter has melted. Add the chopped onion and fry gently until it is transparent but not browned. Add all the other vegetables and cook for 5 -10 minutes over medium heat stirring regularly. Add enough water to just cover the vegetables, add the bay leaf and thyme and bring up to simmering point. Simmer gently for 15-20 minutes until the vegetables are soft, add about 500ml water and bring back to a simmer, cover and cook for about 10 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Garnish with chopped parsley and serve with crusty brown bread and butter.


herschelian said...

Sorry about the differing text size, do not adjust your sets. I have just spent 30 minutes fighting Blogger to try and get the font size even throughout this post - it is stubbornly refusing to let me do so. Ok, Blogger wins, I give up, I'm going to bed.

nick said...

Oh well, a nice size for those with dodgy eyesight!

As for Dr Batista, clearly his life revolves round money and selfless altruism is an alien concept, even towards his own wife. That part of the marriage vow that goes "for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish" obviously meant nothing to him. He might as well have married a frog.

Anonymous said...

I love your recipes and the soup looks great but what is a 'swede'? Thanks.

herschelian said...

Hi jdwoods,
I'm glad you like the recipes!
A swede is a root vegetable, a large yellow turnip. In the US it is called a rutabaga (which I think derives from the Swedish word for turnip). In Scotland it is known as a 'neep' or 'tumshie'. The Scots are very partial to eating neeps, usually boiled and mashed with butter salt and pepper. The national dish, Haggis is traditionally served with "bashed neeps and champit tatties" ie mashed swede and mashed potato (when these two are mixed together as they sometimes are, the dish is called 'clapshot').
My family loves clapshot (my DH is from Aberdeen) and I make it regularly in winter - excellent with sausages.
The French are very snooty about the swede and say it is really only fit for pig or cattle food!

Jeanne said...

Good grief - did this chap miss the part of the sentence where organ DONATION was mentioned?! That's the most ridiculous claim I've ever heard. And LOL - I wish you had posted a recipe for devilled kidneys!

Joel said...

Thanks so much for this post, quite effective info.
Middle Eastern Style Beef

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