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What to do with a dead-man’s clothes…

Justin Lifflander

By Justin Lifflander

 Matt and Grandma May

Matt and Grandma May

My father passed away five years ago. Beyond the many intangibles he gave us in life, the most problematic part of his estate was his wardrobe.

A corporate lawyer and lifelong Democratic Party fundraiser, Matt’s public image was very important to him. As a child I remember seeing a chrome donkey hood-ornament in an automotive accessories catalog. I thought it was the perfect gift for him and assumed he’d be ecstatic at the idea of replacing the prim crest on the front of his Cadillac. His rejection was gentle but firm: “Perhaps we’ll put it on your mother’s car.”

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If some people are mere clothes horses, Matt was a Clydesdale – a trait inherited from his mother. Grandma May was a known regular at most major department stores in central Westchester. After she passed away my brother went to retrieve her car from the repair shop. The mechanic admonished him: “Be gentle with her. She only knows how to go to back and forth to Lord & Taylor.”

Following Matt’s departure, my brother and I began to explore his closets and contemplate how to dispose of their contents. We half-joked that it would be more efficient to petition Brooks Brothers for a short-term franchise, announce the opening of a mini-branch in his condo and then have a going-out-of-business sale.

When we splattered the colorful collection of silk ties, leather belts and cashmere sweaters on the dining room table, my precocious niece took one look and said, “It looks like Neiman Marcus threw up…”

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The ties, along with hankies and cufflinks, were sentimentally scarfed-up by those admirers who were able to attend an informal memorial event that August.

There is something special about wearable mementos of a loved one. In the least, they induce imagery. A flashback to the day you first saw her wear that scarf; an important event where that handkerchief peeked out of his jacket pocket; the joy he took from his new walking shoes as you strolled in the park together.

Other senses and emotions come into play, especially for items not likely to have been washed – a cravat, belt or bowtie. A hint of the deceased’s scent and a tingle of their life energy remains. And there’s the soothing thought that a satiated dust mite, personally acquainted with your beloved and still fattened on their spent cells, may yet dwell among the fibers.

The quandary is not limited to men’s finery. Aunt Zoya, a retired kindergarten teacher, dropped dead in her 77th year during a friend’s India-themed party. The finale – a rented elephant – was late in making its appearance. Zoya distracted the crowd by organizing a group sing-along until the unpunctual pachyderm arrived. But her heart gave out on center stage before the end of the first verse.

 Max clowning in Quito

Max clowning in Quito

We commemorated the first anniversary of her passing at her house in the Ukraine. Toward the end of the evening her husband Yuri organized a collective rummage through her wardrobe. My son found himself in possession of a billowy multi-colored summer skirt, which he subsequently used during a humanitarian-clowning mission to Ecuador.

Pajamas were dad’s preferred form of attire. It’s safe to say that when he wasn’t wearing a suit at the office in Manhattan or driving to and fro, he spent the majority of his time at home in one of a dozen pairs of jammies – at the breakfast table digesting the newspaper or on the couch writing briefs until the wee hours of the morning. I suppose he didn’t change his attire before finally dozing off.

Though not a pajama wearer, I kept several pairs. They make excellent yoga outfits, especially the silk ones from Harrods. And we’ve started a family tradition of celebrating Matt’s birthday every September 18th with a dinner in his honor at which everyone wears his PJs.

 The pajama party

The pajama party

After the initial disbursement of mainstream garments, we were left with the perplexing question of what to do with his nearly three hundred hats. He had been collecting them my whole life. He mostly preferred military and police head gear. This hobby made it easy to find a birthday present for him and gave him an additional point of intimacy with friends. “I hope you enjoy your trip to Morocco,” he would say. “If you happen to come across a Zouave colonel’s fez…”

In October, with the formal memorial service at our synagogue only a few days away, my friend Jamie joined me in clearing out Matt’s recently sold condo. Those hats stared down at us from shelves, racks, and hooks like members of a theater audience not quite sure the play will end as they predict. Soldiers, officers and law enforcement agents of the world, some adorned with brass or silver emblems, a few with scrambled eggs on their brims, at least one with feathers – all demanded a proper resolution of their fate.

 Matt in Russian police officer's cap

Matt in Russian police officer's cap

We boxed, bagged and sorted his other possessions. Stamp albums, ashtrays, autographed photos of presidents & governors and an adorable collection of memorabilia from the 1964 World’s Fair all had future homes.

But the destiny of the hats remained elusory. They were an essential part of his being, his time on earth. They marked the wars and nations he had studied, admired and lived through. They told stories of their acquisition from around the globe: friends in the service, antique merchants on Portobello, a baksheeshed officer in a third-world police force.

Jamie and I kept working, all the time puzzling and puzzling about the hats 'till our puzzlers were sore. We relieved that soreness with the remains of a forgotten whiskey bottle rescued from a closet shelf. Then, as dawn broke, a phrase inspired by the poetry of Dr. Seuss – read to me at bed time by my parents – made its way through the peat vapors of my mind and passed my lips. “Remember Matt…take a hat.”

It made perfect sense. We’d give the hats away after the memorial service, with the condition that mourners couldn’t have a hat they had procured for him.

I was concerned that the rabbi wouldn’t bless setting up a hat stand in the lobby of the temple. But my faith in the joyfulness of Judaism and the impression that it doesn’t take itself too seriously was borne out. More than two months had elapsed since Matt died, the grief had subsided. The rabbi agreed this was a nice way to remember him.

 Jon, Justin, Jamie after the October 2013 memorial service

Jon, Justin, Jamie after the October 2013 memorial service

Jamie and I packed the collection in six large garbage bags, minus the Nazi SS officers cap, and hauled them to the temple. It seemed unthinkable to allow such an item, with its skull and crossbones emblem, on sanctified ground.

Following the service, the attendees poured over the hat covered tables, pointing out the ones they procured and picking ones for themselves. They wandered back to the reception with smiles on their faces, hats on their heads and stories to tell. Bankers, lawyers, politicians, real estate moguls all stood around looking silly and reminiscing about our dad. Matt’s life was soulfully celebrated.

 A garrison cap

A garrison cap

By the end of the afternoon, only a few unadorned garrison caps (though Matt had taught me another, less polite term for those foldable creased military hats) remained.

As we prepared to leave, the rabbi stopped me, a look of curiosity and determination on his face.

“I thought Matt had a Nazi hat. What happened to it?”

“Rabbi, I couldn’t bring that symbol of atrocity into the synagogue. I left it in a bag at my brother’s house.”

“Can I have it?”

“Of course,” I stammered, not able to imagine why a rabbi whose congregation included Holocaust survivors would want such a monstrous relic.

He sensed my bewilderment.

“It’s a tangible link to the horror,” the rabbi said.  “I want to use it in Sunday school class. So, the kids will always remember.”

That’s what it’s all about. Remembering.

Ranevskaya Also Didn’t Want to Become a Spy

Justin Lifflander

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In honor of the 34th anniversary of the death of Soviet actress Faina Ranevskaya
(born 27 August 1896; died 19 July 1984)

By Justin Lifflander

It was playwright Anton Chekov who sent Faina Ranevskaya on the path to become one of Russia’s most beloved performers.

At the age of 14 she saw a performance of The Cherry Orchard, in her home town of Taganrog next to the Azov Sea in southern Russia. By 19 Faina had made the decision to escape her provincial hometown and head to Moscow to pursue an acting career. Her family, dismayed by her decision, disowned her. Undaunted, she changed her last name from Feldman to Ranevskaya and set off to pursue her dream.

 Young Ranevskaya, circa 1931

Young Ranevskaya, circa 1931

She spent the next seven decades on Moscow’s stages and played supporting roles in more than a dozen hit films – mostly dramatic comedies.

A mix of Mae West, Ruth Gordon and Woody Allen, Ranevskaya became known for classic her lines on screen and stage. Her biting, sometimes bawdy witticisms in real life – something she found thoroughly funny yet painfully lonely – are no less famous.

Her life span paralleled that of the absurd experiment called the Soviet Union. Ranevskaya was an example of the fine humanity it produced, despite shortages of consumer goods, housing, and personal freedom. It was an existence marked by an overabundance of cultural Neanderthals at the top and secret-police informants at all levels.

In Natalia Bogdanova’s excellent collection of aphorisms and anecdotes, we learn how Ranevskaya worked the system to solve her housing needs. Until 1952, the actress – already twice awarded Stalin’s prize for creative achievement — lived in a shabby room in a communal apartment.    

But Faina was not risk-averse. She had the courage to reject a proposal to “cooperate” with the state security organs. The recruitment effort was managed by then chief of counter-intelligence for the USSR Lieutenant-General Oleg Mikhailovich Gribanov.

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Oleg Mikhailovich, though not a tall man, had immense hypnotic powers and an impressive gift for persuasion. Among themselves his subordinates nicknamed him “Bonaparte.” Gribanov did not pitch Ranevskaya directly. He sent a young operative by the name of Korshunov – a man who would never be accused of having an intricate mind.

Captain Korshunov started the conversation with Ranevskaya from afar.  He educated her about the international class struggle, the machinations of spies on the territory of the USSR and how they try to trip-up the nation as it strides toward a bright future.  He casually reminded her that it was the duty of every Soviet citizen to willfully provide assistance to the organs of state security.

Listening attentively to the passionate monolog of the young KGB officer, Ranevskaya contemplated a smooth way to deflect the recruitment pitch, which was sure to come at the end of the operative’s fiery speech.

In her signature style, she asked Korshunov:

“Young man, why didn’t you show up earlier, when I hadn’t yet reached my seventh decade?"

“What are you saying, Faina Georgievna?” Korshunov blurted-out melodramatically. “No one would take you for a day over thirty. Believe me, you are a young woman…in comparison to the other actresses of your theater troupe.”

Lighting up yet another cigarette, Ranevskaya squinted at Korshunov and responded coolly.

“I see what you're driving at, young man.” Without skipping a beat, she declared, “I have been waiting for the moment when the security service would realize I’m worthy.  I am always ready to expose the plots of detestable imperialist low-lifes. You could say it’s been my dream since childhood. But there is a problem…

“First of all, I live in a communal apartment, and second of all, even more importantly, I talk in my sleep…loudly. So, my dear colleague – and I can only regard you in this way— together let’s try to envision, like good secret policeman, how this problem might play out….

“Imagine, that you give me a mission, and I, being a responsible person, begin to consider how to execute it.  Then suddenly, in the middle of the night, while I’m dreaming, I begin discussing with myself the details about how to fulfill the task. I speak aloud last names, first names, code names, secret meeting places, passwords, appointment times, and so forth… And we have to keep in mind that I am surrounded by nosy neighbors who for many years have unrelentingly monitored my every move…Then what? Instead of faithfully doing my duty I will have betrayed you!”

Ranevskaya’s discourse left a deep impression on Korshunov. He immediately reported back to Gribanov.

“This lady is willing to work for us…I feel it inside. But there are objective complications related to the peculiarities of her nighttime physiology.”

“What peculiarities?” asked the baffled counter-intelligence chief.

“She talks loudly in her sleep. And besides, the overall situation is shameful. It’s unacceptable that our glorious People’s Artist occupies a room in a communal apartment.”

A month later Ranevskaya celebrated her housewarming party in the newly constructed elite Stalin-era skyscraper on Moscow’s Kotelnicheskaya Embankment.

Then Korshunov resumed his attempts to meet her. But each time it turned out that Faina was unable to keep the appointment: either she was preparing for a show’s opening, her spleen hurt, she had a cold…

Finally, a frustrated Korshunov informed the actress he was coming to her new home for a conclusive conversation. The young captain had no idea who he was dealing with. Before he could make it to her door, a citizen appeared at the KGB’s reception center. He was of an indeterminate age, though the prominent capillaries of his nose and his puffy countenance left no doubt about his primary pastime. Regardless, he was relatively sober and most determined when he insisted they accept his report about unseemly goings-on in the famous skyscraper.

The report was a collective effort by the residents of the prestigious building on the embankment where Ranevskaya had happily ensconced herself just one month prior. It was on the desk of General Gribanov within the hour. It read as follows: “The residents of the upper floor (ten signatories) kindly inform the organs of state security that immediately under them lives some kind of lady who can be heard on a nightly basis loudly talking to herself about the threat of imperialist espionage and what she is going to do about it…how sorry she will make those capitalist scum…just as soon as the organs of state security take her on as a part time employee.”

Gribanov summoned Korshunov, gave him the report and clear instructions.

“Cross Ranevskaya off your list. Forget about her and find someone else – someone who sleeps silently.”

Later, Korshunov learned from his agent in the Mossovet Theater, where Ranevskaya worked, about the true origins of that “collective” report.  In exchange for two bottles of vodka, the actress persuaded the plumber from her new building to assist in her intelligence-countering scheme. He was that very same informant with the puffy face and demonstrative nose. But it was too late. The horse had left the barn and the apartment remained Ranevskaya’s.

That she was a woman wholly without fear was proven again in a subsequent interaction with Communist Party General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev.

Ranevskaya's most famous line was, “Mulya, don’t get on my nerves!” from the 1940 film “The Foundling.” For the rest of her life it would haunt her. Fans of all ages, especially children, would great her with that phrase when she walked down the street. It annoyed her to no end.

A still from the 1940 hit film The Foundling.jpg

In 1976, when Faina was already an octogenarian, Leonid Brezhnev awarded her the prestigious Lenin Prize for her contribution to the arts. As he welcomed her on stage, the leader of the USSR exclaimed, “And here comes our Mulya…don’t get on my nerves!” Faina calmly accepted the award and responded, “Leonid Ilyich, the only people who address me like that are little boys and hooligans!” An abashed Brezhnev apologized. “Forgive me, Faina Georgievna. But I just love your work.”

In conclusion, some of Ranevskaya’s more poignant quotes and comments:


On politics:

* During Khrushchev’s thaw, when information from the outside world began to seep into the USSR, someone asked Ranevskaya what she would do if they open the country’s borders and allow people to travel.

“I’d climb a tree, of course.”

“Why?”

“Because I don’t want to get crushed by the stampede…”

 

* A comrade sighed and declared, “Oh my, how difficult it is for honest people to make a living these days!” Ranevskaya glared at him and said, “So what’s your problem?”

 

* "There are people with God inside, there are people with the devil inside and there are people with only parasites inside."

* Ranevskaya liked to say that when God created the earth, he foresaw the rise of Soviet Power and decided to give every man three qualities: wisdom, honor and a sense of “Party” (meaning faith in Communist ideology).  But the devil intervened and convinced God that a mortal man could only have two of those qualities at once. As a result…

               -If a person is wise and honorable, he has nothing to do with the Party.

               -If he is wise and a Party-man, he certainly isn’t honest.

               -If he is an honest Party-man, he's a fool.

 

On women:

* "A real man is one who remembers a lady’s birthday, but never knows how old she is. A man who knows how old she is but can’t remember her birthday is called her husband."

* "Of course, women are smarter than men. Have you ever heard of a woman who lost her head just because a man had nice legs?" 

* Someone asked Ranevskaya, “Which women are more likely to remain faithful: brunettes or blonds?” Ranevskaya responded: “Those with gray hair…”

 

On life:

* "Under the most attractive peacock’s tail you still find a chicken’s ass."

* "Homosexuality, sadism, masochism -- these are not perversions. There are only two genuine perversions: hockey played on grass and ballet done on ice."

* "Life is one long leap, out of the pussy and into the grave."

 Monument to Ranevskaya, in her hometown of Taganrog.

Monument to Ranevskaya, in her hometown of Taganrog.

A chain reaction…

Justin Lifflander

(Interview with Maria Eliseeva, for April Issue of Aeroflot in-fligh magazine: on Beslan, and how to get bikers and ordinary people involved in charity)

The travel weary clown got in the front seat of my car, after I greeted him at Sheremetyevo, for the start of the November 2017 Russia clown trip.

I had already read David’s biographical statement:

‘I’m a French-Italian, teacher-actor-comedian. I've been traveling the world for the past year doing a documentary about laughter and being a volunteer.’

An interesting, but not necessarily unique description of a humanitarian clown.

I asked the usual question as we headed toward the city center.

 “What made you decide to clown in Russia?” 

“Several things came together,” he responded. “First, I was flying through Russia on Aeroflot last year, and I read an article about Maria, Patch and the Russian clown trip. It inspired me…”

At that moment, I experienced the thrill writers get when they realize they’ve touched someone, made a difference, hit their target…

David spent the next two weeks in Moscow and St. Petersburg, working his magic, bringing joy and creating material for his documentary. And I was inspired to pitch Aeroflot about another article: this one about Maria’s involvement with Beslan – the city in North Ossetia where a school was attacked by terrorists in 2004.

Gorbachev, Massie, and a Bit of Optimism

Justin Lifflander

Gorbachev, Justin, Palazhchenko and Ambassador Jon Huntsman
Photo: Marina Buligina, Vesmir Publishers

Gorbachev and Massie inspecting the Votkinsk “Trust But Verify” T-shirt.
Photo: Anatoly Kotov, Vesmir Publishers

 In a classroom at Cornell in the Spring of 1986 we discussed Gorbachev’s speech at the 27th congress of the Communist Party of the USSR, then taking place in Moscow.  I realized the style of the new General Secretary, Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev,  was going to be very different than his predecessors. And I had an inkling that the field of study in which I was getting a diploma – “Soviet Government,” aka Kremlinology – was about to become a whole lot more interesting.

 So, spending an afternoon this month with Gorbachev at his foundation in Moscow, along with other giants from the Cold War – Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh, General Vladimir Dvorkin, and historian and Ronald Reagan confidant Suzanne Massie – was a surreal culmination of a journey I began three decades earlier. The occasion was the publication in Russian of Massie’s recent memoir “Trust But Verify: Russian Lessons for Reagan.”

 The full article about the book launch you can read here.

 Before she headed back to her home in Maine for the holidays, I had breakfast with Suzanne. We commiserated over the sad state of global affairs and bonded over our love for Russia. When you’ve spent 35 years dedicated to a cause, and then meet someone  35 years your senior who has been working the same cause her whole life, hope easily rekindles.

…Give Till It Stops Hurting

Justin Lifflander

Volunteers from Maria’s Children art center joined Patch Adams and his band of visiting humanitarian clowns for a two week tour of orphanages and hospitals in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Below you can view a report (in Russian) of their final stop, at the Albrecht Children’s Rehabilitation hospital in St. Petersburg, Russia.

An American Professor in Russia

Justin Lifflander

Moscow, 25 July 2017

There are at least 20 towns in the United States named Moscow. But towards the end of my visit to America in June, I took the appearance of this sign as a sign, and headed home. Then again, it could have been an attack by Russian hackers on the design computer of the road-sign factory. We’ll never know, and there will never be proof anyway.

I departed with a heavy heart, having fathomed – with help from the American media – the depth of the abyss into which US-Russian relations have sunk.

Hope had landed on my Moscow windowsill briefly in March. When I heard that Jon Huntsman Jr. was to be named ambassador to Russia, I read his biography and took heart at the possibility of an improvement in relations. To facilitate that, I immediately sent him a copy of my book. I have no idea if he’s read it, but if he has questions, I am ready to go to the airport and meet him at the bottom of the staircase when the plane lands. Then again, he might have other priorities.

Cornell University

Returning to Moscow on 10 June, I immersed myself in final preparations for the Russia lecture tour of Professor Glenn Altschuler. Professor Altschuler was my faculty advisor at Cornell University 34 years ago, and is my son’s advisor now. I pitched the idea of inviting Glenn to Russia to the US Embassy’s cultural affairs department in the spring. They agreed to sponsor his visit and be the main organizer. We settled on four topics that he could speak about here, based on his publications and experience: the origins of rock & roll; best practices of managing a major university; legal advocacy in the US, based on his recent book Ten Great American Trials; and the history of US presidential power.

Over the previous two months I had leveraged every friend I have in Russia in order to find host venues and appropriate audiences. My apprehension grew as show-time approached. We were coming up short. My contacts, as well as those of the embassy, were dealing with the usual bureaucracies. But there was also an unspoken undercurrent. Perhaps it was not the best time for an American academic to attempt to penetrate the walls of state institutions, not to mention the minds contained therein. 

If they only knew Glenn Altschuler, I thought, people would flock to his lectures. He is a teddy-bear with a PhD. His body is compact, but his head is full of stories. Stories resulting from a habit of reading not less than 100 pages a day for the last 41 years. (That’s approaching 1.5 million pages, if you are counting) Add to that a four-decade career as a senior member of Cornell University’s staff, and his adventures around the world— speaking about the books he’s written, fund raising for Cornell, or teaching classes on and off campus—and you can imagine what a fascinating person he is. And it is understandable that, with a head so full of stories, there is not much room left for hair. His bristly mustache, hovering above his sprightly smile, compensates for the hair deficit. His eyes twinkle in a big way, magnified by his thick glasses—a consequence of all that reading. 

Finally, it started to come together, much thanks to the charm and persistence of Kim Scrivner and her team at the US Embassy Moscow cultural affairs department, and some of the contacts my friends provided.

After a gentle ramp-up in St. Petersburg, where he did the trials lecture twice and rock & roll once, we readied to head south to the capital. On the eve of Saturday’s departure, we got the revised schedule for Moscow. Glenn's popularity was skyrocketing. He was set to give three lectures per day, for three days straight, interspersed with several press and PR moments. 

Glenn’s sprightly smile drooped a bit, and I think I heard a slight hiss, as I informed him of the revised schedule. “What? I’ve never done 3 lectures in one day in my entire life!” I took the blame, but gently scolded him for being too polite in our earlier exchanges when I tried to pin him down about the volume of work he would do here.  I also made a note to identify the location of the medical emergency kit at every venue, since Glenn does not smoke or drink.

Glenn, Marina and my friends from Beslan enjoying a white-night cruise on the Neva.

Glenn’s stamina had convinced me of his omnipotence. For example, he set off from Ithaca, in upstate New York, early Tuesday morning, took a bus to New York – a 400-kilometer trip — came into the city to give a lecture to a law firm, went to the airport and got on the transatlantic flight to Moscow, where I met him and we flew to St. P together, arriving Wednesday afternoon. We enjoyed a stroll, then dinner with some visiting Cornellians and my token native – a good clown-friend Marina Shusterman. Glenn knew he could not refuse when she invited us back to her apartment for tea and pie. I can confirm that Glenn’s normally brisk Brooklyn-native walking pace doubles when he is genuinely exhausted and wants to make it back to his hotel room to pass out.

The speaking tour was a success. He spoke to more than 350 people during 11 different lectures and a radio interview, many of which were live-streamed and garnered several thousand viewers.

Anyone who has ever given a public presentation knows the energy that goes into it, and how drained one feels afterwards—particularly if a passionate question and answer session follows. When the speaker successfully connects with his audience, there is an energy transfer – not unlike boxing or humanitarian clowning. And Glenn did connect. Muhammad Ali would have been proud.

Glenn connecting with St. Petersburg Lawyers

Jaws dropped and gasps of pleasant surprise were heard when this very American man mentioned that his father was born in Russia. Sometimes Glenn would single out a person in the audience worthy of an intellectual challenge or friendly rebuff. Glenn’s straight man was always well chosen and the other listeners benefited from their banter. And Glenn is the master of the dramatic pause: “When Dan White got out of prison, he killed again….this time, he killed himself.”

The one speaking tool that required a bit of honing was Glenn’s self-deprecation shtick. Glenn often says that he wants everyone to leave his lectures more depressed than when they came in (that is to say, to be thinking…). But his jests about his advanced age and avuncular appearance occasionally baffled audiences. Not something they expected from such a respected figure.

In fact, he often got a supportive backlash, with listeners grumbling in negation of his purported self -perception. 

At times, the wave of positive emotions he elicited from the crowds became hazardous. I had taken on the role of being his personal bodyguard, sans earpiece. I jokingly promised that, as long as he kept to the agreed topics, he would not wind up, as some opposition leaders here have, covered in green iodine. Glenn, being naturally conflict averse, very politically savvy, and also a small target, was at no time in any real danger. But there were two close calls.

Glenn connecting with Russian history

I sank into the big fluffy couch in the back of the living room at the home of the US Embassy deputy chief of mission in Moscow, while Glenn began to present to an enthralled group of mostly middle-aged female administrators from Moscow’s leading higher-education institutions. The intellectual pheromones began to fly. As I observed one lady educator in the front row, I realized my position in the room left me unable to defend him. The rapture on her face as he spoke; the gyrations of her hands as they stroked the air around his words which floated in her direction (she was overwhelmed with the joy that she had found someone who understood her plight); the wiggling of her hips on the chair…I took these as signs that she might, at any moment, leap up and hug him to death. I would be unable to make it to the front of the room and tackle her in time to save him.  Eventually, she calmed down, and so did I.

At one point during a lecture, Glenn made it clear he was available for marriage offers, and subsequently distributed his email address (the real one). I find it hard to believe he didn’t receive at least a few takers, though a Cornell ring was prominently displayed on his right ring finger— making it clear who his wife really is.

And there was the Friday evening lecture in St. Petersburg. A group of 40 or so young people between the ages of 14 and 18 had gathered to learn about the origins of rock & roll. I never knew that the term was slang from the 1950s for having sex. And I had no idea that Little Richard’s song Tutti Frutti was about homosexuality.  As Glenn described the sensuality of rock & roll, I suddenly remembered we have a law in Russia against promoting non-traditional sexual relations to minors. (I do not know if we have a law against promoting traditional sexual relations to minors). I had visions of a SWAT team softly traipsing up the carpeted marble steps and bursting into the room. Where to hide Glenn? Roll him up in the carpet? They’d likely notice the lump. Stuff him up the chimney? It had long been sealed.  Leap out the window together? I think the police troops sometimes repel down the sides of buildings they are storming.  By the time my paranoia subsided, he was safely on to the next topic. Something about Elvis’s hips.

The lecture on Ten Great Trials was well received by lawyers and the general public alike. The theme running through it was a paraphrased quote of Jorge Luis Borges: The future belongs to those who tell the best stories. In both court cases Glenn used in the lecture – O.J. Simpson and Dan White – it was clear that the defendant killed people, but was either acquitted or given a reduced sentence because his defense team did a better job at telling their version of the story than the prosecution did. Glenn reminded his audiences that “Facts do not speak for themselves.”

Beyond describing the nuts and bolts of legal advocacy, Glenn pointed out the essential strengths of the American justice system, as revealed in most of the cases he and coauthor Faust Rossi analyzed: it’s good to be lucky; it’s better to be smart and lucky; it’s best to be lucky, smart and rich. One young lawyer told me he was intrigued by what he had learned about the US legal system: much more room for creativity than in Russia.

The last lecture Glenn delivered was about the balance of power between the president of the United States and the other branches of government. An audience of about 40 people, undaunted by the security control necessary to enter, gathered at the American Center in Moscow, which is housed inside the embassy building on Novinsky Bulvar.

The listeners were impressively versed in the intricacies of American politics and government structure. Glenn still impressed them with his summary of challenges to the balance of power created by the executive branch. These include threats to the independence of the judiciary. He used Trump’s immigration ban and the court-imposed decrees around it as an example.

Glenn highlighted efforts to circumvent legislative authority—a trend which picked up steam under every U.S. president since Ronald Reagan. Case in point: Obama’s using executive orders and administrative procedures to ease tensions with Cuba. I learned that “signing statements” – documents a US president can issue to accompany a bill he signs into law which state his interpretation of the law and what he will and will not act on – are also an increasingly popular tool used by recent administrations to maximize their power.

The discussion turned to the administration of President Trump, how it came to exist, and what to expect moving forward. As far as the first question is concerned, Glenn had given me a simple illustration earlier. He described his grandmother’s approach to choosing between candidates. She would simply ask family members, “Do I vote for the Donkeys or the Elephants this year?”

Glenn reminded the audience that Americans have always been suspicious of the exercise of political power. He quoted Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” Sentiments appropriate for leaders of all persuasions and systems

When asked by a member of the audience what can be done to restore relations between our two great countries, Glenn added a final quote, from Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci: “I'm a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will. The challenge of modernity is to live without illusions and without becoming disillusioned.” Then he said, with that twinkle in his eye, “We need to keep doing what we are doing right now: being in contact, talking, trying to understand each other…”

I consider myself lucky to have been able to spend seven days with Glenn, living in the same hotel suite, sharing meals, travel, and many hours in Moscow traffic jams. Our relationship evolved from being long-term acquaintances to good friends. I hope he returns.

Meanwhile, I wonder: does the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs have a similar program for sponsoring cultural figures to go on speaking engagements in the United States? Ok, Josef Kobzon wouldn’t make the list, and I wouldn’t recommend offering former Ambassador Kislyak, just yet. But it’s clear the people-to-people element is one of the few levels of cooperation still functioning. It would be great to see  genuine competition between the two countries in this format.

Zhorik the Journalist Clown Goes to Beslan

Justin Lifflander

8 April, 2017 (Beslan, Vladikavkaz, RF)  Zhorik the journalist clown joined 30 friends from Moscow and around the world for the annual trip of Maria’s Children to Beslan. They spent most of the week at school No.1, giving workshops in art and performance, but also visited two orphanages, and enjoyed some local sightseeing. Watch Zhorik's report. And making his clown debut was Maximo, a very dear friend of Zhorik. You may watch the highlights of Maximo’s meditation workshop.

A few memorable thoughts in honor of International Women’s Day

Justin Lifflander

In honor of the 8th of March Women’s Day holiday, a few selected quotes about women, and their effect on men…

 
The woman who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The woman who walks alone is likely to find herself in places no one has ever been before.
— Albert Einstein
 
A woman is like a tea bag; you never know how strong it is until it’s in hot water.
— Eleanor Roosevelt
 
Freedom cannot be achieved unless women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression...
— Nelson Mandela
 
I don’t need a bedroom to prove my womanliness. I can convey just as much sex appeal picking apples off a tree or standing in the rain.
— Audrey Hepburn
 
American women expect to find in their husbands a perfection that English women only hope to find in their butlers.
— W. Somerset Maugham
 
I’m selfish, impatient, and a little insecure. I make mistakes, I am out of control, and at times hard to handle. But if you can’t handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don’t deserve me at my best.
— Marilyn Monroe
monroe.jpg
 
Being a woman is a terribly difficult task, since it consists principally in dealing with men...
— Joseph Conrad
 
The pursuit of knowledge has a pleasure in it like that of wrestling with a fine woman.
— Lord Halifax
 
Women and horses know when a man isn’t sure of himself. They can tell no matter how much he bluffs.
— John Steinbeck
 
Women are amazing. You can wait for months, travel thousands of kilometers, and build up ineffable desire. They just brush their hair.
— Justin Lifflander
 
What would men be without women? Scarce, sir…mighty scarce.
— Mark Twain

Four Centuries and Three Decades of Russian Thinking

Justin Lifflander

By Justin Lifflander

5 December

This article appears in the December 2016 edition of The Foreign Service Journal, dedicated to analyses and comment on the 25th anniversary of the breakup of the USSR. The journal is the flagship publication of the American Foreign Service Association – the professional association and labor union for America’s diplomats. The journal has a circulation of 18,000 and goes to diplomats, foreign embassies and key offices on Capitol Hill.

At first it seemed to me as if he was wearing X-ray glasses. Having purchased a fur hat from Sasha, the teenage fartsovshik (black marketeer) working the Oktyabrskaya subway station in Moscow that day in 1986, I earned the right to chat with him in my broken Russian. 

As he scanned the passersby in search of potential clientele, I couldn’t figure out how he was able to spot the foreigners. “Look carefully,” he explained. “The facial features, the shoes, the wrist watches, the eye glasses. …”  I began to understand how he chose to whom to offerhis znachki (pins) or money changing services. 

Thirty years later my fartsovhik is probably a successful oligarch. He and his countrymen no longer think they are “covered in chocolate” – a phrase going back to the Soviet era meaning “fortunate, lucky, living well” – as they build the socialist paradise while the West rots on the garbage heap of history. 

Living and working in Russia for the past three decades, I’ve become acquainted with people from a broad range of social strata—from government ministers to migrant workers. I turned to them to collect and distill their insights on how Russian thinking has changed since the end of the USSR.

Read more… 

Whatever it Takes to Remember the Holocaust, Even an Ice-Skating Routine

Justin Lifflander

Opinion

By Justin Lifflander

The Moscow Times

1 December 2016

To me, most art is like music was to Louis Armstrong: it’s either good or bad. In Russia, ice dancing is an art-form no less respectable than others. Tatiana Navka’s courageous performance on Saturday commemorating the Holocaust via a tribute to the 1997 film “Life is Beautiful” was better than good. But what do I know?


(Read the full text)

Russia invaded by unarmed clowns

Justin Lifflander

By Justin Lifflander

11 November 2016

Photos: Natalia Lifflander

A platoon of amateur clowns descended on Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport Sunday to kick off the 32nd annual Patch Adams humanitarian clowning tour of Russia.

The group, consisting of volunteers ranging in age from 19 to 76 and representing 9 different countries, will be joined by a squad of Russian volunteers from the Moscow-based non-profit Maria’s Children Arts Center. The combined unit will spend two weeks seeking out and eliminating loneliness, sorrow and solemnity at a range of targets in Moscow and St. Petersburg — including orphanages, hospitals, veterans’ homes and homeless shelters.

(Read the full text)

The latest disarmament joke circulating on the Russian internet:

Justin Lifflander

 

Putin and Obama agreed on a new strategic disarmament treaty. Both sides eliminated all of their ICBMs.

A week after this amazing act which secured world peace was complete, Obama calls Putin in the Kremlin:

“Hey, Vova, it turns out I’ve got 7 missiles left. So now Russia will become a vassal of the United States!”

While Putin scratches his noggin and contemplates the situation, the Minister of Defense, unaware of the latest development, charges into his office: “Vladimir Vladimirovich! We have a problem…It seems that at a base outside Saratov one drunken lieutenant forgot to hand over the missiles. We have 40 SS-25’s left! What to do?”

Putin says, “Well, first of all, he’s no longer a lieutenant, he's a general. And second of all, when Russia drinks, she is unconquerable!”

 

BTW: the motto of the Strategic Rocket Forces of the Russian Federation is most pragmatic: “After us…silence.”

Interview with Maria Eliseeva, for October Issue of Aeroflot inflight magazine, about the upcoming clown trip to Russia

Justin Lifflander

By Justin Lifflander

1 October 2016

A Funny Story

The founder of non-profit Maria’s Children Arts Center MARIA ELISEEVA on clowns that stay behind

Every November I see Sheremetyevo Airport transformed: strange people in bright costumes and funny hats appear, surrounded by clouds of soap bubbles. In their midst a tall oddity sporting a blue mustache stands out. He marches about the airport with his friends, dressed in giant underpants. This is Patch Adams. “What are you celebrating? The circus left town and the clowns stayed behind?” –Such questions are heard everywhere we go in Moscow and St. Petersburg...

(Read the full text)

Lamborghini Love

Justin Lifflander

By Justin Lifflander

28 August 2016

Frankfurt, GERMANY— What was I thinking? That's the question I posed to myself Thursday afternoon as Baldur shifted gears and pressed the pedal of his salad-green 1969 12-cylinder Lamborghini Espada. We rocketed away from Frankfurt, heading eastward on the autobahn. I don’t enjoy fast driving.

He had just met me at the airport. I had agree to join him at the LCCG (Lamborghini Classic Club Germany) rally taking place for the next 3 days in Poppenhausen – a quiet (until our arrival) hamlet in the Rhon countryside. For Baldur, this was serious fun. To prove it, he wore matching green pants and sported a briefcase and wallet of a similar hue.

Exactly what is a “Baldur” you ask? 

I have described him as an Italian trapped in the body of a German. He is a man of much passion, who gets the most out of life – in a well-organized manner. For this event he was able to stuff his not-so-small German body into the not-so-big driver’s seat of his Italian sports car. His sister Barbara, who had served as Ferruccio Lamborghini’s personal secretary in his final years, is an honored member of the car club. She was brave enough to ride shotgun. I cowered in the back seat behind her.

I first met Baldur in 1990. He was standing in the kitchenette of the Hewlett-Packard office in Moscow with a portable humidor tucked under his left arm, waving his right index finger and explaining to the locals the nuances and joys of smoking cigars.

His knowledge was as broad as his belly, and his enthusiasm infectious. We termed the portable humidor his “grandfather,” since one observer noted the reverence he had for the little box, and said it was as if he was carrying around a deceased relative’s ashes.

Baldur and his “grandfather” in Moscow, 1990.

I had hoped that the driving lesson he got from a Cuban cow during our 1996 trip to that island would have remained in his consciousness…but it didn’t.  We were travelling in a rent-a-car, along with our friend Vova.  At first I was behind the wheel. The quality and speed of my work was not satisfactory to Baldur, which he let me know through a barrage of criticism and finger waving from the back seat. For the sake of harmony, I pulled over and we switched seats. Baldur gleefully began to pick up speed as he continued to explain to me the inadequacy of my driving skills. 
Though the pavement quality was miraculously satisfactory despite decades of neglect, the bushes in the median hadn’t been trimmed since the revolution. Unbeknownst to us they concealed a cow with no road-crossing inhibitions – understandable since Cuban highways are generally deserted.  In the heat of lecturing me Baldur failed to notice the blundering bovine. 
Luckily, all we lost a side mirror. The cow didn’t even lose its temper. It ambled on its way and, fortunately for our friendship, there was no more bragging from Baldur about his driving skills. At least not on that trip.

Rohn Mountain cows warily watch the road as Baldur drives by.

On future occasions when I had found myself in his passenger seat, I would express my dissatisfaction with his speeding—either in words or via a gently nostalgic “moo.” But he had developed a logical maxim I could find no counter for: “The faster I drive, the less time I spend on the road, so the less likely I am to get in an accident.”
Now, as we sped across the German countryside, I realized it made no sense to complain. In fact, it was dangerous to distract him. If he turned his head to address his sister in the passenger seat – for example, to criticize her directions — he took his eyes off the road for about 4 or 5 seconds. If he turned further to denigrate my whimpering from the back seat, it would double the time of his distraction.

I sought solace by trying to make a calculation, but the result was as scary as I expected: we were travelling at between 140 and 200 km per hour, maintaining a distance of 5 to 10 meters from the car in front of us. If that car in front of us should suddenly slow down or stop while Baldur was looking elsewhere then it would only be a few milliseconds before….

Better not to think about it. Sanity was now an exercise in mind control and free will. I had managed to stop looking for the seat belt after the first few minutes. Even if there had been one it would not have preserved any part of my body in the event of impact at that speed. I stopped looking at the dashboard, too.
Of course Baldur didn’t want to be so close to the car in front of him. He wanted the road in front of us to be devoid of any other vehicles. But he had no choice, since there was a car in front of him, and no amount of cursing would change that. He demonstrated a variety of multi-lingual, quasi-jocular road rage, insulting the drivers ahead until they got out of his way—in a mixture of German, Italian and a version of English of his own devising: "Why are you in my way you country pumpkin?” he would exclaim as he turned his head toward the driver of the car which recently retreated to the middle lane. “The world is only for the brave, not the cowarding!” he would shout, passing another. His insane cackle could actually be heard above the clamor of the engine. A particularly slow driver would get the finger wave — which meant another terrifying few seconds of eyes-off-the-road and one hand off the wheel. At least he never took the time to glance in the right side view mirror. The car doesn’t have one.
To distract myself from thoughts of premature death I tried taking in the sights. I did my best to record what was visible through the window, practicing “high-speed” photography. I think I saw windmills and some quaint villages pass by, but mostly it was all a blur.
After we got off the autobahn, curves and towns compelled a reduction in speed and the features of the countryside came into focus.  Solar-powered homes, castles, apple trees and, rather oddly, 

 

porto-potties placed randomly in the middle of fields—for the comfort of shepherds? or as a form of avant-garde advertising?

A pause to refill the twin fuel tanks helped ease my tension further. The backseat of the car is inundated by gasoline fumes when the twin tanks are full—providing the scent of classic-car legitimacy that acts like an anesthetic. By the time we rolled into the hotel parking lot I was quite sedate. 

By evening about 18 Lamborghinis had assembled, along with another half dozen classics—allowed under club rules if the driver now or in the past has owned a Lamborghini. These included a Bentley, a Cobra and an Audi speedster. Even one Ferrari was permitted—despite the antipathy between the two legendary car makers. Total value of the collection was between 5 million and 10 million euros, depending on whose opinion of the market you listened to. 

Most of the product line was present. Ferruccio Lamborghini’s passion for bull fighting—he was a Taurus himself— was evidenced by the model names he gave most of his vehicles: Miura—a Spanish breed of fighting bull; Islero—a bull that killed a famous bullfighter; Espada—Spanish for sword, and sometimes used to refer to the bullfighter himself; Jarama—the region in Spain; Jalpa –another bull breed; several Diablos—the name of famous and ferocious bull; Aventador—named for a bull that fought and died heroically. The only car present whose name deviated from that tradition was the Countach – pronounced “Kun-Tash!”, an exclamation of astonishment used by the men of Piedmont, Italy, upon sighting a beautiful woman.

Walter parking and getting peace-of-mind.

An eclectic bunch of German men crave such bulls. In the middle-aged category there was Michael, a Ford motor executive who started out in life as a mechanic-apprentice and moved up the chain through crash-engineer to service manager; Olaf with a ponytail, who spoke some Russian—he would have come in his red Espada, but he had been rear-ended by a star struck driver at a gas station the previous day, so for this rally he was merely a copilot. Marcus, a classic car dealer from nearby Rupboden, was there with his wife Krisitina.

The retirees were a breed of their own. Each seemed to own several Lamborghinis and other classic vehicles as well. Ziggy from Bavaria owned a collection of 70 tanks. Walter, a 78 year old former real-estate mogul from Freiberg arrived in his Countach, but promptly parked it in the hotel garage for the duration of the event. “I’m feeling a bit anxious,” he said, and admitted that a couple of years ago one of his cars had been stolen from a hotel lot.

Club president Peter Wolf was comfortable with the Prokofiev association. He functions as chief organizer, evening MC, sommelier and car parking assistant (Lamborghinis rarely have more than one side mirror, and sometimes none.)

Peter Wolf helping a club member park.

In case you are wondering how one becomes president of a Lamborghini club the answer is simple. You are born into it…At the age of 6 he got his first Matchbox Lamborghini and knew then it would be a relationship for life. At 7 he camped out next to an Espada he found on a Nuremburg street and waited all night for the owner to show up so he could hear the sound of the engine starting. “It’s the same sound as Ferruccio’s voice…” Peter said with misty eyes as he remembered his conversations with the late industrialist. Sixteen-year-old Peter got on his moped, crossed the Alps, and pitched a tent not far from the Lamborghini factory in Bologna. After his request for a tour was rejected by the director and then the chief designer, Lamborghini himself came out and invited the boy inside. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

On the first day of the rally we roared through the countryside at relatively low speeds and headed for Fulda, a medieval town close to the former East German border, famous for its Baroque architecture. 

A vehicle and driver not participating in the rally.

But the pace was too slow for Baldur, so we exited the procession and paused for coffee.

This allowed for the accumulation of enough distance in front for us to achieve hair-raising speeds and still pull into the garage of the hotel where we were lunching at about the same time everyone else did. 

Your dog won’t mind if there is a line to check out at the Fulda hotel.

After lunch and a city tour, all the Lamborghinis in the garage ignited their engines at the same time, setting off the smoke alarm. We then headed to Marcus’s show room for cake and coffee in the lounge which he has lovingly turned into a 1950s American diner, complete with Wurlitzer. 

Back at the hotel, dinner was augmented by Lamborghini wine supplied by Peter. Ferruccio Lamborghini retired from business in 1974 and moved to Umbria to tend to his estate, hotel, golf course, vineyard and private museum. This phrase, with its double entendre, used to adorn every bottle of his wine: “I have always tried to do the best in my field. This is my wine.”  

The tower of the abbey next to the cathedral in Fulda.

The following morning, we set out for Meiningen castle, where a “lineup” (photo op for cars) was planned. About 10 minutes out, as we started up a hill, I could feel a vibration coming from the bottom of the rear of the car which seemed out of place. It was accompanied by a clanking sound. I considered warning Baldur, but I could see from the concerned expression on his face that he had felt it too. Shortly, after the next downshift, a sharp noise from below was followed by a loss of power to the wheels. Baldur managed to pull the car as far to the right as possible without going into the ditch.  Smoke bellowing from behind the rear tires helped convince us to exit the vehicle.

Having endured much unsolicited consultation from club members as they passed us by, Baldur, Kristina and I stayed with the stricken vehicle while Marcus drove to his shop to get a towing trailer. In the course of the 90 minutes that we stood by the side of the road about 30% of cars and motorcycles passing by stopped to ask if ‘all is gut.’ Yet I couldn’t help suspecting a glint of Schadenfreude in their glances as they realized it was not a Trabant fanatic but a Lamborghini owner that was in distress. 

The sun beat down, the birds sang in the trees and Baldur remained impressively unruffled, except for minor grumbling about his mechanic’s inability to resolve a problem with the differential he had suspected for some time.
“I heard the noise before we left the parking lot this morning,” Baldur commented philosophically.
“So why didn’t you check it out?” I asked.
“Akh,” he said, with a dismissing wave of his hand, “Some classic car owners pull over to check out every strange sound they think they hear. But what can they do about it if they don’t see anything out of the ordinary? It’s pointless. So I keep driving until something happens.”
Baldurian logic prevailed once again. He always got the most out of life — today it was an extra 10 minutes of driving before our brake down.
As the winch sucked the ailing Espada into the trailer, Baldur sat in the driver’s seat and kept the wheel straight. Through the open window he offered his humble estimate: “Now we are moving along at a top speed of 30 meters per hour.”  No finger waving accompanied the statement.

Speaking of Souvenirs…. The CPSU fire-sale.

Justin Lifflander

One of my favorite souvenirs from the Votkinsk “Galenteria” (haberdashery) was a communist party card-holder. I found the attractive red wallets with gold KPSS lettering in a box on the counter. As if Gosplan had taken a page from the Sy Syms playbook, the card-holders had been marked down over time. The original price of 37 kopecks had been reduced on 7 July 1989 to 5 kopecks. On December 23 (just in time for the Christmas rush?) they had been reduced to 1 kopeck each. Talk about writing on the wall! I purchased all 100 of them and began to mail them to friends as gifts.

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My Champ Muhammad Ali

Justin Lifflander

I remember two brown men moving across the screen of the Trinitron in my father’s den. I remember Joe Frazier’s green shorts. And I remember the grace with which Muhammad Ali danced around his opponent— at least in the first few rounds of the Fight of the Century. I was five in in the spring of 1971 and was seeing my first boxing match.

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There Were Giants In Those Days: Wristwatches and Other Artifacts From A Business That Never Was.

Justin Lifflander

While young men like Bernie Sucher and Peter Gerwe were wandering the streets of Moscow in the wild 90s of post-Soviet Russia, taking action on the “What this country needs…” phrase (Bernie co-founded the first American diner and first western-standard health club in Moscow; Peter helped build the country’s first independent TV channel), I was absorbed in my career at Hewlett-Packard and dabbling in less adventurous opportunities.

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