Lossi 36 Recommends: cultural delights for the holidays10 min read

 In Blog, Caucasus, Central Asia, Central Europe, Culture, Eastern Europe, Russia, Southeastern Europe
One of my favourite things about the upcoming holidays is the amount of time I can spend on reading. Every year, I find at least one book under the Christmas tree and usually, I finish it before the New Year´s celebration. This year, the holidays will be different for most of us, there might be less visits and less end of the year parties. So, Lossi 36 brings you some of our contributors’ cultural tips, favourite books or films, which you can check out during this time.
Poland and Russia

For better or for worse, 2020 became a year in which I spent an unusual amount of time watching tv-series. I went through classics like Breaking Bad and Sopranos as well as newcomers like Into the Night and The Undoing. Two of my most memorable tv-experiences this year however was watching the Polish thriller/noir series Blinded by the Light (2018) and the first season of The Method (2015), a Russian detective/horror drama.

Blinded by the Light follows a high end (and very good looking) drug dealer in Warsaw who dreams of running away to start a new and normal family life in a place where the sun is always shining. Needless to say, this dream is crushed the minute he comes in possession of an old duffle filled with cocaine, who’s owner is still lurking in the shadows. This is a fast paced, cynical and sleek thriller with a message: you can’t eat the cake and have it too. It’s so good it took me a week to digest all my impressions. If there’s one thing you should watch this Christmas, Blinded by the Light is that thing.

The Method / Just Watch

While The Method is in the same genre as Blinded by the Light, they’re not quite comparable. Where Blinded by the Light is elegant, The Method is messy. Where the former has an actual plot, the later has… yeah, I don’t know what it has. Still, I immensely enjoyed watching The Method (and can’t wait for the second season to begin) because it is so bad it is good. It follows two detectives, the strange and obnoxious Major Meglin, who is an expert on horrendous crimes, and a newly baked police woman named Esenyia as they solve crimes all over Moscow. Simultaneous to their relationship developing and Esenyia learning from Meglin’s skills (who’s mental health is also deteriorating), she is looking for her mother, who was mysteriously killed while Esenyia still was a child. If you like to mix horror with laughter, this is a good choice for you.

Amanda Sonesson holds a BA in Economic History at Stockholm University and has previously lived, studied and worked in Russia and Kyrgyzstan. Currently she is studying in the CEERES program hosted by University of Glasgow, Scotland, focusing on gender issues, democracy, politics and society in Russia and Central Asia. Additionally she owns a secret collection of Putin memorabilia and loves everything (post) Soviet.

The Orator is a historical drama directed by Yusup Razikov. The film tells the story of the establishment of Soviet power in Uzbekistan. It takes place during the 1930s the period known as khudzhum, which aimed at changing the “status” of Central Asian women by forcing them to burn their traditional veils.

Screenshot from The Orator / Tashkent Center for Contemporary Art

The new regime enters the life of Iskander, who first becomes an interpreter for the new government as he speaks Russian. Actively popularizing the new regime as an orator, Iskander later realizes that the regime also changed his personal life. The movie touched me deeply as it shows the intricacies of what happens to people who are caught up in between the political changes and are pushed to adapt. The story is told through the perspective of Iskander’s son, like a fairytale: “once upon a time…”

Aida Akhmedova is a recent M.A. Gender Studies Graduate at Utrecht University and University of Granada. Her research interests include labour migration, decolonial turn, and gender in the post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan/Central Asia. Aida is currently based in Utrecht.
The Balkans

In a time when travel restrictions and social distancing have affected our life, travelling is simply impossible. However, reading Kapka Kassabova’s Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe (2017) and To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace (2020) is a way to break the rules.

These books are not only two of the most brilliant books recently published about the Balkans and their diversity. They shed light on the unexplored beauty of Europe’s southernmost landscapes. Travelling along the borders of Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, Kassabova uncovers collective memories and localities of the darkest pages of Europe’s Iron Curtain period. Across the lakes of Ohrid and Prespa, she returns to her mother’s birthplace, between North Macedonia, Albania and Greece. Through her eyes of a curious traveller, such borderlands appear still in-motion and bring the notion of national belonging into question. Throughout peace and war, trauma and local resilience, people’s departures and regrets, the heritage of such an unnoticed corner of Europe have been shifting invariably.

Both Kassabova’s books do not intend to convey a specific message to a particular audience. Nor do they advance groundbreaking research in a particular academic field for its scholarly audience. Reading them are a journey through time and space, across which values of neighbourliness have been interrupted or restored in a place where nothing is to be taken for granted.

Francesco Trupia is a postdoc researcher at the Nicholas Copernicus University (Poland) and contributes to the Kosovo Foundation for Open Society (Kosovo) and the Forum for Glocal Change (Bulgaria). He holds a PhD in Political Philosophy from the Sofia University “St Kliment Ohridksi” (Bulgaria). Since 2014, he has worked as a researcher and NGO practitioner in Southeastern Europe.
Central Europe

Mariusz Szczygieł is a Polish writer, journalist and reporter, well-known for his interest in Czechia. He released a few books about Czechs and their culture such as Make your own paradise, Láska nebeská and Gottland: Mostly True Stories from Half of Czechoslovakia. The latter was a bestseller, originally written in Polish in 2004, Gottland is Szczygieł’s most accessible book, available in 19 languages, including English, Czech, Bulgarian, Hungarian and Romanian. The title itself is a language game, as Gottland can be understood as “the land of Gott”, Gott being a popular Czech singer.

In Gottland, Szczygieł explores the Communist era in Czechoslovakia through the fascinating, sometimes tragic lives of Czech figures such as the above-mentioned Karel Gott or Lída Baarová, an actress who was Joseph Goebbels’ mistress for 2 years. From the very first chapter, which tells a story of the world famous Bata Corporation and its Bata-villes, the reader can enjoy Szczygieł’s incredible talent to present complex issues with elegance and humour. Each chapter is a closed story, yet all of them come together to present some of the most significant aspects of Czech society at the time.

Szczygieł, Polish himself, writes about his geographical neighbours with understanding and sympathy, but without judging. In Poland, some people joke that Poles need a Czech reporter, who could write about them as Szczygieł did about Czechs, and then finally, Poles could understand themselves.

Nikol Tomar studied MA in Russian Studies at UCL SSEES after graduating from Russian Philology at the University of Warsaw. Now, a fresher in MA Journalism at SWPS. Currently, she is running her own blog and podcast which combines two of her biggest passions: non-fiction books and travelling. She is interested in Russian and Middle Eastern politics and culture, as well as Islam and its perception in Poland.

A coming of age film without overplayed clichés, And Then We Danced (Levan Akin) is a Georgian feast for the eyes and certainly belongs on your holiday watch list. The film opened earlier in 2020 to widespread critical acclaim but sent shockwaves across Georgia. During its limited run on screen, demonstrations broke out in Tblisi and protestors firmly rebuked And Then We Danced for its a frank portrayal of queer people in an uncompromisingly traditional culture. In the film, we are introduced to the young Merab who strives for perfection as a dancer and as a dutiful son. As he meets Ikrali, a new addition to Merab’s troupe, a bittersweet romance kindles between the two.

Scene from And Then We Danced / Tales from the Paulside 

The film captures Georgia beautifully. Between shots of Georgian hospitality, fresh baked Shoti, and peaceful Tbilisi streets are beautifully choreographed traditional dance scenes. However, for these young lovers menace is always present. The comments of those passing by, the threat of violence, and warnings of globalization all make the stakes of this budding romance that much higher. Despite the film’s critiques of oppression and intolerance, it still feels like a love letter to Georgia that shows the country’s rich heritage with respect and care. The film’s finale is particularly touching, a performance against rigidity and a joyous acceptance of love.

Renée Rippberger recently completed her Masters in Central and Eastern European, Russian and Eurasian Studies from the University of Glasgow. Currently based in Yerevan, she has worked with numerous Armenian organizations on issues facing the region. Her academic interests include white collar crime, genocide studies, and the politics of the South Caucasus.

From discrimination against Kazakh-speaking clients in a popular Almaty cafe to the production of memes calling out privileged liberal Kazakhstanis on their exclusion of Kazakh-speaking and rural populations, a recent conversation has been occurring among Kazakhstani liberal and left-leaning public centers around elitism and linguistic privilege. In Kazakhstan’s context, this implies perfect knowledge of Russian allowing access to a whole new level of information, entertainment, and education that is not yet available for only Kazakh-speaking audiences. Thus, this holiday season I would love to share some films of Kazakhstani creators that could be relevant to the topic and that tell honest stories of a demographic that is often overlooked in popular Kazakhstani cinematography.

Kazaki meme / Konircat

Darezhan Omirbayev’s Kardiogramma (1995) tells a story of Zhasulan, a young boy with heart problems whose mother takes him to a sanatorium, where he will spend a whole month by himself. If this sounds like a lonely place to be, the circumstances are aggravated by the fact that Zhasulan does not speak Russian, unlike everyone else around him.

Another film that is set against rural life in Kazakhstan is 2013 drama Harmony Lessons by critically acclaimed Kazakhstani director Emir Baygazin. The main hero, Aslan, struggles with his personality disorder that is exacerbated by the bullying he experiences from his peers. The movie transports its audience to a world of a 13-year-old boy trying to hold on to his sense of self and tells us a captivating story made more fascinating with each small detail. Harmony Lessons will make you want to explore the journey of adolescence happening outside of Western civilization through the eyes of Baygazin by following up with The Wounded Angel (2016) and The River (2018), which complete the director’s trilogy.

To digress from the theme of above-mentioned films, I would like to also add two important Kazakhstani projects led by women. I invite everyone to watch out for the release of Welcome to the USA (2020), a movie written and directed by Assel Aushakimova. I have not seen the film yet myself, but I would not shy away from calling it essential in its contribution to exposing the heteronormative patriarchal culture in Kazakhstan that sees queerness not only as an abnormality but as a threat to the nation. The visibility that Aushakimova grants to the LGBTQ+ community with her work could be groundbreaking in realizing the importance of giving space to honest storytelling by minority groups of Kazakhstani society.

Finally, a book worth mentioning is Decoloniality of Being, Knowledge and Sensation (2020) by Madina Tlostanova and issued by the Tselinny Center. The book lays out an innovative analysis of decoloniality in post-Soviet and Kazakhstani contexts and is available to order online in Russian.

Aizada Arystanbek is an intersectional feminist and a young activist and academic specializing in gender-based violence, gender and culture, and nationalism, who believes in the decolonization of academia and overthrowing of the patriarchy. She has a master’s degree in Gender Studies from Central European University and is available via LinkedIn.
Featured image: Winter delights / Amanda Sonesson
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