Doctor Zhivago (1965)

This illustration from the film version of Boris Pasternak’s Doktor Zhivago (1995) depicts the country dacha, east of the Ural Mountains where the young Yurii Andreievich grew up with his uncle’s family in Varykino. The country house appears as though frozen in its vast landscape, a fairy tale wedding cake festooned with turrets and cupolas, dazzling in winter light.

“The light of the full moon on the snow-covered clearing was as viscid as white of egg or thick white paint. The splendor of the frosty night was inexpressible” (Chapter 14).

During the Russian Revolution, Yurii and Larisa flee to this dacha in mid-winter. Inside, as shown in the film, drifts of snow blanket the floors and furniture, icicles hang from the beams and chandeliers, a virtual ice palace fit for the Snow Queen from Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale.

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“Once again, as so long before, Yurii Andreievich stood spellbound in the door of the study, so spacious and comfortable with its large, convenient table by the window. And once again he thought that such austere surrounds would be conducive to patient, fruitful work [of composing his poems].

Varykino in summer is no less enchanting but appears more mysterious in its wilderness surroundings.

Leave that cloud-dweller in peace,” Joseph Stalin said to an underling at the height of the Great Terror, when the arrest of Boris Pasternak was proposed. If not left in peace, Doktor Zhivago never would have borne fruition. 

This photo shows the study table in Boris Pasternak’s own dacha, Peredelkino, deep in the pine forest not far from Moscow, where Pasternak wrote his famous novel and the Lara poems.

Does the fictional Varykino really exist? Or was this fantastic estate built only for the film? Who knows? I’ve not been able to find out.






A Russian Winter Poem

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“Alone I stare into the frost’s white face”

By Osip Mandelstam
Translated by John High and Matvei Yankelevich
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Alone I stare into the frost’s white face.
It’s going nowhere, and I—from nowhere.
Everything ironed flat, pleated without a wrinkle:
Miraculous, the breathing plain.
Meanwhile the sun squints at this starched poverty—
The squint itself consoled, at ease . . .
The ten-fold forest almost the same . . .
And snow crunches in the eyes, innocent, like clean bread.
January 16, 1937

Osip Mandelstam was a contemporary of Anna Akhmatova.















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Every day for 17 months, a crowd of mothers and wives stood outside the prison in Leningrad, waiting for news. Ann Akhmatova was one of the mothers who gathered there as though to an early morning Mass. Only news of their incarcerated loved ones mattered, not religion.

One day, another woman recognized her and asked, “Could one ever describe this?” Akhmatova could — and did. Composed over three decades in response to her son’s imprisonment, Anna Akhmatova’s poem cycle “Requiem” bears witness to the Great Purge during Stalin’s reign of terror. Her ode to grief is considered her magnum opus, or masterpiece. In the original Russian text, the language is so curt that it creates a terrifying effect on the reader.

Here follow a few pieces of the picture she painted of those decades.


Not under foreign skies
Nor under foreign wings protected –
I shared all this with my own people
There, where misfortune had abandoned us.

During the terrible years of the Yezhov terror, I
spent seventeen months waiting in prison queues in
Leningrad. One day, somehow, someone “picked me out.”
On that occasion there was a woman standing behind me,
her lips blue with cold, who, of course, had never in
her life heard my name. Jolted out of the torpor
characteristic of all of us, she said into my ear
(everyone whispered there) – “Could one ever describe
this?” And I answered – “I can.” It was then that
something like a smile slid across what had previously
been just a face.
. . . But prison doors stay firmly bolted
Shutting off the convict burrows
And an anguish close to death . . .
And the heavy tread of marching soldiers
Waking early, as if for early Mass,
Walking through the capitol run wild, gone to seed. . .
You were taken away at dawn. I followed you
As one does when a corpse is being removed.
Children were crying in the darkened house.
A candle flared, illuminating the Mother of God.
The cold of an icon was on your lips, a death-cold sweat
On your brow – I will never forget this; I will gather
To wail with the wives of the murdered streltsy
Inconsolably, beneath the Kremlin towers. . .
For seventeen months I have been screaming
Calling you home.
I’ve thrown myself at the feet of butchers
For you, my son and my horror. . .
I have a lot of work to do today;
I need to slaughter memory,
Turn my living soul to stone
Then teach myself to live again. . .




Those Gatherings Late at Night

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Threaded among the pages of Janet Fitch’s epic novel, The Revolution of Marina M., we can glimpse Russian poet Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966). She sits at a corner table with her signature shawl draped around elegant shoulders. The Stray Dog is St. Petersburg’s epicenter of bohemian life where the artistic elite gather to enjoy music, poetry readings, occasionally an improvised ballet. A painted pattern of flowers and birds cover the walls of the cellar.

“Yes, I loved them, those gatherings late at night,–

the small table, glasses with frosted sides,

fragrant vapor rising from black coffee,

the fireplace, red with powerful winter heat,

the biting gaiety of a literary joke,

and the first helpless and frightening glance of my love.”

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Only recently did I discover the poetry of Anna Akhmatova (Akh’mat’ova). I enjoy reading her sensuous lyrics of earlier images featuring a belief in divine inspiration and emphasizing mysticism and religious philosophy, the hallmark of Symbolist poetry. Gradually, however, the trend shifted toward Acmeism to emphasis the material world. The poet was no long prophet but craftsman, probably not a bad thing in itself but lacking any music.

“. . . and the red shoots of the grapevine,

and waterfalls in the park,

and two large dragonflies

on the rusty iron fencepost.”

Akhmatova transformed autobiographical material through a series of masks and mystification. She poses as an ordinary housewife, limited to home and children, married to a husband who preferred faraway, exotic lands away from the hearth.

“He loved three things in life:

Evensong, white peacocks

And old maps of America.

He hated it when children cried,

. . . . . And I was his wife.”

When Germany declared war on Russia, she tried to purge her personal memory of amorous adventures in her new civic role, writing poems of patriotic sentiment and historical memory.

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“Like a burden henceforth unnecessary, / the shadows of passion and songs vanished from my memory.”

Yet she never considered emigration a viable option, at least not for her when many of her close friends were fleeing to Finland or to Paris or London. She created a stylized image of a romantic land of forests and lakes—an image forever maimed by war and revolution, both WWI and WWII.

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“You are an apostate: for a green island

you give away your native land,

our songs and our icons

and the pine trees over the quiet lake.

. . . .

You might as well be sacrilegious and swagger,

finish off your orthodox soul,

stay where you are in the royal capital

and begin to love your freedom in earnest.”

Even so, her decision to stay home in Russia, in her beloved city of Petrograd, involved tremendous personal suffering through the Bolshevik and later Stalinist eras. She lamented the culture of Russia’s past as well as the departure of her friends and personal loss of love and happiness. Critics referred to her as a relic of the past and, thus, an anachronism in the modern Russia of Lenin and Stalin.

“No one wants to help us

Because we stayed home,

Because, loving our city

And not winged freedom,

We preserved for ourselves

Its palaces, its fire and water.”

For most of those who stayed behind, the Soviet way of living lacked space and privacy. Mansions of former aristocrats were divided and subdivided into apartments for the “people.” Assigned to one such room in the Sheremet’ev Palace, Akhmatova didn’t mind 

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communal living; somehow, she managed to retain her sense of regal persona in a cramped, unkempt furnished room. She would sit straight and majestic in a corner of a tattered divan. Between 1935 and 1940, she composed her long narrative, Rekviem, whispered line by line to her closest friends who committed the lines to memory. If the secret police had discovered this narrative, they would have unleashed another wave of arrests for subversive activities—a secret life of repression most of us today can only imagine.

“They led you away at dawn, / I followed you like a mourner . . .”

Anna Andreevna Akhmatova died on March 5, 1966, after a heart attack. Only in the late 1980s did she achieve full recognition in Russia, and her previously unpublishable works became accessible to the general public. Her communal apartment is now the Anna Akhmatova Museum.

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The poet in later life, still beautiful, still regal . . .

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Russian Tea

What, exactly, is “Russian” tea? One of my readers just asked me that question. Quite simply, it’s a strong hot tea with orange juice and spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice. Friends in the South used to make it for Christmas parties as well as afternoon tea on a particularly grey winter day. I’ve not made it since my children were teenagers who loved to host Christmas and/or New Year’s Eve parties at home.

READY IN: 25mins


  • 5 whole cloves (may add whole allspice and/or whole nutmeg)
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 3 quarts water
  • 3 double tea bags or 6 single tea bags
  • 2 cups orange juice
  • 12 cup lemon juice
  • 1 12 cups sugar
  • 2 12 cups pineapple juice


Boil water. Add tea bags and spices. Steep for 5 minutes.

Add juices and sugar.

Simmer 20 minutes.

Remove whole spices. Pour into a glass pitcher and serve in heavy glasses.


Russian Tea in a glass teapot served with Russian tea glasses. Placed on a table with cinnamon sticks and Russian nesting dolls


Winter Reading

Earlier this month, a lingering fog laid heavy frost on spruce trees and bare birch branches. Gardens became stage settings for a “Swan Lake” ballet in the season of Nutcracker performances. And then the sun came out one day, only to alternate with subsequent spells of frozen fog.

Winters are cold in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s best to burrow under fur blankets with a book and a tall glass of hot Russian tea, a good time to indulge in novels like Tolstoy’s three-volume War and Peace or Pasternak’s Doktor Zhivago. One winter I plowed through Anna Reid’s Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II, 1941-1944. In fact, this thick volume took me two long winters to complete.

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Last week, I finished re-reading The Revolution of Marina M. by Janet Fitch, set in Petrograd during the years surrounding World War I and the Russian/Bolshevik revolutions. It is the story of a rebellious young aristocrat who falls for the revolutionary ideals of her artistic friends, all the while yearning for her childhood sweetheart, a Tsarist soldier caught up in the counterrevolutionary movement.

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Memorable lines linger in my mind, similes and metaphors such as, “We are like buttons rattling in an empty drawer” after furniture and even the paintings on the walls had been confiscated. In a barren room a clock ticks out the silence and, outside, the woods are as silent as an owl flying in snowfall, the wind in the trees like a rumor fluttering the leaves.  Fairy tale winters deteriorate into squalor and starvation where the strong must endure everything. Marina Makarova  is an ordinary woman who does, indeed, endure devastating poverty and betrayal to survive with her sanity intact.

The other night, I dreamed of scenes from “The Snow Queen,” a Hans Christian Anderson fairytale completely unrelated to Russia except that the setting is neighboring Finland, or Lapland, near the North Pole.

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This is the story of little Gerda, a child who endures everything in order to persevere as she searches for her young playmate Kai. One day, as they are watching snowflakes fall from the sky, pieces of the Snow Queen’s broken mirror scatters across the earth from her ice palace in the far northern reaches of Lapland. A small shard lodges in Kai’s eye and into his heart. When his heart turns to ice, the Snow Queen swoops down in her sleigh to kidnap him and returns to her castle.

Heartbroken, Gerda must rescue Kai. As she travels to the North Pole in her search for him, sparrows and pigeons and an old woman help her. Eventually she does find Kai in the clutches of the Snow Queen. She grabs him and hugs him. As her tears fall on his face, his heart melts. The Snow Queen herself shatters into miniscule ice crystals and melt away.



Light a Candle in Your Window

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Every year, on the first Sunday of Advent, I place a candle in each street-facing window, an ancient symbol to welcome the Christ Child. Somehow, I had assumed the tradition arrived from Germany, just as the Christmas tree had come to England via Prince Albert, Consort to Queen Victoria. My research revealed, however, that the custom began in Ireland following the Cromwellian era and for very different reasons — hospitality notwithstanding.

Back in the 17th-18th century (1691-1778), the British government targeted Roman Catholics in Ireland by enforcing Penal Laws. Priests were not allowed to practice their faith, certainly not to celebrate Mass. Many were forced to flee the country for France, or else go into hiding. Written stories and novels tell of country houses maintaining a “priests’ cellar” entered by a separate passageway. The single lighted candle in a front window indicated a Catholic household wherein a traveling priest could slip in safely to minister to the family. When the British occupation forces questioned the Irish about these candles, they had to make up a story about welcoming Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus.

Some Irish Catholics would light three candles, one for each member of the Holy Family, thus satisfying the British and allowing the families to practice their faith in secret. It also started the alternate legend that Mary and Joseph would reenact their search for a place to stay every Christmas Eve and would come to the home of a family that signaled its welcome to them with the candle.

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Over time, the lighted candle tradition evolved as a beacon of hope for any strangers passing by on a dark winter evening. The lighted candle signaled the house as a place with warm food and shelter for travelers on roads where inns were few and homes were far apart. The custom spread to villages, as well, spreading a welcoming glow among neighborhoods.

Early settlers to the American colonies brought the tradition with them. Here, where religious freedom began on this continent, the candle in the window became a beacon of light and safety where visitors would find refuge in a new and sometimes wild land. Window lights were a signal to neighboring homes to welcome back visiting family members.

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Today, Colonial Williamsburg is the epitome of a scene such as this. The house in the photo above reminds me of similar houses in the historic district of Apalachicola, Florida, where I visited during the Christmas season several years ago. A single candle shone in each window of every house, replicating this Southern tradition. I continue it in my own modern home although not all the windows line up like toy tin soldiers. Our dark nights, as well as numerous gloomy days, cry out for a welcoming light in each window.

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Next week, when I decorate the house for Christmas, I’ll add sprigs of evergreens snipped from our Colorado spruce to the window sill that faces the front porch.