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In Small-Town Torzhok, the Memory of a Lifetime

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When I first heard of “Torzhok,” I assumed it was some sort of primitive mauling weapon. It turns out it’s actually a small town of 50,000 people located four hours north of Moscow, and it’s a wonderful place where I had the pleasure of spending the first few days of the New Year. It is also home to the Berkuty, aka the Golden Eagles, Russia’s acrobatic helicopter team.

In the United States, New Year’s Eve is typically not a family holiday — in fact, most of us would probably not want our family members anywhere near us during our NYE celebrations. In the United States, we tend to salute the New Year with our friends and a big, warm champagne jacket. In Russia, New Year’s Eve is more comparable to American Christmas. Yes, there are those who go bar-hopping and yes, there are plenty of drinks, but until midnight in Moscow, the streets were relatively quiet because everyone was at home with their loved ones.

Once the bells of the Kremlin chimed midnight however, there were fireworks until the wee hours of the morning. The nightly salutes continued for at least the first ten days of the year, and I have a sneaking suspicion their noise was one of the main reasons we left Moscow for a few days.

We left for Torzhok on New Year’s Day and I looked up the coordinates on my iPhone, learning that it was a mere 200 kilometers north of Moscow. I figured that it would be an easy two and a half hour ride. Once again, Murphy’s Law (which seems to have a pretty strong grip on Russia) took its toll on us. The Russians aren’t lying when they make jokes about Russian roads — they are not great. It was also around minus ten Fahrenheit outside, which lead to our windshield wiper fluid freezing solid. I was impressed that my friend Zhenya, who was behind the wheel, could see anything. Furthermore, there were mile-long stretches of highway where the streetlights simply didn’t work. It took us around four hours to get to Torzhok, and by that time it was so cold that my mustache froze over within seconds when outside. Of course, we all quickly hurried to the bar in our hotel to defrost.

In Torzhok, the cold dulls people’s sense of urgency. We were immediately told that because of the size of our party (which was large — around 20 people, including children), we would have to wait about two hours for food. So, we did what any logical person would do and ordered a bunch of beers. As the only non-Russian there, I found it interesting that I was the only one who ordered Russian beer (with everyone else opting for either Asahi or Tuborg). I would soon learn there was a reason for that, as (see previous posts) Russian beer is not known for its superior quality. Interestingly enough, with a bit of inspection, we learned that both Asahi and Tuborg, despite being from Japan and Denmark, respectively, are brewed at the Baltika brewery in St. Petersburg. Essentially, we were all drinking the same stuff, though I’m pretty sure my hangover the next day was worse than anyone else’s.

My hangover was also due to a new elixir that I hadn’t tried yet, as I’d never seen it in Moscow. “Tverskaya Gorkaya Nastoyka” is a spirit made from cognac, apple juice, and various herbs and roots. In short, it’s pretty incredible. Native to Tverskaya Oblast (where Torzhok is located), it is perfect for the holidays and cold weather due to its warming effects. Though cognac-based, it goes down like apple juice, and the mild spice character from the herbs and roots distract the palate from the booze. I found that, unlike with many spirits, I didn’t need to mix this liquor because the flavor was so enjoyable. Of course, the next day I regretted not chasing it with anything, but that’s another story. Everyone was so pleased by the drink that we decided to make it our beverage of choice during our stay in Torzhok, and I’m fairly certain that all of us brought a few bottles back to Moscow with us.

Other than the bottles, I brought back a memory of Russia that will stay with me forever, and no, it has nothing to do with anything I drank.

On our last night in Torzhok, we were not the only large group in the restaurant/bar of our hotel. Several tables over, there was a group of middle-aged and older folks who had been hitting it pretty hard all day. I was fearful that they would be so plastered by the time we sat down for dinner that we may encounter some unpleasantness. I would say the opposite happened. Though rather far gone, these folks were quite pleasant and handed out candy to all of the children in the restaurant. Most importantly, they sang.

One of the gents in the group had an accordion and was playing the same refrain over and over again, while each person at the table took his or her turn singing. After about 10 minutes, I remarked that this was a rather long song (and I’m a Led Zeppelin fan). My girlfriend laughed and told me that it wasn’t a song so much as a “Chyastushka” — a tradition where each person improvises lyrics to a short verse and sings them to the same refrain. The goal is to come up with something humorous and/or political — a way to laugh about historical or personal hardships. It also seems that this is an avenue for vulgar humor, which is not nearly as common in Russia as in the American canon of humor — or perhaps I’m just not hanging out with the right people. I sat in awe as everyone, with great ease despite his or her intoxication, sang, drank, and laughed. I noted that none of these folks were looking at their phones or watching TV, but were completely present, sharing a rare human moment of old tradition.

My girlfriend asked me what the matter was, assuming that I was in a bad mood. I answered to the contrary, noting that my friends, family, and I have never done anything like a Chyastushka. I almost felt like I had been excluded from something, which led to the hope that we all may find our own “Torzhok,” meaning that for just a little while, we can put our phones away, forget the external noise and bustle of our daily lives and get back to enjoying the company that we are keeping — and a few small glasses of Tverskaya Gorkaya while we’re at it.

С Новым годом (Happy New Year)!

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Covid-19: More than half of Austrians now fully vaccinated

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With 53,386 vaccinations carried out on Thursday, Austria cross the 50 percent mark for total vaccinations. 

This means that 4,479,543 people are completely vaccinated against Covid-19 in Austria as at Thursday evening, July 29th. 

A further nine percent of the population have received one vaccination, bringing the total percentage of people who have had at least one shot to 58.9 percent or (5.2 million people). 

UPDATED: How can I get vaccinated for Covid-19 in Austria?

The Austrian government has welcomed the news. 

“More than half of the total population is now very well protected against the coronavirus and thus the highly contagious Delta variant thanks to the full immunisation,” Health Minister Wolfgang Mückstein said on Thursday afternoon. 

Burgenland has the highest percentage of vaccinated people with 66.1 percent, followed by Carinthia (55.7 percent) and Salzburg (55.2 percent). 

The lowest percentage is in Upper Austria, where 54.9 percent of the population is vaccinated. 

Kleinmürbisch in the Güssing district has the highest percentage of vaccinated people in Austria, with just under 80 percent of people vaccinated. 

The village however only has 230 residents. 

“But we are still a long way from reaching our destination,” warned the minister. 

Around one quarter of the Austrian population has indicated a reluctance to be vaccinated, with around 15 percent saying they will refuse the vaccination. 



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6 Amusing Historic Stereotypes of Major Russian Cities

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About the authorFor lovers of Russian culture, folklore, and history, Kotar’s work is a treasure. The grandson of White Russian immigrants, the 34-year-old is an author of epic fantasy novels inspired by Russian fairy tales. You can see his four books here on Amazon.

He is also a deacon of the Russian Orthodox Church, a professional translator, and choir director at the Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY, where he lives. Here is his bio from his blog, where he writes about many aspects of Russia. We highly recommend following it and subscribing to his email list to get exclusive material.

He has an excellent Pinterest page, and you can follow him on Facebook. Here is an archive of his work published on Russia Insider.

He is currently running a remarkably successful crowdfunding on Kickstarter to be able to publish his upcoming novels. Please support him if you can!


Stereotypes are a funny thing. On the one hand, they’re often no more than caricatures. On the other hand, there’s a surprising amount of bitter truth to some of them. Like the Russians say with their morbid humor, “In every joke, there’s a bit of a joke.”

This is especially interesting when we consider old Rus. We don’t have much to go on, historically speaking, other than chronicles, treaties, and a few bits of birch bark.

However, Russians have preserved some interesting stereotypes about the inhabitants of old Russian cities. Whether there’s any truth to them or not is almost beside the point. They’re fascinating, revealing a window to a world long gone, yet still persisting in the habits and personalities of today’s Russians. (Here’s the original Russian article that I translated)

EVERYONE IN GREAT NOVGOROD IS A REBEL

Novgorod’s rebelliousness is legendary. The image of a brawling Novgorodian is almost a calling card of the city. The reason this stereotype came about has to do with the old chronicles. They were filled with illustrations of the constant arguments at the Novgorodian Veche, a kind of popular assembly that met in the central square. (See my translation of “Martha the Mayoress” for a vivid fictionalized example).

Of course, there were arguments and even fights during the Veche. However, they did not constantly devolve into fist-fights, as the legends suggest. Naturally, the chroniclers would choose the most vivid and bloody examples from history to illustrate their point. After all, Novgorod was often an opponent of Kiev and, later, Moscow. But in actual fact, the inhabitants of Great Novgorod were fiercely loyal to their government and loved their city. Compromise was the order of the day, not broken heads. Plus, they were more than usually literate.

EVERYONE IN PSKOV IS A THIEF OR A MORON

Even in modern times, Pskovians have had to endure countless jokes about their crudeness, stupidity, and their lack of good manners. This may or may not be true. As for their lack of manners, that is entirely a matter of hats. The inhabitants of Pskov, no matter what their social standing, hardly ever doffed their cap before anyone (which is extremely bad form in old Rus). However, this wasn’t crudity or bad breeding.

It used to be that a hat symbolized one’s personal dignity. In Pskov in particular, to actually take off your hat meant to be shamed. It may be a bastardization of the more generally accepted rule that if someone else took your hat off your headthat was a terrible insult.

EVERYONE IN NIZHNI NOVGOROD IS A DRUNKARD

The painful topic of Russian alcoholism became especially relevant in Nizhni Novgorod at the end of the 17th century. A kind of epidemic of alcoholism rose up, and it was normal to see women as well as men lying in the streets in a drunken stupor. Foreign travelers recounted after their visits to Nizhni Novgorod that “Russians don’t do anything but feast.”

Of course, they did more than feast. But on holidays, Russians have always allowed themselves some excesses. It’s not entirely fair to single out Nizhni Novgorod, when alcoholism still is the gravest problem facing Russia today, as in olden times.

EVERYONE IN VLADIMIR IS A CRIMINAL

This stereotype appeared very early. It’s easy to understand. Vladimir itself had five prisons, including the famous “Vladimir Central Prison.” From the beginning, Vladimirians have been considered con artists who like a dangerous life. It didn’t help that the path to Siberia for exiled convicts went through Vladimir. It was even called the “Vladimirka.”

Exiled convicts stopped in Vladimir to have half their heads shaved (a scene vividly recounted in the excellent Russian film The Siberian Barber). Then they’d be branded as exiles or thieves, clapped in irons, and set upon the road to Siberia. In old times, the path could take as long as two years, and those two years were not counted as part of their allotted time.

Vladimir itself, for all that, was a typical enough provincial town.

EVERYONE IN ROSTOV IS AN ARTISAN

When a Russian hears the word “finift’” (enameling), he immediately thinks of Rostov. Nothing could change the old stereotype that every inhabitant of ancient Rostov worked in the enameling guild. That’s complete nonsense, of course. First of all, the best enamellists in old Rus were as a rule in Kiev, the capital city. There were also some famous artisans in Pskov, Yaroslavl, Kostroma, and Great Novgorod.

The only difference is that Rostov alone has preserved the traditional techniques of enameling since ancient times. Even today, there is a factory producing enameled work. Perhaps for this reason alone, tourists still visit Rostov exclusively to see enameled boxes.

THE INDUSTRIOUS YARSOLAVIAN

The industrious muzhik from Yaroslavl is an image that we even find in Gogol. From the times of Rus, Yaroslavians were known as people who were never apathetic, lazy, or prone to tiredness. Instead, they’re known to be active to a manic degree. This may have something to do with the odd tradition that Yaroslav is a city of buried treasure.

Apparently, wherever you turn, you see someone uncovering a jewelry box or trying to break into an ancient chest of drawers. Perhaps a little more seriously, Yaroslavians have long been known as “chicks of the cuckoo.” In other words, they’re more than usually capable of leaving their homeland without much regret. This quality has a clear historical origin.

Yaroslav was built on the crossroads of ancient roads—a path used by merchants from Scandinavia all the way to the Arab lands. From the middle of the 16th century, Yarsolavl became the most important center for trade in all of Rus. This constant movement often inspired young Yaroslavians to try out their luck in foreign lands.

True or not, such stereotypes make for fascinating stories. For myself, the “myth” of the boisterous Novgorodian comes to life in my third novel, The Heart of the World, in a semi-fictionalized setting of the Veche that goes fabulously wrong for all concerned.


Source: Nicholas Kotar

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Health officials warn of strain on hospitals but Covid-19 admissions remain low

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Health officials have warned of mounting strain on hospitals as coronavirus infections increase, although the absolute number of admissions remains below previous surges of the disease.

Prof Philip Nolan, chairman of the National Public Health Emergency Team’s (Nphet) epidemiological modelling group, reported rising intensive care admissions but said the rise in hospital and ICU admissions was “far less” than “if we didn’t have so much of the population protected through vaccination”.

Dr Nolan said the expected pattern of infection in coming weeks was “really quite uncertain”. The background of exponential virus growth earlier in July “may or may not be stabilising” but the increase in hospital and intensive care admissions tracked the rising rate of infection.

While there was one intensive care admission every two days toward the end of June, Dr Nolan said the ICU admission rate in the past week was approaching three per day.

There were 152 people in hospital yesterday. The figure contrasts 1,949 during the January peak. There were 333 inpatients at the start of November 2020 and 862 in April 2020 during the first wave of the pandemic.

But admissions are again rising fast.

“We’re seeing on average 26 per day admitted to hospital in the last seven days and 30 today. You can see that that’s very significantly up, pretty much double what it was two weeks ago,” Dr Nolan told reporters at the Department of Health.


In a sign of pressure on the system, nurses in Limerick’s main hospital complained yesterday that overcrowding there is worsening despite the provision of more than 100 additional beds.

The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation said called on Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly to intervene directly to “look under the bonnet” and see why additional beds at University Hospital Limerick had not made a substantial impact.

More trolleys had been placed on wards and corridors in University Hospital Limerick in recent days as overcrowding continued, the union said.

Uneven pressure

Chief medical officer Tony Holohan said the uneven spread of coronavirus infections throughout the State meant some hospitals might be under more pressure than suggested by overall admissions data.

“It can happen that individual hospitals can be under quite a degree of pressure when the overall situation in the country might not suggest that’s the case. So we do know that maybe some hospitals in the west have already had a challenge with much more infections based on the most recent wave than other hospitals.”

He acknowledged reported pressure on hospitals in Limerick and in Letterkenny, Co Donegal, and cited pressure also on hospitals in Co Mayo.

“We have seen quite a wide variation in case numbers in individual hospitals,” Dr Holohan said. “We have 150 give or take hospitalisations. That’s not spread evenly spread across the 30 or 40 hospitals that might be admitting patients with this infection.

Deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn said hospitals would be under pressure if there were no coronavirus admissions.

“The point that obviously the absolute numbers are much less than previous waves is very welcome,” he said.

“The reality is that if we had no cases of Covid in hospital tomorrow morning our hospitals would be under extreme pressure. Unfortunately that’s what we’re dealing with, both pre-Covid and now but particularly as a result of Covid in the last number of months

“Our healthcare workers are exhausted frankly. They’re facing into enormous backlogs in elective care, non-Covid care, non-Covid health plans, social care: both in acute settings and in community,” he confirmed.

“So while the absolute numbers are less than previously we’re very conscious that any increase in those number … has potential to be very significant to the health service that we’re trying to get back up to full function.”

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