About the author: For 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.
As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I’ve been slowly hammering away at a screenplay based on the life of St. Olga of Kiev. There aren’t many historical records about her, but the ones that we have paint the picture of a complicated, strong, self-willed woman who was ultimately remarkable not for her manly strength, but for her wisdom.
As I was writing the first scene, I got a little hung up on showing all this in as direct a way as possible, so that the viewer could at least get the hint of what’s to come. Without getting too far into the details of it, I basically fell into a cliché set by contemporary pop culture. The “warrior babe who swoops in at the last moment to save the day.”
My fellow writer read it and said, “You’ve got such a compelling character here. Why reduce her to a caricature?” And he was right. As much as people rightly complain about the damsel in distress trope, just flipping the roles isn’t all that satisfying either. Turns out, there’s a rich tradition of warrior women in Russian folk tales and epic poetry. And what’s so amazing about them is that they’re as comfortable in the kitchen as in the battlefield. Though they often have the strength to defeat ten men, they are just as likely to win a battle of wits or refrain from fighting at all.
I’m fascinated by the idea of the warrior woman, not least because I think every Russian woman (no exaggeration) is a warrior at heart. They’ve had too difficult a history, and too often they’ve had to take up a sword to protect the hearth. But they never lose their femininity either, befuddling many Western-style feminists, especially when they write articles like this.
Anyway, if you’ve read my books you know that I don’t write about domesticated women. Even though one reviewer called me a sexist pig once and recommended I get sensitivity training, the fact remains that strong women fascinate me. The source of that strength and the many ways that strength is expressed—that’s great fodder for stories.
So today I’ll share my translation of an article about the most famous warrior women from Russian tales and epic poetry. You can find the original Russian article here.
RUSSIAN VALKYRIES: MORE THAN A MATCH FOR THE LEGENDARY BOGATYRS
It wasn’t easy for Russian bogatyrs to get married. Not every young maid could stand having a hero around. And so, it was often women warriors who captured their hearts. Except, more often than not, these women demanded a wooing equal to the bogatyrs’ most difficult labors.
Women warriors were such typical characters in Russian folklore that the word “bogatyrka” (woman warrior) is even included in the definitive 4-volume dictionary of the Russian language compiled by Vladimir Dal’. The folklorist Afanasiev includes in his collection a story that sounds like Wonder Woman—a garden filled with apples of youth is defended by a nameless druzhina of women warriors. But not all of them were nameless. Here are some of the most famous.
Dobrynia Nikitich, one of the legendary “three warriors,” is famous for his defeat of the giant dragon Zmei Gorynich. But what happened afterward was less glorious for him. He met his future wife, Nastasya Mikulishna, on the way home. She challenged him to a battle and beat him soundly. It’s not enough that she beat him, but she even grabbed him by his golden curls, pulled him off his horse, and stuck him in… her pocket!
Only later did she decide what to do with him. She pulled him out again and decided to see what he looked like. If he was pleasant to look at, she’d marry him. If he was so-so, she’d chop his head off. Lucky for him, he passed the test, and they got married.
In another of the tales, Dobrynia was called to join an embassy to the Golden Horde. Nastasya waited for him to return for twenty years, then received a false report about his death. Prince Vladimir forced her to get married again, this time to Aliosha Popovich, the youngest of the three warriors. She reluctantly agreed. But during the wedding, Dobrynia returned, dressed as a jester, and she recognized him and ran into his embrace.
Nastasya’s siter Vasilisa was no less impressive. She was married to a boyar of Chernigov named Stavr. In a scene reminiscent of The Taming of the Shrew, during a feast, Stavr started to boast about his wife’s many talents. The problem was that he unfavorably compared Prince Vladimir and his warriors to his much more impressive wife. The prince got angry and imprisoned him.
Finding out about this, Vasilisa came up with a cunning plan. She pretended to be a Tatar youth, brought her warriors with her to Kiev, then demanded the payment of tribute and a princess as her bride. The last was a barb directed at Vladimir, for whom it would be shameful to give a Christian princess to a heathen.
The princess in question suspected that the youth was no youth at all, and she expressed her doubts to Vladimir. So the prince arranged a test of strength, wit, and bravery. Of course, she bested everyone, forcing Vladimir to go through with the marriage. But during the pre-wedding feast, the Tatar “youth” sat gloomy at the table. Remembering that the boyar Stavr was an excellent musician, Vladimir called him to perform. AT that point, he recognized his wife. Vladimir was forced to admit that all Stavr’s boasting about his wife was nothing short of the truth.
The story of Nastasia Korolevishna, the wife of Dunai Ivanovich, is especially dramatic. Dunai traveled to Lithuania with Dobrynia Nikitich to arrange a marriage between Apraksa, daughter of the Lithuanian king, and Prince Vladimir. Dunai, a hothead, said something rude to the king during their time there, and the king imprisoned him. But Dobrynia gathered an army and threatened the kingdom, at which point the king was forced to give him both Apraksa and Dunai.
Apraksa had an older sister, Nastasya. A while before, Dunai had wooed her and nearly paid for it with his life, but she bought the executioners off, giving him time to run away. However, when he returned to take Apraksa back to Kiev, he paid absolutely no attention to Nastasya. She was so mad, she decided to make him pay.
Finding him on the way back to Kiev, she challenged him to single combat, dressed as a foreign knight. Dunai defeated her soundly and was just about to finish her off with a knife when he recognized her. He was so impressed, that he took her back with him to Kiev, where they got married.
The end of the story is pretty horrible, as such tales often are, so I won’t translate it here. If you’re curious about it, email me and I’ll tell you.
THE FAIRY TALES
The most famous woman warrior in Russian fairy tales is Marya Morevna, whom Ivan the Prince wooed after being impressed with her military prowess. Interestingly, though she was probably the better warrior, he still had to rescue her from Koschei the Deathless. Still, this had less to do with his fighting ability, and more with the fact that he needed to atone for his mistakes.
Many historians think that the image of the warrior woman in Russian tales has to do with the early battles between Rus and the Polovetsians. All Polovetsian maidens had to be good with the sword, and their wedding rites included single combat between the groom and the bride. As I mentioned in a previous article, Russian princes often took Polovetsian maidens as their brides, first getting married in the Polovetsian style, then baptizing their brides and getting married the Russian way.
New book reveals the true story of how the Oscars got their name | Culture
The most coveted trophy in cinema is called the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Award, but it was dubbed the Oscar several years after it was first presented on May 16, 1929, at the Roosevelt Hotel, just a block away from the gala’s current venue, the Dolby Theater.
The Hollywood Academy has it all on record. The nickname, the official name – the whole shebang. But where does the nickname come from? Well, from a “straight and tall” Norwegian sailor, in fact. A book on the first 50 years of the Academy, to be published in the US in October, mentions the origins of the name and singles out Academy assistant, Eleanore Lilleberg, as the creator of the alias.
Until now, it was commonly believed that Margaret Herrick had given the name to the award, which is not, in fact, solid gold, but britannia – an alloy of copper, tin and antimony – bathed in gold. This story had it that, in 1931, Herrick, who was then Margaret Gledhill, joined the Academy’s library and on her first day of work came across a statuette, of which she said, “It reminds me of my uncle Oscar.” According to the 1947/1948 Hollywood Academy Almanac, a journalist got wind of the anecdote and put it in print the following day.
In 1943, Herrick became executive director of the Academy and was the first to negotiate with a television network for the live broadcast of the gala in 1953. This gave the Academy financial independence, freeing it from reliance on membership fees, and allowed it to expand its educational programs and cultural activities.
But in the forthcoming book The Academy and the Award, due out in October, author Bruce Davis tells it differently and he should know, as for 22 years, he was the Academy’s executive director until his retirement in 2011. In other words, he has had access to the archives, which is what he has devoted himself to since leaving office. Davis is not just any executive either: some time ago, he came up with the idea of investing some of the Academy’s savings in the museum that has now become one of the jewels in its crown.
According to the website Deadline, which has had access to the 521-page tome, Davis’ research has been thorough. Regarding Herrick’s story, he found a 1938 Los Angeles Examiner report in which Herrick offered a different version of the tale, namely that she and her first husband, Donald Gledhill, used to have a private joke between them that went, “How’s your Uncle Oscar?”
In a bid to get to the bottom of the matter, Davis then brings in the 1970 memoirs of columnist Sidney Skolsky, Don’t Get Me Wrong – I Love Hollywood. Skolsky also took credit for the name, recalling that, under deadline pressure in 1934, he used it in mocking tribute to Vaudeville comedians who liked to say to the conductor of the orchestra, “Will you have a cigar, Oscar?”
However, on March 16, 1934, Skolsky himself wrote in the New York Daily News: “Among the profession, statuettes are called Oscars.” So, both Skolsky’s initial claim and Herrick’s claim were unseated, leaving that of actress Bette Davis.
In January 1941, Bette Davis became the first woman to preside over the Hollywood Academy, a position she resigned from a few months later after a stand-off between her and the board of directors. However, in her memoirs The Lonely Life, published in 1962, she maintained that she was the one who thought of the epithet when holding her first Oscar for Dangerous in 1936: “His back view was the spit of my husband’s. Since the ‘O’ in Harmon O. Nelson stood for Oscar, Oscar it has been ever since,” she wrote. When it was pointed out that the term had already been in use for two years by then, the actress recanted.
So, Bruce Davis kept digging. And he found that the Oscars were actually probably named by Eleanore Lilleberg, a secretary and office assistant in the early days of the Academy who was in charge of looking after the statuettes in the run-up to the ceremonies. She had been previously mooted as responsible for the name Oscar, though not how it came about.
But in a small museum in Green Valley, California, dedicated to Lilleberg and her gemologist brother Einar, Davis found Einar’s unfinished memoirs in which he explains that it was Eleanore who named the award Oscar, after a Navy veteran from Norway, the Lilleberg family’s country of origin. Together, they had met this sailor in Chicago and noted that, like the statuette, he “stood straight and tall.” A 1944 newspaper interview with a colleague and an oral account back up this theory.
Which puts this particular mystery to rest, though there are plenty more Oscar secrets in the book…
Back in Action: The return of Cameron Diaz, the once-highest-paid actress in Hollywood | Culture
In an interview with her close friend Gwyneth Paltrow, actress Cameron Diaz explained how it felt to leap from the Olympus of Hollywood into the abyss, leaving behind a career full of blockbuster movies. “I’m at peace. I got a peace in my soul. Because I was finally taking care of myself. I feel like my feet are on the ground. I’m lighter.” The actress starred in romantic comedies from the mid-1990s through the first decade of the 2000s, including the hit There’s Something About Mary. For several years, she was the best-paid actress in Los Angeles, making up to $20 million per film. But at age 40, with no warning, she decided to “semi-retire” from the industry. Diaz was focused on enjoying her personal life: she is married to musician Benji Madden, and she gave birth to her first daughter, Raddix, at age 47. But she never closed the door on a possible return. Now, eight years after her last movie, America’s blondest sweetheart is back.
“I’m excited, but I don’t know how to do this, you know?” Cameron Diaz admits in the video in which she announced the end of her retirement and confirmed her return to the industry. Simulating a call with her fellow cast member Jamie Foxx, the 49-year-old actress revealed that she will play the lead in a new action comedy for Netflix, titled Back in Action. In the clip, Foxx – who won an Oscar for the movie Ray – seeks help from football player Tom Brady, who this year announced his retirement and changed his mind a month later, in order to prepare Diaz for her return to the big screen. On social media, other entertainers, including Jennifer Aniston and Kim Cattrall, received the news with enthusiasm. Nancy Meyers, who directed Cameron Diaz in The Holiday, wrote: “Finally! Some good news!” Still, in keeping with her decision to avoid the buzz of stardom as much as possible, the Californian actress didn’t even share the news with her nearly 10 million Instagram followers.
Cameron I hope you aren’t mad I recorded this, but no turning back now. Had to call in the GOAT to bring back another GOAT. @CameronDiaz and I are BACK IN ACTION – our new movie with @NetflixFilm. Production starting later this year!! 🦊🐐 pic.twitter.com/vyaGrUmbWb
— Jamie Foxx (@iamjamiefoxx) June 29, 2022
During her time outside the public eye, Cameron Diaz, like peers such as Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson, has attempted to follow Gwyneth Paltrow’s path, using her platform to establish herself as a wellness guru. She published two books on well-being and longevity – The Body Book and The Longevity Book. She has also invested in emerging alternative medicine companies, including Modern Acupuncture and Lyra Health, which helps companies improve the mental health of their employees. In 2020, she also became the founder of the Avaline wine brand, which sells wines made with organic, pesticide-free grapes. The line includes eight varieties, and the starting price for a bottle is €23 ($23.6). “Avaline is the only day-to-day work that I’m doing other than being a wife and a mother. It really has been the most fulfilling part of my life so far,” she said in an interview last year.
The resurgence of the romantic comedy could be behind Diaz’s return to film. The genre reached its box office peak in the mid-1990s. Earlier this year, Sandra Bullock found unexpected success with her return to the genre in The Lost City. Andy Garcia and Gloria Estefan gave the latest remake of Father of the Bride a Latin twist. And in September, Julia Roberts will return to theaters in September after four years of absence: in Journey to Paradise, she will join George Clooney to play a divorced couple who team up to torpedo their daughter’s wedding in Bali. Meanwhile, Tom Cruise is enjoying the success of Top Gun: Maverick, Laura Dern and Sam Neill are returning to the Jurassic Park franchise, and Brad Pitt is preparing for the release of his new action film Bullet Train. After being slammed by the effects of the pandemics, movie theaters are finding that old stars are the best way to get viewers back in their seats.
During her hiatus, Diaz has avoided spotlights and red carpets, appearing only on programs hosted by colleagues such as Paltrow and Drew Barrymore. The actress has spoken unequivocally about the elements that have hampered her professional career, from the abuse of power exercised by Hollywood studios over their stars to the dictatorship of beauty standards. “Every day I sat in front of the mirror for hours. It ended up being toxic […] You start criticizing yourself and you think, why am I sitting here being mean to myself?” she said in a BBC podcast, calling herself a “victim of the objectification and social exploitation that women are subjected to.” In deciding to return to the spotlight, Diaz follows the example of other contemporaries who have recently come out of similar semi-retirements, such as Renée Zellweger, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Judy Garland, and Lindsay Lohan, who will premiere a Christmas-themed movie on Netflix at the end of this year.
Today’s leading Tik Tok influencer creates fashion parodies from one of the world’s poorest islands | Culture
Shaheel Shermont Flair is 24 years old, and he wants to be a comedic actor. On his social media, where he showcases his talent for comedy through videos/reels, he describes himself as a “public figure” and “artist.” On June 20, he shared his latest witty idea online: a fashion show parody. “Fashion shows be like this,” he declared (alongside the emoji of a face crying with laughter). Then, barefoot and dressed in a T-shirt and sport shorts, he started walking like Linda, Naomi, or Christy through what looks like the backyard of his house. Each trip displayed a style created with all sorts of knickknacks, junk, utensils and household furnishings. In an unintentionally Rickowensian moment (or not), he even used his little sister, Riharika, who was accessorized and off to the side, as a complement. On TikTok, where he has been appearing as @shermont22 for a little more than a year, the short video has racked up over five million views and counting. He continues to gain followers as well; he has nearly 350,000 right now and 13 million or so “likes.” Viewers keep asking him for more. At popular request, he uploaded his most recent video a few hours ago. It is the ninth installment of a viral saga that, in reality, is not so ironic and hilarious.
By today’s standards, Shermont is already a star in terms of fame and glory. In a recent story on his Instagram profile (@shermont_22, which has considerably fewer followers, although one assumes that his viewership there will eventually grow), he confessed to having googled his name and was in disbelief about how far-reaching his performance was. “I’m in the news!” He was amazed and posted screenshots from different digital media, especially from Southeast Asian outlets. On Twitter, he is being hailed as the week’s hero for making fun of, mocking, and deriding that silly and increasingly absurd thing: fashion (of course).
The same thing happened just two months ago, when a video on Douyin (a social network) went viral on its Western counterpart, TikTok, giving rise to the turn-your-grandmother-into-an-international-supermodel challenge. In the video, a venerable elderly Chinese woman was dressed as the personification of Balenciaga, Gucci and Prada by a little boy (presumably her grandson) with what he had on hand in his yurt, including chicken. The results of the challenge—images done in the style of luxury advertising campaigns with brand logos superimposed on them—tell us that we are all Demna Gvasalia, Alessandro Michele, or the tandem Miuccia-Raf Simons, or at least we can be.
For a long time, people have complained repeatedly about how bad fashion is, now more than ever. Not only does fashion pollute the planet and exploit its workers, but it also mocks consumers. Are these designers crazy? No, they are just pulling our leg with so much aesthetic arbitrariness/ugliness/stupidity. It’s only fair, then, to return the favor in jaw-droppingly funny ways. In fact, trolling the fashion industry—like Shermont and the Chinese grandmothers (there are quite a few of them)—may be evidence of a certain social disgust with its three-ring circus and its trainers, illusionists, and clowns, whose extravagances are understood as nonsense and, even worse, insults or near-insults. Vetements’s DHL uniform. Virgil Abloh’s Ikea bag. JW Anderson’s broken-skateboard-encrusted sweater. Balenciaga’s shredded sneakers. All of Balenciaga, the brand inevitably referred to in comments on the young comedian’s reels. There are more than a few comments that also praise Shermont’s attitude and stylish model’s trot; they ask to see his fashion show in Paris and Milan already. And then there are those who attempt to be funnier and more sarcastic and ironic than the video itself, which is typical on Twitter. But none of the commenters have taken issue—or even tried to take issue—with the video’s deeper premise.
Shaheel Shermont Flair is a Fijian of Indian descent; his ancestors were Indian girmtyas who went to British-colonized Fiji in the mid-nineteenth century as slave labor. He is also gay. “Welcome the queen to Instagram,” he urged in April 2021, when he debuted on the social media site. In November, he posted that “[m]y sexuality isn’t the problem, your bigotry is.” In April of this year, he returned to the fray: “There are those who hate me for being different and not living by society’s standards, but deep down they wish they had my courage.” Before his phenomenal fashion show, he was already doing “low cosplay” of Indian women by using waste—toilet paper for the sari, a bottle cap for a nath on the nose, and a tea bag for the maang tikka on the forehead, for example—to create an Indian bride’s trousseau in the playful post, “Getting ready for my lover.” In another, he straps on two water-filled balloons as swaying breasts under his T-shirt. “The things I do for TikTok,” he wrote. Indeed, Shermont has made comedy his path to escape bullying and discrimination (prejudice is double in his case) and turned his social media accounts into a highway to heaven. Just like Apichet Madaew Atirattana did back in his day.
Except for its glamorous intent, everything about Shermont’s catwalk recalls that of the so-called Thai Dovima. In 2016, before Tik Tok’s one-track mind took over, a teenager from the rice-growing region of Isaan—one of Thailand’s poorest areas—astonished the world by turning everyday objects, twigs, and trash into fabulous outfits. He filmed himself modeling those clothes at different locations in his village; his grandmother acted as a styling assistant. Facebook and Instagram went wild over what was termed the “break down of barriers between gender identity, fashion and recycling.” At the time, Madaew (a nom de guerre) explained it this way: “I want people to see that ugly things that don’t fit in can be transformed into something beautiful. And that dressing well is not about money.” Just a few months later, Asia’s Next Top Model, the South Asian edition of the U.S. talent show, called him to be a guest designer during the program’s fourth season. The following year, Time magazine put him on its list of new generational leaders. His example spread. Soon, new stars made their appearance: Suchanatda Kaewsanga, a fellow Thai who is openly trans, and the Chinese Lu Kaigang, whose offerings for fashion shows in his village—located in Guangxi province—unironically included dresses made of garbage can lids and old air-conditioner bags.
Here, we have a response from the poor and marginalized to fashion’s global impact as a mass phenomenon ascribed to the culture of leisure/entertainment. It is a practice that resonates with the button-down politics of Patrick Kelly, the first African American designer to join the ranks of the Parisian ready-to-wear trade association in the mid-1980s; the clothing activities of the swenkas (workers of Zulu origin) and skhothanes (post-apartheid image-obsessed youth) in Johannesburg; and the young Ghanaians who exploit the city-sized textile dumps surrounding the capital, Accra, as sources for their creativity. The narratives of the designers who establish the industry’s current direction, amplified as never before by digital media, also show that it is indeed possible to dress as stylishly as Balenciaga, Gucci or Prada without breaking the bank. That’s why TikTok’s Chinese supermodel grandmothers reflect aspiration and not scorn; they are proof that fashion has something for everyone, even the most socially disadvantaged (one can’t miss the proud hashtag that usually accompanies them, #chinastreetstyle). That’s why Apichet Madaew Atirattana, Suchanatda Kaewsanga and Li Kaigang have made careers as creators, bloggers or influencers with hundreds of thousands of followers. They’ve come so far, propelled by the dreamy fuel that the magazines in village hair salons and satellite TV offer. “It’s very easy to blame fashion for all the problems it creates, but I’d like to think it’s also capable of helping people in many ways, in positive ways,” says Minh-Ha T. Pham, a professor of media studies at Pratt Institute in New York and the author of Asians Wear Clothes on the Internet (2016), an essay about the dynamics of race, gender and class among the young Asians who have found a way to express their identity through fashion, and in the process pushed the system to finally recognize them as a socioeconomic and cultural force. Shaheel Shermont Flair laughs, but he does fashion shows because he also knows what fashion can do for his ambition to become an actor.
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