Rosalie Murphy

Text and Audio Journalist

Work notes


Hello, friends!

I’ve been very lucky to spend the summer writing about my home planet at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. The agency’s Earth Right Now campaign, punctuated by FIVE (count ‘em, five!) launches of Earth-orbiting instruments, is in full swing, and I fill pages with notes every day. This sums it up pretty well:

Screen Shot 2014-08-21 at 9.15.57 PM


A few things I’ve written:

1. SMAP, our Soil Moisture Active Passive satellite scheduled for a November launch, will help farmers prepare for and plan to recover from agricultural droughts like the one California faces now.

2. Snow cover on Arctic sea ice has thinned 30 to 50 percent since the 1950s. This is worrisome.

3. Our Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, or OCO-2, is the latest in a proud line of six satellites watching Earth’s atmosphere. They work in near-perfect conjunction with each other, which is amazing.

4. Happy 15th birthday to QuikScat, a historic ocean wind monitor, and hooray for its successor launching next month!


A few other items that have been posted this summer:

1. Very proud of this one-hour public radio special on PRX by my classmates at USC Annenberg. I helped produce the final cut, and mine is the bus driver profile that starts about five minutes in.

2. Also proud of this piece for On Faith. I hung out with Hare Krishnas for a few weeks in the spring, and I’ve even been back to the temple after finishing this story.

3. One of my last at USC Viterbi — a conversation with Aerospace Corp. CEO Wanda Austin about management styles, mentorship and STEM. She rocks.


Be safe out there! I hope all is well for you too. 

On Twitter, trolls and too much noise


A few days after ending my social media detox, I’m surprised at what’s been the hardest habit to resume: Twitter.

I signed up in May 2008 and loved the network for six years. Pre-smartphone, I used to have it text CNN’s breaking news alerts to me. I used it to joke with friends, share braggy vacation pictures and, of course, to follow the news. After my long detox earlier this summer, I unfollowed 60% of my list — only Earth, science and LA tweeters remained, plus a select group of writers I know and/or admire. It helped a lot. But still, almost hourly, I saw women trolled by men for their work. I saw climate change deniers masquerading as free enterprise agents. I saw people of many faiths arguing passionately over who counts, with “who” meaning both people and God.

Sustainability, scientific literacy, women’s rights and immigrant rights get me on my soapbox, so to speak. I know where I stand, but my soapbox is a very low one. I feel pressure to understand the “other side,” and that means scrolling and scrolling until some #womenagainstfeminism man brings brine to my throat. I refuse to dismiss all the accounts who disagree with me as fools, trolls and haters, because I want to believe everyone uses the Internet as an extension of themselves, like I do. I can’t, or haven’t yet, realized that there are people who are really just trolls — too cowardly (professionally or personally) to post their real name, too bored to sign off until they’ve ruined my day, too content to tear down and do nothing to build up. What’s the point of encouraging “discourse” if only half the parties (if that) are engaging honestly? That’s not a conversation. That’s the person prank calling the college radio show, using some fake voice so friends can’t distinguish her. That’s bullshit.

The trouble with Twitter as a platform is that it allows a) anonymity and b) a storm of snark. I absolutely want my writing to spark conversations, but among people willing to tie their thoughts to their identities. I’d tell any boss that, yes, we have to engage readers, but real readers, thinking ones, who read the whole piece, consider the arguments and invest in their rebuttal. I have no interest in, nor respect for, people who don’t put enough time into their ideas to sign their name.

I can imagine some reader objecting to that requirement if her comments are personal. I get that. There are a lot of radical people online, and they won’t hesitate to seize a moment of vulnerability or a modicum of oversharing to threaten someone (see the many, many women writers who’ve gotten rape threats on the phone because someone leaked their numbers). First, becoming personally vulnerable online is scary (see the many people who are beginning to tell their stories of sexual assault), and I commend those writers. I hope no one would reply with some trite “you deserved it” using their real name. Real people are empathetic. Trolls are not acting as people.

The second objection: You’re defending an unpopular opinion. Maybe your employer will fire you if they find out you’re either pro- or anti- gay marriage (both happen). That’s a very worthwhile concern. I don’t have a good answer to it. Feel free to share your ideas.

I guess the sum of most of this, though, is simple: If you’re not going to sign your name, don’t comment. Don’t create some fake “borderpolice” account (no idea if that’s real, just using an example) and waste the time of people doing legitimate research, speaking with real people, and most of all, people actually experiencing disenfranchisement, pain and fear on both sides of the U.S. border. Argue your politics, please, but don’t be an avatar. This isn’t unlike what Sunday school teachers used to tell us about pornography — it’s so easy when you do it in the privacy, the anonymity, of the Internet, and the darkness of your room, but would you really do, say or consume it in person? The answer, obviously, is supposed to be no. Be you, and you’ll probably find you’re better than the trolls. You’re empathetic, even toward people with whom you disagree.

So please, Internet users — have enough respect for other people, even people with whom you interact virtually, to own your opinion (or maybe your wit or your sarcasm) the way they own theirs. Better yet, send an email. Share the post with your personal network and have a conversation there. Write your own blog/letter to the editor/etc. Find some tool on this vast Internet to contribute your honest, deeply held opinion, and sign it with your name. There will always be people who will feed you. Just don’t look for my hand, or, for a little while longer, my account.



I’m taking a week off — maybe more — from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Linkedin, you name it. By now, social media anxiety is well documented, and I’ve frequently been a victim. A year ago it was Facebook, whispering constantly to my touch-screen-flicking fingers that I wasn’t having enough fun; this year, upon graduation, it’s Twitter, reminding me that I need to be wittier and more creative. I feel real pressure to share immediately and still think faster, lest I get stuck in semantic arguments.

What’s more, I feel like my feed is an echo chamber. We’re all talking to one another, we all largely agree with one another (I’d unfollow you if we didn’t), and when one of those accounts I admire engages with me, I know I’ve been welcomed into the club — into the same chamber, where instead of introducing new thoughts, I parrot popular ones to get another fix of professional acceptance.

Is “selling out” still a relevant term? From Wikipedia: “Selling out is the compromising of integrity, morality, authenticity or principles in exchange for personal gain.” Doesn’t digital life compromise of a certain level of authenticity? Isn’t what we call “risk-taking” simply pushing what we believe to be true just a little? I believe my expertise is x and my talents are y, until a professor or a job listing or what/whomever suggests otherwise and a tweet or accepted piece validates their belief, not mine. I figure I must’ve been wrong.

How is “breaking in” different from “selling out?” How do you “know thyself” and protect that identity while still growing personally and professionally?

Note: This is not unrelated to the feelings I’ve had about my first big byline this week. I know these are questions I need to answer before I delve too deeply into this career, and advice is welcome.

Things I’ve been writing


It’s been a busy semester, friends, but I promise I wrote quite a lot — just none of it here. Most of the best stuff came out of a Religion Reporting seminar focusing on the Indian diaspora, capped by a week of political reporting in Mumbai.


Some highlights:

1. GlobalPost: My first (of many, I hope) pieces on domestic violence. All places of worship should be places of refuge.

2. KPCC: A profile of Sudha Ma, the only woman in the world at the head of a Hindu monastic order. Catch her Sunday morning services at La Crescenta’s Ananda Ashrama if you get a chance.

3. On Being: A first-person account of my weekend at Pune’s poshest (most posh?) meditation resort, or as my professor terms it, my “dark night of the soul.”

4. The Indian Express: Violence against women in India has gotten much media coverage in the last two years (as it should), but “women’s issues” had little real impact on this spring’s national elections.

More to come. Be well!

Vera and the Golden Cloaks: A Russian Folkloric Fairy Tale


Fiction. Written a Russian Fairy Tales course I took during my semester abroad. Please be kind and don’t copy.

One autumn morning after two weeks of relentless rain, the village seamstress fell quite ill. Coughs rattled her frail frame day and night, night and day, until no tea could calm her throat and no herbs bring sleep. Finally her daughter, Vera, a strong and soft-hearted maiden, could stand it no longer. “My dear brother Ivan, we must save her,” she said. “I think it is possible, if we can only find the potion-maker our grandmother used to visit. Do you remember?”

“Yes,” said Ivan. “He lives in the thrice-ninth land in the thrice-tenth kingdom. He was a tiny man, a meter tall but very fat, with a beard that wrapped around both ankles to keep him warm just like wool boots. I will go to seek him, and will send word in four weeks time.” Then he kissed her, mounted the family’s horse, and departed.

For three weeks no word came from Ivan, but he was a little fool, so Vera worried. She busied herself with weaving a new cloak that could bear the still-pouring rain. She did not realize that, after waiting for many generations in their cellar, the thread of her grandmothers had become so thick and strong. But on the first day of the fifth week Vera took a walk, and her new cloak was so fine that she stayed dry and warm.

She walked without direction, for a long time or a short time, when she came upon a foal stuck dead in the mud. “Come here, little foal, and walk with me; I can keep you dry.” Immediately the mud fell from the foal’s feet and he joined Vera. “Give me a blanket, my fair maiden, and tell me your story.” So she laid her extra bolt of fabric on his back.

Vera did not finish telling her story, for her troubles were many, before they came upon a sparrow clutching her eggs in her wings after her nest had been swept away. “Come here, little sparrow, and walk with me; I can keep you dry.” The sparrow joined them, and Vera made a tiny bird-blanket and satchel for her eggs.

The trio walked further, for minutes or perhaps for days, because all the world was gray; the foal’s legs grew strong and stout and the sparrow’s eggs hatched. Then they came upon a little frog, straining its little frog-legs to stay afloat in a puddle. “Come here, little frog, and walk with me; I can keep you dry,” Vera promised. The frog joined them, and Vera fashioned him a tiny frog-cloak from her bolt.

Just then a snake curled around Vera’s ankle. “Are you Vera, Ivan’s sister?” he asked, gazing up at her with tiny snake-eyes. She nodded. “Ivan was captured on the way to the thrice-ninth land in the thrice-tenth kingdom. A dragon with greedy green eyes guards him day and night. To find him, walk due east from here, and in three days you will reach a valley of caves. Find the coldest one.” And it peeled its snake-tail from Vera’s ankle and slithered away.

Vera sat on a rock and began to cry, pulling her cloak tighter against the rain. When she opened her eyes, the hood glowed, circling her face in gold. “You must go, Vera,” the frog said. “You are clever and your hands are sure; Ivan needs you. I will go care for your mother.” And so the frog turned back. Vera went on, and the gold light repelled rain and even tears from her face.

In three days Vera, the colt and the sparrow-family reached the valley of the caves. Little signposts stood outside each cave, perhaps many thousands of them, but the never-ending storm had washed away their names. “How will we ever find him?” Vera moaned. “And then the potion-maker after? It’s hopeless.”

Just then threads in the littlest sparrow’s little sparrow-cloak began to shine like dim gold. As he fluttered here, they brightened, and there, they dulled. Enthralled, the sparrow traced a route that made her cloak brighter, brighter, brighter still – until finally she fluttered before a cave whose mouth was so cold that her feathers froze solid and she fell promptly to the ground.

Warm inside their cloaks, the group picked up the sparrow, crossed an icy lake, then shattered an icy door and found a warm hallway lit by torches and littered with plundered treasure – a dragon’s home indeed. Vera picked up a rusty shield and sword. Around the fourth corner they very suddenly found Ivan, who sat crying on a rock with hands and feet bound.

“Vera, my dear, you came!” he shouted, standing and hobbling toward her. She pushed him back down. “You fool, do you want the dragon to hear you? Shut up!”

But it was too late. The dragon stuck its ugly head around the corner beyond Ivan’s rock and speedily slithered toward Vera, greedy for a bite of her golden cloak. But the wool turned to steel in its mouth and snapped its longest fangs in two. The brave maiden spun around and thrust her sword through each of its green eyes in turn. It shuddered and slinked backward, exhaling puffs of smoke, until it lay still and dead. Vera kicked a pile of gold coins over its scaly claws.

Ivan whooped and, freed by the sparrows, applauded. “What happened to you, little sister? You just slayed a dragon without flinching, and the sparrows say you gave them magic golden cloaks that led you here. Have I been gone so long that you have grown so much?”

Vera smiled and embraced her brother. “I am just as I’ve always been, Ivan.”

Now sparrow-family flew off, promising news of their mother every day. Vera bound the sword and shield around her waist, stitched her last bolt of fabric into another cloak for Ivan, and with the foal (who was now a stout young colt) they trod northward through the forest and the rain. On their third day, when Vera’s mother was still coughing and they were beginning to feel quite lost indeed, Ivan spotted a hut in a clearing. “Little hut, little hut, turn around, travelers need directions!” And the little hut straightened its chicken legs and turned right around.

“Ivan, you fool –” Vera hissed, but she was interrupted.

“Is that Russian blood I smell?” bellowed a voice from inside the hut. Ivan tugged Vera’s sleeve. “It’s Baba Yaga!” he whispered. “Let’s run! We must run!”

But Vera stood firm. “We’re looking for the potion-maker who lives in the thrice-ninth land in the thrice-tenth kingdom,” she called. “Our mother hasn’t stopped coughing for two months now. Please help us, Baba Yaga.”

“You’re children; surely you know that I cook and eat children. Why would I help?”

“Because we’re bright; we just escaped the dragon inside the coldest cave.”

“And what happened to the dragon?”

“I slayed it.”

You slayed it?”

“Yes, Baba Yaga, I did. What’s more, the horse, frog and sparrow-family traveling with me have been dry all this time, because I made them magic cloaks.”

Baba Yaga paused. “Spend one night with me, and in the morning I will give you a fast colt for your journey.”

“But we already have a fast colt, Baba Yaga. We only need directions.”

This upset Baba Yaga; the earth shuddered and thunder clapped. “You’ll stay with me, children, and I will tie your colt up in my shed. In the morning I will consider giving you directions. Or, I will cook you and eat you.” Word of Vera’s magic cloaks and dragon-slaying had reached Baba Yaga through the snakes, and she was curious about the strange maiden.

That night they slept fitfully. Ivan rolled marbles across the dirt floor until he dozed. Vera browsed an atlas that lay beside her hay mattress. Once Vera awoke and found Baba Yaga crouched at her feet, holding her cloak up to her long nose. Finally, at dawn, she shook Ivan awake. “Let’s grab the colt and run before she wakes up.”

“Oh, no, fair maiden, I don’t think so,” Baba Yaga crowed from the next room. “Not before you’ve made me ten yards of that fabric you weave, and maybe not even then.”

“Surely you can make it yourself, Baba Yaga, with all your skill,” Vera called, dragging Ivan to his feet. “Let me set up my loom and I’ll show you.”

She busied herself with the loom while directing Ivan to gather their things, then pointed him toward the door. He stumbled out loudly. “Come in, Baba Yaga!” Vera called, and at the moment Baba Yaga entered the room, Vera left it. She hopped onto the colt behind Ivan.

“Go, go!” she urged. Baba Yaga chased them and nearly caught them, but their cloaks protected them from the rain, while after an hour Baba Yaga’s cloak was so wet and heavy that she had to turn back. The colt galloped so quickly that what might have been three days’ ride northward only took one. He stopped suddenly in front of a ramshackle brick house belching strongly scented smoke through its chimney. Vera shook Ivan as they dismounted. “This is the potion-maker’s house. I found it on Baba Yaga’s map last night. Please don’t talk, Ivan, dear.”

So it was Vera who knocked softly, then more boldly; Vera who thanked the potion-maker – who was indeed a meter tall but very fat, with a beard that wrapped around both ankles to keep him warm just like wool boots, and a squeaky little voice too – for their generous helpings of soup, and who explained their mother’s illness so sadly that mice flocked to the table to mourn with her; and it was Vera for whom the mice stitched a crown from the potion-maker’s flowers, and when they lay it around her head her hair gleamed just like the cloaks, which had made her famous, apparently, even in this faraway land.

“Anything you need is yours, my dear,” the little potion-maker squeaked. “You can sleep here tonight in safety, and in the morning I will prepare just the medicine your mother needs. We have a small carriage; my son and I will come to your village and show you how to care for her.”

Just then the potion-maker’s son, Alyosha, a traveling trader curious upon hearing a maiden’s voice, entered the kitchen and saw Vera, golden-haired and flower-crowned with a sword still hanging from her belt, and instantly fell passionately in love. They drank wine and talked of their many adventures all night while the potion-maker slept and Ivan rolled his marbles. In the morning, he asked for her hand in marriage. Vera happily agreed.

Together Ivan, Vera, the potion-maker, and Alyosha returned to the village. A week later Vera’s mother was well again, and when the women found a rare moment alone together, Vera told her of the fame of the golden cloaks. The rain stopped rather unremarkably while Vera’s mother laughed and laughed and laughed, and when she finished laughing she took her daughter’s hand. “Oh, my dear, my grandmother used to say that all the women in our family can weave those cloaks. The trouble is, they don’t glow on our husbands and sons, only on us and our sisters, and only when we most desperately need them. I had stopped believing it – but I guess none of us risked as much as you did, my brave daughter.”

And so on the morning of her wedding Vera folded up her cloak and lay it gently on the top shelf of a closet, beside the sword that slayed the dragon, for a rainy day. She taught her daughters to weave according to the family legend. The happy family traveled warm and dry to every corner of the thrice-ninth lands, where Vera’s dragon-slaying fame is still subsiding – unless, of course, she fights another one soon.



I wish I could write a long and glorious post about my second-to-last week in Peter, but unfortunately it hasn’t been the penultimate finale I pictured. I’ve squandered a lot of it in a long bout of homesickness.

Mind you, I’ve lived three thousand miles from the place where I grew up for three years and very seldom been sad about it — yet I’m still over the moon every time my plane touches down in Akron or Cleveland.

There are some study abroad bloggers who would have you believe something about how, “travelers make a home everywhere they go! <3″ Those people are wrong. Sure, you can feel comfortable anywhere pretty quickly. You can learn the layout of your supermarket and find the cutest anticafes and even make some local friends, and that’s a wonderful feeling. But home is the place you retreat to when the day has beaten you. At home, you can curl up with a cup of tea and having a good fucking cry, and no one (even in your native language) will ask you why.

At home, you feel competent. In Russia, and even sometimes in LA, the routines of daily life — commuting, buying shampoo, choosing outfits — can be exhausting. And when I waste all my energy getting ready and getting there, it’s hard to do any actual things very well.

I’ve gained an incredible respect for immigrants who arrive in a country speaking a foreign language. It’s hard. Struggling to make yourself understood in the simplest, shortest transactions is draining, humbling, sometimes insulting. It’s enough to make anyone go quiet.

Peter will feel better, I think, sometime in the future, when hindsight crystallizes already good memories and I’ve spent a few more years speaking Russian. Next time. I know that some lives are different, that some people have lived many places and been “home” in all of them. I am not yet one of those people. I hope to be. Next time.

Notes on rape culture, for those unfamiliar with the term


In the last three months, two friends of friends have shared painstaking assault stories online. Both (here and here) are heartbreaking at the first read, rage-inducing at the second, and by the third, confusing. Read them once, then continue.

I recently started to send the latter testimonial to my boyfriend with a note thanking him for respecting me. I promptly deleted it, because a woman should never feel the need to thank a man for respecting her. There are far too many women in harmful relationships today, I know, but the failure of those men to respect women does not mean those men who treat women well should be seen as exceptional. There can be no gold stars for respectful men — that should be the lowest possible bar, not the median.

Rape culture is the term ascribed to a world in which male-dominated, barely-if-at-all-consensual sex is normalized.

Rape culture is real because I have never felt 100% safe outside after dark — not in Russia, not in Los Angeles, not even in my Ohio hometown, where I did less after-dark walking than I have anywhere since. Last month I spent an evening playing board games and drinking hot chocolate with a marvelous group, and when we left around midnight, a male friend said he’d walk me home. It was not a question. “You don’t have to do that,” I replied, mostly out of decorum. “No, I will,” he replied. If he hadn’t offered, I would have asked him anyway. I felt safer, because on every continent, men mean protection. 

Now, let me be clear: I should not need protecting. I am financially independent, comfortable alone, delighted to report about places I’ve never been, public transit-savvy and still a good driver. I lived in Russia for half a year . I’ve cooked for myself since I was thirteen. I only order drinks at the bar, preferably from female bartenders, and watch every swivel of the preparing wrist. I’m the friend in charge of buying tickets for the weekend trip to Tallinn. I’m in a happy, healthy relationship. While these things are not relevant, since no woman is ever “deserving” or “asking for it,” no matter how closely she watches her drinks or who she dates or who manages her bank account, I point this out to suggest that I too have been catcalled, groped and followed. I am anything but immune. And while I know that 90 percent of rapes are committed by acquaintances, I still carry my keys between my middle and ring fingers to deliver that knockout punch, because tonight might be the night my number comes up. Instead of knowing that I’m not a survivor of assault, I find myself thinking, “I’m not a survivor, yet.

Rape culture is real because I remember feeling like my first kiss counted as some sweeping act of consent, license to my whole body. I was taught that if my shorts crossed a certain threshold or I consented to a simple kiss, men would always, always, always want more, and it was my job to police them. If men learn that they inherently press their advantage, they’re given license to do so and can chalk it up to hormones. Unacceptable. Pressing your advantage is assault.

Rape culture is real because my male classmates both taught in puberty about masturbating; friends and I bought Cosmopolitan at Wal-Mart to learn about our bodies. Men learned to master and control sexuality. We learned to stuff it under our mattresses. Unacceptable. Sex that shames one of its participants, or allows her no control because she doesn’t know how, is unhealthy at best and assault at worst.

Rape culture is real because my friend got groped on the metro today and the man will never think twice about it. It’s real because one woman in India is raped every 20 minutes, and so my dad cannot be excited for my reporting trip there in March. Unfortunately, I have a one in five chance of being a victim here at home. Rape culture is real because rape is a weapon of war — in 2011, 48 women were raped in the Congo every hour. That’s one every 75 seconds. All over the world, men need to prove their dominance over us. This is unacceptable.

Interesting note: When I tried to publish this post, WordPress chided me for using so much passive voice. “Is raped.” “Were raped.” We must talk about this actively, because rape doesn’t just happen without a subject. In India, men (sure, maybe women on occasion, but almost always men) rape women (and occasionally men, but almost always women) every 20 minutes. There is a one in five chance that a man will rape me in the U.S. Men rape 48 women every hour in the Congo. Changing the way we talk, indeed.

What makes rape culture real for you? How do you fight back?

Define: Anticafes


What is an anticafe? Anticafes are marvelous little nooks, some large, some small, where guests pay by the minute to simply be present. Tea, cookies, and sometimes instant oatmeal are complimentary, as are chair and table space (if it’s available) and wifi. You arrive, give the hosts your name, prepare a pot of tea, and (in my case today) pull out your computer for as many hours of working as you need. Today’s anticafe is enormous, one big loft with nooks created from bookshelves and chairs arranged in circles. There’s even a “Freedom Store” in one corner, constructed from open two-by-fours and selling secondhand clothing, watches and dishes. I’m sitting under a wood-beam loft in an armchair with a copy of the Mona Lisa beside me.

Where are anticafes? Anywhere. Zieferburg, today’s, is on the third story of a mall beside a photo studio and a wedding store. Zieferblot, its sister, is on the top floor of an office building, in a hollowed-out apartment; Radiola, another favorite, is in the courtyard of a living complex between a lingere store and a recording studio. The most unique is at the top of a seven-story residential building (no elevator) and choc-full of board games.

Who visits anticafes? You and me, our friends, and people who may or may not become our friends. Today I’m writing; in the past I’ve painted matryoshka dolls, watched a modern dance performance, plunked on a piano and read Dostoyevsky. (A friend even traded her English copy of “Devils” for three free hours here.) Many anticafes host conversation sessions in Russian, English, Spanish and Italian; I’ve led English classes and practiced my Russian with all-too-friendly hosts.

Why would anyone go to one? You can only work for so long in your apartment, you know, and who really wants to pay for the obligatory cup of coffee to sit in an Intelligensia when you’re bound to run out in an hour? All anyone really wants, I think, is a workspace where others are working too, and where we don’t feel like we’re taking space away from other paying customers (ever sat in a Starbucks for five hours? I have, and it’s guilt-ridden). A friend recently asked why anyone would pay to sit somewhere; I said it’s not just “somewhere,” but a place full of friendly people, and when the owners are friendly and willing to accept old furniture instead of payment, I don’t feel any bitterness about parting with 300 rubles.

Well, I’m convinced! How do I find one? I’ve done a lot of reading, and apparently there are none outside Eastern Europe except one in London — there’s not even a Wikipedia page in English. The ones in St. Petersburg are no older than two years. However, if I’m without a job in August, I’d love to open one in LA. Keep an eye out!

Lenin’s Tomb


Today I saw the body of Vladimir Lenin, weirdly preserved in reddish half-light many meters under Red Square. He’s bald, as you probably knew, and smaller than I expected, with skinny little embalmed fingers (hands laid one delicately above the other, left over right) that I think I’d snap if I shook them. His face is difficult to see — his body is recessed in its red velvet cushion, and tipped slightly backward, leaving his feet a little higher than his head. I’m not sure if the light itself is red or if it’s distorted by that dramatic Soviet backdrop. But, his nose is pointed, his eyes closed; he could easily be napping and, if the mausoleum’s silence is any indicator, he’s easily roused.

Disclaimer: I’m realizing this post is not going to inform you.

I write in present tense because I am — he’s a stunning man in every respect, and eight decades after his death, remains so. I can’t get his head out of my head. I know a few of his words in translation, and I’ve been tossing them around tonight, mostly “any cook should be able to run the country.” Really? I have an awfully hard time believing that, unable to move my eyes from this wild, captivating body. Outside his mausoleum are graves, a long line of them, holding his comrades: Zhdonov, Dzerzhinsky, Kalinin, Brezhnev, Stalin. Stalin, there, in bones and dust, six feet beneath my feet. Stalin, a bouquet of roses drying on the stone below his bust. Stalin, who killed more people than Adolf Hitler. His were the last eyes I saw before Lenin’s. Even carved in stone, his are the heavy-lidded eyes I’m still seeing.

His eyes followed me around the corner into the mausoleum, where a guard eyed me subtly, thoroughly, ravenous for a mistake, I imagined — a stray hand in my pocket or a missed stair as I descended. My eyes never adjusted to the light as I rounded the corner and descended a staircase twice as long as the first, a single guard waiting for me at its foot. He did not gesture me onward; I merely turned right. His eyes did not follow. Stalin’s, though.

Then I entered the tomb, utterly isolated from the bustle of Red Square above, which will host a parade on November 7 commemorating not the Great October Revolution but the defense of Moscow against Hitler in 1941. Darker and entirely silent. The walls, black marble with a red stripe, barely visible in the half-light, which was far redder. Stalin used to lie here, beside Lenin. My steps slowed even more. Before I rounded the first corner of the three-sided path, I halted. I looked. He might wake up. He might remind me, lisping and using an alphabet that had three more letters than the one I use, that I should be able to run his country.

I have to wonder, of course, whether he believed that. Maybe, sure, in the first months of revolution. Maybe even at his death. But I can’t imagine he would if he found himself preserved so entirely unnaturally in a black marble crypt, on that red velvet that looks more like an altar cloth than a burial shroud.

If he woke up. When he wakes up.

Is This Sexist? – Russian History Textbook Edition


First sentence of this week’s reading:

“In June 1762 a pretty German princess of unusual ability and determination removed her weakling husband from the throne and ruled the Russian Empire as Catherine II.”