Bill Cunningham New York

by Anna Shornikova

A curios documentary about an 80-year-old street photographer shows the insides of his everyday life. Bill Cunningham New York is a 2010 American documentary film directed by Richard Press. The action revolves around a simple, unpretentious and ever-smiling Bill Cunningham, a person of outstanding talent, yet leading a modest life. 

The film illustrates the everyday routine of a street-fashion photographer as it is. Throughout the film, it becomes habitual to see Bill riding his bicycle and taking quick snaps of people on the crossroads. The plot doesn’t have an aim to tell the story of Bill Cunningham as a boring biography but reveals the life events through interviews with his models and Bill himself. There is no voiceover that narrates monotonously about the occurring events, but the dynamic music that complements the colourful life of the photographer. It unobtrusively shows the story of Bill, the significant and breaking points in his career through old photos and reminiscences. We follow Bill through his day in New York, see his interaction with his old friends, models and colleagues, see him working during formal events and fashion shows, chasing him down in Paris and accompany him while he chooses a new flat. The whole film is imbued with street-fashion photos, numerous old albums and memories of different people from the street that became famous because of Bill’s snapshots. An outgoing demeanour of Bill and an easy atmosphere wins one’s favour even if one is not interested in fashion shows and designer dresses. Whereas it is all about fashion, it goes beyond it and shows us a man that loves his work and sees no need for self-enrichment. The film caught a piece of New York’s life, showed the changes in trends and people’s tastes through Bill’s camera. And that is all about the ingenuity of Cunningham’s job, his precious talent to show and shape the street style.  

The documentary provides trustworthy historical information, supported by interviews and written records. The visual is also wisely chosen allowing the audience to see Bill as if in motion, without the stage effect. Interviews are very relaxed and sincere, always full of genuine smiles and affection for the starring photographer. It is evident that Bill is not a fan of attention, but is ready to share his outlook on life, his view on fashion and his work. And his humble opinion about himself is also proven by his behaviour during street photo sessions and work on formal parties and ceremonies. 

Watching this smiling gentleman, obsessed with his job, not wanting all the riches of the fashion world, you understand that it is one of the rare cases when a man is really happy in his work, lucky to find the path in life. It makes you cheerful and attached to Bill’s story. The whole film crew also couldn’t resist Bill’s charm as the documentary is filled with little jokes and humour, definitely not making the film tedious. 

There are a lot of wise thoughts and peculiar themes brought up in the documentary, but the viewer can see a clear message from the photographer. And as a concluding point, here is the quote from Bill Cunningham that describes subtly the purpose of his job: “Fashion is an armour to survive the everyday life.” 

Bill Cunningham New York

by Victoria

“Bill Cunningham New York” is a documentary movie directed by Richard Press. Released in the USA in 2010, it tells the story about Bill Cunningham – a famous photographer who was obsessed with fashion and did the job that he enjoyed and loved – took pictures of the clothes that New Yorkers wore on the streets. As it is a documentary film, instead of actors, real people who knew Bill participated in the film and gave interviews: designer Iris Apfel, fashion model Carmen Dell’Orefice, Patrick McDonald, philanthropist Annette de la Renta and many others. After watching this movie, you will know about the personality and the career of Bill, how he worked, how he lived and why people loved him. 

Bill Cunningham was a photographer who rode his bicycle and took pictures of what people were wearing. He didn’t just take photos of everything he saw, but only clothes that he liked and that attracted his attention. At first he was known as a designer of women’s hats, but then he started to do what made him famous. Bill wrote about fashion in Women’s Wear Daily and the Chicago Tribune and had some columns in the New York Times. He managed to capture the history of street fashion and how it has changed over the years and made a huge contribution to fashion journalism. Comparing to other people who worked in his sphere, some of his views on life were different: he could earn a lot of money and become rich and wealthy, but he didn’t do that and lived in an old, small apartment. He thought that “money is the cheapest thing” and “if you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do”. He was a nice and friendly person with a big smile on his face, he called his friends and familiar people “kids”, and people adored him for who he was and what he did. However, they didn’t know anything about his personal life since Bill didn’t talk too much.

To introduce Bill to the viewers, the director includes interviews with Bill himself and people who know him personally in the movie, shows his photographs, newspaper pages and scenes which depict how the photographer works, lives and talks. Personally, the storytelling was a little bit chaotic for me, and it seems that the movie doesn’t have a strict structure like other documentaries always have. By these words I mean that the information isn’t given in a chronological order. But, it doesn’t make it boring or confusing at all; people learn everything steadily and in a specific way, so they can understand Bill’s career and personality better.

As I have already mentioned before, there are no actors in the movies, and real people appear on the screen. In the film there are scenes where Bill and these people interact, and we see their real emotions: how they smile and laugh, how famous fashionistas, models and others adore his personality, how they look at him in a friendly way, with admiration and respect in their eyes.

The film starts and ends with the soundtrack. At the beginning, when Bill takes photos, the melody is funky, jazzy and energetic like the morning street of New York. I would say that it suits the fast tempo in which Bill usually works: if he sees clothes that he likes and he feels that the snapshot will be good, he takes it. On the contrary, the music at the end of the movie is peaceful, which can symbolize calm daily life of a person who likes what he does in life.

In general, I could say that the movie is worth watching, and you won’t notice how quickly time flies by. I recommend this film to those who are interested in fashion history (in people who contributed to it in particular) and who want to spend time not only in an interesting, but also in an informative way. To my mind, people who don’t prefer documentary films or don’t like fashion and photography will like it because it’s easy to watch. As it is historically accurate, you can watch this film to write an essay or make a presentation about Bill Cunningham.

Bill Cunningham New York

by Elizaveta Dergacheva

“Find your love, and you won’t need anything more”- this is how a documentary about Bill Cunningham, a unique artist who gave the world the street-style genre, could be briefly described.

It’s not that hard to comprehend that the documentary was given such a name for a reason. You can’t separate Bill Cuningham and New York City, you can’t imagine them apart from each other. In the movie you won’t see typical biopic scenes: interviews taken in a cozy atmosphere at home, noisy family conversations at the plentiful table – Bill Cunningham is a man married to a city. Just like when you are head over heels in love with someone, you do not want to eat or sleep, but simply be near the object of your passion, neither does Mr Cunningham need food or rest, but to walk hand in hand with New York. Indeed, what we see throughout the film is Bill constantly cycling around the city, rarely taking a break for lunch, relentlessly photographing his spouse’s children – fashionable, ubiquitous New Yorkers (whom he calls “kids”). And at the end of the day, we watch him coming back to his tiny apartment at Carnegie Hall, furnished from top to bottom with file cabinets containing every negative of every shot he has ever taken in his 80-years life. It’s true, “a cottage is a castle for those in love”, except the fact that his place is probably 10 times smaller than a cottage.

Both the director and the cinematographer (along with Tony Cenicola), Richard Press, managed to convey the atmosphere of this vibrant metropolis life, as vibrant as the outfits of its residents in Bill’s snapshots. And just like little kids in a large family try to grab the attention of their parents, New Yorkers strive to stand out and be in the spotlight. However, if New York does single someone out more than the others, Bill Cunningham absolutely doesn’t care who is in front of him: whether it’s a hurrying passer-by on the street or a worldwide celebrity at a pretentious event. He is not interested in who you are – your clothes speak more than your status. Maybe that is why his entourage says that it is on the pages of his column in The New York Times that global trends are born. He searches here and there: at a pedestrian crossing, on a street corner, on the veranda of a cafe, in a queue at an ATM – and shoots everything that catches his eye.

This documentary is not exactly about the dynamic life and oeuvre of Bill Cunningham, but mainly about a human for whom his occupation is not just work, but the love of his life.

In honour of Bill Cunningham

Last week, June 25, 2021, marked the 5th anniversary of Bill Cunningham’s passing. In case you haven’t heard about him yet, he was an American photographer for the New York Times for almost 40 years. His style of work and philosophy was truly unprecedented and a turning point for the New York Times. Such an outstanding person as Bill Cunningham will never be gone or forgotten because of the legacy he left behind. Fortunately, filmmaker Richard Press and writer Philip Gefter of The New York Times produced a documentary ‘Bill Cunningham New York’ in 2010, telling Bill’s story. Recently, we watched this documentary and were inspired to write our reviews and impressions as a tribute to Bill. We invite you to read our takes on this documentary and watch it unless you haven’t already.

Industrial Revolution

It is always difficult to talk about yourself, and especially to tell the story of your whole life. In the current circumstances, this is especially difficult to do, my mind is clouded with hunger, and the pain from the beatings makes it difficult to concentrate. But I will try because I am part of a unique generation and my voice must be heard.

I remember my childhood very badly, my first childhood memory is how I heard that my mother was screaming and crying, and when I entered the room that she shared with my father, I saw her huddled in a corner from fear and a drunken father with a palm clenched into a fist. Noticing me, my mother immediately changed her face, she tried to smile and said: “Cassie, baby, go to bed, everything is fine.”

My parents and I lived on our farm in England, not far from a small town. My family survived thanks to our farm, my father sold meat, milk, eggs, and wool, and my mother worked with him on the farm, sometimes mending clothes for other workers, having very little income from this. My father has always been a gloomy and strict person, if not cruel, my mother is his complete opposite, gentle, affectionate, and truly loving. She cared about me, tried to protect me from my father’s cruelty. Looking at their relationship with my father, I could not come to terms with the fact that such a life awaits me too because from childhood I was prepared for the fact that one day I would marry and become a good housewife and loving wife, then I will have a strong family and I will find real female happiness. Is it a woman’s happiness to be beaten and live in fear of her husband? I could not ask my mother this question, so I pretended that I dreamed of marriage, and in my soul, I was shaking with horror from just the thought of marriage.

While we lived on a farm, like beetles in amber, fenced off from the whole world by our tiny town, the world around us was changing, and soon these changes took us by surprise. One day, Tony, our farmworker, brought my father a newspaper with the news that new factories were opening in England for the production of fabrics, clothes, and even food. “What nonsense!” – answered my father, spitting at his feet. – “Who will sell all this? Who should buy it? ” But buyers and sellers were found. Soon the first shop with factory clothes was opened in the town next to our farm. People were delighted, a huge assortment, and even very cheap. And over time, fewer and fewer people from the city started coming to the farm for food. My father could not find an explanation for this and decided to go to the city, find out what was happening there, and when he returned, he was so angry that I decided to get out and spent the whole night in the barn. In the morning I found out that a new store had opened in the city, cheap factory products were sold there, so there was no need for people to come to the farm anymore. Our farm no longer brought in income, my father did not know what to do with himself, because this was the business of his entire family, the farm was passed down from generation to generation, and apart from working on it, my father did not know how to do anything else. Out of anger and resentment, my father began to drink even more, literally every day, and the drunk beat my mother, and sometimes I got it too. A few months later, my mother fell seriously ill and died, because we no longer had the money for doctors and medicines, and we could not live by subsistence farming. The father dismissed all the workers, buried his mother, sold the farm for a pittance to some entrepreneur who planned to build a holiday home in its place. Together with me, my father decided to move to Birmingham. The money from the sale of the farm was enough only for a small apartment in the slums of the city. Somehow my father managed to get a job at a factory, one of those that took away his earnings and his usual way of life.

A couple of years later, I also got a job at a factory, my father’s aggression grew every day, he regularly drank and beat me. A plan was needed to get away from him, to get out of these slums. The factory paid little, an average of 10 shillings a week. This money was sorely lacking. Many women did not like this, because men received much more for the same job. However, everyone was silent because they were afraid to lose even these tiny crumbs of income. Once walking near one of the factories, I saw a woman shouting “A woman has the right to climb the scaffold; she should also have the right to enter the podium. ” A few minutes later, the police came up to her, took her by the arms, and took her away. Subsequently, more and more often I began to notice disgruntled women around, they shouted in the streets, smashed shop windows, came out with posters. Quite by chance, I met one of these women. Ellen proudly called herself a suffragist and belonged to the movement of women trying to achieve their rights, including economic ones. By that time, I had nothing to lose, so I joined them. Initially, I thought that this was a bunch of desperate women who did not achieve anything and now walk, scream, resentful to the whole world because of their failures. But the more I talked to them, the more I realized what brave and smart people they were. Especially, Ellen, she spoke so captivatingly and convincingly that it was impossible not to believe her. In the end, she convinced me to run away from my father’s apartment and live with her, as well as become a full-fledged member of the suffragette movement. Ellen called me to one of the marches, I agreed. So, I became a real suffragette, went to marches, painted posters, helped rejected and unhappy women. I finally saw a different future. A future without fears about mandatory marriage, a future that I will build myself. Once I blamed industrialization for taking my ordinary life, my native farm, and all my plans from me, later I realized that it gave me freedom from family traditions and foundations, only this freedom was limited by our world, the world where men rule. The fight against the social order, the fight against the male world gave me strength, gave me faith in a better future. I imagined how I could earn decent money by doing honest work, acquire a small apartment in a good area and never again depend on anyone: neither my father nor my husband. One way or another, my dreams were not destined to come true.

On one of the marches, the police detained me, like Ellen and many others. The authorities are tired of our attacks, and they decided to stop our small movement before it grew to a large scale. And here I am, I and the other suffragettes are being held here as political prisoners, but nobody cares. As soon as I got here, I immediately went on a hunger strike, I have not eaten for three days. In response to this morning, the police came to the cell, there were two of them: one put his hands behind my back, breaking my fingers in parallel, and the second hit me in the stomach, legs, and face. The feeling that I had broken ribs and twisted knees, no one called the doctor, and was not going to. Strength is less and less, writing with broken fingers is real torture. On this, I will end my confession, dear reader. (Will this message reach someone or will it remain in this cell, I’m afraid I will never know.

P.S.

Cassie died from the beatings at the police station and was found dead the next morning.

A huge number of suffragettes were repressed and imprisoned as political prisoners. Many of them went on hunger strikes and were also harassed by the police. All these women sacrificed themselves for the future of other women, for their right to choose and build their lives in a world free from discrimination and prejudice. And although the suffragettes fought for their country, their movement had an impact on other countries, including the USSR. Thus, Alexandra Kollontai, a member of the interim government, relying on the experience of Western colleagues, achieved for Soviet women the rights to work, property, abortion, and the opportunity to participate in the political life of the country. The contribution of suffragettes to modern progressive society will never be forgotten.

A Day In a Life

-Time is up! Submit your papers!

What?? I’ve barely started.

-Time.  Is. Up.

I’m looking through my assignment. My paper is like a white sheet just after washing and only my name is written down in the corner.

-YOU SHOULD SUBMIT IT NOW.

I look around, trying to find support from the rest of the students in the classroom, but everyone is staring at me like I’m nonsense.

-You’re on a state exam! Submit your work or I’ll cancel it!

My hands are shaking, and I can’t say a word against it as if there’s stone in my throat.

-Are you stupid or something?

I’m looking through the classroom once again. It’s a zoo now. Students are going crazy, some of them are standing on the tables, others scratching their faces. And everyone is yelling at me.

-TIME.IS.UP.

I want to scream from the top of my lungs, try to take a deep breath and … I wake up. It was just a terrible nightmare. Tears run wild down my cheeks; my body is shaking as if I had a cold. It’s 6 a.m., which means I could’ve slept peacefully for several more hours but I’m too nervous. Today is my first state exam and that’s why the world became my gas chamber this morning. My family, my tutors – everyone relies on me as if I’m the Tower of Pisa. The whole year I’ve been preparing for this first battle’s day, but I don’t feel like a potential winner, on the contrary, I feel like a criminal on the day of execution. Fear spills over my body and the cat is the best sedative for me in such situations, so I’m on my way to catch it and boost my serotonin level. What’s the point of taking medicine when you literally have a wool antidepressant in your house? Anyway, I’m not Leo Tolstoy to describe my day in many details, so let’s move to a couple of hours later. I’m standing in the living room fully dressed like I’m going on a parade: white blouse and a nice skirt, this one is my favourite because it has hidden pockets, where I put my word stress cheat sheet – the only thing I haven’t been able to learn this year. My mom is having a videocall with my granny, who is reading prayers for me like I’m going on a crusade, not an exam in Russian. At the same time, my dad is a calm monument, he believes in my success silently. Finally, I leave my house and go straight to the execution. Some of my classmates have already reached the school. When I enter the hall the first association is asylum: everyone is anxious – some of the students are trying to catch the last ride and learn at least something, some are just shacking and panicking, others joking silly about not passing the exam. I don’t want to communicate with anyone right know, so I just occupy the corner of the hall and take the position of spectator in the colosseum. Time is passing slowly; I feel like a beetle stuck in resin. Finally, our headmaster appears with the speech, she’s telling us that we’re the hope of the school and that she believes in us. She looks like a politician at a rally, but unlike them, she doesn’t know how to lie persuasively, so every single soul in the hall notices falsity in her speech. Long story short, my class and I arrive at the exam location, more like courthouse. The registration goes as ordinary as any other day. Finally, I’m in the class, waiting for the tutor to give us an assignment. However, she starts from the speech, which was prepared to comfort us, but the eyes of the tutor are ice as she is looking at our class. time is passing slowly again and while our assignments are being printed, I think about my school life, the images of these 11 years are changing in my mind like pages in a photo album. Seems like I just graduated from primary school, but now I’m sitting on the most important school exam. The fact that time is slipping through my fingers terrifies more than any nightmare. Speaking of nightmares, it’s time to begin the exam. First, I look through all the papers, skim the tasks. Most of them are a piece of cake for me, but some are as challenging as having lunch in a school cafeteria during the 20-minute break. However, the task with word stresses is quite debatable, I choose one option, but I want to check  myself, so it’s time to go to the bathroom and use my cheat sheets. Like a 007 agent I take them  out of my pocket carefully, having to act quickly, I catch a glimpse on the paper like I have a crush on it. I’m shaking again, but I don’t have time, so I have to return to the classroom quicky and change my answer. The rest of the exam is as smooth as Michael Jackson’s criminal. Unlike my nightmare, I submit my papers on time and leave the school in a nice mood. On the way home, I catch up with the tribe of my classmates and start discussing our assignments with them. As usual, the topic of word stresses is a hot potato, so we’re arguing like on a political debate. Everyone says that my answer is incorrect, so I show them my cheat paper as proof. But it only proves me wrong. It seems that I looked at it so quickly, that I mixed the words up and, as a result, changed the right option in the test to the wrong one. The failure of the year: have a joker in your sleeve and use it against yourself. I blame myself so much and it feels like I betrayed everyone like Judas. With that mood I return home, being ready to upset my mom and dad. Luckily, my parents want to cheer me up and ask me to go out to the mall with them. Shopping is the best therapy, so I forget about my failure as soon as I see the candy shop. I get as many sweets as if I haven’t eaten for a year. And right after the payment I lash out at candies like a Mowgli, who has never eaten human food. My mood thermometer shows some happiness, so it’s time to continue our shopping mall adventure and buy a couple of outfits for this summer. I really enjoy spending time with my parents that way, we’re real chatterboxes, so we’re constantly talking with each other, joking, and gossiping. Late evening creeps up like a cat and it’s time to go back home to my exam routine. Sitting in the car, I listen to my favourite song and think about that day and life in general. It’s just like a roller-coaster: in the morning I was a criminal before the execution, during the exam my inner 007 agent woke up and now I’m just a teenager, who enjoys simple things like sweets and new clothes. The adult life will strike like lightning very soon, but for now I can relax and catch the last moments of my childhood. We reach our home, but I don’t know about it as I’ve already fallen into Morpheus’ arms.

What will happen next?

by Daria Shuklina

It is only 8.30, but I’ve already opened my eyes. The weather seems to be perfect as the sun ray is trying to enter my room through the closed curtains. It’s unusually quiet, but perhaps it’s just too early for disturbing sounds of town life. I lay in bed a little bit more and finally, get up. I let the sun in, and now all the room is shining.

Today is my day off; that’s why there is no need to hurry anywhere. It’s still extremely quiet, but maybe it’s just my luck and the universe wants me to have a good day. I go to the bathroom to take a shower.

The sun is in the kitchen as well. I love cooking breakfast when there is such great weather outside, which is calling you to go out and walk. I’ve made my lovely avocado toast with a poached egg and some coffee. And still, it is so quiet. I can’t believe that it can be so quiet.

It suddenly comes to my mind that I haven’t seen my cat today.  Fiona usually comes by the time I have breakfast, but it’s also possible that today she decided to sleep longer.

It’s unusually quiet.

The clock already shows 10, and there is no noise from the neighbours’ repair. They have been drilling something every day from 9 till 1 p.m. for almost 3 months now. I decide to share this happy news with my mum as she is annoyed by these sounds and would be surprised to hear that there are no drilling noises. I realised that it is the first time today when I decided to take the phone in my hands. I casually turn it on, expecting to see some messages from friends or new publication notifications from the social networks. Strangely there are no new messages, and nothing new has been posted recently. Perhaps, everyone decided to take a day off today and rest from the social networks and excessive communication. Fiona hasn’t shown up yet.

Finally, I reach the messenger which we use to text each other with my mom, but it seems that the wi-fi isn’t working and the loading wheel is spinning too long. I turn on LTE on my phone, but nothing works again. Probably, we forgot to pay for Wi-Fi. Then, I decide to use the phone the way it was used before messengers and wi-fi were invented. I call my mom, but nothing happens. There are even no beeps. What happened to my operator? They decided to leave me without connection with the outside world. Resting from the Internet may be great, but I still need to be aware of what’s going on around.

Quietness. Now I realise that there are no sounds at all. It reminds me of the words of one of the actors from the play I saw several years ago. He was talking about the contact with a UFO, and I remembered that he described it as absolutely quiet. No drugs could give such an effect, and his character tried them all.

I look out the window. Everything seems to be the same; nothing has changed, but… There are no people in the street, not a single person. No one’s crossing the road; no one’s waiting for a bus, no one’s walking in the playground; no one’s walking the dogs. Emptiness.

I’ve read numerous science fiction novels. Could it be that I became the heroine of one of them? I should stop panicking. There may be no one in the street sometimes, but it does not mean that everyone disappeared. Before going outside, I need to check once more where Fiona is. I look everywhere: in all the boxes and wardrobes that she likes to hide in. After half an hour, when I almost give up, I hear some purring sound from the bathroom. The last time I was there, there was no one.  I open the door and see that there is a pile of towels in the corner, which is moving. I carefully come closer and unroll it. There she is, cosily sleeping. At least she hasn’t left me. I decide to take her with me outside. It is not the first time I take my cat for a walk. That is why we have a special backpack with a window through which she can observe the world around us. I take my keys, some money, a pocket knife and water. the Cat is on my back and we are ready to face whatever awaits us in the street. I check the phone and there is still no signal, unfortunately.

We go out and the silence starts to be annoying. Living in a town you are used to hearing various noises and you can’t imagine what it’s like when there are no sounds. Now I understand it. Perhaps, it is the sound of life of deaf people. Another thing that I suddenly realise is that I don’t know whether I have my own voice and the ability to speak or not. I open my mouth in an attempt to pronounce the word “hello”, but I can’t. The feeling is as though I don’t know how to do it.

We go and go and meet no one. There is no signal. The phone is a useless piece of metal. The only thing I can do with it is to take pictures. We’ve already bypassed the whole city. I’m exhausted and lost.

It’s 4 p.m. and I decide to sit on one of the benches in the park and rest. Maybe I will come up with an idea of what to do next.

Instead, I burst out crying. I was so focused the whole day and didn’t let myself feel all the emotions that have appeared. I’m alone, the phone doesn’t work, I don’t know what to do and where to go.

5 p.m. I see the light through the trees. It is an artificial light. There is nothing to lose and I decide to follow it. I go and go, the ray is becoming bigger and bigger, all the trees look as though they are on fire. My curiosity leads me further and further. Out of a sudden, I start feeling that this light penetrates me and goes right through. Then, I feel like I’m becoming a part of this light and finally, I completely dissolve.


Here comes the Sun

by Anastasia Shakhverdova

I open my eyes, and the first thing that comes to mind is: “Thank God my exams are over. I can finally get some peace and quiet.” I turn on my back and take my time enjoying the warmth of the sunlight on my face. Suddenly I hear my cat meowing and notice the tip of his ginger tail moving towards my bed. I pat the spot next to me and wait for him to jump up. When he does, I begin to pet him with one hand, while trying to reach for my phone with the other. Those notifications aren’t going to check themselves, right? As I scroll through them, the one from my best friend catches my eye. It reads: “HAVE YOU SEEN THE NEWS??? I CAN’T BELIEVE IT’S REALLY HAPPENING!” 

-Well, this is gotta be interesting, – I mumble to myself, swiping to see the whole chat. The app isn’t loading – the damn WI-FI must be down again. So I try my mobile Internet – nothing again. After trying for several minutes, I give up and decide to get ready for the day. I don’t see my parents or my brother in the house, but they’re probably working in the garden as usual. So I decide to go outside to find somebody. 

When I reach for the door handle, my furball friend is meowing at my feet, asking to let him out for a walk. I smile at him and open the door, watching him dash past me and down the porch stairs. The second he steps into the sunlight, his ginger fur turns black, and he disintegrates into a small pile of ash, leaving behind only a shadow. Shocked, I gasp, covering my mouth with the palm of my hand and instinctively take a step back. When I snap out of it, I rush down the stairs, panicked and confused, but manage to stop myself until it’s too late. I can’t take my eyes off his shadow on the ground and keep going through the same questions in my head. What happened? How is it even possible? Did the sun just turn my cat to ash? Am I still dreaming? This can’t be real, can it? And then it hit me: oh, God, where is my family? I desperately look around, trying to see any sign of them, but to no avail. 

I run to the backdoor, hoping to find them sitting on a terrace under the roof. But my hopes come crashing down when I swing the door open and see nobody on the other side. I take several calculated steps to observe the garden, avoiding the sunlight. As I peer into the green of the grass, my worst fear comes to life. One after another, I notice three shadows imprinted on the grass, not too far from each other. 

I remain motionless, not being able to believe my own eyes. My brain can’t comprehend the situation, so it goes straight to denial. I refuse to accept the reality and doubt if this even is the reality. Maybe I am dreaming or having hallucinations? Either way, I am not ready to process what happened, so I try to get an explanation. I head back to the kitchen and switch on the TV. Yet again, nothing happens. I try a couple of times because the remote glitches sometimes, but then I notice that the usual red light at the bottom of the screen isn’t there – so no electricity either. My last lifeline is calling a friend, which I do, hoping she’ll answer, but there’s no connection. 

-No, no, no, no, no, – I whisper in a shaky voice, – What’s going on? What am I supposed to do? 

I keep thinking of anything else I can do or try, but nothing comes to mind. And this is where the panic sets in. Tears come to my eyes, and I find nothing better rather than to just let it all out. 

After crying and panicking for some time, I pull myself together and start analysing the situation and planning my next move. Obviously, there’s something wrong with the sun. It is now a lot bigger in the sky, it probably melted all of the cell towers and messed with the electricity somehow. And most importantly, it exterminates everyone who steps into the light. Did the Earth’s orbit change course? How would that even happen? Is our ozone layer completely gone now? I don’t have any answers, and I’m not sure I’m going to get any, but I know this: the sun kills, and no SPF can help. Another thing I’m sure of is that I have to try to go out at night and hope to find other survivors and we’ll deal with the situation together. 

A couple of hours after sunset, I hesitantly step outside and make my way down the stairs. What if there’s something wrong with the moon too? How do I know it’s safe to go? As I stand on the last step, thinking of testing the waters somehow, I hear something in the distance. At first, I’m not even sure if it’s real, but then the noise becomes more and more distinct. Now I can definitely make out voices coming from the street. Without any more doubts, I run up to the gates and burst through the door, excited to see somebody else and share my misery with them. With a smile on my face and hope in my heart, I find myself standing alone in the middle of an empty street. 

A day in a life

by Anna Shornikova

Sunday, August 9, 2020

We woke up quite early today. It was only 9:45 when I realized that I actually had a good sleep and that Nastya was already awake. I guess it’s the magic influence of the countryside where we are currently staying as guests. Just a few days ago our vacation plans were up in the air because of coronavirus as we wanted to laze about in the sun on the Bulgarian beach. But we changed everything in a couple of minutes and were now completely relaxed in the quiet village of the Yaroslavl region.

We are the three old friends spending our fourth summer in this gorgeous countryside house. The owner of this paradise was Mary and her family, and today was the first day here that we’ve spent completely alone. I knew that Mary also woke up as she had to help her parents and say goodbye to them because they were going back to Moscow for the new work week. Nastya and I settled in the main part of the house called izba, and Mary slept in her own little room just next to us. We all met in the hall to have breakfast.

This morning I understood I felt much more comfortable in a company of friends without adults. Although Mary’s parents were very nice and approachable people, I still felt a certain strain and uneasiness because of them being in charge of all the facilities, our comfort, and meals. Today was peace and quiet of freedom and solitude. We talked a little after the meal and cleaned everything up. By that time we realized that the weather was ideal, even more pleasant than it was yesterday. So, being determined to spend our time as productively as we could, we took our yoga mats and went out on the grass-plot around the house. By the way, the house was the first one on the only street in the village, so the territory partially served as a vegetable garden and as an open lawn with flowers here and there and a tiny pond surrounded by stones and moss in Asian style, carefully made by Mary herself. I remember I was examining thoroughly every fragment of this little piece of Japanese culture while the girls were preparing for the exercise hour.

Remembering the deplorable experience of the previous two days, when we returned from a walk red as lobsters, we put on a lot of sunscreen, regretting that it couldn’t remove the redness on our hands and faces. Today the sun was especially merciless, but it was actually all we needed after self-isolation and some cold days in Moscow. We placed the mats under the shade of the arbour covered with a vine and started our workout. We did some funny circular movements that seemed to me as if we were the witches dancing around the pot with a magic potion… The witches in bikinis as we wanted to get suntanned at any cost. I discovered this advantage of the deserted countryside when Mary’s parents left.

After an hour of tiring exercises, we pulled out two beach beds and one huge hammock to rest and bask in the sun. Mary and I brought books to read and Nastya settled in a hammock with a graphic tablet, it seemed that she was inspired. To tell the truth, I planned to finish reading the book by the end of the week, but today was the first time I opened it here. It was ‘1984’ by George Orwell in English and I was on the second, most positive part. For some time, we were pulled into the discussion of books and the difficulties and benefits of reading a book in its original language. Then for two hours or so I was engrossed in reading. A strange but very pleasant feeling came over me. I caught myself thinking that this comforting silence never bothered or stressed none of us. But although I was really interested in the story of Winston Smith, I was extremely curious about what Nastya was drawing, how she used this technological marvel to produce something really impressive.

At some point, we simultaneously felt that it was time for a change and have dinner. I couldn’t stop myself from asking what Nastya was sketching, so while preparing our meal we discussed art issues and congratulated our fellow artist with a couple of new orders from her followers. After the meal we felt energised and went on our already traditional walk in the fields. It was easy to find a path as the fields were just behind the fence. We didn’t waste time going through the village and headed straight to the meadows.

Until today, I have never pondered over the different types of fields, except for the natural history lessons, of course. But living in the village, you see the diversity and beauty of the landscape. Mary’s village is situated on the plain and only the nearby rural settlement with a suitable name Highland could be identified by a tall pink chapel and seen from all perspectives. We walked along the unmown meadow where grass and numerous flowers were mixed and talked eagerly about this and that. I knew that our every trip was a unique route around the endless plain. Today we turned left and kept going where our feet took us. The meadow was on my right, and on the left I saw a field of gold. The ripe ears of rye or wheat were rustling in the wind. It was fun to think that it was the sound of the waves. We passed the fields, and then I saw something rich and verdant. The grassland was a lush, emerald ocean, and the sky above was sapphire with cotton clouds casting shadows on the ground. Somehow, we came to the edge of the road that was used mainly by field engines. Incidentally, it struck me that there was not a single soul around except our trio.

We stopped to have a rest and decide how to go further through the grassland without a path as we noticed a lonely trailer left not far away. We agreed to make it our reference point and go in search of some kind of a wheel track leading us somewhere into the unknown. Only writing this, I realize how fun and absurd it was trying to find a trodden path in the meadow. In the end, we just crossed the field aslant and faced a field woodland. There we found a path that stretched to the edge of the thick forest. This time the grass was shoulder high, and the heat surrounded us because the sun was still merciless. The forest was our salvation. We hid under the shade of pines and birches. I breathed in this dizzy smell and looked around enjoying my favourite combination of trees. Unfortunately, we couldn’t go further as the path ended abruptly right at the forest border, probably because the cars of mushroom pickers stopped there. We stood for a while listening to the sounds of nature and unanimously decided to take off our shoes. The grass there was so soft that I barely felt slight tingling.

Only then we understood how far we had actually wandered. But we successfully managed to find the lonely trailer, and then our way was easier. Halfway to the house Mary pulled out a portable speaker, and we got acquainted with her musical taste… I remembered that as a child I used to sing children’s songs with my grandfather while walking in the fields, so as all the neighbouring villages heard us. It’s somewhat symbolic that the story repeats itself but with different people, different music, and different fields. Hopefully, nobody heard or saw us today.

As we returned home, it was almost 7 p.m. Mary went to heat up the bath while Nastya and I were preparing for one of the most pleasant parts of the day. We spent quite a lot of time there, relaxing after such an eventful day. I knew that it was already dark outside, but anyway we had to return to the house. I confess that I’m afraid of the darkness, and this prospect frightened me a little. I turned on my phone’s flashlight trying to illuminate our way, but Mary asked me to turn it off. Only because of my will power and faith in my friends I managed to turn it off. We stood still, and I raised my eyes.

Maybe I couldn’t write down all the details of this day and maybe even mixed something up, but these minutes were etched into my memory forever. I was fascinated by the beauty of the night sky. I’ve looked at the stars dozens of times; on the coasts of Italy they were bright and scarce, in my village I could identify some of the constellations. But here the sky was studded with stars. There were thousands of white beads on a dark velvet fabric. But the most amazing thing was the Milky Way that was visible to the naked eye. I remembered all these broadcasts about people who tried to catch the night sky beauty with HD cameras and other expensive equipment. But here I stood looking on this ivory path crossing the sky right above my head even without my glasses.

We returned to the house and had tea while watching a movie on TV. Already in bed, writing in my diary, I felt this magic silence of the countryside that pulled me away from the reality into the dreamland.

In honor of Chernobyl

Today marks the 35th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion, an unimaginable disaster that would have been much worse were it not for the bravery of the Soviet people. Even though Chernobyl was the final nail in the Soviet Union’s coffin, it was the Soviet people who saved the world from a complete nuclear disaster. Hundreds of thousands of men and women gave their lives to prevent nuclear waste from melting through the reactor core, seeping into the soil and poisoning half of the USSR and Europe for hundreds of years.

It was an immense effort that remained forgotten for years, or so it seems. We might debate the merits and flaws of HBO’s Chernobyl, but one factor that we cannot deny is that it reminded the world, including the people of the former Soviet Union, about this horrific event and the heroic efforts of Chernobyl’s saviors.

The show, Chernobyl, is understandably difficult to watch, but it is definitely worth the effort. I’ve seen it three times over the past two years. The second time I watched it with my Greek friend who was afraid to watch it alone. When we finished our marathon – luckily, the show is short enough to be watched in less than a day – she was in shock and kept asking, in utter bewilderment, how come the heroes of Chernobyl aren’t celebrated the way that the victors of World War II are honored every year.

Indeed, why have we forgotten about Chernobyl? Why don’t we honor the saviors of the world? Where are their monuments, memorials, museums? Was their sacrifice less valuable than the sacrifice of the Soviet people in World War II? Not at all. In fact, if we consider the aftermath of Chernobyl, the worst case scenario… if our heroes stood by and did nothing, or if their efforts were unsuccessful, all of Ukraine, Belarus, half of the Russian Federation and half of Europe would have been rendered uninhabitable for hundreds of years. The longterm effects of Chernobyl would have been much, much worse than all the damage done during World War II.I am not a historian or a politician, so I cannot make assumptions on why Chernobyl has turned into a taboo topic. I can only hope that now we will be more mindful and respectful of this tragic event and will find a way to honor the heroes.


NOW ON TO THE SHOW!

The HBO mini-series paints a vivid picture of the reactor explosion and the aftermath. The show is based on documents, testimony of the participants, and memoirs of Valery Legasov, head scientist in charge of dealing with the aftermath. Still, this is not a documentary and shouldn’t be viewed as such. No matter how realistic the show seems, the creators did take certain liberties for narrative impact. For instance, one of the most gruesome sights – the effects of radiation poisoning visible on those plant workers and firefighters who came into direct contact with the reactor debris – is an exaggerated effect, no doubt used to strengthen the impact on the audience. And boy, does the impact linger. The sight of young men who were full of life just a couple of days ago disintegrating into a pile of radioactive jelly is not for the faint of heart.

At the same time, the creators went to great lengths to recreate not just the reactor and the explosion, but the realities of Soviet daily life. The actors look so authentically Soviet, it’s like they’ve been cloned from the Russian film stars of the 1960s and 1970s. All the other attributes are very realistic as well – clothes, furniture, interios, cars, buildings, you name it.

One aspect that is decidedly not Soviet is the accents. Luckily for us (and for them) the creators decided to forgo the imitation of Soviet accents, opting for the cast’s native British accents. This doesn’t take the focus away from acting and you forget about the accents within the first ten minutes. Whereas if the creators opted for imitating (and no doubt butchering) Soviet accents, the majority of the audience would not have been able to take the show seriously.

Special effects are used to the maximum effect. True, I have no idea what an actual nuclear reactor explosion looks like (nor do I wish to ever see that with my own eyes) but I imagine that the show’s recreation is as close to reality as it could get. You can feel the impact of the explosion through the screen. The giant beam of radioactive gas that shoots through the air and proceeds to spread its deadly poison for days on end looks at once magnificent and utterly terrifying. Plant workers forced to inspect the core that could not have possibly been exposed to the world and having their faces and bodies burned off by radiation is worse than any torture porn horror movie. Helicopters falling from the sky, crumbling under the impact of radiation is a surreal, unbelievable sight. The show is full of these images that stay with you long after the final credits roll.

I’m saving the best for last. THE ACTING! Like I already mentioned, the entire cast looks like they’ve walked out of an actual Soviet movie – but that’s not why the actors make an impression. Each actor, no matter how lengthy their part is, is completely committed to their character and the whole show. Everyone knows why they’re there, what they’re trying to convey, how important their work is. Dyatlov, the Big Bad who’s mostly blamed for pushing the reactor to the breaking point, is utterly contemptible, even when he himself experiences the effects of his disastrous decisions. His complete denial of the disaster, up to the point where he starts vomiting toxic bile, is fascinating in its evil neglect. His superiors aren’t much better, but their roles aren’t that significant. The young plant workers forced into the situation, and what’s worse, forced to feel like they’ve caused the explosion, are tragic heroes of the story. In fact, every rescue worker, miner and scientist working to reduce the Chernobyl aftermath is a tragic hero. According to official statistics, only a few dozen people died as a result of the Chernobyl disaster, but it’s painfully obvious that the number of casualties can be calculated in hundreds of thousands. Let’s not forget that the victims are not only those who died shortly after the explosion, but also those who acquired a doze of radiation and unknowingly went on to spread the poison to nearby towns.

The show has its subtle tragic love story of one of the firefighters sent to put out “a fire on the reactor roof” and his pregnant wife, who follows him to a burn unit in Moscow and foregoing doctors’ warnings spends his final painful days by his side, being exposed to radiation and losing her unborn child in the end. This love reminds me of the best examples of devotion that Russian women are famous for (Decembrists’ wives come to mind).

And the acting duo at the center of the relief mission – Jared Harris as Valery Legasov and Stellan Skarsgard as Boris Scherbina… I’m partial to both these terrific actors, but I doubt anyone can deny how brilliant their performances are. Especially Skarsgard who creates a complex portrait of Scherbina, a party head who at first resents Legasov for meddling in his business and comes to realize the magnitude of the disaster and how vital their work truly is. His final conversation with Legasov – where Scherbina shows vulnerability, calling himself an “insignificant man” and Legasov refutes his claim, saying that in fact Scherbina was the most essential part of the rescue effort – brings me to tears every time.


Thus ends my feeble attempt at honoring this significant event, these incredible heroes, and the memory of those whose lives were saved by the efforts of Legasov, Scherbina, and thousands others.