Longform's Picks of the Week

The best stories from around the world.

Every weekend, Longform highlights its favorite international articles of the week. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform's new app and read all of the latest in-depth stories from dozens of magazines, including Foreign Policy.


The Ivory Highway, by Damon Tabor, Men's Journal

Inside one of the world's largest, most shadowy criminal trafficking networks.

The slaughter in Bouba N'Djida is, in many ways, a signal event: The nature of modern poaching has changed. Small-time, subsistence hunters are no longer taking down the occasional elephant. Poachers have become systematic, ruthless, heavily armed. They are capable of overwhelming the porous borders and poor security plaguing many African countries. According to conservation groups, sophisticated criminal syndicates - poachers, middlemen, traders, elusive kingpins - increasingly dominate the trade. Some operations, like that of Pierre and his "command," are modest. Others move tusks by the ton. According to Tom Milliken, ivory expert for the wildlife trade-monitoring group Traffic, many trafficking gangs are "Asian-run, African-based" and now operating "in almost every country where you find elephants." Additionally, according to the UN, wildlife crime, of which ivory constitutes a significant proportion, is now a $10-billion-plus annual business - fourth behind drugs, human trafficking, and arms. This profitability has attracted not just organized crime but African militias and rebel groups: Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army -- accused of carrying out mass murder -- as well as Somalia's al Qaeda-affiliated Shabaab terrorist group have been implicated in the ivory trade.


Crippling Injustice, by James Palmer, Aeon

Disabled people in modern China are still stigmatised, marginalised and abused. What hope is there for reform?

Ambitious government pledges go unfulfilled across the country. The law says that children with special needs are entitled to proper schooling, but there are no provisions for funding. Local authorities regularly turn away children, telling them to go to ‘special facilities' elsewhere that don't exist, or that are far out of their parents' financial or geographical reach. As a result, according to a 2013 report by Human Rights Watch, 43 per cent of disabled Chinese people are illiterate, compared with 5 per cent of the general population. Only a third receive the services they need, according to Handicap International, and only a fifth get assistive devices, such as walkers, prosthetics, or adapted software. And, since welfare funds are often stolen, delivered late, or impossible to access - thanks to the Byzantine turns of the country's regulation system, which limits aid to the recipient's province or even village of birth - only around 15 per cent receive any funding.

In the countryside, disabled children fare far worse. Often, they are confined within the house and kept away from outside eyes. Employees of NGOs tell horror stories of what they've seen: shut away from sight or sound, trapped in fear, malnutrition and neglect, these children are left moaning like animals. Sometimes they are chained to prevent escape, or to ease the pressure on parents or grandparents already struggling under poverty and shame.


How U.S. Evangelicals Helped Create Russia's Anti-Gay Movement, by Hannah Levintova, Mother Jones

The Fox News producer, the nightclub impresario, and the oligarchs who wrote inequality into law.

Anti-gay groups have made tormenting the LGBT community a national and organized affair: Vigilante gangs have used social media to lure hundreds of gay people to fake dates and then disseminate videos of them being beaten or sexually humiliated, garnering hundreds of thousands of followers. Arrests and beatings at gay rights demonstrations are commonplace. This month, LGBT activists were arrested in Moscow and St. Petersburg hours before the Olympic opening ceremony and have been detained in Sochi itself.

Since Jacobs first traveled to Russia for the Sanctity of Motherhood conference, he and his WCF colleagues have returned regularly to bolster Russia's nascent anti-gay movement-and to work with powerful Russian connections that they've acquired along the way. In 2014, the World Congress of Families will draw an international group of conservative activists together in Moscow, a celebratory convening that Jacobs foreshadowed on that first visit, when he ended his speech triumphantly: "Together, we can win!"


Fascism, Russia, and Ukraine, by Timothy Snyder, New York Review of Books

What does it mean to come to the Maidan?

The protesters represent every group of Ukrainian citizens: Russian speakers and Ukrainian speakers (although most Ukrainians are bilingual), people from the cities and the countryside, people from all regions of the country, members of all political parties, the young and the old, Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Every major Christian denomination is represented by believers and most of them by clergy. The Crimean Tatars march in impressive numbers, and Jewish leaders have made a point of supporting the movement. The diversity of the Maidan is impressive: the group that monitors hospitals so that the regime cannot kidnap the wounded is run by young feminists. An important hotline that protesters call when they need help is staffed by LGBT activists.

On January 16, the Ukrainian government, headed by President Yanukovych, tried to put an end to Ukrainian civil society. A series of laws passed hastily and without following normal procedure did away with freedom of speech and assembly, and removed the few remaining checks on executive authority. This was intended to turn Ukraine into a dictatorship and to make all participants in the Maidan, by then probably numbering in the low millions, into criminals. The result was that the protests, until then entirely peaceful, became violent. Yanukovych lost support, even in his political base in the southeast, near the Russian border.


Mayo-Drenched and Heroic, by Anya von Bremzen, Foreign Policy

A tribute to Soviet home cooks, who turned mass production and want into a cuisine.

The official version of Soviet cuisine was born as a grand state project, manufactured out of both the utopian aspirations and the practical realities of the socialist empire. This was the Soviet cuisine that cursed us with the gluey brown industrial podliva (gravy). But authentic Soviet home cooking was another thing entirely: at its best, poignant and heroic, a monument to the daily feats of improvisation and bone-weary resilience spawned by a life of infamous shortages.


Mayo-Drenched and Heroic

A tribute to the home cooks of the Red Empire, who turned mass production, propaganda, and want into a cuisine.

Nobody minds the lines at Moscow's Stolovaya 57 -- it's all a part of the Soviet-throwback experience. 

This clever reprise of a USSR-era canteen, with its sprawling retro interior, opened a few years ago on the third floor of GUM, an upscale department store by the Red Square better known for blingy shrines to Hermes and Armani. At lunchtime, everyone's here: well-dressed GUM salesgirls, biznesmen, a taxi driver or two -- all bussing their own plates, nostalgic, apparently, for the days of a "classless society." Here misty-eyed babushkas swoon over fluffy bitki (meatballs) in sour cream and that sine qua non of proletarian repasts, herring "under a fur coat" of beets and eggs. Their Putin-era grandchildren gawk in glee at the clunky Soviet-issue soda machine and primordial conical juice fountains. It's a campy vision of Sovietness, cooked up by Bosco di Ciliegi, a pseudo-Italian, actually-Russian importer of global luxury brands.

Watch: Author Anya von Bremzen and her mother Larisa prepare classic Soviet dishes

For years, Soviet cuisine was remembered mainly for its most ignoble attributes: the soul-destroying reek of stewed cabbage, the suspicious faintness of sour cream diluted with buttermilk, then diluted with milk, then diluted with water. Now, suddenly, places like Stolovaya 57 and Gastronom No. 1, a faux-Soviet supermarket also at GUM, replete with a marble "Stalinist-baroque" interior, are selling a far more delicious culinary revision of the scarlet empire. In this new USSR aglow with commodified post-Soviet nostalgia, the buttermilk is creamy and wholesome, the sausages rosy -- the salesladies smile

The truth about Soviet cuisine, of course, is that it was neither the rotten-potato hell of its bashers nor the cheery, comforting idyll of consumerist memory-mongers.

Yes, Soviet foods included the gristly beef stroganoff and the desolate brown dried-fruit compote of state cafeterias. But there was also the spicy Georgian chicken, in a complex, creamy walnut sauce that my father made for special occasions, the bright vegetarian borsht my mom magically conjured out from old beets and a can of tomato paste, the festive Salat Olivier -- a colorful potato salad with pickles made all the tastier for each hour spent waiting in line to snatch a precious can of imported Hungarian peas.

The official version of Soviet cuisine was born as a grand state project, manufactured out of both the utopian aspirations and the practical realities of the socialist empire. This was the Soviet cuisine that cursed us with the gluey brown industrial podliva (gravy). But authentic Soviet home cooking was another thing entirely: at its best, poignant and heroic, a monument to the daily feats of improvisation and bone-weary resilience spawned by a life of infamous shortages.

Flash back to the mid-1930s. The official Soviet food canon -- created to supplant bourgeois Russian cuisine with its luxurious fish, Frenchified sauces, and class-enemy-type ingredients like sterlet and grouse -- was being concocted almost from whole cloth by one man: the Armenian-born Bolshevik Anastas Mikoyan. In 1934 Mikoyan was appointed Stalin's food supply commissar. His task: to reform, modernize, and standardize the food industry across the 11 time zones and 15 ethnic republics of the one-sixth of the world's land mass that was the USSR.

An obsessive micro-manager (and a foodie), Mikoyan taste-tested each new food product, approved recipes and label designs. These being the terrible years of the Stalinist purges, he also signed arrest orders for "wreckers" and "saboteurs" -- scapegoats blamed for damaging socialist industry and punished by Gulags. Ever-practical, Mikoyan showed no qualms about learning from the capitalist West, and -- these still being the internationalist years -- neither did Stalin. In 1936, The Leader dispatched his commissar on a cross-country tour of America. Mikoyan and his foodie squad toured Wisconsin dairies, Chicago slaughterhouses, and California fruit farms. They studied corrugated cardboard and metal jar lids. They ate intently at self-service cafeterias. ("Here," Mikoyan later wrote, "is a format born out of the bowels of capitalism but most suited to communism.") 

In those latter-day memoirs, the unsmiling but urbane Mikoyan could barely restrain himself from gushing about America's foodways as the model of industrialized efficiency for Stalinist Russia. He was particularly smitten with burgers. "Very convenient for the busy man," he marveled. Mikoyan even imported burger grills to the USSR -- but then World War II intervened, burgers lost their buns, and Soviet citizens got hooked instead on kotleti (bunless meat patties). Of course, Russians cooked kotleti at home before Mikoyan, but it's the commissar who turned these into a mass-produced Soviet icon. Even Russian ice cream, our national pride, that vanilla plombir we all licked at 30 degrees below zero, resulted from American technology imported by Mikoyan. (The savvy Armenian also tried -- and failed -- to wangle the syrup recipe for Coca-Cola.)

Mikoyan was the man responsible for the modern, industrialized fruit juices and frankfurters served up today. Mikoyan's commissariat also, in 1939, issued a grand tome that codified Soviet cuisine for the home cook. Produced by a committee of scientists, ideologues, and culinary professionals, The Book of Tasty and Healthy Cuisine would remain the socialist Joy of Cooking until the empire's end, selling over 8 million copies in more than a dozen editions.

In its Stalinist heyday, the hefty, lavishly illustrated volume offered more than just recipes. The Kniga (book) was a socialist-realist landmark en par with the Moscow Metro, featuring invocations of "mankind's centuries-old dream of building a communist society," quotations from Stalin (deleted in later editions), extravagant photo spreads of lavish foods -- oysters! -- never seen in stores, and lectures on nutrition and table manners. While the oysters and the 11 kinds of booze in the photos represented an outlandish socialist utopia -- a sales brochure of the ever-promised, but never realized, Radiant Future -- many of the recipes and simple practical tips taught generations of Soviets to cook.  

Now decades after I left Brezhnev's Russia as a child, I still love leafing through the gravy-splotched pages of the iconic 1952 edition with its embossed dark-brown cover. Here are the mayonnaise-drenched composed salads and fish in aspic that anchored Soviet festive tables across the years. Here are the dozens of kotleti varieties and bracing soups still made at homes all over the former USSR. The book also includes serviceable recipes for traditional Russian dumplings, blini, and pirozhki (savory pastries). And to relieve the Slavic blandness, the book introduced colorful dishes from our "exotic" fraternal socialist republics.

Multiculturalism was one of the tastiest abiding aspects of Soviet cuisine. Even pre-1917, Russian cuisine reflected the span of an empire. Mikoyan's efforts sovietized this diversity by folding ethnic dishes into an all-Soviet canon, bringing it into our homes through the book while promoting the mass-market products and convenience foods of a newly-industrialized state, Over the years, through the ongoing government fanfare about the future Leninist sliyanie (merging) of fraternal Soviet republics, our cuisine, too, was fusing into its own Eurasian pan-Soviet melting pot. By the time I grew up in the late 1960s, state restaurants across 11 times zones served Azeri lulya kebab (meat kebab), Tatar chebureki (fried meat pies), Ukrainian borscht, and crisp-fried Georgian chicken tabaka (chicken cooked in a heavy skillet). Muscovites with the means to dine out ate at restaurants named Uzbekistan or Minsk or Baku. Meanwhile, singularly Soviet hits like Salat Oliver and herring "under a fur coat" lent socialist kitschiness to Kazakh weddings and Karelian birthday parties. For special occasions, my own mother, Larisa, prepared an Uzbek pilaf redolent of cumin and barberries while my dad labored over Georgian red beans loaded with spices and herbs.

It's true that such occasions were rare. Mostly my mom fried up simple kotleti, scraped together impromptu "guest at the doorstep" apple charlottes when people stopped by, and perfected frugal pirozhki dough: water, yeast, and a stick of socialist margarine. Were they culinary masterpieces? Well, maybe not -- but they reflected an authentic and vital food culture that deserves to be recognized. And here's the thing: These improvised treats prepared at homes in an era of shortages possessed an emotional weight that Stolovaya 57's slickly delicious replicas can't hope to match. In Russia today, USSR nostalgia has become a brand, commercial and political, garnished with calculated warm, fuzzy childhood signifiers. But depleted of existential pathos and the aura of eternal scarcity, the newly-hip Soviet cuisine is just another marketing retro-fad, one more balm against Putinland's petro-dollarism and the invasion of globalized pizza and sushi.

Then again, I like Stolovaya 57 as much as the next Muscovite. What's wrong with a lunchtime junket to an idealized version of a past from which we were all exiled when the USSR was deleted from maps? Here in New York, my ferociously anti-Soviet mom still makes kotleti three times a week. And when I feel blue, a festive bowls of Salat Olivier is just the right comfort food. Because Soviet cuisine was actually tasty. If not entirely healthy.

Book of Tasty and Healthy Cuisine; Courtesy Anya von Bremzen