Бальзам на душу (“a balm for the soul”)


We at A.I. Labs were rather surprised back in 2019, when the Moscow-based publisher Mann, Ivanov & Ferber bought the rights to the Russian-language edition of Aesthetic Intelligence. We were even more astounded by the book’s popularity in the region, which now accounts for the book’s second largest market after the U.S. We had expected it to resonate in countries like Japan and Korea, but Belarus? Kazakhastan? Ukraine??

Why did a business book on aesthetics elicit such an impassioned and enthusiastic response in a region that’s been so severely struck by political and economic disintegration and in a culture that’s still haunted by the legacy of the Soviet Union?

At a conference in February organized by the Russian Council of Shopping Centres, Pauline was asked to deliver a keynote speech on “The Aesthetic Imperative.” As she was speaking, news broke that President Vladimir Putin had launched a military invasion of Ukraine.

She started her talk with a simple question: Does aesthetics even matter during times of crisis?

Her answer: Yes. It matters more than ever!

Those living in the former Soviet bloc know the ill effects of Stalin-era repression and terror. They crave aesthetics — not despite it, but because of it. Once denied basic freedoms of beauty, self-expression and joy, people become all the more intent on rediscovering and re-experiencing them.

We see the current outpouring of support and compassion for the Ukrainian people as further evidence of The Aesthetic Imperative. It’s not merely about politics or ideology, but humanity.

Aesthetics helps to feed our spirits in times of despair and reminds us that, ultimately, our commonalities outweigh our differences.

Current events will continue to play out in horrific and distressing ways. But, eventually, stability and peace will be restored. And, when that day arrives, let’s not focus merely on healing the wounds of the victims; let´s give them reasons to smile. Let´s re-awaken their senses – through music, art, fragrance, food and, above all, the human touch. In the end, that’s what will save them. And us.

Our Aesthetic Aha’s 

We’re enamored by President Volodymyr Zelensky´s style. Not his style of dress per se, but his style of speaking. Straight-forward, but emotionally-charged. Hard-hitting, but humorous. His acting career prepared him well for the world stage. What a refreshing contrast to most other world leaders, with their wooden demeanors, tightly-modulated voices and heavily scripted messages. брав !

Ukrainian´s national flower — the sunflower — has become a global symbol of resistance, solidarity and hope. Worldwide, people are using it on their social media profiles, in their hair and on their clothing. A glorious display of Aesthetic Activism.

The founder of the Russian rock band, “Pussy Riots,” has raised $7 million for Ukraine by selling an NFT of Ukraine´s flag. Founded in 2011, the band is known for applying its own form of aesthetics to support feminism, fight corruption, and protest against Putin. This 2015 quote by the band summarizes what every punk fan feels: “A punk is a person who lives and breathes astonishment…that’s what art is for us, and without art, life can’t exist. It would be boring.”

Together, Russia and Ukraine account for 30% of global wheat exports. The region’s mineral rich black soil and mild conditions make it perfect for growing grains. Wheat has been essential to civilizations, past and present. To quote Yuval Noah Harari, author of one of our favorite books SAPIENS: “We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.”

Classic red borscht originated in Ukraine. Almost every Ukrainian province boasts its own recipe. It is a beet-based soup that can include any combination of vegetables and a hearty beef stock. (The beets must always be cooked separately in order to ensure a bright red color!) The dominant tastes are both sweet and sour. And, unlike other soups, it can be served hot or cold, which prompted Russian-American actress Gertrude Berg (1899-1966) to famously say: “Borscht is more than a soup. It’s a weather vane.”

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