Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A Trip to Tatarstan

Near the end of April, I spent 3 days in the ancient Russian city of Kazan thanks to a kind-hearted professor I teach: Akhiar Muginovich Gataulin.

Gataulin is a lively, intelligent, 72-year old agricultural economist and statistician and is well-known within Timiryazev Academy, having served as the dean of the Economics department and dissertation supervisor for a number of current professors as far back as 40 years ago. And he’s still going strong. In 1996 he founded the Independent Scientific Agro-Economic Society of Russia as a way to stimulate discussion among agricultural experts regarding the state of Russian agriculture as an integral part of the national economy. Annual conferences are held to discuss the most current research and problems facing Russian agriculture, and this year the conference was in the capital of the Tatarstan Republic, Kazan, and I was invited to participate.

Tatarstan is located southeast of Moscow; Kazan is a hop skip and a jump 11-hour train ride from Moscow (very close by Russian standards). The city is over 1000 years old, and its population is 70-75% Muslim and the whole republic is dotted with mosques whose architecture provides a stunning contrast to the usual Orthodox church-studded landscapes of Russia. Most of the population speaks both Russian and Tatar, a Turkic language that is very similar to Uzbek, Kazakh, Kirghiz, Turkish, and the like. I often found myself in situations when people would be switching back and forth between Russian and Tatar, and I couldn’t help but think that every time they moved to Tartar, they were saying something about me…

Gataulin and I arrived after an overnight ride in a купе (good quality 4-person train compartment; my first time in one seeing as I usually travel in the crowded, smelly, but decidedly cheaper платзкарт section). We shared our купе with a very soft-spoken and curious Russian bagpipe player on his way to a performance and a very outspoken Daniel Craig look-alike with a mullet, whose rate of speech matched the train’s high speed and who waxed poetic about New York City and America after discovering my nationality (“America: what a great country. I love America. There everything works. Doors are simple to open and you know they won’t break when you grab the door handle…”).

We were greeted at the station by the dean of our host center, the Tatar Institute for Advanced Agro-business Training—a man whose company I would keep everyday but whose name I never actually caught. He was a very boisterous and generous man, delighted to welcome an American to his institute. I ate almost every meal next to him in his exclusive dining room lined with elegant red velvet curtains and gold-rimmed chinaware. I was treated to traditional Tatar foods, endless vodka toasts, and was taught a very important lesson in Tartar tradition: “Tatar men eat three things with their hands: chicken, blini, and women.” He then told to marry a Tatar woman and stay in Kazan for life. Thinking this was a joke, I laughed it off, but was then led into the dean’s office and introduced to his young secretary, Oksana…all eyes were expectantly on us.

I was able to squirm out of the situation by saying that I wanted to go explore Kazan before the conference began the next day. The dean and Gataulin stared at me and asked, “By yourself?”

“Yes, by myself. I have a guide book. And I would like to walk around.”

“No, we will get a driver for you.” The vice-dean’s son was requisitioned into driving me around Kazan for an hour and a half and pointing out all the landmarks. He was understandably hesitant and caught off guard, but the drive was very nice, although conversation was limited. I would have really preferred to go alone and not inconvenience Rushan, but Russian hospitality overruled my desires. Plus, they didn’t seem to grasp the concept of independent travel.

Thankfully, in the early evening I was able to meet up with Alyson, the Fulbright ETA stationed in Kazan. She grabbed two of her students and we went strolling through the downtown area, including a walk down Baumanskaya steet—a pedestrian-only avenue lined with cafes and dotted with statues and monuments. It reminded me of parts of Istanbul.

The next day brought the start of the conference—and the end, seeing as not enough people arrived to share their reports for a second day. I sat in a large auditorium and listened to presentation after presentation touching on the conference theme of “Theoretical and Methodological Foundations and Practice of Innovational Paths of Development of Economics of the Agro-Industrial Complex” (a very Russian title). I understood the overall message of most presentations, at least when they didn’t speak too fast, and only after they finished their requisite 7-minutes of thanks and praise to the conference organizers and their superiors (there is something very Soviet about this tradition). One quote that stood out came from one of the conference supervisors, who made a scathing comparison of American and Russian agriculture. He said something along the following lines: “America’s most dangerous and powerful weapon is not nuclear; it is their productive force and the amount of money they make from it. Why can’t Russia match this with its vast agricultural resources? It’s absurd.”

Before leaving for Kazan, Gataulin had asked me to prepare a presentation for the conference, as well. I was initially quite shocked, seeing as I knew nothing about the conference theme, but he later clarified his request and asked me to give a presentation on the higher education system in America, which the conference participants would find very interesting. He told me I would give it in English to a group of students studying the language, but during our lunch break he surprised me with the following:

Bryan, why don’t you give your presentation right after lunch.”

“After lunch? Well, aren’t there more people scheduled to present on the theme?”

“Yes, but we can squeeze you in, too.”

“OK, but am I going to give it in English? Where are the students studying English?”

“No no no, you will give it in Russian.”

I was completely unprepared. I had made the whole slideshow in English, my mental notes were all in English, and suddenly I had been asked, in between shots of vodka at lunch, to present in Russian. “This is not going to be pretty” was the only thought in my mind, which was already beginning to swim a little from the strong alcohol.

But, there I was at the podium thirty minutes later in front of about 45 Russian agricultural specialists and graduate students giving a presentation in broken Russian about the US higher education system. I decided to keep it as short as possible since the expression on half of their faces upon the announcement of my speech looked like it could burn my soul out. I must have spoken for about 10 minutes and expected to practically run back to my seat afterwards, but surprisingly, they had a bunch of questions for me. I did my best to answer, and Gataulin actually had to cut the questions short so we could move on with the conference. After the last presenter, a group of graduate students approached me and wanted to know even more. After again struggling to answer very broad questions like “how much does a university education cost in the US” and “what kind of salary can you get with a masters degree compared to a bachelors”, we made our way to the banquet dinner.

Here, again, vodka and wine was poured to the brim and I counted at least 10 different toasts that required everyone to raise their glasses and drink to the bottom. Some toasts were short and sweet, some involved singing traditional Tatar songs, and others were 10 minute long anecdotes by people who had clearly had one (or four) too many. I was seated across from a group of five female graduate students from Orenburg (southeast of Tatarstan and bordering on Kazakhstan), who were stunned to discover I was only 22 years old. Their eyes widened and they all gasped, saying out loud that we were the same age, but they had taken me for much older, although they couldn’t tell me exactly why. They then invited me to go to the movies with them that evening, after they had been very awkwardly invited to a night club by one of the drunken members of the conference committee who was easily 25 years their elder.

After the banquet ended, Kristina, Lena, Tanya 1, Tanya 2 and two others whose names I can’t remember took me by the arm and led me down the street to the bus stop, where we hopped on for a quick ride to the center of Kazan. We went to two 10-minute 4-D ‘adventure experiences’ where you watch a 3-D clip and sit in seats that move like you’re in a roller coaster as water and wind are sprayed at you. They thought it was the coolest thing in the world; I was just feeling sick afterwards.

This was followed by a walk to an upscale sushi restaurant where I was further grilled about life in America and my personal life: what are relationships like in the US? How does dating work? We hear that one-night stands are the norm in America…is this true? What do you look for in a girl?

After sushi and some ice cream, we hopped into a gypsy cap waiting outside the restaurant for a ride back to the institute dormitory. The guy driving looked very pleased to have four young women in his back seat, but not so thrilled that I was there in the passenger’s seat…talk about a buzz-kill. Although I had a good laugh when we hopped into the cab and the driver asked the girls if they were freezing (it was quite a cold evening). They replied that they were cold, and the driver then jacked up the heat in the car and said with a smirk: “Now it will soon be like Tashkent in here.”

The following day had been rescheduled from a conference day to an ‘excursion’ day where all participants of the conference were invited to go on a bus tour of the whole city. We made stops at the Kremlin so everyone could wander around for a bit, and even took a 30-minute detour to the Raifskiy monastery outside the city limits. The monastery and churches were essentially like every other monastery and church I had visited so far in Russia, with one exception. This one had a very nice lake on its territory (although ice was still covering part of the lake…in late April). Our guide told us that this was the monastery’s holy lake, to which one woman replied in astonishment, “You mean the whole lake is holy? All of the water?” The guide assured her that this was the case, and that it was the healthiest water in all of Russia to bathe in. Russians really do love their religious superstitions; in their mind, there is no doubt in their truth.

Gataulin had changed our return train tickets to leave that evening since the conference had been shortened, so I spent my final few hours after the excursion going on a walk and sitting in a café with Alyson and the Orenburg girls before heading back to the train station. But it was this train ride that proved to be the most interesting of the whole trip. Gataulin and I had a купе entirely to ourselves, and I inadvertently started the most interesting conversation I have had in Russia when I innocently asked Gataulin if he ever came to Kazan as a child, seeing as he was born in the neighboring Orenburg Republic.

Gataulin launched into a nostalgic memoir of his childhood during the war, during which he worked as a 12 to 15-year old bookkeeper on a kolkhoz measuring the wheat and oat production of every woman in the commune. He said it was here that he became fascinated in agriculture, and recounted several stories about how he made measurements, developed new techniques to make his job easier, and even delivered horse-drawn carts of wheat to a town 10 hours away through the driving winter snow as a 14-year old. He told me of how almost all of the family’s belongings were transferred to the front in the war effort, and how after the war the country was in a state of disarray. He told of how banditry and gang wars were rampant, especially among the teenage population, and how he became an experienced train-jumper in order to get anywhere, seeing as his family had no form of transportation and he had no money to afford a ticket. He said that train conductors were often sympathetic to the young boys traveling without tickets, as they understood well the hardship of life at this point. He even remembered one time riding in an empty, open-topped cargo cart when two rival gangs hopped in and began a knife-fight, during which Gataulin was cut across the hand before he managed to hop out. It was the first time I got a really true feeling about what the war meant to Russia, and the nature of its lasting effects.

Later, he told of how he made his way to Moscow to enroll in the Timiryazev Agricultural Academy, seeing as he had received highest marks in his schoolwork in Orenburg. Again, he train-jumped to get to Moscow (a 24+ hour ride), and immediately asked the dean if he could get a job while studying so he could earn money to send home. He was attached to a work team that reaped wheat in the fields by the academy, and he again excelled in his studies. After a few years of post-graduate studies, he became a full-time professor in the Economics department and has been moving ever-forward since then.

He then recalled a story of a visit he paid to the agriculture minister of the scarcely-populated yet huge Yakutia Republic in the northeast of Siberia. He was taken by helicopter along with the minister and a few other people to a remote fishing ground, where they were to spend the day outdoors. The weather in Yakutia is very harsh and tempermental, and when the helicopter returned to look for them, it could not locate the group through the thick fog, although they could clearly hear the helicopter not far off. They were stranded and forced to spend the night in the wild. They built fires, made makeshift tents out of wood and leaves, and waited until the next day when the helicopter made another effort and finally found them. So Bear Grylls.

All in all the trip was a huge success. I formally participated in an official Russian conference, made some new Russian friends, heard a GREAT story, and thoroughly enjoyed the city of Kazan, which I found to be much more friendly and personable than Moscow. And after just one week of being back at work, I took off for St. Petersburg. But I’ll save that for my next post.

You can see my photos of Kazan here.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Someone has flipped the switch


Over the last two weeks, Moscow has been blessed with a very dramatic change in the weather. We have risen out of freezing temperatures, all the snow and ice has melted, and we've been basking in temperatures around 60 F for the last few days. After a 5-month winter, I feel like it is well-deserved. I have seen grass for the first time in Russia since early December, and I can finally start exercising outside again.

I can't afford to get my hopes up too high, however, as I have been warned that frosts can (and usually do) return to Moscow by the middle of May, and the city has been known to suffer frosts as late at as the first week of June. I will go crazy if this turns out to be true.

Well, it's been a long time since my last update. To keep things short, however, I'll just tell you the basics of what's been going on since the first week in March.

-I've been to a Russian cabaret performance. GREAT.

-I went to see the wonderful Picasso exhibit at the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum. Since the exhibit opened, there hasn't been a day when the line hasn't been at least a two-hour wait. Worth it, though.

-I went with a couple friends in search of an Old Believer's community in the east of Moscow, but we were foiled by the Lonely Planet's directions and the trolley-bus system. Instead, we ended up hiking across east/southeast Moscow for about 3 hours until we reached Kolomenskoe, a beautiful territory where a few tsars/tsarinas used to reside occasionally. Here is a photo of some of the grounds.
-I participated in a student conference here and gave a presentation on the cultural difference of smiling between Russians and Americans.

-Had an American-style beer-party with some friends here, during which we played quarters. I missed Paul's Deli on that night. And I even missed Bud Light...which goes to show you the quality of Russian beer, and why they stick to vodka.

-I checked out Kuskovo Park where Count Sheremetyev had one of his several palaces. Beautiful grounds, especially when approached through the adjoining forest, which gives you a great view across the massive pond where the count used to stage naval battles to entertain the masses. Unfortunately, the weather and the lack of funding has taken its toll on the exterior of the buildings. There is no heating inside, either, making for a very chilly experience in the winter months.

-I went with Thaddeus to a Russian hockey playoff game. Unfortunately, Spartak (our team) lost to Yaroslavl's Lokomotiv in overtime and were soon after eliminated from the competition.

-I went to a free concert at a nightclub by this really strange gizillion-person band whose oldest member appeared to be about 19. They were dubbed the "Russian Arcade Fire" because of their range of instruments and the fact that they covered "Wake Up." You could only distinguish about five of the instruments, however. And we waited all night for them to play 'Wake Up', which was their finale, and it was terrible.

-I went to the city of Tula with some friends for a day-trip. There we went to three museums which exhibit the reasons for Tula's fame: samovars, prianiki (apple/honey-filled cakes), and weapons. It was a nice little city. The highlight, however, was the Ukrainian restaurant that we lunched in. Here's a photo of a GIANT samovar.

-I had tickets to see Swan Lake at the Kremlin theater with some friends, but we arrived only to learn that the costumes for Swan Lake had been left in Beijing, from where the troupe had just returned. So, they had The Nutcracker on stand-by for us. It was beautiful, although a little out-of-season.

-Went to an English pub to watch the first leg of the Arsenal-Barcelona Champions League match-up. Great comeback by Arsenal, although ЦСКА Moscow was also playing that night, so the whole pub was shouting about that game, which they lost, of course. Arsenal also went on to get schlaked by Messi and Barcelona the next week.

-Had a great visit by a few W&M people to Moscow: one a fellow ETA in Tolyatti, and one studying abroad in Vladimir---both in Moscow to show the city off to friends from home. We had a great Georgian dinner and a fun time at a bar (after getting face-controlled at another bar...ouch).

-Returned to Kolomna on Easter Sunday for a day-trip with a tour group. The convent and cathedral were open this time, so I got to see some things I hadn't seen earlier. We also witnessed a fun Easter egg-rolling game for the kids. Plus, the weather was gorgeous.

That's what I've been up to (in addition to work, of course), and here's what I've got coming up:

1. A trip to Kazan from April 22-25 to participate in a conference.

2. A vacation to St. Petersburg, leaving from Moscow on May 1. I don't have a return ticket yet, and I might just keep it that way.

3. Another student conference May 21-22 at my univeristy.

4. A big FAO conference is being hosted at my university June 2-3. Apparently, I was signed up as a representative of the US by my uni, without first asking me. I'm not quite sure what my responsibilities are going to be, but it sounds intimidating.

5. Immediately following this conference, I'll be making my way to Elista from June 5-12 to teach in an English camp for students. Elista is the capital of the Kalmykia Republic in southwest Russia, and is the only Buddhist republic in Europe. I'm really looking forward to it. Plus, they say that the weather there in June is HOT--just what I'm looking for.

After returning from Elista, I've only got two more weeks of teaching left!!! Then, I've got some hopes to go to Lake Baikal for a week in July before returning home. Can't wait. Not being able to watch the Phillies or the Master's is eating away at my spirits.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Land of Celebrations

You may be wondering why I have not been blogging as frequently in the previous two months as during the final months of 2009. Or, if you're like I imagine you are, you really couldn't care less. Except you, Tim Bacon. But, the reason for my general absence is more or less as follows: Russia has a lot of celebrations during the beginning of the new year, and I have been taking full advantage of them. A recap:

January: a 10-day New Year's vacation, during which I frolicked around Red Square and learned to handle my vodka as though I'd been drinking it from the womb. Then I jetted to Istanbul for a few days. After returning to teach for two weeks, I made my way to Vladimir and Suzdal on the Golden Ring before our mid-year Fulbright seminar.

February: I spent the wee hours of the morning on Monday, February 8 watching the Super Bowl in an American diner...and losing three bets on the way (why, Saints, why?).

The next week/weekend was Maslenitsa--an old pagan holiday that is still celebrated by many in Russia to welcome the coming of spring. I could not help but notice that it was, indeed, still the middle of February, which generally means at least two more months of winter weather in Russia. I spent Sunday the 14th in the middle of a snow-covered forest with friends where a large clearing was made to hold festivities. This day deserves a more detailed description.

First of all, this celebration was 'secret'. That is, it was planned by a select group of individuals and 'advertising' was done by word-of-mouth only. Supposedly, this tradition is over a century old. Every year, the festivities are held in a different location somewhere outside of Moscow, but the location is always kept a secret until the day before. I spent the day prior at Lyoha's house with some other people making blinis (pancakes--the traditional Maslenitsa dish, as it represents the sun). At some point in the evening, one of the guys received a phone call and was told the location of the celebration and how to get there. The next morning, we hopped onto an elektrichka and rode about an hour outside of the city to a random stop in the middle of a forest (I mean, absolutely no civilization sight...why there is a train stop there is beyond me). Here, however, almost the entire train disembarked and the hundreds of people who had been informed of this 'secret' jumped across the train tracks and started trekking for almost another hour through the woods with snow up to their hips.

We had been told prior to leaving that we had to learn a Russian folk-song to gain entry into the festivities. Myself and a group of other internationals chose the most easy of all folk songs, Катюша, and prepared ourselves to sing once we finally reached the entrance to the clearing where three women in traditional Russian outfits judged our performance. Upon hearing that we would be singing Катюша, however, they moaned that they had already heard it too many times that morning. Sensing that we were not from these parts, they asked us to sing a folk song from our own countries. Everyone balked, but then I remembered the one song that has brought me so much joy over the last couple years: Old Crow Medicine Show's "Wagon Wheel" (a W&M 'education' at the Green Leafe comes in handy SO often). While not exactly a folk song, it has folk qualities, so I stepped forward and gave it my all--the women were amazed, gave us a huge smile, and parted to let us through.

The first things I noticed were the huge ice/snow sculptures that littered the clearing in the woods. There was an old-fashioned viking-like ship upon which children climbed and played-our imaginary battles with passerby, an ice-mouse, a turtle (I think) and a huge wall that was meant to be 'raided' by common-folk while the event organizers pelted them with snowballs from above and pushed them off the wall if they made any progress trying to scale it on the shoulders of their comrades. Then looking to my left, I saw a huge log standing completely vertical in the snow. Men wearing nothing but their underwear tried to ascend this log to reach the prizes hanging at the top. This log was easily 100 feet tall, and the men scurrying up and sliding down were rewarded with scrapes and scratches all over their body as well as near frosbite in the -25 weather. I have no clue why they thought this was a good idea.

I had been forewarned that this event would be full of "positive energy"--that is, no alcohol, and even though things might get a little 'rough', it was all in good fun. I soon figured out what was meant by 'rough'. The games offered at this celebration ran the gamut from traditional singing games, jump-rope competitions, tug-of-war, and duck-duck-goose types to the more 'masculine Russian' games such as Стенка-на-стенку (Wall-to-wall). This is played by lining up two groups of men opposite one another and then having them scream and charge at full-speed until they smash into each other head-on like a rugby scrum. This is repeated until one-by-one, men start dropping out of the game. I saw one guy spit a tooth out in a pool of blood.

There was also Слон, or Elephant, where a team of people lined-up and bent over, grabbing the hips of the person in front of them to make a sort of wall. Meanwhile, members of the other team took turns leap-frogging up the line of people, landing on the backs of the first team until their combined weight forced the wall to collapse. There was also wrestling, arm-wrestling, and a game where opponents were blindfolded, spun around to lose their orientation, and then commanded to swing pillow-like sacs until they finally found and knocked down their opponents. After nearly having my skull crushed against the hip of a teammate in Слон, my shoulder dislocated by a random dude in arm-wrestling, and several bones snapped in Стенка-на-стену, I decided to take a rest. But it was all about positive energy, man.

We spent a full day in the forest, keeping warm in the frigid weather either by participating in competitions or taking tea and blini breaks and sitting by the campfire of some other jolly Maslenitsa-ers. The day was incredibly fun, and you can find my photos from this event at

February 15 was the celebration of Valentine's Day in Lingva, so I co-organized a little shindig for the English students where we sang Sinatra's "My Funny Valentine", read a poem about love, and played a few games before sitting down to tea and cakes.

The next weekend I attended a wedding of an American man and Russian woman who I had met through a few other Americans doing missionary work in Moscow. It was a lovely ceremony, and had a nice touch of America as all of the groomsmen wore cowboy hats to represent the groom's home state of Texas.

February 23 is the Day of the Defender in Russia (formerly Red Army Day but now a day celebrating all of the past and present members of the Russian Armed Forces). It is sometimes referred to simply as Man's Day. I was invited out for drinks with a few other Russians, and guess what: Man's Day means cheap vodka at every dining institution. And that means a lot of drunk men. You can guess what followed.

Last weekend I took a trip to Sergeiv Posad, an iconic old Russian monastery-town on the Golden Ring that draws thousands of tourists to see the beautiful monastic buildings and to pay homage to St. Sergius, the patron saint of Russia, who is buried in the Trinity Cathedral. Just outside the entrance to the Cathedral of the Assumption across the courtyard is the grave of Boris Godunov, the only tsar not buried in the Moscow Kremlin or in Saint Petersburg's SS Peter & Paul Cathedral. There is also a great archeological/ethnographic/history museum and a fun toy museum! I hope to have pictures edited from this trip soon, so I will post a link when I've got time.

Last Wednesday, I attended a great free concert with American friends of a female Russian guitarist and her group. This was followed by a tiny-portioned Italian dinner with the sounds of Russian karaoke blaring in our faces. I enjoyed the concert more.

And finally, this Monday, March 8 is International Women's Day (celebrated by Russia and other CIS countries). So, it's a three-day weekend, and I'm heading off on a day trip tomorrow to the New Jerusalem Cathedral with a professor.

So, that explains my lack of blogging lately. I hope I've sated your appetite. Until next time...

Saturday, February 13, 2010


I thought I would share a few of the more memorable moments from my last week.

1. A man came into the cafeteria one day and sat down at the table next me for lunch. He was clearly having some trouble walking as he stumbled over his own two feet, and he was audibly grumbling something, although the only word I actually caught was "завтрак" (breakfast). He then pulled a beer out of a plastic bag and proceeded to wash down mouthfuls of his lunch with swigs from the bottle. He continued to intermittently grumble completely unintelligible things, and after watching him for some time out of the corner of my eye, I realized that he was having some trouble keeping his food down. He began swaying back and forth in his chair, shifting his weight occasionally, and wiping his forehead with the back of his hand. Finally, he vomited. On himself. And on the floor in front of him (he missed the table and his meal). I think I was the only one in the cafeteria who noticed, as everyone else seemed to be engrossed in conversation with their table-mates and I didn't notice any reactions to this man's upchuck. The man then continued to shovel forkfuls of food into his mouth, until I noticed he vomited again inside his mouth (this time swallowing it to avoid making another mess). Finally, he rose from his chair unsteadily and walked out of the cafeteria, leaving everything in its place at the table (and on the floor). I left soon after.

2. I was having a discussion with my professor-students in class about travel and their ideal alternative habitats, or at least vacation destinations. Interestingly, Sweden and Australia were overwhelming favorites, being chosen by about 80% of the participants. As one professor related his fascination with Australia, he struggled to think of the word 'marsupial' (I can't blame him). After considering the word in Russian (сумчатое животное) he came up with the nearly transliterated: "pocket animal". He was very satisfied with his cunning, and I couldn't help but laugh.

3. With the same group of professors, but a few classes later, we were discussing the topic of 'work'. I asked the question: "What jobs have you done in your life and what did you like or dislike about them?" As is usually the case, hardly anyone actually answered the question. The standard response was, "I like my job now. It is good for me." When prompted with an example of my own about a job I did not really enjoy (greasy-hamburger-flipping concessionaire), one woman offered an answer that was more what I was looking for. She described to me her early childhood desire to be a crime-lab technician due to her fascination with chemistry. Then she related the following story:
When she was in the 7th class (akin to 7th grade) her entire class was taken to a factory and assigned non-paying jobs for the summer--Soviet tradition, I suppose, to learn the benefits of labor. She worked as a 'turner' at an train engine factory. Her job, for an entire summer, as a young girl, was to turn a lever at one stage in the production process of train engines. I hope she learned some valuable lessons.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Testing Fate and Faith in Russia

As the elektrichka slowed to a snail's pace and eeked toward the Vladimir rail station after a 3.5 hour “local” train ride from Moscow, Lonely Planet's warnings of “commotion” and “busy, industrial town” seemed to completely outweigh the promises of “the grandeur of medieval Vladimir” displayed in “Russia's most formative architecture.” I was seriously beginning to question Vladimir's claim as a “jewel” of Moscow's Golden Ring—the historical group of principalities that once composed the heart of medieval Rus' centuries before any mention of Moscow was even made in the ancient Chronicles.

To my eyes, we were about to witness another sad story of Soviet, life-sucking destruction. A once valiant, majestic, faithful Russian town fallen victim to the poverty induced by communism. Our train crawled past shacks built into the hillside that rose above the train tracks. We could practically taste the devastation from inside the chilly train car.

A glimmer of hope came in the form of the gold-leafed onion domes of Vladimir's churches meekly poking their way over the crest of the hill. We emerged from the train into the frigid air (this would be a constant theme of our 4-day trip) and were slowly carried with the crowd through the station and out the other side. The taxi ride to the hotel did little to assuage my doubts. Sure, we caught our first glimpses of the monasteries and cathedrals on our left, and we drove around the famed Golden Gate of Vladimir (an Arc de Triumph-like structure dating back to 1164) which stands in the middle of Vladimir's main street, but the right-hand side of the road exhibited the aforementioned “commotion” and industrious nature of modern Vladimir. Our hotel fit in nicely with this latter bunch. A goliath structure seemingly straight out of the Soviet textbook on architectural aesthetics, the Hotel Zarya offered cheap rooms, and that was all we were really after.

Thankfully, the city and its people proved me wrong. Our first half-day of sightseeing, despite the nearly unbearable -30 cold, gave us a glimpse of the Vladimir of yore. A museum tour of the Golden Gate and a friendly Russian babushka manning the exhibits informed us of Vladimir's role in Ancient Rus' (and a great appreciation that we Americans had come from so far to learn about it). This was followed by a museum of Vladimir's more modern history (through tsarist times) set into the four floors of the city's old brick water tower, the top floor of which revealed to us a 360 degree view of Vladimir's true beauty. Vast expanses of white snow, birch trees, and farm plots brought back all the images of Ancient Rus' that I had from Russian class at W&M. This was the Russia I had set out to find.

Our early-evening stroll took us past Vladimir's Assumption Cathedral, one of Russian Orthodoxy's most revered sites for its original Andrey Rublev frescoes of the Last Judgment, as well as the original coffin of Alexander Nevsky, the hero of Russia who turned away German and Swedish invaders while preserving his principalities with appeasement strategies during the Mongol Yoke. It happened to be a Saturday evening—the time of the Orthodox service. What better time to step inside the Assumption?

We were hit immediately by an aromatic wall of incense as our eyes adjusted to the darkness of the entrance way. As we turned the corner of pillars, we were greeted by the majestic sight of gold-rimmed icons and frescoes covering the walls, and lighted candles that sprouted from golden holders. Our ears were met by the rhythmic, hypnotizing chords of the priest reciting the sermon, occasionally interrupted by spouts of song from the choir hidden in a raised balcony and the recitations of the faithful with whom we were sharing this experience. They stood in no particular order; some close to the front, some far in the back. We snaked our way around the church interior, taking in all the sights, smells, and sounds of this accidental discovery.

How does one follow this experience? Well, we were cold and tired, so we decided to follow it with a bottle of vodka and juice back at the hotel before setting out for a restaurant we had marked for dinner. Yeah, right. After resting our legs, warming our bodies by vodka, and watching some MTV Russia, no one felt the need to venture back out into the cold to find the restaurant; we decided to delay our departure to Suzdal the next day until the afternoon so that we could still make a stop at the restaurant for lunch. This would prove to be a very important decision.

In the meantime, we were hungry, and the hotel had a cafe, so down we went. Little did we know, we were walking into the dying throes of a wedding banquet full of drunk Russians. We sat at our table in the corner while being intermittently grabbed from our chairs and asked to dance and sing along with the boisterous crowd. We were confronted with a terribly catchy European song about Obama (that none of us Americans recognized), and we also suffered through the strained notes of drunk Russian karaoke singers. Conversations with this crowd ran the gamut: from disbelief that we were from America (or that we had someone named Liz in our group; because “Elizabeth” is a Russian name...) to offers to join a few of them in their dacha/banya getaway, which we couldn't help but feel was actually some kind of sexual advance... Anyways, the night ended on a good note, and we carried our exhausted bodies back up to bed for some much needed sleep.

The next day began with a breakfast experiment in a nearby cafe. Russians are not known for their breakfast foods. Каша (oatmeal) and каша (oatmeal) with a side of каша (oatmeal) is a pretty safe bet. Oh, and a cup of tea. But we found a place that offered omelets, so why not give it a try? Here's why: Russians don't do omelets. What we got instead were bowls of microwaved eggs with various toppings (I apoligize, Sammerz, if you are reading this...). But at least my omelet was cooked all the way through (sorry, Kristen).

Thankfully, however, it put something in our stomachs to protect us against the cold, so we then set out to explore the Assumption Cathedral in daylight, followed by a stop at the much smaller but more detailed Cathedral of St. Demetrius, both of which are designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This latter building's exterior was adorned with beautiful stone carvings dating back to the 12th century, and its interior still featured a few frescoes of the apostles also from this age. After stopping in a monastery and viewing the interior of another church, we decided to make the hike back to the restaurant we had skipped out on the night before.

It was on our way there that one of the most strange experiences of my life occurred. Walking down a small side-street off the main road toward the restaurant, I noticed a young woman heading in our direction. Her scarf was pulled up to the bridge of her nose and her hat pulled down to her brow (this is normal dress for such bitter weather). As she passed us, I had a strange feeling that I recognized her eyes. My own eyes followed her as she walked by, halted, and then asked in a disbelieving tone, “Liz?” She had recognized one of our travel companions, a fellow ETA working in Tolyatti. Liz and I studied together at W&M, and it was right then that I realized the identity of this mysterious passerby. I called out, “Suzanne?!?!” She turned toward me and we suddenly realized we had stumbled upon one of those bizarre meetings that you will remember for the rest of your life.

Suzanne also studies at W&M and is currently doing a year abroad in Vladimir. While I knew she was in Russia, I had no idea where (besides not in Moscow), and I NEVER thought I would run into her like this. I mean, Russia is kind of large. And not only did Suzanne, Liz, and I study together in school (and perform together in a wonderful version of Красная Шапочка), but Suzanne also knew Thaddeus from last summer's Middlebury Russian Program. We were like one big happy family (along with our other Fulbright friends Nicky, Kristen, and Emily).

It had just so happened that Suzanne had decided to leave early that day from the Jewish Center where she volunteers, and it just so happened that she was taking this little road home. And it had just so happened the evening before that we decided to postpone our departure to Suzdal so we could come to this one restaurant for lunch, which just so happened to be located on this same little side road. It just so happens, that it's quite a small world, after all. (Мир тесен!)

Suzanne joined us for a delicious, traditional Russian lunch with friendly service (a real shock coming from the Moscow restaurant scene). Upon hearing of our plans to move on to Suzdal for the next two days, she decided to tag along and introduce us to some young, local friends of hers that could show us the town. After lunch, we hopped onto a little bus and set off on the 45 minute trip to Suzdal, a picturesque village that has been billed as the “Mecca of Russia” and a place with “more churches than people”. I think these are both accurate descriptions.

The bus ride itself gave us a good enough idea of this. We rode through the pristine Russian countryside covered in pure white snow and spotted with birch groves, and even passed a kolkhoz on the way. We pulled into the fairy-tale village and were greeted by Ira, Suzanne's good friend in Suzdal. Ira proved to be the best host and guide we could have hoped for. Boisterous in the best of ways and a near-native English speaker, Ira was very keen on showing us her hometown. She accompanied us to the hostel where we were staying, located on the banks of a frozen river amid a row of traditional, Russian, wood houses with finely-carved, decorative trim straight out of old Russia.

At the hostel we befriended the man-in-charge, Vasiliy, a wonderfully friendly Ukrainian man who was eager for conversation as he ran the hostel completely by himself. He was patient with our Russian and we even exchanged phone numbers so we can chat when he gets lonely at his work. He graciously invited us to return whenever we wanted, promising us space in the still-unfinished hostel. There we also met two young French girls, Clementine and Melanie, who are studying abroad in a business program in Moscow, as well as two Scots who had embarked on their “romantic idea” of traveling the Trans-Siberian Railway in the middle of the Russian winter without knowing a word of Russian or being able to read Cyrillic. When we asked them how it was going so far, their immediate response was, “It's F**KING cold.” No, really?!??! All in good fun, though.

Ira in turn introduced us to Grisha, Olya, Olya (yes, two Olyas), and many other Russian friends with whom we shared our experience of Suzdal. We were taken on a tour of the old Suzdal kremlin, strolled through the open-air museum of wooden architecture, and popped into a few monasteries and convents during our two days there. While the history and the picturesque nature of this village—made even more majestic in the traditional Russian winter cold and layers of shining snow—are certainly what draws most visitors to Suzdal, perhaps our greatest impressions of this sleepy village came from the friendships we made with the locals. After going on these makeshift tours, we were invited to two dinners (read: a little evening meal with our bottles of vodka), two lunches (read: experiencing Suzdal's famed медовуха, an alcoholic mead-like drink made of honey in the kremlin restaurant which features a 300 year old menu), and even to one of the Olyas' houses for an evening of conversation, caviar, and a screening of a documentary she had made about a Russian biker festival.

Our final morning in Suzdal was spent in a local ceramics factory where we were taken on a tour and then given our own private master-class during which we hopelessly struggled to make something even mildly resembling a pot-like structure. This was the Suzdal that not every tourist is lucky enough to see. This was the experience we had all been yearning for; an experience that does not involve burying one's nose in a guide book and looking up every now and then for a street sign that probably doesn't exist to make sure one is going in the right direction. This was Russia. And the ceramics factory gives us an excellent excuse to go back—perhaps in the spring when the village will look entirely different without the snow—to pick up our finalized works of 'art.' And anyways, Vasiliy is waiting for us at the hostel...

We left Suzdal with heavy hearts, reluctantly saying goodbye to Ira, Grisha, the Olyas, and Vasiliy as we hopped into taxis that would take us to the bus station. The trip back to Vladimir was quiet as we all reflected on our recent whirlwind experience, but we were met by Suzanne at the Vladimir train station as she saw us off on our way back to Moscow. We also ran into the two Scots at the station as they prepared to board a train to Irkutsk, a 3-day, 4200-km (2610-mile) trip eastward. Wishing them luck on their journey, we hopped onto the train for our ride back to Moscow. We did our best to catch up on some rest, because we were about to enter another non-stop environment as all of the Russia-based Fulbrighters descended on Moscow for our 3-day mid-year seminar.

The seminar was also a wonderful time. It was great hearing about the experiences of other people stationed throughout the vast expanse that is Russia, learning about their respective research projects, and sharing some great laughs during meals (and even discovering that one of the ETAs got engaged over the winter holiday! Way to go, Travis!). The weekend inevitably came to an end, however, and now it's back to work.

But this trip could not have been better. It restored my faith that Russia can be an exciting, inviting, and spectacular place—a faith which had been severely tested and subsequently drained after the first four months of life in Moscow. This was a perfect jumping-off point for the remaining five months of my time, and I just hope I can squeeze in several more trips like this during that time. After all, there are a lot more things to see, and a lot more people to meet in this country, whether on purpose or by chance.

You can find more of my photos from our time in Vladimir here and Suzdal here!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

How to properly 'встречать' the New Year

The fireworks are still going off throughout Moscow, for today marks the end of the New Years holiday in Russia: Старый Новый Год. Due to the Orthodox Church's continued use of the Gregorian calendar, the Old New Year celebration is held on January 13, although the state still recognizeы January 1st as the New Year.

So, what does this mean? Russians have been celebrating for 13 days straight.

And what does this mean? Russians have been drinking for 13 days straight.

Well, at least for 10 days. The Russian government declared the official holiday from January 1-10. And the Russian people milked those 10 days for all that they're worth. I tried my best to keep up. I decided to stay in Moscow to experience part of this grand New Year celebration and to try on my fledgling 'Russian-ness' for size. I succeeded for only a day and a half.

My plan had always been to go to Red Square and 'do it right'. Everyone I told of this plan, however, warned me against it, saying it would be too crowded, too cold, and too dangerous. After drinking with some professors in celebration of yet another birthday, I finally got to the bottom of their concern: Caucasians. They were warning me that only people from Chechnya, Abkhazia, Ossetia, Georgia, etc. go to Red Square for New Years. Russians, to put it politely, are wary of these types after decades of wars and recent terrorist attacks (Nord Ost in 2002, Beslan in 2004, and most recently the Nevski Express explosion in late November 2009).

But I was doing it for the memory, and I was going to do it. So I planned my night out:

First, drinks and dinner with my friends Kristyna and Alex in my room. We didn't have much food, but we did have a lot of vodka.

Second, concerts and fireworks on Red Square with Kristyna, Alex, Nadia and Polina. More drinking; this time champagne and cognac.
Third, return to the university and meet up with Lyoha and go to his apartment for a big party with his friends (after a snowball fight on the main square of the campus). There were several bottles of champagne, seven bottles of vodka (read: more drinking) and a large новый-годный стол packed with mayonnaise-filled meat-salads, bread, salami, cheese, and Russia's famous холодец--boiled pigs feet chilled in its own juices until gelatinous--to be eaten strictly with horseradish (and I would recommend some vodka to help forget what you're eating).

I'll sum up my New Years 2010 night with the following statements:
- I enjoyed myself immensely.
- Red Square was cold and crowded, and perhaps dangerous too, but I didn't notice. I had had enough to drink to make sure of that.
- I met some great people at Lyoha's party and got some good Russian practice in. I also ate холодец. (no comment)
- I drank a lot, but retained perfect consciousness. The Russians are artists at drinking and not getting a hangover, and they have generously taken me on as their protege. 17 shots of vodka, 2 glasses of champagne, and 1 shot of cognac. Still alive.
- Before I knew it, I was dancing on Lyoha's couch, and it was 7 A.M.

7 A.M.! "I need to go home."

I put on my boots and jacket and trudged home through the snow as the sun was rising, and passed out until noon, when my phone rang.

Lyoha: "Bryan! Where are you?"
Me: "Uh...home? In bed?"
Lyoha: "No no no no! This is New Russia! It is a 10-day party! Come back, everyone is waiting for you!"
Me: "Okay." (I'm very stubborn.)

I put my boots and jacket back on as the room spun slightly around me, and made my way back through the fresh snow to Lyoha's apartment. I was conscious enough to notice that no one was outside. I had been warned of this. January 1st in Russia is the most quiet place on earth. The entire population is at home, either passed out in all their glory from the night before, or still throwing back shots of vodka with friends. The latter was my fate. I arrived back at Lyoha's to the clinking sound of shot glasses and vodka bottles being slammed onto the table. 2 more down the hatch within 5 minutes of arriving.

Thankfully, I had an excuse for leaving before midnight on this second day of partying. Two fellow Fulbright ETAs were coming through Moscow on their way back to Russia from their respective vacations, and I promised to spend a few days with them. So I slipped out of Lyoha's at around 11:30 P.M., just as a dubbed "Tropic Thunder" was coming on TV (it's a good thing I left then, or I would have been sucked in.)

The next two and a half days were spent with Fulbrighters Kristen, Nicky, and Andrew, as well as with Thomas--one of my classmates from Middlebury who was in Russia for a few weeks doing senior thesis research--and Thomas' sister, Lee. We hit up several great museums, a killer bakery for breakfast, ate at the same vegetarian restaurant for dinner two nights in a row, and I fortunately managed to limit my alcohol intake to a couple of beers over those days.

The evening of January 4 saw me off on a 4-day adventure to Istanbul to meet Jed, my good friend from W&M, as we had been planning on doing for several months. I can't possibly go into great detail about everything I saw and did in Istanbul, but I will give some bullet highlights:

-most important for my morale, I saw grass (well, greenery in general) for the first time in 3 months; and the temperature got as high as 14 degrees (compared to -15 average in Moscow)
- got a native tour of Taksim, the young, hip, modern part of Istanbul (unbelievably fun, and also a 24/7/365 kind of place; "Istanbul never sleeps," we were told---and we believe it)
- saw the entirety of Istanbul from the Galata Tower
- went to a nightclub and saw two great Turkish bands play live
- bought a 50-year old carpet handmade in central Turkey from a 4th generation carpet merchant in the 5 century-old Grand Bazaar (I love saying that)
- visited the Basilica Cistern--an underground wonder--with its two mysterious Medusa-head column bases
- visited several mosques, including the world-famous Blue Mosque (unreal)
- visited the Hagia Sophia (the most incredible part of the whole trip in my mind)
- took in one of the most breath-taking and history-filled views of my life: looking out of the second-floor balcony of the Hagia Sophia across to the Blue Mosque
- visited the Topkapi and Dolmabahce Palaces (and their respective harems), which were home to the Sultanate of the Ottoman Empire for centuries
- saw a Marc Chagall exhibit at a modern art museum
- ate a ton of baklava, drank a ton of apple tea, and smoked a water pipe in an open air joint completely covered in carpets and pillows...classic
- spent a night eating stellar seafood and drinking raki while overlooking the Bosphorus
- took a ferry across the Bosphorus to the Asian side for some more exploring
- heard a great deal of Russian (and spoke some) with the HUNDREDS of Russian tourists visiting Turkey---sometimes I felt like I never left...
- learned some Turkish! [merhaba = hello; gule-gule = goodbye; teshekur = thank you; tashakur = my balls (be careful between those last two); sau = thanks (a much safer bet); lutfen = please; bir = one; iki = two; bira = beer ("bir bira, lutfen"); yagshemash = goodnight! (you may recognize that from Borat)]

It was an unbelievable time, and I was so glad to be able to share it with such a good friend. Some may call it a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but I have a feeling I'll be going back. Here are just a few of the 800+ photos I managed to take:
Jed admiring his rug purchase with Mustafa Kemal Ataturk watching over his shoulder, as he does everywhere in Turkey (and I thought Russians were big on personality cults).

A look back at ancient Istanbul from the ferry across the Bosphorus to the Asian side.

The incredible Hagia Sophia as seen from from the main entrance of the Blue Mosque.

The Blue Mosque--an incredibly intricate structure.

For now, though, it's back to the frigidness of Moscow and the teaching regimen. What a downer after such an exhilarating vacation.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

ABBA is alive and well in Moscow, unfortunately.

Last night was the Christmas/New Years celebration with the English students of Lingva, so a few other Americans doing missionary work in the city joined me to talk about our traditions, sing a few carols, and screen 'A Charlie Brown Christmas'. The students had even set up a fake 6-foot Christmas tree (or елка) in the middle of the room.

Then one Russian student had a few songs she wanted to sing. I had been told of her wonderful voice well in advance, so I thought it would be lovely to hear. I just didn't anticipate the genre of songs she enjoyed: very bad classic electro-pop. Her performance was capped-off by a memorable finale of ABBA's "Happy New Year".

She addressed everyone, "I think you all know this next song, so lets gather around the tree and sing together." I glanced suspiciously at the other Americans in the room, but we nonetheless stood, joined hands around the tree, and began walking in a circle while the young woman conveyed to us her passion for all things ABBA. None of us Americans knew the song, but the Russians were certainly into it, raising their hands high up in the air each time the phrase 'Happy New Year' was sung.

I learned one important lesson that evening: ABBA's song is four and a half minutes too long.