What Is and What Could Have Been

(Yes the title was inspired by a Zeppelin song.)

Last weekend, Tim, Emma, and I took a trip to Novosibirsk, the third-biggest city in Russia and the biggest by far in Siberia with 1.5 million people, a Metro, and a huge downtown area. Rather than stay in a hotel, we opted to use an online site where locals who are willing to host travelers can connect with said travelers. It was a great experience for us, since we got to really see the city rather than traipsing around aimlessly, speak Russian, and make new friends. Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk are only about 10-12 hours apart, depending on the train you take, and it’s a big enough city that there are скоро (skora, quick) trains that make about half the stops of a normal train on the Novosibirsk-Krasnoyarsk route.

Novosibirsk is a much newer city than Krasnoyarsk (only about 150 years old) and it is big enough that it attracts people from across Russia to live in. We met two girls from Ulan-Ude (on the far side of Baikal), a guy from Tatarstan (about 4-6 hours from Moscow; a Muslim area), a guy from Nigeria (black people are something of a novelty in Russia – there’s no racism against them, but Russians think they are fascinating), and another girl from a provincial town about 4 hours away. As such, Novosibirsk has a much more “hip,” up-to-date feeling. There are glass skyscrapers all over, the streets are relatively clean, and the Metro is very new (and, as opposed to WMATA, it runs on schedule). Novosibirsk is a business center, and our friends insisted that it was the capital of Siberia. We toured the city with them, visiting the parks, Lenin Square, the Opera and Ballet theater, and an American-style pizza restaurant that they were very excited to show us (it even had a mini Statue of Liberty in the window!). The bulk of our time in Novosibirsk, though, was spent at our hosts, Alex and Katya’s, dacha (summer house). We visited with them, enjoyed their huge garden and banya (Russian bath house), and made fresh шашлик (shashlik, an Armenian-style barbeque dish). Staying at the dacha was very relaxing – there was only 1 tap of cold running water, and we were able to just sit back and chat.

But what I noticed about Novosibirsk, rather than the blatant differences between it and Krasnoyarsk, was how similar they were, and how similar I would assume any city that survived the Soviet period would be. (Fun fact about Krasnoyarsk – during the Soviet period, it was a “closed city,” meaning nobody could get in or out without express authorization. This is probably why it’s still basically a living Soviet relic today.) Both cities have a Lenin Square with a huge statue of Lenin, an Opera and Ballet theater, a Коммунальный Мост (komunalnyy most, community bridge) in the same style, Lenin and Karl Marx streets, a WWII Heroes memorial, the same Soviet-style apartment buildings, and the same sort of police buildings. Clearly, the Soviet system was effective at making all the cities in it the same. It must’ve been a lot easier to manage cities when they were all the same – it just goes to prove the point that in a state-run system, people and cities are nothing but interchangeable parts. They’re all the same in essence, they just have a different function. Novosibirsk was intended to be a business center, which it still is today, while Krasnoyarsk was an industrial center. What it produced, I have no idea, but as Tim and Emma pointed out, its location in the south of Siberia, surrounded by mountains and on a major river, makes it the perfect location to hide something.

After перестройка (perestroyka, a sort of cultural openness) started to open Russia to the outside under Gorbachev, Novosibirsk grew into a more European city while Krasnoyarsk remained closed. People could enter and leave, but it was still an industrial capital, and to this day, Novosibirsk is a European-style business and shopping city while Krasnoyarsk is a dingy, Soviet, industrial city. Krasnoyarsk didn’t grow up the same way Novosibirsk did, but I can’t help but wonder, what if Krasnoyarsk hadn’t been a closed, industrial city? Would it be like Novosibirsk, or would it have stayed Soviet? I did enjoy Novosibirsk, but Krasnoyarsk certainly has more history and unique Russian flavor…

Lenin Square and the Opera and Ballet theater in Novosibirsk; Alex and Katya’s dacha; and Tim, Emma, and I at the Novosibirsk WWII heroes memorial.

 

Well, I guess this was my last post from Krasnoyarsk. That is so weird to say – it seems like I’ve finally figured out Russia and now it’s time to leave. So, tomorrow, on to Moscow, from there to New York, to Milwaukee, a week there, then at long last, home to DC. Can’t wait to see you all 🙂

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Still Proud

(Disclaimer: this is kinda lengthy. Also, it’s sort of speculative, but it’s a topic I love. Enjoy!! 🙂 )

There was more than one war going on in 1812. No, not Andrew Jackson’s New Orleans campaign, but the war that was the beginning of the end of Napoleon. A war that had a million lessons for future invasions, of which about 3 were followed. The Great Fatherland War (Отчественная война, otchestvennaya vojna) of 1812 ended with Moscow burning, but left the Russians with their first huge patriotic, historical victory. Much of the history of Siberia is related in some way to this war, and it’s a favorite topic of our teachers. We learned about it when we talked about the Decembrists (they were mostly war heroes), it comes up in regular conversation, and just today, we went to a ship-museum that had an exhibit dedicated to it.
Long story short, Napoleon thought invading Russia was a good idea. And it was – control of Moscow would’ve given him control of almost all of Europe. But he didn’t take into consideration the Russian winter (which killed many of his underdressed men – the Germans would relearn this lesson about 130 years later), and that the Russian people had a sense of patriotism. The Russians knew that Napoleon would strike at Moscow (even though St. Pete was the capital at the time, Moscow was a critical city, plus it was farther south), so they evacuated the city and removed all the supplies. Napoleon set the city on fire and limped back to France, his army decimated by hunger, winter, and a few skirmishes with the Cossacks. Shortly thereafter, the victorious Red Army marched into France, where the Parisians cheered the victors and the beginning of the end of Napoleon.

Today, the Russians always come back to their victory in 1812 and their victory in World War II (known in Russian as the Great Patriotic War) when they reference how strong a country Russia is. Yeah, that might be a bit more historical and factual than our “America is Awesome!” patriotism (there is NOTHING wrong with it – America is awesome!), but Russian patriotism is just as strong as ours is. They are proud of their country, and even though the Soviets screwed over so many people, they keep wearing “Russia” clothes. I’ve especially noticed this as the Olympics started – every event I’ve caught features a Russian team, leading to my watching some events I never would’ve watched otherwise (fencing, water polo, and pingpong, to name a few). People walk around wearing Russian Olympics clothes, and just about everyone is getting hyped up for the Sochi 2014 Winter Games – there are banners and events everywhere. And when the Russians do well, in any minor event, the commentators get incredibly excited, cheering them on for any well-done hit, dive, or race.

Russian pride in their history was displayed again to me today when we visited the Russian WWII memorial. It was about twice the size of ours, and rather than focusing on the history of the war, it was dedicated to the soldiers who fought it. Sure, there were awesome Soviet tanks to climb on, but the Tiger tanks were decisive in the war. It was a piece-of-history jungle gym, with a patio for kids to ride their bikes and run around (again, unlike our memorial – a place of silence and reflection). The history has become a part of their lives, something to celebrate and to remember (there was a monument to the soldiers and workers, another representing every soldier who served, and a memorial to unknown soldiers). The Russians like to remind us Americans that they were really the ones who won the Second World War when they captured Berlin, and just about every Russian I’ve talked to about that wonder why we don’t know it. My answer: America is Awesome! But we don’t always acknowledge that because we don’t like to think that America wasn’t first, that we were just a part of the team, because in school, we are taught that we are always the victors.

Even though the Russians are proud of their history and Olympic athletes (and this is kind of a side note but still related), they aren’t exactly happy about their army. Every young man has to serve for at least one year, and most of the men I’ve talked to cannot understand why Emma, T.J., and I would want to voluntarily serve for four years in our services. I usually can’t explain beyond that we love our country, and that America is Awesome. One (rather drunk) Russian Ranger told me that I was some sort of demeaning word for a “patriot,” but more sober Russians I talked with agreed that our volunteer system was better. Maybe that’s why we can keep a rowdy, America is Awesome patriotism. We actually want to serve, and those who don’t are proud of those who do. Here, those who don’t serve pity those who do and nobody really talks about their service after getting out, but the Russians are certainly proud of their history and victories although they don’t flaunt it.

T.J., Emma, and I on the Soviet tank; and the memorial to all who served in the Second World War.

Russian Food

Every time I walk in the door, my host mama asks if I want to eat. I usually say “no, not right now” and she asks me when. I’ll tell her when, and exactly then, she’ll have a full plate of food on the table for me. There are always salted vegetables on the side, and usually bread. If I look hungry when I come in, she brings a plate of fruit to my room to make sure I’m not starving; if I ask for a small plate of seconds I’ll get another full plate. It’s very rude not to at least a portion of everything in front of you. If there’s food or candies on the table there’s no need to ask if you can eat – food is never used as a decoration here like it is in America.

Last Sunday, I went out with my friends Bjac, Emma, and Conner. (They jumped off a 45M bridge, with ropes of course, but that’s another story). After they’d jumped, we went to Bjac’s host family’s дача (dacha, summer home), but before, we stopped at a store so his host mama, Nadia, could pick up some ice cream. We got inside, washed up, and sat down at the table – there wasn’t only ice cream, but biscuits and fruit fresh from the dacha garden. It would’ve been extremely rude of Nadia not to offer us food (it wouldn’t have been hospitable of her and the women are expected to make everybody feel comfortable), and while we ate with a few of her friends, she ran to and from the kitchen, making sure we had enough to eat and drink.

She sent us out to look at the garden, which her mother and father tend, and promised us lunch in 30 minutes. I was a bit surprised by that – ice-cream, followed almost immediately by lunch, is a lot of food at once, even for Russians. But their garden was beautiful, full of Siberian berries, vegetables, and fruit trees. It was bigger than any American garden I’ve ever seen, and Nadia’s parents, who were showing us around, kept giving us more and more fruit – they didn’t want us to miss a single taste of Siberia. By the time lunch was ready, we’d ate countless berries, on top of our ice-cream and biscuits earlier. Lunch was typical of Russian food and company – there was a lot of very simple food. Russia’s peasant heritage has a clear influence on their food, both in its simplicity (meat and potatoes or soup is a typical dinner) and its abundance (sharing all you had has long been considered a sign of wealth across the world). We had a cold soup of fresh vegetables, ham, квас (kvas, a fermented, carbonated, nonalcoholic drink), and сметана (smetana, Russian sour cream). It was supposed to be some sort of Russian summer treat, but the квас and сметана “broth” was very strange to an American.

It wasn’t long until the vodka was brought out (of course! – there were friends and family there), but this wasn’t typical Russian vodka. It was brown “Шушенская” (Shushenskaya, a city in the very south) vodka, flavored and colored with Russian wasabi. We drank it out of brandy glasses, which was also a very interesting experience. But that’s a bit off topic. Sharing vodka is how the men show hospitality (Nadia’s father brought out the bottle), and traditionally, every round is toasted. The first toast is typically to your health, the second to the occasion (or anything, really), but the third is always to the women at the table (Russian culture is very different than American on behavior toward women. It’s not anti-feminist or anything, but women are typically honored). The way it goes is that the women stay seated while all the men stand and say “To the women!” Then the girls have to drain their entire drink before the men can take a sip. Another interesting thing about Russian drinking tradition is that chasers are usually a food, not juice. We had delicious homemade pickles, which were the perfect thing to cut the taste of that vodka.

Later in the week, we went hiking with Nadia and her friends up into the mountains to see the столбы (stolby, rock formations). It was about 10 kilometers up, and by up I mean up. There were literally no flat portions on the road the whole way! We got to a picnic area, where everybody opened up their packs and laid out a whole cold meal (sausages, cookies, fresh vegetables). There was no way Nadia and her friends would let us get hungry while we were hiking, and we all sat for about 20 minutes and just enjoyed some food. Once we got up to the top of the mountains, there were these huge rock formations that we climbed all over. From the very top of them, you could see all the mountains, the Yenisey River, and Krasnoyarsk. It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen…

After a few more столбы, the Russians brought out more food, this time, on the top of one of the rocks so we could watch the sunset over the mountains. It was traditional Russian sandwich-fare: open-faced sandwiches with black bread, mayonnaise, and sausage. We ate up, then climbed back down the mountain, where Nadia brought out the cookies again. There’s no chance of going hungry here – food is so central to the culture that it won’t be left behind even on a 20km hike.

Me, Shantel, Emma, Conner, and Bjac on top of a столб, and a typical Russian light meal/snack.

 

More family – Updates

Hello! This is just a quick update/addendum to my last post. My friend Sarah also is slightly obsessed with Russia and she runs her own blog (insearchofrussia.wordpress.com – check it out!) Last week, she saw my post about the family and asked me to co-write a piece with her on the same topic. So if you’re interested to see a more analytic/American perspective, here’s the link: (http://insearchofrussia.wordpress.com/2012/07/25/family-ties/)

Also, I apologize in advance for not having a timely blog post this week. I’ve been doing a lot of things around the city (today we are hiking in the mountains!) and haven’t had time to do photos or my blog. And, of course, thank you for reading my blog 🙂

A Family Weekend

Well, I finally had a quiet week. After all that’s been happening, though, I found it sort of boring, which was a good thing. I needed a week “off” from Russia…

Even though I didn’t do much other than go to class, I started picking up on some smaller Russian-culture things that I hadn’t noticed (well, paid attention to) before. The people here are very similar to people in America – they go to class or work, ride the bus home, cook dinner, and relax with a beer or TV before bed. But the way they do everything is different than in America (of course). I started noticing on Friday night, when there were no planned activities for the weekend. My host sister(Masha, she is 16 years old) returned from her vacation during the week, so we would finally get to do something together. When I asked my host mama what to do, she didn’t have any ideas at first, but she called her other granddaughter, Anya, Masha’s cousin, and she came over on Saturday night and again on Sunday. (Anya finished her high school in Switzerland and is planning to return there in the Fall for college. She speaks fluent English, so it’s interesting to talk to her. She understands a lot of the cultural things I do since she lived in Western Europe for two years, but she also knows Russian culture and can help explain it to me when I’m confused).

I’d heard it said over and over, that Russia is a very family-based culture. It’s very important to them to have their family around, to share food, and to just spend time and talk together. I got a very heavy dose of that over my weekend at home – probably the most telling incident was Sunday lunch. First off, it was the weirdest brunch I’d ever had. I believe we had salmon (or some other fish), with potatoes, vegetables, and beer. I tried to explain to Masha and my host mama that we eat eggs and bacon for lunch on Sundays, which they found very strange and difficult to understand. They countered by telling me that Sunday lunch is always for family, because nobody has work on Sundays. That was a new concept for me – at home, Sunday lunch is usually a quick bite between church and homework. But they took their brunch very seriously – Masha, who doesn’t always eat with us, was at the table and happy to be there.

After brunch, we went to meet up with Masha’s mom and her aunt at the family’s grave-site at the cemetery. That was a little weird for me, but it emphasized again the importance of family here. My host mama and Masha’s mom cleaned up the area around the headstones, and they told me who all the people were (my host mama’s mother and father, and her mother’s mother). The cemetery was beautiful in a very Russian way: it was a flowery, overgrown mess. There was an old Russian-style chapel at the entrance (see the photos).

The cemetery, and the chapel.

Afterwards, I went with Masha and Anya to a European-style (“Moscow”) cafe for coffee. (I was a bit confused at first, because usually the word кафе “cafe” implies a place that serves a meal cafeteria-style, also called a столовая “stolovaya.” That was a Soviet invention to feed workers quickly and inexpensively…) But the cafe had very good coffee and pastries, and, cheesy as it sounds, we shared our cultures. Masha wanted to know how we celebrated holidays and what the weather was like (in Russia, Christmas isn’t celebrated, and people gather with family, friends and a tree on New Year’s; also, even as far south as Krasnoyarsk, it can get to -40 in winter). I was curious to know why girls and guys didn’t seem to hang out as friends here. It’s rare on the street to see girls and guys who aren’t holding hands together, and my host mama was a bit shocked when I tried to explain to her that I have multiple male friends on this trip. (She actually didn’t understand it at first…) Anya explained that that just doesn’t happen here. Guys just want to date girls, fall in love, and have a family… and it all goes back to the family, which was and always is the basis of Russian culture.

The Trans-Siberian Adventure

This last week, the study-abroad group went on a trip to Lake Baikal and Irkutsk, in Western Siberia. Since Russia is still not quite at a Western-level economy, train is the most popular way to travel across the country. And it is huge – Irkutsk and Krasnoyarsk are farther apart than Milwaukee and DC are. Many a time, people spend two or more days on the Trans-Siberian Railway, which connects Moscow to Beijing, Ulan Bataar to Ufa, and all of Central Asia in between. Even the 18 hours we spent on the train was almost too long, since the most common, inexpensive way to ride is in купе (kupye) – a big, open car with bunks and tables lining the aisles. They claim that there’s air conditioning, but it rarely works.

The cars are incredibly stuffy, but on the way to Irkutsk, we lucked out – our window opened (on the way back, two friends and I were stuck in the emergency-exit cubby, where the window wouldn’t open at all). But the uncomfortable stickiness aside, the train is actually a fairly fun, very Russian experience. My host mama sent me off with a bag bulging with cookies, sausages, juice, and tea to make sure I wouldn’t go hungry on the ride to Irkutsk. I certainly didn’t – my bag ended up ripping open long before we arrived. Our train there was a mid-morning to early-morning (never, ever, ever take that time slot if you can avoid it – I’ll explain why in a minute). The first few hours were relatively uneventful – 2 other girls and I shared a cubby with an older woman, who was going to Ulan Ude, on the south side of Baikal. But around 7 o’clock, the vodka came out.

Technically, alcohol is illegal on Russian trains, but it’s Russia. Everyone drinks. Again, it started out uneventful – a bag of chips, some conversation, and a few drinks. Then, the students in our cubby decided to go visit the other students, where we crammed 8 or so of us into 1 four-person cubby. Well, you can guess what happened to the alcohol consumption, and before too long, 4 Russian men (hairy, sweaty, but at least they had shirts on) came and joined us. They polished off what was left of our alcohol, and we started getting noisy (this was around midnight, and the train got to Irkutsk at 6am). The train-attendant came several times to tell us to be quiet (I swear, the Americans weren’t nearly as rowdy as the Russians were), and after a few times, threatened to kick us off in the middle of the night, in the middle of Nowhere, Siberia (outside of the cities, it is literally as empty as you think it is). Well, the same lady came around at 5am to wake everyone up for the arrival. Nobody was too happy…

 

When we finally got to the hotel we were staying at, it was about 9am (the hotel was on the lake, about 100km from Irkutsk). We had breakfast and hoped to shower and sleep, but we set off on an “excursion” as it’s called in Russia. We saw a Baikal museum to learn about the area, and found out that not only is Baikal the deepest lake in the world but it has a species of seals that only live there. There was a seal in the museum, and tired as we were, the seal woke us up. Later in the day, we went to an observation point, where there were the best views of Baikal in the area. It was indescribably beautiful at the top! Finally, we went back to the hotel, but not for sleep yet. Instead, we took a баня (banya, or Russian bath). It involves a dry-heat sauna (about 80C), after which you dump cold water on yourself to rinse off the sweat. You repeat the cycle a few times, then, on the last time in the sauna, you beat each other with branches. It’s supposed to stimulate your muscles, and it did feel nice, but it was very weird.

My friends Bjac and Kelli crammed into the train; Lake Baikal; an old wooden Russian church at the museum; and the Decembrist’s fireplace and mantelpiece.

The rest of our time at the lake, we visited a small market, had Central Asian dishes (if you ever get the chance, eat шашлыки “shashlyki,” a kind of Uzbek/Tajik shiskabob-barbeque. It is one of the best things I’ve had here so far, eaten with “na’an” bread and ketchup), and saw a museum depicting ancient Russian life. One night, we decided to go to a semi fancy bar/restaurant, where all we ordered was a beer. We sat at the table for about 40 minutes without beer, wondering what could possibly take so long. We finally got the attention of the waitress, and she said she thought we’d ordered some sort of pricey, beer-battered fish that had the same name as the beer. (Russian foodservice is notoriously poor…) We insisted that we didn’t, and thankfully, our teachers were at the bar with us, and they helped us explain that we hadn’t ordered anything but drinks. The waitress had even asked if we wanted hot dishes or bread when we ordered, and we left quick before she could charge us for fish.

 

The next day, we headed to Irkutsk for the day. Many revolutionaries (“Decembrists”) were exiled to Siberia in the early 19oo’s to perform hard labor. After their work sentence was over, they would remain exiled in Siberian cities for several years before they could “return to Russia,” i.e., Moscow or St. Pete. So there, we saw a museum set up in the famous Decembrist, Sergey Bolonsky’s house. It was decorated with historical furniture and told the story of an exiled family trying to do their best to survive far from Europe. We walked around the city for awhile before ending up at the train station, where we took the overnight-to-midafternoon train back to Krasnoyarsk. No drunk Russians this time, but I was in a cubby with my friends Conner and Andrew. The fourth bed was occupied by a 20-something Uzbek man, coming from Vladivostok in Eastern Russia back to Uzbekistan. He was interesting to talk to, but shortly after, his friends showed up. Then an Armenian man, then two slightly-drunk Russian Soldiers (one was a Ranger, one was Air Force, and both were wearing random parts of their uniform). The Soldiers made some very good conversation (the one who was less drunk, Nikolay, spoke broken English). They wondered why Americans thought we’d won World War Two, when it was really the Russians who invaded Berlin. We said, embarrased, that Americans didn’t know history very well. They also thought it was strange that I would simply want to be in the Army. They explained to me a term that was somewhat derogatory (I think… didn’t totally understand it) for someone who actually loves their country, but all in all, it was good Russian practice.

Life in the “Second World”

First off, sorry for the late post this week. Got a little tied up in everything – homework, visiting with Russian family, going to the Zoo, seeing the ballet, and watching my friends bridge-jump (tied to a rope from a bridge and swinging under it. It was more legit than I thought it would be.)

Now for this week’s actual post… the world today is divided into “First World” and “Third World” countries because of the Cold War. The USA and Western Europe were considered the “First World” (capitalist, advanced societies and technological economies), while the Soviet Bloc was considered the “Second World” (Communist economy and society). Everything else was the “Third World” (too poor to matter). Today, the term “Second World” has fallen out of use, but in reality, it’s the only way to conveniently describe Russia. 

Russia is certainly not up to a perfectly Western standard of living. Many people still live in small, rundown  Soviet apartment buildings (see the photos) with 2-3 rooms and a bathroom (in Soviet days, each family would have 1-2 rooms and share a kitchen and bathroom with everyone on the floor). For example, my friend Emma lives with her host parents in a 3 room apartment. Her bedroom doesn’t have a door, and the parent’s bed is in the living room. You can literally reach the stove from the kitchen table, and the view is onto a concrete courtyard. It’s certainly not a bad place to live, but it’s barely what an American college student would consider acceptable. The outside of these buildings haven’t been renovated literally since before the fall of the USSR, so as one English-speaking Krasnoyarsk citizen told us, they make  “Krasnoyarsk look like shit.” In all honesty, Krasnoyarsk does look like a falling-apart Soviet town. There have been a few renovation projects going on to facelift the Soviet buildings and redo the interiors, but that only makes them new, expensive places to live. Not many people can afford to live in nice buildings, so the Soviet buildings stay old and crappy-looking.

Even so, the situation is much better than what it was in Soviet times. (The rest of this paragraph is on a from-what-I-understood basis, since my host mama doesn’t speak any English). Sunday nights, there are usually history programs on on TV, about the Tsarist times in Russia. She explained to me that in the USSR, students weren’t taught any Russian history, so they play history shows on Sundays to help educate the people about their own history that they never learned. Zoya Mikhailova said that sometimes her granddaughter thinks she is a bit slow for not knowing Russia’s own history, but she was never taught it. On another occasion, Zoya Mikhailova began saying that in Soviet times, people were only allowed 3 pairs of shoes (black, white, and brown) and having any more than that was risk of punishment. She said they had to live spying on their neighbors all the time and always worried that they were being spied on. When Gorbachev finally introduced “perestroika” (cultural openness) to the USSR, the citizens were thrilled. Zoya Mikhailova loves to travel, and she has told me more than once that her first trip to Paris after perestroika was so exciting. She’s shown me all sorts of photos and souveniers from the trip, and has since visited much of Europe. 

The super-control of the USSR obviously led to a lack of economy, and just tonight, Zoya Mikhailova and I were talking about how Russia’s economy is very low right now. We’ve noticed that even around Krasnoyarsk – everything here seems reasonably cheap to us (1/4 liter of fairly good vodka for the equivalent of less than 4 bucks; lunch usually costs $2-$4), but is expensive to the Russians. Most people work in shops or factories and don’t make much money. Zoya Mikhailova explained that it was very hard to get electricity to the Russian Far East, leaving me with the impression that some parts of the North and East still don’t have it. She wondered if Russia’s economy would ever get better, especially in Siberia, because many tourists don’t come here with their money. I said how hard it was to get a visa for Russia, and she agreed that that wasn’t helping the economy.

Things we take for granted in the States are virtually nonexistent here, but the economy isn’t so depraved that there is literally nothing, making the term “Second World” even more practical to describe Russia. I’ve only been in 1 shop that had air-conditioning (there is none in the homes), and many public toilets are squat-toilets without toilet paper. The tap water is undrinkable without filtering (in some parts of Russia, it’s undrinkable even with a filter), and there are no bubblers (drinking fountains for you non-WI people) on the streets. Even the 3 weeks I’ve spent here have changed my perspective so much…

After that longish history lesson, a story from the week: On Sunday, our group of American and Canadian students went with one of the student’s host families to an “excursion” as they’re called here down the Yenisey River. The host family and Russian friends were only a few years older than us (25-26 years old), so we had a good “student” time. We took a cruise-style boat about an hour down the river, where we set up camp. One thing Emma and I have noticed here is the culture of male superiority – and that was made extremely evident as the Russian and American girls set our bags down and walked ahead of the guys, who were carrying bags and bags of food and all of our day packs. 

We cracked the first bottle of vodka at 10.30 in the morning (yes, Russians do love their vodka as much as we joke they do) and toasted Russia. Then we started the campfire and a few of the girls got food ready for soup and barbeque. The rest of us hiked around in the woods, skipped stones on the river (there was still overnight fog, so the mountains looked legitimately blue!) and waited for the food. My friend Connor has the best way of describing Russian food: “Russians have the best peasant food ever.” Everything is pretty simple, meat, basic veggies, and potatoes, but is absolutely delicious. The barbeque had Central Asian seasoning, and there was so much meat that even hungry 20-something males couldn’t down it all. Once the food was cooked, we sat around eating and having vodka cocktails for the rest of the day, until the boat came back to take us to Krasnoyarsk.Image

A typical Soviet-era apartment building.Image

The Yenisey, fog, and mountains

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My friends Bjac, Andrew, TJ, and myself on the hiking-trail in the Siberian forest.

Not a Forgotten Land

Contrary to popular belief, Siberia isn’t all a frozen wasteland. That’s only in the very far north of Russia –  Siberia actually covers a huge part of the nation. The joke here is that Siberia should separate from Russia and become it’s own country because it’s so rich in natural resources. The weather here has actually been about 27C for the last week (warm anywhere, but especially warm for Siberia) and there’s been no sign of polar bears or snow. There are actually a few palm trees growing in Krasnoyarsk!

This last week flew by. I learned a lot more Russian than I’d ever thought possible in a week and can finally successfully communicate with my host mother whenever I need to and can make a simple purchase with no difficulties. I can’t imagine what another 7 weeks here will do… Classes started in full swing this week, and there are 4 topic we’re learning: Grammar, Conversational Russian, Mass Media, and Russian Studies. Russian Studies is probably my favorite – there is so much to learn about this huge country, and even just Krasnoyarsk.

A bit of background on Krasnoyarsk, from what I’ve learned here: The city is celebrating its 384th birthday on Saturday, making it more than 100 years older than our entire NATION.  Krasnoyarsk was a very important manufacturing city during the Stalin years, and since the time of the October Revolution (1917), it’s been the place where “rebels” were sent from Moscow and St. Petersburg. Needless to say, it was a main center of the Gulag (which actually stands for State Labor Camp in Russian) in the mid-1900’s, and because of the culture formed from all the outcasts, it’s become a very open, diverse city. While most of Russia is struggling with racism issues, Tatars, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Ukranians live together with ethnic Russians here, something that really surprised me when I first stepped onto the street.

Krasnoyarsk’s importance as a Soviet city has left it, to this day, with a very heavy manufacturing economy. There are lots of factories, and since the fall of the Soviet Union, Krasnoyarsk has begun to grow as a new, modern city. This creates a lot of visual paradoxes, as shiny new stores and American-style restaurants pop up in front of Soviet-era, decrepit apartments and factories. The blue-collar culture is evident here, as many people work long hours in the factories and shops and return home to small apartments. The cars are the same (aside from the fact that NOBODY here can drive): either they are Soviet Lada’s or brand-new German and Japanese cars. It seems as if Krasnoyarsk is undergoing a facelift everyday – parts of the city are very rundown and dirty, but that is where the most construction is.

Real live Siberian palm trees, and a general idea of what Krasnoyarsk looks like – a total clash of Soviet and brand-new.

But enough about the city’s history for now – since this is getting longwinded anyways, I’ll just talk about my favorite experience from the week. All summer here, there are festivals for basically every reason. Last weekend, there was one called the “Green Festival” simply because it was celebrated on a huge field on an island in the Yenisey. There was your typical festival setup, overpriced food and homemade jewelry, a few cats and dogs for sale, and a huge Twister game for the kids. But, as my friend Emma and I moved through the festival grounds, we saw a crowd of people gathering. We joined the group and showed our American-ness by plopping straight down on the ground. (The belief here is that if women sit on the ground/a cold surface, they will go infertile.)

There was what appeared to be a drum circle, which was interesting enough. But soon, Gypsies (tsygani in Russian) came out and started dancing. For a “Gypsy Wedding” fan like myself, that was the coolest thing ever. Emma and I wondered if they were real Gypsy (Romachal), but after only a few minutes of watching their dance and seeing their beautiful costumes, we were convinced they were. They didn’t look like ethnic Russians and everything they were doing looked authentic – similar to “Gypsy Wedding,” except without the Western spin on it. The dances were absolutely entrancing, with the perfect synchronization, costumes, and finger-cymbals (check the video link): Gypsy Dance at the Green Festival

To further back up our belief that the Gypsies we saw were Romachal, later that day Emma and I saw a woman who looked the same doing hand-readings on a public square. A few days later, I saw a woman dressed in Gypsy clothes with dark skin and hair (fairly uncommon for Russia) taking fares on the bus. Seeing as Krasnoyarsk is a relatively multicultural city, it isn’t hard to think that the Gypsies here are Romachal, which makes being here an even more unique experience.

‘Till next week! 🙂 Пока пока! (goodbye!)

Красноярск (Krasnoyarsk)

Здравствуйте из Краснояска!! Hello from Krasnoyarsk!!

I finally made it to this beautiful Siberian city yesterday morning after a very very long time spent traveling (with time change, I think it was about 48 hours; Krasnoyarsk is 12 hours ahead of DC). I’d never left the states before, so it was a very interesting experience… I ended up sprinting through JFK because my flight was late getting in and had to transfer between 2 airports in Moscow, to say the least. It was a bit frightening at first, because everybody at the airport thought I was Russian and spoke Russian to me. Needless to say, I didn’t have a clue what was going on but finally got some language-confidence back and was able to make it to Krasnoyarsk. The joke is always that Russians do nothing but smoke and drink, and that was true in the airport in Moscow – too many people were in the smoking lounge, so they just stood in the hallway and turned the lower level of the airport into a cloud of smoke. The airport at Krasnoyarsk was a bit of a joke, even smaller than Milwaukee – there was just one small room and the security checkpoint consisted of one lady sitting next to a metal detector.

Once I got off the plane, my host mother, Zoya Mikhailova and the program director were waiting for me. But there was a bit of a surprise – Zoya Mikhailova doesn’t speak any English. Good for my Russian I guess, but bad for communication. She speaks a little German, which helps some, but I do a lot of smiling and nodding. We drove from the airport back to the city, and I found out that Russians have very little regard for the rules-of-the-road. We were swerving in and out of traffic, other cars were passing us at way over the speed limit (not too familiar with km/h yet…), and European road signs are somewhat unintelligible to an American. My entire few days here, I’ve seen one cop… who was throwing a cigarette butt out of his car window.

The city of Krasnoyarsk across the  Енисей (Yenisey River), and the market where we went shopping.

Zoya Mikhailova is a grandmother who doesn’t work. She lives in a big apartment with her granddaughter Masha, who is 16 and speaks some English. Her daughter Tanya often comes by, and she studied in the States for a year so she knows decent English. My first real exposure to Russian culture, aside from the huge language barrier, was the food. I sat down for what I thought was tea and was presented with sausage sandwiches, all kinds of crackers and pastries, and lots of fruit. Zoya Mikhailova wasn’t satisfied until I’d at least sampled some of everything, which was all delicious. The same for lunch (Russians eat a big meal in the afternoon and a light snack later at night). We had rice and chicken and all kinds of vegetables, then she brought out some dessert. She thought it was odd that I wanted cold milk with pastries (Russians usually don’t drink cold beverages) but she let me have some anyways.

The rest of the day, I rested and we went shopping for food and a few things that I needed. The store was an experience, because there are 10-rouble notes and coins, also there are 1o-kopeck coins. I tried to give the cashier 10 kopecks and she looked at me like I was crazy, but I thought it was 10 roubles. (When we got back to the apartment, Zoya Mikhailova and Masha explained the rouble/kopeck system, so it makes somewhat more sense now.) We went to an open-air market where they sold vegetables and fruit from across Central Asia and Russia – if I didn’t know what it was, Zoya Mikhailova bought some and had me try them. I ended up pretty jetlagged from the traveling and didn’t do anything but sleep after dinner.

Today, I had my first day of class at the university. It was very interesting – the class, Russian grammar and culture, was conducted almost entirely in Russian and focused on getting me and 3 other students up to speed on basics and local history. After classes, we went to the bookstore (in Russia, there are very few Walmart-style stores – everything is sold in individual specialized stores) to try to get pens and notebooks. All of the notebooks had graphing paper in them, and my friends (Emma and TJ) and I walked around for awhile, trying to find “normal” things. We ended up just getting the European ones with graphing paper, and we successfully spoke enough Russian to communicate with the cashier, who was asking where we were from. Same in the cafeteria where we had lunch – we asked the workers all sorts of questions about the food but we successfully ordered what we wanted. So far, Krasnoyarsk has been great!

It looks like I’ll have Internet all the time, so I will plan on updating this on Thursdays (you will probably get the updates very very early on Thursdays) 🙂

Leaving At Long Last

This is sort of a quick update to my last post, explaining the whole story with the visa. I finally received my visa, the day before I was supposed to leave (there was some major trouble with UPS…somehow “overnight shipping” didn’t work out…), only to find out it wasn’t valid until 19JUN. So, made a few phone calls, sent some email, and found out there was nothing – literally NOTHING – I could do about it. I made one last phone call that I really didn’t want to make to Delta to change my flight. Unfortunately, I’m not in Moscow right now, but life goes on, right?

I’ll be leaving on Monday for Russia and heading straight to Krasnoyarsk (in southern Siberia… map link is here: http://www.citypictures5.com/krasnoyarsk-russia/krasnoyarsk-russia-picture) after a long layover in Moscow. I plan on sleeping while I’m there, since there will be so much to see and do in Krasnoyarsk and classes start right when I get there. (My flight is supposed to get in at 7am and there are classes that day, we’ll see how that goes). But I’m looking forward to the Russian culture in Krasnoyarsk, the mini-trip to Lake Baikal we will be taking, and a day or so in Moscow at the end of the trip. My next post will be from Krasnoyarsk and I’ll be able to let y’all know when to expect updates then. I’m so excited to go!!!!! 🙂