Sunday, December 30, 2012

Green Bazaar in the Holiday Spirit

Comrades,

Alas, I returned to my favorite place in Almaty -- the Green Bazaar! It was more exciting than ever with people getting ready for New Years' Celebration (post to come soon), as vendors sold bottles of champagne (Sovietskoe champanskoe) and party streamers. The bazaar also had its usual array of interesting objects. Since a picture speaks a thousand words, I have attached some highlights of the excursion.




Dairy products at the Green Bazaar.

Meat section at the Green Bazaar.

Shoes at the Green Bazaar.

"Real" designer clothing. Unfortunately, counterfeit items produced in China continue to flood Central Asian bazaars (most of them are transported via light vehicles or trains by shuttle traders. Korgas is one of the foremost border crossing points).

Wigs.


Two summers ago I posted images from the meat section of the Green bazaar. Well, this time I returned with a purpose. Dasha asked me to acquire some beef for our New Years celebration tonight at our friend's apartment. Traditionally on New Years, Kazakhstanis prepare a massive Dastarkhan (shmorgisboard) of food and spend the evening with family and friends dining, drinking, reflecting on the past year and looking ahead to the new one. While the dishes vary from family to family, salads, meat, beshparmak, manti, polenti and balsak are staples. Mandarine oranges are also a traditional New Years food. At 12, President Nazarbayev appears on television to wish the country a happy, healthy and safe new year (in Russian and Kazakh). Anyways, I digress...
 I was a woman on a mission in the beef section -- find meat for 7 people. I went from vendor to vendor asking how much per kilogram. They all said the same price -- 1,500 tenge per kilogram. I said I needed meat for seven people and they showed me a huge slab, as depicted above, which weighs three kilograms. I bargained with this woman to buy the meat for 5,000 tenge. To be honest, I don't know if her meat is better or worse than the others, but she was the only one willing to compromise with me, so I gave her my business. When she asked me what am I going to cook and I responded, "I don't know," she looked at me like I was a crazy person.  After all, Kazakh women who go to the market know what they are cooking. Either way, it was funny and I got such a kick out of buying some 7 pounds of beef.
After acquiring half a cow, I went downstairs and bought some tomatoes, and then spent some time walking around the bazaar and soaking up the energy of the people and vendors. 

Shubat (Camel's Milk).

Santa Claus at Green Bazaar.

Another Santa Claus at the Green Bazaar.


I wish you all a happy and healthy new year! And most of all, tonight, do not drink and drive!

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Americans in Almaty

Comrades,

It has been another exciting two days in Almaty! Friday, I went to the National Academy of Sciences Library where I spent the day taking notes on some Russian-language literature on Soviet nuclear tests in Kazakhstan. The librarians were so nice and the whole experience was pretty neat. Considering I spend 90% of my time in DC on the lower level of Georgetown's library, it is only appropriate I spend some time in the library here.


Friday night, I met up with my American friend, Adam, who shares my love for Central Asian people and culture. Adam plays the guitar, dombra, dutar and shashgar rawap -- a master of stringed, long-neck lutes. He now lives in Almaty and teaches music at the conservatory. One of his students DJs at a local banquet hall. Adam invited me to come along, meet his students, and watch Adam perform. What an entertaining evening.  In the video attached, Adam is playing a traditional Uzbek song, while guests at the party dance.

It turns out, Adam was performing at the New Years party for a group of coworkers at a medical association. I started chatting with some of them. One woman works for an NGO that works to improve public health in Kazakhstan, while another man was a doctor. They were both so gracious and invited me to visit their office. While I unfortunately do not have time on this trip, perhaps in the future. Either way, I love immersing myself in these cultural events. It is such a great chance to interact with people in their element and gain insights into Kazakhstani and Central Asian culture. And extremely entertaining.  This group was particularly fascinated by the fact that Adam and I are both Americans who just happen to be spending time in Kazakhstan and who have some knowledge of Central Asian culture (Adam also speaks Kazakh).

Today, I returned to the library and then had coffee with a former government official who was active in the international negotiations for Kazakhstan in the 1990s. A fascinating conversation.

Снегорошка и Дед Мороз! This is Santa Claus and snegoroshka (snow princess), Santa Claus' niece   A  Soviet cultural staple that is still popular today. They made an appearance at the holiday party.

Dancers performing in a traditional-style Kazakh costume.
Alas, I am out for the evening. Tomorrow morning, I'm going to the bazaar! Not just any bazaar, but my favorite bazaar -- Almaty's green bazaar! 

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Greeted by Kazakh hospitality in Almaty

Comrades,

It is so great to be back in Almaty! The city is totally different under a foot of snow and in below-freezing temperatures, but it is still Almaty! The signature Kazakh hospitality, conversations with random cab drivers and the city's unique charm are ever present.

After a long flight from Washington through Istanbul, I arrived in Almaty Wednesday morning. My friend Meiirbek picked me up with his mom and I had breakfast at their apartment. They crystallize signature Kazakh hospitality. We had kasha, cucumbers, tomatoes, cheese -- the traditional Kazakh spread. And of course, tea with milk. They then drove me to my friend Dasha's apartment, as I am staying with her. After I spent most of the day sleeping, Dasha came home with a bag of oranges, chocolate and chai, and we had classic Kazakh chai-time.

Yesterday was a busy day -- I had a meeting at the International Science and Technology Center (ISTC) and chatted with the head as well as the head of Nuclear Physics. We had a wonderful discussion about Kazakhstan's scientific, technology and academic community prior and following the dissolution of the Soviet union. I was so touched by the signature Kazakh hospitality of the office manager at the ISTC. She asked me if I was staying alone and had plans for new years. I told her I was with a friend and she said. "Good, New Years is a family holiday, I would hate for you to be alone." This, my dear readers, is why I love this country so much. The people are so genuinely gracious -- hospitality is a national character trait.

During the interview at the ISTC, a Professor walked in to wish the director a warm holidays. It turns out, he is a Professor in the atomic radiation department at Al-Farabi University. He graciously invited me to meet with one of his colleagues who works on atomic radiation. The Professor graciously introduced me to his colleagues and they generously shared their time with me, showcasing new equipment for studying the long-term effects of the Soviet nuclear tests at Semipalatinsk on the environment. One current project, for example, is measuring the levels of tritium in the water surrounding the test site. (For those of you who lack an extensive background in chemistry, like myself, tritium, as it has been described to me, is the chemical in bombs that make them go "bomb!) A PhD student also showed me the university's new equipment used for exploring levels of gamma radiation. One of the machines, for example, was purchased by NATO and used in a project on exploring levels of deposit uranium in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The math and physics building was constructed only two years ago, and all of the equipment certainly is on par with that of Georgetown's. 

I was really impressed with the new quality of the labs and the knowledge and hospitality of the scientists. All of the professors and PhD students spoke english, but we mostly chatted in Russian and if there was a term I did not know I asked for clarification. In fact, I learned that if a scientist speaks english, their pay is three times higher! I also met with one professor who told me how after the fall of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan lacked experts in atomic radiation and atomic studies. Now however, that gap has been somewhat narrowed, as the government has actively supported sending students abroad to study. One PhD student I spoke with just returned from her second three-month trip in Slovenia, where she conducted research and collaborated with international colleagues. 

After speaking with the professor, I sat in a room with a PhD student and took some notes on a book published in 1997 from Moscow on Semipalatinsk one of the Professors gave me. The book detailed studies commissioned by Moscow during the Soviet union on the tests, their environmental impact and the correspondances between Moscow and local staff. The book also detailed how the local scientists were affected. Again, really interesting stuff.

By this time, I was tired, and went to a cafe, where I then met up with Dasha and we had dinner with our other mutual friends.

Alas, it is morning, and I'm off to the library for the day, and maybe some interviews. We'll see where the day takes me! 

Lab for the study of atomic radiation and the environment at KazGU named after Al-Farabi.
Portion of Map, produced by Kazatomprom, on the wall at KazGU named after Al-Farabi that  illustrates former nuclear test sites (primarily Eastern Kazakhstan) and uranium mines (Southern Kazakhstan). I personally LOVE maps and was so excited when I saw this -- unfortunately I was unable to get a copy. It so vividly depicts how Kazakhstan's environment was affected by Soviet nuclear tests and how the country will undoubtedly face this legacy for generations to come. 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Back to Kazakhstan!

Comrades,

Happy holidays! Tis the season for family, friends and research trips to you guessed it -- Kazakhstan! That's right folks, I am off to Kazakhstan tomorrow evening for the next two weeks. I will mostly be in Almaty and Astana, but may sneak in a trip to Karaganda or Ulba. Basically, the plan is to expect the unexpected. All I know, is that I am packing plenty of warm clothes. My grandmother even gave me one of her old-school fake fur coats circa 1970. The coat might as well be real considering I feel like I'm wearing a sheet of iron when it is on.

Anyways, the real reasons I'm off to Kazakhstan are to conduct research on the country's denuclearization between 1991 and 1995 and contribute to KazakhWorld.com. So, over the next two weeks, I'll be blogging from here and KazakhWorld, and will be reporting more over the coming months! It will be a jam-packed trip, but I couldn't be more excited.

Pictures and blogging adventures to come!! Until next time, enjoy a Russian cartoon comparing the "American evil dwarf and the Russian grandfather"versions of Santa Claus.




С праздником, с новым годом и счастливого пути!
Happy holidays, happy new year and safe travels!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Strategic Plan 2050


Comrades,

On December 14, President Nazarbayev presented his "Strategic Plan 2050" outlining the political, economic and social development for Kazakhstan for the next several decades.

In many respects, the content, rhetoric and organization of the 2050 plan parallels earlier agendas (such as the 2020 plan). The President first acknowledges Kazakhstan’s leadership in the field of nuclear disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation – one of Kazakhstan’s foremost accomplishments.

He also made some pretty bold points. First, he proposes the election of rural governors, akims. Previously, the position was made by Presidential appointment. If this plan materializes, it will be a pretty revolutionary development in that the President is consciously devolving his power. Granted, “genuine political parties” according to a classic political science definition of a party that aggregates a group of genuine supporters and articulates a policy agenda, are few and far between in the former Soviet republics. The weak party systems, coupled with other mechanisms of voter fraud (such as “caterpillaring” election ballots or forging election lists (see Fish (2005) “Democracy Derailed in Russia”) provide additional opportunities to ensure that the President is satisfied with the electoral outcome.

Assuming that the President does in fact implement legal changes that allow for the election of rural governors, I sincerely hope that he also puts forth legislation to streamline the process of voter registration, candidate and party registration. The print and online media should also be free to comment on political developments without harassment by authorities or other candidates. While allowing elections of local governors is a step in the right direction, the regime must take sufficient measures to ensure that these elections are free and fair. That is where the real test lies.

It is also worth noting that Sunday marked not only the 21st anniversary of Kazakhstan’s independence, but also the one-year anniversary of the Zhanaozen violence. To recap, in the midst of a performance in celebration of Kazakhstan’s Independence Day in Zhanaozen’s central square, several striking oil workers stormed the stage. Violence unfolded between police and civilians in the square. Sadly, several buildings were destroyed and some sixteen civilians were left dead.  

While I could devote an entire blog post to the events on that day, I will instead provide you with some context of the tragic events that unfolded on that day. First, the December 16, 2011 events in Zhanaozen were the unfortunate result of underlying, systemic flaws and short-term instigators. The long-term causes were the high levels of socio-economic inequality that is prevalent in single-industry towns in Western Kazakhstan.

Moreover, this is not the first strike to occur in Western Kazakhstan. In 1989, when Zhanaozen was called “Novy Uzen,” violence broke out between ethnic Kazakhs and oil workers from the Caucuses. Between 2004 and 2006, a series of strikes by oil workers affected the operations of TengizChevroil (TCO) in Atyrau. Hunger strikes, sit-ins and other forms of workers collective action have occurred in Western Kazakhstan since 1991.

Meanwhile, strikes in Zhanaozen began in May 2011 when workers at Ersai Caspian Contractor LLC, KarazhanbasMunai JSC and OzenMunaiGas pressed corporate management for higher wages and improved working conditions. For seven months, the management of Ersai Caspian Contractor, KarazhanbasMunai and OzenMunaiGas, fought with workers over the issues of (1) higher wages, (2) the revision of the collective agreement, (3) equal wages with foreign staff and (4) non-interference in union activities, as detailed by Human Rights Watch.

One striking oil worker in Zhanaozen told the BBC in October 2011, just two months before the December violence, “We want to develop civil society…we want our voices to be heard, not just the bosses dictating what to do.”

So why do I discuss Zhanaozen in this post?

In his Strategic Plan for 2050, President Nazarbayev explicitly states his intention to reconstruct single-company towns and invest in economic diversification. The President advocated a new model of public private partnership, “strong business – strong state,” in regions throughout the country, particularly single-industry towns.

In the section on social policy, the President noted:

“Over the past 12 months, we launched a single-industry town development program. Significant resources were allocated to create jobs, solve social problems and improve the work of local enterprises.

We will improve the quality of local government. This work is under my personal control.”

By committing his personal attention to the program, the President established an extremely high expectation. I hope that he allocates the necessary financial and human resources to implement a successful economic diversification plan for single-industry plans. Given the timing of the speech, I believe that the plan for single industry towns was the highlight of the strategic plan.

For now, we wait and watch. I congratulate the nation on 21 years of independence but most of all, I sincerely hope that President Nazarbayev follows through on these commitments. 

.....

Also, dear readers, I will be headed to Kazakhstan a week from today! Flying out on December 24th and will be there through January 7th doing research. More details on the next episode in The Sholk Road Adventures to come soon!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Meeting a North Korean

Good morning comrades,

My friend Miles was also on the CLS program in Vladimir, Russia this past summer, and is now spending the year in Vladivostok. Miles is one of the friendliest people I know and a true public diplomat. He also maintains a travel blog and his most recent post details an encounter with a North Korean slave. While this post does not relate to Central Asia, I found it to be so intriguing and insightful that I could not help but share it with you.


Modern Day Slavery

I met a slave yesterday. I guess I always thought that institutional slavery had been abolished worldwide in the late 19th century, but I stand corrected. I met this modern day slave, a North Korean who goes by Shin, one cold day on the ferry coming back from Russki Island, close to Vladivostok. I was on deck with my video camera, bundled up for the below freezing weather and sea spray and wind. It was only me and a handful of other people on the exterior deck and I noticed this older Asian guy watching me film. When I came close he commented on the scenery in heavily accented Russian. I sat down with him on the splintery bench while he smoked a cigarette and we started talking. He told me he was from Pyongyang, North Korea. When I said I was from America he sparked up a little bit. He talked about his job, wife, son. He pulled out a beat up cell phone and showed me a grainy picture of his wife; he had obviously taken a picture of a picture, and this was all he had. He had not been home in five years. My Korean Samsung video-camera fascinated him. Turning it over in his hands he asked me “are they rich in the South?” The ship docked at the small passenger terminal and lots of passengers emerged from below deck where they had sacrificed the panoramic views of the city for warmth and walls. I hopped down the narrow gangplank and saw Shin walking up ahead, so I ran to catch up with him. It is the first time I have ever talked to a North Korean— first I’ve known of anyone save the few people I know who’ve been to the country itself. It is incredibly uncommon to meet a North Korean abroad, as in, North Koreans outside of the country that are not slave laborers probably number in the hundreds worldwide. I had heard that there were labor camps in Russia where Koreans work, usually deep in the taiga on lumber sites. Shin and I walked to the central square and I asked him if he would be interested in meeting with one of my friends from South Korea. We exchanged numbers and agreed to meet in two weeks. Two weeks passed and Shin called me. I couldn’t meet up that weekend so we moved our get together until the next one. Saturday came and I gave Shin a call. We set the meeting for 5 o’clock in the main square and I made it there a minute or two late. Shin was waiting for me. We stood around for a half hour waiting for my friends Micah and Sewon to come. Another friend of mine, a Spanish guy named Victor, also came and met up with us. He had told me about a Spanish guy who is the only Westerner who works in North Korea. This guy is an official in the North Korean government and conducts all of the cultural relations between North Korea and Europe. He tows the official North Korean line, but is free to travel in between the countries and surely is not subject to the rations, intimidation, etc. Micah and Sewon came and we walked to a nearby restaurant. Sewon and Shin broke off into Korean and hung back from us chatting away. We stood in the line at the buffet style restaurant and I encouraged Shin to get whatever he wanted, it was on us of course. He loaded up his plate and we went to sit. With Sewon there, it was much easier to speak with Shin, as his Russian is pretty limited (though surprisingly good, since I’m sure he has had no formal education). We asked him about life in North Korea and were shocked to hear what he had to say. Of course, everyone knows that the North Korean regime is evil, but it is much different to see the face of oppression. Shin’s story: Shin was born in North Korea and lived in Pyongyang. He was forced to join the army when he was 17 and served the mandatory 10 years, building bombs as part of his service. He told us that there was not enough food. After leaving the army at age 27, he had to find some kind of work before being allowed to marry. He married his wife at age 30 and they have two boys. One of the boys serves in the army and the other is still in school. His wife works in a window factory. He had been picked in some kind of raffle to work abroad. It is apparently a highly sought after opportunity to work outside of the country, even though the conditions are truly terrible. He showed us his passport: full of communist insignia with a notice on the last page saying exactly how many pages were in the passport and special anti-counterfeit numbers on each page so that there was no way to leave. Shin told us that their Russian bosses will sometimes steal their passports and return them only if they are paid. Shin has been living in Vladivostok for 7 years and has not been home in 5. He is allowed one letter a week home and no phone calls. Needless to say, there is no skype or email. He said that people escape every once in a while, but that it is a death sentence to their families. Still, some cannot take it after seeing the outside world and being in a real position to flee. The North Koreans all live together in an apartment somewhere far outside of town. Sixteen people to one room and there is no kitchen. The “company,” which is state owned, collects 100% of the wages and then gives back just enough so that the men can buy a little bit of food. There are some meals provided by the company, but Shin said that they are terrible. We finished our dinner and Shin still had half a plate of food. Apparently he didn’t like the Russian food. I thought it was strange since he has been here for 7 years, but then I realized that he has probably not eaten Russian food at all. The Koreans stay among themselves and have no money to go anywhere or try anything new. Russians could care less about migrant laborers, especially ones from a poor and backwards country like North Korea. We went upstairs to the bar and ordered a round of beers. Shin was really excited for beer. Without any money to buy alcohol, the Korean laborers will sometimes purchase raw ethanol and mix it with water if they want to celebrate. Shin said that in North Korea only rich people (people in the government or high level military) can drink, everyone else makes homemade wine out of grapes. Shin reveled the beer; it was something completely out of the ordinary. He told us that he loved Vladivostok and said that he was most surprised by the way women here dress: scantily. While we waited for Sewon to translate we all joked that he was probably most surprised by the beautiful women here. Guys are the same everywhere I guess. He said that Vladivostok was much better than North Korea, though he missed his mother, wife, and children bitterly. We asked if he thought there was any hope for the country with the new leader, the son of Kim Jong Il. Shin shook his head. This is the son, nothing will change. He became depressed and he and Sewon broke off in Korean for a while. We are curious, but this is another person’s reality. This is the life of their family. Shin borrowed Sewon’s phone so that he could call his boss to tell him he would be home late. If he missed the role call, there would be punishment. Grown men with a curfew, and if they violate it they owe money. Of course, they don’t have any money, so it likely means that they will be put on a starvation diet for a few days as punishment. We ordered another round of beers and bought some dried fish to snack on. Shin said he was so happy to have found new friends and said that he would happily be my colleague. He told me that if I find a good girl I should love her with all my heart. We told him how glad we were to have met him. Shin was hoping to head home for the New Year, the first time he would hold his wife and sons for five years. But, he doesn’t know if he will have the money to go home. It maybe be another lonely New Years anonymously wandering the main square near the statues of partisans for Soviet power, attracting the suspicious stares of Russians who say that there are too many Asians here. We walked Shin to his bus. He was not sure if he had time catch the second bus that would take him 45 minutes into one of the neighborhoods to his Spartan barracks. Micah bought him a pack of cigarettes and we said goodbye, promising that next time we would take him for Korean food. After he left, Sewon mentioned that he had tried to get close to her. She wasn’t uncomfortable, just found it strange. Five years without female contact, I imagine that having a pretty young Korean girl take interest in his story must have been wrenching for him in a way that probably men can understand. A desperation for physical, emotional, sexual contact that overwhelms, depresses, excites. I cannot help but wonder whether we put Shin in danger. There is no doubt that talking to foreigners, especially Americans and South Koreans (with whom North Korea is still at war officially), is strictly forbidden. I know for a fact that speaking about the North Korean regime is a punishable offense. Friends I have who have been to North Korea were made to sign a contract saying that they would not speak about the trip afterwards. Of course, no one listens. But, for Shin, he has to go back someday. He is still subject to their laws, their crazy whims. What if someone were to find out? Was he endangering himself and his family for a few beers and a free dinner? Or, was it for a taste of freedom, of friendship? Breaking the bonds of slavery for a few short hours?


Follow Miles' blog, http://milestherussian.blogspot.ru/!


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Kazakhstan's Election to the UN Human Rights Council

Comrades,

I apologize for the delay in posts, as it has been a busy semester. I cannot believe that Thanksgiving is a little over a week away! Given Kazakhstan's election to the United Nations Human Rights Council, I wanted to take the opportunity to share some comments.


Kazakhstan’s election to the United Nations (U.N.) Human Rights Council is the newest development in the country’s multi-vector foreign policy.

Kazakhstan was one of 18 countries elected to the council to begin their two-year term on January 1, 2013. Other countries elected to the Human Rights Council include Argentina, Brazil, Côte d’Ivoire, Estonia, Ethiopia, Gabon, Germany, Ireland, Japan, Kenya, Montenegro, Pakistan, the Republic of Korea, Sierra Leone, the United Arab Emirates, the United States and Venezuela. 

Upon the announcement of Kazakhstan’s election to the 47-member council, Altay Abibullayev, Spokesperson of Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry, issued the following statement:

We are extremely honored by the appointment and see it as international acknowledgement that we have been improving our human rights record and as an incentive for us to continue to make even more progress. Kazakhstan is an aspiring democracy that lives under the rule of law and takes media freedoms seriously. Erroneous comments only make it more difficult for Kazakhstan to continue to make progress on all of these fronts and should be rejected and ignored by right-thinking people around the world.

Kazakhstan’s stated foreign policy is that the country has no permanent enemies and pursues alliances with every country. In this spirit, the U.N. Human Rights Council is the newest of international organizations in which Kazakhstan participates. In that spirit, Kazakhstan chaired the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2010 and the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) in 2011. Kazakhstan is also hopes to become a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) within the year.

Serving on the Human Rights Council is a chance to prove the country’s steadfast commitment to upholding human rights. Kazakhstan’s election to the body is significant for several reasons, as this is one of the first instances in the country’s twenty-one year history of independence in which it has been elected to an international body with the stated purpose of defending the God-given human rights of every man, woman and child around the world. In this respect, during its two-year term, Kazakhstan has ample opportunity to leave its mark on the global human rights regime. Furthermore, just as Kazakhstan’s election to the chairmanship of the OSCE in 2010 demonstrated its ability to build coalitions and forge global relationships, the country’s election to the U.N. Human Rights Council illustrates its leadership in the U.N. system.

Finally, despite the criticism of Kazakhstan’s election to the Human Rights Council, this is a key opportunity for Kazakhstan’s policymakers to prove the naysayers wrong. No country has a perfect human rights record. But by assuming this position, Kazakhstan is signaling its commitment to improve the condition of human rights domestically and around the world. I truly hope that Kazakhstan's policymakers embrace the honor and privilege of sitting on the Council. 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Russian Humor and the U.S. Presidential Debates

Comrades,

While I was not able to watch the Presidential debates last night, I wanted to share with you a comic I found on "Vkontakte," the popular Russian social-media site (basically Russian Facebook). I love the user-interface on Vkontakte, as it shows news and community updates in your newsfeed from people around the world, even if they are not in your network.

One things Russians have is an amazing sense of humor. Seriously. One of my favorite things to do is to read old issues of Krokodil magazine, a Soviet a satire publication.

This comic I found on Vkontakte two weeks ago. To roughly translate, the comic says: "Strange people those Americans! With over two months left until the elections, they do not yet know who will be President." Then in the comments section, President Putin writes "haha" and President Nazarbayev writes "lol" (laugh out loud).

Despite your opinions are about the American Presidential elections or Presidents Putin and Nazarbayev, I think we can all appreciate the humor in this image given the popular political rhetoric about "democracy," "change" and "free and fair elections." These political catch-words have become all too common place in popular journals and in the classroom. In fact, if I received a dollar for every time I hear the word democracy come out of these leaders' mouths or every time I read it in a book, I would be a multi-millionaire.

I find it particularly interesting that this comic was made by a Russian and includes images of an online social-networking site and was posted on said site. Talk about the power of political communication through digital networks! Also, as a lover of (Russian) political comedy, I am glad to see that the Russians still have it!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Beginning Graduate School

Comrades,

It has been over a month since I last posted and I sincerely apologize for the delay. It has been one crazy month! We ended up leaving Domodedovo airport on Monday morning, as our flight was cancelled on Sunday. I arrived to JFK airport Monday afternoon (NYC time) on August 20th. I moved into my place in Georgetown on Wednesday, August 22nd, and graduate school orientation began Thursday, August 23rd. Orientation basically lasted through the beginning of fall semester courses on August 29th, and since then it has been quite a marathon.

The good news is that I am busy with some really exciting projects and awesome courses. I am in Russian (thanks to CLS and my time in Vladimir this summer, I tested into third-year Russian, thereby jumping ahead one whole year of intensive language instruction at Georgetown -- woo-hoo!), in addition to three graduate seminars: Informal Institutions, Security, Islam and Politics in Central Asia, and Introduction to Area Studies.

In "Informal Institutions," we are exploring blat', guanxi, wasta and jeito, the underground economic systems that exist(ed) in the Former Soviet Union, China, Middle Eastern states and Brazil, respectively. While each informal structure possesses social, political and institutional characteristics unique to the culture, they are all based on social networks comprised of highly-concealable, low-level, high-trust relationships between individuals. Understanding the factors conducive to the development of an informal economic system, and the mechanisms through which such networks operate and alter formal government and business institutions, helps explain agent behavior and the (in)effectiveness of certain policies. So far, we have explored blat, but I will spare you from the details for now. For our final paper, we can select a "case study" of an informal economic system. I will probably research the shuttle trade in Central Asia ...any readers with ideas?

"Security, Islam and Politics in Central Asia," is right up my alley in terms of content! Naturally, I find the class fascinating. So far, most of our readings have focused on Islam in Russia. After spending the summer in Vladimir -- the "poster child" city for the Russian Orthodox Church -- it has been interesting to study the Russian Tsar's institutionalization of the Islamic faith, particularly under Catherine the Great with the Orenburg Assembly. Russia was founded as the "Third Rome," and while it has always been a multinational empire, the Emperor's exaltation of Eastern Orthodoxy in the predominantly Muslim lands of the Eurasian steppe has produced interesting political tensions that are still evident today. For my final paper, I am researching the role of inter-personal networks in social mobilization and recruitment during the Civil War in Tajikistan (1992-1997).

Finally, Introduction to Area Studies is a seminar for all of the CERES MA students. We are exploring different research methods in the area, so it has been nice to be exposed to various academic and methodological traditions. Given last December's events in Zhanaozen, the May 2012 labor issue in Kazakhmys copper mine in Central Kazakhstan, and labor issues in the Kumtor gold mines in Kyrgyzstan, I wanted to select a final paper topic that would enable me to gain a deeper understanding of the recent history of industrial labor relations in Central Asia. Are these recent episodes of labor unrest "new" or simply indications of continued structural problems typical of a transition economy? Thus, my final paper in that class will be on industrial labor relations in Kazakhstan since independence.

As you can see, I am pretty excited (yet extremely busy) with my schoolwork, as each class requires an extensive (30 page) final paper. But there is one additional project I am working on this year!

I am the Humes Junior Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown researching "The Diplomatic Practice in the Denuclearization of Kazakhstan Between 1991 and 1995." Following independence, Kazakhstan gave up its nuclear arsenal to Russia, favoring a peaceful policy that remains the cornerstone of its multi-vector foreign policy to this day. With the diplomatic, scientific and financial support of the U.S. Government (thanks to the Nunn-Lugar Bill and a program called "Project Sapphire"), all nuclear weapons were removed from Kazakhstan by 1995. It was not until December 1991 that Kazakhstan became an independent state. The U.S. was the first country to formally recognize Kazakhstan's sovereignty. Yet, it is amazing to think how in the course of four years, U.S.-Kazakhstan relations went from non-existent to closely allied after completing the successful dismantlement and removal Kazakhstan's nuclear weapons arsenal, production and testing facilities, as well as the implementation of a capable monitoring and verification system. That is no simple task. I cannot wait to explore this more!

All in all, it has been, and will be, an exciting, academically enriching and busy semester starting graduate school. While in Washington, even though my stories and awkward cultural interactions are not as funny in DC as when I am out in the field, my passion for Central Asia thrives and so postings on "The Sholk Road Adventures" will continue...

Thanks for reading and take care!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Leaving Russia

Today, we had our last day of class and a closing ceremony during which professors thanked students, and students reciprocated with equally profound praises.  After a night of shenanigans, we have a free day tomorrow, and then leave Vladimir 5:00 AM Sunday morning. So unless something fabulous or simply outrageous occurs tonight, this is the last post from Vladimir 2012 for "The Sholk Road Adventures."

It has been an exhausting, fascinating and fun eight weeks here in Vladimir. Waking up everyday to Olga chanting "Dena, zavtrak," going to class for four hours, and then exploring the city and doing more homework-- all in Russian-- was overwhelming at times, but overall a great linguistic and cultural experience. While I was unable to share many stories on the blog for various reasons (time constraints, appropriateness, etc.), I hope you enjoyed reading about my time in Vladimir.

I need more time to reflect on my experiences in order to draw a balanced conclusion about my time in Russia. However, I do have some comments.

First, like all countries, Russia has its social, political and economic problems. They are no worse, simple or challenging than problems in America -- they are simply different.

Second, just like all Americans are different, there is no cookie-cutter Russian. I have had the privilege to meet some really intelligent Russians with fascinating life experiences and hearts of gold, as well as some less-impressive individuals. Of course, getting to know Olga has been a treat.

Third, Russia and Kazakhstan are so, so different. The Soviet legacy is evident in both Almaty and Vladimir, as both are grid-style cities and block apartments, and babyshkas selling berries from their dachas on the corner. However, the attitudes of the people, particularly towards other nationalities of the former Soviet union, their cultural norms and values, and ways of life, are totally different. I wish I could have been here (and of course, in Central Asia) during the Soviet Union and in the 1990s to observe life then. But twenty-one years later, it is obvious that Russia is not Kazakhstan, and Kazakhstan is not Russia -- it is simply inaccurate to combine the two as popular media sources frequently, and foolishly, do. From my experiences, their foreign policies, national problems, and people are totally unique.

When I return to the states, I will be very busy the first few weeks of school organizing life, selecting classes, reconnecting with people, etc. I plan to do some writing for Central Asia Newswire and of course for the blog. I am especially looking forward to my research project next year on the denuclearization of Kazakhstan between 1991 and 1995, as the John Humes Junior Fellow through the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University. I loved Russia, but I am so looking forward to returning to my passion - Central Asia! I will of course keep you updated.

For now, so long!


Monday, August 13, 2012

The Final Stretch

Comrades,

So here we are, the final week of the program. It has been an intense seven weeks, and I apologize for not updating the blog on a more consistent basis. I return to the states next Sunday, at which point I have a few days to organize my life before beginning the semester. Rock and roll.

I have been busy preparing for end-of-program evaluations, essays, and presentations. With that said, in an attempt to procrastinate studying for my grammar quiz tomorrow on gerunds, I will update you on my recent adventures.

Friday evening I went to the Russian Banya (baths) with Sayrula. If you have never been to a banya, you must go, as it is a great cultural experience, language exercise and incredibly relaxing. I went with Sayrula a few weeks ago and we befriended one woman in the sauna, who explained to us the "science" of enjoying a banya: first the sauna, then the ice-cold pool, then the sauna again (during which you hit yourself with a branch of leaves from a eucalyptus tree to improve blood circulation. After two or three rounds of the sauna-cold bath, scrub yourself in the "scrubbing area." Keep in mind, everyone is entirely nude and you stand out if not nude. When in Rome...

A few weeks ago, the woman graciously shared her baking soda with us. We were satisfied with our results last time, so Sayrula and I thought that was what all Russians used and brought that with us this time around. While "scrubbing," we saw one woman lathering herself in coffee beans. Another woman approached us and asked us why baking soda, and recommended we use honey and salt. Then this morning on my way to class, I ran into one of my professors on the bus and chatted with her about my weekend and she recommended salt with butter and/or coffee grinds. It turns out, every Russian has their home-made banya scrub. Either way, visiting the banya was one of my favorite activities in Russia, and one I will certainly miss the banya in America. There is such a Russian atmosphere of community, a sort of "narodnosty" ("peopleness") that is uniquely evident in the banya but is hard to describe.

On Saturday, we had our final excursion to St. Demetrius Cathedral, Assumption Cathedral and the Golden Gates museum. They were interesting and filled with historical fun facts.

Sunday, in an attempt to procrastinate preparing for my presentation today, I went to the bazaar. I found the section of "junk" -- i.e. second-hand everything. There is a whole row of vendors in the market who sell second hand items including nails, books, cassettes, Soviet pins -- you name it, they have it. I love going to these shops, as they are treasure chests filled with living history. I especially love old books and in need of gifts, I searched the dusty boxes and found some great, unique pieces including a book of Russian jokes, two books on Russian cocktails and snack food, a book by Karamzin (one of the great fathers of Russian history) and a book on Central Asia. Score.

After walking around, I spent the rest of the day preparing for my large-and-in-charge presentation today on "Bazaars in Central Asia." What can I say...I love researching bazaars and Central Asia! It was a good exercise to conduct research and put together a presentation in Russian and I was definitely excited to get back to a topic I know something about.

Anyways, that's all for now, folks. The rest of the week is extremely intense with essays (Olga just edited my two essays due tomorrow -- that woman is a Russian rock star!) and tests. Until the next post, take care!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

People-to-People Diplomacy

One of the best things about being in Russia, is well, interacting with interesting Russians. Elena Kerzhentseva, a Vladimir-native and student at the Vladimir State University, is also one of the CLS-Russian language partners.  While she is a full-time student of linguistics, Elena is also a journalist for "Arguments and Facts." I always enjoy chatting with Elena, so I invited her for an interview (in Russian) for the blog. Thank you, Elena!

Elena writes mostly about culture and interesting people who lead unique lives -- from artists, to American students who study intensive Russian in Vladimir for eight weeks (she is currently writing an article on our group), to a woman who makes books by hand. Elena seeks out individuals who live outside the parameters of "normality" and profiles them. She also writes about other cultural topics, viewing her work as a way to open peoples minds and hearts.

When I asked Elena if she feels comfortable working as a journalist in Russia, she responded of course! Given her subject matter, there are few risks. Elena did acknowledge that if she was writing about politics or a more sensitive issue she might feel otherwise, but for her subject matter, she rarely encounters issues.

I then asked Elena if she could change one thing about Russia, what would it be? "Corruption," she immediately responded. Because of corruption at all levels of government and industry, there are bureaucratic hurdles everywhere and finding a well-paying job following graduation is so challenging. "I have friends who finish university and they do not know if they can find a job, or if they do, if the wage will be sufficient."

Elena is not the first person to bring the issue of wages to my attention. Katya, my language partner, works two jobs to cover the cost of renting a room in Vladimir. Olga also told me that many of the babushkas who sit on the street corners selling fruits and vegetables from their respective dachas are not only trying to make extra money for themselves as a surplus to their small pension, but they are also trying to help their children and grandchildren whose jobs pay insufficient wages.

Finally, I asked Elena what are her general thoughts of America and what are the biggest misconceptions Russians have about Americans? Elena confessed that we are the first group of Americans she has ever met, and is impressed with our work ethic. "In Russia, there is a stereotype that Americans are stupid and fat, but you (the group) are none of those," Elena commented. "It is easy to relate to you all, and we share so much in common."

Yes! This is true! I am so glad Elena acknowledged our similarities because this has been the theme of my discussions with Olga, who always asks me questions about life in America. "Life is better there, right? Life is easier in America than here, right? Do you have a car? Do you live in a house? How many bedrooms in the house?" Today at dinner, she asked again about owning a house and asked if I buy gold, which then lead to a discussion about the stock market and then the vouchers program in the early 1990s following the fall of the Soviet Union (she invested her vouchers into a local financial company that went bankrupt). I always try to explain to Olga that life is not easier, it is simply different. Homeownership is not a right,  it is a privilege and a huge responsibility that involves paying a mortgage, cleaning, renovations, maintaining a yard, taking out the trash, shoveling the snow in the winter, among other duties. We have problems -- different problems.

Over the past seven weeks, Olga has come to accept the fact that there are more similarities between Russians and Americans than she previously thought. All students rent apartments, all students do not have time to cook dinner by themselves, all students socialize on Saturday nights (in fact, when I came back at 2 AM on Saturday night/Sunday morning, Olga asked me at breakfast the next day why I came back so early as she expected I (like most students) to stay out until 5). Olga and I both like dark-colored clothing, hookah, cucumbers, tomatoes and coffee, and prefer red wine over white wine.

While these are trivial similarities, my point is that these micro-level interactions -- "people to people diplomacy" -- is so important to promoting U.S. foreign policy in a globalized and complicated world. I understand that public diplomacy alone will not solve our foreign policy issues. Absolutely, resources must be allocated to other areas of the national security infrastructure. However, there is a value in language learning, cultural interactions and cultural understanding and the accumulation of this knowledge through programs like CLS, and the application of this expertise in government and private-sector work, yields enormous benefits.

I salute you, Elena, for writing about American students and bringing "people-to-people" diplomacy to the attention of Vladimir's residents, and I thank you for your time and thoughts. I also would like to thank the American taxpayers, for funding people-to-people diplomacy and programs such as CLS.







Sunday, August 5, 2012

Interesting Russian Graffiti

It has been a busy and enjoyable weekend! Friday I went to the Dacha to celebrate Olga's 59th birthday, which was a lot of fun. Saturday and Sunday were extremely productive days in which I "TCBed" (Took Care of Business). Olga also taught me how to make borsch. 

While I don't have time to write about the Dacha right now, I wanted to share a really interesting wall graffiti I saw on my way home the other day. It says "Papa, don't drink" in Russian. There is a big cultural taboo associated with alcohol and drinking. Sadly, it is not uncommon for couples to divorce and the husband to become an alcoholic. This topic is too dense for me to cover in one post, and there are people who are much more well informed than I am, but I thought the cultural and moral message of this wall art was interesting and wanted to share with you. What are your thoughts?



Thursday, August 2, 2012

Russia, a Dynamic Country

Winston Churchill once described Russia as a "riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." While I will not endeavor to decipher those infamous words, the ethos of the phrase captures the dynamic, complex and fascinating nature of Russian society. Living in Vladimir for the past six weeks, I have had many encounters Russian people. However, today was an especially exciting day that speaks to the unique fabric of the Russian people.

In Media Class this morning, we discussed an article that appeared in "Novaya Gazeta" that was a satirical article comparing the state of affairs in Russia under the Soviet Union and today. I love reading the Russian press, but it is even more exciting when my Professor shares insights on life in the Soviet Union and explains the "subtext" of texts. For example,  one Soviet joke that appeared in the article asked,"What is green, long and smells like kolbasa (sausage)?" The answer, "the elektrichka (commuter train) to Moscow." She explained to the class that during the Soviet period, sausage was only sold in Moscow. Naturally, people from Vladimir travelled to Moscow to purchase sausage, thereby causing the train to stink of the precious, wrapped meat. 

This is not the first time we discussed life under the Soviet Union in class. A few weeks ago, one student presented an article on "Nashi," a semi-government affiliated youth organization in Russia. I asked my Professor if she participated in Komsomol, the Soviet youth organization, and she responded "of course, we all did!" Komsomol was like summer camp -- everyone did it. It was fun experience during the summer and during the year, it was a big social organization. All of her friends were in Komsomol. Olga was also in Komsomol, and when I asked her about the organization, she echoed the enthusiastic sympathies articulated by my professor.

During our classroom discussion today, my professor pulls out her Komsomol membership card (vintage, authentic and purely awesome!!) and one of her membership pins. The membership card contains a red-ink image of Lenin at the top of the front page. Biographical information, including a photo, is in the middle, while the back page includes stamps from her work place. The lapel pin, contains the same image of Lenin's profile and the Russian acronym ВЛКСМ (Всесоюзный ленинский коммунистический союз молодёжи), or in English, the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League. 

As she presented her pin, she said "Dena, I know how much you love Soviet history, and I want to give this to you as a gift."

I died of happiness. At first, I could not believe that she was giving me one of her pins. I wanted to follow proper Russian gift-giving etiquette, and asked if she was sure. "Of course, I have at least four more at home," she casually responded. I accepted the pin, and thanked her many times, and already have a gift ready for her. 

While I will never forget that professor and will always treasure that pin, this story reflects a broader theme of gift-giving Soviet antiques. During my time here, I have also received two vintage issues of "Krokodile" magazine from 1974, Soviet coins minted in 1988 and 1991 -- all of which were gifts.  At one level, this is old fashion Russian hospitality, a truly admirable feature of this country that I sincerely hope will never disappear.  At another level, it is fascinating how Soviet artifacts are suddenly valuable. In the market, many babushkas sit on the ground and sell their old Soviet pins and rubles. On one occasion, I was looking through a stack of Soviet currency and asked the vendor the price of the collection. She responded that the bills with the image of Lenin are worth more than the bills without Lenin or the currency from other republics. 

Later that day, I discovered a totally different side of Russian society: the baby house (Дом Ребёнка). The "baby house" (direct translation) is an orphanage where babies between 0 and 4 years of age are housed. My friend, Kristin, visits the house several times a week to play with the babies and today, I decided to tag along. Even though children are not my forte, I wanted to explore a new side of Russia to which I was previously not exposed.

I have to thank Kristin, as I am so thrilled I went. First, while I anticipated a horrific orphanage like the ones pictured on "20/20" or "Nightline," the facility was incredibly clean, neat and organized. There was a flat-screen TV, plenty of space and clean toys. Each child had a crib and all of the diapers, food and clothing was in order. I was very impressed. The staff was also very gracious and happy to have visitors.

Volunteers can only play with the children with congenital conditions such as down syndrome or cerebral palsy. Without volunteers, these children would not go outside. My friend was handed an adorable, chubby 1 and a half year old named Nikita, who probably has down syndrome and some physical ailment as his ribs and hips seemed to be abnormally developing. Meanwhile, I was handed Aleksei, who was three years old and had a condition whereby his brain was growing too big for his cranium. He was a restless child and when we took him outside, he was banging his head against the stroller. I felt so bad and one of the workers recommended I take a different child. I later found out from my friend that they never really take that child outside, and she was surprised they gave me him. 

After I returned Aleksei, I returned to the playground with Sasha, a feisty two-year old. Sasha is one of those toddlers with big eyes and an even bigger smile that stretches from ear-to-ear, showcasing his two-year old teeth. He loves to whip his head back and forth and teeth on himself, as well as visitors. 

So there we were -- Kristin, Sasha, Nikita and I -- on a swinging chair in the playground of a baby house in Vladimir, Russia. We spent two hours together in one section of the playground, while the non-special needs children played in another section. While I am not usually one to play with children, I was happy that I was able to sit outside with Sasha and Nikita, an opportunity they normally would not have. What a simple act, and yet, so meaningful.

I do not know what will become of Sasha and Nikita, but I know that Russia in 10, 20 or 30 years will look significantly different than the Russia today. There will probably be a different perception of Soviet history and antiques from the Soviet era. Most likely, new apartment complexes will be constructed, Russia's economy will continue to develop and Russia's population will become even more diverse and dynamic thanks to migration and technology. I guess I will just have to return to see for myself.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Exploring St. Petersburg's History, People and Culture

Comrades,


It has been an exciting week in St. Petersburg! Founded by Peter the Great and developed by Catherine II, St. Petersburg is a European-style city unlike Vladimir, Syzdal, Bogolyobovo or Moscow. The city's various canals, old-winding streets and French architecture render the city a charming and cosmopolitan metropolis, while its Soviet-era buildings, Georgian and Uzbek restaurants and diverse population give the city a Russian charm. While it was an exciting few days in the city, all I can say is that I hope to return in the future.


The journey began at 9:30 on Tuesday evening, when the group met at the Vladimir train station to take an overnight train to St. Petersburg. Now, I LOVE Soviet-trains. The train is a great opportunity to interact with Russians, engage in cultural diplomacy and gain insights into Russian (and Kazakh) culture.  It is also great fun.


In Kazakhstan, I rode in a "coupe"-style train in which there are sealable compartments each containing four beds (2 bunk beds). To Petersburg, we took the Platzkart cabin, which is basically an open space of bunk beds and therefore ideal for practicing Russian 24/7 and making new friends.


I was in a bottom bunk perpendicular to a Grandma and Grandpa who were from Murmansk and traveling with their 12-year old grandson. They had spent several weeks in the countryside and were returning home. When they saw 28 young and energetic Americans board the train, they were beyond excited. The grandson was so excited to practice English. I spent the first few hours on the train engaged in conversation with the grandparents and the grandson, during which they shared photos of their summer vacation and the grandson showed me his coin collection. He gave me some old Soviet coins minted in 1992 and 1989 as a gift. I of course gave him a quarter and some other American coins to add to his international collection. As hospitable Russians, the grandparents offered us caramels and I gave them two peaches I purchased earlier in the day for the purpose of sharing. This, my friends, is "people to people" interactions -- the highest form of public diplomacy.


Fellow CLS participants and I with our new Russian friend on the train.

The symbol of St. Petersburg.


Image from Central Asia exhibition in the Hermitage.



The three images pictured above are from the Central Asian gallery at the Hermitage. They include a wall mural from the Penjikent archaeological site in the highlands of modern-day Tajikistan and hand-sculpted figurines.

The "Apraksin Dvor" Market in St. Petersburg.

The front lawn of the Artillery Museum.

Image from the Artillery Museum of Bukharans holding weapons.

Weapons from Bukhara and Central Asia in the Artillery Museum.

Swords from Afghanistan in the Artillery Museum.

Image of a Bukharan Emir holding a sword featured in the Artillery Museum.


Swords from Central Asia (mostly Bukhara).

Statue to a Soviet woman who contributed to the Great Patriotic War in the Artillery Museum. You go girl!

Timurid-style mosque in St. Petersburg.




I also shared a bunk with my Russian grammar professor, which meant that I had to be on my Russian-game twenty-four seven. When I woke up in the morning around 7 am, my Russian professor was sitting at my feet, drinking a cup of coffee, and just chilling. Now I'm used to Olga at 8 am yelling, "Dena, zavtrak" (Dena, breakfast), but engaging in conversation with my Russian grammar professor at 7 am, pre-coffee -- that was a first.


"Go back to sleep, Denoshka, it is still early," she gingerly said.


I, of course, could not sleep at that point so I washed up and ordered a cup of coffee from the stewardess.  I chatted with my Professor, who turns out was born in Belarus and moved to Russia when she was still a child. She still has siblings in the country and regularly visits. I really appreciated her insights on the political and social situation in Belarus, which she considered to be not bad and in some respects better than in Russia. This is particularly interesting as the U.S. and Belarus, which is lead by President Aleksander Lukashenko (jokingly called "Luke the Duke"), have less than amiable relations.


After sharing contact information with my new Murmansk friends (at this point, the grandson had engaged in conversation with almost every program participant), we arrived in St. Petersburg around 10 am and headed out for a bus tour!


After the tour, we had lunch and I spent the afternoon exploring the city with three other program participants. First, we ventured to the top of St. Isaac's Cathedral and admired the city's skyline. We then went to the museum of Vladimir Nobokov, which is a small but insightful museum housed in an old residence. From there, we walked around the city and met up with the group for dinner and a performance of "Swan Lake" the ballet. Interestingly, at the ballet, I sat next to a husband and wife from Philadelphia, who were spending two days in St. Petersburg as one stop on their Royal Caribbean cruise tour.


Thursday morning I woke up early and headed out for the Hermitage museum. They have a fantastic collection of arts and artifacts from Central Asia (including the Golden Horde), the Caucuses and South Asia. Unfortunately, the exhibition on Iran and the Near East was closed for renovation. I visited the European and Russian galleries, but devoted most of my time immersed in the Central Asian and Golden Horde galleries. Wow.


Of course, a trip to St. Petersburg cannot be complete without a trip to the bazaar! After several hours in the Hermitage, Sayrula and I went to the city's market. I previously heard that the local authorities were contemplating closing down the bazaar due to safety concerns, but when I went it was alive and well. There were virtually no artisan goods, as the stores were stacked with the typical goods: clothing, shoes and accessories from China, faux designer handbags, umbrellas, dishes and other odds and ends. There were a significant amount of men working in the market -- more than usual in my opinion. The market clearly catered to the city's lower-income individuals, many of which are from Central Asia, as I recognized their facial features, the sounds and patterns of Turkic languages, and observed many signs for Uzbek plof and shashlik.


We spent hours in the bazaar and then went to a more formal market. Given the intensity of our studies, it was so nice to just chill. I also bought a book for 50 rubles (less than two dollars) on Central Asia in Russian. Awesome.


After dinner, the group ventured on a night tour of the city and we saw the Demidov bridges open.


Friday morning, I jetted out with Kyle, an anthropology major who shares my affection for Central Asia, to the Anthropology and Ethnography Museum of Peter the Great. The museum had a nice collection of artifacts from Inner Asia. I found the Russian commentary and written information on display to be more informative, as many of the artifacts in the museum were similar to exhibitions I have observed in Kazakhstan and New York.


Kyle and I also stumbled into an Academic Bookstore. Win! I unfortunately did not find anything, but Kyle lucked out with some great Russian-language books on archaeological excavations in Turkmenistan and terra cotta figures from Inner Eurasia.


After a Central Asian-tastic morning, I went to the summer gardens with Sayrula and Dan, which was a nice place to walk around for a bit. As an International Security major, however, I was eager to get to the Artillery museum! So after an hour of marble statues and finely-manicured gardens, we jetted off.


The Artillery museum was awesome. The lawn is filled with tanks and rocket launchers from the 16th century all the way through the Afghan war. There was a special exhibit on the Japanese samurai, but we opted for the permanent collection.


The first floor was filled with artillery from the 18th and 19th centuries, during the periods of expansion and conquest in Central Asia and Eastern Europe. There was a grandiose gold chariot, tons of oil paintings, armaments and old firearms, as well as original documents and letters. Subsequent halls were filled with coats of armor from Western Europe as well as a special gallery devoted to fire arms and swords from Iran, Central Asia, India and South Asia. I have seen a lot of art from the region, but this was the first time I saw a collection of aesthetically pleasing, yet deadly, weaponry. I really loved this museum as I have studied "The Great Game," but never saw in person the weapons. The swords from Afghanistan were particularly impressive, and speak to the strong historically-developed culture of defending the tribe from penetration by outsiders and surviving in a geographically and politically difficult terrain.


The second floor was devoted to the war of 1812, the Soviet effort in World War II (the Great Patriotic War) as well as a special wall exhibit on Mikhail Kalashnikov, creator of the rifle that bears his namesake.


I was beyond impressed with the galleries from World War II, which were meticulously organized according to the technologies employed, regional brigade divisions, and periods of war mobilization. Unfortunately, I did not make it to the Museum of the Leningrad blockade, but the Artillery Museum included insightful original documents from the siege. The museum included tons of war-time propaganda posters, pictures from the battle field and biographies as well as tanks and weapons. Given that all of the material was used in war, the fact that the Soviet administrative apparatus managed to collect all of these artifacts, catalogue and preserve them and then curate a museum, is quite admirable.


On a more serious note, as Dan, Sayrula and I explored the museum, Dan commented to me in front of the exhibition of the Soviet liberation of the Nazi camps, "We (the human race) are really good at killing each other." Sadly, this is true, and his comment was spot on. While I study International Security and am overly enthusiastic about touring a museum of artillery, the truth is that this enthusiasm stems from a deeper desire to do good. In fact, most people I know in the army and in International Security share this feeling. War is not about producing lethal machines and destroying civilizations. At its core, war is about two (or more) factions fighting because one group believes they are more right -- their beliefs, pattern of life, version of interpretation of universal truth -- to the point that they are willing to sacrifice human life in pursuit of such a cause.


After the artillery museum, we walked around for a bit, before dinner with the group and a free Friday night.


I ventured with Ben, my friend from sleep away camp, to the Grand Choral Synagogue of St. Petersburg for Shabbat services.  The Synagogue is absolutely gorgeous. I ended up befriending one woman in the balcony who is 25 and was born and raised in Bulgaria. She helped me navigate through the service, as every synagogue has its own unique traditions and rituals. Interestingly, she married a Russian and moved to St. Petersburg and now works in St. Petersburg. She was also raised as a Christian and their wedding was in a Church, but she was learning the new faith. I really enjoyed her company and found her story fascinating.


Finally, Saturday! We checked out of the hotel in the morning and went to Peterhof castle for a garden tour. We unfortunately were unable to tour the main palace as tours for foreigners are only offered in English. Instead, we toured the gardens with a Russian tour guide. While the Peterhof gardens are expansive, I hope to return in the future to tour the palace, which was constructed in the Baroque tradition but also contains an expansive collection of Russian art.


We boarded the train at 5 in the afternoon and I was exhausted, but managed to get some homework done. Again, I shared a bunk with my Russian grammar professor. "Denoshka, we are together yet again," she exclaimed.


We arrived in Vladimir a little before 5 in the morning and the coalition of American Russian-speaking zombies dissipated into cabs. My Russian professor lives in my neighborhood, and offered to take me, Sayrula and Vika, one of the program staff members, home in her car. I was the last one to be dropped off. As the car pulled up to my podedz (drive way), she jokingly commented "we really are together until the end." Laughingly, "of course, thanks so much!" I responded (in Russian).


After a shower, long nap and lunch, I sat down to some Russian television and wrote this blog post. I certainly enjoyed my adventure to St. Petersburg --- the city and all the people I encountered along the way -- and I hope you, dear readers, enjoyed it too. I'm off to do some grammar homework, but as always, please share your comments. Thanks!