Saturday, June 30, 2012



This morning I travelled to Bogolyobovo (Боголюбово), which is a nuns monastery and historic church located 10 km outside of Vladimir. It was a fascinating excursion, as I gained insights into Russian history and acquired a new batch of fun facts about Vladimir, Russian history, art and architecture.

While I am not an art historian, but having studied independently, Bogolyobovo is essentially a hybrid of European, Russian and Asiatic artistic traditions, serving as a testament to Russia's unique identity as a vast territory spanning two continents. For example, the colorful frescos on the walls of the monastery come from the Italian artistic tradition. The arabesque-like painting on the window ledges is also a foreign detail. In fact, the tour guide noted how the building's foundations were reminiscent of a European style. At the same time, the subject matter of icons and their depiction in a strict canon of proportion, all of them wearing golden halos, mirrors Andrei Rublei's iconographic depictions.

The first thing I noticed, however, was the bright blue onion domes on the top of the church spirals. They reminded me of the Timurid-style spiral I saw at Yasawi's mausoleum in Turkestan, Kazakhstan. While the onion dome is a traditional Russian architectural feature, the bright blue color is the hallmark of Timurid architecture. What's more is that these spirals are wider than spirals of churches in Siberia. Historically, the wider onion domes reflect European influence, while the traditional "pure" Russian onion domes have a narrow base. Despite their likeness, the cathedral at Bogolyobovo and Timurid architecture are not related directly, as the former was built in 1157, thereby predating the Tatar-Mongol invasions of the 13th century.

Meanwhile, the Cathedral's alter is in a traditional Russian style of painted icons in gold frames. There was actually a baptism occurring while we toured the church, which was pretty interesting to observe. The Cathedral's interior was filled with oil paintings of scenes from the bibles and icons. Yet, on one panel near the entrance, there is a full-size image of Tzar Nicholas II. This was such a thrill to see, as the Tsar's image in a church represents the delicate balance between the Romanov Dynasty and the Orthodox Church in Russian history. (Apologies, I was not allowed to take pictures inside the Church)

Finally, we went to The Church of the Intercession on the Nerl River.  The church's interior was looted during the revolution, but the European style and limestone shell remain on full display. On the front, there are even small, stone carvings of faces that remind me of the statues on European Gothic cathedrals.

So it was a fascinating morning. I then spent the rest of my day doing Russian homework and am now about to venture out to enjoy Vladimir's night life. So long!

Friday, June 29, 2012

Weekly Rundown and an Awkward Bus Stop Conversation


Alas, it is Friday! It has been a busy and intense week of classes! CLS Vladimir participants are divided into five groups of six and we take classes everyday on everything from Russian phonetics to Russian grammar, history, classical texts, oral practice and conversation and media. I usually have 3 to 4 hours of homework every night.  

On the CLS Program in Vladimir, students choose to participate in two electives out of Russian cooking, Russian rock music, Russian folklore and Russian films, with the last two options meeting every week. I signed up for Russian rock music and folklore because I have no patience for cinematic trilogies and my "cooking" is limited to a microwave. 

Folklore class on Tuesday was a riot. Two older women taught the class: one sat quietly and played the accordion and the other, a stout and passionate Russian probably in her 60s, lead us in song and dance. We sat in a circle and sang "Podmoskovnie Vechera" and "Korobeiniki." We then played what is essentially the Russian version of "Duck Duck Goose" when participants sit in a circle and hold their hands out, and one person pretends to put a ring in one person's hands. After the leader goes around the circle, the person with the ring must stand up and switch spots with the leader without getting tagged. We also learned a Russian folk dance. After the first five minutes, I managed to keep a fairly straight face throughout the class. On a more serious note, it is pretty interesting to learn and participate in traditional Russian cultural activities.

Wednesday afternoon, we had a scavenger hunt around the city. I shall spare you the ridiculous details of our adventure other than to say my group was last (we started the tour at 2:30, finished around 4:45) and we had obscene amounts of fun.

One of my Georgetown Professors said that you can always judge whether civilization exists in a city by the number of Irish pubs. So far, I have counted one in Vladimir -- Guinness Bar. On Thursday evening, a group of us ventured there for a few drinks. It was a nice break from schoolwork, but the real highlight of the night occurred at the bus stop.  Sayrula, one of the program participants who lives near me, and I met at the bus stop around 8 in the evening to head downtown. We were conversing in Russian and one man (~40 yrs) sitting on the bench overheard us and asked where we were from. The conversation continued:

"America? What brings you to Vladimir?"
"We are studying Russian and living with host families."
"Oh. My daughter studies English in school. I always tell her though that there is no need to study English, it is better to study French. English is not that important."
"Why do you think that?"
"The USA will not exist in five, maybe ten, years," the man suggested with a poker face. "The USA will be overtaken by Russia or China....maybe Korea...but it will probably become a part of Russia or China. There will then be no need for English."

Saryla and I were speechless. Seriously? This man was convinced the US would be overtaken by Russia or China. Neither of us were interested in engaging in a serious political discussion with this man, who I consider to be a relentless "Cold Warrior." So we altered the direction of the conversation and asked where he is from. It turns out he was born in Tajikistan but moved to Russia after 1991. This is a fairly common phenomena as many ethnic Russians born in the Central Asian Republics during the USSR returned to the Russian Federation after 1991 to live amongst their ethnic kingship.

Fortunately, the man's bus came within five minutes of ending the awkward conversation. With that said, that was an encounter I will surely never forget. Any comments from you, readers? What would you have said?

Tomorrow, I am visiting Bogoloobodov, a small town that houses a monastery. Tomorrow is also a local holiday, "youth day," so I might go to the Central Park and observe the celebrations. Sunday, I am visiting a park for homework and going to the movies with my host mom, Sayrula and her host moms (our host moms are essentially peas and the pod -- they are always on the phone gossiping).

Alas, that is all for now. Poka!

Monday, June 25, 2012

Satisfying my Love for Soviet-era Art


All is well in the motherland.

On Saturday we took the placement exam and it was extremely difficult. Based on the results of the exam, we were divided into six groups of six and began classes. Saturday evening, we all went out to a bar and had a few drinks and hookah to relax.

The real highlight was Sunday, as I explored Vladimir's spectacular display of statues carved in the style of Soviet realism. As a lover of Soviet history, this was quite a thrill.

I slept in until 12:45, as my body is still adjusting to the different time zone, and then took the bus to the center where I walked around and ran into some other students.  We then met up with other students and their language partners at the Central Park (every Soviet style city has a Central Park) and walked around. I could not help but to take photos of the male and female statues at the entrance. They are both idealized figures dressed in the clothes of a factory worker. The man is clearly a factory worker laboring in heavy industry while the woman is employed in a more "feminine" profession of textiles. It is so interesting to observe these statues first hand in their natural environment as pictures in books simply do not adequately capture the size of these figures and their presence.

On the bus on the way home the other day, I noticed there was a Lenin square and asked our Russian friends if it was far from the Central Park. They said no and I was of course thrilled. Then I asked if there was a Stalin Park, at which point they exchanged confused looks, chuckled and said no. Disappointed, I asked why and they said because he was an oppressor. Interesting. Anyways, we visited Lenin square, which included a large and in charge statue of the great revolutionary. By this point, I was exhausted so I walked home and studied the rest of the night. I can only say that I cannot wait to explore the rest of the city's Soviet infrastructure.

Despite my enthusiasm, there is a serious point to this blog post: the Soviet Union is not ancient history. For many people, it is their daily lives -- the name of their streets, the parks where they walk their dogs, the namesake of schools and restaurants. It is so easy for us in the USA to criticize Russia's economic development, and that of the entire USSR, but people must understand that the physical space in which people conduct their everyday lives continues to be dominated by Soviet-era features. Moreover, the physical geography of urban and rural spaces that developed under Soviet rule continues to affect people's psychology and daily behavioral patterns.

This point is even more emphasized when you enter people's Soviet era apartments and see that they live with the same furniture and in the same tiny quarters that were built for efficiency during the Khrushchev era. How can American marketers expect consumers to purchase goods when they live in tiny apartments? Granted the consumer culture is changing, but life continues to be informed by the physical geography developed under Soviet rule.

Alas, for now, I leave you with that food for thought as I go do my Russian homework. Poka!

Saturday, June 23, 2012

My Super Cool Host Mom


Alas, I am writing from you from my apartment in Vladimir, Russia with access to Internet thanks to a Beeline modem! The 10-hour plane to Moscow was a schlep. Once in Moscow, we boarded a bus for 6-hours and then finally arrived at Vladimir.

Our host families were waiting for us at KORA, the university in Vladimir that caters to foreign-language students. We stood awkwardly with our luggage for a minute, feeling like cattle, before one of the Russian professors began matching children with family. The moment I saw my host mother, I knew she was the one because she was dressed from head to toe in black. Olga, my host mom,  was wearing black silky gypsy pants, a black tee and black leather sandals. Meanwhile, I travelled in my usual all-black ensemble – leggings, an oversized black V-neck tee and converses. As we waited for a cab, I commented that I love black colors and she said "me too, my daughter" (ya toje, maya doch)! We chuckled... In fact, the other day in the elevator we chatted about how we both hate color and she only wears black. She does not even wear white.

Olga is also super cool. I told her about my family and friends and how in DC I live in a townhouse with several other students which is "fun" (vesyoli). She then responded, "this is also a fun (vesyoli) apartment." Olga has long black hair she wears in a pony-tail with a 90’s style scrunchie and is tan because she just returned from vacationing in Turkey. She was born and raised in Vladimir and has two daughters, one who is thirty and the other who is 37. She is also a fabulous cook and who prepares vegetable-full meals in obscenely oversized portions I cannot finish (but that is to be expected from a Russian host mother). 

On Friday, we attended classes at KORA and met all of the Russian staff. Then we toured the city and learned about its history. I was particularly fascinated to learn about the Tatar-Mongol invasions. In fact, archaeologists discovered Tatar-Mongol graves under one of the buildings in the city. Our tour guide, one of the professors, explained how the spires of the church have evolved throughout history going from a more traditional Russian, onion-style top to those with a wider base. She also explained how Vladimir was only bombed twice during the war, which is incredibly serendipitous considering other cities of equal or less distance from Moscow were bombarded with bombs.

Today we had a language evaluation to determine the language groups. There is a variety of language levels on the program -- from PhD students to people with only two years of training. But everyone is extremely interesting and eager to learn. In fact, we all speak Russian with each other and do not digress into English. Molodetz! We also met our language partners -- locals from Vladimir with whom we will practice Russian. However, my partner and that of Mitchell (one of the students on the program) did not come, so we took a walk instead. I'm supposed to meet my partner tomorrow, but after she was a no-show, I'm not particularly eager.

Overall, my first impressions of Vladimir are that it is a Soviet style city with high-rises, apartment complexes and babushkas selling fruit on the corner. There are plenty of kiosks selling water, candy and cigarettes and women walking around in sky-high heels. There are also plenty of poorer areas and the city lacks the glitz of Almaty. 

Alas, I shall go rest before my first Saturday night in Vladimir. So long for now!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Thank you Kazakh World!

As I sit in the Dulles airport waiting to board my flight to Moscow, I wanted to take a moment to say THANK YOU to the folks at Kazakh World for interviewing me on my experiences in Kazakhstan!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012



I completed a day and a half of orientation and am ready to jet off to the Motherland. All twenty-eight CLS participants have unique backgrounds, specialties, personalities and levels of Russian. There is one individual pursuing a PhD in Slavic Languages and literature and another who is a Chemistry major who spent a year in high school living with a host family in Irkutsk. There are political scientists, anthropologists and lovers of Pushkin. I feel honored to be with such a diverse and talented group of individuals. Plus, one of my friends from sleep away camp is on the program. Talk about small world!

The real highlight of today was when U.S. Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara Sonenshine spoke to the group. It was incredibly rewarding to see a high level official devote personal attention to a State department program. I presume it must be equally rewarding for her to see the fruits of her (and that of the entire State Department's) labor.

Tomorrow, we fly out to Domodedovo airport in Moscow. Upon arriving in the capital, we will embark on a 6-hour bus ride to Vladimir where I will then meet my host family and pass out before more orientation and language testing.

I received some basic information about my host family and I am thrilled to be staying with a retired medical nurse named Olga. She has a daughter who lives separately with her two children, who occasionally visit Olga. While my previous homestay experiences involved large and in charge families, I am looking forward to some one-on-one time with a Russian institution, the babushka. 

Well, that's all for now. The next time I post I will be in Vladimir, so stay tuned!

Friday, June 15, 2012

Verbs of Motion, Here We Come!


Alas, my summer travels will begin shortly! On Monday, I return to the beloved District of Columbia for pre-departure orientation and then jet-off to Vladimir on Wednesday. I will be participating in the U.S. Department of State Critical Language Scholarship program where I will live with a host family and study Russian at the KORA Russian Language Center. The program will certainly be intense, but I am looking forward to hilarious host family stories and immersion experiences.

With that said, please note the following disclaimer.

DISCLAIMER: My blog does not represent the official views of the U.S. Government, the Department of State, Georgetown University or American Councils. I, Dena Sholk, am responsible for all opinions and information presented on "The Sholk Road Adventures."

It will also be interesting to compare my experiences in Almaty with those in Vladimir.  Vladimir is a historic city located in the Golden Ring. The city includes three UNESCO world heritage sites including the Golden Gates, the Assumption and the St. Demetrius Cathedrals. While it is neither a Central Asian nor Turkic city, Vladimir is historically important in forging the Slavic culture and identity. I am really looking forward to gaining insights into how Russians view their history, and comparing their perceptions of nationality, statehood and the Soviet Union and with the views of their Central Asian counterparts. 

Alas, it will be an exciting summer of cultural exchange. But for now, I shall pack. Пока!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Trying to Understand Korgas


Some of you may have read about the incident last week involving the death of fourteen individuals along the Chinese-Kazakh border. On May 30, fourteen burned bodies were discovered at the Arkangergen checkpoint in Korgas. Every summer, special checkpoints are set up to prevent the illegal harvesting of herbs, as noted by RFE/RL. The exact details of the incident remain unclear, but for background details please read these pieces by Central Asia NewswireEurasianet, RFE/RL and Tengrinews.

President Nazarbayev initially called the incident an act of terrorism. Yesterday, the Kazakh Prosecutor's Office detained the survivor of the fire at the guard post that occurred the evening of May 27-28, Vladislav Chelakh, a soldier. Chelakh will now be charged for murder.

Most of the major news outlets have focused on how the Government of Kazakhstan has responded to the incident, but I have yet to see a thorough journalistic investigation into the causes of the tragic incident. There has also been little, if any, mention of the political-economy of Korgas.

When I first think of the province "Korgas," I immediately think of the Korgas visa arrangement between the governments of the People's Republic of China and the Republic of Kazakhstan. The Korgas agreements, to paraphrase a World Bank report on Central Asian bazaars by Kaminski and Mitra, promote cross-border trade by permitting residents of Panfilov district to enter China without a visa for day-long trips. The Korgas agreements also enable small amounts of cargo (less than 50 kg) to enter Kazakhstan from China duty free. The combination of a visa exemption for short-term travel along the border and waivers on duty payments promotes cross border trade. While I have never been to Korgas, I visited the international hub-bazaar Baraholka and was blown away by the depth and scale of the shuttle trade between China and Kazakhstan. 

In fact, in Kazakhstan's border regions, the shuttle trade dominates the economy. According to Mitra and Kaminski's World Bank report: 

Thanks to these government measures, cross-border trading has become the most important source of employment in Jarkent, the largest city in Panfilov district.  Conservative estimates indicate that 3,250 people work directly in cross-border trade activities.  Traders estimate that each of them generates employment for an additional one to two persons: one seller in the market and one person for warehousing or local transport.  Cross-border trade in Jarkent involves almost 20 percent of the active population, as compared to 10 percent for agro-processing, 7 percent for industry, and 7 percent for agriculture.  Combined with official data for transport, mainly dedicated to serve Korgas by minibuses and taxis, almost 30 percent of Jarkent’s active population depends on cross-border trade.  Factoring in Kazakhstan’s total dependency ratio, one inhabitant out of six in Jarkent directly depends on income generated by cross-border trade activities.

Given the preeminent role of the shuttle trade in Korgas' economy, officials in Korgas at border crossing posts (BCPs) are used to managing disputes between individuals along the Chinese-Kazakh border. 

Thus, considering the socio-economic environment of Korgas, I propose the following questions: Was there a history of disputes between the guards at the BCP and residents and/or shuttle-traders on either side of the border?  Is there any possibility that fire at the BCP in late May was the result of a minor argument that had escalated for months? Could an individual have been motivated by revenge against an official who they perceived to have acted in an unjust manner? Could the fire have been the tragic result of a local conflict motivated by ethnic, economic or social factors? If the fire was a violent manifestation of a deeper and larger conflict in the community, how can the Kazakh government and local residents work to remedy the underlying factors and reconcile relationships?

While some have labeled the incident an "act of terror," there has yet to be a thorough investigation of the incident of late May. Similarly, any credible investigation must take into account Korgas' economy and location as a hub for cross-border shuttle trade between China and Kazakhstan. While I do not know the answers to any of these questions, I propose they be asked and explored by the Kazakh authorities, local residents and international policy-makers and news analysts.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

New Article on TAPI


I have officially eleven days until I jet off to the land full of verbs of motion, borsch and blini. Super excited!

Until then, please check out my news analysis article in today's Central Asia Newswire on "Why the TAPI pipeline will not work." Feedback is always welcomed. Thanks!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Comment on NYT Article on Salang Tunnel


Today's NYT features an article by Rod Norland, "U.S.-Pakistan Freeze Chokes Fallback Route in Afghanistan," which draws attention to Afghanistan's underdeveloped infrastructure. Moving anything into and out of the country is a logistical feat, that is made all the more complicated during the winter months. The article introduces new details about the month-long journey of transporting goods along the NDN and the risk to drivers. Great piece of investigative journalism, but I just want to add a few comments.

As Norland points out, the Salang tunnel was built in 1964 and has a history of problems. However, the tunnel's problems have not gone unnoticed by policy makers. The Salang tunnel was one of several infrastructure projects discussed at the Fifth Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan (RECCA V) held in Dushanbe, Tajikistan in March 2012. Section II, "Projects and Policy Priorities for Promoting Cooperation," subsection "Highways," of the RECCA V Declaration calls for the "rehabilitation of the Salang Tunnel (2.86 km) and construction of by-pass (Pul-e-Matak-Shibar-Doshi, 275 km)."

In March, Ariana news published an article on how the shortage of technical equipment threatens the Salang Tunnel's future.  In April, ToloNews reported that the Afghan Ministry of Public Works and USAID began developing plans to construct a second Salang Tunnel.

The World Bank's Emergency Transportation Rehabilitation Project for Afghanistan calls for the rehabilitation and maintenance of the Salang Tunnel as well as several secondary and tertiary roads. The project's closing date was originally set for 2010, but was extended until 2013. While this project would assist the transit of NATO cargo into and out of Afghanistan, it is also an important route for Afghan merchants and should be rehabilitated so it can be used for commercial purposes following the drawdown of international forces in 2014.

It appears the Salang Tunnel has not been fixed due to a shortage of financial resources and political will. Sadly, there is a strong tradition of non-cooperation and non-coordination on projects in Central and South Asia. All too often we see grandiose ideas for infrastructure development in the region, such as the Rogun Dam (yes, it is a Soviet-era idea but the poor relations between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan post-1990 have turned it into a contentious regional issue) which are never fully actualized due to failures to communicate, cooperate and coordinate. The World Bank, USAID, Afghan leaders and private sector partners must engage in a constructive dialogue on how to first improve, and then deepen and expand regional transportation infrastructure.  Donors must share the financial and political costs for developing infrastructure. Without improved ground lines of communication and supply chain systems, the Afghan economy will continue to suffer from low-levels of connectivity and foreign companies will lament the high-costs of doing business in the country.

Ultimately, the Salang Tunnel is a prime example of the necessity of financial resources and political will at the highest levels of power to rehabilitate infrastructure networks in South and Central Asia. If accomplished, this infrastructure will serve as the basis for economic development in the long run.